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Kung Fu Gains Popularity in Africa

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Erin Brewer

Jun 15, 2024

Master mfaume, who heads the biggest kung fu temple in Tanzania

A rare soft-power export from China is spreading across the African continent, capturing the imagination of many. Master Mfaume, who heads the largest kung fu temple in Tanzania, has become a social-media sensation. His short films, featuring himself and his students demonstrating their lightning-fast moves, have garnered 184,000 likes on TikTok. These videos, which showcase them scaling walls and confronting bullies in the suburbs of Dar es Salaam, highlight a growing interest in the sport. "People are starting to learn kung fu eagerly—and the number of students is going up a lot," says Master Mfaume.

The introduction of kung fu to Africa dates back to the 1970s, credited to a mysterious Taiwanese figure known as Mr. Ming. He popularized Bruce Lee’s martial arts by screening films in rundown township cinemas in South Africa. These films, which conveyed a powerful message against white supremacy, resonated deeply with audiences who cheered as Lee's character smashed a sign in Shanghai that read “No Dogs and Chinese Allowed.”

Since then, both audiences and filmmakers across the continent have embraced kung fu, transforming it into a unique African film genre. Nollywood, Nigeria’s prolific film industry, has produced numerous low-budget kung fu movies. Mayor Uguseba, also known as Mr. Fantastic, is a notable figure in this genre. He produced, directed, and acted in “A Very Kung Fu Nollywood Movie: The Revenge of Sobei,” which he created for less than 50,000 naira ($34).

In a 2017 survey of Cameroonian cinephiles, 79% expressed an interest in kung fu, and 85% said that films had drawn them to the sport. This growing fascination has led to the establishment of kung fu clubs across Africa, from the Shaolin Kung Fu Institute in Cape Town to the Ten Tigers of Nile Chinese Wushu Kung-fu Training Club in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Zambia recently hosted the first African Shaolin Kung Fu Games, attracting more than 150 fighters from 23 countries. Additionally, last November, 107 African fighters signed up for the World Wushu Championship in Texas, although few were granted visas.

While South Korea has successfully exported its pop culture to Africa, China has faced challenges in converting its hard power into soft power. However, the rise of kung fu in Africa signifies a cultural victory for China, showcasing its influence on the sporting and cultural front.

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