Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Continually Rediscovering Kung Fu

At the excellent Kung Fu Tea blog, there was an excellent post examining the attitudes of foreigners towards Chinese martial arts in Hong Kong over the years, decades and centuries. The author noted that it seems that Kung Fu is discovered again and again and again.

An excerpt is below. The full article may be read here.

The TCMA as a Perpetual Revival Movement

Kung Fu has an odd relationship with the past. It seems that for the last century (at least) each generation has discovered the beauty of the Chinese martial arts only to realize that they are quickly “dying out,” and will likely succeed in doing so unless steps are taken. In other words, there is a strain of the Chinese martial arts that exists in a state of perpetual revival. This is not just to say that each generation must discover these arts for themselves, but that the very language of “loss” and “preservation” are inherently bound up in this process.

Once we understand this, we come closer to grasping the social meaning and function of these practices throughout time. This same discourse seems to be deeply meaningful in our own era. In striving to preserve an ‘authentic’ aspect of martial history, practitioners find something equally authentic within themselves. It may be an increased awareness of their Chinese heritage, a sense of self-creation and empowerment, or simply the awe of touching a relic from humanity’s deep past. After all, few things in our daily life claim to be as ancient as Kung Fu.

Recently I was struck by the notion that not only is there a degree of regularity in the on-going rediscovery of Kung Fu, but that certain rhetoric regarding its social meaning and significance also reappears, with surprising regularity, over the decades. Each generation is bound to rediscover, more or less, the same thing about Chinese masculinity, whether it is embodied in Huo Yunjia, Bruce Lee or, more recently, Daniel Wu. Not only have these individuals carried the same symbolic torch, but they have even been discussed in broadly similar terms by their contemporaries.

This is not to say that they have all played identical roles. Ideas about gender, nationalism and identity are in constant flux. Change is a vital part of this process. Still, the similarities between them are interesting enough that it causes one to stop and think.

The need to look into the past and discover something of value, an idea or symbol that will point the way to a better future, is not confined to the present moment in history. This seems to be an almost universal impulse. Perhaps we enthusiastically rediscover similar inspirations in the lives of each of these figures because there is a ‘Kung Fu shaped hole’ in the human soul?

Alternatively, if we dig deeply enough we will find that the archaeology of popular history and media provides valuable insights into the motivations and meanings driving the current embrace of the Chinese martial arts. The fact that each generation is compelled to “discover” so much anew also mandates that much must also be “forgotten” just as regularly. I personally find the odd forgetfulness that surrounds the contemporary history of the Chinese martial arts to be one of their most fascinating traits. Yet one still suspects that deep currents of discourse from the past shape at least some attitudes in the present even if most of us remain blissfully unaware of this cultural inheritance.

For this reason I am always looking for clues as to how the Chinese martial arts were perceived within the ‘trans-national’ or ‘global’ community prior to their rediscovery in the 1970s. It is tempting to allow our impressions of these attitudes to be shaped by the narratives of popular Kung Fu films in which Western forces were always implacably hostile to the Chinese martial arts. These practices were, after all, tasked with defending the nation’s dignity against the forces of imperialism and spiritual colonization.

Nor is it all that difficult to find racist or bigoted accounts of the Chinese martial arts. Still, it is interesting to note that many of these hostile accounts date to the middle or later periods of the 19th century. This was an era of active military conflict throughout the region and doubts about the Qing government’s ability to adapt to its rapidly changing environment.

By the second and third decades of the 20th century there was a notable change in foreign language discussions of the Chinese martial arts. The main sentiment expressed by these writers was one of mild curiosity rather than derision. And a notable percentage of western authors were inclined to see positive values and potential strengths in these systems of boxing and gymnastics. (Readers should recall that the Chinese hand combat systems were rarely referred to as “martial arts” in the pre-WWII period).

The following Research Note includes two articles found in Hong Kong’s English language newspapers written nearly a decade apart. Both are interesting in their own right and introduce some important facts about the period in question.

The first documents a Jingwu (Chin Woo) demonstration at a local school. This specific organization did much to promote the practice of the Chinese martial arts among students during this decade, spreading their base of support widely throughout society. Readers should also note that this article follows Jingwu’s linguistic convention and uses the term “Kung Fu” as a label for the traditional Chinese martial arts. This usage provides further evidence reinforcing certain arguments about the historical evolution of the term that I made here.

The second article reminds us of the importance of court records and legal proceeding as historical resources. It is a notice of charges against a Kung Fu teacher in Kowloon for the possession of unregistered weapons. The brief nature of this account raises as many questions as it resolves about how the martial arts community interacted with law enforcement during the 1930s.

The police appear to have had no interest in pressing charges against the Sifu as they were aware that the weapons were only used in teaching, and the judge dismissed the case as a technicality after imposing a minimal fine. Still, one wonders why the instructor was dragged into court at all for a weapons offense that no one was interested in enforcing. We know that during the 1950s-1980s there was a degree of hostility between the Hong Kong police and traditional martial arts schools, whom they often viewed as fronts for organized crime and Triad activity. Cases such as this one raises the question of how far back these tensions went.

Taken together these articles seem to illustrate a more nuanced reception of the traditional Chinese martial arts on the part of Westerners in southern China than current popular culture troupes might lead one to suspect. Their attitude was not always one of derision or implacable hostility. Jingwu’s involvement with the education of the youth was seen in a generally positive light. Both the police and presiding judge in the second account seemed capable of distinguishing the social function of the Kowloon school as a place of instruction from any technical infractions of weapons regulations that existed at the time.  As a set these articles shed light on how the Chinese martial arts were being discussed and imagined prior to their “re-discovery” by the English speaking world in the 1960 and 1970s.

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