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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Studies

Lineage and Social Analysis in Martial Arts Studies

Heibi Guoshu School, located in Tianjin (1927). Source: Taiping Institute

Heibi Guoshu School, located in Tianjin (1927). Source: Taiping Institute




Consider the following, seemingly unrelated, incidents:

While conducting field work in Sioux City Iowa in 1862 the lawyer and self-trained ethnographer Lewis Henry Morgan received a telegraph informing him that his two daughters, ages two and six, had just died of scarlet fever. Left emotionally broken and despondent the early anthropologist abandoned the field project that he had been working on since 1859. His diary entry for the day reads in part “Thus ends my last expedition. I go home to my stricken and mourning wife, a miserable and destroyed man.”

Following this unexpected blow Morgan must have doubted that his partially completed (but incredibly complex and expensive) project would ever see the light of day. Luckily for us and the field of anthropology it did. But for now we must leave him to his grief and check in with a more recent project.

Early last year I sat down with an informant of my own. Unlike Morgan, who was studying the terminology of kinship systems across a wide range of cultures and languages (e.g., “What do you call your fathers sister?”  “What do you call you mother’s sister?”), my research interest were more “kinetic” in nature. I was just beginning a period of participant-observation in a local kickboxing community.

From a martial studies standpoint I like kickboxing as it provides a nice contrast with the traditional schools of Chinese hand combat I normally focus on. In more practical terms it also gives me a way of interacting with the modern combat sports community without having to dedicate myself to jujitsu (it seems that I am a striker at heart).  Nor does it hurt that the workouts are great.

No one would consider me to be an experienced ethnographer. Most of my writing is social scientific and historical in nature. Still, the very nature of martial arts studies makes it difficult to ignore the anthropological angle. At some point those of us who discuss the value of “interdisciplinary work” must move beyond the comfort zone of forever replicating what we did in graduate school and go do something about it. Luckily I had a little experience with ethnographic fieldwork to call on.

One afternoon I got together with my trainer James (who was preparing for an important fight) for an additional workout (unending rounds on the heavy bag followed by some combinations and defense drills). After a grueling workout I steered the conversation towards his own trainer (a well-known figure in local circles who had competed at all levels as a younger man before opening his own gym.) As we discussed his background and career, I started to ask a line of questions that Lewis Henry Morgan would have found quite familiar.

So who was your teacher’s trainer? How is he discussed back at the home gym in Rochester? [Locations and names have been scrubbed of identifying information following the normal protocol]. What kinds of disciplines was he trained in? Are there pictures of those guys in his gym? What was it like to be a kickboxer back in the 1970a-1980s? And where did this style of kickboxing come from anyway? In short, I started to ask all of the very basic questions that would give any martial artist a chance to talk about their “lineage.”

What happened next surprised us both. James, who understood and shared my interest in martial arts studies, found that he did not have much to say. He could tell me about his relationship with his trainer, but he didn’t know that much about how he had gotten into the fight game or where his specific skills came from. He could talk about some of his teacher’s better known fights, but he didn’t really know that much about the environment that he came out of. Nor had he ever thought to ask about the deep history of kickboxing.



Ip Man and an early group of students in the 1950s. In many ways Ip Man represents the fundemental paradox of the modern martial art's quest for authenticity. He was an undenibaly genuine and talented local martial artist, yet he is current being infused back into Chinese martial culture through the medium of almost entirely fictional films.

Ip Man and an early group of students in the 1950s.



Lineages in the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

I say that this surprised us both because James was familiar with some aspects of the Chinese martial arts. He wanted to cross-train in Wing Chun, was a huge Bruce Lee fan and had a deep interest in Jeet Kune Do. James knew about lineages as they existed in the Chinese martial arts and he understood what I was driving at. He knew specific lineage narratives for Wing Chun, Taiji and the Gospel according to Bruce. But it had never occurred to him that these sorts of modes of social organization could (or should) apply to the world of Kickboxing.

In Wing Chun we both knew that you called your teacher’s (Sifu) teacher “Sigung.” Lineages have a specific kinship terminology that defines everyone’s relationship with regards to both the speaker and the creator of the system. In Kickboxing things weren’t as clear. It wasn’t simply a matter of substituting “Coach” for “Sifu.” James couldn’t tell me who his trainer’s coaches had been because it really didn’t matter. It had just never come up. He followed his trainer (with almost filial devotion) because he had been a champion as a younger man and his teaching methods got results. That was it. The more I listened to the conversations that arose organically, the more I realized that I had been asking the wrong questions to really understand the nature of this community.

As I spent more time with this group I quickly learned that all of my questions had straight forward answers. The information was out there. In fact, Jame’s trainer turned out to be full of fascinating historical reminisces and could explain the evolution of the local Kickboxing community in excruciating detail. Yet while everyone involved agreed that this sort of stuff was fascinating, it wasn’t what you indoctrinated new students into.

Of course that is exactly what we tend to do in the Chinese martial arts. We don’t just teach you basic punching, kicking and footwork skills in the first few months of class. We also set aside time to tell the lineage creation stories, to fill you in on proper modes of address, and explain in some detail who those guys in the pictures are that you bow to at the start and end of every class. This is a critical part of becoming a member of a Kung Fu “family” or “clan.”

Most Kung Fu students learn two bodies of information in addition to physical skills. First they hear a global set of stories (usually historical in nature) explaining the nature of their art, and then they are introduced to a local set of narratives explaining how they personally are connected to all of this. All of this information is also passed on and understood through the short hand of a “lineage chart” which can be seen on the school’s webpage and as well as its physical walls. This simple genealogical argument (and I have selected that word very carefully) allows any student to see at a glance their connection to both the luminaries of the art and its “sacred history.” I suspect that on a personal level this is what it all comes down to. In the TCMA the lineage chart is critical to one’s new identity because it makes “real” the connection to something larger and more wonderful than the self.

The ideas behind the lineage system are so simple and elegant that it is easy to assume that these structures are universal. We do see lineages in a wide variety of martial arts, from the Japanese to the Chinese and the South East Asian. Even in western traditions we see things that appear to be similar, whether it’s the fencing schools of the Italian renaissance or the training camps of professional kickboxing and MMA.

David Brown, a Reader in the Sociology of Sports at Cardiff Metropolitan University, is one scholar who has attempted to uncover the seemingly universal nature of lineages in the martial arts and combat sports. As he argues in his chapter “Body-experience Lineages in Martial Arts Culture” in Keith Gilbert’s (ed.) Fighting: Intellectualising Combat Sports (Common Ground, 2014) that the embodied nature of the martial arts basically mandates the creation of lineages.

Drawing on a specific body of social theory, Brown argues that in the martial arts as in life the central problem is death. Society has created all sorts of mechanisms by which economic and social capital can be passed intergenerationally. But the unique skills and types of embodied knowledge that are gained through the practice of these combat systems are held only by highly transient bodies.

The fragility of this sort of bodily capital becomes a real problem when society decides that these skills are important for its survival. While a martial art may best been imagined as an intergenerational project, the bodies that actually express, and are constructed by, this knowledge have at best a fleeting association with it. So how do martial institutions bridge this biologically given gap?

Drawing on Bourdieu’s writings on the sociology of sport, Brown concludes that lineages allow individual skills to be transformed into “incorporated capital.” Through direct contact with a teacher these movements, pressures, energies and feelings can be passed from teacher to student. But their transformation into a source of personal capital does something even more important. It creates an incentive to promote the process of dissemination. As both Brown and Bourdieu note, the creation of specific lineages creates a specific social mechanism by which incorporated capital can be transformed into social capital (webs of relationships), economic capital (money) and even symbolic capital (identity, social status and power.)

In short, engaging in lineage creation not only allows the traditional martial arts to overcome the limits of human mortality, but it provides the masters of these systems a platform from which to launch their own arguments about the true nature of the body, the uses it is best put to, the legitimacy of embodied social conflict, and the relationship between these factors and larger social questions. In short, multiple social theorists have been interested in sports and bodily practices precisely because such technologies relate to a number of theoretically and politically important questions.

Brown’s arguments are theoretically well supported and succinct. In fact, anyone who is interested in the social functions of lineages within the Japanese or Chinese martial arts will want to add this chapter to their reading list. But functional theories of outcomes should not be confused with organic explanations of why they are (re)created by certain individuals in specific times and places.

Brown’s readings of lineages seem to be closely tied to the sorts of social organizations that arose in the Japanese and Chinese martial arts in the Qing Dynasty and the 20th century. If one wishes to understand these institutions across a wider stretch of geography or time, we must ask some basic questions. First, are his fundamental assumptions correct? Are lineages primarily a way of preserving the technical transmission of an art in the face of limited human mortality? The second, and closely related assumption, is that martial arts systems themselves are the correct level of analysis for students interested in the origin and functional significance of lineages as social institutions. And lastly, is the existence of Chinese style lineages, drawing on stylized Confucian kinship models, really as universal as Brown suggests?


A vintage French Postcard. Source: Author's Personal Collection.

A vintage French Postcard. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.




Rethinking the Function of Lineage in the Martial Arts



I suspect that the last of these questions is the easiest to deal with so we will begin there. One of my professors used to say that there were two types of people in the social sciences. You have “lumpers,” who by nature tend to group similar things together and “splitters,” more concerned with pointing out differences. Both impulses are critical to constructing good sociological theories. Yet in this case I must give the “splitters” the edge.

While Brown lays out an argument as to why one should expect to see lineages, and argues for their existence across a wide range of arts, problems begin to emerge when one looks closely at any of these examples. Yes, there are lineages in both traditional Chinese and Japanese arts, but the rules of transmission in a Tokugawa era fencing school are not necessarily all that similar to a Hong Kong Wing Chun school today.

Yes, Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do movement does seem to be (somewhat ironically) interested in constructing its own lineages of legitimate authority.  Yet one suspects that the motivations behind this impulse are very different from the sorts of functions that lineage might have served in cementing a village militia which actually expected to fight together on the battlefield. Likewise, as my starting example demonstrated, nods to MMA training camps not-withstanding, the modern western combat sports have very different form of social organization than traditional Kung Fu Schools. Conflating the two does nothing to help us understand either.

That lineages exist to transmit embodied capital between generations seems trivially true. What is actually much more interesting is the differences, some subtle, others major, that arise between even historically related arts as they start to cross temporal, social or national boundaries.

It is now time to return to Lewis Henry Morgan. D. S. Farrer recently noted that the field of Anthropology is both a rich and confusing place for students of Martial Arts Studies as it seems to theoretically reinvent itself once every 15 years. New research tools are always being generated, but a lot is constantly going out fashion.

Luckily Farrer suggested that his field has an inbuilt mechanism to deal with this. In the early 20th century the eminent anthropologist Franz Boaz suggested that the native and “primitive” peoples of the world were on the verge of extinction. Their societies simply could not survive the onslaught of modernity. As such anthropologists were needed for “salvage” and “preservation” work. It was their job to go and record the languages, stories, technologies and cultures of these groups before they were lost forever.

Of course the first peoples of the world did not disappear, and “salvage anthropology” is not much discussed today. But Farrer notes that such an approach is still very useful when dealing with the history of anthropological theory itself. In addition to keeping up with the latest work, the astute anthropologist would also be mindful of previous attempts to deal with similar problems. Anthropology can advance by selectively “salvaging” needed concepts from its own past.

Morgan’s essential problem was that at the start of his ethnographic research he only knew a single kinship system, derived from western cultural history. But when he sat down to talk with various sorts of Native Americans he quickly discovered that this model of family and descent did not fit their understanding of their own society. In fact, these peoples had highly developed kinship systems that bore only a passing resemblance to what Morgan was familiar with.

Nor did the variation in kinship systems seem to be random. Instead there were a few major types that seemed to be most common (often with minor variations). Morgan further noted that specific kinship systems also tended to be associated with other variables describing a group’s social organization and mode of economic production (e.g., horticulture versus agriculture).

In order to test his theory that kinship system and modes of social organization were related (like any good 19th century theorist he guessed in evolutionary terms) Morgan gathered data from groups all over the world. He discovered that in general the patterns that he identified held. His theory, published in the massive Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (Smithsonian, 1871) became a cornerstone of the modern field of anthropology. While modern anthropology rejects his evolutionary explanations of the correlations that he found, his discovery that kinship systems and their terminology offers a window onto social organization still holds today.

While the death of his daughters was tragic, it did spur Morgan on to recording and systematizing his ideas. And I suspect that he has some lessons for students of martial arts lineages. Yes it is significant that the imagery of family lineages is so often seen in seemingly unrelated systems. But more important is the variations that we see in how lineages are defined, the specific functions that they perform and even the terminology that they adopt. And as we think more carefully and systematically about these differences we might learn something important about the underlying social structures that actually support and uphold martial arts institutions.

This then brings us to our second point. When thinking about lineages, what should researchers take as their object of study? Brown’s article never explicitly addresses this point, but his basic assumptions are highly relevant here. He begins by assuming that lineages are fundamentally a way for martial arts institutions to transmit themselves intergenerationally. This is the reason that they were created. As such the institutional body of the martial arts system becomes the natural focus of study.

But is this really the case? Are lineages actually necessary to pass on an art, and is this the actual function that they perform?

Its interesting to note that during the Ming dynasty many individuals dedicated themselves to the martial arts, yet the sort of continuous and stable lineages that we have today are generally lacking in period accounts. The heroes of books like Water Margin have colorful back-stories, yet none of them gained their martial prowess in anything like a modern martial arts school or even a family lineage. Even accounts of military training at the Shaolin Temple during the late Ming describe something much more akin to a professional martial university, where students took classes on a variety of subjects from multiple teachers, than a modern Chinese lineage system of direct transmission from (and loyalty to) a single master.

The sorts of lineages that one sees in the Chinese martial arts now are in reality a reflection of more fundamental social changes that arose in Chinese families during the early and middle years of the Qing dynasty, and only became universal at its end. As the economic historian David Faure has demonstrated in exquisite detail, the sorts of kinship organization that we tend to take for granted as being “typically Chinese” arose out of ritual and economic reforms that took place in the late Ming and Qing which encouraged new types of corporate landholding as a means of passing wealth intergenerationally.

Thus the specific type of kinship organization that we see in the Chinese martial arts do not really reflect anything essential about the nature of these arts themselves. Rather, as Morgan would suggest, the terminology is a reflection of more basic economic and cultural changes that were happening in society at large. And there is really no reason to expect to see them in other societies or at other points in time. It is this element of variability which actually makes them valuable to social observers.

Nor is it actually clear to me that lineages do a good job of preserving knowledge from one generation to the next. Its not hard to take any art (Taiji, Wing Chun, Bagua) and note the vast differences that arise in practice between one generation and the next as you move laterally across lineage groups. One could argue that lineages are more often used as sites for the production of innovation and competition within the martial arts marketplace than they are mechanisms for conservation. I have actually explored this point extensively elsewhere.

This was at least part of Bourdieu’s point. The sociology of sports is relevant because of what it reveals about society and the struggles surrounding the pressing issues of the day. The ultimate unit of analysis then is not the football team, the swimming league or the martial arts lineage. Rather it is the team, the league or the lineage in relation to society. What do these units reveal about more fundamental social processes?


A still from The New Masters.

A still from The New Masters, filmed at an MMA training camp in China.



Conclusion: The Martial Arts, Lineage and Social Violence

In some ways these questions are the most pressing when applied to martial arts lineages. Seemingly any sporting event can become a site for social competition. But whereas hooliganism may arise in certain circumstances in some football leagues, violence is at the ontological heart of martial arts training.

No matter the degree to which one attempts to ritualize, medicalize or modernize a martial arts system, each one carries within it the memory that it was once a means of individual defense, collective violence or social conflict. That memory is deeply implicated (sometimes in complex or paradoxical ways) in the identities that these systems construct.

Lineages are interesting as these are institutions that allow for specific types of embodied capital to be spread and simultaneously transformed into sources of economic and social power for their leaders. They provide them with a platform to contest basic ideas about the true nature of the body and the proper use of conflict and resistance.

There are certainly other types of groups that do this. Criminal gangs, revolutionary causes, long running protest movements and paramilitary organizations all come to mind. Indeed, at one point or another martial arts lineages in China seem to have been associated with each of these things.

In general society and the government are quite good at suppressing potentially violent groups that are deemed as undesirable. This was even the fate of much of the Chinese hand combat world during the middle years of the Qing dynasty.

Yet one of the really interesting things to me is that while the martial arts are occasionally viewed with suspicion, they are often tolerated to a greater degree than one might expect. Why? What does society hope to gain from promoting (or at least tolerating) these movements?

Again, one suspects that the answer to this question will vary quite a bit from case to case. It seems unlikely to me that politicians in China in the 1930s, and their counterparts in the Netherlands in the 2000s, both of whom were supporting martial arts organizations, actually wanted the same thing from them. Yet what this suggests is that we should take society (or some aspect of it) as our basic unit of analysis. Not only does it determine the specific form that the lineage will take, but even the most basic functions that it will provide. The lineage is analytically useful precisely because of what it might reveal about the nature and scope of social contests.

While some might object that such an emphasis takes us away for the “real martial arts,” I suspect that opening a pathway for such studies is ultimately a good thing for martial arts studies. If Morgan had focused only on the philology of kinship terms his work would have long since been forgotten. But by connecting kinship to social structure he helped to lay the foundations for the modern field of anthropology. Likewise, when we demonstrate how variations within the martial arts reveals new insights about the sources of social conflict, we will set the cornerstone for a revolution of our own.







If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Yim Wing Chun and the “Primitive Passions” of Southern Kung Fu




2 thoughts on “Lineage and Social Analysis in Martial Arts Studies

  1. Interesting! Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is one art where lineage is still very important, albeit only going back about a century.

    Posted by Vince Millett | July 17, 2015, 4:11 am


  1. Pingback: What is a lineage? Rethinking our (Dangerous) Relationship with History | Kung Fu Tea - September 25, 2015

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