What started the Kung Fu Boom in the 1970s?

David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine

People often claim that it was Bruce Lee who was the father of the Kung Fu boom of the 1970s, but was he really?  Sure, Bruce brought a sense of realism to the genre, but it was Kwai Chang Caine who set the ball rolling.  The other popular TV series Monkey and The Water Margin were also influential, but felt like they were aimed at a younger audience. And for kids like me it wasn’t possible to watch a Bruce Lee movie – they all tended to be rated 18.

I’d go as far as to say that Lee wouldn’t have had the movie success he had, particularly in the west, if it weren’t for the Kung Fu series.

Here’s a good documentary on the making of Kung Fu – I still remember some of these action sequences, particularly the one where he kicks the knife out of the guy’s hand and it sticks in the roof, which is shown in this video. That moment was the start of my lifelong interest in Chinese martial arts.

Down, but not out? Kung Fu in Hong Kong

There’s a fascinating new interview with Daniel Amos about training Kung Fu in Hong Kong over at the excellent Kung Fu Tea blog. Daniel has been training in the same style of Kung Fu and living in Hong Kong since 1976.

The majority of the interview is about his academic research methods, but the last two questions are of most interest to Kung Fu practitioners and discuss the effects of globalisation that he’s observed on Kung Fu training over the last 45 years. The result seems to be a less “fighty” version of the arts being taught, and the breakup of the complex, interlocking social, cultural and religious weave of forces that made up martial arts in favour of a more easily packaged version that can be taught piecemeal.

The lack of sparring in modern Kung Fu houses is of course a cause for concern, however he says he believes that the knowledge is still there in young practitioners, particularly the children of Kung Fu masters, and could easily be revived in the future.

Have a good read of the answers to questions 6 and 7. Here’s a quote:

“Little sparing was occurring at Hong Kong martial houses in 2019, not only among those who practiced kungfu, but also in martial houses which taught martial arts styles developed in non-Chinese cultures. Students of western Muay Thai, for example, now probably the most popular martial arts practiced in Hong Kong, estimate that only ten percent of fellow learners do contact sparring.  The motivation of most is to get exercise, lose fat and stay in shape. 

During fieldwork between 2017-2019 among martial houses where kungfu was practiced, I witnessed only light, geriatric sparring, that performed by my kungfu brothers and me, all of us in our sixties and seventies, the eldest members of our brotherhood then still practicing.  Members of one of our brother martial houses were reported to be doing some limited sparring, but I did not witness it. In interviews with a variety of kungfu learners many complained that they’d like to do sparring, but it rarely or never happened in their martial house.       

Forty-five years earlier, if someone in Hong Kong wanted to learn one of the various kungfu fighting systems one usually needed to become a devout follower of a master, join his martial house, and enter into a complex socio-cultural system of loyalties and obligations. If one was loyal to the master, respected and followed the commands of more senior kungfu brothers and studied hard, one gained the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills associated with the specific variety of Chinese martial arts taught by the master. To belong meant not only showing up at the martial house five or six times a week for intense practice, but also participating in the brotherhood’s ritual practices and religious observations.  

By 2021, economic globalization and cultural homogenization in Hong Kong has a meant that the corpus of complex Chinese kungfu knowledge and practices of many styles of kungfu have frequently been fractured into separate parts, turned into individual commodities, and sold on the open marketplace.  This has placed the consumer, the potential learner of kungfu skills, in the driver’s seat.  “

Daniel Amos

Read the full interview.

Shang-Chi is here! And Brad Allen dead at 48

We stand on the cusp of a major new martial arts movie release – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 5 Rings. On it’s own this should be something I write about, but it’s also the last film that Jackie Chan’s prodigy, Brad Allen worked on before his untimely death at 48.

Australian choreographer, performer and stunt coordinator, Brad Allen, was the first non-Asian member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. He was incredibly skilled – here’s a short sample of his wushu and athletic ability:

It’s not clear how Brad Allen died, but 48 is very young. RIP.

I haven’t seen Shang-Chi yet, but by all accounts it’s a Kung Fu film done right, that avoids all the usual stereotypes, and a good chunk of the film’s dialogue is spoken in Mandarin Chinese, which is then translated into English subtitles for audiences.

“As an Asian (Taiwanese) Australian, it is so obvious that the film was written through the lens of those who have a lot of love for Asian culture and have lived through the Asian experience,” wrote kabutocat on Reddit, starting a fascinating discussion about the English-language translations of Mandarin dialogue in the movie. “The Chinese lines are written so well that a lot of the times the English subtitles actually failed to convey the nuances behind each line.”

Den of Geek article.

Shang-Chi’s origins lie in Marvels answer to the Kung Fu boom of the 1970s, with various Kung Fu-powered superheroes emerging, with perhaps Iron Fist being the post famous. The Shang-Chi comic was a product of its time and you can see orientalist tropes in its styling:

Shang-Chi was the first of the Kung Fu superheroes, and was designed to be the most gifted martial artist anyone had ever seen. He was trained in espionage, infiltration, assassination and more. But when he went on his first mission for his father, he broke his conditioning and dedicated himself to destroying his father’s criminal empire.

Here’s a breakdown of the film (warning SPOILERS).

Shang-Chi was the last film Brad Allen worked on, so let’s end with his excellent live performance with Jackie Chan on Saturday Night Live:

You can find out more about Brad Allen here.

Daniel Mroz on defining Chinese martial arts – a podcast conversation

Daniel Mroz

After battling hard through various technical challenges I’ve finally managed to create a Tai Chi Notebook podcast with humans on! (Previous episodes of my podcast have been a robot voice reading my blogs). I’m pleased to have my good friend Daniel Mroz on board for my first real episode where we have a conversation about what Chinese martial arts might be.

You can find it on all the usual places you find podcasts – search for The Tai Chi Notebook on Apple podcasts, Spotify, etc.. or here’s a link:

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/episode/6tuptU … c1bb1b468f
Apple: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/t … 0530576920
Web: https://anchor.fm/graham47/episodes/Ep- … /a-a68h1lv

What is the relationship between Chinese martial arts and Chinese theatre, religion, mime, serious leisure activities and military tactics? How do all these factors intermingle and produce the arts we have today? In this wide ranging discussion between Graham Barlow of the Tai Chi Notebook Podcast and Daniel Mroz, Professor of Theatre at the University of Ottawa we tackle all these subjects and more. As well as being a professor of theatre, Daniel is also a Choy Li Fut and Taijiquan practitioner and has spoken at the Martial Arts Studies conference and contributes articles to various journals including the Martial Arts Studies journal.

Podcast Notes

1)
That Daniel Mroz quote in full:


“By ‘Chinese martial arts’, I refer to folkways that began to assume their present forms from the mid 19th to the early 20th centuries, at the end of the Imperial, and the beginning of the Republican periods of Chinese history. These arts train credible fighting abilities through exacting physical conditioning; through partnered, combative drills and games; and through the practice of prearranged movement patterns called tàolù  套路 (Mroz, 2017 & 2020). For millennia, up end of the Imperial period in 1912, China explicitly understood itself as a religious state (Lagerwey 2010). Communities across China not only used their martial arts to defend themselves, they performed them as theatrical acts of religious self-consecration, communal blessing, and entertainment in an annual calendar of sacred festivals (Ward, 1978; Sutton, 2003; Boretz, 2010; Amos, 2021). Modernization, and secularization at the end of the Imperial period removed the original context of these practices. The Chinese martial arts were transformed over the course of the 20th century by both their worldwide spread, and by their ideological appropriation by the Chinese Republic of 1912, and the Communist state that succeeded it in 1949 (Morris, 2004). Their religious heritage forgotten in many social, and cultural contexts within greater China, and internationally, the arts we practice today combine a legacy of pragmatic combat skill, religious enaction, participatory recreation, competitive athleticism, and performed entertainment.”

2)
THE STRENUOUS LIFE PODCAST WITH STEPHAN KESTING
334 – Ten Guru Warning Signs with Dr Dr Chris Kavanagh
https://kesting.libsyn.com/334-ten-guru … s-kavanagh

3)
Peter Johnsson
http://www.peterjohnsson.com/higher-und … reckoning/

Peter Johnsson – long video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6N3x_4 … 3gQGXHpgSG

Peter Johnsson – short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiSoLMx3v0I

Everybody was Kung Fu Citing

A glorious analysis of Carl Douglas’ smash no.1 hit around the world, Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting, by Prof. Paul Bowman, proving once again that things do not need to be beyond a certain level of complexity to be an important cultural document.

You can get this on audio too, but you really need to watch the video as a lot of this is relying on visual performance of the song.

The repurposing of Kung Fu postures

I really liked this video by The Wandering Warrior on Instagram:

True or not, he makes a good case for the move not being the backfist or punch it is usually shown as, and being a throw instead. In a way, there’s no right answer – the move is whatever you use it for.

But it made me think a lot about how Kung Fu postures are repurposed and reused through the years.

If we go back to one of the earliest written descriptions of Kung Fu by General Qi Jinguang in his “Boxing Classic” of 1560 we can see that all he’s showing are a series of still postures with written verse about the move in question.

You can see that the first posture shown, “Lazily pulling back the robe” shares some similarties with the posture discussed above.

Lazily pulling back the robe, Qi Jinguang, 1560

A Confucian cuture of respect for tradition and elders would naturally lead to respect for older kung fu postures, and you can see how they would get reused and repurposed to fit new needs over the generations.

I bet the current Yang style Single Whip posture is not chosen because it’s the optimal way of pushing forward with a single palm. Instead, it’s more likely a posture that has been passed down from older generations. Maybe it’s original meaning (if it had one) has been lost, over the years. Maybe it was once a Suai Jiao throw? Maybe it was once a posture from Chinese theatre or religious ritual? Who knows.

The important thing is, as always, what can you do with it now?

Kung Fu 2021

The classic TV series is back! This time the lead is female and the cast is almost all Asian. I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ve done with it. I thought the trailer was pretty good. Not sure how I watch this in the UK though…?

Kung Fu and firearms

“Western enthusiasts often feel impelled to strip away these religious trappings and construct a version of the martial arts that is neither simple gymnastics nor religion, but emphasizes true hand-to-hand combat skills. The question remains, is this an authentic understanding of the martial arts?”

Charles Holcombe, Theater of Combat (1990)

I think it’s important to bear in mind Charles Holcombe’s classic article, Theater of Combat, when thinking of Chinese martial arts.

One recurring trope that I encounter from, as Holcombe puts it, “Western enthusiasts”, (a label I would apply to myself) is the idea that the Chinese martial arts styles evolved as effective fighting systems in a purer time, before the use of firearms became widespread, and that they gradually went out of favour as practical self defence arts in the face of modern weapons, and turned their attention instead to the more lofty goals of attaining physical fitness, health and spiritual enlightenment.

The idea gives credence to the original version of these arts being purely pugilistic. It follows that once the evil West showed up with their firearms the martial arts needed to find some other way to survive, so it tended towards gymnastic displays or spiritual attainment. It’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t really hold sway with reality.

People forget that China is credited with inventing gunpowder and that the ‘older’ version of its martial arts was intricately embedded within a culture whose religious expression was revealed through performance at festivals and ceremonies, often officiated by a priest performing a ritual with a sword or a troupe of performing martial artists acting out conversations with the gods. 

Also, I think the “whiff of ancient mysticism” (as Judkins calls it) around the martial arts makes people think of them as being  incompatible with modern methods of warfare, like the gun. A popular theme within marital arts films, for example, is that of the introduction of guns destroying the old order, usually involving the death of an old master at the hands of a less skilled and resentful disciple who only had to pull the trigger. 

But, as Judkins explains, these media perceptions have twisted the truth:

“Historically speaking, this is totally backwards.  First the guns came, and then the modern martial arts developed.  What we see in China is quite similar to the puzzle that made life difficult for Perrin when he discussed Japan.

Firearms have been a fact of life in China since the 1300s.  At first they were difficult and expensive to manufacture, but the government employed large numbers of hand cannons, field artillery pieces and even massive rocket launchers from an early period.  If you are curious about what early military gunnery looked like you should check out the Fire Dragon Manual.  At the start of the Ming dynasty Chinese firearms were probably the most advanced in the world.  So what happened?”

Clearly there is more to this story of Kung Fu and firearms than we are aware. I’d recommend reading Ben’s full article: Forgetting about the Gun: Firearms and the Development of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts. and also his other article: Tools of the Trade: The Use of Firearms and Traditional Weapons among the Tongs of San Francisco, 1877-1878.

Enjoy!

Weapons of Chinese highbinders. 1900

The invention of martial arts

An excellent video by Prof. Paul Bowman to promote his new book, The Invention of Martial Arts: Popular Culture Between Asia and America.

This presentation looks at how martial arts arrived in the UK and when the concept of being a martial artist first entered into the popular consciousness. Along the way he covers Bartistu, the Avengers, James Bond, Bruce Lee, Kung Fu the TV series, Ninjas, the Wu-Tang Clan and the UFC.