The Deathly Embrace: Orientalism and Asian American Identity

By Sheng-Mei Ma | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER THREE
Martial Metaphors and Asian America

Martial Artists

In the 1960s and 1970s, a new image of the East arose out of the tumultuous U.S. domestic and international conditions: the civil rights movement, the hippie counterculture, demonstrations, and countless assassinations, on the one hand; the escalating Vietnam War, the gradual shift of the world's economic center to the Pacific Rim (including “the four little dragons”), the attendant need for entertainment and the surge of the Asian film industry, and the opening of China in the wake of President Nixon's 1972 visit, on the other. Within such a volatile milieu, something in an ordinary martial arts practitioner, Bruce Lee, clicked with the times, catapulting him to international fame. Lee came to symbolize the spirit of combativeness, simultaneously appealing to the Asian, Asian American, American, and perhaps world audience. These various groups of viewers read in Lee expressions of their own desires and anxieties. Lee, simply put, crystallized the phenomenon of the martialization of cultures, cultures in conflict with one another or with themselves.

Although kung fu has always been part of the Asian tradition, the current martialization of America seems so widespread that it does not require much astuteness to discern. In any medium-sized town across the United States, it is almost certain that one could find at least one martial arts school (do-kuan or dojo) for adults and children. The clientele for these schools are principally Americans rather than Asians. Martial arts has been Americanized and internationalized, now a part of human activities. Beyond the physical existence of such do-kuan, U.S.

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