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Balancing violence with virtue

By  Lu Qianwen (Global Times)

09:07, December 18, 2012

Opening screen from documentary Kung Fu (Global Times/Courtesy of Cheng Cheng)

"When you can take the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave." This quotation is likely to bring a flood of memories to fans of the original TV series Kung Fu (1971-75) starring David Carradine. That show, and the rising star of kung fu legend Bruce Lee, lifted the veil from the secretive world of Chinese kung fu and propelled martial arts into mainstream American culture.

In following years, big stars like Jackie Chan in the 1980s and Jet Li in the 1990s inspired millions of Western boys to take martial arts training. And even though some of those boys grew up to create movies as popular as the animated Kung Fu Panda (2008), some Chinese believe that the film genre is merely capitalizing on people's stereotyped impressions about gong fu (the Chinese system of self-defense that stresses circular rather than linear motion).

"Hong Kong films and some Hollywood films about kung fu are very well known, but what they have presented to audiences is a very limited portion of real kung fu culture in China," said Zeng Hairuo, director of the new documentary series Kung Fu. The ambitious project, which began shooting a few months ago, plans to finish over 100 episodes within five years.

In most Hong Kong kung fu films, southern schools of martial arts such as Wing Chun, Praying Mantis, and Choy Li Fut (developed mainly in China's Guangdong and Fujian provinces) are used most frequently. Over time, this trend creates a problem. Zeng told Global Times, "Besides limited kung fu styles or schools, films usually either romanticize or exaggerate real kung fu and overlook the long-accumulated Chinese culture behind them."

Comprehensive record

Offering audiences a comprehensive knowledge base of Chinese kung fu is one of the aims of documentary Kung Fu. As planned, it will be divided into two main parts: the first one is themed "Searching for Kung Fu," and the second emphasizes the culture behind the various martial art styles. Zeng and his team will interview about 50 heirs of different kung fu schools in the country in an attempt to include as many kung fu styles as possible.

"Besides the 50 schools we know about now, we want to present stories about the heirs and the cultural influences that connect [their particular style of] kung fu with their birthplaces," said Zeng.

Invested by Beijing Five Star Cultural Media Company, the documentary has invited Mark Jonathan Harris, winner of three best documentary Academy Awards in 1967, 1968 and 2001, to be co-director. He can act as both a professional mentor on the documentary and provide a foreigner's perspective about kung fu.

At the news conference in Shanghai on December 10th, Harris mentioned that foreign audiences now are changing their views about Chinese kung fu. No longer focusing on "violent aesthetics," now more people are trying to figure out the Chinese logic behind this beautiful and powerful art.

"Presented through body language, kung fu is an area in which we can most easily communicate with foreign audiences," said Guan Qingwei, producer of the documentary Kung Fu.

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