A statue of a Tengu dressed as an ascetic mystic on a mountain pilgrimage.  Source: Christian Bauer via Wikimedia.

A statue of a Tengu dressed as an ascetic mystic on a mountain pilgrimage. Source: Christian Bauer via Wikimedia.


Welcome to the second part of our roundtable discussion of the fields of martial studies/Chinese martial studies.  If you are just arriving you may want to start with Part I of our discussion which can be seen here.  In the following discussion we delve deeper into our discussion of the development of the research area, starting with a conversation about why this might be the moment for martial studies to really take off when previous attempts at doing something similar have failed.  Enjoy!


Question 7 (to PB):At various times different groups of scholars have attempted to develop something like martial studies. Tang Hao, a Chinese lawyer and historian was an early pioneer if the subject in the 1930s. Draeger and Smith obviously contributed to the field of hoplology in the post-WWII period. Yet for various reasons these projects never thrived. Why is the current moment different? How do you explain the broad-based upsurge of interest in the martial arts by scholars around the world?

(PB): I think this question has three dimensions. First, why have people outside the university for so long tried to confer dignity onto the intellectual study of martial arts, whilst people working within universities seem to have ignored them? Then, why, all of a sudden are we seeing an upsurge of interest within the university, and from all sorts of different disciplines, and not just the traditional spaces of anthropology, ethnology and history? Finally (or in other words): why did Draeger’s ‘hoplology’ project – like many others – fizzle out?

My guess is that it’s because the people who have wanted to dignify martial arts as objects of proper academic study have not by and large been academics. They have not been based in universities. Accordingly, their scholarship will always be that of one of the original meanings of the ancient word ‘schole’, i.e., intellectual activity carried out after the day’s work is done. In such a situation, although I think this is admirable and wonderful, it is a hard task to try to ask non-academics to be academics, to do academic research, to study archives, texts, arguments, cultures, etc., and to write about things, in scholarly ways. As you know, ‘being an academic’ only comes about after years – even decades – of disciplinary training; much like being a martial arts master. So, martial arts studies outside of the university will always be tied to the energies of individuals.

At the same time, until recently where have all the academics been? Well, I don’t doubt that there have been many martial artist academics working in universities. But have there been spaces or fields or contexts in which they could write about martial arts? Maybe there have, for a while: here and there in history, in anthropology, in area studies. However, since the post-1970s boom in martial arts practice in the West, we have started to see studies in psychology, sports science, and so on, looking at martial arts as a valid field of study. Then we see academic studies in cultural identity and subaltern history which involve taking martial arts seriously. Also, in film and media; then in cultural studies.

So there has been a groundswell of interest arising in response to pressure both from outside the university (in film, media, sporting and cultural practices) and from inside the university (where moves have been made to open up the disciplines in such a way that they can be much more responsive to what’s actually happening in culture and society). In fact, I think it is only now that the academy is flexible or fluid enough to accommodate hitherto eccentric or unusual types of endeavor, like martial arts studies. We are living at the tail end of the ‘suffix-studies’ era – where more or less any noun could be given the suffix ‘studies’ and people would work away on it. So we are benefiting intellectually from the trailblazing work of the fields that drew all the flak – ‘cultural studies’, ‘media studies’, ‘gender studies’, ‘identity studies’, etc. These trailblazers set precedents by showing that just because we hadn’t looked at subjects seriously in universities before it doesn’t mean that they aren’t complex and important things in their own right. So, I think the time is right and the university is now able to accommodate it all. We now have flexible disciplines and flexible publication.

Question 8 (to BJ): What was it that led you to ‘put up the flag’ and go public with a Chinese martial studies blog?

I suppose that there are a lot of reasons that anyone undertakes a project like this.  I had some manuscripts (dealing with Chinese martial studies) that were ready to go out and I figured that, on the off chance a big university press accepted them, it would be nice to have a space where I could discuss and expand upon that research.  They are still underway review, but I think the basic idea was sound.

To tell you the truth it took a certain amount of courage and good timing to be able to start this blog.  I am not sure what things are like in cultural and media studies, but in my own bailiwick blogging is unofficially frowned upon.  There are certainly some very good professional blogs that are written by political scientists, but the trend never caught on in my field.  After my wife was offered a job in New York we decided to relocate across the country (obviously bankers have a slightly greater earning potential than college professors) and so it seemed like a good time to use some of my new found freedom and take the plunge.

Plus there was one other thing that really attracted me to blogging.  Areas of study seem to grow as the conversations that they inspire progress.  These conversations are usually had within the pages of peer reviewed journals and at professional conferences.  But these are things that we current lack in the field of martial studies.  Occasionally articles are published in various professional journals, but there are not very many outlets dedicated exclusively to these sorts of conversations.  As a result it takes a long time to get new ideas out there and to spark interesting conversations.

Blogging seemed to be a good first step in addressing this problem.  Its informal format made it a great tool for getting lots of discussions, references and ideas out there pretty quickly.  Nor is it an intimidating medium.  So I hoped that various students and readers might look at my articles and saw “Hey, I can do that” because at that point you are really starting to build the demand for martial studies.

My background in economics tells me that products succeed when there is both a supply and a demand.  I think that there are lots of researchers in academics (and even some armatures) who are capable to contributing to martial studies.  The real question is how do we build the demand?  Are there going to be people to read our articles or buy our books?  I think we have all been to conferences where there are more people in the panels than in the audience, and that’s just a little depressing.  Obviously I am not going to be able to do this all by myself, but I thought that if we could stimulate a more broadly based discussion of martial studies it would help to shore up the demand side of that equation.

Question 9 (to PB):What is your favorite book or article in the field of martial studies right now? Does it suggest a fruitful avenue(s) for the development of the discipline?

Short answer: Right now, I think that the best thing to happen to the emergent field of martial studies is your blog, Kung Fu Tea: Martial Arts History, Wing Chun and Chinese Martial Studies. I think that you bring an energy and a wide ranging perspective that is second to none. I mean that very sincerely. I think that the combination of your interests in history, current affairs and political economy are producing something excellent.

At the same time, I am currently reading drafts of papers submitted for my forthcoming collection on Martial Arts Studies for JOMEC Journal, and I am hugely excited about it all, because what is coming together are a range of established and emergent voices, from a range of disciplines, and I’ll be publishing them all in the same place – in an open access online academic journal. I think it will be great. Like your blog, it will open up lines of conversation.

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

Question 10 (to BJ): At this stage in the development of martial studies I’m sensing no animosity to different approaches, no single sense of propriety in approaches to martial arts. This, I think, is because anyone interested in it has an appetite, and there’s not yet enough mature academic work out there for people to pick or choose and to become snooty about which approach is ‘best’ or ‘right’ or ‘proper’ or ‘correct’. At the moment, people just seem to be excited about the whole thing. Does this square with your experience?

Yes and no.  I think that you are correct that this is a very green field.  There are lots of interesting observations to make and many new theories to build.  We are barely beginning to scratch the surface of what could be a very rich field.  So in that sense there have not been a lot of opportunities for disciplinary rivalries to emerge.  There just aren’t that many competing voices.

And I think there is a possibility that it might stay that way.  Given how many topics martial studies touches on, how many eras of history it covers and the large number of cultures that are implicated in it, it is hard to imagine that there is any single approach that could colonize the entire research area.

I have one colleague who is an anthropologist who is very interested in understanding how social structures uphold specific patterns of violence in Asia, and another colleague who is a clinical psychologist who studies the neurological effects of violence on the adolescent brain.  And then there is the sort of research that you and I do.  Our questions are more closely related, but they still aren’t exactly the same.

If martial studies is really going to succeed as an interdisciplinary field there needs to be room for a variety of different types of research.  That doesn’t mean that we all need to necessarily agree with each other on questions of theory or interpretation.  But I think that large numbers of researchers from a variety of fields will only engage with if they see that we are developing a series of conversations that can help them better understand the puzzles that they are interested in.  So I think it would be a shame, and frankly sort of odd, to see people saying “you can’t use clinical psychology” or “you can’t use anthropology” to study the martial arts.  At the end of the day I suspect that what unites us is shared interest in a common research area as much as anything else, and that’s ok.

But I do have to say that when I talk with non-academic researcher there does seem to be a real bias towards historical approaches.  I should qualify this by pointing out that this bias is not something that see within the academic side of the field.  All of the professional historians I know are well aware that there are these things called “anthropologists” and “economists” out there, and while they may dislike the way that they use history in their own research, very few of them would say “you have no right to study civil society in Shanghai in the 1930s.”  They know that different disciplines are sometimes interested in the same subject.

Nevertheless, martial studies (and Chinese martial studies in particular) is not just growing in the ivory tower.  There are an increasing number of practicing martial artists who are encountering our research and really getting into it.  My sense is that there is a real thirst for high quality information on the martial arts right now.  People are actively looking for new approaches and history is usually the first one that they encounter.

I think that history is bigger issue for students of the traditional Chinese martial artists than it might be for other practitioners of other styles.  Many Chinese styles explain their origins and couch their claims of effectiveness by creating historical narratives.  Traditionally students accepted these more or less without questioning them, and they became an important part of the identity of an art.  But modern historians like Douglas Wile and Sam Henning have now come along and blown a lot of this traditional mythology out of the water.

This sort of writing and research has made a huge impression on many practicing martial artists.  It leaves some individuals disillusioned, but I think that many more decide that they want to know even more about the actual nature of these arts.   Since historical analysis is often the first material that these readers are exposed to (see Peter Lorge’s introductory text on the history of the Chinese martial arts for instance), and they don’t have an extensive background in a variety of other research methodologies, many just assume that this is what “real martial arts research” is supposed to look like.  Further, between their own background in Chinese martial culture and what they have read, they sort of assume that the important questions are by definition historical ones.  So if you take a book by an anthropologist like Adam D. Frank or Avron Boretz and you put in front of these students, a lot of them don’t know what to do with it.

I have no problem with historians or historical research.  They are clearly going to play an important role in martial studies.  Still, when reaching out to the general reader I think we need to make an effort to explain not just that this is an interdisciplinary field, but why that is a good thing.  Of course we may have some thinking to do on that very question before we can make the case to a general audience.

Question 11 (to PB):  As a relatively new project, martial studies remains (in my opinion) under-theorized. Where should students of this subject look when seeking to borrow core concepts or methodological approaches?

To my mind, to think about martial arts, you need to think about culture. And that means media, technology, mediation; also psychology, history, literature, legislation – all sorts. Personally, my preference goes to the theoretical field of cultural studies, specifically in its connections with postcolonial studies. And I think that this is an important field, because most if not all martial arts (at least until recently) have emerged along fault lines of domination, exclusion, conflict, etc. So, thinking about peoples, nations, places of difference (borders of all kinds), sites of conflict, is all essential. And I have found the field of postcolonial studies to be a natural place to look. But this does not mean a straightforward investment in uncovering forgotten histories and so on. It is also connected with media. You know, Bruce Lee resounded with colonised and anticolonial peoples the world over, but his influence was also primarily filmic, cinematic, textual… I’ve written most about this sort of complexity in my book Reading Rey Chow: Visuality, Postcoloniality, Ethnicity, Sexuality – which also (surprise, surprise) has some stuff about Bruce Lee in it!

Question 12 (to BJ): Where do you think people should be looking, or revisiting, in thinking about martial studies?

Well, this is the 10,000 dollar question in my opinion.  I am not sure I have a really hard and fast answer at this point, that’s why I was asking you!  I agree with you about the centrality of culture in much of this.  Obviously not everyone in martial studies is going to be asking exactly the same questions.  There will always be sports medicine guys asking how Taiji improves balance and such, but many of the question that researchers find most interesting do seem to come back to culture.  My father is a professor of anthropology so I think that I have inhered a soft spot for that discipline.

I have also found the field of economics to be surprisingly helpful.  And it was a real surprise.  When I started working in this area I didn’t really expect that this was going to come up.  But what I quickly discovered is that the Chinese martial arts have always had an essentially commercial aspect to them.  This is how a large number of people made their living.  And so bringing in just the most basic insights from economics has been really helpful.  Still, that may say more about the sorts of questions that I have been asking than anything else.  Your mileage may vary.

Right now I think it is important for students and researchers to really start to take stock of our basic concepts and vocabulary.  Obviously there will always be nuances from field to field, but lets think about some of our most basic terms for a moment.  In the modern world when you “the martial arts” most people think they know what that term means.  But if you were to go back to the Song dynasty and ask a member of a local archery society if he was a “martial artist” I am not sure that he would be imagining a cultural structure anything like what a modern listener envisions.  If you were to further ask them if they considered themselves to be functionally similar to the bandits in the hills or the barbarian knights of Japan because they were all “martial artists” I think that they would just be very offended. 

This is a conceptual category that makes more sense when speaking about the modern era than it does for some other points in the past.  Does this mean that we need to abandon the concept of the “martial arts?”  I don’t think so.  It still does a lot of work for us.  But we may want to think much more carefully about which conversations it is going to do the most work in.

Ushiwara Maru training with the Tengu, who were reputed to be masters of swordsmanship.  By Yoshikazu Utagawa.  Source: Wikimedia.
Ushiwara Maru training with the Tengu, who were reputed to be masters of swordsmanship. By Yoshikazu Utagawa. Source: Wikimedia.

Question 13 (to PB): Speaking of conversations,how do you see the boundaries of martial studies? Does it include questions of military history? How about the traditional fighting arts of the medieval and early modern western world?

Like cultural studies, it is a potentially boundless field. I mean, what is not part of ‘culture’? Similarly: where do you draw the line around ‘martial’? Boxercise or ballistics, perhaps?… For me, I think it has to be wedded to the body. I think that’s one of my operating assumptions: I’m interested in the hand to hand, even if it’s mediated by a fantasy that came from watching a film. I’m not interested in a soldier facing a wall of computers pressing buttons to fire off missiles. So there’s my limit. But I am interested in boxercise, tae-bo, and even completely made up martial arts like ‘Rex Kwon Do’ in the film Napoleon Dynamite.

Nevertheless, despite my preference for culture and for the living over technology and automation, military history and practice is key. Martial arts come to us from military and paramilitary sites and scenes. Today they are disseminated (as well as transformed) through media and mediation. As is history.

History does not sit there, immutable, like an essence. People reconstruct it, and redeploy it, at different times. And I love these acts of reconstruction. I have books about medieval martial arts and so on. But I always find myself smiling at them, rather than buying into them, if you catch my drift. – I am deeply skeptical of ‘history’. But I believe in the power of historical myths.

Question 14 (to BJ): How about you? I know you are interested in military history. Do you see it as crucial to our understanding of contemporary martial arts and culture?

I think it is pretty important for some questions, less so for others.  Of course it all depends on the degree to which you believe you can accurately know anything about “history,” either in a specific case or on a deeper philosophical level. 

For instance, I like the idea of “martial culture.”  You see this concept in discussions of the Chinese martial arts because it relates to a fundamental bifurcation of values within Chinese society.  There are lots of things that fall into the realm of “martial culture” besides just the martial arts.  It including things like novels and television shows, many local temple festivals, lots of traditional opera, the behavior of organized criminals and of course the culture of the actual military.  So by looking at certain aspects of how military practice and culture has evolved, I think that you might gain a better understanding of “martial culture” as a whole.

Of course anyone following my blog will know that I also have some very specific reservations about this exercise.  In the Chinese martial arts history seems to exist as a set of symbols to be reworked and reinvented in an attempt to express something about the nature of a style and its community.  You hear lots of historical discussion in training halls and on the internet.  Very few of them have anything to do with actual verifiable events of the sort that might be accessible to a modern historian.  And if you spend all of your time trying to reconstruct whether there really was a “Southern Shaolin Temple,” you are likely to ignore some really interesting questions.  What did these stories mean to teenagers in Hong Kong in the 1950s?  Why are still so popular with middle class American martial artists today?

Secondly, I think that we need to be somewhat realistic in our discussions of the past.  This is a big problem in China as it has such a long history.  Yet do we really think that any martial arts exist today that are a direct descendent of Han dynasty military practice?  I hear people speculate on this all the time.  In terms of historical and cultural distance that is like asking if modern Marine Corps combatives can be traced directly to the Roman Empire.

As I mentioned above, the entire idea of the “martial arts” is basically a modern construct.  That means something very specific in terms of Chinese martial studies.  Almost all of the martial arts that exist today are a product of either the Republic of China period or the Qing dynasty.  These things seem to have their roots in the Ming period, but they come to us through the mediation of the Qing dynasty. 

It also needs to be remembered that the “martial arts” that most of us are interested in today are clearly civilian institutions.  Sure there was cross-over with what the military was doing during the 19th century, but a traditional Taiji School is pretty different from a boot camp.  In fact, its striking how little formal militarism there is in the traditional Chinese martial arts.

On the one hand, I can certainly see a place for straight military history in Chinese martial studies.  Certain important questions can really benefit from its insights.  Yet most of the questions that people actually seem to be interested in asking focus strictly on civilian popular culture in the modern era and pretty recent past.  As such military history might not be quite as relevant to these research topics as one might first guess.

Question 15 (to PB):What do we need to do to get more scholars from outside of our individual research areas to pay more attention to martial studies as a whole?

You know, I think we have an energy and a critical mass now. We have lift off. Look at the academic publishers that are publishing serious monographs and edited collections on all sorts of martial arts subjects. For instance, the big American University Presses. I’m thrilled that these heavyweight academic institutions have stepped into the arena, because, in the UK at least, any academic would love to publish with a university press (especially a US one).  It sends a message to their own university (their bosses and employers and people on promotions panels) that what they are working on is serious – is proper – and is not trivial or ‘lite’. You know how it is: the university is a very elitist world, and all too often a book is judged by its publisher.

Question 16 (to BJ): Do you think there is a ‘we’ who needs to pull in more members?

Well, as you just mentioned, academics can be a pretty elitist place.  I suspect that the “we” who needs to be mindful of increasing our readership is anyone who wants to sell more books, get more papers placed in journals and impress the a fore mentioned promotion committees.

But I agree, there does seem to be a critical momentum behind martial studies now that just did not exist in the past.  More journals and book publishers are willing to take shot on these projects and that is a great sign.

I think that one of the things to remember when we explain the relevancy of our work to others is that the martial arts can serve as either a dependent or an independent variable in our studies.  In other words, it can be the thing that we offer a thick description of or explain.  Or, we can use our knowledge of martial culture in our exploration of some other topic that may be of much broader interest.  For instance, you recently gave a paper critiquing the assumption that orientalism was always a bad thing, and you used your background in the martial arts and media studies to construct and reinforce what was actually a much broader argument about how cultural encounters really happen.  Even if a reader has little interest in the martial arts they are probably still interested basic ideas like orientalism and cultural understanding.  I thought that paper was a great example of doing martial studies in a way that was relevant to researchers in a wide variety of fields and research areas.


Question 17 (to PB):Martial studies is emerging at a time of great change in the academic world. In particular university presses are cutting back their offerings and libraries are buying fewer books. How do we position ourselves to succeed in this new environment?

My beliefs here are simple: what the world needs now is open access, peer reviewed, online publication. Universities can do this. I set up a journal myself to do it. We are in the right position to make sure we have rigorous standards of peer review. That’s all we need to have to ensure that it remains ‘academic’. Moreover, online publishing like this is a good thing: I think it is good that we have finally managed to disarticulate ourselves from the stranglehold of a few commercial publishers. I remember when I was trying to get a book contract for my first book, and I was told more than once to forget it, that no one would publish on my obscure cultural theory subject, and that I should simply write another cultural studies textbook. But I didn’t give up. And nowadays I’d probably publish open access and online with someone like Open Humanities Press.

Question 18 (to BJ): Do you think that online is the right place for martial arts studies? Or does it have a hope of being a big academic book seller?

My answer is “Yes,” to both.  I have been working on shopping a manuscript around for a while and I know exactly how difficult this can be.  It looks like I am starting to get some traction, but it can be a depressing process.  It challenging even for any project, but when it becomes a specialty topic or something in a newly emerging area, it is harder than ever to find a traditional publisher. 

At the same time I think that it is important that martial studied places a number of books with traditional publishers, and if we can get well known university presses on-board, so much the better.  As you mentioned above that is a powerful signal within the academy that the work we are doing is valuable and relevant.  So that is the process that I am subjecting myself to right now.  And to be fair, some of the editors and reviewers that I have corresponded with have had helpful suggestions that have strengthened the project.

Still, I personally suspect that the days of this model of publishing may be limited.  On-line forums offer more flexibility, lower costs and the potential of reaching an audience that is simultaneously larger and more targeted.  Figuring out how to convert that “potential” into a “reality” is challenging and time consuming.  But if it results in more books on interesting subjects at better prices it can only be good for readers and students alike.

The Tengu Dance by Toshihide, 1898.  Source: Wikimedia.
The Tengu Dance by Toshihide, 1898. Source: Wikimedia.

Questions 19 (to PB) Speaking of students, research is only half of what we do in academics.Is it time to start designing classes that are explicitly geared towards martial studies, or does this material best serve the interest of students when it is embedded in other, broader, classes?

I want to tell you about the article that a very eminent scholar of Taijiquan has sent me for the Martial Arts Studies issues of JOMEC Journal, but I really mustn’t! … However, I think we could do that sort of thing. I think certain places are more or less open to it. However, in my own case, I tend to use martial arts as examples within other cultural studies courses. I’ve posted a few of my lectures online, and you’ve linked to them before, so you can see how I do it. But I think it’s both. I prefer your latter suggestion: I use them to think about larger issues, as do you, in your blog posts. But that doesn’t mean other sorts of students on other sorts of courses wouldn’t want a direct and sustained focus – martial arts studies courses.

Question 20 to (BJ) What do you think?

I agree.  In my own teaching I have turned to the martial arts or Chinese martial culture as case studies in larger discussions of topics like globalization, 19th century imperialism or the relationship between civil society and governance.  From my own personal point of view, this is the sort of stuff that I get really excited about.  And I have to say that so far the students have reacted really well to this material.

Of course I am not teaching in an Asian studies program so its unlikely that I would offer an entire course on the martial arts right now.  But I am really interested in thinking about how something like that could be structured and presented.  It would definitely be a fun project to think about for the future.

Question 21 (to PB)Do you have a grand plan for promoting the field of martial studies? If so, what comes next? What sorts of projects do you see yourself tackling in the future?

For me personally my plan is first to ‘put up the flag’ and publish the Martial Arts Studies issue of JOMEC Journal early in 2014. Then I want to spend some serious time on a project that I see as the joining of lots of different dots. I want to survey the work done on martial arts in as wide a range of disciplines as possible and try to establish the ways in which these different studies are sharing things, not sharing things, speaking to each other, speaking past each other, and so on. Obviously, what I am looking for most of all, as I mentioned earlier, are the places that film and media pop up within and are then excluded from a wide range of studies. But that’s not going to define my interest. The working title I have for this project is either The Invention of Martial Arts or The Media Invention of Martial Arts. I prefer the former because it will enable me to write about the relationships between martial arts, nation building, identify formation, history, economics, and so on. But I think that it may come down to the latter, because I keep finding the unacknowledged centrality of media and mediation to be the thing that drives my writing.

Question 22 (to BJ): What about yourself? What’s next? Will you always be the martial studies blogger of choice, or do you want to move your operations and activities into other areas?

First off, I want to say that your project sounds absolutely fantastic.  I think there is real need for the sort of survey that you describe.  It’s the sort of thing that I have been finding myself doing on an ad hoc basis just to see what is out there.  And the relationship between the invention of the martial arts and the nation is clearly an important area.

At the moment I am trying to get a study of social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts moved through the publication process.  There are a lot of interesting questions that I want to ask about the relationship between the martial arts and local identity (particularly as they related to the pressures of globalization) in southern China.  But I felt that I really had to come to terms with what happened there in historic terms before I could go on to talk about some of these more involved theoretical questions.  So that research project is an on-going proposition.

I think that as an experiment Kung Fu Tea has worked out better than I expected.  I think that the blog has helped to raise awareness that there are different ways to approach the martial arts, including scholarly ones.  So right now I my immediate plans are to keep a good thing going.  Still, I worry about what happens when the time comes to start serious research and writing on my next book project.  I will probably have to cut back on the number of posts I am publishing.  Or maybe I will find some co-bloggers before I reach that point and it will not be an issue.

I have also been talking with a few other people who are interested in putting together a conference on the topic of Chinese martial studies.  Of course I say “Chinese” here as that is what many of these individuals are interested in, but it looks like we will be open to papers on a number of related topics.  It is still in the early planning stages, but for me I think that is how I will know that “martial studies” has really arrived.  When you can get a bunch of people to all sit down under a common banner, at that point we will be well on our way to creating a self-sustaining community.