Austrian National Library in Vienna. Source: Wikimedia. photo by Matl, 2006.
Austrian National Library in Vienna. Source: Wikimedia. photo by Matl, 2006.




As some of you may have noticed, posts here at Kung Fu Tea and on the Facebook group have been coming a little more slowly than normal over the last month. That is because Paul Bowman and I are currently in the middle of the final push to get the inaugural issue of the new journal Martial Arts Studies out the door. This interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed publication will be appearing under the imprint of Cardiff University Press and will be freely available to all readers with an internet connection anywhere in the world. Our goal is to bring you the very best work in the rapidly evolving field of martial arts studies while saving you a trip to your local university library.

I am happy to say that we have been making great progress and all of the various articles and reviews are now in place. While I do not want to give away any spoilers I can say that there will be a lot of good stuff in this issue covering a wide range of substantive topics. Unfortunately the editorial and organizational demands of pulling all of this together have left me with a little less time for blogging over the last month than I would have liked.

Still, the real advantage of being involved with a project like this is that it gives one a “global overview” of what is going on in the different disciplines and even areas of the world. This is a real privilege as the interdisciplinary and transnational nature of the conversation that is starting to take place can be hard to get your hands around. Of course helping readers to do just that is one of our goals for Martial Arts Studies.

As we started to lay the groundwork for the second and third issues of the journal I also had an opportunity to think about the state of the literature in a more holistic way. Typically this is the moment when someone sits down to write a review article or blog post outlining what has happened in recent years, the critical debates that have emerged in the literature, and what it all means for our progress as a field.

All of that is good, but I think that I will leave the exercise for our authors at the journal. Instead I decided that it might be more interesting (and easier) to write a short series of blog posts outlining some of the holes that I have noticed in literature. Specifically, what sorts of research would I like to see emerging in the near future? What kinds of conversations might help to move the field forward?

Obviously there are an almost infinite number of projects that could be written in an area like martial arts studies, and to be perfectly honest I would probably end up reading all of them. But to be fun, a blog post like this one must begin by setting out some ground rules. So I have decided that each of these lists will contain only five items. Further, we must specify at the outset whether we are looking for books or articles, as the sorts of projects that you can tackle in these two formats are very different. Lastly, I am going to organize my lists thematically.

In today’s post we will be looking for five book projects all of which fall within the domain of “Chinese martial studies.” In future posts we will branch out to other areas (maybe “Gender in Martial Arts Studies” or “Comparative Ethnographies”) and formats (journal articles or grant proposals).

Now that the ground rules have been clarified, it is time to get on to our list. Here are the five Chinese martial studies that I would most like to see in the next few years, as well as a brief discussion of what the significance of a project like this might be.


Bring on the Books

1. The Sage and the Warrior: Merging the Medical and the Martial in Late Ming Dynasty. By (an established name in the field). Hawaii University Press, 2018.

This is a book that would have great appeal to both academic and popular audiences. We know that during the late Ming dynasty a remarkable synthesis of Chinese martial arts techniques, medical theories and immortality practices began to emerge. Why? Given the interest in very practical pursuits (such as training militia troops) that are also seen in period texts, why did certain groups begin to turn to unarmed boxing and more “cultural pursuits” prior to the destruction of the Ming dynasty? Meir Shahar briefly describes this process and discusses its significance in his study of the Shaolin Monastery. Yet given the ongoing popularity of medical and spiritual practices within the TCMA, these are questions that demand a dedicated study of their own.

Specifically, why did the synthesis of the martial and medical first emerge in this period? How did its popularity spread among certain elites? To what extent did these beliefs have a direct or indirect impact of martial arts reformers in the late Qing and Republic? And lastly, what does this suggest about our understanding of the nature of Chinese popular culture during these periods?

Who would read this book? My guess is that pretty much every martial artist interested in the traditional martial arts or Qigong would want to get their hands on this. It would be seen as a natural continuation of the conversation started in Shahar’s book about Shaolin. I suspect that such a text might also have a good chance of appealing to an academic audience as well. Researchers in the field of Chinese medical history as well as Martial Arts Studies would both need to be familiar with a work like this. And it might develop a following among students of late imperial history. Properly executed this is the sort of project that could make waves.

Morning Taiji group in Bryant Park, New York City.
Morning Taiji group in Bryant Park, New York City.

2. Taijiquan’s Journey to the West: A Social History. By (a young scholar with a background in the social sciences or theory). California UP, 2017.

I have always been a big fan of the comparative case study method. But this does not mean that we need to fill every book with a dozen cases on six different styles. It is also helpful to have longer works that really examine a single case in greater depth. Another book can look at a different set of observations. When we set two or three such volumes side by side, some really interesting questions generally start to emerge. That is a great way for a research program to evolve.

Without a doubt Taijiquan is the most recognizable and widely practiced of all the Chinese martial arts. And its popularity extends far beyond the borders of the Chinese state. Anyone interested in globalization cannot help but be struck by the fact that what is often taken as a marker of “Chinese identity” has, in the current period, become an extremely successful (and flexible) transnational practice.

How did this come about? How was Taijiquan introduced to the West? How did it develop over the decades? What continues to draw individuals to these practices? How have the transnational communities that they form change over time? What role has the media and cultural discourse played in the meaning and acceptance of this art?

Obviously such questions would be of great interest to Western students of Taijiquan. They also touch on a number of critical academic issues. Indeed, this would seem to be an ideal case study to test and challenge various established theories on the working of “Orientalism,” “commodification” and “cultural appropriation” in the capitalist west. These concepts are touchstones of Critical Theory. But what would a finely grained study of the growth of Taijiquan between 1950 and 2000 reveal about their strengths and limits?

Another scene from the Monkey God Festival. Source: Photo by Samuel Judkins.
A scene from the Monkey God Festival. Source: Photo by Samuel Judkins.

3. The Martial Arts of a Diaspora: Chinese Heritage, Local Identity and Nationalism in Malaysia and Indonesia. By (an Ethnographer.) SUNY Press, 2019.

I envision this one more as an ethnographic exercise. An anthropologist and martial artist doing research among the Kung Fu societies of the South East Asian diaspora would have access to a very rich research area. Obvious questions that might be asked would include how the practice of the traditional fighting arts have contributed to the maintenance, and construction, of unique types of identity under challenging circumstances (including the outlawing of the use of Chinese names and writing). Even more interesting might be an investigation of the sorts of networks and practitioner communities that have developed linking these diaspora schools to their counterparts in the PRC or Taiwan. What role do shared practice, ritual and pilgrimage play in the creation of a community? Does new communication technology strengthen or undermine these networks? How do transnational networks react in the face of local threats and sometimes violent competition?

One suspects that the audience for a book like this would be more academic in nature. Yet it might continue to draw in a broad range of readers. Obviously the question of identity and nationalism among the Chinese diaspora is a topic that has already received sustained interest. However there is also interest in works that deal with community conflict and violence in the Malay World. The growing influence of China in the region will only make these questions more acute for both social and security theorists.

An iconic image of a Japanese "Warrior Monk." Notice the nagamaki he holds in his left hand, the trademark weapon of the Sohei in much the same way that the long pole became the signature weapon of the Shaolin order.
An iconic image of a Japanese “Warrior Monk.” Notice the nagamaki he holds in his left hand, the trademark weapon of the Sohei in much the same way that the long pole became the signature weapon of the Shaolin order.

4. Warrior Monks in a Comparative Context: Shaolin vs. the Sohei, by (A comparative religion scholar). Cambridge UP, 2020.

Simply put, it is hard to imagine who would not want to read this book. Almost no topic has proved to have more enduring appeal in the world of the Chinese martial arts than Shaolin’s warrior monk tradition. And a great many Japanese martial artists are just as interested in the often mythologized memory of the naginata wielding Sohei monks.

Such a comparative study would also raise some important academic issues. Buddhist monasteries in both Japan and China were major landowners, and at certain times important political players. Why and how did they sometimes resort to violence? What can we learn about the comparative Buddhist theology of violence within these two states? How did the relationship between religious power player and the state vary between Japan and China? And by what means have the memories of monastic warriors continued to play a critical role in the popular cultures of both states, long after the disappearance of the sorts of individuals that these images were ostensibly based on?

Depending on how the research was approached such a work could be of interest to either comparative religion or political history researchers with an East Asian focus. Such a work would also take the first step towards providing a series of focused historical comparative studies that are badly needed if Martial Arts Studies is to progress.

The Collected Works of Sun Lutang.
The Collected Works of Sun Lutang.

5. Martial Arts Studies in China Today: A Reader. By Various. Rowman and Littlefield. 2017.

This one might seem like I am cheating. As I mentioned in the introduction, I wanted to save the articles for another post. A good article and a good book are often two very different animals. Still, Martial Arts Studies has a tradition of quality edited volumes and there is a real need for this one.

As I mentioned earlier, the emerging field of martial arts studies is not the exclusive property of any one state or language. It is a transnational field with good work being produced in Universities around the globe. There is currently a very active German language literature on these topics, and University programs in Japan, Korea and China have been producing work on the Asian martial arts for years.

The Chinese literature will be of special interest to readers of Kung Fu Tea. Starting in the late 1980s or early 1990s there was a noticeable uptick in the volume and quality of work being produced on the Chinese martial arts. A number of Universities and Wushu Departments even created their own journals dedicated to these subjects. The quality of some of this work can be uneven, but there are also a number of talented researchers doing very interesting things who are rarely discussed in the West.

Only a few reviews of this literature have been produced in recent years. Stanley Henning has written more on this topic than anyone else, and I briefly reviewed parts of this literature in the introduction to my recent work on the history of Wing Chun. Lorge and Morris have also drawn on it in their respective works. Yet if martial arts studies truly wishes to advance as a transnational research area, it is critical to encourage a much deeper engagement with the work of scholars in the Chinese language literature.

Given that not all Martial Arts Studies scholars are China specialists, this points to the necessity of translating some of the best scholarship from the Chinese language literature in English language collected volumes or special journal editions. Likewise selected examples of current Western scholarship should be translated and disseminated in Chinese.

It is important to note that these two literatures have developed along basically separate lines with only occasional engagement outside of the work of a few specialized scholars (again Shahar and Henning come to mind). Yet some of the insights of Chinese scholars should be made available to a much wider range of martial arts studies readers.

Obviously such projects pose a number of challenges. One must get the cooperation of a large number of authors and publishers before going forward. And the potential readership of this project is probably limited compared to the other books that we have discussed. A project like this would most likely find a home in a specialized martial arts studies book series from a commercial press. Yet the potential long-term academic payoff on this investment is huge.


There you have it. These are some of the book length projects that we would most like to see in the field of Chinese Martial Studies over the next few years. I tried to choose topics that focused on a variety of time periods, geographic areas, styles and research methods. My hope is that everyone will find an idea that is somewhat interesting in this list. Yet it by no means exhausts the sort of research projects that we might see, or the variety of directions that this particular branch of martial arts studies might evolve in.

So what about you? If you could choose a book to read (or write) in the next few years, what would it be? Why? How would such a project further the development of martial arts studies as an interdisciplinary project?


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Five Moments that Transformed Kung Fu