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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Studies

What “Everyone” Knows: Empowerment, Social Competition and Conspiracy Theories in the Martial Arts

A 19th century print of one of the 47 Ronin, the original Japanese martial arts conspiracy theorists.  Source: Wikimedia.

A 19th century print of one of the 47 Ronin, the original Japanese martial arts conspiracy theorists. Source: Wikimedia.




Two Stories

Huo Yuanjia is one of the best known and most influential figures in the modern Chinese martial arts. Everyone seems to know his story. This is ironic as very little about his actual life is known with much certainty.

Readers will be familiar with Huo from his appearance (or possibly remembrance) in a number of popular martial arts films including Bruce Lee’s 1972 Fists of Fury and Jet Li’s 2006 Fearless. For the last century Huo has been held up both as an exemplar of China’s martial excellence and as a martyr to the rapacious system of 20th century imperialism.

His story was first promoted by the young Jingwu Association, though its basic outline is not all that different from what audiences may have seen in the later movies. The son of a martial artist, Huo made a name for himself (and his family style) after facing down a number of foreign fighters who had defamed the character of the Chinese people. These included a Russian wrestler, an Irish Boxer and a Japanese Judo masters. This last conquest would prove to be Huo’s undoing. Humiliated by the defeat of a fellow countryman, a Japanese physician took matters into his own hands and conspired to poison the Chinese master. This is the basic outline of Huo’s life as it is usually treated in the media and popular discussion.

Problems arise when one attempts to dig a little deeper. In some versions of the story it is Huo’s student who is responsible for the defeat of the Japanese Judo player. Nor does there seem to be a lot of agreement on the identity of the Russian wrestler, and if that match ever took place. Likewise there is disagreement as to whether Huo ever actually matched fists with Hercules O’Brien, or if the Irish Boxer simply left town.

Even Huo’s central role in the creation of the Jingwu Association has been questioned. Andrew Morris, Brian Kennedy and others have noted that Huo was probably not among the actual founders of the group. Rather he was hired by those behind the movement to act as its first martial arts instructor shortly before his death.

Perhaps there is no larger controversy in Huo’s life than the nature and cause of his death. It seems likely that Huo suffered from tuberculosis or a similar disease. Prior to the advent of modern medical treatments, this was basically a death sentence (80% mortality rate in active cases). His death at the relatively young age of 42 is not much of a surprise. Still, the timing of this event led to persistent suspicions that he had been poisoned.

His students in the Jingwu Association (some of whom had backgrounds in business, advertising and journalism) realized the value of this theory. This was especially true given the nationalist and anti-imperialist nature of the Jingwu association. They quickly (and retrospectively) promoted Huo as the group’s spiritual founder and spread his image across China and South East Asia. The narrative of his life and death added undeniable gravitas to the young organization.

Subsequent attempts to resolve the mystery of Huo’s death have been inconclusive. His remains were exhumed and found to contain traces of arsenic. Unfortunately this same chemical compound was also part of the traditional Chinese pharmacopeia. Given Huo’s poor health it would not be surprising to find it in his system. An appeal to forensic evidence seems unlikely to resolve this issue as both hypotheses (murder vs. tuberculosis) point to the same expected outcome.

Occam’s razor would probably lead one to suspect that Huo, who was known to be suffering and in poor health, died of natural causes. Still, the rumors and theories surrounding his death have proved to be surprisingly robust. More than that, they helped to provide the emotional energy which powered the Jingwu Association’s efforts to modernize and reform the Chinese martial arts. Even today’s it is not uncommon to find Huo’s portrait somewhere in a martial arts school.

Utah Lake as seen from its north shore.  Source: Wikimedia.

Utah Lake as seen from its north shore. Source: Wikimedia.



We sat on the deck with the grill behind us. The newly built house was located in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains. It wasn’t an expensive place. It was the sort of home that a couple of academics could afford. But the view was breathtaking. You could see the entire valley floor, including Utah Lake, shimmering in the sun. Occasionally one of the Kestrels that used the roof as a hunting platform would streak past the deck as it dived at a sparrow in scrub below.

“Take the moon landings. I don’t believe that they happened…I am one of those people who thinks that the whole thing was a hoax. Cold War rivalries and all of that.”

My friend and I had been discussing the nature of belief and belief communities. His admission came as a shock. I had known him for years. Long before either of us moved to Utah we had attended graduate school in the same city.

Nor did he seem to fit the profile of your “average” conspiracy theorists. He had a doctorate and taught at a local university, just as I did. He was successful (as house with the great view testified) and, by all accounts, basically sane.

Nor was he your typical anti-government type. In fact, he wasn’t even an American. He was British and only came to the United States during the course of his college education.

The admission left me stunned, but I could see that my friend was even more uncomfortable. What do you say in a situation like this?

It seemed pointless to launch into an explanation of why the moon landings must have been real. The part of me that is a frustrated amateur astronomer really wanted to. But looking at my friend I knew that there was nothing I could say that he hadn’t heard many times before. I turned back to the lake and took another sip from my drink.

“It sounds crazy doesn’t it?” He gave a half-hearted laugh. “I can’t even remember when I realized that it was a hoax. Still, it’s not like you get to choose what you believe. Not really.”

I had the sudden realization that this particular illusion wasn’t something that my friend had invented. After all, there is an entire community of people that believe that the Apollo landings were staged on a studio back lot. Rather, this belief was something inhuman, creeping across the social landscape. It had captured and, in some subtle way, changed my friend.

While the source of the statement surprised me, the content did not. As a political scientist I have the opportunity to spend my days talking with young people about international politics. In the years after 9/11 more than one student has earnestly explained to me that the CIA was behind the whole thing. Still, nothing makes you question your own beliefs about the way the world works quite as quickly as coming up against a friend’s unexpected, and unbidden, delusion.




An American Kestrel.  Source: Wikimedia.

An American Kestrel. Source: Wikimedia.



Conspiracy Theories in the Martial Arts

This article begins with two seemingly different, but conceptually linked stories. Conspiracy theories, meaning the belief that certain actors (usually in a place of power) have hidden plans to somehow negatively affect society, can be seen in both cases. Still, the differences are more telling.

The first account deals with a belief promoted by an exceptionally successful (if short lived) social organization. The second story is more personal in nature and helps to remind us that conspiracy theories represent a type of thought that is almost universal. While certain patterns are more common than others (something we will be exploring below) we should remember that these sorts of ideas have appeared in many cultures and among many widely divergent types of people. No one is totally immune to this mode of reasoning.

The martial arts are especially interesting in this regard. The immediate physical feedback that one receives in training (either a punch landed or it didn’t, either a movement was executed with “relaxation” or it wasn’t) might at first seem to push these systems towards a sort of experimental empiricism. Certain thinkers (including Bruce Lee) have explicitly advocated that approach.

Still, when you look more closely at martial arts communities it quickly becomes evident that they hold all sorts of beliefs that are hard, or basically impossible, to historically justify. And sometimes these slippery beliefs seem to go right to the heart of the matter. The story of Huo Yuanjia is not an outlier. Rather it is representative of a more basic pattern that we see repeated throughout the Asian martial arts.

The burning of the Shaolin Temple remains a central tenant of faith among many martial artists even though we now have overwhelming historical evidence that the Qing never destroyed the Henan sanctuary (Shahar, 2008). Likewise a minority of martial artists living in northern China during the 19th and early 20th century came to believe that certain heterodox religious rites, opposed by both the local gentry and officials, could be used to bestow the powers of invulnerability on righteous citizens. This would enable them to reclaim their countryside from the forces that oppressed them (imagined alternatively as local Christians, government tax collectors, bandits and finally the Japanese). If done correctly these rituals could even make one invulnerable to rifle fire.

Nor are these modes of thought confined to the pre-modern past. One only needs to visit some of the more active discussion boards to see current examples of conspiracy theories in action. These often emerge in discussions of intra-lineage politics and attempts at resurrecting the deep history of various styles.

Elaborate conspiracies of various sorts also provide narrative interest to much of the fiction (either movies or novels) that surrounds and embroiders the martial arts. Stolen mystical manuals, revolutionary cells and “corruption at the top” are just a few of the most common storytelling devices that we see. Each of these can result in the needed vengeance that seems to drive so many of these stories. A well-executed conspiracy can also ensures that the story will save some twist for the end. There seems to be an expectation that the martial arts should be accompanied by secret machinations.

What is a “conspiracy theory,” and how might discussing them open new ways of thinking about the martial arts? The term first appeared in print during the early 20th century. It was then redefined and popularized by the philosopher Karl Popper who in 1945 published the book Open Society and its Enemies. Coming on the heels of WWII this work attempted to defend the idea of liberal democracy against the historically driven forces of totalitarianism.

Popper noted that actors in the Soviet Union and Germany had made use of paranoid racist, tribal and xenophobic theories in their successful attempts to subvert preexisting political institutions and consolidate their control over both the government and society. While Popper acknowledged that some conspiracies actually exists (indeed, they are part of daily politics) a “conspiracy theory” was essentially a false, but relatively uncomplicated, way to understand a very complex problem. By putting a more human face on what was actually a systemic issue, political actors could promise to “do something” to save the nation. Of course they would first have to be granted the power to do so.

In later decades the idea of a “conspiracy theory” came to be used almost exclusively as a pejorative label to dismiss another’s position in political debates. One suspects that this rhetorical turn may have suppressed scholarly interest in the idea. There wasn’t much of a literature on the subject prior to the 1990s.

Still, the idea that hidden forces are manipulating events to their own selfish ends is one of the enduring tropes of modern political and social life. While some of these theories (such as my friend’s contention that the moon landings were faked) seem to reflect only a generalized distrust of authority, others (the vaccine/autism link or GMO food debate) are having a more immediate impact on public policy. As such there has been renewed interest in the origins and meaning of conspiracy theories in a number of fields.

Perhaps the largest division in this debate centers on their ultimate origins. There is a developing literature in the field of psychology that emphasizes the role of individual cognition in explaining someone’s acceptance of these positions. These arguments often come down to the issues of “motivated bias,” projection or some type of cognitive impairment to explain the enduring, almost universal, appeal of this mode of reasoning.

Motivated bias is perhaps the most interesting of these mechanisms. It has been well established that, for a variety of reasons, when confronted with new information individuals are more likely to accept those facts that reinforce their prior beliefs while discounting or disregarding others that suggest they might be wrong.

This tendency can be seen in a number of places, but my favorite example (probably due to my political science background) has to do with the outcome of elections. It stands to reason that if two candidates are running for office in a single district one of them is going to lose. That is not much of a surprise. And given the recent advances in polling we should generally have a pretty good idea who that will be a few weeks out.

Yes, sometimes the models do something really strange, but that is actually pretty rare over the entire range of races that take place in a year. What this cannot account for is the frequency with which we see defeated candidates sitting stunned in their headquarters, not able to accept the returns as they come in. Certainly candidates seem more likely to be surprised by a loss than the press corps who covers the same races.

Why? Motivated bias is a big part of the story. To succeed a candidate must be fully emotionally invested in the race. But doing so makes them particularly prone to dismissing danger signs and bad polling numbers, while clutching desperately to outliers that seem to indicate that they have a chance.

Still, no one would look at this defeated candidate and say that they are the victim of a conspiracy theory. They had self-serving beliefs, and may have been empirically mistaken about many things. Yet that in itself does not get us into conspiracy territory.

The basic issue is that many (though not all) of these psychological theories tend to look for the origins of these beliefs within individual cognition. Nevertheless, the fascinating thing about conspiracy theories is not just that these beliefs appear to be objectively wrong, but that they are held, defended, reevaluated and bolstered by an entire community of actors. For instance, a 1999 Gallup poll found that 6% of Americans (+/- 3%) share my friend’s belief that the moon landing was a hoax.

I suspect that this is why I didn’t try to convince my friend that the moon landings were real. It is also the same reason why I don’t ever try to convince anyone that Bodhidharma did not invent their Kung Fu. You just can’t explain your way out of a conspiracy theory because at heart it actually has very little to do with individual belief. Instead they are held by, and reinforce, social groups. An individual’s attachment to them is probably much more emotional than rational.

This brings us to the question of why we should be talking about conspiracy theories at all. We have already seen a number of other sorts of conceptual frameworks that seem to do the same sort of basic intellectual work. Thomas A. Green’s work on “folk history” also points to the importance of shared mythology in creating and explaining group experience. James C. Scott’s theory of story-telling as a “weapon of the weak,” in which landlords and peasants attempt to alter the social balance of power through the establishment of certain norms, emphasizes the role of inequality in all of this. After all, while anyone might hold a conspiracy theory, research has shown that they become much more common as one slides down the socioeconomic scale.

What sort of new work can the concept of “conspiracy theories” do for us that these other approach to popular knowledge cannot? To be totally honest I am not sure that this framework is the first place that I would go to, but it does raise a few points that might be worth considering.

The first of these has to do with the nature of the knowledge advanced by these theories. The truth is always something that is considered occult (hidden) or esoteric in nature. Only the elect are empowered by this knowledge and therefore able to interact with the world on its own terms.

This actually makes an interesting contrast with the basic idea that Scott advanced in Weapons of the Weak. In his framework the actions of local landlords are very visible for all to see. The problem is not so much that they are conspiring but rather openly acting in ways that violate their status as ones who have completed the Hajj, or as exemplars of community norms. The problem here is one of hypocrisy, not secret warfare.

The esoteric nature of most conspiracy theories puts an additional layer of rhetorical separation between the actors. As such we might think of them as aimed primarily at other members of the oppressed in-group, rather than attempting to engage or put pressure on individuals located in other social positions. Conspiracy theories may function primarily to insulate a group against social or political authority in general, rather than advancing specific economic demands.

The relationship between claims to esoteric knowledge in both the martial arts and conspiracy theories is important. Both systems are designed to create a sense of empowerment in those that come into their orbit. While academic discussions of the martial arts often focus on self-actualization or embodied identity, this parallel suggests that we might want to think more deeply about the redefinition of the martial artist’s relationship with the rest of society.

The possession of valuable private knowledge literally make one unique and therefore “special.” This feeling of empowerment is not primarily about the individual. Indeed, one is ushered into a community based on the shared perpetuation of this body of knowledge. This creates not just a feeling of individual worth, but also social belonging and purpose. Again, those who believe that the moon landings were a hoax do not do so in isolation. This fact begs for a social explanation.

The occult nature of many conspiracy theories probably serves another function as well. The emphasis on shadowy hidden connections makes these frameworks very good at processing complex social phenomenon that are likely to have an adverse impact on people’s lives (globalization, modernization, imperialism). They can then be recast in much simpler Manichean terms. A battle that pits the forces of good against evil will generate more social engagement than a complex debate balancing the need for trade promotion with the sorts of protectionist policies favoring social stability.

Once the issue has been reimagined, a human face can then be mapped onto the problem. Note for instance that Huo Yuanjia did not fight imperialism in the abstract. All of that national humiliation that emerged from this process was concentrated into the figure of Hercules O’Brien, the “Irish” boxer. This same theme is replicated with the “Japanese” Judo school and the “Russian” wrestler.

It is almost as though all of the pain invoked by these stories has been concentrated into the national labels. In a very real way, it actually doesn’t actually matter which Russian wrestler Huo faced. Any of them would do.

This national identity is further compressed and folded into a caricature of each states stereotypical fighting system. Japanese imperialism is stripped of its economic and political content and is reduced simply to “Judo.” Likewise the complexities of the Russian threat becomes, “wrestling.”

Vast systemic problems, intractable in the short-term, are thus reduced to a level in which they can be projected onto a single group (Japanese martial artists) or even a single individual (Hercules O’Brien). They are transformed into issues that can now be faced and overcome through heroic individual effort. Thus conspiracy theories, by artificially simplifying and personifying vastly complex situations, create a false sense of hope and empowerment. Yes, people now feel that they can take their destiny into their own hands, but individual western entertainers touring Chinese markets and theaters was never actually the root of the trouble.

Still, this is where our story starts to get interesting. While objective outside observers might dispute the theory in question (be it Huo’s murder or Neil Armstrong’s missing IMDB profile) the discourses that perpetuate these ideas do have the ability to gather groups, aggregate social or political preferences and provide a platform to broadcast anti-systemic sentiments. While the initial conspiracies may not have been objectively real, the political consequences that they generate cannot be ignored.

For instance, historians have not found much evidence to back up the claims that the Qing princes of the Manchu court were in league with foreign imperialists to divide up China and sell it to western powers one bit at a time. Yet the fear that this process was already well underway helped to motivate both nationalist sentiment and popular support for the revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty in 1911. Likewise Popper claims that the spread and manipulation of certain types of conspiracy theories (both xenophobic and anti-Semitic) smoothed the rise of totalitarian governments in both Germany and Russia during the early 20th century.

Not all conspiracies have the same power to galvanize and mobilize the public. Unfortunately anti-Semitic paradigms have a long and sad history of this sort of use. It is harder to imagine that disbelief in the moon landings might have similar political consequences anytime soon.

All of this suggests that it is a mistake to think of conspiracy theories in terms of individual beliefs or cognitive bias. While issues like motivated bias and projection likely help to explain why individuals hold onto certain ideas in the face of contradictory evidence, they probably cannot account for either the widespread nature of these movements or their deeper social implications.


Another of the 47 Ronin, from a late 19th century Japanese print.  Source: Wikimedia.

Another of the 47 Ronin, from a late 19th century Japanese print. Source: Wikimedia.


Conclusion: The Real Huo Yuanjia



A number of scholars have noted that conspiracy theories tend to be more popular with groups that fall at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Such individuals often face the greatest challenges with the fewest resources. They are also more likely to question the political, social and economic forces that structure their lives.

It is probably no mistake that these same groups have also shown the most enthusiasm for the martial arts and combat sports. Whether it is boxing on Chicago’s south side, or kung fu on the streets of Kowloon, these practices have been noted to create a sense of self-actualization and empowerment. It is no surprise that marginalized communities turn to these projects.

Like the martial arts, conspiracy theories also offer an alternative world view based on the transmission of private or esoteric truth. They too have proved to be popular with anti-systemic groups and are credited with an increased sense of social connection and self-esteem. Better understanding the rise of these frameworks in the post-WWII era might give us additional insight into the popularity of the martial arts, often among similar or overlapping groups.

The parallels presented here might also force us to reconsider whether the martial arts can really deliver on the promise of individual or social empowerment, especially when they are practiced by the most marginal communities. While it is individuals who experience the various symptoms of social anxiety, the larger issues of prosperity, politics and violence are all systemic in nature. Each of them requires concerted social effort to bring about desired change.

Rather than contributing to politically viable collective efforts, do the martial arts lead members of marginal communities down the rabbit hole of self-absorption in the pursuit of an ultimately false vision of empowerment? Put another way, do they sap the community of energy and resources that could be better used to advance collective goals, and in that way actually reinforce the status quo through the perpetuation of an illusion of empowerment?

These are difficult questions for students interested in the interplay between the martial arts and marginality. Still what we have learned from our examination of conspiracy theories might lead us to conclude that these critiques may not be as serious as they first appear. Scholars have noted the role of these sorts of ideas in not just the upheavals that led to WWII, but also China’s 1911 uprising and the American Revolution. Thus even groups and identities that are mobilized around seemingly false causes can still have a powerful transformative effect (either for good or ill) on the political landscape.

In the final analysis, the concept of the conspiracy theory and the literature surrounding it may not be the first tool that would I reach for when thinking about the persistent mythologies of the martial arts. Yet it does bring some new insights to the table. When we identify something that resembles a conspiracy theory, rather than just debunking the idea and moving on, we should instead stop to consider what its appearance suggests about the environment that has nurtured it, and its likely implications for identity formation and social conflict.

I still do not know how many foreign fighters Huo Yuanjia defeated over the course of his life. Nor do I actually know how he died. But in a sense these are not interesting questions.

They quickly lose their significance when one considers instead the large number of matches between Chinese and foreign martial artists that his memory still inspires today. Elements of the discourse that the Jingwu Association established after his death are still shaping the evolution of the Chinese martial arts. While it may not be possible to rationally reconstruct why so many individuals believe a certain version of his story, their faith has shaped both the Chinese martial arts and their relationship with society. That is a subject worthy of serious consideration.





If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read:  Folklore in the Southern Chinese Martial Arts: A Means to Create Economic “Value” or to Construct Social “Values?”




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