Nonviolence and Martial Arts Studies


  ***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 →



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The Research Expedition: What is the Value of Short Duration Study?


A vintage french postcard showing military uniforms from various Asian countries. Source: Author’s personal collection.

 

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.

 

Moro weapons. Vintage Postcard.

 

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?

 

A display of spears and matchlocks at himaji castle, Japan. These weapons dominated the 17th century Japanese battlefield. Photo Courtesy of the Himeji Castle Visitors Webpage.

 

Three Possibilities

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.

 

An assortment of “Long Leaf” Nepalese Military Kukri from the author’s personal collection.

Conclusion

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.

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Martial Arts Studies: Answering the “So What?” Question

oOo



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2018 Christmas Shopping List: Martial Arts Equipment and Long Reads to Get You Through the Winter Months


Bernard the Kung Fu Elf riding Shotgun with Santa. (Source: Vintage American Postcard, authors personal collection.)

 

I am not going to lie. The annual Christmas list is my favorite post of the year. So welcome to Kung Fu Tea’s seventh annual holiday shopping list!  Not only are we going to find some cool gift ideas, but hopefully this post will inspire you to make time for martial arts practice during the festive season.  Training is a great way to deal with the various stresses that holidays always bring.  And Christmas is the perfect excuse to stock up on that gear that you have been needing all year.

This year’s shopping list is split into four categories: books, training equipment, weapons, and (for the first time) “gifts for the martial artist who has everything”. This last category will focus on experiences rather than objects. I have tried to select items at a variety of price points for each category. Some of the gift ideas are quite reasonable while others are admittedly aspirational. After all, Christmas is a time for dreams, so why not dream big!

Given the emphasis of this blog, many of these ideas pertain to the Chinese martial arts, but I do try to branch out in places. I have also put at least one Wing Chun related item in each category. Nevertheless, with a little work many of these ideas could be adapted to fit the interests of just about any martial artist.

As a disclaimer I should point out that I have no financial relationship with any of the firms listed below (except for the part where I plug my own book). This is simply a list of gift ideas that I thought were interesting. It is not an endorsement or a formal product review. Lastly, I would like to thank my friend Bernard the “Kung Fu Elf” (see above) for helping me to brainstorm this list.

 

 

 

 

Books to Feed You Head

This has been a good year for books. Nowhere is the growth of martial arts studies more evident than in the explosion of new publications.  Things have been so busy this year that I have been forced to restrict myself to new releases. Still, the first item on this list is both reasonably priced and outstanding reading….

 

Martial Arts Studies Reader. Edited by Paul Bowman ($38 USD)

The Martial Arts Studies Reader answers this need, by bringing together pioneers of the field and scholars at its cutting edges to offer authoritative and accessible insights into its key concerns and areas. Each chapter introduces and sets out an approach to and a route through a key issue in a specific area of martial arts studies. Taken together or in isolation, the chapters offer stimulating and exciting insights into this fascinating research area. In this way, The Martial Arts Studies Reader offers the first authoritative field-defining overview of the global and multidisciplinary phenomena of martial arts and martial arts studies.

 

Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts by Lu Zhouxiang ($78 USD HC Routledge)

Chinese martial arts is considered by many to symbolise the strength of the Chinese and their pride in their history, and has long been regarded as an important element of Chinese culture and national identity. Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts comprehensively examines the development of Chinese martial arts in the context of history and politics, and highlights its role in nation building and identity construction over the past two centuries. ?

This book explores how the development of Chinese martial arts was influenced by the ruling regimes’ political and military policies, as well as the social and economic environment. It also discusses the transformation of Chinese martial arts into its modern form as a competitive sport, a sport for all and a performing art, considering the effect of the rapid transformation of Chinese society in the 20th century and the influence of Western sports. The text concludes by examining the current prominence of Chinese martial arts on a global scale and the bright future of the sport as a unique cultural icon and national symbol of China in an era of globalisation.

You can find my review of this book here.  While I am a bit disappointed that the author failed to engage with the recent English language scholarship on the Chinese martial arts, this book is sure to show up in many future bibliographies.

 

 

Now for something a little lighter (err, easier to read…at 500 pages this book is actually quite heavy…)

Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly (paperback $18 USD)

The most authoritative biography—featuring dozens of rarely seen photographs—of film legend Bruce Lee, who made martial arts a global phenomenon, bridged the divide between Eastern and Western cultures, and smashed long-held stereotypes of Asians and Asian-Americans.

Forty-five years after Bruce Lee’s sudden death at age thirty-two, journalist and bestselling author Matthew Polly has written the definitive account of Lee’s life. It’s also one of the only accounts; incredibly, there has never been an authoritative biography of Lee. Following a decade of research that included conducting more than one hundred interviews with Lee’s family, friends, business associates, and even the actress in whose bed Lee died, Polly has constructed a complex, humane portrait of the icon.

Polly explores Lee’s early years as a child star in Hong Kong cinema; his actor father’s struggles with opium addiction and how that turned Bruce into a troublemaking teenager who was kicked out of high school and eventually sent to America to shape up; his beginnings as a martial arts teacher, eventually becoming personal instructor to movie stars like James Coburn and Steve McQueen; his struggles as an Asian-American actor in Hollywood and frustration seeing role after role he auditioned for go to a white actors in eye makeup; his eventual triumph as a leading man; his challenges juggling a sky-rocketing career with his duties as a father and husband; and his shocking end that to this day is still shrouded in mystery.

Polly breaks down the myths surrounding Bruce Lee and argues that, contrary to popular belief, he was an ambitious actor who was obsessed with the martial arts—not a kung-fu guru who just so happened to make a couple of movies. This is an honest, revealing look at an impressive yet imperfect man whose personal story was even more entertaining and inspiring than any fictional role he played onscreen.

You can find my interview with Polly where he got into a more detailed discussion about researching a book like this one here.

 

 

 

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts  by Raul Sanchez Garcia ($43 USD Kindle)

 

This is the first long-term analysis of the development of Japanese martial arts, connecting ancient martial traditions with the martial arts practised today. The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts captures the complexity of the emergence and development of martial traditions within the broader Japanese Civilising Process.

The book traces the structured process in which warriors’ practices became systematised and expanded to the Japanese population and the world. Using the theoretical framework of Norbert Elias’s process-sociology and drawing on rich empirical data, the book also compares the development of combat practices in Japan, England, France and Germany, making a new contribution to our understanding of the socio-cultural dynamics of state formation. Throughout this analysis light is shed onto a gender blind spot, taking into account the neglected role of women in martial arts.

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts is important reading for students of Socio-Cultural Perspectives in Sport, Sociology of Physical Activity, Historical Development of Sport in Society, Asian Studies, Sociology and Philosophy of Sport, and Sports History and Culture. It is also a fascinating resource for scholars, researchers and practitioners interested in the historical and socio-cultural aspects of combat sport and martial arts.

Sound interesting?  You can read the first chapter of this book here.

 

 

Embodying Brazil: An ethnography of diasporic capoeira ($ 49.95 USD Paperback) by Sara Delamont, Neil Stephens, Claudio Campos.

The practice of capoeira, the Brazilian dance-fight-game, has grown rapidly in recent years. It has become a popular leisure activity in many cultures, as well as a career for Brazilians in countries across the world including the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. This original ethnographic study draws on the latest research conducted on capoeira in the UK to understand this global phenomenon. It not only presents an in-depth investigation of the martial art, but also provides a wealth of data on masculinities, performativity, embodiment, globalisation and rites of passage.

Centred in cultural sociology, while drawing on anthropology and the sociology of sport and dance, the book explores the experiences of those learning and teaching capoeira at a variety of levels. From beginners’ first encounters with this martial art to the perspectives of more advanced students, it also sheds light on how teachers experience their own re-enculturation as they embody the exotic ‘other’.

Embodying Brazil: An Ethnography of Diasporic Capoeira is fascinating reading for all capoeira enthusiasts, as well as for anyone interested in the sociology of sport, sport and social theory, sport, race and ethnicity, or Latin-American Studies.

 

Still don’t see what you are looking for?  I have heard about this great book on the history of Wing Chun and the Southern Chinese martial arts (now out in paperback, $25 USD)….

 

 

 

 

Training Gear

Five Photos Brand Dit Da Jow ($20 for 7.5 ounces)

You don’t need very much gear to practice the Chinese martial arts.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to have a couple of things on hand, particularly when you start to get bruised up from partner work or dummy drills.  While researching the history of a prominent family of martial arts practicing pharmacists in Foshan I came across the story of this particular brand of Dit Da Jow.  I should probably dig some of that research out of my notes and turn it into an essay. But ever since then, I have kept a bottle of it around.  You can usually find this brand at your local Chinese pharmacy, or even a good sized grocery story.  Barring that, you can always just order it from Amazon.

 

 

 

Flexzion Kicking Strike Shield ($18 USD)

This style of striking pad that was popularized in Muay Thai training, but I use it all the time in my Wing Chun practice.  Honestly, I can’t think of the (striking) school that couldn’t use a few more pairs of these.  Best of all, the size is always right!  The perfect inexpensive gift for the Sifu in your life.

 

 

The perfect sword/HEMA gear bag ($150 USD)

Having the right gear is good.  But having the perfect bag to haul it all around in is (as they say) priceless.  That is particularly true if the gear you are hauling is heavy, awkwardly shaped, or likely to freak people out if you were just walk down the sidewalk with it on your shoulder. These bags can be pricey at $150.  But after having destroyed a few lower quality, non-purpose built bags over the last year, I am gaining a renewed appreciation for how easy a good gear bag can make life. Particularly when swords and lightsabers are involved.

 

 

Hayabusa T3 Kanpeki 7oz Hybrid Kickboxing MMA Gloves ($129 USD)

Everyone seems to be talking about bringing more competitive style sparring into traditional Chinese martial arts training.  And that means thinking about the right gear.  I like my Hayabusa boxing gloves, but something like this might be great for those who want a little more dexterity for grabs, laups and paks.

 

 

A set of wooden dummy arms and legs ($333 USD, but totally worth it)

And now for some “affordable” luxury.  In the last couple of years a number of my kung fu brothers have bought (or switched to) iron body training dummies. These are a lot cheaper than nicely made wooden dummies, and they can easily be stuck in the corner of room that might not otherwise accommodate a hanging dummy (which I still think is the way to go if you have a chance).  But while the quality of the Jong’s body and base is often great, I have noticed several (and I mean lots) of complaints about broken legs and rough workmanship on the arms.  Lets face it, these are the parts of the dummy that we actually come into contact with the most frequently.  So why not upgrade that part of your Jong to something a little more reliable and nicer to the touch?

 

 

 

 

 

Weapons

Hanwei Practical Tai Chi Sword ($120 USD)

At $120, is this the perfect jian for basic skills training and forms work?  I have had a couple of longtime practitioners make that argument recently, based not just on the price point but the weight of this sword.  Given my continuing exploration of Wudang Jian, I have a feeling that this is one item that might be making its way onto my personal shopping list.

 

 

 

Purpleheart Armory Dadao Trainer ($45.99 USD)

There is no denying that the dadao is hot.  I am seeing lots of interest in this weapon.  The social scientist in me thinks that we need to take a step back and ponder what this all means.  But my more practical side just wants to grab one of these trainers and work on some sword vs. bayonet drills. This particular trainer is available with either a disk or “S” guard.  Also check out Purpleheart’s nylon jian trainers.

 

 

 

Kris Cutlery Wood Training Knives ($25 USD)

Yeah, rubber is always a safer option for partner drills, but these trainers, made of ebony are really beautiful. At $25 I just can’t say no.

 

 

Antique late 19th(early 20th) century Nepalese Kukri ($99 USD)

If you would prefer a sharper (and more historically/ethnographically significant) knife at a decent price point, why not consider an antique Nepalese military kukri. I have been collecting these for years, and have always found it ironic that the originals are so cheap compared to the latter British and Indian copies that were mass produced during the World Wars.  Once you get your kukri be sure to check out this guide and discover your knife’s history.

 

 

Handmade, traditional style, butterfly sword from the Philippines. ($350 USD).

There are lots of high quality butterfly swords out there, but I have been partial to these as their slim construction is much closer to most of the antiques that have survived than the sorts of “chopping” swords which became more popular after the early 20th century. And lets be honest, nothing say’s “Christmas” to the Wing Chun student/instructor in your life more than discovering a set of these in their stocking.

 

 

 

 

 

For the Martial Artist Who Has Everything….

 

I have long believed that many people are attracted to the martial arts as a type of virtual tourism. By practicing these arts we find a way to visit, contemplate and experience aspects of a time or place that we might not otherwise be able to visit.  That is an important point to stress as survey data suggest that increasingly consumers value unique experiences more than the acquisition of objects.  As such, the last section of our holiday list provides a different take on what the martial arts have to offer.

Lets begin with a destination that one can only visit through martial arts training. Have you (or the Star Wars fan in your life) ever wanted to learn to wield an elegant weapon from a more civilized age?  If so, consider joining the Terra Prime Light Armory.  Its a free, open-source, lightsaber academy run by experienced martial artists (mostly Kung Fu/Taijiaqan guys, but you will find some other stuff in there as well).  If there is a brick and mortar club in your area they will be more than happy to point you in the right direction, and if not they offer an extensive database of on-line learning tools with individualized feedback mechanisms.  Best of all, a voyage with the “Learners in Exile Corps” will not cost you a thing as these guys are in it for the love of the game.  Sometimes the best things in life really are free!

 

 

 

No matter what aspect of the martial arts, and their interaction with popular culture, you are interested in, you are likely to find it at Combat Con.  Held annually in Las Vegas (August 1-4, 2019), this event is unique in that it brings together a wide range of armed and unarmed martial arts instructors, while also hosting a variety of tournaments, performances, workshops for writers and game developers, cosplay contests and yes, even a full contact lightsaber tournament ($15 entrance feee).  So if you are a social scientist who studies the martial arts in the modern world, the only question you have to ask yourself is why aren’t you already planning on going?

Its hard to estimate the cost of this one.  Obviously you will need to fly to Vegas in August (which, in all honesty, is not the best time of year to visit this desert oasis).  The public can visit the event for free, but if you want to do all of the workshops, tournaments and events you will probably end up paying in the $200-$300 range.

 

 

Left to Right: Doug Farrer, Scott Phillips, Paul Bowman at the Farewell Dinner of the 2015 Martial Arts Studies Conference in Cardiff.

 

 

For the more academically inclined, why not give the gift of a conference registration to the inaugural North American session of the annual Martial Arts Studies meetings?  These will be held May 23-24, 2019, at Chapman University in sunny California.  Best of all, the registration is free if you email the conference organizers in advance and ask for tickets (click the link for details).

Its not hard to find cheap plane tickets to LA, and this is the premier event of the Martial Arts Studies community.  I can’t say enough about how much I have enjoyed these meetings over the years. The sense of community is really unlike anything I have ever seen at a conference before. An advanced registration would make the perfect gift for either yourself or the erudite warrior/scholar in your life.

 

A still from Come Drink With Me. Classic martial arts cinema at its best.

 

How about visiting a martial arts film festival in a destination city in 2019?  Most major cities host one or more Asian film festivals a year. These are often a great place to see new and classic martial arts films, and if you are lucky you might find a festival dedicated just to classic Kung Fu films.  We are still a little early in the year to have confirmed dates (these events are generally announced a month or two in advance), but New York City is a great destination for these sorts of festivals.  And if you are going to be in Manhattan in June or July, there is an excellent chance you will find something you are interested in at the 2019 Asian Film Festival hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.  But keep an eye out as you can often find smaller film festivals in a city near you!

 

 

Study with Master Li Quan (teaching Emei Style Southern Kung Fu and Wing Chun) in Chengdu, one of the most beautiful cities in China.

This is the part of the list where we dream big.  It goes without saying that China is full of places where you can spend a few months studying the martial art of your choice (including Wing Chun).  I selected this school as Chengdu is on my bucket list of places to stay for a few months, and one of my friends studied with Master Li for years when he lived in the area as a journalist.  This would be a very authentic/rustic experience, rather than the sort of school catering to the “glampers” out there.  And Chengdu has a great martial arts history that needs more exploration in the English language literature.

Prices for extended live-in training start at just under $1000 USD (not including airfare).  Of course the real cost of this this sort of “Kung Fu Pilgrimage” is taking a few months off from work.  But this is the stuff that dreams are made of!

That is it for this year’s Christmas shopping list.  If you have other suggestions for items that might be of interest to the Kung Fu Tea  community tell us in the comments!

 

oOo

Need more gift recommendations?  Why not check out some of the previous lists?

oOo



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2018 Christmas Shopping List: Martial Arts Equipment and Long Reads to Get You Through the Winter Months


Bernard the Kung Fu Elf riding Shotgun with Santa. (Source: Vintage American Postcard, authors personal collection.)

 

I am not going to lie. The annual Christmas list is my favorite post of the year. So welcome to Kung Fu Tea’s seventh annual holiday shopping list!  Not only are we going to find some cool gift ideas, but hopefully this post will inspire you to make time for martial arts practice during the festive season.  Training is a great way to deal with the various stresses that holidays always bring.  And Christmas is the perfect excuse to stock up on that gear that you have been needing all year.

This year’s shopping list is split into four categories: books, training equipment, weapons, and (for the first time) “gifts for the martial artist who has everything”. This last category will focus on experiences rather than objects. I have tried to select items at a variety of price points for each category. Some of the gift ideas are quite reasonable while others are admittedly aspirational. After all, Christmas is a time for dreams, so why not dream big!

Given the emphasis of this blog, many of these ideas pertain to the Chinese martial arts, but I do try to branch out in places. I have also put at least one Wing Chun related item in each category. Nevertheless, with a little work many of these ideas could be adapted to fit the interests of just about any martial artist.

As a disclaimer I should point out that I have no financial relationship with any of the firms listed below (except for the part where I plug my own book). This is simply a list of gift ideas that I thought were interesting. It is not an endorsement or a formal product review. Lastly, I would like to thank my friend Bernard the “Kung Fu Elf” (see above) for helping me to brainstorm this list.

 

 

 

 

Books to Feed You Head

This has been a good year for books. Nowhere is the growth of martial arts studies more evident than in the explosion of new publications.  Things have been so busy this year that I have been forced to restrict myself to new releases. Still, the first item on this list is both reasonably priced and outstanding reading….

 

Martial Arts Studies Reader. Edited by Paul Bowman ($38 USD)

The Martial Arts Studies Reader answers this need, by bringing together pioneers of the field and scholars at its cutting edges to offer authoritative and accessible insights into its key concerns and areas. Each chapter introduces and sets out an approach to and a route through a key issue in a specific area of martial arts studies. Taken together or in isolation, the chapters offer stimulating and exciting insights into this fascinating research area. In this way, The Martial Arts Studies Reader offers the first authoritative field-defining overview of the global and multidisciplinary phenomena of martial arts and martial arts studies.

 

Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts by Lu Zhouxiang ($78 USD HC Routledge)

Chinese martial arts is considered by many to symbolise the strength of the Chinese and their pride in their history, and has long been regarded as an important element of Chinese culture and national identity. Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts comprehensively examines the development of Chinese martial arts in the context of history and politics, and highlights its role in nation building and identity construction over the past two centuries. ?

This book explores how the development of Chinese martial arts was influenced by the ruling regimes’ political and military policies, as well as the social and economic environment. It also discusses the transformation of Chinese martial arts into its modern form as a competitive sport, a sport for all and a performing art, considering the effect of the rapid transformation of Chinese society in the 20th century and the influence of Western sports. The text concludes by examining the current prominence of Chinese martial arts on a global scale and the bright future of the sport as a unique cultural icon and national symbol of China in an era of globalisation.

You can find my review of this book here.  While I am a bit disappointed that the author failed to engage with the recent English language scholarship on the Chinese martial arts, this book is sure to show up in many future bibliographies.

 

 

Now for something a little lighter (err, easier to read…at 500 pages this book is actually quite heavy…)

Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly (paperback $18 USD)

The most authoritative biography—featuring dozens of rarely seen photographs—of film legend Bruce Lee, who made martial arts a global phenomenon, bridged the divide between Eastern and Western cultures, and smashed long-held stereotypes of Asians and Asian-Americans.

Forty-five years after Bruce Lee’s sudden death at age thirty-two, journalist and bestselling author Matthew Polly has written the definitive account of Lee’s life. It’s also one of the only accounts; incredibly, there has never been an authoritative biography of Lee. Following a decade of research that included conducting more than one hundred interviews with Lee’s family, friends, business associates, and even the actress in whose bed Lee died, Polly has constructed a complex, humane portrait of the icon.

Polly explores Lee’s early years as a child star in Hong Kong cinema; his actor father’s struggles with opium addiction and how that turned Bruce into a troublemaking teenager who was kicked out of high school and eventually sent to America to shape up; his beginnings as a martial arts teacher, eventually becoming personal instructor to movie stars like James Coburn and Steve McQueen; his struggles as an Asian-American actor in Hollywood and frustration seeing role after role he auditioned for go to a white actors in eye makeup; his eventual triumph as a leading man; his challenges juggling a sky-rocketing career with his duties as a father and husband; and his shocking end that to this day is still shrouded in mystery.

Polly breaks down the myths surrounding Bruce Lee and argues that, contrary to popular belief, he was an ambitious actor who was obsessed with the martial arts—not a kung-fu guru who just so happened to make a couple of movies. This is an honest, revealing look at an impressive yet imperfect man whose personal story was even more entertaining and inspiring than any fictional role he played onscreen.

You can find my interview with Polly where he got into a more detailed discussion about researching a book like this one here.

 

 

 

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts  by Raul Sanchez Garcia ($43 USD Kindle)

 

This is the first long-term analysis of the development of Japanese martial arts, connecting ancient martial traditions with the martial arts practised today. The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts captures the complexity of the emergence and development of martial traditions within the broader Japanese Civilising Process.

The book traces the structured process in which warriors’ practices became systematised and expanded to the Japanese population and the world. Using the theoretical framework of Norbert Elias’s process-sociology and drawing on rich empirical data, the book also compares the development of combat practices in Japan, England, France and Germany, making a new contribution to our understanding of the socio-cultural dynamics of state formation. Throughout this analysis light is shed onto a gender blind spot, taking into account the neglected role of women in martial arts.

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts is important reading for students of Socio-Cultural Perspectives in Sport, Sociology of Physical Activity, Historical Development of Sport in Society, Asian Studies, Sociology and Philosophy of Sport, and Sports History and Culture. It is also a fascinating resource for scholars, researchers and practitioners interested in the historical and socio-cultural aspects of combat sport and martial arts.

Sound interesting?  You can read the first chapter of this book here.

 

 

Embodying Brazil: An ethnography of diasporic capoeira ($ 49.95 USD Paperback) by Sara Delamont, Neil Stephens, Claudio Campos.

The practice of capoeira, the Brazilian dance-fight-game, has grown rapidly in recent years. It has become a popular leisure activity in many cultures, as well as a career for Brazilians in countries across the world including the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. This original ethnographic study draws on the latest research conducted on capoeira in the UK to understand this global phenomenon. It not only presents an in-depth investigation of the martial art, but also provides a wealth of data on masculinities, performativity, embodiment, globalisation and rites of passage.

Centred in cultural sociology, while drawing on anthropology and the sociology of sport and dance, the book explores the experiences of those learning and teaching capoeira at a variety of levels. From beginners’ first encounters with this martial art to the perspectives of more advanced students, it also sheds light on how teachers experience their own re-enculturation as they embody the exotic ‘other’.

Embodying Brazil: An Ethnography of Diasporic Capoeira is fascinating reading for all capoeira enthusiasts, as well as for anyone interested in the sociology of sport, sport and social theory, sport, race and ethnicity, or Latin-American Studies.

 

Still don’t see what you are looking for?  I have heard about this great book on the history of Wing Chun and the Southern Chinese martial arts (now out in paperback, $25 USD)….

 

 

 

 

Training Gear

Five Photos Brand Dit Da Jow ($20 for 7.5 ounces)

You don’t need very much gear to practice the Chinese martial arts.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to have a couple of things on hand, particularly when you start to get bruised up from partner work or dummy drills.  While researching the history of a prominent family of martial arts practicing pharmacists in Foshan I came across the story of this particular brand of Dit Da Jow.  I should probably dig some of that research out of my notes and turn it into an essay. But ever since then, I have kept a bottle of it around.  You can usually find this brand at your local Chinese pharmacy, or even a good sized grocery story.  Barring that, you can always just order it from Amazon.

 

 

 

Flexzion Kicking Strike Shield ($18 USD)

This style of striking pad that was popularized in Muay Thai training, but I use it all the time in my Wing Chun practice.  Honestly, I can’t think of the (striking) school that couldn’t use a few more pairs of these.  Best of all, the size is always right!  The perfect inexpensive gift for the Sifu in your life.

 

 

The perfect sword/HEMA gear bag ($150 USD)

Having the right gear is good.  But having the perfect bag to haul it all around in is (as they say) priceless.  That is particularly true if the gear you are hauling is heavy, awkwardly shaped, or likely to freak people out if you were just walk down the sidewalk with it on your shoulder. These bags can be pricey at $150.  But after having destroyed a few lower quality, non-purpose built bags over the last year, I am gaining a renewed appreciation for how easy a good gear bag can make life. Particularly when swords and lightsabers are involved.

 

 

Hayabusa T3 Kanpeki 7oz Hybrid Kickboxing MMA Gloves ($129 USD)

Everyone seems to be talking about bringing more competitive style sparring into traditional Chinese martial arts training.  And that means thinking about the right gear.  I like my Hayabusa boxing gloves, but something like this might be great for those who want a little more dexterity for grabs, laups and paks.

 

 

A set of wooden dummy arms and legs ($333 USD, but totally worth it)

And now for some “affordable” luxury.  In the last couple of years a number of my kung fu brothers have bought (or switched to) iron body training dummies. These are a lot cheaper than nicely made wooden dummies, and they can easily be stuck in the corner of room that might not otherwise accommodate a hanging dummy (which I still think is the way to go if you have a chance).  But while the quality of the Jong’s body and base is often great, I have noticed several (and I mean lots) of complaints about broken legs and rough workmanship on the arms.  Lets face it, these are the parts of the dummy that we actually come into contact with the most frequently.  So why not upgrade that part of your Jong to something a little more reliable and nicer to the touch?

 

 

 

 

 

Weapons

Hanwei Practical Tai Chi Sword ($120 USD)

At $120, is this the perfect jian for basic skills training and forms work?  I have had a couple of longtime practitioners make that argument recently, based not just on the price point but the weight of this sword.  Given my continuing exploration of Wudang Jian, I have a feeling that this is one item that might be making its way onto my personal shopping list.

 

 

 

Purpleheart Armory Dadao Trainer ($45.99 USD)

There is no denying that the dadao is hot.  I am seeing lots of interest in this weapon.  The social scientist in me thinks that we need to take a step back and ponder what this all means.  But my more practical side just wants to grab one of these trainers and work on some sword vs. bayonet drills. This particular trainer is available with either a disk or “S” guard.  Also check out Purpleheart’s nylon jian trainers.

 

 

 

Kris Cutlery Wood Training Knives ($25 USD)

Yeah, rubber is always a safer option for partner drills, but these trainers, made of ebony are really beautiful. At $25 I just can’t say no.

 

 

Antique late 19th(early 20th) century Nepalese Kukri ($99 USD)

If you would prefer a sharper (and more historically/ethnographically significant) knife at a decent price point, why not consider an antique Nepalese military kukri. I have been collecting these for years, and have always found it ironic that the originals are so cheap compared to the latter British and Indian copies that were mass produced during the World Wars.  Once you get your kukri be sure to check out this guide and discover your knife’s history.

 

 

Handmade, traditional style, butterfly sword from the Philippines. ($350 USD).

There are lots of high quality butterfly swords out there, but I have been partial to these as their slim construction is much closer to most of the antiques that have survived than the sorts of “chopping” swords which became more popular after the early 20th century. And lets be honest, nothing say’s “Christmas” to the Wing Chun student/instructor in your life more than discovering a set of these in their stocking.

 

 

 

 

 

For the Martial Artist Who Has Everything….

 

I have long believed that many people are attracted to the martial arts as a type of virtual tourism. By practicing these arts we find a way to visit, contemplate and experience aspects of a time or place that we might not otherwise be able to visit.  That is an important point to stress as survey data suggest that increasingly consumers value unique experiences more than the acquisition of objects.  As such, the last section of our holiday list provides a different take on what the martial arts have to offer.

Lets begin with a destination that one can only visit through martial arts training. Have you (or the Star Wars fan in your life) ever wanted to learn to wield an elegant weapon from a more civilized age?  If so, consider joining the Terra Prime Light Armory.  Its a free, open-source, lightsaber academy run by experienced martial artists (mostly Kung Fu/Taijiaqan guys, but you will find some other stuff in there as well).  If there is a brick and mortar club in your area they will be more than happy to point you in the right direction, and if not they offer an extensive database of on-line learning tools with individualized feedback mechanisms.  Best of all, a voyage with the “Learners in Exile Corps” will not cost you a thing as these guys are in it for the love of the game.  Sometimes the best things in life really are free!

 

 

 

No matter what aspect of the martial arts, and their interaction with popular culture, you are interested in, you are likely to find it at Combat Con.  Held annually in Las Vegas (August 1-4, 2019), this event is unique in that it brings together a wide range of armed and unarmed martial arts instructors, while also hosting a variety of tournaments, performances, workshops for writers and game developers, cosplay contests and yes, even a full contact lightsaber tournament ($15 entrance feee).  So if you are a social scientist who studies the martial arts in the modern world, the only question you have to ask yourself is why aren’t you already planning on going?

Its hard to estimate the cost of this one.  Obviously you will need to fly to Vegas in August (which, in all honesty, is not the best time of year to visit this desert oasis).  The public can visit the event for free, but if you want to do all of the workshops, tournaments and events you will probably end up paying in the $200-$300 range.

 

 

Left to Right: Doug Farrer, Scott Phillips, Paul Bowman at the Farewell Dinner of the 2015 Martial Arts Studies Conference in Cardiff.

 

 

For the more academically inclined, why not give the gift of a conference registration to the inaugural North American session of the annual Martial Arts Studies meetings?  These will be held May 23-24, 2019, at Chapman University in sunny California.  Best of all, the registration is free if you email the conference organizers in advance and ask for tickets (click the link for details).

Its not hard to find cheap plane tickets to LA, and this is the premier event of the Martial Arts Studies community.  I can’t say enough about how much I have enjoyed these meetings over the years. The sense of community is really unlike anything I have ever seen at a conference before. An advanced registration would make the perfect gift for either yourself or the erudite warrior/scholar in your life.

 

A still from Come Drink With Me. Classic martial arts cinema at its best.

 

How about visiting a martial arts film festival in a destination city in 2019?  Most major cities host one or more Asian film festivals a year. These are often a great place to see new and classic martial arts films, and if you are lucky you might find a festival dedicated just to classic Kung Fu films.  We are still a little early in the year to have confirmed dates (these events are generally announced a month or two in advance), but New York City is a great destination for these sorts of festivals.  And if you are going to be in Manhattan in June or July, there is an excellent chance you will find something you are interested in at the 2019 Asian Film Festival hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.  But keep an eye out as you can often find smaller film festivals in a city near you!

 

 

Study with Master Li Quan (teaching Emei Style Southern Kung Fu and Wing Chun) in Chengdu, one of the most beautiful cities in China.

This is the part of the list where we dream big.  It goes without saying that China is full of places where you can spend a few months studying the martial art of your choice (including Wing Chun).  I selected this school as Chengdu is on my bucket list of places to stay for a few months, and one of my friends studied with Master Li for years when he lived in the area as a journalist.  This would be a very authentic/rustic experience, rather than the sort of school catering to the “glampers” out there.  And Chengdu has a great martial arts history that needs more exploration in the English language literature.

Prices for extended live-in training start at just under $1000 USD (not including airfare).  Of course the real cost of this this sort of “Kung Fu Pilgrimage” is taking a few months off from work.  But this is the stuff that dreams are made of!

That is it for this year’s Christmas shopping list.  If you have other suggestions for items that might be of interest to the Kung Fu Tea  community tell us in the comments!

 

oOo

Need more gift recommendations?  Why not check out some of the previous lists?

oOo



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Martial Arts and Restoring the Body Politic


Jackie Chan’s remix of the Karate Kid is, among other things, an interesting commentary on the ability of the martial arts to create unexpected communities.

 

 

Are Martial Arts Political?

 

My friend, Paul Bowman, recently asked the rhetorical question, “Should martial arts be active or passive players in politics?” The question is rhetorical in a double sense. Paul never directly answers his own query, but instead outlines for readers of the Cardiff University School of Journalism’s blog some of the questions that we have been grappling with in the last few months. It is rhetorical in another sense because on some level it does not really matter what anyone’s answer is. One may wish to see your school have more or less political involvement, yet as a matter of basic historical fact the martial arts have often been actively involved in the major political debates of the day.

This was true in Japan in the late Meiji period, China during the Republic and Korea in second half of the 20th century. Bruce Lee was quickly adopted as a critical figure in American debates on racial equality, and Wing Chun materials produced in Germany during the 1970s and 1980s frequently opined on that country’s changing social mores. In the current era Wing Chun has again emerged as a master symbol of Cantonese culture as debates over the extent of local independence heat up in Hong Kong. And we have all been discussing the attempts of the Rise Above Movement (and other violent extremist groups) to employ the martial arts in their various organizational and recruitment efforts here in the US. Indeed, our most basic understandings of the martial arts arose in large part out of the nationalist, anti-imperialist and ideological conflicts that shaped the 20thcentury. Seen from a macro-historical perspective, how could we believe that the martial arts are anything other than overtly political?

Yet on a day to day level most martial art training doesn’t seem to have anything to do with politics. Obviously, there are a few exceptions. Some capoeira schools might emphasize social equality in their selection of music or community activities. Likewise, the alt-right fight clubs that have been so much in the news seem to make a point of framing their activities through an overtly political lens.  But in my (admittedly limited) experiences, these situations are the outliers, and not the norm. The challenges that most Western students face in the training hall are overwhelmingly personal and physical in nature. The frustration, pain and elation of training seem to fall on everyone, irrespective of ideology. It is these very personal experiences that dominate our practice.

Yet the personal has a way of becoming political. As I have previously noted, embodied experience, while engulfing in the moment, is never self-interpreting. Nor are identities self-constructing. Each of us receives a wide range of social, familial, economic, cultural and political cues as we attempt to sort out “what just happened” and “what sort of person am I.” If we were a student doing Kendo katas in the 1930s, the answer to that last question was quite clear. Through diligent training education officials intended that you would realize that you were a subject of the Emperor who knew that “death was as lighter than a feather.” One understood what it meant to be part of this shared category by taking part in a shared activity with all of the nation’s other school children. In the proper hands (or the wrong ones), the martial arts would seem to be machines for the construction of what Benedict Anderson called “imagined communities.

Our personal experience of the martial arts is by definition an individual matter, and one that often appears far removed from political considerations.  It is widely considered to be a breach of etiquette to bring up politics in the training hall (a point that I want to explore below). Yet the martial arts cannot exist as a purely solitary activity. As everyone who has ever examined these practices has noted, they are fundamentally social in nature. They arise from, and give new life to, social communities. Politics, in turn, is the mechanism by which societies allocate resources and responsibilities to various groups. While many individuals are drawn to the martial arts because they seek a uniquely personal experience of individual empowerment, the social nature of our communities makes them vulnerable to many competing political claims.

 

Prof. Stephen Chan discussing the finer points of the art with a group of students.

 

 

Understanding “Normal Politics”

 

How one evaluates this conclusion will vary. I suspect that for many readers the discovery that the martial arts are inherently political would be something of a disappointment. Given the ever-growing levels of polarization and acrimony between the left and right in both Europe and North America, many of us are actively looking for communities that offer a reprieve from the constant state of social warfare that we find in our social media feeds or on the 24-hour news cycle. I myself am highly sympathetic to this sentiment. It is hard to escape the feeling that the very word “politics” has come to be tainted.

Still, as a political scientist by training, I tend to see everything as having a “political” aspect. One might call it an occupational hazard. Yet politics actually takes many forms, several of which are not all that closely related to polarized left-right debates of the day. As a means of resolving our differences, within a nation, a community or an organization, politics is usually a better option than conflict or violence. Indeed, the creation of the right sorts of political institutions and norms can lead to long periods of stability, growth and social harmony.

The assertion that the martial arts are, and have always been, inherently political should not be seen as a condemnation. Rather, it simply acknowledges the fact that the communities we create are socially meaningful. We do not just generate feelings of personal empowerment. Through our practice we create ideas, norms, networks, and reserves of social and human capital. We cannot really understand the roles and meanings of the martial arts in the modern world without thinking carefully about the political implications of all of this.

Recently the association between certain violent white nationalist organizations and peripheral aspects of the MMA community has been grabbing headlines. Within the martial arts community this has been debated here and here. In my own response to these stories I attempted to introduce some basic principles from institutional analysis to ask how the spread of violent ideologies within something like the martial arts community might be contained.

All of this represents a good first cut at the problem. But if we are going to have a sustained discussion on the relationship between politics and martial arts, I suspect that these sorts of extreme cases might not be where we actually want to start. Before delving into the pathologies of political conflict, it is helpful to study more typical cases of ordinary competition. Only once we have established a baseline of how the martial arts might become involved in “normal” political disputes will have an ability to understand what has gone wrong in these other cases.  Better yet, as we establish a baseline it becomes clear that under a fairly wide set of conditions martial arts communities can actually play an important role in bridging conflicts, building social trust and preventing the spread of violence. Indeed, seemingly apolitical choices regarding the structure and regulation of these communities, rather than anything inherent in the embodied practice of the martial arts themselves, will have a critical impact on their ultimate social destiny.

 

 

 

A class photo from a local lightsaber combat group in Ithaca NY. Note, this is not the community described in the text.

 

 

 

The Way of the Lightsaber: A Star Wars Story

 

How might the martial art actually help to repair a fractured political discourse?  Perhaps an example from my recent ethnographic research with a hyper-real martial arts community might help to illustrate this potential.

It may come as a surprise to discover that not everyone in the lightsaber combat community is a diehard Star Wars “super-fan.” In my personal experience most hardcore fans, while they might collect lightsabers, do not find the notion of daily training in their use all that interesting. Likewise, while I have never met a person in a lightsaber combat class that really disliked the the Star Wars franchise, maybe half of the people could only be classified as “causal fans.” Indeed, it seems that more people actually stay in the lightsaber classes for the martial arts training and comradery than the Star Wars per se.  That probably explains why one (paradoxically) does not always hear a lot of discussion of the films or other properties before, during or after your average class.

Still, there are the occasional exceptions. In one such case, earlier this spring, an emotionally charged debate briefly erupted about the merits of Rian Johnson’s highly controversial film, “The Last Jedi” (TLJ). One student (a young working-class Caucasian male), began to hold forth as to how the film was a political insult, overtly feminist and actually part of a well planned conspiracy by the Disney corporation to drive fans like him away so that they could “steal” the franchise for themselves. Statements like this are pretty common in on-line fan discussions, but not in this particular lightsaber class.  It was all the more shocking as this particular student had never really expressed any animus towards the franchise before.  In fact, he had never expressed any sort of political opinions at all.

What followed was a sharp exchange with a couple of other students who objected either to his perceived attacks on specific social issues (in this case gender inequality) or his notion that Disney somehow needed to “steal” a property that they already owned simply to spite him. At this point he declared that he was done with Star Wars and would be boycotting all future films, but not, of course lightsaber practice. Everyone left unhappy. Still, the next week everyone was back as if nothing had happened.

I have no idea whether the student in question made good on this threat to boycott the upcoming film, Solo: A Star Wars Story. I should probably ask him sometime.  But in a sense, it doesn’t really matter. This guy is one of the more senior students at the Central Lightsaber Academy and a real stalwart of the local community. At the time he made two things perfectly clear: his utter contempt for what he saw as a personal political attack by Rian Johnson which “ruined Star Wars” and, secondly, that no matter how angry he was about this, it wasn’t going to impact his place in the lightsaber combat community.  Nor has it. I forgot that this incident had happened until a recent article in the news sent me back to review some of my fieldnotes.

As anyone who follows the Star Wars fandom can attest, arguments such as the one documented above have been very common occurrences in the wake of the TLJ. Unfortunately, they don’t all have such tidy resolutions. Like so much else in our current environment, Star Wars has become a highly politicized subject. Progressive fans and commentators have associated characters like Princess Leia, Rose Tico or Rey with not only “The Resistance” against the First Order (a fascist political movement shown in the new trilogy), but also “the resistance” against Donald Trump. In an attempt to make amends for previous charges that the series marginalized minority or female characters, Disney has actively moved these progressive discussions to the forefront of multiple Star Wars properties. And while many fans have been happy to accept some projects (Rogue One has proved to be quite popular) while rejecting other films that they found to be flawed on a technical level (often The Last Jedi), a not insignificant and vocal minority of critics have connected their dislike of the recent films to a pattern of alt-right, misogynist and racist trolling.

Yet when looking at a heated facebook thread it can often be difficult to determine the size of these groups separate from simply their volume. Cultural critics have been left to wonder how much of this debate was being driven by Rian Johnson’s questionable directorial decisions (specifically, the pacing of the Casino sub-plot, and the general irreverence with which Luke Skywalker was treated), and how much of it was overtly political. In other words, was Johnson’s movie really that divisive, or did an already polarized American public simply adopt his film as a yet another proxy battlefield in the era’s raging political debates?

Morten Bay, a newly minted UCLA PhD and current post-doc at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, recently decided to find out. He has posted an unpublished draft of a study that began by collecting all of the tweets directed to Rian Johnson for a seven-month period following the release of TLJ. These were coded as negative, neutral or positive, and then used to construct a database describing all of the accounts that had publicly engaged Johnson in the debate. (Obviously this debate happened in many other places as well, but the author was forced to stick to a sample set of about a thousand observations by the all too familiar constraints of budget, time and computing power.)

Interested readers can review Bay’s work here. I have quite a few thoughts on this paper (and a number of criticisms) but will resist doing a full review as it would take us to far afield from the politicization of the martial arts. Still, the broad contours of his findings are interesting and most likely reliable.

While the majority of Star Wars fans actually liked The Last Jedi, there was a sizable, and very vocal, minority who did not.  And while some of them were genuine Star Wars fans who simply objected to Rian Johnson’s directorial choices (and sometimes engaged in troll-like behavior), a careful analysis of all twitter accounts in the dataset suggested that others were something else entirely. Bay found evidence that a large number of accounts egging on this corner of the twitter debate were linked to individuals who showed little interest in Star Wars and instead functioned as conservative or alt-right activists.  More disturbingly about 5% of these accounts closely fit the profile of the Russian troll farms that had waged a campaign to sow social chaos and disinformation during the 2016 presidential election.  Bay was able to confirm his suspicions when he showed that several of the most prolific accounts targeting Rian Johnson were later closed by Twitter in its purge of accounts known to be operated by Russian troll farms.

 

The Zheng Manqing’s students in his Manhattan school. Source: http://www.tai-chifilm.com/whatistaichi

 

Martial Arts and the “Social Cleavage” Problem

 

The good news is that if you have found yourself thinking that the recent discussion of pop culture franchises have become overly political, it is not just you. These properties have developed into sites of sustained political debates and even (at times) information warfare by those who wish to publicize claims of “social chaos” in the Western democracies. Even the entertainment franchises that used to unify society through a few hours of simple escapism are increasingly being weaponized as part of larger political conflicts.

It was Bay’s paper that inspired me to look back over my own fieldnotes for this period. I was forced to wonder at the different ways that similar debates played themselves out online versus within a lightsaber combat school.  In both cases basic demographic characteristics were highly correlated with the roles that people assumed in arguing for or against TLJ.

Social scientists have known for some time that in the modern West political affiliation is just about the most fundamental type of identity that most people have.  Indeed, Americans will switch religions to fit their politics long before they modify their political beliefs to satisfy the demands of religious teaching.  Likewise, demographic factors (race, gender, education level, income, etc…) also tend to be highly correlated with partisan identification. It is thus not difficult to believe that the argument that erupted in the Central Lightsaber Academy that day was perhaps only peripherally about Rian Johnson.  It stung the involved individuals precisely because personal frustrations and political identities lurked in the background.

This is also when a social scientist would expect to see some sort of more fundamental rupture in a community.  When personal characteristics such as income, education, gender and ethnicity become politically salient they are called “social cleavages.” These divisions can structure large scale conflicts in both society and the polity (e.g., the working class vs. capitalist, urban vs. rural values, male votes vs. female votes).

Democracy tends to work the most efficiently when the various cleavages do not overlap.  In that case a political party might sometimes form an alliance with urban factory workers, and in the next instance with rural agricultural interests.  That sort of flexibility makes compromise easier and it tends to moderate political polarization.  After all, your antagonists on one issue may be your allies tomorrow.  In such a situation our cleavages are said to be “cross-cutting.”  It is more complicated when our cleavages perfectly align with each other.  When we can always guess someone’s party alignment based on their economic class, race and whether they live in an urban or rural mailing code, it becomes vastly more difficult for parties to make deals and reach compromises. The winning and losing coalitions are simply too stable.  Neither side will have an incentive to lessen polarization, and politics rapidly becomes a zero-sum game. In this situation trust erodes, and in a few cases one side or the other will begin to look for ways to capture more of the gains of the political system by excluding the other from full participation in the decision-making process. That is the difference between vigorous debate within a democratic framework and a politically extremist attempt to unilaterally change the nature of the political community.

At least this is what we typically teach our students about social cleavages and voting in introductory classes on voting theory. And its why the debate within the Star Wars fandom is, to a political scientist like myself, so disturbing. It is yet another piece of evidence suggesting that increasingly all the most salient social cleavages in America today are overlapping, rather than cross-cutting. That portends bad things in the long run.

It is also why we should be interested in how martial arts communities function in these environments.  In the case I outlined above a very vocal, surprisingly emotionally charged, outburst was quickly forgotten and put away. I suspect that if a similar conversation had erupted in an online environment the resolution would have been much different.  Yet in this case the conversation happened within the walls of a martial arts school. And the martial arts have a unique ability to add yet another layer to one’s personal identity.

Of course, identity is always situational.  How I define myself at any given moment depends in large part on where I am and what is socially appropriate at that time. But somewhere in the back of my head there is always that recognition that I am a “wing chun guy,” and there is always a spark of social recognition when I meet a fellow student of the Chinese martial arts.  After all, there aren’t that many of us, and the one thing that each of us needs is a community.

Likewise, lightsaber combat can only be learned in a social setting. One has got to put in a lot of hours with many training partners to gain basic skills. Weapons work requires a lot of focus and trust, even when the weapons in question do not technically exist. One still has to trust that your partner will not hit you simply because they are tired and frustrated.  And it is hard to deny the sort of visceral bond that is created (Victor Turner might have called it “communitas”) by simply going through this process together. While other markers of social status will always exist outside the school, martial arts instruction has a remarkable ability to take a diverse group of people, strip them of many individual aspects of identity, and then allow them to grow into a new sort of community together. We should not underestimate how powerful and rare that experience can be in the modern world.

When that happens there is the possibility that one will create a new identity which cross-cuts the existing social cleavage. As we saw in the case illustrated above, this can help to ameliorate other sorts of political debates.  Indeed, our trust in, and dependence on, individuals who are very different from us within our martial arts communities may help to insulate us against more radical discourses that would seek to target them. Students of social capital would even suggest that trust is basically a learned skilled, and the lessons that acquire within a martial arts community can eventually be applied to other areas of the civil sphere.  This in turn is critical to ensuring the proper function of modern democratic institutions.

 

A diverse group of Taiji students demonstrating the practices utility in cases of cardiac rehabilitation and recovery. Source: Harvard Journal of Medicine.

 

Conclusion

 

It is not difficult to look at practically any important problem in the world today (whether its economic, environmental, social or cultural) and to discern political forces lurking in the background. What is sometimes harder to remember is that most positive developments are also the result of careful institutional design and a different sort of political calculus.  If we focus only on cases where extremist groups have sought to co-opt martial arts practices, it may be all too easy to conclude that there is something dangerous about the martial arts themselves. Lacking a complete view of the wider social context, researchers might conclude that these practices are inherently violent, in either a physical or a social sense. Social elites in late 19thcentury China certainly came to that conclusion, and the end result was a lot of legislation that further marginalized the martial arts community without addressing any of the more fundamental causes of social violence that it increasingly drove the logic of Chinese decline.

The foregoing essay has argued that the martial arts are interesting (and in some senses inherently political) because they are social practices that generate new types of community identification. This is precisely why Asian nationalists and reformers promoted them throughout the region’s turbulent 20thcentury. It is also why individuals who care about the quality of civic life in our ever more polarized world should also take these practices seriously. The embodied nature of martial arts practices has the potential to build community bonds that can cross cut other, highly politicized, social cleavages. Both on-line Star Wars conversations and embodied lightsaber practice generate communities. Yet one seems much more likely to resist politically induced conflict than the other. The promotion of these practices, when properly understood and carried out, could literally help to heal our civic institutions.

This is not to say that the creation of martial arts schools should be seen as a panacea.  Given the realities of geography and economic inequality, it is unlikely that all martial arts schools will be equally diverse. Because these sorts of institutions are essentially voluntary organizations the danger is that we will choose to associate only with individuals who resemble ourselves. That outcome would be counterproductive as it might actually reinforce, rather than offset, the problem of overlapping social cleavages.

Yet in practice that does not seem to be an insurmountable problem, at least not in my area of country. Fellow kung fu students are rare, and lightsaber combat enthusiasts even more so. Economic necessity dictates that most schools are at least somewhat diverse as they are forced to recruit many types of students from a large geographic area just to make ends meet. And this is precisely why so many of us are willing to set aside random political discussions when we enter our training spaces. Good training partners (or instructors) are hard to find, and we all have a sense that in an increasingly polarized world there is something “more important” than the latest controversy to consume the 24-hour news cycle. Ironically, it is that seemingly agnostic impulse that suggest the real political value of the martial arts today.

 

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If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Theory and the Growth of Knowledge – Or Why You Probably Can’t Learn Kung Fu From Youtube

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