A watchful blackbird.  Source: Wikimedia.
A watchful blackbird. Source: Wikimedia.

This is the second half of our two part discussion of Adam D. Frank’s ethnographic study of identity and the traditional Chinese martial arts.  The first part of this review can be found here.  The “Book Club” is a semi-regular feature in which I host a discussion of a major work in the field of Chinese martial studies similar to what you might find in an undergraduate seminar if you were taking a class on this subject.  No prior background or language expertise is necessary.  However, these lectures are always the most effective if you read along as we go.  This goes double for Frank.  His work is excellent and it deserves to be much better known.

Also, if you have not read Wallace Steven’s poem “13 ways of looking at a blackbird” you may want to do so.  Prof. Frank has adopted it as a paradigm to structure his basic discussion of identity and makes repeated references to it throughout his work.

Lastly, if you would like to suggest a book for future consideration, drop me a note in the comments or shoot me an email

Introduction: “A man and a woman are one.  A man and a woman and a blackbird are one.” –Wallace Stevens.

“Identity moves.”  This is the single most important concept in the second half of Frank’s work and it may be the central motivating theme of his entire study.  But what exactly does this mean, especially when examining something as seemingly anchored and timeless as the Chinese martial arts?  How are these fighting styles carried on the currents of an increasingly globalized imagination, not just in the west, but even in China itself?  Do traditions like qigong, Taijiquan or Shaolin really remind individuals about their cultural roots, or are these things actually an entirely new way of understanding the very idea of “Chineseness?”  These are the sorts of questions readers and students should keep in mind as they approach the second half of Frank’s ethnographic study of identity and the Chinese martial arts.

Unfortunately Prof. Frank will not be offering us many hard and fast answers.  Identity is by definition subjective and multifaceted.  Like the blackbirds of Wallace Stevens’ poem, there is always more than one way of understanding the meaning of some action.  Who is to say that one view is more correct than another?

Epistemic humility aside, Frank offers us some very interesting observations on the complex interactions between the traditional Chinese martial arts and the forces of globalization and modernization.  The final chapters of his book touch on issues that anyone involved with the Asian modes of hand combat must eventuality confront.  He also demonstrates how the constantly unfolding process of identity formation is key to understanding the global appeal of the Chinese fighting arts.

These are important topics.  They are central to the theoretical arguments that Frank first advanced in his Introduction.  In some ways they are also a much more expansive and wide-ranging set of concerns than those explored in the first three chapters of his work.  Chapters 1-3 were really the ethnographic core of the book, and they focused on a detailed description of a single community and the “space” that they inhabited in modern Chinese life.  The entire exercise felt very focused and grounded.  I think that Frank actually does a lot of his best writing and social observation in Chapter 2 of this volume, where he describes his relationship with his three teachers.  In the second half of the book we move on to layers of identity formation that are not primarily mediated by personal relationships.

Blackbird bathing.  Source: Wikimedia.
Blackbird bathing. Source: Wikimedia.

Chapter 4: “Traced in the shadow, an indecipherable cause.”

Basic notions about identity formation are laid out and explored in the volume’s section section, but the exercise becomes a much more central focus of the work from chapter 4 onward.  As these new ideas are rapidly introduced the chapters loses a bit of their grounded, tightly focused, feeling.  This is not a random artifact of how the book was edited.  Rather, in his attempt to understand how “identity moves,” our author begins to undertake some movement himself.

First he investigates the “movement” of Shanghai through time.  Shanghai is very different today than it was in the 1920s, but it retains a strong sense of “place” (something that I have not noticed as much in Hong Kong for instance).  This definition of place is not just geographic; rather the city seems to be conscious of its own history and it attempts to reproduce images of itself through time.

Frank explores this sense of time and place in Chapter 4 “Barbaric Glass and Indecipherable Causes: Taijiquan as Public Art.”  At first Taiji appears to be a thread of seamless continuity that runs through the city’s history, connecting it to the larger tapestry of Chinese culture.  But what at first appears to be an ancient practice, if one investigates a little further, often turns out to be a more recent and consciously crafted “invented tradition.”

Taiji is no exception.  As I mentioned in the previous section of this review, urban planning and the use of public space was actually one of the major issues that Frank set out to explore when designing his research project.  What he found in the case of Shanghai was quite interesting.  City planners and other officials, eager to cultivate and accentuate a certain, highly selective, vision of the city’s past and unique cultural heritage, had consciously put in place policies that would encourage the public practice of Taiji.

This went well beyond the more general, nationally promoted, movements to replace mass qigong with Taiji, or to use the art as a low impact exercise for the elderly in an attempt to keep medical costs down.  Instead the interests of officials in Shanghai were aesthetic, almost architectural in comparison.  They sought to use the public performance of Taiji in a way that was similar to how we might think of performance art or grand sculptures in other cities.  Taiji was something from the “past” that gave definition to the landscape and its public spaces.  To facilitate this city planners and architects actually designed green spaces with Taiji performance in mind.

Franks never says it in so many words, but this is a stunning example of the government’s appropriation of traditional martial culture for its own purposes.  It is all very odd as most aspects of this subaltern cultural discourse are not very popular in good society.  Still, Taiji is an interesting case.  It seems to combine a faith in the idea of self-cultivation (always popular in China) with just enough of the city’s dangerous and glamorous past (but not too much), to be a very effective tool for visualizing a version of a city that never really existed, yet remains somehow critical to the future.  If there is such a thing as “cultural architecture,” this chapter demonstrates how Taiji has become central to both Shanghai’s public imagination and its landscape.

Blackbird and Kestrel.  Photo by sannse.  Source: Wikimedia.
Blackbird being watched by Kestrel. Photo by sannse. Source: Wikimedia.

Chapter 5: “The beauty of inflections, or the beauty of innuendos.”

Next we find ourselves riding along with Frank as he embarks on a road trip.  Like any good adventure there are stops along the way.  And given that we are in China and interested in the intersection of the martial arts and identity, it is pretty easy to guess where those stops will be.  In chapter 5 (“Through Martial Arts we Will Become Friends: Taijiquan as a Master Symbol of Modernity”) we visit first the Chen Village, where Taiji was created, and later we drop in on an exuberant festival celebrating the iconic Shaolin temple with floor shows, fireworks and a Wushu tournament.

I thought that this chapter was probably the strongest of those offered in the second half of the book so I am going to focus my discussion here.  Once again Frank had a chance to demonstrate his finely honed skills of social observation.  Throughout the second half of this book I felt most at ease when he was describing and narrating actual social interactions.  I was a little less comfortable when things took a turn towards more general social or media criticism.

One of the remarkable aspects of chapter 5 that readers should think about is the strongly contrasting images of the Chen Village and Dengfeng, home of the Shaolin Temple, which Frank so vividly paints.  In some respects it’s a puzzle that there should be so much contrast between these two communities.  On a structural level they are very similarly situated within Chinese society.

True, the Chen Village is a small, primarily agricultural, town whereas Dengfeng is a medium sized industrial city.  But both communities are located in the same rural, economically depressed, geographic area.  Both have seen some development (much of which has come through political patronage) in the last few decades, but have largely missed out on the economic miracle that has transformed life in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.  Each of these communities is home to one of China’s iconic martial traditions, and in the current era both places are dependent on martial pilgrims, tourists and curiosity seekers who come by the busload.

One could easily be forgiven for thinking that the two communities would be the same, expect perhaps in the matter of scale.  Yet these places are actually very different.  They both have a number of martial arts teachers, Wushu boarding schools and tournaments, but in both economic and social terms their development has followed different tracks.

Frank’s discussion of these communities is interesting precisely because he manages to so accurately capture the feel of both places.  Of course it would be possible to write an entire volume on either one of these cities.  Mathew Polly famously did this for Shaolin, though I believe that the Chen Village is still awaiting its “biographer of record.”  By confining his discussion of both places to a single chapter Prof. Frank ensures that he will only be able to offer us a sketch of each community.  Yet once again, his character sketches are very revealing.

While the Chen Village has enjoyed less government sponsored growth and fewer building projects, it remains a popular destination for tourists.  These individuals are often a little more knowledgeable and seem to value a different sort of experience than the busloads of day trippers who clog the courtyards of the Shaolin Temple.  Further, the Chen Village (and for that matter the Chen clan) seem to have done a better job at retaining an authentic sense of community.

This is clearly not the same community that existed in 1900, or even 1970.  In the past Taiji did not dominate the local landscape to the extent that it does now.  Yet that is one of the things that makes it such an interest test case.  One can clearly see the impact of a subtle change in how “traditional Chinese culture” is understood on a still intact community.

So what do we see at Chen Village?  Family Temples that charge admittance only to outsiders.  Displays bought with money from overseas students.  New schools where country youth study the martial arts full time hoping to become a boxing instructor or, more likely, a security guard or police officer.  Is this authentic Kung Fu?  Or is it simply a simulation of the past?  Or, to use Ballardie’s terminology, is it a simulacra of a martial world that never really existed?

This is certainly a difficult question.  We know what conditions were like in the village during the early 20th century as Tang Hao, the pioneering martial historian, visited it and documented what he found in some of the first high quality publications in the field of Chinese martial studies.  There can be no doubt that what modern martial pilgrims encounter is very different, both in terms of forms and substance, from what they might have seen in the past.

Yet one cannot shake the feeling that much of what happens at Chen Village is fundamentally “real.”  The nature of Taiji has been transformed, as well as its place in Chinese society.  Yet the children of the village still study boxing as a means of getting ahead in a rapidly changing world.  Place and clan are still central building blocks of local identity.

Frank’s first impression of Shaolin presents readers with a study in contrast.  Gone are the quaint clan temples and schools of Chen Village.  They are quickly replaced with vast auditoriums of tourists who have gathered  expecting fantastic and garish entertainment.  Major media figures, acrobatic “monks,” sophisticated lighting displays and fireworks all helped to insure that they would not be disappointed.

Frank had arrived in Dengfeng to attend a martial arts tournament and the opening exercises, celebrating and commemorating the iconic Shaolin Temple, set a very different tone from anything that he had previously experienced in his research.  Reading about this gaudy display (complete with promotional swag including complimentary embroidered Shaolin baseball caps) readers might be tempted to dismiss the whole thing as a farce.  Clearly nothing “authentic” could exist in this environment.  The once venerable temple has finally become a pure tourist trap.

This is by no means a new criticism.  Nor is this the only millennium in which Shaolin has been forced to answer that charge.  Addressing the same basic situation Meir Shahar, the Temple’s preeminent western historian, notes that visitors to Shaolin have been decrying it for its worldliness, wealth and obsession with image since at least the 1500s.  It turns out that complaining about the tourists ruining Shaolin’s “atmosphere” is perhaps its greatest social tradition.  And yet for all of the noise and the crowds and the hype, the Chinese people just keep “rediscovering” Shaolin.  Why?

Much of Frank’s volume is dedicated to discussing how identity moves from the body of the teacher to the student during long hours of forms practice or push hands.  For most people Shaolin is nothing like that.  Their only interaction with it comes through the media.  The temple has been the star of countless movies, television dramas, documentaries, novels, comic books and video games.  What is being conveyed here is not an unspoken physical culture, but rather a set of related stories and myths.  It is the image and symbolism of Shaolin that give the temple its power.

This may all seem very modern, and in a sense it is.  Shaolin has gained as much through global exposure in the 21st century as any other Chinese institution.  Yet it is also very traditional.  As early as the Tang dynasty stories of Shaolin’s remarkable fighting monks were already starting to circulate in collections of fictional short stories.  All of this was massively accelerated during the Ming dynasty when the Temple became famous for its clashes with “Japanese pirates” in the east, and bandits in the north.

Through the years these stories have been selectively edited, smoothed and remembered.  Today they are one of the core organizing myths of the Chinese martial arts.  Regardless of the actual reality of past events (most of the pirates were Chinese and the local bandits defeated the monks, saving the Qing the trouble) these myth provide the core symbols that structure not just much of China’s martial culture, but even how ordinary individuals think about the strength of their nation in general and its ability to withstand outside challenges to its honor and integrity.

In short, Shaolin has always existed as much as a media discourse as anything else.  There is nothing new about this.  This discourse has been chugging on for at least 500 years.  If you want to really understand Chinese popular culture it is one of the most important sets of symbols that one could come to terms with.

All of this should allow us some room to reconsider the multimedia display that Frank’s visit starts with.  It is too easy for readers in the west to focus only on the fireworks and to miss what is actually on the stage.  It was the core myths of China’s martial culture that were being enacted.  A sense of spectacle and a celebratory atmosphere do not distract from this, they are a critical part of the exercise.  They create that effervescent social energy that allows individuals to feels that they are part of something larger than themselves.  Durkheim, in his Elementary forms of the Religious Life, argued that it was through such totemic gatherings that individuals could feel the true power and awe of the social community.

All of this is easy for western students to dismiss, especially if they have a strongly bounded view of what the Chinese martial arts are “supposed” to be.  “We all know” that they are about pure self-defense, or that they are “really” about health.  But for individuals in modern China, these symbols are also about patriotism, community and national identity.  The fireworks are in fact every bit as central to this as they are to a Fourth of July celebration in any small town in America.

How this identity will manifest itself in any given space is more of an open question.  Prof. Frank’s discussion of the following martial arts tournament was instructive and I suspect probably mirrors what many students of the increasingly globalized martial arts have already experienced.  On the one hand, the Koreans take pride in the fact that westerns enjoy Tae Kwon Do, just as the Japanese are justly proud of the spread of Judo and Jujitsu.  These things are publicly acknowledged as being global movements open to all.

On the other hand you can never quite escape that sense of “original ownership.”  Korean fighters at the Olympics know that they are competing in a “Korean” sport and they feel immense pressure to win.  Local fans are also often quite vocal in this regard.  The Chinese relationship with wushu is no different.  If anything all of the stories of fending off foreign pirates and western challenge fighters, armed with nothing but their bare hands and pure determination, seems to have exacerbated this tendency.

What we are seeing here is a fundamental tension in the modern Asian martial arts.  Internally these fighting styles claim to be, and in fact are, a pedagogical method.  All they really promise is incremental improvement to anyone who follows their time honored methods.  The lesson that actual practitioners of the arts often learn is that humans, despite their nation of origin, are all basically the same.  Everyone has two hands and two feet.  Victory almost inevitably goes to the one who trains harder.  In that sense there is a “universalizing impulse” behind many of the most popular styles which makes them particularly well suited for success in the global marketplace.

Yet there is no doubt that these arts are also “national arts.”  Very often they are viewed as reflecting some core characteristic of the society that generated them.  Right or wrong this view is often perpetuated by movies and TV shows that portray the martial arts as a means of national liberation or salvation.  In fact, taken to its logical extreme it is possible to see the performance of the martial art as an expression of nationalism.

It is hard to get much more exclusive or essentialist in ones reading of identity than this.  Yet both of these strands of thoughts, the universal and the essentialist, can exist within the same discourse surrounding the same fighting style.  I tend to think that actual practitioners favor the former, where as those who only know the fighting arts through the entertainment industry find more value in the latter.  Still, many individuals have internalized aspects of both of these identities.  As Wallace Stevens might remind us, two different glances may reveal two very different blackbirds.

This seeming schizophrenia becomes evident in the behavior of the crowd that has assembled to watch the Wushu tournament.  Most of the contestants are local (and presumably a product of professional martial arts school), though a number of individuals (almost all of whom are amateurs) have traveled from around the world to participate in the festival.

Frank demonstrates how it is never quite clear what will happen when a foreign fighter or performer takes the floor.  At times the crowd is implacably hostile, seeing a western fighter as modern incarnation of a turn of the century wrestler come to challenge the “sick man of Asia.”  At other times the crowd is willing to magnanimously acknowledge a western performer’s best effort.  In both cases the individuals in the stands appear to be living out their own Kung Fu dreams, just as much as the performers on the floor who may have trained or saved for years to be there.

The tournament itself is a vast ritual revolving around shifting, sometimes conflicting views of identity.  The few foreigners who are present are co-opted into the exercise.  But how could it be anything else?  For a hand full of individuals such an event may be a purely technical exercise, but for most of the performer, and certainly most members of the audience, it is a powerful display of master symbols that organize key aspects of their identity.  They have literally come to see their myths enacted.  Still, which myths they will perceive in the events on the floor, and which theory of identity they will ultimately accept, the universal or the essential, is not determined simply by the exercise.  That seems to be a realm in which there is still substantial room for argument and choice.

It is the indeterminate nature of this discourse that motivates Frank’s entire study.  When talking with his teachers he is encouraged to study Taiji and plumb its secret depths.  Yet he is also informed that as a foreigner he will never really master the art.  By the end of the chapter it is clear that these two approaches to identity remain in fundamental tension, even if on an unconscious level, among most of Prof. Frank’s informants.

As a result identity is never experienced in simple terms, but rather as a moving point on an arc of potential stretched between two poles, perfect universalism and perfect exclusion.  One suspects that this fundamental unresolved tension provides the Chinese martial arts with much of their psychological power, in both the east and the west.

"Identities move."  A central theme of the second half of this work.  Photo of a Yellow Shouldered Blackbird by Mike Morel.  Source: Wikimedia.
“Identities move.” A central theme of the second half of this work. Photo of a Yellow Shouldered Blackbird by Mike Morel. Source: Wikimedia.

Chapters 7-8: “The River is moving. The blackbird must be flying.”

In the final two chapters of his study Prof. Frank turns his attention to the ways in which Taijiquan, and even some aspects of Chinese identity, are moving beyond traditional state borders and entering a truly global milieu.  Once again we are greeted by a new cast of characters.

The first is a “Kung Fu bum” from Europe.  Or perhaps we should see him as a martial pilgrim who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of the traditional arts.  Likewise we meet individuals who have journeyed in the opposite direction.  Frank introduces us to a number of Taiji instructors from China who have been active in the Bay Area.  They discuss their frustrations at attempting to meet the expectations of their American students who seek not only boxing instruction but also a fount of “oriental wisdom.”

It turns out that David Carradine casts a long shadow.  Even worse, his instructors at the fictional Shaolin Temple at which his character was educated have set a standard for mystical philosophy that no mere mortal could hope to match.  It is all a lot to live up to.

Translation is not simply a matter of linguistics.  It is also a matter of culture.  Interestingly many western students of Taiji are just as interested in “translating” the cultural base of the art as they are its physical movements.  Some of this knowledge may even be necessary to correctly feel and understand these movements.

This has led to a number of problems.  How does one translate the concept of Qi?  Or from a historical and theoretical perspective, should one even be discussing it at all?  Is this really a central part of the historical Taiji system or are modern discussions of “moving your qi” really a post 1950s phenomenon?

These are contentious questions, even within China itself.  On the one hand you will find instructors in America who seek to limit or exclude any discussion of Qi.  On the other hand there are Chinese masters who have provided public demonstrations of their “Qi abilities” and given major media interviews on the subject.  Some masters have even developed mass marketed materials aimed at the American new age consumers.

Of course there is more than one “western market.”  Frank points to the release of a “Buns of Steel: Taiji” tape to demonstrate the degree to which these practices can be divorced from their original cultural setting and commoditized.  Ironically the traditional arts in America seem to be progressing along multiple tracks.  Or perhaps it is not really a surprise.  This is what we are also seeing in China after all.

It is clear that the spread of martial identities and concepts have opened an important transnational space that has allowed for a fundamentally different sort of relationship between individuals in China (usually teachers) and the west (often, though not always, students).  Some critics simply take this to be a circle of mutual exploitation.  Westerns exploit Chinese teachers to satisfy their own orientalist “identity discourse,” where as they use American and European students as a market for mass produced instructional DVDs and overpriced seminars.

There is certainly an element of truth to that, but something more fundamental is going on.  Frank noted that the speed with which Daoist concepts and the idea of Qi have entered American popular culture would seem to indicate the creation of some true pockets of hybridized identity.

Once and future blackbirds.
Once and future blackbirds.  Source: Wikimedia.

Conclusion: “When the blackbird flew out of sight it marked the edge of one of many circles.”

Some of Prof. Frank’s most important discussion of globalization happen in these chapters, but they are also the hardest to pin down.  The conversation seems to jump from one topic to the next and interesting ideas are left underdeveloped.  Worse yet the volume does not have a proper conclusion, meaning that much of Chapter 8 is actually dedicated to restating and wrapping up the author’s theoretical arguments.  This further cuts into his ability to present a comprehensive discussion.

The result is not totally satisfying.  By the end of the volume I had a better understanding of how current trends and globalization were affecting identity and the actual functioning of the traditional arts in China.  But I was less sure about the west.  The author introduced a number of very interesting ideas, but these need to be developed over a number of additional chapters.  Further, the ethnographic basis of this discussion should be flushed out in greater detail.

Of course doing so would require adding a chapter or two to the manuscript, as well as a new conclusion.  And that would be a big enough set of changes that another printing probably would not work.  Rather what is needed is an expanded and updated second edition, one that can develop the arguments about identity in the west just as carefully as those for China.  Of course a volume like that would probably sell a lot of copies.  So yeah, my biggest criticism of this book basically boils down to a (devious) plug for it to be republished in an expanded form.

Adam Frank has done a great service to the field with this study.  He has introduced us both to his teachers and to a number of interesting ideas.  He has argued not only that identity can move, but that it is really only alive and functioning when it does.  Identity is not a static thing composed of completely resolved concepts and facts. Rather it is an engine for moving the individual through a rapidly changing world, allowing them to reconfigure their understanding of who they are, and what their place in the social system really is.  In that sense the strangely malleable, yet “ever eternal,” world of the martial arts is a great laboratory to examine and study these questions.

Prof. Frank has also demonstrated that there is much more to Chinese martial studies than just history.  While establishing a less distorted vision of the historical record is important, coming to terms with the actual lived experience of martial artists is critical to the overall project.  He demonstrates how a well-constructed study can touch on questions in many disciplines.  Once again, Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man is perhaps the best work on Chinese martial studies that most individuals have never read.