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Chinese Martial Studies, Current Events, Pop Culture Kung Fu

Is the iPhone Killing Kung Fu? Economics and Globalization in Chinese Martial Studies.

The Hong Kong skyline at night. Like the rest of the developed world, China has become dependent on modern communication technologies.

The Traditional Chinese Martial Arts: Something that Young Adults used to do?

Globalization and technology are having an unmistakable effect on martial arts around the world, and the Chinese martial arts are no exception.  Of course this will not come as a great surprise to most of my readers.  Without a healthy and robust form of globalization it is fairly unlikely that any of us in the west would be practicing the Chinese martial arts in the first place.

Yet the effects of globalization are also being felt within China’s domestic martial arts community.  Sifus in a wide variety of styles and in many regions of the country lament the fact that young people today just aren’t interested in studying the martial arts like they used to be.  You know, back in the good old days, the 1990s.  Occasionally a preference for foreign students was even expressed.  This can be a complex thing and in certain circles there is some prestige attached to teaching “wealthy” foreigners.  Yet on a more basic level the thought seems to be that Canadians, Europeans and Africans are just a little more dedicated and obsessive about their practice than the average Chinese student today.

Adam D. Franks reports a widespread perception that the “golden age” of Kung Fu is gone in his interactions with the Shanghai Yang Style Taiji community (Palgrave 2006).  Likewise multiple Hong Kong based Wing Chun instructors expressed broadly similar sentiments in Jon Braeley’s recent film, “Wing Chun: A Documentary.”  There are vastly more Wing Chun students and instructors outside of China today than inside.  Whether this is a problem and what can be done to preserve the “Chinese” character of the art are questions that are being openly discussed by the current elders of the art.

What insights, if any, can the academic field of Chinese martial studies bring to these questions?  On a purely empirical level it is clear that fewer young Chinese teens are taking up martial arts training today than in past decades.  Nevertheless, this does not mean that they are uninterested in the martial arts.

They consume media, movies and video games that are all steeped in the mythology of hand combat.  In strictly economic terms the market for the “martial arts” is probably bigger now than it has ever been before.  Yet for the most part teens and young adults in China don’t actually practice them and are instead content to leave the martial arts as a “myth” in Joseph Campbell’s sense of the term.  All of this is happening at a time when China’s economy is coming off of decades of rapid growth and its society has never been more exposed to outside pressures and trends.

Is globalization to blame?  That question may be too broad to yield a single answer.  Globalization changes lots of things.  It often creates overlapping groups of winners and losers.  So we need to begin by narrowing our research question down.  Have the technological trappings of globalization, particularly electronic messaging in the form of small personal devices (e.g., smartphones), had a discernible negative effect on the number and quality of Kung Fu practitioners in China?  I think we can definitely make some informed guesses on this tightly focused question.

Why do Individuals Practice the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts?

From a martial studies standpoint the first thing that we need to come to terms with is why individuals in China, who are not part of the official government funded Wushu educational and career structure, choose to study the traditional martial arts in the first place.  Hand combat training is often physically and emotionally exhausting.  It requires getting up early in the mornings or loosing valuable evening recreational hours.  It is expensive, often requiring travel, tuition payments and occasionally special gear.  And it can be a very long term commitment.  It might take decades to master a style or reach the rank of “Sifu.”  So why were Chinese youth in the post WWII-era willing to pay these costs?

The most common answer given is that they needed some form of self-defense from violent attacks.  I believe that the martial arts can provide this, to a select and limited number of people.  It is my personal experience that nearly everyone who walks into a Wing Chun class says they are interested in self-defense, but few individuals are actually willing to sacrifice much in terms of increased training and dedication to get the skills they need to become competent fighters.  Fewer still have the right mindset for dealing with the harsh realities of actual violence.  But that doesn’t stop the vast majority of students from showing up anyway, credit cards in hand.  So what really motivates them?

Identity seems to be important in both the east and the west.  In American Kung Fu, students often seem to be disillusioned with some aspect of their mundane environment and want to create an additional layer of social meaning or identity in their lives.  Surprisingly the same forces seem to be at work in China.  For individuals in the south, Bruce Lee’s sudden rise to stardom legitimated martial attainment as a way of expressing both Chinese masculinity and identity, two things that the teenage boys of Hong Kong were very interested in cultivating.

The same thing happened in the north with the 1982 release of Jet Li’s “Shaolin Temple.”  This film has been called the “Star Wars” of modern Chinese popular culture.  It had an electric and transformative effect on the entire nation.  After years of official government disdain, and then their near extinction at the hands of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, the traditional martial arts were once again seen as a source of national strength and pride.  Enrollment in Kung Fu schools exploded, and those numbers stayed high until the turn of the 21st century.

I don’t think that an abstract yearning for identity alone can explain the sudden rise, or more recent decline, of the traditional Chinese martial arts.  The creation of identity is a challenge that must be overcome by the youth of each generation.  Nor has the population of mainland China turned their backs on militant nationalism.  In fact, national education policy officially promotes a brand of “wounded” ultra-nationalism that seems to have become the unofficial popular religion of the Chinese state.  Don’t believe me?  Why don’t you ask the Japanese embassy staff in any major Chinese city what sort of month they are having?  If national pride and a desire to see a China asserting its rightful leadership role in the world was really what inspired people to take Kung Fu classes there would not be an open slot in the country.

I think we need a closer look to the individual level of analysis to solve this puzzle.  Chinese society can be a rough and tumble place, and individuals from all levels of society have turned to voluntary associations and sworn brotherhoods to help them navigate the challenges of life.  I have a weakness for the old school academic literature on “social power” and while perusing a book I came across a relevant quote in an article on the role of sworn brotherhoods among Chinese teenagers in the late 1970s:

“Sworn brotherhoods, on the other hand, seem to be the type of groupings in which individuals are able to establish relationships that can be used to gain access to the strategic resources of power holders.  They are not organized on the basis of one categorical tie, but rather, on the bases of several, such as friendship, region, occupation and so on.  This multiplex foundation not only offers a wide range of potential links to power holders, but also serves as an important mechanism by which the solidarity of members is fostered.  At the same time the small size of the sworn brotherhood, their structure of fictive kinship—with all its attendant rights and responsibilities—and their social activities, all tend to facilitate the establishment of the bonds of intimacy that strengthen ties with power holders or help to provide access to them.  As a result, sworn brotherhoods are a type of coalition that has a great potential for individual security and advantage and, thus, continuing relevance in Taiwan.” (Gallin and Gallin p. 96)

Bernard Gallin and Rita S. Gallin. “Sociopolitical Power and Sworn Brotherhood Groups in Chinese Society: A Taiwanese Case.” In Raymond D. Fogelson and Richard N. Adams (eds.) The Anthropology of Power. New York: Academic Press. 1977. pp. 89-98.

A large martial arts school near the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province.  Students like these attend martial arts academies for different reasons than those discussed in the current article. Most of these teens aspire to a career in the military, police or private security forces.  A few might even become professional Wushu instructors.

Large numbers of Chinese youth only began to study the martial arts in the early 80s (1970s in Hong Kong) because prior to that time the social and political “barriers to entry” were just too high for the average urban middle class teenager with professional aspirations.  But when those barriers were rolled back and Kung Fu classes became a possibility they seem to solve the dilemma that Gallin and Gallin identified in their article.

A Kung Fu class, with its fictive kinship system, artificial teacher/father, veneer of great history and traditional values, and dedication of mutual empowerment, made the perfect “sworn brotherhood” for teens looking for social security and a possible future safety network.  Better yet, martial arts fiction was full of stories that fetishized martial arts clans as the ultimately sworn brotherhoods, notable for their unbreakable bonds of loyalty and trust.  Remember, all of these kids were deeply steeped in Jin Yong novels and other similar stories.

I believe that this is the ultimate origin of the “fundamentalist” strain that I have detected and discussed elsewhere, in the post-WWII Chinese martial arts movement.  Teachers from China who survived the 1930s and 1940s were often tempered with the sure knowledge of what violence was actually like.  They had seen the Nationalist government attempt to use secret societies to govern the nation, and they knew all too well how that story ended.  As a group they tended not to be great romantics.  Guys like Ip Man, Koh Chun and Cheung Lai Chuen wanted to teach their students how to fight and how to win.  For them fighting was a matter of survival.

Their teenage students had a slightly different set of values.  Sure they wanted to be tough and they wanted people to fear them.  What pack of 16 year old boys doesn’t want that?  But they were also looking for something more, a social support system.  And so they viewed their classes as “sworn brotherhoods” (something which their teachers, by in large, did not) and ended up actually espousing a more “traditional” set of values than their teachers.  These norms were learned as they imitated the supposed “proper behavior” of sworn brotherhoods as portrayed in popular films and novels.  These former teenagers are now the elders of the Chinese martial arts movement today, and they still often display and promote an obsession with lineages, loyalty and discipleship ceremonies that boxers from the 1930s or 1940s (let alone the peasant militias of the 19th century) might find puzzling.

In short, many martial classes in China during the post WWII period generated a number of “sworn brotherhoods” not because these groups were in any way necessary to mastering the art, but rather they were valued for the social and economic benefits that they promised.  This doesn’t mean that the martial arts were an afterthought.  Teenagers wanted to be seen as physically strong, and they wanted to command respect in their neighborhoods.  Kung Fu was popular because a good martial arts class solved both of these problems at once.

Nor are we the first ones to suggest that the desire to form social networks lay behind popular interest in the martial arts in urban areas.  Writing about an earlier time and place (Guangzhou during its period of modernization in the second half of the 19th century) Lin Boyan, a Chinese scholar, observed that the poor peasants streaming in from the country side often had some training in martial arts, and they took these skills and interests to the city with them.  He notes the cases of dozens of Guangzhou factories where workers set up their own private martial arts schools, often going to some lengths to import or hire an instructor.  These schools provided a way for workers to network, socialize, search out new jobs or organize to press their social demands. (see Lin Boyan. “Zhongguo jindai qiaqi wushujia xiang chengshi de yidong yiji dui wushu liupai fenshua de yingxiang.” Tiyu Wenshi 79. May 1996. pp. 14-16.)

Why do Chinese Martial Arts Associations make effective Sworn Brotherhoods?

I think that there is another dimension to all of this that deserves to be explored as well.  Not many economists theorize about the role of religion in society, but those who do have generated some interesting hypotheses.  Thinking about religion in the west (where individuals are presumed to have a choice as to what church they will ultimately join) Laurence Iannaccone encountered a similar paradox to the one that I outlined above for the martial arts.

All individuals have a set budget of time, money and resources.  That is simply an inescapable fact of life.  Further, they instinctively want to get as much for their money as they can.  All religions can provide spiritual services and a rudimentary safety-net, but why would someone voluntarily join a church that requires a lot more time and money (such as the Jehovah Witnesses or the Mormons) as opposed to a more relaxed church that promised all of the same benefits but at a lower personal cost (such as the Methodists, who have a chapel right down the street).  From an economic standpoint this just doesn’t make any sense.  A firm that charges more for less should go out of business.   The same basic logic applies to our Chinese youths.  A sworn brotherhood is good and all, but do you really have to get up at 5:00 in the morning and then go to school sore and bruised to enjoy its benefits?

In a landmark article entitled “Why Strict Churches are Strong” Iannaccone proposed that such sacrifices might be quite rational.  The problem is that in any human group you find a certain number of free-riders.  These are individuals who either are less committed to the goals of the group than the average member or perhaps they just have fewer resources to donate.  Whatever the reason, they take more than they give.  Left unchecked this free-riding element can destroy the social and physical capital of a religious community, and from my own teaching experience I can tell you that they do not improve the feel or performance of a martial arts classroom. (see Laurence R. Iannaccone. “Why Strict Churches are Strong.” AJS Vol. 99 No. 5 (March 1994) pp. 1180-1211).

Of course regulating and banning free-riders is hard as no one will admit to shirking, and individuals are often very good at hiding the true nature of their contributions.  Instead of auditing individual members (which is costly) many successful social organizations impose high barriers to entry.  These force individuals to make choices that then reveal their actual level of resources and commitment.  Rather than investigating the commercial prospects of an applicant’s business, and the soundness of their investments, the country club just asks for a $250,000 “membership gift.”  If that seems like a reasonable number to you then you are the sort of member they are looking for.  Rather than setting up an inquisition to establish the faith of its members, an LDS congregation asks for a 10-15 hour a week time commitment and 10% of your income.  Those who cannot or do not want to pay simply stop coming.  In this sort of a system free-riders eliminate themselves.

Seen in this light all of those bumps and bruises in the martial arts classes start to make sense.  They are a classic barrier to entry.  If you wish to form a sworn brotherhood chances are you are looking to advance yourself.  You want to tie your fortunes to hard working committed people, people with a job and enough free time and money that they can at least take a Kung Fu class.  The mythology of the martial arts provided the strong traditional norms that Chinese youth in the post WWII era seemed to have preferred.  But it was the brutal workouts that kept out the weak and uncommitted.

In summary, the popularity of martial arts instruction exploded in China in the 1970s-1990s because it provided a rather clever solution to a number of problems that Chinese youth in urban environments faced.  It addressed their need for an individual and collective identity, gave them a source of traditional healthcare, provided networking opportunities that could lead to employment or housing and served as a template for the mass production of sworn brotherhoods.  The Kung Fu class was the perfect tool for its age.

Young adults packed into the Apple Store at the International Finance Center Mall. Hong Kong, 2012.

Technology as a Substitute for Traditional Martial Arts Communities.

Can you guess what tool the youth of China turn to today when they seek to solve all of these same problems?  That’s right, they reach for their iPhones.  For many years Chinese workers could not afford expensive smart phones and data-plans.  In the last few years all of that has started to change.  China is currently set to become the largest purchaser of iPhones in the world.  Samsung and Motorola phones are selling briskly as well.

CNN recently ran a very interesting article on this transformation in consumer buying.  They also provided some anecdotal evidence to what others had suspected, that this is also leading to an unprecedented change in the social behavior and relationships of young urban consumers.  Modern cell phones lower the costs of all sorts of communication, from voice to video to micro-blogging, tremendously.  As the costs of communication come down it becomes easier and cheaper to create and maintain different sorts of networks.

“Home town associations” are being replaced by a digital phone book full of the numbers of your actual friends and cousins from your real home town.  Networking to find jobs still exists, but now it is more likely to happen on-line, using specialty software, than face to face.  Medical apps can tell you when you are sick enough to go to the hospital and the street mapping function will show you where the closest emergency room is.  Needless to say, you will probably want to call the ambulance the old fashioned way.

Technology is changing when and how people choose to communicate and the ways in which social networks form.  Just for fun read what the young people in the CNN article say that they use their phones for, and then go back and compare it to the quote by Gallin and Gallin.  It is amazing to me the speed with which these voluntary youth associations (sworn brotherhoods) are being replaced with iPhone apps.

This trend creates a big problem for traditional Chinese martial arts instructors.  It’s not that Kung Fu has become unpopular.  Far from it.  Kung Fu stories, movies and video games still sell quite well.  Young individuals still wrap themselves in this mythology when seeking out an identity and sense of meaning.  But as sworn brotherhoods become less a part of youth life, the key economic and social functions that martial arts classes once provided begin to recede.  Now the economic, physical and temporal “barriers to entry” become just a little too expensive to justify.  In economic terms the game is no longer worth the candle and socially they no longer serve a useful signaling function to other peers.  No one is watching, they are all glued at their phones instead.

Add to this the ever increasing demands of school and work, and we have a perfect storm.  Sure, China is a big place and there will always be marginal youth and orphans sent to massive physical education programs to stock the nation’s performance Wushu teams, military and police forces.  Yet the true amateur athletes (middle class kids in urban and rural areas) who supported the growth of the traditional martial arts in decades past, just aren’t showing up.  And that is a problem.  I blame Steve Jobs…for a great many things.

Or maybe not.  Remember, there is still that argument about why strict churches are strong.  While fewer people are religious today (again one can blame modernization for that trend as much as anything else) those that do believe are more committed than ever before.  Might we see a similar trend with the Chinese martial arts?  Could we reach a place where we have fewer students in the future, but their lack of numbers is made up for by greater commitment?

A trip to any public park in China would seem to indicate that the average age of the traditional martial arts community is increasing. At the same time, senior citizens may have a greater need for strong social networks and more resources to devote to finding them.

Economic modernization and globalization are messy phenomena.  They affect lots of things at once and sometimes these various forces are set against one another.  Talking about globalization is sort of like doing acupuncture with a fork.  It is never the case that just one variable gets “poked.”

Gallin and Gallin actually suggest there are reasons to expect to see more reliance on sworn brotherhoods in China in the future as modernization goes forward.  To summarize their complex point very briefly we must remember that larger forms of organization have always existed in China.  These might include clan organizations, guilds, literary schools and local councils.  Today we might add things like universities, development committees and trade groups to the list.  In a modern society with massive problems these broader groups, which encourage the creation of linking social capital and have greater resources and information at their disposal, might seem like a better venue for problem solving and wealth creation.

This is often the case.  But there is also a catch unique to bureaucratic-authoritarian political systems.  As China’s government strengthens and modernizes it has the effect of splintering these sorts of broadly organized groups into competing factions.  This “factionalization” of large social groups might actually result in more enthusiasm for local voluntary associations as they are easier to insulate and better at protecting their members.  This raises the possibility that the decline in sworn brotherhoods (and hence martial arts schools) might be self-limiting.

Conclusion: Globalization, Technology and Chinese Martial Studies

I have never conducted any field research on this question, and it is the sort of thing that can and should be empirically studied.  But I do talk to my Chinese students and graduate students about these questions and it appears to me that both mechanisms outlined above are at work today.  Lower communication costs and better electronic networks are quickly eroding traditional social structures.  At the same time tight groups of friends with diverse backgrounds remain necessary in some spheres and are often the only possible form of social organization if you have a serious problem with local government or business interests.

So where do we stand?  While globalization has been great for western martial artists it has been a mixed blessing for schools and organizations in China.  Some have been well positioned to use this technology to spread their message and art.  Others have seen their reputations eclipsed.  Almost all schools have seen an actual decline in the number of new students and we can probably explain this shift best in economic and social terms.  However, these trends are self-limiting and the martial arts retain an important place in Chinese popular culture.  I don’t think we will see a return to the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s anytime soon, but it is clear that a smaller, more stable, market for the traditional martial arts still exists.

Discussion

15 thoughts on “Is the iPhone Killing Kung Fu? Economics and Globalization in Chinese Martial Studies.

  1. great essay. I see a lot of the things you mention here with friends and masters I know – young adults lacking interest, older people clinging to traditions, security guard as end result. There are some masters and martial artists who are actually taking advantage of the iPhone. One taiji master I know has an app with 6 moves (boiled down from 108) that he markets to CEOs …

    Posted by Sascha | November 7, 2012, 6:23 am

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