Statues of Tengu, a Japanese mountain demon sometimes associated with the transmission of secret martial knowledge, on My. Takao.  Source: Wikimedia.
Statues of Tengu, a Japanese mountain demon sometimes associated with the transmission of secret martial knowledge, on My. Takao. Source: Wikimedia.


If I have learned one thing after years of attending academic conferences it is that every gathering must have at least one “roundtable discussion.”  Our own 2013 Web Symposium on Chinese Martial Studies is no exception.  As such I am happy to introduce Prof. Paul Bowman, media studies experts and noted Bruce Lee author.

Of course the roundtable format is actually a little harder to accommodate on a blog like this than in a physical gathering where you can just sit at a table and pass around a microphone.  In an attempt to replicate the back and forth of an actual discussion Prof. Bowman and I came up with some questions, worked on them over a couple of weeks, and generated a multi-directional interview.  The exchanges have been numbered to help keep things straight.  The questions are set off in italics and the answers are in the normal font.  In each case we have indicated who a question was directed to.

I am very excited about this conversation.  It does a good job of summing up where we are in the development of martial studies/Chinese martial studies as a field.  Our conversation discusses the breadth of approaches that scholars are currently bringing to bear, and it asks what the future of this research is likely to look like.  We are both aware that other individuals have unsuccessfully attempted to launch something like modern martial studies in the past, and neither of us are naive to the challenges that lay ahead.  But we both conclude that there has never been quite the same level of broad-based support for this effort, both within and outside the academy, that we are seeing right now.  Of course the very possibility of success necessitates taking a moment reflect on where this research area has come from, and how we would like to see it develop in the future.

An image of a low ranking minor Tengu by Hokusai.  Source: Wikimedia.
An image of a low ranking minor Tengu by Hokusai. Source: Wikimedia.

Question 1 (to Paul Bowman).Lets talk a little bit about your involvement in the growing field of martial studies. Why and how did you decide to adopt this new direction in your research?

Paul Bowman (PB): I had long wanted to write about martial arts, but I didn’t really know how to do this in a scholarly way, as an academic, not as a fan, practitioner or general writer. As I recounted last time, my solution was to approach it in terms of film and media, which are fields I have been trained in. So, I think a lot of my work on Bruce Lee is really work that is organized by Bruce Lee. In this sense, Bruce Lee is a kind of ‘case study’ for something larger; something I had been trying to get a handle on myself; something I was looking for ‘out there’ whilst at the same time trying to work out how I might ‘do’ such a thing myself. What I was looking for is what I have now come to think of as ‘martial arts studies’.

This is what I’m trying to do, and in my head it necessarily involves studies of physical practices, of course, but no less than studies of ideas and discourses and representations and fantasies. So it’s not just film studies or anthropology or history or psychology, for example – but it must necessarily traverse all of these fields. Interestingly, some reviews of my Bruce Lee books have expressed a kind of frustration that I don’t actually spend all that much time analyzing the films as films, and that I don’t do the kinds of film studies textual analyses or production analyses that one might expect. But this is because I never saw myself as doing film studies. Films were my starting point, my way in; my way to begin thinking about martial arts and culture.

However, I didn’t come up with the term, and I don’t claim to fully know the field – if it is ‘one field’. In fact, I had never really thought about ‘martial studies’ or ‘martial arts studies’ before I read the introduction to Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World by Farrer and Whalen-Bridge. Before I read that, I remember I had been trying to think of a term that would describe what I wanted to do, but I hadn’t settled on ‘martial studies’ or ‘martial arts studies’. When I look back through my files and folders I remember now I had even tried – and failed – to do a range of things, around ten years ago, like founding an academic journal and editing an academic collection on what we can now call ‘martial arts studies’. However, I now think that the time had not been right, certainly not for me, because I had not conceptualized it well enough. But Farrer and Whalen-Bridge nailed it. The way they characterized it in that introduction really excited me. I decided that that was indeed exactly what I wanted to be doing – that, in fact, I already had been trying to do it, but without a kind of overarching conception that there could be an academic field or a new disciplinary space to be forged. But when I thought about it in light of Farrer and Whalen-Bridge’s introduction, I thought, yes, I will join in with this, I will try to be proactive in this, and try to help produce or invent such a field.

My main thought was: I’ve got to make sure we foreground and emphasize the importance of film and media here. These are so important but so easily overlooked. Martial studies or martial arts studies can’t be a field that is entirely defined and delimited by kind of naïve, realist, empiricist, nativist or nationalist history or ethnography. It is so much more transnational, so much more mediated and complex than many academics seem to want things to be. So I wanted to get the importance of media and film firmly in the picture. This is why I put up a flag and scheduled an issue of the journal I edit (JOMEC Journal) on the theme of Martial Arts Studies. In the call for papers, I rather cheekily insisted that priority would be given to proposals focusing on the place of film and media in martial arts. But I did this for good reasons. In my exploration of different academic approaches to different aspects of martial arts, I all too often read a sentence at the start of the article which gestures to ‘Bruce Lee’ or ‘martial arts films’ as the cause of people’s involvement in martial arts. But then the article moves on to talk about god knows what else (‘native cultures’, or ‘indigenous traditions’, or whatever), as if the founding intervention of film or media had never happened!

Question 2 (to BJ): What about you: what caused you to explode onto the martial studies scene with your blog? And why did you choose to delimit it to Chinese martial studies? Given the complexity of ‘race’, ‘place’ and ‘identity’ in our fragmented, globalized and often transnational cultural world, what made you draw the lines around ‘China’ and how do you choose what fits in and what doesn’t?

Benjamin Judkins (BJ): I was fascinated by your discussion of the concept of “martial studies.”  It is something that both of us are interested in—indeed there seems to be a growing number of scholars who want to engage in this kind of work—but the truth is, there is nothing obvious about this.  It is hard to pin down what is going on with this “field” of inquiry.  On the one hand that’s nice because it opens us up to all sorts of questions and methods.  Yet it is really hard to write meaningful descriptions or theories without a clear set of concepts, or even a shared vision of what topics this field is going to address.

I guess that like a lot of people I have been interested in the martial arts since I was a kid.  I practiced Tae Kwon Do (ITF) when I was growing up, and later became interested in the Chinese martial arts.  Academically speaking my training is in political science.  That is a pretty broad discipline and I specialized in international relations and political economy.

I have worked on a variety of projects ranging from very abstract, mathematical, studies of partisanship and trade protection to much more interpretive papers on the social effects of globalization.  Eventually I started to ask questions about why different societies reacted in the ways that they did to the (often universal) pressures of globalization.  That got me focusing on domestic social structures and the role of civil society in mediating political or economic shocks.

One of my early research projects in the area focused on the Boxer Uprising.  I was not (and am not) a China specialist.  My background is really in theory.  I turned to China because I needed a case study of religious violence that would be a challenging test for some of the more established theories in the field and the Boxer Uprising (as well as some of the other 19th century rebellions) fit that bill.

I was blown away by what I found when I started to delve into the research.  I discovered that 19th century China was a great place to look for data on globalization.  Further, the actual structure of “civil society” seemed to vary a lot by locality and time, and it did appear to have a big impact on how different shocks played out. 

You mentioned Farrer and Whalen-Bridge above.  I agree with your assessment.  That it is a great book.  It’s a real step forward for the field. 

But for me what really pointed to the latent potential of martial studies was Joseph W. Esherick’s seminal study The Origins of the Boxer Rebellion.  I was stunned with how much data he was able to gather about these obscure 19th century boxing societies.  I was fascinated with the absolutely vivid picture that he painted of how the social, political and economic world fit together.  It was a political economists dream.  And here were these boxing societies, sitting right in the middle of everything.

It occurred to me that if you wanted to study instances of social disruption and conflict then “martial culture” was not a minor or secondary concern.  It was often right at the very heart of what was going on.  Following up a tip I got at a conference I started to do a little of my own research focusing on Guangdong between about 1850 and 1950.  I discovered that the same thing was basically true there.  Investigating what was happening within the area’s martial arts subculture really highlighted (and led one to ask better questions about) the fundamental changes that were happening in Chinese civil society.

It is actually somewhat ironic that I found myself working on Chinese martial studies.  As a kid I studied Korean martial arts and then in college and graduate school I focused on Japanese language, culture and politics.  That is where my actual training is.  I guess I decided to focus on China both because it has so much potential and very few people in my field seem to write all that much about it.  The political economy of 19th century China in particular doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention outside of the specialists, yet it is relevant to so many of the broader discussions in the field right now.

Ultimately it is not my goals to limit myself to “Chinese martial studies.”  I see that as one part of a broader project (martial studies).  Since I am interested in the varieties of domestic civil society it makes sense for me to mentally organize the field around these criteria.  I fully expect that other individuals, who are interested in different sorts of questions, will find a variety of ways to slice and dice “martial studies.”  The entire topic is just immense. 

For the purposes of framing research questions I think it is important be pretty specific in what you are trying to accomplish.  Right now I am basically attempting to figure out how the martial arts of southern China developed between about 1850 and 1950.  My hope is that once we get a better handle on the basics of this process we will then be in a much better position to ask more involved questions that will be of interest to the more general field of martial studies.

I think my blog is basically an experiment.  I wanted to do a few things with it.  First off, I was attempting to test the waters and see who else out there that was interested in this stuff.  I wanted to see whether it was possible to build a community where discussions could happen. 

I try to keep myself on a regular writing schedule with the blog.  I do that not because I have an inexhaustible supply of things to say, but rather because I am trying to work through and process a lot of basic material right now and for some reason you just see things differently when you have to write about them.  Hopefully it will help me sharpen my ideas before they end up in a more permanent published format.   Beyond that I just like writing about Wing Chun and think that a blog is a good way to get some more historically sound ideas about its origin and nature out into the wild.  

Modern Tengu masks at a tourist shop in Japan.  Source: Wikimedia.
Modern Tengu masks at a tourist shop in Japan. Source: Wikimedia.

Question 3 (to PB):Many of your chapters and papers focus on question of popular culture and politics, yet your approach to these questions is eclectic, drawing on a variety of fields including cultural studies, film studies, critical theory, philosophy and even political theory. Can you tell me a little more about how you think about interdisciplinary work?

(PB): I think interdisciplinarity is messy. I talk a little bit about it at the start of Beyond Bruce Lee, quoting from Roland Barthes quite a lot. But, basically, ‘when done properly’, so to speak, interdisciplinarity is messy and controversial because it immediately poses questions of legitimacy and propriety. You know, when feminist literary critics started reading works in science in the 1970s and 1980s and declaring that Western science was sexist, Eurocentric and/or racist, naturally scientists were offended. Or when postmodernists started using ideas from quantum mechanics to talk about culture and ‘reality’, scientists got very annoyed, as in: what do these upstarts think they are doing, going about making wild declarations whilst apparently claiming to understand science better than scientists, etc.? This all culminated in the ‘Sokal Affair’, when the scientist Alan Sokal published a hoax ‘postmodern science’ article in a cultural studies journal, largely in order to try to ‘prove’ that these silly relativists couldn’t tell good from bad and right from wrong. Then he wrote an entire book about how wrong postmodernist philosophers were about everything. Which of course led philosophers to respond angrily that Sokal himself clearly didn’t understand the philosophy and was merely demonstrating his own ignorance.

The point I’m making is that there are barriers between the disciplines, and if you try to move from one to another – or to assess one discipline in the terms of another – you are likely to cause offense or be shot down as ‘wrong’. Think about Bruce Lee: I think of him as interdisciplinary. He left Hong Kong and his wing chun class, and went to America. In America he thought martial arts and martial arts competitions were inadequate. So he tried to innovate, he cross-trained, improvised and invented. Ultimately he even disavowed Chinese martial arts, and stated that he believed he had kind of transcended style by rejecting style. So, instead of ‘style’, he insisted that everything be scrutinized and ‘pressure tested’.

But had he transcended style (or can we say, discipline)? I’ve heard tales of him returning to see Ip Man in Hong Kong and trying to show everyone there how much he’d improved. Reportedly, they weren’t impressed. They thought he hadn’t improved at all. Indeed, the question arises, of course: how could Bruce Lee claim to have transcended style when he hadn’t finished the syllabus in wing chun? Is this another case of ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’? You know, how could anyone make a declaration – for instance – of the sort ‘tai chi is no use in a real fight, because it’s not very realistic’? You could say that, but could you know it with any kind of certainty, unless you had in some sense completed a syllabus and had loads of fight subsequently? I’ve studied tai chi since 2001 and have used tai chi principles in all kinds of sparring situations, against all kinds of stylists. And it has proven perfectly useful. Moreover, I can’t beat any of my instructors…

My point is: Bruce Lee claimed to leave one discipline and he became interdisciplinary, and this is fundamentally controversial, because by doing so he is making a challenging claim that the discipline he’s leaving is ‘inadequate’ and that what he’s doing instead is somehow superior. But I have written at length about this in Theorizing Bruce Lee.

As for me, I don’t think that I’ve really done interdisciplinary work in martial arts studies yet. I’ve only used the approaches I learned whilst studying ‘cultural studies’, which is necessarily a broad church. What I’ve done instead is to look at my case studies, my texts, using different optics – a bit like changing the lens on a camera, to get different effects. So, I’ve asked: what happens when you assess Bruce Lee in terms of semiotics? What about psychoanalysis? What happens when you switch perspective and think in terms of Marxist theory? Then what happens if you think in terms of ethnicity? What about globalization? What about postcolonialism? These are all different paradigms but they are more or less part of cultural studies. So, you might say, although I’ve been quite eclectic within cultural studies, I have yet to step outside of my own comfort zone and see what happens when I try to write across disciplines and speak to other disciplines. Well, I have tried it once or twice, and people in other disciplines don’t like what I say! I’ve had anthropologists and historians shouting at me after I’ve given papers – and largely because I have implicitly or explicitly challenged their operating assumptions.

Question 4 (to BJ): What do you think about it all? You have said a few times on your blog that you come from a different disciplinary background but that you broadly agree with my conclusions. What do you think that signifies? – I mean, one might expect different disciplines to construct their objects and orientations very differently, and come to very different conclusions. Think about the differences between the ways that disciplines might treat the topic of ‘love’, for example: literature, psychology, history, philosophy, sociology and chemistry will each mean very different things by ‘love’ and will make very different conclusions about it. But here we are, reading each other’s work and finding ourselves to be in agreement. Does this mean our approaches are not so very different, or what?

(BJ): That’s a hard question to tackle.  I don’t think it is the case that our background operating assumptions and methods are all that similar.  In fact, I expect that they are quite different.  Economists are, by the very nature of their discipline, empiricists.  Not only that, they are rather proud of it.  A lot of political scientists actually share pretty similar ideas about ontology and epistemology (political theorists being the major exception of course).  Those are the two disciplines that I was trained in.  In contrast you seem to be coming at these questions out of a much more descriptive or “interpretive” vein.  Clearly a lot of ink has been spilled between these two camps in the last few decades.  So our approaches (or at least our training) are about as different as could be.

Of course the real danger, the thing that keeps me up at night, is the fear that my conclusions are not really mine at all.  Rather they might simply an artifact of my assumption and methods.  But the good news is that this does not seem to be the case here.  It is hard to say why exactly.  The thing that I find most interesting is that we share a common interest in so many of the same questions.

That might actually be the key.  It might the indicator that martial studies, by its very nature, requires a certain degree of methodological triangulation.  I liked your metaphor of trying on the different theoretical lenses when looking at a problem.  That is basically how things work in political economy as well. 

I don’t think that it is possible to ever create a perfectly accurate theoretical map of reality in this way.  But why would you want to? Theories are only useful because they simpler and easier to grasp than “reality.” 

Still, it is interesting that both of us find the same set of conclusions so plausible.  I do think that by challenging yourself to systematically examine the same event through a variety of lenses you build a more accurate image of the whole.  You reduce, to a certain extent, the chance that your conclusion is nothing but an artifact of your assumptions and methods.

My background in political economy has conditioned me to look at problems in an interdisciplinary way.  Not that there is anything all that trendy or modern about the field of political economy.  It existed before the modern fields of economics and political science broke off and established themselves.  And they did that for very good reasons.  I suspect that there were certain levels of problems that had to be addressed, and specific tools that could only be developed, within specific disciplines.

Yet increasingly the sorts of problems that seem to be of the most interest in academics today defy these traditional classifications (and I am not just talking about martial studies here).  Is the failure of Bangladesh to develop as fast as it would like primarily an “economic” or a “political” problem?  If you say it is economic, is it a matter of domestic or international economics?  Dig deep enough and you will always discover that market structures come from someplace, and then you are usually right back to politics.  As soon as a problem becomes sufficiently complex it becomes really difficult to separate out the economic versus the political aspect of the situation.

Increasingly I am seeing entire teams of scholars from a variety of different disciplines attempting to tackle these large, complex, interconnected problems.  I am not sure what things are like in the UK, but right now in the US if you are trying to write a grant a lot of programs are giving top priority to exactly this sort of broadly interdisciplinary work.

Martial studies may well require a similar approach.  It touches on so many questions in so many areas.  If I had to make a prediction (always dangerous) it would be that we will see a lot of edited volumes and co-authored works in the future precisely because martial studies presents us with deeply multifaceted problems. 

Not that I would complain about this.  Some of the most exciting projects that I have worked on have involved extensive cooperation with individuals from very different fields (history, psychology, economics and anthropology) all coming together to look at complex problems (e.g., is it possible to deter terrorism?).  This stuff is never easy.  Often it is impossible to get a bunch of people from different disciplines to even agree that a problem is worth working on.  But it can be very rewarding when things come together.

I think that one of the advantages that we have as field is that we have already jumped that first hurdle.  We already have a number of historians, anthropologists, theater studies professors, social scientists and of course media studies experts who are interested in a remarkably consistent group of questions.  That gives me a lot of hope that an interdisciplinary approach, in the fullest sense of the word, can actually work.

Another statue of a Tengu.  Source: Wikimedia.
Another statue of a Tengu. Source: Wikimedia.

Question 5 (to PB).What about that.  Do you think that martial studies is necessarily an interdisciplinary filed?

I want it to be. Don’t you? I love reading your blog because you bring a completely different perspective on things to anything I could have come up with, because I simply don’t have the knowledge or the training that you have because of your disciplinary positioning and personal interests. At the same time, I have found a lot of little things that make me want to delve more deeply and to try to work out the extent to which I may actually disagree with you. As I read through some of your argumentative moves, I think ‘I wouldn’t have made such a move or a connection’, and I think that these are essentially disciplinary differences. So, when you make certain assumptions and connections in your writing, I often raise my eyebrows and think ‘aha, I can see the way his disciplinary training is making him think and write like this’. And it makes me want to take you to task. Not because I disagree with you on one level: as you know, I read and enjoy every blog post. But part of me thinks that this ‘agreement’ is really only at one level of reading. You know, I read the blog posts in a certain spirit. I often read them for relaxation. So I can find a lot to make me content. However, what would happen if I read you in such a way as to construct a more radical appraisal? I think the results would be interesting… Of course, it would also be ‘unfair’, because I know your blogging is informed by academia without attempting to pass for fully fledged academic publication. So it would be cruel of me to read it ‘too rigorously’.

Nevertheless, one day soon, I will! I have not yet had the time to sit down and more or less systematically take you to task on certain things. But I will! When I really get time to start writing for my next big project, which I hope will do some justice to the promise and potential of a field called martial arts studies, I will be engaging with your writings very thoroughly. But, as much as my style of reading/analyzing (deconstruction) almost always involves dissecting and pulling people’s arguments to pieces, I hope you will not read this as a hostile act. It will be much more like sparring. Nevertheless, in a sense, it will be a battle about disciplinary propriety – in much the same way that these legendary challenges between masters that we see in films are somehow not simply fights between individuals, they are equally tests of which martial discipline is superior. Which is another way of saying, we are not simply free individuals. We are produced by disciplines, and we operate in some kind of relation to them. So if I fight you intellectually, it is not really you that I am after: it is the disciplinary orientation that organizes your thought. And it will be in terms of the disciplinary orientation that organizes my thought, at the time.

Questions 6 (to BJ): I think that if we say it is an interdisciplinary field, then what we mean is that we’re never going to agree, but that we appreciate why that is so, and that, in a sense, we don’t really want to agree, because that might mean we’d all become too disciplined and ‘stultified’, to use a word the philosopher Jacques Rancière uses when talking about what disciplines ‘do’ to us. Nevertheless, at the moment, I think there is no escaping some kind of disciplinary hold over our thought. What about you?

My first thought has got to be that I really need to get a publisher to pick up my current manuscript so that you have something better to spar with than a blog. 

I certainly know the sorts of arguments that you are talking about.  We have had our share of epistemological debates in political science over the last couple of decades (like many disciplines we have a positivist and non-positivist camp who have been in a state of low-level war with one another).  I think that these exchanges are generally more interesting when they happen between disciplines than within them. 

If the point of the argument is simply that a given theoretical approach or framework is limited, well I think we already know that.  Every map has its limits.  It is actually their limitations that make them useful.

But, if the question becomes “When should political economy stop relying on economics to understand X and instead turn to this idea from the field of psychology (or whatever)”……that gets my attention.  These sorts of discussions are much rarer and I think ultimately more likely to be fruitful.

Approaching the question of martial studies as an interdisciplinary exercise absolutely means that we are not all going to agree on core concepts, or even necessarily the basic terms of the debate.  That last possibility often makes disagreements slightly mystifying and intractable, rather than pointed and decisive.  Like I said, we have had both positivists and non-positivists in my field for decades.  Both sides have made their displeasure known many times over, and neither has conceded an inch.  Why?  I think their very different values and starting assumptions just limit the sorts of engagement that can actually happen.

I have also noted that there fewer social scientists involved in this project than individuals from the humanities and history.  In fact, the historians seem to outnumber everyone, and history appears to be sort of the default approach.  I am not sure that either of these things are, in themselves, a fatal problem with the exercise.  But new research areas are notoriously fickle and there is no guarantee that we will attract a large and sustained number of researcher and readers from a variety of fields.  It might be worth asking why certain fields thrive and others die.  Martial studies actually has some interesting history here.

Click here to see Part II of the Roundtable Discussion on the State of Martial Studies.