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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Arts and Religion, Martial Studies, Reviews

The Problem of Doubt in the Traditional Martial Arts


Mount Tobisu Dawn Moon, from the 100 Aspects of the Moon by Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892).

“Mount Tobisu Dawn Moon,” from the 100 Aspects of the Moon by Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892).


Sixt Wetzler. “Myths of the Martial Arts.” JOMEC Journal. Issue 5. June 2014. 15 pages.



Increasingly a wide range of academic students are contributing to the field of Chinese martial studies. We have seen important work being done within the historical, anthropological and sociological areas. Interdisciplinary projects are also becoming common. Yet certain challenges remain.

One of the most pressing in my view is that martial studies still lacks a well-developed toolkit of shared concepts to facilitate discussions between authors and the development of more involved research programs. This lack of conceptual clarity seems to affect even our most basic terminology. Rarely do authors stop to define ideas like “violence” or even “martial.”

This problem is not entirely unexpected. Chinese martial studies is a young research area. It can take decades for a field to develop and refine a core group of theoretical concepts. Luckily the interdisciplinary nature of our project means that we may not have to do this alone. Many of the hurdles that we face in attempting to understand these fighting systems are similar to challenges that other literatures have been wrestling with for years. After carefully reviewing this work it should be possible to adopt and adapt many of these basic theoretical ideas for our own needs.

The field of religious studies is a particularly promising area. Obviously martial arts associations are different from religious institutions. Yet on a structural level there are often a number of similarities in how individual practitioners relate to both types of organizations as well as the challenges that each faces in an increasingly interconnected and global world. Both the martial and the religious realms attempt to speak to fundamental question about power, identity and the nature of existence. Often there is a ritual as well as a mythic component to this discussion. Further, both sorts of groups organize themselves around hierarchic teaching structures which draw clear boundaries between insiders and outsiders.  One might expect that students writing on even the most secular martial arts might be interested in some of the concepts and research tools that have been developed within the field of religious studies.

In order to explore this possibility the following post will review a recent article by Sixt Wetzler titled “Myths of the Martial Arts” published in the June 2014 edition of the JOMEC Journal.  Edited by Paul Bowman, this edition was dedicated to the growing field of martial arts studies. The various articles included in this project approached these fighting systems from a number of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives including religious studies. Wetzler is currently a PhD student at the University of Tübingen. He has previously published on the development of European Fencing and Old Icelandic Wrestling (a subject I would love to hear more about) and is currently editing a volume on the sword as both a symbol and weapon.  Readers of Kung Fu Tea will find his current article to be very interesting and I recommend giving it some thoughtful consideration.

Understanding Universal Mythic Patterns in Global Martial Traditions

Many different cultures have created their own fighting systems. The majority of these arts seem to have developed accounts of their creation, origins and best known practitioners. Wetzler’s central research problem revolves around the strange fact that these stories are often structurally very similar to one another despite the fact that the societies that produced these fighting systems were often quite different. His article is illustrated with examples drawn from a number of areas including the Filipino and Chinese traditional arts, European Fencing and more modern “neo-mythic” practices.

The author begins by noting that traditional martial arts often face an existential challenge which is not present in “martial sports” such as Olympic fencing, boxing or Judo. Self-defense systems teach techniques intended to cause actual physical harm to an attacker. Some of these, such as eye gouges or knee kicks, can seriously maim someone. As such there is an inescapable gap between the practice of these arts and their actual performance. No matter how realistic one attempts to make their training exercises, you simply cannot simulate the emotional intensity of a real attack or actually maim one’s training partners.

Combat sports do not seem to experience this same gap between reality and practice. Wetzler points out that it is possible for a student of kickboxing or MMA to actually apply all of the techniques that they have learned in a match and assess whether or not they are understood and practical. Yet traditionalists rarely have this same luxury. Given that most people are not attacked on a regular basis, it can be more difficult to gauge one’s actual fighting ability or progress in the art.

Nor can this nagging sense of doubt simply be alleviated by more “realistic” practice. Indeed, the more one comes to understand the radically contingent nature of actual violence, the less comprehensive any training regime will seem. Different fighting systems have adopted a number of strategies to help their students deal with the inevitable disjoint between the image and the actual experience of violence. Wetzler suggests that one of the most common of these tools can be found within the creation narratives that so many arts pass along.

From an academic standpoint there are a number of different approaches that we can adopt when thinking about these stories. For instance, many of them seem to be a reflection of the popular literature of the day. Hence a background in popular culture can help to determine how a specific story came together and what it likely meant to its audience.

Alternatively the anthropologist Thomas Green has argued that we can understand these narratives as examples of “folk history.” These accounts often provide popular narratives about the nature of the community. They also explain specific practices and provide a rational for competition with other social groups. Green makes repeated references to James C. Scott’s notion that stories can be the “weapons of the weak” while developing his approach to folk histories.

Drawing on the existing literature in the field of religious studies, Wetzler instead argues that we should think of these narratives as “myths.” Nor does he employ this term in a general sense. Instead he draws on the work of Assmann and Assmann (1998) who define ‘myths’ as a specific type of religious narrative. Their definition posits that myths have three essential functions. First, they socially construct the world view that their audience inhabits. Second, they provide guidance as to how one should interact with this world. Third, they lend social legitimacy to certain types of actions but not others.

Wetzler points out that this is very much a ‘functionalist’ approach to myths. I would add that it is also a highly psychological. This is critical, after all, as the essential problem that these stories must address is doubt. Can I trust the teachings of my school? Will these techniques actually work when I need them? How do I know that I could defend myself from a variety of attacks when I have never been exposed to most of them?

Wetzler notes that most myths generated by martial systems do three specific things. First, they explain where the art’s techniques came from. Secondly, they attempt to provide a rational for these specific techniques. Lastly they help to define the student’s identity and relationship to the broader questions of “power” and “community.”

Given the variety of cultural traditions that the author draws from, one might suspect that we would see a great variety in the sorts of creation myths that are out there. Instead Wetzler notes that there are certain basic patterns which, while not exhaustive, tend to arise over and over again.

Perhaps the most common are vaguely hagiographic accounts of the system’s creator and his or her exploits. Such stories are relatively common in the traditional Chinese martial arts. In fact, Wetzler introduces the Wing Chun creation narrative (focusing on Ng Moy and Yim Wing Chun) as the proto-typical example of this school. The fact that the fighting system created by these women allowed them to defeat larger male opponents was taken as proof of the superiority of its concepts and combat methods.


"Songoku, the Monkey King and the Jeweled Hare by the Moon" from Yoshitoshi's 100 Aspects of the Moon.

“Songoku, the Monkey King and the Jeweled Hare by the Moon” from Yoshitoshi’s 100 Aspects of the Moon.


Another relatively common type of creation myth focuses on zoomorphic inspiration. Wetzler provides examples of schools in both China and Europe who are said to have derived insights or key techniques from observing animals in combat. Nor should this come as a great surprise when we consider the popularity of pursuits like cockfighting in previous eras.

More interesting still were the fighting systems that discovered their inspiration not in martial sages or visions of fighting snakes and crane, but in mathematics. Wetzler pointed out that geometric arguments were critical to the development of certain styles of western fencing and Filipino blade-work. Parenthetically I should add that the TCMA also seem to have drawn on this same sort of logic when using the five elemental phases, or geometric images such as the five-sectioned plum flower, as martial concepts.

Of course not everyone favored such abstract logic. A number of schools in both the east and west have instead pointed to their success (real or imagined) on the battlefield as proof of the validity of their martial systems. Wetzler reviewed the sorts of stories that are often seen in the Filipino martial arts and noted that such narratives are interesting as they typically confer martial legitimacy on a larger social group. This reputation for strength can then be appropriated by different sorts of social actors and put to all sorts of uses.

What is critical to remember is that each of these categories of myth is designed to deal with the fundamental question of doubt. Even more interesting is that each of these types of stories seems to deal with this fear in a structurally similar way, by transcending the boundaries of mundane human life in an attempt to demonstrate the extraordinary origins (and hence legitimacy) of the art in question.

Peter Beyer, a student of religion and globalization, has noted that we can think about such problems in terms of communication. Religious modes of communication create meaning by posting the existence of two distinct spheres. The first is the “imminent.” It encompasses all of the actions and categories of being that we encounter in life. Yet it is difficult to discuss in the abstract precisely because we don’t really have any external points of reference to frame our arguments.

To solve this problem many philosophical, religious and mythic systems begin by postulating the existence of a second realm, the “transcendent” which is defined as being totally different from the imminent. It is that possible state of being in which none of the mundane categories that define our current life exist. It is the possibility of this abstract realm that allows us to frame the events that we see around us and describe them in more conceptual terms.

This short digression is important because each of the categories of myth which Wetzler has described attempts to bolster the legitimacy of the martial arts by removing them from the realm of the purely human and demonstrating how they have touched or emerged from the deeper and more transcendent parts of the universe. This tendency is more obvious in some places than others. It is difficult to think of a realm that is more “transcendent” than that of mathematics. Thus when a Wing Chun instructor or a fencing master states that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, it is hard to disagree. Such “truths” seem to move beyond mere stylistic differences.

Animal stories are another obvious way in which the legitimacy of a martial system can be grounded in the transcendent. The natural world is often seen as a realm free from human sophistry, where “purer” or more primal contests can be played out. There is also more than a whiff of the supernatural in at least some animal stories. In various accounts of Woman Ding Number Seven or Ng Moy watching the crane, it is not always clear whether they are seeing a corporal animal or a more heavenly vision.  Further, the white apes that make frequent appearances in Chinese martial folklore can also be taken to represent divine forces.

Heavenly revelations, or moments of transcendence, characterize many of the stories that focus on human founders. In the Chinese tradition both Bodhidharma and Zhang Sangfeng were revered for their status as spiritual sages long before their later association with the martial arts.  Similar tendencies can even be seen in stories about the “battlefield” styles. In Chinese myths foreign enemies commonly take on demonic traits. Hence the battles between the Shaolin Monks and the Japanese pirates, or the Triads and the foreign Qing, were often read as basically Manichean encounters between the forces of good and evil. Once again, any art that could succeed in the face of evil incarnate had demonstrated its ability to transcend the limitations and contingencies of this world.

Nor is this tendency a pre-modern survival. I suspect that the importance and popularity of such creation myths may actually have increased after the start of the 20th century. After all, in the 18th century no one needed an elaborate justification to study fencing or wrestling as a means of self-defense. They were basically the only possibilities that existed, and if one was drafted into the local militia you likely had no choice in the matter anyway.

The situation facing Chinese martial artists became much more complicated in the late 19th century and after the fiasco that was the Boxer Uprising. Public discourse very strongly blamed the poor and uneducated martial artists of Shandong province for the national humiliation and defeat at the hands of foreign powers in 1900. While the martial arts had never been all that popular among the educated elite, their legitimacy dropped even further in the wake of these events. And all of this was happening at a time when reformers were deciding that if the traditional hand combat systems were going to survive they would have to attract new, more educated, students in urban areas. One suspects that the demand for myths that granted legitimacy to the martial arts probably increased substantially as their survival in the modern world became a more complex issue.

A now iconic image of Bodhidharma as imagined by the Japanese Woodblock Artist Yoshitoshi, 1887 from his collection 100 Aspects of the Moon.  Source: Wikimedia.

A now iconic image of Bodhidharma as imagined by the Japanese Woodblock Artist Yoshitoshi, 1887 from his collection 100 Aspects of the Moon. Source: Wikimedia.

Conclusion: The Limitations of the Universal Myth

Of course every theory is like a map. It reveals something important, but it does so through an inevitable process of simplification. As a result no concept will match reality in all its detail, or be equally useful in all situations. So what are some of the possible limitations of this approach to understanding martial creation narratives?

One of the great strengths of Wetzler’s article is that it focuses our attention on the question of individual motivation and the problem of doubt. This in turn allows for the development of individual level theories of behavior with strong micro-foundation.

Of course the other side of the coin is that we lose some of our ability to think about these stories at the “social level.” As a result our view of the martial arts becomes somewhat depoliticized. Approaching these same stories as examples of “folk histories” or “invented traditions” (a Marxist concept) helps us to see how they have been deployed in regional, economic and ethnic disputes. Nothing in Wetzler’s approach to the martial arts precludes our discussion of these tensions, but it does tend to refocus our discussion onto the realm of personal transformation and the problems of embodiment.

Also interesting is the invisibility of culture in this approach. The parallels in the various creation myths presented in this article are fascinating. Yet at the same time one wonders if perhaps levels of meaning are being ignored when we examine these stories in a comparative context. Cockfighting was common in Europe, and individuals in Asia still continue to keep pet insects and pit them in fights against one another. Yet are these equivalent acts? The Japanese and the Chinese have traditionally attached a variety of social meanings insects that are distinct from whatever virtues Renaissance Europeans saw in chickens. One wonders if perhaps the nuances of some of these stories might shift as we delve more deeply into them.

Lastly there are other martial myths that seem to draw their meaning almost exclusively from cultural discourses that avoid easy comparison. How should we deal with them? The classic novel Water Margin might be thought of as the creation myth for all of modern Chinese martial culture. It is almost the Old Testament of the martial arts. All sorts of Chinese hand combat system make reference to its better known heroes and battles. I wonder if a theory of myth predicated on structuralism might lead some students to ignore these stories precisely because they do not fit our expectations of what a “universal” myth is supposed to be?

Nevertheless, Wetzler’s article makes at least two important contributions to the field of Chinese martial studies. Every theory has its limitations. Yet the concept of the myth which he advanced is very important as it focuses our attention on structural elements of these stories that are often ignored. Doubt plays a critical, and previously under-theorized, role in motivating this discourse. Rather than simply seeing these stories as bad history students can now begin to study the ways in which different sorts of myths help practitioners to bridge the psychological gap between the “reality” of training and the very different reality of actual violence.

More importantly Wetzler has demonstrated the importance of religion in the emerging multidisciplinary field that is martial arts studies. One suspects that this approach might encounter some resistance in certain quarters. The debates over the age and authenticity of the spiritual content in a number of TCMA systems have been spirited. Still, even if we take these fighting arts to be totally secular, Wetzler has successfully argued that the many structural similarities between religious and martial organization may allow for conceptual borrowing.

Indeed, martial studies must continue to build its conceptual foundations if it wishes to progress as a field. The previous theory of the nature and functional purpose of myth may yet make important contributions to a number of research projects. In future posts I hope to discuss at least two other theories from religious studies which might also sharpen our understanding of Chinese martial studies.


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Folklore in the Southern Chinese Martial Arts: A Means to Create Economic “Value” or to Construct Social “Values?”




4 thoughts on “The Problem of Doubt in the Traditional Martial Arts

  1. I really enjoyed reading this and Wetzler’s article, thank you! I’m looking forward to reading Lorge’s “Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century” which I caught a reference for in Wetzler’s piece. Thanks!

    Posted by jiquan | May 20, 2014, 7:36 pm
  2. What a great history of martial arts. Can I use your website as my reference?

    Posted by Wellesley Martial Arts | January 19, 2017, 12:33 am


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