Welcome to the fourth 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), the second by Daniel Mroz (how to select a school or teacher for research purposes), or the third by Jared Miracle (learning new martial arts systems while immersed in a foreign culture) 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?
Prof. Thomas A. Green is no stranger to discussions of Martial Arts Studies. Through both his publications and teaching he has demonstrated the importance of studying “traditional” fighting systems as a method of understanding current social and cultural conditions. In the following essay he offers new researchers advice on the process of collecting folklore. The Asian martial arts in particular are often said to be “oral traditions,” and gathering this material is a critical aspect of understanding any school or group of practitioners. To help us better do this Prof. Green draws our attention to the importance of building the proper rapport while in the field as well as the need for flexibility and a healthy dose of respect. Though critical advice for first time ethnographers, this essay also contains helpful hints for anyone wishing to get the most out of their time in the training hall.
I’m Only in it For the Stories
Dedicated to the Memory of Zheng Xìujìng
“Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of ‘construct a reading of’) a manuscript—foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior.”
-Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973)
I’ve always resisted the label of social “scientist.” Particularly since I focus on symbolic dimensions of folklore and characterize my approach as leaning toward the qualitative, I’m more comfortable conceiving of what I do as an art. After all, what I do is classified as ethnography: etymologically “writing a culture.“ How can we as outsiders write a culture? As ethnographers, we must keep a certain distance even when writing our native culture. Doing so is just as difficult as it sounds. Complicating matters further is an issue Bronislaw Malinowski addresses in his classic Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), “To study the institutions, customs, and codes or to study the behaviour and mentality without the subjective desire of feeling by what these people live, of realising the substance of their happiness—is, in my opinion, to miss the greatest reward which we can hope to obtain from the study of man”. Two points leap out: subjectivity has a place in the study of culture, and it is okay to practice our trade because we enjoy doing so.
I think it is fair, especially if we consider it reasonable to label qualitative field research as an art, to say that I’m just in this for the stories. That statement also has the advantage of being true. Who tells the stories? That can be a problem if the ethnographer refuses to tell the stories (beyond reading Geertz’ manuscript), but chooses to let someone else assume the role of narrator. To accomplish this one risks the possibility of falling into the narratives in much the same way that Alice fell down the rabbit hole (These tend to be the best ones, of course). In that situation, one cannot always know how (or if) a story begins, how it will develop, or where it will end. Returning to Geertz’ metaphor, I suggest that the ethnographer should stand behind the cultural interlocutors to read their stories over their shoulders as far as possible. If you listen closely and if you are lucky, they will tell you where to stand.
Let’s agree for the time being that we are “only in it for the stories.” In order to “ask” for a story, we must establish rapport. In my experience, establishing rapport in the field demands three qualities from the researcher. Two stories about getting the stories from the field illustrate these qualities.
My first real fieldwork took me to the town of Ysleta a few miles outside El Paso, Texas. I planned to write my dissertation on the ways that folklore, particularly folk history and festival, had facilitated social cohesion and fostered a Native American identity among the Tigua Pueblo of Ysleta del Sur. The Texas Tigua had become separated from their parent village in New Mexico following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. A series of historical accidents and social injustices delayed their official recognition and enfranchisement by the federal government and the state of Texas until the 1960s. Nevertheless, the Tigua had maintained their identity for over 300 years, and a cultural revival followed in the wake of recognition.
I arrived armed with a cassette recorder (we are talking about the 1970s, after all), a notebook full of questions, and a head full of hypotheses drawn from the literature on cultural revitalization movements. After checking in with the local representative of the Texas Commission for Indian Affairs, I was taken across the central plaza to meet the Cacique, the Tigua spiritual leader and patriarch. At a little before noon, the June sun pushed the temperature toward 100 degrees F. We found the Cacique, José Granillo, standing by an adobe building in the early stages of being converted to a multipurpose community center. He was looking up at a small group of men repairing leaks in its roof. On hearing that I was on hand to begin, in the TCIA employee’s unfortunate choice of verbs, ”studying” his people, the Cacique gestured with an upward tilt of his chin to a weather-beaten twelve foot ladder leaning against the dusty brown wall. Mr. Granillo told me, “To know about the Indians, you need to work like the Indians.” To show that I accepted the advice (or was it a challenge?), I climbed the ladder and asked how I could help. I came back the next day and the next and the next, etc.–wearing a hat to avert further sunburn and work gloves to cover my blisters, and sans recorder.
Word travels fast in a village. That’s true all over the world. In Ysleta, people began to ask questions. Then they began to answer questions. After a while, some people began to tell stories and share exactly the kind of knowledge I had come to gather. I never became much of a roofer or mason or cook or chauffeur or any of the other odd jobs that materialized over the next year. On the other hand, by means of this genuine participant-observation I began to hear in a more or less natural context (after all, they did know who I am and why I was there) the narratives I had come to collect. I was not always having fun; I was not using the research protocol I had been taught, but I was getting the job done.
Forty years later I was in another village, this one in Henan Province, PRC. I had traveled to Hou Ma with my colleagues Li Yun and Zhang Guodong in order to document Liangquan (“Show Boxing”) performances held by the Meihua (Plum Blossom) Boxers during Spring Festival (“Chinese New Year”). We had arrived a few days before the actual performance to interview local Boxers who Guodong (himself a well-known Mei Boxer) had identified during previous visits and to record coinciding events such as traditional popular opera.
A few days before Liangquan I stood as a conspicuous Caucasian in the festival crowd watching an opera performance when I felt a tug on the sleeve of my coat. I turned to see an elderly, but extraordinarily animated, lady speaking to me in the local dialect. I later learned that her name was Zheng Xìujìng, and she was 84 years-old. Guodong’s sister, who had come along to help with the translation, explained that the lady wanted me to know she was glad I came to her village, and that she wanted us to visit her house. We had a full research agenda, but rather than offending her, the four of us agreed to visit.
We followed the directions she had given us and arrived at a modest older style house in the heart of the village. We entered directly into the largest room of the dwelling—a general purpose room upon whose walls hung a large portrait of Mao Zedong surrounded by framed calligraphy and a variety of traditional weapons of indeterminate age, but obviously very old. Some belonged to Master Zheng, who we learned was a 13th generation master of Mei Boxing, and some had belonged to her late husband. She explained the rugged condition of most of the weapons by telling us stories of their having been buried in the fields along with ancestral tablets and other traditional treasures to prevent their destruction during the Proletarian Cultural Revolution. She and her husband, along with other members of Hou Ma’s Mei Boxing families, practiced at night in the same fields in order to preserve the embodied treasure that was their art without detection by authorities charged with eradicating this alleged relic of feudalism.
When I told her I was puzzled that she hung a picture of the leader who was, in the Western view at least, the face of the Cultural Revolution among martial treasures and over an altar used for ancestor veneration. Her response: After Mao came to power she was not hungry every day as she had been before the establishment of the People’s Republic. Then, she shrugged her shoulders beneath her heavy quilted coat and added, “Even the best people make mistakes.”
That day and on other occasions during our stay in Hou Ma, Master Zheng shared history, her own and Mei Boxing’s. She read through with us the frayed pages of a hand-written book that chronicled the lineage and original history of Plum Blossom Boxing. From Master Zheng we began to become aware of two distinct streams of Mei Boxing: Wu (physical techniques) and Wen (non-physical techniques; ritual, metaphysics). Because of her mastery of Wen, people regularly called on her for help, including members of the visiting opera troupe I had been documenting. The performers came to her house to venerate ancestors and petition for her blessing. Although we never saw her skills at Wu, her grandson’s demonstration of the guan do (Chinese halberd) suggested that her command of the physical combative side of Mei Boxing was equally well-developed. None of this could have been anticipated before she tugged on my sleeve to tell us her story.
CREDIBILITY: The first questions any ethnographer encounters in the field relate to: Who are you, why should I believe you, and why should we trust you with our stories? Researchers, the illusory role of participant-observer notwithstanding, are bystanders at best and potentially intruders. Credibility, even to stand by, must be earned. This can be especially true in situations in which inter-group relationships have been strained, as was the case with the Tigua who had been the victims of both racial prejudice and political malfeasance since European contact. Subordinating myself to village authority, engaging in manual labor that apparently had no relationship to my research goals, and doing both repeatedly clearly demonstrated that I wanted to “study” the Tigua badly enough to undertake the enterprise on their terms.
On the other hand, credibility may come at a comparatively low price. In Hou Ma, I accompanied a trusted member of the Mei Boxing brotherhood, and I was willing to listen to an elderly lady who seemed an unlikely bearer of Meihuaquan tradition. In both cases, I could not play the role I had prepared; the roles were assigned by the host communities, and a role of some sort always will be assigned.
A viable role is crucial to success. In other research situations, even when sweating and occasionally bleeding alongside other martial arts students, I invariably have been categorized as unusual. Early on, Maha Guru Cliff Stewart tagged me as “Professor” and “Doc,” in group contexts at least. This went a long way to establishing my bona fides when I began working with his martial associates, and that was his intent, of course. The use of those titles suggests no deferential treatment, however, only difference and usually license to ask questions that would have seemed odd or intrusive had they come from either insiders or outsiders.
FLEXIBILITY: Reading over our hosts’ shoulders can demand unexpected contortions, and not a little endurance to maintain that reading posture. Obviously I never intended to collect my information on the roof, but since that was the only option I was given I did it. The only genuine “textbook” recorded interview I attempted at Ysleta was unsatisfactory. It was stilted, and my narrator Pablo repeatedly responded to requests for stories with something like, “Oh, I already told you that one.” That was true. Most of the folk history I collected at Ysleta came “on the fly,” in the context of other conversations.
Fortunately, I took notes as soon after hearing a tale as possible, have a better than average memory, and recorded my own recreation of what resulted from the notes and my memory as soon as possible. The fact that the really important narratives were repeated more than once by Pablo and other gifted storytellers helped, too. Conversation, not interrogation, was the proper mode for this situation. A lack of flexibility would have left me flailing in the dark.
The research project in Hou Ma was carefully planned. Guodong is an insider, a Mei Boxer who is the disciple of one of the most highly respected masters in China, and the author of a dissertation on Meihuaquan. He had visited the village before, and during these visits had identified the best resource persons. These factors helped us target those persons in the village who were most likely to help us answer our research questions, or so we thought until Master Zheng tugged at my sleeve and pulled us in a new and extraordinarily productive direction. Fortunately, we had the flexibility to stand where she told us in order to read her texts over her shoulder.
Serendipity was the catalyst for the success in both of these stories about stories. Need I belabor the point? Here we are back where this story began, with Alice. My advice to you? When you see the White Rabbit pause to wink back over his shoulder, drop your preconceptions and follow him down the hole.
Thomas A. Green
About the Author: Prof. Green (Anthropology, Texas A&M University) conducts research on African and African-descended martial culture in the Americas. The primary focus of this research has been the role of martial arts in African American cultural nationalism and the relationships among martial arts and expressive genres such as music, dance, games, and drama.
In 2012, he initiated fieldwork in northern China on traditional village martial arts with colleagues from the PRC. The projects in Hebei, Henan, and Shandong analyze of the use of vernacular martial arts in post-Mao northern China to confront the potential social fragmentation brought on by the rapid social change that characterizes modernization. Their current project investigates the Liangquan Festival of the Plum Blossom Boxers of Hou Mazhuang Village as a vehicle to maintain group cohesion in the face of the social and economic pressures that encourage residents to move to urban locations. Following the recognition of Plum Blossom Boxing as an example of Intangible Cultural Heritage, local government entities intend to develop the shrine devoted to Zou Hongyi, the patriarch of this martial art, into a tourist attraction. Future research will document the success of these efforts and the ways in which Liangquan and the performing community are affected.
If you enjoyed this guest post you might also want to read: Professor Thomas Green on the Survival of Plum Blossom Boxing, Martial Folklore and the State of Martial Arts Studies