Individualism, Art and Craft: Reading Bruce Lee by the Numbers

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Interpreting Bruce Lee

We may debate lists of the 20th century’s most influential martial artists,* but when it comes to written texts, there is simply no question.  “Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate,”  Bruce Lee’s 1971 manifesto, first appearing in the September issue of Black Belt magazine, has been reprinted, read, criticized and commented upon more than any other English language work.  Like many aspects of Lee’s legacy, it has generated a fair degree of controversy.  But what interests me the most is the scope and character of its audience.

One might suppose that Lee’s essay would have been read primarily by the Karate students that the title hailed, or perhaps by the generations of Kung Fu students who have come to idolize him.  And it is entirely understandable that this text has assumed an important place within the Jeet Kune Do community.  Yet its title notwithstanding, Lee never intended this piece as a narrow argument.  Nor, when we get right down to it, was Lee actually trying to convince anyone to quite Karate in favor of another style.  Such nationalist or partisan concerns were a feature of the earlier phase of his career. By 1971 Lee was concerned with more fundamental issues.

Yet all of these statements are really my own personal readings, and as such they open the door to questions of interpretation. What are the most valid ways to read Lee’s famous essay? And what sorts of interpretations might be unsupportable, what Umberto Eco called “overinterpretations” (See “Interpretation and Overinterpretation: World, History, Texts” (Cambridge University 1990). I have it on good authority that two of my friends are currently preparing a debate on this text, and what it suggests about the validity of various theories of interpretation, which will appear in a future issue of Martial Arts Studies.

With that on the horizon, I am hesitant to venture too far into the same territory.  Yet if he were here, Umberto Eco’s would probably point out that a close reading reveals that Lee seems to have had some well-developed thoughts on how his essay should be read, and what sorts of interpretations of this text (and the Jeet Kune Do project more generally), might be considered valid.  Lee begins his argument with the well known story of the Zen master overflowing a cup of tea precisely to head off responses to his work that might be classified as “arguments from authority.”  Indeed, in the very next paragraph he tells his readers that he has structured his essay like the traditional martial arts classes that they are all so familiar with. First the mental limbering up must happen so that one’s received bodily (or mental) habits can be set aside.  Only then is it possible to see events as they actually are, without resorting to the crutch of style (or perhaps theory) to tell you what you are perceiving.

As a social scientist I am very suspicious of those who claim to be able to put “theory” aside and to simply see a situation for what it really is. As one of my old instructors colorfully declared, no such thing is possibly.  “Theory is hardwired into our eyeballs.”  It is fundamental to how our brains make sense of raw stimulus. We all have so many layers of mental habit, training and predisposition that the notion of setting it aside is fundamentally misguided.  Much the same could be said of our bodily predispositions.  Lee is correct in that one can set aside style.  But the more basic structures that Marcel Mauss called “techniques of the body”, or Bourdieu’s socio-economically defined (and defining) “habitus,” are not things that can ever really be set aside. Seeing the world with no filter at all, dealing with pure objective reality, is not possible, no matter how much enthusiasm Lee generates for the project.

On a personal level I suspect that while we all strive (and we should strive) to empty our cups, the best we can actually do is to try and be aware of the unique perspectives that each of us bring to an event. For instance, when Lee composed the arguments and images that make up this essay, it was with the intention of constructing what Eco called a “model reader”, someone who would become sympathetic to the arguments that he was trying to make. This was not necessarily a reader who would quit his karate class and put on a JKD shirt (though that might happen).  Again, Lee was pretty explicit about his aims.  He wasn’t trying to make America’s martial artists more like him in a technical sense.  Rather, it was enough if they simply began to “leave behind the burdens of pre-conceived opinions and conclusions,” and base their training strategies on personal observations of what actually happened rather than someone else’s notions of what should happen.  In essence, Lee was not so much proposing that America’s martial artists change styles (something that by definition could only be a pointless, lateral, move). Rather, he wanted them to begin to think seriously about how exactly they knew what they knew.  He wanted them to change epistemologies.

We can say this much with confidence. Yet knowing everything that Lee wanted, or intended, as an author is tricky.  This was not a long essay, and while key points can be teased out (e.g., a surprising degree of faith in the individual and a notable suspicion of all sources of social authority), many lines in the essay remain open to interpretation.  It is the sort of text that rewards a very close, sentence by sentence, reading. Even then, all we can really know is the intention of this essay, a linguistic artifact created at a specific moment in 1971.  It is interesting to speculate as to what a much younger Lee would have made of this text.  And by the end of his life in 1973 his thoughts on the value of Jeet Kune Do seem to have evolved rather dramatically.  While we might fruitfully debate the interpretation of Lee’s text, the interpretation of its author remains a much more difficult task.

Still, Lee attempted to make it clear that certain interpretations of his text were out of bounds. It is that authorial strategy that actually brings Eco’s approach to mind as possible interpretive strategy. He notes that a proper reading would be a humanist one.  For Lee the martial arts are properly a matter of individual human activity rather than the exclusive property of nations or groups.  He notes that his essay should not be seen as a polemic by a Chinese martial artist against the Japanese bushido.  Nor should he be read as proposing a new style or system of martial training.  It also seems clear that Lee himself is the subject of the extended metaphor on page 25.  It is the author himself who in the past “discovered some partial truth” and “resisted the temptation to organize” it.  The whole story is directed towards Lee’s own students who in their enthusiasm to wrench meaning from one part of Lee’s text (or bodily practice) might fall prey to Eco’s process of “overinterpretation.”

All of this is only my interpretation of Lee’s essay, and it goes without saying that I am a type of reader that this text never anticipated.  After all, the academic study of the martial arts did not really exist in 1971, certainly not the way that it does now.

What audience did Lee, as an author, seek? What sort of “model reader” did this text intend to create? And why was there even a need to issue a call for liberation in the first place?  One might suppose that the value of freedom, self-expression and increased fighting prowess would simply be self-evident.  The fact that Lee is extolling their virtue, and calling for a fundamental change in the sources of authority that martial artists are willing to accept, suggests that it was not.


While I have never seen a martial arts themed paint by numbers, the “oriental other” was a popular subject between the 1950s and the 1970s.


Paint by Numbers

Eco may be correct that it is essentially impossible to divine the true intent of an author simply from the resulting text. Yet the complexity of that task pales in comparison with the challenge of reconstructing how his or her readers responded to that text at a given point in history.  After all, the author had the good sense to leave us with a text (even if his meanings may have been unclear).  The readers, more often than not, left nothing but nods of agreement or groans of frustration deposited within the etheric sphere.  Trying to reconstruct their experience through our own empathic imagination might really be an exercise in “organized despair,” to borrow a phrase from Lee.  Yet it is precisely in those moments, where the expectation of the reader and the intention of a text clash, that brief bursts of light are created.  And this fading conflict can suggest some of the critical features that once defined a historical landscape.  While difficult, it is worthwhile to try and discover something about the “model readers” who struggled with, and were organized by, this text.  Indeed, I actually find the readers of this essay even more interesting (and vastly more sociologically significant) than its author. Yet we know so much less about them.

While few readers took the time to provide contemporaneous documentation of their first reading of this essay (I know of no such record), it would not be correct to say that they left no evidence of their passing.  For one thing, the 1970s produced a rich material and symbolic record which suggests some interesting hypotheses about the sorts of audience that Lee would have encountered.  Two such artifacts are currently hanging on the wall of my living room.

They appear in the form of pair of paint by number landscapes, illustrating a wintery New England day so picturesque that one is quite certain that it never happened.  These paintings were completed by a woman in 1971, the same year that Lee’s essay first appeared.  One suspects that if he had taken an interest in art criticism Lee would have had much to say about my paintings. With a few choice substitutions his famous essay could easily be retitled “Liberate Yourself from the Paint by Number Kit” and it would read almost as well.

That, seemingly flippant, observation reveals an important clue about the sorts of readers (and martial artists) that Lee was addressing.  We don’t have a large body of informed martial arts criticism dating from the 1970s, but we do have a vast literature on the criticism of the visual arts.  And several critics explicitly addressed the paint by numbers fad.  The sorts of arguments that they made sound, at least to my ear, uncannily like the points that Lee was trying to make.

By 1971 the paint by number phenomenon was already a well-established part of American middle class landscape (much like the neighborhood judo club).  These kits were originally conceived of by an artist named Dan Robbins and Max S. Klein, the owner of the Palmer Paint Company.  After the end of WWII Americans leveraged their increased rights in the workplace, and a period of unprecedented economic growth, to create a new golden age of the leisure economy.  The forty-hour work week meant that workers had more free time than ever before, and they had enough income to fill those hours with an ever expanding range of activities. The visual arts were increasingly popular, but for most people doing their own paintings remained an aspirational dream.  Robbins and Klein decided that simple kits, which required only an ability to color within the lines, would provide Americans with many hours of relaxation while selling an unprecedented amount of paint. Their initial run of kits, which attempted to educate consumers about the latest trends in serious modern art, did not sell particularly well.  But when more nostalgic images of the countryside, animals, dancers and the “exotic East” were introduced, it was clear that a cultural phenomenon had been born.

This did not please most of the art critics of the day. The lack of creativity, indeed, the process of near mechanical reproduction, involved in these “paintings” came to symbolize the worst aspects of 1950s social conformity. [Note also that cover of the 1971 Black Belt issues has Lee  hyperbolically warning America’s martial artists that they are being transformed into machines].  In the view these critics, individuals were drawn to art because they wanted to experience creativity. Yet these kits promised them basic results only by foreswearing any degree of individual expression.  When the critics imaged millions of (near identical) Mona Lisas hanging on the walls of the millions of (near identical) tiny homes which populated America’s postwar landscape, they found themselves drowning in a nightmare of suburban mediocrity.

This was precisely the cultural milieu that inspired Umberto Eco to undertake his cross-continental road-trip, explicitly focusing on the question of simulation in the American imagination of fine art, which would result in his essay “Travels in Hyperreality.”   This is a work that has proved important to my own understanding of the role of cultural desire within the martial arts.  Still, the judgement of the contemporary critics was clear.  Art was the product of individual inspiration and struggle with a constantly changing world.  These paintings were not art.  At best they were a mechanically reproduced “craft.”

Yet there has always been a strain of American popular culture within which such an assertion does not work as an invective. The entire turn of the century “arts and crafts” movement (seen in architecture, furniture, and the graphic arts) explicitly rejected the elitism of high art and instead asked what sort of social benefit could be derived from the support of, and participation in, wholesome crafts in which people enriched and beautified their environments while supporting local craftsmen. Nor do most of the post-war individuals who spent their afternoons with these kits seem to have aspired to be “artists.”  While such questions may have been critical to the critics, these were not categories that structured the lives of these consumers.

Paint by numbers was popular because the process was enjoyable.  People found these kits to be relaxing. Further, the idea that one could make an object suitable for display in their own homes was intrinsically rewarding. In light of this, the critic’s emphasis on individual creativity and authenticity seems to have been misplaced.  No one bought a Mona Lisa kit because they wanted to express their authentic “inner vision.” Rather, they wanted to enter into a dialogue with that specific piece of art.  They sought to understand someone else’s vision, and to be part of a community that appreciated that.

The entire genera of paint by numbers is marked with an almost overwhelming air of nostalgia.  This was an exercise in cultivating (and satisfying) a desire for preexisting categories of meaning.  Through the reproduction of different types of art (religious images, Italian masters, American landscapes, dancing figures, Paris cityscapes, etc….) individuals sought to align themselves with, and appropriate, some specific aspect of pre-existing social authority.  Make no mistake, the creation of real art is hard work.  Yet paint by numbers succeeded as a popular medium because it took seriously the notion of leisure. The physical artifacts that it generated were, in many ways, secondary to the social and psychological benefits created.

A traditional class within the Japanese martial arts might seem quite different than a paint by number kit.  Ideally the later generates very little sweating and yelling, while the former practically demands it. Yet it is no coincidence that these pursuits both exploded into America popular culture in the 1950s, driven by the growth of the post-war leisure economy. Both sought to simplify complex elite activities and present them to the masses in such a way that they could be easily mastered. Indeed, the standardized kata and training methods seen in Meiji and Showa era martial arts schools seem to have appealed to the same social sensibilities that Robbins and Klein sought to capitalize on.

Nor do questions of individuals or individual expression figure that prominently into the early post-war martial arts discourse.  We should hedge this last point as, while they were more visible, the Asian martial arts remained outside of the hegemonic aspects of Western culture (Bowman 2017).  To practice Judo in the 1950s was an expression of individual choice and values in a way that would not have been true of Japanese school children taking a Judo class in 1937.  And it is certainly true that when many returning GI’s (and later Korean and Vietnam veterans), took up these pursuits. Some sought solace, while others were looking for a source of martial excellence.    For instance, Donn F. Draeger’s letters to R. W. Smith make it clear that he was quite interested in the Japanese koryu, but had no interest in contemporary Chinese martial arts, because Japan had performed well on the battle field, and Chinese troops, by in large, had not (Miracle 2016).

Yet I doubt that Draeger was expecting to find real, unfiltered, free-style violence within the traditional dojo. One suspects that most of these vets, at least the ones who had actually seen combat, would have had enough of that on the beaches of the Pacific. What seems to have motivated many of these early students was not so much the search for “realism,” as it was the search for a “cultural essence.” Knowing the reality of warfare, one wonders whether they were freed from petty debates about the “reality of the octagon” (or its post-war equivalents).

Draeger threw himself into highly ritualized styles of Japanese swordsmanship not because he believed this was what a “scientific street fight” actually looked like.  He seems to have been looking for a deeper set of answers as to how men had achieved victory in combat in the past.  The answers were partially technical, but they also included more. Rightly or wrongly, it was clear to Draeger that (some) Japanese martial artists had the answers, while the Chinese did not. His friend and fellow researcher, R. W. Smith, came to a different set of conclusions after his own experiences with Chinese martial artist while living in Japan and Taiwan. Their martial arts research was not so much about expressing individualism in the abstract (though Draeger’s interests in body building did eventually take him in that direction), but understanding systems of social authority that had allowed individuals to do amazing things.


Bruce Lee Graffiti. Source: Wikimedia.


Conclusion: A Debate Between Readers

These duel excursus into the graphic arts and the early days of hoplology suggests how one group of readers may have approached Lee’s classic essay.  In larger cultural terms, Lee’s essay may be less daring than it first appears. While such discussions were novel in the small world of Western martial arts practice, art and culture critics had been making points very similar to Lee’s for decades. They had been doing that because activities that were structurally similar to the practice of the traditional martial arts had become increasingly common within American society since the early 1950s.  Lee is often portrayed as a radical or iconoclastic thinker, but when placed next to these critics his calls for individual expression and authenticity within the arts actually replicate the era’s elite social values. More radical, in some senses, were the voices that argued for primacy of craftmanship over art, or for a turn towards a foreign (even colonial) set of cultural values as a way of dealing with the malaise of modern life.

The issues being debated by the martial artists of the 1970s (and still today) are so fundamental that Lee’s essay was bound to generate disagreement.  The editors of Black Belt anticipated this. It may be worth reading Lee’s essay in comparison with the issue’s opening editorial on the importance of bowing and traditional etiquette, as well as its final article titled “The Legacy of the Dojo” by David Krieger (50). The first piece contains a quote by an anonymous Chinese martial artist (who may well be Bruce Lee himself as he often haunted the magazine’s offices) praising the efforts of Japanese martial artists to bring morality into their training halls while noting the often-disrespectful ways that Chinese students discussed their own teachers.  The two pieces, which both make oblique arguments for the acceptance of traditional modes of social authority within the Asian martial arts, seem to offer an intentional counterpoint to some of Lee’s more individualistic notes.

When we consider the larger social trends in post-war America, and read Lee’s essay in conjunction with the pieces that bookend the September 1971 issue, the parameters of the debate become clearer.  Then, as now, the martial arts could be seen either as a vehicle for understanding traditional modes of social authority, or as a means of breaking them down. Readers split on this issue, just as they still do today.  It is precisely this ongoing dialectic that allows the ostensibly “traditional” Asian martial arts to fill so many social roles in the modern Western world. This essay’s genius lies not in its ability to convince one side or the other, but in its ability to draw successive generations into the discussion.


*For the record, Kano Jigoro has my vote for the 20th century’s most influential martial artist.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Explaining “Openness” and “Closure” in Kung Fu, Lightsaber Combat and Modern Martial Arts


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:





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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