Women's Muay Thai match.  Photo by Eric Langley (CC).  Source: Wikimedia.
Women’s Muay Thai match. Photo by Eric Langley (CC). Source: Wikimedia.




Introduction: Is the Gendering of Practice Inevitable?



In the early 1990s I became a practitioner of a discipline that requires years of careful study and practice to master. It has its major schools, famous instructors and glossy trade magazines. The art is said to have originated at some point in China’s ancient history and was later adopted by the Japanese. They are the ones who really introduced the world to this practice, first at the turn of the 20th century, and then again in the post-WWII period. Of course the successful appropriation of this practice by the Japanese continues to irk a number of Chinese practitioners who would like to remind the global community that the art is actually a Chinese creation.

While the popularity of this practice has waxed and waned over the years, it appears to be healthy and growing in the west. I suspect that more young people in North America, Europe and South East Asia are probably taking up this discipline now than is the case in Japan.

As always it is harder to get a good read on what is actually going on in China. Lots of older men and women continue to practice this art as it is generally considered a “healthy” pastime for retired individuals. Local governments are pouring money into the preservation of this cultural practice, often with the hope of creating minor tourist attractions. Still, with the rapid modernization of the economy it is not at all clear that this same level of enthusiasm is matched by busy young professionals.

Of course not everything is ideal about the situation in the west. I recently had the chance to attend a large national gathering, and while the quality of the demonstrations was stunning, I noticed that something was missing. There were many fewer women in attendance than an impartial outside observer might expect.

Many of the women who did attend were obviously humoring their obsessive significant others. Very few of the actual artists (maybe 10%-20%) were female. Women were also underrepresented in the most visible and vocal leadership roles (though there are a handful of exceptions to this).

At the time this struck me as rather odd, so after returning home I went on-line to see what sorts of discussions could be found on the role of gender in people’s decision to dedicate themselves to this particular art. What I discovered was not particularly encouraging.

Mostly there were conversations between men about how the practice of “jin” and “shari” was just too “violent” for most women to be comfortable. In their view the art itself was essentially gendered. With a few exceptions, women would not find it interesting, and few would excel at its highest levels. Even more disturbing were a few comments by female authors claiming that they could “jin” with the best of them.  They had managed to work their way up to positions of prominence in their local clubs. As such they didn’t really see any need to do anything more to attract more female participation. Anyone could succeed, if they actually wanted it badly enough…..

Does any of this sound familiar? It probably shouldn’t. The art of which I speak is Bonsai (referred to by the Chinese as Penjing). This specialized branch of gardening concerns itself with the keeping of artistically styled dwarfed potted trees. This sort of activity has a long history in China, but the modern aesthetic rules that define what a proper Bonsai should look like were only laid down at the end of the Ming dynasty, and then rapidly came together during the late 19th and early 20th century. A handful of individuals in the west started to practice Bonsai after 1900, but the art didn’t really become established until the 1950s.

I have had a long standing interest in Bonsai. My involvement with this particular craft predates my interest in hand combat. While a teenager I had a chance to study with (and work for) a gentleman by the name of William Valvanis, who runs a wonderful arboretum in Rochester, NY. If you are ever in the neighborhood you should drop by and check it out (but be sure to call ahead).

As a teenager I never really noticed the lack of female involvement in the art. This was before the age of the internet. And, truth be told, I was a fairly oblivious kid who was too obsessed with trees. Somehow I never even managed to figure out that my teacher was actually very well known in the Bonsai world. Yet with the benefit of a more mature perspective (and the instant communication that the internet affords) I am now able to see that Bonsai is more than just a craft, it is also a social practice.

Such institutions are always defined by and for people. It should then be no surprise that they tend to mimic the values of the individuals that comprise them. If most people believe that gender is an essential and unchanging aspect of someone’s personhood, or that the details of national identity were set down in the deep past and are not open to constant renegotiation, those attitudes will get reproduced without much thought in any sort of practice that they adopt, be it the martial arts or gardening.

There are many fascinating parallels between the importation of Bonsai and the martial arts to the west which I would like to explore at some point. Both practices involve questions of national identity, orientalist longings and complicated networks of trans-pacific exchange (both social and monetary in nature). But today’s discussion is really about gender.

Objectively speaking, does it make sense to say that the keeping of artistically styled dwarf potted trees is an inherently “masculine” pursuit? The terms “jin” and “shari” refer to the creation of driftwood branches or sections of trunk. Does the creation of driftwood accent features really strike at the heart of womanhood? What of the notion that lugging these trees around is just too much hard work for the average woman (another common refrain in the online discussions)? All of the local nurseries in my area are owned by women, none of whom seem to shy away from really hard manual labor.



A juniper Bonsai.  Note the use of both "shari" and "jian."  Source: Wikimedia.
A juniper Bonsai. Note the use of both “shari” and “jian.” Source: Wikimedia.





Undoing Gender in Mixed Sex Martial Arts Training



Rather than being set and immutable, social scientists, psychologists and philosophers have been arguing for some time that “gender” is an essentially performative act. One makes choices (often at a subconscious level) as to how one will project gender to those around them. Likewise social institutions tend to reinforce or to challenge certain widely held values. This is just as true in the world of the martial arts as it is anywhere else. In fact, it is one of the things that make the martial arts interesting to a wide range of academic students.

When one is deeply involved in a given set of activities it is often easy to take the prevailing norms for granted. This can lead to the construct of elaborate justifications when they are questioned rather than really trying to interrogate them. Hopefully my digression on the world of Bonsai will help us to step outside of our normal frame of reference and to see the value of approaching the martial arts from a slightly different perspective.

It should be stated from the outset that the martial arts have not always been open to female participation. The degree to which they are depends quite a bit on the place, year and style under discussion. Despite the frequency with which “sword maidens” appear in Chinese wuxia novels, prior to the 20th century very few females openly participated in any form of hand combat training in China. Strong social norms against the touching of members of the opposite gender made mixed-sex training (to say nothing of sparring) unthinkable in most situations. Even the Jinwu Association, which did more to open the martial arts to women than any other single factor in Chinese history, was not willing to integrate their classes. Instead women had their own sections led by female instructors.

The “traditions” of the various Asian hand combat systems have always been rather selectively conveyed in the west. Given that the martial arts did not become a mass phenomenon until the 1970s, it is understandable that most western students begin with the assumption that these systems are (or should be) open to all genders. The dominant belief today is clearly that the degree of success which a student enjoys should be predicated on the amount of effort that they invest, not their ethnicity, nationality or gender.

Yet when looking around, it is apparent that as a community we do not always do a great job of living up to these ideals. Some schools enjoy greater female participation than others, but in general women are less frequently seen within the martial arts than an outsider might expect. They also appear to be underrepresented as top students, teachers and lineage or style leaders.

There are a number of reasons why this is an important topic to consider. For purely academic students the imbalance of participation in pursuits like Bonsai or the martial arts may reveal something more fundamental about identity and gender relations at this moment of history. Martial arts schools might have more practical concerns. Student retention is always an issue and in my own experience it can be more of a challenge when working with female students. Likewise, female students may be especially interested in learning solid self-defense skills, yet become frustrated when they feel that their mostly male training partners are “holding back” or refusing to seriously engage with them.

What is really necessary is a brief discussion of the various ways in which martial arts classrooms have (often unwittingly) been involved with the construction of certain messages about the nature of gender. Once we better understand how images of female physical and mental inferiority are reinforced it may then be possible to move on to a discussion of the many ways in which mixed-sex martial arts training can function as a surprisingly effective tool for “unlearning” these negative messages and replacing them with a much more equal understanding of the ability of various students.

Luckily for us Alex Channon has written just such a paper (“Towards the “Undoing” of Gender in Mixed-Sex Martial Arts and Combat Sports,” Societies 2014:4 587-605). This paper is remarkable in a number of respects. Obviously it addresses a vital topic to many practicing martial artists. Yet this is also an important subject within the academic literature, and papers like this help to build the argument that Martial Arts Studies can contribute to a wide range of substantive discussions.

As I read through this paper I began to suspect that Channon was not writing exclusively with an academic audience in mind. His literature review properly situated his argument and is helpful. While he notes that his sample of interviews was small, they were very carefully and professionally structured. Yet many of his conclusions focused not so much on theoretical issues, but rather on how martial arts instructors could build on this knowledge to create more effective training spaces for female students.

The concerns of working martial artists and academic students of the practice often diverge rather notably. Many of the sorts of theoretical debates that happen within martial arts studies are not linked very closely to anything in the actual practice of these systems. Yet in some ways gender is different. This is one area where the sorts of academic discussions that are happening today actually do coincide with the concerns of hand combat students and instructors. As such, Channon’s paper serves as an interesting model of what fruitful engagement between these two spheres might look like.

I always encourage my visitors to go and read the papers that I am discussing. This is especially true for the current article. Channon’s paper is very accessible and relatively brief. His introduction opens up a discussion of gender performance which is then followed by extensive quotations from his interviews. These are situated, explored and summarized in a series of brief conclusions regarding the ways in which mixed-sex training can be improved and how this will aid in the “undoing” of gender. If this is a topic of interest, you really owe it to yourself to read the responses of the various women interviewed for this project.




Push hands at a wushu training camp in the Czech Republic.  Photo by Jakub Hlavaty (CC).  Source: Wikimedia.
Push hands at a wushu training camp in the Czech Republic. Photo by Jakub Hlavaty (CC). Source: Wikimedia.





Improving Mixed-Sex Training



Channon’s article is brief enough that I do not want to rehash the entire structure of his argument here. However, he offers some tentative suggestions that I would like to introduce to our discussion. First, instructors interested in changing the way that gender is typically constructed within martial arts schools should “look for ways in which to highlight the abilities of ‘senior’ female practitioners whenever possible, particularly doing so in ways that are visible to younger members of the club” (p. 594) Secondly, they should “encourage integration in training as much as possible, including the more physically intense, partnered activities, such as sparring” (p. 597). Lastly, proceed with caution as circumstances differ. “Instructors and practitioners ought to be careful not to always insist upon integration, just as they do nevertheless encourage such practices among those who are not fundamentally opposed to them” (P. 599). The word “fundamental” is the key concept in this final caution.

While succinct, each of these recommendations requires a little unpacking. In Channon’s findings perhaps the key element in redefining student’s subconscious ideas about what their bodies are capable of is the provision of female role models. These are certainly easier to find in some associations and styles than others. Yet even those systems that seem to emphasize the “feminine” aspects of their art can still face difficulties in this regard.

Consider the case of Wing Chun. Most Chinese martial arts offer students one or more “creation myths.”  The vast majority of these stories focus on male creators who attain martial excellence and then go on to found the social structures that the student is about to join. Given that China has traditionally been a highly patriarchal society, and most Kung Fu schools explicitly organize themselves as artificial kinship groups, the resulting emphasis on exclusively male “ancestors” is not surprising.

The Wing Chun creation myth is fascinating as it resists what was the dominant discourse within martial arts storytelling, and turns instead to a more esoteric set of motifs focusing on female warriors.  Specifically, this system claims to have been created by the Shaolin nun Ng Moy and then taught to her first student Yim Wing Chun, a teenage girl facing the threat of a broken engagement and forced marriage to a local trouble causer. While the lineage myths of most systems are exclusively male, Wing Chun practitioners look back to not one but two female initiatory figures.

Many current female Wing Chun students find a great deal of inspiration in the story of Ng Moy and Yim Wing Chun. So do these characters always function as effective role models? This is a difficult question to answer in universal terms, but I suspect that the answer is probably no. As fictional figures from the geographically and culturally remote land of “Rivers and Lakes,” they are not as immediately accessible to the imaginations of all students as one might like.

The other issue has to do with the way that their story is typically told. Ng Moy is said to have modified the Kung Fu that she learned at the Shaolin Temple to be more evasive and strategic. Rather than relying on brute strength, as the Abbot Jee Shim did, Ng Moy decided to create a combat system that would be effective even when practiced by physically weaker females. Yim Wing Chun, the somewhat hapless teenage girl who becomes synonymous with the art, is adopted as a student precisely because she serves to rhetorically illustrate this point. If someone as young, weak and inexperienced as her could be turned into a deadly warrior, then the fighting system itself must really have a superior conceptual framework.

All of this nicely illustrates some of the core concepts and goals of the Wing Chun system. Yet the not so subtle implication of these stories is that all women must fight this way because they are all physically weak. I am not sure that this is a positive message for my female students to hear.

Nor, truth be told, does the origin of the story really have much to do with actual females at all. All of the early students of Wing Chun who can be historically verified are male. For instance, it does not appear that any of Chan Wah Shun’s 16 students were female. Despite the positive portrayal of female fighters in these legends, the first confirmed female students of the art do not appear until Ip Man starts to teach in Hong Kong in the 1950s.

So where did these stories actually come from, and how were they interpreted by their intended audience? Readers should recall that during the late 19th and early 20th century stories of female warriors became more common within various areas Chinese literature and popular culture. Douglas Wile has argued that this stemmed from the cultural shock that resulted from China’s various failed attempts to stand up to western aggression and imperialism. Given that the nation had now been shown to be militarily weak, it suddenly became critical to argue that some other inherent characteristic of Chinese culture would be sufficient to see it through. The turn to narratives about female warriors who could assure the people victory without relying on material strength was more of a commentary on China’s ongoing identity crisis (and military weakness) during the late Qing and Republic periods than it was an actual discussion of changing gender roles.

More valuable than “mythic types” are flesh and blood role models. Respondents to Channon’s study consistently noted that having highly visible female students or instructors was critical to changing their perceptions of what women in the martial arts were capable of doing. Of course we are now faced with a chicken and egg problem. It is hard to cultivate female leaders within a school if the retention of women is lacking. Nor can one improve retention without visible female role models.

There are a few things that might help to ease this transition. Channon notes that using female students to demonstrate techniques can be highly visually effective, and this is something that can be done at pretty much any level of instruction. I should also point out that it may also be possible to “borrow” good role models. In my area there is a pretty serious amateur kickboxing community with a lot of very talented female fighters on every card. A “class trip” to an event like this not only builds comradery, but it also showcases exactly how strong and skilled female fighters can actually be.

Instructors may also wish to consider what sorts of imagery they display in their schools (if any). Studies have shown that female science students will perform notably better if their high school textbooks and labs display pictures of women (rather than just men) working in related professional fields.  I have no comparable empirical research to back this up, but I suspect that the same thing might hold true for martial arts training hall. Every type of student gains confidence when they see representations of people like themselves succeeding.

Channon’s second point has to do with the integration of all students into the classroom’s learning structure. Actual integration within mixed-sex environments might fail in a number of different ways. If every time students pair up for partner activities the female students are left to work by themselves in one corner of the room we have a fairly obvious problem.

Other times Channon’s interview subjects reported that the failures of integration were more subtle or rhetorical in nature. A number of women objected to being told “girl’s push-ups” when they were capable of doing plain push-ups during physical training sessions. In a martial arts class age, strength and physical ability are likely to vary tremendously. Being able to tell someone to do push-ups from their knees is probably quite useful. Verbally associating that variant of the exercise with the universal physical inferiority of women is not.

More troublesome is the issue of physical contact in sparring, rolling or the various sensitivity drills (push hands, chi sao…) that are used as critical training tools in a number of arts. A certain amount of restraint has to be shown whenever these exercises are used. Still, one of the most common complaints in Channon’s study (and my own experience fully supports this) is female students noting that their male classmates refuse to hit or seriously engage with them for “fear of causing injury.” Again, injuring your training partner is never the goal of such exercises, but such caution can be taken to ridiculous lengths. Occasionally male students will flat out refuse to spar with women as it violates their internal sense of “chivalry.”

Such attitudes are very destructive within a training environment. By refusing to use appropriate force female students are deprived of the opportunity to ever become competent fighters. When a school’s main goal is self-defense instruction there is the added danger of building a false sense of security which borders on negligence.

As I was reading the various interview reports in Channon’s paper it occurred to me that there may be an even more fundamental problem being brought to light here that in some ways transcends the topic at hand. One of the central goals of almost any martial art is to restructure how students approach the question of violence. Rather than responding to the threat of violence in the typical ways favored by cultural indoctrination, we wish to give our students both enhanced physical abilities as well as new options for thinking about the meaning and use of force. This is one of the many types of empowerment that can come out of martial arts training.

When male students refuse to engage with females because they are uncomfortable with the idea of “hitting a girl,” or their sense of chivalry is somehow violated by training with a woman, it is a pretty clear indication that they are not responding to their system’s ideas about the proper uses of force. Instead they are still subject to the dominant cultural discourse on violence. Thus it may be that a failure on the gender integration front points to other equally fundamental issues that need to be addressed.

Channon’s third point is to go slow. While it may seem uncontroversial to instructors within a style that there is no reason why men and women should not chi sao, spar or roll together, it may be much less obvious to a new student showing up at the school for the first time. Certain female students are hesitant to engage in mixed sex training.

Channon reviews two specific cases that instructors are likely to encounter. The first of these has to do with strongly held religious objections to the mixing of the sexes. Respondents to his survey reported that in some instances Muslim men refused to work with, or even acknowledge, female students in classes. Of course this issue is not totally unique to Muslims. As I pointed out at the start of this essay, our ideas about mixed sex training environments today are much different than what was acceptable in China a hundred years ago. If an individual takes a strongly principled view that mixed sex training is undesirable there is not much to do about it in purely practical terms.

Sexual abuse survivors were another category of students who (understandably) tended to be wary of mixed-sex touch. In this case the consensus view seems to have been to go slowly, but to eventually try to move the student to more robust forms of mixed-sex training. Again this was seen as especially important when a student’s goals included the building of real-world self-defense skills rather than just fitness or recreation.



Female high school students in a Jingwu class of the sort organized by Chen Shichao.  Source: Kennedy and Guo.
Female high school students in a Jingwu class of the sort organized by Chen Shichao. Source: Kennedy and Guo.







This then brings us to Channon’s concluding point. Who has the most to gain from the creation of better mixed-sex training environments? Female martial artists who want to build better self-defense skills and committed athletes looking to train more effectively for competition in the ring  have the most to gain. Their chances of success will be substantially dampened by being denied these training opportunities.

Yet I suspect that the vast majority of martial artists do not fall into either of these categories. For most individuals hand combat is a hobby, a fitness exercise and a cultural experience. Among more casual martial artists from a wide variety of styles Channon found that participation in mixed sex training could still have a positive effect on how they perceived gender and reacted to other members of their community.

On a final note the historian in me cannot help but note that, while all stated in very utilitarian terms, the basic theoretical points that underlay Channon’s conclusions should also be part of how we think about the evolution of these systems in the 19th and 20th centuries. Of course the parameters of the discussion that happened then are not exactly the same as the ones that are going on today.

While Channon is interested in a more radical “undoing” of gender, one suspects that the various martial arts reformers of the Jingwu and later Guoshu movements had something more measured in mind when they created structures to promote female participation in the martial arts. Rather than erasing the barrier between the genders they sought to selectively redefine what being “feminine” meant in an effort to strengthen both the physical capabilities of nation and the state.

This is not the place to delve into a detailed study of the various efforts to address gender questions within the martial arts reform movements. In point of fact the various reformers differed among themselves as to what sorts of changes were necessary and desirable. Yet a surprisingly wide range of individuals saw the integration of women into some aspects of martial arts training as the key to reforming how the nation thought about the physical abilities of women and the role that they should play in taking China into the modern age.

The “doing” and “undoing” of gender through martial arts practice is not as new or postmodernist a topic as it might at first sound. This project is nearly as old as the arts that most of us actually practice. The sorts of physical culture conveyed by the martial arts have a remarkable (if not unlimited) ability to reshape how individuals understand themselves and think about identity. This is just as true for ethnicity and nationalism as it for gender. Nor is any of this really a recent discovery. These are precisely the aspects of the martial arts that make them so useful to students of history, the social sciences and cultural studies.

It is also what gives Channon’s paper its great versatility. This article could fit nicely in a wide variety of undergraduate reading lists. Due to its length and clarity it might even be a nice way to introduce a unit on gender within a martial arts studies syllabus. Students will find the format of paper engaging and the various quotes taken from the survey respondents might prove be a good jumping off point for class discussions. Taken together Channon makes a strong argument that martial arts studies has something to contribute to both the classroom and the training hall.






If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Yim Wing Chun and Gender: the Stories of Ip Man and Yuen Woo Ping in a Comparative Perspective.