A variety of dance teams, featuring an assortment of mythological creatures, meet outside the gates of Seattles Chinatown on the first day of the Lunar New Year, 2011.  Source: Wikimedia.
A variety of dance teams, featuring an assortment of mythological creatures, meet outside the gates of Seattles Chinatown on the first day of the Lunar New Year, 2011. Source: Wikimedia.


I would like to begin this week here at Kung Fu Tea by revisiting an essay that I first posted about a year ago.  Last week I wrote a short piece considering the sources of the social distrust that have traditionally followed the Chinese martial arts.  To summarize that piece very briefly, while most individuals in Chinese society have been focused on the creation of goods and services (farmers, merchants and craftsmen), many martial artists instead accepted forms of employment that focused instead on the redistribution of wealth from one segment of society to another.  This dynamic is most obvious when considering banditry and other forms of organized crime, but even martial artists who worked for the government (tax collectors, salt guards, soldiers, militia trainers etc…) usually didn’t produce economic resources so much as they consumed and moved them.  I concluded that the social mistrust of martial artists may be rooted in fundamental socio-economic disputes within Chinese society.  As occasional agents of redistribution (government sanctioned or otherwise), citizens who focused on production would have every reason to mistrust them.

As is so often the case, the writing of that post seems to have stirred up another line of argument in my head that is now leading in the opposite direction.  Is it really the case that most martial performances were devoid of “productive value”?  As I mentioned in the last essay, teaching is clearly a “value added” activity, as is legitimate community defense.  But can we point to other places where martial artist help to produce wealth?

I have been working my way through some Chinese economic history, including arguments by David Faure, suggesting that the roots of Chinese corporate structures can be found in the region’s distinctive ritual culture.  Rituals do not only convey spiritual meaning.  As Durkheim reminds us, the sacred is fundamentally social.  The enacting of a new ritual unit often draws a social organization into being.

Unfortunately Faure has never turned his attention to the origin and development of southern China’s martial arts institutions.   Still, his argument may have important implications for our attempts to understand the role of hand combat in specific communities.

The Chinese martial arts have never been just about self-defense.  Some of the very first references to boxing, which date from the Song dynasty, note that martial arts performances were a popular form of entertainment in the era’s rapidly developing urban centers.  And any student of the southern Chinese martial arts can probably explain the traditional connection between the area’s local styles and Cantonese Opera.

Lion and Dragon dances are also an interesting subject to consider when thinking about the “productive” aspect of the martial arts.  The public face of many schools revolves around their Lion Dance teams.  These performances are often sponsored by local businesses at New Years or at other important times.  On the one hand, they can draw a crowd which is rarely bad for sales.  Still, the ritual aspect to these activities might suggest a deeper link between the performance of martial virtues and the creation of other sorts of community institutions.

Our recent discussion of the Red Spear movement in northern China during the 1920s-1930s revealed something similar.  Local elites invited Red Spear teachers into their communities not because they had any great faith in the invulnerability rituals that these groups traded in.  Rather, through the creation of a new ritual system, community leaders gained the tools they needed to manipulate residents, strengthen local identity and solve some of the collective action failures that had plagued the region since the fall of the Qing dynasty.

When thinking about these communities it is impossible to draw a strict division between the “religious,” the “economic” and the “political” realms.  All of these these things were bound up in a single sphere which we might call “local governance.”  The Red Spears succeeded not because of their superior Kung Fu, or because they made anyone immune to bullets.  They spread across the face of Norther China because their martial values and novel ritual systems provided local elites with a new and powerful tool to solve a variety of community problems.

One suspects that something very similar was happening in the more complex cities and towns of Southern China at roughly the same time.  Martial arts teachers did not operate in pristine social isolation.  That would not even have been possible even if they wanted to.

Instead they tended to be sponsored (or at least tolerated) by a variety of other actors.  When discussing the south the large clan associations are critical players.  Note that the modern Wing Chun story begins when the Ip family rents the clan’s ancestral temple to Chan Wah Shun to establish his school.  Other sponsoring groups included government and military officials, secret societies, large landlords and even commercial guilds.

The leaders of each of these social groups had their own reasons for maintaining an interest in the martial arts.  While some of these might have focused on the actual threat of violence, I suspect that in most cases the ritual and social aspects of these groups may also have made them very socially useful.

This is a topic that is going to require some additional thought and reading before I attempt to address it in a more comprehensive way.  Over the last couple of days I have been pulling together a reading list and reviewing some of my favorite sources.  As part of that effort I had the chance to reread the essay below.

Originally this essay was meant as a vehicle to discuss the need for theory in martial arts studies.  While it discussed Lion Dancing in New York City, that was not my main focus.  Nevertheless, this aspect of the piece bears directly on my current research question.  Were the city’s Lion Dance teams actually contributing to the creation of new social structures and economic prosperity through their ritual and social performances, or we they simply engaged in neighborhood competition and the consumption of resources?

Madaline Anita Slovenz’s doctoral dissertation “Lions in the Street” is now on my reading list.  I ordered a copy and will hopefully have a chance to delve into it shortly.  It appears to be one of the few extended academic studies on the social dynamics of Lion Dancing.  Still, her shorter article (which the following essay is based on) is a good place to start reconsidering some of these questions.  Enjoy, and hopefully we will be returning to this question in the coming weeks or months.

Do we need theory in Chinese martial studies?

Paul Bowman recently posted two short essays on his martial studies blog.  You can read them here and here.  In these essays he asked his readers to think about what defined the field of martial studies and to more carefully consider the role of theory and interpretation in this project.  Specifically Bowman noted that the “martial arts” as an object of study are always transformed in subtle ways when we examine them from a new disciplinary or theoretical perspective.

On a certain level this is no great revelation.  Over the last few years I have had an opportunity to read a lot of the literature on the Chinese martial arts.  The two groups who seem most interested in this subject are anthropologists (or those writing from a more “cultural” perspective) and historians.

One has to be careful about making generalizations as there is a lot of variation between the approaches of researchers in both fields.  Still, I have been struck by how different their conversations and conclusions can be.  Given how variable their findings are, one could legitimately wonder whether the two groups were even studying the same “martial arts?”

Bowman would immediately answer “No.” They disagree on certain issues precisely because they are no longer studying the same “subject” at all.

Anthropologists are interested in certain questions, favor participant observation as a research method, and are trained to accept specific sorts of data as “evidence.”  Historians look to the documentary record.  They tend to be more interested in questions of causation and descriptive inference than “interpretation.”   They also tend to privilege the experience off communities (e.g., Chinese martial monks of the Ming dynasty) that are simply not available for modern anthropological study.

Given that these two groups tend to ask different questions, rely on unique operating assumptions and accept different types of data of evidence, it should come as no great surprise that their conclusions might differ on questions as fundamental as the role of spirituality in the development and expression of the martial arts.  As a field martial studies is an unabashedly academic project.  Yet many of the readers that it attracts are not necessarily academics themselves.  For these individuals, and for a number of more traditional scholars, the paradox that Bowman outlines above can be off-putting.  They might respond to this discussion by saying that they do not want to see the martial arts transformed into a lens to study politics, gender, class conflict or marginality.  They simply want to see these systems as they are and to “let the evidence speak for itself.”

This is an understandable position.  Most of the information that we consume about the world (journalism for instance) does not appear to be outwardly theoretical.  I think that this is one of the reasons why historical approaches have tended to dominate the discussion of Chinese martial studies.  Obviously they are wonderful tools for setting the record straight and bringing forth new facts for a variety of scholars to consider.  This is a critical work given the layers of misunderstanding, orientalism and romanticism that have traditionally surrounded these fighting systems.  Indeed it is hard to imagine that any sort of fruitful discussion could be taking place now without certain individuals dedicating an immense amount of time and resources to nailing down specific names, dates, practices and sources.

While very different from the Kung Fu legends taught in many martial arts schools, this historical material is usually reasonably clear and free of theoretical jargon.  It often takes the martial arts as its dependent variable, or the central subject of the investigation, rather than seeing it as a means of examining some other cultural process.   It is not surprising then that this material would be particularly accessible to cross-over audiences.

Still, it is important to realize that on a fundamental level the evidence never simply “speaks for itself.”  Bowman’s point was precisely to remind us that traditional historians have their own theoretical commitments.  Their vision of the Chinese martial arts is just as much of a “disciplinary project” as what the cultural theorists produce.  Nor are their theoretical assumptions as obvious or open to inspection as what one might expect in other areas of the humanities or social sciences.

Bowman concludes that this makes the project of simple falsification very difficult.  While a more traditional scholar might ask only whether a certain understanding of the Chinese martial arts is “right” or “wrong,” someone sensitive to these issues will instead realize that there are a variety of interpretations of the martial arts that are available to researchers.  Nor will we ever be able to pierce the veil of history to see them “just as they were.”  That type of understanding is literally beyond human cognition.  We come to the table with certain ontological assumptions and epistemological tools.  They simply cannot be removed from the process of understanding.

Bowman’s conclusion, that theory is by definition central to the study of the martial arts, was not greeted with equal enthusiasm by all of the readers who encountered it.  A few members of the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group simply noted that if they had to choose between approaches, the traditional historical route seemed much preferred.  A couple of individuals who I was privately corresponding with came to basically the same conclusion.  In general readers seem to have felt uncomfortable with the “relativism” of an interpretive approach (even though Bowman explicitly sought to reassure these concerns in his essay).  I suspect that the technical language of cultural studies might also be off-putting to those who do not have to work with it on a regular basis.

My personal background is in the field of political science and political economy.  Our field has seen fierce competition between more traditional (or positivist) scholars and constructivist (or interpretivist) ones.  Truth be told, my formal training is highly focused in the former camp.  If you even look at my dissertation (which examined the political usage of economic sanctions) you will find lots of statistics and game-theory (e.g., formal mathematical models of strategic behavior).

Still, Bowman’s basic point strikes me as non-controversial.  Every graduate level field seminar that I have taken as a student or taught as a professor has started out with some variant of the argument that he put forward.  Being social scientists we use slightly different terms, and draw on a somewhat different (though still overlapping) literature.  But the basic thrust of the conversation is more or less the same.

In the following essay I would like to build on Bowman’s basic arguments in an attempt to demonstrate that they are actually entirely relevant to thinking about concrete issues in Chinese martial studies.  More specifically, researchers who are aware of the strengths and limitations of their various tools can actually employ a number of interpretive strategies to build a more robust understanding of the history and place of these fighting arts within the communities that supported them.  Given that it is impossible to ever look at a phenomenon and see it without distortion, a variety of perspectives can sometimes be useful in triangulating its general outlines.

Certain words of warning are in order before we go on.  Because these various theoretical lenses rely on different, sometimes conflicting, assumptions it may not be possible to employ all of them at once.  Good research papers usually have a well-defined question which by definition limits the numbers of theories that a student can employ.  But a broad and deep understanding of a topic is more likely to emerge from a “research agenda,” or a series of papers, than a single effort.  This is where methodological triangulation and true interdisciplinary cooperation can come into play.

To illustrate this argument I would like to think about the role of Lion Dancing in the New York City’s Chinese-American community.  We are now entering the lunar New Year celebration so it seems like a timely subject.  Lion Dancing is also important as it provides us with a very concrete display of the more “martial” aspects of Chinese popular culture.

From about the middle of the 1970s onward Lion Dance teams in Manhattan’s Chinatown tended to be associated with specific martial arts schools.  These Kung Fu groups were in turn loosely affiliated with, and sponsored by, larger voluntary associations including Benevolent Societies, Tongs and Triads.  For instance, the Hop Sing Association maintained a close relationship with a local Choy Li Fut school that they would hire every year to perform a spectacular “Greens-Picking” on Pell Street.  For many local residents this event signaled the official start of festivities.

There is not much academic literature on Lion Dancing.  Nor do I claim any expertise in the subject.  The martial arts communities that I am most closely associated with tend not to be involved in these sorts of activities.

William C. C. Hu wrote a book length treatise on the subject, but it is out of print and difficult to find. Most of the data in this paper is drawn from an 1987 article by Madaline Anita Slovenz titled “The Year is a Wild Animal: Lion Dancing in Chinatown” (The Drama Review 31:3 pp. 74-102).  A much expanded version of this basic research and argument can be found in her 1994 dissertation, Lions in the streets: a performance ethnography of Cantonese lion dancing in New York City’s Chinatown (New York University).

Slovenz’s article is rich in observational detail.  Her background and subsequent research focused on performance, but her descriptions of Lion Dancing shows a great deal of concern for the social, cultural and political aspects of this yearly ritual.  Much of the fieldwork that informed her earlier article was performed in 1985.  As such this article also captures an interesting snap-shot of Manhattan’s Chinatown at the height of the “Kung Fu Craze.”

While writing this article Slovenz was actively researching the 30 or so traditional Kung Fu schools that were located in Manhattan’s Chinatown.  The Lion Dances, sponsored by businesses and voluntary associations, provided her with an opportunity to study the links between various aspects of the community and the local Kung Fu scene.  She hoped that by immersing herself in the world of Lion Dancing she would gain a better understanding of the actual function and meaning of the martial arts to the local Chinese-American community.

Slovenz paints a rich descriptive picture.  In fact, there is so much information within her description that it becomes difficult to answer her central questions.  As such I will employ “the levels of analysis,” a teaching tool from the fields of political science and sociology, to try and bring some clarity to the issue.

The number of levels that one employs is somewhat arbitrary and can vary by the subject being discussed.  In this case I will limit myself to three levels: the systemic, the local and the individual.  Anyone who spends much time with academics will know that when presented with a puzzle we have little trouble coming up with a multiplicity of possible theories and solutions.

The “levels of analysis” is a mechanism for sorting and thinking about our theories.  Specifically it seeks to classify theories according to their basic assumptions about who the relevant actors are (e.g., what our unit of analysis should be) and what sorts of data researchers should consider to be “evidence” when drawing either causal or interpretive inferences.

In short, theories of the martial arts that approach them from the “systemic” as opposed to the “personal” level are likely to treat them as different “disciplinary objects,” just as Bowman suggested.  An economist, a historian and a neuron-scientist might all decide to study the subject of marriage, but it is unlikely that they would find themselves asking the same questions or coming to similar conclusions.

A Lion Dance performance in NYC's Chinatown.  Source: Wikimedia.
A Lion Dance performance in NYC’s Chinatown. Source: Wikimedia.

Lion Dancing and the Expansion of Chinese Identity

A number of theorists have pointed out that identity is performative.  Nowhere is this more true than within immigrant communities.  The Chinese-American community in New York City is very diverse.  Many of the individuals are from Southern China (Guangdong and Fujian) but it is not uncommon to meet people whose  families have immigrated from other areas as well.  The Hakka ethnic minority has a strong presence in the community.  Some of the individuals whom Slovenz interviewed probably had roots in the city going back 100 years, while others may have arrived a few decades, or a few months before.  Nor can one ignore the importance of socio-economic and class divisions.

So in this diverse and constantly evolving community, what does it actually mean to “be Chinese?”  Or more to the point, how does one recognize their neighbors as “Chinese?”

Durkheim reminds us that the sacred is, at heart, always social.  As such the observance of cyclic popular religious festivals may be critical to the creation and maintenance of a sense of group identity.  In the effervescent enthusiasm of such a ritual it is possible to lose your sense of self and suddenly feel that you are part of a great whole.  Often we experience this as being in the presence of, or part of, “the sacred.”  Yet through these rituals we are fundamentally being drawn into “the social.”

One can also look to these sorts of mass rituals to define the limits of the group or community.  One of the great unresolved ironies of Slovenz’s article is the persistent perception and threat of violence associated with Lion Dancing.  This usually presents itself as the fear that if the wrong troops meet on the street, or if some small breach of decorum is made, a brutal fight could break out.  Indeed many of the subjects that she interviewed seemed to be spoiling for just such a fight.

Yet traditionally the lunar New Year is seen as a time to forget and set grudges aside?  Everything must be made clean and new.  Further, the ritual of Lion Dancing becomes efficacious through the suppression and channeling of these tendencies into the martial excellence of the performance itself.

An astute reader of her account, or one thinking about the creation and reinforcement of a sense of “nation,” will quickly realize that this threat of violence is not actually limited to rumbles between adolescent performers.  There are much larger issues at stake.

Slovenz notes that each Lion Dance team must be issued its own parade permit by the New York Police Department.  Interestingly in 1985 it was the youth gang officers who were responsible for reviewing and issuing these permits.  Nor did they seem all that enthusiastic about the practice.

The NYPD tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to limit the number of days on which Lion Dance teams could perform.  They routinely adjusted routes in an attempt to keep rival groups from meeting.  And they strictly forbade teams from crossing Canal Street.  It is interesting to think about this last prohibition and what it actually means about the relationship between various groups in the city.

The performances of Lion Dance teams can be thought of as “ritual exorcism” and blessings which help to prepare a home or business for the New Year.  Nevertheless, Slovenz points out that many of the local businesses run by non-Chinese owners did not find these performances to be either efficacious or at all desirable.  In fact they were the ones putting pressure on the police department to limit parade permits.

Manhattan’s China town has been expanding rapidly for years, but in 1985 Canal street was considered an important boundary between it and Little Italy.  In an attempt to prevent frayed tempers and conflicts the Police sought to keep the performance teams out of traditionally Italian-American areas during the New Years celebration.

Interestingly their efforts were unsuccessful.  Slovenz documents the rouses by which teams ditched their official escorts to cross the border and dance for Chinese homes and families on the other side.

Today many of these same areas have actually been swallowed by Chinatown’s expanding defacto boarders.  Thus it is possible to see in Lion Dancing not just as an affirmation of personal identity, but a means of ritually competing for, and claiming, territory.  These martial rituals marked, and gave social meaning to, broader demographic and economic trends that were afoot in the area.  Nor was this process at all secret.  Both the Italian-American community and the New York City Police Force were aware of the logic of these performances and actively sought to thwart them.  Ultimately they were unsuccessful.

From this perspective we see that martial rituals like Lion Dancing are not just about the maintenance of identity.  That may not even be their most important function.  Instead they tie certain identities to specific territories, and they do that in a way that encourages expansion and competition.  Harnessing and directing the symbolic, and literal, threat of violence is a critical element of this process.  Slovenz makes it clear that by 1985 open street fights were a rarity, but she also suggests that there may have been practical reasons why Lion Dancing would be carried out by martial arts schools.

Lion Dancers in New York.  Source: Wikimedia.  Photo by ProjectManhattan.
Lion Dancers in New York. Source: Wikimedia. Photo by Project Manhattan.

Lion Dancing and the Local Community: Competition between Fictive Kinship Groups

Critics might look at the story that I just told and find a number of flaws.  Perhaps the most damning of them would be the way in which it treated Chinese popular religious practice.  Yes Lion Dancing is a form of ritual exorcism in which the Wu or military powers of the troop are called upon to vanquish lingering yin energies from a home or business that may cause bad luck in the upcoming year.  And the basic outlines of the practice are well enough understood that anyone in the community could get a sense of what is going on.

Yet Slovenz’s discussion makes it clear that most residents of Chinatown were not, and could not be, experts on the various sorts of performances that they saw.  So while these rituals are very visible public spectacles, they were not necessarily well understood by their audience.  The root of this paradox lays in the connection of kinship groups and the transmission (and creation) of esoteric knowledge.

One of the things that I quite like about Slovenz’s article is that she spends some time talking about the business owners who hire Lion Dance teams.  Interestingly their perspective on things is sometimes quite different from that of the average martial arts student.  These performers consider themselves to be the “ritual specialists” and sometimes doubt the knowledge or understanding of their patrons.

Yet as Slovenz pointed out, understanding the ritual intricacies of these performances can also be important for the hosts.  Sponsoring an elaborate “picking of the greens” in front of a business draws a crowd and allows one to demonstrate their prosperity (more elaborate ceremonies cost more to perform).  Yet it is also an important mechanism by which individuals advertise the depth of their own cultural knowledge and “Chinese” identity.  Individuals within the community can easily see who knows the proper hand-signs to greet the Lion, or to return its wishes of good luck, and who does not.

Yet this knowledge is not unitary or universal.   As Slovenz quickly discovered each Sifu had his own understanding of proper practices and ritual taboos when dealing with the Lions.  Nor were the Unicorns of the Hakka’s troops identical to the Lion’s of the Cantonese ones.

Store owners might attempt to advertise their wealth and sophistication by laying out a complicated symbolic pattern for the “picking of the green.”  Such feats would test a team’s ritual knowledge as well as their physical skills.  For instance, one informant noted that if three cups of wine were set out the proper order in which they were to be drunk was determined by the color of the cups, which in turn was a reference to either classic literature or popular religious cults.  It was up to the Dancer to know which.  But once you get down to this level of the detail the actual meaning of the symbolism seemed to shift from informant to informant.

What Slovenz quickly discovered was that the Lion Dance teams and martial artist schools were part of larger fictive kinship groups that helped to organize the Chinese community in New York.  Esoteric knowledge was produced and shared within these umbrella groups.  As a result a local restaurant and Choy Li Fut school might agree on the proper procedures for performing a ritual, but an unrelated Hung Gar school from across town would not.

In this system Kung Fu schools provided important functions that reached far beyond their role in communal celebration.  Membership in these schools, as well as other voluntary organizations, was a way in which strong ties could be created between members of the community.  Researchers often refer to this as “bonding” social capital.

While most of these individuals stopped practicing the martial arts at some point in their adult lives, they never forgot their relationships with, and obligations to, their “Kung Fu Brothers.”  These ties then helped to shape and reinforce other business and social structures within the community.  Slovenz concludes that the martial arts schools themselves are basically a small but an important part of larger fictive kinship groups.

This has important implications for understanding the association between Lion Dancing and community violence.  Not all troops were equally likely to come to blows when they met in the streets.  Some schools were on good terms with each other while others were rivals.  Not surprisingly those that were rivals appear to have been proxies for competing voluntary associations (tongs and triads) as well as businesses and social groups.

Given that everyone (even the Police Department) knew that fighting could be a problem in these celebrations, I find it interesting that more wasn’t done to prevent it.  If anything Slovenz describes a situation in which the larger community, while publicly eschewing violence, was in some senses actually enabling it.

The factional logic of these groups might help to explain this.  The sorts of conflicts that existed between rival troops were in reality the ritualized expression of fundamental tensions within the community as a whole.  Solving the “problem” of youth fighting would actually do nothing to address the real issues.  If anything the ritualized expression of these tendencies may have provided a language for containing them.

Lion Dancers in Seattle, 2007.  Source: Wikimedia.  Photo by Joe Mabel.
Lion Dancers in Seattle, 2007. Source: Wikimedia. Photo by Joe Mabel.

Becoming a Lion: Ritual as an Embodied Experience

We have now looked at Lion Dancing, and its propensity to be associated with the threat of violence, through two different lenses.  A Durkheimian view focused our attention on the connection between the performance of ritual and the creation of a shared social identity.  It predicted that these identities might be prone to competition and suggested that we think more carefully about the role of martial ritual in pushing the boundary between those that were “inside” the community and those that lay outside it.

An alternative set of assumptions instead focused our attention on the centrality of kinship groups within Chinese society.  After adopting this view we discovered that what looked like a shared ritual experience exploded into a variety of esoteric practices confined to certain segments of the community.  The threat of violence associated with troops was simply a reflection of social and economic tensions within the community as a whole.

A third school of thought might come to the table with a different set of assumptions than either of the preceding groups.  An anthropologist like Avron Boretz might start out by noting that it is not a random selection of individuals who are involved with these practices.  Indeed many people in Chinatown are not all that closely associated with Lion Dancing or any other military display.

The sorts of individuals who are most likely to spend a lot of time in Kung Fu schools, and then join their auxiliary charities and performance teams, tend to be marginal in both social and economic terms.  And while there are now female Lion Dancers in Manhattan’s Chinatown, at the time of Slovenz’s fieldwork in 1985 they were conspicuously absent.  All of her informants were male.

This confluence of factors immediately forces us to consider the issue of masculinity and gender in the Chinese martial arts.  Specifically, Boretz notes that traditional Confucian thought sets out a clear definition of the proper role and behavior of a “man.”  Marginal individuals often find these expectations impossible to conform to.  For such individuals the martial values (wu) promoted in Kung Fu schools become an alternate pathway towards the enactment of a male identity.

Nor is this insight just a bit of useless cultural theorizing.  It turns out to be absolutely essential to understanding how the ritual of the Lion Dance is thought to be efficacious.  It may also provide an alternative explanation as to why the community is willing to tolerate, and even enable, the occasional outbursts of juvenile violence that sometimes accompany these performances.

As we mentioned earlier in this essay yin (or female) energy is thought to linger in certain locations.  This can cause illness, bad luck or in extreme cases even tragedy.  New Years is the traditional time to perform exorcisms meant to dispel this energy.  Following the logic of Chinese metaphysics, the best way to deal with an excess of yin energy is to project its opposite, or yang, into the same space.

This “male” energy is associated with active and creative forces.  Fire is an example of Yang energy and is often seen in rituals designed to call it forth.  The martial arts are also seen as a way of cultivating and harnessing its raw potential.  Further, the mythic background of the Lion as an unpredictable (but ultimately goodhearted and playful) wild beast associates it with Yang energy.  Who better to embody these primal forces than young males under the tutelage of a Kung Fu master?

These sorts of ritual performances give marginal males a chance to transcend their normal social roles by embodying a divine energy that is desired by, and efficacious to, the entire community.  Boretz points out that this is an interesting sort of freedom.  On the one hand these individuals are able to project their struggles against a backdrop of larger cosmic forces.  They enter a realm of creative play in which they can reimagine themselves as different individuals on a quest for manhood and social meaning.

Yet at the end of the day this transformation, and their ritual expression in activities like martial arts practice and Lion Dancing, always serves to reinforce society’s basic structures and values.  It does not reject them in a revolutionary way.  Boretz points out that though this mechanism Chinese society has had a surprising ability to turn some of its most marginal members into strikingly socially conservative figures.  Perhaps this helps to explain the remarkable stability its culture and basic social structures over time?

Turning our attention towards the topic of gender performance suggests yet another way in which we might explain the persistent threat of violence that accompanies Lion Dancing.  Boretz repeatedly points to the centrality of Wen (civilian) and Wu (martial) values as organizing concepts in Chinese culture.

The standard social order is that the forces of Wen should govern and Wu projects its plans into action.  Nothing can be actualized without Wu.  Yet the individuals who exemplify it (traditionally yamen clerks and runners) are unpredictable and even violent.  The great cultural fear that reemerges in many areas of Chinese history and society is that these subordinated forces will break through to surface and unleash destruction.

Yet it is precisely that destructive potential, the Yang dominant forces of Wu, which makes the Lion Dance efficacious as a ritual process.  As the dancers take on the persona of the Lion they are invoking and enacting these potentials specifically to draw them into the community.  Hence the constant watchfulness, just looking for an excuse to take offense, that Slovenz documented.  That is what it means to become “a wild animal.”  At the end of the day the community tolerates, and even enables, this behavior because it is the sacrifice of the dancers that makes the ritual efficacious.

Three Qilin heads, at a 2006 Monkey God festival in Hong Kong.  Photo credit: Sam Judkins.
Three Qilin heads, at a 2006 Monkey God festival in Hong Kong. Photo credit: Sam Judkins.

Conclusion: Reconsidering the Three Levels of Analysis.

This essay began as an attempt to think more deeply about Bowman’s argument that theory is both necessary and unavoidable within the field of martial studies.  Any set of theoretical assumptions that we adopt will transform our object of study by bringing certain aspects to the foreground while letting others recede from view.  Bowman suggests that there are multiple interpretations that can be applied to any of these “disciplinary objects” rather than a simple “right or wrong” dichotomy.

I attempted to restate this thesis and to quickly demonstrate how it might be applied to the topic of Lion Dancing in New York City’s Chinatown during the lunar New Year festival.  To do this I first introduced the idea of the “levels of analysis” from the social sciences.  In point of fact the number of “levels” and their exact characteristics can vary from exercise to exercise.

I then applied this framework to Slovenz’s data rich account of Lion Dancing in Chinatown during the 1980s.  More specifically, I focused on various explanations of the seemingly pervasive threat of violence that surrounded the performance of these rituals.  This was an issue that the author brought up a number of times in her article but never attempted to resolve.

The subsequent essay demonstrated (much as Bowman suggested) that as our basic theoretical assumptions changed, different aspects of this potential violence came into focus.  Rather than generating a single explanation we saw three different interpretations of the same phenomenon.  Nor is there any way to choose between them in the abstract.

So does that mean that they are all equally correct, and it is impossible to say that anything is right or wrong?  Not necessarily.  This is where one must begin to think carefully about your goals.

Inevitably every paper or book chapter starts out with a narrowly defined research question.  The purpose of the levels of analysis (as the exercise was originally conceived in the social sciences) was to help students think critically about what families of theories would best address the specific question that they were asking in that paper.  So rather than just combining all the levels together, it is still necessary to select a specific theoretical framework and apply it to a problem.

But no truly complex phenomenon will be understood with a single article.  And when you write the next paper on the topic you may find yourself approaching it from a different point of view.  In fact, this is often how really interesting research programs evolve within the social sciences.  It is also the reason why interdisciplinary work has become so important in recent years.

While I am more of a social scientist than a cultural theorist, I think that Bowman’s argument deserves thoughtful consideration.  For martial studies to succeed as an interdisciplinary academic project we need to be able to ask more than one sort of questions and to apply a variety of interpretive strategies.  This does not mean that we must abandon rigorous history or toss ourselves down the rabbit hole of post-modern nihilism.  What it may do is to help us listen to two conference papers on the same subject, one by a historian and the other by an anthropologist, and get something out of both presentations.


If you liked this post you might also want to read: Qilin Dancing During the Lunar New Year and Southern Chinese Martial Culture.