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 …

Part of our problem is that our individual horizons are just too limited when we try to tackle really big questions like the “fate of Kung Fu.”  What a lot of people (very naturally) want to do is to compare what they see today (fewer young students, empty schools) to what they experienced in the 1980s or 1990s.  But we forget that in the history of popular culture those were unusually good decades for the martial arts, both in China and the West.  There were a lot of reasons for that, from the end of the Cultural Revolution in China to globalization and the explosion of “Bruce Lee mania” in the US.  A space was opened where lots of new people, who might not traditionally have been interested in the martial arts, could start to investigate these systems.

That was very important, but these decades were really sort of an aberration.  If you take a longer view you will see that during China’s history most people have not thought of the martial arts all that highly.  I don’t think that we will ever slip back to the high levels of animosity towards the fighting arts that we saw in the years following the Boxer Uprising (circa 1900), the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), or even during the 1950s-1960s when a lot of parents did not want to see their kids studying Kung Fu because they were afraid of their children getting mixed up with criminals and the “wrong sort.”  In that sense the traditional Chinese martial arts have made huge strides towards social acceptability.  Obviously in the west they have risen from total obscurity to become something that is available in every city and good sized town.

We often take this for granted or treat it as “inevitable,” but we really shouldn’t.  It was the result of a lot of hard work over a lot of decades.  There was nothing inevitable about the survival of the traditional Chinese martial arts.

Of course in every prior generation Kung Fu has had to adapt to evolving social and market conditions.  One of the really interesting things to me about the TCMA as a social system is that they maintain this air of unyielding tradition, but in fact a lot of these “traditions” don’t really go back all that terribly far at all. Confronting this aspect of Kung Fu makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but it makes me hopeful.  If the martial arts were able to evolve to maintain their social relevance in the past there is no reason to suspect that they will not be able to do the same thing in the future.

“A friend of mine here told me that there were once 180+ recognized schools of CMA in China, but now less than 30, and only a dozen or so healthy ones. Do you agree? Are there any lists or studies into this, if it is indeed so?”

Kungfu School

There are academic institutions and Wushu departments in Universities in China that actively study these questions.  A lot of them even publish their own journals.  So I suspect that there is an official list of all of the “folk” styles floating around somewhere. Personally I have no idea how accurate any of this is.  I have heard all sorts of numbers between 100-300 being thrown around.  I can’t even imagine how you would start to measure this.

Thinking about my own research area, what do you do with all of the small village styles in costal Guangdong and Fujian?  Do you classify them all as some sort of “village Hung Gar” or do you treat them as different styles?  What about the different lineages of Wing Chun?  Are they part of a single healthy school or half a dozen smaller ones?

How these styles think about themselves and their relationships with one another is actually probably more fluid (and has more to do with product differentiation) than you might suspect.  So when you take a census all you really get is a snapshot of a complex system in motion.  In short I am glad that counting this stuff is not my job.

This actually gets back to your first question.  Lots of these little styles aren’t very popular and they find themselves “going out of business.”  But it is not always clear what that means.  In some cases they are absorbed into bigger regional styles, in other cases they were basically sort of a derivative in the first place. Then in other cases really interesting and unique stuff is in danger of being lost.  It’s a mixed picture.

I would say that a “dozen healthy schools” is probably a lowball figure.  I suppose it depends on how you define your terms.  Still, it is probably true that the number of really vibrant and critical schools in the TCMA today is closer to a couple of dozen than 300+.

“What are your opinions about the sportification of CMA? Do you think in can help CMA in the long run, or is it a dilution of CMA that will contribute to its “demise”?”

wushu girlAgain, that is a very tough topic to generalize about.  The Chinese Martial Arts are many things to many people, as are “competitive sports.”  When you set the two side by side there are a huge number of possibilities that emerge.  It would seem logical to assume that some of these combinations might work better than others.

I study Wing Chun and generally speaking we are not in favor of tournaments.  One of the things that makes modern Wing Chun unique is its focus on certain sorts of self-defense scenarios.  We can’t really do what we want to do in a tournament setting, and bringing competitive techniques into our system would probably change it quite a bit.  I doubt whether most current Wing Chun practitioners would see that as a good thing.

But even here we need to be careful about over-generalizations.  Maybe forms-competition would be a good thing for some Wing Chun students.  And I think that getting out to meet and compare notes with other TCMA students would be a much needed reality-check for a lot of people.  Likewise I have seen some really interesting full-contact weapons sparing which might improve the seriousness and intensity of our weapons training (which in my opinion lags behind our emphasis on boxing).

In short I think you need to start by being clear about what your goals are and how competition might help you accomplish them.  That is a conversation that each style and school will have to have for itself.

Of course this does not even touch on a couple of the larger issues looming in the background.  MMA and government sponsored Wushu programs are both having a major impact on the traditional martial arts.  Again, these are really tough issues.

Wushu is probably the more pressing as it actually claims to be the spiritual inheritor and natural end-point of Chinese martial culture.  Do I think that this is really the case?  Well, it doesn’t matter what I think, because this is a massive state sponsored educational complex with a lot of resources behind it.  Wushu exists precisely because it is congruent with a certain vision of Chinese identity.  Likewise the TCMA will likely never receive official backing or sanction as they remain, in some ways, socially and historically problematic.

I personally remain ambivalent about the relationship between Wushu and the TCMA.  On the one hand Wushu seems to absorb a lot of energy and athletic potential through its placement in the educational system.  But on the other hand I suspect that a lot of these kids would not be signing up for Taiji classes if they weren’t being forced to study this stuff in school.  If the more traditional schools can recruit even a small percentage of these students, who have already had someone else introduce them to the basics, than they are probably better off in the long run.  Still, I can empathize with the frustrations expressed by a lot of traditional teachers.

MMA poses a different set of challenges.  It is heavily advertised and if we learned anything during the 1980s and 1990s it is that magazine covers, movies and TV time really do bring in the students.   As I mentioned before, I don’t think a lot of the traditionalist out there find these sorts of fights to be terribly “realistic.”  Still, these matches are a valuable reminder to the TCMA community of the need to work on our ground game (something that seems to have been neglected from the 1920s onward), and to keep our physical training methods up to date.  In the end I think it would be valuable to have some traditional martial artists test their skills and figure out how to succeed in this arena.

Rather than simply joining the MMA movement, what traditional teacher might want to ask is, what sorts of values are these sports offering students that we currently lack?  How has the public perception of Kung Fu changed since the 1970s and why?  Why do some young students choose MMA gyms over Kung Fu schools?

And here is a hint, the correct answer to any of these questions does not start off with the expression “kids these days are terrible because….”  In the martial arts we are all about “responsibility” except it seems when it applies to our own market position and invented traditions (most of which only go back to the 1930s-1950s).  In those cases it is always someone else’s fault.  In short, I think we could learn a lot from some of the competitive combat sports out there, but that might not mean that we need to become exactly like them.

Another friend, when speaking of traditional kungfu – as opposed to performance, wushu, combat sanda, and taiji – said that that which holds value will continue, and history will sweep away everything else. By that he was implying that traditional kungfu holds less value than taiji, sanda, mma, or performance wushu. Do you agree? What would you add or respond to his statement?

Old School Kungfu

I guess I would respond by pointing out that history is not just, and it is certainly not a meritocracy.  So much of this stuff is radically contingent.  Why did traditional archery continue to thrive in 20th century Japan yet it went extinct in China?  Was that because Japanese archery was somehow more “useful” or excellent?  No.  I don’t think that is how this actually works.

Your friend doesn’t have a single martial art from Southern China on his list, which I find odd.  Wing Chun is doing great, Southern Mantis and Bak Mei are smaller but thriving.  Hung Gar and Choy Li Fut are both holding their own or growing.  In South East Asia Jingwu remains popular and seems to be having a mini-revival.  In some cases these arts thrive because of their perceived effectiveness.  In other cases students are attracted to their association with either local or national identity.  Some of these arts have done well by projecting a “modern” front, while others embody distinctly traditional values.

As I said before, the TCMA have been many things to many people.  I don’t think that there is a single formula for commercial success or cultural relevance.  Taiji, Sanda, MMA and Wushu will survive, but in doing so they actually open a space for the vast number of students who are looking for something else.  A traditional art that is not “flowery,” a style of wrestling that is historically Chinese, an internal art with greater striking power…..As long as the demand for alternatives remains there will be teachers willing to satisfy it.  The very nature of the fighting arts seems to lead to certain level of diversification as students and instructors are forced to experiment with various alternatives.

Can foreign interest revive kung fu in China, or will Chinese do it themselves?

Kill Bill Kungfu

No, I don’t think that foreign interest alone will be enough to spark another “Kung Fu Craze” like the one that we saw in the 1980s.

It is important that the TCMA are becoming (and in some cases, have already became) a truly globalized phenomenon.  I think that this will actually ensure the survival of a lot of smaller styles that otherwise might not have made it.  And the existence of a robust export market for books, DVDs, equipment, movies and even instructors will help to support a larger domestic martial arts industry in China than might have otherwise been the case.

I think that one of the important areas where foreign interest can actually contribute to the martial arts in China is in their perpetual quest for cultural respect.  Taiji is sort of exceptional in that a lot of individuals in China have come to accept it as a legitimate repository of traditional culture.  But for many other martial arts, especially those that may have been associated with crime or other forms of anti-social behavior in the past, having an outside force come in and express interest in the cultural value of some tradition can be extremely important.

Kungfu Westerners

I know that this is something that you have addressed in other places on the “Last Masters.”  When parents see high unemployment rates among graduates of Wushu schools, and there are all of these reports of former students falling in with grey market and criminal groups in the news, that hurts the reputation of the martial arts as a whole.  So having foreign students express interest in some of these groups may help them to be seen as a legitimate expression of Chinese culture.  That in turn may ease the fears of parents just a little.

Still, kids are under immense pressure to succeed in school.  And to be honest they have lots of other recreational opportunities.  So just easing these fears will not be enough to increase enrollments.  But it is a useful step along the way.

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Published on: December 22, 2013

Filled Under: Kung Fu History, Kung Fu People

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5 Responses to Some thoughts from Professor Ben Judkins of Kung Fu Tea

  1. kasey says:

    Kungfu dying? No way. With the big MMA and full contact boom, I think its just casting a shadow over the kungfu world. Its new, its exciting, a young mans sport. But there will always be those people looking for an art efficient to their lifestyle. Not everyone is built for, or hell, even have the time to train full contact styles. And there is huge merit to the CMA styles, if one has time to discover and work on them. The thing in American culture is that they wanna win. Go to the gym, hit stuff, compete, and win. Instant gratification. Just my opinion. Gungfu is hard work… 😉

  2. Paul Chapman says:

    Kung fu is many different things to different people. The sum content of knowledge that is still being trained is vast and that content can be applied in so many different ways. Some love training it as a competitive sport, others love the art within the flowing movements, others love the philosophy behind it and so on. I think that fashions come and go. Currently MMA is big and so are wushu tournaments but as long as the other aspects are still maintained in the schools the knowledge of the arts and philosophies, the principles and theories shouldn’t be lost.

    The biggest danger that I can see is dogmatic teaching of forms and other skills. Kung fu must be adapatable to suit the rapidly changing circumstances of combat. Any form that is taught the same way every time to every student does not allow the student to adapt and evolve the moves to suit the situation. This, I believe, is why forms are belittled by some martial artists and rightly so. However, there is a world of difference between a form that looks pretty and is marked for the precise way it is executed and a form that is like a skeleton of movement skills that the practitioner learns to apply in a miriad of ways. A living form is almost never done the same way twice but is constantly changing and evolving as the practitioner evolves. He/she learns to express themselves through their movements and through their interactions with their opponent. This is where the art in martial arts comes from. Unfortunately this is rarely taught and this is where kung fu is in danger of becoming a series of schools that can only teach prescribed reponses to set attacks. There are still some good schools out there that are what I call complete martial arts, that teach the real and adaptable way but I fear they are no longer in the majority.

  3. Sascha says:

    “living forms” i like that .. and I also don’t think kungfu is dying per se, it’s evolving as Prof. Judkins writes … I was just at the school yesterday, and we were talking about living forms, and flexible responses to any situation. It’s a tenet of martial arts here, in China, the idea of a living form. I think static forms are taught by masters who are either 1) catering to poor students or an undeveloped market 2) lazy or inadequate masters

    • Paul Chapman says:

      I think one of the reasons could be a form of lazy teaching. It is far easier to teach and grade a static form that must be done the same way and applied rigidly every time. It takes much longer to teach how to apply and adapt every aspect of the form and then, because the form is fluid and adaptable there is no longer a single right way of doing it, although there are many wrong (inefficient) ways.

      I believe forms get degraded over time. If the same form is passed down through generations then each teacher will have needed to pass on the whole thing with all its inner secrets and workings to another for them to pass it on themselves. If a student only learns part of its secrets then they clearly cannot pass on what they themselves didn’t learn. So the 80% they learned will be passed down to the next generation who may only learn 80% of that knowledge. Gradually the movements become fixed and applied dogmatically and, indeed, are rarely tested in combat any more as the teachers secretly know that the stuff they’re teaching simply doesn’t work any more and they don’t know how to make it work.

      I have decided that this year I will start making videos for YouTube and the first of these will be how to adapt a simple movement to allow for a range of different attacks and different reactions by the attacker. It should be done within a week or so. I’ll let you have the link when it’s done.

  4. Jason Wang says:

    Fantastic interview. I appreciate his optimism.

    Honestly, given the current image of kung fu in the world, even in China, I’d say that the state should sponsor people who practice the traditional arts more so that they can teach new students- and not exclusively through forms, but for San Da matches or as a more authentic culture exchange. The performance arts have, in my opinion, destroyed much of the original intent of the chinse martial arts- forms are meant to have combat application.

    It’s not unique to the modern era-previous dynasties have not cracked down on forms for performance, with the exception of Qi Gujiang fron the Ming Dynasty (and another, albeit I forget his name.) Song dynasty historians even took notice of the impact of these performances and their negative impact on real training.

    Unfortunately, no such regulation in this era. The general fight community now looks down on China for this reason and it makes an overmarketed Chinese martial culture even more difficult to spread. While kung fu has always gone through this cycle ot may stagnate at this point because of globalization and the onset of MMA.

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