I can has Kung Fu



Consider the following. Could the internet as we know it exist without lists? Articles reporting the “Top 10 Mistakes of 2015,” or “5 Facts Every Mother Should Know” seem to dominate the medium. Compiling these strange collections of disembodied facts is a modern fixation rivaled only by the need to caption pictures of other people’s cats. I may not totally understand the attraction of this format, but far be it from me to stand in the way of what the people want.

I have found most lists of “The Top 7 Power Foods You Are Not Eating” to be a little…theoretically light (and here is a hint, the answer is always kale). In an effort to stretch the bounds of this tried and true blogging template, the current post is going to employ a list for the betterment of martial arts studies. More specifically, you too can write better martial arts history if you just remember to follow these four easy steps. Or if you are more of a consumer of this sort of information, you can also think of this as a list of four things to look for the next time someone claims to reveal the long hidden “true origins” of your style.

your mind is your greatest weapon

1. Be willing to assume that you know nothing

This first point is in some ways the most difficult. It is also the key to ensuring that you are doing martial arts history rather than martial arts apologetics.

It is difficult because most of us want to write about styles that we are already familiar with. Maybe we are practitioners, or we have always admired them afar. Very few people ever sit down to devote substantial effort to a subject that they literally know nothing about. In truth we can’t even be aware of most of what we don’t know, and that pretty much precludes writing essays about it.

For a variety of reasons martial arts styles take stories about their history and development very seriously. In fact, many of the traditional Chinese martial arts explain their nature and identity to both the outside world and their own students in primarily historical terms. The very first facts that one learns about a given style is not how many unique movements it has, or its theory of kicking. Rather we are almost always introduced to a narrative about the system’s illustrious founder, his many great martial feats, the transmission of the art through the generations, and how it came to be in this strip mall today.

Of course these sorts of stories are by no means unique to the Chinese martial arts. Students of southern Chinese history will already know quite a few similar tales passed on by other sorts of organizations. Perhaps the most important of these are the large lineage groups, organized around ancestral temples, which dominated much of Guangdong and Fujian’s landscape in the Qing dynasty.

It is obvious that the terms of address used in many traditional Chinese schools are borrowed from kinship systems, and I have begun to suspect that the sorts of lineage accounts that one hears in the kung fu community also got their start here as well. These sorts of “establishment myths” were an expected part of many social institutions in southern China.

Unfortunately historical accuracy was never really the central driving motivation behind clan lineage accounts. Instead these genealogies were somewhat flexible and often used to justify certain sorts of corporate landholdings. Likewise the propagation and manipulation of lineage myths has always been a major way in which factions within a martial arts clan compete with one another. Other sorts of stories also served as branding devices which helped martial arts teachers to explain their style to prospective students and to set them apart in a competitive marketplace.

In short, when starting our research project we are likely to already have some well-formed narratives in our heads. But these stories are usually what Thomas A. Green has termed “folk history.” Such accounts are best understood as invented traditions that reflect the values of a community and its internal power structure.

As scholars we cannot afford to ignore these creation myths as they convey really important details about the lived experience of a particular martial arts community. They will add invaluable texture to our evolving portrait of a style. Yet we should not mistake texture for basic historical structure.

Very often good martial arts history starts with admission that, setting popular narratives aside, we really do not know very much about the subject at all. Basic work needs to be done. When do we find the first independent references to a style in the general literature? Can we confirm the biographical details of the founder? What sorts of contemporary historical accounts exist (gazetteers, court documents, government or private records) that might suggest something about the nature of violence in the local community?

Once we have this sort of understanding we can then begin to think about how a given martial arts style emerged from local society. If you are interested in what this process looks like, check out the introduction to Douglas Wile’s book Lost Taichi Classics from the Late Ching Dynasty. It’s a remarkable example of what you can accomplish when you step away from the received popular history and begin your investigation from the ground up.


bruce lee baby circumstances

2. Learn to Love Theory

Lets assume that you have emptied your tea cup and are ready to start looking at primary sources and the secondary literature on your research area. Where do you start?

This is actually something of a problem as you will quickly discover that there is more raw historical and sociological information out there than you will ever be able to process. If we start to include other forms of data such as popular novels, operas, story-telling scripts or travelogues, things begin to get overwhelming.

What you really need is a guide, something that can suggest what raw data is most likely to be important for evaluating your specific hypothesis, and what is not actually relevant to this discussion. This is critical when it comes to focusing your scarce resources.

It is also where “theory” enters our discussion. A lot of amateur scholars dislike the idea of relying on theories. They just want to find the “facts,” and then put them out there to “speak for themselves.” Before jumping into this exercise we need to seriously consider the implications of this strategy. No historical observations exist independent of theory.

In truth we all carry a number of unexamined theories around in our heads. These theories suggest to us that certain bits of data are important historical facts, and others are random bits of noise. So rather than presenting “just the facts” to our readers, we will always be giving them our interpretation of these events. There is really no way out of the dilemma. It is a byproduct of being a limited human living in an infinite universe.

So what can we do? First, we admit to ourselves that our world view and thoughts about the martial arts are already driven by theories, and then we try to figure out what they are. Once we have critically examined ourselves we will be in a better position to make an informed judgement as to whether the sorts of theories we are using are well suited to the situation at hand and the types of evidence we are working with. The answer is almost always “no,” but that is fine as it opens a space for us to find an even more useful way of thinking about the world.

So where can you find a critical discussion of theory? See Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries by Paul Bowman. Or for some shorter example of theoretical research, check out the edited collection by Farrer and Whalen-Bridge, Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge (I particularly liked the chapter “Coffee Shop Gods: Chinese Martial Arts of the Singapore Diaspora” by Farrer.)



Be Water



3. Pay Attention to Your Sources, Because You Subjects Probably Did as Well

It is often asserted that the traditional Asian martial arts are the product of either oral or physical (embodied) culture. To a certain extend both of these things are true. Yet they cannot tell the entire story. After all, if the martial arts are only an embodied practice, how could anyone write a historical study of their evolution in the late Ming or Qing dynasty? A purely embodied practice leaves no trace in the historical record.

Fortunately Chinese and Japanese martial artists have never been as illiterate as it is sometimes supposed. The late Ming period saw a flurry of published sources that discussed the martial arts. Some of the most interesting examples can be found in elaborate military encyclopedias and fighting manuals that would have only been available to a few elites. But there were also almanacs and novels that were much more popular with the lower levels of society.

The 18th – 19th centuries saw another publishing boom in the Qing period. Once again a wide variety of texts entered commercial circulation, and a number of them touched on the world of martial artists. While most style manuals continued to be transmitted as written manuscripts, there were cheaply printed penny kung fu manuals, martial arts novels, story-telling scripts and operas all of which explained and embroidered the world of working martial artists.

We are fortunate to have these sorts of written sources as they allow us to look back over the centuries. Granted, the historical record is skimpy at the best of times and never as detailed as one would like. Yet we still have enough material to construct a convincing picture of the world that these practices emerged from. While this doesn’t give us enough data to test every theory on the origins of every style, very often we can look at an account and say “this is the sort of idea that seems plausible” or alternatively “this theory is highly unlikely as we know that x, y and z elements are just too anachronistic.”

Yet sometimes we see an odd disconnect in discussions of the historical martial arts where we continue to act as though these individuals lived in a world dominated only by oral culture, even when we have the texts that they produced right in front of us. One of the great lessons that students of Chinese popular history have learned in the last few decades is that literacy was more widespread in Chinese society than was generally thought. And even individuals with only a partial education or limited literacy might still be very much under the influence of popular novels, story-telling cycles or novels. Peasants in even the poorest villages likely saw thousands of opera performances over the course of their lives.

In short, media has always played a role in defining how people understood and interacted with the martial arts. This is not a phenomenon that was created only with the birth of the Kung Fu film. Indeed, the same stories, accounts and novels that inform our understanding of the ancient martial arts were also part of the social construction of those institutions during the late imperial period.

How might this insight affect the writing of martial arts history? Meir Shahar’s volume, The Shaolin Monastery, provides great examples of not only how modern scholars utilize popular literature when studying the past, but the various ways in which this material shaped the development of the Shaolin tradition itself.




4. Be Sure to Answer the “So What?” Question

Admittedly it is an oversimplification, but you can think of most scholarly projects as falling into one of two types. First we have descriptive works that seek to understand the meaning or social significance of an institution (what anthropologists accomplish with “thick description”). Alternatively we have other sorts of theories that attempt to establish a causal relationship between two or more variables (e.g., how did western imperialism shape the development of Taijiquan?)

Very often social scientists such as myself are interested in these later sorts of arguments (anthropologists and critical theorists often question our taste in subject matter, but let’s just go with it for now.) When discussing causal theories the factor that is explained is called the “dependent variable.” The “independent variable” is what sets the chain of causality in motion. So in our previous example western imperialism was the “independent variable” while Taijiquan was our “dependent variable.”

This is precisely the format of so many of our arguments in martial arts studies. We look for some unexpected factor in the environment to help us explain the development of the martial arts. Such arguments are very useful, but I would argue that sometimes we need to move beyond them.

Stanley E. Henning has noted that a greater familiarity with the martial arts is essential for all Chinese historians, not just those working in the area of hand combat. Why? Both literary and historical texts are full of references to martial practices that are often missed or obscured by historians who have no familiarity with these issues. The end result is the perpetuation of a fundamentally inaccurate view of what life in late imperial China was really like that reflects our own cultural biases more than the actual source material. In short, Henning argues that Chinese martial studies is invaluable not just for what it tells us about the martial arts, but for what it suggests about Chinese culture as a whole.

This is absolutely critical as most scholars and casual readers are not all that interested in the martial arts. We are going to need to make an argument as to why they should invest their scarce time and resources in our work. The best way to do that is to demonstrate how a better understanding of the martial arts helps to make sense of larger and more pressing problems in Chinese history, such as the development of civil society, changing gender norms, the sources of political rebellion or the impact of changing economic conditions on village life. Martial arts studies will succeed as a research area to the extent that it can contribute to these more fundamental discussions.

Even if our own personal research interests are confined to the world of hand combat, we can still view these other sorts of arguments as a long term investment. By creating a more accurate portrait of Chinese society as a whole we will have a better idea of where to look for data regarding the martial arts. This is how long-term research programs typically progress. Each discovery about either society or the martial arts is valuable to the extent that it opens new avenues for exploration.

Adam D. Frank has done a nice job of illustrating how a systematic study of the martial arts can contribute to a number of other questions. In his ethnography of a martial arts group in Shanghai, titled Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man, he explores what these practices reveal about the creation of identity and community. Better yet, these findings suggest something about why, and under what conditions, a martial arts community will thrive in a global context.






This short essay has outlined four steps for writing better martial arts history. We have seen the importance of embracing what we do not know, being more explicit about the theories that inform our work, thinking about the media’s impact on martial arts discourses and answering the “so what” question. There are a number of other hints that one could give, but four is a nice round number for a list like this.

Readers who are primarily consumers of history should still give these questions some thought. We all want to be informed readers, and this list will help you to evaluate and critique your sources. Does the author simply seek to bolster folk history, or is their work grounded in some other set of questions? Are they explicit about their theoretical perspectives, or do they leave to the reader to guess their reasoning? Finally, is this work of real consequence? We all enjoy reading about the martial arts, but have I learned anything that changes my perspectives in a more fundamental way?

Once you can answer these questions for yourself you will be able to separate out martial arts history (as well as other forms of scholarship) from lineage apologetics.


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (8): Gu Ruzhang-Northern Shaolin Master and Southward Bound Tiger.