• The Man in Charge of Sichuan Wushu

    The top of Emei Mountain in Sichuan Province

    The top of Emei Mountain in Sichuan Province

    It’s been a while, again, so I will get right to it.

    I want to talk about a man named Ren Gang, the Party Secretary of the Sichuan Provincial Wushu Association. As such, he holds sway over all things martial in Sichuan. Wushu performances and training, allocation of belts, degrees and titles, approval of new schools and temples, any martial events – including fights – and, in general, the direction of wushu itself in this province.

    The first time I spoke to him, I made a trip out to Dujiangyan by high speed rail specifically to talk to him. He was busy coaching the Sichuan Provincial Wushu Team in a closed door session, and came out for dinner. He was waiting for me by the back gate of the gym, besides his eggshell white BMW. We walked across the street, gauging each other and small-talking about Sichuan food.

    Ren Gang holds himself like a martial artist. He stands up straight, swaggers slightly, and has a reserve of energy dozing beneath a pressed white polo shirt and pressed black pants. His hair is thinning, but his eyes are sharp and I felt them analyze my movements, my speech, the way I held myself and, after he demanded a demonstration, the weakness in my horse stance.

    Ren speaks his mind without fear, because not only does he sit atop the Sichuan martial arts world, but he is also somewhat of a legend. Most people who know him speak of him with a mixture of envy, reverence, and fear. My own master, Li Quan, was shocked to know that I had dinner with THE Ren Gang, the man whose 1983 film, Little Heroes, influenced an entire generation of martial artists. A member of the very first group of official wushu practitioners to emerge out of the Cultural Revolution with the mandate to re-introduce, re-discover and revive the ancient art.

    The MAN in Sichuan, when it comes to wushu, gongfu and sanda.

    Continue Reading

    September 10, 2013 • Kung Fu People, Modern Kung Fu • Views: 21648

  • Jiu Jitsu Lineage, Influence and Branding in the Martial Arts

    The Father of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Helio Gracie

    The Father of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Helio Gracie

    Why is the Kimura Armbar called the Kimura armbar?

    Well, back in 1951, Helio Gracie challenged Masahiko Kimura to a duel and lost. The Gracie clan then named the armbar used to defeat Helio after the man who used it. Tracing this bit of trivia back to its roots gives us an interesting look at the development of a martial art – Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – from its origins in feudal Japan to its current incarnation as the “invincible” mixed martial art of the day.

    The end result also demonstrates the power of branding, which, according to Ben Judkins and Paul Bowman, is what most martial arts have been focused on since the late 19th century.

    Continue Reading

    May 27, 2013 • Kung Fu History, Modern Kung Fu • Views: 20965

  • MMA in China: The RUFF Superfight in Hohhot

    Meixuan RUFF Superfight

    I am in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia this weekend to watch the RUFF Superfight. RUFF is the number one mixed martial arts organization in China and this is their big bang: five champions will emerge out of tomorrow’s fights, the first belts given out by RUFF in their two year-history in China.

    It’s a big deal for MMA in China and a big deal period. No other MMA organization has national champions and no other organization is so firmly entrenched in one country the way RUFF is in China. You could say that the only way MMA could thrive in China is by awarding national championship belts, but RUFF is by all accounts a serious MMA outfit with excellent quality control when it comes to fighters, safety, judging, and venues. So it doesn’t really matter whether or not RUFF’s deal with the Wushu Association (and by extension the government) stipulated national champs: tomorrows winners are bona fide MMA champs.

    And that is the first step toward a bona fide MMA following in China, where martial arts has a long and storied tradition.

    For me, the chance to watch an MMA fight live is great; I also have an inside track to the fighters, promoters and other people involved, and in terms of The Last Masters project … the rise of MMA and its relationship with Wushu and Kungfu is part of the story. Being here and talking with people and soaking up the atmosphere may help me get closer to answering questions like: What is the future of Chinese Martial Arts? What will survive and what will not?

    What is the CMA scene like now? Where is it headed? How will MMA, Wushu and Kungfu develop (together? apart? or in competition with each other?) … Can a belief system co-exist with a sport? Are they mutually incompatible? Will we ever see kungfu as part of an MMA fighter’s repertoire? Is Sanda Kungfu?

    I’ll keep you posted with what I see and hear, but it would be great if some readers posted a few questions or thoughts concerning the relationship between Mixed Martial Arts and Traditional Martial Arts …

    February 1, 2013 • Modern Kung Fu • Views: 15495

  • Globalizing Kung Fu Part 2: Wushu and the Olympics

    One way to globalize an art is to simplify it, give it rules that anyone can understand, and then submit it for an international review to the association most likely to be interested in the art. For martial arts, this process is known as sportification: Making the art of warfare and spiritual enlightenment into a game that anyone can play.

    Sportification naturally divides the practitioners of any martial art into two opposing camps: purists who believe that simplification ruins and eventually mutates the art into something else; and pragmatists (for lack of a better word), who believe that without simplification and marketing, martial arts will die a slow, but inevitable death.

    Both Judo and Taekwondo have gone through the process and were awarded with spots in the Summer Olympics, the former in 1968 at the Tokyo Games and the latter in 1988 at the Seoul Games. Given that the 2008 Summer Olympics were in Beijing, it would have stood to reason that the heavy lobbying by the Chinese government and the International Wushu Federation would have had a similar result. But wushu was denied. As consolation, the IWUF was allowed to stage a parallell event in Beijing, and continue fostering hopes that wushu will become an official Olympic Sport in 2020 at the Macao Games.

    But the odds are slim. Seven sports are competing for one open spot in the 2020 Games, and wushu is competing against some tough customers, including the “united sport” of baseball and softball, squash, karate, and roller sports.

    Continue Reading

    November 12, 2012 • Modern Kung Fu • Views: 11225