The New Hoplology: Stick, Machete and Whip Fighting in the Caribbean

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  Introduction Masters magazine has just released a free special issue that I think will be of great interest to the readers of Kung Fu Tea.  Late last year Prof. T.J. Desch-Obi and Dr. Michael J. Ryan, both friends and… Continue Reading →

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

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


A New Hoplology

Over the last few weeks I have been thinking quite a bit about what hoplology was and what it might yet become. What were the advances and shortcoming of this field’s previous incarnations, both prior to the First World War and during the Donn F. Draeger era?  My own involvement with the quickly growing field of martial arts studies, now institutionalized in the form of grants, conferences, peer reviewed journals and dedicated book series, has made me curious about such things.  Why exactly did the field of anthropology seem to lose interest in the subject (at least as a cohesive literature) following WWI? Why did Draeger’s renewed efforts, while inspiring much popular enthusiasm, never find a place in academia? And what precisely can students of martial arts studies learn from all of this regarding the birth and growth of scholarly fields?

While problematic in a number of ways, there was also much about the older hoplological tradition that was very interesting, and even admirable.  While martial arts studies has made great strides in establishing the notion that these practices can, and indeed must, be examined through a variety of theoretical lenses, I am sometimes surprised that we have shown little interest in engaging the more material and technical aspects of hand combat.  Only a handful of articles in our journal have sought to record and provide a detailed analysis of actual techniques.  Embodiment is a theoretical concept that is often discussed in the abstract, but only rarely is the hard data presented to the reader.

Likewise, there has been almost no discussion of the material culture that is so central to most individual’s lived experience of the martial arts?  Where did the now ubiquitous “Wing Chun Dummy” actually come from, and how has it managed to spread itself across so many other styles in the last decade?  Would recent advances in the fields of history and critical theory allow us to say anything new about the development of the ubiquitous white training uniforms and colored belts that the Japanese introduced to the global martial arts?  What exactly happens to a non-Japanese system when these foreign artifacts begin to colonize the imagination of a new generation of students? Why are there no studies of the various phases of the standardization and evolution of the Chinese jian (or even the dadao) in late imperial and Republican China?

While it is easy to criticize aspects of the older hoplological tradition, or perhaps salvage ethnography as a whole, no one could never claim that these fields neglected the connection between material culture and the lived social experience.  This is critical as the material goods that we consume, the weapons, media, uniforms and ephemera, often testify to a set of values and social functions that support martial arts practice on a deep level that most of us perceive only dimly.

Nor did the older generation of hoplologists shy away from the topic of social violence.  Over the last two years both Paul Bowman and I have called, in different settings, for a more sustained investigation of the relationship between martial practice and the experience of violence in the modern world.  In general, I think it is a good thing that so many martial arts studies researchers are also students of hand combat.  Yet this can also work against us.  There is a natural tendency to “write what you know.”  Gratefully, most (though not all) scholars are able to work and train in environments where the actual threat of physical violence is rare.  But that has not historically been true for the world’s martial artists.  And even when we are aware of these things, there is a tendency to play down or ignore some of the darker aspects of modern martial arts practice.

While discussing this topic with Prof. Swen Koerner, he noted that all sorts of sociologists are interested in projects related to how the practice of the martial arts contribute to good social outcomes. Yet we have tended to ignore their correlations with violent or anti-social behavior.  When we disregard this, we may save ourselves a degree of embarrassment (or maybe cognitive dissonance), but we also miss an opportunity to discover the many ways that hand combat practices intersect with the realm of social violence.  Yet this was precisely the territory that individuals like Burton and Malinowski explored in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies.

Is there room for a “new hopology?”  And what purpose would such a literature serve?  What would its relationship be to the traditional disciplines, and to the growing field of martial arts studies?

Such questions are impossible to answer in a single blog post.  Indeed, they cannot be answered by a single researcher.  If we have learned anything in martial arts studies it is that the creation of a field is by definition an experiment in applied sociology. One certainly hopes that a new hoplology would address some of the intellectual and social shortcomings of its predecessors.  Beyond that, for reasons that I will touch on below, I think it would have to be grounded in rigorous theoretical and methodological discussions.  Finally, by both tradition and necessity, the new hoplology would probably be an empirically oriented wing of martial arts studies, dedicated to the collection and comparative study of interpersonal combative behavior and culture.  Beyond that it is hard to say much at all.

This is not to imply that the earlier hoplologists never advanced theoretical or conceptual models.  They certainly did.  Yet I think their greatest achievement was in building databases of information that essentially captured a single cultural snapshot in time that would forever be available to future scholars looking to test whatever theories they had.  A new hoplology could certainly make important contributions to the overall growth of martial arts studies by carefully gathering comparative data focused on the material and technical aspects of martial culture, as well as the many unique local experiences of social violence.


Moro weapons. Vintage Postcard.


The Research Expedition

Nevertheless, it is one thing to state that the new hoplology might be an empirically driven pursuit, it is quite another to narrow down the range of investigations that we are likely to see.  Historical research in the archives, the collection of large-N datasets using on-line surveys, and the writing of “thick descriptions” of culture via participant observation are all equally “empirical” paths. Indeed, it is quite possible to imagine each of these methods being employed in hoplology projects. Draeger encouraged a myriad of students to spend years intensively training with specific ryu in postwar Japan. Likewise, Malinowski and his students sought to collect textual archives and museums full of artifacts to enlighten future generations of researchers.  Like martial arts studies, hoplology, in actual practice, seems to have always been deeply interdisciplinary (and in its more amateur forms, pre-disciplinary).

All of these methods of data collection are seen in a number of other fields and their possibilities and limitations are relatively well understood. It sometimes seems that I spent my entire graduate school career doing nothing other than debating the relative merits of historical vs. large-N research, and how best to leverage various empirical approaches when dealing with different types of theoretical frameworks.

Yet there is one specific research method which seems to have become hoplology’s hallmark, and it is much less well understood.  What can be accomplished by short term research expeditions carried out by teams of individuals who, while possibly highly trained, tend to be non-specialists in the geographic or cultural areas that they seek to explore?

Perhaps that last sentence undersells the challenges that such expeditions face.  Let us rephrase the question more succinctly.  What do we really expect a bunch of academics who have just stepped off an airplane to be able to learn about a new set of martial arts in a short period of time (anywhere from a single week to perhaps a couple of months)?  Can such an exercise ever constitute “serious research,” or will it always amount to an intellectualized version of the sorts of martial arts themed package vacations that have become so popular in the last few years?

I suspect that many readers will have no problem coming up with reasons why the utility of short duration expeditions will be limited. At the most obvious level one is unlikely to master a foreign language, culture, or even a nuanced system of etiquette, in only a few weeks.  This will impact both your ability to interact with local martial artists and one’s capacity to gather data.  In the short term it, may even be difficult to determine what data one should be collecting.  The sorts of puzzles that arise when thinking about a martial practice that one has practiced for two weeks are qualitatively different from instances where one has studied the material for a few years.  And while it is possible to establish friendships in only a few weeks’ time, the quality of those relationships is simply not the same as what comes with daily interaction over a period of years.

There are many good reasons why anthropologists traditionally looked down on this sort of research. A senior professor of the discipline here at Cornell recently confessed to me his disappointment that so few graduate students have the funding or inclination to spend a few continuous years in the field as part of their professional training.  In his view this massive investment of time not only led to richer, more insightful, descriptive data.  It was the transformative initiation that produced his field’s professional ethos. It was the process by which anthropology students were turned into anthropologists.  It was a matter of great concern for him that so many graduate students split their fieldwork into three-month chunks, or only studied groups that never require them to go into “the real field” at all.

While the development of hoplology may have had important early connections with anthropology, it goes without saying that not all students of martial arts studies are attempting to write classical ethnographies. So once again, what might be achievable in short duration research expeditions given the obvious limitations of the exercise?


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


Three Possibilities

I think that there are at least three possibilities that deserve consideration, and their utility to any individual researcher may be a function of both their disciplinary background and theoretical orientation.  First, while it is true that most martial arts studies scholars do not do ethnography, anthropologists do seem to be overrepresented in the rather small group of scholars who continue to be interested in hoplology.  Wondering how they might make the best use of their time I decided to interview my own father on the subject, who is also a cultural anthropologist and a strong supporter of “old school” ethnography.

After listening to me lay out the basic structure of a hypothetical hoplological expedition he noted that, no matter what someone like him says in a “Classics of Ethnography” lecture, in truth many anthropologists do a great deal of work-related short-term travel.  He further noted that every long-term stint of field research goes through progressive phases, each of which are important and yield their own sort of data and level of understanding. Learning to get the most out of these first few weeks or months can make a big difference to the success of a long-term project.  There was no reason why, in his view, such expeditions could not be treated as “pilot projects” dedicated to making initial contacts and gaining a degree of understanding of the local martial culture that would make the next visit to the area both possible and profitable.

Given the realities of the current funding process, most research is now produced through multiple short expeditions, and so figuring out how to set up the next phase of research is always vital.  Additionally, he noted that such travel was actually important for more senior researchers as, by building their network of professional contacts, they could identify research opportunities for the next generation of graduate students.  While intensive participant observation is not really possible in short duration studies, they might still be valuable as a pilot projects to identify future ethnographic opportunities.

Of course there are other approaches to understanding short duration research.  The empirical data generated by ethnography is descriptive and qualitative in nature.  Yet the social sciences (fields like sociology, political science or economics) tend to focus on the creation, and testing, of causal theories.  To vastly oversimplify, rather than treating culture or a society as a literary text to be interpreted, they seek to understand which constellations of material, structural, strategic and discursive variables lead to specific, observable, outcomes. Even as the humanities and (American) anthropology have moved away from such approaches, the emphasis on investigating causal explanations through positivist research methods have grown within much of the social sciences.

Nor is this necessarily a bad thing if we are contemplating the development of a “new hoplology.” A positivist orientation would allow researchers to develop and test a wide range of theories regarding the evolution of basic martial structures through either focused comparative case studies or the creation of larger datasets. Sadly, we have yet to see much in the way of sustained comparative research within martial arts studies. And topics that have been central to hoplology, such as the evolution of weapons, or the causes of certain types of social violence, may be particularly amenable to these research strategies.

None of this means that social scientists can, or should, indulge in a sort of naïve empiricism.  I think that this is a common misconception about how this sort of research works.  A short duration research expedition is a great opportunity to gather rich troves of data. Both training and performance can be photographed and filmed.  Masters, students and supporting community members can interviewed.  One can investigate the economic and political institutions that uphold such practices.  Journals can be distributed to allow local practitioners to record their media consumption habits. There is actually much that one can do in a few weeks. But given the temporal constraints of short duration research, any researcher is going to be forced to prioritize these things. That means that they must have a clear idea of exactly what sorts of hypotheses they might want to test, and what sort of data will be of the most use to future researchers.  In other words, extensive causal theories must be developed and submitted to initial “plausibility probes” before anyone ever sets foot on an airplane. And those causal stories are likely to be the most meaningful when they build off of, and take into account, the basic concept that arise from the various philosophical schools of critical theory.

Whereas an anthropological approach might see short duration research as the very first step of a much longer process, within a social scientific framework, heading out into the field to gather data usually comes in the middle (or even toward the end) of a project.  It is this logic of discovery that forces social scientists to begin by thinking about theory.  That doesn’t mean one might not discover that a new causal story (or theoretical framework) will be necessary when you sit to analyze your hard-won data.  As all of us who work in this area can attest, that happens with some frequency.  But even that sort of “negative finding” is an incredibly important aspect of the research process and should not be confused with naïve empiricism.

The great advantage of such a data intensive, social-scientific, approach is that it allows for the construction of comparative case studies in which more general hypotheses about martial arts development, or social violence, can be compared across a variety of groups or even regions of the world.  In the best-case analysis this might lead to the development of “covering laws.”  I suspect that such a discovery would have thrilled old school hoplologists.

The obvious disadvantage to such a research strategy, however, is a subtle shift in focus.  The data that we collect in our expedition is now geared to reveal more about our theories of human behavior in the abstract than the specific practices of a given community at a single point in time.  One assumes that the “thick description” of participant observation would always address those realities better.  Yet that is a process that inevitably takes time.  Once again, martial arts studies researchers will need to think carefully about their basic goals long before they ever design a research project and set foot in the field.

Finally, it is worth considering who will be responsible for making these decisions.  Much of the preceding discussion has assumed that it is a single researcher headed into the field as that is what reflects my personal experience.  Yet one of the things that I find most interesting about the classic hoplological expedition is that they were undertaken by entire teams of researchers. That implies a much greater scope for potential specialization.

While everyone on a research team might bring their own martial arts background, members could be selected to represent a variety of disciplinary and methodological perspectives.  A research trip to Southern Taiwan might include a researcher looking at social marginality, another who specialized in traditional medicine, an ethnomusicologist and a media studies specialist. Each of these individuals might be tasked with collecting data and testing a set of distinct hypotheses which all spoke to a larger set of theoretical propositions regarding the Southern Chinse martial arts in relation to any number of factors (globalization, social transformation, fictive kinship, the echoes of imperialism, etc…).

It is not hard to imagine the ways in which such a team might generate important synergies within their collective investigation.  And if each of these researchers were to spend only a month in the field, they might generate a body of cultural insight that a single researcher working in isolation might take years to match.

As always there are dangers.  One would need to guard against the emergence of “group think” or the fostering of potentially blinding ethnocentric attitudes among a small group of relatively homogenous researchers.  Still, teams could also be constructed to bring a greater variety of perspectives and life experience than any one researcher could ever hope to possess.


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


It is difficult to say what a new hoplology might be, and whether such a thing could make unique contributions to the development of martial arts studies.  It would certainly be nice to have a group of scholars dedicated to the careful construction of empirically rich case studies and datasets which might, in turn, inspire the creation of new research questions.  And I personally would welcome a more sustained (and theoretically informed) investigation of the weapons and material culture that so many modern martial artists seem to fetishize. I suspect that the field as a whole could only benefit from these efforts.

This is not to say that there were not problematic elements within the older hoplological tradition, or issues that would have to be addressed before any attempt to resurrect the label within a modern academic framework could move forward.  Yet I do not believe that the classic hoplological expedition is one of these problems.  We would certainly want to avoid anything that smacks of amateurism or naïve empiricism. Yet from my perspective as a social scientist, such exercises might finally facilitate the emergence of a body of detailed, theoretically informed, comparative studies.  That is a very exciting possibility for researchers who are interested in explaining causality or unraveling the functions of social structures.  And even those individuals who are more focused on ethnographic approaches might find such short duration, highly focused, research opportunities useful as pilot projects opening the way for more sustained participant observation in the future.

There are likely good reasons why prior attempts to create something like martial arts studies failed to find a foothold in the academy.  And if a new hoplology were to succeed, I suspect that it would be quite different from the projects that Draeger or Burton imagined.  Yet short duration research expeditions constructed around the research interests of teams of specialists almost certainly have much to contribute to the field.



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


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 Martial Arts Studies Reader: 2018’s Essential Book

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An Essential Book


This is a time of year to sit back and reflect on our achievements and struggles.  I suspect that within the broader historical record 2018 will be remembered for its calamities.  Yet it has been a remarkable year for Martial Arts Studies.  And that is where my trouble begins. It is one thing to make lists of important events or news stories. It is quite another to name the most significant achievements within a quickly growing academic field.

In the past Kung Fu Tea’s New Year’s post has honored either the best blog or scholarly book on the martial arts. Given the avalanche of new publications, one suspects that this would be a good year to once again focus our attention on the best books.  And I have read quite a few excellent works.  I am even tempted to simply give the honor to Lauren Miller Griffith and Jonathan Marion’s Apprentice Pilgrimages: Developing Expertise Through Travel and Training (Lexington, 2018) as it provided a great ethnographic examination of the role of travel in martial arts practice. On a more personal note, it was also a fascinating explanation of why I seem to spend so much time in airports even though I am not particularly fond of flying.

Unfortunately, there are still several books that I have not read, and some that I am really looking forward to. I will try do better on that front in 2019 but, as it stands now, naming a “best book” seems a bit presumptuous.  Still, there was one publication that deserves special consideration. I can, without hesitation, name The Martial Arts Studies Reader (Cardiff UP) 2018’s most “essential” book. If you only read a single new book within the field, it should be this one.

Even that more limited pronouncement may raise suspicion.  Edited collections have never commanded the same prestige as single-authored monographs. They tend to tell the reader a great deal about where a field is at, but they typically do not to advance the high-stakes theoretical arguments that can actually shape a research area going forward. Some might accuse me of choosing an edited volume, which includes excellent chapters by many of my friends and colleagues, so that I would not have to go out on a limb and favor just one. And they would be absolutely correct! At least partially.

Fields are advanced when top scholars put out the sorts of books that tenure committees love.  But they also progress when a community of readers takes a long and reflective look at where we stand now.  What type of work are we producing in our field?  How did we even become a research field?  What set of needs or desires is Martial Arts Studies fulfilling within both the academy and the larger social discussion of these fighting systems?  And, most importantly, how do we ensure that a desire for this sort of work continues to grow in the future?

The Martial Arts Studies Reader can claim two great accomplishments. The first is that it provides a comprehensive collection of brief articles ideal for class room use. As Bowman and Morris observe in their concluding dialog, the desire for some activity (even the scholarly study of the martial arts) does not necessarily exist in some platonic state prior to anyone actually doing it.  Rather, we typically only develop a desire for something once we have been exposed to it, seen other people do it, and been asked to take part in it ourselves.  In fact, the story of Martial Arts Studies, as a field, is very much the story of how an ever-wider circle of readers and scholars have been drawn into a dialog with each other, catalyzed by a mutual attraction to these fighting systems.

Discussions of the state of our field often focus on theoretical discourses, conferences or important publications.  Yet the desire for any sort of academic discussion is typically born and nurtured in the classroom.  It was in the lecture hall that most of us chose our disciplines and research fields. And it will likely be in the class room that a new generation of undergraduates will be exposed to Martial Arts Studies and decide to pursue their own research on these topics in graduate school.  The creation of resources that can spark a desire for more scholarly investigations of the martial arts is in no way secondary, or “supplemental,” to the development of the field.  It is something that we should all strive to do.

Yet for readers who have already found a home within Martial Arts Studies, Paul Bowman’s edited volume does something else.  Through a broad survey that touches on many critical trends in the field, he asks us to consider what sort of field MAS has become?  What sort of academic and social work is it doing? Do we like the current direction? Indeed, his collection holds a remarkably clear and incisive mirror to the field’s face.

Each of these questions is important enough that it deserves an in-depth response of its own.  Yet rather than writing several separate posts, I think that a turn to the comparative method may begin to address these issues.  As important as this reader is, it is not the first edited volume on the academic study of the martial arts.  There have been quite a few important collections on this subject over the decades, probably due to the lack of journal outlets for research of the martial arts between the 1980s and 2000s.  One might even say that the desire for a larger, more independent, field of martial arts studies was born out of edited volumes which, by choice or necessity, brought together scholars from many disciplines, as well as independent researchers that who often approached these questions without any disciplinary commitments at all.

If we really wish to understand the significance of the Martial Arts Studies Reader, and what it suggests about the current state of the field, we need to place it side by side with these other collections and subject them all to a focused comparison.  In the interests of time I will restrict my own investigation to three other volumes. While hardly comprehensive, I have selected these works as I suspect that anyone who will buy the Martial Arts Studies Readerlikely owns them as well, suggesting that a meaningful exercise in comparative reading really is possible.



Honest question, what could be more masculine that Donn F. Draeger and Sean Connery together on the set of “You only Live Twice.” Lets call this Martial Arts Studies mark 1.



The Comparative Context


There is one critical, yet paradoxically unaddressed, question which haunts the modern field of Martial Arts Studies. At what point, and in what ways, has this exercise diverged from the older approaches to Hoplology, pioneered by William Burton, Donn F. Draeger and others?  Why has this effort (so far) succeeded when so many others failed to launch?

I am aware of a few researchers who refuse to admit that such a split has taken place and simply use the terms ‘Hoplology’ and ‘Martial Arts Studies’ interchangeably.  Yet if I had to note one specific instance that signaled the rise of something fresh and new it would be Green and Svinth’s 2003 edited collection, Martial Arts in the Modern World (Praeger).  Released a few years after Wile’s pioneering work on Taijiquan (SUNY, 1996) and Hurst’s efforts on the Armed Martial Arts of Japan (Yale UP, 1998), this collection signaled to readers both the vitality of these early efforts and the ability of scholarly discussions of the martial arts to move beyond traditional disciplinary and geographic boundaries.  Anthropological discussions were most meaningful when they were placed next to historical studies of events on a different continent, or sociological investigations of community formation.

It is somewhat telling that this volume was dedicated to “John F. Gilbey, who inadvertently showed us the way.”  Of course, Gilbey was the literary creation of Donn F. Draeger and R. W. Smith, the early pioneers of Hoplology. Frustrated by the seemingly endless gullibility (or perhaps orientalist longing) of North American readers who could not distinguish reliable truths from fantasy, these early researchers decided to get in on the act by publishing pseudo-biographical accounts of a fictional martial arts adventurer that read like an early draft for “the most interesting man in the world” advertisements mashed up with the spy-cartoon Archer.  Exactly what “direction” Gilbey showed anyone is left open to speculation, but he certainly fanned the same flames of cultural desire which had given him birth.

Yet what interests me the most about this collection is what does not appear within it.  A single pseudonymous dedication is the closest that Smith and Draeger come to substantive inclusion in this volume.  Smith’s unfortunate publication on the Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing gets a mention by Stanley Henning, who otherwise enjoyed his work with the caveats that one had to consider the “limitations” that the author was working under at the time.  Neither Smith nor Draeger are even listed in the index.  Nor does their highly empirical vision of hoplology, one based on the recovery, recording and comparison of technique, appear at all in the historically and socially focused volume curated by Green and Svinth.  The authors included in this collection came from both academic backgrounds and the more practical worlds of martial arts practice. Yet while acknowledging a debt of gratitude to Hoplology (or more precisely, it’s fantastic doppelganger), already by 2003 the desires of these authors was moving in a substantially different direction.

“Desire” may be the critical term when thinking about this volume’s place in evolution of our current field.  It spoke to, and fanned the flames of, a certain type of desire for community and communication.  And yet with the possible exception of a few articles this was not the desire for a new “interdisciplinary disciplinary academic field.”  Not exactly.  This was a book that appears to have been produced more for “the love of the game” than any sort of professional obligation. Only a couple of these authors had even came out of traditional university departments. In no way do I seek to impugn the quality of the work that was produced by pointing that out.  Scholarly investigations of the martial arts was clearly something that people desired, but it still remained secondary to disciplinary concerns, or the more serious business of actual practice.  Much like the afore mentioned Gilby, current readers might view this volume as a promise that pointed the way.

The situation seems to have been quite different in 2011 when Farrer and Whalen-Bridge published Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World (SUNY Press). It is striking to consider how differently scholarly studies of the martial arts are socially positioned within their volume. The introduction begins with the editors laying out the case for the existence of a new approach to Martial Arts Studies.  They explicitly address the contributions of Burton and Draeger (as well as modern students of Hoplology) before arguing that if progress is to be made in this new field we must de-centralize “how-to” studies in favor of “a more theoretically informed strategy grounded in serious contemporary scholarship that questions the practice of martial arts in their social, cultural, aesthetic, ideological, and transnational embodiment.” (p. 8) If one were to look for a simple constitution outlining the intellectual mandate and responsibilities of Martial Arts Studies, this paragraph would be an critical place to start.

Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge remains among the better organized collections within the field of martial arts studies. The move towards a sustained engagement with academic theory meant that there was much less room for those without extensive scholarly training and a continual engagement with these discourses. As one reads through the list of contributors to this volume (all of whom were professional academics) one can only note that the professionalism that Draeger had hoped to achieve had finally arrived but, ironically, shut the door on Hoplology’s hopes of ever being the primary vehicle for the academic study of the martial arts.

Professionalization also brings with it the possibility of increasingly fruitful specialization.  This was reflected in the scope of Farrer and Whallen-Bridges collection.  Arranged in three sections the article sought to address “Embodied [and media] Fantasy,” ways in which the “Social Body Trains” and finally “Transnational Self-Construction.”  Each topic was approached from a variety of perspectives yielding one of the first truly interdisciplinary conversations within Martial Arts Studies. And all of these categories of investigating have remained central to martial arts studies today.

Garcia and Spencer’s 2013 Fighting Scholars: Habitus and Ethnographies of Martial Arts and Combat Sports (Anthem Press),demonstrated progress in different ways.  Rather than broadly surveying the sorts of work that could be done within an interdisciplinary field, it chose a single conceptual framework, the notions of habitus and carnal sociology as developed by Wacquant in his groundbreaking Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. By design this was a narrower collection, but it was one that demonstrated that Martial Arts Studies was capable of engaging with (and in turn being engaged by) some of the most seminal thinkers of the day.

Where as Farrer and Whalen-Bridge had emphasized the professionalization of the field, Garcia and Spencer’s promoted the work of many younger and up and coming scholars. This choice illustrated the explosion of interest that had taken place in the decade since Green and Svinth’s 2003 volume, and foreshadowed the publishing boom that we see now.

Within our survey this volume is unique in its focus on a single conceptual framework and debate.  In that way it helped to establish the discourse on habitus and embodiment that has come to dominate much of the Martial Arts Studies literature.  Yet I have always felt that it also (often inadvertently) demonstrated the limits of this approach.  That was a point that Bowman would explicitly return to in the concluding discussion of the Martial Arts Studies Reader.  Fields are constructed just as much by debates over key concepts as agreements. Even the ability to identify weaknesses in certain contributions marks an important point of progress.

All of which returns us to Bowman’s own effort. The Martial Arts Studies Readeris, in many ways, a natural culmination of what has come before.  It is the fully realized fruit of the desire for community signaled by Martial Arts in the Modern World.  Like Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledgeit is a fully professionalized volume, and one that explicitly seeks a broad engagement with critical trends in recent scholarship.  Yet it also shows increasing sophistication in that its contributors seek not just to borrow from the disciplines, but to either contribute to their critical debates, or to move beyond them all together.  All of this is organized and curated in a collection ideally suited for survey courses on the growing field of Martial Arts Studies.


Martial arts studies conference group photograph (taken the closing day), July 1017 at Cardiff University. Martial Arts Studies Mark 2?


Concluding Thoughts


Comparing this work against the collections which have come before also allows us to ask some critical questions about the direction that martial arts studies is headed. To address one of Bowman’s earlier questions, this collection suggests that a research field emerges when a group of authors decide that it is more desirable to ask question of, and address their work to, scholars who write on the same subject from different disciplinary perspectives, as opposed to their colleagues in their own departments.  This is always a difficult move as it requires energy and creativity. Nor do our interdisciplinary interlocuters sit on our tenure, promotion or hiring committees.  Still, at some point either theoretical necessity or the search for intellectual community may inspire such a move.  Thus, a research field exists first and foremost as a social fact.  It is created when a certain density of communication is achieved, and it exists for as long as that is seen as desirable.

If we were to view the health of the field through this sort of lens, what does the Martial Arts Studies Readersuggest? As I reviewed the various chapters and read footnotes it became apparent to me that we are united not just through the magnetism of the martial arts, but by a general agreement upon (or at least a mutual interest in) certain approaches to them.  The essays in this volume are marked with an interest in identity, desire, media, community, communication and interpretation. What is shared between any set of chapters is often a reliance on a shared set of theorists who have addressed one or more of these topics, and thus provided a common conceptual or methodological lens.

What remains much less common is direct engagement, debate, or even creative borrowing between martial arts studies scholars. Bowman wonders in his concluding remarks if perhaps people give lip service to the importance of media-discourses and the like in their analysis before reverting back to their entrenched disciplinary habits.  It is an interesting point, but it may well be worth extending that question to include the entire social construct that is “Martial Arts Studies.”  To what degree are we reallygetting the most out of the contributions of our fellow scholars? Have we reached a point where we can build off of debates (or discoveries) that have already happened in the field?  Or is a core of shared concepts and methods being used to power a wide range of forever idiosyncratic research questions?

Put another way, if Martial Arts Studies is an independent research area, can we agree on what sorts of questions are important, or even how we might discover important questions in the field?  How do we see this reflected in the sorts of communications that authors have with each other?

These are difficult questions to answer.  I chose this collection as 2018’s essential volume as it represents perhaps the best image of the current state of the field that we are likely to get.  Yet an image can never be mistaken for the original thing. Simple editorial choices can skew the way that conversations appear.  Broad field surveys (such as this) are less likely to encourage meaningful dialogue between pieces than much more focused volumes (such as the one produced by Garcia and Spencer) precisely because we have asked scholars to show us the breadth of what might be done.

Then there is the issue of the medium.  Most scholarly monographs have a “theory chapter” which encourages both the author and the reader to explicitly consider the ways that a new work builds upon, is indebted to, and challenges its predecessors. Journal articles might get a few paragraphs to do the same thing.

The even tighter word-limits found in edited volumes require authors to get to their point even more quickly. That can certainly obscure much of the background that goes into any research project. In my own contribution to this volume I had to drop an extended engagement with the work of Meaghan Morris who had also addressed Victor Turner’s notion of liminoid symbols and transformation in the modern world.  Yet regardless of their limitations, field surveys always present us with an opportunity to assess where we personally have failed to engage with the literature, and what we might stand to gain by doing so.

So long as we are contemplating absences (always a tricky task as an infinite number of things could be said to be missing from any work), I would like to close this post with a final thought on Hoplology. If Green and Svinth’s 2003 volume marked a definitive turning away from the “how-to” salvage expeditions of an earlier era, and a move towards a vision of Martial Arts Studies that put their social and cultural functions first, where do we stand today?  Reading through this latest volume I think it is safe to say that the mandate that Farrer and Whalen-Bridge outlined in 2011 has now been fully realized.  Indeed, the older works of Draeger and Smith seem to have left no trace on this volume. While Bowman acknowledges that things like Martial Arts Studies have existed in different forms in the past, he provides no hint of what they might have been, or why they might have failed.

Still, my personal feeling is that many of the strongest chapters in this volume are those that are the most steeped in the empirical record.  I am drawn to instances where authors went out into the world and actually wrestled with the technical “how-to” questions because that was often where new puzzles, unimagined by prior theoretical debates, emerged.  The modern incarnation of Martial Arts Studies never seems to have time to discuss the details of what was actually done, and how it was actually learned.  Yet that is precisely the soil that many of the most interesting discussions emerge from.

So I am left to close this essay where I started it. What is the relationship between Martial Arts Studies and Hoplology?  As a truly academic field, the later no longer exists.  Yet on a deeper level, what is our personal debt to the “how-to” question?  Is there theoretical value in the seemingly simple act of documenting a system of practice? If the best minds of the modern Martial Arts Studies era were to recreate Hoplology, what would it be?

Martial Arts Studies can only grow as fast it replicates a desire for communication between its students.  A greater degree of engagement with the existing literature is always desirable.  But its growth is also linked to our ability to identify powerful and paradoxical questions that reflect the reality of our lived experience.  A fully realized “New Hoplology” might not be necessary to generate these questions, as fascinating as that project might be. Yet placing as much emphasis on the quality and documentation of our empirical research as we do on our theoretical analysis probably is.



If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: Striking Distance: Charles Russo Recounts the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts in America


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