Kung fu gives Africans their kicks

Author: Editors Desk Source: The Economist
June 14, 2024 at 06:42
Photograph: Imago
Photograph: Imago

A rare soft-power export from China is spreading across the continent

Master mfaume, who heads the biggest kung fu temple in Tanzania, has become a social-media pin-up, with short films of himself and his students showing off their lightning moves. TikTok videos that display them whizzing along walls or fighting bullies in the suburbs of Dar es Salaam, the country’s biggest city, have won 184,000 likes. Master Mfaume says more and more Tanzanians want to study the sport. “People are starting to learn kung fu eagerly—and the number of students is going up a lot.”

Kung fu was brought to Africa in the 1970s by a shadowy Taiwanese figure known as Mr Ming. He popularised Bruce Lee’s martial arts, screening films in shabby township cinemas in South Africa, where audiences loved his message of opposition to white supremacy, cheering as he smashed a sign by a park in Shanghai that read “No Dogs and Chinese Allowed”.

Audiences and film-makers across the continent have since been turning kung fu into an African film genre. Nollywood has churned out many a low-budget kung fu title. Mayor Uguseba, also known as Mr Fantastic, a Nigerian who produced, directed and acted in “A Very Kung Fu Nollywood Movie: The Revenge of Sobei”, said he made the entire film for less than 50,000 naira ($34).

In a survey published in 2017 of Cameroonian cinephiles, 79% said they were interested in kung fu and 85% said films had drawn them to the sport. Kung fu clubs are opening across the continent, from Cape Town’s Shaolin Kung Fu Institute of South Africa to the Ten Tigers of Nile Chinese Wushu Kung-fu Training Club in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Zambia recently hosted the first African Shaolin Kung Fu Games, with more than 150 fighters from 23 countries. And last November 107 fighters from Africa signed up for the World Wushu Championship in Texas, but few were granted visas.

Whereas South Korea has exported its pop culture to Africa, China has struggled to turn hard power into soft. But kung fu’s rise in Africa marks a rare victory for China on the sporting-cum-cultural front. 

Sign up to the Analysing Africa, a weekly newsletter that keeps you in the loop about the world’s youngest—and least understood—continent.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “The fun fight club”

You did not use the site, Click here to remain logged. Timeout: 60 second