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Chinese Martial Studies, Guest Posts, Martial Studies

Is Martial Studies Doomed to Disappoint? A Reader Response.

Plate with Dragon and Carp.  Qing Dynasty.  Walters Art Museum.  Source: Wikimedia.

Plate with dragon and carp. Qing Dynasty. Walters Art Museum. Source: Wikimedia.

By Stanford Chiou

This post is my contribution to the recent discussion at Kung Fu Tea on the place of theory in martial studies (see here and here). There is no escaping the assumptions—or “theories”—on which perspectives are built, and it is indeed preferable to be explicit about such assumptions. However, there is a distinction between such “theory” in the general sense, and “Theory” as in the mode of scholarship which has dominated the study of humanities in the West for much of the last few decades. Objection to Bowman’s insistence that theory is central to the study of martial arts is probably to a large extent objection to the nascent academic field of martial studies being hegemonized by Theory.

It is true, as Bowman states, that “[e]very study will be guided and structured by a supplementary set of concerns”. Considering the martial arts in relation to such dimensions as gender and class can be fruitful and illuminating, both for those interested primarily in these social questions and those concerned primarily with martial arts. But it is one thing to assert that an interpretive Theoretical approach enriches martial studies, quite another to assert that it obsoletes a more “traditional” positivist approach; such a claim runs counter to Judkin’s own assertion about the value of multiple perspectives in “triangulating the outlines” of martial arts.

Judkins observes that martial studies is an academic project which attracts an audience that includes non-academic martial artists. Bowman states that martial studies “will always be a kind of academic writing, first of all, and as such will always differ from and be likely [to] disappoint or attract the disapproval of practitioners”. But the latter does not necessarily follow from the former, as Shahar’s Shaolin Monastery and related papers demonstrate.

Shahar’s specialty is not martial studies but religion in China, and his work on Shaolin is not, to borrow Bowman’s words, “simply…the study of this or that martial art”; it is “guided and structured” by the question of monastic violence in China. However, in the course of addressing that question, Shahar addresses other questions, of the sort in which non-academic martial artists are interested. Shahar shares with English-literate readers the contents of the earliest contemporary documentation of the Shaolin martial arts, giving them a more accurate glimpse of what they may have originally been like than they are likely to find anywhere else.

He connects the endemic violence of the North China plains during the late imperial period not only to the development of martial arts at Shaolin, but to other arts such as Taijiquan and Xingyiquan which emerged from the same milieu and are still widely practiced today. Just as importantly, for non-academic martial artists, reading Shahar serves as an introduction to historical methods and shows what a rigorous history of martial arts might look like. For example, there is no documentation of any connection between Bodhidharma and the martial arts for more than a thousand years after his supposed existence, which makes its historicity extremely doubtful.

Chinese snuff bottle with dragon.  Qing dynasty, 1820-1850.  Walters Art Museum. Source: Wikimedia.

Chinese snuff bottle with dragon. Qing dynasty, 1820-1850. Walters Art Museum. Source: Wikimedia.

Shahar is hardly the first to point this out, but The Shaolin Monastery is where an English-literate reader is most likely to learn this. Similarly, Shahar points out a period from ~800 to ~1500 when, despite documentation of the Shaolin Monastery in travelogues, poems, and other literature, there is no mention of the practice of the martial arts by its monks, a situation which radically reverses itself in the 16th century, and asks readers to consider what that 700 year lacuna might tell us. Shaolin’s martial reputation arose and was consolidated in this late Ming/early Qing period, which is relevant to everyone who practices a martial art with Shaolin origins or an art for which Shaolin origins are claimed.

Academic scholars of martial studies are of course under no obligation to seek the approval of an audience of martial artists, but it seems prematurely defeatist to conclude that academic martial studies “will always differ from and be likely [to] disappoint or attract the disapproval of practitioners”. As Bowman notes, much martial studies scholarship is conducted outside an academic setting by independent scholars (Hing Chao, Brian Kennedy & Elizabeth Guo, Stanley Henning, Douglas Wile) typically writing for a non-academic audience of martial artists. There is consequently a divide between work aimed at academic vs non-academic audiences, even within the output of a single individual.

Bowman’s own work is an example of this; The Treasures of Bruce Lee is aimed at a popular audience, Theorizing Bruce Lee and Beyond Bruce Lee aimed at academic ones. Hing Chao’s work is published in two periodicals both aimed at a popular audience. But its character varies greatly depending on whether it is published in Hong Kong Tatler, which is in English and aimed at an audience of Hong Kong’s affluent English-literate residents, who are likely to be more multinational in origin than Chao’s readers in Ming Pao Weekly, which is published in Chinese. Chao’s articles for Ming Pao Weekly are interested in martial arts history for its own sake as martial arts history, and can go into very lengthy detail about its finer points. By contrast, Chao’s columns for Hong Kong Tatler are shorter, with no more detail than is necessary for a lay audience, and situates the martial arts within the broader narrative of preserving traditional practices threatened by modernity, a concern often seen in other affluent post-industrial contexts.

Martial studies in a Western academic context is likewise structured by its audience, in this case, fellow academics, who determine whose papers are published, and who receives tenure, grants, and invitations to conferences. As Filipiak points out, martial studies is a risky if not foolhardy choice of specialty for an aspiring academic. Far better for one’s own career and, as Judkins points out, the long-term prospects of martial studies as an academic field, to relate martial studies to concerns which academic departments, editorial boards, and foundation committees are less likely to consider marginal.

Again, academic scholars of martial studies are under no obligation to seek the approval of martial artists, but it does not inevitably follow that they “will always differ from and be likely [to] disappoint” them. Late imperial southern China alone could provide numerous topics of interest to both non-academic martial artists and academics. As the source of many widely practiced martial arts, including Wing Chun, late imperial southern China will be of interest to non-academic martial artists, and could provide any number of “organizing problematics” of likely interest to Western academics—social upheaval resulting from Malthusian catastrophe, regional identity, different types of organizations (e.g. clan associations, secret societies) within Chinese civil society, the Punti-Hakka Clan Wars as ethnic conflict, the impact of Western colonialism, the shifting valences of diasporic identity, and so on. Each of these topics is framed in terms that would not sound out of place in a grant proposal, but could still be explored in ways relevant to martial artists.


About the Author: Stanford Chiou has practiced the martial arts intermittently for almost 20 years. He holds a degree in Politics, Philosophy & Economics from the University of Oxford, and didn’t make it very far into his thesis at NYU.


Bowl with dragon over waves. Qing Dynasty, 1722-1735.  Walters Art Museum.  Source: Wikimedia.

Bowl with dragon over waves. Qing Dynasty, 1722-1735. Walters Art Museum. Source: Wikimedia.


6 thoughts on “Is Martial Studies Doomed to Disappoint? A Reader Response.

  1. Good Post. I also think that the line between the “Academic” and the “Lay” audience is a lot fuzzier now than it may once have been. Over the last 15-20 years, the advent of the internet has played a huge role in allowing someone like myself—a martial arts practitioner since the late 70’s, a high school dropout with a GED and 2 years of later college experience—to acquire at least a portion of the suite of tools necessary to consume and evaluate academic writing, especially in a subject I have some personal practical knowledge of. For instance, there is an active and growing “skeptical movement” that in large part has thrived in blogs, podcasts, and other internet fora. Whether it’s bigfoot or qi skepticism that first tickles the interest, these resources can eventually give a less academically oriented person a very functional background not only in general critical thinking skills but in the parsing of academic papers and research in general.

    Comfort with the language, requirements, and historical progression of academic research in any field, and also a decent sense of common errors (“well, sure, these results would be interesting, if it weren’t for the inadequate blinding, small sample size, and high dropout rate…”) can be had by the average ‘lay person’ as long as they posses an internet connection and a little time and curiosity. In short, I think one of the reasons that practicing martial artists are more likely to read academic treatments of their favorite subjects is because they CAN in greater numbers now.

    Another major factory may well be there rise of MMA and other combat sports making stories about flying swordsmen and magic monks less convincing to the public at large, and giving a traditionalist all the more reason to want accurate historical information and rational analysis of the TMA’s.

    Anyway, you got me thinking. Thanks!

    Posted by Dave Jones | February 17, 2014, 9:10 pm


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