A still from "Cartoon Kit" (1962).
A still from “Cartoon Kit” (1962).

The Mouse Always Wins

In 1962 American theater audiences were treated to the sight of a mouse named “Jerry” repeatedly besting a cat named “Tom” through his mastery of Japanese Judo. Tom is more of a force of nature than a mere cat. He seems to embody a certain stubborn, irrational, aggression that is deeply embedded in the human soul. As such he is simply incapable of admitting that he has been defeated.

In “The Cartoon Kit” Tom refuses to take his opening defeats lying down. He plots his revenge first by training in a boxing gym, but quickly finds that western pugilism is no match for the secret arts of the Japan. Unwilling to concede Tom then turns to Judo, attempting to appropriate the combat superiority of the East for himself. Yet Jerry’s inevitable victory only reinforces what every child in America already knows. The Asian martial arts are the means par excellence by which small (and somewhat cagey) individuals overcome brute strength and mean spirited stupidity. Tom never had a chance.

While a minor footnote in the history of the evolving public perception of the martial arts in the West, this cartoon raises puzzles that are worth considering. To begin with, it demonstrates that already in the early 1960’s the Asian fighting systems had achieved a surprising degree of public recognition.

Humor works only when it is effortless. The animators behind this story felt no need to explain what Judo was, what its uniforms looked like, and how it enabled the small and skilled to overcome the large and stupid. This was already common knowledge among children everywhere. But how?

The very first issue of Black Belt magazine had only been published in the spring of 1961, and Bruce Lee not would appear as Kato on the small screen until 1967. What we think of as the “Kung Fu Craze” of the 1970s, when the martial arts seemed to explode into the public consciousness, was still more than a decade off. Yet even at this early point the image of the Asian martial arts had been so successfully appropriated within Western popular culture that they could be used to beat a cartoon cat just as easily as the hammers, knives and explosives that made up the rest of Jerry’s ersatz arsenal.

Less than two decades previously the US had been at war with Japan and arts like Judo had been perceived in a less positive light. How was it that in the space of only a few decades these fighting systems went from being symbolic representations of (often problematic) aspects of “Asian” identity to enjoying widespread acceptance as a relatively harmless product within western consumer culture?

Notice for instance that in “Cartoon Kit” Jerry learns his art from a handbook titled “Judo for Mice” while Tom purchases a degree from a neighborhood school. What does this indicate about the West’s changing engagement with the many distinct cultures of Asia, or the process of cultural borrowing, cross-fertilization and appropriation more generally?

Gary J. Krug, in an article titled “At the Feet of the Master: Three Stages in the Appropriation of Okinawan Karate Into Anglo-American Culture,” (Cultural Studies <-> Critical Methodologies 1:4, 2001, 396-410) was one of the first scholars to try and advance a single theoretical framework that could accommodate both the growth of the martial arts as an embodied practice, and their parallel evolution as a media discourse. Subsequent authors including Farrer and Whalen-Bridge, Adam Frank and Paul Bowman have made their own contributions to our understanding of this process. Yet Krug occupies a central place in the literature for his early attempts to deal with these aspects of the western growth of the martial arts.

While reviewing the literature I recently had the chance to reread and consider certain aspects of Krug’s argument. His contributions are important and warrant discussion here at Kung Fu Tea. I also suspect that quite a few readers who are unfamiliar with his work might enjoy it. At the same time Krug’s article tosses out a number of secondary observations and possibilities that, while not central to his immediate project, might nevertheless inspire fruitful discussions.

Over the next couple of weeks I hope to write a two or three posts inspired by Krug. The first (which readers can find below) will be a relatively brief review and discussion of his original paper. After considering his basic argument I will offer a few critiques of my own which become apparent as we attempt to expand his framework (originally formulated to discuss Karate) out to cover other aspects of Chinese martial culture. Following this more basic review I hope to engage some of his other insights about the role of secrecy and cultural appropriation in the martial arts in the following weeks.

Kanchu Kanazawa with students in Portugal.  Photo by J P Casainho.  Source: Wikimedia.
Kanchu Kanazawa with students in Portugal. Photo by J P Casainho. Source: Wikimedia.

At the Feet of the Masters: Krug on the Western Appropriation of Okinawan Karate

How did Karate which was once a signifier of threatening cultural difference, come to be accepted as a normal part of the western commercial landscape? To understand this process Krug says we must look at the progressive “appropriation” of a superstructure of other ideas and concepts that have supported the spread of Karate. Specifically, Krug identifies three stages by which this project has advanced in the West. In each of these periods additional ideas and concepts were appropriated by the Anglo-American culture (referred to by the author as part of a “texture of knowledge”) which provided additional meaning and support for the martial arts. These facilitated the eventual acceptance of Karate as a fully “westernized” pursuit.

Krug’s paper takes Karate as its major case study. His years of experience within this community were essential to shaping his central thesis. Yet it seems likely that he also intends for this framework to be applied to the Asian martial arts (including those of China, Korea and South East Asia) more generally. In fact, one can extrapolate a more general theory of the appropriation of complex “objects of knowledge” (meaning constantly unfolding sets of interconnected knowledge and ideas) from his argument.

Krug identifies the first progressive stage in the appropriation of Karate as having lasted from roughly the 1920s until the 1970s. Much of his discussion here focuses on the discovery of the martial arts by the western entertainment industry and its subsequent deployment as a signifier of a generic “Asian” identity and a marker of (sometimes threatening) difference. Given that few Americans had direct experience with the martial arts prior to the 1960s and 1970s, media representations were the main means by which these activities were interpreted and understood.

Krug notes that it was common for film or television programs to portray the practice of the martial arts as being synonymous with the enacting of all sorts of vaguely “Asian” values. Note for instance the exaggerated bows, always accompanied by the hollow ring of a gong, in the previously mentioned cartoon.

In fact, the martial arts became fixed signifiers of western beliefs about its own identity and subsequent relationship with states like China and Japan. While Asia was seen as providing the moral and historical underpinnings of these arts, many of the scripts that evolved in this period focused on Western students who were somehow lucky enough to inherit these systems and their mysterious combat prowess. While they may have owed some measure of their success to their Asian teachers, it was ultimately they (the western hero) who went on to fight and win the battles. With the exception of Bruce Lee, Krug finds that movies and television programs produced through the 1970s tended to reinforce the “physical, social, and moral superiority of Westerners over Asians.”

During the 1950s-1960s knowledge of the martial arts spread rapidly throughout western society. Yet lacking any firsthand experience, or a deep reservoir of cultural knowledge to evaluate its claims, in the minds of most people they remained a shallow signifier of “Asian” identity.

Krug’s second stage of appropriation (1946-1980) substantially overlaps his first. In fact, he continues to draw on many of the same individuals and cultural events when discussing this next phase in the “westernization” of Karate. Krug notes that large numbers of servicemen were introduced to the Japanese martial arts as a result of WWII and some even had a chance to study Karate and Judo during the post-war occupation. As these individuals returned after 1946 they began to open schools, rapidly expanding the numbers of Westerners who had actual practical experience in these systems.

Krug goes to some lengths to point out that the technical practice of the martial arts is insufficient to actually gasp their essential nature or to appreciate them as constantly unfolding conversations of cultural significance. When Karate first emerged in Okinawa it was supported by various other sorts of cultural knowledge including an appreciation for certain philosophical, esoteric and medical ideas. Traditional Chinese medicine, noted as a marker of authenticity and holistic understanding within the martial arts, plays a central role in Krug’s argument.

While Japanese culture was similar enough to Okinawa to allow for the easy adoption and cross-fertilization of Karate in the late 1920s and 1930s (meaning that it shared many of these same basic cultural ideas), the same could not be said of America. Lacking a reservoir of “deep knowledge” Krug notes that American instructors typically turned to western boxing and military culture to provide the necessary “texture of knowledge” to make sense of Karate and explain it to their students. As a result, in the West Karate was largely reimagined as an aspect of competitive sports and athletics. Krug notes that this vision of “sport karate” was fundamentally disconnected from more traditional views on the practice in Okinawa.

Krug also notes the growth of a more serious publishing effort to support the martial arts during this period. This includes the creation of numerous trade magazines which tended to conflate the development of “sports karate” with preexisting media driven discourses about the nature of the martial arts. He also notes the early efforts to establish a body of more serious scholarship surrounding the martial arts led by individuals like Harrison, Draeger and Smith. Still, he notes that these efforts were fragmentary and there was little engagement with texts on the history or practice of these arts being produced in Japan (and presumably other places in Asia) during the 1960s and 1970s.

Krug claims that the third phase, lasting from roughly 1980 to the present, has been a period of de-mythologizing of the martial arts and movement towards their complete cultural appropriation in the West. The deaths of the various systems founders, as well as the creation of new commercial and corporate forms for the dissemination of Karate, has led to a profound change in the way that second or third generation instructors approach their art.

On the one hand, Krug is disturbed by the degree to which the traditional lineage has been supplanted by other forms of social organization and economic success has been accepted as a sign of credibility. At the same time there has been a notable increase in the sophistication of the practice of western students. Increasingly they have attempted to re-insert what was once an esoteric understanding about the role of traditional Chinese medicine, grappling and even qi meridians back into their Karate. These efforts would not have even been possible without the unprecedented success that traditional Chinese medicine has had in the west. As support for practices like acupuncture has grown in the West, related aspects of karate have been able to flourish.

Yet in most cases this process has been different from the simple “restoration of tradition” that is often discussed. Krug finds that much of this knowledge was gleaned independently from Chinese, rather than Japanese and Okinawan, sources. Nor has the publishing of the Bubishi, a southern Chinese hand combat manuscript tradition that took root in Okinawa and is sometimes referred to as the “Bible of Karate,” fundamentally changed this. Given the vast cultural differences between modern western and 19th century Okinawan readers, Krug find it hard to speculate on what different students have actually gotten from this text.

Finally, with the advent of a generation of technically proficient, locally trained instructors, as well as the rediscovery of TCM, there has been something of a psychological separation from the “homeland” within the western Karate community. These factors, bolstered by the development of independent martial arts institutions, has allowed students from a wide range of arts and lineages to claim that the torch of authenticity has now been passed:

“Similarly, a senior dan grade in another style once told me in great seriousness that “in a few years the Okinawans will be coming here (Australia) to learn from us.” The implication is that Australia now has the genuine practice of Karate, whereas what exists on the island of Okinawa is somehow second rate or degenerate. This tendency to legitimate national styles of Karate by claiming “authenticity” while denigrating current “foreign” practices is not unique to Okinawan karate but appears in other martial arts in relation to other countries as well.” (p. 404)

It is not necessary to multiply examples, but I am sure that readers will be familiar with similar statements being made by western martial artists involved in a number of styles. In point of fact it is not unknown in the current era for a few Asian students to leave their home country to study with a teacher abroad, or for western instructors to take teaching jobs in Asia.

If the martial arts were to be understood as a purely technical exercise, then such examples might seem to justify these statements. But for Krug the traditional fighting arts are never ultimately “technical” in nature. As “objects of knowledge” he believes them to be sets of beliefs and practices that have no single interpretation but instead are in a constant process of unfolding and evolution, inspiring new understandings of identity and culture. In his view the martial arts can never exist independent from their “cultural supports.”

How was it that Karate, once a signifier of “Asia” and “otherness,” has come to be normalized and accepted in the west?

“The introduction and acceptance of karate in the West could only take place after the beliefs that underpin and support traditional karate had come into prominence and common acquaintance…The case at hand shows how a texture of Asian-Pacific cultures was transmitted bit by bit until a sufficient depth of texture was created to allow for karate to become an object of knowledge within Western countries…objects of knowledge can only exist while there are supporting knowledge and discourses into which thought can extend.”(pp. 407-408)

"Karate training at Shuri Castle." from  "空手道大観" (A Broad View of Karatedo), 1938.  Source: Wikimedia.
“Karate Training at Shuri Castle.” from “空手道大観” (A Broad View of Karatedo), 1938. Source: Wikimedia.

Critiquing the Master

Students of Martial Arts Studies will be aware that Krug’s article is widely cited in the existing literature. He was one of the first individuals to seriously investigate the spread of the martial arts from a cultural studies perspective. Perhaps his most important contribution was to call for a much more nuanced investigation of the internal dialogue within martial arts practitioners to understand exactly why they adopted these practices, and how their understanding of them was conditioned by a number of more basic social scripts. It is little wonder then that a number of important authors have cited and continued to build on his work. Krug’s article must be considered mandatory reading in any seminar on Martial Arts Studies.

Still, as the literature has progressed it has become evident that there are certain issues in this paper that require additional thought. Since Krug first published this paper there have been a number of book length studies on the social history and cultural development of traditional Chinese medicine and Qigong published by anthropologists, sociologists and historians. Not only has traditional medicine come to be accepted by many western patients, but increasingly it is an important field of academic inquiry.

Within this framework it is clear that Krug’s treatment of TCM (a subject that is central to his understanding of the process of appropriation in the West) is somewhat reductive. He accepts a fairly simple and uniform view of what these practices are, and then reports that they (and Chan Buddhist practice!) have always been central to the Asian martial arts and Karate. Thus the failure to fully adopt these more esoteric branches of knowledge during the first and second stages of Karate’s practice in the West reveals something critical about its students and the limits of their culturally determined understanding.

Yet a deeper reading shows that TCM has always been contested terrain. The Bubishi has a section that covers a variety of medical practices, but by the early twentieth century a number of reformers within the Japanese and Chinese martial arts communities were actively looking to western models of medicine, anatomy and public hygiene in an effort to modernize their arts and strip them of their “feudalism” and “superstition.” This modernization of the martial arts was an essential aspect of making them part of the nation-state project.

As Palmer and Chen have both pointed out, there are really serious questions about how “traditional” the practice of TCM (as it is currently constituted today) actually is. Ideas about Qi meridians are very old, but many of the practices that Krug seems to be most interested in had actually fallen out of favor during his period of study (1920-1980) as Western medicine became more commonly available. The sudden resurgence of interest in TCM in China after 1990 has more to do with the privatization of the western medical system and rising costs of insurance premiums than it does any sort of cultural continuity. While this may not be a serious issue when looking at a certain strain of traditional Okinawan karate, it does pose a problem for those seeking to expand this theory to make judgments about the appropriation of wide variety of other arts.

The years 1920-1980 were also a critical time in the development of the modern martial arts in both China and Japan. If there is one thing that the growth of Martial Arts Studies has made clear it is that the idea of “tradition” functions as more of an aspiration than an embodied reality in most of these fighting systems. The martial culture that surrounds these arts in Japan, China or Okinawa today may claim strict continuity with the past (and certain elements have remained the same), yet much has also changed.

Change is a critical element to consider in Krug’s paper. He basically attempts to provide us with a theory about how certain types of cultural change happen. Krug wants to explain how complex systems of behavior and belief make the jump from one culture to another. He does this by looking at the evolution of larger “textures of knowledge.” Yet at the end of the day we are left with no explanation for why these cultural superstructures evolved in exactly the way that they did.

Yes, the adoption of a belief in the basic efficacy of TCM in some western circles opened the door for a new type of Karate to be practiced. Yet that is not really an explanation that will be of much use to most theorists as it simply moves the puzzle one level back. So why did acupuncture and qi meridians suddenly become accessible? Why did New Age book stores stop selling volumes on the Rosicrucian mysteries or Tarot cards and start stocking volumes on Zen Buddhism and Yoga?

Krug points to these larger shifts as being critical, yet they remain exogenous variables. His theory does not attempt to predict or explain them. They are taken as given.  Thus the most important factors in the West’s changing perception of Karate are simply assumed rather than clarified.

Another issue that some readers might raise with this paper is the odd way in which his various “stages” of appropriation unfold. On some level Krug appears to be telling a very linear story. Every new idea imported into western culture makes the one that came before it appear to be more plausible. Thus the westernization of Karate proceeds in a stepwise fashion.

Yet in reality each of the “periods” of appropriation that Krug outlines overlaps everything else that is going on in his paper. Part of this has to do with the problem of establishing priority within the historical record. Establishing the “first” instances of anything can be a tricky business.

While the first western karate school may have been opened in 1946, a variety of other Japanese arts (including Kendo, Judo and Jujitsu) had been taught more or less openly since the turn of the century. Even if they never achieved a huge degree of popularity prior to the 1970s, they were written about in newspapers and magazines. As a result many Americans were familiar with the basic idea of the martial arts well before the outbreak of the Kung Fu Craze. Ergo Tom and Jerry’s onscreen Judo joust at the start of this essay.

It is particularly interesting to consider what all of this means in terms of the superstructure of ideas and norms which Krug (quite correctly) points to as supporting the appropriation of the martial arts. Much of my own research has focused on the fighting systems of Southern China, and in a recent paper I tackled the origin and textual history of the phrase “Kung Fu” in English language discussions. In current popular culture these words have become synonymous with the Chinese martial arts. Many students of the Chinese martial arts (though by no means all) also maintain an interest in TCM. So do we see the process that Krug outlined for Karate working here as well?

In this case the waters are muddier. The availability of knowledge about Chinese medicine seems to have predated the start of any type of commercial teaching of these hand combat systems by decades.

The very first book on “Kung Fu” published in the English language was actually an 1895 treatise on Daoist medicinal exercises, translated and published by the Physician John Dudgeon who (along with a small community of like-minded medical practitioners) believed that Chinese physical culture practices might help to fight the onset of lifestyle diseases (weight gain, diabetes, gout…) that were then starting to afflict Western nations as their economies industrialized.  Pioneering Chinese martial artists in America, such as Zheng Manqing and Ark Yuey Wong, operated sophisticated medical practices and were just as likely to be seen handing out herbal prescriptions as medical knowledge. Whereas the popular acceptance of TCM may have been critical to the appropriation of certain approaches to Karate, it is not clear to me that its early appearance in America did much to hasten the popularization of the Chinese martial arts.

One of the things that is missing from Krug’s discussion is any treatment of the martial arts as a transnational community. Ideas simply migrate in his article, but it is not clear what sorts of agents actually promote and transport them. Frank, in his work on Taijiquan and identity, has instead emphasized the important, and often quite complex, relationships that exist between martial arts teachers and communities in China, and their counterparts in Japan and the west. He has argued that “identity moves,” but often in ways that respond to both the very specific normative understandings and strategic calculations of these individuals.

This brings us back to the good Dr. Dudgeon. His book does not seem to have ultimately done much to promote the spread of Chinese physical culture as it never achieved a great deal of fame. He did not build up the same sort of circle of supporters that later individuals like R. W. Smith or Donn Draeger did six decades later. Yet he exhibited a very advanced understanding of certain aspects of Asian culture (mostly medical), as did Smith and Draeger in their own time.

Rather than thinking of the process of Westernization as rolling forward through progressive waves of the inevitable (and somewhat disembodied) adoption of ideas, we would be better served by taking a much closer look at the individuals and communities that conveyed these concepts. Imagine for instance concentric circles of understanding surrounding each of the early pioneers and touching the individuals who fell within their sphere of influence.

It is not impossible to find people like Smith or Draeger, who really could appreciate the “texture of knowledge” that surrounded some of the Asian martial arts, from about 1900 onwards. Granted, their numbers were small.  Yet such individuals did exist in a number of areas.

Their ability to convey what they knew was often hampered by preconceived notions of Asian and western identity, exactly as Kruger argues. What then happens is that we see these individuals engaging in a process of research, writing and debate as they attempt to expand the sphere of understanding around them.

It is not the case that the martial arts, Asian philosophy and TCM (as well as countless other practices from Bonsai to Mahjong) entered the West in an independent and haphazard way. Very often we find that the individuals who were responsible for introducing one set of ideas would often be promoting and discussing other aspects of Asian culture that bolstered their particular practice. Bonsai artists in the 1960s told their students to read books on Chinese painting and the Dao De Jing, traditional medical doctors prescribed breathing exercises and Taijiquan, and even Bruce Lee (the consummate example of a Chinese martial artist for western consumers) tried hard to introduce his audience to various schools of Asian philosophy. Schools of thought, it should be pointed out, that he first studied and came to appreciate while sitting in American college classrooms.

Unfortunately these efforts failed more often than they succeeded. Yet each effort acted as rock tossed into a still pond, emanating out ripples which sought to counteract the inertia of entrenched identities and hierarchies of racial and social superiority. Krug is correct to assert that these efforts were cumulative over time. There was something very different about the 1960s compared to the 1940s, and then in early 1970s everything just exploded. Yet rather than envisioning this process as progressive waves of disconnected and decontextualized ideas making their way across the Pacific, it might instead be more useful to envision one community after another, each trying to affect a degree of cultural change for their own strategic reasons.

If properly constructed such an approach might be able to address the critical issue with Krug’s argument. He relies on the prior adoption of certain ideas (such as TCM) that are critical for the westernization of the martial arts. Yet he never explains this larger process.

An emphasis on strategic communities not only provides the discussion with observable historical micro-foundations, but it also reveals that many of the individuals wanting to experience TCM were also interested in the martial arts. Or that many individuals who had experienced some degree of Chinese or Japanese culture through the embodied practice of the martial arts actively sought out other interests (such as the exploration of Daoist philosophy, or the practice of Japanese Bonsai) in an attempt to enrich their own “textures of knowledge.”

Rather than the martial arts movement being the passive recipient of an unexpected cultural shift, it appears to have been very much part of the trend that was actually driving the process forward. Not only would this address the exogenous independent variable in Krug’s model, it would also constitute a powerful argument for the value of martial arts studies as an independent research area.

Still, one wonders whether some of the later theories and authors which I have employed in my critique of Krug would have been as insightful without the benefit of his prior argument?  I suspect not. Krug played a critical role in the development of the literature, and his article continues to be a rich source of insight.

I am actually a bit surprised that the literature has not more forcefully addressed some of the questions surrounding cultural appropriation within the Western practice of the martial arts which he lays out in this paper. Likewise his insights on the role of secrecy in the cross-cultural transmission and evolution of the martial arts are quite interesting. If you haven’t read Krug you owe it yourself to get your hands on a copy of this article. I hope to engage with some other aspects of his thinking over the next few weeks.


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read:  Forgetting about the Gun: Firearms and the Development of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.