The martial arts emerge from a nexus of swirling social anxieties. Are these arts the epitome of personal violence, or a pathway to peace? Do they find expression within singular warriors, or are they the driving force behind the creation of ageless communities?
The question of community looms large in both the history and media that surrounds these fighting systems. In the right hands the secret art of Ninjitsu might create any number of super-heroes (my personal favorites being the four turtle brothers who stalk the sewers of a once and future New York City). In the wrong hands the exact same tradition might spawn the diabolical Foot Clan.
Mr. Miyagi can call upon his karate training and war experience to become the perfect mentor for an “at risk” youth. But in the Corba Kai Dojo this same combination of impressionable young minds and combat sports gives rise to something akin to a fascist cult. Or at least what American movie audiences of the 1980s might have imagined that to be.
Every martial arts hero, it seems, is born with an evil twin. This dualism is one of the most persistent aspects of martial arts storytelling. Given its near universality, it is somewhat odd that this aspect of the genera has not received more attention.
We might be tempted to dismiss this pattern as the result of sloppy story telling or simple narrative expediency. After all, the hero of our story cannot rise to the occasion without a suitably intimidating source of opposition. The tendency to simply add the descriptor “evil” in front of our protagonists job description (evil scientist, evil wizard, evil ninja……) may not showcase a great deal of creativity, but it does get the job done.
Nevertheless, in the case of martial arts stories there seems to be something else at stake. The problem is not the emergence of a single villain, but rather the startling realization that it might be possible to mass produce an army of malefactors. The martial arts are by their very nature social. They are meant to serve social functions, and can only be reproduced through social means (e.g., teaching).
The thing that is fascinating about figures like the Shredder, or John Kreese, is that they are so very good at doing their job. Splinter has his hands full teaching four mutant turtles, while Shredder recruits, trains and presumably pays the health insurance premiums for a vast hoard of ninjas. Likewise Mr. Miyagi (a Medal of Honor winner) may have been the greater war hero, but it was Kreese (a former “special forces” officer) who actually taught classes in a school, designed spiffy uniforms and paid taxes. Evil has the power of organization (and possibly an MBA) on its side.
Nor are these narratives confined to the world of fiction (whether of Asian or Western origin). Much of the public debate that raged around the reform of the martial arts in mainland China during the 1920s-1930s (and later in Hong Kong during the 1960s-1970s) focused on exactly the same set of social fears. Reformers from the Jingwu Association argued that in the right hands (and following the basic model pioneered by the YMCA) the traditional Chinese martial arts could rejuvenate communities across the country. By physically and spiritually strengthening the people these hand combat system could bring about “national salvation.”
Yet to do so the martial arts had to be rescued from the forces of darkness, superstition and disorder which threatened both them and China’s movement towards modernity. In the public debate secrecy and superstition was seen as a central problem. Of course this secrecy was rooted in the fabric of the traditional social systems. The folk arts tended to be supported by, and in some senses extensions of, other powerful community interests. In southern China these included lineage associations, labor unions (or guilds), criminal groups and even political factions.
In their attacks on “secrecy” and “traditionalism” these reformers (and the later Guoshu movement) attempted to move the martial arts out of the realm of local interests towards a more modern understanding of what China’s civil society should be. When embedded within the proper type of community (a modern and progressive one) the martial arts could become the key “national salvation.” Left to their own devices they would instead encourage social competition, local (rather than national) identity formation and possibly even factional violence.
The details vary, but reformers in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s all made structurally similar arguments. It is not too hard to spot somewhat similar claims in Hong Kong, Indonesia or Japan as well. Given the frequency with which these issues were debated, it is not all that surprising that such anxieties should have found their way into so many popular stories.
How should the traditional martial arts relate to modern society and the state? In the current era will the global spread of these fighting systems unite or divide us?
Social Capital: Trust and the quality of social institutions
It is possible that some of the anxiety regarding the social value of the martial arts is not simply literary in nature, but is instead grounded in the nature of the institutions that promote these practices. One set of theoretical tools that might help us to explore this possibility is found in the multifaceted literature which has developed around the concept of “social capital.”
By way of introduction I should note that one of my other research interests is the role of religion (and the changing place of religious communities) in the current global system. Much of my writing in this area has focused on the ability of these institutions to generate “social capital” within otherwise marginal (or marginalized) communities and thus to dampen the shock of rapid economic and social change. I also looked at how government oversight and regulation of the religious marketplace affected the ability of these groups to generate social capital.
Anyone interested in that aspect of my research can find the relevant citations in my CV at the top of this page. I first began to consider the martial arts as an area to investigate while attempting to apply some of my earlier ideas to the case of the Boxer Uprising. But what is social capital, and how might its production or suppression affect the development of civil society?
Anyone looking for a basic introduction to this subject could do worse than to check out the Wikipedia page on the subject here. Unfortunately this will not will actually answer our question in any definitive sense.
Still, this review is a good starting place as it illustrates that “social capital” is more of a “concept” than a specific theoretical approach. A number of different types of theorists, from poststructuralists to economists, have employed this idea and developed literatures around it. Needless to say they have not all employed the idea in the same way, nor have they come to any consensus on how social capital functions or, at the most basic level, whether it is a generally positive or negative force.
The term “social capital” only came into general use in academia during the 1990s (promoted most frequently in the political science and anthropology literatures) though the basic ideas driving the discussion are much older. What value, if any, do networks of relationships and trust bring to society? Do economic, governmental and social institutions function better in the presence of rich networks (a position most vocally championed by Robert Putnam in his books Making Democracy Work and Bowling Alone). Alternatively, do these social networks simply act as another “barrier to entry” allowing socially privileged classes to protect their assets through the use of “old boy networks” while publicly claiming to support open institutions (the position championed by Pierre Bourdieu).
My own approach to understanding social capital (particularly its formation within small voluntary organizations such as new religious movements or martial arts associations) differs from both of these models. While there is very good empirical evidence that “old boy networks” can function in exactly the way Bourdieu described, this has always seemed to me to be an unnecessarily restrictive reading of what social capital is and how it functions.
While I tend to find the sorts of questions that Putnam investigates quite interesting, and agree that social capital can help to explain why certain institutions function better in certain times and places than others, I also find his theoretical approach to be too restrictive to be helpful when looking at groups like martial arts association. Putnam’s arguments often rest on a strong (and naïve) historical determinism which in reality raises more questions as it resolves. At the same time he has also been rather conservative in deciding which groups within civil society are capable of generating “real” social capital. Oddly he has not seen religious movements or related institutions as possible sources for capital formation, even though there is now a very extensive empirical literature which indicates that in fact such institutions can do just that.
In practice my own approach tends to follow the more psychological aspects of James Coleman’s work. While entire social networks are often described as “having” social capital, this approach properly starts with the individual. Simply put, no one is born knowing how to trust other people. While trust may seem like an innate emotional response, in reality it is a skill that individuals acquire over a lifetime of social interactions. Those individuals growing up in socially marginal environments often enjoy fewer opportunities for group memberships and have less ability to acquire these skills.
Within this framework “social capital” is understood as depersonalized norms of trust and reciprocity that develop through repeated group interactions and the process of socialization. In general theorists discuss two types of social capital. These are termed “bonding” and “bridging.”
Bonding capital tends to be the thick bonds of trust that are developed within small primary communities characterized by intensive face-to-face interactions. Martial arts schools are engines for generating this sort of trust. Any time individuals engage in combative drills or sparring they must mutually agree upon a level of force that is engaging but not so intense as to generate actual harm or lasting personal antagonism. It seems that each school develops its own unique equilibrium. Yet learning to “trust” one’s training partners is a central part of becoming a martial artist in practically any tradition.
Martial arts associations can help to build skills, including social capital, off the mats as well. One of the things I have always found most interesting about the traditional Chinese martial arts is their love of committees. Amos outlines some great examples of this in his review of Master Peng’s Southern Mantis society in Kowloon during the 1970s.
His was a rather small and impoverished school and many of Peng’s students were considered to be neighborhood delinquents by the police and other social authorities. Of course these are exactly the sorts of individuals that often score low on measures of empathy, social trust and decentralized norms of reciprocity (“paying it forward.”) Yet once they joined Master Peng’s school these teenagers were given a chance to not just learn Kung Fu, but to work their way up through a hierarchic organization.
As they gained seniority they were invited to sit on the various charity and benevolent committees that Peng organized. These structures oversaw the material welfare of the school and its participation in Qilin Dancing. One suspects that this was a new experience for many of his students. They now had to learn to work together while handling money, making budgets and distributing a different sort of work load. Research indicates that such opportunities can increase an individual’s stores of social capital quite rapidly.
While it is not always the case, the sorts of groups that generate “bonding capital” are often homogeneous in nature. There tends to be a variety of factors (race, language, socioeconomic background, etc…) that unites these individuals. Interestingly martial arts communities are one the few voluntary associations that sometimes buck this trend. This can have an important impact on their ability to create both social trust and identity (see Adam Frank for an extended discussion of this).
Modernity has made many other forms of social organizations possible. This includes the uniting of seemingly unrelated groups of individuals under a single shared identity (such as municipal or national identities). Once individuals have gained a certain level of social trust within their small group interactions, these same skills can then be applied to more abstract relationships. The key now is the growth of decentralized norms of reciprocity where the tit-for-tat of individual exchange is replaced by general principles of behavior.
Again, the world of Kung Fu committees offers us a number of wonderful examples of this process. While Hong Kong’s teenagers spent much of the 1960s and 1970s challenging each other to illegal street fights in an attempt to determine social status, their teachers had more pressing problems to contend with. As Hong Kong’s middle class developed, it citizens became increasingly annoyed by the social disruption caused by organized crime and widespread youth delinquency.
In response to this the police began to step up their harassment of martial arts schools. Eventually rules were enacted requiring the licensing of all martial arts schools in the territory and the keeping of records on all students that could be turned over to the police in times of trouble. The martial arts community responded to these developments with a flurry of institution building, including the formation of groups like the “Hong Kong Chinese Kung Fu Association” (established in 1970).
These institutions took it upon themselves to reform the public image of the traditional martial arts and to promote them throughout the territory. Of course doing so required the creation of ever more committees meant to oversee a slew of cooperative events and festivals. Now students from other styles were given opportunities to work together, develop a common identity and enlarge their norms of trust and reciprocity. Interestingly these sorts of assignments also brought these same students into contact with members of the local community with whom they were expected to coordinate their actions (e.g., local shopkeepers, community leaders, newspaper writers, police officers….)
Institutions like the Hong Kong Chinese Kung Fu Association did more than just build a stronger identity within the martial arts community. By coordinating action across multiple sectors of Hong Kong society they helped to create a stock of social capital within their own community. This, in turn, was essential to addressing the precarious situation that these groups found themselves in during the 1960s and 1970s.
One of the most remarkable things about social capital is its high degree of fungibility. Once an individual has gained an increased capacity for social trust, that attribute tends to manifest itself in all other spheres of life. The cooperative skills that one learns while sitting on a Kung Fu club committee don’t just stay there. Individuals will begin to manifest them in the economic, social and political realms as well.
When this happens on a large scale social scientists have theorized that it can have a major impact of the efficiency of a number of institutions. Economic markets function more efficiently when the costs of contract enforcement are low. The result is more economic growth and higher levels of employment. Likewise, curtailing conspiracy theories about other groups in society helps democratic institutions to function more smoothly. We care about civil society’s ability to generate social capital as it can have far reaching effects beyond the specific voluntary associations in question.
Conclusion: Is there a dark side to social capital?
Given all of the good things that formation of independent martial arts associations within civil society can do for us, is there any validity to the fears explored in the first section of this article? Can the concept of social capital also help to explain the potentially dark side of these institutions?
Most discussions of this question go back to the distinction between “bonding” and “bridging” capital outlined above. The first of these generates social trust within groups, and the second extends it to links between different organizations and social networks. In general social theorists have been quick to identify “bridging” capital as normatively good because by its very nature to cross-cuts a variety of social cleavages. By creating a sense of investment in a new common identity among a variety of groups, social conflict is made less likely.
By extension bonding capital has become a source of suspicion in some corners. This is especially true when we remember that many of the communities that primarily generate bonding capital tend to be relatively homogeneous in nature. So a martial arts club might have members that come from a single neighborhood, and thus are all likely to share the same racial identity and socioeconomic status. The fear is that if these relationships grow too strong they will shade out the potential to build cross-group linkages in the future.
A number of theorists have pointed to cases where this has happened. The strong norms of conduct facilitated by certain criminal groups (such as the mafia) can be thought of as bonding capital taken to an extreme. Rather than facilitating the functioning of other economic and political institutions, it has actually replaced them with its own predatory system of social order.
This seems to be related to same problem that vexed so many of China’s martial arts reformers during the 1920s and 1930s. Detached from their traditional social support structures, and embedded within large national organizations, the martial arts could become a powerful force for the generation of the sorts of norms that would aid in the creation of a truly modern state.
Yet left to their own devices these systems would continue to serve the inward looking demands of their parochial masters, reinforcing only local identity. This would weaken the growth of a shared national identity. Indeed, much more than “secrecy” and stylistic efficiency was at stake in these debates. Together they offer a window into the much larger efforts of the May 4th reformers to fundamentally rework all aspects of Chinese society. Rather than asking whether the martial arts will unite or divide a community, perhaps we should instead consider how the various social and regulatory structures that these systems are embedded in contribute to that outcome.
Alternatively we might want to question whether all of this emphasis on “bonding” vs. “bridging” capital is really helpful. Are there really two distinct sorts of social capital, one good and the other bad?
I must admit to having my doubt. If the central problem is really psychological trust and the creation of norms of reciprocity, this seems unlikely. Individuals may use networks of trust to do counterproductive things, but that is different from saying that trust itself is “bad.” Unless, of course, one is a government with a strong desire to regulate civil society.
Social capital is fundamentally an attribute of civil society which allows it to solve complex problems without the intervention of either political or market forces. In some ways it stands apart from the major institutions that have determined so much of the destiny of the modern world. As such it is often regarded with a certain degree of suspicion by those who seek to yoke the society’s resources to achieving their own political or economic ends.
In that case the growth of a vital and independent social realm might be a real threat to the overall goals of the state. Of course this was exactly the situation in a number of late developing states during the 20th century. It also seems to sum up the conflicted relationship that many Chinese reformers had with the very notion of “society.” A strong society was vital to the modernization effort, but only if it submitted to the state’s guidance and served its aims. And how could the “proper society” be achieved without elite guidance and education?
In the popular narratives that introduced this discussion it is always an expression of local society that overcomes a larger totalizing opposition. Yet in the elite driven discourse it is the local and parochial that has become a threat to progress and good governance. In the following post in this series we will take a closer look at the work of Jacques Rancière (particularly his thoughts on education in The Ignorant Schoolmaster) to see what light he might shed on the duality of social capital, its ultimate value and the conflict between local and national expressions of the Chinese martial arts during the first half of the 20th century.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: The Political Economy of Southern Kung Fu: Thoughts on the Rise of Regional Identity within the Chinese Martial Arts.