Nonviolence and Martial Arts Studies

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  ***One of my goals in creating Kung Fu Tea was to inspire more enthusiasm for (and participation in) the scholarly discussion of martial arts.  As such, I am happy to share a reader’s lengthy response to a recent essay…. Continue Reading →

Violence and Peace: Reconsidering the Goals of Martial Arts

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  What is my motivation? Connecting the dots between an individual’s intentions, their actions and subsequent systemic outcomes is more difficult than one might suspect.  Just ask any social scientist. Understanding each of these categories is important if we want… Continue Reading →

Issue 7 of Martial Arts Studies Now Available: Wing Chun, Collectivism and Fighting Gender Stereotypes

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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 [2015], 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].

As always, this issue is freely available on-line. Or visit our webpage to learn more about this publication and to find our call for papers.



Do you still need to catch up with Issue 6 of Martial Arts Studies?  If so click here.





Swords, Visuality and the Construction of China

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Chinese soldier photographed by Harrison Forman. While part of a series of issues distributed in 1938 captions indicate that these images were probably taken in the early 1930s. Source: The Forman Collection in the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Digital Archives.


Deciphering an Icon

Recently I came across a few of Harrison Forman’s wartime photos, probably taken in the early 1930s, but circulated to newspapers and (re)published in 1938.  While his photos of militia groups following the 8th Route Army (discussed here) remain less well known, these particular images have gained a quasi-iconic status. I suspect that they, and other similar images, helped to define popular Western notions of China’s struggle during the late 1930s. This also makes them of interest to students of Martial Arts Studies as they prominently feature swords and what appears to be a display of China’s traditional military culture.

Still, as I reviewed these photos I found myself wondering what was really going.  Were these images actually taken in the field?  Or were they composed by Forman himself?  And if latter, how were such images of martial masculinity meant to be read?  Why do so many of Forman’s photographs, as well as other images from the period, go to such great lengths juxtaposing the coexistence of “modern” military weapons with “traditional” martial culture, squeezing both elements into ever more complex symbolic frames?  Lastly, what does this suggest about the ways in which the Republic era revival of the martial arts was used to shape China’s image on the global stage?

To fully answer these questions, we may need to compare Forman’s photos to some less well-known images of Chinese soliders collected and distributed in the late Qing and early Republic period.  Doing so suggests the existence of certain key symbols which quickly gained a remarkable degree of stability in the popular imagination. Yet while the image of a Chinese soldier or martial artists holding an oversized blade has been stable, its social meaning has varied greatly. Many players, both within and outside of China, have deconstructed and contested these images. Controlling the visuality of the martial arts has been a key tool in a series of debates about the nature of the Chinese state and nation. A few of the ideas of the theorist Rey Chow may help to launch this investigation.


The Eternal Swordsman

Few images within the Chinese martial arts have proved more durable than the traditionally trained swordsman openly practicing his trade in the age of the gun. He can be seen everywhere, from Japanese postcards to Hong Kong kung fu films. But what sort of “person” is this individual?

Thomas Taylor Meadows, a British officer stationed in China during the Taiping Rebellion, was among the first to reflect on this question as he observed numerous skirmishes and battles.  In one section of his best-known work, The Chinese and Their Rebellions, he sought to rebut the commonly held Western beliefs that 1) all Chinese individuals have similar personalities 2) that as a group they are more cowardly than Europeans and shied away from combat.

In an attempt to negate both views he relates to his readers a curious incident of “War Dancing” (what we would term the performance of a solo martial arts set) in the middle of a fire fight which he observed as both rebel troops (who held the city) and imperial soldiers contested control of a graveyard outside of Shanghai. Meadows set the scene by describing the artillery and armaments of both sides. By this point in the war both parties were armed primarily with Western cannons, state of the art European made muskets and a surprising number of revolvers.  He described the order of battle as being similar to that seen in the Crimean War with heavy volleys of fire being exchanged between groups of soldiers who were either sheltered behind the city’s walls, or moving between “rifle pits” and the sorts of cover that the graveyard landscape afforded.  All of this was very similar to what one might have observed in a European conflict of the time.

Yet similar should never be confused with identical. While playing no part in the actual siege, Meadows notes that “cold weapons” were evident on the battlefield.  One Imperial spearman, having nothing to contribute to an exchange of gun fire, took shelter behind a building with Meadows and other Chinese onlookers.  Another soldier, armed with a sword and rattan shield, approached the battle differently.  He walked out into an open area (where a companion was firing a musket at rebel forces) and proceeded to demonstrate his sword set, all while shouting insults at the enemy, slashing at imaginary opponents and tumbling over his shield.

On a substantive level he contributed little to the battle.  Indeed, one suspects that most such skirmishes were actually decided by the artillery. Nor was this individual the lone exception.  Meadows told his story because he believed it would convey something about the nature of the conflict to his readers back in the UK.  Very similar reports were also lodged by British soldiers involved in the First and Second Opium Wars in Southern China, and much later by units participating in the costly march on Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion. It is an often overlooked fact that by 1900 the Imperial Chinese troops had weapons just as advanced as any of the Western nations that came to save the Legation.  Yet battlefield martial arts displays, usually attributed to “possessed Boxers,” remained fairly common. All of this seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to Forman’s much later photograph.

Accounts such as these are why so many Westerners became obsessed with the image of the sword wielding Chinese boxer, soldier or pirate. The basic image might be labeled in a variety of ways. Yet in each case it seems to have invoked the same combination of fascination and disgust. It would be more difficult to think of a better example of Rey Chow’s critique of “visualism,” in which modernity functions by reducing people or ideas into two dimensional depictions, than the early 20th century explosion of photographs of Chinese men wielding swords.

Such images facilitated the mental, and then political, classification of China, justifying its imperial occupation. A close reading suggests that many of these classifications rest on seeming contradictions. While focusing on men, their subjects are emasculated through an association with obsolete technology, poverty or backwards superstitions.  Chinese territory is potentially dangerous, yet in need of Western protection and guidance.  And when modern weapons occur in an image, rather than focusing our attention on the breakneck speed of social change, the existence of traditional tools subconsciously reinforces the notion that China is somehow eternal. A land without history can never change.  It is a country without a future.


Late Qing portrait of the Changtu Prefect and his personal guard. Photographer unknown (at least by me).


Such notions would likely have been projected onto this image by early 20thcentury Western viewers as well.  Once again, notice the prominent juxtaposition of modern (Western) weapons with their traditional (Chinese) counterparts.  Judging from the legible inscriptions in this photograph, Douglas Wile has concluded that it is a portrait of the Prefect of Changtu (now part of Liaoning Province) and his personal guard. Obviously, such an image would have been taken prior to the 1911 revolution.

At that time the long Mauser rifles with WWI era “roller-coaster” sights seen in this photo would have been state of the art.  And having a couple of guys with halberds standing at a door or gate would also have made a lot of sense. Yet one suspects that rather than a well-armed bodyguard, post-Boxer Rebellion viewers would likely have seen one more piece of evidence of a nation incapable of change.  In certain quarters such images (invoking fears of beheadings for minor offenses) were taken as powerful justifications for the preservation of Western legal privileges (such as extra-territoriality) and even colonial “guardianship.” The observation and dissemination of images of the “traditional” martial arts was often coopted by the forces of imperial discourse.  That is vital to remember as it strongly suggests that there was nothing inevitable about the reemergence of similar images in the post-WWII era as anchors of the post-colonial discourse. Bruce Lee probably would have played quite different to audiences in 1901.

The production and widespread dissemination of such images in the early 20thcentury opened Chinese society to conflicting social pressures. On the one hand there was immense pressure to “modernize,” making the nation equal to the Western powers. This would mean discarding much or all of China’s traditional culture.  Yet Chow has also warned her readers of another danger in these situations. As “ethnic” individuals in colonial situations grapple with the meaning of their identity, perhaps by trying to find domestic sources of pride or strength necessary to resist imperialism in their own autobiographies, they risk internalizing the dominant critique of their culture and performing an increasingly two dimensional act of what was once an authentic culture as they respond to a set of critiques that were likely based on (malicious) misunderstandings.


A vintage Japanese postcard showing images (likely taken in the late teens or twenties) of “Big Sword Units training their bravery.”


Perspective matters. And it is interesting to think about the role of both bodily experience and cultural expectations in shaping one’s perspective. Meadows wrote in an era when it was increasingly evident swords had little utility on the battlefield, but they were still very much part of Western 19thcentury military life. By the Republican era that had changed. The Japanese situation was more complicated.

Our next image was taken from a Japanese postcard, probably produced during the 1920s, which shows Chinese soldiers, dressed in smart civilian clothing, demonstrating their sword forms.  We have already read numerous accounts of demonstrations such as these (particularly those staged by General Ma), but it is interesting to see that Japanese publishers decided that there was an market for such an image at home.

The Japanese discourse towards China in the 1920s and 1930s was much more belligerent than anything seen in the West. One need not carefully analyze their literature or trade practices for hints of imperialist discourses. You only needed to watch where their armies marched or read their formal diplomatic declarations.  This is not to say that their popular culture was not of immense interest.  Japanese youth literature of the period tended to portray China as a land of adventure where adventurous boys could not just serve the nation, but prove their worth. And the increasing militancy of government mandated martial arts practice in Japanese schools helped to ensure that the nation’s youth would be prepared to do just that.

It goes without saying that within this internal nationalist discourse the sword (or more properly, the katana) meant something entirely different from what it signaled on the pages of the North China Herald or New York Times.  While a traditional symbol, it did not denote national backwardness.  Rather, it was a symbol of national identity.  And it became the vessel for much more positive cultural content.  It represented the notions of sacrifice, spiritual determination and individual physical strength placed in the service of the nation.  It represented that aspect of primoradial Japanese identity that both made it distinct, but also well suited for global competition among its national peers.

One byproduct of mandating years of state sponsored kendo or judo training was the creation of a large number of individuals who were bound to be at least somewhat curious about Chinese martial practice.  One suspects that the young men who collected these postcards may have been intrigued by images of solo-forms practice (rare in modern kendo), and the different sabers favored by the Chinese. Yet it is highly unlikely that such an image would have struck them as a symbol of national backwardness.  Indeed, the Chinese soldiers in this image were dressed much more “progressively,” and in a more Western manner, than Japanese Kendo students.

Such an image, while highlighting differences in national martial practices, likely would have suggested the existence of the sort of cultural affinities that supported the logic of Japan’s desired “co-prosperity” sphere.  Once again, images of the Chinese martial arts might be used to undermine notions of China’s national independence, but now for very different reasons. Rather than pointing to the backwardness of these practices, the Japanese could instead claim to be best positioned to promote their future development.


A second angle of Forman’s iconic photo, this time with an improved and more dynamic composition. Source: The Forman Collection at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee library.


All of this may be part of the answer to our initial question.  Yet we still have not considered the evolving Chinese interpretation of this key image, or what they might gain from cooperating in its reproduction and global distribution.  The Japanese postcard is important as it suggests that such images did not actually undermine one’s claim to modernity, or legitimacy within the nation state system, in an absolute sense.  Even more important than the production of these images was how their interpretation was negotiated, destabilized, contested and claimed on the world stage. This was a project that an increasing number of Chinese reformers would turn their attention to in the 1920s and 30s, re-entering a space that had been largely dominated by outside voices since the Boxer Uprising.

Much like the Japanese architects of Budo, Chinese social reformers carefully searched their history and culture for the tools to resist imperialism.  Part salvage project, and part nation building exercise, such impulses had given rise to the “self-strengthen” movement in the late 19thcentury which saw in the martial arts strategies for resisting the West through “Yin power.” Later (in the 1920s and 30s) similar impulses would be promoted by the “national essence” and guoshu reformers.

Yet just as Chow warned, the harnessing of Yin power was first premised on the acceptance of often skewed externally inspired narratives of national weakness.  It is well worth remembering that it was Chinese journalists and intellectuals who harped on the image of “the sick man of Asia”, not their counterparts in New York or London. The promotion of China’s “traditional” martial arts seemed a ready-made cure for this self-imposed cultural syndrome.

Many of China’s more liberal reformers disagreed with these prescriptions.  Accepting that superstition and backwardness were at the root of China’s weakened state, the May 4th Reformers favored a much more enthusiastic embrace of Western social, economic and cultural institution.  They were inherently suspicious of attempts to save China’s future by reimagining what its past practices had been. The disastrous events of the Boxer Uprising were still too fresh in their minds to embrace Jingwu’s (or later guoshu’s) promises of a modernized and reformed martial art placed at the disposal of the nation. Chow’s work on the various strategies involved in the construction of “ethnic images” would seem to be a fruitful place to begin to untangle the debate between these two factions as to what role (if any) the martial arts should play in the creation of New China.

All of this suggests a new perspective from which to view Forman’s original photograph.  KMT officials and the guoshu reformers embraced the traditional martial arts because they saw in them a chance to disrupt Western expectations about Chinese society. Yes, domestic unity and nation building were their primary goals.  Yet the KMT constructed a public diplomacy campaign around guoshu (foreshadowing in significant ways the PRC’s current wushu strategy) because they perceived an opening to demonstrate-through staged spectacle and newspaper story-that China was in fact strong, courageous, and modern.  Better yet, it possessed a unique culture capable of making important contributions to global discussions.

It is interesting to read Forman’s photograph within the framework of that ongoing contest of ideas. The old and new are contrasted not just within the right and left side of the frame, but even within the two halves of the swordsman’s body.  In one hand he holds a dadao, China’s now iconic sword.  In the other we see Mauser 88 rifle (either a Chinese produced copy or an imported German model).  While it is often claimed that the dadao was issued only because the Chinese were too poor to produce modern rifles, this photo problematizes such statements.

While genetically descendent from the Mauser rifles carried by the private bodyguards seen above, it should be noted that these examples have been altered in significant ways.  The barrels are shorter, carbine length, conversions and the complex WWI era sights have been replaced with something simpler and lower profile.  In short, the Chinese small arms seen in this photo are more or less identical to the modified bolt action rifles then being issued by countries like Japan, Germany, the USSR and the UK.  Clearly this soldier does not cling to his dadao out of sheer necessity. In this photograph it serves another purpose.

The fact that this image exists in two forms (one with two soldiers, the other with three) confirms our initial suspicions that the composition is an artificial one arranged by Forman, rather than a spontaneous display of Chinese martial culture.  As such we must begin to consider how its creator meant for this image to be read by the public.

The University of Wisconsin Milwaukie archives (which holds the original version of this image) have also preserved three of the original captions that it was distributed with. Editors who bought the image through a newswire service were free to choose any of these when they ran the photo. Interestingly, each of captions reads slightly differently.  The first view is the most negative, placing the sword within the symbolic realm of backwardness and superstition.  In many ways it is a continuation of press traditions from the turn of the century.

Caption 1: “The ‘big sword man’ as the symbol of the warrior of traditional China.  He was brave, agile, and fought his enemy hand-to-hand. He lasted into the twentieth century, gradually accepting the rifle as a weapon for modern warfare.  The Japanese invasion of China in 1931 finally convinced the Chinese to discard the outmoded ‘big sword,’ even as a secondary weapon as here shown in the invasion of Manchuria.”

These observations notwithstanding, the dadao remained common throughout WWII. Produced in large numbers by innumerable small shops, they were issued both to second line militia units as well as to fully equipped professional troops who carried them as the Chinese answer to the Japanese Katana or the British/Indian/Nepalese Kukri (a topic near and dear to my own heart).  Given that American newspapers were full of headlines about China’s “big sword troops” in 1938, I am not sure how many editors would have decided to run this caption.

The second possibility reads as follows: “’The Spirit of Ancient China.’ Big Swordmen -great hand-to-hand fighters, in the old traditional manner – with a modernly equipped trooper of Chiang Kai-shek’s famed 88thDivision. (Photographed in North Station).”

This caption is interesting as it begins the process of presenting the dadao to the Western reader in a “spiritualized” fashion.  Yet it is still fit within the Western motif of romanticism for “vanishing China.” Regardless, it is difficult to accept that this individual is fully representative of that past as he too carries a rifle identical to that possessed by the “modernly equipped trooper.”

Finally, the third and most interesting caption reads: “The Spirit of Ancient China! – The fellow with the big sword.  In the crook of his arm is modern China – the trooper with the steel helmet and modern rifle. Together they oppose Japan.”

Here we begin to see what Forman may have intended with the curious composition of this photograph. Rather than invoking the historical memory of accounts like that by Meadows, his meaning was more symbolic.  One soldier, representing the national essence, spread a protective arm (holding a highly symbolic weapon) over the head of his comrade busily taking aim at an (imaginary) opponent.  This photography was never intended to be a historical, let alone an ethnographic, document.  Rather it was a symbolic argument about the relationship between the Chinese nation and the state.  In the great debate over the shape of “New China,” Forman was making clear his sympathies with the national essence position.


Soldiers demonstrating a dada set before a crowd celebrating the donation swords and helmets to the war effort.



This global rehabilitation of the Chinese sword in the Republic era suggest that the government’s “Kung Fu diplomacy” efforts paid off. Once a symbol of backwardness within an imperialist discourse, by 1938 it was at least possible to see a sword wielding soldier as a symbol of national strength. Of course Westerners were also fascinated with the Japanese katana, and that seems to have provided a mental map for bringing the dadao back into the political lexicon.

The fact that three possible captions were circulated with this iconic image is an important reminder that symbols are never self-interpreting.  Each image holds many possible meanings, some of which overlap, while others may even contradict.  While the Chinese swordsman has proved to be surprisingly resilient, his meaning has been far from stable.  Various political and social reformers (not to mention martial artists) have attempted to destabilize, contest and renegotiate this figure.  While the reproduction of “ethnic images” was conserved, the political implications that they have carried over the 20th century has varied drastically.

Likewise, the meaning, values and goals of the martial arts are not set in stone. While certain bodily techniques may be stable over a period of 100 years or more, their social function and meaning has changed.  They too have been subject to successive rounds of destabilization, negotiation and interpretation.  If surveyed over a period of one or two centuries, a wide variety of period practitioners would likely agree on the appearance of the Chinese martial arts, but would hotly debate their meaning or purpose.  Chow’s theories of ethnicity and visuality suggest some of the reasons why that would likely be the case.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Yim Wing Chun and the “Primitive Passions” of Southern Kung Fu



Performance Ethnography and the Martial Arts Studies Reader

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As the indomitable Professor Farnsworth would say, good news everyone! The long anticipated Martial Arts Studies Reader (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) is now shipping.  Weighing in at 244 pages, and featuring articles by over a dozen of the most respected names in the field, this volume is sure to be referenced for years to come. Its timely chapters can easily be integrated into a wide variety of course reading lists. And if you look closely, you may even find my latest paper on the lightsaber combat community. This book will be of interest to both scholars and practitioners seeking to understand the evolution and social meaning of the modern martial arts.  Featuring articles by Peter Lorge, Douglas Wile, Meaghan Morris and D. S. Farrer, it is sure to find a place on all of our holiday gift lists.


Speaking of which, D. S. Farrer has been kind enough to post the text of his chapter on performance ethnography. His paper opens a window onto the sorts of content that one will find in the Martial Arts Studies Reader. It also provides students with a great discussion of one of the most important research methodologies being employed in the field today.  Take a look at the volume’s table of contents, read Farrer’s chapter, and order your copy today!


Table of Contents
Introduction: “What, Where and Why is Martial Arts Studies?” Paul Bowman
2. “Early Chinese Works on Martial Arts” Peter Lorge
3. “The Battlefield and the Bedroom: Chinese Martial Arts and Art of the Bedchamber” Douglas Wile
4. “Martial Arts by the Book: Historical European Martial Arts” Daniel Jaquet
5. “The Phone Book Project: Tracing the Diffusion of Asian Martial Arts in America Through the Yellow Pages” Michael Molasky
6. “Martial Arts, Media, and (Material) Religion” Esther Berg-Chan
7. “Liminoid Longings and Liminal Belonging: Hyper-reality, History and the Search for Meaning in the Modern Martial Arts” Benjamin N. Judkins
8. “‘He’s an Animal’: Naturalizing the Hyperreal in Modern Combat Sport” Janet O’Shea
9. “Martial Arts as a Coping Strategy for Violence” Sixt Wetzler
10. “Performance Ethnography” D. S. Farrer
11. “Martial Arts Studies and the Sociology of Gender: Theory, Research and Pedagogical Application” Alex Channon
12. “Masculinities, Bodies, and Martial Arts” Dale C. Spencer
13. “Martial Arts as Embodied, Discursive, and Aesthetic Practice” Tim Trausch
14. “Carnival of the Drunken Master: The Politics of the Kung Fu Comedic Body” Luke White
15. “Learning from Martial Arts”  Meaghan Morris and Paul Bowman


Chapter 10: Performance Ethnography
DS Farrer
The human mind is apt to perceive many things, and more so according as its body can be disposed in more ways. —Spinoza, Ethics IIP14 (1977: 52)


Performance ethnography, where the researcher sets out to learn a martial art, or other skill, is a somatic extension of participant observation where the body may become both subject and object of research.  This chapter traverses essential features of ‘how to do’ performance ethnography in martial arts research, thereby introducing a methodological toolkit to a new generation of ‘fighting scholars’ (García and Spencer 2013). Perfor-mance ethnography itself, however, is an open quarry for further research. Hence, in addition to a discussion of practical, methodological concerns, this chapter aims towards a fresh theoretical understanding of performance ethnography in terms of ‘immanence’ and ‘emergence’, where the method facilitates creative outcomes, knowledge or theory to surface from within a community of martial artists, dancers or other skilled practitioners (Deleuze 1988, 76).




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:



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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