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Bruce Lee and the Problem with Being Water


A Modest Proposal

Numerous commentators have noted that this is a tough time to be a bronze statue. Icons of the 18th and 19th century slave owning class are vanishing from the public landscape in the United States, while a deeper reevaluation of public art is occurring across the Western world. Political symbols (which includes statuary) are selected and displayed precisely because they seek to stabilize some aspect of the social order. That is their essential function. In a time when the economy is crumbling, and many governments are seen as having failed to protect their citizens on the most basic levels (either through disease prevention, racial injustice or growing authoritarianism), it is hard not to see the emergence of literal iconoclasm as anything other than the first step along the road to some sort of revolution.

Revolutions take many forms and are typically multifaceted. Some are primarily political in nature. Others are focused on economic, social or cultural goals.  A few revolutions succeed and are remembered in history books, but most are smothered in their infancy by elite or middle-class groups who have too much to lose. In short, it is impossible to say how all of this turns out. Economists, as a field, seem addicted to forecasting the future. Political Scientists, such as myself, are more humble in wielding the powers of prognostication.  As a great American philosopher once noted “It is hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Still, we can safely make certain observations about the present. The first would be that the current moment is fascinating precisely because these upheavals are not being felt in a single nation or state. While there is always a local proximate cause, and they may be very different from place to place, the end result is still pictures in my newsfeed of protesters in the streets decrying police brutality from Hong Kong to London to New York City. The global currents that bound us together in times of economic expansion are just as efficient when it comes to transmitting the tremors of upheaval.

We seem to be in the midst of a truly global political moment. Still, what defines such an era is not so much the statues that are toppled, but those that are erected in their place. As such I would like to make a (somewhat out of character) prediction. If Bao Nguyen’s recent 30 for 30 documentary “Be Water” is any guide, at least a few of the new statues should be images of Bruce Lee.

I would further like to go on record as happily supporting any such move.  Seriously, let’s start a petition!

Of course my motivations are far from civically minded. As a student of Martial Arts Studies I am in favor of more statues of martial artists as a matter of general policy. Further, the Wing Chun historian in me is thrilled by the notion that at least some of these statues would feature a biographical plaque (as is typically the case) that would mention Ip Man. How cool would that be?

Beyond my own parochial motivations, there is something about Bruce Lee that feel right for the current moment. Afterall, he is an undeniably political figure who seems capable to unifying many disparate social groups. In an era characterized by violent partisan division that is no mean feat. Lee’s mystique is built on an appeal to our common humanity bridging the gap between East and West, tradition and innovation, old and young, immigrant and native. Nor does it hurt that he produced a much-loved body of work that has a lot to say about the dangers of imperialism and structural racism.

Statues are a type of political performance art. In the modern, literate, world their goal has never actually been to remember the past.  That is what we have historians, books and document archives for.  Rather, they function as political symbols to rally those of us living in the present around a specific vision of what the future should be. Simply put, as a unifying icon Bruce Lee might be able to succeed where other symbols have failed.

While this is clearly a tongue in cheek proposal, Bao Nguyen’s recent documentary on Lee seems to provide some support for my position.  I might even go further. While ostensibly a biographical discussion of the Bruce Lee the man, what this two-hour film actually provided was a visual monument to a set of shared myths, stabilized in an attempt to elevate a social icon. Critics of the project (and there have been many) might note that the film turned out to be just as hagiographic, and disturbingly one sided, as many of the statues that we are now pulling down. Still, this documentary, released at this moment in history, might also give us a chance to reevaluate how it is that individuals end up on pedestals, and the functions that we ask them to serve.  When the myths in question swirl around a famous martial artist, it is a topic that deserves some thought.


The restaged Bruce Lee exhibit at the Win Lake Museum. Source:


A Quick Review

Today Bruce Lee is the most biographically studied, and best understood, martial artist ever. That was not always the case. While he still lived the only generally available information on Lee was the promotional material produced by the various TV programs and film studios, along with some scattered writings and interviews in the pages of Black Belt magazine. This material, much of which was essentially advertising copy, was supplemented by biographical material provided by his wife and associates in the years after his death. Then, at regular intervals, a small army of researchers added to the pile of known facts and (mostly) credible accounts.

At this point so much work has been done that it is very difficult to imagine any new troves of documents will be discovered or important interviews collected. While future writers will continue to evaluate and recast this material (perhaps deciding which accounts should be granted the most credibility), the canon of basic research materials has now been assembled. Anyone wanting to know about Bruce Lee’s development as a martial artist must read Charlie Russo’s important historical study Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of the Martial Arts in America. Likewise, those interested in his films, or a highly detailed (warts and all) biography, must acquire a copy of Matthew Polly’s Bruce Lee: A Life.  If you haven’t read either of these books, and you are interested in Lee, stop what you are doing and do so now.

Still, one has to wonder what impact actual historical research can have in the face of much-loved myths that have now been in circulation for decades? Myths persist because they have some sort of personal or political meaning for us, whereas pure historical facts do not. While the churn of history can be fairly chaotic, our myths embody a certain moral logic. Simply put, myths are socially useful in ways that real life rarely is. Nowhere is this more clear than in the stories we tell about martial artists. And when large communities embrace a myth it is often important that we as scholars seek to understand why.

On my first viewing of Be Water, I was struck by how little impact any of the recent scholarship seems to have had on Bao Nguyen’s final narrative.  So much has been learned about the evolution of Lee’s film career and martial arts in the last few years, yet this was a documentary that could have been produced decades ago.

Rather than stepping into the world of Polly and Russo, or even examining Lee’s continuing impact on current martial artists, athletes or musicians, viewers were transported back to the heady days of the 1990s when it was still possible to walk up to a newsstand and find Lee’s bloodied face staring back at you from no fewer than three different magazine covers.  The production seemed strange in that practically every interview, every photograph, every account covered well tread ground.  No sooner would a segment begin than anyone with even a passing interest in Lee’s life would know exactly how it was going to end. After the jarring (and in the opinion of many writers racist) vision of Lee presented in Tarantino’s Once Upon in Hollywood, perhaps audiences were meant to find this exercise in nostalgia comforting? Yet it is uncanny to watch a new production and be gripped with the feeling that you have seen it all before.

This is not to say that there was nothing surprising about Be Water.  On my second viewing of the documentary I sat down with a notebook and made a list of all of the themes or topics that various segments touched on. The elements on the list felt expected, they were the sorts of things that needed to be there. More interesting was what was missing.

ESPN’s 30 for 30 series is ostensibly about sports history, but this documentary was almost devoid of any substantive discussion of Lee’s career, training, or innovations as a martial artist.  We learned a few bare facts about his practice in Hong Kong, as well as his early efforts at opening two kung fu clubs in Seattle. After that the trail goes cold. Linda mentions his one-time dream of starting a string of martial arts schools.  There is some grainy 8mm footage of him doing private lessons with celebrities while living in LA.

Yet very quickly any discussion of Lee’s physical practice of the martial arts is sublimated into an account of the difficulties that he faced in getting Hollywood to put his ideas on film. Lee’s struggle to convince a generation of martial arts students to create a new type of athletic physicality to support their practice was ignored as the narration turned instead to Lee’s attempt to become a different type of Asian leading man on film. In reality these subjects cannot be separated. The highly muscled physique which had such an impact on his fans did not appear by magic.  But where did it come from? What trends was Lee responding to, and attempting to embody, in his personal training? How did he understand himself as a martial artist, an athlete or a physical being?  Those questions were never really addressed.

Other critical topics in Lee’s martial arts development were passed over all together.  James Yimm Lee and the Oakland years were almost totally omitted, which means that we never hear about Bruce Lee’s experiments in body building or his growing dissatisfaction with his Wing Chun training, the central catalyst for the creation of Jeet Kune Do. Wong Jack Man makes no appearances in this version of Lee’s life, and hence audiences are not asked to carefully consider how frequently Lee fought or tested his ideas in a practical sense.  Nor is any consideration given to Lee’s repeated clashes with certain elements of the martial arts establishment.

This is not to say that the image of Lee wasn’t presented in a political or socially meaningful way. Lee’s life was largely explored in terms of racial struggle. His challenges and triumphs are put forward as the quintessential immigrant story, and a lens through which to understand America’s contentious racial politics in the 1950s through the 1970s. This discussion allowed Lee to be understood as primarily a progressive figure within the tapestry of American political struggle.

This is all true and if Lee did nothing else, he would have earned his statue.  There is a reason why so many Black and Hispanic youth were drawn to his films, and then found a sense of liberation in the training hall. Still, in the West martial artists have always struggled to be taken seriously. It is just too easy to wonder about individuals who devote themselves to something as seemingly trivial and strange as Kung Fu.  One wonders whether this documentary, in an attempt to elevate Lee, did not also fall into the trap of minimizing the impact of martial arts on his life in favor of staying focused on his “respectable” career in TV and film. After all, what more authentic expression of the American dream can there be than the struggle for wealth and fame?

Matthew Polly, on the other hand, might argue that this is exactly where we should place our attention, as it was where Lee focused his own energy and dreams. Given Lee’s extensive acting career in both the first and last decades of his life, Polly has argued that he is best understood as a film star who had a passing interest in the martial arts during his difficult middle years. Neither Charles Russo or myself are entirely sure about this characterization of Lee’s personality as it seems to discount just how important the Seattle and Oakland years were to his development as a person. Still, for those most interested in Lee’s Hollywood ambitions Polly provides a treasure trove of new data, none of which appears in Be Water.

Even this aspect of Lee’s career is reduced to a collection of old chestnuts which most fans can recite from heart. This is perhaps most obvious in the discussion of the Kung Fu TV series and Lee’s supposed loss of the part to David Carradine. Polly’s detailed account of this episode complicates the assumed relationship between the hit show and Lee’s initial ideas for The Warrior.

The substitution of familiar myths for actual biography was a problem throughout Be Water. While alluding to the fast lives of movie stars in the 1970s, the documentary makes no mention of Lee’s frequent drug use or his marital infidelities. The documentary quotes Lee’s philosophical writings at length without acknowledging that those taken from his college papers were sometimes plagiarized, while other lines in his personal notebooks (never meant for publication) are often unattributed, or slightly modified, quotes.  We are told in flat tones that Lee “got in trouble” while a child in Hong Kong, but we never learn the violent details of what he did to get himself thrown out of one of the best schools in the city.

The end result is a picture of Lee that is both strangely flat and 20 years out of date. A casual viewer of this documentary would have little idea of the contributions or controversies Lee bequeathed the global martial arts community at the time of passing. That is very odd given that this documentary occurred as part of an ESPN series ostensibly focused on the history of athletics. Worst of all, viewers are left with few clues as to the cultural, literary and physical resources that Lee turned to as he engaged in an epic struggle for self-creation during a time of unprecedented social upheaval.  This was an exploration of Lee as a myth, not a person.


Bruce Lee Graffiti. Source: Wikimedia.


Walk On

Nevertheless, it might still be the case that Bao Nguyen has given us the perfect myth for the current moment in history. At a time when political leaders are seeking to exploit racial divisions within the American landscape, and legal means of immigration have been brought to a virtual halt, it is hard to ignore the political subtexts in any retelling of Bruce Lee’s life.  At a time of increased political tension and generalized mistrust between China and the West, it is tempting to see Lee as a figure capable of bridging the even growing cultural and political gap. Perhaps “Bruce Lee, the first Asian American Superstar” is useful to a degree that “Bruce Lee, innovative martial arts teacher” is not?

Still an honest accounting of Lee’s political legacy would have to confront both his martial practice and that of his many followers. It is easy to forget that nunchucks were made illegal in many parts of the United States during the 1970s precisely because of the discomfort that the martial arts craze among non-white students caused local political leaders. Alternatively, the “Be Water” inspired demonstrations among Hong Kong’s protesters makes liberal use of Lee’s image and tactics, much to the consternation of the government and security forces. If we have learned anything about Lee in the last decade it is that it is not possible to understand his films, cross-cultural appeal or career as a martial arts practitioner in isolation.

It is impossible to examine every aspect of a legacy or life in two hours.  Choices must be made. I am sure some really interesting stuff was left of the cutting room floor. But it is worth considering what was systematically excluded from this project to create a subject worthy of being placed on a pedestal here and now. Perhaps that means that each generation is destined to get the version of the Little Dragon that they deserve?

Yet that is also a problem.  A vision of Lee that is entirely plastic, totally capable of being remolded to meet the social or political demands of the day, misses some of Lee’s most important and most human lessons. Lee’s short life illustrated that people are capable of immense feats of self-creation.  Yes, sometimes we conform ourselves to the situations we inherit, but in others we cut a channel through the rock or smash onto the shoreline. Martial artists today are once again faced with a challenging social environment, and they must discover new ways of using their tools to shape it and find a place in it. Lee is a worthy role model in that sense as well. We only see iconic statues in their moment of triumphant.  More helpful to individuals are portraits of real people who have struggled.



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


How to get Stabbed with a Sword in China

Confiscated weapons. Shanghai Municipal Police Department, 1925. University of Bristol, Historical Photographs of China.


A Thought Experiment

I suspect that anyone with even a passing interest in Chinese martial arts history has already compiled a mental list of the past masters and personalities that they would most like to visit on the off chance that anyone offered them a ride in a time machine.  My own list gets updated with some frequency.  Still, any student of the more practical aspects of science fiction will quickly point out that such a journey would not be without a degree of peril.  Spoken dialects change rapidly and much of southern China struggled with continual outbreaks of the bubonic plague from roughly the middle part of the 19th century to the start of the 1950s.  One suspects that real time travel would not be for the faint of heart.

Nor can we forget the old adage that you should never meet your heroes.  In the case of 19th century martial art masters, the meaning behind this particular pearl of wisdom is clear.  Everyone who steps out of a time machine looks a bit odd and most of these guys knew how to use a sword. The real question then is, how do we avoid being stabbed while conducting our first person historical research?  Answering that riddle would be easier if we knew a bit more about how individuals in late-Qing and Republic era China ended up on the wrong side of a blade in the first place.

It turns out that this is a multifaceted subject.  Various martial arts schools perpetuate their own bodies of folklore which often include accounts of improbable leitai victories and narrow escapes from mysterious killers. While some of these stories are wild exaggerations, others might be true.  But in their present (typically decontextualized) format, both varieties tell us more about the communities that pass on these traditions than the individuals who may have experienced them.

It goes without saying that one of the best ways to get run through with a blade would be to join the military.  We have already looked at many examples of military swordsmanship here at 功夫网 ranging for militia-based hudiedao training during the Opium Wars to the role of the dadao during WWII.  But military training isn’t the same as the sorts of martial arts systems that most of us are most concerned with.  While clearly related, the traditional Chinese martial arts were expected to function primarily in the civil realm.  Indeed, patterns of crime and social violence in this area posed their own tactical challenges.

Then there is the question of dueling. Looking at both the oral traditions and physical techniques seen in many Chinese Jian (straight sword) systems, it seems possible that whoever was using these weapons was interested in a type of “first blood” engagement that favored quick cuts to exposed targets such as the weapon hand or head.  There is a gentlemanly mystique that follows the jian, and figures such as General Li Jinglin (aka, the Sword Saint) are said to have crossed blades with countless other fencers as they honed their skills in friendly contests.

I have always wondered about this last group of stories.  While the idea of gentlemanly duels is often tossed about, there is not much period evidence that supports the notion that large numbers of people were engaged in any sort of full contact weapons training in the late Qing and early Republic periods.  Certainly there are some notable exceptions including public events at later guoshu tournaments. But most accounts, such as that left to us by Huang Wenshu in his preface to The Essentials of Wudang Sword (Shanghai, 1931), strongly suggest that very few martial artists in China were studying the sword (specifically the jian) as a truly combative weapon in the 1910s and 1920s.  Further, one of the points of commonality in the accounts of many of the individuals who took up the quest for more realistic weapons training (see for example Huang Wenshu, Tang Hao and even Li Jinglin) was prolonged exposure to Japanese sword training methods or exponents. The development of modern Kendo during the Meiji period really reshaped the Japanese martial arts and served as a model for some martial arts reformers in China as well. So how much evidence can we find for frequent duels using sharp blades, or any other sort of training weapons, between Chinese experts prior to this?

One suspects that the afore mentioned time machine might actually be necessary to definitively answer this question.  Ideally such engagements would result in only minor injuries and relatively elite individuals have all sorts of means of keeping their affairs out of the public view.  Still, playing with swords is dangerous, tempers can flare, and things rarely go entirely to plan.  Serious injuries, or even deaths, were not unheard of in boxing matches between martial artists, and those typically left a record in both the court system and newspapers. Might we find evidence for gentlemanly duels in these same types of sources?

A quick spin through the foreign language newspapers that I can access remotely during the COVID lockdown failed to generate any articles that would suggest that lots of these sorts of engagements were happening between 1890 and 1940.  That was all the more interesting as these same papers featured surprisingly frequent articles on serious duels being fought in countries like France, Italy and Argentina throughout the 1910s-1930s. Yet their reporters, always eager for a lurid story, never seemed to detect anything similar happening in China.

This is not to say that no one in China got stabbed with a sword.  A quick survey of these same papers suggested that one’s chance of getting run through in Beijing or Shanghai was quite a bit higher than New York or even Paris (where fencing was a practical obsession). So how were swords being deployed and what sorts of injuries did they create?

To answer these questions, I pulled together a quick, and entirely unscientific, survey of newspaper articles from the 1880s to the 1930s.  I then selected the following four articles because they were too interesting not to share.  Each one of them also represents a type of civilian violence where swords continued to be feared.  In the first of these we find large scale clashes between highly organized competing gangs of salt smugglers during the late 19th century.  Such groups were an important source of employment for itinerant martial artists.  Indeed, many southern Chinese martial arts styles still tell stories about “wandering salt merchants” who are forced to rely on their kung fu to survive.  Our first article offers a glimpse into the reality behind these myths.

The second article reads like something from a true crime blog.  Most people killed or injured with swords during this period were unarmed (at least this was true in the newspaper stories I reviewed).  Unsurprisingly, domestic and personal disputes were also commonly implicated in these killings.  The second story in our set features both elements.

The third story examines another case in which a sword was deployed against multiple unarmed victims.  But in this case the violence is a byproduct of imperialism. Here we have an escalating conflict between rival Russian and Chinese factions. Our fourth, and final, account examines an armed conflict between two different gangs attempting (unsuccessfully) to collect on a gambling debt.

None of these articles give us much detail about the weapons that were used.  However, each of them reports the exact pattern of injuries that various blades could inflict.  These were, in a word, horrific.

We are left with something of a paradox.  While there isn’t much independent evidence of full contact combative sword training among most of China’s civil martial artists during the early republic period, these blades continued to be implicated in many acts of violence. I suspect that some of the assailants in these articles were trained (the salt smugglers and the Russian soldiers), while others were not (the gambling gangs).  But even in unskilled hands swords and sabers remained unpredictable and deadly weapons well into the 20th century.



Confiscated weapons. Shanghai Municipal Police Department, 1925. University of Bristol, Historical Photographs of China.


Fight Between Smugglers

The North-China Herald

April 29, 1881(p. 422, Paragraph breaks added)


Two Chinamen arrived in Shanghai on Tuesday from Chapoo, suffering from serious injuries received in a conflict amongst smugglers on Saturday last.  They came to the Gutzlaff Hospital, in the Ningpo Road. Which is under the superintendence of Dr. Jamieson, at the expense of a wealthy Chinaman at Chapoo, who had heard of the reputation of the Hospital and of the skill of Western medical practitioners.  Their injuries, which are of a revolting nature, have been inflicted with utmost barbarity, the detailed circumstances in connection which we have been unable to ascertain.

But from the information we have received from the questions put to the men themselves, it would appear that Chapoo, which is a town on the Hangchow Bay, is the rendezvous of gangs of salt smugglers, who ply their vocation openly and are too strong for the interference of the local mandarins and their soldiers.  When not interfered with, they are kindly disposed to the populace and well behaved, fraternizing even with the soldiers of the yamens. But they occasionally have faction fights among themselves, which are desperate affrays, and it was on one of these occasions that the two men now in the Gutzlaff Hospital were injured.

One gang attempted to steal salt belonging to another gang.  A fight ensued, in which the crews of between forty and fifty boats, armed with all descriptions of deadly weapons,–guns, swords, daggers, knives, &c., took part.  The men in the Hospital state that their fleet consisted of sixteen boats, and that they were attacked by thirty other boats and beaten, and that their salt and boats were taken from them.

It is evident that the battle was fierce and bloody, as, during the melee, they saw two or three of their comrades when were killed fall into the water, and their own injuries tend to show that what they stated is no exaggeration. One of them is not expected to recover, his skull being fractured in three places, and he has cuts and stabs on his face, arms, shoulders, and feet.  The other, though his injuries are less dangerous, is hacked about in a similar manner, having three cuts on his head, and the bone of his left arm laid bare; three of his fingers are broken on his left hand, and on his right; he has a stab in the side and also one of the buttocks.  They escaped before the fight was over, and meeting with the well-to-do Chinaman who had heard of the Gutzlaff Hospital, he provided him with money to come and be treated there.


Chinese Highbinder weapons collected by H. H. North, U. S. Commission of Immigration, forwarded to Bureau of Immigration, Washington D. C., about 1900. Note the coexistence of hudiedao (butterfly swords), guns and knives all in the same raid. This collection of weapons is identical to what might have been found from the 1860s onward.
Courtesy the digital collection of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkley.


Brutal Murder in Hongkew

The North-China Herald

June 27, 1923 (p. 238)

The Police are investigating a somewhat lurid crime which occurred in Tiendong Road early on Tuesday morning.  In response to a message received at the Hongkew Police Station shortly after 8 o’clock, Det.-Inspector Gabbut and Det.-Sgt. Tinkler visited the scene, and in an alleyway found the body of a Chinese, wrapped in a Japanese bed quilt, and secured with rope around the neck and ankles.  There were bloodstains upon the door of a house a few yards away.

Under a bed, also blood-stained, they found an old-fashioned Chinese sword, with blood upon it not yet dry. Examinations of the body of the deceased shows that he had been stabbed and slashed with the sword.  In grappling with his assailant, he had gripped the blade which, being drawn through his hands, cut the fingers to the bone.  Some of the deceased’s clothes had been hidden, and a hasty attempt made to remove traced of blood inside and outside the house.

Upon Further investigation, the police learned that [the] deceased, a wharf coolie, was the husband of an amah [maid] employed by Japanese residing at this address.  The amah has disappeared, as also has a private ricsha coolie in the same employ, and the police are searching for both.  The Japanese occupants of the house have stated that they neither saw nor heard anything of the affair.


Confiscated weapons. Shanghai Municipal Police Department, 1925. University of Bristol, Historical Photographs of China.


Street Fight in Wayside: Eleven Chinese Injured by Sabre Wielding by Russian Ex-Soldier

The North-China Herald

May 8, 1926 (pg. 255)

As the results of a temporary feud between groups of Russians and Chinese in the Wayside district on Monday evening, 11 Chinese were injured by sword wounds, the weapon being handled by an ex-Russian army man, who it is presumed ran amok. Three Chinese have sustained such serious injuries, that they are expected to die.  Of the original 11, seven, including one woman were detained in hospital, while the others were treated and sent home.

From official reports it would seem that a Russian lad went to a bicycle shop in the vicinity at 10 o’clock to obtain the use of a machine.  Because of the late hour the Chinese proprietor refused to rent the bicycle.  Other Russians attempted to force the issue.  A free for all fight ensured, which appeared to end in a draw.

Then, as it would seem from the information available, the Chinese gathered near an alleyway off Dent Road, where a colony of Russians live.  Arguments followed and another fight took place.  During the scuffle one Gregory Bournatoff got badly beaten.  Eye witnesses state that he went to his home, got his military sabre, returned and began to lay about with the result that three Chinese were probably fatally wounded and eight others more or less damaged by cuts and blows.

When police became aware of the situation—the Chinese were brought to the station in small and larger groups—Det.-Sgt. Repas [name partially illegible] made investigations.

Not finding his man at home at 1753 Tongshan Road, he ascertained that he was gone to the French Concession.  With the assistance of the French Police, he arrested his man in a house at 852 Rue Amiral Bayl.  In aking a search of Bournatoff’s room, he found a sabre hidden in the mattress of the bed with fresh blood-stains at the hilt.  Bournatoff appeared at the Mixed Court.  He was remanded for a week.


Weapons confiscated in Chinatown, New York City, 1922. This haul shows a remarkable mixture of modern and traditional weapons. Source: NYPD Public Records.


Sword Killer to Serve 15 Years in Jail

The China Press

April 22, 1937 (p. 14)

Zung Yue-sung [name partially illegible], age 24, unemployed and the man who killed a fellow human on Haitang [illegible] Road during the course of a brawl Tuesday night, April 6, without realizing just what he had done, was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment by the First Special District Court yesterday morning. Six others who were arrested with him and who stood trials for allegedly being concerned in the assault, were found not guilty.  Four were ordered released while the other two  are being held in custody pending the usual period of appeal.

The victim of the attack, apparently staged by Zung and several of his cronies, was Zung Hai-tsai.  The latter had become involved with his eventual slayer over a gambling debt amounting to one dollar.  The pair got their gangs together and proceeded to fight it out with swords, axes and daggers on Haining Road near Miller Road about 10 o’clock in the event [sic].

Sub-Inspector Dow, of the Hong-kew Station, happened along when the scrap was getting hot.  Just as he was preparing to go into action himself and try to break up the affair, a man staggered up to him swinging a sword wildly.  Inspector Dow pushed him away and then noticed that blood was spurting from a spot near the man’s neck.

He tried to staunch the flow of blood with his handkerchief, an effort which failed.  In the meantime, he saw a man with a wound on his cheek and arrested him.  The man proved to be the slayer.  Dow blew his police whistle and constables, arriving on the scene, stopped the scrap and arrested six other men.

An ambulance was called for the wounded man and he died before he reached the hospital.  It was eventually brought to court that the accused Zung had been responsible for the slaying.  He states that he did not know that he had killed anyone.  He had been slashing with his sword and might have struck several people, he declared.  At least he was not confining his attentions to any one man.



If you enjoyed this trip through time you might also want to read: Spreading the Gospel of Kung Fu: Print Media and the Popularization of Wing Chun.


Reflections on COVID-19, transnational (im)mobility, and collective ways of organizing

Anna Kavoura. Photo by Annu Karkama.



This is the tenth guest post in our series examining the ways that the current health crisis has impacted those of us who sit at the intersection of martial arts practice, communities of martial artists, and Martial Arts Studies. In this important essay, Anna Kavoura delves into many topics including the place of travel in our lives, struggles with depression and even the healing power of our relationships with animals.  If you would like to share some of your experiences or thoughts about the theoretical implications of the current moment, please feel free to send me an email.


“Reflections on COVID-19, transnational (im)mobility, and collective ways of organizing”

By Anna Kavoura


Pre-COVID transnational (im)possibilities

As part of the growing army of transnational “mobile” researchers, I have been living between countries for the past decade. My life has been spread mostly between Finland (the country where I studied and currently work) and Greece (my home country), with several stops in other parts of the globe for periods of exchange and other aspects of research mobility. Owing to this  transient lifestyle, and the temporary short-term employment contracts that go with it, I have been changing apartments frequently, often unable to plan my life for more than three months at a time.

This month-to-month existence has also shaped my identity as a martial artist. I have been changing clubs and instructors on a frequent basis, and I have been competing under the names of different teams. Due to my mobile lifestyle, I have had the privilege of being part of many Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and judo cultures around the world, learning from various instructors and training partners. However, I have also struggled with feelings of guilt for not being “committed” enough to a club or instructor, and I have sometimes been accused of being a “creonte” (i.e., someone who “betrays” her team and frequently changes affiliations).

When Europe became the active center of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was not in very good shape. I had just returned to Finland (after spending a two-months in the UK, Christmas in Greece, and a few days in Sweden to attend a close friend’s graduation from medical school), and I was in a very bad mood. I was feeling physically and mentally exhausted, and I was having trouble both sleeping and concentrating. On some days getting out of the house, or even speaking, felt extremely difficult. “It sounds like you are depressed,” said the occupational doctor that I visited. “No, I am just tired,” I wanted to shout, but instead I burst into tears in front of her, confirming her case. While walking back home with the depression diagnosis paper in my pocket, I was feeling even more frustrated, guilty, and ashamed of my situation. I spent a few days digesting these emotions, and then I committed myself to a plan for getting out of this. I would start counseling, I would force myself out of the house every day, I would train more, and I would try to see friends or do something fun at least a couple of times a week. This is when the lockdown started.

Life in lockdown

The University of Jyväskylä announced that we should all work from home, my BJJ club in Finland locked its doors, and all my conference and competition trips for the spring were canceled. Keeping up with my self-care plan would be a challenge, but I didn’t panic just yet, as I was privileged enough to live in a comfortable apartment in Finland where I have enough space to work and exercise and a good internet connection for staying in touch with friends, colleagues, and my counselor.

In terms of exercise, I was lucky to have a few pieces of sports equipment in my house and a forest just outside my door where I could walk or run. As I was supposed to be one of the main instructors for the women-only submission wrestling classes that we were offering this spring, I created a “stay fit challenge” for the women in my BJJ academy, hoping that it would keep them (and me) motivated to stick to some sort of exercise routine, while also staying connected during the lockdown.

In terms of work, nothing would really change. I am on a one hundred percent research contract, which means that I do not have to worry about transferring lectures online like most of my colleagues. The project that I am currently working on is in its final stages, which means that I have mostly writing left. Moreover, I have just received a positive decision about a personal postdoc grant that will allow me to move forward with my new research project at the University of Brighton. I might have to make a few adjustments to my research plan, but my livelihood is pretty much secure for the next couple of years.

Yet panic came when the prime minister of Finland announced that the borders would be closing. I belong to this privileged group of people for whom moving between countries has always been allowed, and it had never occurred to me that one day I might not be permitted to cross borders. In this time of panic and uncertainty, I felt a strong urge to be close to my loved ones, so at eleven o’clock in the evening, I panic-bought a ticket for the last plane to Greece, and at six in the morning on the next day I was in an empty train traveling to the airport.

When I arrived in Greece, I had to fill out a form stating where I was planning to spend my two weeks quarantine. I decided to self-isolate in my partner’s house in Athens. Going to Ikaria (my home island) would be too risky since a large proportion of the population there is over the age of seventy, and the small under-equipped hospital on the island wouldn’t be able to protect them.

During the first days in my partner’s house, I could not concentrate on anything, as I was constantly feeling worried and guilty. What if I had caught the virus during the trip and brought it here, putting both of us in danger? I was spending the day watching the news, checking my temperature every couple of hours, preparing tea for my partner and myself (as I had heard somewhere that it might protect you from getting sick), and swallowing vitamins and other pills that were promising to strengthen your immunity system.

After the first week passed without signs of infection, I started to relax. The weather was getting warmer, and I was feeling anxious to go out and see friends. However, the Greek government had just implemented very strict measures to avoid the spread of COVID-19 and protect the under-staffed, under-funded public healthcare system. Almost everything was in lockdown, and any kind of non-essential movement had been banned.

I had to readjust my working, exercising, and self-care plan to the situation and resources that were available in my partner’s house. I found a corner where I could set up my home office and continue with my academic work responsibilities. In terms of exercise, I didn’t have any equipment with me, and I could not motivate myself to take part in the virtual BJJ classes that started appearing on the net. Without training mats and without a training partner (as my partner does not share my passion for BJJ), watching jiu jitsu drills without knowing when I would be able to practice them did not make much sense to me. Instead, I turned to yoga and meditation (things that I have been avoiding for many years but whose values I am finally learning to appreciate).

Despite all the downward dogs and meditation, I was steadily growing uneasy. I would frequently stop what I was doing to go back to my computer and scroll at the news. How many deaths today in Finland? How many recorded cases in Greece? When do the experts predict we will get out of this crisis? When am I going to be able to fly back to Finland to empty my apartment there and arrange my relocation to the UK?

The media discourse was dominated with strategies for returning to the “old normal” or for adapting to the “new normal,” along with predictions of how our lives might be post-COVID-19. I always disliked the word “normal” and the ways it privileges certain ways of being while marginalizing others. Many times I wished that the word simply did not exist. Yet, today, the whole planet seems to mourn the loss of “normal” as we knew it.

I tried to distract myself from my worries by taking up random online courses on guitar, calisthenics, and even economics. I didn’t stick to any of these. Finally, I answered the call of an animal rescue organization to host a rescue dog. I grew up with dogs and have always loved their company, but due to my mobile way of living, I wasn’t able to have one. So it sounded like a win-win situation when the volunteers of this organization told me that I could spend some time with a dog, helping him learn the language and habits of humans, while they searched for a permanent home for him. My partner was not extremely fond of this idea but kindly accepted having a dog in the house as long as I would do all the dog-related labor.

So, a two-year-old middle-sized dog named Choco came into our house one month ago. Having lived all his life in a shelter, he was very scared in his first encounter with a human house. However, he was kind and well-behaved, and it didn’t take long for him to get used to our company and our daily walks in the neighborhood parks. Suddenly, I didn’t have time to watch the news, as I had other things to worry about. Did Choco eat enough today? Did he go to the toilet? Does he have a comfortable place to sleep? Besides enhancing my mood, going for a walk with Choco after every three hours of work also ended up being very good for my concentration. I found myself having more energy and being more productive. In a way, Choco and I saved each other, and I figured that this is a relationship worth investing in. So, when this crisis is over, Choco might be moving with me to the UK.

BJJ academies in Finland and Greece: Towards collective forms of organizing

After thirty-seven days of full lockdown in Greece, the government unveiled a plan for gradually lifting the restrictive measures. At the moment of writing, small shops are open again, and we are allowed to venture outside our homes, as long as we stay within our residential prefecture. Indoor sports facilities remain closed, but sports clubs are allowed to organize outdoor training sessions for their members as long as they are in small groups and keep enough distance from each other. Nobody knows when we will be able to practice BJJ again the way we used to before COVID-19.

The impact of this lockdown for martial arts academies around the world has been tremendous. I am the co-founder of a small BJJ academy that operates only during the summer on the island of Ikaria, and we are afraid that we may have to cancel all our activities for this year. Luckily, this small academy is more of a hobby project for us and not a source of income. However, many other people in Greece, for whom teaching martial arts was their main occupation, have lost their livelihoods. Many of the people that I have been talking to are extremely worried, as they are not even eligible for state support. Finnish martial arts academies, on the other hand, are a little better off, as most of them operate on a different, more collective system. For example, the BJJ and judo academies that I have been involved in take the form of local sports organizations run by volunteers. In these academies, elected board committees make decisions jointly with other members. Membership fees are kept low and are used to cover the costs of the gym and to sponsor the competition registration fees of their athletes. Moreover, since membership fees are usually paid on a yearly and not a monthly basis, these gyms have managed to survive the crisis so far without a big loss of income.

While I do believe that martial arts instructors need to get paid for their job (the Finnish volunteer-based system is not ideal for those who want to make a living through teaching martial arts), I am a strong believer in the power of collective organizing. This pandemic exposes the inability of the current capitalistic economic system to protect us from crises such as this. It is critical to understand this and seek alternative, collective structures that will help us survive future crises, including the environmental crisis. We can perhaps learn from martial arts communities that have been—and continue to be—spaces of resistance and human solidarity.


Anna Kavoura. Source: JYU Photo Archive by Katrina Hämäläinen.


About the Author

Anna Kavoura is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Jyväskylä. Her research is positioned in the field of cultural sport psychology, focusing on issues related to gender, sexuality, culture, and identity in sport, and primarily in martial arts and combat sports. She holds a black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu and a brown belt in judo.

BJJ in the Age of Zoom


BJJ is a martial art known for its constant live testing in sparring sessions called ‘rolling’ and competition. Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash



This is the eighth guest post in our series examining the ways that the current health crisis has impacted those of us who sit at the intersection of martial arts practice, communities of martial artists, and Martial Arts Studies. This essay, by Graham Barlow, explores the rapid adoption of video conferencing as an instructional medium within the BJJ community.  Barlow wonders whether a practice that define’s its authenticity through rolling and competing can truly claim Zoom as its own.  If you would like to share some of your experiences or thoughts about the theoretical implications of all of this, please feel free to send me an email.


“BJJ in the Age of Zoom”

By Graham Barlow


Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazlilan Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) academies around the world have been forced to shut their doors. This is an unprecedented time in the history of BJJ. It has gone from being one of the fastest growing martial arts in the world to entering a period of universal and immediate decline. To combat this trend the switch to online learning, mainly using Zoom to teach interactive classes, has been just as dramatic and universally adopted. But does Zoom really work for BJJ, an art that prides itself on the kind of authenticity that only live sparring provides?

I used to think the idea of learning martial arts from a video was absurd, but when I started Brazilian Jiu Jitsu back in 2011 it made a lot more sense.  When I got caught with something in rolling I could just look up what happened online after the class and find the counter I needed. And when I progressed beyond the basics and I wanted to keep up with the modern trends in the game, like footlocks, it was all there waiting for me online.

BJJ is a game of knowledge as much as skill. Once you’ve progressed beyond the level of knowing the basics – how the body needs to move on the ground, how to choke somebody, how to break their arm – it’s simply a matter of knowing enough techniques to cope with whatever situation you find yourself in (knowledge), and being able to perform them under pressure (experience/skill). 

If you are stuck in the 50/50 position and don’t know what to do with your legs entangled like that, no amount of ‘surfing the wave’, or ‘going with the flow’, is going to help. If your partner knows what to do in that situation and you don’t, you will lose. Or you could try and Hulk your way out of it and blow your own knee in the process – it’s your choice. The idea that if you just learn a few principles of movement you can be ‘ok’ in any situation comes crashing down when faced with the realization that there are five minutes to go in this roll and you have already been tapped twice by somebody who simply knows where to put his foot.

In the early days it was sensible advice to avoid online instruction as there was very little on YouTube except questionable techniques and bad advice. Over time this has changed. Now you can find an almost unlimited amount of technical advice from active world champions available for free. There are genuinely too many options to choose between. And of course there’s a booming market in paid courses from famous names like John Danaher and Gordan Ryan if you want a deep-dive on a particular subject like back attacks or heel hooks. Academies of famous world champions like Marcelo Garcia and the Mendes brothers sell a monthly membership enabling anybody access to their weekly classes via video. You can see why these websites are popular. It is a rare BJJ coach that knows the butterfly guard better than Marcelo Garcia, or the 411 position better than John Danaher.

BJJ has always been quick to adapt to new technology, but this has not been without its growing pains. The awarding of belts online caused a real stir a few years ago. The ire was predictable as within the BJJ community belt grading has always been a big deal. Earning any belt in BJJ takes longer than in most other martial arts and requires a considerable level of personal commitment. In the days before black belt coaches became ubiquitous it would be quite common for there to be only a handful in a country, if you were lucky. Travelling long distances, often internationally, to train with higher belts was par for the course. People suffered for their belts and they weren’t happy with any perceived attempt to water-down the art, fearing that it might go the way of shopping mall Karate or Tae Kwon Do, where a ten year old can get a black belt in a matter of months.

Yet when the COVID-19 pandemic struck all previous objections to online learning (that it wasn’t real enough and couldn’t function as a true substitute for mat time) were suddenly off the table. BJJ was quick to look to technology as its saviour.


CAPTION Is Zoom a decent alternative to a mat time for BJJ? Photo by Gabriel Benois on Unsplash


Three phase response

The pandemic has hit BJJ particularly hard. Barring an orgy there are very few other activities in which you come into so much extremely close body contact with so many other people in a single hour. While a Tai Chi or Yoga class can still function while maintaining 2 meters of social isolation between practitioners with relatively little change to a usual class structure, there’s no such equivalent in BJJ. 

So far the BJJ response to the pandemic has happened in phases. The first phase was giving away free stuff online. The BJJ business model is structured around full-time gyms supported by direct debits from members. With no classes being taught the immediate fear was people would cancel in droves. The messaging was clear and reasonable – support your academy by not cancelling your direct debit so that there’s still an academy left to come back to when this is all over. To fill in the gap in classes, instructors filmed Facebook Lives showing techniques and online BJJ websites like BJJ Fanatics gave away some free content to help the community. Some of the large BJJ organisations, like Gracie Barra, made all their paid-for online content free to current members. 

When it became clear that academies were not going to reopen in two weeks we entered “phase 2” – the era of Zoom, or other interactive video conferencing services. By adopting Zoom, BJJ instructors could teach live classes to their paying students, and give interactive feedback as the students copied the techniques from their front room or garden. The students are either following along using a grappling dummy or live with a partner that trains, or have a child that trains at the academy. This is where we are now. 

I remember when grappling dummies were the type of things people used to laugh about in BJJ class. They are expensive and they look a bit like sex dolls. If some poor soul admitted to buying one, they were the butt of endless jokes about their new girlfriend. It was all part of the macho banter that you find in almost every sport where men group together, and that (hopefully) peters out when there are women training too.

The grappling dummy is now having its heyday. It is the go-to solution for training BJJ at home when you don’t have a partner.  I can see its value for beginners. BJJ requires the use of particular muscles in a particular way that you don’t find in other activities, and hardwiring certain actions into your body takes time. You can drill the same move – say an armbar from knee on belly – over and over to your heart’s content. If you don’t yet have these moves ingrained in your soul a grappling dummy can help get them there. 

For more experienced grapplers, like myself, the dummy’s utility is diminished. My body already knows how to do an armbar from knee on belly. It’s like riding a bike. I may be a bit rusty if I get in the saddle after not riding for a year, but in a few minutes, it all comes back.

What Zoom classes cannot do is replace the adrenaline hit that BJJ gives you. As Robert Drysdale recently said in his podcast with Paul Bowman, people in their initial phases of falling in love with BJJ are a little bit like drug addicts. They need their next hit. Very few things in martial arts match the BJJ experience. You get to live the (safe) life of a warrior for the half hour rolling session that ends each class. You genuinely experience the visceral thrills, the highs and lows of victory of the battlefield, in a way that you can’t find in any other martial art. Your rolls with your favourite training partners become like the legendary battles of Achilles and Hector at Troy. 

Well, at least that’s what they feel like to you even if it just looks like two guys cuddling. And you get to do this every lesson. And full time academies have 3 classes a day. Just think of the possibilities! 

All of this makes Zoom the methadone to BJJ’s heroin. There’s no other way to cut it – a taste of Zoom just leaves me craving the real stuff. As James famously sang in the mid 90s “If I’d never known such riches, I could live with being poor”.

While some will be happy with a Zoom class and a grappling dummy as a stop-gap, even the most die hard supporter of their BJJ academy is simply prowling at the gates like a hungry lion waiting for them to be unlocked so feeding time can begin. If I contrast the number of students I used to see on the mat with the number of faces I see on my academy’s live Zoom call, it’s a fraction of the number it used to be.

I contrast this with the experience of my friend who runs the local Systema academy. He has actually seen his overall student numbers rise since the pandemic started and he began offering Zoom classes. The main reason for this is access to a global market that he didn’t have before. Clearly, his Zoom classes are going to continue after the pandemic is over. 

Systema just seems to work better online in exactly the way that BJJ doesn’t. A lot of the classes he taught were “health” classes which involve doing activities that can easily be done at home or outside – walking, running, breathing, falling, push ups, sit ups, squats, etc.

This is a tough time for BJJ. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that this is the biggest crisis that BJJ has faced in its lifetime. Who knows what the future holds?

Phase 3 of the BJJ response to COVID-19 has yet to begin. I suspect it will involve opening under limited conditions. Maybe a small number of students will be allowed into the gym but still be restricted to doing solo drills on a dummy (or their chosen partner) on the same mat, but staying 2 meters apart from others and wearing face masks? One might imagine this as a kind of in-person Zoom class. 

Or perhaps the next phase will involve training with a limited number of people in your social group? We may be looking at friends training together in garages again, like the famous Gracie Garage, which was how BJJ started in California, before it took over the world.

I think there is one area where BJJ can make good use of online tools though, and that’s the social element. As well as the thrill of battle, the other addictive aspect to BJJ is forming almost instant bonds with fellow students. For men in particular, it is hard to make new friends after a certain age, and BJJ creates a genuine feeling of camaraderie and a community that you feel part of and valued by. As the army experience shows, people you’ve gone into battle with (even the simulated version offered by BJJ) become as close as brothers and sisters. I often think that what BJJ academies should be doing is focussing more on providing the social aspect online – forget the instructions, just let people gather and talk like they used to after class. 

That’s what I miss most about BJJ – my friends. 


BJJ in better times. (Picture from the authors own collection.)


About the Author

Graham Barlow is a BJJ Black Belt. You can read more of his work at The Tai Chi Notebook blog.



If you enjoyed this guest post you might also want to read: How Jiu-Jitsu Became a Traditional German Martial Art



Thriving in Pandemictown and Its Guilt

A press photo of a Taijiquan practitioner in China, 1972. AP photo by Faas. Source: Author’s collection.




Welcome to the seventh guest post (by Adam Frank) in our ongoing series examining the ways that the current health crisis has impacted those of us who sit at the intersection of martial arts practice, communities of martial artists, and Martial Arts Studies.  As with most of our discussions at 功夫网, this one straddles the line between practitioners whose lives have been upended by these events, and scholar who seek to make sense of this moment in history.  To some degree we all fall into both camps.  That fact should remind us of the value of community when facing challenges such as this, and it is my hope that some of these essays might reinforce those communal bonds. If you would like to share some of your experiences or thoughts about the theoretical implications of all of this, please feel free to send me an email.



“Thriving in Pandemictown and Its Guilt”

By Adam Frank


Over the years, many Chinese friends of a certain age who lived through the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution (1966-76) have told me, somewhat furtively, how happy they were during that period. True, they admit, being sent to the countryside to farm or engage in other manual labor was often a shocking change for them. Many came from intellectual backgrounds or from wealthy families, so they felt fortunate to have escaped the severe beatings or death that acquaintances, colleagues, even family members had suffered. Still, they remember their time in the countryside as a generally happy, healthy experience. In a time of zero industrial growth, the air and water were clean. They worked hard, but were not worked to death. Indeed, the work made them stronger. Life was simpler. Their off hours were spent chatting with friends, thinking and talking about philosophy, playing music, and often simply doing nothing. Yes, so many suffered, and my friends understood they were in a privileged minority. Still, they were happy. Some even met their future spouses in the countryside.

So, here I sit on a lazy, post-semester spring afternoon in a small Arkansas town, trying to decide whether to go outside and garden before the mosquitos invade for the evening or to take the dog for a walk (again) or maybe to engage in a second round of taijiquan practice – first rounds have been hard to come by for a while now, let alone second rounds. Choosing, finally, to turn to this blog because the semester is over and I can no longer avoid it, I have to admit that, yes, I am thriving in the pandemic.  Don’t get me wrong. It’s a pleasure to write about martial arts, but I have to admit I’m thriving, while friends and students in the health professions are risking their lives every day because the United States lacks proper testing, PPEs, and policy. Food service workers, grocers, meat industry workers, and shipping workers – indeed, workers of all stripes who have no choice but to continue working, have risked their lives so I can write this blog in the quiet of my home. At the same time, to return to the audience at hand, many of our martial arts brothers and sisters who rely on martial arts to pay rent and feed their families (I do not), have been stripped of their livelihood. Thus far, the government response to small businesses in the US has been sluggish at best, disdainful at worst. While help may still be on the way, what is the owner of the small martial arts school to do in the meantime?

So, there’s the guilt. But then there’s the thriving. What does it look like? And is it the “arts” part of “martial arts”?  The great Wu family taijiquan master Ma Yueliang was said to have been under house arrest in Shanghai during much of the Cultural Revolution, and like many other martial artists, he was forbidden to practice this relic of a decadent past. Forced to practice secretly, often simply visualizing his martial arts sets while sitting in a chair with his eyes closed, Ma described this period of isolation as one of important breakthroughs and deepened understandings. In other words, at least as far as martial arts went, he found himself thriving.

The Tendon Changing Classic and a set called the Shiao set which I learned so early in my practice years that I never found out or bothered to ask if “Shiao” was somebody’s name, the word for “small”, or all of the above. After some false starts due to technical difficulties, I took to rising each day in time to begin my broadcast between 8:00 and 8:15 AM, rotating through my four or five sets over and over each week and occasionally throwing in something else that had rusted, like spear form or push hands solo practice or even the basic warm up stretches I learned on the very first day I ever took a taijiquan class.

As of this writing, I haven’t missed a day of teaching my class and have cavalierly (aka foolishly) proclaimed to more than one friend that I will continue teaching every day until COVID-19 cases fall to single digits in Arkansas. Indeed, I’m on the most regular practice schedule I’ve managed in years. Every morning I do the old guy equivalent of springing out of bed to set up my gizmos, do my sound checks, and share my infinite wisdom. To spice things up, I throw in fun images and even for a time ran a daily column in the description area of the Facebook post called “News from Lake Coronabegone” where I could make wry observations about how small town folks in the American South were faring in the pandemic or make subtly ironic comments about how certain angry supporters of a certain angry president were stupidly failing in their civic responsibilities by ignoring Science with a big S.

Then, just as the smugness and self-indulgence of the whole thing was about to bring it to a screeching halt, two things happened. First, I received several encouraging messages from a physician friend at Johns Hopkins. From Baltimore, she practiced along with me when she could and picked it up from the auto recordings on my Facebook feed when she couldn’t. She told me she had a lot of sick patients who could really benefit from the softer forms of qigong I was covering and several colleagues who were so stressed out from risking their lives every day that they could really benefit from the more extreme joint-opening techniques I sometimes demonstrated. She wanted to learn as much as she could before she had to pull another two or three-week, twenty-hour-per-day stint at the hospital so she could pass them on. Suddenly I didn’t just feel useful. Lo and behold, I was sort of useful.

Second, echoing Master Ma’s apocryphal tale, I have found the last two months to be the most fruitful in my understanding of taijiquan than at any time since the early 2000s. Still recovering from knee surgery, I’m unable to practice 4-5 hours per day, but in 1-2 hours of concentrated practice, I am finding that the mere act of growing old pays off in the study of taijiquan (dang, they always claimed it would). It’s as if the curtain has been partially pulled aside from the qigong sets I learned in my late teens or early twenties. Experience has allowed me to rebuild these sets with a somatic understanding I utterly lacked when I first learned the exercises. And the qigong sets I learned in my thirties, I now understand as both waigong (external work) and neigong (internal work). All this cool “understanding” leads me to one conclusion:   We as martial artists have a serious responsibility to share what knowledge we have in order to help others stay healthy. In that respect, our art serves the same function as all of the Zoom or Facebook theatre and music and dance presently riding the interweb waves:  Collectively, these arts steel us internally and externally for what lies ahead.

So, yes, several unsurprising paths lead me to conclude that the yin and the yang of the fucking pandemic is that in the midst of thriving, there is suffering and in the midst of suffering, there is thriving, that this moment is the moment of “arts” in “martial arts” because we simply can’t touch each other (hell, whole armies are standing down), that the “usefulness” of a person in such historic moments of pain lies partly in our ability to focus, to  be with utter intensity, to operate at the top of our game, whether our shift is one hour on Facebook in the morning or 15 hours on the floor of the hospital. What, after all, are we supposed to do or be as martial artists? Certainly not, I think, simply self-indulgent purveyors of physical skills and two-cent philosophies. Rather, like the heroes of The Water Margin or The Big Brawl, aren’t we really in this to do some good in the world, even if it’s just helping one physician or nurse get up in the morning and make it through the day?



About the Author

Adam Frank is an Associate Professor of Anthropology/Asian Studies at Honors College, University of Central Arkansas.  He has made multiple contributions to the Martial Arts Studies literature including Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man: Understanding Identity through Martial Arts (2006, Palgrave Macmillan). As an anthropologist of performance and a theatre artist, his interests include theatre and social justice, Asian theatre, puppetry, and expressive culture.


COVID-19 and A Little Change of Plans

Tree wrestling, College Station, TX 3/2020. From the personal collection of Thomas Green.

“A Little Change of Plans”
by Prof. Thomas Green


In the beginning…

As the news began to arrive about what was eventually labeled Covid-19, I was enjoying my first week of retirement from university teaching. I settled into a semi-structured daily routine that was orderly without being compulsive. After all, I am “retired.” Along with writing and publishing with no need to consider “impact” numbers, I devoted as much time as I wanted to weight training, practicing and teaching martial arts, and preparing to tackle my bucket list of martial and physical challenges. After all, I am the “Iron Prof,” as my friend Margie Serrato tagged me on Instagram. Of course, there’s some rust collecting in my left knee and shoulder.  Some of the more outrageous playing around, tying a karate belt around the oak tree in my yard and trying to throw it, is more a joke, parodying myself, than an achievable goal, of course.

At the head of the aforementioned list was a trip to China in April for a month of teaching, research and martial arts training. In July I was headed to the Martial Arts Studies meetings in Marseilles. A side trip to Spain was next. Friends were arranging opportunities for me to test myself at combat games such as Leonese traditional wrestling and maybe even a little stick fighting. In August, the plan was to pick up my daughter to spend a couple of weeks in Scotland and Ireland, where I hoped for a chance to compete in other vernacular challenges (maybe Highland Games for old, weak guys). To round out the martial year, I would head to Malaysia for another conference and a look at some of the local Pencak Silat systems. Along the way, in addition to recovering, I had my mind on traveling to see friends, staying active, getting out of the house, and socializing.

With close friends scattered across China, I began to keep a close watch on Covid-19 early on, fearing that one or more of them would be touched by the “mystery virus.” They described to me an insatiable disease that compelled authorities to enforce rigid lockdowns, almost “house arrests” in some cases.  Restaurants, shopping malls, bars, schools, and other places in which the public might gather were closed. As a result, when the epidemic moved toward being a pandemic, I was better prepared than most. On each visit to the supermarket I bought what I needed and “one extra.” So when my neighbors began panic buying and hoarding, I bought those few items I believed I would need to replenish over the next week and continued my daily routine.

I assured Chinese friends that I would arrive on April 10 as planned and that I didn’t require the gloves and surgical masks they urged me to acquire and use. Fortunately, I had second thoughts and persistent friends.  Those items are carefully donned on those rare occasions when I am compelled to leave home today.  But then, it was early February.

When in short order, the virus arrived in the US, I remained in denial (albeit cautious). I continued to attend social gatherings, eat in restaurants, and visit friends. I even continued to train at the gym six days a week. This continued even after a colleague in Italy who was to join in the China project, sounded the alarm.

In early March, we were notified by our host that the trip would be postponed for a few months. He assured me, however, that the project funding was still intact. I told myself that this delay was only a little bump in the road, and that I would use my time well: writing, reading, training for Spain, and becoming tree wrestling champion of the universe.  A week later my daughter’s university went online and eventually asked students to evacuate campus. The “rescue” made me set aside self-pity at having my plans change. When she asked how much to pack, I answered that enough for a week should be fine. Obviously, I still did not understand the situation. We had to return to her apartment a few days later for more clothes, art supplies to finish her semester’s projects and the contents of her refrigerator.

At home, my daughter organizes her day around classes, and I am grateful to gain a roommate. The gym, martial training, and the plans for Europe next summer keep me motivated, sane, and rolling out of bed in the morning.

During the next week the dialogue about “social distancing” intensifies. I binge watch the more reliable news sources, and I avoid social media. With increasing frequency, I stay away from other human beings, going only to my impeccably clean gym, and there I maintain the recommended six feet away from both the other “gym rats” and the trainers. After my daughter’s arrival I take a hiatus from teaching martial arts students in my house, a labor of love to which I returned after retirement. I do this more to keep Alex from potential exposure, than from personal concern. I am, after all, the Iron Prof, and this will be over very soon.

On March 20, I had finished my day at the gym when one of the trainers called to let me know that Texas’ Governor had ordered all gyms closed until April 7. This even included our “Plan B,” training in a local TKD school. Our gym would re-open on April 8 she said. The previous week we had been discussing plans for which “Irish Pub” to patronize for St. Patrick’s Day toasts; for Alex’s sake I stayed home on March 17. Although I didn’t accept the downplayed version of the epidemic that was being “fed” to my country: a sort of “but it couldn’t happen here” scenario, I held on to the illusion that me and mine were going to be ok. The virus would be under control well before my April 10 departure date to Chongqing and I was still in control. But uncertainty was eating away at this resolve.


Author and Kilindi Iyi, Los Angeles, CA 6/2005. From the personal collection of Thomas Green.



I find myself with so much time and solitude (although I am not actually alone) that it begins to drown me. As before, I try to keep a schedule with the personal goal of preparing for Europe in July and August and professional goals of finishing conference presentations and articles, maybe even starting new ones. I even add tasks such as organizing my martial arts files on my laptop, pulling together martial arts instructional notes and recordings that I had accumulated over the decades to make them more accessible for the study and training I now have time to revisit, and spending time with the three shelves of more esoteric martial arts books I had retrieved from my campus office, books that for years I had set aside for ”someday”. So far I have read two chapters.

I post training challenges online, I think now primarily to keep myself challenged and in contact with my martial arts students and colleagues. I have a few takers, but their resolve gradually seems to slip away. Much as my own does as I find the challenges becoming more obligatory than stimulating, as my 10 a.m. training time moves to 11, 12, and sometimes late afternoon. “Isolation” turns to ennui, and I find it necessary to write ‘training’ (stipulating what each day should entail) and ‘meditation’ down on the list that formerly included only onerous duties such as doing laundry,  paying bills, and the like. I don’t need a reminder to stare blankly at a tv or computer screen. As one day bleeds into another and each becomes like every other, I begin to awaken to each of them with the tag line of the Old Talking Heads classic, “Once in a Lifetime” running through my mind “Same as it ever was/Same as it ever was/Same as it ever was,” ad nauseum.


Much later (Friday, April 10).

I received a phone call Friday night, I was happy for the contact from an old friend and teacher, Awo Fasegun. Joy is muted when he passes along the news that Kilindi Iyi had passed away, apparently as a result of complications from Covid-19. This is devastating to those of us who knew Ahati Kilindi as teacher and friend, as well as to his loving family. A giant physically and intellectually, a comment heard repeatedly over the weekend was “He seemed immortal.” Nevertheless, this man could be taken down by a disease that was so much on our minds, so much in our daily lives, but so little in most of our personal lives, yet. An international disaster immediately became for many a personal heartbreak. This loss of one of the “martial gods” makes the pandemic a hell of a lot more than a set of statistics and graphs.

Our community suffers inconceivable damage—martial artists at all levels die, schools close due to bankruptcy, embodied knowledge acquired over decades of practice is snuffed out.  I begin to dwell on our obligation to pass along the knowledge passed along to us. This provides powerful motivation for getting back in the “game” whether it is in the garage, the park, or eventually the schools that will reopen after the pandemic has been laid to rest. Daunting as it may be, closing our places of instruction will not kill the practice of martial arts in the West. To pay the rent, we may be driven back to our day jobs (if we ever abandoned them), but the survivors – bound by loyalty to our martial discipline, respect for our teachers and camaraderie – will return to the business of passing along our arts.


The Future (April 14, 3 .a.m.)

Some years ago, in my local used bookstore while browsing through, where else, the martial arts section, I came across a particularly fine cache of books on Chinese martial arts. I opened the cover of the first and saw the title page inscribed with the name of a dear friend, a fellow martial artist, who had passed on the previous year. I discovered the same signature in the next book, and the same in the other fifteen volumes that I bought and that now rest in my bookcase. I’m sure many of their companions were taken away one at a time; I couldn’t bear to see the collection fragmented even more. Thinking back to that day, I wonder what may become of the volumes (commercially and privately published), notes garnered from classes and workshops, recordings, and memories of those colleagues and their schools that we might lose. The field notes, the rough drafts, and other ephemera that those of us who document martial culture also may be victims of the pandemic. The Covid-19 Crisis only dramatizes what slowly occurs in more stable times.

Perhaps this is a crucial issue around which we can unite to solve as we shelter-in-place. Surely the preservation of what is ultimately embodied knowledge is a cause behind which we can organize our energies. Is it possible to develop a central resource for accumulating and safeguarding copies of these source materials?   Or, when we contemplate the loss of such an immense body of knowledge, should we simply dismiss that prospect and reply it “couldn’t happen here?”


The Iron Professor on completion of 1000 pushups in under 30 minutes, College Station,TX 11/2015. From the personal collection of Thomas Green.


About the Author

Thomas A. Green is Professor of Anthropology and Folklore, Affiliated Professor of Africana Studies, and Affiliated Professor of Religious Studies at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, USA. Author of over three dozen works on the martial arts, his publications include Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia [2001], Martial Arts in the Modern World [2003], Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation [2010], ‘Sick Hands and Sweet Moves’ [2012], ‘White Men Don’t Flow: Embodied Aesthetics of the Fifty-two Handblocks’ [2013], and ‘I Am the Greatest Boxer: Articulating Group Identity Through Chinese Folk Drama’, [2018]. His recent research focuses on Chinese and African-American vernacular martial culture.




If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: “Professor Thomas Green on the Survival of Plum Blossom Boxing, Martial Folklore and the State of Martial Arts Studies.”



Capoeira in the Age of COVID: An Art of Resilience



This is the third essay in our short series examining the ways that the current health crisis has impacted those of us who sit at the intersection of martial arts practice, communities of martial artists, and Martial Arts Studies.  As with most of our discussions at 功夫网, this one straddles the line between practitioners whose lives have been upended by these events, and scholar who seek to make sense of this moment in history.  To some degree we all fall into both camps.  That fact should remind us of the value of community when facing challenges such as this, and it is my hope that some of these essays might reinforce those communal bonds.

The following reflections by Prof. Lauren Miller Griffith explore the current state of things in the Capoeira community and ask us to consider both on-line learning and what comes after.  If you would like to share some of your experiences or thoughts about the theoretical implications of all of this, please feel free to send me an email.



Capoeira in the Age of COVID: An Art of Resilience

Lauren Miller Griffith, Ph.D.

Capoeira is often said to be an art of resistance, but it is also an art of resilience. The popular narrative told about capoeira is that it originated with the Africans who were subjected to the physical, social, and psychological violence of Brazilian slavery. These enslaved Africans are said to have disguised their fight as a dance so they could continue martial training under the slave-masters’ noses. Resistance during this era meant one of two things: (a) physically resisting the institution of slavery; (b) psychologically resisting the whites’ attempts at dehumanizing them. Practicing capoeira helped with both and contributed to the development of a unique and resilient Afro-Brazilian culture. My recent work has been focused on how capoeira groups in the U.S. use this history as inspiration for their own local resistance efforts, whether that means showing up at a Black Lives Matter protest to resist racial discrimination or organizing a clothing drive to counteract the persistent economic marginalization of communities of color in the U.S.   But in the face of this global pandemic, capoeiristas are finding new ways to exhibit their resilience as a community.

Some of the things I’ve observed in the capoeira community over the past few weeks are not unique to capoeira per se. Martial artists and athletes of all sorts are utilizing technology to encourage one another to maintain their training regimens. I have watched the running community, for example, transition from outrage over cancelled races to encouraging one another to do virtual races and post pictures of their stats as a way to maintain accountability and engage in collective celebration of their accomplishments. For capoeiristas, this may manifest itself in virtual classes. Using Zoom or other technologies, teachers are offering virtual classes that enable students to maintain their training. For students that have already been training with a group, this also gives them the opportunity to maintain much-needed social connections with the teacher and with other members of the school. It also presents new opportunities for students who do not train regularly to take classes.

One of my research contacts on the West Coast has recently started offering kids’ capoeira classes and, since I’m not above using my children for research purposes, I thought it might be fun to sign up for one. My five-year-old son has minimal knowledge of martial arts, even if he thinks his knowledge is vast. He imitates what he sees on television, namely the “spinjitsu” on Ninjago (which basically consists of cartoon Lego ninjas ripping off classic martial arts films). When I asked if he wanted to take a real class with a real teacher, he was a bit shy but eventually acquiesced. The class was small – only a few kids that had already been training with my friend plus my son. Those of you out there that are now homeschooling your kids on top of trying to do your own work know just how long some days can be…so I wasn’t sure how things were going to go. Did he master the moves? No, not at all. But I very quickly realized that correcting his technique wasn’t going to benefit either of us. What he needed was the chance to feel accomplished, and an opportunity to do something with Mommy. He forgot to move his feet during ginga, his au was more like a somersault than a cartwheel, and his kicks were nowhere close to what he was supposed to be doing. But none of this mattered. What mattered was our relationship.


Professor, son and cat all enjoying a virtual Capoeira class. Source: Author’s personal collection.


On Facebook, I’ve seen capoeiristas maintaining their relationships not just through virtual training sessions, but by setting up events like viewing parties. One large, international capoeira organization asked leaders to contribute a favorite video and then posted the compilation for anyone to watch. This was accompanied by an explanation of why each individual chose that video as a favorite. Another group has posted clips from Bob’s Burgers, embracing the absurdity of how capoeira is portrayed in the show as something to rally around. I will never play capoeira with the vast majority of people that are attending these watch parties, but it is clear that these virtual connections are important. Ironically, the social distancing required to survive the pandemic has created the impetus to become closer as an imagined global community.

The connections being forged within this milieu extend beyond the capoeira world. At the very beginning of the COVID crisis, there was a GoFundMe campaign launched to support capoeira teachers and other artists in the Bay Area whose livelihoods were endangered by the cessation of face-to-face classes. I have no way of knowing how many groups have undertaken similar projects, but I doubt this fundraising effort is an isolated occurrence. In early April, I took an Afro-Brazilian dance class via Zoom that was being offered through a capoeira school located about five hours away from me. Although I was doing the class from the comfort of my living room, I was honestly a bit nervous. Would I be the only one who didn’t know the other participants? As it turned out, there were about seven or eight of us doing the class and only a few were in Texas. There were people ‘zooming in’ from Oregon, California, Colorado, North Carolina and New York. We each introduced ourselves before beginning. I was moved by the gratitude several participants seemed to have for the opportunity to take the class. Again, it wasn’t just, or even primarily, about learning new moves. It was about connecting with others.

In my bad moments, I feel a bit claustrophobic and complain about the mess my house has become and the stress of having my older son at home while also trying to make progress as a pre-tenure scholar. My husband and I are also dealing with the interrupted sleep and other stressors that come with having a newborn in the house, as our second son was born in January. But I am so fortunate that if I have to be quarantined, I’m quarantined with the most important people in my life. Not everyone is so lucky. Over the 15 plus years I’ve been researching capoeira, most of the people I’ve worked with have been relatively young and childless. Whether they have partners or not, their capoeira families play a huge role in their day-to-day lives. Within this context, the connections afforded by virtual classes can be literal lifesavers.

I have found capoeiristas’ responses to this crisis to be overwhelmingly positive. And yet, since my training as a social scientist has led me to always be critical, there are a few questions worth asking. The first—which was brought to my attention by a valuable interlocutor whose group is known for taking a politicized stance on capoeira—is about the legitimacy of teachers offering virtual classes. A charlatan is not easy to unmask when you are new to a community of practice, but novices may be even more vulnerable to exploitation right now when they cannot see a teacher’s skills (or lack thereof) in person nor gauge a teacher’s credibility based on the reception of other students in the room. This is not at all intended to cast doubt upon the very credible teachers I have referenced above, just a caution that unscrupulous individuals could take advantage of this situation if they so wished.

A second question is how virtual training will translate back to the face-to-face environment when life returns to normal. Capoeira, like other martial arts, is something meant to be done with others. We learn how to execute our art from playing with everybody (and every body) in the room. Flawed technique is corrected swiftly when our partners take advantage of the openings we have created. There may be some bad habits that will need to be corrected when face-to-face training resumes.

The third question, which is most relevant to my research interests, is how virtual access to one another’s homes will affect the community. I believe that capoeira can become a catalyst for social activism because it attracts such a diverse set of participants. Struggling artists and well-off professionals come together in the roda (capoeira game) and commemorate the struggles of enslaved Africans in Brazil. They subjectively identify with these historical figures by virtue of call-and-response singing done in the first person. And sometimes, that identification translates into taking action on behalf of oppressed peoples in the present. But this process typically occurs in the neutral space of the academy. How do we enter into that egalitarian state when one person is training in a cramped multi-purpose room shared with several other people and another is logging in from a well-appointed home gym? Short of all choosing Brazilian beaches as our Zoom backdrop, how do we prevent these very obvious markers of social status from affecting our relationships?

Granted, it’s not as if people are unaware of social differences in the roda. Yet they recede into the background when we are engaged in the collective task of training. Whether or not that holds true online remains to be seen. I don’t think any of these challenges are insurmountable, and capoeira has survived in the most desperate of circumstances, but I offer them as food for thought, something to consider as everyone eagerly awaits the opportunity to reunite in person.



About the Author

Lauren Miller Griffith is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Texas Tech University. Dr Griffith received her PhD in anthropology from Indiana University. She studies performance and tourism in Latin America and the U.S. Specifically, she focuses on the Afro- Brazilian martial art of capoeira and how non-Brazilian practitioners use travel to Brazil to increase their legitimacy within this genre. Her work on capoeira has been published in Annals of Tourism Research, the Journal of Sport and Tourism, and Theatre Annual, and Martial Arts Studies. She is the author of In Search of Legitimacy: How Outsiders Become Part of the Afro-Brazilian Capoeira Tradition [2016] and Apprenticeship Pilgrimage [2017].



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read, also by prof. Lauren Miller Griffith: Capoeira as Graceful Resistance



Giving Boredom a Chance: A View from New York




This is the second essay in our short series examining the ways that the current health crisis has impacted those of us who sit at the intersection of martial arts practice, communities of martial artists, and Martial Arts Studies.  As with most of our discussions at 功夫网, this one straddles the line between practitioners whose lives have been upended by these events, and scholar who seek to make sense of this moment in history.  To some degree we all fall into both camps.  That fact should remind us of the value of community when facing challenges such as this, and it is my hope that some of these essays might reinforce those communal bonds.  The following reflections are my own initial contributions to the series.  If you would like to share some of your experiences or thoughts about the theoretical implications of all of this, please feel free to send me an email.


Fear and Boredom in New York

First off, I would like to assure everyone that I am healthy and well despite the fact that I live in New York State, where close to half of all COVID-19 cases in the United States have been reported.  If the current projections coming from the Governor’s office are accurate, over the next 3-4 weeks we are expecting 16,000 deaths in our state alone. While everything has been officially locked down for the last two weeks, this more deadly phase of the crisis is only just beginning.

In purely geographic terms Ithaca is far from the five boroughs of New York City, where the worst of the crisis is currently unfolding.  But in other ways it is disturbingly close.  My wife grew up in Manhattan, I attended graduate school at Columbia and one of my younger brothers is currently sheltering in place on the upper west side.  Recent estimates that up to 50% of the residents of New York City might contract this disease are far from comforting.

Ithaca, where Cornell University is located, has traditionally enjoyed a close relationship with New York City and it resides within its cultural sphere.  The two are linked by frequent direct commuter flights and several bus lines.  Students from Cornell and Ithaca College travel to and from the city.  My university even maintains a second medical campus there.  Wealthy residents from the city also come to the Finger Lakes region to enjoy their vacation homes or visit the area’s many vineyards and natural attractions.

It is no surprise that Cornell closed its campus earlier than some other educational institutions in the state, or that Ithaca’s residents have taken the advice about social distancing very much to heart. The daily news updates about the situation in New York City are like watching a train crash in excruciating slow motion.  At this point there is little doubt as to how it is all going to end.  Yet there is nothing to do except sit and watch the tragedy unfold.

As someone with a “compromised respiratory system” I personally have been advised to limit my exposure to pretty much everything and have taken appropriate precautions.  I get up early in the mornings, before other people hit the streets, and jog alone on country roads.  Other than that, I haven’t been out of the house in three weeks.  I have managed to create a fair amount of structure for myself.  I still have mountains of readings and various writing projects to work on. Sadly, the most important of these has come to complete standstill as it involved on-going archival research at Cornell.  It is unlikely that any of that will resume soon.

I think that academics have some advantages when it comes to digesting the “new normal.”  Many (though not all) of us have some financial security.  And the sort of work that we do often lends itself to the home environment (at least in the humanities and social sciences).  Almost all of us learned how to structure our time and to be productive during through periods of relative isolation as a precondition for surviving graduate school.

Still, I find myself struggling to stay focused, or to prioritize which task most needs my time and attention now that my main research project has been put on hold.  It is difficult to resist the temptation to spend too much time reading the news, or watching TV, for all of the same reasons that it is difficult to look away from the scene of a car crash.  I am fortunate in so many ways, but it is sometimes a struggle hold back feelings of self-doubt.  Low grade fear about the future does little to improve one’s workflow as a writer.  My discount rates, to use a concept from the field of economics, have just become too high. Should I really spend weeks working on a new book proposal when it will be months before anyone is in the office to read it?

If anxiety has been my primary sparring partner, I think that boredom is currently my greatest asset.  No one likes being bored.  Modern civilization has created one technology after another to banish it to the far recesses of our collective memory.  I am convinced that it was the fear of boredom, more than any real necessity, that drove the creation of smart phones and the boom of social networks.  But in even the most gilded of lockdowns, there is no way to actually escape boredom.  One can only scan the headlines, or check Instagram, so many times a day.  At some point we all find ourselves staring off into the middle distance.

While never pleasant in the moment, this is actually a good thing.  In a neo-liberal world obsessed with statistics, check lists and productivity it is all too easy to lose track of your own sources of inspiration and creativity.  When the outside world drowns out our sense of self, we may manage to remain “productive,” but often at a terrible cost to the things that we create.  The resolve to do something new, to pick up an important but difficult book, or to really rethink our basic assumptions is often born out of boredom.  Boredom is the forge that great books have been created in.  It provides us with the silent moments necessary for our most original insights to emerge.

My own sense of aimlessness seems to have reached a productive peak a couple of days ago.  Nothing was clicking and I found myself just starring at an empty document or (worse yet) a browser.  Then, at about 10:30 at night, one new thought led to another and another and another in quick succession.  I found myself scribbling down questions, theories and possible titles for close to an hour.  Boredom, like everything else, has a tipping point.

It seems likely that our current crisis will last many months.  The challenge is to accept this time as a precious resource rather than an invitation for fear.  The happier and more productive we are indoors, the less likely we are to head out. And that might be the most important thing that we (not) do.



Transformation and the Death of Secrecy

For the last several weeks a sense of panic has been palpable in the corners of the martial arts community which I frequent.  A number of political commentators are misreading recent history when they complain about “the government” shutting down market activity and driving us into what is sure to be a difficult recession.  That may have been the case in other areas of the United States, but it is not what I observed in New York.

As cases of the virus began to be diagnosed there was a broad-based movement within both the economic and civil spheres to begin shutting things down well before the actual state mandates came through.  No one told Cornell to shutter their campus.  That decision was reached before the Governor ordered the closure of the other state schools.  Likewise, no one told the martial arts schools that I have trained and conducted ethnographic research at to close their doors.  Each of them began to cancel classes and put contingency plans in place several days before the order shutting down gyms and health clubs actually came.  New York State’s economy wound itself down, and martial arts schools actually seem to have been at the forefront of this wave of voluntary closures.

This is an important fact to consider.  Most martial arts in the United States are taught via public classes organized by small businesses.  These corporations are typically very small and most of them are owner-operators.  The lack of consolidation in this sector of the economy suggests how little profit there actually is in teaching Taijiquan, Taekwondo, or even BJJ.  While fitness may be a 30 billion dollar industry in the US, relatively little of that flows into martial arts training. Real estate is typically the principal expense faced by these businesses and many of them, especially the traditional arts, now have a student body that is middle aged or older.

The unique nature of the novel coronavirus which causes COVID-19 poses an existential threat to all sorts of martial artists working in a brick and mortar setting.  The sorts of heavy panting and gasping that good martial arts classes encourage seem custom made to spread viruses which can disperse themselves in aerosol form. Even normal breathing and speech may be enough to effectively transmit this virus.  Given these realizations, the intimacy of training makes any sort of partner work particularly problematic.  Everyone is constantly wiping sweat from their faces, and one does not even want to think about all of the surfaces within a school that those hands will touch.  Even weapons classes, which typically work at a greater distance, are not safe.  The reliance on common pool of, difficult to disinfect, safety gear in many clubs (fencing masks, gloves, etc.) might make them even more hazardous.  I suspect the days of club supplied loaner gear are now behind us forever.

At one of the schools where I conduct ethnographic research the BJJ group was the first to close down their classes, a full week before everyone else.  The traditional martial arts quickly switched to solo drills, and then took the additional step of limiting class attendance. Only two days later they decided that the cost-benefit analysis was not in their favor.  The western style fitness and conditioning classes were pretty much the last to go.

All of these classes have switched to a video format in an attempt to preserve their communities and revenue stream.  Good commercial real estate is never cheap, and students are being asked to maintain their monthly memberships if possible.  While they have had some initial success, it remains to be seen how all of this will continue to play out as unemployment skyrockets and household budgets begin to collapse.

Given the likelihood of a prolonged period of shutdown stretching into the summer, one commentator recently characterized COVID-19 as an “extinction level event” for small businesses in the United States.  I would tend to agree with assessment.  How many martial arts schools have 3-4 months of operating cash on hand?  I am sure that when the dust settles many organizations will look to rebuild, but with few resources and facing a devasted consumer base, one has to wonder how successful they will be.  The entire fitness industry is facing many of these same issues right now.

One of the most interesting things to watch has been the scramble of all sorts of martial arts and fitness instructors to move their programs on-line in an attempt to sustain community bonds and preserve some aspect of their previous revenue stream.  Perhaps I find this to be particularly fascinating as the very same thing is happening in the educational sector.  All of my University colleagues have spent the last few weeks furious re-writing their syllabi and exploring options for on-line instruction.  If only I had known to buy stock in Zoom in January!

Not every sort of practice works equally well in this format, and certain core topics within the martial arts just can’t be explored at all.  One also wonders whether the move to virtual instruction will select for a new set of winners and losers within the martial arts sector.  I have been stunned with the amount of previously “secret” or tightly held material that I have seen going on-line in the last week. At least some of this has been driven by a humanitarian desire to give students the tools they need to face the current crisis. I have also been impressed by the number of martial arts students who are willing to plunk down their hard-earned cash for a virtual workshop.

At the same time, most of these classes are charging less than the going rate in a school, so it will becoming increasingly important, as the crisis deepens, to have a larger number of virtual students each paying $5 or $8 for the class.  While this technology makes certain kinds of private classes possible, in general the virtual classroom seems to advantage economies of scale, leading to exactly the sorts of pressures for consolidation that the martial arts sector has previously managed to avoid. The more famous instructors in the better-known styles will have a huge head start as this process gets under way.  And anyone who was already producing this material, or running an on-line student portal, now has a critical first mover advantage.

I fully expect that several smaller organizations and struggling styles are about disappear from the landscape.  One also wonders what the future landscape of martial arts will look like, at least in the post-industrial West.  After a decade of near constant derision, we are seeing an upswing of interest in both forms training and qigong.  One would be hard pressed to think of better exercises to do in isolation, along with a certain amount of strength and endurance training. Additionally, numerous people have noted that these sorts of practices might be the next best thing to therapy for individuals facing prolonged periods of isolation, unemployment and anxiety. Everyone has once again become very interested in Taijiquan’s supposed abilities to boost the immune system.

On the other hand, Ithaca has recently seen a number of instances of anti-Asian abuse and discrimination.  More serious attacks in other places have been classified by the FBI as hate crimes.  The rise of interest in Asian martial arts in the West was driven by the birth of different types of cross-cultural desire. Japan as the first object of Western fasciation, followed later in the post-war era by China and then other locations in South East Asia.  The sudden explosion of interest in Kung Fu during the 1970s and 1980s was only one aspect of a broader reappraisal Chinese culture.

The brewing political dispute over where to place the blame for COVID-19 will likely do long lasting damage to China’s reserves of “soft power” in the West.  At the same time, the Chinese government is seeking to use American and European disarray in dealing with the epidemic to undermine the cultural appeal of the liberal democratic model of governance throughout much of the developing world.  Moments of historic crisis have often served as the backdrop for the rise of new hegemonic powers within the international sphere.  Whether China’s hopes to use the current moment in this way will come to fruition is very much an open question. Yet its decreased soft power in the West, combined with a general turn towards culture closure often seen in moments of crisis, might be very damaging to the long-term health of the East Asian arts.



How Do we Think About This?

It might be some time before we are able to definitively address any of the questions outlined above.  At this point the United States is still in the beginning phases of its crisis.  It remains unclear what our ultimate casualty figures will be, but the “best case” projections look bleak. Nor is it known what sorts of direct losses the martial arts community will face, either in the United States, or across a number of smaller states in the developing worlds which have fewer resources to weather the on-coming storm.  The ultimate impact of all of this may only become clear years after the recovery period begins.  That isn’t uncommon when looking at periods of major realignment.

What should we, as students of Martial Arts Studies, be doing now?  First, I advocate putting down the smartphone, picking up those books you have been meaning to read and embracing a certain level of boredom.  When was the last time that any of us had an opportunity to focus deeply on our own thoughts and personal practice?  None of us would have wished for the present circumstances.  On Instagram moments of personal introspection and intellectual creativity always seem to happen on a beach in Bali, or possibly Thailand.  Still, we can embrace the opportunities that we have here and now.

Second, this is the time to reach out and reinforce the communities of scholarship and practice that we have been part of.  We need to do this for the most basic human reasons.  A little boredom can be great for creativity, but isolation is often corrosive.  We should do everything that we can to promote and patronize the martial arts teachers in our own communities.  That is an important responsibility that we all have. Given that everyone finds themselves with time on their hands, now is a great time to sign up for an on-line class or seminar which will enrich your personal training.

At the same time, we need to acknowledge that much of what is happening within the martial arts community is beyond our control.  Crisis is always a time of realignment and change.  Some of the shifts that we will see may be positive, but other will not.  It is still too early to propose theories as we are not yet sure which puzzles will be the most interesting.  But I would like to encourage anyone reading this essay to document everything you are seeing within the martial arts community.  If a school doesn’t come back when the lockdown ends, talk to its teacher and record their oral history.  If you spot an on-line class that is succeeding and growing, sign up and take notes on what they are doing.  The observations that we make now will become the grist for next year’s paradoxes and papers.  As society changes it is inevitable that martial arts will evolve.  So will Martial Arts Studies.



If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Cheung Lai Chuen, Creator of Pak Mei (White Eyebrow)



Through a Lens Darkly (63): Romance of the Single-Stick

Shipboard training in single-stick. Vintage postcard.

An Eternal Passion

As a martial artists that I work with likes to tell his students, “Hitting someone with a stick is not difficult.  Noting getting hit with a stick is…a lot of fun.”

The history of Western single-stick practice suggests that innumerable soldiers, fencers, students, athletes and regular people have come to the same conclusion.  Perhaps this explains the repeated rebirths of these systems of weapon practice.

My own brush with single-stick occurred rather recently.  A local instructor had agreed to introduce me to a system of early 19th century American military saber.  Of course I brought my fencing mask, gloves and other gear.  While I had been informed that we would be working with “historical training methods” I was nevertheless surprised when I was presented with a set of slender rods fitted with tough leather bell guards.  What followed was one of the most enjoyable afternoons of training that I have had in a while.  At least part of that, I think, had something to do with the simplicity of the sword analogs themselves.

I haven’t yet made a detailed study of the history of single-stick practice in the West, nor am I sure that such an adventure is in the cards.  That is a shame as most of the material on this topic is in languages that I can actually read.  Still, a few general points are clear.  First off, what we now think of as single-stick seems to have started off as a training regime for back-sword, and latter saber, practice in the UK.  Something like single-stick was being practiced as early as the 16th century.  During the first half of the 18th century, single-stick seemed to hit the peak of its popularity in both cities and the countryside and was widely practiced.

This sort of mania has not always been the norm.  The popularity of the practice has waxed and waned (somewhat cyclically) through the decades.  The construction of the sticks, their hilts and other safety equipment has also evolved as different rule-sets were invented, or as the practice was adapted for different social uses.  This makes for an interesting case study within the field of Martial Arts Studies precisely because we have a long history of continuous usage which nevertheless shows a distinct pattern of stochastic innovations.

Nor has the humble stick attracted the sort of nationalistic myths that follow the katana or the jian.  As such we seem to have hit something of a sweet spot.  This practice was popular enough that it left a documentary record.  Yet it was not so popular that 19th or 20th century nationalist myth-makers would be tempted to rewrite it, in essence obscuring the past.  In that sense single-stick has benefited from being viewed as “just a game” and not a “martial art,” where a good dose of myth making and invented tradition seems mandatory.

While fairly common in the early 19th century, its popularity later declined.  During the final years of century, and the first years of the early 20th, it seems to have enjoyed a short lived (but influential) return to popular consciousness.  This resulted in a flurry of articles in magazines, newspapers and other sources.  Of course, some militaries had continued to use it as a training method all along.

The late 19th century resurgence seems to have been culturally driven. There was something about single-stick that fit with the era’s notion’s of “muscular Christianity” and the supposed benefits of living a “strenuous life.” We should note that its brief revival also coincided with other trends including an expansion in boxing’s popularity outside the working class, jujutsu’s entrance into the West, and the rising tides of nationalism and imperialism that would set the stage for the First World War.



This reemergence was ideally timed to provide us with some great vintages images and sources which will be of interest to martial arts historians.  Much of this material is not cataloged in libraries as it initially circulated as ephemera.  Single-stick postcards seem to have been quite popular for a while.  Many of these had a naval theme and showed sailors training on ships.  Other sorts of soldiers can also be seen drilling on land.  One commonly encountered card even shows a group of Canadian Mounted Police engaging in a mass melee.  This cannot have been an uncommon activity as other images, and even films of similar events, exist.

Other surviving bits of ephemera suggest that single-stick had come to be accepted as a civilian game and an ideal pastime for boys with too much energy.  The Boy Scouts included it (along with boxing, wrestling, staff fighting, fencing and jujutsu) in their short lived  “Masters at Arms” merit badge program.  Teddy Roosevelt also lent some of his own mystique to the practice by training in the White House.  And multiple groups promoted the walking stick as a weapon with practical self-defense benefits.  Indeed, the cultural multi-vocality of single-stick, its ability to be all things to all people, foreshadows in some ways the social position of the Asian martial arts in the post-WWII period.

This conceptual flexibility sometimes leads to confusion.  For instance, “single-stick” can refer to a type of training tool, or a very specific set of competitive rules coming out of the UK.  As such, some sources draw a clear distinction between English and French practices (Canne de combat) while others do not.  Yet one gets the sense that in the late 19th and early 20 century it was precisely the perceived universality of the phenomenon that gave it a degree of cultural power.


Single-stick in the White House. Harper’s Weekly, February 1903.


Single-stick is currently going through yet another period of increased visibility.  As HEMA grows more popular, people are once again taking an interest in it as a historical practice.  But I wonder if its former status as the ideal adolescent recreation has had other, less obvious, implications.  I was recently talking with a HEMA instructor who has started a lightsaber club.  He was noting how difficult it was to get long sword and rapier guys to get their heads wrapped around this new weapon analog.  But he noted that “everything finally clicked when I told them to think of it as a single-stick or longer two handed staff.”

This makes perfect sense when you consider the geometry and round blade profile of both training analogs.  But it also suggested something else.  Perhaps lightsaber combat is growing so fast because it owes more to prior cultural mythologies than we may have guessed.  Whereas early Boy Scouts with their single-sticks may have dreamed of pirates and colonial adventure, their modern counterpart envision the Sith (space pirates?) and Jedi (no doubt colonizing some newly discovered planet for the Republic).  The more things change…

To give readers a better sense of how single-stick was discussed in the late 19th century I have concluded this post with a short excerpt from the fourth chapter of R.G. Allanson-Winn and C. Phillipps-Wolley’s comprehensively titled, Broadsword and Single-stick, with Chapters on Quarter-Staff, Bayonet, Cudgel, Shillalah, Walking-Stick, and Other Weapons of Self-Defence, as published in New York City in 1898. Please note that I included these passages for historical interest only. Few modern coaches would endorse the author’s notion that we should go without (readily available) safety gear because one learns faster and “build character” through pain or injury.  That is just the Muscular Christianity talking.




SINGLE-STICK is to the sabre what the foil is to the rapier, and while foil-play is the science of using the point only, sabre-play is the science of using a weapon, which has both point and edge, to the best advantage. In almost every treatise on fencing my subject has been treated with scant ceremony. “Fencing” is assumed to mean the use of the point only, or perhaps it would not be too much to say, the use of the foils; whereas fencing means simply (in English) the art of of-fending another and de-fending yourself with any weapons, but perhaps especially with all manner of swords.

In France or Spain, from which countries the use of the thrusting-sword was introduced into England, it would be natural enough to consider fencing as the science of using the point of the sword only, but here the thrusting-sword is a comparatively modern importation, and is still only a naturalised foreigner, whereas broad-sword and sabre are older than, and were once as popular as, boxing. On the other hand, the rapier was in old days a foreigner of particularly shady reputation on these shores, the introducer being always alluded to in the current literature of that day, with anathemas, as “that desperate traitour, Rowland Yorke.”

“L’Escrime” is, no doubt, the national sword-play of France, and, for Frenchmen, fencing may mean the use of the foil, but broad-sword and sabre play are indigenous here, and if fencing is to mean only one kind of sword-pay or sword-exercise, it should mean single-stick.

Like the swordsmen of India, our gallant fore-fathers (according to Fuller, in his “Worthies of England”) accounted it unmanly to strike below the knee or with the point. But necessity has no laws, still less has it any sense of honour, so that before long English swordsmen realised that the point was much more deadly than the edge, and that, unless they were prepared to be “spitted like cats or rabbits,” it was necessary for them either to give up fighting or condescend to learn the new fashion of fence.

As in boxing, it was found that the straight hit from the shoulder came in quicker than the round-arm blow, so in fencing it was found that the thrust got home sooner than the cut, and hence it came that the more deadly style of fighting with the rapier supplanted the old broad-sword play.

Single-stick really combines both styles of fencing. In it the player is taught to use the point whenever he can do so most effectively; but he is also reminded that his sword has an edge, which may on occasion do him good service. It seems then, to me, that the single-stick is the most thoroughly practical form of fencing for use in those “tight places” where men care nothing for rules, but only want to make the most out of that weapon which the chance of the moment has put into their hands. It may further be said that the sabre is still supplied to our soldiers, though rarely used for anything more dangerous than a military salute, whereas no one except a French journalist has ever seen, what I may be allowed to call, a foil for active service, the science of single-stick has some claim to practical utility even in the nineteenth century, the only sound objection to single-stick being that the sticks used are so light as to not properly represent the sabre.


Details of the grip and guard of a typical single-stick. Source:


This is a grave objection to the game, when the game is regarded as representing the real business; but for all that, the lessons learnt with the stick are invaluable to the swordsman. The true way to meet the difficulty would be to supplement stick-play by a course with broad-swords, such as are in use in different London gymnasiums, with blunt edges and rounded points.

But gunpowder has taken the place of “cold steel,” and arms of precision at a thousand yards have ousted the “white arm” of the chivalrous ages, so that it is really only of single-stick as a sport that men think, if they think of it at all, today. As a sport it is second to none of those which can be indulged in the gymnasium, unless it be boxing; and even boxing has its disadvantages. What the ordinary Englishman wants is a game with which he may fill up the hours during which he cannot play cricket and need not work; a game in which he may exercise those muscles with which good mother Nature meant him to earn his living, but which custom has condemned to rust, while his brain wears out; a game in which he may hurt some one else, is extremely likely to be hurt himself, and is certain to earn an appetite for dinner. If any one tells me that my views of amusement are barbaric or brutal, that no reasonable man ever wants to hurt any one else or to risk his own precious carcass, I accept the charge of brutality, merely remarking that it was the national love of hard knocks which made this little island famous, and I for one do not wish to be thought any better than the old folk of England’s fighting days.

There is just enough pain in the use of the sticks to make self-control during the use of them a necessity; just enough danger to a sensitive hide to make the game thoroughly English, for no game which puts a strain upon the player’s strength and agility only, and none on his nerve, endurance, and temper, should take rank with the best of our national pastimes.

Gallant Lindsey Gordon knew the people he was writing for when he wrote –
“No game was ever worth a rap,
For a rational man to play,
Into which no accident, no mishp,
Could possibly find its way.”

Still, there comes a time, alas! In the lives of all of us, when, though the hand is still ready to smite, the over-worked brain resents the infliction of too many “merry cross-counters,” and we cannot afford to go about with black eyes, except as the occasional indulgence. Then it is that the single-stick comes in. Boxing is the game of youth, and fencing with foils, we have been assured, improves as men fall into the sere and yellow leaf. Single-stick, then, may be looked upon as a gentle exercise, suitable for early middle age.

There is just enough sting in the ash-plant’s kiss, when it catches you on the softer parts of your thigh, your funny bone, or your wrist, to keep you wide awake and remind you of the good old rule of “grin and bear it;” but the ash-plant leaves no marks which are likely to offend the eye of squeamish clients or female relations.

Another advantage which single-stick possesses is that you may learn to play fairly well even if you take it up as late in life as five and twenty; whereas I understand that, though many of my friends were introduced to the foil almost as soon as to the corrective birch, and though their heads are now growing grey, they consider themselves mere tyros in their art.

That single-stick is a national game of very considerable antiquity, and at one time in great repute on our country greens, no one is likely to deny, nor have I time to argue with them even if I would in this little brochure. Those who are interested in spadroon, back-sword, and broad-sword will find the subjects very exhaustively treated in such admirable works as Mr. Egerton Castle’s “Schools and Masters of Fence.” These pages are merely intended for the tyro – they are at best a compilation of those notes written during the last ten years in black and white upon my epidermis by the ash-plants of Serjeants Waite and Ottaway, and Corporal-Major Blackburn. Two of them, unfortunately, will never handle a stick again, but the last-named is still left, and to him, especially, I am indebted for anything which may prove worth remembering in these pages. A book may teach you the rudiments of any game, but it is only face to face with a better player than yourself that you will ever make any real advance in any of the sciences of self-defence.


Apparently one could advertise cigarettes directly to Boy Scouts during the 1920s.


And here, then, is my first hint, taught by years of experience: If you want to learn to play quickly, if you want to get the most out of your lessons, whether in boxing or stick-play, never encourage your teacher to spare you too much. If you get a stinging cross-counter early in your career as a boxer, which lays you out senseless for thirty seconds, you will find that future antagonists have the greatest possible difficulty in getting home on that spot again. It is the same in single-stick. If you are not spared too much, and are not too securely padded, you will, once the ash-plant has curled once or twice round your thighs, acquire a guard so instinctively accurate, so marvellously quick, that you will yourself be delighted at your cheaply-bought dexterity. The old English players used no pads and no masks, but, instead, took off their coats, and put up their elbows to shield one side of their heads.

There are today in England several distinct schools of single-stick, the English Navy having, I believe, a school of its own; but all these different schools are separated from one another merely by sets of rules, directing, for the most part, where you may and where you may not hit your adversary.

The best school appears to be that in which all hits are allowed, such as might be given by a rough in a street row, or by a Soudanese running a-muck. The old trial for teachers of fencing was not a bad test of real excellence in the mastery of their weapons – a fight with three skilled masters of fence (one at a time, of course), then three bouts with valiant unskilled men, then three bouts against three half-drunken men. A man who could pass this test was a man whose sword could be relied upon to keep his head, and that is what is wanted. All rules, then, which provide artificial protection, as it were – protection other than that afforded by the swordsman’s guard – to any part of the body are wrong, and should be avoided.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Pushing and Pulling: Scouts and the Spread of the Asian Martial Arts



Research Notes: The Katana Invades America

A well known image of American soldiers gathered around captured Japanese swords. Many of these weapons would be brought back to the United States at the conclusion of WWII and would form the basis of the subsequent development of Japanese sword appreciation in this country.



Why is the Katana more popular than the Jian

A good friend recently sent me a link for a YouTube video asking why Chinese swords are not as well known in Western popular culture as their Japanese counterparts.  As the narrator noted, everyone knows the word ‘katana.’ Very few people, other than dedicated martial artists, are familiar with ‘jian’ or ‘dao.’  The video was thoughtful and well produced.  It also seems to have missed all of the most obvious answers to the question.

Its fundamental mistake actually emerged from one of its strengths.  The nice thing about the video was that it dove into Chinese folklore and storytelling about the sword.  To summarize too quickly, while there are a handful of famous swords in Chinese martial lore, in general these discursive traditions were more concerned with how a blade was used (or not used) than the intrinsic qualities of the weapon itself.  Power always rested firmly in the virtue of the wielder and not the weapon.  That makes even famous Chinese swords a bit different from something like Excalibur.

All of which was thought provoking, but ultimately pointless, if one was really trying to think about the cultural recognition of different swords (or fencing traditions) in the West.  It should go without saying that those same English-speaking audiences that are unfamiliar with the term ‘jian’ are also going to have missed most of the nuanced storytelling and literature that the author explored.  Rather than focusing on the history of Chinese swords, we need to consider the audience.  Specifically, how does a sense of cross-cultural desire emerge across generations?

John Maynard Keynes once observed that even the most action-oriented officials, the sorts of people who would recoil at the suggestion that what they did was even passingly “theoretical,” were always in the thrall of some half understood, long debunked, economy theory.  They were still “doing” theory in their daily jobs, but by insisting that they relied only upon “common sense” and personal experience, they were doomed to do it quite badly.  I have always liked this observation as it emphasizes the degree to which unconscious beliefs and biases shape the way that we approach the world.  The same holds true with swords. We cannot understand how people imagine the martial arts today without engaging in a bit of intellectual archeology.

If one wishes to understand why the katana is ‘cool’ whereas the jian is not, one must start by exploring Japan’s miraculous rise from isolated island nation to great power during the late 19th and early 20th century.  Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905 sent shockwaves through Europe as people were forced to rapidly rethink everything that they thought they knew about racial politics and the military balance between great powers.  Japan’s continued rise during the 1930s, and eventual attack on Pearl Harbor, had an even greater effect on American culture.

Since the earliest reporters and writers to travel to Japan noted that the custom of wearing swords was still in effect, swords became closely associated with the Japanese people in Western popular culture at an early date.  At first these weapons were often invoked as being quaint, backwards or a reminder of difficulties of dealing with the residual Samurai class.  Occasionally they were a point of derision.  But as Japan’s power in the Pacific began its miraculous ascent, the sword was reimagined as a symbol of cultural power, and hence it became the key symbol to understanding the new cultural mythology surrounding Japan.

It is important to understand that this mythology was something of a joint project.  Japanese intellectuals were acutely aware of how they were described and discussed in the West. Thus ideas tended to be passed back and forth between global audiences and their counterparts in Japan.  Oleg Benesch has demonstrated at length that the concept of Bushido (the supposed ‘soul of Samurai’) that arose during the Meiji period (and would go on to have a huge impact on all modern Japanese martial arts) had almost nothing to do with medieval Japanese warrior culture.  On the contrary, it was highly influenced by English notions of what it meant to be a gentleman. This probably goes a long way towards explaining the concept’s immediate popularity in the West. Likewise, Japanese and Western writers conspired together to reinforce the primacy of the sword in the national psyche.

Nor can we ignore the fact that America came into direct military conflict with the Japan.  As such, the “soul” of this nation had to be reimagined as something other than a typical national culture for domestic political purposes.  It had to be seen as both mysterious and dangerous, befitting the massive sacrifice of lives and material that was about to thrown into the war machine.  American propaganda extolled the deadly threat of Japanese swords as a material extension of the equally threatening Japanese culture.  Naturally, people were inclined to believe it as such notions legitimated the conflict and made American forces seem all the more heroic in victory.

Chinese swords, which also made many appearances in period newspapers during the 1930s-1940s, were a different matter.  They were not held up as the soul of a nation, so much as they were pointed to as proof of the backward state of the Chinese military.  While GMD propogandist tried hard to place the dadao and the katana on the same level, no such equivalency ever emerged in the Western imagination.  When we saw a poorly equipped Chinese soldier holding a sword and a satchel of the grenades the only message that ran through the collective American psyche was “Buy more war bonds!”

These images and associations would not vanish after 1945.  Rather, they continued to inform the following generation’s films, comic books and radio dramas.  The existence of Chinese swords seems to have been quickly forgotten, but their Japanese counterparts needed to remain to remind us of the nation’s heroic sacrifices in the Pacific and superior spiritual strength.  We needed the Japanese martial arts to be dangerous so that we could be great for overcoming them.

It goes without saying that these sorts of background ideas would have a huge impact on the global spread of the Asian martial arts.  GI’s were stationed all over Asia, and they were exposed to all sorts of stuff.  A few individuals, like R. W. Smith (working for the CIA in Taiwan) became interested in the Chinese fighting systems.  But a much greater number of veterans seem to have followed the example of Donn F. Draeger and thrown themselves into the Japanese fighting arts precisely because these had been “proven on the battlefield.”  Again, one could spend an entire book chapter unpacking exactly what that means as the Chinese probably used martial arts on the modern battlefield more than anyone else out of sheer necessity. Yet in the 1950s it was too easy to just accept it all as common sense.  After all, even the American military had adopted Judo as an official training tool in 1943.  Japan’s martial spirit thus became an important element in the creation of America’s postwar sense of self.

All of which brings us back to Keynes and his ever-practical officials toiling away in ignorance of the past.  Just because we are personally unsure as to how we got here, it does not follow that the past has no influence on us.  This is precisely why martial arts studies must deal with intellectual history as well as the intricacies of practice.  Consequently, it’s also the reason why Leonardo was carrying a set of katana rather than jian when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first emerged from the sewers in 1988. The presence of Japanese weaponry automatically conveyed something important about these characters to the audience.


An early incarnation of the turtles. Note the similar masks not yet differentiated by color.


This is not to imply that there is anything automatic or inevitable about such developments.  Intellectual history is as full of contingency, happenstance and construction as anything else.  This brings me to the subject of the news clipping which follows.  A number of posts on this blog have asked how China’s government during the 1930s sought to use their martial arts as a way to increase the state’s ‘soft power’ in the global sphere.  This got me wondering about Japan’s campaign, and how it had been received by the press at a time when tensions between the two countries were escalating.

The following article examines the visit of a Japanese Kendo teacher to Los Angeles in 1936.  Joseph Svinth has already shown that by this point the Japanese American community had all of the domestically produced instructors that they needed.  This visit seemed to be part of a formal visit.

What is very interesting is to see the gravity with which the reporter from the Los Angeles Times responds to a public Kendo demonstration.  Even a children’s event where youngsters were trying to pop balloons tied to one another’s helmets was treated as a deep cultural mystery.  Clearly the cult of the sword was already a part of the American image of Japan long before this article was written. Enatsu Sensei’s interview attempted to further the Japanese American community’s effort to build bonds of trust and understanding with the surrounding city.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 would destroy all of this.  The myth of the Katana would remain intact, but the LA’s kendo classes would be shut down by the government and many of the people and students in this article would probably end up in internment camps.  Feeling that Kendo was too closely tied to Japanese militarism most Japanese American would destroy their training equipment and forsake any practice of the art.  Very few were interested in returning to it after the end of WWII.  Ironically, it would be returning GI’s, instructors from Japan, and a handful of holdouts who would be forced to reintroduce the sport to American soil during the post-war period.

I like this article on a number of counts.  While the history of Kendo that it offers is totally unreliable, it does help to answer our initial question.  As a historical document it illustrates a vibrant regional martial arts community in the late 1930s, just a few years before its demise.  Finally it reminds us of the often-paradoxical relationship between the hard power of military might, and soft influence of cultural desire.  Enjoy.


T. Shimada leads a Kendo class in Los Angeles, 1933. Source: Vintage Press Photo. Author’s Personal Collection.


Japan Invades America

By Paul Willion. Los Angeles Times. January 12, 1936.


In the weird, half-light of gayly festooned streetlamps they look like fantastic automatons from a strange planet.  Toy balloons—shrieking reds, blues, greens and yellows—bob crazily about from anchorages atop black helmets.  Metal bars shine grotesquely from in front of oriental faces.  And dark costumes cover bodies to the feet, which are shod in white half-sox.

They stand there in two long rows, grimly facing each other, waiting. Their hands are clenched tightly about short, stout, bamboo poles.  And even as the onlookers begin to wonder if these can indeed, be humans, a shrill whistle bites the warm night air.

Instantly the two lines of Japanese youth leap toward each other, crashing blows upon one another with wild abandon. Some are battered to the street.  Others stagger, but remain erect.  The rest, either luckier or more expert, parry the torrent of thrusts in a mad battle royal of bursting balloons, clubbing, swaying bodies, and heavy grunting.

“It’s called ‘Kendo,’” volunteers an American-born Japanese youth, nodding towards the melee.  “It means ‘the way of the sword.’  Thirty-five million Japanese know how to play it!”

But that’s not the half of it.  This introduction of Kendo into the United States sounds an important diplomatic note-significant especially in that, choosing California as the radiating hub for their experiment, the Japanese recognize this state as the most promising in the New World from which to attempt to compose the cultures of East and West upon a newer and better basis of understanding.

The Japanese recall that we took baseball to the islands—and are pleased to believe that its immense popularity contains the germ of a wholesome plea for trans-pacific peace.  They know that golf, a purely occidental game in origin, swept Nippon like wildfire.  Nor could any intelligent person who witnessed the Olympic Games in Los Angeles do other than develop admiration for the amazingly quick mastery of Western sports by the Japanese.

But so far—with the exception of jiu-jitsu, never given much of a tumble on this side—the movement has all been in one direction.  Now the Japanese want to reverse that order, at least once.  And in Kendo they believe they’ve found a sport that will find response in America and provide thereby a means of widening Western appreciation of Japanese character and philosophy.

So it is that Kendo comes to California as an ambassador, for into its ritual and performance are woven the culture and race history of the Empire of the Rising Sun.  And, if by popularizing Kendo among Western nations from California as a center, another dimension can be added to closer understanding, Japanese diplomacy will feel well repaid for its efforts.

Kendo, mind you, is as old as Japan itself. Its history dates from the time of the Sun Goddess in the remote haze of antiquity some 2600 years ago. Kendo is at once a sport and a cult, inter-weaving the spiritual and the physical in a dyad ever an enigma of the Western mind.

“Know Kendo, know the Japanese.”

That is the message implied in the invasion of the United States by this unique and interesting sport.  It is the essence of things Japanese!

Every year a Kendo tournament is held in Japan.  Experts gather to compete.  Some come more than a thousand miles by sea and by land.  On May 5, Emperor Hirohito himself attends the annual matches held under auspices of the Japanese Fencing Union, dignifies the sport by his presence and places laurels upon the head of the victor.

No wonder that every public and private school in Nippon teaches this game!  It is estimated that fully half the islands’ population is versed in its intricacies and lore.  It is said, too, that Japanese school children in the outlaying provinces look upon the weekly visits of their Kendo teachers with all the eager anticipation of the Christian child for St. Nicholas.

The sudden outburst of Kendo in California is due to the visit of Prof. K. Enatsu, one of Japan’s foremost instructors. Since last February he’s been busy organizing classes throughout the State instructing likely pupils as future teachers of the gospel of Kendo in America.

Kendo has taken Nisei, the younger generation of Japanese in America, by storm.  The kids are crazy about it.  And if you saw the first pubic presentation of the sport on one of Little Tokyo’s streets in Los Angeles during Nisei Week last year, you saw the initial gesture made in the United States toward popularizing Kendo in the western world.

Now, a word about the game itself:

The mask worn covers the entire head and has long flaps that dangle down over the neck.  A thick towel is always worn on top of the skull as a protection against concussion.  The “do” is a hide circlet about the ribs, polished and black as patent leather.  It, too, has flaps these protecting the hips from the bruising force of blows deflected downward off the Shinai (bamboo sword) and from the body.  The Wrists and Fingers are armored with padded gauntlet gloves.

The Shinai, or dueling stick, is four and one-half feet long and made of four pieces of split bamboo glued together like a fly rod.  Such sticks are about two inches in diameter, have a small leather guard, and their tips are covered with a fine deer-skin thong so that they will not rip or tear an opponent’s skin or clothing.  Black cotton half-socks with a special compartment for the big toe complete the outfit.  Shoes or slippers are taboo, but participants may compete barefooted.

A rigorous ritual precedes each joust.  The two duelists bow, then kneel—their shinai, masks, gloves and towel in a near half-circle before them.  First, the towel is wrapped about the head.  Then the mask and gloves are donned.  All of these movements are so synchronized that the duelists finish dressing at exactly the same moment.  Again, they bow to each other, rise, move forward, cross their bamboo shinai, which are grasped with two hands like the old Scottish claymore, and, at a signal from the referee, the battle is on.

And you’ve never seen fast motion until you’ve had an eyeful of Kendo!

They attack, retreat, feint, and defend with movements that fairly challenge sight.  But the noise! It’s like Babel put on the loudspeaker.  The crisp crashes of shinai upon shinai and the duller thuds of bamboo finding head or body are augmented with constant shouts and grunts by the duelists—fearful indeed to Western sensibilities used to their fencing, boxing and wrestling enacted in almost church-like silence.

The four points of vulnerability are the head, torso, throat and arms.  A “touch” on any of these scores a point.  The combatants battle until a predetermined number of points has been amassed by one, or for a certain number of minutes, the winner being he who places the most touches at “time.”

Two separate schools constitute Kendo—foundation and combat.  Both are taught in Japanese gymnasiums and on playgrounds as well as in the military.  Foundations Kendo is presented in classes and includes instruction in several hundred different positions, thrusts and parries.  The pupil graduates into combat kendo, though not even the most astute pupil can hope to become expert in less than five or six years.

Before a shinai is ever laid in his hands, the pupil is schooled in the tradition of the sport—and it is this phase of playing that differs so radically from participation in European and American games.

To the initiate it is recounted that Kendo was born before the Christian Era, when the hardy men of the islands fought their foes with clubs, stouter and crueler than today’s shinai—but nonetheless comparable.  He is told the virtues of the Nipponese metal sword, a development from the original shinai.  And, with pride that surges to reverence, the teacher informs his pupils that Kendo has run parallel with the recorded history of the empire.  The oratorical preludes are usually concluded with the disclosure that, as a pure sport, Kendo was flourishing about the time Columbus was pointing the bowsprits of his tiny caravels toward distant western horizons.

Before that time Kendo was serious proposition!

Adeptness with which a warrior bandied his sword often told whether he would come home with his head on his shoulders or leave it unsung upon some battlefield.

About the time that the sword, as an effective means of attack, was being pushed into the limbo of forgotten things, some unheralded Japanese thought of preserving its fine traditions and spirit in a game.  Tournaments were organized, even as the knights of England held their jousts with the lane to the plaudits of admiring ladies; and since the date when kendo lost its original identity to become an exercise and spectacle, it has grown in popular esteem until today it is acclaimed the most widely practiced and venerated form of physical culture in Nippon.

Though kendo is strictly speaking a masculine sport, the system provides a less strenuous style for girls and women called “Naginata,” from the spear with which it’s performed.  Naginata is a drill stressing rhythm, grace and poise—not muscle building. Spoken words, intoned like sailors’ chanties, always accent the postures in a set series of gestures made to the sweep and click of the eight-foot long spears.  Few exercises are more graceful or colorful than Naginata done by a class of Japanese girls draped in their native gowns and obis, and with foreheads crowned with bands of white cotton cloth.

“Kendo teaches that the real enemy of man is inside, not outside, explained Prof. Enatsu.

“It avows that when we’ve conquered ourselves the physical enemy is likewise vanquished.  In the parlance of Kendo it’s lack of co-ordination, concentration and ethical perfection that defeat us.  Therefore, excellence in the art of Kendo strengthens our personalities and those characteristics which are the true measure of men.

“Kendo is so directed that it develops the finer impulses of life as well as the muscles.  The student is shown that physical outcome is the result of such items as thought, poise and tolerance and that if the individuals learns to subdue himself, he has won the greatest victory in life.  Kendo has never deteriorated int the status of a mere bag of tricks.

“Japanese fencing—though I dislike the term ‘fencing,’ even though in English there seems none more apt—amounts to a rite amongst our people.

“There is no such thing as defeat in Kendo, in the occidental meaning of the word.  The only possibility of defeat occurs if a combatant loses his temper, for which he’s in disgrace.  No one enters a tournament with malice.  It’s the inner enemy that the fencer is out to defeat.  The ideal of Kendo is to make the effort rather than to enjoy victory for victory’s sake.  Over and over again the student is cautioned that he must banish all thought of anger before advancing to the mat, that courtesy is more important than scoring a thrust, and that politeness is greater than brute strength.”

Savants, stooping to platitudes, tell us that to know the other fellows ideal, culture and customs is the high road to sympathetic understanding.  Nor is it any secret that strained relations existing at times between the United States and Japan can be assessed largely to an almost willful, and certainly pitiful ignorance of each other’s aspirations and problems.

And so, through the medium of a symbolic, representative sport that entranced thousands of Americans on the streets of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles during Nisei Week, many intelligent Japanese believe that they have found a key to unlock the door to many of the differences that have confused occidental and oriental cultures since the twain first met.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Tools of the Trade: The Use of Firearms and Traditional Weapons among the Tongs of San Francisco, 1877-1878.


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