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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Studies, Southern China

Costly Signals, Credible Threats and the Problem of Reality in the Chinese Martial Arts

Chinese martial arts display. Northern China, sometime in the 1930s.

Chinese martial arts display. Northern China, sometime in the 1930s.  I particularly like the wide assortment of traditional weapons which can be seen in this photo.  Source: Author’s Personal Collection.




“War is a continuation of politics with other means”
-Carl von Clausewitz, On War

“A sabre,” said my teacher, Szabo,”is a tool for changing your opponent’s mind.”
-“The Sabre’s Edge” by Rogan Winter





No topic seems to have grabbed the attention of so many martial arts thinkers, reformers and writers as “reality.” The concept enjoys a prominent place in the ongoing debates about the fate of the traditional hand combat systems in the age of the mixed martial arts and the UFC. Other individuals have employed the metaphor differently, emphasizing the importance of “real world self-defense.”

Nor is this a recent rhetorical innovation. It turns out that certain actors have been debating the reality of the martial arts since the early years of the 20th century. We often forget that the seemingly traditional disciplines of Judo and Kendo in Japan, or the Jingwu Association in China, were themselves reform movements. Their creators were quite concerned with the role of these combat systems in the larger “body politic” of the nation state. For them reality was a matter of modernization and reform.

The advocates of “reality” have never spoken with a single voice. Their discourse has always woven together competing demands and irreconcilable differences as to what the brave new future of the martial arts should hold. This is not to say that they were without some points of convergence. In fact, the one thing that seemingly everyone could agree on was that there was something seriously wrong with the traditional Chinese martial arts.

Secrecy was, and continues to be, viewed as the bane of these systems. Techniques passed on only to favored disciples can imperil the survival of a lineage. Likewise, the inability to standardize practices and the principles of advancement seriously hampered the state’s ability to co-opt these systems of regional knowledge and redeploy them as tools of government policy and nation building. Indeed, the continuing struggle to reform and expand the duan system in mainland China today demonstrates that this has been a long term problem for generations of reformers.

Needless to say, modern combat sports practitioners question many aspects of traditional training, including its emphasis on the learning and performance of various sorts of forms. While weapons play an important part in criminal violence, most schools continue to teach focus on skills such as the sword, spear and tiger fork rather than the more commonly encountered knife, handgun and crowbar. Other modernizers question whether activities such as meditation, internal training or lion dancing should even be associated with the “real” martial arts at all. Where some see cultural richness and heritage, others perceive only techniques that have no place in the octagon.

The following essay will argue that the idea of “reality” is probably doing less to advance our popular (and occasionally even academic) discussions of the martial arts than is generally thought. Or perhaps it would be better to say that our notions of “reality” are sadly under-conceptualized. Violence may be a reality of life. But even a few moments of thought should be enough to convince us that the sorts of violence faced by a modern fighter pilot, a member of a prison cell extraction team and an MMA athlete have very little in common. Each of them might be seriously injured in the pursuit of their occupation. Yet one suspects that their “personal realities” are better defined by their differences than similarities.

It then stands to reason that if we are going to speak about “reality,” particularly as it applies to the traditional Chinese martial arts, we must first begin by being very clear as to who we are talking about and what sorts of situations they actually face. Once we do this a number of complicating factors emerge. Many of the most traditional and seemingly backwards aspects of these social organizations may serve important social function. Finally, I suggest that concepts like “credibility,” “reputation” and “costly signaling” may do more to advance our understanding of the TCMA as a community based strategy for dealing with social violence than the ever shifting mirage of “reality.”


Detail of postcard showing traditional practitioners performing in a marketplace. Japanese postcard circa 1920.

A 1920s postcard showing traditional practitioners performing in a marketplace. Note that both the previous images rest on the assumption of an unseen audience who observes and evaluates this performance. Source: Author’s Personal Collection



Consider the Ants…


Ants are one of the most successful species to ever inhabit the planet earth. Like humans they are social animals that depend on complex systems of communication and specialization for the survival of the community. They also resemble us in having found ingenious ways to colonize and utilize a remarkable percentage of this planet’s landmass. In fact, their sheer population density can lead to some other, less charming, parallels. Certain types of ants commonly engage in border disputes with neighboring colonies.

In a recent review of The Professor in the Cage (Penguin 2015), I criticized a number of aspects of the Jonathan Gottschall’s theoretical and empirical approaches to the problem of social violence. Simply put, I do not believe that evolutionary biology can explain nearly as much about the varieties of violence as the author does.

Still, Gottschall is an engaging writer and I actually liked quite a few things about his sixth chapter titled “War Games.” My initial review of his work ran longer than anticipated so I did not get a chance to explore a few of his insights there. While I continue to disagree with him as to the ultimate cause of these variables, I agree that his observations here raise important issues to consider when studying the problem of social violence. Of particular importance was his discussion of warfare among ants.

As a student of international relations I have spent a lot of time reading, thinking and teaching about war. While my personal research has been in the subfield of political economy, basic IR theory has always been dominated with questions of war and peace. Classes on foreign and security policy tend to generate the sort of student credit hours that cash strapped departments are looking for. And it turns out that we and ants have reached many of the same conclusions about fighting.

The basic problem with warfare, as any scholar of international relations (or soldier ant) can tell you, is that it is very costly. This is a result of the private information (or secrets) that each side hold about their true capabilities. In a world with no secrets, where both sides knew the others’ exact strengths or weaknesses, actual combat would probably never happen. Both sides would be able to calculate with precision who would win, and what the costs would be, in advance of an actual fight.

In this case fighting is not only mathematically irrational, it is just plain dumb. Knowing the outcome in advance the losing side should just hand over what would have been taken. The unpleasantness of war is averted and neither side suffers the material destruction that combat always bring. In short, both sides are better off if you reach a deal rather than fighting. Just like you learned in kindergarten.

Unfortunately we do not live in a world with perfect information about what all actors are actually capable of. Given that no one has a magical crystal ball, everyone will have a very strong incentive to make themselves appear to be stronger than they really are in an effort to convince the others to back down. To further complicate matters, we realize that everyone else is probably lying about their true capabilities, just as we are. As such their shows of strength, giant military parades or promises of bloody retaliation lack credibility.

In practice both sides of any conflict have difficulties calculating what the true probabilities of victory are, or what they stand to lose when they tangle with an opponent of unknown strength. And that is a problem because history has shown that these sorts of calculations on the part of political elites really matter. Countries don’t necessarily go to war because they think they will win. They go to war because they think that they will profit. Actually, China’s long history of negotiations with bandit warlords is a fantastic illustration of this very principal, but that is a topic for another post.

The basic problem then is that under the shadow of incomplete information, talk is cheap. Neither side has an incentive to believe that the threats or promises of the other are legitimate, and so both may miscalculate what they will gain in absolute terms from fighting. Or in the words of one of my teachers “war is in the error term.”

What is really painful about this situation is that diplomats have sensed this, at least on some level, for a very long time. Yet there are no quick and easy ways to escape this problem. Promises lack credibility, and verification schemes can easily be spoofed.

What is needed is some way to bring credibility to the bargaining table. Specifically, genuinely strong parties need to be able to send a signal that everyone can observe which cannot be spoofed. The classic solution to this dilemma is to turn away from promises to inflict pain on the other guy, and to instead do something which inflicts a little pain on yourself.

In the political science literature we refer to these efforts as “costly signals” and it is hoped that they will do at least three things. First, they demonstrate the reality of your resolve. Second they signal your ability to actually pay the costs of carrying out the threat in question (most threats are inherently incredible, but again, that is a post for another day). Lastly, they establish your reputation among other player who may be watching this conflict, but who are not directly involved in it. By creating a strong reputation now you lower the probability of future conflict.

How all of this plays out in the world of modern diplomacy can be somewhat abstract. For instance, economic sanctions are generally only credible (and effective) if the target believes that they are the first step on an escalatory pathway that goes someplace very bad. Sanctions programs that only impose pain on foreign companies are generally seen as lacking this sort of credibility. But if the sending country is willing to impose the sorts of sanctions that would materially damage one of its own important industries, then other players generally sit up and take notice. That is a pretty clear sign that something much worse is coming in the immediate future if steps are not taken now.

Likewise if a leader responds to an attack against their national interest by flying some isolated drone missions, what the antagonist may perceive is that she does not care enough about this issue to risk putting lives on the line. As such they should push forward with their provocations. However, placing “boots on the ground” (and hence in harms way) generally sends a much louder signal about one’s resolve. Again, it is often the costly signal, the one that imposes a certain amount of political or economic pain on yourself, that helps to clarify the problems of incomplete information and avoid needless conflict.

Remarkably the ants have come to the same conclusions without the aid of game theory or formal mathematical models. Gottschall points out that when the worker ants of two competing colonies encounter each other in the field they do not simply engage in total war. That would lead to highly unpredictable and needlessly costly outcomes for both sides. Instead each faction summons its specialized warriors. They form lines, march back and forth, show off their mandibles and engage in limited raids.

This behavior is highly stylized and is notably different from the ant version of “real” warfare. But to say that their behavior in this instance lack “reality” would be to miss the point of what is actually going on. It is still a form of costly violence. Mounting the appropriate mock skirmish lines sacrifices colony resources and it reveals information about the number, variety and strength of the communities in question that is very difficult to fake. In short, it moves the ants out of the realm of incomplete information, and a little closer that theoretical space where the “error term” goes away and unnecessary conflict disappears. A few very weak colonies might simply be overrun after failing to mount a mock defense. But the more usual situation is that both sides sense the relative strength of the two communities, and the shared resources are reallocated towards the stronger party without damaging conflict.

Not bad for a group of insects that have never had the benefit of an intro IR course. Of course the ants have had millions of years to develop their own unique approach to intra-species diplomacy. Gottschall concludes that since similar behaviors can be seen in a wide range of species, from humans to ants, that they must have some sort of basis in evolutionary biology.

I disagree with the last part of this chain of reasoning. Genetic pressure seems like an odd thing to turn to in this case as humans and ants are not particularly closely related and experience selective pressure quite differently. Instead the logic of costly signaling stems from the problem of limited perception and incomplete information. It is fundamentally a paradox of meaning and communication that has been predicted, explored and explained in painstaking mathematical details by theorists such as James Fearon (who developed this concept) and Kenneth Schultz. The mathematical models of both of these scholars would seem to indicate that these patterns of behavior arise out of a very specific sets of structural constraints rather than Darwinian destiny.


A Dragon Dance performed by the Ben Kiam Athletic Association in Manila, Philippines, sometime during the 1950s. Copyright Tambuli Media.

A Dragon Dance performed by the Ben Kiam Athletic Association in Manila, Philippines, sometime during the 1950s. Copyright Tambuli Media.



Lion Dancing and the Reality of Kung Fu


Still, these questions of ultimate origins are much less important when we stop to consider how these same principals might apply to the social role of Lion Dancing in the southern Chinese martial arts. I suspect that students of Martial Arts Studies always suffer from what might be called “technical envy.” By this I mean that we tend to be really curious about, and latch onto questions concerning, techniques and practices that are not part of our specific training. In general this expression of human curiosity is a good thing as it helps to avoid too narrow a sectarian view of the martial arts.

Most Wing Chun schools in the Ip Man lineage are not involved with Lion Dancing; so that has always been something that I have struggled to wrap my mind around. In my research I have been particularly interested in accounts of the sorts of social violence and competition that accompanied Lion Dancing in Guangdong during the 1920s-1930s, Hong Kong in the 1950s-1960s and even New York City in the 1970s.

The political scientist in me is fascinated by the fact that a lot of this conflict was rooted in questions of territory and often seemed like an outgrowth of social competition between other important factions or players in local society. Simply put, martial arts schools in southern China during the 1920s-1930s did not exist in a vacuum. They were supported by clan associations, guilds, secret societies, criminal groups, social movements and even political factions.

While not everyone in a given martial arts school might be equally aware of these meta-structural issues, these larger players seem to have benefited from having access to a body of disciplined, somewhat militarized, young men who could project their image in the local community. I think that it goes without saying that there was always a tacit threat in this. But these groups also played a more positive role during community festivals and possibly through their civic associations.

Still, the example of the ants and their solution to the dilemma of incomplete information might help to illustrate certain aspects of what was going on in those tense minutes when two rival Lion Dance troupes met in the street. The size and discipline of each group, as well as their subtle performance of signs of respect and disrespect, were the elements that comprised a form of territorial conflict. Many of these groups were competing for turf. Business owners had to pay for performances and these activities were never without the occasional accusation of being a protection racket. Yet on a more fundamental level one wonders whether this was really about the Lion Dancers at all?

When two troops of Lion Dancers met in the streets of Foshan in the 1920s, was this really a stylized competition between groups of independent martial artists? Or was it a meeting between the much larger Hung Sing and the Zhong Yi associations who organized many of these troops? Or were they simply a cat’s paw for the more deadly conflict between the leftist labor unions and local KMT party machinery that backed these larger community organizations?

In short, individuals who worry about the “reality” of the traditional Chinese martial art and their association with practices such as Lion Dancing, may need to take a step back and reevaluate some of their more basic assumptions. As I mentioned in a discussion with a friend the other day, many of the current uses of the term “reality” seem to focus rather narrowly on the athletic prowess of individual athletes. And there is absolute nothing wrong with that. If your goal is to win a match in the octagon (as was Gottschall’s) then it would be counterproductive not to spend a lot of time and effort in an MMA gym.

Yet the prevalence of costly signals in all sorts of situations where we also see traditional martial artists should cause us to pause. As Clausewitz observed in his opening quote, violence does not happen in a vacuum. In the political arena it is only one part of larger project of getting what you want. Or to put it another way, picking up a sabre is just as much a means of changing someone’s mind as potentially killing them. The fact that costly signals are being sent through the use of certain sorts of force means that there is an intended audience which we should also be paying attention to.

Violence is often an inherently social act. The world of martial arts fiction is replete with stories of lone heroes who take down their nemesis. Yet if history has shown us anything, it is that conflict is usually much more complex than this. Sometimes it engulfs whole communities pitting them against one another. The stakes are much higher in these sorts of encounters, and it should not surprise us to discover that traditional martial arts organization may have had strategies for dealing with these situations. In fact, these were likely the sorts of events that allowed other community actors to justify supporting potentially problematic martial arts schools in the first place.

One of my younger brothers has just started law school in a medium sized city with a history of violence in the neighborhoods surrounding its university campus. A few weeks ago a classmate and his wife were surrounded by a group of seven attackers and viciously beaten while leaving a café near the campus. There was no particular economic, ideological or racial motivation for this crime. It was purely social, and one suspects territorial, in nature.

I bring this event up only because I think that it bears on the question at hand. The victim of this crime was in some ways far from the average guy. He was young, healthy and a military veteran who had returned from combat service in the Middle East. He was familiar with many different levels of “reality based combat training.” And none of that mattered.

Why should we expect it to? Getting ambushed by seven determined attackers is pretty much an impossible situation for an individual to recover from. I think that on some level we all know this. Yet many individuals join martial arts schools precisely because they fear such attacks.

How can this help us to understand traditional Chinese martial arts schools as they evolved during the early and middle years of the 20th century? I suspect that we have a tendency to misunderstand period accounts of these communities because we subconsciously project our own preoccupations and goals onto them. Attacks like the one described above were not uncommon in the various neighborhoods of Hong Kong, reeling as they were with social resentments and a refugee crisis in the early 1950s. Accounts indicate that young men often responded to such events by joining a local martial arts school. Interestingly the police (and often their own parents) viewed this as a form of gang activity. And they may have had very good reasons for doing so.

Can even the most excellent Kung Fu protect you from an ambush by a dozen attackers intent on doing you harm? Probably not. But having a gang of guys at your back, or being a member of group willing to inflict huge costs on those who attack one of their own, does tend to work.

Once we start to think of the basic unit of self-defense as being group rather than the individual, many of the “less realistic” methods of the traditional schools, and even organizations like the Red Spears, start to make a lot of functional sense. Individual athletic prowess, while good, is no longer the most important factor. One wants to be sure that new members of the community will be loyal and disciplined, and so those values are explicitly selected for and tested in training. Public feats of strength, numbers and pain endurance (whether through roof top fights or temple processions) help to build the group’s reputation. Activities like Lion Dancing not only builds morale, but they also provide a valuable venue for broadcasting costly signals about your strength and resolve throughout the community. In that way they become an exercise in reputation building that does not depend on the actual use of force.

I think that it would be too simplistic to say that there is a single discourse that has dominated the conversations surrounding the martial arts in the West. Obviously the individuals who take up these pursuits are motivated by a number of factors. Yet it is interesting to me that the TCMA are so often seen as a vehicle for a purely individual type of self-expression or self-realization. And the sorts of violence that are most popular in the public imagination at the moment are the ones that occur in the ring or the octagon. These are, after all, environments that celebrate a more individualistic set of values.

The rhetoric of self-actualization is by no means absent in the traditional southern Chinese martial arts. But the martial clan or family has always played a much more pronounced role in the narratives that emerged from southern China, South East Asia and Hong Kong. Often it is through engagement (and sublimation) with the group that individual transformation is achieved. And many of the tales of actual fighting that emerge from these same areas emphasize the reality of social violence and the importance of a strong and skilled community as the actual unit of self-defense.

In some ways this may be a reflection of cultural values. It would certainly not be the first time that Eastern and Western individuals have diverged in their assessment of community values. Still, as a political scientist I am more inclined to see in these differences self-conscious strategies meant to accommodate the varieties of social violence have emerged in a variety of times and places.

All of this should make us a bit more skeptical of the uncritical use of “reality” in descriptions of the martial arts. The “reality” faced by a single individual versus a group may be quite different. It simply does not make sense to discuss “reality” without first defining our actors and their goals. Yet one suspects that “the real world” is occasionally invoked as a rhetorical strategy specifically to avoid such questions.

When looking at a number of issues in the historical development or comparative analysis of hand combat systems, we might instead benefit from enlarging our conceptual vocabulary to include ideas like “credible threats” and “costly signals.” They remind us that we cannot ignore the fundamentally social nature of a lot of violence in our quest to finally capture reality.




If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Kung Fu is Dead, Long Live Kung Fu: The Martial Arts as Voluntary Associations in 20th Century Guangzhou






8 thoughts on “Costly Signals, Credible Threats and the Problem of Reality in the Chinese Martial Arts

  1. Great article. Thanks!

    Posted by Tomehr | September 4, 2015, 6:38 am
  2. Very interesting thoughts here. Quite an in-depth discussion of Chinese martial arts. Thanks for sharing your insight!

    Posted by Jordan | September 4, 2015, 12:24 pm
  3. Hey Ben, I am going to work this one into a future podcast 🙂 Hope you are doing well.

    Posted by TW. Smith - Kungfu Podcasts | September 6, 2015, 4:59 am


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