Three unidentified children practice Kung Fu near the Shaolin Temple. This photo was taken in 1982 and it captures the first moments of the "Golden Age" of Kung Fu in mainland China.
Three unidentified children practice Kung Fu near the Shaolin Temple. This press photo was taken in 1982 and it captures the first moments of the “Golden Age” of Kung Fu in mainland China.  Source: Author’s personal collection.




Two weeks ago I moved to Ithaca NY and things have been a bit hectic. I have not been able to get as much reading and writing done as I would like. Yet there has been no corresponding decrease in the appearance of new ideas that I want to explore in blog posts. Now that I finally have a working office set up perhaps I can begin to work my way through this growing backlog.

One of the big topics to emerge in the news recently was the impending end of China’s “One Child Policy.” For readers who may be unfamiliar with the topic, this was an audacious experiment in social engineering conceived of by the Chinese government following the Cultural Revolution (1978) as a way of limiting the country’s burgeoning population growth. It was hoped that this would then result in a socially and economically optimal demographic balance that would lead to prosperity.

The following post has two slightly different, but ultimately related, goals. First I would like to think a little bit about the effects of this policy on the traditional martial arts in the PRC, as well as what its transformation into a “Two Child Policy” might portend for the future. Nor is this discussion as far-fetched as it might appear. Government officials, writers and social scientists have been aware of the link between demographics trends and patterns of social conflict in China (many of which have helped to promote the martial arts) since at least the 19th century. Often these discussions have focused on the issue of “bare sticks,” young men who for economic or social reasons cannot marry and have traditionally fed China’s many martial arts traditions.

Secondly, what does all of this suggest about the nature and possible uses of Martial Arts Studies as an academic research area. Scholars are quickly building an impressive database of information on the historical development of these fighting systems as well as better models of how they interact with society. But what is the ultimate point of this? How can we as researchers actually apply this knowledge? What is it good for?

Before delving into these twin discussions we might wish to begin with a quick overview of the One Child Policy. This set of directives is actually more complicated than its totalizing title might lead one to believe. The policy evolved over time, and its application has never been uniform. While much has been written on the subject, demographer and economists have never come to total agreement on its actual effectiveness or impact on Chinese society. A few of these debates may even be relevant to our discussion of how it may have interacted with the fate of the martial arts in the PRC.

Shaolin Students
A group in the same general area today.


A Quick Overview


Originally intended as a measure that would last only a single generation, the “One Child Policy” saw a number of important revisions over the course of its lifespan. Since enforcement of the policy was largely carried out at the provincial level there was a fair degree of variability in how it was enforced throughout the country. Still, estimates by demographers suggest that anywhere from 200 to 400 million births were prevented by this policy which is now slated to be substantially modified (basically into a “two child policy”) within the coming months.

In practice the subset of couples that were strictly restricted to a single birth in recent years was actually smaller than one might expect. Again, estimates vary, but it seems likely that only 35% of couples in the past decade were strictly restricted to a single birth. Exceptions to the policy were numerous. Individuals living in rural farming villages and ethnic minorities could apply for additional birth permits. And after 2013 all couples could apply to have a second child if either one was a single-child themselves.

Discussions of the One Child Policy are always complicated by a number of factors. Obviously it has been a politicized topic in the West where the enforcement of this directive has been tied to accusations of human rights abuses. And demographers have struggled to come to terms with the effects of what has been, in many ways, an unprecedented social experiment.

It is certainly true that China’s population growth curve bent down sharply after enforcement of this policy was instituted. Its advocates have noted that it seems to have cut the countries potential population by several hundred million (again, exact estimates differ). Yet critics of these policies note that China’s overall birth rate fell at exactly the same time that its economy entered its rapid growth phase, a large percentage of the population relocated from primarily agricultural to urban areas, and opportunities for female education and employment improved.

We know from studying population dynamics in other countries that these same variables are more than capable of explaining dramatic dips in population growth rates. For instance, the shift in China’s growth curve closely matches those also seen in the case of Vietnam. Yet its smaller southern neighbor never adopted a single child policy, and instead relied on public education and market forces. Likewise Hong Kong never considered anything akin to the PRC’s enforced social engineering strategy. Yet it currently has one of the lowest birthrates in the world.

When thinking about the effects of the One Child Policy we are first forced to ask ourselves whether it really had much of a substantive impact on Chinese society at all. Reporters working this story recently found that most of the individuals in urban areas who they interviewed (those most likely to be restricted to a single child under the old system) have said that, policy changes notwithstanding, they have no plans to seek a second birth. The costs of housing, raising and educating a second child in the current economic environment are just too onerous.

Indeed, it is hard to underestimate the importance of household economic calculations in explaining demographic trends. I doubt that even the most ardent economist would claim that people are actually mathematically rational in their decision making. Yet hard budget constraints are impossible to ignore. And the population declines that we have seen in recent decades in states like Vietnam and Russia indicate that economic factors may be more than capable of explaining most of the variance that we see in the Chinese case as well. Without the One Child Policy it is likely that China’s total population, while possibly a bit higher, would not be radically different from what we see today.

Yet even if the total population numbers did not change, it is still possible that this policy has had other consequences which need to be taken into account. Demographers have noted that how this policy was drafted, and the ways in which it interacted with traditional Chinese culture, reinforced a strong preference for male children. Sex selective abortions have resulted in a massive demographic skew. And as we have seen in previous posts, large numbers of unmarried males (or “bare sticks” in the Chinese vernacular) have not always been a force for social stability in China’s past. In fact, martial arts societies recruited quite successfully out of this demographic pool in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries.

The rapid decline in birth rate has also skewed the age distribution of China’s population, and these effects will continue to grow stronger over the coming decades. On the macro level there are simply fewer active workers to support the growing number of retired senior citizens who are living longer and healthier lives.

Within individual families these trends can be felt even more starkly. With a weak social safety net individuals continue to rely both on their personal savings and their children for financial support in their old age. Yet the rigid enforcement of the One Child Policy in some demographics has led to the “4-2-1 Problem,” where a single working child may be called on to support up to six elderly adults (two parents, and four grandparents).

The burdens placed on single children in this situation are stark and immediately evident. Yet if we return to the macro level it becomes apparent that this rapid decline in the size of the overall workforce could pose a serious problem for China’s economic prospects in the coming decades. It seems that these very real economic and social fears were largely responsible for the political decision to walk back the One Child Policy.

Nor do these issues exhaust the list of social ills that are often attributed to the One Child Policy. Some writers have referred to those living in China now as “the loneliest generation” as vast numbers of singletons grew up without the benefit of brothers, sisters, cousins or even many neighbors of their same age with which to share their childhood. Adults have attempted to compensate for this by lavishing attention and spending on the few children in their extended families leading to what some have termed the “Little Emperor” problem of spoiled and generally fragile children who then go on to struggle in an educational and social system that demands a high degree of discipline.

On the other hand these same supposedly “spoiled” children are often overwhelmed with the social responsibilities that they personally bear to multiple generations of their own families. Even if China’s total population might be roughly the same without the advent of the One Child Policy, this experiment still seems to have had an important effect on the contours of Chinese society.


Shaolin Masterclass. Photo by Jack Latham. Source:
Shaolin Masterclass. Photo by Jack Latham. Source:


Demographic Change and the Martial Arts


This brings us back to the martial arts. What impact did the One Child Policy have on the development of both official and folk Wushu after the close of the Cultural Revolution? What changes in the development of the martial arts might we expect to see in the wake of its departure? And what does all of this imply for the field of martial arts studies?

In a recent paper my colleague, Dr. Paul Bowman, asked what is the point of martial arts studies? Once we have accumulated this knowledge about the ways in which martial arts systems develop and interact with society, what do we do with it? What possible solutions to this more theoretical question might a quick consideration of the One Child Policy suggest?

Historical work on the traditional martial arts has demonstrated that these practices were not distributed evenly across Chinese society. Up through the early 20th century there was a distinct social stigma that accompanied the practice of these systems. Their spread was often associated with practical concerns such as village defense or making a living either as a guard, opera performer or bandit. As such the traditional hand combat arts were more commonly encountered in some areas of the country than others. Further, in my own research on the martial clans of Guangdong province I noticed that they tended to be practiced by second and third, rather than first, sons within a family.

Obviously there are a number of exceptions to this last point, particularly in cases where the martial arts were essential to the family business (guards, soldiers, pharmacists, bandits). Yet among those who might be said to have adopted these systems by choice, there does seem to be a bias towards second sons. For instance, it was Ip Man, and not his older and better established brother, who would go on to become a master of Wing Chun kung fu after Chan Wah Shun took up teaching in the Ip clan temple. Why might this be?

The answer seems to come down to questions of responsibility and the duties of filial piety. First sons were more senior, and in the case of the family businesses might well be expected to continue on in the enterprise. Often the family would invest substantial resources in their education in the hopes that they might win office through the civil service system and thus increase the prestige and fortunes of the clan.

In economic terms we might argue that it was more expensive for first sons (excluding those in certain specific industries and situations) to study the martial arts. They were often afforded other opportunities that were too valuable to lightly discard. And they also felt the greatest weight of social expectation to succeed. In short, the “opportunity cost” of the martial arts was simply too great to make if affordable in a good many cases.

The situation was slightly different for younger sons. While they would still expect to inherit something of the family estate, they do not seem to have born the same weight of parental expectations. Further, I have often suspected that a number of families decided that once the clan fortune was secure, having a couple of “security specialists” on hand to make sure that everything ran smoothly might be a great investment. Thus it could be rational for second sons to invest themselves in a martial education even though their older brothers were being encouraged in a more “civil” direction.

Nor can we forget the “bare sticks,” younger males from poor families that did not expect to inherit anything. Economic considerations combined with the problem of the “missing girls” meant that their marriage prospects were limited. These young men also tended to be more loosely tethered to their home communities and clans. Such individuals were often viewed as somewhat expendable and were the most likely to be caught up in clan warfare, smuggling, petty criminal groups and even martial arts societies. This last pursuit may have provided them with an alternate means of constructing a masculine identity within a predominately Confucian society.

As we can see, the distribution of the martial arts knowledge throughout Chinese society tended to be correlated with certain demographic and economic variables during the late imperial period. And the One Child Policy was consciously designed to reengineer those exact aspects of society. So how might it have affected the subsequent development of the Chinese martial arts on the mainland?

Ultimately these sorts of counterfactual questions are impossible to answer with precision, especially when we are looking at a vastly complicated social experiment with a sample size of one. Still, it may be possible to discern a few key patterns worthy of further consideration.

To begin with, we should recall that in urban areas any couple lucky enough to have a son on their first attempt was not likely to be allowed to have another child (unless they were a member of a minority group). Thus in these areas a very large percentage of all males would now find themselves in a situation where they alone bore the weight of their parents’ and grandparents’ expectations. This would seem to increase the social costs of martial arts training and make it likely that fewer parents would actively seek out these opportunities for their children.

Of course martial arts training did not vanish after the end of the Cultural Revolution. It actually went through a boom in the 1980s. Yet by in large the individuals who took up training early in this decade were still the product of a previous generation. As time went on fewer children enrolled in both official Wushu programs and folk martial arts classes. This trend became especially pronounced towards the end of the 1990s and beyond as China’s economy picked up steam and parents became increasingly anxious about forgoing the possibility of a lucrative career for their children.

In short, there is circumstantial evidence that economic considerations, made more acute by the One Child Policy, have probably inhibited the total number of martial arts students. It has likely also skewed which sorts of children will take up the martial arts and the sorts of practices that they will be introduced to.

Readers might recall that individuals living in more rural areas were generally allowed to have a greater number of children. One suspects that this was probably a good thing for the development of the martial arts in China as these practices have always been more popular in rural areas. Further, journalists and researchers who have interviewed individuals studying at China’s many fulltime Wushu based schools have noted that the students in these vocational programs tend to come disproportionately from poor rural backgrounds.

From the 1920s-1950s martial arts reformers on the mainland succeeded in an effort to re-brand their fighting systems as tools of public health, physical education and nationalism that were fit for urban middle class students. Such individuals were expected to already have full time occupations and thus approached the martial arts mostly as a recreational activity. The Jingwu and later Guoshu movements are the best known examples of this trend, but many schools and groups were working along similar lines.

Obviously the advent of the government’s new Wushu system in the 1950s (subsequently expanded after the end of the Cultural Revolution) meant that none of these Republic era approaches would be coming back. And while there was a sudden outpouring of interest in folk masters teaching in urban areas in the 1980s and early 1990s, I have wondered over the years if one of the effects of the One Child Policy was to generally suppress interest in the martial arts as a recreational activity in urban areas, and to once again re-center these practices in more rural areas where they would be seen as a fulltime course of study in preparation for a career in the military. Ironically, this is not all that different from how many families living in the same regions had viewed them in the 19th century.

What then might we see in the future with the relaxation of the One Child Policy? The most obvious (but also the most problematic) prediction might be that this change would lead to a notable increase in the birth rate. Clearly certain party officials hope to see some increase in the number of new workers being born. And as families have more children over which to spread the burden of social obligation, they might be more willing to let some of their sons (and increasingly daughters) participate in martial arts training. Observers have been noting the declining fortunes of the traditional arts within China for some time, and the lack of new students is often explicitly tied to parental objections. So it does not seem unreasonable to expect that an increase in the birth rate might be tied to an increase in the absolute number of martial arts students.

Unfortunately these exercises in forecasting are never so simple. A large number of reporters interviewing young couples in Chinese cities have noted that the people whom they interviewed in recent weeks are not actually anticipating having more than one child, despite the promised policy change. Their reasons are essentially economic in nature. Given the expense of raising a child, the difficulty in arranging for child care, and the soaring cost of real estate, few working class urban couples feel that they can afford to have more than one child. Thus a number of observers have speculated that the change in policy might not lead to the boom in births that government planners are hoping for.

Yet even these more cautious predictions may require their own set of caveats. The existence of a robust “birth tourism” industry indicates that at least some Chinese couples are interested in and planning for the possibility of multiple births. Further, many parents are very worried about the social and psychological effects of being a singleton.

Even the economic arguments about the costs of raising a child are more complicated than they first appear. Lacking a European style safety net, and facing the possible end to decades of rapid economic growth, it seems likely that a number of couples may decide that having a second child is the best insurance against poverty in their old age that they are likely to be able to afford. In short, it is not entirely clear how the long term value vs. short term costs of an additional child will look in the next five or ten years.

While not everyone will decide to increase their family size, and these measures may be too little too late to create the sort of population bump that the government is hoping for, it is likely that the relaxation of this policy will change some of the details of how births are distributed across Chinese society.

Female student studying Wushu in a scene from Inigo Westmeier's Dragon Girls.
Female student studying Wushu in a scene from Inigo Westmeier’s Dragon Girls.



What Do we do with Martial Arts Studies?


As I noted at the opening of this essay, students of martial arts studies must at some point begin to articulate the purpose of this new field. Our primary mission may be to better understand the origin of these fighting systems, how they have been discussed through time, and the various ways in which they have contributed to their host societies. But once we have accumulated this body of information, what do we do with it? What is it good for? Is understanding the martial arts the only goal, or a means to something bigger?

Personally I hope for the latter. I fully expect that many projects will take these fighting systems as their “dependent variable” (meaning the thing that is explained). Yet the most interesting thing about the martial arts is what they can reveal about the hidden nature of the communities around them. Societies often do a good job hiding certain types of conflict, friction and rupture. The martial arts, by exploring, amplifying, or seeking to ameliorate social conflict, can illuminate the details of cleavages that would otherwise remain invisible to the outside observer. This is especially true in periods of rapid social change.

As a thought experiment let us assume that the average Chinese birthrate does not change a great deal in the coming generation. Certain western observers might conclude from this that market forces (e.g., hard budget constraints) have more of an impact on family fertility decisions than government policy, especially in increasingly urban middle income countries. Thus they might say (and some already are) that the One Child Policy had very little impact on Chinese society. Would this view be correct?

Shifts in future patterns of social conflict and martial arts practice might well tell a different story. For instance, renewed interest in the folk martial arts centered in urban areas like Guangzhou, Shanghai or Beijing might point to the growing strength of an urban middle class that can afford both the luxury of additional children and investments in cultural pursuits. Such a finding would herald the coming of a certain sort of Chinese modernity.

Continued stagnation of the urban folk arts might signal something very different. Particularly if this were to be accompanied by renewed strength within the rural Wushu vocational schools as hard times inspired rural families to increase their birthrates as a hedge against the future. Renewed interest in these vocational institutions would also signal the emergence of a new, but very different, vision of Chinese modernity. Thus the sorts of martial arts that social groups choose to invest in may reveal critical information regarding their private beliefs about the future.  And as “costly signals” these opinions would be hard to ignore.

Every new macro-level development within a complex  social system creates groups of winners and losers. The art of politics often focuses on compensating, quieting or shoving aside one of these two groups. The sorts of conflicts that change brings about are not always readily apparent, especially in their early stages. Yet the martial arts have functioned as tools for addressing these tensions in the past, and they are likely to continue to do so in the future. The state has used them to promote its unifying vision of the nation, while local groups have looked to them as signs of identity and centers of cultural resistance.

I do not know what the end of the One Child Policy will bring. Yet even if birthrates remain unchanged the creation of a new demographic regime may still have an important impact on Chinese society. The value of Martial Arts Studies as an interdisciplinary pursuit goes far beyond its immediate object of study. Rather than simply being a body of facts relating to the origin and functioning of various hand combat systems, it may provide us with a lens to interpret and study aspects of social conflict that might remain invisible to more conventional modes of analysis. As we have already learned “the personal is political,” and nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of the martial arts.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Government Subsidization of the Martial Arts and the Question of “Established Churches”