Saturday, 19 November 2011

Four Riders – Chang Cheh's apocalyptic vision

In January, I am giving a talk at Tate Britain as part of a symposium on the theme of apocalypse, which will be in conjunction with the John Martin exhibition currently on there. The talk will focus on depictions of London, on the apocalyptic city and it will draw on the research on the "sublime" which I've developed over the last few years.

It thus feels part of a rather different body of work from the kung fu research that this blog deals with. However, with the conference only just lined up, I stumbled across a Chang Cheh film the other day that I had not seen before: Four Riders (1972). Oddly enough, it is a film which makes clear reference to the apocalypse, for indeed the riders of Chang's title are the Four Horsemen of the Book of Revelations. Given this synchronicity (and since I'm thinking about apocalypses in any case), I thought I might jot down a few notes on this film.

The reference to the apocalypse occurs most clearly in one particular scene where one character, a hospitalised soldier reads the passage from the Bible in which the horsemen are described. As he reads, Chang envisions these riders cinematically as ancient Chinese warriors in generals' armour, riding in slow motion. The opening credits of the film (to which Chang returns in his final shots) also, however, make the reference. They show a desolate – but hauntingly beautiful, sublime even – snow-clad landscape, across which four tiny figures – hardly more than black spots on the screen – are making their way.

Four figures make their way across the snow-covered landscape of Four Riders's opening sequence.

Such apocalyptic images, however, are primarily allegorical. The apocalypse which Chang seems to be alluding to through the film is that of twentieth century history, with its seemingly perpetual unleashing of war, famine, death, and conquest. The film, made in the midst of the Vietnam War, is set at the moment of the ending of the most famous of the preceding explosions of Cold War tension into prolonged, violent conflict in the far East: the Korean hostilities of the 1950-53. As if to highlight the allegorical, rather than historical, nature of his depiction of post-armistice Korea, Chang makes little concession to period detail, with the interiors, costumes and haircuts seeming to locate the film much more squarely in Chang's own 1970s. With many of the outdoor scenes shot on location in Seoul, we have a bleak landscape of neon lights that speak more of a globalising order of capitalism than of the authentic look of the 1950s. This environment, too, it seems, is for Chang a part of the apocalypse of modernity. The film, in fact, in spite of its Korean setting and in spite of its heroes playing the role of soldiers, is a gangster film: a film not so much about war as about the corruption, moral decay and violence of the (post-)colonial city. The tale revolves around a group of demobbed Chinese heroes turning to the city in search of fun and relief from the tensions of war. One of the protagonists comments near the start – with a certain situational irony given the unfolding of events in the film – that any big city is a paradise for those who have money to spend. They find the city, instead, to be a hellish zone of conflict, violence, exploitation, danger and horror. The setting of the film in armistice-moment South Korea seems to function primarily to add a background of totalitarian control and military government to the urban setting so familiar from kung fu films.

Seoul: the capitalist city as apocalypse

After the icy wastelands of the credits, the film opens with one of the four main protagonists, played by Ti Lung, at the moment of the end of the war and the end of his military service, in his army unit, tearing the rank insignia off his lapel and throwing them at the feet of his commanding officer: "Colonel," he says, "As of today I'm no longer in the army any more, and this means you're not my boss now!" He then assaults the shocked Colonel, and this results (for reasons not entirely explained) in a big punch up between the men of his unit, yelping in joy as they fight each other. Ti Lung extricates himself from the melée and when the MPs arrive, they ask him what the fight is about. He answers (lighting a cigarette): "I wouldn't know. But still, it's been a long war. They've got to fight somebody." As the MPs rush in to restrain the men, Ti Lung calmly steals and drives away in an army jeep, off to spend his severance pay (and anything he can get for the jeep) in the big city.

"I wouldn't know. But still, it's been a long war. They've got to fight somebody." Ti Lung – suave and macho as ever – is confronted by an MP.

The scene is significant in setting the tone for the film. It sets up something of the paradoxical politics which pervade the piece. We have in Ti Lung's character something of the archetypal hero of Chang's work of the early 70s: an anti-authoritarian rebel who, as with the xia of ancient Chinese martial tales, is more concerned with being true to himself than the structures of social hierarchy or order. In this regard, the character is a fine example which would bear out Chang's own discussion of his films (quoted in a recent post here) as aligned with the energies of the countercultural movements of the late 60s and early 70s. Authority in this film (as the Colonel in the first scene) is despised, seen as corrupt or at best draconian and incompetent. The military police, who arrive in numbers in this first scene are a constant presence throughout, and we are presented, as the opening scene already implies, with a bankrupt, paranoid order lapsed into the quasi-fascist police state that in fact literally held sway in South Korea for many years after the armistice. The heroes of the film – four Chinese mercenaries leaving the army and meeting up in the city after peace has broken out, played by Ti Lung, David Chiang, Chen Kuan-Tai and Wong Chung – serve as exemplars of an individualism and Romantic rebel integrity that Cheh poses as standing in its face. In the opening credits, as we move through the icy, windswept landscape, the camera lingers on one red flower poking up through the snow. The heroic and noble characters played by Ti, Chiang, Chen and Wong, then, are such flowers, in an apocalyptic modern landscape of authoritarian despotism, absurdly senseless war ("They've got to fight someone!"), and corrupt economic exploitation.

The heroes of Four Riders (Left to right, played by: Ti Lung, Chen Kuan-Tai, Wong Chung and David Chiang). Endangered flowers in a hostile landscape, or an elemental force of justice?

The four are brought together in combatting a group of gangsters who are smuggling drugs out of the country in the uniforms of demobilised American servicemen, a group clearly involved in a series of criminally exploitative businesses, and operating out of an American-themed bar (the "Hello John Club"). Ti's character stumbles across and attempts to intervene in the gang's killing of a GI, and, beaten by the gang and left unconscious, is framed for the murder. The other three – Wang (who he has given a lift to the city), Chen (playing a melancholy soldier, recovering in hospital after being wounded in action), and Chiang (who has become an alcoholic drifter in the city's bars) – join forces to free Ti and (as one would expect from the genre) wreak their bloody revenge on the gang.

The end of the film, a running battle that extends over a number of locations and ends in a gymnasium, stands out even within Chang Cheh's bloody oeuvre as an unrelenting and protracted slaughter, as the four heroes (slowly, of course, themselves being skewered or hacked to pieces in the process) work their way through the entire criminal gang. In this regard, they serve as one of the possible referents of the "four riders" of the title – as a cleaning scourge, if you like, of the evils and corruption of the modern world, a judgment passed on it. However, such a reading hardly seems to do justice to the grimness of Chang's apocalyptic vision in the film. As the remaining heroes, bloody and wounded themselves, finish off the gangsters, the Military Police arrive, surround the building and, believing the heroes to be a part of the gang, cut them down in a hail of bullets. It's an ending that echoes and outdoes that of George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (a film which three years previous to Chang's film), but whereas the cowboys seem to go out in blaze of glory, in Chang's altogether more dystopian version the impression is of futility of heroism in the face of an all-powerful, deadly state machinery – one that in spite of its might is nonetheless irrational, absurd and incapable of (or just uninterested in) providing for human happiness or justice. The heroes, in spite of having secured the evidence of their innocence, are gunned down without the chance to present this. Rather than the cavalry rushing in to save the day at the last minute, this Military Police arrives at the end to finish off the massacre, leaving behind no shred of hope, only indiscriminate carnage.

Control triumphs over justice: the scene is sewn up by the Military Police.

What, then, to make of the politics of Chang's vision? (Is it even fair to ask it to have such? It often seems to me that popular cinema is better understood as having a "proto-politics" rather than a developed politics, per se; as being pregnant with a series of quite different political valences, rather than having a particular valence as such.)

Its pessimism, of course, hardly seems fertile for revolutionary endeavour (even if Gramsci contrasted a pessimism of the intellect with an optimism of the will). Furthermore the film's vision of fallen modernity all too easily feeds into conservative discourse, and perhaps makes a certain sense of the fact that Chang's films locate themselves in a fantasised past rather than a modern present, escaping into a zone where alternate moral values to those provided by money and power can be projected – values of heroism, brotherliness, the fight for justice and so on. Such a past (real or imaginary as it may be) nonetheless might well serve as a repository of "heterologies," asserting that the world has been and so potentially still might in the future be different from the way it is now.

However, as Cheh's own understanding of his work of the late 1960s and early 1970s suggests (see my recent post), there is a certain degree to which this film might align itself with a counterculture, setting its values against a post-colonial state which is literally here the South Korea of the 1950s, but is clearly also more generally the Cold War order of 1970s Asia. I believe that we should not only recognise in this grim landscape the totalitarianism which a Hong Kong inhabitant might have feared in the PRC, but also – through the implication of the commercial landscape of Seoul and the globalised links of the criminal gang, with their connections to the US and with an American Boss – that of Hong Kong itself, still a non-democratic state that had, at the end of the 1960s, come down hard on its rebels, revolutionaries and dissidents.

Perhaps for leftists, the political valence of the film might depend in large part on where one stands on questions of the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Is this to be understood only as a retrenchment of capitalist values, with its insistence on individualism, hedonism and the like? Or are we to understand its pursuit of freedom and libertarianism as fundamental to any radical project, serving as a vital critique of the more repressive socialist regimes that grew up in the twentieth century as well as to the repressive nature of early-twentieth-century capitalism?

An image of revolutionary hope? Spring after the freeze?

Lua Kar-Leung and the Radical Aesthetics of the Kung-fu Body

I have been working on a paper that I am giving in New York next month. (The conference is “Radical Aesthetics and Politics: Intersections in Music, Art and Critical Social Theory,”9 December 2011 at Hunter College, CUNY - see

In this I am setting out to discuss a potential radicality in the performing kung-fu body, and I attempt to make this argument in particular with reference to Lau Kar-Leung. My argument draws on ideas in Walter Benjamin's "The Storyteller" that highlight the importance of an "auratic" relation to the past in allowing us to imagine the world differently. Benjamin's essay also highlights the value of artisanal modes of experience and practice, with which I associate martial arts practices and its performing bodies.

For me, there are larger stakes in the essay, which are to do with the ways in which popular culture more generally may serve as a medium of a counter-memory or counter-practice.

Below is a link to an early draft – rather longer than the 15-minute paper I'll give. Please forgive its roughness: it's presented here as a work in progress. As such, any comments on it would be very welcome!

To read the draft click here.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Chang Cheh on 60s wuxia and their social context

"swordsmen, assassins, martyrs and death-defying fanatics ... tragic men who defy authority and the establishment": Jimmy Wang Yu as the eponymous hero of Chang Cheh's The Assassin (1967). An icon of anti-authoritarian revolt for the counterculture?
"The 60s and the 70s were the most energetic periods of Hong Kong – the period when young people exerted themselves. The age of love tales was past. The masses were striving ahead in a rebellious mood and the colonial administration was receiving a shock to the system ... The martial arts pictures represented this spirit of the times. After I made The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), riots broke out in Kowloon. Then, during the riots, I made The Assassin (1967). In an [sic] Ming Pao Monthly article published on May 1968, titled 'Hong Kong's Anti-Establishment Movies and the Mass Movement,' Law Kar wrote: 'Zhang Che's movie characters are young swordsmen, assassins, martyrs and death-defying fanatics. His heroes are tragic men who defy authority and the establishment.' At the time, people called my movies 'violent', and 'bloody'. I always thought this was a very shallow way of looking at my movies."
From Chang Cheh's essay, "Creating the Martial Arts Film and the Hong Kong Cinema Style," in The Making of Martial Arts Films: As Told by Filmmakers and Stars (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive, 1999).

Chang Cheh was one of the key directors who transformed the martial arts genre in Hong Kong cinema during the late 1960s, pioneering the "kung fu" film. It's interesting to see him contextualise his practice in this way, considering that he is often counted a cultural conservative, with politics far from the radical left.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Brechtian Pirates?

In a Chang Cheh movie, The Pirate (Da hai dao), of 1973, there is an almost Brechtian moment.

The hero, swashbuckling historical buccaneer Chang Pao-Chai (played by Ti Lung), has been stranded in town where he is a wanted man, but instead of running, he has decided to stay to help a group of villagers who are being exploited and driven into bankruptcy and slavery by a corrupt, monopolistic magnate, who owns both the local shipyard and the brothel and has dodgy dealings with the local authorities. Chang has decided to rob the magnate in order to give the locals cash to have their boats repaired and thus to get out from under the heels of their tyrant.

Finding out about his scheme, one of Chang's piratical followers, turns to another fellow (or actually to us, the audience), wondering at their chief's generosity, bravery and humanity:

Pirate 1: Pao-Chai is really great, which makes me feel great too.
Pirate 2: Even if we have done good deeds, we are still pirates.
Pirate 1: That's true. But we were not born pirates. We were born as men. We became pirates since we had no choice. When there's an opportunity, we'll do as men will do.
Pirate 2: (lauging) You still know this principle!

Friday, 15 July 2011

Work in Kung Fu Films 1 (Or: Wax on, Wax off!)

Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita waxing lyrical in John G Avildsen's The Karate Kid (USA, 1984).

One of the central themes that this blog will set out to explore is the question of work in kung fu cinema. At least, let's call it work for now, though the word stands at the heart of a complex of related terms, ranging from labour to effort, for example, and from toil to craft. Quite precisely the best term for that to which I am referring will have to be a subject for further investigation.

Indeed, in order to show how this thing I am (for now) calling 'work' is so very much at the heart of the martial arts film, and in order to begin to develop a closer investigation of quite how I would inflect this term, I propose a translation of kung fu itself as work (or, even, labour). If this seems a slightly wilful translation of the Chinese term gongfu (which is the pinyin spelling of the word rendered more commonly into English as 'kung fu'), the distortion is less shocking than it may at first appear to the untutored English ear, used as we are to understanding the word as simply the name for a Chinese style of fighting.

The first thing to say, of course, is that gongfu in its proper sense does not strictly speaking refer to martial arts: the Mandarin term for martial art is in fact wushu (wu=martial, shu=art). In contrast, before being taken up as a buzzword in the martial-arts movie craze, gongfu really simply meant any kind of a high level of skill or attainment: artistry, if you like. Thus one can have gongfu in a martial art, but also in cooking, painting, making tea, metalwork, arranging flowers, baking, firing ceramics, calligraphy, etc., etc.

The implication of the term, however, (missing in Western words such as artistry) is that the skill which one has attained is mastered through long, patient and arduous work. The character for 'gong' (功) - usually translated as attainment - includes the element 工 (also pronounced as 'gong') which means work or worker, labour or labourer. In quite literal terms, then, the question of work or labour lies inscribed at the very heart of the term kung fu itself, in the very name given most commonly to the genre of the martial arts film. As a pictogram, 工 may itself be derived from a tool, the tamper, with which earth was laboriously compressed by repeated pounding to make it into a building material. Furthermore, the other element of gong (i.e. 力, which on its own signifies power or strength) is derived from a pictogram representing a plough, doubly inscribing work at the heart of the word, and linking the 'kung fu fighting' we are dealing with in cinema to the old practices of peasant labour which were at stake in the martial arts discussed in a previous post on this blog. 功 is usually thus translated as power or strength: one online reference source on Chinese characters proposes a possible formation of it as 'power through work'. This same dictionary defines the whole word gongfu (功夫) as 'skill; art; kung fu; labor; effort'. If my translation lays central stress on one particular aspect of this little cluster of meanings, it nonetheless has the virtue of explaining something about how they fit together, and it also brings to the fore what is so insistent in the etymology of the character. (This insistence is so strong that one might be led to inquire as to what form of modern disavowal may be at work to erase it as a content from common translations which define 'kung fu' simply as a level of high attainment, or even as a term for the martial arts...)

Any forcing in my definition, I feel, is in any case validated by the fact that 'kung fu' is now not simply a Chinese term: torn from its 'original' linguistic use, it is now part of the vocabulary of a global popular-cultural phenomenon, and I am primarily concerned with this, modern, transnational word, transformed by its relation to and meaning within a cinematic genre.

The measure of the translation would thus be in what it clarifies about this global cultural phenomenon – and in how we might use it to understand something about the reality from which it springs. Whatever gongfu may have meant in the past, this meaning, having work at its heart, will have been transformed by the transformation of the nature and experience of labour itself by capitalism and by globalised, (post-)colonial relations.

My argument is that the kung fu film, which just like the cowboy film is so often set on a (heavily mythologised) temporal borderline between modernity and tradition, and which takes as its topic of fascination the labour-intensive and highly skilled military arts made obsolete by the import of modern firearms technologies, serves as a somewhat disavowed meditation on the vicissitudes of work: alienated and unalienated, ancient and modern, feudal and commodified...

Of course, to establish that what I propose here is a valid approach to kung fu cinema will involve looking in more detail at a set of examples, and demonstrating that work indeed is an important theme within the films (or at least one that illuminates them in a significant way). I will also have to show a link between the "kung fu" (i.e. martial arts) which forms the thematic core of the films, and to which the genre name "kung fu" refers and the representations of labour or work that the films develop.

This task is, obviously, beyond the scope of a single blog post, but to indicate a direction, I'll finish this with a few pointers to where I'm heading. The sub-genre which most clearly brings work to the fore of the genre is the 'training film', where a significant part of the film will be dedicated to depicting the hero straining to develop his skill, strength and flexibility through a montage of gruelling exercises. There are many of these films – the Jackie Chan vehicle Drunken Master, for example, or Lau Kar-Leung's 36th Chamber of Shaolin and its sequels – and I shall have to come back to enumerate more about these at a later point. Perhaps the film most familiar to the Western audience is John G. Avildsen's American revamp of the kung-fu flick, The Karate Kid (1984). Here the theme of training and the nature of work are picked up from the narrative pattern drawn from the Hong Kong originals it copies (perhaps in particular from Return to the 36th Chamber, of which I will certainly have more to say in this blog at a later date...).

In Karate Kid, then, 'Daniel-San' is taken on by teacher Mr. Miyagi, who, it seems, rather than teaching the punches and kicks his student expects to learn, sets him off to work on back-breaking menial tasks around his home – famously waxing cars, sanding decking, and painting both fence and house. Daniel despairs that he has learned nothing and just been conned into doing unwanted tasks, but, of course, it turns out that in these tasks he has been training his arms in the precise mechanics of a sequence of blocks and strikes, along with the strength and stamina to perform them effectively and repeatedly. Of course, what is at stake here in Daniel's acquisition of 'kung fu' is the line between alienated and unalienated labour: the work which consumes the worker's life draining the energies and resources of his or her body, and whose value accrues to a boss, set against the work which reproduces life and whose whose fruits return to the worker. Daniel's investment in the work of training accrues not only, or not centrally, to Mr. Miyagi, but to Daniel himself, who gains from his toil an enhancement of power, energy, wisdom and ability.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011


Some of my favourite moments from the original series of Zatoichi films are not fights but songs.

This from Zatoichi's Cane Sword (1967)

The lyrics are:
Maybe you wear rags, but your heart is more beautiful than any flower.
It is young once so enjoy it.
If you're a man, do something that nobody else would.
A man hides his tears and forced himself to smile, but some women
do not know.
You say you're in love, but there's nothing to say.
If you're a
man, catching a smile
I sent you
This is rapidly turning into a blog on musicals!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Can Dialectics Break Bricks?

Yesterday I was telling a colleague about the film La Dialectique, peut-elle casser des briques?, known in English as Can Dialectics Break Bricks? It was made in 1973 by Situationist René Viénet, and has been counted as the first full-length détourned feature film by the Situationist group. Similar to the Situationists' recaptioning of cartoons with anti-capitalist analysis, it involved the re-dubbing of a then-recent kung fu movie – Crush – with Situationist slogans and with commentary on recent world events. In the film's re-engineered narrative, the good guys become 'the Proletarians' and the bad guys become 'the Bureaucrats' (c.f. the 1968 slogan: 'We will not rest until the last capitalist is hung with the intestines of the last bureaucrat!')

The effect aimed at is, of course, largely somewhat comical, and undercuts any narrative involvement with a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt.

From YouTube: excerpts from Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (1973)

As I was saying to my colleague, I've not managed to dig up much about the background of Viénet's film, or why this martial arts movie was chosen for détournement, and I find myself with some perplexing questions about this, and about how the original film (directed by Tu Guangqi) might have been understood by Viénet and the Situationist group. Wikipedia (that great authority!) suggests that the aim was 'to adapt a "spectacular" film into a radical critique of cultural hegemony,' and the general strategy of détournement would indeed seem to suggest that it was precisely the most crude and commercialised products of Spectacular society which were targeted by the SI for appropriation, to be refitted as weapons of revolutionary consciousness. Indeed, in the 70s, at the height of the kung fu craze, these films often tended to be regarded by critics as cheap, worthless, contentless, exploitative and mind-numbing products of a culture industry seeking to distract its popular audience and brutalise its sensibility.

However, Crush might also have been a strange choice on such grounds. Like many Hong Kong productions of the early seventies (in particular in the wake of Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury) the scenario of the original film is clearly one in which colonial exploitation and resistance are at issue. Set in Korea under the Japanese occupation that lasted much of the first half of the twentieth century, the heroes (those turned by Viénet into 'the Proletarians') are the members of a martial arts school who start to resist the colonial violence of the militaristic Japanese forces. However potentially conservative the nationalistic dimension of its narrative, this is also a work about struggle and liberation from tyrranny in some of its most typically modern forms.

This is to say, the film was already highly suited to the new story which Viénet constructed. Crush is not just a tale of conflict and violence, but also a tale of (revolutionary?) struggle against oppression, and of the violence of an imposed bureaucratic regime. Viénet's 'Proletarians' are, in matter of fact, already very much proletarian in Tu Guangqi's original movie. The native martial arts they train in are antithetical to the violence and deculturation imposed by their oppressors, and in this much, and within the colonial context of the film's setting, whether or not dialectics really breaks bricks, brick-breaking is certainly a kind of a dialectic practice. In this regard, the détournement works so well only because the film was at least some distance towards being the critique which the Situationists wanted to make it into. The refashioning of the film thus starts to appear a little less devastatingly witty than it might appear to those for whom the historical situation alluded to in the original film is obscure. For evidence of such an audience, one can look at the comments on the film on its IMDB page, one of which, completely muddling the national origin of the film, mistakes the film as 'a hokey Japanese karate movie', hence not only missing the anti-colonial premise of the original, but even showing a complete blindness to the differences between Asian nationalities on the basis of which such might be read. Another comment wonders 'what the hell' the original was about, and a third proposes that the détourned film is 'a standard martial arts movie with all its gratuitous, relatively content-less violence'.

From today's perspective, it would seem strange if the Situationist group, with the history of anti-colonial struggle in France's own colonies (from Algeria to Vietnam) still fresh, and with the attention that these gained from the French left – and even within the Situationists' own critiques – would not have picked up on the political dimensions of the film which these IMDB reviewers miss. Viénet, in particular, was trained as a Sinologist and spent many years in China before being ejected for his opposition to Mao. However, there seems little in its redubbing which would seem to exploit or thematise such a relation to a pre-existing narrative of struggle and revolution. Could Viénet and colleagues possibly have been blind to it? What were, exactly, their attitudes to the film?

One might, for example, more generously set out to read the task of détournement here as attempting to 'liberate' a hidden subtext, to dredge it up to the light of day. This would fit the film into a certain tradition of critical theory which has attempted to look at (popular) cultural products as at once carrying the ideological purposes of the dominant class who control their production, but as also depending on a kernel of 'truth' and genuine need or desire which it must address in order not to entirely fail to interest its audience. However, this, too, would not seem to quite hit the mark: the 'anti-colonial' theme in Crush is so prominent as to hardly seem even a 'sub'-text, let alone something that anyone who has noticed it would think of as a repressed content which would need to be made conscious.

Alternatively, perhaps we might conceive of Crush – or more generally of the Parisian movie houses where 'chop-socky' flicks may have been playing matinee double bills – as a special site for Situationist pleasure, rather like the inner-city streets where Debord and his colleagues liked to drift in search of 'moments' of desire and truth within the everyday, places of special ripeness for the engineering of a 'situation' or an 'event'. Does Viénet's film thus mark the kung fu movie, then, for them, as one of the privileged locii in which one might go on a sort of a cultural dérive?

So in the end, I find myself running up against a question I cannot very simply answer (since my knowledge of Viénet and the Situationists is only rather general): what kind of a reading of Crush would have been available to the Situationist group? Would the status of such a product as 'schlock' have entirely determined their response, or might they have viewed it generously? Are we to read those more recent comments on the film which see it as deliberately refashioning a piece of the most debased cultural production for new ends as having missed a set of subtleties in its relation to the original, as having rather caricatured quite what such a détournement was supposed for the Situationists to do? Would the kind of 'postcolonial' discourse that might highlight themes of insurrection in the original film have been current? (Fanon had after all been writing since the 50s, but in many ways the kind of reading I am thinking of might be more associated with the wake of British Cultural Studies and the like from the later part of the 70s on...)

If anyone reading this blog knows more about this – or knows of anything written on the film – I'd be VERY glad to hear from you!

The full film is, by the way, available on UBU-web, at the following address:

(Given that Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, in its very title and in its content too, sets out a certain discussion of revolutionary force/violence, the other question one might pose would be how Crush might open into such debates, too. What might it be like if we were to turn things around and imagine Crush as a redub of or a commentary on Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, rather than vice versa? How does Crush's depiction of violent resistance unsettle the arguments which Viénet attempts to impose on it? Would the understanding of Viénet's film that would emerge from such an analysis tell us something more generally about the attitudes and ideas of the European avant-garde?)

Sunday, 5 June 2011

More on Hong Kong Context of the Wuxia Revival – Riots in 1967

I came across this footage of the unrest in Hong Kong in 1967 on Youtube:

It was linked to a clip from a musical, Hong Kong Noctune, from the same year, which starred Cheng Pei-Pei. Cheng was at the time also becoming the #1 swordswoman of the wuxia revival, starring in (for example) King Hu's ravishing Come Drink with Me (1966) and Chang Cheh's Golden Swallow (1968).

(For those more familiar with more recent films, she also plays a role as the embittered Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000).)

Cheng is the one in the blue dress in the second number, and who sings third in the first. How should we take the words she sings?

Cheng: "Even when your woes are great
Tears are bitter sweet
Everyone has his heart's desire
May all wishes be fulfilled"

chorus: "Hold you head high and strive on
Let no barriers stop your advance
New dancers and singers must arise
Let the world ring with music"

Does this work as a soundtrack to the first video, too?

Sunday, 29 May 2011

More on Rebellion and Revolution

One of the many places that one might pick up the problem of the unstable distinction between 'rebellion' and 'revolution' is in current far-left philosophical debates. If according to some the 'revolutionary' for a while seemed somewhat out of fashion in left wing thought (I'm not quite sure it ever was), it is certainly important again in the work of such thinkers as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek.

To open up a can of worms, in this post I'm going to make some all-too-brief comments on Badiou and the rhetoric of revolution.

It's a topic that comes up in Adrian Johnston's recent book Badiou, Zizek and Political Transformations: The Cadence of Change. Johnston notes that for both of these thinkers, what's centrally at stake is the possibility of thinking 'reality-shattering shifts' (xxviii) and hence of a world radically different from our own – a world which does not consist only of variations on the theme of the already-existing status quo. For Badiou the 'event' and for Zizek the 'act' (which Johnston sees as itself being a term drawing on an evental logic) are ways of imagining how such radical alterations come about. The Badiouian event is an 'abrupt rupture [...] interrupting the cohesion and continuity of whatever counts as the establshed order of things [...] [It is] that which, apparently out of nowhere, suddenly and unexpectedly catalyzes processes of transformation.' (xxviii) They are, this is to say, about revolutionary change. Badiou's writing, Johnston notes (7), is peppered with an aesthetic and rhetoric that privileges ways of imagining change that rely on a vocabulary of cataclysm and violent upheaval. (It is, this is to say, posited around a stylistic 'aesthetic' of revolution as sublime.)

There is an implicit opposition working here, which may in some respects relate to the problem I have outlined in my last post, though the terms in which it is staged are slightly different. Here, rather than rebellion, the opposite term of revolution is, essentially, reformism. Badiou and Zizek place themselves in a long line of radical theorists form whom the radical rupture of revolution is held up against some mere fiddling with details that in fact serves only to shore up the system.

There are, of course, differences between the notion of 'rebellion' as defined in my previous post (i.e. as an attempt to topple a particular holder of power, whilst preserving an overall system), and that of 'reformism' in this sense (which is more to do with the issues than personalities). However, in their polar position to the revolution, the two share quite a lot structurally. Such structural similarities are reinforced by the actualities of the actual struggles to which they might refer: a struggle against a ruler or ruling elite is hardly meaningful except in relation to some kind of abuse of power or an unpopular policy with which they are associated. Similarly, campaigns against policies are usually (though of course not universally) carried out in tandem with an opposition to instrumental individuals who are conceived as the authors of such policy, and who rapidly become imagined as an 'enemy'. (This last might perhaps need qualification, in that the identification of the enemy will often only be partial and may also be innacurate. Thus a particular ruler might be marked out, but the unpopular policies they push through may be at the service of an elite 'pressure group' who remain in the shadows and benefit from the policy, who remain, even after the unseating of the ruler, at the heart of a system of power and influence, privilege and profit. I digress, however, and in any case the same problems may well beset those who seek more properly revolutionary change...)

One of the things posed as marking the difference between 'rebellion' and 'reform' is the link between reform and a gradualism which such authors as Badiou and Zizek see as impossible or illusory, understanding 'real' change as sudden, cataclysmic and disjunctive. 'Rebellion' in the sense in which Meadows used it would lie even further along the same end of a spectrum at the other end of which was revolution, implying no change at all – a restoration of values, rather than their transformation. However, even this difference, at least as it finds its place within a revolutionist rhetoric, may itself collapse: after all, the point for such authors is that reformism is ultimately impossible, that things will not get better bit by bit, since the changes in question do not affect a core truth of the status quo, which fundamentally remains what it is, and is only revitalised by the processes of such struggle.

But do we start to run into trouble if taking up such a position? The difficulty would seem to me to be in accounting for a change which is no change – the modification which leaves things as they are. This seems a very particular way of imagining society (and/or politics, culture, etc.) that delineates between the essential and the merely contingent, imagining a set of 'core' things which determine the other things in society with no reciprocal influence. It is a model ultimately rather like the famous base/superstructure distinction: mere fiddling with culture or philosophy will not have an effect on things whilst the economic base remains the same. It raises the problem of just what is or is not significant change as opposed to superficial change – especially when we consider the problem of cause and effect. Johnston notes that some changes may seem trivial but have far-reaching effects, whilst others may seem to shake things up to the core but actually rapidly land us back where we started. What, then, if such distinction (between cataclysmic change and the small change, between revolution and reform and between revolution and rebellion) does not hold?

This dilemma poses a core problem for Badiou's work (as I've managed to decipher it at least) and as a body of writing which sets out to privilege revolution over reform it returns repeatedly to ways of upholding this distinction. Badiou's response to what amounts to a profound dilemma for the radical left is to set out an ontology – based in set theory – that seems to categorise different kinds of change, thus providing a theoretical grounding for judgments between significant and insignificant. At different moments in his career, Badiou seems to have formulated these differently. What is interesting in Johnston's account of these changes is that it highlights the fact that Badiou seems increasingly to be discovering shades of grey between the radical 'event' of revolutionary change and the mere novelty that leaves everything the same.

As described by Johnston (8), In "Beyond Formalization" (2002), Badiou categorised four kinds of change:-
1. modifications (which are consistent with the current 'transcendent regime')
2. weak singularities (novelties with 'no strong existential consequences')
3. strong singularities (important existential change, but still measurable)
4. events proper (whose consequences are 'virtually infinite')

What still seems a problem to me here, is that though it might be possible to uphold a theoretical or mathematical difference in set theory between measurable and immeasurable change (which is where it would seem Badiou would want to locate the difference between the start of a revolution which changes everything and a campaign for higher wages or more holiday or some such thing ), in the case of our messy, complexly interconnected social/political/cultural world, the distinction may never be so clear. After all, does an achieved demand for more wages end with those increased wages?Or are there other implications – a shift of power between workers and bosses, altered legislation, changing consumption patterns of working people, the encouragement of others to strike, the growth in solidarity of those that struck for that aim, altered subjectivities...? How would we possibly 'measure' all of this?

In Logiques du mondes Badiou went even further in laying out the grey area between the event and the novelty. In this work, change, or 'becoming' is first split into the distinction between 'modification' (which as before is some kind of change which has no real content or consequence) and 'site', a place with the potential to give rise to real change. Such a 'site' could, in turn involve either the 'occurrence' which lacks a 'maximal degree of intensity' or the 'singularity' which has this. The singularity in its turn can be either 'strong' or 'weak'. The consequences of the weak singularity are not 'maximal' whilst those of the strong are. (See Johnston, 8.)

It seems to me, however, (and I'd be glad to be corrected by a Badiou scholar!) that whilst Badiou does establish a kind of a framework within which there are ontological distinctions between kinds of change, and though these have a form of logical coherence, such a framework would be only a necessary precondition of the ability to distinguish between the revolutionary and the merely rebellious or reformist in practice, rather than that which is sufficient in order to do so. As I hope my example above of the demand for more pay suggests (even if it's not the most perfect one!), in practice the social world we live in is far too complex and interconnected to posit any human action as having merely finite or measurable consequence. It seems to me that most human endeavour would seem to be positioned not either on the polar opposites of pure event or pure (and mere) modification, but in the grey zone Badiou's theory has found itself increasingly having to admit. And in this grey zone – neither mere rebellion nor pure revolution, we would probably have to locate most political struggle (that of peasants and workers for better conditions or less tyrranical rulers, trades union activity, perhaps even most of the activism of people in revolutionary parties today) and perhaps most (popular) cultural production, with its working over of social contradictions that it can never ideologically contain and which it aways places back in motion. (Perhaps part of the great value of Cultural Studies has been to suggest, precisely, that the cultural 'novelties' of consumption are far less finite in their outcomes than they seem at first glance, whatever their powerful producers would want of them.)

Johnston's book begins to make this problem in Zizek and Badiou clear – and in fact very perceptively argues that the kind of focus on the grand transformation which Badiou and Zizek foreground (seemingly coming from nowhere, unexpectedly and beyond analysis or pre-calculation), eschewing the smaller and more piecework struggles of everyday activism, may well 'risk discouraging in advance precisely the sorts of efforts of transforming the world of today that they so ardently desire' (xxviii).

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Revolution vs. rebellion?

Jet Li, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau in Warlords (2007), set amidst the Taiping Rebellion.

"Of all the nations that have attained a degree of civilisation, the Chinese are the least revolutionary and the most rebellious."
Thomas Taylor Meadows, The Chinese and their Rebellions, Viewed in Connection with their National Philosophy, Ethics, Legislation and Administrations (London, 1855), 25.

Meadows had been British consul to China, and his strange book is largely a proposal that the Chinese imperial examinations should serve as a model for creating a meritocratic civil service for Britain. For Meadows the long stability of the form of the Chinese imperial state (in spite of changing dynasties) was due largely to the creation of the class of scholar-bureaucrats which the examinations fostered.

His statement above, however, is of interest to me since it might prompt some of the problems which would dog an understanding of kung fu cinema as a cinema with something to say to revolutionaries. Might we not say the same thing about these films as Meadows does about China: that they are the apotheosis of rebellion, but that they are not the least bit revolutionary?

But Meadows's book is brought up here as a place where contradictions and problems might gravitate to the point of hyperdensity at which they go supernova. Meadows's statement, after all, hits us with the historical equivalent of dramatic irony. How could one say such a thing about the land that gave us Mao, and exported Marxist guerilla insurgency not only across Asia but also the world? Since Meadows wrote, where has been more revolutionary than China, that great idol of the revolts of 1968? To make such a statement as Meadows nowadays would seem at the very least to require a rather complex redefinition of what counts as radical or revolutionary. (Mao as a kind of a latter-day Confucian…) But I would argue that the question of what counts as properly radical is, in any case, something that needs to be made problematic.

For Meadows, the distinction is simple enough. He glosses his argument thus:

"Revolution is a change in the form of government and of the principles on which it rests: it does not necessarily imply a change of rulers. Rebellion is a rising against the rulers which, far from necessarily aiming at a change of governmental principles and forms, often originates in a desire of preserving them intact. Revolutionary movements are against principles; rebellions against men" (25).

In the light of such criteria, at first glance there is a lot of common sense in Meadows's assessment, even if China was, as he was writing, undergoing one of the biggest and most awful civil wars that history has given us: the Taiping Rebellion in which at least 20 million people lost their lives. From an English perspective, in 1855, and in contrast to the European upheavals of the previous decade, with all the radical theory that fuelled these – this is the decade, after all, in which the Communist Manifesto was written – China's turmoil might have seemed rather backward, and lacking in the genuine revolutionary impetus of the thoroughgoing critiques proposed by Marx and the like. Hong Xiquan (in spite of his millennial theology) could easily be imagined by Westerners as simply a man who intended to set himself up as an alternative Emperor in the stead of the Qing dynasty, and who would be expected to rule in just the same way that they, and the dynasties of the preceding two thousand years, had always done.

Marx himself would seem to concur in his articles on the Taiping uprising in Die Presse:

"Some time before the tables began to dance, China--this living fossil--started revolutionizing. By itself there was nothing extraordinary in this phenomenon, since the Oriental empires always show an unchanging social infra-structure coupled with unceasing change in the persons and tribes who manage to ascribe to themselves the political super-structure" (cited by Daniel Little, "Marx and the Taipings," Understanding Society, at Feb 13 2009 (accessed 8 April 2011).)

With the image of dancing tables – it also figures in a footnote to Chapter 1 of Capital – Marx is referring to the craze in the 1850s for seances, nicknamed at the time "table turning," an enthusiasm he suggested was a substitute for rebellion, emerging in the context of the blocked desires created by the defeat of the 1848 uprisings. Chiming with such spinning tables, the 'revolutionising' of China in the Taiping uprising becomes an empty rotational spectacle, rather than any meaningful turning of history's wheels, and the European fascination with the phenomenon is, like that of the occult, a mere pathological symptom of the impossibility of real rebellion at home.

But Marx's and Meadows's judgements alike are coloured by an orientalism which – as Daniel Little notes in an interesting blog post on Marx and the Taiping – imagines the East as eternal and the West as the locus solus of historical change. Little notes that Marx's usual acuity with regard to class is missing in his discussions of China, and any proper examination of the Taiping movement – its social programme, for example, or the reasons why a peasantry flocked to it – are foreclosed, and that recent scholarship has done much to complexify such a vision of the Taiping as merely aiming to replace one Emperor with another.

In this regard, and especially in the light of the nationalist and communist revolutions of the twentieth century, China's history might start to look much more revolutionary than merely rebellious. Were the peasant revolts that echoed through its histories, from the "yellow turbans" of 184-205 AD that ended the rule of the Han dynasty to the Boxer Rebellion at the dawn of the twentieth century, only about restoring and rejuvenating the order of the status quo, or can they be seen as involving radical social projects? The yellow turbans, famously, were a Taoist sect which espoused equal rights and equal distribution of land. (Terry Kleeman, in his book Great Perfection has documented a similar utopian and millennial Taoist sect which held out as a separate state across much of present-day Sichuan for over half a century in the tumultuous fourth century AD.) As Little notes, whilst Marx and Meadows saw nothing truly revolutionary in the Taipings, for Mao they figured as heroic forebears engaged in a proto-communist endeavour.

The historical ironies that surround Meadows's remarks, then, as they are visible from this end of the twentieth century, point to a certain problematic which was already in place at the time they were written. The attractive neatness of the formula has the hallmark of a simplification through which history is made malleable to ideological manipulation. The easy dichotomy between rebellion and revolution hides a surreptitious set of distinctions between what is or is not "essential" or "fundamental" in change (and what are merely superficial alterations); and, we might add, recent scholarship would suggest that the judgment about these things may well be much more culturally and historically relative than either Marx or Meadows imagined when they were writing.

Raising this, of course, at the current early stage in proceedings of this research, is more to lay out a question than provide an answer as to how we might deconstruct or dialecticise this pair of terms, how they might play out in Chinese history, and how the impetus for 'rebellion' and 'revolution' may be at stake in martial art films. This is all work to be done. The usual assumption (as I note above) would tend to be that martial arts movies are only "rebellious" (seen as a bad, watered-down, unproductive thing, mere table-turning, if you like, spectacle and not substance) rather than in any sense being truly "revolutionary" (in the sense of opening on to "real change"). There are, of course exceptions: Vijay Prashad and M.T. Kato both find in Bruce Lee an authentic revolutionary hero – Kato even talks about a kung fu "cultural revolution". But in these, just as in the case of those who think that martial arts films never amount more than pseudo-revolutionary posturing, there is the mobilisation of this pair of terms to come to a judgment about the political meaning of the kung fu genre or its particular films and stars.

Of course, there are wider stakes too. The discourses of or around "popular culture" and its value more generally have revolved around this point of whether it has seeds of revolutionary (real, fundamental, meaningful) change, or whether it only involves those surface novelties which allow capitalism to remain, under the surface, always the same. (If some might view martial arts films as all rebellion and no revolution, this is only because this is an attitude generally taken up towards popular culture more generally.) These issues, then, lay at the heart of the discipline of Cultural Studies (and its debates with its opponents on the left), and more generally around the New Left movement from which it emerged, as it tried to rethink a radical but more 'democratic' politics in the face of existing totalitarian socialisms. It also haunts the current returns (in Zizek and others, for example) to a position which sees in the New Left (and its investments in the popular) suspiciously liberal traits.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Some Quotes from Frantz Fanon

Bruce Lee with Nunchaku in Way of the Dragon (1972)

A while back at the University I gave a lecture on Bruce Lee and the Postcolonial. Here are some quotations from Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth that chime with my theme:

"And it is clear that in the colonial countries the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The starving peasant, outside the class system is the first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays. For him there is no compromise, no possible coming to terms; colonization and decolonization are simply a question of relative strength."

“[In the colonial situation,] the dreams of the native are always of muscular prowess; his dreams are of action and aggression. I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, climbing; […] that I span a river in one stride, or that I am followed by a flood of motor cars which never catch up with me. […] The native’s muscles are always tensed. You can't say that he is terrorized, or even apprehensive. He is in fact ready at a moment’s notice to exchange the role of the quarry for that of the hunter” (40).

“[In the colonial situation,] at the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex, and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self respect” (74).

“Violence […] is Man recreating himself.” Sartre, in his Preface to the book, p.18.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Social Context of the wuxia and kung fu genres

Logo for the Great Wall Film Production Company, one of the left-wing studios which flourished in Hong Kong in the 1960s. As well as social dramas, Great Wall also produced a number of successful "swordplay" (wuxia) films, which apparently differed little from those produced by less politically-motivated studios. Image from:

The following passage – from Hung Ho-Fung's article, "Uncertainty in the Enclave," New Left Review 66 (Nov/Dec 2010):55-77 – gives us something of an outline of the socio-political context of the production of wuxia ("swordplay") films in the 1960s and that of "kung fu" films proper in the early 1970s:
The US embargo on trade with the PRC, introduced in 1950, voided Hong Kong's purpose as a commercial entrepôt, so its capitalists turned instead to manufacturing. Industrial employment roses from a mere 5 per cent of the workforce in 1950 to 10 per cent in 1960, rising to 25 per cent in 1970. At the same time, the colony saw an influx of refugees from the mainland, who contributed to a huge increase in the population: from 600,000 in 1945 to 2.5 million in 1955. The new arrivals included small-scale entrepreneurs from Guandong or textile magnates from Shanghai, who helped fuel Hong Kong's industrial takeoff, but the majority of the refugees were peasants and workers who provided Hong Kong's emerging industries with low-cost labour. They settled in urban slums, which became fertile ground for CCP-affiliated organizations—including a myriad of unions grouped around the Federation of Trade Unions, as well as schools, news agencies and filmmakers.

In the 1950s and 60s, these organizations grew against a backdrop of rampant government corruption, police brutality, class polarization and institutionalized discrimination against Chinese. Leftist Unions frequently flexed their muscle with strikes. Their film companies—Southern Film, Great Wall, Phoenix, Longma—made box-office hits portraying the misery of the working class and helped disseminate propaganda about the new socialist China. Leftist community organizations, replete with supplies from the PRC, were often more effective than the colonial administration in delivering disaster relief in the aftermath of the fires, landslides and typhoons that constantly threatened working-class neighbourhoods, which usually consisted of wooden shacks perched on Hong Kong's hilly terrain.

In the Spring of 1967, the CCP-affiliated Hong Kong and Macao Work Committee, under the influence of the cultural revolution, made use of a minor labour dispute to launch an all-out offensive against the colonial [p.58] authorities, rallying and directing other leftist forces in the colony. This was meant to generate a revolutionary crisis that ignited all political and social contradictions at once, paved the way for a CCP takeover, or at least for conjoint rule over the colony by the British and the Left, as had been achieved in the insurgency against the Portugese in Macao in late 1966. In the initial phase of the Kong Kong uprising, mass rallies and demonstrations organized by the Leftists drew broad, spontaneous support among the Chinese population. However, the tide turned when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai reaffirmed to the British the CCP's policy of maintaining Hong Kong's colonial status. Emboldened by Beijing's non-interference, the colonial authorities mobilized the security forces to crack down on the Leftists, closing down their unions, schools and newspapers, and deporting key leaders to the PRC. Pushed into a corner, the Leftists resorted to terrorist tactics, such as roadside bombs targetting both government facilities and civilians. This violent turn alienated the wider Chinese community, costing the insurgents popular support.

The insurgency had subsided by early 1968. Though many Leftist organizations resumed their activities under the colonial authorities' watchful eyes, they became ever more marginalized and demoralized during the 1970s. With a renewed sense of urgency, the colonial government set about shoring up its legitimacy. It managed to break the usual resistance from its business allies, and, under the influence of Fabian socialist currents in the UK, began a series of social and administrative reforms in the early 70s. These included public assistance for the poor, universal free education for nine years, government sponsored social services, and an effective and internationally acclaimed anti-corruption agency. The authorities also built the world's largest public housing system, which accommodated more than half of Hong Kong's population—4 million in 1970, growing to 5 million by 1980.

In tandem with these reforms came the student movement. In the early 1970s, the memory of the 1967 insurgency was still fresh among student radicals, who were also influenced by the world-wide student revolts of 1968, and sympathetic to the CCP. With a unifying theme of "anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism," the movement sprang up in 1971 in protest against the American handover to Japan of the [p.59] Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which China claimed were its territory. The movement soon split into two main currents: A Maoist faction, which focused on propagandizing the the achievements of socialist China and paid little attention to struggles in Hong Kong, and a "social faction," which was critical of the CCP regime's authoritarianism and directed its efforts into supporting local social movements (pp.57-9).

I have also come across other (slightly conflicting) accounts regarding the political climate of that moment. (They will have to wait for a later moment.) What perhaps seems surprising or interesting in Hung's acount is that the kung fu genre, which is more often explicitly concerned with representing uprisings and insurgency than the older wuxia genre arrives not in the midst of the unrest, but only after it, at the moment in which politics is becoming more conservative, radical change seems blocked – the moment also when the colonial government had softened its laissez-faire attitude and started introducing welfare-state-type referms supporting the poorest in society and attempting to root out some of the corruption which had been so rife in the economic and political life of the colony (and which is reflected so frequently in the thematics of both wuxai and kung fu films...).

Still from Great Wall's wuxia film, The Jade Bow (1966).

Friday, 25 March 2011

Peasant weapons

The above image is from Paulus Hector Mair's sixteenth-century encyclopedia of German martial arts. (A number of such Fechtbücher were produced during the late middle ages and early Renaissance). As well as including instructions for knightly techniques, Mair's encyclopedia discusses peasant weapons such as scythes, sickles and cudgels (pictured above).

For scans of the first two volumes see:

There are youtube clips of reconstructions of some of the techniques described by Mair for European peasant weaponry at:

In the Chinese martial arts, there are also, of course, a number of weapons that derive not from military use, but from peasant tools: scythes, spades, staffs, knives, hoes, rakes, and, of course, rice flails – the iconic nunchaku of Bruce Lee derives from the Okinawan version of this last tool, and as M.T. Kato points out in From Kung Fu to Hip Hop: Globalisation, Revolution and Popular Culture (New York: SUNY Press, 2007), the development of the nunchaku as a weapon harks back to the ban on the native population carrying bladed weapons under Japan's occupation of Okinawa during the seventeenth century (pp.42-3).

Such weapons, then, were adaptations used for village self-defence, and speak of an 'other' martial art, aside from that created by the military. Kato even goes as far as to argue for two opposing categories: the officially-instituted, drilled, imperialist martial arts of order and discipline such as judo or the samurai sword on the one hand, and a more improvisatory and informal decolonising martial arts of resistance or revolt on the other – 'martial arts from below' as it were. (Of course, such an opposition seems to beg for deconstruction or dialecticisation...)

Monkey: What is that thing?

Pigsy: This? It was made for me by Lao Tzu.

Monkey: The Venerable Lao?!

Pigsy: It was to comepensate me for this incarnation. It's my muck rake...

Braudel on revolt in the late European middle ages

The following passage is from Fernand Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism, vol. 2:

Yves-Marie Bercé has found evidence of five hundred revolts among the peasants of Aquitaine alone, between 1590 and 1715. Records relating to a hundred or so German towns from 1301 to 1550 reveal 200 clashes with authority, some accompanied by bloodshed. In Lyons, in the 357 years between 1173 and 1530, 126 were marked by disturbances (rather more than one year in three). We may call these incidents or disturbances – though some of them were so powerful and violent that only the word revolution really does justice to them. On a European scale, during the five centuries covered by this book, there were tens of thousands of incidents – not all of them classified properly and some still lying hidden in the archives. The research so far undertaken does however make it possible to draw some conclusions – some with confidence in the case of peasant revolts, but with much greater risk of error in the case of workers' risings, which were essentially an urban phenomenon.

A great deal of work has been done on peasant revolts in France, following Boris Porchenev's revolutionary book. But it is obvious that France was not alone in this respect, even if the attention it has attracted from historians makes the French case exemplary. From the material so far assembled at any rate, an unmistakeable picture emerges: the peasant community was in perpetual conflict with its oppressors: the state, the landlord, external circumstances, hard times, armed troops, and anything that threatened or even impeded the village community which was the condition of its liberty. And in peasant eyes, all these foes were combined. When in 1530, a local nobleman sent his pigs to root in the common woodland, a little village of the Neapolitan county of Nolise rose up in defence of its grazing rights with the cry 'Viva il popolo et mora il signore' ('Long live the people and death to the master!'). Hence the uninterrupted series of incidents revealing the traditional mentality and special conditions of peasant life, right down to the nineteenth century. If, as Ingmar Bog has remarked, one is looking for an illustration of 'the long term' with its repetitions, its revivals and monotonous patterns, the history of peasants provides any number of perfect examples.

A first reading of this massive literature leaves one with the impression that all this agitation, while never dying down, rarely achieved anything. To rebel was 'to spit in the sky': the jacquerie of 1358 in the Ile-de-France; the English Peasant's revolt of 1381; the Bauernkrieg of 1525; the salt-tax rebellion by the communes of Guyenne in 1584; the violent Bolotnikov rising in Russsia in 1614; the great peasant war that shook Naples in 1647 – all these furious outbursts regularly failed. So too did the minor rebellions which unwaryingly relayed each other. The established order could not tolerate peasant disorder which, in view of the predominance of agriculture, might undermine the very foundations of society and economy. State, nobles, bourgeois property owners, even the Church and certainly the towns were almost constantly in league against the peasant. Flames were nonetheless smouldering under the ashes.

The failures were not [...] as complete as they appeared. The peasant was always rudely brought to heel it is true, but more than once progress was made as a result of rebellion. The 'Jacques' of 1358 did after all secure the liberty of the peasantry in the Paris region. The desertion, then repopulation of this key region cannot entirely explain the process whereby this liberty was won, recaptured and maintained. Was the Bauernkrieg of 1525 a total failure? Not necessarily. The peasant rebels between the Elbe and the Rhine did not, like their brothers beyond the Elbe, become new serfs: they preserved their liberties and ancient rites.(494-6)

Sunday, 20 March 2011

In lieu of an introduction

I've tried to sit down and write an introduction to this blog a few times. However, each time, it becomes long and unweildy – and I can not imagine an internet reader ploughing their way through what I have written.

So this is written in lieu of an introduction. I'll have to carry out this full task elsewhere, probably in a series of posts, and I'll mark them as a "thread" – with a name like "starting points." The problem is that for me, there are just too many starting points for this project to get to grips with all at once. It's origins spread out like the root of a tree.

However, basically, the project perhaps starts with a kind of a problem, rather than an answer. it's a research project in search of a question, if you like.

It started for me with a collision of two things.

First, I was reading Fernand Braudel's trilogy of books Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800. This is a magisterial reading of the early history of capitalism, before its modern-day industrial manifestations. Braudel charts capitalism's slow growth, and its transformation of everyday ways of life. One thing (amongst many) that struck me was Braudel's description of the countryside and towns of the European middle ages and early modernity as heaving with perpetual unrest harbouring uprisings at a rate that perhaps even puts the twentieth-century in the shade. This contrasted with a "common-sense" understanding that I had – one which is supported in such accounts as Thompson's famous Making of the Working Class – that it was only the with the industrial revolution and its experiences of labour that a "revolutionary" political consciousness of class, exploitation, and of ordinary people's abilities to change their fate and the composition of their society developed.

At the same time as reading Braudel, I was watching quite a few kung fu movies – these have become, for me, something of a passion! The motif of revolting peasants from Braudel seemed to resonate with what I saw on screen. Revolt is a key theme within the kung fu genre, as is the problem, generally, of resisting tyranny and exploitation. The settings of kung fu films often involve a (fantasised) past – like Westerns, they obsess on that moment of transition between the modern and a world before modernity has fully arrived. They are primarily rural in setting, and so what we see so often in them are peasants in revolt.

This juxtaposition is more beset with problems than with any immediate solution – so many problems that in this introduction I can hardly even start to sketch out their outline, so will save this for later posts, too.

However, around the meeting of a Braudellian history of the longue durée of capitalism and martial arts cinema a number of fascinating issues/questions seem to intersect:

1. Does this collision help think traditions of revolution and revolt as stretching back into the (pre-industrial) past, and stretching forward into our own (post-industrial) present and its future?

2. Might popular culture (in spite of its highly Spectacularised and ideological nature) harbour cultural memories of such traditions, and are there resources in it for (future) popular movements?

3. What would kung fu films have to add to our thinking of the questions of revolutionary – or for that matter imperialist/capitalist/authoritarian/etc. – violence? (such questions of the ethical and practical nature of violence in revolt have been very much in the air in left-wing circles of late, for example in the writings of Badiou or Zizek; such debates seem to me, intuitively, to have much to do with the strange and double-edged histories of martial arts as on the one had military technologies of domination, and on the other a matter of traditional forms of popular defence and struggle...)

4. I'm also interested in the theme of work/labour, which is, of course, at the heart of Marxist analyses of capitalism and of its forms of exploitation. It's also, I think, an important and little-discussed theme in kung fu films. This is, however, probably something – like much I've said here – that remains, necessarily at this stage, at the level of suggestion rather than argument: it is something that the unfolding research of which this blog is a part will have to persuade people...