For thousands of years, Chinese martial arts have played a role in China. There are many different kinds of martial arts in China. Some of them include Kung Fu, Aikido, and Tai Chi, among a wide range of others. Many practitioners, especially today, choose mixed martial arts, where multiple different forms of Chinese martial arts are practiced. Although martial arts in contemporary China are not playing as significant of a role as they have in other periods in history, their influence is growing. In particular, competitive martial arts is becoming increasingly popular, and those in the sports industry are looking for more ways to overcome the challenges they face. Chinese martial arts is also serving to define masculinity within particular Chinese subcultures. Finally, martial arts is also becoming a subject of interest in the field of health in China, as common Chinese people practice martial arts for exercise, and as scientists explore the potential health benefits of martial arts practice.
Over the past two decades, mixed martial arts has had a growing cultural influence in China. Because of communist rule, the practice of martial arts had become less popular, but as governmental restrictions started to be reduced, there was an opportunity for martial arts culture to be revived contemporary China. Ironically, it was actually a Chinese-American, a man named Andy, who, in 1999, first set out to revive the Chinese martial arts competitions that had once been so prevalent during the Song Dynasty. Initially, it was a challenge for the budding industry to gain a foothold in the culture, because in the Chinese historical memory, martial arts is associated with violence and cruelty. However, once it became clear that the practice is highly secure for all participants, competitive mixed martial arts was able to start gaining ground throughout the country.
In 2002, the first mixed martial arts club, named “E Tong Legion,” was established in Beijing for the training of both amateurs and professionals. Since then, many mixed martial arts clubs have popped up all over the country, giving individuals of all ages and classes the opportunity to participate. The government has also gotten involved, building specialized training facilities to educate mixed martial arts referees. This serves as a demonstration that Chinese martial arts is affecting contemporary China as a growing amateur and professional competitive sport.
However, it is important to note that the growth of mixed martial arts as a competitive sport in China continues to suffer from setbacks. For example, organizers have struggled with the marketing of competitions, so it has been difficult to obtain the profits necessary to sustain mixed martial arts as a viable competitive sport, and to provide adequate financial support for professional practitioners in China who wish to pursue mixed martial arts competition as their full-time job. Moreover, these athletes are few and far between, so no “sports stars” in the field of mixed martial arts have risen to prominence within Chinese society. Therefore, although it is true that competitive mixed martial arts is having a growing influence in contemporary Chinese society, it is likely that other, more established sports will continue to overshadow it in the near future.
One proposed technique for reviving martial arts culture in China has been to teach martial arts to adolescents in schools. Because of the loss of prominence of martial arts, the social standing of the martial arts instructor has declined, but one researcher, Xiobin Xu, argues that including martial arts classes alongside traditional academic courses in Chinese schools will lead to greater respect for martial arts instructors among adolescents, and will also increase the degree of popularity of martial arts within Chinese culture. Because young students tend to favor the less technical forms of Chinese martial arts, such as Changquan and Taijiquan, it is likely that they will dominate if Chinese martial arts starts to gain a greater foothold in contemporary Chinese culture.
Despite the fact that martial arts has yet to regain widespread prominence in China, it is important to note that, among those who do practice it, it serves as a symbol of masculinity, particularly in monasteries and specialized martial arts schools for young boys. For example, at the Shaolin Monastery in 2007, which is particularly well-known for monks who engage in martial arts, the monks developed a new martial arts practice called Tiedang Gong. This practice is specifically intended to keep male genitals hard, with the goal of improving sexual agility and providing protection. Additionally, an anthropologist described the way that boys in the Shaolin martial arts schools have used tools of martial masculinity – including the cultivation of a “tough” persona and regular displays of violence – in order to carve out a niche for themselves within the social hierarchy, which is previously dominated by boys who perform well in the classroom. This study serves as a demonstration of how, at least in martial arts schools, Chinese martial arts has affected contemporary Chinese society by changing perceptions of masculinity and assumptions about a young boy’s potential for future success.
The final way in which Chinese martial arts are having a growing influence on contemporary Chinese culture is in the field of health. Most significantly, more Chinese citizens than ever are taking up martial arts practices, especially Tai Chi, to get in better physical shape and improve their mental health. For many people in contemporary China, the practice has assumed a position similar to that of jogging, because it has aerobic benefits. As the awareness of the importance of physical exercise grows in China, martial arts practices will have a positive effect on the society as a whole, since physical exercise can support overall health and well-being.
Martial arts is also becoming an increasingly popular topic of study within the scientific community in contemporary China. For example, recent studies have probed the relationships between the practice of Tai Chi and positive health outcomes for mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. There have also been studies on other types of neurological disorders and conditions, like stroke and Parkinson’s disease. While it is important to note that most of the results so far have been inconclusive, the fact that scientists are undertaking these kinds of studies in contemporary China serves as an indicator of the growing cultural perception that martial arts can have important health benefits, especially on the brains of those who practice.
Overall, martial arts is not currently playing a major role in contemporary Chinese society. However, its influence is growing. There are currently efforts to revive mixed martial arts competition and to generally increase respect for the practice and practitioners by providing martial arts programs at state-funded schools. In the schools and monasteries where martial artshas taken hold, it serves as a symbol of masculinity. Among average people, it is commonly viewed as a good way for people to get in shape. For scientists, martial arts could be a better way to support mental health. Therefore, going forward, it will be interesting to see how Chinese martial arts will affect contemporary Chinese society in the future.
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