Pudong, Shanghai.  Source: Wikimedia.
Pudong, Shanghai. Source: Wikimedia.

[This is the first post of the third installment of our “Book Club” series.  The goal of this series is to provide a detailed discussion of some important books within the field of Chinese martial studies, similar to what you might find in an undergraduate level seminar.  No special background is necessary.  These discussions are generally spread over a number of weeks to give interested individuals a chance to read along.  The final installment of this two part post will be published next week and will cover chapters 4 – 8.]


Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man might be the single best book in the field of Chinese martial studies that you have never read.  I suspect that many of my readers will have never heard of it.  That is a shame because this modest volume (240 pages of text, 80 pages of apparatus) demonstrates both that the rigorous study of the Chinese martial arts is possible within an academic setting, and that it can contribute to the discussion of basic questions in fields as diverse as history, anthropology, urban planning and media studies.

It was this last point that led me to choose Frank’s volume for the third installment of our “Book Club.”  The two previous studies that we reviewed (The Shaolin Temple by Meir Shahr and Chinese Martial Arts by Peter Lorge) are both historical volumes.  History is a critical aspect of the emerging project that is Chinese martial studies, but the field touches on many other disciplines as well.

Professor Adam D. Frank currently teaches Asian Studies at the Honors College of the University of Central Arkansas.   This book emerged out his dissertation research.  That fact is most evident in the “Introduction” (which one might accuse of being overly self-conscious) but is less noticeable in the later chapters.  Frank was advised by Deborah Kapchan and Avron Boretz (author of Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters, Hawaii 2011) at the Anthropology Department of the University of Texas in Austin.  He received his doctorate in 2003.

Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man (hereafter The Search) grounds itself firmly within the discipline of cultural anthropology.  Frank is a practicing martial artist with an extensive background in Taijiquan.  While in graduate school he decided to use this familiarity, as well as more traditional fieldwork performed through multiple extended research visits to Shanghai, as the basis of an ethnographic study of Chinese culture and life in a rapidly changing urban landscape.

Readers will no doubt notice that the completed book is not a study of Chinese culture.   Instead the related question of “identity” kept emerging as a primary concern both for Frank in his own theoretical thinking and in the actual lived experiences of his informants.  Eventually the subject of his research shifted from a relatively traditional study of Chinese urban culture to a more detailed ethnographic study of the process of identity formation in an increasingly global Chinese martial arts community.  Frank located important sites of identify formation in the physical training spaces that martial artists adopted (urban parks vs. private apartments or alleys), in mass media representations of the martial arts (published works and television programs) and perhaps most strongly in the actual embodied, non-verbal, practice of teachers and students.

A photograph of the Beijing Physical Culture Association taken in 1919.  Notice the American gentleman "Mr. Williams" sitting on the far right hand side of the photograph.  Apparently he was an early foreign student of Wu style Taijiquan.
A photograph of the Beijing Physical Culture Association taken in 1919. Notice the American gentleman “Mr. Williams” sitting on the far right hand side of the photograph. He was an early foreign student of Wu style Taijiquan.  Evidently the Wu clan has been accepting foreign students for some time now.  Source: http://www.chiflow.com

Identity and the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

Debates over the nature of identity, and how identity interacts with the Chinese martial arts, are the dominant themes which run through the various chapters and discussions presented by Frank.  Throughout this work the author observes and reports curious incidents regarding our assumptions of what a “martial artist” is or should be, and then deconstructs them in an effort to understand not just how they arose, but what they say about the process of identity formation in the modern world.  Interestingly, the basic mechanics of the process do not seem to function all that differently between the areas he studied in Shanghai and the west.

In some cases individuals are free to shape their own understanding of self, local and national identity, and the martial arts become an important vehicle of self-creation.  Yet in other instanced we discover that “identity” is related to both cultural discourses and power structures.  It is thrust upon one as often as it is freely chosen.

The most obvious example of this is the humorous anecdote which Frank frames his introductory chapters with.  One of his Taijiquan teachers, a relatively young and talented martial artist, goes to the consulate and applies for a visa to visit a school in America where he has been invited to teach or give a seminar.  Unfortunately the embassy staffer who reviews his applications decides that his story is suspicious and declines to issue him a travel visa him because “everyone knows at Taiji teacher are old.”

We are all familiar with this myth.  The wizened and yet eternally vigorous master, living on a mountain top, dispersing the secrets of immortality.  All of the Asian martial arts are touched by this image to one degree or another.  Students are attracted by the promise of a great secret that will allow them to remake or to transcend the self.  Taiji in particular has become a repository for this sort of myth-making.  At first glance it all seems like yet another disturbing form of Edward Said’s “orientalism.”

Perhaps it is when the image is appropriated and advanced by western individuals.  Yet Frank reveals that Chinese students are, by in large, even more avid consumers of this revisionist exercise than are westerns.  They too are seeking a “little old Chinese man” as both martial mentor and cultural role model.  Some Taiji teachers find this charade irritating, but many others either subtly or explicitly cater to it.  A few have even built international brands, combing western interest in the martial arts and new age compatible approaches to qi cultivation and the longevity arts, on the strength of this archetypal image.

It does not take long before this heady brew of aspirational longing and identity begins to pose a central dilemma in how we discuss and think about the Chinese martial arts.  One the one hand these fighting systems are “arts” precisely because they can be taught in a social setting to practically anyone.  After all, this is the great promise that is made by all martial arts schools and teachers.

This is what makes a self-defense class fundamentally different from an elite boxing match.  Very few individuals possess the unique mix of physical characteristics needed to compete at the highest level of boxing.  The same can be said for any competitive professional sport where individuals might expect to make millions of dollars a year.  Yes elite boxers train very hard and have access to the best training, but so did all of the other guys who washed out at a more junior level.  There is simply no magic formula that will insure that you too can be the next Floyd Mayweather.  The unique mix of characteristics that define him as a fighter are both intrinsic and essential to who he is.

On the other side of the spectrum martial arts instruction offers a pedagogical method that allows individuals to make incremental improvements in a variety of areas including self-defense skills, basic fitness, self-image and socialization.  Some arts may work better for certain ages, body types and goals than others, but none of them really focus on “essential” characteristics to the same degree as professional athletics.  Instead these are social bodies of knowledge that offer anyone who joins the group a chance to learn.  This is a large part of the appeal of martial training.  Anyone who joins the Wu Taiji lineage in Shanghai can become a “push-hands man” (or woman) if they so desire.  They might not be the best in the park, but they will certainly be better than they were before they started to train with the group.

In this case the most important markers of identity are “style” and “lineage.”  And this is how we often think of the martial arts.  We see them as a body of knowledge that can be mastered by anyone.

Yet Taijiquan remains somewhat resistant to this logic.  Repeatedly Frank recounts meeting individuals that admired his dedication to Taiji yet lamented that he would never really understand the art, let alone have any hope of actually mastering it, because he was not “Chinese.”  Obviously this is the last thing an American martial artist wants to hear, but for professional anthropologists such candid statements are an incredibly valuable window into current Chinese thinking about both the martial arts and identity.

Setting aside the more specific question of special “secrets” passed on only to “indoor students” and “lineage successors,” what is the background of such statements?  In discussions both within the martial arts community and the media more generally, Taijiquan has come to be seen as a synthesis of certain martial, spiritual (Daoism) and cultural strands within Chinese society (see for instance Jian-Sheng Wen. “‘Zen” and “Tao” in Tai Chi.” International Journal of Social Science and Humanity. 3:2. (March) 2013).  Of course we have already reviewed the origin of this viewpoint in our discussion of Sun Lu-Tang.

Martial historians are free to complain about the anachronistic linkage of the martial arts and spirituality (or even elite culture) all they want.  Yet for a very large number of martial artists and Chinese consumers today, these relationships are simply “facts on the ground.”  Invented traditions are no less socially binding for being of a relatively recent origin.  Just ask any kilted Scotsman.

The central dilemma now becomes clear.  If Taijiquan is really the great repository of Chinese spirituality, culture and martial tradition then perhaps what it conveys cannot actually be mastered by an “outsider.”  Here the martial arts are seen as possessing a sort of “essentialism” that is inherited from the distant past and conveyed through deep cultural and linguistic knowledge.  An outsider who studies Taijiquan has no more chance of truly mastering it than I do of becoming Floyd Mayweather if I put on some gloves and hire his personal trainer.  We are both missing that essential aspect identity that makes the task possible.

Taiji being demonstrated at the famous Wudang Temple, spiritual home of the Taoist arts.  Notice they wear the long hair of Taoist Adepts. Source: Wikimedia.
Taiji being demonstrated at the famous Wudang Temple, spiritual home of the Taoist arts. Notice they wear the long hair of Taoist Adepts. Source: Wikimedia.

Historical facts are inconvenient things, even for martial artists.  Frank masterfully points out that while many modern observers fold hand combat traditions and national identity tightly together, a deep understanding of practically any martial lineage problematizes this move.  At the very minimum it points to the unique patters of “remembering and forgetting” that are essential to maintaining our modern, nationally based, definitions of identity.

The discussion surrounding Taijiquan associates it not so much with the modern Chinese state, but with China’s national culture as seen through the lens of Han ethnic identity.  While the numerically and culturally dominant force in Chinese society, the Han have not always been their own political or military masters.  Specifically, the final imperial dynasty to rule China was governed by a political and military elite comprised of ethnically minority Manchus.

After the 1911 revolution most Manchu families quickly adopted Han names and lifestyles.  Yet prior to the fall of the Qing dynasty, it was quite common for such individuals to live in segregated neighborhoods, to be employed in certain military or government capacities, and to maintain unique cultural, linguistic or military skills.  They were a distinct and highly visible ethnic minority group.  Nor were they always liked or admired by their neighbors.

All of this is important as the Wu style Taiji lineage was not founded by a member of the ethnic Han majority, but rather by an individual of Manchu extraction.  Nor is this story particularly unique.  China has a vast array of ethnic minorities, many of whom preserved or invented hand combat styles in the 19th century.  Today the once “foreign” origins of Wu Taiji are publicly “forgotten” so that their vital role in transmitting “traditional Chinese culture” can instead be remembered.  Ernst Renan, the eminent French historian and student of nationalism would be proud of such mental flexibility in service of identity.

Yet in the modern age of globalization there are other identities, besides the nation, that are at stake.  Frank argues that during the physical stress that defines serious martial study it become possible for groups of teachers and students to transcend those “essential characteristics” that seem to make them unique, and to instead find a new, more universal, identity based on their shared experience.

In certain ways the ideas of “lineage” and “place” that he returns to throughout his book are antithetical to the modern nationalist experiment.  Both of these concepts are simultaneously factional and social.  They derive their power from the expectation that one has a method of instruction (typically “the best”) that will work for anyone who comes to learn, regardless of who they are or where they are from.

While some teachers may have misgivings about the lack of cultural and linguistic familiarity exhibited by foreign students, Franks discusses other instructors who value such individuals because of their dedication and hard work.  Obviously it takes a special sort of person to move to Shanghai just to study Taiji.  Such a student may very well bring qualifications to the table far more important than a Chinese identity.

It is clear that while the martial arts may be implicated in how society thinks about identity, not everyone is moved in quite the same way.  Mass media portrayals of the martial arts, from movies to comic books, and even Sun Lu-Tang’s groundbreaking early 20th century manuals, all seem to emphasize the exclusive and the essential.  These stories employ hand combat as a bright line separating “us” from “them.”

Here the Chinese martial arts are used to redeem and defend the nation.  We see this is the frequent fictional juxtaposition of Chinese and Japanese martial artists in WWII, or the small and humble Chinese boxer standing up to the (usually Russian or American) imperialist prizefighters of the 1930s.  Jin Yong’s novels elegantly use the mythology of the martial arts to create historical national fantasies.  Bruce Lee famously employed kung fu much more directly in his own stories of personal and group resistance.

Yet in the physical practice of the martial arts (as opposed to fictional storytelling) what most individuals seem to actually discover is that regardless of race, gender or point of origin, all of us are very similar.  We also have a surprising capacity to work together.  Physical movement provides vectors of learning that seem to transcend nuances of language and culture.  In fact, we seem to be constantly rediscovering that the “physical culture” of the martial arts is, in fact, a real “culture.”  It can only be acquired and understood by those who share the same physical practice.

There seem to be two distinct directions of movement within the Chinese martial arts community.  As globalization advances cultural identity is inexorably challenged.  Retrenchment is one possible reaction to this.  Perhaps we should not be surprised to see more exclusive and essentialist stories about identity being promoted within the media, occasionally employing the “national arts” as a graphic device to make their point.

On the other hand, the decreased expense of international travel and communication (also inexorably linked to globalization) has led to an explosion in the availability of high quality martial arts instruction.  Not only does this create a shared universal physical culture within the style, but in some cases the myths, images and stories of the traditions are also universalized.  This creates the opportunity for increased trade, travel and cultural investment which may facilitate the growth of truly transnational communities and identities.

It is interesting to think about how these two competing forces, both spawned by different aspects of globalization, will develop in the future.  What is truly valuable about The Search is that it provides a rich ethnographic account of these processes as they unfold in a single city, while at the same time situating these personal experiences within a broader national and global framework.  Franks is a good ethnographer and a talented social observer.  While he writes from the perspective of an anthropologist, individuals from many fields will find this book to be full of important data that can be applied to their own questions about the Chinese martial arts in a modern context.

An overhead view of Zhong Shan park in Shanghai.   Source: Wikimedia.
An overhead view of Zhong Shan park in Shanghai. Source: Wikimedia.

Search for the Little Old Chinese Man: Introduction – Chapter Three.

Most of the theoretical discussion in this volume is outlined in the Introduction.  This will probably the most interesting and accessible to other anthropologist, though Frank does raise some important more general issues.  For instance, most of the people who study the martial arts academically also practice them.  How does it affect our writing and research practices when we effectively live “in the field”?

Readers will probably want to spend the most time on chapter one (“The Body: Daoism, Qi, and the Making of Social-Sensual Identities”) and chapter two (“Bodies, Lineages, Alleys”).  Together they provide the basic descriptions that the first half of the book rests upon.  Chapter one gives us a solid explanation of the modern Chinese martial arts and Taiji in particular.  This introduction in well-constructed and does an admirable job of presenting a complex subject in terms that are very accessible to non-specialist.  The basic history, organization and inner functions of the Shanghai branch of the Wu style Taiji clan are also introduced and reviewed.  Not being a Taiji player I found this to be a helpful discussion.

In chapter two Franks discusses his interactions and course of study with his three instructors within the Wu lineage.  Interestingly he decided to buck social convention and study with three different teachers (who all knew each other) at the same time, rather than sticking with a single master.  The anthropological logic behind this decision was sound (he needed to work with a variety of informants within the same community to complete his ethnography).  However, this decision may have affected how open or forthcoming his teacher were on a subconscious level.  I suspect that this is the one issue that might need to be considered when weighting the quality of his ethnographic evidence.

Nevertheless, from a reader’s perspective Frank’s unorthodox study method may have been brilliant. In this chapter he develops and presents three very unique portraits of not only different training styles and methods, but different understandings of what it means to be a modern martial artist.  I was particularly interested in how deeply implicated questions of class and educational background were within the Wu Taiji clan.

It is clear that for many of the individuals cultural sophistication and formal education are seen as essential to attaining the “deeper levels” of Taiji mastery.  This is not an attitude that is often encountered in the west.  It also reflects the modern understanding of Taijiquan as a profound synthases of traditional Chinese culture, rather than just another school of boxing.  Unfortunately the Cultural Revolution disrupted the educations of an entire generation.

This discussion of class and education is something that I will strive to be more sensitive to in my own interviews and research.  In retrospect I suspect that I have actually encountered something very similar in my own study of Wing Chun.  Ip Man is often held up as an example of an educated and culturally sophisticated teacher.  Further, he claimed the Leung Bik’s (his Kung Fu uncle) understanding of the art was more profound and sophisticated than Chan Wah Shun’s (his actual Sifu) because the former was an educated individual where as the later had little formal schooling.

This has always seemed odd as Ip Man also felt that Wing Chun could be taught more effectively by removing most references to traditional Chinese culture and philosophy from the system.  Historically speaking the Chinese martial arts were a distinctly working class phenomenon, and in many ways those same class alignments still exist today.  Still, the nature and tenor of Ip Man’s discussion of his teachers, and the role that education played in their understanding of the martial arts, was uncannily similar to what Frank found in modern Shanghai.  The perceived link between educational attainment and the martial arts is a subject that deserves more thought and inclusion in future studies.

Franks advances important arguments throughout his volume, but I feel that chapter two is really the heart of his work.  It is his most intensive, detailed, and powerful ethnography.  The three sketches he develops of his informant are striking and memorable.  I think a lot of the best data in this book about the day to day life of modern amateur martial artists in China is presented here.  I have reread it a number of times.

Chapter three (“Park Lives and Secret Spaces”) moves beyond an examination of individual informants and begins to ask questions about the broader community.  Specifically, how do the spaces in which martial artists practice contribute to their sense of place and formation of identity?  This was one of the critical questions that Frank wished to investigate when he began his dissertation research.  He had originally visited the Wu Taiji clan on a previous trip to Shanghai before starting his dissertation research.  In the intervening time the public park where they had traditionally practiced was extensively renovated and rebuilt.  How would the elimination of green spaces affect the local community and its martial artists?

Franks initial fears about the disappearance of public parks proved to be unnecessary.  City officials and urban planners have actually gone to some lengths to create open spaces which incorporate elements of the past while looking to the future.  Still, the disruption of the park provided another opportunity to observe how the Wu clan was structured.  Internal political and social tensions were made outwardly manifest as groups came together or physically distanced themselves.  Some instructors might disappear from a particular park all together after a particularly sharp falling out with other members of the lineage.

Wing Chun, with its origins in southern China and heavy emphasis on boxing, is usually practiced indoors or in some other private spaces.  It was very interesting for me to consider how ones physical environment affected you perception, and even practice, of an art.  One wonders how much of the 20th century development of Taiji or Bagua might have been influenced by their very public training points.  Clearly this choice of location was not a coincidence.  There were conscious efforts to cultivate these and other martial arts as popular forms of mass physical culture in the 1920s and 1930s.

While the discussion of physical space was fascinating I missed the intense personal and ethnographic descriptions of chapter two.  I was also left wondering about the interactions of various martial artists of different styles.  Franks concentrates his discussion of park culture almost solely on the Wu Taiji community and a couple of individuals who are involved with qigong.  Yet it seems that any large central park in China will also have a number stylists of different arts.  Some of these will be internal styles (Xingyi and Bagua) and may share some points of cultural identity with Taiji.  Others, like Shaolin or Plum Blossom Boxing, might be quite different both in terms of their physical practice and internal culture.  How do different arts share space?  What does it mean to be a “martial artist” in a more collective sense?

In  “Coffee-Shop Gods: Chinese Martial Arts of the Singapore Diaspora” D.S. Farrer (also an anthropologist) noted that most of the individuals who studied traditional martial arts in the public parks of Singapore did so because they wanted to be able to work with multiple teachers of different styles.  This mixing and matching was seen as a “modern and progressive” approach to the Chinese martial as opposed to the more sectarian private schools of the red-light district.  Interestingly many of the northern arts (Taiji and Jingwu) were the ones being taught in the parks, while it was the southern arts (such as Choy Li Fut) that were more likely to be practiced indoors.  It would be very interesting to know whether similar dynamics could be observed in the parks of Shanghai.  If not, why?

While reading this chapter I also found myself wanting a deeper discussion of the interaction between the Taiji community and the government.  Frank mentions multiple times how the government actually encouraged martial artists and bused Taiji players into the municipal parks after the crackdown on Falun Gong and the Qigong movement.  This was all part of a planned attempt to fill the social and geographic space left by the sudden disappearance of a major social movement.

Given that Taijiquan is so closely associated with Daoist mysticism in the modern imagination, and actually teaches Qi cultivation, what exactly makes this community “safe” in the government’s eyes?  It is clear that the government is not interested in working with the “folk styles” when it comes to promoting and regulating “official Wushu.”  How does it perceive the traditional martial arts with their grass-roots associations and lineage loyalties more generally?

This chapter answered some interesting questions about the use of public space in modern China, and it posed many more.  By the end of the discussion I felt like I had a good general overview of the culture of Shanghai’s public parks, and the place of the Wu style Taiji clan within it.  Still, I found myself wondering whether their relationship with public spaces was unique or typical?  This was one place where I thought a comparative case from outside the Taiji community could have been a big help.

Taijiquan in Lanzhou, Gansu, China.  Scenes like this are a reflection of the success of Sun's ideas about the true value and nature of the Chinese martial arts.  Source: wikimedia.
Taijiquan in Lanzhou, Gansu, China. Scenes like this are a reflection of the success of modern Taiji in becoming an accepted vehicle for “self cultivation” in Chinese society. Source: wikimedia.


Given the importance of “identity” to so many discussions of the traditional Chinese arts, and the generally high quality of the ethnographic data that Frank presents, it’s a shame that this book is not better known.  To understand why one simply needs to visit amazon or a used book search engine and check out its price.  With copies occasionally selling for close to $100 USD, this is one of those books that you will probably want to order through your local library.

This actually has to be my greatest complaint about this book.  I would like to use it in a class at some point, but asking students to shell out that much money for a single book would just be abusive.  It might still be possible to assign a couple of chapters, but most publishers now restrict university libraries from making more than two scanned or photocopied chapters (or sometimes 10% of the total text) of any book available to students.  Ostensibly these regulations are designed to protect authors and encourage the sale of books.  But the problem in this case is that the publisher never really anticipated any sales.  They only printed a very small run for university libraries (which is why the price is so high), and never bothered to advertise the text or make it widely available.

At some point this all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  How many books can one really expect to sell when few are printed and those that are released are priced at an “institutional sales” level.  The tragedy here is that books like this, if made more widely available, could potentially reach a much broader cross-over audience of practicing martial artists and students of Chinese popular culture.

As such we find ourselves returning to point at which we began.  The Search is likely one of the best books in the field of Chinese martial studies that you have never read.  Frank’s ethnographic style may not be for everyone, but the highly detailed study of a single martial arts organization, in a single city, which he presents in the first half of this book is very important.

The second half of this volume, which we will discuss next week, branches out both theoretically and geographically.  This helps to situate and provide some much needed context for Frank’s main discussion.  Still, over the last two or three years I have come to believe that detailed regional or local studies which follow a few institutions longitudinally over time, are likely to provide us with the most insight about how martial arts institutions actually function and how their interaction with the broader community has evolved over time.

Ethnographic analysis lends itself to these sorts of studies.  Further, Frank’s sensitivity to the unique social history of lineage structures, and the importance of geographic space, strengthens this approach.  Of course to judge how effective this is you may need to order a copy of this book on inner-library loan.  I think you will find that any inconvenience will be well rewarded.

***I would like to thank Prof. Frank for taking the time to discuss his work with me in some detail.  The end of a semester is always a busy time and I appreciated his insights.***

Click here for the second part of our discussion of Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man.