Chinese martial studies, totally unique?


Chinese Martial Studies is a new and interesting research area.  It is exciting to read about as an explosion of new resources (both ancient and modern) is becoming available for the first time.  I hope to introduce and discuss a lot of this new material here, but from time to time I also want to discuss more general questions about the field.  It is my belief that we need to be self-conscious about what we are attempting to accomplish with our research if we wish to make an impact on the broader academic world.  As the great Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else.”  So in that spirit I want to discuss the nature and future direction of Chinese Martial Studies.

While there are a lot of topics to discuss we can group these questions into three separate categories.  I hope to post more specific thoughts on each of these topics in the future.  This post is just going to outline some general areas that I think need consideration.  First, is Chinese martial studies a field or a sub-field of something else?  Second, who is the intended audience of our research?  Those interested only in martial and military history, or do we seek a broader audience?  Third, how does one do “martial studies?”  Are there theoretical or methodological limitations to this field?

1.      Is Chinese Martial Studies a Distinct Academic Field?

To answer this question we must ask what role Chinese culture, as opposed to economic, technological, social and political factors play in explaining the unique shape of the nation’s martial heritage.  Or, put in a slightly different way, is Chinese Martial Studies part of a broader field composed of many previously published theories and studies focusing on military history around the globe, or is there something so unique about Chinese culture that all previous work and thinking of military historians and hoplologists simply needs to be thrown out.  Must we examine Chinese martial culture strictly within a Chinese framework?  Is there a unique logic to Chinese martial studies?

I have yet to see this question explicitly debated in print, but it needs to be addressed.  There seems to be a certain silent disciplinary schism forming around this very topic.  Students who come at these questions from the perspective of history and area studies tend (in my limited experience) to view China’s martial heritage strictly as derivative of its unique historical circumstance and culture.  Most specifically, there is a growing body of literature on the history of Chinese martial arts, written in Chinese by Chinese historians (which is a new and exciting phenomena worthy of its own post) yet by in large these works seem to address their topic in both geographic and theoretical isolation.

My own background is not in history, but rather in the social sciences.  As such I have been trained to look for general causes and broad relationships.  While I am sure that there are any number of possible explanations that one might give about the rising the importance of the spear and pike in 15th and 16th century China which focus on only events specific to that country, it seems relevant to me to note that pole weapons were also coming to dominate the battlefield in Japan to the east and Europe to the west at exactly the same time.  So the real question seems to be this: when is martial studies best thought of as a species of local history, and when is it a social science, with all of the intended demands of theory building and testing?  How should it be approached in the future?

2.      Audience: Do we preach to the Choir or the Congregation?

What are the larger aims of Chinese martial studies, or the study of any country’s martial heritage for that matter?  Is the goal to learn something only about the martial traditions themselves, or are we really trying to use the study martial arts to learn something new about Chinese society as a whole.

For instance, most of Chinese written history was recorded by elites, usually steeped in Confucian education and culture, and for the most part it totally ignores the concerns of society’s more plebian elements.  Yet overwhelmingly soldiers, guards, actors and boxing instructors came from the lower levels of Chinese society.  Hence a better understanding of Chinese martial culture might shed valuable light on the evolution of popular culture as a whole.

Put another way, when is it best to think of China’s martial traditions as the dependent variable (the thing that is explained) and when should we approach it as an independent variable (the explanation of a broader phenomenon.)   This is a tricky question that lacks any hard and firm answer.  I think that for the field to progress both research programs need to be pursued.  We need to show that we can master our own subject matter, but we also need to show how our studies shed light on broader questions in the social sciences and humanities.

Would understanding the evolution of the Japanese sword arts give us a better vantage point to think about the creation of the Chinese martial arts?

3.      Epistemology and Method: How do we “do” Chinese Martial Studies?

One of the best ways to demonstrate the vitality and relevance of Chinese martial studies is to engage the wider intellectual world through interdisciplinary work (i.e., co-authored studies that simultaneously reveal something about Chinese martial studies and another subject such as Chinese history, identity, globalization or cultural exchange).  I think that we need to see a lot more of this sort of writing in the future if our research area is going to thrive.  Of course before we can engage in interdisciplinary work we need to know something about the nature and the boundaries of our own discipline.

Again, this is a very tricky subject area.  Historians and those with historical leanings seem to dominate most of the literature on Chinese martial studies that currently exists.  Next we see a robust contingent of anthropologists who are interested in ethnographic analysis and questions of identity.  Beyond that the field appears to be quite fragmented.  There are a small number of social scientists (such as myself) with training in psychology, sociology or the politics of globalization and conflict.  Area studies is also well represented.  Lastly there are a growing number of students who approach these questions from the perspective of popular culture, literary or film criticism.

Certain of these approaches, such as the social sciences and some of the historians, seem to be positivist in their epistemology, whereas others, including the anthropologists and students of popular culture tend to favor an interpretive, or even post-modern, approach.  As it stands now Chinese martial studies is a diverse area, unified more by the questions that are asked than any overriding similarity in research method or grand unifying theory.

This diversity in views in and approaches strikes me as fundamentally a strength.  It leads naturally to the ability to “triangulate” important questions and concepts with multiple approaches.  Of course practitioners of the positivist and interpretive methods have not always been able to coexist.  The empirical sciences tend to rely on categories and concepts to make and categorize observations, and the work of many interpretivist scholars seems to be to tear these fundamental categories down as they contribute to or sustain power hierarchies.  Political science, anthropology, history and sociology have all seen conflict over these fundamental philosophical approaches.  One of my hopes for the emerging field of Chinese martial studies is that we will be able to learn from our collecting past and bring these different approaches together in a fruitful rather than destructive way.

These are some of the theoretical issues I am interested in exploring through posts on this blog.  Of course there is another, possibly more interesting way to approach this topic.  How would you imagine the ideal conference on Chinese Martial Studies?  Would it be a round table in a larger set of meetings?  Would it be its own week long affair?  What sorts of papers and disciplines should be invited?