Wabi-Sabi: Martial Arts in a Warming World

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This red pine is a unique expression of the Wabi-Sabi ethos. Source:https://bonsaibark.com/2012/12/06/theres-bunjin-and-then-theres/



Martial Arts and Politics: The Big Picture


The latest (dire) global warming report produced by US government scientists is inspiring conversations everywhere. I overheard a particularly interesting discussion between two colleagues earlier this week which focused not so much on the technological or policy measures that would be necessary to deal with rapid climate change, but the sorts of social attitudes would be necessary to support those steps.  They were discussing well-funded public relations campaigns, but I must confess that I have (empirically well grounded) doubts as to how effective these sorts of efforts can be.  “Confirmation bias” suggests that people are most likely to accept messages that reinforce what they already believe, or what they have already experienced.  Long lasting changes in attitude usually emerge from the ground up, and not as a slick advertising campaign. After all, not every advertisement for a product, candidate or social cause is quite as successful as its backers may have hoped.

This is one of the reasons why I am interested in popular culture. It allows one to begin to decipher some of the logic behind larger patterns of political change or stability. Rather than being an escape from the world of politics, I often think of it as the repository of shared attitudes and values which are the raw materials of tomorrow’s innovations. It literally defines the realm of what is imaginable. Whether that is a comforting thought is a different question.

The martial arts may, at first, seemed removed from large scale social or political concerns.  Much of our research focuses on identity, embodied experience, history, or the impact of these practices on relatively small communities.  All of this is important, but it does not exhaust the significance of the martial arts within modern society. I suspect that many of us study the micro-effects of the martial arts as we are martial arts practitioners ourselves.  We are anecdotally aware of their transformative power, so it is only natural that we would want to explore and systematize these insights.

Nevertheless, there is a bigger picture.  The social effects of the martial arts stretch far beyond the relatively small and ever shifting group of individuals who are actually training in them at a given point in time.  Their representation in the media has a profound effect on how we imagine our world.  I also suspect that the interaction between these arts and the political realm are likely to become increasingly significant.

That last proposition may seem far-fetched as we spar, roll or practice on any given night.  To understand how we must first come to terms with the economic concept of the “externality.” Simply put, this notion helps to explain “market failures” when (from society’s point of view) too little or too much of a good is provided. While discussions that treat the martial arts as something that can be bought or sold tend to be socially frowned upon, the simple truth is that almost all of us encounter them as a commercial product within an economic marketplace. An externality exists when the individuals who buy and sell a good (that would be us) are not capable of capturing the full benefits (or negative implications) of their market transaction.

A quick illustration may be helpful. Psychologists have noted that moods tend to be “contagious” within a social network. If you are surrounded by individuals who are stressed and unhappy, you are more likely to feel the same way, all else being equal. But if one of your friends is in a particularly good mood, that is likely to have an impact on your mood as well. I suspect that many of my readers can already guess where I am going with this. Individuals who practice the martial arts (or who engage in any form of regular exercise) report increased levels of wellness (measured across a wide variety of dimensions) and lower stress levels. That is precisely why many of these students pay for school membership in the first place.

Yet the “contagious” aspects of mood and lifestyle choices suggest that friends and family members are also reaping some of the benefits of this consumption choice even if they have never taken a single martial arts class. Because their increase in well-being is invisible in a supply/demand, chart it is not taken into account when a teacher decides how many nights of instruction to offer, or a consumer decides how many hours a week to devote to training. The end result is the existence of an externality where, because the full benefits of some people’s martial arts practices are hard to measure, the “good” in question is under-provided.

This is a single, somewhat trivial, example.  But the world of the martial arts and combat sports generates dozens of similar externalities’ touching on all sorts of cultural, social and political questions. These externalities are likely to be shaped by the social, market and political forces that regulate the expression of the martial arts in a given place, and as such they vary by country and time period. In some cases we may also find that martial arts practice (like the consumption of any good) has unexpected negative consequences and that they are being over-provided.  For instance, one suspects the current culture of traveling long distances for short seminars which is so vital to the financial success of many martial arts schools is doing the planet no favors. That seems like something that is likely to change in the future.

Nor is any of this a particularly new idea, though, to the best of my knowledge, no one has yet to formalize these intuitions through the lens of micro-economics.  China and Japan both subsidized, promoted and even mandated certain types of martial arts practice in the early 20thcentury, but not because there was a burning need to train middle school students in practical self-defense skills. Rather they realized that an entire complex of other values and “benefits” (fitness, discipline, patriotism, increased militarism) accompanied martial arts training.  It was the secondary effects of Guoshu or Budo that drove their consumption.  Whether any of this would really “work in the octagon” was not the primary consideration in the promotion of these programs.

Fortunately for us, the violent and unstable years of the 1930s are now in the past.  But what about the future?  How might the unintended, unpriced, consequences of martial arts practice help us to deal with some of the massive challenges facing modern society? When might some of these externalities take on negative consequences? And what sort of balance are we likely to see between grass roots efforts emerging out of popular culture on the one hand, and coordinated (possibly government backed) information campaigns on the other?

Obviously, such a topic is too big for a single blog post.  It could well be the subject of an entire series of books. My goal in this essay is to lay out some unexpected macro-level ways in which the martial arts might help (or inhibit) our attempts to address largescale issues.  The following post touches on global warming as a “hot” topic that has been in the news. Yet this basic method of analysis, one that focuses on the externalities of martial arts practice, could easily be applied to any number of social or political issues (some of which I may return to in the future.)


A typically minimalist Japanese dojo. Photograph by Jared Miracle.



Wabi-Sabi and a Warming Planet


While popular discussions tend to focus on the practical “reality” of the martial arts, or perhaps their history, I suspect that much of their true transformative value lies in the unique aesthetic vision that each art conveys.  A certain amount of caution is necessary here as the exact contents of this vision varies from art to art.  The cunning of Brazilian Capoeira practitioners can be seen and felt in their practice. It is one part of a set of social survival strategies that is discussed, debated and judged in physical movement. Yet the uniqueness of Brazilian society suggests that this cannot ultimately be reduced to the sorts of “cunning” that one might find in Irish stick fighting, or the “yin power” that is expressed in Chinese martial or ritual performance.  Both “yin power” and “cunning” can be understood as aesthetic expressions of cultural meditations on the challenges of survival in often harsh environments. Yet each conveys a distinct set of nuances and insights.

Given the importance of the Japanese martial arts in kicking off the modern exploration of these fighting systems, perhaps we should not be surprised to discover that the concept of Wabi-Sabi (usually understood as values related simplicity, impermanence, asymmetry and austerity) has permeated further into the global consciousness that any of these other martial arts related visions. It is not hard to find evidence of the philosophical notions (focusing on the Buddhist insights that all things are impermanent, empty and vessels for suffering) that underpinned this aesthetic style within the Japanese martial arts. One can see it in the simplicity of the traditional judo gi, the austere etiquette of the dojo, and even the way that scrolls or artwork are presented in the school’s tokonoma.

Still, my first encounter with Wabi-Sabi was not mediated by the martial arts. As I teenager I was lucky enough to study with (and work for) Bill Valavanis, who runs the International Bonsai Arboretum in Rochester NY.  It was primarily through the mediums of bonsai, traditional Japanese gardening and stone appreciation that I encountered a set of concepts which amounted to a profound meditation on the nature of existence at a formative time in my own life. Neither martial artists or Bonsai masters can deny the essential truth of existence.  All things are impermanent, and all things are incomplete.  Within such a philosophical framework it is easy to elevate frugality, simplicity and austerity as the key guiding values of human existence.

One suspects that a profound appreciation for Wab-Sabi arose just as much out of the observation of daily life in early-modern Japan as erudite Buddhist argument.  In truth, Japanese life was often harsh, food was scarce, and the material conditions that most people lived under were spartan at best. Japanese houses were (and to a certain extent remain) unheated during the winter, and the hottest days of summer brought their own challenges. Yet students of Japanese history and culture are often amazed by the beautiful material culture that was woven out of these challenging conditions.

The modern West sits at a crossroads.  Our social, economic and political systems have rested on the core principle that people should be able to consume as many material goods as they want.  And if they cannot achieve this level of consumption now, they have a right to work towards it in the future. It seems unlikely that this situation can continue. Failure to politically address rising sea levels, increased severe weather and the future loss of prime agricultural land to drought would be economically and socially catastrophic. One might think of this worst-case scenario as global warming’s “hard landing.”

But even the best-case, most cooperative, scenarios will eventually require a massive adjustment to practically everyone’s lifestyle within the industrialized West.  Short of a miraculous technological innovation that allows us to pull carbon from the atmosphere at will, huge changes in consumer behavior are likely in store.  These will influence what we eat, how we travel and where we live. We are likely to see birthrates plummet across the developed world as raising children becomes more expensive. In the long run, cuts in consumer activity married to a dropping, aging, population, suggests that we could see a significant shrinking of major markets.  That, in turn, suggests a massive reduction in the rates technological, medical and social change which we have come to expect.

Anyone who has spent enough time in the social sciences knows how difficult forecasting is. Economists love to make predictions. In my field (political science) we try to avoid it whenever possible. The challenges of modeling climate change are well known and much discussed.  But they pale next to the sheer impossibility of predicting how people (at either the individual or national level) are likely to respond to this.  And given that the scope of climate change (whether we can ensure a relatively “minor” rise of 2 degrees, or if we end up in more of a worst-case scenario) is dependent on the creative and cooperative behavior of such unpredictable actors, I don’t think that anyone can accurately say what the future will be.

Still, we know a few things.  Whether we agree to tie our own hands through democratically decided legislation, or allow unmediated market forces and natural processes to do it through a “hard landing,” the average resident of the Western world will be consuming a lot less.  Realistic carbon taxes (if instituted) will raise the price of all sorts of inelastic goods (food, transportation, heating) in relatively predictable ways. Drought, sea-level change and a rising demand for energy will do the same things (though in a much less predictable way) through market mechanisms.  One way or another, discretionary spending is going to drop.  It is hard to say by how much, or when.  But it is impossible to believe that this will not have a substantive effect on where and how we live.  In short, we are already transitioning from a period of “wanting more” to one of “getting less.”


The beauty of snow, contrasted with the challenge of winter, has often been a subject for Japanese artists. Source: Evening Snow at Kanbara, from the series “Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō” by Utagawa Hiroshige. metmuseum.org


This brings me back to the Japanese notion of Wabi-Sabi. Within this philosophical vision “freedom” does not originate from one’s ability to escape the bounds of the natural world. Rather, freedom is found as one lives successfully in harmony with it.  More often than not in Japanese history, this has taken the form of finding beauty and meaning in the simple, the frugal, the rustic and the sincere.

As a political scientist I worry that the sorts of “diminished expectations” that climate change is already bringing will lead to increased levels of social instability and violence.  It is hard to see the current riots in France (the worst since 1968) as anything other than a preview of what could happen in many other places as carbon taxes start to bite, or governments lose the ability to keep up with mounting natural disasters and rising food prices.  Some of this will be unavoidable.  But our social expectations of a world in which progress is measured in increased consumption is sure to exacerbate such tensions.

The concept of Wabi-Sabi is interesting to me as it has always been more than a set of guidelines for gardening or architecture.  It is a remarkably well-developed argument about the benefits of choosing less, of living simply, rather than always pushing for more. The central problem of modern existence is the creation of social and individual meaning.  Whatever its drawbacks, the economically focused “American Dream” succeeded in structuring the imaginations, efforts and expectations of generations.  It can only be modified or replaced by another set of principles capable of doing the same.

Telling a generation of Americans that due to their carbon footprint they can only buy “tiny homes,” or 500 square foot urban apartments, is a recipe for revolution. But supporting a vision of society where people spend more time having experiences with friends and family rather than working to acquire ever more things to stuff in ever larger houses could be the beginning of a renaissance.  Cultivating a deep appreciation for Wabi-Sabi as an aesthetic vision, and accepting the fundamental values that lie behind it, could be an important step in making that happen.  Indeed, it might prove to be the most important moment of cultural exchange between Japan and the global West.

This is where we return to the martial arts.  Sadly, one cannot really gain an understanding of these concepts (let alone cultivate a new set of values) simply by reading blog posts.  In my experience Wabi-Sabi is a set of values that must be physically experienced to be fully appreciated.  My small appreciation for these values came from hours spent working in an arboretum as a teenager, time spent living in Japan as a young adult, and countless hours invested in the training hall.

Sadly, Bonsai is not a not a very popular hobby in the United States.  But the martial arts are. They are studied by children and adults in a wide variety of settings.  More importantly, they are projected, appreciated and debated through our media.  While only a minority of individuals practice them, there are very few people who don’t have some sort of expectations about, or understanding of, the Asian martial arts.  This makes them an important vector to promote a new set of values as society enters an era of consuming less but appreciate more.

As intriguing as this possibility is, it would still require a massive effort.  Indeed, this is where political intervention or well-funded informational campaigns might enter the picture. In large part the martial arts have succeeded in the West as they have been adapted to reflect modern Western values, rather than the full complexity of, say, Chinese or Japanese culture. Yet the perpetual search for authenticity within these communities (and perhaps the new or exotic by those who are curious about them), might provide an opening to increasingly bring notions like Wabi-Sabi to the forefront of public discussions of certain martial arts. Equally helpful would be public relations campaigns linking these values to fashionable changes going on in other areas of popular culture, health, architecture or diet.  Again, physically enacting such values, and experiencing them in multiple realms of life, is a necessary precondition for their acceptance.

One might object, correctly, that in focusing on the philosophical or aesthetic dimension of the martial arts we lose sight of their “true purpose.” Worse yet, we risk turning them into purely didactic, rather than practical, exercise. Certainly, care is necessary. Yet it is worth remembering that communities and nations have always been acutely aware of the externalities that the martial arts produce. Throughout the 19thand 20thcentury states were generally much more interested in the “supplementary” side effects of martial practice than the details of what was actually taught in the training hall. Acknowledging this fact is not “politicizing” the martial arts.  They have been political all along.  The real challenge facing us, both as scholars and practitioners, is to understand the full social implications of what we are already doing. Only then can we ask the difficult questions about what will best safeguard the psychological well-being and physical safety of our students as we move into an uncertain future.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read this piece on gender in martial arts training.


The Last Shall be First: Finding Meaning in the Martial Arts

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A foreign martial arts teacher practices at Wudang. Source:



Barnum’s Daughter


I was recently watching the news when I saw a brief segment on “the last” Japanese swordsmith.  The whole things is a little overwrought as there are lots of individuals making swords in Japan today, and (multiple) government offices in place to make sure that they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. While alarmist, I am no longer surprised by this sort of rhetoric. For better or worse, it has become a defining feature of the modern martial arts and all of the other cultural practices that are associated with them. I usually just brush it off. Yet it can be jarring to those who have less experience with it.

By any metric Heather* is a pretty worldly individual.  A Hollywood veteran and longtime producer of reality TV shows (touching on everything from home improvement to dating contests), she could only be described as a modern daughter of P. T. Barnum. She can regale one with tales of writing room misbehavior or the wholesale fabrication of budget numbers on those home renovation shows that dominate the American dream.  She had recently “retired” and moved to Ithaca to take up a teaching position, and at the time of this conversation we lived in the same apartment complex.

Heather approached me on her bike as I was working through a new jian (double edged straight sword) set. “Hey, I didn’t know you were a martial artist!” she proclaimed. “That is what finally chased me out of TV.”  Asking for clarification it turned out that it was not actually Wudang Jian that had done her in.  Rather, she had been working on the project titled “The Last Samurai”* when she finally decided to retire.  I asked her to explain, which she did at length, finally concluding

“Look, I don’t know anything about the martial arts, but I know a racket when I see one. That guy wasn’t “the last Samurai.” What does it even mean to be a “Samurai” in Japan today? And God only knows how any of this could have been significant to the poor kids we dragged over there to meet him.”

After pausing to ruminate she continued, “That was how I knew it was time to get out.  Sure, the dating shows are all staged, and no one has yet pulled a dish out of the oven that actually looks like it does on the Food Network.  I could do all of that. But when it came to martial arts documentaries, it was a sign. I just knew I couldn’t do this anymore.  That’s when I knew it was time to do something real, and finally put my MFA to good use.”

I had never heard this part of Heather’s story before and stood there at an actual loss for words.  After a career spent fabricating the budgets of home improvement shows, it was martial arts mythmaking that finally brought down a jaded Hollywood producer.


A trip to any public park in China would seem to indicate that the average of traditional martial artists is increasing. At the same time these individuals may have a greater need for strong social networks and more resources to devote to finding them.


The Last Masters


As I reflected on the recent story of the “last” Japanese swordsmith (who, I suppose, is responsible for outfitting the aforementioned “last” Samurai) it occurred to me that that these were not just any random lineage myths or poorly researched newspaper articles.  Rather, they were widely shared stories that lamented or prophesized the end of the martial arts altogether.  Indeed, they have acquired the status of cultural touchstones. Both practicing martial artists and the mainstream media seem to relish stories promoting some teacher, or school, as either the first or (more commonly) the last of their kind.

All sorts of practices and institutions come to an end, and yet the media rarely remarks on their passing.  The martial arts are, if nothing else, survivors. While the end of the Chinese martial arts has been regularly prophesized since the end of the Ming Dynasty in the 17thcentury, they are still going strong. Given their frequently predicted demise, on some level I think it would be appropriate to conceptualize the Asian martial arts as a community that exists in a state of perpetual revival (understood in the Religious Studies sense of the word). Yet what makes the image of the end of Kung Fu, the last Viking or the final Samurai so appealing?  Where do these images get their emotional appeal, and why are they embraced with seemingly equal enthusiasm by those both within the traditional martial arts community and those who only know these practices through their mediatized image? As we unravel the puzzle of the perpetual demise of the martial arts, we may gain additional insight into the modern social functions which these practices perform.


Yang Style Taiji in Shanghai, 2005. The traditional Chinese martial arts are always forced to create a sheltered space within the larger community. Source: Wikimedia.



“Tradition” as Fetish in the Martial Arts


As we review the various historical essays within Kung Fu Tea’s archive, one might be forgiven for concluding that the Chinese martial arts are not so much a smoothly transmitted system as an assortment of stochastic discontinuities held together by the fervent belief that they ought to be (or at one point in the distant past were) a cohesive whole.  I find it useful to sit back and consider how much (or rather, how little) my Wing Chun training (a product of the 1950s) has in common with either the Dadao clubs of the 1930s, or the Red Spear village militias of the 1920s. These two distinct visions of the Chinese martial arts were among the largest social movements of their day. Collectively they trained and organized many millions of people.  And yet the Red Spear militias that once rules China’s northern plains seem to have had little impact on the surviving martial arts.  If this is true for huge social movements that existed less than 100 years ago, how much further removed is my understanding of the Chinese martial arts from one of Qi Jiguang’s Ming era soldiers, or an ancient scholar-warrior welding a bronze sword?

Nevertheless, the threads of culture provide continuity that bridges our personal, localized or purely internal, experience of reality. It is here, rather than in embodied practice, that scholars might start their search for a more stable understanding of the Chinese martial arts.  More specifically, it is within their long tradition of shared stories, literary references, venerated figures, imagined geographies and even values (though these do tend to shift from era to era) that Chinese martial culture finds (and contests) its central coherence.  It is within this most basic stratum that our search must begin.  And it is here that we first encounter the uniting fear of the “end” of martial practice.

Within a Confucian lineage system intergenerational transmission, whether genetic or social, is the great responsibility. Fathers must have sons to inherit the land, and in turn they must provide sacrifices to the ancestors. Knowledge, which existed in perfect clarity in the past, must be faithfully transmitted. The martial arts, understood as systems of military defense at both the local and imperial levels, was no exception.  Driven by the importance of the military examination system, archery manuals became one of the most successful genres of popular literature in the late imperial period. Likewise, the act of boxing is irreducibly social.  Neither teacher nor student can exist without the other.

It is thus interesting to note that within the very first stratum of existing Chinese martial arts manuals (16thcentury) we find authors like Qi Jiguang and Yu Dayou already concerned that the nation’s hand combat practices are in decline and in need of revival.  Cheng Zhongyou likewise undertook his important study of the Shaolin pole method both because he wanted to make it available to other members of the gentry seeking to train village militias, but also because he was worried that their “original” method would be lost in a deluge of second-rate imitators.  Already within the oldest stratum of printed (sometimes commercially distributed) works on the Chinese martial arts, we see a concern with their end.  This is truly remarkable as these same authors (and many other nameless instructors within their generation) were responsible for laying the foundation of the martial arts that we now enjoy today.

This basic complex of social values largely survived the transition to ideological nationalism, and market-based methods of transmission, during the late Qing and early Republic period.  In the period of “self-strengthening” (1860s-1890s) the entire nation was seen as under threat, and the martial arts came to be understood by some individuals as a way of preserving what was essential within Chinese society to resist the West. Thus fears about the disappearance of boxing could be mapped directly onto a larger historical dilemma. Likewise, Republic era reformers sought to place the traditional martial arts at the disposal of the nation building project, and (drawing on the Japanese example) saw within them the tools necessary to forge China into a single, modern, people.  When individuals foresaw or debated the end of boxing, they were at the same time ruminating on the nature of the modern Chinese state, its values, and relationship with society.

Yet such discussions still emerge with some frequency in the Western media and martial arts circles. And it goes without saying that the cultural values that underlay these discussions are quite different from traditional Confucianism’s concerns with faithful transmission on the one hand, or the sorts of all-encompassing nationalisms that characterized the 1930s on the other. Is there a single theoretical lens which we might apply to the narrative of the vanishing Kung Fu master which both explains the popularity of the story today, while still (within reason) shedding some light on its previous manifestations?

Martial arts historians and social theorists alike would probably begin by pointing out that it is quite significant that the West encountered these hand combat systems during the great period of imperial expansion in the late 19thcentury, and then again during the era of the consolidation of the global financial order in the immediate aftermath of WWII.  This suggests that we cannot separate the social function of the martial arts from the emergence of late capitalism and modern consumer culture.

Indeed, modern capitalism plays the pivotal role in the post-WWII dissemination of the Asian martial arts.  It gave rise to a set of economic, social and personal insecurities which came to define Western culture, and then promised the delivery of goods, ideas and practices that could solve these same issues.  The first two of these issues are perhaps the easiest to understand. The rapid opening of markets to global trade flows always creates sets of winners and losers as the increased flows of new types of goods eliminate some jobs and threaten the fabric of traditional communities. While most individuals will be better off (in the long run) as the national economy expands, they will now be forced to deal with the basic existential questions of life (who am I, what is my purpose) without the support of the types of traditional communities and institutions that sought to provide those answers in the past.

The surplus of goods which modern capitalism facilitates seems to always be accompanied with a deficit in social meaning.  Increasingly individuals are left to their own devices to determine what makes them unique, which groups (if any) they are part of, and what larger purpose they are meant to fill. Unsurprisingly individuals seek to find meaning within the sorts of goods and experiences that they consume.  For instance, I might signal, and develop, a certain type of identity through the clothing that I wear, the type of car that I drive (or don’t drive), and the hobbies that I fill my free time with.

Yet in a world where everything can be purchased, and any individual with the same set of means might purchase a similar set of goods, how secure is such an identity? The perfectly interchangeable and anonymous nature of markets threatens the ability of these institutions to provide answers for the terrible existential questions of human existence that are always looming in the darkness.  One logical response to this is to remove certain goods from the universal marketplace, thus preserving their cultural power by providing a non-economic gateway to their use.  This strategy has been seen many times in history, but in the current era it seems to most closely approximate our current anxiety over cultural appropriation.

Several theorists have noted that we respond to the anxieties and threats of the modern consumer society by seeking something that exists beyond mere economic exchange with which to anchor identity.  Given their importance to the counter-culture movement of the 1950s-1970s, Asian philosophies, religions and modes of aesthetic expression were often adopted as strategies for resisting the commercialization and hollowing-out of Western life.  Chinese Daoism, Japanese film and, of course, the martial arts all exploded into the popular consciousness as a new generation sought to find a better set of values to anchor their lives in a rapidly changing post-War West.  Strictly speaking, none of these things were actually “new.” Most of these images and ideas had been available to Westerners since the 1920s.  The supply was already present.  It was the post-war reevaluation of modern life that provided an explosion of demand.

Nevertheless, one must think carefully about how individuals, from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, actually encountered these ideas and practices.  The old standby is to assert that Judo or Karate was popularized by vets returning from the occupation of Japan (or perhaps a stint in Taiwan). There is certainly some truth in this statement.  And yet most of the vets who took up martial arts in the 1960s had never been stationed in Okinawa, Japan or Taiwan.  Some key individuals and future tastemakers had.  Don Draeger and R. W. Smith are both important examples of how a certain vision of the Asian martial arts was exported to the West.

Yet the vast majority of individuals who followed in their virtual footsteps had neither the life experience or financial means to travel East and South East Asia, documenting the martial arts.  Some may have encountered aspects of these systems as “dirty fighting” in boot camp. Yet for the most part they came to Judo, Karate and later the Chinese martial arts through newspaper and magazine articles, TV specials and commercial transactions carried out in strip mall dojos dotting the American post-war landscape.

The central paradox of consumer culture is now laid bare.  It promises to sell us goods, ideas and practices that can substitute for the loss of older types of community.  Yet the very fact that such goods can be purchased by anyone leads us to question their authenticity and efficaciousness. If personal-transformation and escape from the woes of late capitalism can really be purchased for $60 a month, and I hand over my $60, what exactly have I escaped?

Once we have reached this point a variety of thinkers, from Slavoj Zizek to Jean Baurdrillard, could be invoked to help. Zizek’s work on “Western Buddhism” is in many ways particularly relevant here.  But I would like to turn to a different source as it brings the discussion back to the frequent appearance of the words “last” and “first” in our discussions of the martial arts.  Specifically, Amanda Fernbach’s 2002 Fantasies of Fetishism: From Decadence to the Post-Human (Rutgers UP) deserves consideration.

Specifically, the logic of Fernbach’s argument suggests that procumers (consumers who simultaneously produce Western martial arts culture through their participation in these systems) seek to solve the essential dilemma of counter-culture consumerism by reformulating their practice as a type of fetish.  While the martial arts will continue to be distributed through a competitive marketplace this move relieves the latent anxiety about the authenticity of these goods. Specifically, discourses focusing on the origins or ending of an art serve to form a relationship between the practice and its students in which the now fetishized art becomes a powerful tool of its own marketing as well as a symbol of its own legitimacy.

Fernbach notes that the origins of the notion of “fetish” seems to lie in the colonial trade that occurred between Portugal and West Africa.  Fetish goods were spiritually powerful, culturally defined, objects which could not be traded.  Their exchange lay outside of normal economic channels, and they were believed to have a transformative effect on individuals or communities.  Given our attempt to apply all of this to a discussion of the martial arts in the early and mid-twentieth century, it is important to note that the core concept of the fetish really derives from imperialist discourse and denotes an area that is somehow insulated from socially corrosive market forces.

This notion (focusing on the object which resisted exchange) would go on to inform the basic anthropological definition of the fetish which saw them as otherwise mundane objects thought to be endowed with tremendous spiritual powers (often used in worship). More specifically, they could grant great strength or ability to someone with the proper knowledge of their use. Freud took this basic notion and instead focused on the absence, or the fear, that might cause one to seek out a fetish in the first place.  Fernbach finds his treatment of the concept wanting in a number of respects.

Karl Marx, on the other hand, found modern fetish goods within the Western economic marketplace. Here the good most certainly exchanges hands through trade.  Yet some aspect of its value (perhaps its prestige, or ability to act as a status symbol) might outstrip its actual utilitarian worth.  The fetish is thus a second good, encoded in the value of the first, which we might purchase within a marketplace.

Each of these definitions of the fetish are related to the others. Yet the original notion of an area (seemingly) protected from the corrosive effects of trade seems most relevant to what we see-or seek-in modern martial arts.  Still, Freud’s very different take on the problem reminds us that what is often most important in understanding human behavior is the fear of the thing that is lacking.

Nor is the Marxist interpretation without some merit. As with any good in the marketplace, one must increase the demand for your product through advertising. Creating discourses that fetishize aspects of the martial arts communicates to consumers that they will receive value that goes above and beyond the simple instruction that we are outwardly paying for. For instance, when I put my child in a Taekwondo class she doesn’t just learn the basic kicks and punches that I am paying for.  Undoubtably there will be a brochure in the school’s lobby informing me that she will also gain “self-confidence,” “discipline” and the ability to “work with others.” These are all core social values and a good example of the Marxist theory in action.

Still, I suspect that there is a more primal layer of myth creation that underlies all of this, one better explored through the older anthropological understanding of the fetish. As adult consumers look for a tool of self-actualization, guided perhaps by latent Orientalist notions about a “purer” East, they build a belt of protective fetish fantasies around the martial arts precisely to “save them” from the taint of the mundane. Perhaps the easiest of these fantasies to construct (and hence the most widespread) is that of origins and endings.

Such stories effectively sperate the martial arts from the world of endlessly repeatable consumer consumption by positing the existence of temporal discontinuity.  It is time itself (or what Eliade might have called “sacred time”) that places the martial arts beyond the reach of “mere consumerism,” but not actual consumers. That which has vanished from the world can no longer be sold, even if I feel that I can access some aspect of this shared sacred past in my weekly Kung Fu classes.  To be on the verge of disappearance is to also to be on the verge of having the sort of cultural surplus that we always bequeath of the long lost masters.  To be the “last master” is to be remembered. At least in our more romantic imagination. One suspects that in real life practices vanish precisely because no one cares to remember them at all.

Likewise, something on the verge of extinction is also a candidate for revival. Ip Man became the “grandmaster” not because he was the first, or the best, Wing Chun practitioner. Rather, he was venerated by generations of students in Hong Kong and the West for “saving the art” from extinction. Whether that was actually the case is a topic for another day. But I don’t think that anyone doubts that Ip Man has come to be seen as an epochal figure in the Southern Chinese martial arts that the “generation” of most modern Wing Chun students is now counted from.  His career is interesting precisely because it illustrates how closely linked the death and rebirth of an embodied identity can be, not just in historical practice but also in the stories that we come to tell.



Taijiquan teacher and students in a park. Source: http://english.cntv.cn





To be a member of the last (or first) generation of an art is find a place in history that appears to be beyond the whim of market forces. As witness to historical events it is hoped that one gains a sense of identity and purpose.  Indeed, one may even wish for a bit of immortality.  Given the universal appeal of these outcomes it is perhaps not surprising that media markets, in both the China, Japan and the West, have fetishized the imminent death of the martial arts. This often functions as a democratizing move. Lamenting their passing, or attempting to spark their revival, have become critical modes by which countless students experience these practices.  And many more media consumers are exposed to the same feelings (often in a more nationalistic or cultural guise) as they consume news stories about the disappearance of these once great cultural artifacts. When these fetishes are exposed (throwing us back into the “desert of the real”), the result can be the sort of destructive feeling of disillusionment that Heather experienced upon actually coming face to face with Japan’s “last Samurai.”

Any student of martial arts history can illustrate, in great detail, that we are not the first generation to read premature obituaries of Kung Fu’s passing.  Nor, through the simple process of extrapolation, are we likely to be the last. Yet when examined through the lens of Fernbach’s theory of the fetish it quickly, becomes apparent that the sorts of popular narratives that we tell about the death and rebirth of the martial arts are very important. The process of fetishization which she outlines (and is particularly amenable to the study of physical or embodied practices) suggests not just a mechanism by which these practices yield real transformative influence on the individual level, but also suggests much about the social ills that they seek to respond to. A theoretically informed examination of the martial arts suggests much about the terrain that lays behind us, and what we might yet become.


*All names and program titles have been changed to protect the innocents.



If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Bruce Lee: Memory, Philosophy and the Tao of Gung Fu


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