Given that the Shaolin Temple is the most frequently claimed lineage within the traditional Chinese martial arts, I decided to make their unique murals in this post.  Source: Detail of Qing dynasty mural, Shaolin Temple.
Given that the Shaolin Temple is the most frequently claimed “lineage” within the traditional Chinese martial arts, I decided to make their unique fighting murals the art for this post. Source: Detail of Qing dynasty mural, Shaolin Temple.


Anyone who has done much reading on the history of the traditional Chinese martial arts will be very familiar with the idea of “lineage politics.”  Even the average practitioner, on either side of the Pacific, usually has more than a passing acquaintance with this unpleasant phenomenon.   Disputes typically arise within styles as different students of the same teacher vie for seniority and legitimacy.  This competition can take many forms, ranging from the subtle exclusion of individuals from high profile projects to occasional outbursts of interpersonal violence.  Very often this competition is carried out through competing “folk histories” in which different sides attempt to promote narratives that shape how the past is remembered.  This use of rhetoric and memory as a tool to secure social dominance coincides closely with James C. Scott’s findings on the use of folklore as a “weapon of the weak” in South East Asia.

One purpose of a “lineage” is to create the image of unwavering historical continuity over time.  It denotes who inherits the family legacy as well as the responsibility for preserving the memory of the ancestors through the execution of certain rites.  Few institutions seem more static and non-negotiable.  Yet as generations of anthropologists have warned us, few social structures turn out to be quite as plastic and open to continual renegotiation as lineage genealogies.

I think that many students, when faced with a lineage dispute, simply want to “get to the bottom of it.”   They would like to know which side is “right” and which is a historical pretender or fraud.  In the following essay I would like to encourage readers to take a step back and consider the structure of the actual social disputes that they are witnessing.  These processes reveal a veritable goldmine of information about the nature of the traditional Chinese martial arts and how they are evolving over time.

Academically speaking, who is “right” is often much less interesting than how they go about framing and promoting their argument.  The first question only tells us something about the history of an individual style, but the second points to a larger set of fundamental truths about culture.  Actually appreciating what is at stake, and grasping how these issues are understood and debated, can be even more difficult for the average student than resolving the purely historical issues.

As the term “lineage politics” implies, these disputes are usually “political” in nature.  By definition this sort of conflict is often subtle and hard to observe.  The challenge is all the more insurmountable when the drama is being played out in a language and cultural system that are very different from one’s own.

This is precisely what we see in the Chinese martial arts.  A few lineage disputes are loud affairs that make the pages of popular magazines.  But most are much more subtle attempts at appropriating a group’s legitimacy.  These attempts are sometimes highly symbolic and hence opaque to foreign observers.  Western students can often sense some tension, or they might guess that something odd is happening, but we need a much more finely ground lens to actually see the structure of the dispute.

In 2003 Jeff Takacs published an intriguing study of the artificial kinship systems seen in the traditional Chinese martial arts which was intended to serve just such a purpose.  His article, titled “A Case of Contagious Legitimacy: Kinship, Ritual and Manipulation in Chinese Martial Arts Societies” (Modern Asian Studies 37:4  885-917) begins by noting that most traditional hand combat schools organize themselves as an artificially created family unit.  He asserts that while the bonds between members of the school are technically fictive, they can be as strong as those seen in any other kinship group.

This artificial structure is supported and reinforced through the adoption of certain simple, but socially powerful, rituals.  While the correspondence between the ideal ancient Chinese family and most modern martial arts associations is not exact (an important point that we will return to later), they are close enough for these rituals to be easily transported.  By creating a clear set of expectations about who has the responsibility for insuring that the proper rites are observed, these guidelines also denote who is entitled to inherit the master’s  martial reputation and legitimacy.

This is the actual difference between a “disciple” and a “student” in the traditional Chinese martial arts.  I suspect that many readers might profit by going back and reviewing Takacs very clear discussion of this point.  While a disciple may or may not inherit any special secret knowledge, he or she actually gains their status from where they stands within a larger ritual process.  Once that process is done away with (say in modern theater schools or some of the more progressive hand combat styles to arise in the Republic period), the term quickly loses its theoretical moorings.

Takacs argues that while it might appear that a strict lineage structure creates transparency and limits the number of individuals who can “inherit the system,” the very rituals that it is based on actually create opportunities for opposing factions within the clan to creatively nudge (or sometimes shove) history in one direction or another.

He illustrates these points by reviewing a seemingly innocuous stele raising ceremony held in honor of an important Bagua teacher in Northern Taiwan.  While on the surface this ceremony looked entirely uncontroversial, and even somewhat bland, subtle manipulations of the language of ritual revealed that it was actually a successful attempt by an outside teacher to appropriate the martial legitimacy of an important regional master.

The entire case is fascinating and well worth reading.  This article is easy to follow and relatively free of jargon.  It’s a nice example of traditional British Social Anthropology (in the tradition of Victor Turner) and the clarity that it can bring to our understanding of social structures.  While his research focused on Taiwan’s Bagua community, the article’s conclusions are actually fairly portable and may help to illuminate puzzles in a great many arts.  In the remainder of this essay I outline, and briefly discuss, five of the broader implications of this approach to understanding lineages for Chinese martial studies.

A detailed view of one of the previosuly discussed 19th century murals.  Original published source unknown.
A detailed view of one of the previously discussed 19th century murals. Original published source unknown.

Martial Legitimacy is Inheritable

This is perhaps the central insight of Takacs’ research.  Nor does he use the term “inherit” in a weak symbolic sense.  Instead he is talking about a much more concrete, almost legally constrained, understanding of how a patrimony is distributed within a Chinese family.  All of this is rooted in aspects of Chinese culture having to do with ancestral veneration and the proper performance of rites.

The very fact that legitimacy can be inherited inevitably creates strong incentives within the martial arts clan for some individuals to subvert this process.  In other words, “lineage politics” is a feature of this system rather than a bug.  It is a structural aspect of the Chinese martial arts and its role in the creation and destruction of certain associations and schools deserves more study.

This insight is also critical as lineages in both the west and east suffer from frequent disputes.  Yet these events do not always take the same form in both places.  I have certainly seen instances in my own research were western members of a martial arts clan were pretty oblivious to things that were disturbing to their Chinese counterparts, or where Chinese masters ignored certain types of behavior in the west as “ultimately unimportant.”

By bringing us back to the central (yet constantly evolving) role of ritual in Chinese culture, Takacs helped to illustrate exactly why we occasionally see this divergence.  The symbolic nature of the Confucian rites provides a language for the contestation of legitimacy that is not accessible to many western students.

This in turn illustrates the value of ethnography in martial studies.  A deep familiarity with a given community may take years to cultivate.  But without this sort of focus and experience it is entirely possible to miss some of the most interesting aspects of intra-group competition and what this implies about Chinese society as a whole.


Marginality and the Martial Arts

Takacs does not make the following assertion in his article, but it seems to me that this is an important implication of both his theory and observations.  Writers since at least the Song dynasty have noted that practitioners of the Chinese martial arts have tended to be lower caste individuals.  In many cases these arts were actually practiced by the “mean classes” individuals such as opera performers who were legally banned from taking the civil service exam.  This effectively locked them (and their children) out of China’s one official avenue for social advancement.

Even in the current era, disturbing socio-economic trends are evident within the traditional martial arts and wushu communities.  Typically (though not always) these individuals come from less prosperous backgrounds.  Nor are the often whispered links between the martial arts and crime merely fictional.  We know for instance that graduates of China’s vocational wushu high schools face diminished employment prospects and a relatively greater probability of being caught up in legally questionable behavior.

Boretz, in Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters, has argued that the martial arts provide a route by which marginal individuals can enact a “masculine identity” even though they have been shut out of the normal socially approved modes of gender performance.  In this view the martial arts can be seen as a powerful tool for “becoming male” in a society where that is not simply taken for granted.

Takacs might expand this argument and point out that, based on their socio-economic status, these individuals are also less likely to get married or to have a successful family life.  They are exactly the sorts of individuals most at risk for becoming the “bare sticks” which worry so many Chinese sociologists.

There are also metaphysical and religious implications to consider.  Without a family or children it is impossible for the next generation to fulfill the proper ancestral rites.  This increases one’s probability of becoming a “hungry ghost.”  Thus a marginal individual’s social failure in this life can translate directly into suffering in the next one as well.

The creation of artificial lineages provides a powerful solution to this problem.  Western readers might be skeptical of Takacs’ initial claim that the relationships forged in artificial kinship groups could be just as solid as those that arose in biologically based ones.  Yet it was the promise of kin that was pulling many of these individuals into voluntary associations to begin with.  We should not be surprised to discover that these lineage associations take their status very seriously.

I suspect, and have argued in a prior post, that the erosion of this system of beliefs is at least partially responsible for the diminished appeal of the traditional martial arts in modern China.  In the 20th century many transient or marginal individuals were drawn to the martial arts at least partially because of the benefits that these schools offered.  In the current era the costs of membership (both in time and financial commitment) remain as high as ever.  But there are now many other technologies and groups which offer the same sorts of services and networking opportunities that a martial arts association may have provided in the past.

Takacs indicates in a few places that he is seeing a change or evolution in how the rites are observed.  I would like to push him further in this area.  Will his model of “contagious legitimacy” hold in the future as the cultural beliefs and experiences of the average martial artist continue to evolve?  If not, what sorts of variables are going to provide a sense of identity to the next generation of martial arts students?  I suspect that this is one of the most pressing problems facing China’s hand combat schools today.

An interior picture of the renown library at Shaolin.  Prominently displayed in the center are copper plated Buddhist scriptures.  Researchers on the expidition also noted that this library contained illustrated manuscripts and a collection of staffs from historically important monks.
An interior picture of the renown library at Shaolin prior to its destruction. Prominently displayed in the center are copper plated Buddhist scriptures. This library contained illustrated manuscripts and a collection of staffs from historically important monks.

The Value of the Written Word

This is another point that keeps emerging in my reading.  For a supposedly oral culture the Chinese martial arts produce voluminous amounts of written text.  It might not always seem that way, but if you pick any category and start adding things up (prefaces attached to various editions of the Taiji Classics, Cantonese Operas with female martial heroines, stone inscriptions at the Shaolin temple etc.) it can become overwhelming.  Of course this ultimately is a good thing as it is what allows us to study the history of these arts, as opposed to simply relying on the legends that they have accumulated over the years.

In his discussion of the ritual value of writing and inscriptions Takacs offers us a framework for thinking about this.  Much of this writing, such as the numerous prefaces attached to a classic martial text, might have served multiple purposes.  His basic argument that martial artists erect stele at important sites (e.g., the Shaolin Temple) in an attempt to enact “contagious magic,” could be applied much more widely.

Obviously industrialization and the expansion of the urban reading market made the Republic era explosion of martial arts manuals possible.  Yet it seems unlikely that all of these books were best sellers.  So what else motivated these authors?  Then as now, having one’s name in print confers a certain sense of legitimacy.  That is incredibly important for most of these authors.

Yet one’s martial authority is probably greatly enhanced when your name is attached to a work that claims to be an authentic manual handed down by a style’s elders, or even better, a Shaolin monk.  Historians have tended to dismiss a lot of this literature out of hand as it is obviously “inauthentic.”  Takacs would instead suggest that we take a closer look at it and ask what it can tell us about the evolving cultural values and social structure of the Chinese martial arts during the Republic era.

“Lineage” is Always Contested

Lineages within the Chinese kinship system derive their legitimacy from their aura of concrete stability and simple transparency.  Yet both historians and anthropologists have noted that there is more to these structures than meets the eye.  Stories of remote ancestors often take on legendary qualities, and even the details of more recent generations may be subject to the creative process of remembering and forgetting.   On an even more basic level an individual family can more closely associate with, or distance themselves from, a lineage simply by deciding what events to attend and what clan causes to contribute money to.

Nor is this flexibility unique to China.  As Takacs points out, anthropologists around the globe have found that the ways in which lineages are remembered and discussed are often a reflection of the current social situation rather than biology or genealogy.  Even the very idea of a “lineage” is a socially constructed concept.

The situation is much the same, and possibly even more flexible, when discussing the fictive kinship groups seen in the traditional Chinese fighting systems.  As I have argued elsewhere, the development of distinct “market brands” was an important part of the evolution of the Republic era market in martial arts instruction.  We still see this same process going on today.  A new “lost lineage” of Wing Chun seems to be discovered every other year.

One of the interesting implications of Takacs’ work is that far from containing this process, the ritual background of these fictive kinship groups provides the language, opportunity and incentive for precisely this sort of innovation.  As such we should not expect to see an end to the “lost” or “wandering” lineage phenomenon any time soon.  It is a structural byproduct of how legitimacy is inherited and appropriated within these artificial kinship groups.

A different view of the same mural.  Shaolin, 19th century.  Original published source unknown.
A different view of the same mural. Shaolin, 19th century. Original published source unknown.

The Limits of Inheritance: Sons vs. Students

Takacs’ article is built around a detailed critique of a stele raising ceremony for a regionally important martial arts teacher.  This was subverted by an aspiring outside instructor in such a way that he appropriated some of the departed master’s legitimacy.  It was interesting that this effort was both so obvious to most of the guests in attendance, and never really challenged.  At one point a teacher from the actual lineage of the dead master spoke up to make sure his students would be included in the ceremony (even if they had been improperly demoted one generation).  But what was really interesting was that the master’s actual children never had any part in the rite at all.  They simply sat some distance away and offered their own offerings at their father’s grave once the more politically minded martial artists had left.

This raised some important questions for me.  In this case the children of the master do not appear to have been martial artists themselves.  Thus the master basically acquired two lineages, one biological and the other artificial.

But what happens when the biological children are also part of the martial lineage?  This is a pretty common occurrence in the world of the traditional Chinese martial arts.  As any seasoned observer can tell you, it is quite common to see tension between the biological children of a departed master and his or her “more senior” disciples.  Often this takes the form of sniping over the quality of the instruction that someone got, or what “secret techniques” may or may not have been passed on.

Over the last two years I have researched the life histories of a number of Republican era hand combat masters.  This was a period of great transformation and “modernization” within the Chinese martial arts community.  A lot of the rhetoric from this period focused on cleansing the martial arts of their “feudal” and “superstitious” heritage.  In practice this meant abandoning many of the social structures that Takacs has been discussing in his article.  Reformers decried the Sifu/disciple/student relationship and the system of “secrecy” that it was built on.  This was seen as a major cause of the progressive degeneration of the Chinese martial arts.

Public intellectuals demanded to know what sort of system would willfully sabotage the majority of its students just to protect the monopoly position of a handful of successors?  While this might be economically good for “the lineage” ultimately “the nation” would suffer.  This is precisely why groups like the Jingwu Association moved away from a “Sifu” based model towards one built on western coaching principals (or their reinterpretation of them).

Teachers in this period responded to these debates in a number of ways.  Some positioned themselves as forward-looking reformers.  Others took up the flag of localism and traditionalism.  Most seem to have struck a compromise between these two poles.

Many of the reformers during the Republic period, echoing the rhetoric of their day, claimed to want nothing to do with the discipleship system.  Instead they would teach all comers and hold nothing back.  In fact, “hold nothing back” became something of a buzzword in the 1920s-1960s.

Yet in many cases the post-WWII students of these masters seem to have adopted a more conservative approach to the martial arts.  They have had fewer qualms about designating certain followers as “disciples” and others as “students.”

Even the biographical accounts of their teachers have diverged over time.  In many cases children and direct family members emphasize the reforms and “modern outlook” of their father.  In the stories of their students and grand-students these same figures have come to look ever more like the acme of traditional Chinese identity and gnosis.

In most cases I don’t think either group is actually consciously lying.  Real people say and do diverse, somewhat contradictory, things throughout the course of their lives.  “Confirmation bias” allows each side to selectively remember those points of their teacher’s career that aligned most closely with their own values.

Before reading Takacs I always viewed this as a straight forward social and psychological process.  It is not hard to understand why martial artists in Hong Kong in the 1950s or the People’s Republic of China in the 1980s might be undergoing an identity crisis.  Creatively reviving and reimagining older models of identity and lineage formation would be an obvious way of addressing this problem.  I still think that there is a lot to be said for this basic logic.

Nevertheless, the Takac’s article led me to realize that there might also be another mechanism at work.  If a Republic era master really did teach everyone “holding nothing back,” than it is difficult for any of his students to claim to be a special successor.  Obviously the children still “inherit” in some sense because of their biological relationship and shared name.

Yet his other students attempting to differentiate themselves in a competitive marketplace face a real dilemma.  It is not good form to be seen thrashing your “kung fu brothers” in public.  Nor, given the realities of time and age, might it even be possible.  Yet the retrospective adoption of the more conservative system of rites, obligations and “discipleship” would give them the creative language that they need to appropriate a greater share of their own teacher’s martial legitimacy.  Of course the easiest way to start this process is by training your own students in a more traditional way.

A detail of the restored Qing era murals at the Shaolin Temple.
A detail of the restored Qing era murals at the Shaolin Temple.


Given all of the competition that the traditional Chinese martial arts face from rivals like government sponsored Wushu, Tae Kwon Do and the Mixed Martial Arts, I have been genuinely surprised to see so many of these systems remain as traditional as they have.  In some cases schools that were once famous for their pro-modernization outlook are now honored as “guardians of the traditional martial arts.”  D.S. Farrer illustrated this trend nicely with his discussion of the radical transformation of the public perception of Jingwu in South East Asia between the 1930s and today.  Takacs helps to make sense of this movement by pointing out that the language of lineage is not as stifling as one might expect.  For many instructors it provides an important alternate route to increasing their legitimacy in an already crowded marketplace.

I highly recommend that anyone who is interested in Chinese martial history take a look at this article.  Takacs illustrates that “lineages” are a social process rather than a static relationship.  Thus the frequent disputes over them provide an important window onto the internal structure of a martial arts community which is usually invisible to outside observers.  Lastly this article is a valuable reminder of why we need high quality ethnographic accounts in Chinese martial studies.


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: “Fighting Styles” or “Martial Brands”? An economic approach to understanding “lost lineages” in the Chinese Martial Arts.