Martial Arts: So What? By Adam D. Frank

Yellow chairs at Rutgers University.  Source: Wikimedia.
Yellow chairs at Rutgers University. Source: Wikimedia.

***It turns out that the introduction to the last post was a little premature.  We are very fortunate to have received another post for the 2013 Web Symposium on Chinese Martial Studies.  Adam D. Frank is an Associate Professor in the Honors College of the University of Central Arkansas.  He received his doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin and has researched and written on identity and the Chinese martial arts.  His book Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man: Understanding Identity Through the Martial Arts (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) made some important contributions to Chinese martial studies.   The following guest post addresses a number of timely topics, including the academic study of the martial arts in the classroom.***

Introduction

            In mid-September, for the 7th time in the last 8 years, I introduced a group of University of Central Arkansas Honors  students to the art of taijiquan (tai chi) at our annual freshman retreat. Only rarely have I encountered a student in this group of mainly Arkansans who has actually studied tai chi, or, for that matter, has formally studied anything at all about Chinese history, philosophy, or humanities. There’s usually a great deal of excitement in the group as we practice a few of the slow motion, dance-like moves of the basic one-person form, as I pick out the smallest woman in the group and have her demonstrate the ol’ unbendable arm trick, and as students practice differentiating between a yang foot and a yin foot while tiger walking across the grass. I begin my demo by contextualizing the art within the histories of global imperialism, the rise of the industrial revolution in China’s urban centers, and the globalization of martial arts through film and television. I end with some information about the classes I teach for the university’s “tai chi club.”

            And, as far as martial arts studies go, that’s usually the last I see of most of these students.

            One of the interesting issues that has already emerged in this online symposium, particularly in the roundtable discussion between Benjamin Judkins and Paul Bowman, is the search for a rationale, especially a rationale for doing martial studies from disciplinary perspectives. Bowman, Judkins, and others have pointed out that few academic venues exist for martial studies publications and few disciplines readily make room for martial arts as worthy of study. I have been fortunate in this respect—first, because I completed my dissertation through the Folklore and Expressive Culture Program  in the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Anthropology. The “Folklore Program” as we still called it back then, emphasized practice in all its cultural manifestations. Other dissertations produced by and around my cohort included studies of lowrider cars and their club members, ethnological treatments of Mexican border protest songs, studies of masks and mask making in Central America, a study of Civil War reenactments, and so on. A martial arts topic fit right in.  Second, I’m lucky because my teaching gig at the University of Central Arkansas Honors College actually requires me to teach anthropology and Asian studies courses from an interdisciplinary perspective and encourages me to be interdisciplinary in my scholarship. As I’ll detail below, opportunities abound for injecting martial arts into the classroom discussion.

            But outside these small circles, particularly at academic conferences and in my attempts to publish on martial arts topics over the years, I’ve often met with a tangible “so what” reaction—sometimes gentle, sometimes not, but tangible nonetheless. I’ve come to realize, like Bowman and Judkins, if I’m reading their comments correctly, that the onus is on the scholar to explicitly demonstrate why martial studies is a significant endeavor. Since I’ve combated the “so what” reaction mainly in the context of teaching, I will focus the remainder of my discussion on how talking about martial arts in the classroom may or may not open up key teaching moments about Chinese history and culture and about how teaching history and culture in the martial arts studio may or may not help students (and teachers) better acquire their art.  For better or worse, here are some strategies that I have tried.

The Chinese state has adopted the traditional martial arts a part of their public diplomacy effort, effectively free riding off of the good vast good will that its "Brand" has accumulated.
The Chinese state has adopted the traditional martial arts a part of their public diplomacy effort, effectively free riding off of the good vast good will that its “Brand” has accumulated.

Force it down their throats:  Everybody was Kung Fu Fightin’

I’ve taught the course “Everybody was Kung Fu Fightin’” twice in the last ten years. The last time was eight years ago. There were movies. There were comic strips. There was tai chi practice. There was theory. It was fun.

It was also a failure.

After the last time I taught the course, I wracked my brains for several months trying to figure out where I went wrong. Teaching evaluations were fair to good, so it wasn’t that I’d completely lost a popularity contest. I had broken the course into disciplinary units and attached scholarly and/or popular readings to each of those units. One unit looked at martial arts as a window onto Chinese history. Another brought performance studies and cultural studies theory into the picture. We looked at the performance of identity through martial arts. One unit focused on popular culture. We read Jin Yong in translation, then read Tony Wong’s Jademan comics versions. And, not surprisingly, we read a few ethnographic treatments of Chinese and Japanese martial arts.

The problem, I finally realized after some soul searching, was martial arts! Each of these topics could stand alone as a course, but focusing an entire undergraduate course on marital arts with the intent of “teaching China” proved way too much for a group of students of whom the majority had never taken an introductory Asian studies course.  I loved martial arts in all its cultural manifestations, so I assumed they would, too—a classic early teaching career mistake.  On the other hand, I also realized that a course that focused on one of those disciplinary areas could utilize martial arts effectively for advanced undergraduates or graduate students. 

Memo:  Teach at a university with an Asian studies major or graduate programs in anthropology or cultural studies.

 

Tack it on:  Chinese Humanities through Tai Chi

            My second attempt to explicitly inject martial arts into an Honors undergraduate course was just about 51% successful.  I have taught “Chinese Humanities through Tai Chi” twice, both times as a service course that culminated in a “Taste of China” workshop conducted by the students at a local residential facility for senior citizens.  Students in the course divided into three groups, each responsible for gaining expertise in Chinese traditional poetry, painting, or philosophy. We tackled these subjects as a large group first, then each of the smaller groups developed and taught a half hour lesson that was eventually shared at the senior center. The “thread” was tai chi. Through a once a week workshop, students learned the first section of the Wu (Jianquan) style of taijiquan. For each of the three units, we discussed the embodiment of aesthetic and philosophical principles in the martial arts. The pedagogical goal was to couple an intellectual/historical framework with a visceral experience.

            Where it failed:  Despite a combination of incentives and penalties, most of the students did not practice at home and, therefore, failed to benefit from the aforementioned visceral experience. Instead, they simply had to accept as gospel my claim that there were indeed connections between poetry, painting, philosophy and taijiquan.  I saw them. Surely they could, too! In terms of the course goals, the students would have learned just as much about Chinese humanities—and probably more—if I had limited the martial practice to a one-day workshop or eliminated it altogether. But, damn, I wanted it to work!

            What worked:  First and foremost, the students generally enjoyed the practice. Because it was fun and relaxing, it served as an effective entre into the academic subject matter. And some of the students did practice regularly enough to begin to make the connections I had sought. Second, the students developed a lesson for the senior center that focused on the balance principles of taijiquan, then taught the lesson at the “Taste  of China” workshop.  In their groups, they also taught their respective Chinese humanities units.  As a way of engaging the public and introducing ideas to an interested community, taijiquan did provide a service opportunity.

            In the end, however, I concluded that this “tacked on taijiquan” version of the course would have to be better integrated before I’d try it again. Again, as with the Kung Fu Fightin’ course, there are moments in each unit where explicit reference to martial arts would have real value, but those moments are really scattered throughout the course. Ideally, I could invite a poet to help us connect practice with poetry; a calligrapher to help us connect the visual art with practice; and an ethicist to help us connect philosophy with practice.

            Memo:   Become a better poet, calligrapher, and ethicist.

Ju Ming Tai Chi sculpture in Jinshan, Taipei.  Source: by Allen Timothy Chang at Wikimedia.
Ju Ming Tai Chi sculpture in Jinshan, Taipei. Source: by Allen Timothy Chang at Wikimedia.

Of Memes and Martial Arts, Part I (theory)

            The notion of “memes,” which I’ll simply define here as transmittable units of knowledge in human societies akin to genes in the body, has become a popular modeling tool in recent years for the study of consciousness. Taijiquan and other martial arts constitute one kind of meme:  Knowledge transmitted through bodily experience and verbal instruction (though languages themselves might also be thought of as memes).  I am currently teaching a version of our Honors capstone course that focuses on human consciousness, and I am sorely tempted to teach the concept of memes through martial arts practice. Should I get everyone up on their feet and teach them a little bit of what my teacher taught me and what his teacher taught him? Or should we keep it in the intellectual realm? Or should I just ask them to teach something to the rest of the class? As of this writing, I haven’t decided yet.

            As far as the current discussion is concerned, the really interesting question is why I feel compelled to do yet another unit on martial arts in yet another course. As Bowman and Judkins mention in their roundtable discussion, the development of martial studies seems to inevitably lead us to the intersections of many disciplines. To be irritatingly self-reflexive, I believe my search as both a scholar of martial arts and as a teacher of anthropology and Asian studies has been a search for understanding something I really don’t quite get from a cultural perspective, something that seems less accessible the more I pick and probe. And it is this complexity that I want to convey to the students. As an anthropologist, I don’t want them to settle for pat explanations of culture. I want them to continually peel away layers. Sometimes economics will be the better tool, sometimes literature, sometimes film, and sometimes something else.

Of Memes and Martial Arts, Part II (practice)

            Except for the fall workshop I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, most of my martial arts teaching in the last couple of years has occurred at a taekwondo/aikido school where I sublet space three mornings per week. The students in these classes range from the very experienced, many of whom are taijiquan teachers themselves, to beginners. Often, in the course of making a particular point, I draw upon my inexpert knowledge of Chinese history, philosophy, etc. to illustrate a point. As many people have described on this website, stereotypes about Asians and Asia are rampant in the minds of American martial arts students, and I think these stereotypes are genuinely detrimental to progress. I think it’s a good idea for martial arts teachers to dismantle them at every turn. I equate stereotypes to a bacterial infection in the body of a patient who refuses to complete his course of antibiotics. The infection will just keep coming back until he takes his medicine correctly. Therefore, martial arts teachers have a responsibility  not only to their teachers when they join the “memesphere” and transmit their art. They also have a responsibility to be truthful to their students about what these arts are or are not.

            Martial studies, whatever it is and becomes, will never keep me from getting my butt kicked by my teacher (or my more talented students, for that matter), but it will make my students more literate practitioners of their art. The “so what” factor might best be addressed by attending not to the scholarly value of martial studies but to the public value of culturally oriented studies, social sciences, and humanities as a whole. Most of the martial arts scholars I have encountered study martial arts, teach martial arts, or both. In that role, they become public intellectuals. Martial arts schools of one kind or another are ubiquitous in the United States and many other countries. Thousands of people practice these arts every day and a percentage of those adopt it as a lifelong endeavor. It is no accident, I think, that publications like The Journal of Asian Martial Arts and The Journal of Daoist Studies, have both scholarly and practice-oriented sections. I believe this reflects a struggle for methodological clarity that will take quite some time to resolve.

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