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Chinese Martial Studies, Guest Posts, Martial Studies

A Reader’s Response to the 2013 Web Symposium on Chinese Martial Studies.

Melisa Spense works with a student at her school in Oakland, Ca.  Source: Property of Melisa Spence.

Melisa Spense works with a student at her school in Oakland, Ca. Source: Property of Melisa Spence.

***Audience interaction and feedback is a critical part of any seminar or set of academic meetings.  Lacking the spontaneity of an in person gathering I turned to Melisa Spence, a dedicated students of the Chinese martial arts and a long time reader of Kung Fu Tea, to help bring a different perspective to this conversation.  Specifically, I asked her to comment on what value, if any, the project of Chinese martial studies might bring to individuals who were actively involved in the teaching and practice of the Chinese martial arts.******

Dear Ben,
        Thank you for your invitation to do a guest blog post on Kung Fu Tea. It is one of my favorite blogs, so I am greatly honored!
        One of the questions you posed to me is why martial artists should care about martial studies. From my perspective, it seems to be a given that martial artists should care about the origins and context of the art/s that we practice. But I realize that this is not always the case…. Capitalism seems to want to reduce everything to its simplest and most digestible form. At the gym, we are lucky if we get “Cardio Capoeira” which actually includes the name of a martial art. More likely it is something like “Body Combat” (TM). This turns arts which originated with people attempting to answer life and death questions into simple commodities. To me, this is only one example of how we live in a death worshipping culture. But it is an example that hits me close to home, and so I find it very distasteful.
        Clearly, having an understanding of our cultural origins and context as martial artists is an issue of respect. I also feel that the cultural elements and mythology present in various martial arts are some of the best tools we have as martial arts teachers for inspiring the imaginations of our students. I see one of our jobs as teachers to be to offer our students opportunities to imagine themselves in new ways. While the training environment can be inspiring, I also think that the histories of the arts that we practice are invaluable because they can help the student imagine possibilities beyond what they have so far directly experienced.
        I began teaching Bagua and Xingyi a year and a half ago, and am very much enjoying the opportunity that teaching offers to question what I know, and how I know what I know. This very much includes my understanding of culture. Teaching has been a great inspiration to further delve into learning about the histories and contexts for the arts that I teach, as well as to attempt to be more generally informed on the martial arts.
      I have to say that I am so grateful for the current accessibility of information. I know that even ten years ago,  information on Bagua and Xingyi, and the martial arts in general, took much more effort to obtain. It is great to be able to find so much information in blogs and on youtube, etc. I usually interact with my students online daily…. posting videos of my grand teacher, and his grand teacher, posting articles that help contextualize what we are doing. Since time in class is limited, and I want students to spend most of that time moving their bodies and not talking, I find these resources to be very helpful in terms of offering students opportunities to further their understanding and appreciation for the arts.
        My main fear about this accessibility of information is that it will encourage entitlement and complacency in martial arts students and would-be students. I think about stories of the lengths that my grand teacher went to in order to learn from more than one teacher, in a time period before cross training was so widely practiced. My hope is that the trend of more easily available information in the martial arts will encourage martial artists who are cosmopolitan, well informed and respectful of their own and others’ arts.


3 thoughts on “A Reader’s Response to the 2013 Web Symposium on Chinese Martial Studies.

  1. I think we are seeing more and more that the “ärt” is being emphasised more and martial science tested under field conditions (ie real combat) is being diluted by those practicing “art”. I think you are right about complacency. Ignorance is a problem too- how do you know what you don’t know? Unless you are very lucky and find an excellent teacher with combat experience, keen understanding of the art and good communication skills.

    Posted by ob | September 12, 2013, 10:09 am
  2. The trouble with the academic study of martial arts is that it is not, on the whole, very inspiring. When you study philosophy, or great literature you are presented with ideas that inspire. The study of history or even anthropology provides inspiring examples of mankind’s progress, individually and as a whole. The good academic uses these examples to put forth new ideas for the next generation to contemplate.

    But, in martial arts, history reads like family trees; this instructor learned from this instructor, who learned from this instructor. The real, inspiring history is contained in the movements and those who are dedicated to their practice become a living embodiment of that history. The material has to be taught, person to person, so there is little value in trying to learn from books.

    I do think it is important to preserve the history of these arts. But I fear that for many, an encyclopedic knowledge of “who”, “what”, and “when” might end up replacing or distracting from the physical knowledge of “why” and “how”.

    Posted by Adam Cave | September 12, 2013, 6:17 pm


  1. Pingback: Chinese Martial Arts in the News: September 19, 2013: Kung Fu Films, New Martial Arts Books and Wushu in Schools | Kung Fu Tea - September 20, 2013

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