Porcelain plaque martial artists




Every practicing martial artist knows that the most deadly attack is the one that you did not see coming. A successful ambush is extremely difficult to counter. And this is precisely what makes the subject of “history” so dangerous. So much appears to be revealed, but if we push a little harder, what is really there?

This problem is not the property of any one historian in particular. It is the nature of the exercise itself. The book in front of us claims to relate the true nature of events that occurred many years ago. Yet the ideas therein will insinuate themselves into our understanding of the present and aspirations for the future, often with strikingly little critical reflection.

The very best examples of the discipline will be conscious of these pitfalls. They will begin by presenting a clear discussion of the author’s own “theory” of history. Their pages will relate information only after critically interrogating the proper sources. Most importantly, they will be clear about the nature of the gaps separating any two visions of the past and present. Some events must remain beyond our reach, and not every “lesson” of the past has an analogue in the present.

By in large this not the sort of history that martial artists get. Lorge, Wile, Henning, Shahar, Kennedy and handful of others have brought these “best practices” to the discussion of the development of the Chinese hand combat systems. Yet the conversation remains overwhelmed by the voices of practitioners steeped in a very different understanding of the nature and purpose of history.

From time to time I am contacted by individuals who have questions or want to discuss the history of various Chinese martial arts styles. Yet when these individuals begin to lay out their facts or puzzles, it quickly becomes apparent that there is little actual “history” here. That would imply independent sources embedded in, and speaking to, larger social events. Instead what they have is an ongoing dispute between lineage/creation myths.

As Paul Bowman points out so effectively in a recent essay, a lineage story is not actually the same thing as history. Sometimes we approach it as a type of proto-history, or maybe history done badly. Yet these sorts of “folk histories,” as many anthropologists have previously reminded us, are a very different animal.

To Bowman’s way of thinking they are also uniquely dangerous. After discussing some of the inevitable costs that would accompany the turning away from lineage mythology in favor of more academic history he observes that:

“…all of this remain 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…..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.”

Bowman is not the first author to warn that myths of lineage may (and have been) used to promote unsavory aims. Still, his warning is interesting in a number of respects. Rather than focusing only on the sudden emergence of “lost lineages” or other types of economically questionable behavior, he notes that the ideological and political costs associated with the idea of lineage may be very high.

While most martial artists would say that they are dedicated to the ideal of peace, Bowman points out that the fundamental building blocks of our corporate identity have often been tied to historical processes that are far from benign. Some of these identities even seem to have been constructed to reinforce political and social conflict. Once this has been realized it is not only prudent but necessary for us to ask where all of this is intended to lead us.

It is hard to argue with the specific examples that Bowman outlines in his essay. But where do we go from here? Would the Chinese martial arts community be better off if it sought to distance itself from its reliance on “lineage?” This is an idea that has been contemplated from time to time since at least the 1920s. Yet is it even possible to imagine the sort of move away from lineage towards history that he seems to call for within the “folk art” tradition?

Before we can answer this question it is necessary to take a moment to clarify what we mean by the term “lineage.” Martial Arts Studies as a research area remains under-conceptualized, and this is true of the current conversation as well. The following essay will look very briefly at the origins of lineage as an organizing concept within the Chinese martial art. (Discussion of “lineage” more specific to other arts, such as those seen in the Japanese or the Filipino fighting styles, will require their own detailed investigation and I am hesitant as to whether we can easily generalize across all of these unique understandings to speak of “lineage” as a universalizing concept). It will then introduce three related, though distinct, versions of this concept as it has been used within the current debate. Lastly I conclude with a few thoughts about the likely fate of lineage in the Chinese martial arts.


Lineage in the Chinese Martial Arts


One could produce a fair sized study on the origin and variety of lineage networks seen in the Chinese martial arts. Still, for the purposes of our current discussion a few basic facts will suffice. First off, the current hegemony of lineage as an “organizing concept” within the folk martial arts of China is more recent than one might think. I suspect that this way of thinking probably goes back only to the beginning (or middle) of the Qing dynasty.

Why? Clan/lineage associations have been a major organizing force throughout Chinese society, and particularly in the South. Yet as historians such as David Faure have shown, these social structures were the result of specific ritual innovations in the Ming Dynasty (which opened the way for new forms of corporate land ownership, and hence social organization) and did not really succeed in penetrating all levels of society until well into the Qing. Once these sorts of structures were popularized they could spread to other areas of society where they were adopted as a model for institution building, such as the martial arts.

Literary evidence also helps us to date the spread and popularity of the idea lineage within the martial arts. Kung Fu novels written at the end of 19th century in Guangdong clearly make use of the concept. Yet earlier classic martial arts works such as “Water Margin” (a work that has been called the “Old Testament” of the Chinese martial arts) shows no knowledge of lineage as a way of organizing (or training) its heroes. In fact, most of them learned the fighting arts either in the military or through a life of banditry.

This suggests the late imperial (and mostly Qing) origins of lineage as a widespread organizing concept within the Chinese martial arts. This concept was certainly available during the 1910s-1930s for appropriation by the nationalist cause. Yet its origins ultimately lay in the creation of new forms of social organization in the pre-nationalist era. (Again, see Faure for a painfully detailed discussion of the evolution and spread of larger and more formal clan lineage associations during the Ming and Qing).

Porcelain plaque hunters


Three Visions of the Lineage
Establishing these facts is important as it will give us some basis for evaluating the various claims advanced by students of martial arts studies as they discuss the origins and nature of lineage. As Bowman (quoting Nietzsche) reminds us, a single word can obscure a great deal of difference between underlying objects. Classification is not the same as thick description.

Let us begin by reconsidering 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). In some way’s Brown’s theory of lineage most closely adheres to the concept’s genealogical origins. Further, his essay inspired a response by myself, which in turn touched off the current discussion.

Readers should note that Brown does not seek to speak to lineage in the abstract. As the title of his chapter makes clear, he is interested in “Body-Experience Lineages” in the martial arts. This provides some helpful clarification as to the nature of his project, yet it does not do much to modify the concept under discussion.

Brown draws on the current academic literature and even attempts to examine some of the social and economic aspects of lineage within the martial arts. Nevertheless, his entire discussion is best understood as an attempt to update the more traditional view of the subject in such a way as to make it theoretically acceptable and useful. As a side effect of this process, he also makes what was originally a culturally defined phenomenon oddly (and very improbably) universal.

For Brown lineages exist to resolve the inherent contractions that arise within the traditional martial arts due to their nature as “embodied” forms of knowledge. To begin with, individual bodies grow old and die, yet the “style” is (theoretically) immortal and unchanging. How then can it perpetuate itself through time?

The bodily interaction of a teacher and student allows for nuanced postures, pressures and timings to be conveyed that are critical to the actual practice of these arts. Such details are too subtle to be conveyed through written text or video. In this way physical capital, trapped in the life-history a single individual, can be conveyed to a successor.

Browns process by which lineage capital is conveyed bears more than a passing resemblance to what Bowman (via Derrida) describes as the “insemination” model of pedagogy. In this model the essential DNA of a practice can be transferred between student and teacher ensuring that the resulting style will be true to the original founder’s genius regardless of the number of generations that pass. Of course this is also exactly what most Chinese lineage stories want to assure their audiences. So while Brown couches his discussion within the social scientific literature, his actual understanding of lineage reads almost like an apology (or perhaps an explanation) for some of the more traditional ideas on its nature.

Still, by invoking the problem of death, Brown makes the process seen within the Chinese martial arts both necessary and universal in nature. All sorts of embodied fighting arts are facing the same problem. And they also have teacher student contact. So Brown informs us that almost identical lineages can be detected throughout the world of the martial arts. From the traditional Japanese fencing schools to modern MMA training camps, he sees the emergence of universal patterns of “Body-technique Lineages.”

To my way of thinking this is where his model breaks down. As I point out in my own response to this essay, Brown is not just interested in saying something (trivially) true about the interaction of students and teachers. He wants to go on to expand this to a more general discussion of how the transfer of knowledge becomes the basis of social organization within almost all of the martial arts.

And yet in actual practice this is something that is not shared or universal. There are a wide range of different methods of social organization seen within the martial arts. As I argued previously, these seem to have more to do with the accidents of culture, history and social pressures than they do with universal processes of death and pedagogy.

The forms of lineage seen in the Chinese martial arts emerged at a specific point in time in response to much more basic transformations that were happening within Chinese society. It is interesting to note that certain body technologies (such as opera performance and the martial arts) adopted modifications of the lineage system as forms of social organization. Yet lots of other crafts and physical practices continued to be conveyed without the creation of lineage structures. For instance, we tend not to see strong lineages in cooking, yet it is also a socially valued craft that depends on embodied capital. Individuals certainly know who taught them how to cook, or what kitchen they learned in, but they tend not to organize themselves into elaborate lineages. Instead we see the emergence of specialized guilds and later restaurant workers unions.

While there may be “lineages” of sorts within Italian, Japanese and Chinese fencing schools, we should not let the obvious parallels within these practices blind us to the many important differences between them. Nor should we automatically assume that all practices, or even all martial arts, within China will automatically form the same sorts of lineage practices. Lastly, elements of specific lineages may be “remembered” or “forgotten” for personal, social or economic reasons that appear to have nothing to do with the fighting system at hand. After all, these are structures that were explicitly created to make new forms of economic organization possible in a rapidly evolving social landscape. It would be odd if they were not highly adaptable in their actual behavior.

This brings us to the third approach to lineage, advanced by Paul Bowman. In many ways it is just as “political” as the understanding of lineage that I advanced above. Yet as the quotes at the start of this essay indicate, Bowman is deeply suspicious of the ethnolinguistic identities and rivalries embedded within the lineage stories that accompany many martial arts today.

While critiquing Brown I related a personal story meant to illustrate the variety of approaches to questions of lineage seen between various fighting systems in contrast to his assertion that such concerns were really “universal.” Specifically, I noted my surprise upon interviewing a kickboxing instructor about his school, only to discover that he had no clear understanding of his own arts origins or history. I contrasted this with the widespread nature of historical discussions within the Chinese martial arts, driven by lineage concerns, as a basic way of establishing one’s identity within the world of the more traditional fighting systems.

Or to put it another way, one is a kickboxer because you train and compete as one. Yet you are only a Wing Chun student because of your Sifu, your teacher’s teacher and so forth. And if you publicly doubt this basic rule of the Kung Fu community, there are entire internet discussion boards full of thousands of practitioners who will happily remind you that your identity in the art is entirely determined by the “authenticity” of your teacher’s practice and training. You may privately think about your practice however you wish, but your public identity is something that is thrust upon you by a well understood set of lineage-based discourses.

At this point something very interesting happens in Bowman’s discussion. While acknowledging the essential difference in the approach to history often seen between TCMA and other western combat sports, he calls for a little more reflection on exactly who within the average Kung Fu school actually invests scarce resources in this sort of knowledge.

While Bowman remembers being lectured on lineage history in his Taiji classes, he confesses to not actually retaining much of what he learned at the time. Names, dates and pithy stories just didn’t seem as important as concepts and practices. Nor was he alone in this assessment. Bowman did seek out Wile’s works on Taiji, but his classmates showed even less interest in the origins of their style than he did. In fact, only the head teacher and a handful of senior instructors actually invested the resources necessary to learn the lineage history in all its detailed glory.

This is an important observation. I have to confess that his experience largely matches my own in the Wing Chun community. While it may seem that every person encountered in an on-line discussion board is a grand master of esoteric historical theories, it is well worth remembering that these individuals are outliers. 90% of the students who you meet in a brick and mortar school will not be able to keep the relative positions of Leung Jan and Chan Wah Shun straight in their own lineage chart. They are there for the workout and the chi sao. And as I argued in a recent post, many really important ethnographic informants are valuable to researchers precisely because they are marginal outliers within their own community, and not actually representative of its daily values. Bowman has pointed to an almost textbook example of this principle.

He then goes on to note that his classmates tended to fall back on vaguely “Orientalist” notions of “Daoism” and “The East” on the odd occasion when they found themselves forced to discuss, or explore the implications of, the origins of their art. In their grasping efforts he detected a strong strain of “allochronism,” a term that theorists have used to describe the historical flattening of some process or institution so that it comes to be seen as “timeless,” unchanging” and “essential.” By asserting that something has “always been,” allochronism denies it the opportunity to have a history of its own, or to interact with other historical or social processes in any meaningful way. Such objects are reduced to mere images, used in the building of other identities (most notably nationalism) but otherwise removed from the realm of critical examination.

This then leads to the main conclusion of Bowman’s essay. Lineage structures, as they exist now, are not simply a complication in how we view an art’s history. They are a force for allochronism that denies the very possibility that these arts have ever evolved or changed in important ways.

Yet what one loses in historical validity may be more than compensated for in the realm of “fictive power.” The architects of Asian nationalism (in Japan, Korea and China among other states) all realized the immense benefits to be gained from the cooptation of the state’s “traditional” fighting arts.

The historical irony is that the fighting systems of these states are deeply connected to one another. Through processes of both peaceful and violent exchange innovations spread across the region. Both teachers and insights cross boundaries in ways that later reformers steadfastly refused to acknowledge. A rich history of exchange has been forgotten to make way for “pure” fighting traditions, each a reflection of a newly imagined “national spirit.” It is not hard to detect in the stories that emerged from this period the seeds of the jingoism and ethnolinguistic conflict that Bowman warns against.

Porcelain plaque battle


The Future of Lineage


Before going on I would like to return to one of Bowman’s earlier points. As he noted, not everyone in the average TCMA school is equally interested in the detailed history of their style, regardless of whether it is understood in mythological or more academic terms. Even in the traditional martial arts communities, which defined themselves through lineage, most students invested very little time and resources into these claims. How should we understand this, and what might it suggest about the actual function and place of lineage in these schools?

For Bowman the essential problem with lineage as it actually exists in a variety of arts is its emptiness. Far from pointing students towards a deeper appreciation of the radically contingent ways in which these arts have developed, it too easily slips into the corrosive realm of ideology. Indeed, it is this lack of engagement with the actual puzzles of history that makes “lineage myths” so easily hijacked by those attempting to politicize the martial arts and establish their own hegemonic discourse.

Still, I am not yet convinced that lineage must always point towards allochronism, or that it is even particularly friendly to it. Indeed, making martial arts communities available for this sort of appropriation required a tremendous amount of work on the part of specific reformers and modernizers in China, Japan and Korea during the early 20th century. I am not sure that there was anything inevitable about this process. The actual tragedy of the situation appears to be that specific martial artists fought hard to make it happen, and in so doing contributed to some of the region’s more problematic developments in the modern era.

Nor were they equally successful in all instances. Some elements of the traditional martial arts community’s (often those more closely associated with debates about regional rather than national identity) resisted these trends. While we absolutely do see this “flattening” of history in the service of nationalism in some arts (again, Bowman’s examples drawn from Taekwondo are instructive), there remains other directions in which lineage identities could have evolved.

More specifically, when looking at the myths of the southern Chinese fighting arts that I am most familiar with, there is very little indication that these stories tend towards allochronism as it is usually understood. Rather, these stories exhibit a profound interest in the “historical” questions of how a given style was created and evolved over time. Was it created by a man or a woman? Who was the first ancestor to incorporate pole fighting into the system? Was it important that a given individual was a salt smuggler? How did everything change with the outbreak of the Taiping Rebellion? When did the different sub-lineages within the larger clan come into being? What does the normal salute mean if we use the other hand instead?  Why?

Far from exhibiting a disinterest in the evolution or development of an art, many of the lineage histories are utterly obsessed with these questions. They certainly seem to be aware that the martial arts change and evolve over time (though Bowman is correct in asserting that they usually attempt to protect some “core” vision of the system). The issue then is not that they ignore history, rather that they fictionalize surprising amounts of it.

three theories of lineage

Nor is it just the history of an individual style that are produced through creative of means. Very often the larger framework of supposed political, economic or social events that frames the functioning of these styles are also created whole cloth. I have always suspected that this is one of the reasons that so few martial artists questioned their lineage myths. They fit seamlessly into a larger mosaic of folk histories that inform much of the popular world view. The result is a self-reinforcing of tautology of remarkable durability.

For these reasons I do not detect the sort of absence of history or historical curiosity that allochronism might suggest. Instead we see the emergence of a realm in which historical events have been transformed into competing “brands” of esoteric knowledge, each of which promises you a privileged window onto the hidden reality of past. It is almost as though history has been “privatized” in the commercial sense of the term.

It might be worthwhile to consider the various ways in lineage histories and folklore (and even the ever present body of “secret techniques”) might function when understood as a repository of esoteric knowledge. The social benefits of having a store of hidden insights are immense. Most obviously, such individuals can defend the legitimacy of their own lines of transmission while attacking the legitimacy of others. The economic aspects of this are too obvious to merit much discussion. But beyond that, lineage offers a common language in which complex relationships between schools can be explained, bridged or breached.

One strongly suspects that the stories of the past that are commonly told reflect to some degree the configuration of social power in the present. To master this body of knowledge is to become a specialist in identity and group interaction.

And yet as Bowman reminds us, most students will never do this. Why? As with any body of knowledge, there are very real costs in terms of times, resources and relationships required both to access and master it. For students who come to a martial arts class to get in shape, or to learn how to fight, the game is literally not worth the candle. Yet the calculus changes for senior students thinking of branching out to start their own school. Suddenly these esoteric concerns become personal and primal.

On a slightly deeper level I would avoid the assumption that just because most students do not invest the resources to master their lineage history that it is unimportant to them or has no impact on their identity. After all, the martial arts do not just exist as an embodied practice. They also swim in a rich social discourse comprised of movies, novels, stories, comic and video games.  Lineage has been one of the main tools by which students relate to this larger body of martial culture.

In my own experience I saw many instances in which my Wing Chun brothers, less interested in history than myself or my Sifu, would come to class with rather detailed questions both about our style, or life back in “the good old days,” after watching either new or classic Kung Fu movies. These classmates seemed to sense that as the master of esoteric knowledge relating to both Wing Chun and the Chinese martial arts in general, my Sifu was the correct person to approach with these questions. (In this case they were very lucky to have an instructor who had a deep interest in both the mythological and academic history of the Chinese martial arts.)

Why invest personal resources in gaining this information for yourself when you have easy access to specialist in it? And better yet, through your access to that specialist, you have an opportunity to become the next generation in the ongoing story. While many of my classmates had only the foggiest grasp on the specific details of Wing Chun’s history they all seemed to appreciate, on a more emotional level, that they were part of a historically grounded process. The specific details could be left to a specialist in that matter.  Yet they still reaped the benefits from this association.

As students came to my teacher with questions, his status within the community was reinforced by his access to esoteric historical (and at times technical) knowledge. Likewise, the very fact that this body of knowledge was so detailed and complicated as to make individual mastery difficult seemed to increase its value to the students. So far from being an ideology that erases history, a lineage based view can help to establish an economy of esoteric facts within a style which further strengthens and reinforces the institution on a social level by providing a medium of cultural exchange.

This is not a foreordained outcome. In cases where an art has been strongly tied to a nationalist cause all knowledge seems to become public memory. It is the collective act of “remembering” and “forgetting” that forges these broadly shared identities. Here the allochronsistic pressures that Bowman describes are much more clearly visible. Of course this is also a historically bounded process. In Japan the identification of the martial arts with nationalism begins as early as the 1890s. In China the process doesn’t reach the same fevered pitch until the 1920s-1930s. In Korea it had to wait until after the close of the Second World War.

What future will the idea of lineage continue to play in the Chinese martial arts? It is interesting to note that a number of reform movements, including the Jingwu Association, Guoshu and the later Wushu programs in the PRC, have all attempted to supplant a traditional understanding of lineage and the teacher-student transmission method with something more universal – and easily put at the disposal of the state.

It is difficult to argue with Bowman’s conclusions on the nature of lineage in actual discussions of the martial arts. Very often it does function as an agent of exclusive ethnolinguistic identities that erases history in its wake. Such lineages seem to function as little more than vehicles for ideology.

And yet the ideologies that they are most concerned with are also the products of specific moments in time. If we were to accept Brown’s view, which located the genesis of lineage in the challenges of embodiment there is simply no escaping the problem lineage. It should be everywhere and always, a universal throughout the history of the martial arts. Yet clearly this is not the case. Their appearance is bounded by both historical and cultural variables.

Bowman’s more ideological reading of lineage might indicate that this is an idea whose time has come and past. To put it bluntly, it is not clear that this sort of mythmaking has been good for either the martial arts or the world at large. What is needed are new understandings of the martial arts that will allow us to build common identities grounded in a realistic understanding of our actual differences. While our traditional readings of lineage are not up to this task, Bowman suggests that a more sophisticated theory of history or cultural discourse will be able to make a positive contribution.

While I share many of Bowman’s concerns, my own reading of lineage sees its origin not in the details of pedagogy or ideology, but as a reaction to a specific moment in Chinese history. The sorts of lineages that emerged in China are not always directly interchangeable with similar structures seen elsewhere and we might want to resist the urge to use terms like “folk history” and “lineage history” interchangeably. Of course how much of their unique nature they retain as they transition through the global environment is another question all together. One suspects that it varies rather dramatically from school to school.

Yet there may be some reasons for optimism when thinking about the future of lineage within the Chinese martial arts. No matter how they may have been appropriated and used in the recent past, it is worth remembering that these structures started off as an institutional innovation designed to allow the creation of larger organizations than would otherwise be possible. And the meta-discourse around lineages has, at various times, allowed for the construction of vibrant “communities” of martial artists where there might otherwise have been only a bleak competitive marketplace.

I do not think that in the current era lineages are likely to survive as the ultimate guarantors of either “martial excellence” or the “purity” of one’s transmission. Martial arts studies is problematizing many of these concepts. Yet that is probably just a drop in the bucket compared to the vast sea of information that now exists on places like Youtube. That alone will make many of the standard claims of past generations obsolete.

The socially constructed nature of the “lineages” suggests that this institution could be reimagined in ways that avoid the pitfalls of ideology on the one hand and short-sighted competition on the other. Nor will this be the first time in recent history that these institutions will have been forced to evolve to survive.

One of the great strengths of the Chinese martial arts has been their ability to create remarkably flexible and resilient communities. The need for such groups is just as great now as it ever was in the past. In all honesty I am not sure whether the next generation of lineage-based institutions will do much for our understanding of history, but I really hope that they continue to provide the basic social tools to bring together diverse students and schools into larger and more vibrant communities.


If you enjoyed this piece you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (13): Zhao San-duo—19th Century Plum Flower Master and Reluctant Rebel