Who “Killed” Kung Fu: Habermas and the Legitimization Crisis within Traditional Martial Arts

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“A Sword Fight.” 1917, magic lantern slide showing Wang Wen-lin and Wang Shhh-Ching. Source: The Digital Collections of Springfield College.



The air is distinctly crisp, the end of October is upon us, and Halloween rapidly approaches. Clearly, it is time to talk about zombies.  We seem to go through periods of collective fascination with the image of empty human husks shambling across a barren landscape, neither truly alive or dead. These monsters fascinate us not because of their cunning or strength. Taken one at a time they are incapable of accomplishing any goal. Their only defining characteristic is a paradoxical immunity to death.  They just keep walking across the historical landscape.

Jurgen Habermas had a lot to say about zombies though, to the best of my knowledge he never used the term. Rather than the Walking Dead on the outskirts of Atlanta, he was more concerned with the sorts of failed states that sometimes appeared on the historical stage.  In his writing on the “Legitimization Crisis” (1973) he noted that the loss of popular support didn’t always result in revolution or state collapse.  Instead one often encountered a situation where the institutions of government continued to amble along (often for an improbable length of time), and yet found themselves unable to effectively call on society’s resources to accomplish their core political goals. The government had clearly lost its authority, yet no replacement could be seen on the horizon.

Both a social theorist and public intellectual, Habermas is one of the great thinkers of the 20thcentury.  This does not mean that his work has been universally accepted. He famously clashed with Derrida, and Habermas wrote a widely cited essay in the early 1980s taking aim at the excesses of post-modern thought.  Still, as the Western democracies approach a critical historical crossroads while gripped by social and political paralysis, it’s hard to see his work on the origin and nature of the legitimization crisis as anything other than prophetic.

To oversimplify, Habermas began by asking students to think carefully about how authority emerges and functions within a social system. Such systems are composed of the governmental institutions (both formal and informal) that wield authority, socio-cultural considerations (values, identities, norms, etc) and economic exchanges (who gets what resource).  In a well-functioning social system it may not be necessary to split out these various realms as they will tend to blend into one another, supported by overarching social discourses.  Individual values will uphold political authority, as will economic markets.

Issues arise when competing discourses emerge and the fractures between these realms become more pronounced. Or we might imagine them as being constructed or reconstructed by a new set of competitive discourses.  More specifically, a “crisis of legitimacy” erupts when citizens cease to believe that a political system reflects their socio-cultural values, or that the old values that it is based on continue to have utilitarian (political/economic) value.  In this instance their “life world” (lebenswelt) ruptures. One would hope that the political system would adapt to the new reality, but that is never the only possibility. It might rupture into competing factions (civil wars) or simply shamble along as a failed state, incapable of drawing on the creative resources of society.

That brings us back to the zombies. One does not have to watch the news for very long to realize that modern nation states are not the only institutions that can suffer this fate. Indeed, we are increasingly surrounded by all sorts of economic and cultural institutions who have been crippled by rapid social change. If I were to level a single criticism at Habermas it would be that he drew the boundaries of his discussion of the legitimization crisis much too narrowly, focusing primarily on states. Historical investigation would seem to support the hypothesis that all sorts of other social values and cultural institutions must fall into crisis before the nation-state (typically a very resilient entity) is imperiled. Thus, for the logic of Habermas to be true at the macro level (something that is hard to empirically test) it must first hold true at the at the micro level (which is more easily observed).

Admittedly, such a project would explicitly contradict Habermas’ avowed goal to re-establish “grand theory” as a valued realm distinct from the plebeian world of “empirical testing.” I personally have always been a bit suspicious of “grand theory,” probably because it is not very helpful when one is attempting to write local history. In any event, good theories should be portable, and all sorts of “life worlds” (including the martial arts) could be thought of as possessing governing structures, social/cultural values and mechanisms of economic exchange.  In fact, one would be hard pressed to come up with a more apt description of the social structure of traditional martial arts communities.



A detailed look at a pair of Shuang Gau. This is pair measures 95 cm in length and may be of a similar vintage to the swords seen in these images. Source: http://www.swordsantiqueweapons.com/s1015_full.html



Who Killed Kung Fu?

It is not difficult to perceive the signs of a legitimization crisis within the traditional martial arts. Class enrollments are down almost across the board and many schools struggle to stay open.  Traditional styles are openly derided in one-sided contests with MMA or Muay Thai stylists on social media. There even seems to be fewer martial arts movies.

Yet not all of the trends are easily interpreted.  There is more high quality popular, and even academic, publishing on these systems being produced and consumed than ever before. Judged by the quality of the information we have access to, we are living in the golden age of kung fu scholarship. Yet popular magazines are struggling.  While the potential market for information on the traditional martial arts is expanding in terms of the number of serious readers, its dollar value has radically diminished. While this trend has hurt traditional publishers and book sellers, more small scale “prosumers” are putting out content (typically on Youtube or Facebook) than ever before.

The general state of affairs might best be summed up as one of confusion. The leading traditional forces that have structured the Chinese martial arts community still exist. We still have large lineage-based schools. There are a number of stylistic and regional associations, as well as commercial producers of both books and training gear. Yet they all seem unable to lead the community toward a meaningful revitalization effort.  In the mean-time, large numbers of students adopt unorthodox modes of practices or simply leave the martial arts all together.

As with zombies, I am not aware that Habermas ever mentioned the martial arts community.  Yet if he did, I suspect that he would not be surprised by the general state of affairs.  Drawing on the more sociological aspects of his work, I he would note our situation is particularly complicated as we face a legitimization crisis on not one, but two, fronts.  Further, these two sources of tension might interact with each other in complicated ways.  All of this, in turn, stems from a change in the cost of communication, making transformative contact between people much less expensive than it had been. Yet to see how a change in one social variable (the price of communication) might lead to two slightly different types of legitimization crises, we first need to revisit the last era of major social/political realignment within the Chinese martial arts.

During the Republic period internal communication within China was relatively expensive. Even the Chinese government, which dedicated substantial resources to the project, found it practically impossible to transmit its point of view on critical diplomatic issues to citizens in Western countries.  In this sort of situation, effective communication required a sponsor with substantial resources. This forced the Chinese martial arts into alliances with various political actors.  Traditionally these had either been the Imperial military, or local social elites who needed to maintain a degree of order within their own village, marketplace or clan. As such, Chinese martial arts networks derived their legitimacy from their relationship with regional or clan based identities. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying a complicated situation, it was their tight alignment with these narrow forces that gave them access to (and legitimacy within) local communities.

None of this was particularly helpful to the wave of national reformers who came to power after 1911. Seeing the importance of budo in the creation of a cohesive and modern Japanese state, they wished to do something similar in China.  Yet that required talking and thinking about the martial arts in a fundamentally different way.  What had been particularistic and local now needed to be universal and open.  Whereas local elites had benefited from their relationship with martial arts societies, these allegiances needed to be transferred to the national level.

A variety of new institutions were created to do just that.  Formal establishments like the New Wushu and Guoshu movements sought to give the state direct control over the organization of local martial arts societies. Other reformers (such as the Jingwu movement, and much of the Taijiquan community) favored a less statist (but equally nationalist) strategy in which universal creation myths were promoted and “lineage” communities that may have once been very local were reimagined as being national in scope.

It should be remembered that this new vision of the Chinese martial arts did not emerge in a vacuum. Rather, it was the result of a sophisticated debate on what the “new China” should be.  Nor was the victory of these views immediate or even total. A full blown legitimization crisis emerged within the Chinese martial arts.  The Guoshu program looked very powerful on paper, but most of China’s local martial artists simply ignored its tournaments and directives as they did not directly address their values or local needs. Worse yet, many intellectuals within the May 4thmovement openly derided its goals and methods. The result was a long legitimization dispute which Jon Nielson and I described in our book.

Yet from this transformation arose the system of allotting “authority” within the traditional Chinese martial arts that most of us now take for granted.  A system of dual legitimization was created.  Formal political institutions (first Guoshu, and later Wushu) claimed legitimacy through their adherence to scientific and modernizing principals which placed the martial arts at the disposal of the state.  This became the dominant way in which the Chinese martial arts were legitimated within the PRC.  In this case the “political element” of the community was a set of actual formal institutions answerable to the government.  Outside of that realm, a new set of “traditions” were made available to national, and then universal, communities. Regardless of your location or country of birth, one could experience some aspect of the Chinese nation by studying in any one of these open, commercial, schools.  They reconfigured China’s traditional folk arts in such a way that they were now available to students anywhere in the world.  This social system gained dominance in Taiwan, the South East Asian diaspora and the West.


A “Sword Dancer” by Hadda Morrison. Source: Harvard Digital Archives.


Recent changes within the Western social realm have created a new set of challenges for this second mode of legitimization. The rise of a renewed emphasis on empirical verification in many places in Western society during the 1970s-1990s posed a direct challenge to all sorts of “arguments by authority”. One of the places that we can see this playing out is in an erosion of public trust in all sorts of “expert” bodies. The decline of traditional religious communities might be another place (though here we must also account for the modernization and related secularization hypotheses).

Rather than allowing either the nation or “tradition” to arbitrate what techniques were effective (and therefore legitmate), a new generation of martial artists, not culturally beholden to the norms of the previous systems, advocated putting such practices to the test.  This tendency has long been present in the West.  Indeed, we can even see it in Bruce Lee’s writings in the 1970s.  Yet by the 1990s this was increasingly the dominant current of thought which would give rise to practices like the Mixed Martial Arts.

It is critical to realize that the traditional arts involved in these disputes are in crisis not simply because they often lose in Youtube challenge matches. Being repeatedly pummeled in viral videos certainly doesn’t help their cause. Yet even if they were to win there would still be an almost identical crisis of legitimacy as the older generation of Masters (who hold the keys of “tradition”) no longer have the ability to determine when violent conflict is publicly allowed and how it will be socially interpreted.  Under these circumstances even a win represents a loss of standing for the traditional faction as it suggests that young fighters training under “scientific conditions” can succeed largely without their blessing.

I was recently part of an (extended) conversation that illustrated this situation quite nicely. It began when I was chatting with a Wing Chun instructor of my own generation about the state of the art today. While others take a dim view of “kids these days,” he has a cheerful disposition and is something of an optimist. He is also an outspoken advocate of placing non-cooperative sparring (often with people from outside your style) at the center of serious Wing Chun training.

Needless to say, doing so tends to have a definite effect on one’s body structure. You can still apply Wing Chun concepts to most competitive sparring sessions, but it doesn’t look like a sticky hands drills.  Nor does it look like anything you would see in the unarmed forms (unless you really knew what you were looking for).  In fact, my own Sifu (who also engaged in some similar practices) often told me that in actual combat my fighting should not look like Wing Chun.  I shouldn’t necessarily appear to have any style at all.  My movements should just appear to be clean and effective.

As more and more Wing Chun students start to spar at local “open mat nights,” my friend was happy to note that he could see visible changes within the physical culture (perhaps the “habitus”) of the younger generation of students. At least that was his opinion.  He noted that the tactical and athletic issues facing students today are vastly different than sixty years ago when Ip Man (who, for the record, was also an innovator) began to teach in Hong Kong.  Our approach to the art needs to adapt just as his did.

This opinion was not shared by an older instructor in the same field who I had spoken with some time earlier.  Sparring, especially with random individuals from outside one’s style, was a problem in his view.  It led to students becoming “confused.”  What the younger sifu saw as an “effective defense” in a practical situation, he perceived only as sloppy and ill informed. Indeed, he proclaimed that this wasn’t kung fu at all.  Mirroring a criticism I have heard dozens of other times, he decried such sparring as “mere kickboxing,” and proclaimed that in fact no actual martial art was being practiced. In his view, if one’s Wing Chun did not look the same in a fight as in the training hall, it wasn’t Wing Chun at all. Nor was he willing to concede that modern combat sports (such as boxing, kickboxing or MMA) might be “authentic” martial arts that also required huge amounts of dedication and training.

Beyond merely being a difference of opinions, it is also worth noting that these instructors drew their personal authority from very different sources.  The more senior instructor leaned heavily (as one might guess) on tradition and lineage as a source of authority.  The younger coach based the legitimacy of his views in large part on the success of his students in many local mixed style tournaments.  In the social world of the older Sifu, only the authorized guardians of tradition were able to judge if something met the criteria of “good” Wing Chun.  But in a public boxing match, anyone can add up the points on the score card at the end of a fight.

The real threat to traditional modes of legitimization within this particular community is not that the younger Sifu’s students might be seen losing a fight on Youtube. Authorities have always found it easy to explain away “dissidents with bad attitudes” when they lose.  The actual crisis occurs when more modern interpretations of Wing Chun are seen to publicly win, providing an alternative framework for judging the legitimacy of someone’s training practice.

Beyond this we must also consider the economic basis of these arts. Who can teach, and who can profit, from the dissemination of knowledge? While related to the issue of authority, movement in this area can also trigger a distinct set of legitimization crises.

In a 2014 paper, Adam Frank looked at the issue of “family secrets” in one Taiji community regarding who was authorized to benefit from teaching or withholding this information. When this community had few contacts outside of China, and little opportunity to benefit from lucrative teaching positions in Europe and North America, there was less concern as to who taught this material.  Once the international profile of the school began to rise, a reconsolidation occurred in which some previously authorized teachers were marginalized within the community, thus reassigning the “right” to teach the complete art to a smaller number of “family members.”

Students of Martial Arts Studies are free to have a variety of opinions about this, and all sorts of values are implicated in the story that Frank lays out.  Yet from Habermas’ perspective, such an outcome was not unexpected.  One would naturally expect that the economic aspect of how benefits are apportioned within the community to match the “political” dimension of how authority is defined. In a stable social system those who are widely perceived as the legitimate teachers should be the one’s to economically benefit from the spread of the community. This would provide them with an incentive to make sure that the system perpetuates itself.

Yet these bearers of tradition are not challenged only by shifts in social/cultural values.  The radical decrease in the cost of communication has impaired their ability to monetize their authority, even in areas of the community that share their values. Selling books and magazine articles was, in the past, a critical aspect of building a strong community.  From the 1970s-1990s it allowed leaders to both profit from their teaching while ensuring that their understanding of a system’s values and techniques remained hegemonic.  Again, in a stable social system the political, economic and social discourses reinforce one another.

The rise of social media dealt a serious blow to the martial arts publishing industry. In its place we now have an explosion of Youtube channels in which the very same senior students and junior instructors (and sometimes simply random class members) who would have previously been the core consumers of centrally distributed materials, are now producing their own instructional content.

This is an important phenomenon as it reflects a shift in the values within the underlying social system. It is easy to criticize the uneven quality of much of this free material, but even a sceptic must stand back and admire the sheer volume of information that is now being produced.  While in a previous generation one might have defined their identity (at least in part) by the sorts of media that one bought and consumed, individuals now make similar judgements based on what they produce and disseminate.  In the age of the “prosumer” (or producer/consumer), broadcasting your views on Wing Chun has become a valid way of performing one’s membership in this community.  Needless to say, this explosion of free communication has made it nearly impossible for the guardians of tradition to dominate the economic exploitation of the art.

Indeed, many of the most profitable and fastest growing areas within the TCMA seem to be the most marginal. The announcement of newly discovered lineages, weapon sparring leagues, or attempts to “rediscover” lost arts through the interpretation of historical texts all elicit excitement.  And at least some of these things should.  Yet in some respects they all diminish the center’s ability to monetize its claims to traditional, lineage based, authority.


A photograph (probably 1930s) showing a marketplace martial arts demonstration. Note the Shuang Gau led by the man on the left. Source: The personal collection of Benjamin Judkins


The Stakes

So how does it all end? Within the popular press we are frequently treated to dire predictions about the death of kung fu.  I think it is worth remembering that the martial art have suffered other legitimization crises in the not so distant past and they are still very much with us today.  Indeed, a brewing crisis seems to be exactly what opens to the door to “political change” (in the sense that Habermas used the term) within a social system.

Perhaps the most obvious possibility is that the utilitarian and empirical values that are widely held by practitioners of the various arts come to be written into our collective understanding of their “traditional” identity.  Given that these notions of “tradition” were almost entirely socially constructed in the 1920s-1950s, that may be less difficult than one might at first glance suppose. Indeed, if you carefully read the front-matter of many of martial arts books produced between the 1910s and the 1940s you will discover that in point of fact the martial artists of the Republican period can provide a lot of ideological cover for today’s rationalizers and modernizers.  Alternatively, a shift in our current social values might lead Western consumers back towards a more community focused appreciation of the martial arts at some point. These sorts of trends are very difficult to predict in the long run.

A less pleasant possibility, however, is increasing schism.  The issues in these disputes are not merely ones of style or effectiveness. While those points may be debated, more fundamental questions about our core social values and identities are clearly implicated in all of this.  How do we know good kung fu when we see it, and who is allowed to make that determination? As Paul Bowman noted, the gap between traditional modes of establishing authority, and those favored by either utilitarian norms or academic training (in the case of historical debates), is unlikely to be bridged. It is when a substantial segment of the community increasingly tunes out, or simply walks away, that we see the emergence of zombie institutions.  They continue to shamble along, but with no real ability to draw on the resources of their members or to respond to their essential demands.  It remains to be seen how all of this will play out in the current era, but like the younger Sifu discussed above, I remain optimistic.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Reflections on the Long Pole: History, Technique and Embodiment


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