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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Studies, Reviews

The Value of a Comparative Case: Jean-Marc de Grave discusses “The Training of Perception in Javanese Martial Arts.”

A fine kris.  Source: Wikimedia.

A fine kris. Source: Wikimedia.

Introduction: A drift on the sea of knowledge.

Let me ask you a question.  Do you ever feel like you have too much to read, study or research?  Are you familiar with that creeping feeling that you will never, ever, get through “all of this stuff”?  Perhaps it would be better to narrow your focus, simplify, and concentrate on just doing one thing really well.

It is a familiar feeling, and one that is becoming even more common as the dual processes of globalization and the information revolution bringing us into contact with ever more ideas vying for our attention.  Or maybe the problem is not really the internet at all.  Maybe we are struggling against our subject matter.

The field of Chinese martial studies is immense.  It is a widely interdisciplinary approach to a number of related topics that touch not just on the martial arts but also, medicine, political history, theater, film, hoplology, religion and anthropology.  There is literally too much information there for any one person to manage.  Nor can we sidestep the problem by asserting that we will only focus on the historical aspect of the Chinese martial arts.

At times I actually wonder whether the term “Chinese martial arts” carries any meaning at all.  The various military, civilian and theatrical combat traditions of that state are so varied, and spread across so many time periods, regions and cultural systems, that it seems unlikely that any person could ever master more than a small percentage of this knowledge.

Of course practical martial artists have known this for some time.  How many styles can an individual really study and master in a lifetime?  Two, three?  Perhaps half a dozen in the case of a true prodigy.  Yet even that relatively large body of martial knowledge is still a tiny fraction of what the traditional Chinese martial arts have to offer.

This is not a new problem.  Daoists have warned us for ages that it is foolish for finite beings, such as ourselves, to try and consume infinite amounts of knowledge.  Likewise modern scholars face strong incentives to “specialize” in relatively narrow subject areas.  Not only does this assist in coming up with tractable research questions, but it’s a good way to both build a reputation for expertise and get published.

Still, there is a danger in becoming too narrow.  Max Mueller’s famous dictum that “He who knows one language knows none” could easily be applied to the field of martial studies.  The problem emerges out of the task of theory making.  Our goal as scholars is to produce theories, which is really just another way of saying “stories” about our subject matter.

In the social sciences (again, my background is in political economy) these theories can be thought of falling into two categories.  There are “descriptive stories,” which try to tell you what something means, what its social values are, through a rich interpretive process.  This approach is often favored by anthropologists and ethnographers.  Alternatively, one might be more interested in telling “causal stories,” which try and unravel the origins or causal mechanisms behind some social system.  All sorts of individuals tell causal stories.  Many excellent research projects use both types of theories.  But generally speaking, this second sort of approach is more common in sociology, economics and political science.

Having a clear sense of what you are attempting to accomplish, whether you intend to explain, describe or perhaps combine elements of both, is critical when you sit down to approach a research project.  But it is only half the battle.  One must also determine what key factors or “variables” your theory should focus on.

In reality life is a pretty complicated place, and the number of pages that any one book or article can contain is limited.  So we all have to make choices about what sorts of things to include in our descriptions or causal theories, and what to leave for another project.  Of course in the best of all worlds one includes the variables that are the most relevant and interesting from the perspective of your research question, and leaves the rest aside.

This is where a lot of the actual hard work of any research or writing project happens, and in most cases readers will never even be aware that this sort of selection has happened.  It is an invisible process.  Unless you have ever personally tried to condense 1,000 pages of research notes into a 200 page manuscript, you might not realize how difficult this process really is. How you do it will have a huge impact on the finished work.  In fact, it is this process of selection that usually makes the conclusions of one academic work different from the next.

A highly detailed kris hilt.  Source: Wikimedia.

A highly detailed kris hilt. Source: Wikimedia.

As such, we need to think very carefully about how we select our variables.  What sort of factors do we need to focus on when conveying either our thick description or causal explanation to the readers?  One of the important tools that social scientists use when sorting out these questions is something called the “Levels of Analysis.”

The ideas of the “Levels of Analysis” was first advanced (so far as I am aware) by the sociologist Talcott Parsons in his work on social systems.  It was later borrowed and adapted by individuals in a number of other fields who were also interested in systemic analysis.  The variant of the approach I am most familiar with comes out of the subfield of international relations (part of political science) and it simplifies Parson’s more complex model down to three distinct levels.

Basically the “levels of analysis” state that we are likely to see important variables emerging from one of three possible places.  Either they might be an “individual level” cause, such as psychology or personal history.  Alternatively important causal forces arise at the “social” or “domestic” level, including culture, social interactions or political history.  Lastly there is an entire class of variables that originates in the international system, as different polities come into contact with one another.  These can also affect a wide range of social phenomenon through the medium of things like globalization, market forces, new types of technology and of course less pleasant variables such as warfare or imperialism.  These are often referred to as “systemic variables.”

If I look at even a simple question, like how to explain the sudden rise of popularity of Xingyi Quan in the late 19th and early 20th century, I will inevitable find dozens of variables at work, and they are likely to be located at all of these different levels of analysis.  For instance, this popularization was really centered in Hebei province.  Both because of its proximity to Beijing, and to the sea, Hebei felt the full effects of 19th century globalization and imperialism in ways that other parts of China did not.  At the social level Hebei has a long history of creating martial arts traditions.  These are linked to both social and economic factors (such as the regions history of grinding poverty) which might also be important to explore.  Lastly there are some very strong personalities that need to be considered.  Sun Lutang’s books were hugely influential, far beyond what one might expect given the size of this lineage.  How did his interactions with other martial artists (for instance the Tianjin Warriors Society) ultimately help to promote and spread the fame of Xingyi Quan?

Already I have too many questions to cover in a single article.  So I need to make some informed choices.  Of course realizing that there are choices to be made (and not just going with the first idea that strikes your fancy) is the first step in doing real research.  But once you get to that point what the “levels of analysis” suggests is that you should figure out which of these types of explanations are the most convincing, or gives you the best descriptive material, and then focus on that.  No theory, whether descriptive or causal, will ever be 100% accurate.  Theories are just simplified stories, and we share them because reality is too big and confusing to deal with in a meaningful way.  So every theory, by definition, is a simplification of a more complex reality.

And that is ok.  Most readers will never sit through more than a 25 page article anyway.  Our job as scholars is to make sure that they get the most out of those 25 pages that they can.  And that is why theory construction and variable selection are so important.  It is also why you, as a reader, want to remember the “levels of analysis” when you read, so that you can get a sense of both what the author is including and choosing to exclude from her piece.

This then brings us back to our first question of whether or not we have too much to read.  Would it really be better if we were to narrow our focus and look only at one area, or study the history of only one art?  I suspect the answer is pretty clearly no.  In fact, we need to be able to look at a wide variety of areas.  Even if we never become experts in these other areas (in truth it is difficult to be an expert in more than a few things) simply looking at them and thinking about them will do two things.

First, it will give us a greater sense of perspective on what is common or interesting about our main research area.  It is surprisingly easy to lose this basic sense of perspective when one spends month after month in a given historical or cultural bubble.  Second, it will help us to think more carefully about the “levels of analysis,” how we should apply them to our specific test cases, and what sorts of variables would really be most interesting for future study.

To illustrate these points I would like to turn now to an article by Jean-Marc de Grave titled “The Training of Perception in Javanese Martial Arts.” in D. S. Farrer and John Whalen-Bridge (eds.) Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World (SUNY Press, 2011).  I should state at the outset that I am not an expert in the Indonesian martial arts.  My interests all lay in Southern China and secondarily Japan.  Still, when I encountered de Grave’s article I was struck by a number of similarities to things that I had seen in other places which made me go back to the “levels to analysis” and ask some serious questions about the interrelationship of the “domestic” and the “systemic” variables.  Specifically, what role, if any, has recent globalization and trade played in the similar trajectories of Qigong in China and the interest in and development of secularized “Getaran” training in Indonesia during the 1980’s.  While on the surface these are both resolutely “domestic level” stories, their timing and covariance makes one wonder about the existence of a previously unseen systemic connection.  Or perhaps this actually is a response to similar or shared origins in the more distant past?

Even if my primary emphasis remains the martial arts of southern China, reading outside of this area may help me to generate more interesting research questions and focus on a more fruitful set of variables than otherwise would have been the case.

A 19th century warrior with traditional weapons.  Source: Wikimedia.

A 19th century warrior with traditional weapons. Source: Wikimedia.

The Perception of the Internal Senses and “Getaran” in Pencak Silat.  

Jean-Marc de Grave starts his study of what we might call “internal training” in the martial arts of Java by asking about the classification of the senses.  While one might suppose that there could be nothing more basic and concrete than the physical sense (either you see, hear, taste, smell or feel something or you do not) he argues that our culture frames the way that we experience even these most basic aspects of reality.  While western cultures generally speak of five senses, in reality some of these modes of perception exist along a sliding scale (such as taste and smell), or can be combined with other types of perception (vision and touch) to create new ways of experiencing the world.

However, all of these modes of experience reside in the embodied aspect of culture.  Westerners currently lack the conceptual background to really grasp some of these alternate modes of experience.  Nor can they be understood simply by explaining them.  Instead they need to be experienced, and that often requires immersion in a new, culturally different, system of body training.  Since we all have similar bodies, anyone can develop these new technologies of sensory experience, but most of us will not because how we interpret the senses is bound by how we have grown up describing them.

Different classifications for the physical senses have been used in Java over the centuries.  One of the oldest systems was borrowed from India more than a millennium ago and described 10 or more senses based on the stimulation of different parts of the body.  More current systems start with basic descriptions of Javanese cosmology and then attempt to apply these principles to the microcosm of human experience.

When the Javanese describe the idea of “direction” in a cosmological sense they list the four “external” directions (North, South, East and West) and then add a final “internal” marker (Central).  This basic system will be familiar to students of Chinese culture or religion.  Both Buddhism and Daoism in China list five sacred mountains corresponding to the four cardinal points of the compass with the addition of a fifth “internal” mountain that marks the axis mundi.

This same basic pattern of description extends to how the Javanese explain their physical perception of the world.  That in turn has had a marked effect on the development and nature of their martial arts.  They begin by listing four “external” senses (these are sight, hearing, smell and taste) which are all perceived as originating outside of the body.  To this they add touch as an “internal” sense.  It is internal because it is experienced by the body directly (as opposed to perceiving something that is still far off).  Further, it has the aspect of Rasa, or “inner feeling.”  This includes anything that can be felt within the body, including sensations of the skins, organs, proprioception (a sense of “touch” associated with muscles) and even emotions.

Rasa is a complex category and it can be used to generate other ways of describing human experience.  For instance rasa sejati translates roughly to “true inner feelings.”  This is not a simple automatic response to environmental stimulus.  Rather it appears to be a way of experiencing the inner senses more generally.  It is activated through special concentration exercises meant to balance the external and internal senses.  This method of practice is also characterized by a strong ethical component, as well as meditation and other aesthetic practices.

Once achieved rasa sejati is thought to have a profound effect on what martial artists can accomplish.  In its lower levels of training it is often used is the breaking of boards or bricks, feats that we would generally associate with hard qigong in a Chinese cultural context.  Of course mental focus and a highly developed sense of body awareness are critical skills within the Chinese qigong tradition as well.

Further, all of this must sound at least vaguely familiar to practitioners of Taiji, Wing Chun, Southern Mantis and other arts that include extensive “sensitivity training.”  Practitioners of these styles have known for some time that with training and concentration it is possible to “feel” not just what is going on in your own body, but what your opponent’s intentions are as well.  In some practitioners this perception manifests as a sort of  synesthesia where martial artists feel as if they can “see” what their opponent is doing even when their hands or feet are out of their direct line of sight.

In fact, success in these arts rests in large part on one’s ability to develop these senses.  Yet they do not appear to have a separate vocabulary in Chinese, and in English this wide variety of types of perception is simply lumped into the catch-all category of “sensitivity.”  From reading de Grave it seems to me that there is actually quite a bit of cross-over between what Chinese and Indonesian martial artists actually experience, but the different cultural vocabulary of the Javanese gives them access to concepts and technical practices that make the reification of this phenomenon possible, far beyond anything that we see in Taiji or Wing Chun.

Silat was deeply linked to many aspects of traditional Javanese culture and society.  Public performance (celebratory and ritual) was an important part of how these arts interacted with the community.  They were also tied to a variety of religious and mystical practices.  Even today some schools of silat are closely associated with the practice of Hindu and Sufi mysticism.  As one might expect, these disciplines of inner harmonization and alignment were originally closely linked to these philosophical and mystical schools.  Of course none of this detracts from the brutal efficiency of silat.  This fusion of two separate aspects of culture within a single fighting systems is one of the things that makes silat so interesting.

Two warriors from Bali.  Source: Wikimedia.

Two warriors from Bali. Source: Wikimedia.

The creation of the modern Indonesian state in 1945 impacted the teaching of the traditional martial arts, at least in some areas.  One of the goals of the state was to promote the secularization of Indonesian society (which is made of many distinct cultural, linguistic, ethnic and religious groups, not all of which have a history of getting along).  In some quarters this led to a modernization of “inner training” in which efforts were made to detach the specific group of body technologies from their original mystical foundations and apply them to more “rational” problems.

Apparently the breaking of boards and stones remained an important phase of training.  Masters were also encouraged to develop the healing properties of their arts through various forms of therapeutic massage, meditation and what the Chinese would call “energy work.”  One particular application for the development of these alternate sensory systems was to come up with methods to assist the blind.

It was common to practice silate at night, sometimes in low light conditions, across Indonesia.  High level students of Getaran often take this one step further, using their development of the inner sense of “touch” to learn to negotiate spaces while blind folded.  Humans have an innate ability to detect when something is just about to touch their skin.  The face is especially sensitive to very subtle changes in temperature, air pressure, and even static electricity.  By practicing blindfolded multiple hours a day some silat students endeavor to extend this same heightened sense of “touch” to their hands and the rest of their body as well.

Almost universally students report that the body’s ability to generate an imagined visual images of an unseen environment is a problem.  These images are rarely accurate, and students would do better to ignore them.  Much of their practice focuses on suppressing this unnecessary imagination so that they can actually focus more intently on their other senses.  Needless to say blind people are generally more successful in these exercises than sighted individuals.  They can often reach the same level of accomplishment in a few months as a sighted person who has studied the discipline for years.  Yet regardless of the baseline, what I find interesting is that the same basic technology is reported to improve the performance of both sets of individuals.

Another example of a kris.  Source: Wikimedia.

Another example of a kris. Source: Wikimedia.

Implications for our Study of the Traditional Martial Arts

I am not an expert in Indonesian or Javanese martial arts and I cannot really make any claims about the information that de Grave presents.  It is hard for me to get any firm sense about how effective these techniques of Getaran training really are, and whether they actually have practical applications or if they remain essentially an esoteric endeavor.  Still, his account is highly suggestive.

For instance, I am struck by how important the cultural framework for sensory perception really is.  I think that students of the Chinese martial arts have at least a vague idea of what might be going on in the development of rasa sejati from our own perception exercises.  Yet clearly Javanese culture allows for the reification and finely detailed exploration of these phenomenon that we just do not see in either China or the West.  We talk about the “sensing your opponents intentions” and sometimes we even “feel” something through an “un-bridged” position.  Yet for the most part we do not really do much to encourage this, other than letting these skills develop naturally through years of self-defense practice.

Returning to the “levels of analysis” exercise, this is clearly a case where culture, a variable that resides at the second or domestic level, is king.  That is an interesting realization as one might expect that there could be nothing more personal (e.g., first level) than mystical experience, weird bouts of synesthesia or an obsession with sensitivity training.  Yet it turns out that how individual martial artists perceive their environment, and the sorts of training they are likely to value and engage in, are as much culturally conditioned traits as true expressions of individuality.

So does this mean that the second level of analysis is the most important for students of martial studies?  I am not so sure.  The Indonesian martial arts are really interesting for another reason as well.  As a group of islands, pretty much any part of Indonesia is accessible by boat from anywhere in Asia.  As a result there have been many waves of international influence over the centuries.  Obviously the Indians, Arabs and Europeans had a profound impact on the region.  But so did more local contacts with China, the Philippines and other groups in Malaysia.  If systemic forces are an important consideration in the development of fighting systems we should see them manifest here.

Of course it is not always easy to tell a simple story about how these systemic forces operate.  Indonesia turns out to be a great illustration of that principal as well.  Take for instance the general progression of “Internal training” in Indonesia compared to the broad outlines of the “Qigong” movement in China.  On the surface it would seem that there could be no relationship between the two.  And there probably is not a simple causal relationship.

Yet Getaran training was coming under pressure to secularize itself in Indonesia at exactly the same time that the Communist Party in China was deciding that traditional Chinese medicine (including breathing and meditation exercises) could be secularized and put in the service of the state.  Likewise, the huge burst of popular healing activity seen in China during the 1980s was also mirrored in Indonesia.  Here too people started to turn to “internal training” for its therapeutic and regenerative powers.

So were the Indonesians simply copying what they saw in China?  That seems unlikely.  Instead I suspect that both China and Indonesia are subject to the same global economic and political pressures, and hence they may be reacting in the same way.  All sorts of states came under pressure to adopt neo-liberal economic policies in the 1980s, and that often meant limiting access to social programs, including medical care.  Further, the 1980s also saw a steep rise in the cost of western, biology based, medicine as new types of drugs and medical devices were created.  Not surprisingly there was a corresponding rise of interest in traditional medicine around the globe, not just in China.

This would suggest that when thinking about the rise of Qigong, we might want to pay more attention to its economic roots, and less to specific historic factors (such as the end of the Cultural Revolution).  That is not to say that the events of the late 1960s and early 1970s did not impact how Qingong manifest itself in some quarters.  Yet the global nature of this trend suggests that there are deeper forces at play.  Again, the question is, given limited time and resources, how do I focus my research.  I think this is one area where the “levels of analysis” are particularly helpful.

Still, other international correlations are more difficult to sort out.  For instance there are a number of different creation myths told by the various schools of Indonesian Silat, but many of these share a remarkably familiar story.  It’s a story about a girl and a crane.  One day the girl sees a crane fighting something.  Often its snake, but occasionally it’s a tiger or even another bird.  Watching the movements of the two animals the girl discovers the basic principles of hand combat.  She demonstrates these skills on either a group of drunken bandits or, in some versions of the story, an abusive husband.  At that moment Silat is born.

Most students of Chinese martial arts will find this story to be profoundly familiar.  It is not just similar, it is actually identical to the creation myth told by number of southern Kung Fu schools.  Specifically it is very similar to the creation myths told in Fujian province (see the White Crane narratives for a quick starting point).

So what does this mean?  How is it that Indonesian and Chinese martial arts, which differ in so many ways, end up with identical creation stories?   The first question to ask is, where does Indonesia’s rather large Chinese population hail from?  Not surprisingly most of them came directly from Fujian.  Not only that, they brought their distinctive local boxing styles and martial mythology with them.

Apparently Chinese immigrants in Indonesia have a very long history of practicing the traditional martial arts.  By some accounts this tradition goes back hundreds of years.  One wonders if the story did not travel that way.

A number of experts disagree with this hypothesis.  Donn F. Draeger, who did as much to introduce silat to the western world as any other author, claims that the extreme secrecy of the Chinese clans in Indonesia made direct sharing unlikely.  Further, he pointed out that the story was widespread and many versions of it existed.  As such he concluded that it was an ancient tradition, probably borrowed from Indian folklore.  The fact that it appeared in both China and Java was simply a result of both regions coming into contact with the same Hindu culture.

While I have immense respect for what Draeger did, I do not find his logic on this particular point very compelling.  To begin with, oral traditions can change more quickly than he seems to assume, especially in a competitive marketplace that demands “product differentiation.”   Just look at how many versions of the Shaolin narrative were created by southern Chinese Kung Fu schools in the 1930s alone.

As “secretive” as the Chinese clans could be, they also had public theater, newspapers, radio programs, popular publications, and a lot of contact with local merchants.  Over a period of a few hundred years, I would not be at all surprised to see such a simple story get out.  I guess the real question would be why, out of all of the Chinese myths, the Indonesians would find this one so interesting in the first place?

Perhaps this is where we might find some helpful resonances with traditional Hindu myth and poetry?  Nor is cultural exchange ever a one way street.  Maybe if we could actually determine why these two different systems have a shared creation myth, we might learn something new about how the Javanese and Chinese communities interacted in the marketplaces of the 19th and 20th centuries that we had not previously suspected.  That would be a line of research worth pursuing.  Yet it is one that we would have ever discovered without first taking the time to do a comparative study.

A vintage print showing various Indonesian knives and spears.

A vintage print showing various Indonesian knives and spears.


2 thoughts on “The Value of a Comparative Case: Jean-Marc de Grave discusses “The Training of Perception in Javanese Martial Arts.”

  1. An interesting article. I’ve been following your analyses on the trends in martial arts and I find tehm very refreshing.

    Re. the influence of Chinese martial arts on the development of Silat, and despite great respect I have for Donn Draeger and Robert Smith, I would say that they essentially did not know what they were talking about. Their book is from the 60’s or early 7’s, not sure exactly (I’m at work and don’t have it here in front of me), and a lot has come out since then which shows that there was considerable influence of Kuntao – which can be of many disticnt origins, from Northern to Southern Fists, but primarily from Southern Hakka styles – and Silat; and conversely, Kuntao was modified in the presence of Silat. Dutch-Indonesians for instance are a good example of this mix (see the De Thouars and particularly Willem “Uncle Bill”, as well as others such as Willem Reeders or the VanDerGroen family, which amazingly was of mixed Dutch, Chinese and Malay descent); whether this extended far into the past is open to questioning but at least the late O’ong Maryonno believed and said (to the dismay of many practitioners) that there would have been no Silat without Kuntao. You can see some of his articles online here:


    “…The dismissal of the term “kuntao” for both political and cultural reasons is clearly reflected by the fact that also perguruan that use “kuntao” techniques are not willing to admit it formally. For example to an observer like me, at least 80% of the techniques of Perisai Diri derives from Kuntao, while 10% is composed of Betawi, Kuningan and Cimande techniques and 10% derives from silat Minangkabau. This dominance of kuntao techniques is not surprising since the Master of Perisai Diri, R.M. Soebandiman Dirdjoatmodjo trained with the Kuntao teacher, or Suhu, Yap Kie San in Parakan, Banyumas Regency for 14 years after studying many other silat and pencak forms. When he finished to study kuntao he established in 1953 his perguruan, which is today, called “Keluarga Silat Nasional Indonesia Perisai Diri”. As the name shows, “silat” is the preferred term! …”

    [on an unrelated note, posting comments on your site is a huge pain, as wordpress takes over and forces you to log through it, when I don’t use it so frequently that I remember passwords!]

    Posted by josefreitas | April 20, 2013, 3:08 pm


  1. Pingback: Through a Lens Darkly (29): Savate: French Kickboxing and the Military | Kung Fu Tea - March 23, 2015

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