Kung Fu History

  • Heroes like Foam on the Waves

    Guan Yu

    Guan Yu

    “The waters of the Yangtze roll to the east, heroes come and go like foam on the waves.”

    This line is from an old chant that starts off one of China’s great classic novels, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The novel describes the complicated struggle of three small kingdoms and their heroes in the aftermath of the fall of the Han Dynasty. The most famous of the heroes are the three brothers of Shu who swore an oath of loyalty under the peach tree: Zhang Fei, Guan Yu, and Liu Bei; their advisor the Merlin-esque Zhuge Liang; and their primary adversary, Cao Cao king of Wei.

    Many different hero archetypes take the stage during the struggles for primacy over ancient China. There is Zhang Fei, the fiery warrior who rages fearlessly across the battlefield, taking on great odds and “facing the north wind with a wine cup in his hand.” In most depictions of Zhang Fei, he has a huge beard and a red face, bulbous features and wild eyes. He only knows how to fight; he was betrayed and murdered by his subordinates, who saw defeat written on the wall.

    His Western counterpart would be Ares the God of War, Achilles, or maybe Thor the Thunder God, none of whom can stand to walk away from a fight or think their way out of one. These are the heroes who represent the wild passions of combat, the reckless love of the challenge and the corresponding disdain of anything not related to battle, blood, and glory. Zhang Fei reminds me of Conan the Barbarian, and his famous quote about lamenting women.

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    December 12, 2015 • Kung Fu History, Kung Fu Lore • Views: 4726

  • Articles on Shaolin

    Zhuangzi-Butterfly-DreamI read Meir Shahar’s book cover to cover. Every ten to fifteen pages I stopped to write an essay for Fightland outlining what I thought Shahar was saying. In some instances, I summarized his findings outright. I believe Fightland’s audience may not have had a chance to read a real in depth history of the Shaolin Temple, and maybe didn’t know they cared until they did read one.

    I for one had my mind blown. There is so much in Shahar’s book that led to other threads within the martial arts phenomenon. The essays I wrote for Fightland were something of an exercise in reading comprehension for me, and also helped to clarify a few areas of my own research I felt had clouded up in the past few months. As has happened many times in the last two years, my ideas changed, morphed, seemed insignificant, took on new meaning, were amplified and enhanced, and eventually crystallized into a new edifice from which to work forward from.

    Now I am slogging through “Thrown,” a solid book so far, but not as fascinating to me as Shahar’s book. Yet.

    Here are the essays for Fightland:

    Wild Monks: Origins of the Shaolin Martial Arts

    From Staff to Fist: Origins of Shaolin Martial Arts

    Kungfu and the Cult of Immortality

    Kung Fu and the China Dream


    May 26, 2015 • Kung Fu History, Kung Fu Lore, Kung Fu People, Kung Fu Places • Views: 4752

  • It’s Spring Again

    Qing troops

    I have been busy, forgive me for once again wandering from this blog. I recently moved back to the US and although I have found that being away from China has definitely impacted my ability to write about certain aspects of martial arts – personalities and real time events and trends for example – being away allows me to explore other parts.

    I am still writing for Fightland, and I recently “completed” a series on kung fu history and culture. BY completed I mean to say I have reached a climax and can now move on to other elements within the same thread, with perhaps a bit more nuance. That’s how it feels with writing sometimes, you put together a string of essays and suddenly a long form opus pops out and it suddenly gives you a chance to breathe and re-group. Here are those essays, from most recent to the first one:

    To Topple a Dynasty: Kung Fu Rebels and the Cycle of History

    Razing the Temple: Shaolin Versus the State

    Shuai Jiao: China’s Indigenous Wrestling Style

    Shaolin Warrior Monks and the Japanese “Wokou” Pirates

    “The Practical Isn’t Pretty”: General Qi Jiguang on Martial Arts for Soldiers

    Flying Kicks: The Roots of Taekwondo and the Future of Martial Arts

    Meridians, Death Strikes, and Secrets of the Shaolin Fist

    Karate’s Sacred Tome: The Bubishi and the Evolution of Martial Arts

    The New Masters Documentary is trucking along as well. I am in the US, so I am a bit removed from the day to day operations. But the crew is digging deeper into the MMA scene and establishing a strong relationship to the fighters and the community. It’s a long road, and 2015 is a grinding year.

    I am very interested in the UFC’s upcoming Aldo vs. McGregor fight … I have been watching the embedded series they have going on, and it is really hard to maintain respect for Conor’s skill set as a martial artist when he so routinely disrespects both his opponent and the sport on a constant basis. I truly hope Also destroys him. In my experience the team I root for usually goes down, but I did have the satisfaction of watching the Mavs beat the Heat back in 2010 … so perhaps the Lord will smile down upon me and grant the better man (in my opinion) the victory. It’s worth a look if you are into the showmanship and the brash personalities behind some of the fights.

    I for one dislike Conor more and more with each episode. And I think that’s the point right?

    March 28, 2015 • Kung Fu History, Kung Fu Lore • Views: 5246

  • Translation of Wong Kar Wai’s Grandmaster Documentary

    A while back, I posted Wong Kar Wai’s behind the scenes documentary of the “The Grandmaster,” and then promised to transcribe and translate the text for those of you who are interested. I have finally finished that small, but annoyingly difficult project. For those who don’t know, there were several dialects in this documentary, and that wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was just finding the time to sit and do this. My time management needs management.

    So I haven’t popped the subtitles into the Youtube clip, I just provide the text here. Feel free to mish and mash as you will. I have included the original Chinese text so you can do your own translation if you like, or just refer to the source whenever something seems a bit off. I have also placed time-markers at intervals, to allow you to skip ahead. Enjoy!

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    August 28, 2014 • Kung Fu History, Kung Fu People, Video • Views: 33693

  • Some thoughts from Professor Ben Judkins of Kung Fu Tea


    Prof. Judkins is a scholar of traditional Chinese martial arts, and runs the extremely well-informed and well-written blog, Kung Fu Tea. There is a wealth of information on the blog, and I take the time to read it weekly. Below are a few questions I had for Prof. Judkins, just a little back and forth to get the juices going again … 

    “People are saying that “kung fu is dying”? What is your response to that? You have mentioned before in your blog that kung fu has “died before” and been reinvented, what do you mean by that? Can you give some examples?”

    I am not really sure that “dying” is the right metaphor for what is going on right now.  I think that I would prefer to say that Kung Fu is “evolving” in an almost Darwinian sense, with everything that this implies regarding competitive selection, differentiation, the development of new forms and the consolidation (or “extinction”) of some old ones.  I think that this would be a more accurate assessment of what we are dealing with right now …

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    December 22, 2013 • Kung Fu History, Kung Fu People • Views: 43619