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Making Captain America: Martial Arts and the Next Generation

Captain America.broken shield

Captain America Thwarted


I spotted a flash of red, white and blue as I looked up from the electronic display mounted on the top of the treadmill.  It was telling me a depressing story of miles left to go.  But the sudden burst of excited kinetic energy suggested that things were about to get interesting.

Having a somewhat flexible schedule I try to go to my local YMCA during the late morning, after the initial rush of pre-dawn workouts and fitness classes have died down.  At 10:00 you do not have to wait for machines to open up and, if I am lucky, I can usually find an empty studio in which to practice my various forms.

Still, the Y is never empty.  There are a number of fitness classes for senior citizens, and it offers daycare options for local families.  It is not uncommon to see large groups of children being shuttled from one activity to the next.

For reasons unknown to me, it had been decided that on this particular day the kids in daycare would be exploring possible future careers as masked crime fighters.  All of the children loitering in the front hall were in surprisingly elaborate costumes.  Batman and Superman were both present, and I secretly wondered if the old tensions between these two heroes would bubble to the surface.  Luckily all was calm.

I noted with approval a group of kids dressed as Ninja Turtles.  Unfortunately whoever supplied the costumes had forgotten the nunchucks, swords and other weapons that really impart a sense of individuality to each turtle.  No parent is perfect.  One little boy dressed as Spiderman stood outside of the group looking slightly awkward, totally capturing the essence of Peter Parker.  I did not think about this band of vertically challenged vigilantes again after they were corralled (with considerable effort) by an entire team of caretakers and marched off to whatever godforsaken place needed that much crime fighting.

It was about an hour later that I spotted the red, white and blue comet streaking along the raised indoor track that looked down on the gym, weight and cardio rooms below.  It would seem that the “day had been saved,” and a four year old female Captain America was burning off some extra excitement by running and leaping on the track, her long blonde hair streaming behind her.

A number of the middle aged female walkers on the track complimented her on how “cute” she was.  But then there was a sudden shift in the atmosphere.

Whatever imaginary battle Captain America was engaged in had become heated, and she started to punch at her imaginary opponent, hitting nothing but the empty air.  Almost immediately our diminutive hero was surrounded by no fewer than four walkers (all unrelated to her), each chastising her in turn that “We do not hit things.  Punching is bad!”  The look of defeat that crossed her face was crushing.  Play, it seems, must always be regulated.

A photo of female martial artists from the Jingwu Anniversary Book.  The woman on the left is Chen Shichao, one of the most vocal campaigners for the equality of female martial artists within Jingwu.  She toured China and south east Asia promoting female involvement in the martial arts.
A photo of female martial artists from the Jingwu Anniversary Book. The woman on the left is Chen Shichao, one of the most vocal campaigners for the equality of female martial artists within Jingwu. She toured China and south east Asia promoting female involvement in the martial arts.


Losing the Heroines of Old


Modern students of the Chinese martial arts have been fortunate to inherit a rich body of art, literature and folklore surrounding their practice.  Much of this dates back to the Republic of China period when, between the 1920s and 1930s, these hand combat systems surged in popularity, both in the training hall and in the realm of popular culture.  Novels, newspapers and radio programs all told the stories of popular martial arts heroes, and a surprising number of these heroes were, in fact, heroines.

Most western students of Wing Chun are familiar with the stories of Yim Wing Chun and her master, the Buddhist nun Ng Moy.  On a symbolic level these stories carry an important set of messages for those attempting to understand the nature of this fighting system.  More recently both of these protagonists have come to function as proto-feminist symbols for many kung fu students.

These two women enjoy a great deal of company.  The period’s literary record is full of stories of female martial artists, duelist and adventurers.  Strictly speaking this is not an entirely new development.  Some of the earliest detailed literary discussions of swordsmanship in China mention female practitioners, and the motif would go on to enjoy renewed popularity later in the 20th century. But there is something interesting about the sudden explosion of martial heroines at that particular moment in Chinese history.

One might assume that this simply reflected the fruits of China’s budding social reform movements and the sudden appearance of larger numbers of female martial artists.  In reality the situation was actually more complicated than that.  It is true that some groups, like the Jinwu Association, worked hard to promote the teaching of the martial arts to women. And a number of folk teachers (including no less a figure than Wong Fei Hung), opened classes for women.

Yet these gains were limited in nature.  A strongly felt taboo against male-female physical contact ensured that there was little (if any) mixed sex training.  And many of the gains won by the women of Jingwu were lost by a subsequent generation as the Central Guoshu Institute took a much more statist and patriarchal approach to the production of the ideal Chinese martial hero (see Morris, 2004).  As Henning and others have pointed out, the stories of the era remained, for the most part, just that.

The important thing to realize is that this sudden visibility in popular culture did not result in a radical transformation of who sought martial arts training.  A number of expectations, identities and traditions, some very visible, others less so, conspired to ensure that women would remain underrepresented within the actual practice of the Chinese martial arts during the pre-WWII era.

It was not so much that women in the 1930s were barred from studying the martial arts.  Rather, many other things were expected from them.  Competing demands, clashing identities and social expectations can form a very high barrier to entry.

Many of these forces came to the fore in 1934 when it was revealed that the Central Gusohu and Physical Education Academy was plagued with cases of sexual harassment.  Morris reports that the Director, Zhang Zhijiang, decided to solve the problem of “immoral relations” by immediately banning female students from the school.

In a newspaper column Ms. Qiu Shan blasted this solution and noted that women were once again being sent “back into the kitchens” when it was probably the men who should be punished.  Yet it was Tain Zhenfeng (the editor of a competing martial arts journal and persistent critical of the Central Gusohu Academy) who summed up the national mood when he noted, in a matter of fact tone, that a woman’s place was in the kitchen.  After all, what upstanding (male) Chinese martial arts hero would want a dinner prepared by a “dirty cook” rather than his own wife?  (Morris, 210)

We tend to think of history as having a distinct arc.  Events are imagined as only flowing in one, progressive, direction.  Yet the starts and reversals of the Republic era social reform movements demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, that backsliding is possible.  Social progress is not inevitable.  When it was decided that other factors were more important (such as the plan of many Gusohu intellectuals to save the Chinese nation by making it more “masculine”), the gains of a previous generation were lost.  Nothing in is automatic.


 Zoe Huang and her husband, Kevin Juliano of the Peaceful Water School. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)
Zoe Huang and her husband, Kevin Juliano of the Peaceful Water School. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)


A View from the Mats


Kreia, a fellow student at the Central Lightsaber Academy, had agreed to be interviewed as part of my ongoing fieldwork.  I was particularly interested in her thoughts as she is also a longtime Wing Chun student of Darth Nihilus.  While I study with the lightsaber group I have only occasionally had a chance to observe his kung fu classes.  Needless to say, I was interested in her thoughts on the similarities and differences between the two.

As we got into the interview I realized that Kreia had more of a history with the martial arts than I realized.  I began to probe a little deeper to get a sense of what she had practiced, and what her experiences had been like.  Gender was not a focus of our interview, but it came up in a number of interesting ways.

The Central Martial Arts Academy, which houses the CLA, is a highly diverse organization.  This is reflected in the racial and ethnic backgrounds of both the instructors and many of the students.  If you were to walk into the middle of a typical training session you would find two different classes being taught at the same time.  Within them you would see a mix of African American, Hispanic, Asian and Caucasian students.  The school attracts students who are both teenagers as well as those in their 40s and 50s.  And while women are a minority of the student body, they are well represented.

As you break things down a bit further and look at individual classes, some interesting patterns begin to appear.  Kali appears to be a little more racially diverse than Wing Chun.  Jeet Kune Do does a little better on the gender front than Kali.  And Wing Chun seems to be attracting a slightly older group of students.  One of the most notable things about the lightsaber class is the number of family relationships it seems to accommodate.  In the class we have multiple sets of couples, adult siblings, parents and children, all working together with a surprising degree of harmony.  I have actually never seen anything quite like it.

After collecting data for a longer period of time I will need to sit down and try to make statistical sense of it.  But in the mean time I asked Kreia for her thoughts.  What was it like to train at this school as a woman?  Did she feel any differences between the lightsaber and the more traditional class?

Her answers were generally positive.  She felt supported and respected by both the instructor and the other senior students.  Her only complaints were more age related.  Sometimes younger training partners might go at things a little harder than was good for her (injured) back and neck.  But she did not suggest any sense of individuals “going easy on her,” or holding her to a different standard because of her gender.

After answering my question she became uncharacteristically reflective for a second.  “It wasn’t always that way” She noted.  Kreia related that as a college student she had become interested in Judo and studied at a school on the campus.  Apparently she approached her training with the same sense of grit and determination that she applies to pretty much all of her life projects.  Yet she confessed, “I hated it.”

Kreia stopped herself.  It wasn’t Judo that she hated.  It was the class.  It was her instructor.

When I asked why she responded with a story rather than an explanation.  She related a time when she put a larger male student in a choke hold.  She noted that he was not making any effective movement towards escaping, yet he was also refusing to tap-out.  She warned him to tap out two separate times, but the male student simply refused to concede defeat at the hands of a more experienced female who (following the school’s own protocols) maintained her position.

Of course the male student passed out briefly and then recovered.  Rather than lecturing him for refusing to respect his training partner (or even the basic laws of physics and biology), the class instructor chose to discipline Kreia, even though she had done everything that was expected of her.  Some students, it seemed, were more equal than others.  It would be many years before she resumed her martial arts training, with a very different instructor in a different style.

Captain America Cosplay by Hinosherloki.  Source:
Captain America Cosplay by Hinosherloki. Source:


Our Hero Earns her Gloves


By this point James and I were pretty good friends.  He worked as a personal trainer at the YMCA.  I knew him better as a kickboxing instructor and talented amateur fighter.  At the time he and I were training together, and he was helping to introduce me to the local kickboxing scene.

Being one of the trainers on duty it was James’ responsibility to make sure that everything was running smoothly in the fitness area.  As the mantra “We don’t punch!” rang out, he sprang into action.

When not fighting for the fate of the free world, Captain America was the daughter of one of James’ female students.  She took her kickboxing training seriously and was trying to decide whether she wanted to take the “next step” and line up an amateur fight at one of the big events that were held every couple of months in the city.  James had been keeping an eye on the daughter (released early from the daycare activity) as her mom finished up a fitness class in another section of the Y.

Walking over to where the gaggle had surrounded the little girl he asked (only half rhetorically) “Are you trying to stifle her creativity?”  Of course they were.  That was the point of the entire exercise.

He then took the girl back downstairs to where there was some open floor space by the trainers’ office.  Quickly ducking into the room he came back with a set of wrist wraps and boxing gloves.

James proceeded to inform the little girl that Captain America was a pretty serious boxer.  As such she would have to learn how to wrap her wrists.  The little girl looked on with a sense of awe as he wrapped first one hand, wrist and forearm, then the other.  Next he placed the comically large boxing gloves on her hands.  By this point Captain America was basically trembling with excitement.  The group of walkers on the elevated indoor track looked down at the unfolding scene with visible discomfort.

Lastly James produced one of the “weeble-wooble” toys that children are occasionally given to hit from a closet.  I had no idea the YMCA even owned one.  He then gave the fully geared up superhero some quick pointers on her jab and cross and told her to go at it.

The first few punches were tentative, but once it became clear that no one was going to stop her, “our hero” let loose a barrage of flying fists.  It was an imaginary beat down for the ages.  The walkers looked on at this unabashed display of a little girl “hitting” and “punching” in abject horror.

At this point the Captain America’s mom, water bottle in hand walked up.  “My gosh, did James actually get you some boxing gloves?  That’s my girl!  Just like her mom…”  Our hero beamed in victory.


Triva Pino (Left).  The 2006 US Armed Forced Female Boxing Champion.  Source: Wikimedia.
Triva Pino (Left). The 2006 US Armed Forces Female Boxing Champion. Source: Wikimedia.




Kreia’s interview was very productive and I thought quite a bit about it as I drove home.  Obviously I will never understand exactly what it means to be a female martial artist.  I have not personally experienced how attitudes in training halls have evolved over the last couple of decades.  Nor can I do more than empathize with what must have been the crushing experience of China’s Republic era female martial artists upon seeing their hard won gains being rolled back in the 1930s.

Gender issues have never been the primary focus of my research.  Nor, on a more personal level, are these my stories to tell.

Yet I am acutely aware of the debt that I owe the Kung Fu Sisters whom I have had the privilege of working with over the years.  They have been some of the hardest working and most skilled martial artists I have met.

It is easy to say that we want to support female martial artists in our training spaces.  And the social sciences offer us some very helpful guidelines on how we can create welcoming spaces where everyone has a chance to succeed.  Everyone benefits from seeing students like themselves reflected in a school’s art.  Everyone also benefits from seeing someone like themselves succeed as a senior student, coach or instructor who is respected in their field.  No one benefits from the maintenance of verbal (and non-verbal) double standards that treat the abilities and accomplishments of female martial artists as less than their male peers.

Yet, as much as we may sometimes wish it were the case, the martial arts do not exist as a separate sphere, held in pristine isolation from the rest of society.  These things are first and foremost social institutions, which mean that they reflect the norms and attitudes of the communities that produce them.

This suggests that if you want to support the inclusion of female martial artists in your training hall, you are going to have to support them, and other women like them, in a lot of other places first.  Simply put, you will never have the chance to train with the women who have already internalized the message that “good girls” do not punch, kick or choke. Those are messages designed to stifle Captain America’s creativity.


If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Producing “Healthy Citizens”: Social Capital, Rancière and Ladies-Only Kickboxing


Striking Distance: Charles Russo Recounts the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts in America

striking distance.russo


Charles Russo. 2016. Striking Distance: Bruce Lee & the Dawn of Martial Arts in America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 264 pages. $24.95 USD (Hardcover)


Anyone can tell you that it is easier to review a good book than a bad one.  This simple truth makes Charles Russo’s latest volume a pleasure to discuss.  Striking Distance: Bruce Lee & the Dawn of Martial Arts in America (Nebraska UP, 2016) is one of those rare martial arts volumes that is likely to be widely read by individuals practicing a variety of styles.  It will also be of interest to those who are looking for a better vantage point from which to observe the history of the San Francisco Chinese community at a time of immense social change but have no background in the fighting arts.

Still, it is among martial artists that this book will have its greatest impact.  I fully expect that it will be discussed for years to come.  It may even play a similar role to R. W. Smith’s classic Chinese Boxing: Master and Methods (Kodansha, 1974) for a new generation of martial artists seeking to better understand their roots.

The comparison with Smith is an interesting one.  The first thing that readers will notice is the quality of Russo’s writing.  Simply put, this is a wonderfully written book.  Its style is at turns lyrical yet succinct.  Russo’s descriptions of individual events are rich and evoke a sense of texture and place that I have not encountered in very many descriptions of martial arts history.

His ability to reproduce a sense of intimacy, from smoked filled halls to creaky staircases, give his narrative a gripping quality.  This is amplified by the use of short chapters, each of which flows easily into the next.  The end result is a genuinely compelling story.

Smith was also an engaging writer.  While an intelligence officer by trade his writing reflected the journalism of his day.  His brief yet incisive descriptions of the martial artists that he encountered drew in many readers and earned him a great many fans.  I suspect that Russo’s text will be received in much the same way.

Nevertheless, it is the contrasts that I find most interesting.  Smith was a deeply devoted martial artists.  Like many young men of his generation he had come up through the ranks of boxing and judo before moving on to the newer and more exotic fighting systems (karate, taijiquan, kali and the various schools of kung fu) that would erupt into the public consciousness during the 1970s.

R. W. Smith was an early adopter of the Chinese fighting arts and he eagerly sought to promote these in the West. He hoped to not just to document what he saw, but to shape public opinion about these subjects through his writing. While this gave his prose a bite that many readers found enjoyable, it also led him to make some assertions that now require reevaluation.

In comparison Russo has little skin in the game.  He does not identify as a martial artist and has none of the personal or stylistic loyalties that dominate the work of his literary predecessor.  Russo is a professional Bay Area journalist and writer with a keen interest in local history and a nose for a good story.  The San Francisco martial arts scene, from the 1940s through the 1960s, provided ample material to satisfy both of these instincts.

It is even possible that Russo’s status as a non-practitioner was an advantage while researching this volume.  As quickly becomes apparent, this work is not based so much on the sorts of historical research that one does in a library (though there is some of that) but on literally hundreds of interviews and casual conversations with individuals who were direct observers of the events in question.  A certain “neutrality” on the question of local loyalties was probably beneficial in winning the trust of his various sources.

And like any good journalist Russo has spent a good deal of time cross-checking these verbal accounts and comparing them to previously published sources.  When particularly complex issues arise serious thought is given to the credibility of the different perspectives that exist within the community.


Lau Bun demonstrates the use of the Tiger Fork in the late 1960s. Source:
Lau Bun demonstrates the use of the Tiger Fork in the late 1960s. Source:


The end result is a nuanced view of individuals like Lau Bun, Wally Jay, Ed Parker and Bruce Lee that steadfastly resists the temptation to romanticize them.    Russo seems to understand that it is the “warts” that humanize us, which make empathy possible in a “warts and all” history.  In this way he avoids the rhetorical extremes of his predecessor.

Yet this is more than the story of a handful of people.  It is also the story of a place.  San Francisco’s Chinatown stands out as a key actor in these events, exerting a type of influence on the unfolding story.  Russo’s history provides critical insights into not just the martial arts, but the neighborhood that supported them.

In my own study of Wing Chun in Foshan and Hong Kong I called for a greater emphasis on local and regional history within martial arts studies.   When we focus on only systemic and national level trends we create a distorted image of how the martial arts were actually experienced by most of their practitioners.  Why did individuals turn to them?  How were they able to express their own desires for the future through these practices?

Russo’s work stand as a powerful testament to the value of a local, layered, perspective in answering these key questions.  One can only hope that this volume inspires future studies tackling different cities, time periods and communities.

Readers interested in Bruce Lee’s life and development as a martial artist will find much value in this volume.  As one of San Francisco’s most famous sons (and martial artists) Lee’s exploits bookend Russo’s narrative.  His narrative begins with Lee’s appearance at one of Wally Jay’s locally famous luals and it ends with his now (in)famous showdown with Wong Jack Man at his Oakland school.  In between we are introduced to the key figures and personalities that shaped the Bay Area Chinese martial arts scene through the middle of the 1960s.


Together with Lau Bun, TY Wong would oversee the martial arts culture in San Francisco's Chinatown for more than a quarter century. (Photo courtesy of Gilman Wong)
Together with Lau Bun, TY Wong would oversee the martial arts culture in San Francisco’s Chinatown for more than a quarter century. (Photo courtesy of Gilman Wong)


Special attention is paid to Lau Bun (the description of his school is really wonderful), T. Y. Wong (another Chinatown institution) and the Gee Yau Seah club (“Soft Arts Academy”) as the three forces that shaped the area’s small but stable martial arts scene from the start of WWII through the middle of the 1960s.  After that a series of complex social changes in the neighborhood unleashed a reorganization of the area’s hand combat community.

Russo’s project is to excavate the region’s martial arts as they existed prior to the burst of growth and creativity that gripped the area in the late 1960s and 1970s.  This older stratum of social history has always been harder to pin down, and as such he has done valuable work in reconstructing both how the area’s martial arts culture initially evolved, and why a modernist counter-movement eventually began to coalesce in Oakland (a group with which Bruce Lee found a natural home).  Yet it is the accounts of pioneers such as Lau Bun and T. Y. Wong (as well as Ed Parker and Wally Jay) that more historically minded readers will be drawn to.

If I have one serious complaint about this book it would have to be the length.  At about 150 pages of actual text I found it to be too short by half.  Given the engaging nature of Russo’s prose I suspect that most readers will be left wanting more.  Yet that desire is also telling.

When evaluating a work such as this we must ask ourselves whether it is capable of not only answering questions but also inspiring new ones.  I suspect that the answer is yes.

Russo has approached this work as a journalist, and not as an academic student of martial arts studies.  As such he is more concerned with reporting his narrative than asking questions about the causality or social meaning of the events that he relates.  Yet many of his stories might be the jumping off point for further discussions.

One issue that arises repeatedly throughout his text is the supposed teaching ban on non-Chinese students within the traditional Chinese martial arts.  I say “supposed” as while many individuals assert that such a ban was in place, it is not actually clear how many non-Chinese students were petitioning for instruction in San Francisco during the 1940s or 1950s.  Prior to the 1940s there does not appear to have been much in the way of public schools for anyone to study at.  And by the time that Russo’s narrative really gets going there is a small but steady stream of non-Chinese students that appear throughout the period in seeming defiance of such a ban.

So what was the nature and purpose of this ban, and why did it collapse so quickly after the first few years of the 1960s?  In what ways was this norm expressed differently within the Bay Area Chinese community (because of its direct experience of neighborhood level racial hostility) than in the taijiquan community back in China?

With regards to these questions it seems that Russo’s sources provide him with somewhat contradictory accounts, the implications of which are not always clear.  On one level this presents future researchers with a simple empirical problem.  Did Ip Man really kick Bruce Lee out of his school because of his mixed race heritage?  Can this actually be documented by period accounts?

Yet the theoretical implications of this conversation are even more important.  How was it that shared narratives of community exclusion, then inclusion, shaped Chinese American identity in the 20th century, regardless of what any specific teacher actually chose to do in the face of this norm?  How was this different from, or connected to, the parallel process that was unfolding in Hong Kong, or Taiwan?

At times I expect that Russo’s reliance on interviews and eye-witness accounts has probably led him astray.  If we have learned anything from the field of law it is that human memory is a highly fungible thing, especially when decades have been allowed to intervene.  When Ip Man entered Hong Kong late in 1949 his wife back in Foshan was very much alive.  He was not a widower.  Yet that is not how he is always remembered now.  Russo directly tackles the problem of “motivated memory,” both at the individual and community level, when discussing the aftermath of the Wong Jack Man fight at the end of his study.

Still, anthropologists and ethnographers would be quick to remind us that the “remembered events” that did not really happen are just as critical to understanding the nature and texture of a community as those that did.  If we treat this work only as a simple history of Bruce Lee we might be disappointed by contradictory accounts or historical “mistakes”.  Yet there are already other sources that we can turn to for most of that information.  Such a reading is in danger of missing the point of a work like this.

What Russo has presented us with is the history of a place caught at a critical moment of transformation.  It has often been assumed that the earlier character of this neighborhood is forever lost and that its influence on the shape of the American martial arts has been limited.  After all, Lau Bun and T. Y. Wong are hardly household names within the American martial arts community, despite their notable careers.

This short book makes the opposite argument.  It demonstrates that their history is still a living, breathing thing.  It is a force that is being remembered and retold.  It is valued by the community that bears it and elements of it have become part of local identity.

Lastly, the history of the Bay Area during this critical decade has shaped the subsequent evolution of the martial arts in America in many ways.  Some of them were profound, others are easily overlooked.  This the ultimate message of Russo’s book.  It reminds us that, if understood correctly, local history has a way of becoming all of our histories.

Bruce Lee's first apearance (of many) on the cover of Black Belt Magazine. October, 1967.
Bruce Lee’s first appearance (of many) on the cover of Black Belt Magazine. October, 1967.



If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read:  The Wing Chun Jo Fen: Norms and the Creation of a Southern Chinese Martial Arts Community.


Martial Arts History, Without Chronology

An astronomical clock in Prague. Photo by Andrew Shiva. Source: wikimedia.
An astronomical clock in Prague. Photo by Andrew Shiva. Source: wikimedia.




Your mission, should choose to accept it…


Recently I have been invited to contribute chapters to a number of upcoming projects.  I am still attempting to decide what some of these should be, but in two cases the editors of the volumes in question have approached me with specific requests.  For instance, in the next few months I am going to be putting together a generously sized chapter on the history of the Chinese martial arts.

This is a great opportunity, especially as I am coming off a major project of my own and have been thinking about the social history of these fighting systems for a few years.  And it is nice to be presented with a very specific brief.  It saves one the mental energy of having to dream up a project that will fit the larger mission of an edited volume while still advancing your own research agenda.  That can be a tricky. Finally, after spending so much time on regional and local history, it will be nice to get a chapter out articulating a more global view of the Chinese martial arts.

Still, an assignment like this is not without its challenges.  Over the last week I started to do some background reading and research.  That basically means rereading the classic books, looking for new publications, revisiting some of my favorite articles and reviewing what I have already said about the topic elsewhere.  This sort of review is a great way to discover where my personal views have evolved over the last couple of years.

Nor can we afford to ignore some of the very nice treatments of the history of the Chinese martial arts that are already out there.  As I have mentioned before, Stanley Henning’s “The Martial Arts in Chinese Physical Culture, 1865-1965” in Green and Svinth’s Martial Arts  in the Modern World (Praeger, 2003) provides a great introduction to the subject.  It has always been my “go-to” recommendation for someone who thinks they might be interested in learning more about Chinese martial arts history.

More committed readers would do well to check out Lorge’s Chinese Martial Arts (Cambridge, 2011) for the best single volume treatment of the subject.  And those interested in delving deeper into the Republican period (the era I find to be the most interesting) must familiarize themselves with Andrew Morris’ chapter on the topic in Marrow of the Nation (California UP, 2004). Interested readers already have a number of good options to draw on as they explore the development of the Chinese martial arts.

Yet as I reread these and other sources over the last week it occurred to me that there is something else that these works have in common besides their quality.  All of them present a fairly linear, straight forward, account of the development of the modern Chinese martial arts.  Various authors might choose different start and finish dates, yet the feeling of chronological progression pervades all of these works, especially as we come to the more “modern” eras.

This is quite understandable.  In many ways the present really is a product of the past.  It is not unreasonable to see a degree of casualty in the march of time.  Yet if we are not careful our accounting of chronology can quickly slip into a sort of martial teleology, where these fighting systems are inexorably drawn through history, shaped by shadowy forces, and destined to assume some predetermined final form.

This tendency is most clearly visible in some (though not all) historical accounts produced by academics in mainland China.   In this case the source of their theoretical slant is fairly obvious.  The Marxist forces of “historic materialism,” that are believed to have shaped every other social institution, have evolved the Chinese martial arts from a state of lower barbarism (e.g., there is a very good reason that so many of these histories begin with totally improbably accounts of kung fu having been invented to fend off wild animals) and ending with the inevitable triumph of state sponsored Wushu.

I have discussed the shortcomings of these sorts of accounts elsewhere. As students of martial arts studies we should acknowledge that national sponsorship of, and involvement with, the martial arts has often been a powerful force in reshaping them to fit the perceived needs of the state.  These same social and political forces have also had a powerful impact on the ways these arts are discussed in some corners of the scholarly literature.

Nor are these tendencies restricted to socialist states.  Indeed, the demands of modernization and nationalism (as seen in cases of 20th century Japan, Korea and Indonesia among others) have also had a substantive effect on how the martial arts of these states are viewed by their citizens and discussed by scholars.  One suspects that even modernization and secularization theory (touchstones of sociological thought in the West) have had a profound (and less visible) effect on the ways that the martial arts are discussed among scholars.

The unavoidable problem in all of this is the necessity of simplification.  The martial arts of even a single country (in my case China) are a frightening large subject.  Nor are trends always headed in the same direction.  A close examination of the “facts on the ground” will show that many individuals can be seen to harness these social institutions in the pursuit of their own agendas.  For every reformer that advances in public sphere another teacher will emerge demanding a return to a remembered or (more likely) imagined past.

Making sense of this mass of often contradictory data is the job of a historian, and some sort of theoretical framework is the intellectual tool that is employed in doing that.  As such we cannot avoid the necessity of either simplification or theory.  Yet is a linear chronological framework, heavily inflected with either modernist, nationalist or Marxist assumptions the best way forward?  To answer that question we would first have to consider some alternatives.


Clockwork gears at the Liverpool World Museum. Photo by Somedriftwood. Source: Wikimedia
Clockwork gears at the Liverpool World Museum. Photo by Somedriftwood. Source: Wikimedia




Ordering Principals: The Levels of Analysis


The “Levels of Analysis” is a conceptual tool that students of sociology and political science have used for grouping and evaluating families of theories for decades.  I have discussed different variants of this idea in previous posts.  It may also be able to offer some insight into our current dilemma.

The Levels of Analysis framework traditionally suggests that sociological theories can be divided into three (or possibly four) categories.  In my field these are “systemic” theories (those that seek to understand the nature of complex systems as a whole), “institutional or domestic” explanations (attempts to understand the roles of various social groups) and lastly “individual level analysis” (typically focusing on cognition, decision making and psychology).  While the passage of time does not vanish in any of these categories, it can be understood in different contexts and in less reductive ways.

Let us begin by considering some approaches to the problem that might be classified as residing at the “systemic” level.  Recent trends in Asian Studies have emphasized the need to move beyond an emphasis on events in individual states and to look instead at the complex political, social and economic interactions that were often affecting an entire region.  For instance, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, events and attitudes in Japan and China were not as independent from each other as many nationally focused histories would have us believe.  Developments in one state often had a profound influence on every country in the region.

This was certainly true of the Chinese martial arts community.  Reformers were very much aware of what was happening in Japan.  They noted the Japanese government’s more robust support of Budo with envy.  They were aware of Judo’s growing popularity within the international community.  Tang Hao specifically championed many of their methods during the early days of the Central Guoshu Institute.  Yet very few studies have taken up these influences, and I am aware of no substantial comparative case studies.

Thus one possible approach to the problem might be to reject the notion of writing an isolated history of the Chinese martial arts at all.  Instead a regional study, focusing on why similar trends found often very different expressions in even close neighbors, might be more interesting.  At minimum, developments in China should be plotted against, and compared to, events elsewhere in Asia.  An emphasis on strategic forms of social and political influence would replace simpler notions of the “progress of history.”

Another systemic approach might reject the state or the nation as the ultimate unit of analysis.  In my own research on the Chinese martial arts the urban/rural cleavage that dominated so much of popular culture in the late Qing and Republic eras has emerged as a powerful analytical lens for understanding the essential nature of these fighting systems.

More specifically, this conceptual framework problematizes the assumption that the Chinese martial arts share a single historical trajectory.  While urban reformers in the 1920s and 1930s struggled to create secular and scientific fighting systems at the disposal of the state in its revolutionary struggle, their rural counterparts in northern China were busy creating Red Spear units, employing the martial arts to reinforce local leadership structures and promoting magical practices (such as spirit possession and invulnerability techniques) that had not been seen in the region for generations. Both of these strategies were responses to the economic and social strains of “modernization.” Yet they suggest that single linear narratives of the “evolution” of the Chinese martial arts are leaving out some of the most important parts of the story.

The situation is similar at the domestic level of analysis.  Perhaps the most obvious approach here would be to focus on the state/society cleavage.  Indeed, the nature of the martial arts at specific points in time might be a valuable tool for understanding exactly how much influence that state actually commanded.  It might then be possible to group together periods when the state was particularly strong or weak, and to think more carefully about the impact that this had on the development of the martial arts.  Such an approach might also reveal underlying patterns in the relationship between the civilian martial arts and the realm of civil society that might not otherwise be apparent.

The domestic level of analysis is often said to include norms or beliefs about how various social institutions should function.  A discussion of the martial arts in the modern period could be organized by the emergence of certain strains of thought at various points in time.  The popularity of modernist philosophies has come and gone.  Likewise, the fortunes of certain notes of cultural fundamentalism have risen and fallen.  How can these trends (not all of which are linear in nature) help us to understand the history of the Chinese martial arts?

It is not hard to imagine what an “individual level” approach to this problem might look like.  “Great man” biographies have been the stock and trade of historical accounts for decades.  Their stories provide a level of granular discussion and detail that is often missing from systemic or institutionally focused accounts.  Not only can this give us a sense of what it was like to actually be a martial artist at a given moment in history, it can speak directly to the sequence of events leading up to important moments of change.

Nor do the Chinese martial arts lack for important figures demanding greater examination.  Sun Lutang has always struck me as a seminal figure whose life illustrates many important trends in the Chinese martial arts.  In the South Gu Ruzhang plays a similar role.  Likewise the career of the groundbreaking historian Tang Hao, while tragic, illustrates critical trends in the social discussion of the Chinese martial arts.

The challenge with biography is extrapolating from the realm of specific events to general conclusions.  And the life of any single subject is limited in length compared to the scope of even the recent history of the Chinese martial arts.  Still, the social and highly networked nature of this community suggests that if a historian were to skillfully choose two or three figures whose lives intersected, it might be possible to tell much of the story of the modern martial arts while remaining grounded in actual biographical detail.

Nor should historians feel the need to focus only on famous personalities.  Students writing social histories might gain inspiration from the lives of lesser known figures such as the reluctant rebel Zhao San-duo, Fei Ching Po (an ill-fated professional gambler) or the southern martial arts teacher Li Pei Xin. Marginal individuals often face similar struggles, and turn to the martial arts for remarkably similar reasons, even at different points in history.  This illustrates some important structural facts about these fighting systems and their role in Chinese society.  Indeed, some of these patterns have proved remarkably resistant to the “march of history.”


Deconstructed clock gears. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia.
Deconstructed clock gears. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia.




Conclusion: Moving Beyond the Levels of Analysis


Each of these approaches to discussing the development of the Chinese martial arts has strengths and weaknesses.  None of them are perfect.  As with all such frameworks, each will leave out some part of the story while drawing our attention to a variable that is usually neglected.  This is the original sin of all theory.  I suppose that it can also be thought of as “employment insurance” for academic writers as it strongly suggests that a single account of a phenomenon will never be satisfying.  Students will always prefer to have (and debate) a variety of perspectives.

Perhaps the greatest benefit in moving away from a purely chronological account of the development of the Chinese martial arts is simply to present these systems in a new and exciting way.  One that will spark renewed interest and novel insights on the part of the reader.  They might also move us out of the realm of teleology, reminding us that these fighting systems have been many things in the past, they constitute a vastly complicated realm in the present, and they are likely to take on many new forms in the future.

The conclusions of Marxist or modernist historians notwithstanding, the development of these systems has never been linear so much as it has been “rhizomatic.”  When one pathway has been obstructed seemingly dormant and forgotten possibilities have sprung forth.  While we can always reconstruct a linear “just so” story about how we got here, I doubt that the same logic would ever allow us to extrapolate very far into the future.

Nor should we forget that there is more to the Chinese martial arts than states, voluntary associations and individual practitioners.  Beliefs about these practices have also been carried throughout history on the powerful currents of vernacular opera, wuxia novels and most recently film.  Indeed, the very thought that something now “lost” must once have existed has proved to be a powerful incentive to engage in the re-invention of “tradition” within the Chinese martial arts.

It would be hard to imagine the state of the modern martial arts in China today without the release of the Shaolin Temple in the early 1980s, or Jin Yong’s various novels in Hong Kong.  The Chinese martial arts exist in a perpetual state of revival precisely because individuals find social meaning in the act of reviving them.  They are seen as a source of cultural heritage because they have been accepted as such by vast audiences who do not practice them and know them only by their media representations.  Nor is the current situation all that different from the world of professional story tellers, operas and wuxia novels in the 19th century.

Finding a way to better integrate these discussions of media discourse and popular culture into individual, institutional and systemic histories remains a challenge.  It is difficult to construct a single framework that can account for both institutional and cultural variables.

Frequently cultural trends appear within accounts of practicing martial artists as exogenous shocks (or vice versa).  Understanding how to bring these two types of discussions together is one of the more important challenges facing martial arts studies as an interdisciplinary field.  As we structure our regional accounts, institutional explanations, or biographical explorations of the martial arts, we cannot afford to lose sight of their origins and place in popular culture.




If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read:  The Book Club: Chinese Kung Fu by Wang Guangxi



Research Notes: The Chinese and Japanese Martial Arts as Seen on Western Newsreels

"Chinese Reoccupy Great Wall Area." 1933. Still taken from Vintage Newsreel.
“Chinese Reoccupy Great Wall Area.” 1933. Still taken from Vintage Newsreel.



“In the west, Asian martial arts are everywhere.  They are part of the texture of popular consciousness.  Nonetheless I want to argue that they remain marginal.  That is to say, although Westerners may see them often, and all over the place, they are not simply the norm.”

-Paul Bowman, “the Marginal Movement of the Martial Arts: From the Kung Fu Craze to Master Ken.” 2015.





Students of martial arts studies stand at a perpetual crossroads.  It springs from the very nature of our subject.  A great many of us are current or former martial artists.  We have an intimate understanding of the embodied physicality of these practices.  As much as I like talking about the history of Wing Chun, I will be the very first person to say that if you want to understand what the art actually is, don’t start by reading a book or blog post about it.  Not even one written by me.  Go and do it.  Experience the actual system.  Examine how it makes you feel.

At the same time I have to wonder why you are asking me about Wing Chun in the first place?  As a historian I can tell you that it was a pretty obscure art back in 1949.  Chances are good that you first encountered this style through the media, either on TV or film.  That is just fine as the martial arts, while a sensuous experience, have always existed as an aspect of popular culture.  That was also the case in historic Japan and China.  In those countries commercial visual art (woodblock prints), professional storytellers, printed novels and traveling opera performers, spread the stories of various heroes just as effectively as film or videogames do today.

This is why martial arts studies needs to remain an interdisciplinary research area.  It is unlikely that any single methodological toolbox can reveal all that this body of practices has to offer.  On the one hand no less an authority than Douglas Wile has argued that Universities have an unprecedented opportunity to become involved in teaching, preservation and analysis of actual martial arts systems and traditions.

Still, we would be foolish to assume that the physical practice of the martial arts is a self-interpreting process.  The popular literature is littered with experts, spiritual gurus and ethno-nationalist propagandists all of whom would like assist us in discovering the “true” meaning of our practice.  How could it be otherwise?  The martial arts exist as social institutions, and social power is always somewhat fungible in nature.  That makes it a valuable and contested resource.

This realization should also spark a moment of self-reflection.  Images of these practices were introduced to us through an (often media driven) social discourse long before we started to practice them.  And while our understanding of their nature no doubt grew exponentially as we engaged with them, how do these “first impressions” continue to color our understanding of our practice?  How do they help to explain why some sorts of individuals, and not others, tend to be drawn to the martial arts in the first place?

We probably cannot understand our personal experiences within the martial arts, let alone their broader social impact, if we ignore the discourses which bring new students to the school door.  This is not simply a theoretical question.  For anyone interested in the health and future survival of the traditional martial arts it is a vital topic.

Readers interested in exploring this subject more deeply would be well advised to carefully consider Paul Bowman’s recent conference paper from which the introductory quote was drawn.  I suspect that as we look back on the development of martial arts studies it will be remembered as one of the more important papers given this year, particularly for those interested in the global spread and appropriation of the martial arts.

This paper is also a fun read.  It diverges from the (ever serious) mainstream discussion of history and film, and instead takes a look at the evolution of martial arts humor in the West.  As Bowman reminds us, humor is a powerful tool of analysis because it points to deeply held, and widely shared, cultural frameworks.  If you want to know what the public at large thinks about the martial arts, start by considering what they find funny.  This often reveals more nuanced views than a simple opinion survey might be able to uncover.

Unfortunately Bowman notes that the public spends a lot of time laughing at martial artists, rather than with them.  While these systems have successfully spread themselves throughout Western society, with terms like “Kung Fu” and “Ninja” now being part of popular culture, they always seem to lose out in the realm of respectability politics.

Consider the following.  No parent needs to explain or rationalize their decision to send a child to a summer sports camp, or to push them to excel in gymnastics or basketball.  But parents supporting their children in a Judo class or Kickboxing tournament generally come well-armed with a litany of justifications for their recreational choices.  It keeps my kids active, it teaches them to fend for themselves, it prepares them for the ‘real world,’ and (my personal favorite) it ‘builds character.’  Basketball probably does a lot of the same things.  But no one feels the need to concoct elaborate justifications for allowing their kid to try out for the school team.  It is just a normal and expected part of childhood.  And it is fun.

This is where the martial arts run into trouble.  For all of their name recognition, Bowman notes that they remain separated from the norms and hegemonic discourses that define mainstream western society.  Ergo the constant need to justify them as vehicles for other values that society has deemed to be acceptable.  In that sense our justifications of our practices are very revealing.  They speak to the sorts of questions and concerns that our neighbors might have when they learn that we have just signed a child up for a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class.

The distance between the perceived cultural place of the martial arts and society’s dominant value systems creates a space of puzzlement, tension, and sometimes fear among non-martial artists.  Humor is important as it can be used to either subtly disarm these emotions, or to further marginalize the “deviant” behavior.


"London Sees Thrill of Japanese Sports." A Judo match between a British and German competitors.  Taken from a vintage newsreel. 1932.
“London Sees Thrill of Japanese Sports.”
A Judo match between a British and German competitors. Taken from a vintage newsreel. 1932.


Towards a Media Archeology of Martial Arts Studies: Judo, Kendo and the Dadao on Film     


While I agree with the main thrust of Bowman’s argument I would like to push its application in a more historical direction.  His investigation of the evolution of martial arts humor seems to begin in 1974 with the release of the now iconic disco hit ‘Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting.’  Bowman points out that the meteoric rise of this song through the charts marked, in many ways, the high-water mark of the ‘Kung Fu Craze’ of the early 1970s.

Touched off by grind house Kung Fu films (especially those by Bruce Lee), this interest in the Chinese martial arts had been seen as edgy, counter-cultural and somewhat dark.  This same view was even shared by some in the mainstream martial arts world where Bruce Lee’s movies did not always make a good impression on the more conservative practitioners of the Budo arts.  Yet by the middle of the 1970s the Chinese styles seem to have accomplished what it took the Japanese arts decades to do.  They too became fixtures in the pop culture landscape, and ‘Kung Fu’ quickly joined ‘Karate’ and ‘Judo’ as household words.  Krug places an acceleration in the cultural appropriation of the Asian martial arts as happening in this same time period.

Still, high-water marks foretell an inexorable retreat.  As the Chinese martial arts became famous they quickly lost their aura of danger.  What had been “dark” and mysterious became just another consumer good.

On Main Streets across America, Kung Fu schools opened their doors to throngs of students looking to recapture Bruce Lee’s magic.  The humorous disco hit of 1974 both illustrated and advanced this process.  As Bowman puts it “…the song ‘Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting’ participated in the domestication, sanitization, depoliticizing and, ultimately, ridiculing Kung Fu.”

Nor were the Chinese martial arts alone in this.  As Bowman points out in the rest of the article, what pop culture humorists tended to latch onto after the 1970s was the exotic “Oriental” nature of the martial arts.  The specific culture that gave rise to a given movement tradition (Japan, China, or the Philippines) was less important to western audiences than their essentially “Eastern” nature.  While it often irks aficionados that popular songs or TV shows seemed to confuse Chinese and Japanese traditions Bowman notes that this is simply how these things were perceived by audiences in the West.

Yet what sort of pre-history exists behind all of this.  Is it really the case that the Kung Fu Craze of the 1970s was a totally unique event?  Was this actually the first time that audiences were exposed to the Chinese (or Japanese) martial arts on a massive scale?  And can we trace the often uncomfortable humor that surrounds the martial arts to earlier periods, facing very different political and social challenges?

It seems that one of the hurdles facing students of martial arts studies is a periodic amnesia that grips public discussions of many of these topics.  It is certainly true that Bruce Lee was a unique figure on the western cultural landscape.  Yet he was not actually the first individual to put the Chinese martial arts on film and expose them to national audiences.  Likewise, the Japanese martial arts had gained wide exposure on the silver screen long before Samurai films became favorites of the post-WWII art house theater scene.

While I am still mulling over the specific mechanisms behind this unique form of cultural forgetting, I expect that at least some of it has to do with very basic factors dealing with the advertising and marketing of popular culture products.  The first step in selling the public something “exciting and totally new” is to never remind them that they have actually been exposed to similar things before.  Likewise audiences, in their excitement to be part of a cultural moment, seem inclined to see novelty in places that leave historians and archeologists of popular culture scratching their heads.  Ernest Renan famously remarked that a nation is a product of both collective remembering and forgetting.  It seems that this same sort of forgetting also plays a part in the construction of “new” social and media discourses.

For many research questions the historical antecedents of a phenomenon may not matter.  But in some cases I think they can be quite illuminating.  While the past may be consciously forgotten, its path-dependent structure leaves patterns that shape future events in interesting ways.  This is certainly the case when we examine media representations of Chinese and Japanese hand combat systems.  Consider, for instance, the question of exactly when these things became “humorous” and what that implies about the cultural appropriation of these systems in the west.


"London Sees the Thrill of Japanese Sports." A still taken from from a vintage newsreel showing a kendo exhibition match.  1932.
“London Sees the Thrill of Japanese Sports.” A still taken from from a vintage newsreel showing a Kendo exhibition match. 1932.


Newsreels: The Japanese and Chinese Martial Arts on Films


Bruce Lee’s iconic ‘Enter the Dragon’ was probably the first Chinese martial art film seen by an entire generation of Americans.  Samurai films had been present in the West for a while, yet they generally reached a smaller audience.  Kyle Barrowman has reminded us that Western audiences were also exposed to the martial arts in a variety of Hollywood films. Yet it is critical to remember that feature films were not the only places where individuals might be exposed to gripping and informative images of the Asian martial arts.

As I have argued elsewhere, the public display and discussion of the Japanese martial arts goes all the way back to the heyday of the magic lantern display.  Heavy glass slides, often delicately painted, along with standardized scripts, provided many late 19th century and early 20th century entertainment seekers with their first glimpse of Jujitsu, Kendo, reformed Judo, Sumo Wrestling and the historic Samurai.  Such images and discussions were actually quite popular and widespread almost 70 years before the explosion of the Kung Fu Craze.  More importantly for students of the history of popular media, they also helped to establish basic patterns and audience expectations that shaped the developing film industry.

As such we should not be surprised to discover that the Asian martial arts also made early appearances on film.  Yet they probably had their greatest impact in the now, mostly forgotten, newsreels that ran before or between the feature films that audiences had come to see.

A few words of orientation may be helpful before proceeding.  In an era before television, newsreels were a profoundly important instrument in displaying the sorts of images that would shape public opinion on critical issues.  Prior to the fragmentation of the media market they also had the ability to directly speak to large audiences.  While old newsreel footage may strike us as quaint, we should not underestimate the effect that it had on shaping people’s views of the world.  In fact, newsreels were popular with audiences precisely because (like the magic lantern shows of old) they allowed for a quick glimpse into foreign lands.  For students of popular culture and social discourse they are critical, and substantively important, historical documents.

A full survey of all of the martial arts related newsreels put together in the first half of the 20th century is well beyond the bounds of what can be done in a single blog post.  But for the purposes of exploring Bowman’s article I would like to ask viewers to consider four specific clips from the late 1920s and early 1930s (an era that is particularly important to my own research).  While I briefly describe each of these scenes I cannot directly host them on this on blog.  Readers are encouraged to take a few moments to view each of these segments as they are discussed.

Judo.information screen.1932
London Sees Thrills Of Japanese Sport.” A Vintage Newsreel. 1932.

We begin with two clips that deal specifically with the Japanese martial arts.  These are important because they illustrate many of the trends that Bowman introduced in his paper.  Already in the early 1930s the public discussion of the Japanese martial arts was characterized by humor.  And much of this bears more than a passing resemblance to the sorts of word-play focusing on cultural discomfort that will once again rise to the surface two generations later.

Perhaps my favorite of these clips is titled “London Sees Thrills of Japanese Sports.”  It ran in 1932 and recorded a martial arts exhibition and Judo tournament that pitted competitors from Germany and the UK against each other.  While the German fighters managed to score an upset by winning the tournament, most of the footage focused on the exhibition performances.

The footage is historically quite interesting.  It includes some Kendo Kata work, and a very spirited exhibition match.  Next a member of the audience was selected to try and score a hit against one of the Kendo masters with a Shinai.  Perhaps the highlight of the event was a self-defense demonstration in which a woman defended herself against repeated (somewhat bafoonish) attacks.  While a trained martial artist, the woman in question was an even better actor.  She showed a great ability to play to the audience and give them what they wanted.  And that was humor.  Note the gales of laughter that can heard as she deals damage to her unfortunate attacker, only to end by powdering her nose while standing over the body of her fallen foe.

"London Sees Thrills Of Japanese Sport." A self-defense demonstration by a female martial artist, choreographed to as to be humorous for the audience.  Vintage Newsreel. 1932.
“London Sees Thrills Of Japanese Sport.” A self-defense demonstration by a female martial artist, choreographed to as to be humorous for the audience. Vintage Newsreel. 1932.

In this case the narrator of the film did not make many jokes himself.  It seemed to be understood by the audience that what they were seeing was intrinsically funny.  And as Bowman suggested, much of that had to do with the western appropriation of Japanese practices and attitudes mixed with questions of gender performance.

In subsequent years the producers of these newsreels would not be so circumspect.  As the 1930s progress (see here, here and here) the humor becomes more pronounced and sharper in its focus.  Increasingly the narrator takes the lead in articulating and directing the humor.  Thus we can almost track the evolution of this particular discourse.  Yet by 1932 it seems to have been already firmly established

Kendo.information screen.1934
Schoolboys “Kendo” at Tokyo. Vintage Newsreel. 1934.

These newsreels are also informative in that they did not confine themselves to domestic subjects.  Like the magic lantern shows that preceded them they functioned as a form of virtual tourism for a public that was hungry for travel and worldly knowledge yet firmly grounded in their own lives.

Schoolboys "Kendo" at Tokyo.  Vintage Newsreel. 1934.
Schoolboys “Kendo” at Tokyo. Vintage Newsreel. 1934.


Particularly important is this very short segment titled “Schoolboys ‘Kendo’ at Tokyo.” Distributed in 1934 this film offers an important view of the evolving role of the martial arts in the Japanese educational system during a critical decade.  Note that the class has been moved out of the Kendo hall into a training field where the “future soldiers” could acclimate to fighting on bumpy and uneven ground.  The mass engagement between the two groups of sword wielding students rushing towards each other at the end of the film is a great illustration of the sorts of reforms (and militarization) of the Kendo curriculum during the 1930s and 1940s discussed by authors like Hurst and Bennett in their respective histories of Japanese swordsmanship.  In that respect this is another important historical document.

Note that the overall tone of this discussion is once again one of humor.  Even though the practice of the Japanese martial arts by Japanese students should raise no questions of cultural discomfort, humor is still evoked as the dominant paradigm by which a (somewhat disturbing) scene is discussed.  One wonders to what degree imperialist attitudes, or possibly fear in the face of rising militarism, contributed to the establishment of this discourse.

Schoolboys "Kendo" at Tokyo. Vintage Newsreel. 1934.
Schoolboys “Kendo” at Tokyo. Vintage Newsreel. 1934.

This makes a fascinating contrast to the next two newsreels.  They show scenes of Chinese hand combat training.  In some ways their historical and ethnographic value is even greater than the preceding films.  Yet how would their Western audiences have described what they were seeing on screen?

An exotic form of military training?  Certainly.  A “martial art”?  Possibly, though that term was not yet as popular in the public discourse as it became after WWII.  A type of self-defense system that they could learn and study for their own betterment and enjoyment (such as Judo, or possibly even Kendo)?  Certainly not.

Pudao.information screen.1929
“Russo/Chinese War Scenes.” Chinese soldiers drill with Pudao. Vintage Newsreel. 1929.

The first of these films is the longest newsreel in the post, yet it is worth watching in full.  The final sequence shows a small formation of soldiers drilling with pudao (horse knives).  The form that they are doing is relatively short, clearly illustrated, and I suspect that someone could even teach it to themselves simply by watching this footage.  It’s a very nice demonstration.

"Russo/Chinese War Scenes." Chinese soldiers drill with Pudao.  Vintage Newsreel. 1929.
“Russo/Chinese War Scenes.” Chinese soldiers drill with Pudao. Vintage Newsreel. 1929.


"Russo/Chinese War Scenes." Chinese soldiers drill with Pudao. Vintage Newsreel. 1929.
“Russo/Chinese War Scenes.” Chinese soldiers drill with Pudao. Vintage Newsreel. 1929.


Yet this is not simply an attempt by the imperial West to show the Chinese as militarily weak or backwards.  This “training exercise” was introduced only after the audience was shown footage of a warlord and his officers, iconic images of modern troops marching along the Great Wall, and ranks of modern machine-guns being deployed in field exercises.  The Chinese military is shown as efficient and well disciplined.  One suspects that a Westerner watching this footage would likely equate the sword drill at the end to the Kendo of the Japanese military.  Which is probably what both the newsreels producer and the Chinese officers who agreed to be filmed both intended.

Dadao.information screen.1933
Chinese Re-Occupy Great Wall Area.” Vintage Newsreel, 1933.

A similar pattern is seen in our next film, “Chinese Re-Occupy Great Wall Area.”  Dating to 1933 readers of 功夫网 will be pleased to note that the soldiers in this film are drilling with the classic dadao.  Whoever produced this footage went to great lengths to try and make a strong impression on the audience.  The clip juxtaposes images of a vast field of smartly dressed soldiers with close-ups of individual martial artists shot against the sky.  The effect is striking and serves to emphasize the acrobatic elegance of their practice.


"Chinese Re-Occupy Great Wall Area."  Vintage Newsreel, 1933.
“Chinese Re-Occupy Great Wall Area.” Vintage Newsreel, 1933.



The starkness of an individual soldier, engaged in dynamic movement, silhouetted against the sky reminds me of some of John Ford’s iconic WWII footage.  Like his more famous counterpart, this director also had an argument that he was trying to bring to the masses.  It sought to answer once and for all the persistent questions about the willingness and ability of Chinese soldiers to stand and fight.  As if to drive that point home the last sequence is framed by a pair of crossed dadao, inviting the audience to grab one if they dared.

I am interested in these two films because they seem to represent a point of departure in the discussion of the Chinese martial arts in the West.  In one sense what audiences are being exposed to remains remote, especially in comparison to Judo and Kendo.  It is not hard to find newsreel footage of both Western and Japanese practitioners of those arts in the 1930s.  Already they were moving into the realm of cultural appropriation, yet they remain outside of the hegemonic norms and identities.  The result is the emergence of exactly the sort of humor in the 1930s that Bowman predicts and explains in the post-1974 era.

In comparison there is nothing funny about the Chinese sword routines.  They are introduced not as sporting events or community interest stories.  Rather they exist in a grimmer world, one of international conflict, cities falling under martial law and modern armies on the march in Northern Asia.  There are no western practitioners of these arts, and so there is not the same sort of cultural discomfort that Bowman describes.  Those blades instead represent a forbidding reminder of the challenges facing the Chinese people during the 1930s and 1940s.  As such they may make audiences somewhat uncomfortable.  Yet there is nothing humorous about what they represent.

“Russo/Chinese War Scenes.” Chinese soldiers drill with Pudao. Vintage Newsreel. 1929.





Bowman is correct in noting that there is an important relationship between humor and the media driven global spread of the martial arts.  However, this post suggests that this basic pattern may have been established much earlier than the 1970s.  The newsreel footage demonstrates that these discourses were already in place (and even began to accelerate and evolve) by the 1930s.  If you are willing to go back and look at the writing in sports pages many of the same sorts of jokes and subtle concerns about identity masculinity and race can be found in the early years of the 20th century, just as Jujitsu begins to establish its presence in the West.

The Chinese martial arts, on the other hand, do not seem to come into their comedic own until much later.  This should not be taken as an indication that they were totally unknown, or that Bruce Lee was the very first Chinese martial artist to do something amazing on film before Western audiences.  The newsreel footage that we have reviewed here probably had a striking impact on the audiences that saw it during the early 1930s.  Yet it did not generate the uncomfortable humor that Bowman is interested in as it posed no threat to the West’s identity or dominant values.  Nor was it remembered decades later.

This provides additional support to Bowman’s central argument that (with some notable exceptions) the comedic discourse around the martial arts does not seem to be driven by pure racism.  More important is a critique of how certain types of westerners (often individuals already considered to be marginal by their own societies) seek to live out their fantasies by appropriating alternate models of masculinity or mastery.

What is left unresolved by all of this is the question “why?”  Why is there less public engagement with the Chinese arts than the Japanese one from the 1920s-1940s?  The immediate danger is that students of martial arts studies will fall back on the old trope that prior to the 1970s the world of Kung Fu was insular because the Chinese themselves were racist.  Their arts were not spread because they refused to teach outsiders.

This narrative conveniently ignores the truth that it was the Chinese-American community itself that was being victimized by systemic racism during the 19th and 20th century.  It also seems to neglect the fact that while a great many westerners were interested in learning about the Japanese martial arts, very few people seem to have had any interest in the Chinese systems, even when they were advertised to the public through newsreels such as these, performed at the 1936 Olympics, demonstrated by Ivy-League Chinese students as part of popular flood and famine relief programs, or widely seen during Chinese New Year displays in major urban areas.

Ultimately these things were not hidden from the public so much as they were studiously ignored.  Bruce Lee turned out to be a pivotal figure not because he was first to teach the arts, but because he managed to change what an entire generation of people wanted.

Yet his was not the first invitation.  These newsreels are important as they record early attempts to shape a more favorable public opinion of China in the West by showcasing its traditional martial arts.  Together the Dadao and Pudao disrupted the notion that the Chinese people were weak, the so called “sick man of East Asia,” and unwilling to stand and fight back against imperial aggression.  They attempted to showcase a highly disciplined army that had mastered both the modern technologies of the machine gun and mechanized transport, while staying connected to the cultured heritage of its past.  While America may have awoken to the beauty and potential of the Chinese martial arts only in the 1970s, these newsreels are a fascinating reminder that the hand of Kung Fu diplomacy had first been extended to the Western public at least 40 years earlier.


If you enjoyed this post see you might also want to read: Zheng Manqing and the “Sick Man of Asia”: Strengthening Chinese Bodies and the Nation through the Martial Arts




Chinese Martial Arts in the News: April 4th, 2016: Taijiquan, Shaolin and New Books

Gerda Geddes and Sophia Delza.Fightland.Charles Russo
Gerda Geddes and Sophia Delza. Source: Fightland/Charles Russo




Welcome to “Chinese Martial Arts in the News.”  This is a semi-regular feature here at 功夫网 in which we review media stories that mention or affect the traditional fighting arts.  In addition to discussing important events, this column also considers how the Asian hand combat systems are portrayed in the mainstream media.

While we try to summarize the major stories over the last month, there is always a chance that we have missed something.  If you are aware of an important news event relating to the TCMA, drop a link in the comments section below.  If you know of a developing story that should be covered in the future feel free to send me an email.

Its been a while (almost a month) since our last update so there is a lot to be covered in today’s post.  Let’s get to the news!


Chinese Martial Arts in the News


Our leading story for this week comes from the (virtual) pages of the Vice Fightland blog.  My friend and fellow researcher of Chinese martial arts history Charles Russo just published a short essay titled “The Forgotten (Female) Pioneers of Tai Chi in the West” profiling the lives and contributions of Gerda Geddes and Sophia Delza.  Its well worth taking a look at.  Incidentally, readers should also check out the last section of this news update for information on the release of Russo’s upcoming volume (published by the University of Nebraska Press) on the development of the Chinese martial arts on the West Coast during the mid 20th century.


Henans police learn Taijiquan

Taijiquan has made a few other appearances over the last couple of weeks.  One has to do with the decision of Henan’s Military Police to begin to teach Chen style Taijiquan to its officers.  The Talking Chen Taiji blog (always one of my favorites) has a nice write-up of the story based on an article posted on the police command’s webpage.  Here is a quick quote to whet your interest:

“China’s official military police website recently highlighted the introduction of Chen Taijiquan into the training programme of its officers. The idea behind its introduction is to transmit traditional culture, improve officers physical constitutions and to enrich their cultural awareness and life style when they are not on operational duty. In the time-honoured Chinese way, the movement is encapsulated in a slogan: “Learn Taiji, strengthen the body and spirit, quieten the heart and nurture the body”.


A still showing FM Chiu Chi Ling from Kung Fu Hustle.
A still showing FM Chiu Chi Ling from Kung Fu Hustle.


If you are looking for an exciting training opportunity of your own, and you happen to be in the St. Louis area, you are in luck.  GM Chiu Chi Ling, a renowned practitioner of Hung Gar, will be leading a workshop at the International Shaolin Wushu Center.  If I were anywhere in the area I would definitely be calling to see if there is any space left for this event.  But you will have to act fast as he is due to appear on April 5th!

Master Shi Tanxu. Source: Rick Loomis/LA Times.
Master Shi Tanxu. Source: Rick Loomis/LA Times.

Master Shi Tanxu, however, is in it for the long-haul.  The LA Times recently ran a somewhat lengthy story detailing the Shaolin Monk’s life, background and success in spreading the traditional Chinese martial arts in the LA area.  As always, these sorts of stories are fascinating windows into the sorts of narratives that accompany the modern Chinese martial arts.  This article has a few nuggets on the details of running a high profile martial arts school in a crowded marketplace today.  I thought the following incident was particularly revealing:

“When he went to apply for a business license using the name “Shaolin Temple,” he found more than 200 other businesses using the name, Yanxu said. The temple had provided documents certifying that he was an official Shaolin monk, but counterfeiters replicated them so perfectly that they looked more authentic than the real thing.

When he opened his first center in Temple City in 2008, attorneys from the more established kung fu academies told him that he had to stop using the name of Shaolin, Yanxu said with a laugh. He kept using it, and they never followed up with the lawsuits.”


Students from a martial arts school practice Shaolin Kung Fu on cliffs in Dengfeng, Henan Province, China, March 17, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer
Students from a martial arts school practice Shaolin Kung Fu on cliffs in Dengfeng, Henan Province, China, March 17, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

There seems to be one constant that unites the many disparate news stories on the Shaolin Temple.  The fighting arts of this institution and its various associated commercial schools generate some astounding visual images.  Indeed, one wonders how much of the modern image of the Chinese martial arts in the West can be traced directly to the “Shaolin visual aesthetic”?

The latest contribution to this popular genera comes from the pages of the Daily Mail.  It ran a photo essay (appropriately) titled “Masters of inner peace: Hair-raising pictures show Shaolin kung fu monks sharpening their skills on terrifying cliff face.”    It appears that the local schools and photographers have been putting Deng Feng’s famous mountains to good use.


Taiji being demonstrated at the famous Wudang Temple, spiritual home of the Taoist arts. Notice they wear the long hair of Taoist Adepts. Source: Wikimedia.
Taijiquan being demonstrated at the famous Wudang Temple, spiritual home of the Taoist arts. Source: Wikimedia.


The English language branch of CCTV (China’s state run public television network), has recently released a new documentary dealing with the traditional Chinese martial arts.  It has been split into four 20 minute chapters.  The first of these follows a Western student who has come to a school at Wudang in hopes of finding inner peace.  I have yet to find the time to sit down and watch the entire thing, but I must admit to a certain weakness for these sorts of documentaries.  If nothing else they are a fantastic example of the way the Chinese martial arts are being deployed as part of the state’s larger public diplomacy strategy.



The blows just keep coming for the producers of Ip Man 3.  In our last news update we learned that Chinese government regulators had accused the production company backing the film of buying large numbers of imaginary movie tickets (with very real money) in an attempt to artificially inflate the apparent success of their film and hence the value of the company.  Such practices had been rumored for some time, but the government had seemed to turn a blind eye to them in the past, particularly when the “juiced” numbers supported the popularity of a domestically produced film at the expense of foreign rivals.  However, there are now worries that estimates of the actual size and nature of the Chinese film market have become so distorted that future products may suffer.

Unfortunately this has not been the end of the story.  A recent article by Reuters indicated that over 100 private investors stormed the offices of the Jinlu Financial Advisors in Shanghai (the group that had backed the Ip Man film and a number of other questionable projects) demanding back payments on their loans and other investments.  Reports indicate that most of these individuals are not “industry insiders,” but were regular people who had been convinced to invest large amounts of cash with the production company.


A scene from the second season of Dare Devil. Source: Daily Beast
A scene from the second season of Daredevil. Source: Daily Beast

Those interested in the portrayal of the martial arts (and Asian Americans) by the Western media will want to check out a recent essay by Arthur Chu (of the Daily Beast) titled “Not Your Asian Ninja: How the Marvel Cinematic Universe Keeps Failing Asian-Americans.”  He has a lot of good things to say about the second season of Daredevil on Netflix, particularly as it relates to the introduction of the Punisher’s story line.  But then he gets to the ninjas, and that is where the trouble starts….

“Look. Did the producers of Daredevil set out to create a storyline where every single Asian character is an agent of supernatural evil who is deeply corrupted by that evil and empowered to be a monstrous killing machine because of it? I doubt they thought of it in those terms. They just took existing tropes from the comics and ran with them without thinking too hard—and lo and behold, an army of interchangeable evil ninjas plus one sexy femme fatale is what they got.”

Ever since Bruce Lee there has been a debate about value of the portrayal of Asians using the martial arts in the popular media.  Did Bruce Lee smash suffocating stereotypes about Chinese masculinity, or did his work subtlety reinforce them?  It is a fascinating conversation, and one that martial arts studies has made important contributions to.  But Chu’s main beef with the way that this other story-line within the Daredevil franchise is developing is that there is really nothing “nuanced” or “subtle” about the stereotypes that are being put on the screen.  It will be interesting to see whether the shows producers respond to criticism like this in the future.

Bruce Lee executes a spectacular flying kick while filming "Game of Death."
Bruce Lee executes a spectacular flying kick while filming “Game of Death.”

Speaking of Bruce Lee, CNTV recently released a short interview with Lawrence Grey regarding his upcoming Bruce Lee biopic.  Interestingly he states that the Lee Estate approached him about the project and that he was initially not inclined to take it.  Apparently he changed his mind after they OK’ed something that would look more at the internal emotional and psychological struggles of Lee rather than simply his external battles.  Grey states that he has a director for the project but declined to give a name.  Nevertheless, he is predicting a 2017 release date.


A still from Rise of the Legend. Source: NY Times
A still from Rise of the Legend. Source: NY Times


In other movie news, the NY Times ran a short review of “Rise of the Legend.” All things considered they seem to have liked it, even if they withheld effusive praise.  This seems to have been a well produced and enjoyable film.  It will no doubt be of special interest to anyone who is a fan of the Wong Fei Hung movies or who follows the development of the folklore surrounding Guangdong’s most famous martial artist.


Now With Kung Fu Grip! How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America. By Jared Miracle. McFarland & Company (March 31, 2016)
Now With Kung Fu Grip! How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America. By Jared Miracle. McFarland & Company (March 31, 2016)


Martial Arts Studies
As always it has been a busy time in the world of martial arts studies.  The conference “Kung Fury: Contemporary debates in martial arts cinema” (April 1 at Birmingham City University) has just wrapped up.  We hope to have some “after-action” reports to share soon.

Also the draft schedule for the 2016 Martial Arts Studies Conference is now available.  It looks like we have an exciting group of speakers and papers lined up for this year and a few new activities as well.  There is still time to register for the conference if you would like to attend.  If you want to make use the University’s housing accommodations during your stay its important that you get this registration in soon!  Of course there are also lots of other hotels in downtown Cardiff and it is a very charming and walkable city.

If you are interested in Capoeira, or just looking for some good reading material, be sure to check out Greg Downey’s recent chapter “Capoeira as an Art of Living: The Aesthetics of a Cunning Existence.” He first published this in the 2014 volume Fighting: Intellectualizing Combat Sports, and was kind enough to post a copy on his account.

Also, it looks like Jared Miracle’s book Now with Kung Fu Grip!: How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America is about to be released and should be shipping within days.  Dr. Miracle has written a number of excellent posts for 功夫网 and readers may remember his superb article on the Donn F. Draeger, R. W. Smith and Jon Bluming “Imposing the Terms of Battle” in the last edition of the journal Martial Arts Studies. Be sure to check out this book for more high quality historical research on the modern history of the Asian martial arts.
striking distance.russo

Last, but by no means least, Charles Russo’s latest book is now available for pre-order through  Titled Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America this 272 page volume from the University of Nebraska Press is scheduled to ship around the end of June.  This volume should have great cross-over appeal to both practitioners and students of martial art studies, and I hope that it will make an important contribution to our understanding of the history of the Chinese martial arts community in North America.  Here is the publishers blurb:

In the spring of 1959, eighteen-year-old Bruce Lee returned to San Francisco, the city of his birth, and quickly inserted himself into the West Coast’s fledgling martial arts culture. Even though Asian fighting styles were widely unknown to mainstream America, Bruce encountered a robust fight culture in a San Francisco Bay area that was populated with talented and trailblazing practitioners such as Lau Bun, Chinatown’s aging kung fu patriarch; Wally Jay, the innovative Hawaiian jujitsu master; and James Lee, the no-nonsense Oakland street fighter. Regarded by some as a brash loudmouth and by others as a dynamic visionary, Bruce spent his first few years back in America advocating a more modern approach to the martial arts and showing little regard for the damaged egos left in his wake.

In the Chinese calendar, 1964 was the Year of the Green Dragon. It would be a challenging and eventful year for Bruce. He would broadcast his dissenting view before the first great international martial arts gathering and then defend it by facing down Chinatown’s young ace kung fu practitioner in a legendary behind-closed-doors high noon–style showdown. The Year of the Green Dragon saw the dawn of martial arts in America and the rise of an icon.

Drawing on more than one hundred original interviews and an eclectic array of sources, Striking Distance is an engrossing narrative chronicling San Francisco Bay’s pioneering martial arts scene as it thrived in the early 1960s and offers an in-depth look at a widely unknown chapter of Bruce Lee’s iconic life.




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A lot has happened on the 功夫网 Facebook group.  We discussed the life of Yu Chenghui, the relationship between Silat and that state in S. E. Asia, and China’s repeating crossbows! Joining the Facebook group is also a great way of keeping up with everything that is happening here at 功夫网.

If its been a while since your last visit, head on over and see what you have been missing.

Five Social Dimensions of Lightsaber Combat as a Martial Art (Episode II)

Lightsaber Schematic Diagram

***This is the second half of our exploration of lightsaber combat as a martial art.  Reader who have not yet read Part I are strongly encouraged to do so before going on. In the last essay we considering some of the basic strategies that scholars have adopted in defining the “martial arts.”  Following that discussion we briefly reviewed the emergence of the current lightsaber combat community.  In this post we attempt to test Wetzler’s theory of the “five dimensions of social meaning” as a strategy for understanding the martial arts by using it to explore various aspects of lightsaber fencing.  Enjoy!***


Five Social Dimensions of Lightsaber Combat
While it helps to ground our discussion, the preceding historical exploration does little to resolve the theoretical question of whether we should consider lightsaber combat to be an authentic martial art. At best we are thrown back on the statements of various practitioners. Some look to their own backgrounds and goals to assert that they are in the process of developing and teaching a martial art. In their view the media driven origins of these practices should have no bearing on our classification of the resulting institutions. What is important is the nature of the techniques used and taught.

Other individuals, even those deeply involved in the lightsaber community, are not so sure. Some see “combat sports” and “martial arts” as mutually exclusive categories. And given the degree of cultural discomfort that still follows the traditional martial arts, a few groups may have decided that it is economically more feasible to market lightsaber combat as a sporting, fitness or recreational activity.

Nor would it be difficult to find practitioners of more traditional sword arts who might claim that lightsaber fencing simply cannot be a martial art at all. So many of the small details that are critical in traditional forms training or cutting practice (e.g., edge control) simply disappear when we begin to discuss fictional all cutting plasma blades. For them the potent symbolism of a futuristic sword cannot displace the historically grounded reality of the blade.

This sort of indeterminacy has always dogged both the sociological and universal strategies for defining the martial arts. The current essay seeks to move beyond this impasse by empirically examining the practice of lightsaber combat in light of Wetzler’s theory of the “five dimensions of social meaning.” This will provide us with an appropriate baseline from which to explore whether the fictional origins of lightsaber combat alters the sorts of social roles that it plays in the lives of its students. It should also suggest something about the utility of the existing martial arts studies literature in making sense of these practices. As such we will briefly consider how lightsaber combat ranks on each of these five dimensions.


Early concept art by Ralph McQuarrie showing a Storm Trooper holding a lightsaber. In the Star Wars mythos a hero may well have to rely on the lightsaber as a means of personal defense.
Early concept art by Ralph McQuarrie showing a Storm Trooper holding a lightsaber. In the Star Wars mythos a hero may well have to rely on the lightsaber as a means of self-defense.


Preparation for violent conflict: When interviewed, new students of the martial arts often claim that they have been inspired to join a school by a need for self-defense training. Indeed, there has always been a strong linkage between (some) martial arts and the perceived need to prepare oneself for the reality of violent conflict. Yet at the same time students of martial studies have noted that many of the sorts of techniques that are commonly used in these systems lack an element of “realism.”

Students of Japanese military history have noted that high-school kendo training did a poor job of preparing Japanese military officers to actually use their swords in the field during WWII. Practitioners of the Mixed Martial Arts often complain about the lack of “realism” in more traditional styles. Yet weapons are a sadly common element of actual criminal assaults and they are banned from the octagon. Indeed, one cannot escape the conclusion that the ways in which the martial arts attempt to prepare their students for the future cannot simply by reduced to “violence simulators” of greater or lesser degrees of accuracy. Equally important has been the building of physical strength, mental toughness and a tactical tool kit in environments that are quite different from what might be encountered in an actual attack.

Lightsaber combat also has a complex relationship with Wetzler’s first dimension of social meaning. The chance of an individual being called upon to defend themselves from an actual lightsaber attack today is only slightly less than the probability that they will encounter a villain wielding a traditional Chinese three meter long spear in a dark alley. Which is to say, few people take up traditional weapons training (such as swords, spears or bows) because of their great utility “on the street.”

Yet in a kendo class one will be called upon to defend against a mock (but still very spirited) sword attack. Likewise, in a modern lightsaber duel fencers will be called upon to defend themselves against a determined attacker who has been systematically trained in a variety of techniques. A failure to do so (especially if proper safety measures are not observed) might result in injury. In that sense lightsaber students are preparing themselves for combative encounters. All of this also contributes to the creation of a degree of physical and mental resilience.

Many forms of traditional weapons training have become functionally obsolete in the current era. Spears, swords and bows are no longer encountered on the battlefield and they play a limited role in any discussion of self-defense. While lightsabers can be placed further along the continuum of abstraction, these are fundamentally differences of degree rather than kind.


A Sportlight Saber League Tournament held in Paris, France. Source:
A Sportlight Saber League Tournament held in Paris, France. Source:

Play and Competitive Sports: There can be no doubt that for most students the fundamental appeal of lightsaber combat is to be found in its recreational value. Indeed, the central mythos and symbolism of the exercise derives from the realm of film and commercial entertainment. Of course in the current era what most of us know about past military battles and personal duels is also heavily mediated by media representations rather than firsthand experience.

Even in Hong Kong in the 1950s-1970s, a supposed golden age of traditional martial arts practice, wuxia novels and martial arts films were the medium by which most individuals were introduced to, and developed an interest in, the martial arts. While not as frequently discussed, the traditional martial arts have always been closely tied to the worlds of physical recreation and story-telling.

The very nature of lightsaber fencing has also contributed to the development of a strong sporting impulse. Whether in the form of Olympic fencing or Japanese kendo, in the current era the sword arts have come to be seen largely as combat sports. Students of lightsaber fencing will approach their new practice with an already well established set of ideas about what a “proper” match will look like. Inevitably this includes safety equipment (eye protection, fencing masks, armored gloves, other protective gear), one or more judges to call points, a transparent scoring system and a limited number of timed rounds. All of these practices come from previous innovations in other arts, but they are immediately available to lightsaber fencers. The end result is that for many students lightsaber combat is primarily thought of as a faced paced, highly enjoyable, combat sport.

As I have interviewed various instructors in the field, some have pointed to these sorts of matches as sites for “technical research.” A few have asserted that the traditional martial arts might benefit from a “neutral” platform where students of western, Chinese, Japanese or South East Asian systems can come together to compare techniques with those whose training is different from their own. The physical simplicity of a stunt saber (which is essentially a smooth polycarbonate tube), and the ease with which it can be used by a variety of styles, has even led to some discussion of whether lightsaber combat might develop as a type of “mixed martial art” for swords (albeit one with a very different world view). While this possibility is not what attracts most new students to their local lightsaber combat group, it is certainly a possibility that is being considered by key teachers and promoters of the practice.


The Force is strong with this one. Source: //
The Force is strong with this one. Source: //


Performance: The anthropologist D. S. Farrer has argued at length that every martial system contains both a practical and performative aspect. Further, these two elements cannot easily be separated. While all sorts of practitioners may find that they have an economic or a social motive to promote their practice as a “pure fighting art” (or alternatively, and probably more lucratively, as “pure combat choreography”) this is usually far from the truth. Developments in the practical realm tend to drive new innovations in the “realistic” portray of the martial arts on stage, and the public discussion of these recreational images has inspired new thoughts about the more practical aspects of violence.

For example, throughout Asian history, archery did double duty as a cornerstone of public ritual as well as a critical military skill. Even the periodic military exams held by the Chinese government in the late imperial period tended to draw a large crowd and functioned as public spectacles as much as a rational mechanism for choosing the best military recruits (well into the age of the gun). Nor can we forget about the important social place of practices like “wedding silat,” dance like capoeira matches or the public performance of traditional martial arts styles on the stage of southern China’s Cantonese opera. All of this has a long and established history within the cultural realm of the martial arts.

Still, the relationship between the practical and the performative aspects of the martial arts is one of the most vexing aspects of these systems for current scholars. The development of lightsaber combat has the potential to contribute much to this aspect of the martial studies literature.

When looking at the variety of lightsaber combat groups, some individuals may be tempted to separate them into two categories. On the one hand we have those doing “real” martial arts, such as Ludosport, Saber Legion or the Terra Prime Lightsaber Academy. They focus almost exclusively on the practice of historically derived techniques and competition. On the other hand we have a number of schools, such as NY Jedi, whose main activities seem to be the staging of elaborate public spectacles through choreographed duels and storytelling.

Yet none of these groups function in pristine isolation. As a result innovations in one area tend to impact the others. While NY Jedi is known for its stage combat and public choreography, a number of its members are also martial artists. One such individual is Damon Honeycutt. A practitioner of the Chinese martial arts, he developed a basic lightsaber training form (or kata) called “Shii-cho” (based on Japanese and Chinese saber techniques) which has gone on to become perhaps the most widely distributed training tool within the lightsaber community. It is widely practiced by both theatrical and martially oriented groups and both seem to find it quite useful.

Nor is there always a clear division between the sorts of individuals who will be attracted to more “traditional” martial training and those who might find themselves making and posting fan-films on the internet. Rather than having two distinct sets of individuals, often what we see are related practices used to fulfill multiple sets of social goals by the same individuals. While on the surface this might appear paradoxical, it has always been part of the appeal of the traditional Asian martial arts. Current developments within the lightsaber combat community are useful precisely because they serve to illustrate the arguments of scholars such as Farrer and Wetzler.


Luke Skywalker Meditating on the assembly of his new lightsaber. Image by Frank Stockton. Source: rebloggy.
Luke Skywalker meditating on the assembly of his new lightsaber. Image by Frank Stockton. Source: rebloggy.


Transcendent Goals: Even if lightsaber combat succeeds as a fast paced combat sport, or as a channel for martial performance, what psychological or spiritual value could it have? In the current era many individuals turn to the traditional (usually Asian) martial arts precisely because they see in them a font of ancient wisdom. For the less esoterically inclined, the physical and mental discipline of the martial arts has also been seen as a way to “develop character.”

While many actual martial arts instructors go out of their way to avoid discuss their practice in these terms, the idea that the martial arts should be a pathway to some sort of “transcendent attainment” seems firmly fixed in the popular imagination. It is one of the promises that draws students, in both the East and the West, to these practices. Much of the commercial success of the traditional martial arts appears to be rooted in a near mystical faith in their ability to promote balanced development in both children and adolescents. One wonders how much of this belief we can attribute to Luke Skywalker’s very public journey to adulthood aided by the dual disciplines of the Force and the lightsaber training during the 1970s and 1980s.

Can lightsaber students find transcendent values in a practice grounded in what they know to be a set of fictional texts? The fact that we now have a literature on the existence of hyper-real religions (systems of religious belief based on fictional texts such as Star War or the Matrix) strongly suggests that the answer is, “yes.” The underlying values that students can detect in a story or practice are more important for many people than its connection to an authentic ancient history.

My own, very preliminary, ethnographic research with a lightsaber combat group in a mid-sized city in New York State has revealed a surprising degree of dedication on the part of many of the students. The often repeated mantra that it is all “just for fun” notwithstanding, it is clear that many students are approaching lightsaber combat as a key organizing symbol in their lives. The weapons may be fictional, but the feelings that are invoked through practice are clearly authentic and deeply felt. Nor are the sorts of mentoring relationships that students seek from their instructor any different from what one might find in a traditional martial arts institution.

Given the resources being dedicated to lightsaber combat, it should come as no surprise that students so often see their norms and beliefs (or perhaps those that they aspire to hold) reflected in these practices. The Jedi and Sith themselves are readymade symbols ripe for spiritual or psychological appropriation.

When addressing a related point in an interview Damon Honeycutt of NY Jedi said:


“You can bring about things in a subculture; you can create change through that. You can elevate consciousness through it. That is what I would like to see it do, really bring people to a heightened potential of what they really are. To be a lens for that, outside of comicons or conventions or competitions or forms or fighting or sparring or whatever people think that they are doing with it. That really would be the greatest thing.

With NY Jedi we are making ourselves better people to serve humanity, you know, the same thing that I do with the Kung Fu school. In a lot of ways they are the same. Its just that the myth behind it is different. The lineage behind it is different. The world view is different. But the overall goal is the same.” Damon Honeycutt. Reclaiming the Blade, DVD2. Bonus Feature: New York Jedi. 2009. Min. 11:01-11:46.


This description matches my own preliminary observations. Future research might fruitfully focus on the underlying social changes that have opened a space for hyper-real martial arts to play these roles at this particular moment in social history.


A Jedi healing a wounded storm trooper through her manipulation of the force. Most discussions of health in relation to lightsaber combat seem to focus on exercise and activity rather instead. Source: starwars.wikia
A Jedi healing a wounded storm trooper through her manipulation of the Force. Current discussions of health in relation to lightsaber combat seem to be more focused on mundane factors such as regular exercise.  Still, there is a strong mythic association between the Jedi and accelerated healing. Source: starwars.wikia


Healthcare: As we have already seen, a number of factors separate the martial arts from simple collections of combat techniques. One of them is the multiplicity of social roles that these systems are expected to play in the lives of their practitioners. In the current era individuals often turn to the martial arts to defend not just their physical safety but their personal health.

Many martial arts studios offer basic fitness and conditioning classes. Weight loss is a frequently advertised benefit of all kinds of martial arts training. And every month a new set of articles is published about the medical benefits of taijiquan for senior citizens in both the Western and Chinese press.

This may seem like yet another example of the commercial appropriation of the martial art. Fitness is a multi-billion dollar industry and the average individual is constantly subjected to powerful media discourses extolling the benefits of athleticism. Is it any wonder that all sorts of martial arts teachers attempt to link their practices to the culturally dominant athletic paradigm?

In light of this it may be necessary to remind ourselves that the links between the practice of the martial arts and health promotion are actually quite old. Meir Shahar has demonstrated that by the end of the Ming dynasty unarmed boxing training was gaining popularity around China partially because of the unique synthesis of self-defense and health promoting practices which it offered.

While less pronounced than some of the other dimension of social meaning, it is clear that lightsaber combat is viewed as an avenue for promoting physical health by some of its students. In this case the emphasis is less on esoteric practices and Daoist medical ideas than western notions of physical fitness and exercise. Many of the students that I have spoken with mentioned the need to “get in shape” and “stay active” as primary motivations for taking up lightsaber combat.

A quick review of news stories in the popular press indicates that a number of lightsaber groups have been created throughout the English speaking world in recent years. While most of these are run by individuals coming out of the traditional martial arts, others are being started by Yoga teachers. Their emphasis is usually focused on the health and fitness benefits of lightsaber training rather than it’s more competitive or combative aspects.

Yet fitness also plays a role in the ways that lightsaber combat is discussed by more traditional martial arts instructors. More than one has noted that these classes attract individuals who might otherwise have no interest in setting foot in a martial arts school or gym. Lightsaber combat gives such students a means to stay active and an incentive to get in shape.

For some students lightsaber combat also sparks an interest in other martial arts. Indeed, one suspects that this is exactly why so many traditional martial artists are currently opening classes dedicated to the subject. They have the potential to expand the appeal of the martial arts to groups of consumers who might not otherwise have ever been attracted to them.

The health benefits of any martial art depend in large part on how it is introduced to students and subsequently practiced. The same is certainly true for lightsaber combat. Once again, when comparing this practice to historically grounded martial arts what we find are differences in degree rather than kind.


Stunt sabers and helmets at a Paris lightsaber tournament. Photo by Charles Platiau. Source:
Stunt sabers and helmets at a Paris lightsaber tournament. Photo by Charles Platiau. Source:


Conclusion: Lightsaber Combat as a Martial Art


Is lightsaber combat a martial art? The answer is almost certainly yes. At its core are a group of combative and performance techniques, almost all of which have been gathered from previously existing martial traditions. These have been developed into pedagogical systems capable of transmitting not only physical practices but also elaborate pseudo-histories, invented identities and a mythic world view that seem to be a no less potent for their fictional origin. All of this provides students with a variety of tools to craft social and personal meaning in their lives.

An examination of Wetzler’s “five dimensions of social meaning” suggests that in its current incarnation students of lightsaber combat understand their practice in much the same way that traditional martial artists approach their training in the West today. More importantly, both set of activities play broadly similar roles in the lives of students, and respond to the same social forces in basically similar ways. As such we have no a priori reason to believe that the theories developed within martial arts studies cannot also be applied to the investigation of hyper-real combat systems.

More importantly, our brief investigation of lightsaber combat may suggest a few ways to improve our understanding of the social meaning of these systems. Martial artists are often reluctant to discuss the economic consequences of their practice. On the one hand many individuals make a living teaching these systems, and students sacrifice notable resources (in capital, time and opportunity cost) to practice them.

In the current era the distribution of martial knowledge is closely tied to economic markets. Yet openly discussing this fact seems like a violation of an unspoken norm. Among practitioners there is a strong presumption that the martial arts “cannot be bought or sold;” that the attainment of excellence transcends such “base” considerations. Given that many academic students of martial arts studies are also practitioners of these same systems, such attitudes can easily shape our own research as well.

The rapid growth of lightsaber combat over the last decade is interesting for a number of reasons. One of the most important is what it suggests about the power of economic markets to shape the development of martial arts systems and the ways that consumers encounter and experience them. At the most basic level there would be no lightsaber combat without the production of successive generations of Star Wars films and massively expensive campaigns to market them to the public. More specifically, the exact timing of the boom of interest in lightsaber combat owes much to the creation (and marketing) of high quality replica and stunt lightsabers in the early 2000s.

Economic variables can be seen to play important roles in other places as well. The major manufacturers of stunt sabers host message boards and social media groups that play an important part in creating a sense of community. Individual teachers have turned to lightsaber fencing as a means of spreading the message of the martial arts beyond the horizons of the normal reachable market. And it is sometimes surprising to see how much money individual students are willing to pay for a personally meaningful replica lightsaber or for the opportunity to attend a seminar with a specific instructor or group. It is even interesting to think about why different lightsaber organizations adopt the various economic models that they have.

None of this is all that different from what we see in the world of the more traditional martial arts. The ability to offer instruction can become an important source of personal income. The sudden appearance of a popular new action film can lift a little known fighting system out of obscurity. And economic markets strongly condition how the martial arts can be taught, and who they can potentially reach, at any given point in history.

While these sorts of considerations receive little attention in many of our studies, they simply cannot be avoided when thinking about the nature and recent origin of lightsaber combat. As such we should consider adding a sixth category to Wetzler’s discussion of social meaning within the martial arts. Economic markets are a means by which scarce resources are distributed within society. The martial arts have often served similar functions through their attempts to control community violence, support new status hierarchies and even create social capital. We should not be surprised to see powerful synergies emerging through the interactions of these systems. In fact, no student or teacher can approach the martial arts in the current era without taking their economic aspect into careful consideration. This suggests that students of martial arts studies should also be more mindful of this dimension of social meaning.

Critics of the time and energy being devoted to the development of lightsaber combat may voice a number of complaints. Stunt lightsabers, despite their seeming versatility, are essentially cylindrical sticks rather than copies of true blades. And given the unique mythology of this weapon, there is no incentive to imagine it as a metal sword for the purposes of practice and training. As such lightsaber combat is bound to depart from historically derived techniques in important ways. Ultimately an hour invested in the investigation of German longsword fencing, or even kendo, would probably grant a better understanding of real military history than an equal amount of practice with a lightsaber.

Though it may be possible to find key norms within the practice of lightsaber fencing, or while the rich symbolism of the Force and the Jedi may point some students towards transcendent themes, the development of these ideas within the Star Wars universe is still shallow compared to the depth of lived religious experience that can be found within real Buddhist, Daoist or Christian monastic communities. Again, why invest scarce resources in a second order reflection of reality when the real thing is almost immediately available?

These are valid concerns. And ultimately most martial artists will not be interested in lightsaber combat. Then again, most martial artists also have little interest in kendo, wing chun or any other specific style. Many of these objections also revolve around questions of taste rather than objective conceptual categories. Why practice that style when “everyone knows” that mine is superior?

The very fact that lightsaber combat can so easily be drawn into this all too familiar mode of debate is yet another indication that it is seen as residing within the set of practices which we call “martial arts.” Yet as Wetzler reminded us in his discussion, when it comes to definitions, scholars must rely on more objective measures. Ultimately the student of martial arts studies cannot become merely a critic of good taste in martial arts practice (Wetzler, 23-25).

Instead we should ask why, when so much information about many historical styles is readily available, these specific individuals are choosing to study a hyper-real martial art? Why are seekers suddenly more open to finding transcendent meaning in a fictional story than in actual organized religions which espouse many of the same values and views? Lastly, how have consumers appropriated the products of a vast commercial entertainment empire to create independent social groups that better allow them to exercise their agency in creating more empowered identities?

None of these puzzles are unique to lightsaber combat. In realty we could ask a very similar set of questions of most of the traditional martial arts that are practiced in the world today. Nothing simply arises from the past tabula rasa. We seek to understand the invention of the martial arts because every hand combat system must find a place for itself in the social system of its day if it wishes to survive. Their many solutions to this dilemma reveal critical data about the nature of social struggles.

All arts, even the most historically grounded, are caught in a continual cycle of renewal and reinvention. The study of practices such as lightsaber combat is valuable precisely because it forces us to focus on the details of how that process unfolds within specific communities. Yet to be fully realized, we must first understand that hyper-real combat practices can be authentic martial arts.




If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read:  Can Donnie Yen Bring Kung Fu (Back) to the Star Wars Universe?




Is Lightsaber Combat a Martial Art? (Episode I)

A meeting of the Golden Gates Knights. Instructor Alain Block (right) leads a class. Source: Associated press, image by Jeff Chiu.
A meeting of the Golden Gates Knights. Instructor Alain Block (right) leads a class. Source: Associated press, image by Jeff Chiu.

***This is the first half of two part article.  However, readers may actually want to begin by reading my recent post  What are “martial arts,” and why does knowing matter?***


“It [Ludosport] started in 2006 in Italy. A few friends got some lightsabers as gifts and being into martial arts and re-enactment fanatics they decided to see if there was a way they could make it into a sport, and they did. They spent hundreds of hours consulting many different martial artists and fencing coaches to make sure that they got a really good sport.

It’s not a martial art. We’re not trying to teach people how to cause physical harm, in fact that’s exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to do. We want something that’s fast and fun, that people can enjoy.”

Jordan Court, Instructor of the Ludosport England, Lighstaber Combat Academy in Bristol (UK) as quoted in the Bristol Post, January 29th 2015.


“[Flynn:] People laugh at us and say, “That’s not a real martial art!” I say, why don’t you pick one up and try.

[Damon Honeycutt:] They can say all they want…you know what I mean. But the fact is we are practicing and they are not.”

“Flynn” and Damon Honeycutt. Reclaiming the Blade, DVD2. Bonus Feature: New York Jedi. 2009. Min. 4:14.


Introduction: What are Martial Arts?


Is lightsaber combat a martial art? This seemingly odd question may have important implications for how we understand critical concepts within the field of martial arts studies. It also promises to shed light on the fundamental processes by which the traditional martial arts have been revived, reimagined and invented in the modern era.

As both a relatively new and radically interdisciplinary research area, martial arts studies is currently enjoying a period of rapid conceptual development. Nowhere is this more evident than in attempts to define the term ‘martial art.’ While it is in many ways synonymous with the field, only a minority of the foundational texts in our literature have attempted to define this concept or to explore it in ways that would point to new avenues for research. Nor has the existing literature coalesced around a single definition.

In a previous post we saw that researchers have adopted at least three discrete strategies when attempting to craft their understanding of this concept. The first, and most widely used, might be referred to as the “sociological strategy.” It simply accepts the social or cultural consensus on the question as it has arisen within a tightly focused research area.

Given that everyone in 21st century Japan simply “knows” that kendo, karate and aikido are martial arts, there may not be an urgent need to further explore the matter when discussing some aspect of Japanese martial studies. This is especially true as so many works currently being produced adopt an “area studies” approach which calls for a deep examination of the historical, social or even linguistic forces affecting developments in only a single region or state. It may seem beyond the bounds of a given research project to deeply explore what characteristics make both kendo and karate “martial arts” given their many historical differences. The existing consensus is simply accepted as a social fact.

Nevertheless, future theoretical development within martial arts studies requires a greater emphasis on comparative case studies. This research strategy often necessitates comparing practices that have arisen in very different times or places. For instance, what makes both capoeira and kendo martial arts, and how can both be understood in light of the economic, political and social changes that swept the globe in the 19th century? In cases such as this it is no longer possible to avoid definitional discussion. For better or worse, classification and categorization are at the heart of the comparative enterprise.

Towards this end scholars have attempted to define the martial arts in at least two different ways. First, they have advanced short “universal” definitions meant to identify those activities deemed to be “martial arts” within the broader category of all social practices. Further, most of these authors have attempted to advance relatively abstract definitions that can be applied to any society, time or place.

As we saw in our previous post, such efforts can be challenging. And while identifying “martial arts” in the abstract, most of these discussions provide no way of knowing where one style ends and the next begins. Are wing chun, weng chun and white crane three different styles, or simply three interpretations of the same regional fighting tradition? Scholars need a concept that can help us to address questions such as this.

A second group of authors have developed definitions that seek to classify the wide range of observed martial arts along different metrics. Some authors, such as Donn Draeger, sought to separate the truly “martial” from the “civilian” fighting systems. Unfortunately his system seems to be based on a now dated understanding of Japanese military history. And in any case, it is not always possible to draw a clean distinction between the military and civil realms.

Other students have looked at the specific goals motivating individuals to practice the martial arts. Perhaps the most common division in the literature is a three part typology separating the competitive combat sports, traditional arts (focused on self-development and health) and self-defense or combat arts. While this cuts to the heart of the ways in which the martial arts are often discussed in popular culture, this approach has trouble dealing with the huge amount of variation found within any single tradition. In China it is not that hard to find Wushu coaches who approach the Taiji forms as competitive sports, while some of their students will go on to teach similar forms as traditional health practices.

Lastly, Sixt Wetzler has proposed that we move away from efforts to definitively place certain practices in one conceptual box or another. He argues that we should instead acknowledge that the martial arts owe much of their popularity to their fungiblity. The fact that a single set of practices can play many social roles in a student’s life gives them great practical utility. The social functions of a children’s afterschool Tae Kwon Do class might be very different from those pursued in the adult Saturday afternoon session of the very same school. It is precisely this multi- vocality that allows these hand combat systems to function as central organizing symbols in the lives of their practitioners.

Wetzler suggest that the best way to understand what a martial art is, and to compare various schools or approaches, is to examine their impact on five dimensions of social meaning. Briefly these are:

1. Preparation for violent conflict
2. Play and Competitive Sports
3. Performance
4. Transcendent Goals
5. Health Care

Unfortunately this is more of a framework for analysis than a traditional definition. And Wetzler freely admits that future researchers may find it necessary to add additional categories to his list.

Nor does his approach solve the problem of sociological relativism. The flexible nature of Wetzler’s concept opens the field up to a wide range of activities that not all researchers might be willing to accept as martial arts. For instance, would realistic combative movements learned from a video-game count as a “martial art” if their practitioner claimed them as such? What about the many apps currently on the market to help students learn taiji or wing chun? Is this simply a novel way of teaching an old art, or is it something very different? Do we simply accept as a martial art anything that claims to be one?

The problem of relativism can also be seen on the other end of the spectrum. Because the martial arts are often seen as somewhat “odd,” “eccentric” or “socially marginal” some individuals may try to evade the label all together. Students taking a “boxing essentials” or even kickboxing class at the local YMCA might claim not to be studying a martial art, even though any martial arts studies conference will include multiple papers on participation in amateur boxing and kickboxing activities.

It would seem that self-identification might be a poor metric to judge what activities qualify as a martial art, or how we as researchers should structure our case studies. Indeed, this has always been a potential weakness of the “sociological approach.” Lacking a universally agreed upon definition, how should we move forward?

This puzzle is a useful one in that it helps us to clarify our goals. When we ask “Is lightsaber combat a martial art?” we must be clear that this question does not intend to establish a value hierarchy in which the researcher draws on their expertise to offer a binding opinion on what does or does not qualify as an authentic combat system. Nor are we even asking whether a given activity is worthy of consideration in martial arts studies as a research area. After all, our interdisciplinary literature routinely tackles a variety of topics and sources (including novels, films, community festivals and public rituals) that are not the product of any specific training hall.

What this question really points to is the relationship between our object of study (in this case Lightsaber combat) and the theoretical toolkit that we have developed to explore these sorts of systems within martial arts studies. Put slightly differently, do we expect that our core concepts and theories will help us to make sense of lightsaber combat in the same way that they might be useful when thinking about the rise of judo or wing chun? And if they fail in this specific case (as theories often do), will the lessons learned improve our understanding of the traditional martial arts as well?

Within the social sciences progress rarely comes from theoretical development or empirical observation in isolation. It is the triangulation of approaches that is the most likely to lead to the development of a successful research program. Do all martial arts arise from authentic combat activities? Must they be historically grounded? Can an activity be a martial art even if its students and teacher do not claim it as such?

Ultimately these are all important questions as they help us to expand the borders of martial arts studies, and demonstrate the broader utility of our field. They are also the sorts of issues that deserve to be empirically examined rather than simply accepted or dismissed by definitional fiat.

Concept art showing an early version of the lightsaber.
Concept art by Ralph McQuarrie showing an early version of the lightsaber.

Getting a Grip on the Lightsaber

Towards that ends, the current post investigates the case of lightsaber combat. Any attempt to define these practices as an authentic martial art will face a number of obvious objections. The typical lightsaber class usually introduces students to some combination of forms training, practical drills, competitive fencing and stage combat/choreography. The emphasis on each activity varies from school to school and depends in large part on the goals of the instructors.

Yet the lightsaber is not a historical, or even a real, weapon. The idea that one might be able to systematically study “lightsaber combat” is a relatively recent notion inspired by a successful film franchise. In that sense we are dealing with a “hyper-real” martial art. By this we mean that it is an “invented tradition” that everyone acknowledges is based on a fictional text rather than a more or less accurate transmission of some historical practice.

Lightsaber combat presents students of martial arts studies with a set of theoretical fighting systems coalescing around the image of a (wildly popular) fictional weapon. Nevertheless, many of the individuals working to develop lightsaber combat programs are traditional martial artists with extensive training in both Eastern and Western fighting arts. Their historically grounded skills are being married to the mythos and world view of the Star Wars franchise and then marketed to the public. Finally, the resulting synthesis is presented to new students in classroom environments that practitioners of the traditional martial arts would find very recognizable.

Nor is the practice of lightsaber combat limited to a few isolated individuals. The renewed popularity of the Star Wars franchise following first the release of the prequel films in the early 2000s (Episodes I-III), and the Force Awakens (Episode VII) in 2015, has given rise to a dramatic increase in demand for “practical” lightsaber training. With a number of additional films already in the works, we may be well positioned to watch the birth of a substantial new hyper-real martial movement. But are these systems true martial arts?

What does the answer to that question suggest about the various ways in which the older and more established systems can also be understood as “invented traditions?” Should this change anything about the way we view the relationship between media portrayals of violence and the creation (or practice) of actual combat systems? How will our understanding of the relationship between the martial arts and the historical forces of ethno-nationalism and culture need to be adjusted when we see individuals turning to hyper-real martial arts to pursue their need for self-development or transcendence?

Using Wetzler’s five dimensions of social meaning I explore the various ways in which lightsaber combat functions as an authentic martial art for its practitioners. Some of these may be obvious, others will be less so. Ultimately this discussion suggests that a set of activities functions as a martial art not because of their historical authenticity or connection to “real-world” combat. Rather, the martial arts have always been defined primarily through their modes of social organization and the individual, group and systemic roles that they play. At heart they are social institutions rather than collections of isolated techniques. More specifically the modern martial arts are a social project by which individuals hope to secure multiple aspects of their personal and social destiny, and not simply their physical safety.

This should not be understood as a new development. We see this same pattern at the very moment of the genesis of the Asian martial arts. Japanese warriors did not need formal sword schools organized as ryu-ha to ply their trade or survive on the battlefield. They had succeeded in these tasks quite nicely for hundreds of years without them.

Rather, as Alexander C. Bennett has cogently argued, these social institutions were created as a means of demonstrating social sophistication and self-discipline when Bushi warriors found themselves transitioning to political roles in urban areas which brought them into direct contact with Japan’s highly cultured aristocracy. The original Japanese swords arts functioned just as much as a source of social legitimization as martial capital. These schools again saw massive growth under the later Tokugawa government, a period of protracted peace in which they once again served mostly social, cultural and economic functions.

While history is not unimportant (indeed, we will see that it is deeply implicated in the creation of even hyper-real martial arts) researchers may ultimately wish to pay more attention to how ideas and beliefs about the martial arts, as a social project, are created and transmitted from one generation to the next. Nor is this set of conclusions unique to the world of lightsaber combat. Instead the existence and rapid growth of hyper-real martial arts requires us to reevaluate what we think we know about the invention of the traditional martial arts more generally.

Luke receiving his fathers lightsaber in Episode IV: A New Hope (1977).
Luke receiving his fathers lightsaber in Episode IV: A New Hope (1977).  Its interesting to compare Luke’s lightsaber in this shot to the original concept art above.



Creating the Seven Classic Forms of Lightsaber Combat: A Very Brief History


While various 20th century science fiction stories had mentioned weapons like the lightsaber, the image of this now iconic weapon seared its way into the popular consciousness in 1977 with George Lucas release of his first Star Wars film (Episode IV: A New Hope). Luke Skywalker igniting his father’s arctic blue lightsaber (“an elegant weapon for a more civilized age”) in the presence of the mysterious Obi-Wan Kenobi became a symbol that defined the hopes and aspiration of an entire generation of film goes.

They too wished for an adventure that would allow them to take their first steps onto a broader stage. What better weapon for the knight-errants of the quickly dawning technological age than the lightsaber. It captured the romance and esoteric promises of our half-remembered, half-imagined, collective past, while pointedly reminding us that it was an “artifact” from the distant future. The symbolism of the lightsaber seamlessly combines a weapon of truly fearsome destructive potential with the promise of spiritual renewal. Once seen it is an image that is not easily forgotten.

The lightsaber’s strangely hypnotic blade has now gone on to colonize the imagination of multiple generations, spawning countless novels, comic books, video games, collectibles, sequels and most recently, entire combat systems. It goes without saying that in the absence of the Star Wars film franchise, and the immense marketing empire that surrounds and supports it, there would be no lightsaber combat training today. Our first conclusion must be that media generated images of lightsaber combat led directly to the creation of later combat systems, albeit with a somewhat puzzling delay.

I strongly suspect that the first fan-based “lightsaber duel” was probably performed with broom sticks the day after Lucas’ original vision was revealed to the public in 1977. Yet I have found very little evidence of organized attempts to institutionalize and spread specific ideas about what lightsaber combat might look like until the early 2000s. Systematized lightsaber fencing, as it currently exists, dates only to the middle of that decade.

This presents us with our first challenge. Given the immense popularity and huge cultural impact of the initial three movies, why did lightsaber combat organizations emerge only in the 2000s? More specifically, what was their relationship to the less popular, and critically reviled, prequel trilogy chronicling the Clone Wars and the rise of Darth Vader?

The answer to both of these questions can be found in the complex mix of materiality and mythos that lies as the heart of the Star Wars enterprise, as well as the efforts to market its merchandise to the public. After all, what is more powerful than a myth whose relics can be held in one’s own hands…for a price.

The Ultrasabers display at the 2012 Phoenix Comicon. Ultrasabers is one of the largest manufactures of stunt sabers intended for use is lightsaber combat.
The Ultrasabers display at the 2012 Phoenix Comicon. Ultrasabers is one of the largest manufactures of stunt sabers intended for use is lightsaber combat.  Source: Wikimedia


It is a proven fact that if you put replica lightsabers in the hands of any two normal adults, they will immediately try to beat each other about the head with them. The impulse to attempt to use a replica lightsaber seems to be an inescapable part of human nature. This actually makes replica and “stunt lightsabers” (simple sabers without elaborate sound effects created by third party vendors for the express purpose of dueling) somewhat dangerous. On the one hand their metal hilts and heavy, glowing, polycarbonate blades provide the same sort of psychological gratification that comes from handling any other sort of weapon.

At the same time, the fact that we all know that these replicas are “not real” can lead to problems. While not actually filled with jets of hot plasma, the purely kinetic energy that a rigid 1 inch polycarbonate blade can deliver is roughly equivalent to any wooden stick of similar length. It is certainly enough to cause pain or injury if full contact dueling is attempted without some basic safety equipment. In short, corporate liability issues may have initially limited the creation of licensed replicas of these iconic weapons.  The fact that large costuming groups, such as the 501st Legion and Jedi Council, have a no combat/choreography policy would also have diminished the demand for more durable prop replicas.

There would have been technical issues to consider as well. Most sabers today utilize LED technology to “ignite” their blades. These can withstand more forceful blows than delicate incandescent bulbs and they do not burn out. Integrated circuit boards with motion detectors can also be added to provide sound effects or special lighting effects. By the early 2000s the technology to mass produce convincing replica lightsabers became cheap enough to make the project economically viable while at the same time a new generation of (now adult) fans was in place to spend hundreds of dollars on each new model.

I hypothesize that it was the appearance of relatively high quality replica (and later stunt) sabers which sparked the sudden boom of interest in practical lightsaber combat. These marketing efforts were also supported by the expansion of other aspects of the Star Wars universe. In October of 2002 Dr. David West Reynolds (the holder of a PhD in Archaeology from the University of Michigan who went on to write multiple Star Wars reference books) published an article in Star Wars Insider (#62) titled “Fightsaber: Jedi Lightsaber Combat.”

While the movies themselves say almost nothing about the details of lightsaber training, Reynolds, drawing on his academic background, wrote an essay outlining the “Seven Forms” of lightsaber combat as taught within the Jedi Order. He provided each numbered form with a short description outlining its philosophy as well as its strengths and weaknesses. Later resources augmented these with exotic sounding names (such as “Shii-cho” or Form I), associated them with mythic creatures from the Star Wars universe in ways that seem to intentionally mimic the use of animal imagery in the Asian martial arts (Shii-cho is “The Way of the Sarlacc”). They also concocted increasingly complex backstories. While Reynolds is an archaeologist rather than a martial artist, he set in motion a story-development arch which created a rich body of invented lore around the seven forms, giving them an alluring feel of verisimilitude.

By the early 2000s Star Wars fans had been given access to both a steady supply of replica lightsabers, a new trilogy of films which featured many iconic lightsaber battles, and an increasingly complex system of invented traditions explicitly designed to create a history for lightsaber usage that would feel “realistic.” While the Star Wars franchise has always emphasized the role of merchandise, the situation for would be Jedi and Sith acolytes was more favorable in the 2000s than it was in the 1980s.

The next major step forward took place in 2005. Inspired by some short fan-films in which lightsabers had been digitally recreated, “Flynn” a founding member of the group NY Jedi, bought two Master Replicas lightsabers, took them to the roof of his New City apartment building at night, and began to duel with a friend.

The resulting enthusiasm on the part of his neighbors was great enough that he then decided to bring a larger group of sabers to the 2005 Greenwich Village Halloween parade where their demonstration was again met with great enthusiasm and numerous inquiries as to where one could go to learn to fight with a “real” lightsaber. The group NY Jedi was formed shortly thereafter, and has offered weekly lessons taught be a variety of martial artists, choreographers and stage combat coaches.

The simultaneous worldwide dissemination of the newly created mythos and marketing of replica sabers makes it difficult to reconstruct a single linear history of lightsaber combat. NY Jedi raised the profile of the practice and inspired the creation of a number of other similar groups all along the East Coast of the United States. Some of them emphasized costuming and performance, others attempted to focus on the creation of a “pure” martial art.

Only a few months later three friends in Italy (all trained martial artists) brought a bunch of replica lightsabers to a birthday party. They were impressed with the technical flexibility that this new training weapon allowed. Almost immediately they started to develop their own martial system (Ludosport) based on the physical characteristics of replica lightsabers as well as elements of the Star Wars mythos.

Most lightsaber groups seem to combine multiple elements in their training. While NY Jedi mixes traditional martial arts training with a heavy emphasis on stage combat and performance, Ludosport instead emphasizes the development of lightsaber fencing as a type of competitive combat sport. They have since opened branch schools across Europe and organized a system of international tournaments and rankings.

A match at the Combat Saber Tournament held in Singapore at Liang Court, on 20 Nov 2015. Source:
A match at the Combat Saber Tournament held in Singapore at Liang Court, on 20 Nov 2015. Source:


One of the most interesting things about the recent spread of lightsaber combat has been its diverse and global nature. Clubs and schools dedicated to promoting the practice have been opened in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia. Indeed, much of the early development of the art was taking place nearly simultaneously in the United States, Italy and South East Asia (where such groups have proved to be popular in the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.)

These organizations approach lightsaber training with a variety of goals and methods. They also have a variety of opinions on whether or not what they do can be considered a martial art.

As the introductory quote suggests, Ludosport appears to have distanced themselves from the claim that lightsaber fencing might be considered a “martial art.” In their vernacular terminology, an activity only qualifies as a martial art if it is aggressive in nature and focused on causing harm. Thus for their own marketing purposes they seem to have decided to emphasize the athletic and competitive aspects of their practice.

Other groups, such as the Terra Prime Lightsaber Academy, have instead emphasized the degree to which lightsaber fencing is, and should be thought of, as a martial art. After all, the fight choreography that influenced the development of the Star Wars films was highly influenced by a variety of traditional martial arts including kendo, kali and historic European practices such as longsword fencing.

Many of the instructors teaching lightsaber combat today also bring their own background in the martial arts to the table. For them the challenge is to find a ways to recreate the “Seven Forms” of lightsaber combat outlined in the Star Wars mythology using historic techniques, concepts and strategies. Drawing on their individual training, and the unique physical properties of commercially available stunt lightsabers, they have attempted to “recreate” effective and historically grounded systems of lightsaber combat which are still true to the texture of the movies and the Star Wars mythology. All of this has then been packaged in a way that it can be taught to succeeding generations of students in something that very much resembles a standard classroom environment. Some instructors even see in lightsaber combat a possible tool for promoting, preserving and disseminating traditional types of martial knowledge.


If you enjoyed this discussion be sure to read the second half: Five Social Dimensions of Lightsaber Combat as a Martial Art (Episode II)



A choreographed reenactment of the final duel in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Photo by Jenny Elwick. Source: Wikimedia.
A choreographed reenactment of the final duel in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Public performances like these have helped to popularize lightsaber combat.  Photo by Jenny Elwick. Source: Wikimedia.



Are you interested in taking a more detailed look at the world of Lightsaber Combat? If so start here!



Chinese Martial Arts in the News: March 14th 2016: Ip Man, Wing Chun and Taijiquan



Welcome to “Chinese Martial Arts in the News.”  This is a semi-regular feature here at 功夫网 in which we review media stories that mention or affect the traditional fighting arts.  In addition to discussing important events, this column also considers how the Asian hand combat systems are portrayed in the mainstream media.

While we try to summarize the major stories over the last month, there is always a chance that we have missed something.  If you are aware of an important news event relating to the TCMA, drop a link in the comments section below.  If you know of a developing story that should be covered in the future feel free to send me an email.

Its been a while (almost a month) since our last update so there is a lot to be covered in today’s post.  Let’s get to the news!

Sifu Allen Lee, 1948-2016.  Source:
Sifu Allen Lee, 1948-2016. Source:

A Busy Month for Wing Chun in the News

Given my personal interest and research focus, I always start these posts by looking for stories relating to Wing Chun.  Most months offer few substantive stories to choose from.  But the last three weeks have proved to be an exception to that trend.

That said, our first Wing Chun related story is a sad one.  Sifu Allan Lee of Wing Chun NYC has passed away.  Lee was a personal student of both Ip Man and Lok Yiu and his contributions to the Wing Chun community in North America will be sorely missed.  Those interested in learning more about his life may want to start here.  His students are currently raising a fund to honor the life and legacy of Sifu Lee.

Master Sam Lau, also a student of Ip Man.  Source: Timeout Hong Kong
Master Sam Lau, also a student of Ip Man. Source: Timeout Hong Kong


In happier news, Time Out Hong Kong recently ran a profile of Master Sam Lau, another of Ip Man’s original students who is still actively teaching and promoting the art of Wing Chun.   I have never had a chance to visit his school but he is one of the people in the Wing Chun community whom I would most like to meet if given the opportunity.

The short article in Time Out covered a lot of ground.  It discussed Ip Man’s early days in Hong Kong and the initially hostile reception that Wing Chun received.  Master Lau then went on to discuss some of the misconceptions about Ip Man promoted by the recent films.  Lastly the question of government support for the preservation of Wing Chun (a topic which he has addressed a number of times) was discussed:

“The situation is not helped by the lack of governmental support, both in Hong Kong and mainland China. “Unlike taekwondo in South Korea or karate in Japan, which are endorsed by their governments or large institutions, we can only rely on ourselves. The kind of kung fu supported by the Chinese government relates more to acrobatics, which has lost the original intentions of kung fu,” states Lau.”

After articles detailing events in North America and Asia, we next turn our attention to the Middle East.  The Shanghai Daily ran a short piece on the opening of a new school in Cairo, Egypt, to meet the region’s growing demand for Wing Chun instruction.

Located on the first floor of a building in a quiet street, Egypt Wing Tsun Academy, the only officially certified Chinese academy for Wing Tsun in the Middle East, consists of a medium-sized parquet-floor hall with a wall-size mirror on top of which there is a portrait of Grandmaster Ip Man, Chinese Kung Fu legend Bruce Lee’s teacher.

“The popularity of Wing Tsun martial art increased in Egypt due to the recent movies about Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s teacher, and the circulated online videos on it,” Sifu Noah told Xinhua at the academy.

Of course the recent release of Ip Man 3 is the looming issue in the background of many of these stories.  On the one hand the historical myth-making promoted by these films tends to irritate Ip Man’s still living students and family members.  Yet it cannot be denied that these films have been a boon for the popularity of the style that he devoted the final decades of his life to promoting.  As a community, what should our feelings be towards these films?

A still from Ip Man 3.  Source: The Hollywood Reporter.
A still from Ip Man 3. Source: The Hollywood Reporter.

Master William Kwok, who teaches Wing Chun at Gotham Martial Arts, takes up this question in our next article. He argues that it is basically OK to like (or even love) the Ip Man films despite the fact that they have a wildly creative relationship with history.  After all, we expect a lot of things from a good Kung Fu film, but accurate biographical discussion is one of the few things that audiences rarely clamor for.  In my view the most interesting aspect of this piece wasn’t actually the discussion of the films themselves, but the insights that the exercise offered on the state of Wing Chun in the US today and the sorts of students that the art is attracting.

Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus, writing for The Interpreter, had a different take on the film.  Drawing on the work on Dr Merriden Varrall she argued that Ip Man 3 closely reflected the world view and foreign  policy positions of the Chinese government.  Specifically, she argued that audiences in China are likely to view the film as a metaphor for the current conflict between China and other states for influence and access to disputed regions of the South China Sea.  Her discussions included a few obvious misreadings of the film (e.g., Ip Man lives in Hong Kong during the 1950s, not Foshan).  It also wasn’t clear to me that audiences in Hong Kong would approach what to them would be a distinctly local story through the same set of interpretive lens as viewers in Beijing or Shanghai.  Still, its interesting to see the sorts of discussions that Martial Arts Studies promotes appearing in a wider variety of publications.


Other recent discussions of Ip Man 3 have focused on problematic aspects of the films marketing and business model.  Or, as the LA Times put it, “Chinese regulators smell a rat over ‘Ip Man 3’ ticket sales.”  There is no doubt that the film has been quite popular with audiences.  But the volume of reported ticket sales are so high that it strongly suggests that the film’s production company has spent millions of dollars buying up tickets for performances of the film on screens that may or may not even exist.  Obviously such a promotion strategy would provide a nice windfall for certain theater chains, but it would also overstates the popularity of Ip Man 3 and by extension the financial health of its parent company.

Wall Street Journal.

Donny Yen reprises his role as Ip Man.  Is this Ip Man your role model?
Nevertheless, there is one marketing strategy that always succeeds.  Make a viral video.  One is currently circulating in which Ip Man himself offers viewers a “lesson” in Wing Chun.  The discussion in question mostly focuses on the question of what happens when Ip Man decides to “bring the pain.”  I thought it was interesting that this montage of epic beat-downs began with some footage of dummy work in an effort to establish the “theory” behind the silver screen magic to come.

Crouching Tiger

The reviews for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny are in, and it would be overstating things to say they are mixedVariety sums up what the critics have been feeling when it says:

“What a lousy year for long-delayed sequels: It may not be a stink bomb of “Zoolander 2” proportions, but in many ways “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” feels like an even more cynical cash grab. Trading on the pedigree of Ang Lee’s 2000 Oscar winner but capturing none of its soulful poetry, this martial-arts mediocrity has airborne warriors aplenty but remains a dispiritingly leaden affair with its mechanical storytelling, purely functional action sequences and clunky English-language performances. The result has grossed a healthy $32 million in China so far and began its Stateside streaming release on Friday (while opening on about a dozen Imax screens), but regardless of how it fares, exec producer Harvey Weinstein’s latest dubious non-contribution to Asian cinema will add some quick coin but no luster to Netflix’s library.”

If anything the discussion in the Atlantic, which featured an extended piece on the film, was even more negative.  They introduce the project to the readers with the following line.  “Sword of Destiny, Netflix’s new sequel to Ang Lee’s 2000 Oscar-winner, feels like little more than a desperate knockoff.”  Nor do things improve as the author delves into the details.  The upshot of all of this is that the big miss with Crouching Tiger is calling Netflix’s strategy for distributing new and innovative original films into question.


JuJu Chan at the Los Angeles premiere of Crouching Tiger. Hidden Dragon - Sword Of Destiny. Source:
Ju Ju Chan at the Los Angeles premiere of Crouching Tiger. Hidden Dragon – Sword Of Destiny. Source:

One piece of positive press I found emerging from this project was the following story in the South China Morning Post.  They ran a couple of linked articles on the growing popularity of Muay Thai kickboxing with women in Hong Kong.  The first of these profiled Ju Ju Chan who starred in the Hidden Dragon sequel.  When not working as an actress she is a Muay Thai coach at the Fight Factory Gym (FFG) in Central where she teaches both kickboxing and functional fitness classes for women three times a week.  About 40% of the kickboxing students at this gym are currently women.

Candy Wu fights Macau’s Tam Sze Long during the Windy World Muaythai Competition 2014. Source: SCMP
Candy Wu fights Macau’s Tam Sze Long during the Windy World Muaythai Competition 2014. Source: SCMP

The SCMP also ran a longer and more detailed article titled “Young and dangerous: Hong Kong’s women muay Thai boxing champions.” This piece profiles four young female fighters who compete and work as coaches in an up and coming gym that caters to female students.  I thought that the following quote opened an interesting window onto the motivations and background of one of these women.

“Muay Thai has boomed in popularity as a fitness regimen globally in recent years, but so has the number of tournaments for serious practitioners looking for a fight. And despite the risk of injury, a small number of Hong Kong women have broken the sex barrier by competing in the traditionally male combat sport.

“I’ve liked men’s sports since I was very small,” says Tsang, who previously practised wing chun. “I got into muay Thai because I found it more exciting. The punches come lightning fast so you have to know quickly whether to fight back, block or move away. I find that fun.”

A still from Chinese Boxer, a 1970s Shaw Bros. production.  Source:
A still from Chinese Boxer, a 1970s Shaw Bros. production. Source:

Ever wonder what Kung Fu films looked like before Bruce Lee put the genera on the map in the west?  If so the AV Club has a suggestion for you.  Check out the 1970 Shaw Brothers production Chinese Boxer.  I will admit to never having seen this film, but after this discussion I am inclined to make time to do so.

Speaking of Bruce Lee, a museum exhibit dedicated to the late star’s life is set to open in Beijing.  The items are on loan from the Lee estate, and the discussion in the article suggests that this is at least part of the exhibit that was recently showing at the Wing Luke Museum.


So who doesn't feel inspired by an epic martial arts infused landscape shot?
Who doesn’t feel inspired by an epic martial arts infused landscape shot?

Medical studies extolling the virtues of Taijiquan practice continue to roll in.  The most recent findings, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found a small but statistically significant improvements in practitioners blood pressure and cholesterol levels for those doing a gentle style of Taiji or Qigong.  The South China Morning Post also ran an article on these findings titled “Why Chinese exercises such as tai chi are good for patients’ all-round health.”

Taiji practice at Chen Village.  Source: Shanghai Daily.
Taiji practice at Chen Village. Source: Shanghai Daily.

Taijiquan was also in the news for other reasons.  The Shanghai Daily ran a feature that focused on the variety of students coming to Chanjiagou to learn Chen style Taijiquan.  The article touched on both the motivations and personal stories of some of these students, as well as the business of martial arts tourism.  Click here to check it out.


Martial Arts Studies
As always, martial arts studies has been a busy place.  But that does not mean we can’t have fun.  After all, who doesn’t like a good martial arts joke?

Paul Bowman has recently been at a conference help at Waseda University (report to follow) in which he presented a working paper titled “The Marginal Movement of Martial Arts: From the Kung Fu Craze to Master Ken.”  Be sure to check this out if you want to deepen your appreciation of martial arts humor.

Also, the Martial Arts Studies Research Network has released a list of confirmed speakers for their one day conference (held at Birmingham City University on April 1) titled “Kung Fury: Contemporary Debates in Martial Arts Cinema.”  Click the link to register for this free event.  Its an impressive list of speakers for a one day gathering.  There are too many names to list them all, but here are some of the topics that the papers will cover:

• Martial arts cinema and digital culture
• Funding and distribution
• Film festivals, marketing and promotion
• Martial arts cinema heritage, nostalgia and memory
• Mashups and genre busting intertextuality
• The place of period cinema
• Martial arts stardom and transnationality
• Martial arts audiences and fandom

Women Warriors and Wartime Spies of China by Louise Edwards (Cambridge UP, 2016).
Women Warriors and Wartime Spies of China by Louise Edwards (Cambridge UP, 2016).

While not directly addressing the martial arts, I am sure that this next book will find its way onto all of our bibliographic lists and works cited pages.  Cambridge University Press is about to release a volume by Louise Edwards titled Women Warriors and Wartime Spies of China.  In it Edwards discusses some of the most famous female spies and warriors in Chinese history (including devoting an entire chapter to Qiu Jin) and then goes on to address the importance of this archetypal image in Chinese society.  Given the centrality of female warriors to the Wing Chun creation myth (which I have always suspected dates to the Republic period) I look forward to seeing her discussion.  Here is the publisher’s summary:

In this compelling new study, Louise Edwards explores the lives of some of China’s most famous women warriors and wartime spies through history. Focusing on key figures including Hua Mulan, Zheng Pingru and Liu Hulan, this book examines the ways in which these extraordinary women have been commemorated through a range of cultural mediums including film, theatre, museums and textbooks. Whether perceived as heroes or anti-heroes, Edwards shows that both the popular and official presentation of these women and their accomplishments has evolved in line with China’s shifting political values and circumstances over the past one hundred years. Written in a lively and accessible style with illustrations throughout, this book sheds new light on the relationship between gender and militarisation and the ways that women have been exploited to glamorise war both historically in the past and in China today.

Louise Edwards is Professor of Chinese History and Asian Studies Convener at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. She publishes on women and gender in China and Asia.

Tai Chi Boxer.4

Readers looking for English language translations of primary texts dealing with the Chinese martial arts should follow the always fantastic Brennan Translation blog.  It recently released a new translation of  TAIJI BOXING PHOTOGRAPHED by Chu Minyi (The Many Blessings Company of Shanghai, 1929).  This is a fascinating text written by someone who was not only a martial arts enthusiast but an important figure in Republic era politics.  He also had some ideas for innovative Taiji training dummies that are introduced in this manual.  Be sure to check it out.

Hing Kee shop in Wan Chai Road, Hong Kong.   Source: Wikimedia.
Hing Kee shop in Wan Chai Road, Hong Kong. Source: Wikimedia.


功夫网 on Facebook

A lot has happened on the 功夫网 Facebook group.  We discussed the definition of “martial arts,” getting the most out of your training while abroad, and rare footage of the Wing Chun master Pan Nam.   Joining the Facebook group is also a great way of keeping up with everything that is happening here at 功夫网.

If its been a while since your last visit, head on over and see what you have been missing.

What are “martial arts,” and why does knowing matter?

The Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Note that the full beauty of the wall can only be seen if one takes a step back and looks at it from multiple perspectives. Source: Wikimedia.
The Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Note that the full beauty of the wall can only be seen if one takes a step back and looks at it from multiple perspectives. Source: Wikimedia.


“Martial arts studies” is an eponymously named research area. This fact seems so obvious as to require no further exploration. But is it really so?

Why does no one write about “professional combat sports studies,” “kung fu studies,” “Budo studies” or “unarmed self-defense studies”? Most researchers and readers make two important judgements on an almost subconscious level before ever asking these sorts of questions. First, they conclude that each of these activities falls within a larger category that has come to be collectively identified as “martial arts.” Second, due to the shared history that connects these practices, and the shared social and media discourses that link their discussion, a collective definition is useful precisely because it facilitates comparative study.

What exactly qualifies a practice as a “martial art?” Even casual readers of this blog will have noted that we spend quite a bit of time discussing the subject, but I have yet to offer a definition or sustained discussion of the topic.

Nor is this a oversight. Readers familiar with my recent book, The Creation of Wing Chun, may have noticed that at no point did I offer a simple covering definition for the martial arts in that volume, even though I explored the processes surrounding the invention of these fighting systems in late imperial and Republic era China in some depth.

I am far from alone in this editorial choice. After spending an evening skimming volumes from my library it quickly became apparent that most authors discussing the history, sociology or theory of martial arts studies offer only a cursory treatment of subject or skip over it entirely.

Peter Lorge is notable as he provided a brief discussion which we will review below. Yet Meir Shahar never explicitly examines the subject in his groundbreaking work on the historical evolution of the Shaolin Temple’s famous fighting systems. Douglas Wile’s discussion of the Taiji Classics seems not to have suffered for his lack of a definition of the martial arts (or even an argument as to why Taijiquan qualifies as one.)

More recently, Alexander C. Bennett’s exploration of the history of Kendo begins with a bracing personal narrative. Readers are told of his introduction to the sport while a high school exchange student living in Japan. Yet while his younger narrative-self wonders aloud as to whether he is watching a real martial art or a scene from Star Wars (in which the club’s instructor plays the role of an imposing and sadistic Vader), Bennet as a mature scholar, never stops to define the martial arts as a whole.

Paul Bowman’s recent monograph extensively draws on the idea of the martial arts in his definition and exploration of “martial arts studies.”  Yet the prior foundational concept is never brought into clear focus. And in Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge D. S. Farrer and John Whalen-Bridge simply define them as “the things done to make the study of fighting appear refined enough to survive elite social prohibition.” While a rather shrewd observation on the social position of the martial arts (and perhaps the impossibility of designing a simple statement that captures all of their varieties) many readers may want something more.

While not a comprehensive review of the literature, my purpose here has been to demonstrate that it is entirely possible to write a scholarly book on the martial arts without first ever stopping to define them. Nor are we alone in this. Drawing on my own professional background, most books on some subject in international politics (trade disputes or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction) do not first begin with an exhaustive discussion of the nature of the international system. Nor, as a field, have we ever come up with a settled and universally agreed upon definition of “politics.” Similar puzzles can be found in all of the disciplines. Martial arts studies appears to be in good company. (Wetzler, 23)

Still, the body of specialized literature in political science attempting to define and explore concepts such as the “international system,” or even “power,” is more developed than what we currently enjoy in martial arts studies. Much of this comes down to resources and time. It has taken many scholars working over the course of decades to produce the degree of conceptual clarity that political science now enjoys. As a relatively new research area martial arts studies is still laying the foundations of future conversations.

There are other reasons why such an important concept often goes undiscussed. The first of these derives from the nature of the definitions that we do have. Broadly speaking scholars have used at least three different strategies in conceptualizing the martial arts. First, they have relied on (often unspoken) socially accepted practice. While there may be questions about some activities at the margins, everyone seems to accept Okinawan Karate, Chinese Wushu and Filipino Kali as “martial arts” with little or no discussion.

Many of the articles and monographs that have been produced within martial arts studies have focused either on an isolated style (Wile’s work on Taiji) or the fighting systems of a single state (Hurst’s work on the armed martial arts of Japan). As there is often a well understood agreement within these regions as to which activities are martial arts, and which are not, authors often find themselves implicitly adopting local vernacular definitions. I suspect that this sort of “pre-scientific” social categorization explains most of the absence of discussion within our field.

Nevertheless, at the margins this sort of approach can cause problems. Should we really accept historical Korean taekkyeon as a martial art or was it instead better understood as a game? What about combative displays within Chinese opera? How much of this qualifies as a “real” martial art versus a specialized acting technique? Without clear conceptual boundaries such questions tend to reinforce social hierarches and debates within specific martial arts communities rather than revealing any new information on the actual nature of these practices and the roles that they play within society.

Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.
Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.


The search for a Universal Definition


In an attempt to clarify this core concept, and resolve debates such as the one above, some authors have developed more explicit definitions which focus on how the martial arts relate to other bodies of technique within society. These discussions tend to be abstract in an attempt to describe events in as many countries and time periods as possible. Such universal definitions are usually also minimal ones. Some of these discussions are not all that different from what might be found in a dictionary.

The 2015 on-line edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the martial arts as:

“Any of several arts of combat and self-defense (as karate and judo) that are widely practiced as sport.”

This brief statement captures how most people think of the martial arts within popular culture. A nod to both combat and self-defense are noted, as is the transformation of these practices into recreational sports in the current era. Unfortunately this definition also includes some critical omissions.

What about elements that are not geared towards combat (such as most modern Taiji practice)? What role does social organization, teaching or transmission play in making something a martial art, rather than just a “self-defense technique”? Are all martial arts Asian in origin (as the example would seem to imply)? And more pressingly, how do we even know that karate and judo meet this somewhat tautological definition?

A more suitable, yet still universal, definition can be found in Peter Lorge’s Chinese Martial Arts:

“I define ‘martial arts’ as the various skills or practices that originated as methods of combat. This definition therefore includes many performance, religious, or health-promoting activities that no longer have any direct combat applications but clearly originated in combat, while possibly excluding references to these techniques in dance, for example. Admittedly, the distinction can be muddled as one activity shades into another. In addition, what makes something a martial art rather than an action done by someone who is naturally good at fighting is that the techniques are taught. Without the transmission of these skills through teaching, they do not constitute an ‘art’ in the sense of being a body of information or techniques that aim to reproduce certain knowledge effects.”

Peter Lorge. 2012. Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 3-4.

This discussion offers us a number of improvements. First, it de-centers Asia from the definition of the martial arts, recalling that similar combat practices have been observed in practically all human societies at one point or another. Indeed, the term “martial art” has a long and distinguished history in Europe where it has also been used to describe western fighting systems.

Secondly, Lorge directly addresses the fact that martial arts are, by their very nature, social activities. They are not simply random responses to acts of violence (no matter how effective they might be in the moment). A given body of techniques only becomes an “art” when it can be effectively transmitted from one individual to another. Still, as Sixt Wetzler has cautioned in his own discussion of this definition, the “transmission” of techniques is not always reducible to formal classroom instruction. (p. 24)

Historically, most martial arts existed as what Thomas A. Green has described as “vernacular” fighting systems, where instruction tended to happen in the field and be a good deal less formal than what we might expect today. On the other side of the spectrum, literate martial artists in Europe, China and Japan have been writing detailed fighting manuals for hundreds of years with the explicit goal of passing on techniques to fellow students who they would never meet in person. The current era of cheap video and social media has also revolutionized the way that techniques are shared, tested and debated. The insight that knowledge must be transmitted from one generation to the next seems to be at the heart of the martial arts.

While a notable improvement, this definition still presents scholars with certain challenges. It is certainly the case that many martial arts arose from combat practices. But is this central to our understanding of them? Archery may have been used in hunting and ritual before it was used in warfare. Indeed, it is interesting to note how much of Hurst’s discussion of the evolution of military archery in Japan actually focuses on hunting well into the medieval period.

How should we really think about the many unarmed arts? While wrestling has long been part of Western and Eastern weapons training (and so it could be argued to have real military value) boxing appears only sporadically and even then mostly as a type of recreational activity within military camps. Even General Qi Jiguang, who did more to promote the practice of boxing within the Chinese military than anyone else, saw it as something with no actual place on the battlefield. He introduced it as a new type of training for his troops because of its ability to build mental and physical strength rather than its inherent martial value or long pedigree in combat. It would be possible to multiply examples, but the basic point is clear. The actual historical links between modern martial practices and their supposed battlefield origins is sometimes more complicated than current mythmaking might lead one to suspect.

Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.
Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.



Classifying the Martial Arts

This implies a second, slightly more theoretical, issue. Universal definitions, such as those discussed above, attempt to provide us with a framework for understanding the boundaries that separate the martial arts from other activities (or even types of violence) within society. This is critical work and a necessary first step. Yet there is more to the problem.

Within our literature we do not want to simply identify instances of the martial arts. Once we have found them our attention immediately turns to the tasks of either descriptive or causal analysis. Where did a given art come from? Why do some people, but not others, practice it? What is significant about the ways that it is discussed in popular culture? What unique social roles does it play within a given society?

These are very basic questions, yet each of them raises issues of comparison, classification and typology. Or to quote the old social scientific dictum, we find ourselves asking “what is this a case of?”

In my recent study of Wing Chun I found that these sorts of questions could only be answered in a useful way by comparing one particular style to the other martial arts that surrounded it. Wing Chun existed as a distinct entity, but one that was defined in large part by its relationship with a complex system of other martial arts and types of social conflict.

Nor is this example unique. In some respects we will only be able to explore and understand the nature of a martial art through comparison to other systems. Yet where do we draw the boundaries between styles, and how should we analyze them? This set of questions has led other authors to suggest definitions of the martial arts geared towards comparative study.

An early attempt, and one that affected the subsequent development of the literature, was advanced by Donn F. Draeger.
Table 1: Draeger’s Classification of Fighting Systems

Martial Arts                                                                        Civilian Arts
Promote group solidarity                                                 For self-protection and home defense
Designed for battlefield use                                             Largely urban based
Designed and practiced as weapon arts                        Mainly ‘empty handed,’ limited weapons use
Designed for natural terrain and climate                     Designed for ideal surfaces, roads, streets and floors
Designed for wearing armor                                           Designed for civilian clothing
Use a wide range of weapons and skills                        Skills (and weapons) use is specialized and limited
Use genuine weapons rather than domestic tools      Weapons tend to be domestic tools
Developed by professional fighting class                      Part-time training is best

Donn F. Draeger. 1981. “The Martial-Civil Dichotomy in Asian Combatives” Hoplos. Vol. 3: No. 1. pp. 6-9

Reflecting Draeger’s own military service in both the Second World War and Korea, his discussion focuses primarily on Asian combative systems and attempts to classify them based on their origin and purpose. On the one hand he proposes the existence of a group of “true” martial arts based on real world combat skills (even if they are rarely practiced in that context in the modern era). He then contrasts these to “civilian” fighting arts that are essentially hobbies rather than the concern of “real” warriors.

One does not have to read too far down the list, or be overly familiar with the outlines of Draeger’s biography and background in the martial arts, to see the emergence of an implicit hierarchy within this exercise. Indeed, this is a danger that must be confronted in any attempt to formally define or classify our object of study. Such exercises can easily turn into an opportunity to impose one’s own values on an unsuspecting readership.

Much of Draeger’s own research in the martial arts focused on the idea that it was possible to empirically “test” various styles or approaches to judge their “reality” and effectiveness on an absolute scale. For Draeger it was the (often Japanese) military practices that came out on top while civilian boxing traditions (such as those found in China) were seen as having little worth. Indeed, this overly narrow understanding of how the martial arts developed and the roles that they were meant to play in society seem to have strained his relationship with his friend R. W. Smith. As Sixt Wetzler reminds us, ultimately “The [academic] researcher has to refrain from being simultaneously a critic.” (p. 30)

There are other issues with this list as well. Even if we were to restrict its application to “traditional” styles there are a number of martial arts that it would seem to misclassify. Entire schools of civilian fencing and knife fighting have existed in the West that focuse exclusively on real weapons. Nor is it clear that “group solidarity” is any less a goal for a village Dragon Dance society than it is of a military combatives classroom.

While it is tempting to think of the Bushi or later Samurai as “professional warriors” who dedicated their lives to swordsmanship as a battlefield skill, both Hurst and Bennett would remind us that this is not actually an accurate reflection of history. Swords were of relatively limited use of the battlefield and the Samurai were as much professional bureaucrats as anything else. Except for a limited number of specialists, the amount of time that most Japanese warriors dedicated to swordsmanship training could only be described as “part-time” at best.

Indeed, this definition’s most valuable contribution to the current literature might be to illustrate the degree to which our current understanding of the history and sociology of the martial arts has evolved in the last three decades. If nothing else it illustrates the dangers that arise when we tie our understanding of a universal concept to a narrow (and ultimately flawed) reading of history.

Nor is it immediately evident that the military/civilian dichotomy, while commonly made in certain sorts of historical and popular discussions, accurately reflects what we see in the global martial arts community today. More recent discussions tend to propose three or more categories in an attempt to be sensitive to a wider range of the social functions that the martial arts routinely fulfill. [For another approach this problem readers may also want to investigate this article by Joseph Svinth in the 2011 summer volume of InYo.]

In their review of the martial arts studies literature Alex Channon and George Jennings propose their own definition and classification system. Their discussion reads in part:

“Thus, we have adopted the aforementioned term ‘martial arts and combat sports’ [MACS], which we propose be used as an inclusive, triadic model encompassing competition-oriented combat sports, military/civilian self-defence systems, and traditionalist or non-competitive martial arts, as well as activities straddling these boundaries.”

Alex Channon and George Jennings. 2014. “Exploring Embodiment through Martial Arts and Combat Sports: A Review of Empirical Research.” Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics 17.6, 773-789.

Here we see Draeger’s two categories folded into one encompassing any system that is concerned with non-consensual violence, either at the personal or social level. This is juxtaposed with those arts that focus on “traditional” goals (health, personal development) on the one hand, and competitive combat sports on the other. Indeed, this tripartite system seems to do a better job of capturing the full range of social functions that the modern martial arts are routinely called upon to serve. A single community center might have a “Taiji for seniors” class running at the same that a “boxing essentials” outreach program is happening in the basement. And all of this is quite distinct in the minds of most of the patrons from the “women’s self-defense” seminars that are hosted in the gym twice a year.

While intuitively appealing, this sort of exercise quickly runs into problems when we start to ask on what grounds a specific art should have been classified as a “combat sport” verses a “self-defense” system. Here we run up against the immense degree of internal variation that we see within individual styles and even specific schools. While one teacher may emphasize the health benefits of traditional karate training, another individual might be coaching his students to participate in local kickboxing tournaments. Some Wing Chun teachers approach their style as a primarily self-defense art, while others argue that in the modern (relatively safe) world health preservation should be our main concern. Nor, as Wetzler argues, is it all that difficult to find a single school pursuing all three of these functions at the same time.

While this definition appears to offer us objective standards by which a researcher can classify certain activities as belonging in one box or another, one suspects that in practice many such decisions will end up devolving to the level of popular perception (e.g., “everyone knows that Kung Fu is not a serious self-defense art!”) or pre-scientific bias. The entire exercise also has the unfortunate side-effect of erasing or obscuring much of the variation in behavior and practices that academic students might be most interested in exploring.

How did Taiji come to be so closely associated with health practices? What should we make of Taiwan’s large competitive push-hands tournaments in light of this evolution? Such conversations become difficult when our basic definitions and concepts presuppose certain answers.

Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.
Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.


From Definition to Exploration


One does not have to read very far into the existing literature before concluding that it may be impossible to propose either a universal definition or simple set of categories that perfectly describes the ever shifting practices, identities, institutions and discourses that make up the martial arts today. Perhaps we should consider abandoning the idea of classifying the martial arts themselves and instead turn our attention to the sorts of social functions that they perform and the ways in which they are encountered. When tied with an existing minimal definition, this might give researchers an adequate toolbox to begin the process of comparison, description and explanation.

Towards these ends Wetzler proposes the following:

“Instead of creating boxes to put the existing styles in, we could rather search from common, recurring qualities in the martial arts. A discussion of a given style can then analyze how these qualities are fulfilled, and to what degree.” (Wetzler, p. 25).

He then goes on to define five possible “dimensions of meaning” that often characterize the social function of martial arts. While many arts may contribute something in each of these five dimensions, he warns us that others will not. Further, Wetzler suggests that his list is in no way definitive and later scholars may discover additional dimensions. Again, the purpose of his exercise is to facilitate comparison within the set of activities called “martial arts” rather than to discriminate between which activities are to be included or excluded from the exercise based on some objective and unchanging set of criteria.

The five dimension of meaning which he finds within the martial arts are as follows:

1. Preparation for violent conflict: This can occur in either a civil or military context and includes efforts to not only increase one’s physical integrity but also to destroy an enemy’s capabilities as well as to resist fear, fatigue and imagined violence.

2. Play and Competitive Sports: Any type of voluntary physical struggle or competition bounded by rules and regulated through consent.

3. Performance: This includes displays that happen before an audience (entertainment and ritual) or activities undertaken for the martial artists own aesthetic satisfaction. While many popular discussions of the martial arts seek to explicitly exclude these practices in their attempt to focus on “real” violence, D. S. Farrer reminds us that these elements can never be totally separated.

4. Transcendent Goals: This includes the spiritual, physical and cultural aims of the martial arts. Also included in this dimension would be pedagogical connections that are often made to nationalist themes or mythological (but highly inspirational) figures or images from the imagined past.

5. Health Care: While great emphasis is often placed on the combative origins of these practices, many practitioners today take them up with an explicit eye towards increasing their physical health and maintaining a sense of bodily well-being. Nor can the psychological benefits of training be neglected. (p. 26)

Where should researchers look for evidence to help them evaluate a martial art’s engagement along each of these dimensions? Or put another way, what sorts of observations should be collected when attempting to define or classify a martial art? Wetzler suggests nine types of phenomenon that should be considered. These include: the body, movement techniques, tactics or concepts, a styles material objects and weapons, its media representation, teaching methodology, mythology or philosophy, its social or institutional structures and lastly its place within the wider social context. While this list is not meant to be exhaustive it points to the types of observations that could be made that would allow us to define or classify martial arts in ways that are not tautological or dependent on the researcher’s own unexamined biases.

For instance, a wide variety of martial arts claim to be dedicated to the pursuit of self-defense. In the 1960s Karate clubs were seen as a solution to the problem of personal security. In the 1980s Wing Chun gained popularity as a “street fighting art” while Karate increasingly took on other social functions (such as building “character” in young adults.) In the current era individuals who are most interested in self-defense seem to turn to systems such as krav maga and various forms of MMA training. Media discourses and the allocation of social resources strongly suggest that, the protests of traditional practitioners notwithstanding, the center of gravity of the first dimension has shifted noticeably over time. Better yet, these categories suggest avenues of investigation to determine when, and why, this may have happened.

A final panel bringing two dragons together.
A final panel bringing two dragons together.


Conclusion: Moving Forward Through Empirical Investigation


Unfortunately no definition of the martial arts is perfect. The universal definitions that we began with were parsimonious and directly addressed what activities lay outside of the category called “martial arts.” Yet their systems of classification were often flawed and they did not provide researchers with any tools to either compare classes of martial arts or to understand in theoretical terms where one system ended and the next began. The more complex definitions offered by Draeger and Channon and Jennings allowed for comparative study, but they were still tied to certain preconceptions in ways that diminished their usefulness.

While Wetzler’s five dimensions of meaning avoid these pitfalls, they are also the most distant from what we might think of as a conventional definition. His framework allows for an almost infinite range of comparative investigations. As I have argued elsewhere, this will be critical to the development of martial arts studies going forward. In fact, one must wonder whether the reliance on historically and culturally bounded understandings of the martial arts has not been one of the factors in suppressing the development of a more rigorous comparative case study literature. Wetzler’s definition, on the other hand, strongly encourages focused comparative analysis.

Still, it does not really solve the fundamental problem of defining what is or is not a martial art. To do this his more complex framework probably needs to be tied to a universal definition of the researchers own choosing. In that sense it is less of a definition than a theoretical exploration of how this concept manifests itself within the social world.

Lacking any way to make firm statements, Wetzler also seems to find himself backed into uncomfortable situations when we come up against his conceptual limits. He asks, for instance, if movements learned from sophisticated fighting video games can count as martial arts techniques. After all, motion capture of real martial artists employing historically derived techniques are increasingly employed in the production of these games. And if books count as a means of transmitting information about hand combat training, why not video games?

Taken to its natural extreme this leads to a crisis of relativism. Is anything a martial art simply because someone claims that it is? Must we accept as legitimate any “lost lineage” that is advanced in the marketplace no matter how shaky its historical foundations or apparent practice? Such questions will cause many researchers discomfort, yet Wetzler himself seems to imply that we must have a theoretical framework that is broad enough to accept these arguments and proceed on from there (p. 24).

Even more disturbing are the possibilities that arise on the other end of this spectrum. Paul Bowman has recently argued that the martial arts, as practiced in the West, will always been seen as a subaltern and culturally marginal practice. While relatively few individuals see them as dangerous or sinister, they cannot escape their frequent association with orientalist fantasy and anachronism. This makes people uncomfortable and humor is a commonly employed defense mechanism in such situations. Nor does one need a degree in media studies to notice that most of this humor is laughing at martial artists rather than with them.

Should we then be surprised to see a variety of individuals actively dissociating their activities from the martial arts in an attempt to find greater respect or a more open audience? MMA and kickboxing students might more readily identify as practitioners of “combat sports” as it seems to emphasize the athletic and physically aspects of their practice. And while students in an “executive boxing” class might fit an academic definition of martial artists, I doubt that most would see themselves in the same light. Yet any academic conference on the martial arts will feature a number of papers on various aspects of boxing.

While flexibility is a necessary aspect of any definition of the martial arts, it remains the responsibility of the analyst to determine which activities meet a given set of criteria. That is not a function that can be delegated to the subjects of an academic study. While it may be interesting to understand why certain kickboxers refuse to self-identify as martial artists, as researchers we are under no obligation to base our core concepts on their vernacular definitions.

How then should we proceed? On the surface it may seem that we are no closer to a single, parsimonious, definition of the martial arts than we were when started. While true in some sense, this discussion has done much to enrich our conceptual understanding while highlighting dangers that must be guarded against in any such exercise.

Each of the preceding authors has made a valuable contribution to our overall level of understanding. Further, Wetzler has provided us with a conceptual framework for dealing with a wide range of activities that may previously have been overlooked while at the same time developing rigorous comparative case studies.

Perhaps the most fruitful avenue of investigation would be the systematic testing of “hard cases.” A hard case is one that is designed to explore the limits of a concept or hypothesis. Rather than simply wondering whether a martial art could be developed from a video game perhaps we must find someone who has claimed to have done just that and examine the results along the “five dimensions of meaning” proposed above.

Is there any validity to the common assumption that “proper” martial arts must emerge from historically grounded combat systems? Again, that seems like the sort of question that should be investigated rather than simply assumed away by definitional fiat. The discovery of true “hyper-real” martial arts might have a substantive impact on our understanding of both the actual evolution and social functions of these practices.

It may be that we have come to the point in our discussion where further theoretical and conceptual developments cannot happen in the absence of new empirical findings. Luckily Wetzler has provided us with a framework for discovery.



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


Chinese Martial Arts in the News: February 15th, 2015: The Business of Kung Fu, Gender in Martial Arts Studies and Wudang Meets Wu Tang

Source: //
Source: //


Welcome to “Chinese Martial Arts in the News.”  This is a semi-regular feature here at 功夫网 in which we review media stories that mention or affect the traditional fighting arts.  In addition to discussing important events, this column also considers how the Asian hand combat systems are portrayed in the mainstream media.

While we try to summarize the major stories over the last month, there is always a chance that we have missed something.  If you are aware of an important news event relating to the TCMA, drop a link in the comments section below.  If you know of a developing story that should be covered in the future feel free to send me an email.

Its been a while (almost a month) since our last update so there is a lot to be covered in today’s post.  Let’s get to the news!


A modern interpretation of Lion Dancing in Hong Kong. Source: CNN
A modern interpretation of Southern Lion Dancing in Hong Kong. Source: CNN


Chinese Martial Arts in The News

Our first order of business is to wish everyone a Happy Lunar New Year!  Over the last week I discussed the holiday from a historical and theoretical perspective here and here.  Needless to say the Spring Festival celebrations have dominated recent news cycles.  Lion Dances and martial arts demonstrations have traditionally been a part of these celebrations in both the East and West.  The news has been full of accounts of these events as they have unfolded in practically every major city.  There are have literally been too many articles to list here.

However, the following feature by CNN stood out to me while I was reviewing this coverage.  Titled “Chinese Lion Dancing Meets Cirque du Soleil” it profiles a large Lion Dance company in Hong Kong that is renowned for its innovative, heart stopping performances which do not hesitate to make use of modern visual effects technology.  The goal of the troupe is to reach a “more modern” audience.  Not unexpectedly their approach has raised protests among more traditional Lion Dance practitioners.  Yet as I was listening to the interview I was struck with how much this discussion reminded me of the technical innovation and “culture of the spectacular” that became part of Cantonese Opera performance in the Republic Period.  Be sure to play the short video that goes along with the article as its well worth watching.

A group of African disciples study the traditional arts at Shaolin.
A group of African disciples study the traditional arts at Shaolin.

Two of the stories in today’s news round-up touch on the topic of “Kung Fu Diplomancy” and the various ways in both state and private actors have attempted to use the martial arts to shape the public’s perception of China’s “national brand.”  The first of these follows a large Chinese Wushu Tournament in Nigeria.  Over three hundred athletes (from the governmental, military, police and private sectors) participated in the “Chinese Ambassador’s Championship.”  At stake were the requisite trophies and scholarships for the top performers to visit China for additional martial arts training.

The individuals who discussed the tournament did not shy away from acknowledging its roots in China’s public diplomacy strategy.

“Also speaking, the Culture Counsellor in the Embassy of China, Mr. Yan Xaingdong said the Wushu championship was set up to encourage a sustainable relationship between China and Nigeria through sports.”

Wu Tang and the Three Levels of a Martial Artist. Source: Vice
Wu Tang and the Three Levels of a Martial Artist. Source: Vice


One of the most interesting stories over the last few weeks appeared on the Vice blog.  In “Wu Tang and the Three Levels of a Martial Artist” Nick Wong interviews and discusses the career of his  uncle, Kurt Wong, a Wudang Master.  This slightly longer piece speaks to a number of issues regarding the place of the Chinese martial arts in popular culture.  Different mediums, including music and videogames are freely invoked by the author.  But what I was most struck by was the complex role of history in his explanation of Wudang Kung Fu.  Notice that he combines lineage, political and biographical history in his explanation of what the Chinese martial arts are, and how they are experienced by the individual practitioner.   Also fascinating is how he turns to RZA of the Wu Tang clan to further translate and situate the Chinese martial arts for a young contemporary audience.


Cui Eyes Expansion in China. Source: South China Morning Post.
Cui Eyes Expansion in China. Source: Straits Times.


The Straits Times published a piece profiling the aspirations and tribulations of the One Championship fight promotion company as it attempts to expand the market for MMA in China. While the Cui outlined an ambitious agenda for the next twelve months, the article itself didn’t pull its punches in noting the difficulties that various MMA leagues have experienced in attempting to do business in China.  One Championship in particular was only able to host about 20% of these events that they had originally announced for 2015 and their reputation suffered a further setback after a fighter died while cutting weight before a match.  Still, Cui says that his company has learned from the setbacks and is ready to move on in both China and the rest of the Asian market.

“Cui will not rest until more households are hooked on MMA. He said: “This is the only sport that can say it is truly Asian. Why obsess over sports in other continents? Let’s show the world how much talent we have in Asia.”

A Wing Chun school shooting a video for the relatively new Martial Tribes social media platform. Source: South China Morning Post.
A Wing Chun school shooting a video for the relatively new Martial Tribes social media platform. Source: South China Morning Post.

The South China Morning Post ran an article profiling a new social media platform (Martial Tribes) designed and launched by a Hong Kong Entrepreneur in 2015.  The platform seeks to become an alternative to Facebook for martial artists.  It has already attracted 100,000 members and is shooting for up to a million by the end of the year.  In addition to allowing users to build profiles, send messages and post content, it specializes in tools that allow teachers to share and monetize their knowledge.  There cannot be any doubt that social media has disrupted the ways in which martial arts knowledge is shared, taught and discussed.  This platform seems determined to harness these innovations in the creation of a new sort of marketplace matching students and potential instructors.  It will be interesting to watch this story and see what impact, if any, platforms like this have on the business of teaching the martial arts.

Taijiquan may be part of a balanced workout routine. Source: LA Times.
Taijiquan may be part of a balanced workout routine. Source: LA Times.

Are you looking to add a little balance to your workout?  How about an effective exercise for improving your balance, flexibility and state of mental serenity?   If so the following article in the LA Times suggests that you take a second look at that local Taijiquan class.  In addition to the widely discussed physical health benefits of Taiji as a low impact work out, there may also be psychological factors to consider.

“This practice is good for the mind as well, notes Dr. Michael Irwin, professor at UCLA’s department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences. In reference to a 2011 study in which tai chi was credited for helping to reverse depression in elderly patients, he says that “Tai chi, as a mind-body intervention, targeted stress response pathways as well as inflammation which can contribute to depression.”

Of course the article concludes with a reminder to consult your physician before starting a new exercise regime.  And if I had to guess your doctor would probably also appreciate if you practiced your forms while firmly planted on the ground.  That would also decrease the risk of falling for senior citizens.

Embracing Chinese Philosophy is the Key to learning the TCMA. Source:
Embracing Chinese Philosophy is the Key to learning the TCMA. Source: The Courier Mail


A paper in Australia recently ran a short profile of a Sifu Henry Sue, a Mantis Kung Fu instructor, in Brisbane.  It is brief and does not really delve all that much into the connections between Kung Fu and philosophy as promised by the title. But Sue’s personal story of turning to the martial arts after a history of racial abuse and bullying is an interesting one. Sue is said to currently own and run the oldest Kung Fu academy in Australia and now has students around the world.  You can read more here.

A still from the sequel to Couching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Sword of Destiny.
A still from the sequel to Couching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Sword of Destiny.  Source:

Chinese Martial Arts in the Entertainment Industry

During the last few weeks two major stories have dominated the discussion of the Chinese martial arts in the movies.  The first of these focuses on the progress of the eagerly awaited sequel to Couching Tiger Hidden Dragon titled The Sword of Destiny.  This much anticipated film features a new director and will be released 15 years to the day after its formidable predecessor.  The cast will feature both new and returning faces, but in interviews with the press it is clear that everyone feels a high degree of pressure to live up to the artistic excellence of their predecessor.

The article in the SCMP discussing the project plays up the significance of the wuxia elements of the story (both in its literary roots and as a genera of movie making) and asks what impact a repeat success of this type of film might have on Hollywood. Might it open a wider space for Chinese films in Western theaters beyond the Hong Kong style Kung Fu genera? The article also questions whether Harvey Weinstein’s decision to release the film on Netflix at the same time as theaters (which has resulted in multiple chains refusing to show the film) might hurt its economic prospects and diminish its viability in the marketplace.  After all, there has been a stigma that follows “direct to DVD” films.  Still, the ways in which audiences consume media are rapidly changing, so we will have to wait to see how this plays out.

Kung Fu Panda 3

The reviews are in, and pretty much everyone loves Kung Fu Panda 3.  My three year old nephew gave it an especially strong review, though like many of the toddlers in the audience he was confused as to why the theater decided to lead with the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies trailer.  Letters were written to the theater management and I hear that they expressed just the proper amount of abject begging for forgiveness.

Pretty much every major paper and television station has now run something on this movie, suggesting the degree of market saturation it is likely to enjoy.  I thought that this review in the Canyon News nicely summed up the juxtaposition of Eastern and Western family values that the film played on.  Meanwhile the South China Morning Post took a closer look at the business side of the project and what it portends for future trans-pacific partnerships.

Sheen Yun and the spiritual side of the martial arts. Source:
Sheen Yun and the spiritual side of the martial arts. Source: The Epoch Times


Lately the Chinese martial arts, often in conjunction with music and dance, have been making an increased number of appearances on the theatrical stage.  I just ran across an article profiling a Shen Yun dance performance which spoke to this, as well as the ways in which private actors in civil society (in this case religious ones) can also draw on the cultural capital of the traditional martial arts to present their own image of China and Chinese values on the global stage.  Kung Fu diplomacy, it seems, is not a game played only by the state.  It is an area contested by a wide variety of private and civil actors.

In the case of the current article, all of this came to a head when Tsveta Manilova, a Bulgarian model and photographer, was interviewed about her reaction to a recent performance of Shen Yun.  Here are the money quotes:

Of all the story-based dances in the program, one taught Ms. Manilova something about China that she didn’t know: that the spiritual discipline Falun Gong, whose adherents practice peaceful meditation, is persecuted in China today.

She took the dance “Hope for the Future,” personally. In the dance, people of faith are attacked by Chinese Communist Party police.

“It was quite upsetting,” Ms. Manilova said. “I am from a communist country, too,” she said.

Ms. Manilova is originally from Bulgaria where communists reigned 50 years and also forbade spirituality.

She knew that China was originally a deeply spiritual place, with Buddhism in their ancient past. Even martial arts has a spiritual basis, she says.

It’s not just about “warfare, it’s something spiritual. It’s something that connects them to their religion and nature—all the living creatures in our world,” she said.

“People should have the right, if not to everything else, they should have the right to have their religion,” she said.

Readers interested in a quick rundown on the relationship between the Falon Gong movement and the Shen Yun performance troupe may want to check out this wikipedia article.  Of course the Epoch Times, based out of New York City, was also founded by a group of Falon Gong practitioners.  Or, if your prefer a more secular approach to martial arts and dance, you might want to check out this article on the Jackie Chan’s Longyou Kung Fu Company’s recent trip to Chicago.



Gender Issues Conference held at
A presentation at “Martial Arts Studies: Gender Issues in Theory and Practice” held on Feb. 5th Brighton University.


Martial Arts Studies

The last month has seen a number of developments in the growing interdisciplinary field of martial arts studies.

On February 5th the Martial Arts Studies Research Network presented the first in a series of smaller, issue specific, conferences.  This gathering was titled “Martial Arts Studies: Gender Issues in Theory and Practice.”  Hosted at Brighton University it brought together about 30 scholars who shared their research on a wide range of issues relating to gender in various aspects of the martial arts and the possibility that these fighting systems might become vehicles for social transformation.  Apparently a number of the presentations generated very lively discussions by the participants.  Hopefully we will be seeing some of these papers in print soon.

In the mean time we are fortunate that a number of attendees have written up their own reports on the conference.  Perhaps the most comprehensive of these was recorded by Paul Bowman, and I would encourage you check it out.  It gives a great overview of how this part of the conversation is currently evolving.  Also very helpful is the report at the Budo-Inochi blog which provides a lot of detail and its own perspective on the event.

While shorter readers will also want to take a look at Luke White’s discussion of the event.  Of particular importance is his concluding discussion where he asks why academically focused martial arts studies events can be uncomfortable spaces and whether the casual sexism of the martial arts training hall is being allowed to infiltrate academic gatherings on the subject.  Of particular importance is what role an author’s personal experience in the martial arts should play in their academic discussion of the subject.  Both Paul Bowman and Alex Channon have discussed (and responded to) these concerns in a blog post titled “The Gender of Martial Arts Studies.”

An Evening of HEMA at Brock University.
An Evening of HEMA at Brock University.

On February 4th Brock University (Ontario, Canada) treated their faculty and students of Medieval and Renaissance Studies to an evening of 15th century Italian martial arts.

Brennan Faucher and Alex Unruh from the Niagara School of Arms presented some of the techniques and styles that they practice, which are based on the teachings of the Medieval Italian knight and fencing master, Fiore dei Liberi.

“Fiore’s system allows for an easy transition from one system to another,” said Faucher. “If you study how the human body works, you will be better able to use all the weapons.”

Fiore’s treatise on martial arts, The Flower of Battle, was written in 1410 and includes pictorial demonstrations of different moves for a variety of combat styles. Fiore starts with a basic grappling system, and then moves on to duels with a dagger, long-sword, spear and pole-axe. He also includes instructions for fighting with or without armour and fighting on horseback or on foot. Fiore’s system is called “Armizare”.

This sounds like a fantastic event.  The one thing that really caught my attention though was the way it was discussed by the organizer of the lecture series.  He went to lengths to explain that normally they discussed “academic” topics, but for a change of pace they had decided to look at something “outside of the box.”  This raises some interesting questions about the place of this sort of historical exploration and reconstruction in our understanding of Renaissance Studies.  Can the martial arts contribute to an academic discussion in this area, or do they sit entirely outside of the realm of “serious” conversation?

Consensual Violence by
Consensual Violence by Jill D. Weinberg


Students of martial arts studies have some upcoming books to look forward to.  The first of these (California University Press) has an announced release date June 7th, 2016.  Written by Jill D. Weinberg it is titled Consensual Violence: Sex, Sports, and the Politics of Injury.  Interestingly it seems to speak directly to some of the issues raised by Alex Channon’s paper at the recent conference on gender and violence in martial arts studies.  Here is the publishers statement on the text:

In this novel approach to understanding consent, Jill D. Weinberg features two case studies where groups engage in seemingly violent acts: competitive mixed martial arts and sexual sadomasochism. These activities are similar in that consenting to injury is central to the activity, and participants of both activities have to engage in a form of social decriminalization, leveraging the legal authority imbued in the language of consent as a way to render their activities legally and socially tolerable. Yet, these activities are treated differently under criminal battery law.

Using interviews with participants and ethnographic observation, Weinberg argues that where law authorizes a person’s consent to an activity, consent is not meaningfully regulated or constructed by the participants themselves. In contrast, where law prohibits a person’s consent to an activity, participants actively construct and regulate consent. This difference demonstrates that law can make consent less consensual.

Synthesizing criminal law and ethnography, Consensual Violence is a fascinating account of how consent gets created and carried out among participants and lays the groundwork for a sociology of consent and a more sociological understanding of processes of decriminalization.

Jill D. Weinberg is Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at DePaul University and a scholar at the American Bar Foundation.

The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor.
The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor.

Students of gender and martial arts studies will also want to check out the recently re-released volume Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor (Princeton UP).

Amazons–fierce warrior women dwelling on the fringes of the known world–were the mythic archenemies of the ancient Greeks. Heracles and Achilles displayed their valor in duels with Amazon queens, and the Athenians reveled in their victory over a powerful Amazon army. In historical times, Cyrus of Persia, Alexander the Great, and the Roman general Pompey tangled with Amazons.

But just who were these bold barbarian archers on horseback who gloried in fighting, hunting, and sexual freedom? Were Amazons real? In this deeply researched, wide-ranging, and lavishly illustrated book, National Book Award finalist Adrienne Mayor presents the Amazons as they have never been seen before. This is the first comprehensive account of warrior women in myth and history across the ancient world, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Great Wall of China.

Mayor tells how amazing new archaeological discoveries of battle-scarred female skeletons buried with their weapons prove that women warriors were not merely figments of the Greek imagination. Combining classical myth and art, nomad traditions, and scientific archaeology, she reveals intimate, surprising details and original insights about the lives and legends of the women known as Amazons. Provocatively arguing that a timeless search for a balance between the sexes explains the allure of the Amazons, Mayor reminds us that there were as many Amazon love stories as there were war stories. The Greeks were not the only people enchanted by Amazons–Mayor shows that warlike women of nomadic cultures inspired exciting tales in ancient Egypt, Persia, India, Central Asia, and China.

Driven by a detective’s curiosity, Mayor unearths long-buried evidence and sifts fact from fiction to show how flesh-and-blood women of the Eurasian steppes were mythologized as Amazons, the equals of men. The result is likely to become a classic.

Adrienne Mayor is a research scholar in Classics and the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Program at Stanford.
I should also note that this book has been a highly awarded.

Zach Woznicki, right, and Karn Charoenkul, center, lock arms while Justin Sanchez, left, and Ian Cabeira battle in the background during an open practice held by Chapman's Martial Arts Club on Thursday. ????///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: 12/3/15 - FOSTER SNELL, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER - ch.martialarts.1215 Ð This request is for our feature on the Chapman Martial Arts Club. The club will have open practice at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 3. We'll want shots of the students practicing various styles of martial arts
Zach Woznicki, right, and Karn Charoenkul, center, lock arms while Justin Sanchez, left, and Ian Cabeira battle in the background during an open practice held by Chapman’s Martial Arts Club .

Lastly there have been a couple of articles looking at the practice of the martial arts at various universities and colleges.  Following our recent interview with Andrea Molle regarding the Budo-lab research center I was happy to find this piece profiling the Chapman University Martial Arts Club.  The article discusses the innovative relationship between the particle and theoretical engagement with the martial arts at Chapman.  Both the interview here at 功夫网 and this follow-up article are well worth checking out for anyone interested in the place of the martial arts on the modern university campus.

A Taijiquan class at Wellesley College.
A Taijiquan class at Wellesley College.

This piece, titled “Achieve Balance with the Martial Arts,” outlines a more traditional presentation of the Chinese martial arts as part of the physical education curriculum at Wellesley College.  Its a nice piece and it looks like the students have access to quality Hung Gar and Taijiquan training.

Chinese tea utensil. Source: Wikimedia.
Chinese tea utensil. Source: Wikimedia.

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