A group of Japanese pilgrims circa 1925.  Source: Wikimedia.
A group of Japanese pilgrims circa 1925. Source: Wikimedia.


Introduction: Pilgrimage in the Martial Arts


My friends can attest that I keep threatening to write a paper on the growth of “pilgrimage” in the modern martial arts community. In the current era this often takes the form of individuals traveling to the “homeland” (real or imagined) of their respective styles to experience a more “authentic” version of their art. Sometimes these martial arts tourists are looking for more, an experience that will test or transform them.

I am suspicious that earlier in the 20th century individuals flocked to the Asian martial arts precisely because they were viewed as a form of “virtual travel” which allowed one to explore what it meant to be Chinese or Japanese without undertaking the expense of actually leaving home. Extended travel abroad seems to be universally desired, but it is something that relatively few can actually afford. That was even more true before the advent of cheap trans-oceanic flights.

In point of fact it is likely to be a while before I actually undertake the sort of project that I am envisioning. It seems that I am always too preoccupied with other projects a little closer to home. But someday I am going to get that big research grant and take a closer look at these questions. Or maybe I will just reread J. Z. Smith’s works on pilgrimage and go from there. Who knows?

I have just returned from a different sort of trip, but one that also had the flavor of a pilgrimage. While on it I encountered a surprising number of fellow travelers all of whom shared the common goal of locating and mapping the various corners, questions and methods of the growing field of martial arts studies.

On June 10th-12th the first annual Martial Arts Studies Conference was held at the University of Cardiff in the UK. The event was a great success and it certainly exceeded my expectation in terms of the quality, number and enthusiasm of presentations. About fifty papers, addresses and special sessions were given over the course of two and half days. While most of the individuals at the conference were from Europe (the UK and Germany were both very well represented) individuals flew in from as far away as Hong Kong, Guam and Australia. I was actually pretty surprised by the number of Americans (both presenters and observers) that I encountered at the conference.

During the main sessions three panels were run concurrently which necessitated some hard choices. The topics covered were diverse, including titles such as “Women’s Martial Arts,” “The Historical Western Martial Arts,” “Bruce Lee” and “Historical Encounters” (which turned out to be Chinese martial arts history.) Conferences such as these are also a great way to catch up on current developments. At least three new or forthcoming books were discussed at the conference including Paul Bowman’s Martial Arts Studies, Alex Channon and Christopher R. Matthews (eds) Global Perspectives on Women in Combat Sports: Women Warriors around the World, and my own forthcoming book, The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.

While this conference was still small enough to feel intimate, the number of graduate students and junior faculty presenting their research suggested an impending explosion in both the scope and popularity of martial arts studies. Everyone was enthusiastic about both their own work and getting the opportunity to meet so many other scholars interested in similar topics.

This was a pleasant change. I cannot recount the number of times that I have presented papers at the meetings of national associations within my field only to discover a panel facing a room full of empty chairs, devoid of any trace of an audience. Increasingly it seems that these sorts of meetings are professional obligation where everyone is interesting in talking, but no one bothers to listen.

The audience participation and engagement at the Martial Arts Studies conference stood in stark contrast to what I have seen in so many other venues. It suggested to me that the formation of an actual community of fellow travelers is well under way.

Nor should we neglect to mention the conference venue itself. The School of Journalism was kind enough to offer their rooms for the meetings and the Park Plaza Hotel was very comfortable and modern. Cardiff is an extremely walkable city with a lot to explore in its downtown core. The Welsh countryside is also beautiful. Perhaps my only real regret about this year’s conference is that I did not book some extra days to explore the area. That is something that I will be sure to rectify next year.

While it is possible to convey something of the size and energy of a conference with such a description, inevitably it misses both the texture and substance of what were three very intense days of constant discussion and exploration. After all, the transformative work of a pilgrimage happens in each of the individuals steps along the way.

It is also a fact that no two visitors will ever experience the same conference in exactly the same way. Even if you went to every session that was offered, it wasn’t possible to see more than a fraction of the totals papers that were presented. Nor were all of us coming to the gathering with the same research interests or theoretical commitments. So while the “substance” of the conference might be the most interesting topic for readers, it is simultaneously the hardest thing to generalize about.

In an attempt to capture a sense of the gathering this post will concentrate on the keynotes and special presentations that were seen by most of the conference participants. In addition to summarizing the basic presentations I will attempt to pull out a few strands shared by each of the presenters. Obviously this is a subjective rendering. While this report strives to share some of the “theoretical meat” that was provided at the conference, it is still a description of my own pilgrimage into martial arts studies. Your mileage may vary. I offer my apologies in advance for any discussions that seem unnecessarily truncated or taken in a different direction from how you may have heard them.


Stephen Chan delivering the conferences opening keynote.  Source: http://martialartsstudies.blogspot.com/2015/06/conference-2015-and-2016.html
Stephen Chan delivering the conferences opening keynote. Source: http://martialartsstudies.blogspot.com/2015/06/conference-2015-and-2016.html


Is Martial Arts Studies a Discipline?
The basic tone for this conference was set by Professor Stephen Chan (prolific author, professor and sometimes Dean of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London). His excellent talk was whimsically titled “Martial Arts: The Imposture of an Impersonation of an Improvisation of Infidelities (amidst some few residual fidelities).” Interestingly, once one sorts through the various alliterations, the title actually conveys a fair sense of his understanding of the nature of the contemporary martial arts.

A highly experienced master of traditional Okinawan Karate, Chan drew on three distinct phases from his personal background to illustrate his theoretical assertions about how we should understand and discuss these practices. Yet this conversation did not actually start with Chan’s engaging presentation. Rather, it was Paul Bowman, who gave a brief welcoming statement before introducing Professor Chan, who first laid out one of the central lines of discussion which would repeatedly reemerge throughout the remainder of the conference.

Following the argument laid out in his recent book Martial Arts Studies Bowman noted the complex relationship that this new field of inquiry has with the traditional disciplines of the social sciences and humanities. In his view martial arts studies is inescapably “interdisciplinary” meaning that it not only crosses boundaries but challenges the project of creating and promoting discrete “walled gardens” within academia.

This is not to say that we can simply reject the disciplines out of hand. Martial arts studies has the ability to make contributions to many disciplinary discussions and could certainly benefit from their diverse research methods. But rather than seeing this simply as the creation of yet another discipline, with its own hegemonic logic, theoretical commitments and methods, Bowman suggested that we instead see martial arts studies as an “academic intervention.” [Again, readers who want to further explore these arguments should check out his most recent volume].

In his introductory statement Chan declared, at the risk of disappointing his host, that those of us interested in martial arts studies probably had a front row seat to the birth of a new discipline, one that would develop its own conventions and questions. He would return to this topic only at the end of his talk, but it seems that it is his understanding of the nature of the martial arts themselves which suggested to Chan both the inevitability of a disciplinary turn in their study as well as some thoughts about what sort of approach would be necessary.

Before tackling the question of what martial arts studies should become, Chan was first forced to explore what sort of practices the contemporary martial arts actually are. Given the diversity of martial arts in the modern world, how should we as scholars approach and understand these supposedly traditional institutions?

To suggest some answers to this question Chan drew on three episodes of his own (extremely extensive) background within the martial arts. The first of these (and for me the most fascinating) revolved around the memory of his Grandmother who was a swordswoman and militia leader in Guangdong province during the 1920s. This woman’s skills were more practical than theoretical in nature and she led a platoon of troops for one political faction against another. Her oldest son was kidnapped and murdered in retaliation for her actions forcing the family to flee into exile. Thus Chan’s first introduction to these practices was hearing stories of the horrors of being a martial artist caught up in the cycle of political violence during the warlord era.

Yet this experience was quite different from that enjoyed by his father (a student of Mantis Kung Fu) who studied the martial arts abroad, or Chan’s own background in the rough and tumble (and highly eclectic) Karate schools of his adopted home. So the question immediately arises, are the martial arts best thought of as a uniform event, essentially the same for everyone, or is this something that is always multi-stranded with many interpretations and inventions of its own history, even within a single style or lineage?

These same themes were further explored in two other eras of Chan’s martial arts career. The first of these involved his time teaching Karate as a young foreign service officer while stationed in Africa. The second focused on his personal study during repeated trips (dare we say pilgrimages?) to Japan and Okinawa to research the higher levels of his art.

While in Okinawa Chan was forced to confront the belief that Karate’s written history had been lost with the American destruction of much of the island’s infrastructure and records during the Second World War. He asked, if traditional Karate now exists only as a type of folklore and folk practice, how do you know that you can trust the stories? And trust them to do what? Further, when one considers the fact that the individuals who initially developed and practiced Karate were probably only marginally literate peasants or villagers, should we really be assuming that extensive documentation of this system ever existed in the first place?

Of course Okinawa has never existed in pristine isolation. It is part of a larger geographically and socially defined chain of islands connecting, and often contested by, the Japanese and Chinese empires. Nor would the American destruction of the royal palace in Okinawa have had much of an impact on records discussing this area and its martial traditions kept in other places, such as southern China and Taiwan.

After undertaking a study of the martial practices of this larger region while living in Taiwan, Chan was struck by the role of ships and the transient pirate/mercenary communities in the establishment of the region’s martial arts. He concluded that much of what we now think of as the “traditional roots” of “Okinawan” Karate were transported there and influenced by well-armed pirate groups coming out of China.

So what conclusions can we draw about the martial arts in general? Simply that there is no linear genealogy, at least of the sort that is so commonly celebrated, within the martial arts. When looking at each of the episodes Chan discovered that when you dig deep into specific instances of martial practice what you quickly discover is a combination of traditions picked up from various sources augmented with material that has simply been improvised in the current generation.

In his view this necessitates the development of martial arts studies as a distinct discipline. Why? Because our first step needs to be to strip the oddly persistent element of “faith” out of the discussion.

Rather than clinging to narratives about simple linear history we need to go where the facts dictate, and that necessitates a method of investigation. What should it be? Something that is concerned with broader theoretical questions and firmly grounded in the disciplines of sociology, language and geography. These are the skills necessary to tease apart and make meaning of the layers of inheritance and improvisation that seem to define every martial school. In short, one wonders whether Chan’s approach to martial arts studies is basically Asian Studies augmented with sociology or some other combination of social sciences?

Sixt Wetzler at the German Blade Museum.  Source: https://www.facebook.com/SwordExhibition/photos/a.309241532607580.1073741829.302837669914633/381039702094429/?type=1&theater
Sixt Wetzler at the German Blade Museum. Source: https://www.facebook.com/SwordExhibition/photos/a.309241532607580.1073741829.302837669914633/381039702094429/?type=1&theater


Defining the Martial Arts
Sixt Wetzler picked up many of these same threads in his presentation titled “Comparative Martial Arts Studies as a Cultural-Historical Discipline.” Currently finishing his PhD and working with the German Blade Museum, Wetzler has had the opportunity to watch the evolution of Martial Arts Studies within Germany. His observations of this growing literature has convinced him that we need a better conceptual framework for discussing and defining the martial arts before we can engage in more detailed comparative or theoretical work.

Throughout the course of his talk Wetzler seemed to take it for granted that martial arts studies was developing not just as a research area but as a more cohesive discipline. He noted that this sort of conceptual clarity was necessary for defining the shared objectives, sources and methods of martial arts studies.

At the moment scholars are having trouble unifying their discussions because of various “language gaps.” The most obvious of these are the many literatures where work is currently being done (in English, German, French, Chinese, Japanese etc….). Yet beyond simple questions of translation, other critical gaps also exist. Some of these are inherited from the unique vocabulary, concepts and concerns that students of the martial arts encounter within the various styles that they dedicate themselves too. Others originate in more academic and theoretical discussions as scholars from various disciplines sometimes find themselves talking past each other.

To address these gaps in communication Wetzler proposes his own discussion of the martial arts. Rather than accept the trend of proliferating sub-categories (martial arts vs. self-defense systems vs. combat sports vs. moving meditation…..) he suggests the adoption of a single more expansive category simply called “martial arts.”

Rather than being designed to exclude practices (seemingly the purpose of most definitions) this category should be understood as expansively as possible. Wetlzer proposes that most martial arts exhibit some unique balance of at least five (possibly more) core qualities and are implicated in a list of eight phenomenon.

Rather than breaking two practices (say professional MMA and Taijiquan instruction) into separate categories, he suggests that these practices might both be understood as “martial arts” which rank differently on the scales which define the five core characteristics. By conceptualizing the activities in this way researchers are naturally led to compare both points of difference and similarity. So while Wetzler’s method would lump many different types of activities into the same conceptual category, it would do so in such a way as to encourage comparative case studies and theoretical analysis.

Wetzler concluded his discussion by noting that the very nature of the martial arts defies simple definitions. This in turn requires the adoption of a method (in his cases poly systems theory) to make sense of it. Martial Arts Studies can indeed become a cohesive project, but as in the case of Religious Studies, that can only exist through a careful integration of the other preexisting disciplines. In a memorable line Wetzler suggests that we take up MMA, or “mixed methodological approaches” if we wished to advance as a field.



Left to Right: Doug Farrer, Scott Phillips, Paul Bowman.  Source: http://martialartsstudies.blogspot.com/2015/06/conference-2015-and-2016.html
Left to Right: Doug Farrer, Scott Phillips, Paul Bowman. Source: http://martialartsstudies.blogspot.com/2015/06/conference-2015-and-2016.html


Martial Arts Studies: An Anthropological Perspective


D. S. Farrer’s presentation showcased the strength of Anthropology as a discipline for students of martial arts studies. This is particularly helpful as ethnographers were some of the first students to fully grasp the theoretical potential of martial arts communities and have made a number of contributions through their work.

Professor Farrer (Anthropology, University of Guam) began his lecture by reviewing his own background in the martial arts and the multiple papers and manuscripts that emerged from each of these encounters. As someone who has been a fan of his work I was particularly interested in hearing a bit of the “inside story” on a number of my favorite articles.

When discussing his current research interests Farrer (whose slides can be found here) begins by noting that every martial art has an aspect based in “efficacy” (understood as a utility defined through the effective use of violence) and “entertainment” (the social or performative element.) Interestingly this also emerged as a broader theme in a number of papers that I heard in various panels. Various students of the Chinese martial arts were interested in the role of opera, or other types of performance, in both giving rise and meaning to these institutions.

I think that Farrer’s point is meant to be far more basic than this. We can say as a historical matter that certain arts, such as Choy Li Fut, are grounded in ritual and performance (in this case opera). Yet Farrer’s assertion is that even the most “reality based” self-defense system, because it exists as an institution within a social system, must by necessity have a performative aspect embedded within it.

Given that successful martial artists will need to master both of these realms, what happens if they become confused? Where do we see the potential for “false consciousness” arising within in the martial arts?

Farrer theorizes that such errors can result in “captivation” or the creation of “cognitive traps” for practitioners (who come to misunderstand their own art in self-reinforcing ways) and false correlations or historical connections within the work of academic commentators.

Still, such seemingly blind alleys may be useful. Consider the possibility of “occulturation.” This is the process by which slightly esoteric skills come to be reimagined as mystical or magical powers. Of course the existence of such occult forces (such as the reemergence of Qigong in China during the 1990s) is often useful in upholding broader cultural, social or metaphysical systems. Farrer also sees the logic of captivation may be behind the rise of the modern state (particularly in relation to Singapore).

While discussing the rapidly changing nature of the anthropological and ethnographic literature Farrer expressed his reservations about the concept of embodiment (particularly as popularized by Wacquant) and his “carnal sociology” project. He noted that much of this literature is now dated, even though it seems to be finding increasing favor among students of martial arts studies. He instead advised that it is critical to stay theoretically up to date, and that this is one of the advantages that a literature like martial arts studies has over the larger and more slowly evolving disciplines.

So what sort of discipline does Farrer imagine martial arts studies to be? It is clear that he views the project mostly through the lens of anthropology and (unsurprisingly) favors participant observation and other types of ethnography as his main research tools. His view of anthropology is social scientific in its orientation and highly grounded in the idea of collaborative research with members of the community (or as he put it, “studies with” rather than “studies of.”).

At the same time Farrer also called for a renewed emphasis on etic theory and a move away from the endless discussion of subjective categories such as embodiment, agency and habitus. He wishes to see a renewed emphasis on efficacy and entertainment as central concepts illustrating cultural praxis.

The most interesting (and unique) aspect of this conclusion was a call for greater practicality and participation within the community for students of martial arts studies. As this area develops he noted that it must have some actual practical benefit. Douglas Wile has previously suggested that students of martial arts studies might use their university backing to ensure the survival of certain traditional styles or practices. Farrer takes this logic a step further noting that researchers might through their contacts gain access to the Anthropology of the Police and become involved in either the solving of cold cases or as members of community oversight boards. This call for practical engagement between students of martial arts studies and the broader community was perhaps the most thought provoking aspect of Farrer’s discussion.


Paul Bowman and Meaghan Morris having a frank exchange of ideas.  Source: http://martialartsstudies.blogspot.com/2015/06/conference-2015-and-2016.html
Paul Bowman and Meaghan Morris having a frank exchange of ideas. Source: http://martialartsstudies.blogspot.com/2015/06/conference-2015-and-2016.html


What is the Use of Kung Fu?


The final keynote address that I will be discussing in this post was the concluding talk given by the very distinguished professor of Cultural Studies Meaghan Morris. Her presentation was titled “What is the Use of Kung Fu?” but she quickly clarified that of all of the possible readings of that phrase, perhaps the most interesting is actually, “what is the GOOD of kung fu?” Or, as one Chinese professor put the question to her after presenting a paper a conference, “Why are you interested in that feudal crap?”

Professor Morris’ quick answers to these questions seems to be that Kung Fu can help one to identify, and then act as a lens to understand, some of the most important traits that one finds in “ordinary culture” within Hong Kong.

Even if people are actually doing less traditional Kung Fu these days, the stories that they tell about the martial arts, and their frequent appearance in current youth parody and comedy skits being produced in Hong Kong (mostly in the wake of the failed umbrella movement), suggests much about the nature of current popular culture.

For Professor Morris, one of the most interesting aspects of the symbolic language of Kung Fu (particularly as it appears in visual mediums such as film) is the inherent contradictions in the stories that we see and the social and political flexibility that this bestows on the practices as a whole. More specifically, throughout the 20th century, there has always been a public role for Kung Fu stories, but they have never actually been just one thing. Their enduring cultural relevance comes from their flexibility along three separate scales.

First is the issue of pedagogy. Who is the ideal Kung Fu teacher? Someone who represents Confucian rectitude (such as Wong Fei Hung in the 1950s) or a trickster and vagabond teacher such as those who inhabit the world of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master? Again, Morris notes that both of these ideal types are always present but the balance between them changes over time. This is an expression of flexibility in the face of changing political or social events.

Second is the question of aesthetics. What do audiences want to see, gritty realistic violence or the fantasy of flying swordsmen? Again, both of these movements have a long and established history in Hong Kong. Morris went to some lengths to point out that Cantonese Opera actually had a well established flying swordsmen tradition that was imported more or less directly to film.

The third (and unfortunately least explored of these dyads due to the constraints of time) was the debate between the value of “inheritance” within the martial arts (pure lineage) versus the creative improvisation (Bruce Lee’s JKD to name a single example). Again, both types of transmission are held up as ideal types in different films, and the balance between these stories shifts over time seemingly reflecting social change.

So what is the use of Kung Fu in the current era? Morris turned to the recent run of Ip Man films (particularly Herman Yau’s Ip Man: the Final Fight) as self-consciously crafted answers to that very question. In The Final Fight we see Ip Man struggling not with modernity in the abstract, but with the collapse of the social fabric of Hong Kong under the weight of massive immigration from the north. From this more crowded environment and fragile economic circumstance, Kung Fu allowed him (and others) to find creative ways of expressing both their values and offering resistance to their circumstances.

Morris goes on to claim that recently this same influence can be seen in the political satire of the many youth parody groups from Hong Kong making their presence felt on Youtube and other similar platforms. Comedy and performance have always been preferred modes of protest by those who feel that they have been stripped of any meaningful influence on the state. So it is fascinating to note how often these social and political critics turn to the language of the martial arts to make their points (even if they have nothing to do with the actual practice of these systems).

What then is the use of Kung Fu? Resistance. It has long been a tool of self-creation and resistance in crowded areas of southern China, buffeted by shifting systemic forces, which demand a creative response. Far from being “feudal,” the vitality of Kung Fu springs from its endless ability to re-imagine itself in the face of one challenge after another.


Bute Building University of Cardiff


Conclusion: Terra Incognita


What are the martial arts and how does this condition our understanding of martial arts studies? Are we witnessing the birth of a new discipline, or something else entirely? Finally, what is the use of this type of research, and how will it relate to the social communities that ultimately gave rise to it?

These were some of the central questions that ran though the keynote addresses. They were even picked up in a number of the paper presentations. The discussion of these issues was both productive and exciting. Yet it would be wrong to claim that we have all of the answers. Indeed, by their very nature these are the sorts of questions that demand careful elaboration and periodic revaluation. While this conference did an admirable job of laying out the central issues, I think that much of the discussion still lies ahead.

What is martial arts studies? At this point we remain pilgrims in an undiscovered country, one that we are still struggling to come to terms with. Of course the journey itself is transformative, and the strength of the community engaged with these questions is coming into sharper relief. It is defined by its youth, disciplinary diversity and enthusiasm. Perhaps the most important thing that I observed at this conference was the degree to which people were willing to engage with both questions and methods that crossed disciplinary lines. Indeed, Sixt Wetzler’s call for more MMA (mixed methodological approaches) within martial arts studies seems to have been enthusiastically answered.

Observant readers may have noticed that one keynote is missing from this review. For reasons of time I omitted my own address even though it also touched on these same questions. Still, I think that the foregoing discussion provides a nice overview of the central questions that arose over the course of the conference. Hopefully I will get to my own thoughts on these topics (many of which regular readers will already be somewhat familiar with) in the next week or two. After that it will be time to start thinking about my paper for next year!




If you enjoyed this you might also want to read:  Will Universities Save the Traditional Asian Martial Arts?