Meditations on the Blade, Ultra-Modernity and the Fine Art of Self-Promotion

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The Unexpected Giant

Some of the essays at Kung Fu Tea are the result of several days of careful research and thinking.  This is not going to be one of those pieces.

I started out with a great topic.  It was my goal to explore the stochastic progress of duanbing, a type of competitive short-weapon fencing, conducted with specific safety gear, which has been on the verge of “really taking off” within the TCMA community ever since the late 1920s.  As I began to assemble some articles and descriptions of the first phase of duanbing practice in the 1930s, one name just kept coming up. In fact, I ran across so many references to this individual that I just had to find out more about him.

Sadly, he has nothing to do with Chinese fencing. But Col. Voldemar Katchorovsky did make quite an impression on anyone who met him. His colorful career suggests something about the general attitudes which shaped the development of Guoshu, as well as the types of adventurous individuals, peripatetic either by choice or circumstance, who shaped the global transmission of all martial arts (both Eastern and Western) during the 19thand 20thcentury. Lastly, his career is also a valuable reminder that duanbing did not emerge in a vacuum.  It was developed at a time when both Japanese Kendo and Western foil fencing were making inroads into Chinese schools and popular culture. As I (and many others) have already noted, the development of any “local” and “traditional” practice must arise in discourse with notions such as “international” and “modern.”  Katchorovsky’s writings provide us with a very specific example of how these concepts entered discussions of martial and combative pursuits in China.

Who was V. A. Katchorovsky?  It is difficult to say with absolute certainty. As with many martial artists, we simply do not have a complete life story.  Yet a review of period newspapers reveals two competing narratives.  The first was something that Katchorovsky’s inherited.  Despite his enormous height (over seven feet), and unusual profession (fencing instructor), most people saw him primarily as a refugee, a former Russian military officer displaced by the Bolshevik Revolution.  Indeed, quite a few Russians refugees would eventually end up in China, and they seem to feature prominently as “threatening outsiders” in many kung fu legends.  Perhaps we should not be surprised that displaced individuals (many with a military backgrounds) would end up coming into contact with China’s own martial artists.

Still, Katchorovsky’s path to China was far from direct. The first mention that I can find of him comes in the form of a short article in a local paper in New South Wales, Australia. It seems that in 1924 Katchorovsky was passing through on his way to Tahiti.  Yet he was viewed as such a tragic figure that an article on his visit was necessary.

Giant Refugee

Body Guard of Murdered Czar

Melbourne, Saturday. –Penniless and physically worn, after years of intense anxiety, Artillery Colonel (W)oldemar Katchorovsky, once of the first Artillery Brigade attached to the late Czar’s Imperial Russian Life Guards, arrived in Melbourne on Wednesday.  He stands over seven feet one inch high.

Having been hounded out of his country by the Bolsheviks, Katchorovsky is on his way to Tahiti, where he will join another refugee, Colonel Basil Nik[]tine.  His fortune having been confiscated, he was obliged by necessity to travel steerage on the French liner Ville de Strassbourg.

Katchorovsky was one of the late Czar’s bodyguards.  As a refugee in Malta with the Dowager Empress Maria Deodorovna, he learned the authentic story of the death of the Royal family.

While the Royalist Generals were organizing volunteer corps in the Caucasus and Crimea, the Czat and his family were taken prisoners to Ekaterinburg, Western Siberia.  According to the Dowager Empress, his majesty was killed by the prison guard against military orders.  The rest of the family, after suffering terrible humiliation, were likewise done to death.

Katchorovsky carries with him treasured photos of himself taken with members of the royal family when holidaying in Lividia Palace in the Crimea.

Northern Star(Linsmore, NSW) 16 June 1924. Page 4.

Readers should note that this piece contains no discussion to fencing, leading me to wonder whether Katchorovsky had begun to teach. Tahiti in the 1920s, while probably lovely, would not have been my first choice of location to open a new fencing salon.  Beyond that, this article offers readers very few biographical details.  We do not learn how old Katchorovsky was, or whether he ever had a family.  Nor do we learn where he was coming from.

Like many refugees in our own era, Katchorovsky seems to have been subjected to a process of biographical flattening.  His entire life is reduced to only those elements most interesting to the paper’s readers.  One suspects that in the 1920s any number of White Russian refugees might have passed through the same area and inspired almost identical articles.  In this discursive movement Katchorovsky, as an individual, was hollowed out and reduced to a symbol of the era’s increasingly well-developed fear of Bolshevism.


Col. V. A. Katchorovsky as he appeared in the pages of The China Press in 1933.


Maitre d’Armes

Whatever business Katchorovsky had in Tahiti, he seems not to have stayed long.  In 1927 his name resurfaces in another newspaper in New South Wales.  Then in 1930 we catch a glimpse of him in Honolulu. While most of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa was consumed with an upcoming football game against BYU, the school newspaper reported that an exhibition fencing tournament had been planned between the students of Katchorovsky and those of Cedric Wodehouse (a local instructor who had been trained in the UK).  Once the preliminary matches were finished, the student body was promised an exhibition match between the two instructors.  This was billed as a “real match between experts.”  Without digging into more detailed local historical sources, it is difficult to say how long Katchorovsky stayed in Honolulu.

In any case, he did not put down roots.  Two years later a student newspaper for the University of British Columbia (Vancouver) ran a brief notice stating that Katchorovsky had taken up residence in the area and was looking to establish a class for local university students. Any student wishing to take him up on the offer needed to hurry.  By the spring of 1933 Katchorovsky would be seeking to establish a somewhat larger presence in Shanghai.

This is the period of Katchorovsky’s career that generated the most interesting paper trail.  Between February 19-22 of 1933, he wrote a series of three, highly detailed, articles for The China Press.  Each of these sought to explain and promote Western style fencing as a desirable type of personal exercise and competitive sport. [Readers should note that, confusingly, both the second and third articles in this series are labeled as “number two,” so it is necessary to actually check the dates of publication].  Collectively these discussions seem to announce the arrival of a more prosperous stage of Katchorovsky’s teaching career.

Readers may recall The China Press was one of Shanghai’s leading English language “treaty port” papers. While the editor of this paper was Chinese, and a virtual agent of the KMT government, the China Press prided itself on its connections to the American tradition of journalism and liberal editorial slant. The paper served three audiences. Obviously, it spoke to the needs of the expatriate English speakers in Shanghai.  Yet unlike other foreign language papers, it reported extensively on Chinese political and social events.  Indeed, its ostensible foreign ownership helped the paper to skirt certain censorship regulations, and it thus also appealed to educated, English reading, Chinese citizens. Lastly, the KMT tolerated papers such as this as they hoped that they would bring news of what was happening in China (unfiltered by the always hostile Japanese newswire services) to citizens in the West.

Given this complex readership, it is significant that The China Press was unrelentingly enthusiastic about all aspects of the martial arts.  It seems to have published more stories on Chinese boxing (or “national boxing”) than any other treaty port paper.  But it also reported on judo, kendo, boxing and fencing. One suspects that someone in the editorial office took a keen interest in martial pursuits.

Still, the degree of coverage that Katchorovsky’s thoughts on fencing received seems exceptional, even by the standards of The China PressAs I mentioned in our prior discussion of Ma Liang’s New Wushu movement, certain outlets also offered their services to government officials or important individuals who sought (for a price) to promote a project that was generally in line with a paper’s editorial policy. For a few years the China Press even seems to have run an ad hoc English language public diplomacy program for the KMT.  I suspect that Katchorovsky may have entered into a similar promotional arrangement with the paper.

His first three articles, in April of 1933, were immediately followed up by another piece at the beginning of March.  This article (written by a reporter) sought to both promote fencing in general and Katchorovsky’s classes more specifically.  It noted that he had recently been hired by St. John’s University as a fencing instructor for the students. The paper proclaimed (probably incorrectly) that these were “the first Chinese [boys] to take up this typically European sport.”  It was also noted that his experience in America demonstrated that fencing was really a sport for everyone, regardless of age or gender.  A local girl’s school was also considering adding fencing classes.

Again, it is difficult to know exactly when Katchorovsky arrived in Shanghai and began teaching. But at the end of March (22nd) the China Press ran another story, probably independent of any formal advertising campaign, noting that due to the increased popularity of the sport an exhibition had been scheduled at the International Branch of the YWCA. Exactly one week later (March 30th) another unsolicited article was run reporting on the result of this social and athletic gathering.  Such stories are relatively common in the pages of The China Press.  Still, it seems that this event made a positive impression on the reporter.  Like Hawaii, the student tournament was followed by two exhibition matches in which the various coaches and organizers demonstrated other weapons and superior techniques for the crowd.

Skimming various accounts of tournaments and exhibitions, it seems that much of the fencing in Shanghai was led by, or included, Russian refugees.  Indeed, one wonders whether this was what drew Katchorovsky to the city in the first place.  His own match was against Dr. Schoenfeld.  Col. Minuchin, who coached many of the participants, is reported to have graduated from the Officers’ Fencing and Gymnasium School in Petrograd just before the outbreak of WWI in 1914.  He had been living in Shanghai for approximately five years.

All of this publicity resulted in two photographs of Col. Katchorovsky in his role as fencing instructor.  The first, published on Feb. 27th, shows a sophisticated looking individual, hair parted in the middle, sporting round glasses and a neat mustache.  He holds his trademark foil and fencing mask on his lap as he seems to look beyond the camera with a pensive gaze.  If the first image is serene, the second is slightly unsettling.  It was taken on the day of the YWCA tournament/exhibition.  Several female students sit in the front with their instructors standing behind them.  Shown at his full height, Katchorovsky towers over the others.  At first one guesses that the other coaches must have been sitting as well, but of course they are not.

The China Press revisited fencing again on October 27th with another article by Katchorovsky.  This piece quoted liberally from the Art of Fencing by Senac and Fencing by Brek in an effort to argue for the athletic, personal and somatic value of the practice.  Not to be outdone, the North China Herald also ran an article by Katchorovsky on November 7th. Unfortunately, this rehashed many of his prior points without adding much new to the discussion.  Still, in a remarkably short period of time Katchorovsky had written or been discussed in at least eight articles and received two photographic features.

That is a remarkable amount of press coverage for anyone in this period, let alone someone from the martial arts community. But his efforts paid off.  The introduction to the October China Press article noted that Katchorovsky was currently serving as Master of Arms at both the Shanghai American School and St. John’s University, while running his own fencing academy at 73 Nanking Road.



Modernity’s Knight Errant

Given the volume of material that Katchorovsky produced, it is important to ask how he (and other instructors) sought to promote fencing in the 1920s and 1930’s.  More specifically, how are the values that they sought to promote similar to, or different from, the sorts of discussions that other martial arts (especially Guoshu and Judo) were generating?  One might suppose that given his military background, Katchorovsky would be something of a traditionalist when it came to the sword. He came of age in an era when there was still an expectation that officers might have to fight with their swords. And all of that seems to fit with the more tragic and orientalist ways in which the press sought to frame his life narrative.

Yet Katchorovsky was no traditionalist.  One suspects that he would have had little tolerance for the sort of essentialist cultural rhetoric that followed Kendo. His understanding for the need for modernization and reform within the martial arts would have fit well within the more progressive currents of China’s own Guoshu movement. Note, for instance, the following excerpts from his discussion on the topic of traditionalism vs. modernity in his third article for The China Press, titled “Modern Fencing Reaches High Sate of Perfection.”



…There are so many people who have never given up the old-fashioned idea that fencing is an ancient art, graceful and beautiful to behold upon the stage. Many never think of fencing as competitive sport, which it really is—the fastest and most brilliant of all man to man sports in existence.

 Fencing progresses like everything else.  A fencing bout of two hundred years ago and a present day match have very little resemblance. Fencing today is very fast, very competitive, and a study of it gives one a deep and interesting experience in the thoughts of modern science and philosophy, such as timing, motion, space, reflex-action and counteraction, and shows one the vast differences between perception and intuition.

Suits Modern Youth

Fencing today is very modern, very athletic, very fast, sparkling and vivid, almost scientific. It should suit the modern youth to perfection.  He can still keep his identity, his individuality, be a little swaggering and devil-may care, and possibly fence better for it….

Helps Eliminate Time

I know of no other sport today which has become as ultra-modern as fencing.  In my opinion fencing develops such keenness and precision that it becomes far more mental than physical. A fencer finds that along with modern inventions, modern science and its fourth dimension, this sport goes a long way to eliminate more of the encumbering element of matter we call time.

To think is to set, i.e., when you think “thrust” your arm is already extended: when you think “lunge” your right foot hits the floor with pantherish agility.

It is especially true that in a hardfought bout between equals you are never conscious of your body.  It has ceased to exist; that is, it is no longer the tool of the mind, but becomes the mind itself.

Ultra-Modern Thrill

You lose all consciousness of self and exist as the mental qualities of speed, precision, accuracy, distance, balance, judgement or seem to exist as life and action itself.  For your time is not, and each moment of action flashes from the future into the past without the realization of its passing.

After a twenty-minute bout, whether you have won or lost, you feel that if you have not spent a second in eternity, you have least lived more vividly, more intensely during these minutes than is ordinarily lived in a week.

Thus fencing, once necessary as a means of bodily protection between the exponents of the art, has today become a new mental and physical thrill for the ultra-modern.

1933. A. Katchorovsky. “Modern Fencing Reaches High State of Perfection.” The China Press. Feb. 22 1933. Page 8.

This is one of the more interesting first-person accounts of any martial practice which I have encountered during the 1920s or 1930s. While most of Katchorovsky’s articles tend to emphasize the fully-body muscular development that fencing provides, or its utility for students seeking to lose weight, it seems clear that he was motivated by a quest for altered states of consciousness.  This article provides a very detailed account of what it is like to experience a “flow state” in weapons work.  Yet rather than seeing this as a universal psychological phenomenon, something that might occur in any number of activities, he supposed both that it is unique to fencing and its modern reforms.  Katchorovsky even points to the achievement of personal goals and individually attained altered states of consciousness as core qualities of his “ultra-modern” martial art.  Reading these passages I am left to wonder how many practitioners of combat sports in or own era might agree with him, even if they have never picked up a foil.

All of this might seem very distant from the world of Guoshu and the development of duanbing.  And, in a sense, it is.  Yet it must also be remembered that the great reforms of the 1920s and 1930s did not happen in a vacuum.  Both Jingwu and Guoshu sought, in their own way, to appropriate and respond to the discourse of modern superiority which was projected by the Western imperialist powers. That is why the “traditional” Chinese martial arts which we practice now are, in fact, a product of modernity.


Given his frequent discussion of the benefits of fencing for female students, and his quotes from Senac’s text, it seems only appropriate to end with this image. Source: THE ART OF FENCING BY REGINALD AND LOUIS SENAC, “PROFESSIONAL CHAMPIONS OF AMERICA,” 1915.



Of course, fencing is also modern art. Katchorovsky’s embrace (even celebration), of this fact is probably a multi-layered phenomenon. On the one hand, it may have been commercially necessary to distance fencing from its historical association with dueling if one wanted to win middle class female students. Doing so might have been more challenging than one might guess as even newspapers in China were carrying stories of duels (some carried out with sabers, others with pistols) which were still happening in France as late at the 1930s. At least some of Katchorovsky’s rhetorical efforts to carve out a space for sport fencing as a distinct modern practice, unrelated to the art’s bloody past, were probably necessary. [For a sample of what else his audience might have been reading see “Savage Duel is Fought by Paris Lawyers.” The China Press, March 10, 1935. Page 3.]

Of course, “ultra-modern” practices are by definition young, trendy and more likely to be popular with university students.  Such things are also transnational and transcultural, values that he probably felt very strongly about given his constant wandering. Undoubtedly Katchorovsky reveals something of his life experience in all of this.  Scientific rationalism and international community may have been things that he could ground his identity in after the nation-state and political ideology had failed him. He many even have seen these values as tools to push back against the socially dominant narrative that defined him solely as a refugee.

Modernity takes on a variety of meanings as we read these accounts of fencing’s brief flowering in Shanghai during the 1930s.  Yet all of this was happening in concert with larger intellectual trends and global events. Katchorovsky is a valuable remainder of the role of marginal and displaced people in the popularization and spread of modern martial practices.  Beyond that, his writings offer a particularly clear glimpse into the sorts of concepts that shaped both the development of the Guoshu movement and the modern Chinese martial arts we know today.



If you enjoyed this discussion of the the martial arts scene is Shanghai in the 1930s you might also want to read: Mixed Martial Arts in Shanghai, 1925


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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