Kung Fu, Tai Chi, Hoohah

Film star Jet Li’s planned promotion of Tai Chi around the world, backed by Chinese Internet entrepreneur Jack Ma, is no mere business venture. Rather, it is an heroic attempt to boost China’s currently feeble “soft power”, which makes Li “feel shame before my ancestors”. From China Real Time Report:

“China is an economic powerhouse,” Mr. Li said at Alibaba Group’s annual summit for small to medium-sized business owners in Hangzhou. But the world’s most populous country has little cultural influence compared to the U.S., South Korea and Japan, he said ….

Mr. Li, who has starred in major movies on both sides of the Pacific including the 2002 Zhang Yimou epic “Hero,” lamented that Hollywood and other cultural industries make up a significant portion of GDP in the U.S. but represent only a fraction of China’s economy. “Italian coffee is better than Starbucks,” but consumers around the world recognize Starbucks more than Italian coffee “because it’s a cultural experience,” he said.

He did not disclose financial details of his partnership with Mr. Ma, but said the company will be called Taichi Zen International Culture Company.

For China not to have a contribution to the rest of the world would be a “pity,” he said. “I feel shame before my ancestors,” he added, saying he wants kids to be proud of their “national culture.”

Martial arts have long been one of China’s most prominent cultural exports, producing sometimes incongruous cross-pollinations. From Jamil Anderlini’s interview with Shaolin abbot Shi Yongxin at The Financial Times:

With my iPod headphones plugged in, the abbot of Shaolin keeps his expression perfectly neutral as his eardrums are assailed by the thumping beats of the Wu-Tang Clan.

“I don’t get it,” says Shi Yongxin in his heavily accented Mandarin, after politely listening to the pioneering 1990s rappers from the New York borough of Staten Island who, in homage to kung fu movies of the 1970s, described themselves as coming “straight from the slums of Shaolin.”

The interview goes on to discuss the “CEO-monk”‘s management of commercial interests, protection of the Shaolin brand, and the tricky relationship between temple and state: see also a video report at FT.com. The temple’s ventures include more than forty kung-fu and meditation centres abroad, though these have apparently not achieved the sort of soft power critical mass for which Jet Li hopes.

A long way down the family tree, the 9th Edition of China’s official radio calisthenics program aims to combat the physical ill-effects of contemporary office work. From The Wall Street Journal:

“Chinese are facing more pressure than ever before and they need a way to release it,” says He Fengxiang, the director of the administration’s “Sports for All” division, after stubbing out a cigarette in his office. “They need the hoohah.”

Mr. He is referring to the vocal elements, or rather tribal-like chants, that he and other sports authorities have added to the 9th Edition of the People’s Radio Calisthenics.

This government-promoted 40-minute workout, full of kung-fu-type lunges and kicks, was established by Chairman Mao in 1951 to train China’s proletariat in the fight against the capitalist West. And now, while still broadcast over the radio, the exercise has been overhauled to prepare the masses for the next stage of the fight—a long, a healthy future in front of their computers.

Even Maoist calisthenics have not always resisted the taint of American cultural imperialism:

Officials … hope not to repeat the disaster of the 7th Edition, which caused an uproar when it was released in 1990. It incorporated disco steps that even John Travolta in his prime would have struggled with and the program was just too hard to follow. “It was a blow to the establishment,” said the Sports Administration’s Mr. He.

Sources:

Jet Li Ashamed of China’s Soft Power – China Real Time Report – WSJ
Lunch With the Abbot of the Shaolin Temple – Financial Times (via Slate)
Putting the cash into kung fu – FT.com
China’s Remedy for Stressed Workers: ‘They Need the Hoohah’ – WSJ.com