Raffles Place.  An imposing view of the Singapore skyline.  Source: Wikimedia.
Raffle’s Place. An imposing view of the modern Singapore skyline. Source: Wikimedia.


Introduction: Chinese Martial Studies, Embodied Knowledge and Identity.

In 2011 SUNY (State University of New York) Press released a collected volume (edited by D. S. Farrer and John Whalen-Bridge) titled Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World.  All of the essays in this book ask how the martial arts affect or change identity and conceptions of self, either through their embodied expression (learning new ways to use your senses in Balinese combat) or via media representation and discussion (has Bruce Lee destroyed old stereotypes of what it means to be a Chinese male, or created a new set of representations that actually reinforce these sorts of troubling notions).

A number of the essays included in this volume are very informative and I hope to get a chance to discuss them.  However the introduction is also very interesting.  In it Farrer and Whalen-Bridge examine the current state of “martial studies” and provide a helpful historical overview of the growth and development of the post-WWII English language literature, starting with individuals such as R. W. Smith and Donn F. Draeger, before moving on to the more contemporary literature outlined in their own volume.

I do not think that it would be too strong to call this essay an “opening shot.”  Farrer and Whalen-Bridge seem to have fewer reservations about the creation and future success of an academic field devoted to the study of the martial arts than did Professor Kai Filipiak in his own discussion of these questions (““Academic Research into Chinese Martial Arts: Problems and Perspectives” in Michael A. DeMarco Asian Martial Arts: Constructive Thoughts & Practical Applications. Via Media. 2012. pp. 24-27).  While Filipiak sees the institutional hurdles to establishing a new field as being substantial, and possibly insurmountable, Farrer and Whalen-Bridge believe the necessary critical mass of scholarship and institutional support has already been achieved.

It is also interesting to note that their definition of the field is very expansive.  They move well beyond questions of history and hoplology (in their view these approaches are confined to asking merely “what was done”) and embrace broader studies seeking to culturally situate these practices using tools drawn from sociology, anthropology and media studies.

When discussing the martial arts in an academic setting the safest way to handle them is to use them as a case study, or a source of evidence, to explore a topic of more general importance.  For instance, Andrew D. Morris used the growth of the Jingwu and then Guoshu movements in China in the 1920s-1930s to discuss the development of the state’s relationship with civil society and the expression of Chinese national identity through physical culture.  These are pretty pressing questions if you are interested in Asian history.  They are the sorts of thing that everyone wants to read about.

Alternatively, Meir Shahar framed much of his discussion of the evolution of the Shaolin martial arts as a historical investigation of the question of monastic violence in late imperial China.  Shaolin was simply an illuminating case shedding light on a topic that many religious historians would find significant.  This is exactly the approach that I have recommended for dealing with the sorts of objections and obstacles that Kia Filipiak warns of.

The project proclaimed by Farrer and Whalen-Bridge is, in many respects, more daring.  Rather than subordinating the martial arts as an independent variable, or exploring them as a single case study embedded in a broader topic, they make hand combat the central object of examination.  Each of the articles in this book focuses squarely on the martial arts, either in practice or representation.

Of course this raises a very interesting question.  How many academics are there out there who want to read an essay or book that is primarily focused on the martial arts?  I was casually discussing the possibility of an academic conference on the Chinese martial arts with a friend and together we could come up with about two dozen individuals who were working in this area.  Still, the fact that I am reading this in a SUNY Press book would seem to indicate that their editors must have concluded that the potential audience for a work like this is larger than most people suspect.  That is a very good sign and an indication that perhaps the field of martial studies has arrived.

I did have a few other quibbles with the introduction.  I noticed that for the most part the scholarship of Chinese and Japanese academics was totally absent from the discussion.  Perhaps some aspects of the project that they are proposing exist independently from the concerns of anthropologists, sociologists and historians in Asia.  However, there has been a notable increase in high quality historical writing on the martial arts coming out of China over the last decade or more.  I am not sure that it would really be possible to tell the story of Chinese martial studies without seriously engaging these contributions.  Scanning through the book’s bibliography it looks as though a conscious decision was made to exclude all non-English language sources.  This seems like an odd move for a volume addressing questions of identity and globalization.

Still, the authors lay out a broad research mandate and pursue it aggressively.  The various contributions are organized thematically, and I have gravitating towards the offerings at the end of the book as those essays tend to address the topic of globalization in a similar way to my own research.  I was especially drawn to D. S. Farrer’s essay on the Chinese martial arts within the Cantonese and Hokkienese diaspora communities of Singapore.

Chinese Garden Bridge.  Singapore.  Source: wikimedia.
Chinese Garden Bridge. Singapore. Source: wikimedia.

Locating “Tradition” in the Chinese Martial Arts of Singapore: Parks, Rituals and Memory.

Farrer is an anthropologist from the University of Guam.  Students of martial studies will probably know him from his work on Malaysian Silat and his book Shadow of the Prophet: Martial Arts and Sufi Mysticism (2009).  His contribution to the current volume “Coffee-Shop Gods: Chinese Martial Arts of the Singapore Diaspora” was the result of two and half years of ethnographic study and analysis between 2005 and 2007.  Throughout this period Farrer embedded himself in a number of instructional and social settings surrounding the Southern Chinese martial arts of Choy Li Fut (apparently of the Hung Sing lineage), the Jingwu (Pure Martial) Association (which while of Northern Chinese origin now exists in its strongest form in the South East Asian Diaspora) and a variety of other styles.

Farrer participated in the community in a number of ways including attending classes and socializing extensively with his classmates and teachers after instruction.  Interestingly these sorts of informal discussions turned out to be where most cultural information was conveyed and they defined the social community.  He also traveled with informants and groups of fellow students to visit other related martial arts schools and teachers in the region, and conducted a number of expert interviews.   In general the interviews seem to have been difficult, but “martial pilgrimages” to temples or training halls in Hong Kong, Malaysia or Mainland China were rich opportunities in which a wealth of cultural and martial knowledge was exchanged.

“Coffee-Shop Gods” is a wide ranging, highly descriptive essay.  The author delves into a number of interesting topics as he investigates the cultural milieu that surrounds the practice of the traditional Chinese martial arts in Singapore.  Any one of these byroads might make an interesting article in and of themselves.  The idea of “memory” seems to be the central theme that holds this body of observations together.

Farrer starts off by asking how it is possible for a single martial arts master to remember hundreds of complex training forms from a number of different styles.  Does hand combat training in some way change the body, and the experience of bodily phenomenon, making such feats of memory possible?

The author leaves that initial question unanswered and moves on to other, more culturally focused, questions about memory and the martial arts.  For instance, how do the traditional martial arts function as a repository for cultural memory?  Can the memory of identity (what it means to “really” be Chinese) be preserved by individuals in the South East Asian diaspora long after the forms and fighting traditions that they are holding on to have been lost in China.  In what way is a failure to remember a specific fighting form an act of betrayal or treason to one’s teacher and community?  And lastly, how should one remember?  What is the proper institutional framework to carry this memory forward?

I found this question the most interesting.  As he explored the various geographies of the martial arts in Singapore Farrer discovered two things.  First off, the idea of maintaining the “traditional” way of doing things was quite important within this (admittedly self-selecting) community.  Secondly, they did not always agree on what the details of their tradition should be (not a huge surprise) or what sorts of institutions and cultural tools should be used to transmit it.  This last point is particularly interesting in light of the many discussions of modernization and globalization that touch upon the martial arts.

The “Traditional Chinese Martial Arts” community in Singapore can be found in one of two places.  Many of the older and more established schools from southern China (Guangdong and Fujian) had permanent schools located almost exclusively in the city’s “red light district.”  This location did not seem to be accidental.  The area’s prostitution and cheap 24-hour restaurants and coffee-shops make it popular with the type of working class individual who is most likely to join one of these schools or sects.  The area is also tied to various sorts of Triad and criminal activity, and in the past it was not uncommon to find traditional martial arts schools that were actually a front for one of these organizations.  Lastly, these sorts of schools seemed to Farrer to be not particularly prosperous, hence they were probably also attracted to the area’s low rents.

A commercial area of Singapore's Red light District (Geylang Road) by daylight.  This area is is home to numerous traditional martial arts schools and lion dance associations.
A commercial area of Singapore’s Red light District (Geylang Road) by daylight. This area is is home to numerous traditional martial arts schools and lion dance associations.

The traditional arts that seem to have been most common in the red-light district include Choy Li Fut, Fujian White Crane and Tibetian White Crane.  All of these schools were deeply traditional and accepted students only through elaborate and archaic initiation ceremonies that involved swearing loyalty to the Sifu and promising to only study a single style.  Farrer notes that these schools were struggling because while western students and martial arts tourists seemed to love these initiations, very few other individuals in Singapore shared their enthusiasm.  In fact, these sorts of small, sect-like communities, are becoming increasingly unfashionable among even the city’s “traditional” martial artists.

Increasingly other martial artists are seeking a more open educational environment that will allow for cross training and comparison across styles.  Most individuals today wish to be familiar with more than style.  These sorts of individuals tend to favor the public parks as a site of instruction.  A number of arts can be found Singapore’s public parks.  Some Choy Li Fut is also seen there, but Wu style Taiji, Xingyi Quan and Bagua (all from northern China) are more popular.  The Jingwu Association also meets and trains in these parks according to a daily schedule.

Farrer relates in detail the connection between the coffee-shop culture of these local instructors and the enactment of their martial memories in the adjoining and nearby parks.  Memory and tradition are critical aspects of the reported conversations in both places, but I was more struck by the amount of change exhibited in how these schools operated.  In the 1920s, and even in the 1950s, the Jingwu association taught mostly young people in a highly regimented setting.  It was also unrelentingly modern, abandoning the use of traditional titles and names.

While the association’s original core curriculum (the “Ten Forms”) survives, almost every other aspect of the organization that Farrer described is very different.  A few young students still practice with Jingwu today, yet their attendance is irregular as they are forced to work around highly demanding educational schedules.  This was not a concern for previous generations of students as in the 1950s few of them even had access to much formal education.

Instead Jingwu now serves a distinctly middle-aged student body.  These individuals still worked their way through the ten basic forms, but without the grace and strength of their younger counterparts.  The mode of instruction has also become more relaxed through the decades.  Teachers now spend more time working individually with students rather than simply demonstrating a move once and moving one.  Students are also freer to navigate their own course through the material, rather than following a strictly regimented progression.  Lastly, traditional modes of address and philosophical concepts (such as calling an instructor “Sifu”) which were jettisoned by the organization in its attempts to modernize in the 1920s have crept back in.

In fact, while Jingwu started off as a distinctly modernist and ideological organization, in Singapore it has slowly been transformed into something much more traditional.  While it still eschews formal initiation ceremonies and secrecy, its essential mode of operation is actually not all that different from any other “traditional” martial arts school in the region.

Farrer’s article is also quite interesting for what it did not mention.  Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) now has a global following and is very well established in Singapore.  Likewise Thai Kickboxing and Sanda both have a following in the region.  And what about competition Wushu?  I know for a fact that Wing Chun is also taught at a number of schools.  Presumably these styles would all be classified as examples of “modern” martial arts under Farrer’s typology.

The question must be asked, do only traditional arts function as a repository for memory or cultural capital?  This is an interesting question to think about.  MMA does not teach forms.  Wing Chun does, but the entire art only has three unarmed sets.  Further, these forms function very differently from those seen in Choy Li Fut.  Farrer describes in great detail how “traditional” forms replicate and enact motifs from popular stories.  Many of these forms actually have a performance aspect to them that is highly reminiscent of theater.

Yet the forms in Wing Chun are structured quite differently, and I am not convinced they are really the most critical element of the system in terms of conveying its “culture.”  Rather than telling a story or fighting an imaginary enemy, Wing Chun forms are basically dictionaries of movement.

If you break down the first form, Siu Lim Tao (“the little idea”), into thirds you will see that the first section focuses on defining one’s fighting space and throwing a basic punch, section two looks at all of the things that might happen to that punch (hits high or low, first closed or open, intercepts an arm and bongs), and section three looks at recovery (what to do if an arm is grabbed, ect…..).  There is a lot of meaning in this form, but it is very different from anything that Farrer has described.  Rather than preserving memories of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, this is essentially a discussion of what might happen in a fight, and all of the varieties of the punch that one can use.

Again, it is more like a dictionary of human movement than a storybook.  Other “modern” martial arts have dispensed with forms all together.  Does that mean that they cease to convey cultural information?

Clearly the answer is no.  Again, the Jingwu association is an interesting example of this.  Back in the 1920s they purged a lot of the “traditional” cultural elements out of their arts in a quest to make a more efficient, modern fighting system.  The myth of the “burning” of the Shaolin temple was replaced by the “murder” of Huo Yuanjia.  Why?  Because there was no longer any reason to teach the people to hate and fear the Qing.  The Manchu’s were now a part of history.  Yet Jingwu did seek to actively cultivate anti-Japanese sentiment and so the supposed involvement of a Japanese doctor in the death of Huo Yuanjia helped to spark a new genera of martial arts mythology, clearly focused on advancing a well-articulated set of social and political goals.

The vast majority of the deep “cultural knowledge” that Farrer describes in the coffee-shops is exactly like this.  These “facts” purport to be historical information, but upon investigation almost always turn out to be a literary or fictional invention.   As much as being an act of memory, what Farrer describes in the coffee-shops can also be understood as story-telling.  The traditional master’s of Singapore are telling stories of what China was like in the past that inevitably also suggest powerful arguments about what it should be in the future.  Of course most of these individuals ended up in Singapore precisely because they were either economically or politically marginal.  In the future that their stories suggest their values would become more central and widely respected.

A typical "coffee-shop" in Singapore.  To Americans these local iconic institutions resemble outdoor food-courts.  Farrer reports that traditional martial arts masters would often socialize for hours with their students after class in the local coffee-shops.  In doing so they passed on the deep social knowledge that allowed the traditional martial arts to become a powerful form of social capital.  Source: Wikimedia.
A typical “coffee-shop” in Singapore. To Americans these local iconic institutions resemble outdoor food-courts. Farrer reports that traditional martial arts masters would often socialize for hours with their students after class in the local coffee-shops. In doing so they passed on the deep social knowledge that allowed the traditional martial arts to become a powerful form of social capital. Source: Wikimedia.

The modern martial artists also have stories that they tell.  These are stories in which China was weak in the past, but by reforming and modernizing it has become an admired world power.  Other nations in Asia are now seeking to emulate it.  And nothing advances and validates this growth in status quite like wins in the octagon or the future domination of the Olympic medal count once Wushu is finally accepted as an internationally sanctioned sport.

What on the surface looks like two sets of cultural memories of the past are in fact two competing narratives about the future.  This is a fundamental dispute about what the new China should look like.  What values it should pursue.  One can even bring the small sect-like schools of the red-light district back into the conversation.  While Jingwu (a northern style) debates the destiny of the nation with Wushu and Sanda (also both northern styles) the stubborn adherence to subaltern modes of social organization (ancient rituals), narratives of resistances (the fall of Shaolin and the other bits of Triad lore), and closed social structure (which discourages cross-training), all point to an overwhelming concern with protecting and reinforcing traditional southern Chinese culture and identity.  The narratives of revolution and resistance carried in their foundation myths and legends warn us that it is dangerous to attempt to sacrifice the local or the particular on the altar of “national unity.”  This is what the Qing did, and its what the Communists did.  The very existence of competition Wushu is a product of this ideological stance.  Neither of these groups are remembered all that fondly by the Chinese diaspora, so its no surprise to find counter-narratives being retold and promoted.

James C. Scott wrote a book titled Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale UP, 1987), based on his own field work in South East Asia.  His work was with farmers rather than martial artists, but he noted a very similar pattern.  Sitting around in coffee-shops and telling stories, or talking over the day’s events in other settings, was a critical aspect of the local pattern of life.  Further, these stories tended to focus on how things had been done in the past (defining what was a “proper tradition”).  Yet Scott claimed that none of these conversations were actually fundamentally about the past.  Rather they were attempts to use cultural and historic values as political weapons in the present.  Story telling had become a way to exert control and bring about some type of change in a situation where direct confrontation was either not possible or very costly.

As I read Farrer my mind kept coming back to Scott.  I think that Farrer is absolutely correct in how he identified deep cultural knowledge in the traditional Chinese martial arts.  And he is correct that this is a body of knowledge that could be reinvested back into China at some later point in time.  Yet this “reinvestment” cannot be a value-neutral process.  The current stories that are told about the martial arts in mainland China create very real winners (state sponsored Wushu) and losers (most of the regional folk arts).  I think it is unlikely that this balance of power will shift anytime soon.

Singapore evening skyline.  Source: Wikimedia.
Singapore evening skyline. Source: Wikimedia.

Conclusion: Ethnography, Globalization and the Martial Arts

These questions aside, I quite liked Farrer’s essay.  I thought it provided a great discussion of a few aspects of the traditional Chinese martial arts in Singapore.  The more I study these questions the more I become convinced that this sort of granular approach, examining a single region, or even city, is the most likely to yield real results in either cultural or historical understanding.

Further, it is clear that the author’s ethnographic approach has been very fruitful.  This one essay raises many questions that would make respectable papers in their own right.  I personally would love to hear more detail about the triangular trade between South East Asian masters, western students and mainland Chinese martial arts sects or associations.  For instance, what does it mean to teach a vast repository of cultural knowledge (e.g., a hand combat style like Choy Li Fut) to someone who does not share the same culture, and may not even be interested in it.  They may learn all of the movements, but have they really learned the “martial art” or become part of the community?  Alternatively, how do the martial arts retain their essential identity and meaning when they start to cross cultural boundaries?

Globalization brought the Chinese martial arts to Singapore, and it helped them thrive.  But are their limits to how far a system like this can travel before it is changed beyond recognition or becomes just another object of cultural appropriation?  Obviously these questions will have to wait to be answered at a later date.  I personally hope that Farrer releases a full length book detailing his study of the traditional Chinese martial arts in Singapore.