Cityscape by Jay Musler. Blown, cut, Sandblasted and painted glass. Corning Museum of Class. Picture by Benjamin Judkins.
Cityscape by Jay Musler (1981). Blown, cut, Sandblasted and painted glass. Corning Museum of Class. Picture by Benjamin Judkins.


…When I asked why he was not more active teaching himself, he answered in a gravelly voice:

In my opinion, the world has changed. I never teach my son and grandson. People ask me to teach, but people’s minds nowdays are wicked….

A real master can only teach real kung fu to his disciple who learns under him for at least 10 years in order to know his character well or he will create problems. We’ll not teach the practical use of Kung Fu to those who learn only 2 or 3 years. This is the traditional culture. That’s why a lot becomes extinct. Chinese traditional kung fu is like this.

When I asked whether it was possible to modify the way that students were selected and basic training methods, all of the masters at the table said ‘no.’ They made it clear that the processes through which they learned Kung Fu were integral to the arts and that it would not be possible to teach properly if things were made ‘easier.’…Furthermore, they said that even if they wanted to change the methods, they could not, because they made an oath and were obligated to continue teaching the way that they were taught by their masters. One commented:

It has carried on from generations to generations in this way. From master to student through time. So we can’t do it freely as we wish. We must respect the way things were done. This is how we respect our masters.

P. Daly. 2012. “Traditional Chinese Martial Arts and the Transmission of Intangible Cultural Heritage.” In Daly and Winter (eds.) Routledge Handbook of Heritage in Asia. London: Routledge. pp. 360-361.




Anyone who has been keeping up with the news will know that “intangible cultural heritage” has become a hot topic in the more political corner of the martial arts world. Both national and international groups (such as the UN) have mechanisms to designate items (works of art) and places (either architectural or natural) as important examples of “heritage”; meaning objects inherited from the past, enjoyed in the present and worthy of being passed on to the future. More recently the bodies that direct this work have become interested in the human and cultural elements of this process. Skills, identities, languages and beliefs have increasingly been deemed examples of “intangible cultural heritage” (ICH) and efforts have been launched to preserve the human capital behind them.

The bestowal of an ICH designation on a group or practice is not without consequences. It can lead to an increased sense of internal legitimacy or value being placed on what have often been marginal or minority practices. In some cases it may even open the way for the eventual monetization and economic exploitation of a once forgotten cultural practice through renewed interest on the part of visiting scholars, collectors or tourists. While these blessings are not without their inevitable complications, it is no surprise that we often see competition, both within and between states, as to what practices should be recognized as part of a nation’s “heritage.”

One of the difficulties in the study of the Chinese martial arts is that for much of their history they were considered “feudal” and “backwards” practices by cultural elites both within and outside of Chinese society. Some modernizers called for the reform of the martial arts (such as the Jingwu and Guoshu movements in the 20th century), while other intellectuals (including many May 4th Reformers) simply stated that they had no place in China’s quickly developing modern society. While these practices have always been critical to the identities of certain groups or individuals, very few objective observers of the Qing dynasty or the Republic period would have argued that the civilian schools of boxing and self-defense were in any way central to China’s grand cultural heritage.

Luckily the traditional Chinese martial arts survived China’s tumultuous 20th century. In some areas they even thrived. And in terms of social respect, it is impressive what a difference the passage of a century can make.

Over the last decade the Chinese government, as well as the administrations of Hong Kong and Taiwan, have all made concerted efforts to grant ICH status to certain traditional martial arts practices. Students of Wing Chun and fans of traditional Chinese culture may find Hong Kong’s most recent heritage list to be particularly interesting.

This is all the more remarkable when we remember that Wing Chun was never practiced in the city on a large scale prior to 1950, and it didn’t gain a substantial following (compared to the other better established martial arts systems) until the 1970s-1980s. Yet it has now become an undeniable aspect of the city’s cultural landscape. At the international level the Peoples Republic of China is currently in the midst of a campaign to promote Taijiquan’s designation as a piece of critical world heritage by the United Nations, on par with its recent acknowledgement of Yoga.

For all of these reasons discussions of ‘heritage’ as a theoretical and analytical category have been appearing in the sorts of scholarly discussions of the martial arts that I follow. While looking at submissions for a book series on martial arts studies I noted that a reviewer specifically requested to see potential titles that would address the traditional martial arts within the context of heritage studies. And recently, while reviewing Daly and Winter’s excellent Routledge Handbook of Heritage in Asia (2012), I came across an article titled “Fighting Modernity: Traditional Chinese Martial Arts and the Transmission of Cultural Heritage.” The extended quote at the start of this post is drawn directly from this article.

If it sounds familiar it is probably because Prof. Daly used the same set of quotes in a documentary that he directed and released a few years ago titled “Needle Through Brick.” Both the article and the documentary look at the challenges of transmitting the traditional Chinese martial arts in the current era of globalization by following a number of schools and masters within East Malaysia’s traditional Chinese martial arts community.

While the article and the documentary share many of the same sources, what I find to be most interesting is the stark differences that emerge between them. Obviously Daly’s (very helpful) theoretical discussion and literature review is confined to the printed article. Such probing investigations would have felt out of place in a documentary that followed the “show, don’t tell” conventions of the genera.

Beyond these stylistic differences more fundamental variables come into play. While both works emphasize the struggle of passing on ‘heritage,’ they come to differing conclusions as to whether this project is ultimately possible.

The documentary follows more closely the story line of a handful of Wushu students who practice at the Chinese Martial Arts Association (CMAA). Realizing that their competitive careers in this sport will be limited, these students are also embarking on an exploration of the traditional martial arts. Under the guidance of Master Eric Ling it appeared that Wushu and traditional clubs would be able to work together to preserve authentic kung fu. The martial heritage of Chinese culture was secure and being successfully conveyed to future generations.

The concluding discussion of “Fighting Modernity” paints a very different picture. This article instead focuses its resources and theoretical attention on a group of aging “traditional” masters. The picture that they paint of the future of Kung Fu is bleak.

Few if any of them are teaching. Of those who have taught, none seem to have a student who they believe to be qualified to carry on the lineage. Each expresses doubts about the economic viability of the martial arts and the quality of their students. One is overwhelmed with the sense of fatalism. “Real” kung fu, as opposed to the flashy Wushu the kids are doing, is about to die out and the individuals who might be expected to preserve it feel that it is impossible to save.

From a theoretical perspective Daly seems to suspect that they may be right. In fact, his concerns about the preservation of the Chinese martial arts in Malaysia pointed to a much broader problem with the entire effort to preserve all sorts of elements of intangible cultural heritage skills across Asia.

How can we reconcile these two visions of the future of the traditional martial arts arising (ironically) from the same research project? Is it possible to adapt the ways in which the traditional martial arts are introduced to students while preserving their underlying cultural values? If, so, how far can we go? Who determines what is “central” to the martial arts when multiple visions of Chinese modernity come into conflict? How can we understand the decision of some actors not to pass on their skills? Lastly, what are the limitations of the ICH framework for understanding the rich variety of martial arts communities that actually exist?

Red Pyramid by Stanislov and Jaroslava (1993). Corning Museum of Glass.
Red Pyramid by Stanislov and Jaroslava (1993). Corning Museum of Glass.


Fighting Modernity


The best way to address these questions is with a close reading of Daly’s chapter, yet in a post like this we will only be able to hit a few of the high points. Better yet, readers interested in applying the cultural heritage concept to martial arts studies should take a close look at the entire volume that Daly and Winter edited for Routledge. While only a single chapter speaks directly to the martial arts, a number of them raise issues (such as the role of “cultural tourism” and the possibility of a “developmental heritage trap” similar the “curse of natural resource abundance”) that could be applied very widely throughout these studies.

Readers should also take special note of Chapter 1, which serves as an introduction both to the field of heritage studies and as a review of the major topics and debates that this volume seeks to speak to. A number of these discussions (such as the debate between the rhetoric of ‘preservation’ vs. ‘sustainability’) could potentially be valuable to studies of Asia’s traditional hand combat systems. Read as a unit this introductory chapter helps to frame and highlight significant elements of Daly’s more detailed discussion of the Chinese martial arts in Chapter 23.

The later chapter (titled “Fighting Modernity”) proceeds in six sections. In the first we are introduced directly to a few of the informants that the author relies on and the very concrete problems that they see in the transmission of their shared martial heritage.

The next part of the article focuses on the major theoretical questions that the investigation touches on. The author looks at the role of rapid economic development in social disruption as well as the growing realization of the importance of non-physical forms of cultural heritage. He then introduces his central research question; in what ways should traditional pedagogies be considered an aspect of ICH? If these skills or types of knowledge are removed from their social framework and preserved only in museums or universities, employing different modes of knowledge preservation, have we lost the essence of an ICH?

While the author acknowledges that both the meanings and modes of transmission of ICH have changed over time, he wonders how much flexibility there can actually be in the traditional martial arts where certain social values come into existence as they are invoked directly in the relationship between teacher and student. It would appear that for Daly this relational element of pedagogy in the TCMA is much more central to their “authenticity” than simply getting the physical movements right. While it does not appear that the author goes so far as to understand the martial arts as primarily social institutions, it is clear that he sees certain sorts of relationships as being central to their continuation. This raises important questions about what an ICH designation should really be trying to preserve in the first place.

The following section includes the bulk of Daly’s ethnographic observations. It highlights excerpts from a number of the masters that he interviewed as well as analysis of the sorts of relationships that typically exist between masters and students during the process of training.

These observations were critical to his overall conclusion that it was the ‘unsystematic’ nature of TCMA training which made it unappealing to parents, schools and government agencies in the second half of the 20th century. Each of these institutions was more likely to throw their support behind standardized, rational and linear arts such as Taekwondo, Wushu or Judo. Thus it is not so much the “traditional” element of the Chinese martial arts that make them unappealing, or even the values that they promote. Rather the problems arise from the disconnect between traditional and modern views of pedagogy.

This section ends with perhaps the most important paragraph of the paper:

While masters were quick to emphasize the necessity of strict adherence to traditional roles to maintaining the arts, it needs to be recognized that this is part of the broader self-construction of authority and social positioning. The perceived onslaught of modernity is not just an assault on the TCMA, but also upon long-standing power-structures, systems of knowledge production, flows of social capital and lines of patronage – all of which are demonstrated above. Therefore, it is important to read deeper into discussions of safeguarding to situate intangible cultural heritage within a broader context of social contestation and the unravelling of pre-existing social expectations that are implicit parts of many ICH practices and embodied within social transmission. The masters that I interviewed were quick to point out a wide range of external reasons why their traditions were fading, but much less inclined to be critically reflective of their roles within this process as potential obstacles to adaptation. (p. 358)

These are important ideas, and I wish that Daly had expanded upon them substantially in his concluding remarks. The lack of emphasis given to these points makes his paper seem, in some ways, like an unfinished project.

The next section of the chapter takes a closer look at a few of the specific factors that are impeding the transmission of the traditional martial arts. These include the need to make a living and the low economic value of martial practices, at least for individuals who were trying to make a living as a full time instructor. Interestingly the idea that Sifu’s should teach full time was widely held by the Master that Daly interviewed though he did not attempt to critically interrogate this notion.

The competing interests of young people were also a major factor in this discussion. The Wushu program of the Chinese Martial Arts Association (also seen in a Needle Through Brick) were once again brought into this discussion, yet this time they were not portrayed as a conduit bringing students into the TCMA. Rather Wushu was viewed only as a direct competitor to the traditional arts, and one that was systematically advantaged due to its government support, rationalized nature and inclusion in local school programs.

Daly then moves on to his concluding discussion. Readers will already be familiar with a good chunk of this material as it was used to introduce the current essay. Extrapolating from these points the author notes the emergence of a fundamental paradox for anyone interested in preserving the TCMA as an element of intangible cultural heritage.

The threat to heritage practices comes not so much from a simple “forgetting” of the skills in question. Rather, rapid economic development creates widespread patterns of social change. This change dictates new classes of “winners” and “losers” within society all of which brings about fundamental shifts in values, neighborhood institutions and social capital networks.

The traditional martial arts, whose demise is lamented by the masters that Daly interviewed, was not understood as simply a set of self-defense skills. Rather it was a means of conveying a range of values and relationships that supported a social world that had now vanished due to economic change. The preservation of these techniques would require institutional innovation, yet by definition, the values of these new institutions (capable of competing in the rational, standardized and linear world of modern pedagogy) could not be the same as those that had shaped the now elderly group of masters in their youth.

In their view, these masters were the ones who were properly authorized to state what constituted an “authentic heritage discourse.” They were the guardians of traditional values and hence “real” kung fu. While it might be tempting to see their withdrawal as a form of protest against their own marginalization, a sort of “weapon on the weak” (to use the James C. Scott’s phrase), in reality it may simply have been the dawning realization that one cannot convey social values that society no longer wants. But does this mean that “real” Kung Fu is dead?

Javier Pérez (Spanish, b. 1968), Carroña (Carrion), Murano, Italy, 2011. Blown glass chandelier, assembled, broken, taxidermied crows. The Corning Museum of Glass.
Javier Pérez (Spanish, b. 1968), Carroña (Carrion), Murano, Italy, 2011. Blown glass chandelier, assembled, broken, taxidermied crows. The Corning Museum of Glass.




To answer this question it may be necessary to first take a step back from the theoretical discussion of heritage preservation and ask some basic historical questions. This may help us to better understand what exactly an attempt to understand the Chinese martial arts as examples of intangible cultural heritage might entail.

While Daly’s work has much to recommend it, his discussion of history, in both the article and the documentary, is very thin. Like many commentators he simply starts with the assumption that the there is a single, basically coherent social pattern that represents all of the “traditional” Chinese martial arts. Conveniently his informant are inheritors of this homogeneous pattern which supports an equally stable and universal set of “traditional” values.

Secondly, he assumes that the Chinese martial arts, as he encountered them in Malaysia, are truly ancient. Viewers of his documentary are informed in the opening shots they date back “thousands of years.” All of this is critical as it informs Daly’s view of the object being preserved through ICH status as well as the sort of values that it has represented within Chinese society.

At the same time Daly seems to be aware of the dangers of making hard and fast generalizations about the Chinse martial arts. On pages 352 of his article he laments the lack of academic publications on the history or the culture of the Chinese martial arts. Most of what he has found on the subject has been published in popular magazines or trade journals. The only areas of academic research that he notes are media and film studies and he does not seek to critically engage with this material.

Rather than being a simple inconvenience, this lack of academic literature is a problem for Daly as it may have impeded the ability of the appropriate governmental and NGO bodies to determine that the TCMA should be granted ICH status and protection. This implication is, in itself, a fascinating commentary on the social (and potentially economic) value of academic research into “heritage” practices. Daly states that his research is meant to address this silence and in so doing “push the boundaries of practices that are typically recognized as intangible cultural heritage.” Further, “It is important to acknowledge, as many non-academics have, that the traditional Chinese martial arts have been part of Chinese history for several thousand years.” (pp. 351-352.)

It is certainly true that we need to see more academic research on the history and culture of the Chinese martial arts. And some very good work has come out after this piece was published in 2012 that may have been helpful to the author’s discussion had it been available. Still, while reading through the list of Works Cited at the conclusion of this article, it was remarkable to note that not a single academic source on the history of the Chinese martial arts had been consulted.

Obviously Peter Lorge’s single volume history Chinese Martial Arts (Cambridge UP) came out in 2012 and may not have been available at the time that Daly was writing. Still, other potentially helpful works should have been readily at hand and in any university library.

Wile’s work on the evolution of modern Taiji in the late 19th century was published by SUNY press in 1996 and is widely cited. Adam Frank’s ethnography of pedagogy and identity in the traditional martial arts in Shanghai (a topic directly relevant to the study at hand) came out in 2006. Morris’s research on the evolution of social attitudes within the martial arts community during the Republic period was published by California University Press in 2004. Meir Shahar’s work on the Shaolin Boxing tradition (Hawaii UP), if consulted, would have strongly suggested that many of the fears about the disappearance of the “authentic” martial arts were already a well-established aspect of the discourse by the second half of the Ming Dynasty (2008). And of course multiple works by authors like Stanley Henning or Kennedy and Guo could have helped Daly to establish a detailed timeline of the modern history of the Chinese martial arts.

It is certainly true that the academic literature on this subject was not as well developed in 2012 as it should have been. Yet it does not appear that the author identified or engaged with any of the important sources that would have been readily available when he was doing this research. Rather, it appears that his entire mental map of the history and the development of the traditional arts came from popular publications (some of which are listed in his Works Cited) and his discussion with his informants in the field.

If Daly had actually engaged with the available historical or ethnographic discussions, what would he have found? To begin with, the traditional Chinese martial arts, as he encountered them, are not “thousands” of years old. Individuals have had systematic ways of fighting with sticks, swords and bows for thousands of years, but there are real questions as to how much of this material can be termed a “martial art” in the modern sense of the term (and almost certainly not as Daly employs it).

Shahar does much to reveal the deep roots of what might be thought of as “modern” Chinese martial arts culture in the 17th century, yet as both Wile and Morris show in great detail, these strains were extensively modified in the late 19th and early 20th century as China came into contact with the forces of imperialism, colonialism, economic globalization and modernity. The specific traditions that Daly seems to be interested in were all shaped by the economic and social trends of the late 19th century and the Republic period.

In short, had he seriously engaged with the historical literature the first thing that Daly would have realized is that the TCMA are not something that “survived” globalization and need to “preserved” in the face of economic change. He is dealing with social institutions that are very much a product of modernity and the first round of globalization which occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century. This brings up a critical point raised in Chapter 1. Some objects of “heritage preservation” may be better understood as examples of “invented tradition” (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983). While the folk histories that exist within these styles would not lead one to suspect that this is the case, a quick study of the existing academic research on their history would certainly point to that possibility.

This then suggests some questions about the social values that might be conveyed by the TCMA. Can they really be understood as a unified and homogeneous block emerging from the mysterious past? Again, the answer would seem to be no. A familiarity with the modern history of this movement will show that it is rife with discussions and disputes as to what the martial arts should be, and what role (if any) they should play in civil society. Not all masters agreed on these points.

The Guoshu and Jingwu movement (which are both now considered “traditional” Kung Fu styles) started by questioning and discarding the very basic teacher-student relationships that Daly identifies as being at the heart of the Chinese martial arts. Readers should recall for much of the 20th century these were the most popular hand combat institutions of the day.

Other teachers, such as Ip Man in the Wing Chun system, took a middle road between these extremes. While the structure of his school would have looked very familiar to Daly’s masters in East Malaysia, his understanding of a “proper” martial art might not have sat so well with them. Ip Man did everything in his ability to strip out “useless” cultural content in an attempt to make a highly efficient, empirically tested, self-defense art. He saw this as the key to ensuring the survival of his system in the “modern world” of the 1950s and his students loved it.

Ip Man (and many other reformers like him) represented a direct challenge to the sorts of masters that Daly worked with sixty years later. The very fact that the paradox which the author outlines has been debated since the 1920s would seem to indicate that there is more than one set of competing values within the world of the Chinese martial arts and that none of them are going away anytime soon.

Avron Boretz, in Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society (Hawaii UP, 2011) does a good job of pointing out how the “traditional” martial values of interest to Daly function as mechanisms for the self-creation of sometimes highly marginal individuals. The fact that Ip Man’s system championed another set of values naturally reflects the fact that he (and his students) had a different background and a richer set of social options. And the martial values of the Jingwu system were likewise calculated to reflect the social norms held by China’s growing, educated and increasingly urban middle class.

A more historically informed view of the Chinese martial arts would not support the simple dichotomy of Wushu (free of all traditional values) on the one hand versus “traditional” kung fu (which embodied a universal set of norms) on the other. Rather it would have shown that Chinese society was a diverse place, and many groups have employed the martial arts as a tool for creating their own vision of what Chinese modernity should be, and what values their fellow citizens should accept. The Chinese martial arts are not simple victims of modernity, rather they are tools that have been used to amplify the agency of their practitioners through their interactions with both the state and society.

Some of these efforts have been more successful than others and balances naturally shift over time. Yet what is not clear to me upon reading this article is why the author assumes that the types of kung fu done by his set of “traditional” masters, or the values that they hold, are inherently more authentic, “Chinese” or worthy of preservation than any other vision of the Chinese martial arts to arise during this same period.

The danger in this critique is that some reader might conclude that the current martial arts styles are unworthy of study and preservation (or that their values should not be passed on) simply because these things are often not as old as their creation myths might lead one to believe. I want to stress that this is not the case.

Something does not have to be ancient or universal to become an important part of a community’s heritage. America’s great contributions to the world are jazz and rock and roll. Neither of these musical generas are any older than the southern Chinese martial arts that Daly is interested in. Yet they are both critical pieces of American’s cultural heritage.

The problem in accepting an ahistorical and hegemonic view of the traditional martial arts is not that it will cause our efforts to preserve them to fail. They might succeed all too well. The martial arts have never been just one thing or represented a static set of social values. Instead they have been dynamic tools by which somewhat marginal elements of Chinese society have articulated their own (often contrasting) visions of the many pathways to China’s modernity.

As the economic structure of Chinese society changes this struggle must also evolve to retain its relevance. Further, a study of the actual history of the martial arts shows that they have been exceptionally adept at making these transitions in the past. Yet by creating an unchanging vision of the past capable of supporting only one a single set of values we might bring this process to a halt, depriving future generations of their chance to find what is most beautiful in the Chinese martial arts. That is almost surely a greater threat to these systems than the waves of globalization and rapid economic growth from which they first emerged in their current form in the early 20th century.

The concept of intangible cultural heritage potentially has much to offer Martial Arts Studies. Yet we must begin with a more nuanced understanding of what we seek to sustain and its actual relationship with broader social trends.


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