Welcome to the third entry in our series of guest posts titled “Doing Research.” If you missed the first essay by D. S. Farrer (which provides a global overview of the subject), or the second by Daniel Mroz (how to select a school or teacher for research purposes), be sure to check them out.
Compared to other fields of scholarly inquiry, Martial Arts Studies has a distinctly democratic flavor. Many individuals are introduced to these systems while students at a college or university and are interested in seeing a more intellectually rigorous treatment of their interests. And certain practitioners want to go beyond reading studies produced by other writers and undertake research based on their own time in the training hall. The emphasis on ethnographic description, oral and local history, as well as the methodological focus on community based collaborative research within Martial Arts Studies (itself a radically interdisciplinary area), makes participation in such efforts both relatively accessible and highly valuable. Or maybe you are a student about to embark on your first ethnographic research project?
Dr. Jared Miracle has been kind enough to draw on his extensive research experience in both Japan and China to suggest some practices that can be called upon when facing the daunting task of learning a new martial arts system while also being immersed in a novel culture. First time ethnographers will find much of value in this discussion, and even more experienced practitioners will likely discover some thought provoking ideas on how to better absorb and understand new martial arts material.
It’s My Way or the Wu Wei: A Note of Advice for Novice Field Researchers
Let us suppose you’re a student conducting fieldwork for the first time. You have a lot of questions.
Actually, no, you probably don’t.
As an educator, the most common issue my students have (other than not studying in the first place) involves coming to me for help only to realize that they don’t know what they need. You can’t find the answers to your questions if you don’t know what you don’t know. So rather than attempt to address frequent questions that you didn’t know you had, I would like to offer a set of solid practices for your first trip to the field. I hope this will be useful regardless of the project, but I write this with a specific set of circumstances in mind. This is essentially a letter to myself about ten years ago, when about to embark on research which called for learning both the lore and bodywork of an ancient Japanese sword system without the slightest idea what I was doing.
To begin with, let’s consider a far-too-neglected topic in the martial arts studies: choreometrics. The late, great musicology Alan Lomax was well-known for his recordings of traditional American music in an effort to preserve cultural heritage. Some of his later work led him to realize that music is often inextricably linked with dance. He began to question if lessons from folk studies and musicology may apply to the physical realm, as well. Lomax’s team conjured up an interesting notion called “choreometrics.” The idea was to take video recordings of movements in different cultures and then analyze them to find commonalities. Much like Draeger’s hoplology, unfortunately, it never seems to have hit the big time. There is something to be learned here, however, for our own endeavors: you need a system.
The problem: why many Westerners can’t learn East Asian systems
One of the more popular topics in the early years of MMA forums was the lack of utility and student-driven pedagogy in “traditional” (read: East Asian) martial arts. This is not exactly true, but there is a very reasonable explanation for why a great many students struggle with especially foreign systems, such as my own choice of Japanese koryu. You see, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese pedagogy—among other cultures—has historically revolved around a pattern called shu-ha-ri or jo-ha-kyu in Japanese. First you must shu (守) or obey, then ha (破) or break away, and finally to ri (離) or separate and transcend. I’ve been a teacher and a student in both China and Japan and can personally attest that this ancient way of thinking is heavily embedded in the cultures, whether anyone wants to admit it or not. Contrast that approach with the Western European method of education in which students are challenged to become autodidacts, employ creativity, and think critically. If you want to acquire the martial arts skills of your interlocutors to a degree sufficient for analysis, you first need to understand how their brains are programmed, and this is a good starting point.
Next comes narrative structure. Martial arts training is nothing more than kinetic storytelling, but the means of doing so is markedly different in Western European cultures when compared with East Asia. Again, your teacher and fellow students may not be consciously aware of it, but they have been programmed from a young age to follow a certain way of developing narratives. In Japanese, the phrase is ki-sho-ten-ketsu. First comes ki (起), the introduction, then sho (承), the development, ten (転), a virtually unrelated turn in events, and ketsu (結), the conclusion. This is why storylines in films, novels, etc. that originate in places like Japan seem so convoluted to Western audiences. It’s also why so many Japanese exchange students can’t grasp why they receive poor marks on English-language essays. The concept even extends to the storytelling in video games. In your martial arts training, too, you can expect a slightly nonlinear road to your goal. Between the frustrating pedagogical structure and a confusing way to relate information, those who would conduct fieldwork in East Asia must steel themselves for something of a bumpy ride.
Hokey tricks and nonsense vs. a good blaster at your side
Like all handsome, athletic young men, I was on my school’s chess team. Thanks to the coach’s son being one of those rare prodigies who populate the chess circuit, we were in the final round of a very important state-level tournament. I sat fourth board, meaning I was the worst player on the team, but they didn’t have enough warm bodies to compete otherwise. I opened the game with an advance of the king’s pawn, then center pawn, knight, bishop, and then knight again. My opponent was in check and I thought I’d won with a handy little trick known as “scholar’s mate.” It’s a kind of indirect flank that ends the game quickly. As it turned out, the other boy was not a complete rube and I ended up losing a few moves later. The lesson: a bag of tricks is worth precisely one empty bag.
A lot of authors these days are offering “hacks” or “one simple trick” to do any number of things. The result, more often than not, is a complete waste of time. If you would be an effective and efficient field researcher, it behooves you to ignore these traps and focus instead on crafting your own system in a way that works for you. My first efforts to learn the Japanese sword were complete failures. The classical method of training in my style calls for memorizing lengthy and complex forms, each following a theme. The forms are then to be examined for years to learn the embedded lessons. The trouble was that I’m not particularly inclined toward memorization. The Japanese answer, of course, was to keep hammering away. After a couple months of this, I bought a video camera and started supplementing the official instruction with my own ideas to much greater effect.
Systematize, systematize, systematize
To make my teacher and cohort happy, I continued to do as I was told each day during training, but I also secured permission to set my camera up in an inconspicuous corner of the room. Upon returning home, I would slice up the video so that I had the complete forms in a single file. From there, I broke them into pieces of three or four movements that I could then rehearse on my own, retaining each piece by associating it with a story I invented. For each set of techniques I made up a childish narrative like those used to teach shoe-tying. Luckily for me, it still works as an adult. Within a week I had sufficiently absorbed the same form I’d been struggling for over a month to remember.
The point here is not that video recording is the ideal way to study, but to figure out what works for you and follow it regardless of tradition. I began my sword studies with the foolish mindset that you must learn in the same way as your forbearers. I was wrong. What I learned in the process was not just to act outside the established means of knowledge transmission, but to accept that I needed something different from what my population was willing to offer. In Western-style education we refer to this idea as “differentiation.” After your differentiated education has taken you sufficiently far to catch up with your peers, a good teacher will then institute “scaffolding” by setting up a roadmap to your end goal so that you aren’t stuck in the remedial class for the rest of your life. For more on how to improve your internal learning process, I highly recommend Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning. Waitzkin was a world-class chess player as a child (see Searching for Bobby Fischer) before retiring to take national and international championships in taiji push-hands and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so he knows what he’s talking about.
Be an idiot child
In order to make adequate progress in acquiring body skills (or any other kind of information, really) in a short amount of time, you need to revert to childhood. By that I mean you should approach your subject with an attitude of absolute ignorance. Take nothing as a given. This is a standard point of all good anthropological fieldwork courses, but it needs to be doubly emphasized in martial arts studies for two reasons. First, you will have a hard time synthesizing information and spotting nuances if you have preconceived notions. Second, people love to teach, and when they perceive that you need extra attention, they may reveal things of which you would not have otherwise been aware.
I managed to weasel my way into a very old-fashioned dojo to learn a five-centuries-old method of fencing. That was tough, and I naturally assumed that the training would also be a challenge. Then one of the senior students—a middle-aged man beset with the funkiest halitosis I’ve ever encountered—handed me my new trousers. Hakama are those many-pleated skirt-like garments worn in aikido and kendo. While I had worn them before, I suddenly noticed that everyone else tied theirs in a very particular way, forming a beautiful cross-shaped knot in the front. Rather than risk being called out during training, I asked for help. It took a fair bit of pride-swallowing to not respond when Mr. Mouthrot laughed a noxious cloud in my face while showing me how to put on my own pants. That knot turned out to be one of the countless unspoken transmissions of the art. And all it cost me was a breath mint.
Relax your way to success
There is a minor inconvenience of which you should be aware before traveling to Japan. Because of a powerful lobby benefiting the taxi companies, virtually every train in the country stops service around ten or eleven in the evening. The lack of trains isn’t much of an issue in metropolitan Tokyo, where you need only cough up a few more yen to catch a ride across town. When living in the boondocks, however, I soon discovered that one may find himself standing in an abandoned train station. On the top of a mountain. In the middle of the night. Alone.
Thinking that I was in for a lengthy hike down into my village in the dark, I zipped up my jumper, plunged hands into my pockets, and… realized that I had lost my house key. It must have fallen out while riding in a cab earlier that evening. Although I could recall the name of the company, I lacked any confidence in my language abilities, especially on the telephone. Not seeing any other way to return home, I picked up a payphone and dialed the taxi dispatch. Had I allowed nerves to overtake my thinking, I may have tried to force the unfortunate woman on the other end to speak what she could recall from her high school English class (always a bad idea). Instead, some special confluence of my exhaustion from a day of travel and passive absorption of daily conversation shone through and I managed to explain that I was a stupid, stupid man who was without his key. The kindness of the Japanese people was on full display as the operator contacted each driver working that night. Within ten minutes, that saintly gentleman pulled up in front of the station, handed me my key, insisted on driving me home, complimented my (atrocious) Japanese, refused to accept any pay, and then offered me a piece of candy as a parting gift.
The lesson? Your ability to absorb new knowledge and skills is quite prodigious if you just step out of your own way. Like a child learning to walk, don’t fear making simple errors or looking foolish. Martial arts field research demands that you lose all sense of pride and egocentrism so that you can do proper justice to your interlocutors. If you aren’t mindful to approach the situation with a sense of relaxed ignorance and trust your own intuitive learning process, you risk not only missing out on valuable knowledge, but also offending your teachers and fellow students by violating the social conditions. Be humble, be calm, and be a buffoon.
Learn to speedread
Speedreading is immensely useful, and not just because you can knock out over a hundred books a year like Theodore Roosevelt. Indeed, many of history’s great personalities were known to possess nearly superhuman reading abilities, sometimes on the order of two or three per day. Doubtless, this will prove useful to just about anyone. Graduate school more or less forced me to learn the skill. My mentor—who also happens to be a seminal member of martial arts studies since before I was born—instructed me to take all the courses offered by another member of the faculty whose interests did not appear to mesh with mine. After surviving the first of these, I spent the next two years trying to avoid the man, but to no avail.
The professor in question was known for being highly confrontational, racially and sexually offensive, and for assigning hundreds upon hundreds of pages of reading for homework each week. What graduate anthropology student has time to read all of The Brothers Karamazov, the complete collection of Skeptical Inquirer, and a dozen obscure research articles that you have to track down without the aid of a library (they pled “exhausted all resources”), all for a single class? In the end, my cohort and I did. I quickly learned the importance of speedreading, pre-skimming, and which parts of a scholarly book or article should be read in-depth or eschewed entirely. I have never looked back, either. I typically fill and empty my Kindle’s memory about once per month. Also, that nightmarish professor ended up on my committee and proved to be an incredibly valuable asset in the long run, as well as a valued friend and teacher.
But what else does one attain by mastering the ability to devour entire volumes in a day? There is a sort of unquantifiable skill to be found in relaxing the mind and flying through text. It almost feels the same as the much-touted “flow state” or one of those rare “Zen” experiences. When you attain true control over your reading speed, the world disappears, the pages pass by, and suddenly you’ve accumulated a mountain of data without realizing that you were trying. Because you weren’t. This skill transfers well to field research in the martial arts because many of us are learning the nuances of systems that take decades to grasp. Let me be clear: I’m not saying that the ability to apply speedreading-style cognitive methods to your training will equip you to suddenly learn entire systems and cultures instantly ala The Matrix. You will, however, see a notable improvement in your progress and feel less stress and frustration over the entire convoluted mess that is qualitative ethnographic research.
This has worked for me, personally, on a number of occasions. In a recent project, I studied the rudiments of taiji meihua tanglang quan (太極梅花螳螂拳), taiji plum blossom praying mantis boxing. This was part of the agenda during my year as an adjunct at a major university in China. Praying mantis is one of the local styles and one must strike while the iron is hot. In this case, the hard part wasn’t learning, but gaining access. More on that below. Once I connected with a willing master of the form, I ended up driving both him and the other students to no small amount of irritation because they only intended to share one movement with me at a time. When the combination of speedreading his technique and hours of practicing at home each night put me ahead of older students, a few became somewhat indignant. They asked if I was “cheating on” our teacher by attending lessons elsewhere. This is hardly to brag; any effort to demonstrate my meagre understanding of the praying mantis system would end in total embarrassment for me, my family, and eight generations of ancestors. The point is that you can learn how to learn more effectively than you currently do.
Transfer what you know
Whenever I give public talks about martial arts research, the first question from the audience is almost always the same, “So do you practice a martial art?” After some years of this, I still don’t see why that would be relevant for their ends. If a medical doctor were to make a study of dimple prevalence among conjoined twins, is it unlikely that someone in the audience will ask, “So do you have a former conjoined twin with dimples?” Either way, there are some aspects of the present concern that are directly affected by past martial arts study.
As I say, you need to have a system for acquiring body knowledge just as you do for intellectual knowledge. If you have past experience and interest in learning a combat system (and odds are you do, given how many of us got into martial arts studies for the money and fame), it can be quite valuable to determine that system’s approach to cognitive information transfer. One example of this may be the famous wing chun quadrant system. The body is bisected two ways to more easily get a handle on the style’s trademark intercepting maneuvers. In any event, it can greatly expedite the process of learning a new system when you have a solid grounding in another. The operative word here is “can.”
Many teachers will complain about students arriving with preconceived notions or ingrained habits. Those are definitely valid concerns (even Luke Skywalker was “too old to begin the training”), as they are in any kind of education. I would encourage any novice fieldworker to perform extensive reflection and self-examination in terms of prior experience. When you are aware of your habits and biases, they are both easier to overcome and you can leverage that experience to develop new habits. After all, if you already possess a habit then it is proof positive of a method’s effectiveness.
Done is better than perfect
In a perfect world, we would all have a wealth of time to spend with our interlocutors. The fact that you sometimes bite the inside your own lip indicates that the world is not perfect. Take into account the amount of time and energy you realistically have before even setting out on any field excursion. Whether at your neighborhood taekwondo academy or some remote temple in Shangri-La, the time from setting foot in the door to sending out your article for publication is finite, so plan accordingly.
To that end, I offer my own graduate school Prime Directive: Done is better than perfect.
Repeating that mantra on an hourly basis is one of the tools that helped me graduate from a rigorous PhD. program in seven semesters. It applies just as well in fieldwork. It is important to keep in mind that your own intimacy with the art and population about which you will be writing depends on time and access. Learn what you can, while you can, from whom you can and accept the rest as reality. Take notes and video if you can. Copy down every scrap of data that you collect before going to bed each night. Be appreciative of the opportunities that are presented, not the ones you wish for.
Think like a journalist
Finally, I would like to address the question of how to track down and make contact with individuals who may or may not be willing to spill the kung fu beans. In some cases it’s as simple as walking in and signing up, but I find that the most interesting and enlightening projects involve making good with people who are not interested in teaching. Case-in-point: Master Gu.
Looking for authentic Shandong mantis style, I set out to make connections. What I quickly learned upon arriving in Qingdao is that there are very, very few people actively practicing Chinese martial arts other than the ubiquitous morning taiji groups. Through those folks and a few personal contacts, I was able to find a group practicing plum blossom boxing, another highly regional style. That proved to be a dead-end, however, when a well-respected colleague and Chinese martial arts expert informed me that the club in question would be a waste of time. I visited them anyway, and their instructor demanded outrageous sums of money from the “wealthy foreigner.” It became obvious that I would make no headway on that front.
I told everyone I knew what I was looking for. I even began introducing myself with the usual name, rank, and whatnot, then immediately mentioning that I hoped to study mantis boxing. I dragged a few of my native speaker friends into the search and had them cold calling numbers of martial arts teachers from the public phone listing. Finally, after a couple of months, a friend of a friend told me about Master Gu, a taiji push-hands teacher who was also a master of mantis style. It involved getting up at some ludicrous hour every Sunday morning and committing to an all-day commute to a park where he teaches (sometimes, when he feels like it), but I did eventually get what I came for.
Other cases are more straightforward. Perhaps you know the teacher, have contact information, and maybe even know where to go, but he/she still refuses. Keep showing up. Keep calling. Don’t be annoying, but persistence pays off more often than not. Journalists are the best model for this kind of thing. If it works, it works, and no method should be put out of mind without trying it. With Master Gu, the key ended up being the use of social media. I canvased all of my online connections via the Chinese program WeChat.
Either way, it may be psychologically healthiest to view resistance as a test of one’s drive to learn. Personally, I always think about an atrocious 1991 film called American Shaolin in which the protagonist camps outside the eponymous temple for days until the monks agree to torture him. He does end up becoming a monk and getting the girl. I’m not quite sure how that is supposed to work, but it gives one hope.
So there you have it. The rest is situationally-dependent and may require a degree of creativity, but this should be more than enough to get you started. Below is a list of suggested resources for a more robust education on the topic. The key, however, is to get out and do the work, whenever, wherever, and however you can. Done is better than perfect. Best of luck.
About the Author
Dr. Jared Miracle is a social anthropologist who specializes in video games and education. He has a PhD (Texas A&M), he’s won tons of awards, and he wrote a book called Now With Kung Fu Grip!: How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America and has even given lectures on Pokemon. In short, he knows what he’s talking about. He has also been a regular guest contributor here at Kung Fu Tea.
Some Additional Reading and Sources:
More on Josh Waitzkin’s work in learning and education:
A nice primer of flow states:
I suggest “human guinea pig” Tim Ferriss’ thoughts on speedreading:
Some tips on getting started with investigative journalism:
Some fun and terrible weekend viewing:
The best book available on ethnographic fieldwork methods is still Bruce Jackson’s 1987 classic:
It is both enlightening and cathartic to read others’ virgin field experiences. I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend an edited volume of such tales called Dispatches from the Field: