Statue with Sword and Wine Gourd. Another figure in China's long tradition of eccentric warrior-sages. Source: Vintage German Postcard.
Statue with Sword and Wine Gourd. Another figure in China’s long tradition of eccentric warrior-sages. Source: Vintage German Postcard.





Our essay for today is a guest-post of sorts, reblogged from Paul Bowman’s always excellent (and aptly named) Martial Arts Studies.   He sent me a link to this post and I have been giving it a fair amount of thought since then.  Readers of Kung Fu Tea, particularly those who are interested in the history of the Chinese martial arts, will enjoy his straight forward and refreshing approach the thorny issues that arise when we talk about the origin accounts of individual styles.

I was also interested in this essay as it began with a very generous engagement with a prior post that I published dealing with the problem of lineage, social organization and artificial kinship structures in the Chinese martial arts.  After reading through Paul’s argument I began to outline a post that would address some of the issues that he brought up as well as hopefully clarifying the competing ways that we think of “lineages” in conceptual terms.  Or perhaps it would be more proper to say I would like to make an argument about how we might want to unpack this term and go forward with it in the future.  I will also explore the nature of hyper-real history as it appears in lineage myths and how it tends to actually function on a social level.

Yet after doing my initial writing on that post I decided that it was not going to do justice to the conversation that is currently unfolding.  At least not yet.  Instead I have included Paul’s full remarks below so that readers can take the time to fully absorb his argument, on its own terms, rather than relying on my own summary of it.  For that matter, those really interested in this subject will want to start by going back and reviewing David Brown’s chapter “Body-experience Lineage in Martial Arts Culture” which appears in Keith Gilbert’s edited volume Fighting: Intellectualizing Combat Sport (Common Ground, 2015).  My own contribution to this discussion actually started off as a critical response to Brown’s argument.  Sometime next week I hope to explore the differences in Brown’s, Bowman’s and my own approach to the concept of lineage as a way of exploring some of the many things that this common concept denotes.  As Paul will remind us a simple word, such as “leaf,” can serve to conceal the infinite variety of specific leaves that one might actually encounter while walking through the woods.  But in the mean time, please take a few moments to enjoy an important essay which asks us to consider a martial artist’s relationship with history.


On Knowing Your Lineage


As part of a larger reflection on transmission and lineages in martial arts, Ben Judkins recently pondered two attitudes towards lineages in martial arts circles. His own discussion covers more ground and a wide range of themes and issues around community, identity and the transmission of martial knowledge, but I want to focus on the two issues he identifies early on in the article.

The first attitude is the one he has long been most familiar with: that of knowing at least something about the long linear narrative story of one’s martial art – the tale told by its practitioners, that starts from its origins, passes through legendary masters and sequences of teachers, and culminates in one’s own instructor. The second attitude was one he encountered only recently, when talking to a kickboxing instructor. The kickboxer knew nothing about the history or lineage of what he was practicing. He knew about his own instructor, obviously, but not about anything or anyone further back.

Because of his long involvement in traditional Chinese martial arts (TCMA), where lineage-narratives seem to matter so much to so many practitioners, Judkins evidently found this insouciant attitude towards history rather surprising. He certainly did not deem it representative of his own experience of traditional stylists’ relationships with their own martial arts.

As I say, Judkins’ discussion is not entirely structured by these two attitudes, but I want to reflect on them further. For, it got me thinking. I myself have tried my hand (and foot) at a range of martial arts over the years, and Judkins’ surprise at certain styles’ or stylists’ lack of reflection on their own history made me realise that I had never really thought about the topic of martial artists’ relationships to history. However, what jarred with me, on reflection, was my sense that, contrary to Judkins’ starting position, in my experience, many practitioners of traditional styles seem to have little to no awareness of either the actual or the mythological history of the style they study.

For instance, my first Shotokan karate instructor demonstrated next to no knowledge of either the history of karate, nor of the rationales underpinning many of its conventions. For example, when, as beginners, we once asked him why we had to bow on entering and exiting the dojo, he said something about keeping the ‘room gods’ happy. Worse, some of the other ‘knowledge’ he imparted – innumerable times, in every class – went on to have much more embarrassing consequences for me. What happened was this. For many years after my first foray into karate, I believed myself able to count to ten in Japanese. It was only when, quite recently, I was greeted by a confused look on the face of a Japanese child, in the company of her father, a visiting Japanese dignitary, his wife, and several fluent Japanese scholars, that I realised that none of the sounds coming out of my mouth made any sense to Japanese speakers.

So we should be careful what we take on trust. Of course, quite how we verify the status of the ‘knowledge’ being passed on to us is another matter – a huge question, which I will only be able touch on briefly and tangentially, below. For now, some questions about lineage will be foregrounded.

Many years after taking karate classes, while I was studying taijiquan, I did encounter the attitude that Judkins describes – the one he characterises as commonplace in TCMAs – in which teachers and students learn lineage narratives and certain selected anecdotes about famous figures in ‘their’ lineage. However, that attitude seemed to me to be particularly prominent only among certain sorts of practitioner: senior (male) instructors, some other men; but very few women, maybe none; and not many of my peers. In fact I was probably the most widely read of my peers on matters of TCMA and taiji history. But none of the names of the key figures in our lineage would ever stick in my head – not because they were Chinese names (although that didn’t help), but rather because most kinds of factual information don’t stick in my head. Principles, theories, arguments normally do; names and dates don’t.

My instructor was one of the few who certainly knew the official histories and characteristics of different styles of taiji, kung fu and Xing-I, etc., especially those of the styles he practiced. But other than him and the other senior instructors in the association, no one else seemed to know or care about taiji’s history. Indeed, whenever there were conversations about any aspects of taiji other than practical, technical and aesthetic matters, my classmates would often express the most vague and nebulous ideas about ancient misty mountains and mystical magic. (To be fair, had I not encountered the work of Douglas Wile very early in my studies, I would almost certainly have remained just as orientalist as my peers (Wile 1996, 1999).)

Anthropologists have termed this kind of attitude allochronism (Fabian 1983). Allochronism refers, ultimately, to imputing a timelessness to something, and thereby refusing to acknowledge that it has and is always within a history. History, in this sense, refers to a process of change, movement, modification, development, transformation, and even of huge tectonic shifts. Accordingly, allochronistic perspective do not allow the object to have a history, in this sense of having developed and changed.

My argument, then, is that a focus on lineage often functions as a force of allochronism. That is to say, allowing a martial art to have a history can be very different to knowing its lineage. For, this sense of history implies change, even massive and radical transformation and revolution. Lineage-thinking, on the other hand, does not as easily lend itself to an understanding of ongoing transformation.

In the case of taiji, Adam Frank (Frank 2006) argues that there have been massive changes in its form and content, even in comparatively recent history. As he observes, if one reads any of the ‘Tai Chi Classics’ (the nineteenth century taiji manuals that are often claimed to be very much older than they are), it is very difficult to recognise much about taiji as we know it or think of it today. If one were to try to reconstruct a martial art based on the evidence of these manuals alone, one would be likely to come up with a very different beast to anything walking the Earth called ‘taiji’ today. As Nietzsche argued, one word, one name – let’s say, to use Nietzsche’s own example, the word ‘leaf’ – covers over and denies an infinite array of differences between this leaf and that leaf (Nietzsche 2006). The same goes for the name ‘taiji’. One name; many things; and different things at different times.

The key point is, taiji has a history. In Adam Frank’s work, he presents the current shape and characteristics of the taiji forms currently practiced around the world as palimpsests of different additions and modifications that have taken place in different periods for different socioeconomic, ideological and political reasons. To cap it off, we might add, all of these historical residues of different versions of taiji have come to be elaborated and performed according to contemporary understandings of what taiji should look like and be like – and contemporary understandings are accompanied and in large part enabled by fantasy constructions of what the past ‘was like’. Taiji has been rewritten and can and will continue to be rewritten and transformed.

This kind of proposition is very different from focusing on the lineage of a contemporary style. For, most commonly, the attribution of a lineage goes hand in hand with the idea that its current form is a direct or pure transmission from some mythic founding father. Jacques Derrida rightly connected this kind of approach with a certain kind of valuation of ‘insemination’ (Derrida 1981). In other words, those who would make a massive lineage claim that invokes, say, Zhang Sanfeng or Bodhidharma, are strongly associating their current practice with that of a great founding mystical character.

Ultimately, the value of lineage is dependent on what we think happens in a teacher-student relationship. The simplest understanding of a teacher-student relationship would propose an image of something like the teacher passing an idea from his or her brain into the student’s brain, as if passing a baton in a relay race through history. The student is the successor or inheritor, who ideally goes on to pass the baton to the next student, and so on and so forth, through time. The baton is the knowledge, which moves intact from teacher to disciple. This is what Derrida would call the ‘metaphysical’ conception of pedagogy, or teaching and learning.

The fact that in martial arts the baton to be handed down largely takes the form of embodied physical propensities might refer us back to Derrida’s metaphor of ‘insemination’ (as the seed has to be put ‘into’ the student, and cultivated), at the same time as it might equally account for the long history in martial arts literature of the theme of the secret text or training manual (Liu 2011). The secret text is of course ideally only to be read by those qualified to understand it and use it wisely (the top student), for others will only misunderstand and hence misuse and abuse it.



Ushiwara Maru training with the Tengu, who were reputed to be masters of swordsmanship. By Yoshikazu Utagawa. Source: Wikimedia.
Ushiwara Maru training with the Tengu, who were reputed to be masters of swordsmanship. By Yoshikazu Utagawa. Source: Wikimedia.



This is one common conceptualisation of pedagogical relations. But it is deeply problematic. An awful lot more goes on in teaching than perfect transmission. Derrida proposes that what is considerably more likely than insemination is ‘dissemination’ – the scattering of incomplete parts and parcels, picked up and understood and applied, used and abused, in myriad unpredictable and partial ways. For Derrida, everyone is in a way an impostor who’s stumbled upon a text that they then go on to use in their own improper and incomplete way. Inevitably, the ‘purist’ response is to regard such processes as far from ideal, and to reassert the value of the strictest methods of uncontaminated transmission (whether conceived as insemination, or as baton passing). But the Derridean contention goes further. Derrida argues that pure unmodified transmission (repetition) is an impossible fantasy at best, and that what always happens is the introduction of alteration, however slight (reiteration).

In this sense, Derrida proposes a theory of inevitable historical change. Some might call it ‘corruption’. But, in a sense, that’s what time always makes happen anyway: variation, drift, alterity, otherness, difference.

The idea of lineage is often deployed to try to insist that such change doesn’t happen – hasn’t happened – in order to confer a status on the present by an appeal to an ancient and mythological past; one that says ‘what we are doing now remains essentially identical to the way it was done at the moment of its pure and magical birth’.

In light of this kind of institutional politics (or policing), it seems to me that the attitude of Judkins’ kickboxer to his own history, or lack of it, is in a way a kind of liberation. After all, it evokes no creation myth, no mysticism, no sense of divine right. Certainly, Judkins himself appears to find it at once surprising and refreshing. So he asks us to reflect on the range of differing possible attitudes that martial artists may have to history and/or lineage (although his own interests are expressed in terms of learning about different types of martial arts community).

To reiterate, in my experience of TCMAs, it always seemed to me that the vast majority of practitioners had only a very vague and shaky relationship with the notion that their styles had either a history or a lineage. Rather, most practitioners seemed most inclined invoke vague allochronistic ideas, about ‘Nature’, ‘Taoism’ or ‘the East’. Those who did believe that they knew their history, those inclined to talk about it, discuss it, dispute it, had one thing in common. They were all (in my experience), universally, and ‘to a man’, men.

I also recall that, at the time I was regularly turning up at classes, the fact that I didn’t (and don’t) have an exhaustive working knowledge of the key figures that made up my own stylistic genealogy would often worry me. Why can’t I remember these Chinese names? Why don’t I study this genealogy and learn it properly? Am I not a proper martial artist? Am I not a proper scholar? A proper man? And so on. Such questions would vex me. But now it gives me pause for thought, raising questions not only of knowledge but also of its perhaps gendered character.

Yet I am ill-inclined to argue that such knowledge, such information gathering, collection, enjoyment, and so on, is essentially ‘masculine’. However, I have often quietly regarded this sort of interest as somewhat ‘nerdy’. But nerdiness is not an exclusively male preserve. For instance, in the past I have attended many film studies conferences, and film studies conferences are absolutely brimming with fact-stuffed film nerds, and the conversations are incredibly nerdy, and overwhelmingly organised by the competitive display of knowledge; yet film studies is a field populated at least equally in number by women.

So, in the end, I wonder whether it is because Judkins is a scholar that he was so surprised to encounter someone without any kind of scholarly relationship to their practice. As we know, Judkins always strives to establish a rich historical, political, economic, sociological and cultural understanding of any martial art. So his approach to kickboxing – or anything else – is always likely to start from the premise that kickboxing has a history: he may not know all of the main details yet, but presumably Judkins would also anticipate that kickboxing will have a comparatively recent and very Western history, at least in its current form and under its current name. Moreover, as a certain type of scholar – one who knows very well that ‘lineage narratives’ all too easily ignore or deny real histories, and all too often work mythologically or ideologically – Judkins will be able and inclined to situate both the practice and its attitudes within a complex history (rather than a lineage).

To my mind, this kind of scholarly engagement with history (especially when combined with a critical attitude towards lineage) is both liberating and immanently political. It is certainly better overall than either simply ‘knowing’ a lineage or, conversely, simply dwelling in ignorance and indifference.

But better for whom? I would propose: for everyone.

The knowledge that martial arts do not exist and develop in isolation but in a complex ecology; that their development is not subject to a linear chronological unfolding, but is much more subject to cross-fertilization in encounters with others and otherness in a spatial present; the iconoclastic revaluation of founders and masters as figures who have been transformed into myths; and the insistence that histories and lineages proceed according to forces of dissemination rather than simple communication, and that these histories and lineages are always worked up and worked over in the present imagining of the past; all of this is better than blind faith in linear history or lineage transmission.

Consequently, rather than either a simple knowledge of history or even a critical knowledge of lineage, I would prefer more people to have a better theory of history and understanding of cultural processes and logics.

In such a purview, we are definitely going to lose more than a few heroes and heroines, saintly founders and Taoist Immortals; we are also going to lose the supposed feminist origins of some arts, some dragon slayers, some drunken monks, more than one temple, and many gallant fighters of oppression. Some really important invincible figures will turn out to have been defeated, and others may never even have fought at all. But all of this remains infinitely better than believing in myths and legends that prime people to fall into traps of ethnonationalistic jingoism, or into believing myths about cultural superiority or uniqueness, or that this or that practice is historically and ideologically clean and pure.

Truly valuable knowledge of martial arts history and culture is essentially a knowledge of cultural transactions, hybridizations, grafts, mimicry, emulation, differentiation, call and response, ideological agendas, cultural management, political struggles, war-torn borders, and military, educational, sporting, police and consumer institutions, as well as the power of media myths and cultural discourses of all orders.

So, should we learn ‘our’ history, the history of our practices, and of what we involve ourselves in? In what way should that learning be carried out?

I will give one quick case to consider, in concluding. An old friend of mine – we used to train in taekwondo together – is now devoted to krav maga. Krav maga, as many will know, is often regarded as one of the most efficient and brutal martial arts available. Doubtless many of its own practitioners will not know or care or think much about its history; or, if they do, for many that history will boil down to one or two factoids: the one about it being devised for fighting Nazis in the Jewish ghetto, and the one about it being used as the basis for the hand to hand combat training of the Israeli military.

When I once asked my friend how he felt about training in a style so closely connected with the Israeli military, he immediately sensed my implication and launched into a quick pre-emptive counter: Well, how did you feel, he asked me, about training in taekwondo? Did you feel that you were being ideologically aligned with Korean nationalism?

At the time I thought, touché, and let it go. But thinking about it now I would have to answer: yes. The syllabus in taekwondo involved learning ‘the correct interpretations’ and ‘meanings’ of the forms (kata). These ‘correct meanings’, which we had to memorize and regurgitate verbatim in lessons and at gradings, all related to massively mythologized and ultimately nationalistic ‘facts’ and other fabulations about ‘ancient Korea’. These were things that I was entirely happy to believe. Indeed, I thought I was learning some pretty cool stuff. Outside of the formal syllabus, these ‘meanings’ were accompanied by what I now view as hilarious apocrypha, such as the one about taekwondo having developed into a jumping style so that heroic unarmed Koreans could kick Samurai off their horses, and so on.

We were all happy to believe it. To that extent, we were happily being inserted into ideological discourses via the ventriloquizing of beliefs disseminated by more or less unknowing disseminators.

To what ends? Politics and ideology are rarely, if ever, endgames. All that matters is hegemony in the realm of ideas, beliefs and discourses. And rather than perpetuating creation myths and narratives that are at one and the same time uncannily childish and eerily ethnonationalist, it would seem better to insist less on knowing a list of famous names and more about the ideological character of the present discourse, of where it seems to come from, what it seems aligned with, and where it would want to transport us.




Derrida, J. (1981), Dissemination, London: Athlone.

Fabian, J. (1983), Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object, N.Y.: Columbia U.P.

Frank, A. (2006), Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man: Understanding Identity through Martial Arts, New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Liu, P. (2011), Stateless Subjects: Chinese Martial Arts Literature and Postcolonial History, Ithaca, N.Y.: East Asia Program, Cornell University.

Nietzsche, F. (2006), On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic, K. Ansell-Pearson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wile, D. (1996), Lost T’ai Chi Classics of the Late Ch’ing Dynasty, New York: State University of New York.

——— (1999), T’ai Chi’s Ancestors: The Making of an Internal Martial Art, New York: Sweet Chi Press.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: On Weapons Training by Paul Bowman