Regrets As many readers will already know, Master Hawkins Cheung Hok Jin passed away on Sunday February 3rd 2019, in Los Angeles. Within the martial arts community regrets take many forms. One of my great regrets is that I… Continue Reading →
At the moment I am working on a guest editorial project examining Afro-Caribbean and New World martial arts. It will pose a number of interesting questions and I hope to discuss some of these practices in greater depth. Unfortunately, the issues’ deadlines have turned out to be a bit tighter that we first thought, and it is monopolizing quite a bit of my time for the next few days.
Nevertheless, I recently came across a fascinating newspaper article that I wanted to share with the readers of Kung Fu Tea. My discussion of this piece must be brief, but the article’s contents are interesting enough that it can stand on its own.
Still, just a bit of framing may be helpful. Almost every national-level discussion of the Jingwu Association within the historical literature on the Chinese martial arts ends rather abruptly with the bankruptcy of its founding members in 1924. Authors like Morris and Kennedy note, quite correctly, that the organization ceased to play a central role in the promotion of the Chinese martial arts at that point. The Jingwu brand is often assumed to have been broken and, in any case, the stage has already been set for the emergence of the Guoshu movement with the completion of the KMT’s Northern Campaign.
Again, this is all correct so far as it goes. Yet it also seems that most readers go on to assume that Jingwu simply vanished after this point and ceased to be any sort of force within the Chinese martial arts. That was most certainly not the case. To say that a group no longer (and almost single handedly) set the agenda for the reform of the Chinese martial arts is not the same as saying it ceased to play any role in that struggle.
While Jingwu’s founders and national structure took a punishing financial hit in 1924, many of its individual branches continued normal operations, and even made headlines with important events, right up until the eve of WWII. In The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts, Jon Nielson and I provide an extensive discussion of the later history of the Jingwu Association in both Foshan and Guangzhou, two cities where it continued to have a major impact on the martial landscape. Andrew Morris has also noted that the group continued to exhibit quite a bit of social clout in various South East Asian communities up until the present time.
The following article, first published in The China Press in August of 1928, reminds us that Jingwu also continued to function as an important force in Shanghai. Indeed, a month before the Central Guoshu Institute’s now famous first national martial arts exhibition, the Jingwu Association was commemorating an anniversary of its own in front of an assembled crowd of over a thousand guests.
While press accounts of Jingwu demonstrations are not uncommon, this one is interesting as it reviews the sorts of political, social and cultural presentations that framed the martial arts exhibits in great detail. It seems that even in 1928 the Association was presenting a face designed to appeal to an educated and upwardly mobile middle class. This particular account is also interesting in that it lays out so many names for future investigation.
Beyond that, I was struck by the unnamed reporter’s frequent use of the term “sword playing” in an apparent description of taolu. Many press accounts from the period refer to these solo-forms simply as “sword dancing” or “gymnastics.” However, the English language vocabulary used to describe Chinese martial arts practice was far from standardized in the 1920s, and tends to shift from one newspaper to the next. We can now add “sword playing” to the ever-growing list of key words to be used when conducting electronic searches.
Still, for all of the pretense at educational theory and middle-class respectability, it is important to note that The China Press continued report all of this as an athletic event, rather than as cultural or political gathering. In fact, it was placed directly besides an item of boxing news titled “British Lightweight, Jack Berg, Defeated by ‘Fargo Express.’” Even after its ostensible fall, the Jingwu Association was still being invoked in the local press as a uniquely Chinese answer to Western athletics and physical culture.
Physical Exhibition Held Last Night by Chinese Athletes
Speeches, Chinese gymnastics consisting of wrestling, boxing, fencing, sword playing, dances and Chinese music were featured [in] the 33rd physical exhibition of the Chin Woo Athletic Association which was successfully held last night at the Central Hall, North Szechuen, with more than a thousand guests in attendance. The Association was established 19 years ago, and is one of the oldest athletic associations in existence, whose main object is to promote the art of Chinese boxing. The exhibition is arranged to be held monthly and last nights was the most brilliant carried out.
The program began with the reading of the monthly report of the Association by Dr. Jackson Cheng, the Chairman of the Association, and was followed with a short speech by Mr. C. N. Shen, who is famous in educational circles. His speech mainly deals with the question of how to promote education in China, the service of the Association to the public in [the] athletic world being greatly praised and urged. After a concert which was appreciated by all, gymnastic exercises consisting of boxing, fencing, [and] sword playing were exhibited.
Mr. Woo Chien-chuan, of boxing fame displayed a classic in boxing to the delight of the audience. A number of guests, who are experts in the art, were also invited to play Mr. K. C. Chee’s sword-playing, Mr. V. M. Chen’s boxing, and Mr. Yeh’s sword-playing, [and] a duel were most favorably appreciated by the audience.
Boxing and sword-playing were also exhibited by girl members whose efficiency in the art surpasses all present.
The program was then concluded with a musical program.
“Physical Exhibition Held Last Night by Chinese Athletes.” The China Press. Aug. 26, 1928. p. A2
Antagonists seem to be the critical ingredient that make the martial arts possible. Yet to understand why that is the case we need to start by unpacking a few things. An immense range of activities fall within the category that we term “martial arts,” so much so that simply defining the term is much more challenging than one might expect. Still, all of these activities are essentially social pursuits. The martial arts are really more about the pedagogy and the discussion of violence than its actual performance. Indeed, the quality of some isolated hermit’s technique cannot make them a martial artist. At a bare minimum they must be willing to pass that skill along, or perform it for others, before the label really applies.
This raises a few obvious questions. Why should one desire to be a in a community that practices or passes on these skills? What is the ultimate utility or meaning of these techniques? Or to put the question rather crassly, are the varied benefit of practicing a given martial art worth the time, cost and effort necessary to do so?
It should surprise no one that all sorts of martial arts have formulated their own answers to these types of questions. I sometimes think that indoctrinating students into their unique world view is just as important as the actual transmission of techniques. Indeed, it is an open question in my mind as to whether the martial arts, as a social and cultural construction, can even exist without some sort of world defining narrative.
Psychologists have noted that telling stories is one of the most basic ways in which humans understand, and attempt to interact, with our world. In fact, narrative seems to be key to how we as a species understand the process of causation in the world around us. Sadly, there is less evidence that the physical world that we seek to understand is structured in this way. Hence our theories and stories about the world, while certainly useful, always reveal some aspect of reality with one hand, as they hide certain things with the other. To tell stories is human, but it may not be the best way to understand quantum mechanics.
On the other hand, paying close attention to the stories that people tell may be absolutely critical when our goal is understanding the functions of the voluntary communities that individuals create. This is critical as not all groups, organizations or styles are attempting to do the same thing. Not all fighting styles claim to do the same work, or provide the same social and personal benefits.
Students of martial arts studies thus require a number of discursive keys capable of opening the door to a more serious and sustained comparative study of these functions. Sadly, the comparative method is not commonly seen within martial arts studies. Yet such studies might help us to understand why, at a given point in time, individuals are drawn to one martial art versus another. Or why do some types of martial practice thrive in a given social or economic setting, yet struggle in another?
Nothing is More Useful than a Bad Guy
This sort of positivist research generally begins when researchers sit down and begin to measure things. Typically, one will start with the martial artists themselves. You might collect data on their age, race or gender. Other socio-economic indicators can be gleaned through formal surveys or participant observation. One might conduct interviews, sample social media posts or examine their physical performance in public demonstrations or fights. Anything that can be observed can be quantified and fed into a statistical model of human behavior.
That is all great. Indeed, my earlier research relied quite heavily on data crunching and “large-N” analysis (granted, at the time I was more interested in the behavior of political parties and nation states than martial artists). Yet some of the things that are most useful for adding nuance to comparative analysis might, at first, be a little less obvious. For instance, when you walk into the average martial arts school, it is highly unlikely that anyone will self-identify as the resident villain. Yet such a figure is critical to understanding how the community functions.
This can often be seen in way that individuals discuss their styles. A good Kung Fu story is mostly a normatively loaded narrative about conflict which tends to identify one set of actors with positive social traits (or traits that are understood to be “good” in this situation) and another set of individuals or forces with negative ones. John Christopher Hamm has done a wonderful job of exploring the way in which the literary imaginings of these conflicts have evolved in the sorts of Wuxia fiction produced in Southern China. Late 19thcentury novels valorized the sorts of feuding between neighboring clans and villages that characterized much of Southern Chinese life. In contrast, Jin Yong’s much later novels reflected the larger scale struggle to control the “central plains” in an era when many of his readers had (like his protagonists) fled into exile.
Both folklore (the burning of the Shaolin temple by the Manchus) and film (Bruce Lee’s perpetual struggle against the markers of racial injustice and imperialism), offer a wide range of antagonists for our consideration. Indeed, film studies scholars are correct in noting that the sorts of villains that films present, from the fear of brainwashing in the Cold War to the distrust of social and political institutions in the wake of Vietnam, can tell us a good deal about a society’s values and preoccupations.
Comparing the sorts of villains that appear in two different genera of martial arts films (say, the current run of John Wick stories, and Hong Kong Wuxia films of the 1960s) would doubtless be an informative, rewarding and enjoyable exercise. A scaled down version of this might even make a great blog post. Yet ultimately these films are meant to appeal to a general audience. While they are certainly watched by some martial artists, they are primarily reflective of larger social trends.
Again, what would be most interesting would be the comparative case study. How do the smaller scale narratives produced within the martial arts community, for its own exclusive consumption, reflect or contradict these larger sets of social anxieties? Again, this is where we in martial arts studies might leverage our villains to collect some valuable insights about the varieties of social work performed by different types of martial arts communities. After all, I am not sure that there is any reason to expect that the stories told in an MMA gym and the children’s Taekwondo gym across the street would share the same sorts of oppositional figures.
Construction the Loyal Opposition
In purely methodological terms, how might we identify the sources of rhetorical opposition within a given community? This process will vary depending on a variety of factors, but let us begin by considering something fairly familiar, the Wing Chun community. What becomes immediately apparent is that there are actually many different sorts of overlapping villains whose image and memory students are forced to struggle with. So let’s start at the beginning.
Every webpage, how-to book and introductory seminar seems to involve some variant of the Wing Chun creation myth which typically revolves around two key antagonists. First, one must come to terms with the Manchu government which burned the Shaolin Temple, representing a sort of structural, almost metaphysical, evil. Then there is the question of the marketplace bully whom Yim Wing Chun must fight to preserve her marriage prospects.
Interpreting these stories in an early 20thcentury Cantonese context is not difficult. The first narrative evokes nationalist themes with the Manchu’s being a stand-in for various other foreign oppressors who are seen as being responsible for the chaos of the Republic period (in practice this was mostly the Japanese and the British). Meanwhile, the story of the marketplace bully is both a cautionary tale about misdirected internal opposition within the realm of Rivers and Lakes, and an object lesson in the strategic principals that will allow the Wing Chun student to overcome China’s international and structural opponents.
Deciding what it all means when these stories are translated into a Western cultural context, one in which we are not worried about Japanese imperialism in Shanghai and the Manchus have no particular cultural significance, is a much more difficult task. Given the frequency with which these stories are repeated, they must mean something to the global population of Wing Chun students. They certainly seem to serve as shared signifiers of the cultural authenticity of one’s projects. Yet a variety of listeners have projected feminist interpretations onto Yim Wing Chun’s narrative, or concocted political readings of the conflict with the Qing, which would probably have greatly surprised Kung Fu students in the Pearl River Delta during the 1920s. One does not need to be a critical theorist to acknowledge that most texts can be interpreted in a varity of different ways.
While these stories are perhaps the most widely told within the Wing Chun community, they are not the only ones that are potentially revealing for the martial arts studies researcher. We might, for instance, decide to conduct personal interviews. I will never forget a conversation that I once had with two of my Wing Chun students, both old school karate guys who were a good deal older than me. Somehow the discussion turned towards the ways that casual social violence (things like barfights) had changed and largely disappeared from America’s public spaces after the 1980s.
Both of these individuals were from a large rustbelt city, and both began to reminisce fondly on the frequent bar fights that they used to get into. They immediately told a number of stories about how martial arts students from “their neighborhood” would get into fights with African American martial artists from a couple of other local schools. As the stories progressed it became clear that these were actually narratives about attempting to control a changing neighborhood recast as stereotypical martial arts tales. It became increasingly clear that when these gentlemen training in either kung fu or karate they were remembering a very specific set of opponents from their youth. Accepting this fact is critical to understanding the very specific social functions that these fighting systems served in a number of American cities during the 1970s and 1980s.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about these conversations was how upfront the two gentlemen were about the sorts of violence that they had perpetrated and also feared. It was an eye-opening experience for someone who was still relatively new to the field of martial arts studies. But in thinking about the incident it occurred to me that there are many less obvious ways in which these sorts of tales are told.
The classic “how to” books and articles which sustained the martial arts publishing industry for decades are interesting in that they contained all sorts of visual reenactments of imagined violence. Often the two fighters are randomly selected students dressed in the same school uniforms. But in a number of other cases greater budgets or imaginations allowed for a more direct visual construction of the imagined villain. Turn of the century photographs depicting the gentlemanly art of Bartitisu displayed a clear sense of class anxiety by so often portraying attackers as stereotypic muggers, mashers and tramps. On the other hand, German literature on Wing Chun in the 1970s and 1980s often took as its “loyal opposition” students of the other Asian martial arts (e.g., Karate or Taekwondo). The anxiety it responded to was not random street crime (or growing income inequality). Rather, the concern was to demonstrate that in a battle between skilled opponents (both of whom would show up wearing the proper uniforms), your arsenal of skills of would prevail.
When thinking of the social conditions that generated these two cases, it is probably significant that the first style persistently pictured its attackers as socio-economic “others,” while the second system constructed a discursive system around a more recreational model of self-defense training. This was a world in which the fundamentally similar martial artists who inhabited a rather crowded marketplace might fight for honor. Or barring that, certain sorts of magazine illustrations might help to reinforce one’s belief that their time and money had been invested in the proper sort of martial arts school.
Conclusion: The Embodied Fear
All of this is helpful, and it makes more of an art’s underlying narrative visible to the researcher. Indeed, the subconscious inflections and biases which emerge out of magazines, postcards, webpages and social media videos may be more helpful to researchers precisely because they are not interviews. The fact that we are so often unaware of how we subtly frame these more technical stories means that the resulting process may more accurately reflect the sort of work that we are actually expecting a given martial art to do.
Still, there is another level of storytelling that occurs within every martial arts system. It lays even deeper than the popular media, creation myths, or ephemera. It is expressed within the realm of embodied technique itself.
While the human body is always the same, there seems to be no end to the variety of fighting systems that surround us. This variety is the result of many factors. At the most basic level not all martial arts have the same goal. Some Chinese arts are systems of individuals self-defense (Wing Chun) while others may have been developed with an eye toward coordinated small unit military combat (the pole work of General Yu Dayou’s Sword Classic comes to mind.) Sometimes the goal of a public performance is victory in a highly competitive combat sport, while in other cases a practitioner might seek to entertain guests at a wedding or festival.
Yet even these large scale distinctions cannot explain all of the variations in the styles and approaches to combat that we see. Systems with similar goals might still have different sets of assumptions about how a fight is likely to proceed, and what sorts of skill are most important. Indeed, I am often struck by the fact that on an abstract level so many southern Chinese martial arts share a wide range of techniques. Yet they differ markedly in terms of their pedagogy and strategic assumptions. Taken as a whole, this embodied knowledge also reveals a narrative with its own set of villain(s) which may be quite useful to the practitioner.
Consider the question of grappling within Wing Chun. It is untrue that traditional Wing Chun has no grabs, locks and throws. Indeed, I was even trained in a minimal amount of ground work. But rather than attempting to wrestle and submit my opponent almost all of this was directed towards disentangling myself and being able to get back on my feet as quickly as possible. Indeed, much of the short range fighting in Wing Chun (including the afore mentioned locks and throws) seem focused on maintaining one’s ability to continue to strike and move once someone has attempted to grab you.
All of this reflects a single tactical preoccupation within the Wing Chun system. It is extremely concerned with the likely presence of multiple attackers. In these sorts of situations, one could very easily win a battle on the ground, yet lose the war. In thinking about the history of the art, it is not difficult to understand where this preoccupation came from. As a plain-clothes detective in Foshan, Ip Man was likely involved in the arrest of both violent criminal and suspected communists. During the final years of the Chinese civil war, this later group of individuals were typically tortured and killed at the end of the interrogation process. The Communist Party did not let these murders go unanswered. Its agents also put together teams that snatched various enemies of the party and treated them in broadly similar ways. In short, when Ip Man was informed that he had been added to a Communist hitlist in 1949 he probably wouldn’t have had any reason to doubt the assertion. This was a reality that all of Guangdong’s police and intelligence officers were quite familiar with.
Why then is Ip Man’s Wing Chun so focused on the possibility of multiple attacker scenarios? I would humbly suggest that the answer might be that the thing which he (and an entire generation of other practitioners) most feared was being abducted by a hit squad comprised of three to four highly trained individuals driving a Packard. Avoiding being grabbed and thrown into said Packard was the key to not being tortured to death in the back room of a safehouse somewhere in Guangzhou.
Granted, this is a very specific, historically bounded, fear. It is interesting to speculate as to whether Leung Jan’s Wing Chun had the same tactical emphasis on multiple attackers. If it did, perhaps he might have been more interested in the sorts of small unit fighting that period militia members were expected to train for, rather than the world of law enforcement and politically motivated killings that had colonized Ip Man’s imagination by 1949.
It is interesting to me how many of these half-forgotten tactical doctrines remain embodied in a wide range of martial arts. But as we think about the layers of antagonists that each system presents, in its media representations, in its oral folklore, and even in its bodily habits, we may become more conscious of these villains. Better understanding this imagined opposition can help us to not only understand what these systems were in the past, but to make more informed choices about how we interact with them, and what they might still become in the future.
If you enjoyed this reflection on villainy you might also want to read: Martial Values, Social Transformation and the Tu Village Dragon Dance
Chinese Martial Arts in the News: January 20th 2019: Jingwu, Chinese Armor and Liberating the Nunchuck
Its been over a month since our last news update, which means that there is no better time to get caught up on recent events! For new readers, this is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea in which we review media stories that mention or affect the traditional fighting arts. In addition to discussing important events, this column also considers how the Asian hand combat systems are portrayed in the mainstream media.
While we try to summarize the major stories over the last month, there is always a chance that we may have missed something. If you are aware of an important news event relating to the TCMA, drop a link in the comments section below. If you know of a developing story that should be covered in the future feel free to send me an email.
Its been way too long since our last update so let’s get to the news!
News From All Over
True story. While hanging out with with the guys at my university martial arts club in Japan, it was a constant point of fascination that while I was allowed to own all manner of firearms (most which were strictly prohibited in Japan), several traditional Japanese martial arts weapons, including nunchucks, were illegal where I lived. Being a resident of New York State (and not a student of traditional karate), I have never actually owned a set of nunchucks. But maybe its finally time for that to change!
A federal court recently struck down the state’s ban on these weapons as unconstitutional and declared them to be covered under the Second Amendment. Various news outlets have reported on how this ruling came about, but I liked the coverage over at Bloody Elbow.
Last month Judge Pamela K. Chen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ruled that New Yorkers have a constitutional right to own nunchucks. The ruling comes after James A. Maloney, a lawyer and nunchucks enthusiast, launched a complaint over the state’s 40-year ban on the traditional martial arts weapon in 2003.
According to The New York Times New York decided to criminalize nunchucks in 1974 while the “United States was in the middle of a kung fu fever” inspired by martial arts movies.
At some point I am probably going to write a blog post on all of this. Obviously the weapon came to be strongly associated with Bruce Lee, and I feel that its subsequent ban reveals a darker side to the “Kung Fu Fever” of the 1970s. More specifically, news reports of the era were quick to point out that African-American and Hispanic youth joined various martial arts groups in huge numbers. Given the racial, social and political subtexts of Bruce Lee’s films, the sudden popularity of hand combat systems among young men of color made many authority figures uneasy. Everyone from school teachers to politicians had something to say about his phenomenon. The ban on these weapons makes more sense (historically speaking) when viewed through a racial and generational lens. But I need to read and think a little more about this before jumping into a more detailed discussion of that episode. In the mean time, I should probably just decide what type of nunchuck needs to be added to my collection. I have certainly seen some interesting flails in old Chinese photographs….
One place that you are unlikely to ever run across a set of nunchucks is in a Wing Chun class. But that is ok as, according to this review in the South China Morning Post, Wing Chun offers many benefits to the perpetually stressed, always on the go, young professional. Basically, “mindfulness practice” is key to not getting hit in the face.
That brings us to one of the most interesting aspects of this article. The author finds it necessary to provide a “trigger warning” and lets readers know that there is a lot of two-person drilling in Wing Chun, so if you decide to go to a class you need to be ok having a certain amount of physical contact with strangers. If this bothers you, then “you should bring a friend.”
I began to wonder whether the author might actually have been more comfortable in a class on the Taijiquan solo forms as I read this article. Indeed, I felt as though she was attempting to push Wing Chun in that direction as I contemplated her first impressions of the practice. This is a valuable reminder of the gap that often exists between hardcore martial arts enthusiasts and the new students who we are always trying to attract to our schools. While so many of us are looking for greater levels of “realism” (e.g., bodily conflict) in our training and sparring, its well worth remembering that these sorts of aspirations don’t fit within a large segment of the population’s mental map of the martial arts. They are dealing with a very different set of “discomfort thresholds.”
Personally, I would be much more concerned if my martial arts class involved “incidental contact” with any sort bovine, rather than a human training partner. Chinese bullfighting, which leapt into the popular press during the autumn of 2018, is still managing to keep itself in the news. This recent story in NPR is of interest as it includes some discussion of how bullfighters (wrestlers?) are trained and the competitive structure of their shows All of this explained by the performers themselves with invocations of “the explosive power of hard qi gong” and meditations on Chinese masculinity.
A theoretical lens for approaching the recent bullfighting phenomenon might be found in the scholarly literature on public spectacles. I suspect that it could also provide a certain amount of analytical purchase on our next story as well. The Fox Sports desk has been running a number of martial arts features recently. Their most recent offering is modestly titled the “5 most unbelievable Chinese martial arts techniques of all time.“
The article itself is basically background commentary on video clips featuring five distinct styles. They portray a range of both traditional and more modern practices. I don’t think a long-time student of the Chinese martial arts is going to learn anything new here, but the clips might be useful as an illustration of the sorts of material that the general public finds interesting.
One of the more important articles in this news roundup, titled “Honoring ancestors in old boxing tradition,” was published at Shine.com (the Shanghai Times). It profiles Huo Jinghong, the great-great granddaughter of Huo Yuanjia (1868-1910) and the “inheritor” of his lianshouquan style. What makes it so interesting is that the further you read, the more complicated all of this becomes. Like all Chinese, university level, martial arts coaches, Huo’s background (and first love) is actually the performative disciplines of modern Wushu. Her family never taught her Huo Tuanjia’s lianshouquan (or any other traditional art) as they had stopped practicing it during the Cultural Revolution (and possibly before). In actual fact, she seems to be researching and reconstructing the style as much as anything else.
Yet the popular discourse around her efforts insists on emphasizing her genetic relatedness to Huo Yuanjia and concepts such as transmission and inheritance. Much of her efforts in this area also appears to be rooted in (or at least inspired by) a couple of big government backed projects to promote Huo Yuanjia’s memory (and the historic Jingwu movement more broadly) for political and economic purposes. In reading this article I felt like I had come across a short case study in how these sorts of public diplomacy and economic development projects take root in, and eventually restructure, the identities and practices of various individuals.
Her enduring connection with celebrated ancestor Huo Yuanjia restarted in late 2014, when she was asked to shoot a video to display lianshouquan. It was actually the first time that she learned the routine of the ancient boxing art.
“Lianshouquan had long been forgotten in the family,” she said. “My father learned a bit when he was a child but was stopped by my grandfather Huo Yating.”
Huo Yating’s decision was aimed at protecting the family during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76). His father, Huo Dongge (1895-1956), the second son of Huo Yuanjia and the major inheritor of the boxing art form, moved to Southeast Asia in the 1920s and never came back. Such an “overseas connection” could have spelled disaster for the entire family during the “cultural revolution,” so the family kept a low profile away from martial arts.
To really understand Huo Jinghong’s profile, it should probably be read in the context of another article (also published in Shine.com) titled “Martial arts fans mark Chin Woo master’s 150th birthday in Shanghai.” While much more general in nature, it suggests something about the scope of the efforts to promote the city (and tourism) through this aspect of its martial history.
A thousand martial arts lovers practiced traditional Chin Woo boxing in Hongkou District on Saturday to commemorate the 150th birthday of Huo Yuanjia who founded the Chin Woo Athletic Association in Hongkou in 1909.
The martial artists from both home and abroad practiced the mizong boxing at the North Bund waterfront along the Huangpu River. The martial art style is what has made Huo famous ever since the early 1900s.
The event aims to promote China’s traditional martial arts culture and highlight the spirits of the Chin Woo association such as patriotism, self-cultivation, justice and readiness to help, according to the Shanghai Chin Woo Athletic Federation, the organizer of the event.
Our next article is also worth taking some time with. It is not an exploration of the traditional martial arts so much as an extended investigation into the emergence of armored fighting (both in the context of competitive events and historical reenactment), in China. This reporting brings up all sorts of questions about identity and the current direction(s) of Chinese nationalism. Its worth noting that the larger social movement that these practices seem to be most closely discursively related to is not the martial arts per se, but rather the hanfu traditional clothing movement. Again, it may be time to brush up on the scholarly literature on public spectacle in identity construction and community formation.
Incidentally, the Chinese government is not always enthusiastic about people putting on home made armor and bashing each other with swords and maces in public places. That is just hard to imagine…
Here is the money quote:
It’s entertaining — even comedic at times — but for Gao, bringing China’s martial past to life through real armor, combat, and historical re-enactment is a serious matter. “Only if you understand this can you understand how you came to be — how your own nation, your own people, made it to the present day,” he tells Sixth Tone in December from a Shanghai café, a stone’s throw from the video game studio where he works as an animator.
As always, the South China Morning Post has had some things to say about the martial arts. Perhaps the most articulate piece was this editorial defending Xu Xiaodong’s right to make a living through fighting. Apparently he has been criticized in Chinese social media for not just harming the reputation of traditional culture, but for being paid by fight organizers (who have started to offer huge purses to anyone who might be able to defeat Xu). Indeed, everyone involved with these bouts appears to be paid. But the recent rhetoric echoes the traditional criticism of those who would “sell their kung fu.” All of that seems pretty unfair to the SCMP’s columnist who notes that professional MMA fighters have a right to make a living. Still, he does implicitly criticize Xu for only accepting challenges from individuals who are obviously inferior opponents.
But that might be about to change. One of Xu’s upcoming challengers (an appropriately fake Shaolin monk), is an experienced fighter in the ring and might provide a more interesting contest while allowing Xu to continue his quest to debunk the “frauds” of the traditional Chinese martial arts community.
The next article is for those who prefer their “reality fighting” to happen on the street rather than in a ring. It is an account of two Chinese martial artists who get the better of three Russian thieves attempting to snatch a bag from a Chinese tourist. The moral of this story appears to be that the “Chinese tourist” you are threatening to pull a weapon on might just be an off-duty law enforcement officer.
How did Bruce Lee die? Newsweek seems a little late to this party, but enquiring minds never seem to tire of this debate. The magazine’s webpage published an article summarizing the major theories that have arisen over the years, including some of the more medically sound ideas that have been proposed recently. This might be a fun read for Bruce Lee fans. Those looking for general biographical treatment can check out this recent article over at the GB Times.
Did you see Ip Man’s ten year challenge photos? I thought that was pretty clever. Apparently Donnie Yen would like to remind us that Ip Man 4 is coming soon. Incidentally, I am sure someone could turn this into a great meme. Any takers?
I thought “Henan’s Snow Covered Shaolin Temple” was a better than average photo-essay. It is more focused on architecture than Kung Fu (though there is a bit of that). Yet some of these images are striking. Worth checking out if you are a Shaolin fan and can’t get out to train because of the snow!
If you live anywhere in New York State, not being able to get out to train might be the least of your problems. Given the amount of snow that just fell, we will all be snowed in for a while. Luckily TimeOut magazine has the entertainment covered. It has just released its list of the “21 Best Kung Fu Movies Made in Hong Kong.” Given that none of us are going anywhere, we may as well grab the popcorn and boot up the streaming service of our choice. While all quality picks, I thought this list played it pretty safe. So do you see anything that is missing?
Martial Arts Studies
The spring semester is just starting and the Martial Arts Studies community is lurching back to life. As always, there is a lot to get caught up on. The latest issue of MAS, packed with original research articles and reviews, has just be released. Head on over to the Journal’s webpage to find out what is inside.
The table of contents is as follows. (Hey, look at that. A crack team of scholars wrote an article about the development of Wing Chun in Germany!):
Be sure to also check out the Martial Arts Studies YouTube channel. The presentations from this years Bruce Lee conference have just been posted, and it looks like there is some interesting stuff. Given that we recently discussed the classic article “Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate,” it might be fun to start with Lyn Jehu’s paper “Bruce Lee or Budo? Is the Mess Really that Classical?”
On the journal front, readers will be excited to learn that there is also a new issue of Revista de Artes Marciales Asiáticas (RAMA) with multiple English language articles. You can see its table of contents here.
Last but not least, Greg Downey has just uploaded his paper (with Monica Dalidowicz and Paul Mason) “Apprenticeship as method: Embodied learning in ethnographic practice.” This is a nice methods piece that will be helpful for many researchers in the field of Martial Arts Studies. You can read it at Academia.edu.
Kung Fu Tea on Facebook
A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last month. We discussed a set of antique butterfly swords, reviewed important martial arts manuals and learned that bodily techniques from the traditional Japanese martial arts could help us in daily life. Joining the Facebook group is also a great way of keeping up with everything that is happening here at Kung Fu Tea.
If its been a while since your last visit, head on over and see what you have been missing!
Issue 7 of Martial Arts Studies Now Available: Wing Chun, Collectivism and Fighting Gender Stereotypes
We are happy to announce that the seventh issue of Martial Arts Studies is now freely available. Martial Arts Studies is the premier scholarly source for interdisciplinary work on a wide variety of topics surrounding the practice, sociology, history and media representation of the modern combat sports and traditional martial arts. Published twice yearly, we are dedicated to presenting the very best research written and reviewed by leaders in the field.
This issue begins with an editorial followed by five articles and three short reviews. Judkins and Bowman start by discussing what an “open issue,” such as this, suggests about the current state of Martial Arts Studies. They note that the current issue stretches our discussion of the Asian martial arts in geographic terms, while also asking us to consider the many complex interactions between physical practice and identity formation.
In the first article, “The Creation of Wing Tsun – A German Case Study,” Swen Koerner, Mario S. Staller and Benjamin N. Judkins take a detailed look at the global spread of Wing Chun. Ip Man’s immigration to Hong Kong in 1949, followed by Bruce Lee’s sudden fame as a martial arts superstar after 1971, ensured that wing chun kung fu, a previously obscure hand combat style from Guangdong Province, would become one of the most globally popular Chinese martial arts. Yet this success has not been evenly distributed. Despite its cultural and geographic distance from Hong Kong, Germany now boasts a number of wing chun practitioners that is second only to China. Their article draws on the prior work of Judkins and Nielson , as well as on systems theory and local historical sources, to understand why this is the case.
Next, Kristin Behr and Peter Kuhn examine the “Key Factors in Career Development and Transitions in German Elite Combat Sport Athletes.” The purpose of their study was, through in-depth interviews, to systematically identify key factors that facilitate and constrain career development and career transitions. Their findings relate to difficulties and critical events in athletes’ attitudes toward their career development. They conclude that an athletic career is a highly complex, multi-layered, and individual process. Significant differences were found between statements of student-athletes and “sports soldiers” within the German system. Participation at senior competitions at an early age is required for a smooth transition to a world-class level.
The third research article, “Fighting Gender Stereotypes: Women’s Participation in the Martial Arts, Physical Feminism and Social Change“, by Maya Maor, explores the unique social conditions that make full-contact martial arts a fertile ground for gender subversive appropriation in terms of: 1. close and reciprocal bodily contact between men and women, 2. the need to learn new regimes of embodiment, and 3. the paradoxical effects of male dominance in the field. Maor describe two specific mechanisms through which subversive appropriation takes place: formation of queer identities and male embodied nurturance. While the first mechanism relies on women’s appropriation of performances of masculinity, the second relies on men’s appropriation of performances of femininity.
Veronika Partikova continues the ongoing discussion of martial arts and identity formation in her piece “Psychological Collectivism in Traditional Martial Arts.” Her paper offers a new perspective for viewing traditional martial arts in terms of psychology. It argues that ‘traditional’ martial arts offer physical skills, moral codes, rituals, roles, and hierarchical relationships which, taken together, creates the perfect environment for psychological collectivism. Psychological collectivism focuses on individuals and their abilities to accept the norms of an in-group, understand hierarchy, and feel interdependence or the common faith of the group. First, this paper introduces the theory of psychological collectivism and connects it with traditional martial arts known as wushu or kung fu. It argues that traditional Asian martial arts create situations strong enough to activate collectivistic attributes of self and suggests that practitioners’ mind-sets can be different within and outside of the training environment. This kind of collectivistic interaction may provide one explanation for how non-Asian practitioners function in such training environments and how the traditional Asian martial arts can work as psychosocial therapies.
The final research paper is contributed by Tim Trausch. “Martial Arts and Media Culture in the Information Era: Glocalization, Heterotopia, Hyperculture” is derived from the Editor’s Introduction to the collection Chinese Martial Arts and Media Culture: Global Perspectives [Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018]. This volume explores how narratives and aesthetics of the martial arts genre(s) are shaped and imbued with meaning in changing social, cultural, and media arrangements. Drawing from a range of recent media texts, this introductory chapter discusses the global circulation of signs and images of (Chinese) martial arts and their engagement with alleged national, cultural, textual, generic, and media borders. It argues that these texts reflect and (re)produce three paradigms of martial arts and media culture in the information age: glocalization, heterotopia, and hyperculture. What connects these three notions is that, rather than erase difference or establish it as something substantial and dividing, they engage with difference and otherness in inclusive and transformative ways.
The issue closes with three reviews. First, Andreas Niehaus, Leo Istas and Martin Meyer report on the “8th Conference of the German Society of Sport Science’s Committee for Martial Arts Studies.” It took as its organizing theme “Experiencing, Training and Thinking the Body in Martial Arts and Martial Sports.” Next Spencer Bennington reflects on Udo Moening’s volume, “Taekwondo: From a Martial Art to a Martial Sport.” Finally, Qays Stetkevych provides a candid review and close reading of the recently released “Martial Arts Studies Reader” [Rowman & Littlefield. 2018].
Do you still need to catch up with Issue 6 of Martial Arts Studies? If so click here.
The Unexpected Giant
Some of the essays at Kung Fu Tea are the result of several days of careful research and thinking. This is not going to be one of those pieces.
I started out with a great topic. It was my goal to explore the stochastic progress of duanbing, a type of competitive short-weapon fencing, conducted with specific safety gear, which has been on the verge of “really taking off” within the TCMA community ever since the late 1920s. As I began to assemble some articles and descriptions of the first phase of duanbing practice in the 1930s, one name just kept coming up. In fact, I ran across so many references to this individual that I just had to find out more about him.
Sadly, he has nothing to do with Chinese fencing. But Col. Voldemar Katchorovsky did make quite an impression on anyone who met him. His colorful career suggests something about the general attitudes which shaped the development of Guoshu, as well as the types of adventurous individuals, peripatetic either by choice or circumstance, who shaped the global transmission of all martial arts (both Eastern and Western) during the 19thand 20thcentury. Lastly, his career is also a valuable reminder that duanbing did not emerge in a vacuum. It was developed at a time when both Japanese Kendo and Western foil fencing were making inroads into Chinese schools and popular culture. As I (and many others) have already noted, the development of any “local” and “traditional” practice must arise in discourse with notions such as “international” and “modern.” Katchorovsky’s writings provide us with a very specific example of how these concepts entered discussions of martial and combative pursuits in China.
Who was V. A. Katchorovsky? It is difficult to say with absolute certainty. As with many martial artists, we simply do not have a complete life story. Yet a review of period newspapers reveals two competing narratives. The first was something that Katchorovsky’s inherited. Despite his enormous height (over seven feet), and unusual profession (fencing instructor), most people saw him primarily as a refugee, a former Russian military officer displaced by the Bolshevik Revolution. Indeed, quite a few Russians refugees would eventually end up in China, and they seem to feature prominently as “threatening outsiders” in many kung fu legends. Perhaps we should not be surprised that displaced individuals (many with a military backgrounds) would end up coming into contact with China’s own martial artists.
Still, Katchorovsky’s path to China was far from direct. The first mention that I can find of him comes in the form of a short article in a local paper in New South Wales, Australia. It seems that in 1924 Katchorovsky was passing through on his way to Tahiti. Yet he was viewed as such a tragic figure that an article on his visit was necessary.
Body Guard of Murdered Czar
Melbourne, Saturday. –Penniless and physically worn, after years of intense anxiety, Artillery Colonel (W)oldemar Katchorovsky, once of the first Artillery Brigade attached to the late Czar’s Imperial Russian Life Guards, arrived in Melbourne on Wednesday. He stands over seven feet one inch high.
Having been hounded out of his country by the Bolsheviks, Katchorovsky is on his way to Tahiti, where he will join another refugee, Colonel Basil Niktine. His fortune having been confiscated, he was obliged by necessity to travel steerage on the French liner Ville de Strassbourg.
Katchorovsky was one of the late Czar’s bodyguards. As a refugee in Malta with the Dowager Empress Maria Deodorovna, he learned the authentic story of the death of the Royal family.
While the Royalist Generals were organizing volunteer corps in the Caucasus and Crimea, the Czat and his family were taken prisoners to Ekaterinburg, Western Siberia. According to the Dowager Empress, his majesty was killed by the prison guard against military orders. The rest of the family, after suffering terrible humiliation, were likewise done to death.
Katchorovsky carries with him treasured photos of himself taken with members of the royal family when holidaying in Lividia Palace in the Crimea.
Northern Star(Linsmore, NSW) 16 June 1924. Page 4.
Readers should note that this piece contains no discussion to fencing, leading me to wonder whether Katchorovsky had begun to teach. Tahiti in the 1920s, while probably lovely, would not have been my first choice of location to open a new fencing salon. Beyond that, this article offers readers very few biographical details. We do not learn how old Katchorovsky was, or whether he ever had a family. Nor do we learn where he was coming from.
Like many refugees in our own era, Katchorovsky seems to have been subjected to a process of biographical flattening. His entire life is reduced to only those elements most interesting to the paper’s readers. One suspects that in the 1920s any number of White Russian refugees might have passed through the same area and inspired almost identical articles. In this discursive movement Katchorovsky, as an individual, was hollowed out and reduced to a symbol of the era’s increasingly well-developed fear of Bolshevism.
Whatever business Katchorovsky had in Tahiti, he seems not to have stayed long. In 1927 his name resurfaces in another newspaper in New South Wales. Then in 1930 we catch a glimpse of him in Honolulu. While most of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa was consumed with an upcoming football game against BYU, the school newspaper reported that an exhibition fencing tournament had been planned between the students of Katchorovsky and those of Cedric Wodehouse (a local instructor who had been trained in the UK). Once the preliminary matches were finished, the student body was promised an exhibition match between the two instructors. This was billed as a “real match between experts.” Without digging into more detailed local historical sources, it is difficult to say how long Katchorovsky stayed in Honolulu.
In any case, he did not put down roots. Two years later a student newspaper for the University of British Columbia (Vancouver) ran a brief notice stating that Katchorovsky had taken up residence in the area and was looking to establish a class for local university students. Any student wishing to take him up on the offer needed to hurry. By the spring of 1933 Katchorovsky would be seeking to establish a somewhat larger presence in Shanghai.
This is the period of Katchorovsky’s career that generated the most interesting paper trail. Between February 19-22 of 1933, he wrote a series of three, highly detailed, articles for The China Press. Each of these sought to explain and promote Western style fencing as a desirable type of personal exercise and competitive sport. [Readers should note that, confusingly, both the second and third articles in this series are labeled as “number two,” so it is necessary to actually check the dates of publication]. Collectively these discussions seem to announce the arrival of a more prosperous stage of Katchorovsky’s teaching career.
Readers may recall The China Press was one of Shanghai’s leading English language “treaty port” papers. While the editor of this paper was Chinese, and a virtual agent of the KMT government, the China Press prided itself on its connections to the American tradition of journalism and liberal editorial slant. The paper served three audiences. Obviously, it spoke to the needs of the expatriate English speakers in Shanghai. Yet unlike other foreign language papers, it reported extensively on Chinese political and social events. Indeed, its ostensible foreign ownership helped the paper to skirt certain censorship regulations, and it thus also appealed to educated, English reading, Chinese citizens. Lastly, the KMT tolerated papers such as this as they hoped that they would bring news of what was happening in China (unfiltered by the always hostile Japanese newswire services) to citizens in the West.
Given this complex readership, it is significant that The China Press was unrelentingly enthusiastic about all aspects of the martial arts. It seems to have published more stories on Chinese boxing (or “national boxing”) than any other treaty port paper. But it also reported on judo, kendo, boxing and fencing. One suspects that someone in the editorial office took a keen interest in martial pursuits.
Still, the degree of coverage that Katchorovsky’s thoughts on fencing received seems exceptional, even by the standards of The China Press. As I mentioned in our prior discussion of Ma Liang’s New Wushu movement, certain outlets also offered their services to government officials or important individuals who sought (for a price) to promote a project that was generally in line with a paper’s editorial policy. For a few years the China Press even seems to have run an ad hoc English language public diplomacy program for the KMT. I suspect that Katchorovsky may have entered into a similar promotional arrangement with the paper.
His first three articles, in April of 1933, were immediately followed up by another piece at the beginning of March. This article (written by a reporter) sought to both promote fencing in general and Katchorovsky’s classes more specifically. It noted that he had recently been hired by St. John’s University as a fencing instructor for the students. The paper proclaimed (probably incorrectly) that these were “the first Chinese [boys] to take up this typically European sport.” It was also noted that his experience in America demonstrated that fencing was really a sport for everyone, regardless of age or gender. A local girl’s school was also considering adding fencing classes.
Again, it is difficult to know exactly when Katchorovsky arrived in Shanghai and began teaching. But at the end of March (22nd) the China Press ran another story, probably independent of any formal advertising campaign, noting that due to the increased popularity of the sport an exhibition had been scheduled at the International Branch of the YWCA. Exactly one week later (March 30th) another unsolicited article was run reporting on the result of this social and athletic gathering. Such stories are relatively common in the pages of The China Press. Still, it seems that this event made a positive impression on the reporter. Like Hawaii, the student tournament was followed by two exhibition matches in which the various coaches and organizers demonstrated other weapons and superior techniques for the crowd.
Skimming various accounts of tournaments and exhibitions, it seems that much of the fencing in Shanghai was led by, or included, Russian refugees. Indeed, one wonders whether this was what drew Katchorovsky to the city in the first place. His own match was against Dr. Schoenfeld. Col. Minuchin, who coached many of the participants, is reported to have graduated from the Officers’ Fencing and Gymnasium School in Petrograd just before the outbreak of WWI in 1914. He had been living in Shanghai for approximately five years.
All of this publicity resulted in two photographs of Col. Katchorovsky in his role as fencing instructor. The first, published on Feb. 27th, shows a sophisticated looking individual, hair parted in the middle, sporting round glasses and a neat mustache. He holds his trademark foil and fencing mask on his lap as he seems to look beyond the camera with a pensive gaze. If the first image is serene, the second is slightly unsettling. It was taken on the day of the YWCA tournament/exhibition. Several female students sit in the front with their instructors standing behind them. Shown at his full height, Katchorovsky towers over the others. At first one guesses that the other coaches must have been sitting as well, but of course they are not.
The China Press revisited fencing again on October 27th with another article by Katchorovsky. This piece quoted liberally from the Art of Fencing by Senac and Fencing by Brek in an effort to argue for the athletic, personal and somatic value of the practice. Not to be outdone, the North China Herald also ran an article by Katchorovsky on November 7th. Unfortunately, this rehashed many of his prior points without adding much new to the discussion. Still, in a remarkably short period of time Katchorovsky had written or been discussed in at least eight articles and received two photographic features.
That is a remarkable amount of press coverage for anyone in this period, let alone someone from the martial arts community. But his efforts paid off. The introduction to the October China Press article noted that Katchorovsky was currently serving as Master of Arms at both the Shanghai American School and St. John’s University, while running his own fencing academy at 73 Nanking Road.
Modernity’s Knight Errant
Given the volume of material that Katchorovsky produced, it is important to ask how he (and other instructors) sought to promote fencing in the 1920s and 1930’s. More specifically, how are the values that they sought to promote similar to, or different from, the sorts of discussions that other martial arts (especially Guoshu and Judo) were generating? One might suppose that given his military background, Katchorovsky would be something of a traditionalist when it came to the sword. He came of age in an era when there was still an expectation that officers might have to fight with their swords. And all of that seems to fit with the more tragic and orientalist ways in which the press sought to frame his life narrative.
Yet Katchorovsky was no traditionalist. One suspects that he would have had little tolerance for the sort of essentialist cultural rhetoric that followed Kendo. His understanding for the need for modernization and reform within the martial arts would have fit well within the more progressive currents of China’s own Guoshu movement. Note, for instance, the following excerpts from his discussion on the topic of traditionalism vs. modernity in his third article for The China Press, titled “Modern Fencing Reaches High Sate of Perfection.”
…There are so many people who have never given up the old-fashioned idea that fencing is an ancient art, graceful and beautiful to behold upon the stage. Many never think of fencing as competitive sport, which it really is—the fastest and most brilliant of all man to man sports in existence.
Fencing progresses like everything else. A fencing bout of two hundred years ago and a present day match have very little resemblance. Fencing today is very fast, very competitive, and a study of it gives one a deep and interesting experience in the thoughts of modern science and philosophy, such as timing, motion, space, reflex-action and counteraction, and shows one the vast differences between perception and intuition.
Suits Modern Youth
Fencing today is very modern, very athletic, very fast, sparkling and vivid, almost scientific. It should suit the modern youth to perfection. He can still keep his identity, his individuality, be a little swaggering and devil-may care, and possibly fence better for it….
Helps Eliminate Time
I know of no other sport today which has become as ultra-modern as fencing. In my opinion fencing develops such keenness and precision that it becomes far more mental than physical. A fencer finds that along with modern inventions, modern science and its fourth dimension, this sport goes a long way to eliminate more of the encumbering element of matter we call time.
To think is to set, i.e., when you think “thrust” your arm is already extended: when you think “lunge” your right foot hits the floor with pantherish agility.
It is especially true that in a hardfought bout between equals you are never conscious of your body. It has ceased to exist; that is, it is no longer the tool of the mind, but becomes the mind itself.
You lose all consciousness of self and exist as the mental qualities of speed, precision, accuracy, distance, balance, judgement or seem to exist as life and action itself. For your time is not, and each moment of action flashes from the future into the past without the realization of its passing.
After a twenty-minute bout, whether you have won or lost, you feel that if you have not spent a second in eternity, you have least lived more vividly, more intensely during these minutes than is ordinarily lived in a week.
Thus fencing, once necessary as a means of bodily protection between the exponents of the art, has today become a new mental and physical thrill for the ultra-modern.
1933. A. Katchorovsky. “Modern Fencing Reaches High State of Perfection.” The China Press. Feb. 22 1933. Page 8.
This is one of the more interesting first-person accounts of any martial practice which I have encountered during the 1920s or 1930s. While most of Katchorovsky’s articles tend to emphasize the fully-body muscular development that fencing provides, or its utility for students seeking to lose weight, it seems clear that he was motivated by a quest for altered states of consciousness. This article provides a very detailed account of what it is like to experience a “flow state” in weapons work. Yet rather than seeing this as a universal psychological phenomenon, something that might occur in any number of activities, he supposed both that it is unique to fencing and its modern reforms. Katchorovsky even points to the achievement of personal goals and individually attained altered states of consciousness as core qualities of his “ultra-modern” martial art. Reading these passages I am left to wonder how many practitioners of combat sports in or own era might agree with him, even if they have never picked up a foil.
All of this might seem very distant from the world of Guoshu and the development of duanbing. And, in a sense, it is. Yet it must also be remembered that the great reforms of the 1920s and 1930s did not happen in a vacuum. Both Jingwu and Guoshu sought, in their own way, to appropriate and respond to the discourse of modern superiority which was projected by the Western imperialist powers. That is why the “traditional” Chinese martial arts which we practice now are, in fact, a product of modernity.
Of course, fencing is also modern art. Katchorovsky’s embrace (even celebration), of this fact is probably a multi-layered phenomenon. On the one hand, it may have been commercially necessary to distance fencing from its historical association with dueling if one wanted to win middle class female students. Doing so might have been more challenging than one might guess as even newspapers in China were carrying stories of duels (some carried out with sabers, others with pistols) which were still happening in France as late at the 1930s. At least some of Katchorovsky’s rhetorical efforts to carve out a space for sport fencing as a distinct modern practice, unrelated to the art’s bloody past, were probably necessary. [For a sample of what else his audience might have been reading see “Savage Duel is Fought by Paris Lawyers.” The China Press, March 10, 1935. Page 3.]
Of course, “ultra-modern” practices are by definition young, trendy and more likely to be popular with university students. Such things are also transnational and transcultural, values that he probably felt very strongly about given his constant wandering. Undoubtedly Katchorovsky reveals something of his life experience in all of this. Scientific rationalism and international community may have been things that he could ground his identity in after the nation-state and political ideology had failed him. He many even have seen these values as tools to push back against the socially dominant narrative that defined him solely as a refugee.
Modernity takes on a variety of meanings as we read these accounts of fencing’s brief flowering in Shanghai during the 1930s. Yet all of this was happening in concert with larger intellectual trends and global events. Katchorovsky is a valuable remainder of the role of marginal and displaced people in the popularization and spread of modern martial practices. Beyond that, his writings offer a particularly clear glimpse into the sorts of concepts that shaped both the development of the Guoshu movement and the modern Chinese martial arts we know today.
If you enjoyed this discussion of the the martial arts scene is Shanghai in the 1930s you might also want to read: Mixed Martial Arts in Shanghai, 1925
The Problem with Play
I have always found TED talks to be a mixed bag. Some are wonderful. Others I find vaguely irritating. But the project itself, which seeks to popularize some of the most important “big ideas,” is deeply interesting. If nothing else, scrolling through a list of titles on the video platform of your choice is a good way to see which concepts are currently making their way into popular consciousness. That is important as scholars are increasingly being judged by the sorts of “real world” effects that their research generates.
If the “TED Index” has any validity, there is one idea whose time has truly come. “Play” is back. After decades of being little more than a term of abuse, a purposeless activity relegated to the realm of childhood, play has recently become an important concept. While few individuals, other than a handful of psychologists and evolutionary biologists, thought about play a decade ago, today studies are being conducted, grants are being written and (many) books published.
This material seems to have come to a general agreement on a few key facts. Play is a very important aspect of human (indeed, all mammal) learning and development. Individuals who are artificially deprived of play tend to be less creative, flexible, resilient and have an increased likelihood of psychological disorders. The rise of anxiety, depression and suicide in the Western world, while typically blamed on cell phones and Facebook, also corresponds with the increasing displacement of all forms of play from the lives of tightly scheduled children and young adults. It seems that the entire TED circuit speaks with a single voice when they tell us that we are facing a crisis. As Weber’s iron cage of modern rationality grinds on, play has become an endangered species. The result is a society filled with less creative, less sociable, and less psychologically resilient individuals, precisely at the moment when we need those sorts of attributes the most.
Nor is this simply a matter of concern for parents and school administrators. While most mammals retain some interest in play, humans are practically unique (or at least right up there with dolphins and sea otters) in that extended periods of play remain necessary for adults as well. As one of the afore mentioned TED talks noted, the opposite of play isn’t “work.” Its depression. And that quip brings us to the heart of our problem. Play has a branding problem. Can the martial arts help?
As with so much else, I blame the Puritans for all of this. The advent of the protestant work ethic represented a fundamental break with traditional modes of social organization across large portions of the West. While there is much that we could say on the topic (indeed, entire books and articles have been written on the subject), for the purposes of the current post it is enough to note that frivolous activities came under severe scrutiny in a society where an individual’s personal value became increasingly conflated with their net worth. After all, the one thing that no society can abide is an individual who fails to take its values seriously. In short order “play” came to be regarded with suspicion.
Nor has the increasing secularization of society done anything to alleviate this problem. If anything, it has gotten far worse in recent decades. School years are longer now than they were two generations ago, and seemingly secondary subjects like music, art and recess have all found themselves on the chopping block. The sorts of athletic leagues that most children find themselves in today are so tightly supervised and disciplined that they no longer meet even the most basic definitions of play. Indeed, the need for constant resume building has eliminated much of the unsupervised “downtime” in which childhood used to occur in.
Martial Arts Practice as Play
This is the section of the essay where I typically introduce martial arts practice as the unexpected solution to what ever issue kicked off our discussion. Unfortunately, the relationship between the martial art and play is complex and multilayered. On the one hand, these practices have been haunted by the widely held perception that they are not something that “serious” people do. Spending an hour a day training for your half marathon is fine, even admirable. But spending that same hour in a kung fu or kickboxing class can elicit sideways glances and nervous laughter. Paul Bowman tries to unwrap what is going on here in the opening chapters of his volume Mythologies of Martial Arts(2016). His arguments are well worth reviewing. But in brief, the alien and seemingly pre-modern nature of the Asian martial arts makes it difficult to incorporate them into Western society’s dominant discourses.
The health benefits of jogging are obvious, as are the competitive virtues of winning a 10K race. They require no explanation. Yet one must always explain that kickboxing is a great workout, or that BJJ “burns a lot of calories.” Martial artists are constantly, and with only partial success, justifying the resources that they spend on their training. Yet at the end of the day, for most members of society, this will always be “just playing around.” Children may get some benefits from martial arts training. But Master Ken remains a telling image of the overly serious adult student who never managed to grow up. Serious martial arts training remains unavailable to many adults precisely because it is perceived as a type of (delusional) “play.”
The irony is that many, maybe even most, martial arts class rooms are devoid of actual play. Real play, true play, can be antithetical to the goals of many martial arts schools. To understand why this is we need to think a little more carefully about play itself. Unfortunately there are lots of definitions floating around and they don’t all agree. Still, I know play when I see it. For a short essay like this a compete clinical definition probably isn’t necessary. Luckily there are a few broadly held points of agreement that can guide our thinking.
To begin with, play is not the same thing as inaction or simply a lack of seriousness. It is an independent process in its own right, with both psychological and social aspects. There are many types of play. Some are deeply imaginative and others are not, being primarily observational or embodied. True play is an independently chosen activity that happens in the absence of a directing authority. It is basically a truism to say that no one can force you to play. Play is generally seen as being purposeless. This does not mean that it has no impact on an individual’s life. Rather, it happens for its own sake. To summarize, fun activities are “play” only if they are self-controlled and self-directed.
A psychologist or social scientist may look at what happens in the average Taekwondo class and see a highly creative modern ritual. Individuals dress in symbolic clothing and engage in rites of reversal that upend mundane social values (such as don’t hit your friends or choke your siblings). And yet many training environments go out of their way to avoid an air of playfulness. In its place we find the formality of ritual and the constant supervision (and correction) of concerned teachers. Indeed, the parents of the children in the class are likely to be found on folding chairs in the school’s lobby, closely monitoring everyone’s progress. This is a type of performance staged for social purposes rather than individual play. Much the same could be said for most school sports.
One may have quite a bit of fun in such a structured martial arts class (I know I always do). And there is no doubt that students learn and derive all sorts of physical and social benefits from participating in such classes. And yet all of this is basically the antithesis of play. The general feeling seems to be that not only would play in a martial environment be unproductive (how can one learn “good habits” without constant correction and oversight?), but that it might also be dangerous. Just stop to think about the arsenal of weapons that line the walls of the average kung fu school? Do you really want to turn the students loose for long periods of unstructured play? Perhaps the opposite of play is actually “liability insurance.”
Luckily my own Sifu didn’t seem to believe that last point. I can confidentially say that unstructured play was critical to my development as a Wing Chun student. Indeed, it was an important part of the curriculum.
Standard classes, graded by level and each having a well-developed curriculum, were held four nights a week at Wing Chun Hall in Salt Lake City. Yet Jon Nielson, my Sifu, was aware that more was needed when attempting to find your own place in the martial arts community. So every Friday evening and Saturday morning his school would open for three hours of unsupervised “practice time” for anyone who wanted to come. Students of the Wing Chun Hall were expected to attend these “open sessions” on a semi-regular basis (and there was never any cost for doing so). Even individuals from other schools were welcome to come by and train with the Wing Chun people if they so desired. The critical thing, however, was that the one person who was rarely ever there was Sifu. The sessions were instead monitored (but not run) by his junior instructors who were under strict orders to help if asked. Otherwise students were left to train how they saw fit. If someone wanted to learn some basic dummy exercises, even though they were years away from starting the dummy form, this was their time to do it.
Most people would come to an open session with some sort of goal in mind. Maybe they wanted to work on a specific form. Perhaps they were having trouble with ground-work, or one of the paired exercises that had been introduced during the week. And it goes without saying that everyone wanted to practice Chi Sao with the more senior students (or to touch hands with visitors from different styles).
Yet three hours is a long time. One would inevitably be drawn into all sorts of other drills, exercises and discussions that you had never envisioned. The second and third hour of any sessions always seemed to evolve organically. One might well come in to work on the dummy and end up with a pole in your hands. I still have fond memories of one Saturday spent making up a game so that new Siu Lim Tao students could practice their footwork. While these open sessions tended to start out as directed and focused, by about hour two things had become much more fluid.
My sifu instituted these open sessions for a couple of reasons. To begin with, everyone needs a night off. And we can all use more hours of practice when it comes to the sorts of sensitivity drills that Wing Chun so loves. These things are not like riding bike. Once certainly will forget them, and you are never any better than however many hours of practice you put in the month before.
Beyond that, my Sifu was also a keen student of pedagogy. He carefully explained to me the importance of unstructured play, free of judgement or overbearing correction, in learning any physical skill. More specifically, he noted that this was where students would learn to trust their bodies, bodies that were now defined through a new set of skills. And it was those martially educated bodies that would make judgements about the world. Understanding whether someone was a threat, or whether a technique was working, was an embodied process. Teaching and drilling this material during the more structured nightly classes was not enough. It was also a matter of how that knowledge was internalized, localized, modified and rearranged. Drawing on his background in linguistics he noted that kung fu meant “hard/skillful work” (and it certainly is), but in China the martial arts are often associated with the verb “to play.” One “plays wushu,” or goes to “play sticky hands.” Both modes of action, he suggested, exist in a reciprocal relationship. Self-controlled and self-directed play is not disposable or supplemental. Properly understood, it is a critical aspect of the learning process.
A Common Sentiment
I had not thought about my teacher’s open sessions (and how much fun they were) in a while. But earlier this week I bumped into an old friend at the grocery store who had recently returned to the US after living abroad. She asked how my martial arts training was going and, while mentioning my various projects, I noted an upcoming workshop with a guest instructor that I would be hosting for the lightsaber combat group here in Ithaca.
My friend already considers my Chinese martial arts practice to be strange enough. But apparently she had been gone long enough that she didn’t know about the lightsaber project. It elicited a laugh hinting at something other than delight. Still, laughter from the uninitiated comes with the territory when one is holding a lightsaber (or, if we are being totally honest, any other type of sword). I noted that, if nothing else, it is easier to fill a class with lightsaber students than, say, the traditional Wing Chun swords. She immediately noted that she would be much more likely to come to the later, “but to each their own.”
This was not the first time I have heard something like this. When explaining to curious passersby that our lightsaber system is based, in large part, on traditional Chinese swordsmanship, this is actually a pretty common response. Everyone it seems, is more interested in “serious” fencing or maybe Wudang sword practice. And yet we all know that the vast majority of these individuals would never actually show up for that class. Ithaca is full of highly skilled traditional martial arts teachers that struggle to find more than a handful of students. The sad truth is, to an outside observer, anyone who voluntarily spends that much time with a sword isn’t being “serious.” How could they be? Isn’t it all just for fun? You might call it training, but for most people it will always be “just playing around.”
One of the challenges facing the modern martial arts is not to internalize this common critique. It is all too easy to respond to these questions by reframing all of our activities as investments and “hard work.” Indeed, the nationalist turn taken by the Japanese and Chinese arts in the 1930s explicitly argued that the goals of hand combat practice were fundamentally a continuation of modernist project. The martial arts of the era demanded (and received) state support precisely because they argued that they had moved beyond childish things and become a means of “strengthening the nation.”
Such rhetoric was intoxicatingly effective in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet these arguments work less well in the consumer driven spaces that define the modern West. Few people want to pay $100 a month to be part of a nationalist indoctrination program.
Nor, given our increased understanding of the importance of play as an aspect of mental health, as well as its critical importance to the learning process, a move back to the “seriousness” of the 1930s would not be wise. Sadly the martial arts sector lacks the visibility to create a widespread desire for play in the West. I suppose that is the job of public intellectuals, morning talk show appearances, NY Times best sellers and (if all else fails) TED talks. Yet what we can do is to provide spaces for less-structured play in our classes, organizations and training structures. My Sifu did that for me, and it was immensely valuable. After speaking with my friend I realized that my lightsaber classes might need something similar. It is not enough that an activity is imaginative or fun. We all learn fastest when given opportunities for truly independent play.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Red Boats and the Nautical Origins of the Wooden Dummy
My ongoing research on the public diplomacy of the Chinese martial arts has taken a decisive turn. The Second World War is one of those historical calamities that defines an era, and I now find myself venturing into the post-war era. This is something of an adventure for me as I have gotten rather comfortable with the first half of the twentieth century.
Adventures are fun. But any journey worth the trip is also a bit intimidating. Moving into a new era inevitably means loosening my grip on old assumptions and trying to see familiar processes through new eyes. More specifically, if we are going to understand how various Asian states engaged in “Kung Fu Diplomacy” in the 1950s and 1960s it becomes vitally important to learn a little more about the attitudes of the Western public that they were attempting to appeal to. What sorts of desires and predispositions do we find here? Why might images of the martial arts appealed to them? What did they make of updated martial arts practices the post-war period?
Such answers might help to explain some of the remaining paradoxes regarding the post-war globalization of the Asian martial arts. For instance, it makes sense that Americans would have found the Japanese martial arts more interesting than their Chinese cousins during the 1910s. Japan had just shocked the world with their defeat of Russia, and all sorts of travel writers were commenting on the rapid modernization of its society. It was inevitable that the Western public would develop an interest in their martial arts as it sought to come to terms with a newly ascendant Japan.
This is a logical, cohesive, and widely shared narrative. It also makes what happens after WWII something of a paradox. If there had been a degree of polite interest in the Japanese martial arts during the 1910s-1930s, it paled in comparison to the boom unleashed during the 1950s. Yet this was a humbled Japan, one that had been exposed as a brutal fascist power and utterly broken on the battlefield of the Pacific. China, on the other hand, had been on the winning side of this conflict and an ally (if a somewhat reluctant one) of the West. Yet American GI’s remained vastly more interested in judo than kung fu.
Perhaps Japan’s status as an occupied country after 1945 made its culture available for colonial appropriation in ways that had not really been possible in the 1920s-1930s. If nothing, else the country was hosting a sizable occupation force? Yet China’s status as a defacto colonial power in the late Qing and early Republic period did not seem to make its physical culture all that attractive to the many missionaries, government functionaries and YMCA directors that administered the Western zones of influence there.
Donn Draeger explained his interest in the Japanese martial arts by noting the superior performance of Japanese soldiers on the battlefield. Yet surely that had as much to do with their superior weapons, officers and communications systems as anything else. Something in this equation remains unexplained. Japan continued to possess a store of cultural desire (or “soft power”) that was intuitively obvious to individuals at the time. But what exactly was it? Ruth Benedict’s controversial book, the Chrysanthemum and the Sword, has been widely criticized for what it got wrong about Japanese society. Yet we still need to come to terms with its popularity. What does this say about the Western adoption of the martial arts, and their continued preference for Japanese, rather than Chinese, fighting systems in the 1950s and early 1960s. After all, it was an era when American servicemen and women were being in posted in Taiwan and all over the Pacific region. Why not a sudden interest in White Crane?
Visiting the Tiki Bar
We can shed some light on this small mystery by turning our attention to a larger paradox, emerging from the realm of architecture. In 1949 the Eames finished construction on “Case Study Number 8”, now known simply as the Eames House. This masterpiece of modern design was an experiment in using newly available “off the shelf” materials (many invented during WWII) to create functional modern dwellings to address America’s post-war housing crisis. If one were searching for a harbinger of mid-century design, something that would begin to push its simplified, functional, glass and steel lines into the mainstream of American culture, this might well be it.
Yet this was not the only architectural trend to explode in the early 1950s. At exactly the same time that Americans were building mid-century masterpieces, they were also creating thousands of cringeworthy Tiki bars. It would be hard to think of two aesthetic visions that could be more opposed to each other. Why would the flannel suit clad worshipers of America’s modernist temples spend their evenings in Tiki bars, listening to an endless supply of ethnically inspired vinyl records that inevitably featured the word “savage” in their titles?
Americans are restless spirits searching for paradise. Their popular culture has been shaped by reoccurring debates about where it is to be found, and how one might acquire such an ephemeral state. Much of the 19thcentury was invested in debates between pre and post-millennial religious movements. In the early 20thcentury these currents secularized and reemerged as a debate between what I will call “progressive modernism” and “modern primitivism.”
It was the core values of progressive moderns that the period’s architecture rendered in steel and concrete. This social movement exhibited an immense faith in the ability of technology to address a wide range of material and social challenges, and the wisdom of human beings to administer these ever more complex systems. The era that gave us the space race promised that man’s destiny lay among the stars, and it was only of matter of time until well ordered, rational, societies reached them. Of course, there were underlying discourses that found a certain expression in the 1950s. It is clear that science and modernism had been looking for a future paradise in the stars since at least the time of Jules Verne. But the 1950s threatened to make this vision a reality.
Reactions against progressive modernism also had their roots in the pre-war period. Post-impressionist artists were becoming increasingly concerned about the sorts of social alienation that technological change brought. They turned to African, Native American and Asian art as models because the abstract forms they found within them seemed to symbolize the alienation of modern individuals cut off from traditional modes of understanding. Yet these “primitive” models also offered a different vision of paradise, the promise that an early Garden of Eden could still be recovered if we were to turn our backs on a narrow vision of progress and attempt to recapture the wisdom that “primitive” communities possessed.
The current of “modern primitivism” surged again in the post-war era, a period of unprecedented economic and technological change. A wide range of thinkers once again became concerned with creeping alienation. Some noted that that an Eden could be found within. Joseph Campbell, drawing on the work of Jung and Freud, released his landmark Hero with a Thousand Facesin 1949. Rather than seeing happiness and fulfillment as something to be achieved through future progress, Campbell drew on psychological models to argue for a return to something that was timeless. The stories of forgotten and “primitive” societies were a sign post to our collective birth right. Likewise, Alan Watt’s the great popularizer of Zen Buddhism, published prolifically throughout the 1950s and 1960s, feeding an endless desire for an internal technology that could insulate us against fears of displacement, alienation and even nuclear annihilation.
It is easy to discount the Tiki Bar, to treat it as an architectural oddity. Yet it was simply a popular manifestation of a fascination with naturalism and primitivism whose genealogy stretches back to the first years of the twentieth century. The easy play with sexual innuendo and hyper-masculinity that marked these spaces makes sense when placed within the larger discourses on the stifling effects of modernism, social conformity and the need to return to a more “primitive” state to find human fulfillment. The savage was held up as someone who bore a secret vitally important to navigating those temples of glass and steel that marked the American landscape.
A Kendo Lesson
The pieces are now in place to approach the central subject of this essay. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Canadian Club whisky ran an advertising campaign attempting to associate their product with notions of exotic travel and (luxurious) adventure. In an era when much of the advertising in the alcohol market focused on nostalgic images of hearth and home (situating the consumption of whisky within a comfortable upper-middle class heteronormativity) Canadian Club asked its drinkers to aspire to something more. It featured images of archeological expeditions to Central America, safaris in Africa, and (of course) adventures in the exotic east.
Yet the fulfillment in these adds was not simply the product of getting back to nature, or living in a more primitive condition. It was necessary to physically strive with the citizens of these realms to capture some aspect of their wisdom. At times these advertisements, each of which reads like a miniature travelogue, seem to spend as much time advertising hoplology as whiskey. Of course, nothing as prosaic as judo was featured in these adds. One did not need to join the jet set to experience Kano’s gentle art. More exotic practices, including jousting matches between Mexican cowboys, stick fighting in Portugal, and Japanese kendo were held up as the true measure of a man.
Judging from years of watching eBay auctions, the Kendo campaign was Canadian Clubs most successful of their excursions into hoplology. Or, more accurately, people have been more likely to preserve the Kendo advertisements than some of the other (equally interesting) campaigns.
Titled “In Japanese Kendo its no runs, all hits and no errors” the advertisement tells the story of traveler who comes to Japan and, after a brief period of instruction, joins a kendo tournament. Readers are informed:
“A greenhorn hasn’t a chance when he crosses ‘swords’ in a Japanese Kendo match,” writes John Rich, an American friend of Canadian Club “In Tokyo I took a whack at this slam-bang survivor of Japan’s 12thcentury samurai warrior days. The Samurai lived by the sword and glorified his flashing blade. His peaceful descendant uses a two-handed bamboo shinai in a lunging duel that makes Western fencing look like a dancing class.”
Predictably, things go badly for Mr. Rich who is immediately eliminated without being able to get a blow in against his first opponent. His instructor informs him that he “needs more training.” But its ok, because even in an environment as exotic as this, one can still enjoy Canadian Club whisky with your fellow adventurers. Interestingly, the advertisement places Mori Sensei within the category of fellow travelers when he opens a bottle from his personal reserves. Thus, a community is formed between the jet setting adventurer and the bearer of primitive wisdom through their shared admiration for the same popular brand.
So what is the Ethos of a kendo tournament, at least according to a 1955 alcohol advertisement? It is challenging and painful. But is it primitive? Is it savage?
Historians of the Japanese martial arts can easily inform us that Kendo is basically a product of the 19thand early 20thcenturies. Yet this advertisement repeatedly equates it with the world of the samurai, thus suggests that something medieval lives on in Japan. According to mythmakers in both East and West, this is a defining feature of Japanese culture. So clearly there is a type of “primitivism” here.
Nor does one need to look far for the savagery. It is interesting to think about what sorts of practices we don’t see in these advertisements. I have never seen a Canadian Club story on judo, Mongolian wrestling or professional wrestling. Not all of these adds focus on combat, the jet setter had many adventures to consume. Yet when the martial arts did appear, they inevitably involved weapons. I suspect this is not a coincidence.
Paul Bowman meditated on the meaning of these sorts of issues in his 2016 volume Mythologies of Martial Arts. While those of us within the traditional martial arts think nothing of picking up a stick, training knife or sword, he sought to remind us that to most outsiders, such activities lay on a scale somewhere between “deranged” on one end and “demented” on the other. While one might argue for the need for “practical self-defense,” it is a self-evident fact few people carry swords in the current era and even fewer are attacked with them while walking through sketchy parking garages. There is just very little rational justification for this sort of behavior. Most of who engage in regular weapons practice can speak at length about why we find these practices rewarding, or how they help to connect us with the past. But all of that rests on a type of connoisseurship that most people would find mystifying. For them, an individual who plays with swords has either seen too many ninja movies or is simply asking for trouble. Playing with weapons (as opposed to more responsible pursuit like jogging, or even cardo kick-boxing) is almost the definition of “savage.”
But what about an entire society that plays with swords? What if one has been told, rightly or wrongly, that this is a core social value? It is that very disjoint with modernity that would make such a group a target for the desires of modern primitivism. The problem with the Chinese (and hence the Chinese martial arts) was not that they won or lost any given war. Rather, it was the (entirely correct) perception that the Chinese people did not valorize violence. Despite all of the critiques that were directed at their “backward state” and “failure to modernize” in the 1920s-1930s, their pacific nature was seen as a positive value widely shared with the West (indeed, it was a point of emphasis in WWII propaganda films). Ironically, that similarity would serve to make Chinese boxing less appealing to the sorts of individuals who consumer Canadian Club whisky, or at least its advertisement. Nor did the actual performance of real Japanese troops on specific battlefields determine the desirability of their martial arts. It was the image of cultural essentialism (carefully constructed by opinion makers in both Japan and the West), which made kendo desirable because of its “primitive nature,” not despite it.
Seen in this light, the early global spread of the Japanese arts makes more sense. What had once been a modernist and nationalist project could play a different role in the post-war American landscape. These arts promised a type of self-transformation that placed them in close proximity to the currents of modern primitivism. While the Tiki bar appealed to those who sought temporary release from the strictures of progressive modernism, the martial arts spoke to those who sought a different sort of paradise. Theirs was an Eden to be found in the wisdom of “primitive” societies and the search for the savage within.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: The Tao of Tom and Jerry: Krug on the Appropriation of the Asian Martial Arts in Western Culture
Interpreting Bruce Lee
We may debate lists of the 20th century’s most influential martial artists,* but when it comes to written texts, there is simply no question. “Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate,” Bruce Lee’s 1971 manifesto, first appearing in the September issue of Black Belt magazine, has been reprinted, read, criticized and commented upon more than any other English language work. Like many aspects of Lee’s legacy, it has generated a fair degree of controversy. But what interests me the most is the scope and character of its audience.
One might suppose that Lee’s essay would have been read primarily by the Karate students that the title hailed, or perhaps by the generations of Kung Fu students who have come to idolize him. And it is entirely understandable that this text has assumed an important place within the Jeet Kune Do community. Yet its title notwithstanding, Lee never intended this piece as a narrow argument. Nor, when we get right down to it, was Lee actually trying to convince anyone to quite Karate in favor of another style. Such nationalist or partisan concerns were a feature of the earlier phase of his career. By 1971 Lee was concerned with more fundamental issues.
Yet all of these statements are really my own personal readings, and as such they open the door to questions of interpretation. What are the most valid ways to read Lee’s famous essay? And what sorts of interpretations might be unsupportable, what Umberto Eco called “overinterpretations” (See “Interpretation and Overinterpretation: World, History, Texts” (Cambridge University 1990). I have it on good authority that two of my friends are currently preparing a debate on this text, and what it suggests about the validity of various theories of interpretation, which will appear in a future issue of Martial Arts Studies.
With that on the horizon, I am hesitant to venture too far into the same territory. Yet if he were here, Umberto Eco’s would probably point out that a close reading reveals that Lee seems to have had some well-developed thoughts on how his essay should be read, and what sorts of interpretations of this text (and the Jeet Kune Do project more generally), might be considered valid. Lee begins his argument with the well known story of the Zen master overflowing a cup of tea precisely to head off responses to his work that might be classified as “arguments from authority.” Indeed, in the very next paragraph he tells his readers that he has structured his essay like the traditional martial arts classes that they are all so familiar with. First the mental limbering up must happen so that one’s received bodily (or mental) habits can be set aside. Only then is it possible to see events as they actually are, without resorting to the crutch of style (or perhaps theory) to tell you what you are perceiving.
As a social scientist I am very suspicious of those who claim to be able to put “theory” aside and to simply see a situation for what it really is. As one of my old instructors colorfully declared, no such thing is possibly. “Theory is hardwired into our eyeballs.” It is fundamental to how our brains make sense of raw stimulus. We all have so many layers of mental habit, training and predisposition that the notion of setting it aside is fundamentally misguided. Much the same could be said of our bodily predispositions. Lee is correct in that one can set aside style. But the more basic structures that Marcel Mauss called “techniques of the body”, or Bourdieu’s socio-economically defined (and defining) “habitus,” are not things that can ever really be set aside. Seeing the world with no filter at all, dealing with pure objective reality, is not possible, no matter how much enthusiasm Lee generates for the project.
On a personal level I suspect that while we all strive (and we should strive) to empty our cups, the best we can actually do is to try and be aware of the unique perspectives that each of us bring to an event. For instance, when Lee composed the arguments and images that make up this essay, it was with the intention of constructing what Eco called a “model reader”, someone who would become sympathetic to the arguments that he was trying to make. This was not necessarily a reader who would quit his karate class and put on a JKD shirt (though that might happen). Again, Lee was pretty explicit about his aims. He wasn’t trying to make America’s martial artists more like him in a technical sense. Rather, it was enough if they simply began to “leave behind the burdens of pre-conceived opinions and conclusions,” and base their training strategies on personal observations of what actually happened rather than someone else’s notions of what should happen. In essence, Lee was not so much proposing that America’s martial artists change styles (something that by definition could only be a pointless, lateral, move). Rather, he wanted them to begin to think seriously about how exactly they knew what they knew. He wanted them to change epistemologies.
We can say this much with confidence. Yet knowing everything that Lee wanted, or intended, as an author is tricky. This was not a long essay, and while key points can be teased out (e.g., a surprising degree of faith in the individual and a notable suspicion of all sources of social authority), many lines in the essay remain open to interpretation. It is the sort of text that rewards a very close, sentence by sentence, reading. Even then, all we can really know is the intention of this essay, a linguistic artifact created at a specific moment in 1971. It is interesting to speculate as to what a much younger Lee would have made of this text. And by the end of his life in 1973 his thoughts on the value of Jeet Kune Do seem to have evolved rather dramatically. While we might fruitfully debate the interpretation of Lee’s text, the interpretation of its author remains a much more difficult task.
Still, Lee attempted to make it clear that certain interpretations of his text were out of bounds. It is that authorial strategy that actually brings Eco’s approach to mind as possible interpretive strategy. He notes that a proper reading would be a humanist one. For Lee the martial arts are properly a matter of individual human activity rather than the exclusive property of nations or groups. He notes that his essay should not be seen as a polemic by a Chinese martial artist against the Japanese bushido. Nor should he be read as proposing a new style or system of martial training. It also seems clear that Lee himself is the subject of the extended metaphor on page 25. It is the author himself who in the past “discovered some partial truth” and “resisted the temptation to organize” it. The whole story is directed towards Lee’s own students who in their enthusiasm to wrench meaning from one part of Lee’s text (or bodily practice) might fall prey to Eco’s process of “overinterpretation.”
All of this is only my interpretation of Lee’s essay, and it goes without saying that I am a type of reader that this text never anticipated. After all, the academic study of the martial arts did not really exist in 1971, certainly not the way that it does now.
What audience did Lee, as an author, seek? What sort of “model reader” did this text intend to create? And why was there even a need to issue a call for liberation in the first place? One might suppose that the value of freedom, self-expression and increased fighting prowess would simply be self-evident. The fact that Lee is extolling their virtue, and calling for a fundamental change in the sources of authority that martial artists are willing to accept, suggests that it was not.
Paint by Numbers
Eco may be correct that it is essentially impossible to divine the true intent of an author simply from the resulting text. Yet the complexity of that task pales in comparison with the challenge of reconstructing how his or her readers responded to that text at a given point in history. After all, the author had the good sense to leave us with a text (even if his meanings may have been unclear). The readers, more often than not, left nothing but nods of agreement or groans of frustration deposited within the etheric sphere. Trying to reconstruct their experience through our own empathic imagination might really be an exercise in “organized despair,” to borrow a phrase from Lee. Yet it is precisely in those moments, where the expectation of the reader and the intention of a text clash, that brief bursts of light are created. And this fading conflict can suggest some of the critical features that once defined a historical landscape. While difficult, it is worthwhile to try and discover something about the “model readers” who struggled with, and were organized by, this text. Indeed, I actually find the readers of this essay even more interesting (and vastly more sociologically significant) than its author. Yet we know so much less about them.
While few readers took the time to provide contemporaneous documentation of their first reading of this essay (I know of no such record), it would not be correct to say that they left no evidence of their passing. For one thing, the 1970s produced a rich material and symbolic record which suggests some interesting hypotheses about the sorts of audience that Lee would have encountered. Two such artifacts are currently hanging on the wall of my living room.
They appear in the form of pair of paint by number landscapes, illustrating a wintery New England day so picturesque that one is quite certain that it never happened. These paintings were completed by a woman in 1971, the same year that Lee’s essay first appeared. One suspects that if he had taken an interest in art criticism Lee would have had much to say about my paintings. With a few choice substitutions his famous essay could easily be retitled “Liberate Yourself from the Paint by Number Kit” and it would read almost as well.
That, seemingly flippant, observation reveals an important clue about the sorts of readers (and martial artists) that Lee was addressing. We don’t have a large body of informed martial arts criticism dating from the 1970s, but we do have a vast literature on the criticism of the visual arts. And several critics explicitly addressed the paint by numbers fad. The sorts of arguments that they made sound, at least to my ear, uncannily like the points that Lee was trying to make.
By 1971 the paint by number phenomenon was already a well-established part of American middle class landscape (much like the neighborhood judo club). These kits were originally conceived of by an artist named Dan Robbins and Max S. Klein, the owner of the Palmer Paint Company. After the end of WWII Americans leveraged their increased rights in the workplace, and a period of unprecedented economic growth, to create a new golden age of the leisure economy. The forty-hour work week meant that workers had more free time than ever before, and they had enough income to fill those hours with an ever expanding range of activities. The visual arts were increasingly popular, but for most people doing their own paintings remained an aspirational dream. Robbins and Klein decided that simple kits, which required only an ability to color within the lines, would provide Americans with many hours of relaxation while selling an unprecedented amount of paint. Their initial run of kits, which attempted to educate consumers about the latest trends in serious modern art, did not sell particularly well. But when more nostalgic images of the countryside, animals, dancers and the “exotic East” were introduced, it was clear that a cultural phenomenon had been born.
This did not please most of the art critics of the day. The lack of creativity, indeed, the process of near mechanical reproduction, involved in these “paintings” came to symbolize the worst aspects of 1950s social conformity. [Note also that cover of the 1971 Black Belt issues has Lee hyperbolically warning America’s martial artists that they are being transformed into machines]. In the view these critics, individuals were drawn to art because they wanted to experience creativity. Yet these kits promised them basic results only by foreswearing any degree of individual expression. When the critics imaged millions of (near identical) Mona Lisas hanging on the walls of the millions of (near identical) tiny homes which populated America’s postwar landscape, they found themselves drowning in a nightmare of suburban mediocrity.
This was precisely the cultural milieu that inspired Umberto Eco to undertake his cross-continental road-trip, explicitly focusing on the question of simulation in the American imagination of fine art, which would result in his essay “Travels in Hyperreality.” This is a work that has proved important to my own understanding of the role of cultural desire within the martial arts. Still, the judgement of the contemporary critics was clear. Art was the product of individual inspiration and struggle with a constantly changing world. These paintings were not art. At best they were a mechanically reproduced “craft.”
Yet there has always been a strain of American popular culture within which such an assertion does not work as an invective. The entire turn of the century “arts and crafts” movement (seen in architecture, furniture, and the graphic arts) explicitly rejected the elitism of high art and instead asked what sort of social benefit could be derived from the support of, and participation in, wholesome crafts in which people enriched and beautified their environments while supporting local craftsmen. Nor do most of the post-war individuals who spent their afternoons with these kits seem to have aspired to be “artists.” While such questions may have been critical to the critics, these were not categories that structured the lives of these consumers.
Paint by numbers was popular because the process was enjoyable. People found these kits to be relaxing. Further, the idea that one could make an object suitable for display in their own homes was intrinsically rewarding. In light of this, the critic’s emphasis on individual creativity and authenticity seems to have been misplaced. No one bought a Mona Lisa kit because they wanted to express their authentic “inner vision.” Rather, they wanted to enter into a dialogue with that specific piece of art. They sought to understand someone else’s vision, and to be part of a community that appreciated that.
The entire genera of paint by numbers is marked with an almost overwhelming air of nostalgia. This was an exercise in cultivating (and satisfying) a desire for preexisting categories of meaning. Through the reproduction of different types of art (religious images, Italian masters, American landscapes, dancing figures, Paris cityscapes, etc….) individuals sought to align themselves with, and appropriate, some specific aspect of pre-existing social authority. Make no mistake, the creation of real art is hard work. Yet paint by numbers succeeded as a popular medium because it took seriously the notion of leisure. The physical artifacts that it generated were, in many ways, secondary to the social and psychological benefits created.
A traditional class within the Japanese martial arts might seem quite different than a paint by number kit. Ideally the later generates very little sweating and yelling, while the former practically demands it. Yet it is no coincidence that these pursuits both exploded into America popular culture in the 1950s, driven by the growth of the post-war leisure economy. Both sought to simplify complex elite activities and present them to the masses in such a way that they could be easily mastered. Indeed, the standardized kata and training methods seen in Meiji and Showa era martial arts schools seem to have appealed to the same social sensibilities that Robbins and Klein sought to capitalize on.
Nor do questions of individuals or individual expression figure that prominently into the early post-war martial arts discourse. We should hedge this last point as, while they were more visible, the Asian martial arts remained outside of the hegemonic aspects of Western culture (Bowman 2017). To practice Judo in the 1950s was an expression of individual choice and values in a way that would not have been true of Japanese school children taking a Judo class in 1937. And it is certainly true that when many returning GI’s (and later Korean and Vietnam veterans), took up these pursuits. Some sought solace, while others were looking for a source of martial excellence. For instance, Donn F. Draeger’s letters to R. W. Smith make it clear that he was quite interested in the Japanese koryu, but had no interest in contemporary Chinese martial arts, because Japan had performed well on the battle field, and Chinese troops, by in large, had not (Miracle 2016).
Yet I doubt that Draeger was expecting to find real, unfiltered, free-style violence within the traditional dojo. One suspects that most of these vets, at least the ones who had actually seen combat, would have had enough of that on the beaches of the Pacific. What seems to have motivated many of these early students was not so much the search for “realism,” as it was the search for a “cultural essence.” Knowing the reality of warfare, one wonders whether they were freed from petty debates about the “reality of the octagon” (or its post-war equivalents).
Draeger threw himself into highly ritualized styles of Japanese swordsmanship not because he believed this was what a “scientific street fight” actually looked like. He seems to have been looking for a deeper set of answers as to how men had achieved victory in combat in the past. The answers were partially technical, but they also included more. Rightly or wrongly, it was clear to Draeger that (some) Japanese martial artists had the answers, while the Chinese did not. His friend and fellow researcher, R. W. Smith, came to a different set of conclusions after his own experiences with Chinese martial artist while living in Japan and Taiwan. Their martial arts research was not so much about expressing individualism in the abstract (though Draeger’s interests in body building did eventually take him in that direction), but understanding systems of social authority that had allowed individuals to do amazing things.
Conclusion: A Debate Between Readers
These duel excursus into the graphic arts and the early days of hoplology suggests how one group of readers may have approached Lee’s classic essay. In larger cultural terms, Lee’s essay may be less daring than it first appears. While such discussions were novel in the small world of Western martial arts practice, art and culture critics had been making points very similar to Lee’s for decades. They had been doing that because activities that were structurally similar to the practice of the traditional martial arts had become increasingly common within American society since the early 1950s. Lee is often portrayed as a radical or iconoclastic thinker, but when placed next to these critics his calls for individual expression and authenticity within the arts actually replicate the era’s elite social values. More radical, in some senses, were the voices that argued for primacy of craftmanship over art, or for a turn towards a foreign (even colonial) set of cultural values as a way of dealing with the malaise of modern life.
The issues being debated by the martial artists of the 1970s (and still today) are so fundamental that Lee’s essay was bound to generate disagreement. The editors of Black Belt anticipated this. It may be worth reading Lee’s essay in comparison with the issue’s opening editorial on the importance of bowing and traditional etiquette, as well as its final article titled “The Legacy of the Dojo” by David Krieger (50). The first piece contains a quote by an anonymous Chinese martial artist (who may well be Bruce Lee himself as he often haunted the magazine’s offices) praising the efforts of Japanese martial artists to bring morality into their training halls while noting the often-disrespectful ways that Chinese students discussed their own teachers. The two pieces, which both make oblique arguments for the acceptance of traditional modes of social authority within the Asian martial arts, seem to offer an intentional counterpoint to some of Lee’s more individualistic notes.
When we consider the larger social trends in post-war America, and read Lee’s essay in conjunction with the pieces that bookend the September 1971 issue, the parameters of the debate become clearer. Then, as now, the martial arts could be seen either as a vehicle for understanding traditional modes of social authority, or as a means of breaking them down. Readers split on this issue, just as they still do today. It is precisely this ongoing dialectic that allows the ostensibly “traditional” Asian martial arts to fill so many social roles in the modern Western world. This essay’s genius lies not in its ability to convince one side or the other, but in its ability to draw successive generations into the discussion.
*For the record, Kano Jigoro has my vote for the 20th century’s most influential martial artist.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Explaining “Openness” and “Closure” in Kung Fu, Lightsaber Combat and Modern Martial Arts