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Martial Arts in Media

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Martial Arts in Media: What It Does and What We Can Do About It

Written June 20th, 2014

 “The modern wuxia (literally, ‘martial knight’, a genre of martial fiction) books with flying and such are not real Wushu.  Those movies are actually preventing the Wushu healthy development because they are so exaggerated.  You cannot put Wushu into a fairytale.  You must bring the scientific side out.  It must be based on science.” — The Late Grandmaster Ma Xianda, Kung Fu Magazine “The Muslim Master of the Old Empire”

If you are an active practitioner of martial arts, you’ve probably been asked at some point how you got into martial arts in the first place.  And if you’re like me, you probably got into martial arts when you were a kid.  And as a kid, you probably got into martial arts because of movies and TV shows.  The popular image of martial arts can mainly be attributed to their representation in media.  There are good and bad things about this.  For this particular write-up, I will discuss the role of martial arts in media, namely in fictional portrayals, the benefits and setbacks of these portrayals, and what we can do about it.  Because I am most familiar with Wushu, or Chinese martial arts, I will mainly be using Wushu as a central example in this discussion.  This will include, but not be limited to modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport.  Modern Wushu is standardized into two disciplines; Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms), and Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), also known as Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting).

Common observers are perhaps most familiar with Wushu in the movies.  As previously mentioned, many practitioners of Chinese martial arts have gotten started due to some form of exposure to martial arts in popular media.  I am guilty of this too.  My first martial arts heroes as a child were Bruce Lee and Jet Li, like almost everybody else who got started with Wushu (let’s not leave out the awesome Jackie Chan, for those of you who are fans of him).  Martial arts, especially Wushu, have been given a good amount of exposure in various outlets of media, especially movies, television, and games.

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In movies, the representation of martial arts is undisputedly dominated by the Hong Kong action cinema, which is abundant with action movies of that area, dubbed “kung fu movies”, or simply “martial arts movies” as a subgenre of action.  Of this subgenre, there is yet another genre of fiction known as Wuxia (武侠;wǔxiá).  In it, stories are based in fantasy, and plots are focused on martial artists who are capable of superhuman feats, including flight.  If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s supposed to.  Wuxia has been depicted in many popular Chinese films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (卧虎藏龙; Wòhǔcánglóng), House of Flying Daggers (十面埋伏; shímiànmáifú, “Ambush from Ten Sides”), and Hero (英雄; yīngxióng).  This genre of fiction is not merely restricted to martial arts movies; it has its origins in Chinese literature.  Establishing this specific genre of fiction is especially relevant in this discussion, because of how the image of Chinese martial arts, modern Wushu in particular, has been tied to Wuxia, and how it has affected their representation, which we will delve into later.  Wushu’s awareness has been promoted under the claims that it was featured in such movies as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix trilogy.  In actuality, the actual martial arts content and choreography featured in these films were less of a specific style of Wushu, and more the work of choreographer Yuen Woo-ping.  Yuen Woo-ping has his foundation and training experience rooted in Beijing Opera (京剧; jīngjù), better known as Peking Opera.  Beijing Opera includes martial arts training that are geared specifically for performance theatricality, which is very similar to modern Wushu Taolu, but arguably much more intense, because of general difficulty of skill that it requires in its various stage acts.  Beijing Opera is also the foundation of skilled martial arts actors like Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao.  In fact, the popular portrayal of Chinese martial arts can be attributed to the classical theatricality of Beijing Opera in films such as Fist of Legend (精武英雄; jīngwǔyīngxióng, literally “Jing Wu Hero”) and the aforementioned Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, both of which Yuen Woo-ping has worked on.  Exceptions to this are early films such as the Shaolin Temple films, which launched Wushu champion Jet Li’s early acting career, and did indeed showcase specific styles of modern Wushu.

In television, exposure is not on as grand a scale as that of movies, but it is still existent, and thus contributes to the popular image of martial arts.  Kids are most familiar with martial arts in shows like Power Rangers, which usually featured Karate.  The Super Sentai Series, a Japanese tokusatsu (特撮; a live-action special effects genre in Japan) franchise that Power Rangers is derived from, has used the motif of martial arts for some of their shows, namely Chinese martial arts, for some of its shows; examples include Gosei Sentai Dairanger (五星戦隊ダイレンジャー) and Juken Sentai Gekiranger (獣拳戦隊ゲキレンジャー), which was the source material for Power Rangers Jungle Fury.  Various martial arts styles have also had expositions on TV shows like Fight Quest and Human Weapon.  Both of these shows featured a “kung fu” episode, with limited coverage of actual Chinese martial arts styles, and a primary focus on Sanda.  In animation, the inclusion of Chinese martial arts is especially well-known in the TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender.  In this show, different styles of Chinese martial arts represent the bending of classical elements; Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist) is represented in fire bending, Hung Gar (洪家; hóngjiā, Hong Family) is represented in earth bending, Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist) is represented in water bending, and Baguazhang (八卦掌; bā​guà​zhǎng, Eight Trigrams Palm) is represented in air bending.  Most recently, Wushu seems to have been showcased in the hit show Game of Thrones based on the fantasy novels of the same name by George R. R. Martin, where actor Pedro Pascal apparently had to learn Wushu, specifically spear, to prepare for his role as the Oberyn Martell (I don’t watch Game of Thrones, so I can’t say whether or not this showcase was “good” or not).

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In games, martial arts styles, namely Chinese martial arts styles, have been actively showcased, especially in fighting games.  Examples of these games include Virtua Fighter, Tekken (铁拳; literally “Iron Fist”) and SoulCalibur.  SoulCalibur seems to have earned a special place in the image of modern Wushu, as it directly uses modern Wushu apparatus techniques for certain characters and their weapons; the original game even includes versions of the 1st Set of International Compulsory (规定; guīdìng) Routines, also known as Group B Compulsory Taolu, or “Old Compulsory” Taolu).  Jet Li was even featured in his own game, Jet Li: Rise to Honour, which also showcased some modern WushuIn Virtua Fighter, characters are featured with many real Chinese martial arts styles, from Bajiquan (八极拳; bājíquán, Eight Extremes Fist) to Drunken Boxing (醉拳; zuìquán).  Say what you want about the lack of realism in fighting games, Yu Suzuki did his research.  In order to get material for one of the character’s games, Yu Suzuki, who is the designer of Virtua Fighter, as well as the designer of many of Sega Corporation’s other works, went to Mengcun, China, to conduct research on Wu Style Bajiquan, and met with its proponent, Wu Lianzhi.  This resulted in the creation of the Virtua Fighter character Akira Yuki, whose fighting style in Japanese is labeled as “Hakkyokuken”, a direct translation of “Bajiquan.”  This research has also gone into another of Suzuki’s works, Shenmue (シェンムー; a game which I plan to write about when I get the chance), which also displays its own plethora of styles; however, this game’s protagonist, Ryo Hazuki, has many martial arts movements based on “Hakkyokuken” (the first game in the Shenmue series credits a “Hakkyoku-ken actor”, and Shenmue II even features a clever mention of Sanda, if you know where to look).  It is interesting to note that the motif of Chinese martial arts, especially Bajiquan, seems to have a special place of respect in Japanese popular culture.  The Japanese manga (漫画; Japanese comics, also the term for the original Chinese “mànhuà” genre of literature) Kenji (拳児) also features an eponymous protagonist who practices Bajiquan, and is written by author Ryuchi Matsuda, who has studied Ma Style Tongbei (马氏通备; Mǎshìtōngbèi, not to be confused with the traditional Wushu style 通背拳; tōngbèiquán, literally “through-the-back” fist).  The manga has also featured real life practitioners of real martial arts styles, including Liu Yunqiao, a famous Bajiquan master who apparently was a direct student of “God of Spear” Li Shuwen, and also worked for the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang party, instructing the art to Chiang Kaishek’s personal bodyguards.  There are even more obscure styles of Chinese martial arts that are injected into popular media, such as Xinyiliuhequan (心意六合拳; literally  “heart-will six harmonies fist”) in the Tekken and King of Fighters games.

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Exposure in all of these mediums, and in all of these examples, has achieved a certain level of awareness that is continuing to spread successfully.  Now, more and more people are growing more aware of martial arts styles, especially Chinese martial arts.  Hardcore kung fu fans are perhaps most familiar of the “real kung fu” in films like that produced by Shaw Brothers Studio, such as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (少林三十二房; Shàolínsānshíèrfáng, also known as Master Killer or Shaolin Master Killer), which starred actors with real martial arts training like Gordon Liu, and often displayed Hung Gar.  It is interesting to note that the director of many these Shaw Brothers kung fu movies, as well as many of their featured actors, had formal training in Hung Gar under the lineage of Wong Fei-hung, the famous real life folk hero and Hung Gar master.  Certain films can even be credited with the rise in popularity of specific martial arts styles.  Classic, but recent examples, are Ip Man (叶问; Yèwèn) and Ip Man 2 (叶问2: 宗师传奇;Yèwènèr: Zōngshīchuánqí, “Ip Man 2: Legend of a Grandmaster”) starring Donnie Yen, which were fictionalized accounts of the eponymous grandmaster of Wing Chun (永春; Yǒngchūn, literally “eternal spring”), and whose lineage contributed to Bruce Lee’s own knowledge of Wing Chun.  Both movies proved to be successful films that escalated the popularity of Wing Chun after their release.  Ip Chun, Ip Man’s eldest son, has even been quoted as thanking Donnie Yen for popularizing Wing Chun, as well as his father’s legacy.  It is also interesting to note that the new duanwei (段位; duànwèi, formal ranking system) systems of Wing Chun and nunchaku, better known in the West as “nunchucks”, and implemented by the CWA (Chinese Wushu Association) followed shortly after the recent popularity of Wing Chun and Bruce Lee in China.  Whether or not this is a causal relationship or not remains to be explicitly proven, but it is logical to assume.  Awareness often goes hand in hand with popularity, and popularity often goes hand in hand with media exposure.  There have also been other movies made, which were geared specifically towards the promotion of martial arts styles.  Examples of these include The Grandmaster (一代宗师; yīdàizōngshī), another movie about Ip Man which showcases Wing Chun, Baguazhang and Bajiquan, as well as Xanda, which is focused on Sanda.  People may also have been aware of Baguazhang and Xingyiquan (形意拳; xíng​yì​quán, literally “shape-will fist”), two traditional Wushu styles which were featured in The One, where Jet Li plays a dual role of the protagonist, who is shown demonstrating Baguazhang, and his twin antagonist, who demonstrates Xingyiquan.  This is undoubtedly a good thing, when it comes to the promotion of martial arts as a goal.  However, people’s general understanding of the martial arts based on popular media, is flawed.

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The sole problem with the representation of martial arts in media, especially in fiction, is the fact that many people equate to their representations to how the martial arts are practiced in reality.  Chinese martial arts seem to be an almost exclusive victim of this stereotype, especially modern Wushu, due to their abundant representation in such genres of fiction as Wuxia.  Many people, especially critics of modern Wushu, perceive Wushu’s value to only be able to look flashy, and only work in the movies, and not in real life.  An example of this is the sensationalizing of qi (气; qì, vital energy), which is a product of such fictionalizing of Wuxia.  Recently, qi had been compared by Jaden Smith’s character in The Karate Kid 2010 remake, to the Force in the Star Wars universe.  This just goes to show how such real ideas are treated in modern society.  In reality, the validity and existence of qi can be considered dubious (but this is another topic I will plan on writing about).  To this day, qi remains to be nothing more than an abstract idea of Chinese medicine and philosophy.  On a scientific basis, qi is still debatable as a real energy, but the mysticism surrounding it and its representation alongside the dramatized image of Chinese martial arts has not helped.  Because of this, very few people validate or seriously consider martial arts, particularly Wushu, on the basis of reality.  This has consequently stunted the further growth of better understanding of martial arts, including that of Wushu.  As the late Grandmaster Ma Xianda said in the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Muslim Master of the Old Empire”, “The modern wuxia (literally, ‘martial knight’, a genre of martial fiction) books with flying and such are not real Wushu.  Those movies are actually preventing the Wushu healthy development because they are so exaggerated.  You cannot put Wushu into a fairytale.  You must bring the scientific side out.  It must be based on science.”  I’ve said before that awareness is the first step, but it’s not enough.  In order to further the promotion martial arts, better understanding is required.  And this can’t be done by more movies, shows, or games.  They’ve already done their job of promoting awareness.  Now, Wushu and other martial arts styles need to be looked at realistically.

Many of you probably reading this and thinking, “But Matt, movies are movies, and reality is reality.  The two things are completely separate.  People should be able to see that.  You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”  Well, you’re right.  I understand that movies can be heavily exaggerated and are not real, and you obviously do as well.  But the problem is that while you and I may be able to understand the difference between martial arts in fiction and in non-fiction, many others are either not educated or mature enough to fully process this observation.  And this is why I feel we need to bring out a more believable, realistic image of martial arts in popular media, including Wushu.

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But you might say to me, “So if you’re not satisfied with how martial arts and Wushu are being represented in media, what does satisfy you?  What’s your standard of realism when it comes to martial arts movies?”  Well, first of all, believe it or not, there are portrayals in martial arts movies that do make me happy.  Bruce Lee’s fight choreography in his films was very realistic, in comparison to the Wuxia movies of the past and present.  For the most part, fights were grounded, raw and intensely paced, without the floweriness and dramatization of Wuxia.  This kind of action changed the trend from the fantastical Wuxia to the more gritty realism that Bruce brought with him, and set the bar for Hong Kong action movies since then.  Bruce Lee has even frequently injected real martial arts movements which highlight his skill as a martial artist, from Tan Tui (弹腿; tántuǐ, Springing Leg), to Wing Chun, to Western boxing.  It is also notable Bruce really hit his opponents to make the audience believe that the action was “real.”  In more recent times, the Hong Kong action industry has seen a return to the Wuxia trend.  Bob Wall, an American Karate champion who has worked with Bruce in Way of the Dragon (猛龙过江; měnglóngguòjiāng, literally “Fierce Dragon Crosses The River”, also known as Return of the Dragon in the US) and Enter the Dragon (龙争虎斗; lóngzhēnghǔdòu, “the dragon wars, the tiger battles”) has expressed in an interview that he “can’t stand to watch” the wire fu that is present in Wuxia movies, calling it “fake stuff” compared to the realism of Bruce’s films.  Old school Wushu champion Yuan Wenqing, who is featured the Kung Fu Magazine article “China’s Brightest Star”, said that he doesn’t “‘like the wires, the fake gimmicks’”, and that “‘Movies need to have really good wushu, to show people, show audiences everywhere, what really good wushu is.’”  Donnie Yen also seems to share this sentiment, and expresses a passion and desire to continue bringing out the film vision that Bruce Lee sought to achieve, and some would even say that Donnie has succeeded.

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Aside from his recent rise in popularity through the success of the Ip Man films, Donnie has also been able to display real martial arts content in most of the films that he’s worked on.  In Iron Monkey (少年黄飞鸿之铁马骝; shàoniánhuángfēihóngzhītiěmǎliú, “Young Wong Fei-hung and Iron Monkey”), where Donnie played the father of Wong Fei-hung (played by Hong Kong Wushu athlete and policewoman Angie Tsang), Wong Kei-ying, Donnie made an effort to inject Hung Gar movements into his choreography, in order to evoke a certain sense of accuracy where the Wong family practiced Hung Gar in real life.  More recently, Donnie has also found a way to incorporate MMA (mixed martial arts), which he calls the most authentic type of practical combat, into his fight choreography of such films as SPL: Sha Po Lang (杀破狼; shāpòláng) and Flash Point (导火线; dǎohuǒxiàn, fuse), and most recently in Special ID (特殊身份; tèshūshēnfèn).  Out of all the recent martial arts actors, Donnie Yen seems to be the only one that has truly achieved a realistic image of martial arts on-screen.  In fact, Donnie Yen’s MMA-oriented fight scenes can be said to be the most realistic on film today, because they involve very little choreography, and are unrehearsed for the majority of the scene.  The best examples are both of Donnie’s fight scenes with Beijing Wushu Team member-turned-actor Wu Jing in SPL: Sha Po Lang, and with Collin Chou in Flash Point.  According t Donnie in an interview, Wu Jing even commented that it was “almost like real fighting.”  So, in a way, Donnie Yen has arguably captured a sense of realism of martial arts and fighting comparable to Bruce Lee’s work.  This is what makes the realistic portrayal of martial arts so great; it’s authentic, it’s intense, and on top of that, it’s believable to the audience.  Unfortunately, Hong Kong studios have begun to use Donnie Yen to play more roles in Wuxia-oriented films, although Donnie has expressed in an interview that wishes to return to his more realistic style of filmmaking.

However, as established, movies are still movies.  As Donnie Yen said in an interview, “…of course film is film…it’s not a martial art documentary.”  Perhaps the greatest thing about art of filmmaking, especially with films of such physicality as martial arts movies, is being able to “sell” the physicality while at the same time making it believable for the audience, at least in the moment.  What makes Donnie’s work so great is how he has methodically found a balance between the realism he is looking for, and the embellishment required of good filmmaking.  Even Bruce Lee’s films contained a good degree of exaggeration.  As for what my standard of realism for martial arts movies, this really depends on the movie.  Again, I would like to defer to Donnie Yen, who in a commentary with Bey Logan for Iron Monkey, said that “the closer it gets to modern days…the less flying around…the older gets…you can get away with it.”  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had mixed feelings about the inclusion of wire fu in kung fu movies.  But in the end, it really doesn’t matter whether or not movies satisfy my expectation of realism or not.  I’ve said before, at the end of the day, if a movie can tell a good story/entertain me, it’s done its job.  This is why I can have a sense of humor and enjoy Kung Fu Panda, but be displeased at the fact that Hong Kong is still continuing to vomiting out more and more Wuxia movies.  General awareness and understanding of martial arts has only been restricted to this kind of representation in movies, and Wushu and other martial arts styles suffer for it.  And out of all martial arts styles, Wushu needs some realistic and scientific representation.

This problem has been answered in a way, with the surfacing of TV series like Kung Fu Quest (功夫传奇; gōng​fuchuán​qí, literally “Gongfu Romance”) and Experience Real Gongfu (体验真功夫; tǐ​yànzhēngōng​fu), both of which use a documentary format to take an in-depth look at traditional Wushu styles.  Much like Fight Quest and Human Weapon, these shows involve the in-depth studying and practicing of a particular style over a period of time in order to truly capture martial arts training in real life.  This is a step above shows like Fight Science and Deadliest Warrior, which, while educational to a certain extent, were extremely limited in the research and knowledge of the martial arts styles that they cover.

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Games have also begun to have somewhat of a more realistic representation of martial arts.  Sleeping Dogs, a recent sandbox style game set in Hong Kong, which features protagonist Wei Shen, an undercover cop, is also trained “kung fu”, as the game vaguely establishes.  There appear to be Hung Gar movements being demonstrated by students in the game, which can be seen when you visit the martial arts academy in-game.  The combat system in the game also includes various realistic and practical fighting techniques that are reminiscent of MMA, including Sanshou-esque takedowns, which makes sense, as UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) Champion Georges St-Pierre reportedly helped with the development of the combat system.  While the game mechanics are ultimately just part of a game, there is no doubt that these are very real techniques that can be used; there are counterattacks like ear slaps, leg catches and groin attacks, (the combat system even includes a recovery action that consists of a sweep and butterfly, which are reminiscent of modern Wushu) all of which I would personally use in a street situation.  There is also an Enter the Dragon-inspired “Zodiac Tournament Pack” DLC (downloadable content) that contains a collectible feature, and gives mention to the styles of sport MMA, Muay Thai, Karate, Kenpo (拳法; literally “fist method”, a translation of the original Chinese “quánfǎ”), Kuntao (拳道; literally “fist way”, also derived from the Chinese “quándào”), Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do (截拳道; jiéquándào, the way of the intercepting fist), and traditional Chinese Wushu styles of Wing Chun, Fanziquan (翻子拳; fānziquán, tumbling or “rotating” fist, literally “turning/flipping fist”), Paochui (炮捶; pàochuí, literally “cannon fist”), Nanquan (南拳; nánquán, Southern Fist), Sanshou, and simply “kung fu” (功夫; gōngfu, literally skill/effort, which has been mistranslated as the collective term for Chinese martial arts.  Wushu is the more accurate term for this.  So much for accuracy).

The recent trend of these examples is very refreshing.  If we want people to take martial arts more seriously, we need more movements like these.  At this point, it may sound like I’m saying we should get rid of the popular image of martial arts, but that’s not what I’m trying to say.  The popular image of martial arts has done so much for martial arts, which I would not like reverse.  And even if I wanted to, it would be futile to try and get rid of the preexisting trends of media.  Rather than, I am talking about a deemphasizing of the popular image, and a call for more realism.

While the general audience is becoming more and more aware of martial arts, the mediums in which they are represented are limited.  Once again, the level of exposure that popular media has given martial arts an unprecedented level of promotion and awareness, and martial arts practitioners should be thankful for that, if nothing else.  But if we want people to understand martial arts, we need to portray them in a more serious light.  And this includes Wushu as well.  We need to show that the practice of martial arts has, in one way or another, been based on reality.  Martial arts are not shallow, physical arts that are only rooted in flowery and beautiful performances, though this can one of many means of practice, as modern Wushu Taolu demonstrates.  Let’s not forget the “martial” in “martial arts.”  We should bring these realistic aspects out and look at them from a scientific perspective, not an imaginative one.  This can promote better understanding of martial arts, and even bring some level of respect to the practice of all martial arts as well, not just Wushu.

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  • Ric Forest

    Hi, could you write more about shenmue of Yu Suzuki, please ?
    Thanks to you !
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?sns=em&v=M4nG7m0FZhc&app=desktop

    • Matthew Lee

      From one Shenmue fan to another, I am excited to tell you that I already did so almost a year ago. Wait until Christmas and New Year 😉

      -Matt Lee