– 科學化的國術 SCIENTIFIC MARTIAL ARTS 吳志青 by Wu Zhiqing [originally published as 應用武術中國新體操 Using Martial Arts to Make China’s New Calisthenics in 1919/1920, (known more commonly as just 中國新體操 China’s New Calisthenics), then published in serialized form in 武術 Martial … Continue reading →
L’Istituto Italiano Taijiquan Tiancai – 意大利天才太极院 è ENTUSIASTA di annunciare che a Maggio il nostro Maestro e direttore tecnico Zhu Xiang Qian tornerà in Italia ad insegnare: in Veneto – Zhu Tiancai Taijiquan, a Fer…
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
A New Hoplology
Over the last few weeks I have been thinking quite a bit about what hoplology was and what it might yet become. What were the advances and shortcoming of this field’s previous incarnations, both prior to the First World War and during the Donn F. Draeger era? My own involvement with the quickly growing field of martial arts studies, now institutionalized in the form of grants, conferences, peer reviewed journals and dedicated book series, has made me curious about such things. Why exactly did the field of anthropology seem to lose interest in the subject (at least as a cohesive literature) following WWI? Why did Draeger’s renewed efforts, while inspiring much popular enthusiasm, never find a place in academia? And what precisely can students of martial arts studies learn from all of this regarding the birth and growth of scholarly fields?
While problematic in a number of ways, there was also much about the older hoplological tradition that was very interesting, and even admirable. While martial arts studies has made great strides in establishing the notion that these practices can, and indeed must, be examined through a variety of theoretical lenses, I am sometimes surprised that we have shown little interest in engaging the more material and technical aspects of hand combat. Only a handful of articles in our journal have sought to record and provide a detailed analysis of actual techniques. Embodiment is a theoretical concept that is often discussed in the abstract, but only rarely is the hard data presented to the reader.
Likewise, there has been almost no discussion of the material culture that is so central to most individual’s lived experience of the martial arts? Where did the now ubiquitous “Wing Chun Dummy” actually come from, and how has it managed to spread itself across so many other styles in the last decade? Would recent advances in the fields of history and critical theory allow us to say anything new about the development of the ubiquitous white training uniforms and colored belts that the Japanese introduced to the global martial arts? What exactly happens to a non-Japanese system when these foreign artifacts begin to colonize the imagination of a new generation of students? Why are there no studies of the various phases of the standardization and evolution of the Chinese jian (or even the dadao) in late imperial and Republican China?
While it is easy to criticize aspects of the older hoplological tradition, or perhaps salvage ethnography as a whole, no one could never claim that these fields neglected the connection between material culture and the lived social experience. This is critical as the material goods that we consume, the weapons, media, uniforms and ephemera, often testify to a set of values and social functions that support martial arts practice on a deep level that most of us perceive only dimly.
Nor did the older generation of hoplologists shy away from the topic of social violence. Over the last two years both Paul Bowman and I have called, in different settings, for a more sustained investigation of the relationship between martial practice and the experience of violence in the modern world. In general, I think it is a good thing that so many martial arts studies researchers are also students of hand combat. Yet this can also work against us. There is a natural tendency to “write what you know.” Gratefully, most (though not all) scholars are able to work and train in environments where the actual threat of physical violence is rare. But that has not historically been true for the world’s martial artists. And even when we are aware of these things, there is a tendency to play down or ignore some of the darker aspects of modern martial arts practice.
While discussing this topic with Prof. Swen Koerner, he noted that all sorts of sociologists are interested in projects related to how the practice of the martial arts contribute to good social outcomes. Yet we have tended to ignore their correlations with violent or anti-social behavior. When we disregard this, we may save ourselves a degree of embarrassment (or maybe cognitive dissonance), but we also miss an opportunity to discover the many ways that hand combat practices intersect with the realm of social violence. Yet this was precisely the territory that individuals like Burton and Malinowski explored in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies.
Is there room for a “new hopology?” And what purpose would such a literature serve? What would its relationship be to the traditional disciplines, and to the growing field of martial arts studies?
Such questions are impossible to answer in a single blog post. Indeed, they cannot be answered by a single researcher. If we have learned anything in martial arts studies it is that the creation of a field is by definition an experiment in applied sociology. One certainly hopes that a new hoplology would address some of the intellectual and social shortcomings of its predecessors. Beyond that, for reasons that I will touch on below, I think it would have to be grounded in rigorous theoretical and methodological discussions. Finally, by both tradition and necessity, the new hoplology would probably be an empirically oriented wing of martial arts studies, dedicated to the collection and comparative study of interpersonal combative behavior and culture. Beyond that it is hard to say much at all.
This is not to imply that the earlier hoplologists never advanced theoretical or conceptual models. They certainly did. Yet I think their greatest achievement was in building databases of information that essentially captured a single cultural snapshot in time that would forever be available to future scholars looking to test whatever theories they had. A new hoplology could certainly make important contributions to the overall growth of martial arts studies by carefully gathering comparative data focused on the material and technical aspects of martial culture, as well as the many unique local experiences of social violence.
The Research Expedition
Nevertheless, it is one thing to state that the new hoplology might be an empirically driven pursuit, it is quite another to narrow down the range of investigations that we are likely to see. Historical research in the archives, the collection of large-N datasets using on-line surveys, and the writing of “thick descriptions” of culture via participant observation are all equally “empirical” paths. Indeed, it is quite possible to imagine each of these methods being employed in hoplology projects. Draeger encouraged a myriad of students to spend years intensively training with specific ryu in postwar Japan. Likewise, Malinowski and his students sought to collect textual archives and museums full of artifacts to enlighten future generations of researchers. Like martial arts studies, hoplology, in actual practice, seems to have always been deeply interdisciplinary (and in its more amateur forms, pre-disciplinary).
All of these methods of data collection are seen in a number of other fields and their possibilities and limitations are relatively well understood. It sometimes seems that I spent my entire graduate school career doing nothing other than debating the relative merits of historical vs. large-N research, and how best to leverage various empirical approaches when dealing with different types of theoretical frameworks.
Yet there is one specific research method which seems to have become hoplology’s hallmark, and it is much less well understood. What can be accomplished by short term research expeditions carried out by teams of individuals who, while possibly highly trained, tend to be non-specialists in the geographic or cultural areas that they seek to explore?
Perhaps that last sentence undersells the challenges that such expeditions face. Let us rephrase the question more succinctly. What do we really expect a bunch of academics who have just stepped off an airplane to be able to learn about a new set of martial arts in a short period of time (anywhere from a single week to perhaps a couple of months)? Can such an exercise ever constitute “serious research,” or will it always amount to an intellectualized version of the sorts of martial arts themed package vacations that have become so popular in the last few years?
I suspect that many readers will have no problem coming up with reasons why the utility of short duration expeditions will be limited. At the most obvious level one is unlikely to master a foreign language, culture, or even a nuanced system of etiquette, in only a few weeks. This will impact both your ability to interact with local martial artists and one’s capacity to gather data. In the short term it, may even be difficult to determine what data one should be collecting. The sorts of puzzles that arise when thinking about a martial practice that one has practiced for two weeks are qualitatively different from instances where one has studied the material for a few years. And while it is possible to establish friendships in only a few weeks’ time, the quality of those relationships is simply not the same as what comes with daily interaction over a period of years.
There are many good reasons why anthropologists traditionally looked down on this sort of research. A senior professor of the discipline here at Cornell recently confessed to me his disappointment that so few graduate students have the funding or inclination to spend a few continuous years in the field as part of their professional training. In his view this massive investment of time not only led to richer, more insightful, descriptive data. It was the transformative initiation that produced his field’s professional ethos. It was the process by which anthropology students were turned into anthropologists. It was a matter of great concern for him that so many graduate students split their fieldwork into three-month chunks, or only studied groups that never require them to go into “the real field” at all.
While the development of hoplology may have had important early connections with anthropology, it goes without saying that not all students of martial arts studies are attempting to write classical ethnographies. So once again, what might be achievable in short duration research expeditions given the obvious limitations of the exercise?
I think that there are at least three possibilities that deserve consideration, and their utility to any individual researcher may be a function of both their disciplinary background and theoretical orientation. First, while it is true that most martial arts studies scholars do not do ethnography, anthropologists do seem to be overrepresented in the rather small group of scholars who continue to be interested in hoplology. Wondering how they might make the best use of their time I decided to interview my own father on the subject, who is also a cultural anthropologist and a strong supporter of “old school” ethnography.
After listening to me lay out the basic structure of a hypothetical hoplological expedition he noted that, no matter what someone like him says in a “Classics of Ethnography” lecture, in truth many anthropologists do a great deal of work-related short-term travel. He further noted that every long-term stint of field research goes through progressive phases, each of which are important and yield their own sort of data and level of understanding. Learning to get the most out of these first few weeks or months can make a big difference to the success of a long-term project. There was no reason why, in his view, such expeditions could not be treated as “pilot projects” dedicated to making initial contacts and gaining a degree of understanding of the local martial culture that would make the next visit to the area both possible and profitable.
Given the realities of the current funding process, most research is now produced through multiple short expeditions, and so figuring out how to set up the next phase of research is always vital. Additionally, he noted that such travel was actually important for more senior researchers as, by building their network of professional contacts, they could identify research opportunities for the next generation of graduate students. While intensive participant observation is not really possible in short duration studies, they might still be valuable as a pilot projects to identify future ethnographic opportunities.
Of course there are other approaches to understanding short duration research. The empirical data generated by ethnography is descriptive and qualitative in nature. Yet the social sciences (fields like sociology, political science or economics) tend to focus on the creation, and testing, of causal theories. To vastly oversimplify, rather than treating culture or a society as a literary text to be interpreted, they seek to understand which constellations of material, structural, strategic and discursive variables lead to specific, observable, outcomes. Even as the humanities and (American) anthropology have moved away from such approaches, the emphasis on investigating causal explanations through positivist research methods have grown within much of the social sciences.
Nor is this necessarily a bad thing if we are contemplating the development of a “new hoplology.” A positivist orientation would allow researchers to develop and test a wide range of theories regarding the evolution of basic martial structures through either focused comparative case studies or the creation of larger datasets. Sadly, we have yet to see much in the way of sustained comparative research within martial arts studies. And topics that have been central to hoplology, such as the evolution of weapons, or the causes of certain types of social violence, may be particularly amenable to these research strategies.
None of this means that social scientists can, or should, indulge in a sort of naïve empiricism. I think that this is a common misconception about how this sort of research works. A short duration research expedition is a great opportunity to gather rich troves of data. Both training and performance can be photographed and filmed. Masters, students and supporting community members can interviewed. One can investigate the economic and political institutions that uphold such practices. Journals can be distributed to allow local practitioners to record their media consumption habits. There is actually much that one can do in a few weeks. But given the temporal constraints of short duration research, any researcher is going to be forced to prioritize these things. That means that they must have a clear idea of exactly what sorts of hypotheses they might want to test, and what sort of data will be of the most use to future researchers. In other words, extensive causal theories must be developed and submitted to initial “plausibility probes” before anyone ever sets foot on an airplane. And those causal stories are likely to be the most meaningful when they build off of, and take into account, the basic concept that arise from the various philosophical schools of critical theory.
Whereas an anthropological approach might see short duration research as the very first step of a much longer process, within a social scientific framework, heading out into the field to gather data usually comes in the middle (or even toward the end) of a project. It is this logic of discovery that forces social scientists to begin by thinking about theory. That doesn’t mean one might not discover that a new causal story (or theoretical framework) will be necessary when you sit to analyze your hard-won data. As all of us who work in this area can attest, that happens with some frequency. But even that sort of “negative finding” is an incredibly important aspect of the research process and should not be confused with naïve empiricism.
The great advantage of such a data intensive, social-scientific, approach is that it allows for the construction of comparative case studies in which more general hypotheses about martial arts development, or social violence, can be compared across a variety of groups or even regions of the world. In the best-case analysis this might lead to the development of “covering laws.” I suspect that such a discovery would have thrilled old school hoplologists.
The obvious disadvantage to such a research strategy, however, is a subtle shift in focus. The data that we collect in our expedition is now geared to reveal more about our theories of human behavior in the abstract than the specific practices of a given community at a single point in time. One assumes that the “thick description” of participant observation would always address those realities better. Yet that is a process that inevitably takes time. Once again, martial arts studies researchers will need to think carefully about their basic goals long before they ever design a research project and set foot in the field.
Finally, it is worth considering who will be responsible for making these decisions. Much of the preceding discussion has assumed that it is a single researcher headed into the field as that is what reflects my personal experience. Yet one of the things that I find most interesting about the classic hoplological expedition is that they were undertaken by entire teams of researchers. That implies a much greater scope for potential specialization.
While everyone on a research team might bring their own martial arts background, members could be selected to represent a variety of disciplinary and methodological perspectives. A research trip to Southern Taiwan might include a researcher looking at social marginality, another who specialized in traditional medicine, an ethnomusicologist and a media studies specialist. Each of these individuals might be tasked with collecting data and testing a set of distinct hypotheses which all spoke to a larger set of theoretical propositions regarding the Southern Chinse martial arts in relation to any number of factors (globalization, social transformation, fictive kinship, the echoes of imperialism, etc…).
It is not hard to imagine the ways in which such a team might generate important synergies within their collective investigation. And if each of these researchers were to spend only a month in the field, they might generate a body of cultural insight that a single researcher working in isolation might take years to match.
As always there are dangers. One would need to guard against the emergence of “group think” or the fostering of potentially blinding ethnocentric attitudes among a small group of relatively homogenous researchers. Still, teams could also be constructed to bring a greater variety of perspectives and life experience than any one researcher could ever hope to possess.
It is difficult to say what a new hoplology might be, and whether such a thing could make unique contributions to the development of martial arts studies. It would certainly be nice to have a group of scholars dedicated to the careful construction of empirically rich case studies and datasets which might, in turn, inspire the creation of new research questions. And I personally would welcome a more sustained (and theoretically informed) investigation of the weapons and material culture that so many modern martial artists seem to fetishize. I suspect that the field as a whole could only benefit from these efforts.
This is not to say that there were not problematic elements within the older hoplological tradition, or issues that would have to be addressed before any attempt to resurrect the label within a modern academic framework could move forward. Yet I do not believe that the classic hoplological expedition is one of these problems. We would certainly want to avoid anything that smacks of amateurism or naïve empiricism. Yet from my perspective as a social scientist, such exercises might finally facilitate the emergence of a body of detailed, theoretically informed, comparative studies. That is a very exciting possibility for researchers who are interested in explaining causality or unraveling the functions of social structures. And even those individuals who are more focused on ethnographic approaches might find such short duration, highly focused, research opportunities useful as pilot projects opening the way for more sustained participant observation in the future.
There are likely good reasons why prior attempts to create something like martial arts studies failed to find a foothold in the academy. And if a new hoplology were to succeed, I suspect that it would be quite different from the projects that Draeger or Burton imagined. Yet short duration research expeditions constructed around the research interests of teams of specialists almost certainly have much to contribute to the field.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Martial Arts Studies: Answering the “So What?” Question
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
Wang Ziping (1881-1973) was an iconic figure within the world of the Republican martial arts. Having gained fame through his many feats of strength and public fights, the Muslim martial artist from Heibi province went on to hold important positions in the Central Guoshu Institute. Indeed, he was one of the few Chinese martial artists ever discussed by name in the New York Times prior to the Kung Fu Craze of the 1970s. Readers may recall that I recently wrote a brief biographical sketch of this important figure which you can review here.
Every essay must have a focus, and that piece was most concerned with the early years of Wang’s life and his contributions to the Guoshu movement. Unfortunately, I could only touch on his remarkable “second act.” While many important teachers fled to Taiwan, Hong Kong or South East Asia in 1949, Wang stayed in mainland China and went on to have a distinguished career both as a traditional Chinese medical practitioner and as an elder stateman of the martial arts. The Communist government would tap Wang for several important appointments and honors, all of which served to call him back into service as a supporter of the newly emerging Wushu program.
I hope to explore this later phase of Wang’s career in some of my future writings. Yet I think all would agree that the greatest honor came in 1960 when Zhou Enlai requested his presence on a state visit to Myanmar. Here he was once again called upon to demonstrate, and to be the public face of, the Chinese martial arts.
Multiple histories have already noted the significance of this trip. Less appreciated is the fact that in the years immediately following this expedition Wang was also used to educated English speaking Western audiences about the importance of the Chinese martial arts and their connection to the “New China.” In many respects, Wang’s role as “Kung Fu diplomat” was just getting started in 1949. His name would appear in publications such as China Reconstructs, one of the few official English language propaganda channels that the PRC sponsored during the period.
Still, I must admit that I have always had questions. When Wang was tapped to go to Myanmar he would have been close to 80 years old. After a lifetime of fights and punishing strength training (we often forget that in his youth Wang was also famous as a wrestler and professional strongman), what sort of demonstration would he have been able to offer? Did he undertake this trip primarily as a martial artist, or more as an elder statesman of what Western scholars refer to as “cultural diplomacy”? Short of finding some detailed film footage from the era, I assumed that this would be an impossible question to really answer. Many issues in the field of martial arts history will, by their very nature, remain a mystery.
Two Views of Wang Ziping
One can only imagine my surprise when I came across not one, but two, pieces of footage, both shot in 1963, that provided a pretty definitive answer to my question. Not only was Wang still active at the age of 80, he moved fantastically. Better yet, these films compliment the few other clips I had been able to locate on YouTube. Yet they did not come without some questions of their own.
Interested readers can link to these films here and here. Both clips are just under two minutes and offer a clear, well directed, vision of the period’s developing Wushu culture, complete with English language narration. Ironically, I came across both of these clips on the Getty Image database earlier in the Spring of 2018 when I was looking for newsreel footage of Chinese soldiers with dadao’s during the 1930s. I realized that both films were quite exciting, but it took a while for my own writing and research to catch up with them.
Sadly, Getty does not provide their properties with the types of citations that are generally required in academic publications, but we do have some information. Their labels make it clear that both clips came from some sort of English language “cultural survey” that the Chinese government completed in 1963. The actual title of this project, and how it was distributed to the West, are all left to the imaginations of the reader.
I have yet to resolve these questions and would appreciate any input that readers of this blog might have. Yet as I further explored the archive it became clear that there were many other clips from the same project. Some of these dealt with other traditional Chinese arts (such as the construction of miniature wood carvings). But the majority of them reflected the dominant discourses seen in other period propaganda pieces. China was shown as a technologically advanced, wealthy, nation that had already achieved a high degree of industrialization. Indeed, it was getting ready to challenge the West on its own terms. In one clip Chinese scientists were shown researching new petroleum products. In another Chinese surgeons successfully reattached a hand that had been severed in an industrial accident.
All of this should help us to properly frame and understand these clips. The view of China which this “cultural survey” set out to construct was overwhelming that of an advanced and industrialized nation. While clearly noting that the Wushu was an aspect of China’s traditional physical culture (or more specifically, a type “traditional calisthenics”), one got the sense that all of this was meant to underline the fundamental modernity that ran throughout the rest of the project. Foreign audiences were not meant to see in these scenes a romantic view of an unchanging China. Given the film’s avowedly Marxist viewpoint, its fundamental argument was that China had changed, and so had its martial arts.
These large themes can be seen in both clips. But beyond that, each clip seems to accomplish different goals for its Western audience. The first of these runs for 1:51 seconds. It opens with an establishing shot of senior citizens preforming Taijiquan in the park. Indeed, the age of the practitioners seems to be an organizing principal of this brief film. Having hailed the audience with what was already a fairly common trope, the camera then cuts to a shot of Wang Ziping leading a large group of children through a similar type of exercise. This scene seemed to have its own message. While “New China” was moving on, the younger generation would not forget their fundamental identity.
Questions of identity come up repeatedly in the narration of this brief clip. The next shot shows an enthusiastic young boy demonstrating a dynamic dao routine. The narrator informs the English speaking audience that Wushu was an art with uniquely “Chinese characteristics.” These could be found in its penchant for combining opposed sorts of movement.
As if to illustrate that point the camera then cut to Wang, who was demonstrating a sword set using a long, two handed jian. This is perhaps the best sequence in the film as it clearly establishes the virtuosity of his techniques. Yet rather than naming the master, the narrator simply informs the audience that such practices are “popular among the broad masses of the working people.”
Even when dealing with foreign audiences, China’s new government sought to define and justify the martial arts at least partially through a class-based narrative. Yes, this was “traditional” physical culture but, more importantly, it was property of the masses. Wang’s anonymous performance stood in technical contrast to what was about to come next. It seemed to exemplify the neo-historicism of certain aspects of the Republican period (such as a fascination with the archaic two handed jian) which was in contrast to the streamlined and socially conscious Wushu to come.
Having introduced both the very old, and the very young, the film then cut to the athletic performance of young adults in their prime. First an individual (who bears at least some resemblance to Wang’s son), dressed in a white silk performance costume, performed a more vigorous Jian set. The performance was spectacular and kinetic. After that we are introduced to the more acrobatic aspect of Wushu when an unarmed fighter is forced to “defend” himself from a dao wielding opponent. The visual tension was further escalated with a spear vs. double dagger performance. Both exciting and theatrical, such sets had been the mainstay of public demonstrations in the 1920s and 1930s. Finally, the clip ends with a female performing a solo set with the Emei piercers. She was dressed in the same silk uniform as the other university age performers who had come before.
None of the individuals in this clip were named. Rather, everyone was presented as a general cultural type: the group of old people doing Taijiquan in the park, the enthusiastic young students, and (most importantly) the mysterious teacher. Yet all of them were shown as contributing to the explosion of kinetic vigor seen in the final Wushu demonstrations. The narration of this film sought, in simple terms, to define this new Wushu for Western audience. Yet the director’s arrangement of visual images presented an equally compelling argument as to how a resurgent China was reframing and transforming its traditional cultural heritage.
The second film seeks to tell a very different story. Rather than defining Wushu, it uses traditional martial arts practice to explore the lives of a “typical Chinese family” living in a luxuriously furnished apartment in Shanghai. Of course, the patriarch of this multi-generational family is Wang Ziping.
If anything, the second clip is even more dramatic. It begins with a shot of Shanghai in the evening, focusing on the street lights and scenes of vehicles driving by the water. We then see the glowing windows of Wang’s residence as though we were visitors walking up the sidewalk.
As the camera moves inside, a family comes into focus. Whereas all of the figures in the previous clip were anonymous representation of the nation, we are now guests in a home. Introductions are in order. These begin with Wang himself, who is shown working on a piece of calligraphy. The audience is informed that Wang is a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, and the camera cuts to a quick shot of his clinic where he can be seen manipulating a patient’s arm.
Next, we meet Wang’s son. While his father wears traditional clothing, the son, like everyone else, is smartly dressed in western attire. He plays some type of shuffle board game with a number of other family members. We learn that he too is a physician.
After that we are introduced to Wang’s daughter and her husband, both of whom are professors. The camera then pans from a shot of the two speaking with their children, to a framed photograph on the wall in which Mrs. Wang is putting a group of identically dressed Wushu students through their paces. This would seem to answer any question as to what subject she taught.
Once we have established for the Western audience that this is indeed a “typical” Chinese family, we are then told that the Wang’s do have one unique characteristic. Despite their many professional commitments, they all gather during their free time to practice various types of Wushu in the park. A set of traditional weapons are shown leaning against a park bench and one by one a set of hands appears to claim them. A long continuous shot then weaves through the family group showing everyone involved in their own solo practice.
Finally, the viewers gaze is allowed to settle on Wang. He has again resumed his role as teacher and cultural guardian. We can see his face as he happily instructs one of his grandchildren. The segment ends as the camera pulls back to reveal a family united by practice.
There are many remarkable things about this second film. Perhaps the most basic might be that Communist (and even Republican) authorities tended to treat family/lineage-based practices with a fair degree of suspicion. These were seen as being based on pre-modern modes of social arrangements, and individuals ended up investing their loyalty in the group rather than the party or the nation.
The advent of the Cultural Revolution in 1965 would see a forceful reemergence of these claims, and the subsequent suppression of much traditional martial arts practice. This film shows a very different vision of family practice, one in which there are no doubts as to anyone’s loyalties, or their equal value to the group. Indeed, Wushu has been adopted as a means to tell Western viewers something important about the modern Chinese family. Under the guiding hand of the CCP, practices that might have been harmful to individuals or the nation have been rectified and made socially useful. If this is true for the martial arts, we can also rest assured that it is true for gender and family relations.
Nor was the first clip actually content to simply define Wushu. If the second film sought to use a visual portrayal of these practices to explain the family, it appears that the first’s real subject is the Chinese nation. The intergenerational portrayal of the Wushu was not a coincidence. Indeed, it can be read as an argument about transmission. What exactly does the narrator mean when he notes that Wushu possesses “Chinese characteristics?” The virtuosity of the anonymous teacher, and the explosive potential of his adult students, suggest that the stabilization of these traits was not a random or automatic process. Rather it was one of refinement and discernment, the creation of something essential by those who worked under the authority of a benevolent state.
These clips are remarkable not just because of the technical prowess that Wang and his family display. They also indicate that even prior to the advent of the Cultural Revolution the Chinese government was seriously investigating the use of the martial arts as a soft power resource. More specifically, in these clips they sought to use visual representations of Wushu to convey basic principles about the nature of the new Chinese state and the reformed (yet still reassuring traditional) family. Wang himself can be seen not just as a leading figure within the traditional Chinese martial arts community, but as a pioneer of the basic Kung Fu Diplomacy strategy which would come to define much of the global view of these practices in the current era.
If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (22): Wang Ziping and the Strength of the Nation