We are very happy that Dr. Daniel M. Amos has been able to take the time to visit Kung Fu Tea. In the following interview he discusses his research and shares some of his many insights on the modern development of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts. In 1983 Amos completed a doctoral dissertation in Anthropology at UCLA titled “Marginality and the hero’s art: Martial artists in Hong Kong and Guangzhou.” This unique work provides an invaluable window onto a critical period in the development of Kung Fu in both Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Elements of this dissertation have subsequently been published as articles, but the original study is well worth reading. Few individuals within the academic community have been watching the Chinese martial arts for as long as Dr. Amos, or are as well positioned to address the fundamental shifts in the social underpinnings of these practices that have occurred in the last few decades. Enjoy!
1. Kung Fu Tea (KFT): Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Daniel M. Amos: Officially an elder, having turned 65 a few months ago, I am a native of southern California and of European-American heritage. My mother was an oil painter, a potter, and high school art teacher. My father, a combat veteran of WW II, was a track star, and a builder of homes and apartments. My spouse, a scholar who focuses on critical race theory, is a college professor. My elder daughter is a third year student in economics and politics at Penn, and my younger daughter is a lively fourth grader.
I played on school basketball teams, and was an intercollegiate golfer at Cal State Fullerton. My MA and PhD degrees are from the University of Chicago and UCLA. For eight years, over a span of three decades, I have been a visiting faculty member or scholar in the social sciences at five Chinese universities, including the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Zhongshan University, Beijing Normal University, Northeast Normal University and Wuhan University. In the United States, I have been a faculty member and/or administrator at Pacific University, Clark Atlanta University, the University of Washington, Washington State University, and the Oregon University System.
In addition to studies of Chinese martial artists, I have done ethnographic studies of alcoholism and the cultural uses of alcohol in China. In the U.S., I have studied substance abuse treatment and prevention outcomes, undergraduate engineering education, systems of care for the elderly and social services for people with disabilities, especially developmental disabilities.
Currently, a researcher of Washington State government-funded health and social programs, I have a unique role in the sense that I primarily use qualitative methods, while practically all of my colleagues are quantitative researchers and rely upon surveys and administrative databases. For the Washington State Department of Health I study the approaches of state agencies, local health jurisdictions, and non-governmental organizations to chronic disease management, education, prevention, and treatment.
2. KFT: How did you first encounter the martial arts, and what attracted you to them as a subject for academic study?
Amos: In July 1976, I arrived in then the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong to begin a U.S. State Department Teaching Fellowship and serve as a visiting half-time anthropology instructor in the Department of Sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). Shortly after I arrived in Hong Kong the Great Tangshan Earthquake struck northern China. Many Chinese in Hong Kong and elsewhere interpreted this terrible natural disaster, which killed upwards of 650,000 people, as a sign of impending dynastic change. During the preceding 18 months leading Chinese political figures such as Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) in the Republic of China, and Kang Sheng, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De in the People’s Republic of China had passed away. Mao Zedong died on September 9, 1976. The Chinese political world was shaking, and residents of Hong Kong were anxious and excited about impending changes on the mainland.
In early autumn 1976, I began studying a form of Southern Style Praying Mantis martial arts from a master who lived in the same small market town that I lived in the New Territories, which was then a more agrarian region of Hong Kong. My motives for beginning Chinese martial arts were not academic; I simply liked sports and physical activity, basketball and swimming, hiking and weight training.
After practicing martial arts in Hong Kong for several months, I mentioned to one of my doctoral committee members at UCLA that I was thinking of studying Chinese martial artists. He responded that I was “following my nose,” and asserted that dissertation research should from the beginning be based on testing a social theory, rather being constructed from the ground up by following around an interesting group of people. I didn’t agree, and wanted to imitate Howard S. Becker, a sociologist who has always followed his nose to wonderful effect, letting the people he is working with take him along for the ride, instead of trying to hijack the car and steer it. So many fascinating things were going on at my master’s martial house such as Chinese religion, kinship, medicine, gender and ethnic identity development, play, performance, competition, combat, caste and class. I only began to use social theory in my research when I began to understand what I was dealing with.
3. KFT: Do you have a favorite style?
Amos: I love the southern Praying Mantis style that I have practiced now for nearly forty years. For someone who is fairly tall like I am, the combination of low, but not high kicks, defensive moves, grappling, and punching techniques seem to fit my body and personality. It’s fun to do the high kicks of Taekwondo, which I am not expert at, and practiced for just a year in Beijing. Aikido masters are wonderful to watch, and all styles of martial arts seem to be effective when performed by competent practitioners.
As far as the rule-bound sports that have martial components, I closely follow boxing. Sumo is breathtaking for the manner in which it integrates power and balance, and I enjoy watching Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. Mixed Martial Artists are superb athletes, but their sport has not won my heart, perhaps because it’s new and I’m old.
4. KFT: What was it like to study Chinese martial arts and martial artists in late colonial Hong Kong and post-Cultural Revolution Guangzhou?
Amos: In Hong Kong the “brothers” and “sisters” in my master’s martial house were from the lowest social classes, marginalized by society at many levels. Although I come from an ordinary U.S. family, with both my parents having working class roots, in Hong Kong I benefited from the privileged position I found myself in. Hong Kong had been run by the British for a century and a half, and like the rulers of the place I was white and a native speaker of English. Further, I worked at a university. At the time there were only two baccalaureate granting universities, Hong Kong University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, with undergraduate admission limited to several hundred places per year for a society of five million people. Although I frequently explained to my martial arts brothers and sisters that I was only a half-time, visiting instructor, they introduced me to strangers by the prestigious term “Professor” (教授).
Barbara Ward, a senior visiting scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong from Cambridge University, became my mentor and provided me with ideas and moral support. Friends, lower ranking Chinese colleagues at the university, graduate students, and undergraduates introduced me to a variety of martial artists, including martial arts movie stars, former “brothers” of Bruce Lee, and disciples of Yip Man. In short, I had a marvelous time studying martial arts and martial artists in Hong Kong, and retained my visiting faculty position at CUHK from 1976 to 1980. Decades later, during a visiting martial arts practice session at the martial house, my master would remark that my sparring technique was fairly good, but my form would be a lot better if I had studied Kung Fu harder while living in Hong Kong.
While residing in Hong Kong I twice traveled to Guangzhou in 1978. During these early visits I met a “Public Park Style” martial arts master of Hong Quan (洪拳), and corresponded with him. In the late 1970s UCLA and Zhongshan University (中山大學) began to set up an academic exchange program, and in June 1980 I went directly from Hong Kong to Guangzhou for a fourteen month stay as a Zhongshan University – UCLA Doctoral Fellow. The Guangzhou public park master that I had been corresponding with for a couple of years accepted me as one of his followers, and later informed me that his unit leader had approved contact between us.
Compared to Hong Kong, studying martial arts and martial artists in Guangzhou during the post-Mao, post-Cultural Revolution period was more difficult. Few foreigners lived in the city, and citizens of the United States were distrusted and often assumed to be spies.
Four months after arriving in Guangzhou, my situation became more difficult. The change in my conditions coincided with an international incident provoked by a Stanford anthropology graduate student. During this student’s stay in China he met several women who had been forced to undergo involuntary abortions. He wrote an article about them for a Taiwanese news magazine and published their photographs. Having their faces published in a Taiwanese journal hostile to the mainland Chinese government put these women at great risk. The student was expelled from China, and eventually was dismissed from Stanford’s anthropology program for unprofessional conduct. The subsequent treatment of the women who were endangered by this person’s actions is something that I would like to know, but never learned.
Soon after this incident, the reasonable official at the university foreign affairs office that I dealt with on a daily basis was replaced with someone less reasonable. During our first meeting this new official let me know that her condition for cooperating with my research project was that I would need travel to Hong Kong and buy her twelve air conditioners. Having little capital and no inclination to perform this task, I was unable to comply with her demand.
A few months later, while I was on a brief visit to Hong Kong, this same official found an opportunity to gain revenge for my failure to provide her with the gift she had asked for. During a game of basketball at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I severely sprained my ankle. I could move by hopping on my good foot, but was unable to travel. Recovering at my Hong Kong master’s martial house, where he used Chinese medicine to treat my injury, in a few days my ankle had healed to the point to where I was able to travel. My re-entry permit to China had just expired, but I still had a valid visa. Hoping that it was a mere formality, I phoned the Zhongshan University foreign affairs office to get approval for another re-entry permit. The difficult official in question spoke to me directly and told me that she would not approve another re-entry permit for me. I would have to return to the United States. I phoned the program contact person at UCLA, but she was unable to help.
Not easily dissuaded, I decided to talk my way back into China. Taking the train to the border, I approached two Chinese armed guards at the border crossing, explained to them in Cantonese that I had injured my ankle during a game of basketball, and my re-entry permit expired when I couldn’t travel. Then I showed them my valid visa, and said, “I am Deng Xiaoping’s nephew. There will be big trouble for you unless you let me in!” They laughed and laughed; asked me to repeat what I had just said to their superior, everyone laughed some more, and then they waved me on in.
The official in question from the university foreign affairs was shocked to see me back on campus. She continued to give me trouble for the next few months, but then a well-known UCLA professor in East Asian studies intervened. He had dealt with the same official, knew that those doing research through her office were having a difficult time, and demanded cooperation. As a consequence, things improved.
During my stay in Guangzhou, ordinary Chinese people (老百姓) were generous towards me. My martial arts master in Guangzhou was extremely kind; I frequently took meals with him and stayed overnight at his home. My martial brothers and sisters in Guangzhou, university students, martial arts educators and scholars, provided me with invaluable support.
A year after I returned to the United States, the difficult official I dealt with in Guangzhou was criticized for corruption by the provincial first party secretary and expelled from her positions.
5. KFT: Marginality and strategies of inversion were major theoretical topics within your dissertation. Are Chinese martial artists today still a socially marginal group?
Amos: I think the short answer is: probably not as much as before. A good many Chinese martial artists are still socially marginal, but a number of my Kung Fu brothers and sisters in both Hong Kong and Guangzhou have had successful careers. There are many more opportunities for Chinese youth now than there were four decades earlier. The number of places for university students has exploded in both places. When I first went to Guangzhou the “five luxuries” were a watch, a bicycle, a tape recorder, a camera, and a washing machine (or some would say a T.V). In Hong Kong, where I lived in the New Territories, many people in the mid-1970s did not own a watch or a camera.
My Kung Fu “younger uncle” in Guangdong province now owns a four story apartment house, several S.U.V.s, and runs a string of Chinese medicine shops. My most talented Hong Kong martial arts brother emigrated from Hong Kong to Europe, set up a martial house there, and then a restaurant and hotel. Unfortunately, he died in his early fifties from the affects of alcoholism, as did my seventy year old Guangzhou martial arts master years earlier. Heavy drinking and alcoholism seems to be associated with contemporary martial artists, a theme that has long been depicted in classic Chinese novels and popular martial hero fiction.
6. KFT: You have had the opportunity to closely observe the Chinese martial arts for 40 years. We frequently hear warnings that Kung Fu is dying as young people refuse to take up the practice? How valid are these fears?
Amos: The death of Kung Fu is, of course, highly exaggerated. In Hong Kong and Guangzhou social and economic life are much richer than before, there are vastly more opportunities to attend technical schools, colleges, and universities, and after graduation find well-paid employment, or pursue business careers. There are also many more leisure attractions and distractions but the transmission of martial skills to the younger generation still occurs.
Years ago many of the martial arts youth I knew in Hong Kong were unemployed or underemployed. In Guangzhou great numbers of those practicing martial arts were “youth waiting for employment.” Some of my brothers and sisters in Hong Kong and Guangzhou who stopped studying in lower middle school have sent their children to university. These same children have also practiced martial arts with their parents, with periodic instruction from masters. However, for these children the martial house is usually a less vital part of their social life than it was for their parents. They have been more occupied with study and preparation for social advancement; and tempted by the vast array of entertainment that now exists. Nevertheless, in spite of the greater opportunities for education, career, and amusement, good martial artists steadily appear in both Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
7. KFT: Issues of popularity aside, what are the biggest changes that you have seen in the Chinese martial arts community over the last few decades?
Amos: It’s not certain how much can be generalized from the following single observation, but my Hong Kong master is now much more willing to teach the subtleties of his style of Praying Mantis Kung Fu than he was years ago. Any sincere, dedicated learner will be taught all the master knows. This contrasts to decades ago, when only members of his kinship group were taught everything.
8. KFT: How has the flow of individuals and commerce across the border between Guangdong and Hong Kong affected the fighting arts?
Amos: Up until the 1980s many people in Hong Kong were afraid to travel to the People’s Republic of China. Many had family members who were killed in the wake of the revolution, and their families had fled to Hong Kong. Most people knew of travelers from Hong Kong who had been arrested while traveling in mainland China. Thus, when I first visited China in the late 1970s my Hong Kong martial arts brothers and sisters believed I was risking incarceration.
In 1980, I witnessed a freestyle wrestling match in a Guangzhou auditorium between the Guangdong provincial team and a visiting Hong Kong team. The Hong Kong team lost every match until the final match, when the Hong Kong heavyweight pinned his opponent. The last match looked phony. A friend connected with the local sports scene told me that the Guangdong heavyweight was asked to throw the match in order to give face to the Hong Kong visitors.
During this time the Guangdong wrestlers behaved like wrestlers elsewhere in the world, they made physical contact with their opponents during competition; but participants in state sponsored Chinese martial arts competition were judged on form alone, because contact was not allowed. Boxing and other contact sports were also prohibited. In the early 1980s one of the major attractions of Public Park Style martial arts associations and other more secretive martial arts associations was that practitioners of martial arts in these settings learned how to fight. Now, of course, contact sports are permitted at officially sanctioned settings in mainland China.
Another important change is that martial artists from mainland China and Hong Kong are able to visit one another. Martial houses have martial arts “relatives” on both sides of the border, and during the 1980s martial artists from Hong Kong began visiting their martial arts relatives more frequently. By the late 1990s visitors from mainland China had the opportunity to more freely travel to Hong Kong, and they currently contribute greatly to local economy. My Hong Kong master has a close relationship with his younger Kung Fu brother in Guangdong province, and there are regular visits by both sides.
9. KFT: Can you talk a little bit about recent trends that you may have seen in the academic study of Chinese and other martial arts traditions? Is this research area headed in a productive direction?
Amos: In mainland China there is a lively body of Chinese martial arts researchers. Many research specific styles, recount the life histories of certain masters, and analyze martial forms, weapons and fighting techniques. Those who research the history of Chinese martial arts sometimes bind themselves to the framework of 19th century Marxist anthropology, especially the works of Frederick Engels, as well as current Chinese Communist Party perspectives on historical events. However, for more than a generation a number of mainland Chinese martial scholars have not closely followed the party line on Chinese history. They have discussed, for example, how there were positive aspects to Chinese martial arts even during officially “dark” periods of Chinese history, such as the rule of the Kuomintang Party between the years 1927-1949.
Every Chinese scholar of Chinese martial arts that I have met has been a practitioner of Kung Fu. As someone trained in the anthropological tradition of participant – observation, I like the fact that so many scholars strive to acquire martial skills, and if they are non-native speakers, study the language of the people they are working with. These are essential tools for the field of martial arts research.
When I first entered the field of martial arts studies in the mid-1970s, video tape equipment was bulky and expensive. Back in the 1970s my dissertation committee members were at a loss on how to make use of video recordings, although Michael Moerman, who I took a few classes from at UCLA, was an early pioneer in this field. To a limited extent I was able to make use of videotape in my early fieldwork, because I convinced the leaders of the anthropology section at CUHK to make an investment in the equipment. Today video equipment is comparatively inexpensive and available with I-Pads and a variety of other common electronic devices, which has made it possible to record and conduct microanalyses of ritual and ordinary social interaction. The development and availability of video technology has provided us with a powerful tool for academic studies of the performances and interactions of martial artists.
Appreciating the value of technology in enabling studies of micro-interaction, I remain interested in the interpretation of culture at the most abstract level. Decades before Clifford Geertz explored Balinese cockfighting, Ernest Hemingway wrote “Death in the Afternoon,” a study of Spanish bullfighting. Hemingway discusses the honor of the bullfighter and the tragedy of the bull, and explains that the sport serves as a metaphor for Spanish life. Influenced by both novelists and interpretive anthropologists, I reflexively contemplate what a particular sport or ritualized activity may signify about the culture of the people who perform it.
10. KFT: What are your current or future research plans? Put another way, what should readers be watching for in the future?
Amos: In a couple of years, my wife, younger daughter and I plan to spend some time in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, where my wife will take a sabbatical, and I will undertake another year of ethnographic field research of martial artists. My plan is to collect data which will provide a comparative perspective to the ethnographic data I collected decades earlier.
Currently, I don’t know if the ruling elites of Hong Kong and Guangzhou are troubled by the independent voluntary associations of martial artists, like they were 40 years ago. I can’t confidently confirm that martial arts brotherhoods are still places where ideological, social and political inversions are acted out. I’d like to find out, and study how Kung Fu in south China has transformed over the past 40 years. It may be that the motives for studying Kung Fu are nearly the same as decades ago, and it has remained the hero’s art for those who practice it.
KFT: Thank you for stopping by to discuss your research. I speak for many readers here at Kung Fu Tea when I say that we are very excited to see where the next stage of your exploration of the southern Chinese martial arts leads you. Please keep us posted on your discoveries.
If you enjoyed this interview you might also want to read: Professor Thomas Green on the Survival of Plum Blossom Boxing, Martial Folklore and the State of Martial Arts Studies