Carnival of the drunken master: the politics of the Kung Fu comedic body

White, Luke ORCID logoORCID: (2018) Carnival of the drunken master: the politics of the Kung Fu comedic body. In: The Martial Arts Studies Reader. Bowman, Paul, ed. Martial Arts Studies . Rowman and Littlefield, London, pp. 199-212. ISBN 9781786605498. [Book Section]


The shift from the primarily heroic kungfu films of the early 1970s to the kungfu comedies of the end of the decade (typified by the ‘Drunken Master’ cycle that launched the careers of Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-ping) has often been understood as marking a depoliticisation of the genre (Chan, 1980; Hunt, 2003). To refute such readings, I read Hong Kong kungfu comedy through the changing motif of the body, in relation to wider twentieth-century histories of physical culture in greater China.

The heroic kungfu body continues nationalist narratives of identity, promulgated in the fitness movements of the Nationalist and Communist periods, which saw the individual’s health and strength as an instrument for the construction of a competitive body politic, a viable modern state, and the means to resist foreign imperialism. Conversely, emerging at a moment when Hong Kong identity was becoming increasingly ambivalent towards the Chinese mainland, the comedic kungfu body – carnivalesque, materialist and disordered in contrast to the idealism of the sculpted, muscular nationalist body – is significant precisely in its refusal of nationalist narratives, offering a different image of the “popular” body, moving beyond the nation-state as an object of identification (or even what Teo terms “abstract nationalism”) – and addressing instead what Petrus Liu might call “stateless subjects.”

I propose, that far from a depoliticisation, this marks a shift in the ground of the politics of representation away from the modes most familiar to cultural analysis (as articulated in film studies and martial arts history alike). I read the kungfu comedic body, through Bakhtin’s ‘grotesque realism’ and DaMatta’s colonial carnival, as offering alternative means through which experiences of (post-)coloniality, diaspora and rapidly globalising capitalism, as experienced in a rapidly transforming Hong Kong, are registered and contested.

This essay is part of a "reader" defining the breadth of the relatively new interdisciplinary field of "Martial Arts Studies", "bringing together pioneers of the field and scholars at its cutting edges to offer authoritative and accessible insights into its key concerns and areas."

Item Type: Book Section
Keywords (uncontrolled): kung fu, martial arts, Hong Kong cinema, action cinema, comedy films, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo Ping, carnival, carnivalesque, Bakhtin, grotesque body, national identity, ethnic identity, diaspora, postcolonial theory,
Research Areas: A. > School of Art and Design > Visual Arts
A. > School of Art and Design > Visual Arts > Diasporas
A. > School of Art and Design > Visual Arts > Visual Culture and Curating cluster
Item ID: 24690
Useful Links:
Depositing User: Luke White
Date Deposited: 18 Jul 2018 15:06
Last Modified: 28 Mar 2022 10:33

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