Lam Chun-fai, a master of Southern Chinese kung fu style, Hung Kuen, is the first of the kung fu masters to publish a fighting manual in English. Hung Kuen is a secret technique that has been closely guarded and, up until now, only transmitted orally to trusted pupils. News of the publication of the manual stirred excitement among some kung fu aficionados in Europe and in the United States.
Teacher Lam’s reason: Kung fu is in steep decline in Hong Kong, where he lives. There, youth are too obsessed with the internet - video games, social media, YouTube and so on - to be focusing on something as complicated as martial arts practices. To save his knowledge from extinction, Lam is willing to divulge fighting secrets and techniques to foreigners.
The old master’s techniques will be more than welcome in America and beyond. For a few decades now, martial arts have become the norm in America. On magazine racks at bookstores, you can find dozens of magazines with titles like “Inside Kung Fu,” “Martial Arts Experts,” “Black Belt,” “Official Karate,” “Dojo” and so on.
Turn on the TV and you’ll see ads like the one for EASPORT where Golf legends Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer are engaged in kung fu fighting or see an ad for razo where a baby learns kung fu to fight his own father for the attention of his mother. For the video game enthusiasts, there are an array of choices: Kung Fu Panda, Kung Fu Rabbit, Kung Fu Master and countless other titles. And mixed martial arts have become the rage, with fighters using various fighting styles to do full contact combat.
So much has changed since Bruce Lee first flew like an avenging god across the silver screen in his awe-inspiring kick nearly half a century ago. Lee not only introduced martial arts to the West, he redefined cinematic language itself. Gone is the notion that bigger is better. Swiftness and a precise kick can topple mass. Agility proves superior to brawn. The body in martial arts motion is pure art, a kind of acrobatic dance endowed with a kind of lethal elegance and grace that had not, up until Bruce Lee, been imagined for cinematic fights.
Since then, it has become obvious to observers of globalization and its effects that no single system can exist as a separate entity, nor can its borders remain impervious to change. All exist with varying degrees of openness and exchange. The old Silk Road, along which so many religious ideas traveled, has been replaced by a far more potent thoroughfare: unprecedented global migration, mass communications, and the information highway, which transcends geography.
We live now in an age of crossover, after all, where traditions from the East and the West exist side by side for the picking. Roles are being switched quickly enough. Steven Spielberg sells Kung Fun Panda to the Chinese and the Chinese sell blue jeans and iPhones to us. The majority of yoga teachers are white here in San Francisco, and when asked why Indians don’t like to teach yoga, a journalist who hailed from Calcutta said, “Actually, most Indians I know don't do yoga, either. I wouldn't know a downward dog if it bit me.” And a computer programmer who came from New Delhi joked, “Oh no, Indians are too busy doing computer programming in Silicon Valley. We might think about it if they have stock options.”
The lesson we are quickly learning in the 21st century is that no one owns culture. The most popular ideas tend to transgress borders and in time, shed its old skin for a myriad of rebirth. It should come then as no surprise that the new martial arts master of the Hung Kuen style might have blond hair and blue eyes and the colonizers of the moon will speak Mandarin.
Meanwhile, with the Internet shrinking the globe, and with the world defined by mass movement, rendering geography obsolete, the whole world becomes a virtual library of Alexandria.
Some in Hong Kong may gripe about how cherished Southern Chinese fighting secrets are now literally an open book, they may be surprised to find that Chinese kung fu itself not purely Chinese.
Historians may disagree but the 5th-6th century figure, Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk from South Asia, looms large among Chinese martial arts practitioners as well as Buddhist scholars. Legend has it that, along with being the patriarch of Zen Buddhism, the reportedly ill-tempered but holy sage taught monks at the Shaolin Temple marvelous ancient yoga breathing techniques (which enabled him to scale tall mountains to arrive in China in the first place). Boddhidarma’s disciples and their disciples went on to invent a myriad of kung fu fighting styles.
Which is to say, the heritage of one nation can quickly become the heritage of another in a blink of an eye, and that’s the way it should be. It’s the energy that is fueling the major part of the 21st -century global village, and it reinforces our knowledge that the borders have been porous all along.
Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and the author of three books, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, and his latest, Birds of Paradise Lost.
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