Meeting Ma Yue and the Limits of Description

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  An Unexpected Invitation A friend recently extended an invitation that I couldn’t refuse. A couple of weeks ago Chad Eisner (who some of you may remember from my various lightsaber projects) got in touch and let me know that… Continue Reading →

Paradoxes of Success in Lightsaber Combat

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    Lightsabers Go Legit What follows is a meditation on recent events. It is not every day that you sit down, open your phone, and find Trevor Noah performing a Daily Show bit about people you know. It is… Continue Reading →

Play and Learning in the Martial Arts

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Three unidentified children practice Kung Fu near the Shaolin Temple. This newswire photo was taken in 1982 and it captures the first moments of the “Golden Age” of Kung Fu in mainland China.


The Problem with Play

I have always found TED talks to be a mixed bag. Some are wonderful. Others I find vaguely irritating. But the project itself, which seeks to popularize some of the most important “big ideas,” is deeply interesting.  If nothing else, scrolling through a list of titles on the video platform of your choice is a good way to see which concepts are currently making their way into popular consciousness. That is important as scholars are increasingly being judged by the sorts of “real world” effects that their research generates.

If the “TED Index” has any validity, there is one idea whose time has truly come.  “Play” is back.  After decades of being little more than a term of abuse, a purposeless activity relegated to the realm of childhood, play has recently become an important concept.  While few individuals, other than a handful of psychologists and evolutionary biologists, thought about play a decade ago, today studies are being conducted, grants are being written and (many) books published.

This material seems to have come to a general agreement on a few key facts.  Play is a very important aspect of human (indeed, all mammal) learning and development. Individuals who are artificially deprived of play tend to be less creative, flexible, resilient and have an increased likelihood of psychological disorders.  The rise of anxiety, depression and suicide in the Western world, while typically blamed on cell phones and Facebook, also corresponds with the increasing displacement of all forms of play from the lives of tightly scheduled children and young adults.  It seems that the entire TED circuit speaks with a single voice when they tell us that we are facing a crisis.  As Weber’s iron cage of modern rationality grinds on, play has become an endangered species.  The result is a society filled with less creative, less sociable, and less psychologically resilient individuals, precisely at the moment when we need those sorts of attributes the most.

Nor is this simply a matter of concern for parents and school administrators. While most mammals retain some interest in play, humans are practically unique (or at least right up there with dolphins and sea otters) in that extended periods of play remain necessary for adults as well.  As one of the afore mentioned TED talks noted, the opposite of play isn’t “work.”  Its depression.  And that quip brings us to the heart of our problem.  Play has a branding problem.  Can the martial arts help?

As with so much else, I blame the Puritans for all of this. The advent of the protestant work ethic represented a fundamental break with traditional modes of social organization across large portions of the West. While there is much that we could say on the topic (indeed, entire books and articles have been written on the subject), for the purposes of the current post it is enough to note that frivolous activities came under severe scrutiny in a society where an individual’s personal value became increasingly conflated with their net worth.  After all, the one thing that no society can abide is an individual who fails to take its values seriously.  In short order “play” came to be regarded with suspicion.

Nor has the increasing secularization of society done anything to alleviate this problem.  If anything, it has gotten far worse in recent decades.  School years are longer now than they were two generations ago, and seemingly secondary subjects like music, art and recess have all found themselves on the chopping block.  The sorts of athletic leagues that most children find themselves in today are so tightly supervised and disciplined that they no longer meet even the most basic definitions of play. Indeed, the need for constant resume building has eliminated much of the unsupervised “downtime” in which childhood used to occur in.


Naganita Class. Okayama City, 1935. Source: Old Japan Photos.


Martial Arts Practice as Play

This is the section of the essay where I typically introduce martial arts practice as the unexpected solution to what ever issue kicked off our discussion.  Unfortunately, the relationship between the martial art and play is complex and multilayered.  On the one hand, these practices have been haunted by the widely held perception that they are not something that “serious” people do.  Spending an hour a day training for your half marathon is fine, even admirable.  But spending that same hour in a kung fu or kickboxing class can elicit sideways glances and nervous laughter.  Paul Bowman tries to unwrap what is going on here in the opening chapters of his volume Mythologies of Martial Arts(2016).  His arguments are well worth reviewing. But in brief, the alien and seemingly pre-modern nature of the Asian martial arts makes it difficult to incorporate them into Western society’s dominant discourses.

The health benefits of jogging are obvious, as are the competitive virtues of winning a 10K race. They require no explanation.  Yet one must always explain that kickboxing is a great workout, or that BJJ “burns a lot of calories.”  Martial artists are constantly, and with only partial success, justifying the resources that they spend on their training.  Yet at the end of the day, for most members of society, this will always be “just playing around.”  Children may get some benefits from martial arts training.  But Master Ken remains a telling image of the overly serious adult student who never managed to grow up. Serious martial arts training remains unavailable to many adults precisely because it is perceived as a type of (delusional) “play.”

The irony is that many, maybe even most, martial arts class rooms are devoid of actual play.  Real play, true play, can be antithetical to the goals of many martial arts schools.  To understand why this is we need to think a little more carefully about play itself. Unfortunately there are lots of definitions floating around and they don’t all agree. Still, I know play when I see it.  For a short essay like this a compete clinical definition probably isn’t necessary.  Luckily there are a few broadly held points of agreement that can guide our thinking.

To begin with, play is not the same thing as inaction or simply a lack of seriousness. It is an independent process in its own right, with both psychological and social aspects.  There are many types of play.  Some are deeply imaginative and others are not, being primarily observational or embodied. True play is an independently chosen activity that happens in the absence of a directing authority.  It is basically a truism to say that no one can force you to play. Play is generally seen as being purposeless.  This does not mean that it has no impact on an individual’s life.  Rather, it happens for its own sake. To summarize, fun activities are “play” only if they are self-controlled and self-directed.

A psychologist or social scientist may look at what happens in the average Taekwondo class and see a highly creative modern ritual. Individuals dress in symbolic clothing and engage in rites of reversal that upend mundane social values (such as don’t hit your friends or choke your siblings). And yet many training environments go out of their way to avoid an air of playfulness.  In its place we find the formality of ritual and the constant supervision (and correction) of concerned teachers.  Indeed, the parents of the children in the class are likely to be found on folding chairs in the school’s lobby, closely monitoring everyone’s progress. This is a type of performance staged for social purposes rather than individual play. Much the same could be said for most school sports.

One may have quite a bit of fun in such a structured martial arts class (I know I always do).  And there is no doubt that students learn and derive all sorts of physical and social benefits from participating in such classes.  And yet all of this is basically the antithesis of play.  The general feeling seems to be that not only would play in a martial environment be unproductive (how can one learn “good habits” without constant correction and oversight?), but that it might also be dangerous.  Just stop to think about the arsenal of weapons that line the walls of the average kung fu school?  Do you really want to turn the students loose for long periods of unstructured play?  Perhaps the opposite of play is actually “liability insurance.”

Luckily my own Sifu didn’t seem to believe that last point.  I can confidentially say that unstructured play was critical to my development as a Wing Chun student. Indeed, it was an important part of the curriculum.

Standard classes, graded by level and each having a well-developed curriculum, were held four nights a week at Wing Chun Hall in Salt Lake City. Yet Jon Nielson, my Sifu, was aware that more was needed when attempting to find your own place in the martial arts community.  So every Friday evening and Saturday morning his school would open for three hours of unsupervised “practice time” for anyone who wanted to come. Students of the Wing Chun Hall were expected to attend these “open sessions” on a semi-regular basis (and there was never any cost for doing so).  Even individuals from other schools were welcome to come by and train with the Wing Chun people if they so desired.  The critical thing, however, was that the one person who was rarely ever there was Sifu. The sessions were instead monitored (but not run) by his junior instructors who were under strict orders to help if asked. Otherwise students were left to train how they saw fit.  If someone wanted to learn some basic dummy exercises, even though they were years away from starting the dummy form, this was their time to do it.

Most people would come to an open session with some sort of goal in mind.  Maybe they wanted to work on a specific form.  Perhaps they were having trouble with ground-work, or one of the paired exercises that had been introduced during the week.  And it goes without saying that everyone wanted to practice Chi Sao with the more senior students (or to touch hands with visitors from different styles).

Yet three hours is a long time.  One would inevitably be drawn into all sorts of other drills, exercises and discussions that you had never envisioned. The second and third hour of any sessions always seemed to evolve organically. One might well come in to work on the dummy and end up with a pole in your hands.  I still have fond memories of one Saturday spent making up a game so that new Siu Lim Tao students could practice their footwork. While these open sessions tended to start out as directed and focused, by about hour two things had become much more fluid.

My sifu instituted these open sessions for a couple of reasons.  To begin with, everyone needs a night off.  And we can all use more hours of practice when it comes to the sorts of sensitivity drills that Wing Chun so loves.  These things are not like riding bike.  Once certainly will forget them, and you are never any better than however many hours of practice you put in the month before.

Beyond that, my Sifu was also a keen student of pedagogy.  He carefully explained to me the importance of unstructured play, free of judgement or overbearing correction, in learning any physical skill.  More specifically, he noted that this was where students would learn to trust their bodies, bodies that were now defined through a new set of skills.  And it was those martially educated bodies that would make judgements about the world. Understanding whether someone was a threat, or whether a technique was working, was an embodied process.  Teaching and drilling this material during the more structured nightly classes was not enough.  It was also a matter of how that knowledge was internalized, localized, modified and rearranged.  Drawing on his background in linguistics he noted that kung fu meant “hard/skillful work” (and it certainly is), but in China the martial arts are often associated with the verb “to play.”  One “plays wushu,” or goes to “play sticky hands.”  Both modes of action, he suggested, exist in a reciprocal relationship. Self-controlled and self-directed play is not disposable or supplemental.  Properly understood, it is a critical aspect of the learning process.


Chad Eisner (left) sparring with one of his students.


A Common Sentiment

I had not thought about my teacher’s open sessions (and how much fun they were) in a while.  But earlier this week I bumped into an old friend at the grocery store who had recently returned to the US after living abroad. She asked how my martial arts training was going and, while mentioning my various projects, I noted an upcoming workshop with a guest instructor that I would be hosting for the lightsaber combat group here in Ithaca.

My friend already considers my Chinese martial arts practice to be strange enough.  But apparently she had been gone long enough that she didn’t know about the lightsaber project.  It elicited a laugh hinting at something other than delight.  Still, laughter from the uninitiated comes with the territory when one is holding a lightsaber (or, if we are being totally honest, any other type of sword).  I noted that, if nothing else, it is easier to fill a class with lightsaber students than, say, the traditional Wing Chun swords.  She immediately noted that she would be much more likely to come to the later, “but to each their own.”

This was not the first time I have heard something like this.  When explaining to curious passersby that our lightsaber system is based, in large part, on traditional Chinese swordsmanship, this is actually a pretty common response. Everyone it seems, is more interested in “serious” fencing or maybe Wudang sword practice.  And yet we all know that the vast majority of these individuals would never actually show up for that class.  Ithaca is full of highly skilled traditional martial arts teachers that struggle to find more than a handful of students. The sad truth is, to an outside observer, anyone who voluntarily spends that much time with a sword isn’t being “serious.” How could they be?  Isn’t it all just for fun?  You might call it training, but for most people it will always be “just playing around.”

One of the challenges facing the modern martial arts is not to internalize this common critique.  It is all too easy to respond to these questions by reframing all of our activities as investments and “hard work.”  Indeed, the nationalist turn taken by the Japanese and Chinese arts in the 1930s explicitly argued that the goals of hand combat practice were fundamentally a continuation of modernist project.  The martial arts of the era demanded (and received) state support precisely because they argued that they had moved beyond childish things and become a means of “strengthening the nation.”

Such rhetoric was intoxicatingly effective in the 1930s and 1940s.  Yet these arguments work less well in the consumer driven spaces that define the modern West.  Few people want to pay $100 a month to be part of a nationalist indoctrination program.

Nor, given our increased understanding of the importance of play as an aspect of mental health, as well as its critical importance to the learning process, a move back to the “seriousness” of the 1930s would not be wise.  Sadly the martial arts sector lacks the visibility to create a widespread desire for play in the West.  I suppose that is the job of public intellectuals, morning talk show appearances, NY Times best sellers and (if all else fails) TED talks. Yet what we can do is to provide spaces for less-structured play in our classes, organizations and training structures.  My Sifu did that for me, and it was immensely valuable. After speaking with my friend I realized that my lightsaber classes might need something similar. It is not enough that an activity is imaginative or fun. We all learn fastest when given opportunities for truly independent play.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Red Boats and the Nautical Origins of the Wooden Dummy


Varieties of “Tradition”: Work, Play and Leisure in Martial Arts

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A Different Kind of Race

Horse races are strongholds of pageantry and tradition, but when it comes to medieval texture, few can compare with the Palio di Siena. Oddly, any footage of the event reminds me of a critical issue within martial arts studies.  I suppose that is an occupational hazard. Pretty much anything can remind me of some aspect of the martial arts.

Still, a few words on the Palio may be in order before setting out to explore what is “traditional” in current martial practice, and what this term should denote in academic writing. Hopefully exploring one of Europe’s oldest (and probably most dangerous) horse races will help us to distinguish between the notion of “tradition” as a rhetorical posture within the modern discourse on the martial arts, and the critical ways in which pre-modern martial arts activities diverge from their modern counterparts.  Even if the physical movements and uniforms are indistinguishable from what was seen in the past, the actual activity that individuals are engaged in are always a response to contemporary events and conditions.

If one types “Palio” in a YouTube search bar, you will find numerous clips of horses and jockeys racing at breakneck speeds through Siena’s wonderful architecture, cheered on by an enthusiastic crowd. If you watch a little longer a few oddities will begin to appear. To begin with, traditional Italian architecture was never really designed with horse racing in mind. Indeed, it was probably more interested in slowing down mounted charges than facilitating them. It is not uncommon for horses to go down or riders to be unseated.  That tendency is multiplied by the fact that the jockeys race bareback.

Even more interesting is the crowd itself, packed into every space surrounding the designated race course. The term “throng” is thrown around rather loosely, but no other word comes to mind as you survey the pulsing sea of humanity. Yes, tourists come to see the race. But the only way to achieve that density would be if a sizable proportion of the local neighborhoods showed up as well.  Which of course thy do.

The Palio di Siena is much more than a horserace to the 17 wards that make up the city. It is a time of rivalry in which each neighborhood conspires to host banquets, celebrations, religious processions and demonstrations in an attempt to impress and outdo their neighbors. The race itself (run only by horses representing 10 of these wards, selected by lot) is the climax of a cycle of preparation that spans much of the year.  Bands must be maintained, flag throwers trained, and one suspects that quite a bit of expense goes into maintaining Siena’s rather large population of urban race horses. In rare instances a special race is even commissioned to celebrate important city events or to mark critical anniversaries.

Each race is a festival, and the best party in town. It also appears that for many members of the local neighborhoods, the party is a requirement. One simply does not root for a horse from a neighboring ward simply because it has a better chance of winning.  Everyone knows which team they are on, because it was the team that they were born into.  While tourists watch the race, they do not, and cannot, experience it in the same way as those whose lives are interwoven with it.  For them the party seems mandatory.


A depiction of kicking and unarmed fighting traditions in the traditional Italian martial arts.


The Italian Martial Arts Renaissance

While spectacular, the Palio di Siena is not unique.  Italy’s famously independent cities and regions have generated countless festivals. Many of them have a distinctly martial character. The history of the Palio is fairly well known. It seems that seasonal boxing and jousting tournaments gave way to bull fighting and horse-racing at the end of the medieval period.  The modern Palio (reorganized and consolidated in an attempt to reduce accidental injuries) dates to the early 1700s. Many of these Italian contests pit neighborhoods against each other.  Sometimes the contests are good natured.  In other instances, things look more like organized brawling held under the guise of some sort of sporting contest.  But no matter the specific object of the festival, there are always parties.

It was actually the parties that caught my attention. Recently I have had the good fortune to observe small pieces of what might be called the modern Italian martial arts renaissance. Increasingly I am finding Italian martial artists in all sorts of unexpected places.  Traditional Italian martial arts, including various styles of knife and stick fighting, have established footholds in North America and countries like Germany, France and Russia.

While something like Sicilian knife fighting is among the most visible of the Italian martial arts, this material has not traveled alone. Italian systems of boxing and wrestling are also being re-popularized.  And the explosion of interest in HEMA has provided a ready-made outlet for many schools of Italian historical fencing.  Indeed, a colleague in the Bay Area (and specialist in Italian stick fighting) recently told me that in his view the “traditional” Italian martial arts are united by a shared inheritance of embodied knowledge preserved within, and then borrowed from, these older fencing practices.

This view, while historically interesting, also reminds us of something else. There is a lot going on in the world of the Italian martial arts that does not fit within the self-identified realm of “tradition.” Italy has several interesting boxing traditions firmly rooted in the 20thcentury.  Judo, BJJ and MMA are all popular pursuits.  In fact, Ludosport, one of the largest lightsaber combat schools, was founded in Milan in the 2000s. It has since established branches all over Europe and North America.  While I wonder whether some local stick fighting techniques made their way into the Ludosport curriculum, no one would think to call this a “traditional Italian martial art.”

That is where the puzzle begins to unfold.  How do we know a “traditional” art when we see one? What specific practices, identities or expectations set these apart from their modern cousins?

In the 20thcentury “traditional Asian martial arts” declared their presence in a number of ways.  They tended to introduce unique, nationally defined, training uniforms. Elaborate, usually invented, histories were taught to students as a way of defining their new identity as members of the schools and emphasizing a shared set of values.  Movements were stylized in unique and aesthetically pleasing ways.  New modes of personal address were introduced.  Sometimes students were even expected to master a new language (whether Japanese, Korean or even Portuguese) if they wished to really “understand” their chosen martial practice. This differs from the ethos of the modern combat sports (boxing, wrestling and MMA) which embrace contemporary society, rather than throwing up symbolic barriers.

In these specific respects Ludosport actually comes off as a very “traditional” martial art. It strictly maintains its own codes of dress, address and behavior.  Indeed, it tends to be a rather closed community at least partially because of these strategies. One is also expected to learn at least of bit of Italian to take part in classes. Yet its engagement with Italian culture goes well beyond that. I recently had the opportunity to watch students in southern New York counting down drills, naming techniques and going through entire tournament matches without a word of English being spoken. At least within Ludosport, Italian has become the universal language of the lighsaber. One suspects that a degree of fluency and affinity for Italian culture would be a practical (if not formal) prerequisite for actually mastering this system.

I think that the love of a good party is probably also necessary to flourish within the Ludosport community. Its organizers have devoted substantial energy to creating a yearly cycle of tournaments, each with its own period of preparation, and each followed by a period of celebration. Indeed, one of the things that has been most surprising about this community is distances that individuals are willing to travel (and the economic resources they will spend), to participate in these gatherings.  The parties almost feel mandatory, and they are clearly the sort of community strengthening exercise that Emile Durkheim would have delighted in.

This global export of Italian culture is not unique to Ludosport. I asked what sort of student was most likely to take up the traditional Italian martial arts (knife and stick) while interviewing another instructor who moved to the Bay Area some time ago. He noted that when he began to teach, he expected only limited interest from the local community.  Given the extent to which these practices are tied directly to Italian culture he guessed that his students would mostly be Italian Americans looking to reconnect with their heritage.  Instead he discovered a huge amount of interest and a student body that closely mirrored the demographics of the local universities.  While Italian-Americans occasionally take an interest in Sicilian knife fighting, or the Shepard’s stick, most of his students have no direct connection to Italy and many are Asian Americans.

When asked why these sorts of students stayed, or what they got out of traditional stick fighting, my friend concluded, after a moment of thought, that it was probably the community.  They loved learning the language.  They loved the dinners and the parties.  He noted, with some surprise, the number of American university students who are now taking time to travel to Italy specifically to study with other martial arts instructors there.

On a technical level Ludosport is engaged in a very different exercise than that of my friend in the Bay Area.  He pursues the study of “traditional” arts while they are intent on developing a “hyper-real” one. He wields a stick or knife, while they opt for the lightsaber.  He teaches a skill-based classes to local university students, while Ludosport (which also supports a skills based curriculum) seems more interested in organizing itself as an international athletic league.

Yet for all of their differences, both organizations strike me as playing a fundamentally similar role within the Italian martial arts renaissance. Each presents a set of skills embedded within a distinctly Italian cultural framework. This rich web of understanding is conveyed not just through embodied knowledge (which obviously constitutes the core of actual practice), but also through the promotion of media, social networks, language acquisition, travel and an emphasis on the intensive socialization of new students.  What sorts of models exist for understanding this behavior (or in the case of Ludosport, creating it from the ground up)? One suspects that examining Italy’s long history of neighborhood festivals (often structured around quasi-military contests) might be a good place to start.


A less traditional Italian martial art.


The Mandatory Party?

Still, the more we look at festivals like Palio di Siena, the more paradoxes appear.  Can a raging, multi-week, period of intensive community preparation, practice and partying really be made mandatory? What sort of social sanctions could convince people who don’t like the traffic (or who find the injuries to horses and riders disturbing) not to take that long-awaited vacation to Canada?  Or on a more philosophical level, if the community mandates that you go out and have fun, isn’t that really a type of work?  Sure, there may be loud music and lots of alcohol, but if one is required to be there, aren’t you really performing a civic or organizational duty?

This was one of several important questions that the anthropologist Victor Turner asked in his 1974 essay “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow and Ritual: As Essay in Comparative Symbology.” His answer is particularly important for understanding the gradations of “tradition” that we might find in the martial arts. Yet on an even more basic level, he attempts to provide insights about the nature of the modern world, and the ways that industrialized and post-industrial societies tend to reposition “play” as “leisure” and “work” as “labor.”

The brief version of Turner’s answer would likely be that the existence of a “mandatory party” is possible in certain times and places, but not in our current situation. The advent of industrialization brought a fundamental transformation to how we understand concepts like “leisure” and “free time.” As such, when we see something that resembles, or postures, as a mandatory party, its important to consider what social work it is attempting to accomplish within a modern social context.  What set of personal or psychological needs are being fulfilled by something that is, in reality, almost certainly a voluntary consumption decision?

Turner begins by observing that in truly traditional communities, characterized by extensive face to face interactions, the line between transformative ritual (whether seasonal in nature or a rite of passage) and the world of normal daily work was often not what we would think.  Agricultural or physical labor was necessary to prepare material for religious sacrifices which would then ensure the productivity of one’s work in the coming year. An individual ritual action might be hedged about with symbolic cultural markers, demarcating it as “sacred space.”  Yet the cycles of the calendar itself tended to unite things into a single whole.  It dictated when work would happen, when times would be lean, and when festivals could be celebrated. Regulating the success of this system (thus ensuring the survival of the group) monopolized the resources of the community.

It is not a surprise, then, to read about entire communities coming out to cooperatively plant in the spring or gather crops later in the year.  That sort of work was an economic and social necessity.  Yet Turner went on to note that the sorts of feasts and festivals that occurred in these communities were also mandatory and a type of social work, rather than being an optional event or an example of modern “leisure.”  Just as one had a responsibility to work in the community fields, or defend the community’s boundaries in its militia, one also had a responsibility to take part in the festivals and rituals that ensured fecundity, or attempted to ward off disease or natural disaster.

Certainly, these times were marked with celebration and creative play. Yet they were also instances of very intense social work. The notion of true leisure (meaning a realm of voluntary activity chosen by the individual and financed by the fruits of their personal labor) could only come into existence once economic markets had been developed in land and labor, a process that Karl Polanyi called “The Great Transformation.” Turner had much to say about this distinction, but perhaps we can summarize simply by noting that even if a given ritual might be preserved across this cultural barrier, its nature and meaning would be utterly transformed.  To call on a seasonal example, wassailing in 16thcentury England was quite different, and implied a very different set of social structures and responsibilities, then singing Christmas carols today.  The latter is strictly a voluntary (and modern) activity.  The former was very much a “mandatory party” which wealthy landowners could not easily opt out of.

I think that one can see all of this illustrated in our modern confusion over the definition of Chinese martial culture. Did these practices originate in the changing social conditions (urbanization) of the Song dynasty, the coastal military crisis of the Ming, or ritual attempts to control disease, flood and famine in the Qing?  The answer, of course, is “yes.”  Both practice and performance have been deeply implicated within the development of the Chinese martial arts.  The 16thcentury piracy crisis necessitated the reform of martial training to counter a new threat.  Yet the four horsemen of the apocalypse always ride together. Famine and disease do not exist separately from military conflict. They are closely associated with it. Wars lead to hunger, and hunger leads to social violence.

This relationship was clearly understood by Chinese scholars, community leaders and military officers, all of whom had ample opportunities to study the subject in great detail. Thus martial rituals (lion and dragon dancing, several types of temple processions, the staging of community operas) carried out to address these more existential threats cannot ever be fully separated from the practical business of “real” martial arts training. Our constant attempts to do so, to fracture the overall unity of martial culture, tells us much more about the ways that economic and social specialization shape our own culture than anything about what happened in pre-1911 China.  In 1840 both training with the militia and celebrating the New Year with the lion dance company were examples of “kung fu” because both were types of social work that certain young men were expected to render to the larger community. At times there was a ludic aspect to this work, but again, the party was mandatory.

None of this is the case today.  Indeed, the party itself seems to have largely vanished. While conducting interviews I often hear the old timers talk about the wonderful socialization that happened after training at Chinese martial arts schools during the 1970s and 1980s. They relate stories of the hours spent in restaurants, or the group expeditions to grindhouse theaters to watch kung fu films.  It all sounds wonderful.  But I have never actually seen anything like it within my own experience. Instead, it is always framed as something “we used to do.”

When I ask about the change inevitably I hear that people grew-up, had families and got too busy.  I suspect that this also signals the dramatic loss of social capital within American society that Putnam and other social scientists have written about. Still, the very fact that one can make a choice about this, that the party can even go out of fashion, suggests that these sorts of activities are very different from their pre-modern forbearers. What had been social work, necessary to maintaining the community, came to be experienced as a type of leisure, one consumer good among many which individuals used to fill their free time. It was this prior transformation that allowed it to become too expensive or unfashionable to continue.

All of this should lead to a moment’s reflection on what we mean when using the term “traditional” to discuss the martial arts. I am not suggesting that anyone change their terminology, but we should be aware that two very different possibilities are always at play. Logically, “tradition” would seem to refer to the practices and social structures of the pre-modern era.  It was at this time that one might find a truly “mandatory party,” or martial arts practice understood as a necessary aspect of community service. Yet that is almost never what practitioners or scholars actually mean when using the term today.  Instead they are referring to a group of modern practices which emerged in the late 19thor 20thcentury, almost all of which attempt to convey an ethno-nationalist body of knowledge through a type of physical training defining itself in opposition to “modern” (read, universally available) sports. This is “tradition” as a label that is chosen within a very modern marketplace of ideas, rather than something that predates or rejects a modernist understanding of the world.  While the label points back to an imagined past of “essentialist” and immutable national identities, such a usage can exist only within a contemporary context.


“Local Militia Shandong.” 1906-1912 by Fr. Michel de Maynard.




So why would some communities (either kung fu schools in the 1970s, or Italian martial arts today) attempt to replicate the tradition of the mandatory party? Again, rather than an actual return to the past, one suspects that this is a response to proximate concerns found within recent trends.  Over the summer I had a chance to attend Ludosport’s first national tournament in the USA and was surprised by the number of athletes that they assembled.  It must have been a sizable percentage of the organization’s entire American student body. One can only wonder at the economic costs of making something like that happen.

As the tournament went on the attraction became more evident. Certainly, the matches and workshops were interesting, but the party was fantastic. It was the primary means by which old friendships were reinforced and new relationships forged. It was there that the basic social values of the group were hashed out.  Indeed, these social gatherings were so important they were not left to chance.  Ample time for “spontaneous” socialization was actually built into the events schedule.  Further, the organizer’s habit of repeatedly scheduling important business meetings for school owners and instructors as “break-out sessions” during the main parties meant that for the professional within the group, the “mandatory party” was not just a metaphor.  You really did have to be there.  That was actually rough on many of the more jetlagged attendees.

Creating a martial arts group that can impose these sorts of costs on its member is not easy in the current environment.  The higher the barriers to entry, the lower one’s potential student base will be.  Still, it is not hard to see the attraction in all of this. Social and economic changes within the American economy have, over the last few decades, hollowed out its once vibrant community and associational life. Individuals crave a sense of intense, authentic community, something that, in an increasingly chaotic world, you can build a life around.

Creating those sorts of institutions is no easy task. It is one that goes well beyond looking for a time to schedule a couple of weekday classes.  Still, the recent success of the Italian martial arts (whether traditional or hyper-real) in North America suggests that there is an immense appetite for this more intensive community experience.

This also raises questions for students of martial arts studies.  When you look at the “clan structure”, cyclic yearly calendar and “mandatory parties” of Ludosport, it is easy to be reminded of the pre-modern traditions of something like the Palio di Siena. Indeed, one suspects that these sorts of social institutions served as a model for the construction of this more modern organization. Yet if we forget that the world that structures these demands is actually quite different from the one that gave rise to an earlier generation of community traditions, that modern leisure is not the same thing as peasant’s play, we will misunderstand the social work that the martial arts perform today.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: The Tao of Tom and Jerry: Krug on the Appropriation of the Asian Martial Arts in Western Culture


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