Asian Martial Arts: Constructive thoughts & practical applications: The good, the bad and the ugly.
I recently received my issue of Asian Martial Arts: Constructive thoughts & practical applications, edited by Michael A. Demarco. So far I have only read the first half of the book (the part labeled “constructive thoughts”) and I have to admit that my reaction is a bit mixed. A few of the essays have been quite good. Others have been disappointing, often repeating outdated myths and old chestnuts rather than addressing them. I doubt some of the editorial decisions that were made as well. It seems to me that if you have a chance to write your own swansong as an “academic” or “intellectual” journal you would want to produce something that would be absolutely indispensable. Something seminal. Something that people would have to cite for years. By limiting the length of each of the “academic” articles and forbidding the authors from using footnotes (even when discussing the state of the literature), JAMA has more likely assured that none of this material will make a major impact on the field. And that was always the problem, wasn’t it?
I was quite conflicted as I was reading this. On the one hand it reminded me of all of the enjoyment I had gotten out of the journal over the years. On the other hand this final issue really highlighted some of the fundamental structural flaws in the project. I know that some will say it is impolite to speak ill of the recently departed, and I will miss JAMA as much as the next person. Still, my department would never consider it a “scholarly journal” and I expect that the vast majority of deans and department chairs across the country would agree with that assessment. This last issue reminded me of all the reasons why that was probably the right call.
However, there were some pieces in the mix that were quite good and I would like to highlight one of them here. Kai Filipiak is a historian and professor from Germany. He teaches at the University of Leipzig and specializes in Chinese military history and martial arts. He has written a number of pieces, but most of these are in German. As a result I, and I expect quite a few other people, overlooked him. His first monograph was titled Die chinesische Kampfkunst – Spiegel und Element traditioneller chinesischer Kultur (The Chinese martial art – mirror element of traditional Chinese culture, published by the University of Leipzig, Leipzig 2001). The only English language publication that I have been able to locate is “From Warriors to Sportsmen: How Traditional Chinese Martial Arts Adapted to Modernity” Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 2010, vol. 19, no 1, pp 30-53. I have attempted to order this article a couple of times but with no luck.
Chinese Martial Studies: Thoughts on the state of the field.
For Constructive Thoughts & Practical Applications Filipiak was asked to write a short essay summarizing the current state of the Chinese martial studies literature and the challenges that it faced. His contribution can be found on pages 24-27 and is titled “Academic Research into Chinese Martial Arts: Problems and Perspectives. This was the article I was most eager to read, and while too brief and lacking citations, it did not disappoint. I think that Filipiak captured the current state of the literature quite nicely, and my biggest objection to his pieces is that it is being published in the final issue of a closing journal. This little essay deserves a much wider readership than it is likely to get. It could certainly be the jumping off point for many interesting conversations.
While brief Filipiak’s writing is clear and highly structured. He basically divides his essay into three sections. The first of these looks at the structural and institutional challenges facing the field of Chinese martial studies. These can basically be summed up in a single word, “tenure.” It is what all young scholars need to win if they wish to become old scholars.
Academic presses are publishing fewer books these days that makes them less likely to support projects in areas of marginal importance, like martial arts history. Further, tenure review committees often have very strong opinions about the types of research that young professors should be doing and, oddly, Kung Fu is never at the top of their list. In short, there are severe challenges to be overcome by those wishing to write and research in the area of Chinese martial studies and they probably will not be resolved any time soon. Still, Filipiak things that young scholars should continue to network around the subject of Chinese martial studies and look for new venues for their work.
Next he turns to the subject of our research. He begins by pointing out the obvious fact that the entire study of the Chinese martial arts is badly under-theorized in ways that are likely to be detrimental to what research is being done. Building up a basic store of ideas and shared concepts will be critical if we are to go forward. His thoughts in this area are spot on, and anyone who is new to the field should think about them:
“we need a more precise definition [for] what the martial arts really are. The term was originally applied to forms for fighting in East Asia, and it describes a modern phenomenon of cultural significance. Late the impression was given that this art of fighting has a long history with origins we can trace back to the Neolithic period. But there is a large gap between throwing stones and attacking the head with your leg. Actually, we have no idea when Chinese martial arts began, and this problem is also related to terminology. Most people talking about Chinese martial arts have in mind popular styles such as Shaolin, Taiji, Bagua and others. They do not keep in mind that these complex systems are the products of the very late period of Chinese history.” (Filipiak p. 25).
His basic point is absolutely correct. We don’t actually know when the “traditional Chinese martial arts” began and our poor conceptualization of what those words even mean prevents us from discovering, or possibly accepting, the answers to even basic questions.
Filipiak then goes on to note that there are a number of other problems with the literature. Very often these have to do with the research questions that we ask. To begin with, he notes that Chinese martial studies is uneven its development. Too much attention is lavished on Shaolin in his opinion and other martial temples, as well as the subject of monastic violence more generally, is being ignored. A quick run through his CV seems to indicate that Filipiak himself has actually written quite a bit about Shaolin, so I am not sure what to make of this criticism. However, I have been very interested in the question of comparative monastic violence for some time (why did it express itself differently in China than Japan) so in the main I agree with his remarks. Of course Shahar can only write one book at a time. Spreading the research around implies that we first groom and train more scholars.
He goes on to note that we see this “unevenness” in other areas as well. Many of China’s unique fighting arts were developed by ethnic minorities. Often these are ignored by modern scholars who focus only on the more popular arts of the Han majority. Filipiak claims that Chinese martial studies needs to extend its reach into these areas as well and that it has much to add in the area of minority and ethnic studies.
Again, it is hard to disagree with this statement. However, it also seems to me that this mostly reflects the preoccupations of the English (and possibly German) language literature. Ma Mingda is one of the most respected martial arts historians in China today and he writes voluminously on the arts of ethnic minorities. There is certainly some awareness of the issue in China. I am not so sure about America. This is likely to change given Ma Mingda’s leadership role in the recently launched Journal of Chinese Martial Studies.
I suspect that we actually need to go far beyond Filipiak’s recommendation to consider ethnic minorities. As regular readers will know I have long advocated a regional approach to the study of the Chinese martial arts. In my experience these arts are best understood as a branch of local history. We need more studies focused on the provincial and even city level, and fewer grand national narratives. I do not wish to be misunderstood on this point. It is not that national level events, such as wars or changes in trade patterns, aren’t important. They certainly are. But each region of China had its own social, cultural and economic institutions and these tended to act like a prism that bends and redirects these shared systemic pressures in different ways.
The martial arts did not develop the same way in Shanghai that they did in Shandong. And what you see in Chengdu or Hong Kong is once again quite different. These are precisely the sorts of issues that the field of Chinese martial studies should be investigating. In fact, these sorts of studies could make a critical contribution to our understanding of regional and local history and identity.
The Place of Chinese Martial Studies in the Arts and Humanities
I am actually much more optimistic about the future growth and importance of Chinese martial studies than Filipiak seems to be. I suspect that some of this may have to do with the fact that he is a historian and I am a social scientist. Historians often structure their works around making “descriptive inferences.” If your subject is a martial arts community then you must describe the history of said community. Obviously such a book will probably be of marginal interest except to a handful of practitioners. This is a challenge that a certain sub-set of academics face and its hardly unique to those who are interested in the martial arts.
Yet the situation is not nearly so dire for the rest of us. As a social scientist it is not my job to describe, but to explain. Most explanations are actually stories that revolve around two sorts of variables. These are “independent variables” (usually there are a whole set of them) and the “dependent variable” (the item that is being investigated). So if I was interested in economic growth I might propose a theory like this, more exports lead to more economic growth. Or E–>GDP. In this case “exports” is my “independent variable” and “GDP” is my “dependent variable.”
It seems that when most academics write about their own pet subject, be it religion, trade, movies or even Kung Fu, they tend to make the object of their affect the dependent variable. And that’s understandable, the dependent variable is the star of the show. But it usually radically limits the appeal of the show to those who are just as interested in the same religions, movies, trade deals or Kung Fu schools that you are. Such works always have a hard time building a large audience unless they get lucky and hit just the right subject as it happens to peak in the public consciousness.
But what if we made “Chinese martial arts” the independent variable instead? What if instead of always explaining the origins of these arts (which few other scholars care about) we were to use our mastery of them to investigate and illustrate other facets of Chinese society that scholars do care about?
So, what sorts of discussions could a better understanding of the martial arts contribute to? Filipiak points to a couple when he mentions film, opera and nods towards globalization. However the list is much longer and more distinguished than he lets on. From my perspective as a political scientist I think the rise of the martial arts as an independent social movement comprised of various private groups and schools in the early 20th century could be important for understanding the slow, and at times halting, development of civil society in China. Chinese civil society, including both its pathologies and promise, is a hot topic among scholars right now.
Social scientists are also very interested in the development and future of Chinese nationalism. Again, this is an area where a better understanding of the history of Chinese martial arts could make a difference. At the very least it would make for an intriguing case study in a longer book. The Jingwu, Guoshu and later Wushu movements have all had explicitly nationalist goals. Repeatedly the state has used traditional martial arts, often quite successfully, to further its social and political agenda.
Regional and local identity is a topic of increasing importance for China studies scholars. Currently identification with China and Chinese nationalism has reached its lowest point in Hong Kong since the 1997 return. It is also probably no accident that the most important martial art in Hong Kong today is Wing Chun, a stubbornly local style with deep connections in the Cantonese linguistic community. Further, the recent bio-pic of Ip Man (a Wing Chun master who taught in Hong Kong in the 1950-1960) received standing ovations when it showed the mild mannered local martial artist standing up to not just the Japanese, but other “foreign” Kung Fu masters from northern China. I could certainly go on listing topics, but I think it would only add to the length of this post without expanding its substance.
Globalization, nationalism, regionalism and the development of civil society are not marginal topics in the modern social sciences. Especially not when we are talking about China. These are the big questions. These are the sorts of topics that win grants, see conferences organized and get books published. We in the field of Chinese martial studies are in a very interesting position because we are well suited to comment on each and every one of these questions. Once we successfully engage the wider academic field in these discussions they will be the ones demanding the more specialized martial histories that Filipiak and others seem interested in writing.
Eventually all of that will come. We will get to write books that take the Chinese martial arts as the dependent variable. But for now I think we should be concentrating on the other side of the equation. How do we explain Chinese society and culture using the martial arts?
Who should we look to as a viable model? I would suggest Esherick and his venerable study of the Origins of the Boxer Uprising. This one book has probably done more to make Chinese martial studies a viable field than anything written before or since. But if you want to find out why you will need to read more here.
Conclusion: I am so glad to have met you!
I really recommend that anyone interested in the academic study of the martial arts get a hold of Filipiak’s essay and look it over. It will only take a few minutes but he sums up the state of the literature nicely. While I wish he could have developed his critique further in some places, I was impressed with what I read. I will certainly look forward to more contributions from this scholar in the future.