I do not post advertisements on this site, and so I would not normally display an image like this. However, this photo really captures something about the modern urban martial arts experience.  Photo Credit: the Wah Lum Kung Fu School in Boston.

Globalization and the Evolution of the Traditional Martial Arts

As we have seen in previous posts, the economic and social changes that accompany any era of globalization always creates patterns of winners and losers.  In North America and Europe the traditional Asian fighting arts have been big winners.  They have found a generally receptive and dedicated audience.  Over half a century they rose from obscurity to the point where one simply expects to find a couple of martial arts schools in any medium sized town in Germany, Canada or America.  The quality of practice and the dedication of the students has also improved immensely.  Be careful when evaluating the often heard claim that everything was better in the “good old days” (which in the US means the 1970s or 1980s).  The truth is that what we have today is about the best environment for studying the Asian martial arts that has ever existed.  Nor is there anything inevitable about this.  Globalization has not been nearly so kind to the traditional martial arts in China.  There we see many traditional schools struggling just to survive.

This success does not mean that we can rest on our laurels.  While the Asian martial arts often project an air of great antiquity, the truth is they are reinvented in every generation.  If we have learned one thing from our study of history, it is that they must maintain a certain level of relevance to society if they wish to survive.  As society changes and evolves the martial arts are re-imagined and recreated.  Only in that way can they can continue to thrive.

If this process of continual evolution pauses for even one generation these fighting systems will die out and disappear from popular consciousness.  This is exactly what happened to the historical western fighting arts in the 19th century.  We tend to imagine individuals like Ueshiba, Sun Lutang and Ip Man as the embodiment of “tradition.”  But that was only part of their role.  Each of these individuals was also a reformer who looked at the changing world around them and asked what the martial arts needed to become to survive.  Much of what we honor as “ancient tradition” is really a much more recent innovation.  Sometimes it is even an advertising ploy whose original purpose has been forgotten or papered over.

All of this gives me great hope.  The traditional fighting arts of China and Japan, as they exist today, are actually a product of the industrialized modern age.  In some respects they are a reaction against modernity, but they certainly could not exist as commercial public institutions without it.  There is nothing fundamentally incompatible about the martial arts and the modern world.  They evolved to survive in the past and I am sure they will be able to do it again in the future.

Nevertheless, this process is far from automatic.  It requires much reflection and wisdom.  It also requires a good deal of insight about what potential students actually want and a fair amount of luck.  I cannot do anything about the luck, but I hope to provide some interesting data in this post for anyone thinking about the future of the martial arts in the west.

The State of the Traditional Asian Fighting Arts in America Today

I realize that many of my readers here at Kung Fu Tea hail from outside the USA.  Yet when gathering and comparing data geographic precision is important.  All of the specific data that I present in this article was gathered with reference to the American economic market.  I think the same basic trends that I am discussing here can also been seen in Canada, Western Europe, Mexico and even parts of Asia, but your mileage may vary.

Any assessment of the market for “traditional martial arts” in the US will turn up a lot of good news.  To begin with, the martial arts have great name recognition and people report having a generally positive attitude towards them.  Terms like “karate”, “Judo” and “Kung Fu” are widely understood.  Further, Americans from a variety of age groups, genders and ethnic backgrounds all report having some experience with the martial arts.

As a matter of fact, the single most surprising statistic out there might be just how many Americans have actually studied a martial art at one point in time.  Garey Gablehouse of Fairfield Research conducted an interesting survey for Fighting Arts Magazine.  A carefully selected random sample of 1,000 Americans showed that just over 21% of them had studied some martial art at one point in time.  This means that roughly one in five American adults (about 20 million people) has some personal experience in the martial art.  2.8% of American adults reported being current members of a school and roughly 3% of American children are currently enrolled in martial arts classes.  Most individuals who no longer practice walked away from these experiences with a positive impression of the martial arts, and left their last school due to circumstances beyond their control (a move, new job, new schedule or a changing financial situation).

These numbers suggest some interesting facts.  While children make up roughly half of the American martial arts market, they are not nearly as dominant a segment as some have suggested.  It is still possible to run classes aimed at adults.  However, the popularity of certain arts does seem to vary by age cohort.

The other thing that this data suggests is that there are a large number of adults with some martial arts experience that might be convinced to pick up the art up again if they find something that fits their new situation in life.  I can report that I am one of these individuals.  I studied Tae Kwon Do, stopped after an injury in college, moved around the country a couple of times, and eventually found a Wing Chun school that changed my outlook on the martial arts.  This demographic is a ready made market that many industries would find enviable.  But are traditional martial arts schools reaching them?

Boxing is another combat sport that seems to have fallen on hard times. While still vital at the elite level, grass-roots interest in the sport has dropped dramatically. Will the traditional Asian fighting arts suffer the same fate?

Declining Interest in the Traditional Martial Arts

The quick answer would appear to be no.  When evaluating trends in a market its important to know not just what the absolute numbers are at the moment, but where they are going.  We need some way to evaluate the slope of our demand curve (or its second derivative for you calculus students).  Whether this number is increasing or decreasing tells us if interest in our product (in this case the traditional martial arts) is increasing or decreasing.

While marketers and academics are always looking for these sorts of numbers, traditionally this type of data has been hard to get.  You would have to conduct surveys and that is usually quite expensive.  For a small industry it is just not worth the cost to conduct big national level surveys.

However, Google has recently released a new tool named “Google Trends” that gives us a peek at just this sort of data.  Google Trends records how many individuals query various terms using their search engine, and then plot a graph showing how interest in a given topic is increasing or decreasing over time.  This is not the same as a direct survey of consumer sentiment, but there is every reason to believe that online searches for “Wing Chun Lessons” are a good proxy for people who would be interested in taking Wing Chun classes.  If there is a sudden surge of searches for local Wing Chun schools, I think we can safely assume that interest in the art is going up.  If, on the other hand, we see a steady longitudinal decline over a ten year period in searches for Aikido, we can also assume that consumer interest in the art is dropping.

Before you start heading over to Google to check out the new tool, a few cautions are in order.  If you type your own name in you will find that you are probably not trending.  That is because hundreds of thousands of individuals need to search for a term over many years to generate reliable results.  The more people are searching, the more reliable the estimate of consumer interest becomes.  So very small arts or specific schools might not show up at all, and even if they do we might not know how reliable the data really is.

Secondly, how you phrase your search term can be quite important.  It turns out that whether you are looking for a “Wing Chun Kwoon” or a “Wing Chun School” will effect the shape of the curve that the Google generates.  In statistical terms we say that the model “lacks reliability” because even small changes in how the equation is specified can have a big impact on the outcome.  Why is this?  Again, it has to do with the sample size.  Lots of people search for “Wing Chun Schools” so that tends to gives reliable results over time.  With data like that you can see a clear pattern.  Many fewer people search for the grammatically and culturally incorrect “Wing Chun Dojos” so that sort of data tends to exhibit wild swings.

I have tried to specify my searches in a way that they will be reliable and reportable.  Sometimes this took a little bit of experimentation.  For instance, if you are interested in the Chinese martial arts and you just search for “Kung Fu” what you mostly get are the release dates for the various “Kung Fu Panda” films.

In 2011 Google changed something about how they measured the geographic origin on various search requests.  This also had some impact on their data.  All in all, this tool is suggestive but it is probably not definitive.  I think it can suggest a number of research questions that we should investigate in the future, but I am not sure I would want to use this information in a journal article without knowing a lot more about how Google calculates their numbers.

Lastly, as Yogi Berra once said, “prediction is difficult, especially about the future.”  Google Trends is a great way of measuring what has happened in the past, but it is impossible to know how long any trend will continue because there are always new exogenous factors to consider.  If you are trying to decide whether to buy gold you actually don’t care what the price of gold has done in the past, you only care about what is likely to happen in the future.  And that depends on all sorts of stuff that you won’t find on a Google Trends graph.  The graphs that we are about to examine are a record of history, not destiny.

Ten year trend in Google searches for “Martial Art School.”

The preceding graph is a typical example of a Google Trends result.  This one displays the change in the number of searches for the term “Martial Arts School” from 2004 to the present.  I limited it to searches that originated in the US (though it is possible for readers to select any country or state that they might be interested in).  The graph shows a fair amount of seasonal variability (which will not come as a surprise to anyone who has ever taught the martial arts.  January tends to see a lot more new students than November).  It also shows a clear declining trend over time.  General searches for martial arts schools have declined almost 80% since their peak in 2005.

Of course these declines have not been evenly distributed across all styles.  A few large styles probably account for a disproportionate share of this decline.  Other styles have remained steady, and few have even increased in popularity, bucking the trend.  Things get really interesting when we start to look at specific winners and losers.

Public Interest in the Traditional Japanese Arts: Karate, Judo and Aikido, 2004-Present.

Google searches for “Karate Dojo” 2004-2012. Note, this result was sensitive to whether you searched for a “school” or a “dojo.”
Google searches for “Aikido” 2004-present.
Google searches for “Judo School” 2004-present. Note while this search is sensitive to the distinction between “School”, “Club” and “Class”, all three terms show a clear pattern of decline.

Each of the “big three” traditional Japanese arts shows a marked pattern of decline from a peak in the 2004-2005 era.  Again, what these graphs illustrate is that there are far fewer people out there are doing web searches to find local dojos, schools or classes than there were ten years ago.  Karate has proved to be the most stable of these arts in terms of maintaining its original level of public interest.  Judo saw massive declines in popularity in the 1980s, and apparently that trend continues into the present decade.  Aikido showed perhaps the most dramatic declines in searches, though one should be quite careful about declaring the art dead.  Remember, all that these graphs show is changes in the trend, they don’t tell us anything about the “baseline” number of students who are actually out there.

Total volume for search terms: Aikido, Karate and Judo. 2004-Present. Note that Aikido is in brown.

This graph nicely illustrates that the fact that there are vastly more people searching for some martial arts rather than others.  This is a combination of both popularity and the fact that some arts have developed more of an online culture than others.  Aikido is one of the arts that has always generated a lot of online activity.  Their searches have declined significantly, but they still dwarfs Judo and Karate in absolute terms.

While the Japanese first introduced the idea of the martial arts to America, and they continue to hold a privileged place in popular culture, the preceding trends look disturbing.  At some point fewer people reading articles about Aikido or searching for local Karate Dojos must lead to lower class enrollments and more schools closing their doors.  This is already happening, but other arts have been even harder hit.

The Korean Martial Arts in America: Tae Kwon Do

Google searches for “Tae Kwon Do” from 2004-Present.
Google searches for “World Tae Kwon Do Federation” the governing body of the Olympic Tae Kwon Do movement. 2004-Present.

As the first graph demonstrates, there has been a marked decline in the number of people searching for information about Tae Kwon Do on the internet over the last decade.  The same result holds if you narrow the field to include only those searches for Tae Kwon Do instruction or schools.  While still the most popular martial art in America (by a large margin) it is clear that things are not going in a great direction for the art.  This is further complicated by the fact that Tae Kwon Do has traditionally been a highly centralized and disciplined art with a handful of regulatory bodies, including the World Tae Kwon Do Federation (WTF) and International Tae Kwon Do Federation (ITF), plotting development strategies and promoting the art.

I think it would not be too strong to say that the Tae Kwon Do community currently finds itself in a state of institutional collapse.  The ITF has fractured beyond repair and the WTF seems to be going through a perpetual slow motion meltdown.  Public interest in the organization has literally fallen off the chart, which is stunning given that Tae Kwon Do is an Olympic sport and the WTF remains its main regulatory body.

Again, its important not to mistake shifts in trends for absolute numbers.  I am pretty sure that Tae Kwon Do is going to survive.  I had a great experience in the art and I would love to see other people get as much out of it as I did.  Still, the new equilibrium that emerges will probably look very different from the Tae Kwon Do of the 1980s and 1990s.

The Declining Popularity of the Chinese Martial Arts in America: Taiji Quan, Shaolin and Choy Li Fut.

Google searches for “Taijiquan” 2004-Present.
Google searches for “Shaolin Kung Fu,” 2004-Present.

The three preceding graphs should make it clear that the traditional Chinese arts are not immune to these trends.  While these methods of hand combat are often doing better in the west than they are in their country or origin, there are still a number of worrisome trends.  The absolute number of people studying most Chinese arts is far lower than something like Tae Kwon Do.  Only Taiji Quan and Wing Chun have achieved the same sort of recognition as arts like Aikido or Karate.  Generally speaking, the Chinese martial art arts community is small and splintered.  Any widespread swing in the popularity of the “martial arts” more generally will be felt most severely by these small, numerically marginal, styles.

Of course being small also means being institutionally nimble.  Some of these styles may show the greatest flexibility and long term survivability.  Wing Chun has succeeded both by being at the right place at the right time (e.g., Bruce Lee) and by radically reinventing itself to be compatible with modern urban life.  Larger scale organizations, such as Olympic Judo, might find that sort of transformation more difficult to pull off.

Many Chinese styles are so small that Google Trends cannot track them.  I selected a couple of the larger styles that I could find data for to try and paint an overall picture of the situation.  Both schools from northern China and the south appear to be struggling.  Further, “externally” focused schools like “Shaolin” or Choy Li Fut are doing no better than Internal schools like Taiji Quan.  Bagua did not generate enough searches to even generate a trend map.  Xingyi Quan (not shown above) appeared to have a stable, albeit small, following.  It would appear that for many Chinese styles, the “golden age” of Kung Fu in America was probably in the 1990s or 2000s.

The Winners: Self Defense, Krav Maga and Wing Chun

These declines of interest in specific martial styles are all the more remarkable as the martial arts themselves, on a more abstract level, appear to be just as popular as ever.  Martial arts magazines are struggling, but no more so than the publishing industry as a whole.  And it should be noted that the quality of the articles and books being published today is vastly higher than anything we saw in the 1980s or 1990s.  Why?  The demand for high quality information is greater than it has ever been.  Nearly one in five Americans has studied a martial art at some point, making for a surprisingly sophisticated reading public.

Likewise the martial arts are doing well in the “visual” entertainment industry.  The “Kung Fu” genre seems to have gone into revival and is currently thriving.  The number of video games employing the martial arts in their story telling is stunning.  On a commercial level the martial arts are actually doing fine.  It is just that new students are not showing up at schools as frequently as they once did.

It is also instructive to look at the trend graphs for things related to, yet distinct from, the traditional martial arts.  “Bruce Lee” is literally as popular as he has ever been.  “Qigong” is also still going strong with the American public and shows no signs of decline even though there are fewer searches for “traditional Chinese medicine.”  Yet somehow this interest in Qi does not translate into people showing up at Taiji and Bagua classes in the numbers that you might expect?

Google searches for “Self Defense Classes,” 2004-present. Note that while searches for the traditional martial arts as a whole are declining, there is actually increased interest in short, focused, self-defense training.
Google searches for “Krav Maga,” 2004-2012.
Google searches for “Wing Chun,” 2004-present.

Of course some areas of the market for martial arts instruction are actually growing.  As the first graph demonstrates, the number of people searching for “self-defense classes” is actually increasing.  A variety of factors might explain the decline of interest in the traditional martial arts, but the one thing we can safely say is that class enrollments are not dropping because people feel safer.  Both women and men are increasingly interested in basic self-defense training.

This conclusion is backed up by my own rather limited teaching experience in Wing Chun.  Most new students express an immediate interest in self-defense.  Only a few students are primarily interested in Chinese culture or “internal training.”  These interests usually develop later in a student’s career.  As such, we might reasonably expect those styles with a reputation for no-nonsense self-defense training to do rather well.  The trend data generally bore this out.

Krav Maga, the Israeli style renowned for its practical fighting applications, has bucked the general trend and actually generated steady increasing interest from the public over the last decade.  Of course it was also starting from a much lower baseline, but the trend is remarkable given the sorts of declines that we reviewed above.

Wing Chun, another style that stresses self-defense in its marketing, has also done rather well for itself.  After a small decline in the mid-2000s, interest in the art was steady for most of the decade and even increased with the growing popularity of the Ip Man movies in America.  By stressing the practical nature of Wing Chun these movies drove larger numbers of new students into schools.

Conclusion: Coming to Grips with the Mixed Martial Arts and the American Marketplace.

Google searches for local “MMA gyms,” 2004-present.
Google searches for “Muay Thai Kickboxing,” 2004-present. Note this search was very sensitive to exact details of how the query was worded. I suspect this means that the number of actual searches being carried out is quite low.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the biggest winner over the last decade is the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) as promoted through the Ultimate Fighting Champions (UFC).  The rising popularity of this sport, both as a form of entertainment and as a distinct style of actual combat training, has been a shock to the American martial arts community.  There is absolutely no doubt that many of the young adults that in a prior generation would have been the backbone of a Judo club or a Karate Dojo are now lifting weights and working the heavy bag at their local MMA gym.

The rise in popularity of MMA is mirrored by the number of internet searches on the topic.  The popularity of this search term rises steadily from 2006 until it hits a point of media market saturation in 2010.  It has remained at a level close to its peak ever since.

On the one hand you might expect MMA to be good for the traditional martial arts.  It originally started as a venue to test different styles, and thus it may have encouraged more people to enter traditional schools and to train more effectively.  In actual fact that did not happen.  I think we can point to two reasons why it did not.

First off, the rhetoric about “no holds barred” aside, there actually are rules in UFC tournaments and they do tend to advantage grapplers.  Certain techniques, such as punching or elbowing an individual in the back of the head, have been banned for legal and ethical reasons.  Of course it is a lot easier to do a double legged take down when you know that your opponent cannot hit you on the back of your exposed and highly vulnerable head.

As a result most, though not all, MMA fighters have adopted some form of modified grappling as their preferred style.  There are certainly exceptions and individuals who try to bring something else into the ring but we are speaking in generalities here.  Rather than being an arena where different styles are tested, MMA competition has basically created its own dominant combat paradigm, designed to succeed under one set of tournament rules.  This visually and tactically distinctive form of combat training has pushed everything else (not designed with the same set of rules in mind) out of the arena.  Rather than combining or testing the various martial arts, “MMA” has become its own fighting style backed by its own gyms, trainers, books and videos.  Did I mention it has even generated it own fashion trends?

This is a problem because every consumer has something that economists call a “budget.”  Your budget is the limited amount of resources (money and time) that you can allot to all of your activities.  With stagnant wages and high unemployment those budget dollars just don’t seem to go as far as they used to.  People are working longer shifts and generally have less recreational time as well.  When we say that consumers have a budget, what we really are mean is that their choices are constrained by scarcity.  Choosing one recreational activity (buying a membership at a local MMA gym) almost always precludes doing something else that is a close substitute (buying a membership at a local Judo club).  As always, there are exceptions, but we are speaking in generalities.

In the long run MMA might actually be good for the traditional martial arts.  If it creates enough interest in “combat sports” society as a whole might actually decide to dedicate a bigger slice of its “budget” to these activities.  That would be good for everyone in the industry.

In more immediate terms, MMA is almost certainly bad for the traditional martial arts.  Economists tell us that “short term” budgets are “fixed” meaning you cannot just make money magically appear or add another two hours to every day.  More resources going into MMA must mean fewer resources being available for everyone else.  In the “short run” of the next 1-5 years that is just a mathematical fact.

This is the crux of the dilemma facing the traditional martial arts community.  Over the last week I have read a lot of individuals decrying the decline of the traditional martial arts as a yet another sign of “social decay.”  Their line of thought seems to go something like this.  Americans are becoming decadent and lazy.  As a result they are rejecting the “discipline” of Budo for the “cheap thrills” of sporting competition.  Everything was better in the 1980s.

There is so much wrong with this line of thought that I am not even sure where to start.  To begin with, professional UFC fighters are incredibly dedicated and disciplined individuals.  No one achieves 3% body fat without a whole lot of hard work and suffering.  The same thing goes for amateur MMA enthusiasts.  These guys can train as hard as any traditional martial artist I know.

It is certainly the case that most (though again not all) MMA fighters reject anything approaching the traditional Japanese or Chinese “warrior codes.”  But so what?  These things are largely artificial constructions of the early 20th century.  The average warrior of the Japanese middle ages wouldn’t recognize most of what happens in a karate school.  Most current ideas about Chinese “martial virtue” are really the product of popular novels and gangster folklore from the early 20th century.

For years western consumers accepted these things as one part of the “total package” because there was something else about the martial arts that they liked, something that they were seeking.  Yet most students don’t come to the training hall looking for a seminar in modern orientalism.  If there is an alternative that gives these individuals more of what they want, and less of what they don’t, of course they will take it.  Remember, they have a limited budget.

It is important to realize that much of what “traditionalists” find missing from MMA is in fact a fairly recent innovation.  Much of the “etiquette” and “structure” of the traditional arts were, at heart, a reaction against a certain brand of modernity.  They were created in a conscious attempt to build a certain kind of community that students would find appealing.  In short, the uniforms, the belts, the elaborate ritual, these things are all 100 year old advertising gimmicks.  When Bruce Lee looked at the state of the American Martial arts in the 1960s and warned us to “liberate ourselves from classical Karate” he was absolutely correct.  He accurately discerned that in the battle of “form” over “substance,” form was winning.

But here is the good news.  The traditional martial arts do not have to dwindle.  They can be saved, and they do not even have to go down the road of becoming a competitive sport (unless an individual style so chooses).  Muay Thai Kickboxing is one of the original combat sports, as is Boxing, and both of them are struggling in the current era.  Becoming a “sport” is not automatic salvation.  What is necessary is to identify what consumers actually want and refocus on their needs.  Heresy you say?  Isn’t tailoring your art to the needs of “consumers” the opposite of preserving them?

Not at all.  This is what every serious martial arts teacher and innovator has done in every era.  It is the only reason why the Asian martial arts still exist at all.  They must be re-imagined in every generation.  The only folly would be to think that we are somehow the one generation that is exempted from this charge.  The success of MMA shows that this can be done, and that there are a lot of individuals who want to see it done well.

An urban Wing Chun School in Passau, Germany.

I suspect that the immediate problem that traditional stylists face is basically one of advertising.  When the UFC spends millions of dollars televising their fights and fashion lines, they are also giving every MMA gym in the country millions of free dollars in advertising.  When you walk down the street and see an MMA gym or someone wearing a “TapouT” shirt you immediately know what those things mean.  If you were instead to see a building labeled “Choy Li Fut” I doubt even most martial artists could guess what was going on inside.

That is what a massive corporate advertising budget will do.  This is fundamentally what the traditional stylists are up against and it has nothing to do with “declining public virtue.”  Household budgets are shrinking, and what resources are dedicated to hand combat are increasingly being funneled into MMA as a result of an aggressively targeted, highly sophisticated, marketing campaign.

So here is the good news.  One in five American adults has studied the traditional martial arts and might do so again if given an opportunity.  Almost all of these individuals are actually interested in self-defense (the original purpose of these fighting systems) and there is a growing awareness that MMA is a form of training for an intense combat sport, and not primarily a method of street fighting.  Figuring out how to break through to these individuals in the face of all that advertising might be a challenge, but it is not impossible.  If the traditional martial arts fail it won’t be because of MMA.  It will be a result of their own inability to adapt and survive.