The Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Note that the full beauty of the wall can only be seen if one takes a step back and looks at it from multiple perspectives. Source: Wikimedia.
The Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Note that the full beauty of the wall can only be seen if one takes a step back and looks at it from multiple perspectives. Source: Wikimedia.


“Martial arts studies” is an eponymously named research area. This fact seems so obvious as to require no further exploration. But is it really so?

Why does no one write about “professional combat sports studies,” “kung fu studies,” “Budo studies” or “unarmed self-defense studies”? Most researchers and readers make two important judgements on an almost subconscious level before ever asking these sorts of questions. First, they conclude that each of these activities falls within a larger category that has come to be collectively identified as “martial arts.” Second, due to the shared history that connects these practices, and the shared social and media discourses that link their discussion, a collective definition is useful precisely because it facilitates comparative study.

What exactly qualifies a practice as a “martial art?” Even casual readers of this blog will have noted that we spend quite a bit of time discussing the subject, but I have yet to offer a definition or sustained discussion of the topic.

Nor is this a oversight. Readers familiar with my recent book, The Creation of Wing Chun, may have noticed that at no point did I offer a simple covering definition for the martial arts in that volume, even though I explored the processes surrounding the invention of these fighting systems in late imperial and Republic era China in some depth.

I am far from alone in this editorial choice. After spending an evening skimming volumes from my library it quickly became apparent that most authors discussing the history, sociology or theory of martial arts studies offer only a cursory treatment of subject or skip over it entirely.

Peter Lorge is notable as he provided a brief discussion which we will review below. Yet Meir Shahar never explicitly examines the subject in his groundbreaking work on the historical evolution of the Shaolin Temple’s famous fighting systems. Douglas Wile’s discussion of the Taiji Classics seems not to have suffered for his lack of a definition of the martial arts (or even an argument as to why Taijiquan qualifies as one.)

More recently, Alexander C. Bennett’s exploration of the history of Kendo begins with a bracing personal narrative. Readers are told of his introduction to the sport while a high school exchange student living in Japan. Yet while his younger narrative-self wonders aloud as to whether he is watching a real martial art or a scene from Star Wars (in which the club’s instructor plays the role of an imposing and sadistic Vader), Bennet as a mature scholar, never stops to define the martial arts as a whole.

Paul Bowman’s recent monograph extensively draws on the idea of the martial arts in his definition and exploration of “martial arts studies.”  Yet the prior foundational concept is never brought into clear focus. And in Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge D. S. Farrer and John Whalen-Bridge simply define them as “the things done to make the study of fighting appear refined enough to survive elite social prohibition.” While a rather shrewd observation on the social position of the martial arts (and perhaps the impossibility of designing a simple statement that captures all of their varieties) many readers may want something more.

While not a comprehensive review of the literature, my purpose here has been to demonstrate that it is entirely possible to write a scholarly book on the martial arts without first ever stopping to define them. Nor are we alone in this. Drawing on my own professional background, most books on some subject in international politics (trade disputes or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction) do not first begin with an exhaustive discussion of the nature of the international system. Nor, as a field, have we ever come up with a settled and universally agreed upon definition of “politics.” Similar puzzles can be found in all of the disciplines. Martial arts studies appears to be in good company. (Wetzler, 23)

Still, the body of specialized literature in political science attempting to define and explore concepts such as the “international system,” or even “power,” is more developed than what we currently enjoy in martial arts studies. Much of this comes down to resources and time. It has taken many scholars working over the course of decades to produce the degree of conceptual clarity that political science now enjoys. As a relatively new research area martial arts studies is still laying the foundations of future conversations.

There are other reasons why such an important concept often goes undiscussed. The first of these derives from the nature of the definitions that we do have. Broadly speaking scholars have used at least three different strategies in conceptualizing the martial arts. First, they have relied on (often unspoken) socially accepted practice. While there may be questions about some activities at the margins, everyone seems to accept Okinawan Karate, Chinese Wushu and Filipino Kali as “martial arts” with little or no discussion.

Many of the articles and monographs that have been produced within martial arts studies have focused either on an isolated style (Wile’s work on Taiji) or the fighting systems of a single state (Hurst’s work on the armed martial arts of Japan). As there is often a well understood agreement within these regions as to which activities are martial arts, and which are not, authors often find themselves implicitly adopting local vernacular definitions. I suspect that this sort of “pre-scientific” social categorization explains most of the absence of discussion within our field.

Nevertheless, at the margins this sort of approach can cause problems. Should we really accept historical Korean taekkyeon as a martial art or was it instead better understood as a game? What about combative displays within Chinese opera? How much of this qualifies as a “real” martial art versus a specialized acting technique? Without clear conceptual boundaries such questions tend to reinforce social hierarches and debates within specific martial arts communities rather than revealing any new information on the actual nature of these practices and the roles that they play within society.

Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.
Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.


The search for a Universal Definition


In an attempt to clarify this core concept, and resolve debates such as the one above, some authors have developed more explicit definitions which focus on how the martial arts relate to other bodies of technique within society. These discussions tend to be abstract in an attempt to describe events in as many countries and time periods as possible. Such universal definitions are usually also minimal ones. Some of these discussions are not all that different from what might be found in a dictionary.

The 2015 on-line edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the martial arts as:

“Any of several arts of combat and self-defense (as karate and judo) that are widely practiced as sport.”

This brief statement captures how most people think of the martial arts within popular culture. A nod to both combat and self-defense are noted, as is the transformation of these practices into recreational sports in the current era. Unfortunately this definition also includes some critical omissions.

What about elements that are not geared towards combat (such as most modern Taiji practice)? What role does social organization, teaching or transmission play in making something a martial art, rather than just a “self-defense technique”? Are all martial arts Asian in origin (as the example would seem to imply)? And more pressingly, how do we even know that karate and judo meet this somewhat tautological definition?

A more suitable, yet still universal, definition can be found in Peter Lorge’s Chinese Martial Arts:

“I define ‘martial arts’ as the various skills or practices that originated as methods of combat. This definition therefore includes many performance, religious, or health-promoting activities that no longer have any direct combat applications but clearly originated in combat, while possibly excluding references to these techniques in dance, for example. Admittedly, the distinction can be muddled as one activity shades into another. In addition, what makes something a martial art rather than an action done by someone who is naturally good at fighting is that the techniques are taught. Without the transmission of these skills through teaching, they do not constitute an ‘art’ in the sense of being a body of information or techniques that aim to reproduce certain knowledge effects.”

Peter Lorge. 2012. Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 3-4.

This discussion offers us a number of improvements. First, it de-centers Asia from the definition of the martial arts, recalling that similar combat practices have been observed in practically all human societies at one point or another. Indeed, the term “martial art” has a long and distinguished history in Europe where it has also been used to describe western fighting systems.

Secondly, Lorge directly addresses the fact that martial arts are, by their very nature, social activities. They are not simply random responses to acts of violence (no matter how effective they might be in the moment). A given body of techniques only becomes an “art” when it can be effectively transmitted from one individual to another. Still, as Sixt Wetzler has cautioned in his own discussion of this definition, the “transmission” of techniques is not always reducible to formal classroom instruction. (p. 24)

Historically, most martial arts existed as what Thomas A. Green has described as “vernacular” fighting systems, where instruction tended to happen in the field and be a good deal less formal than what we might expect today. On the other side of the spectrum, literate martial artists in Europe, China and Japan have been writing detailed fighting manuals for hundreds of years with the explicit goal of passing on techniques to fellow students who they would never meet in person. The current era of cheap video and social media has also revolutionized the way that techniques are shared, tested and debated. The insight that knowledge must be transmitted from one generation to the next seems to be at the heart of the martial arts.

While a notable improvement, this definition still presents scholars with certain challenges. It is certainly the case that many martial arts arose from combat practices. But is this central to our understanding of them? Archery may have been used in hunting and ritual before it was used in warfare. Indeed, it is interesting to note how much of Hurst’s discussion of the evolution of military archery in Japan actually focuses on hunting well into the medieval period.

How should we really think about the many unarmed arts? While wrestling has long been part of Western and Eastern weapons training (and so it could be argued to have real military value) boxing appears only sporadically and even then mostly as a type of recreational activity within military camps. Even General Qi Jiguang, who did more to promote the practice of boxing within the Chinese military than anyone else, saw it as something with no actual place on the battlefield. He introduced it as a new type of training for his troops because of its ability to build mental and physical strength rather than its inherent martial value or long pedigree in combat. It would be possible to multiply examples, but the basic point is clear. The actual historical links between modern martial practices and their supposed battlefield origins is sometimes more complicated than current mythmaking might lead one to suspect.

Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.
Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.



Classifying the Martial Arts

This implies a second, slightly more theoretical, issue. Universal definitions, such as those discussed above, attempt to provide us with a framework for understanding the boundaries that separate the martial arts from other activities (or even types of violence) within society. This is critical work and a necessary first step. Yet there is more to the problem.

Within our literature we do not want to simply identify instances of the martial arts. Once we have found them our attention immediately turns to the tasks of either descriptive or causal analysis. Where did a given art come from? Why do some people, but not others, practice it? What is significant about the ways that it is discussed in popular culture? What unique social roles does it play within a given society?

These are very basic questions, yet each of them raises issues of comparison, classification and typology. Or to quote the old social scientific dictum, we find ourselves asking “what is this a case of?”

In my recent study of Wing Chun I found that these sorts of questions could only be answered in a useful way by comparing one particular style to the other martial arts that surrounded it. Wing Chun existed as a distinct entity, but one that was defined in large part by its relationship with a complex system of other martial arts and types of social conflict.

Nor is this example unique. In some respects we will only be able to explore and understand the nature of a martial art through comparison to other systems. Yet where do we draw the boundaries between styles, and how should we analyze them? This set of questions has led other authors to suggest definitions of the martial arts geared towards comparative study.

An early attempt, and one that affected the subsequent development of the literature, was advanced by Donn F. Draeger.
Table 1: Draeger’s Classification of Fighting Systems

Martial Arts                                                                        Civilian Arts
Promote group solidarity                                                 For self-protection and home defense
Designed for battlefield use                                             Largely urban based
Designed and practiced as weapon arts                        Mainly ‘empty handed,’ limited weapons use
Designed for natural terrain and climate                     Designed for ideal surfaces, roads, streets and floors
Designed for wearing armor                                           Designed for civilian clothing
Use a wide range of weapons and skills                        Skills (and weapons) use is specialized and limited
Use genuine weapons rather than domestic tools      Weapons tend to be domestic tools
Developed by professional fighting class                      Part-time training is best

Donn F. Draeger. 1981. “The Martial-Civil Dichotomy in Asian Combatives” Hoplos. Vol. 3: No. 1. pp. 6-9

Reflecting Draeger’s own military service in both the Second World War and Korea, his discussion focuses primarily on Asian combative systems and attempts to classify them based on their origin and purpose. On the one hand he proposes the existence of a group of “true” martial arts based on real world combat skills (even if they are rarely practiced in that context in the modern era). He then contrasts these to “civilian” fighting arts that are essentially hobbies rather than the concern of “real” warriors.

One does not have to read too far down the list, or be overly familiar with the outlines of Draeger’s biography and background in the martial arts, to see the emergence of an implicit hierarchy within this exercise. Indeed, this is a danger that must be confronted in any attempt to formally define or classify our object of study. Such exercises can easily turn into an opportunity to impose one’s own values on an unsuspecting readership.

Much of Draeger’s own research in the martial arts focused on the idea that it was possible to empirically “test” various styles or approaches to judge their “reality” and effectiveness on an absolute scale. For Draeger it was the (often Japanese) military practices that came out on top while civilian boxing traditions (such as those found in China) were seen as having little worth. Indeed, this overly narrow understanding of how the martial arts developed and the roles that they were meant to play in society seem to have strained his relationship with his friend R. W. Smith. As Sixt Wetzler reminds us, ultimately “The [academic] researcher has to refrain from being simultaneously a critic.” (p. 30)

There are other issues with this list as well. Even if we were to restrict its application to “traditional” styles there are a number of martial arts that it would seem to misclassify. Entire schools of civilian fencing and knife fighting have existed in the West that focuse exclusively on real weapons. Nor is it clear that “group solidarity” is any less a goal for a village Dragon Dance society than it is of a military combatives classroom.

While it is tempting to think of the Bushi or later Samurai as “professional warriors” who dedicated their lives to swordsmanship as a battlefield skill, both Hurst and Bennett would remind us that this is not actually an accurate reflection of history. Swords were of relatively limited use of the battlefield and the Samurai were as much professional bureaucrats as anything else. Except for a limited number of specialists, the amount of time that most Japanese warriors dedicated to swordsmanship training could only be described as “part-time” at best.

Indeed, this definition’s most valuable contribution to the current literature might be to illustrate the degree to which our current understanding of the history and sociology of the martial arts has evolved in the last three decades. If nothing else it illustrates the dangers that arise when we tie our understanding of a universal concept to a narrow (and ultimately flawed) reading of history.

Nor is it immediately evident that the military/civilian dichotomy, while commonly made in certain sorts of historical and popular discussions, accurately reflects what we see in the global martial arts community today. More recent discussions tend to propose three or more categories in an attempt to be sensitive to a wider range of the social functions that the martial arts routinely fulfill. [For another approach this problem readers may also want to investigate this article by Joseph Svinth in the 2011 summer volume of InYo.]

In their review of the martial arts studies literature Alex Channon and George Jennings propose their own definition and classification system. Their discussion reads in part:

“Thus, we have adopted the aforementioned term ‘martial arts and combat sports’ [MACS], which we propose be used as an inclusive, triadic model encompassing competition-oriented combat sports, military/civilian self-defence systems, and traditionalist or non-competitive martial arts, as well as activities straddling these boundaries.”

Alex Channon and George Jennings. 2014. “Exploring Embodiment through Martial Arts and Combat Sports: A Review of Empirical Research.” Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics 17.6, 773-789.

Here we see Draeger’s two categories folded into one encompassing any system that is concerned with non-consensual violence, either at the personal or social level. This is juxtaposed with those arts that focus on “traditional” goals (health, personal development) on the one hand, and competitive combat sports on the other. Indeed, this tripartite system seems to do a better job of capturing the full range of social functions that the modern martial arts are routinely called upon to serve. A single community center might have a “Taiji for seniors” class running at the same that a “boxing essentials” outreach program is happening in the basement. And all of this is quite distinct in the minds of most of the patrons from the “women’s self-defense” seminars that are hosted in the gym twice a year.

While intuitively appealing, this sort of exercise quickly runs into problems when we start to ask on what grounds a specific art should have been classified as a “combat sport” verses a “self-defense” system. Here we run up against the immense degree of internal variation that we see within individual styles and even specific schools. While one teacher may emphasize the health benefits of traditional karate training, another individual might be coaching his students to participate in local kickboxing tournaments. Some Wing Chun teachers approach their style as a primarily self-defense art, while others argue that in the modern (relatively safe) world health preservation should be our main concern. Nor, as Wetzler argues, is it all that difficult to find a single school pursuing all three of these functions at the same time.

While this definition appears to offer us objective standards by which a researcher can classify certain activities as belonging in one box or another, one suspects that in practice many such decisions will end up devolving to the level of popular perception (e.g., “everyone knows that Kung Fu is not a serious self-defense art!”) or pre-scientific bias. The entire exercise also has the unfortunate side-effect of erasing or obscuring much of the variation in behavior and practices that academic students might be most interested in exploring.

How did Taiji come to be so closely associated with health practices? What should we make of Taiwan’s large competitive push-hands tournaments in light of this evolution? Such conversations become difficult when our basic definitions and concepts presuppose certain answers.

Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.
Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.


From Definition to Exploration


One does not have to read very far into the existing literature before concluding that it may be impossible to propose either a universal definition or simple set of categories that perfectly describes the ever shifting practices, identities, institutions and discourses that make up the martial arts today. Perhaps we should consider abandoning the idea of classifying the martial arts themselves and instead turn our attention to the sorts of social functions that they perform and the ways in which they are encountered. When tied with an existing minimal definition, this might give researchers an adequate toolbox to begin the process of comparison, description and explanation.

Towards these ends Wetzler proposes the following:

“Instead of creating boxes to put the existing styles in, we could rather search from common, recurring qualities in the martial arts. A discussion of a given style can then analyze how these qualities are fulfilled, and to what degree.” (Wetzler, p. 25).

He then goes on to define five possible “dimensions of meaning” that often characterize the social function of martial arts. While many arts may contribute something in each of these five dimensions, he warns us that others will not. Further, Wetzler suggests that his list is in no way definitive and later scholars may discover additional dimensions. Again, the purpose of his exercise is to facilitate comparison within the set of activities called “martial arts” rather than to discriminate between which activities are to be included or excluded from the exercise based on some objective and unchanging set of criteria.

The five dimension of meaning which he finds within the martial arts are as follows:

1. Preparation for violent conflict: This can occur in either a civil or military context and includes efforts to not only increase one’s physical integrity but also to destroy an enemy’s capabilities as well as to resist fear, fatigue and imagined violence.

2. Play and Competitive Sports: Any type of voluntary physical struggle or competition bounded by rules and regulated through consent.

3. Performance: This includes displays that happen before an audience (entertainment and ritual) or activities undertaken for the martial artists own aesthetic satisfaction. While many popular discussions of the martial arts seek to explicitly exclude these practices in their attempt to focus on “real” violence, D. S. Farrer reminds us that these elements can never be totally separated.

4. Transcendent Goals: This includes the spiritual, physical and cultural aims of the martial arts. Also included in this dimension would be pedagogical connections that are often made to nationalist themes or mythological (but highly inspirational) figures or images from the imagined past.

5. Health Care: While great emphasis is often placed on the combative origins of these practices, many practitioners today take them up with an explicit eye towards increasing their physical health and maintaining a sense of bodily well-being. Nor can the psychological benefits of training be neglected. (p. 26)

Where should researchers look for evidence to help them evaluate a martial art’s engagement along each of these dimensions? Or put another way, what sorts of observations should be collected when attempting to define or classify a martial art? Wetzler suggests nine types of phenomenon that should be considered. These include: the body, movement techniques, tactics or concepts, a styles material objects and weapons, its media representation, teaching methodology, mythology or philosophy, its social or institutional structures and lastly its place within the wider social context. While this list is not meant to be exhaustive it points to the types of observations that could be made that would allow us to define or classify martial arts in ways that are not tautological or dependent on the researcher’s own unexamined biases.

For instance, a wide variety of martial arts claim to be dedicated to the pursuit of self-defense. In the 1960s Karate clubs were seen as a solution to the problem of personal security. In the 1980s Wing Chun gained popularity as a “street fighting art” while Karate increasingly took on other social functions (such as building “character” in young adults.) In the current era individuals who are most interested in self-defense seem to turn to systems such as krav maga and various forms of MMA training. Media discourses and the allocation of social resources strongly suggest that, the protests of traditional practitioners notwithstanding, the center of gravity of the first dimension has shifted noticeably over time. Better yet, these categories suggest avenues of investigation to determine when, and why, this may have happened.

A final panel bringing two dragons together.
A final panel bringing two dragons together.


Conclusion: Moving Forward Through Empirical Investigation


Unfortunately no definition of the martial arts is perfect. The universal definitions that we began with were parsimonious and directly addressed what activities lay outside of the category called “martial arts.” Yet their systems of classification were often flawed and they did not provide researchers with any tools to either compare classes of martial arts or to understand in theoretical terms where one system ended and the next began. The more complex definitions offered by Draeger and Channon and Jennings allowed for comparative study, but they were still tied to certain preconceptions in ways that diminished their usefulness.

While Wetzler’s five dimensions of meaning avoid these pitfalls, they are also the most distant from what we might think of as a conventional definition. His framework allows for an almost infinite range of comparative investigations. As I have argued elsewhere, this will be critical to the development of martial arts studies going forward. In fact, one must wonder whether the reliance on historically and culturally bounded understandings of the martial arts has not been one of the factors in suppressing the development of a more rigorous comparative case study literature. Wetzler’s definition, on the other hand, strongly encourages focused comparative analysis.

Still, it does not really solve the fundamental problem of defining what is or is not a martial art. To do this his more complex framework probably needs to be tied to a universal definition of the researchers own choosing. In that sense it is less of a definition than a theoretical exploration of how this concept manifests itself within the social world.

Lacking any way to make firm statements, Wetzler also seems to find himself backed into uncomfortable situations when we come up against his conceptual limits. He asks, for instance, if movements learned from sophisticated fighting video games can count as martial arts techniques. After all, motion capture of real martial artists employing historically derived techniques are increasingly employed in the production of these games. And if books count as a means of transmitting information about hand combat training, why not video games?

Taken to its natural extreme this leads to a crisis of relativism. Is anything a martial art simply because someone claims that it is? Must we accept as legitimate any “lost lineage” that is advanced in the marketplace no matter how shaky its historical foundations or apparent practice? Such questions will cause many researchers discomfort, yet Wetzler himself seems to imply that we must have a theoretical framework that is broad enough to accept these arguments and proceed on from there (p. 24).

Even more disturbing are the possibilities that arise on the other end of this spectrum. Paul Bowman has recently argued that the martial arts, as practiced in the West, will always been seen as a subaltern and culturally marginal practice. While relatively few individuals see them as dangerous or sinister, they cannot escape their frequent association with orientalist fantasy and anachronism. This makes people uncomfortable and humor is a commonly employed defense mechanism in such situations. Nor does one need a degree in media studies to notice that most of this humor is laughing at martial artists rather than with them.

Should we then be surprised to see a variety of individuals actively dissociating their activities from the martial arts in an attempt to find greater respect or a more open audience? MMA and kickboxing students might more readily identify as practitioners of “combat sports” as it seems to emphasize the athletic and physically aspects of their practice. And while students in an “executive boxing” class might fit an academic definition of martial artists, I doubt that most would see themselves in the same light. Yet any academic conference on the martial arts will feature a number of papers on various aspects of boxing.

While flexibility is a necessary aspect of any definition of the martial arts, it remains the responsibility of the analyst to determine which activities meet a given set of criteria. That is not a function that can be delegated to the subjects of an academic study. While it may be interesting to understand why certain kickboxers refuse to self-identify as martial artists, as researchers we are under no obligation to base our core concepts on their vernacular definitions.

How then should we proceed? On the surface it may seem that we are no closer to a single, parsimonious, definition of the martial arts than we were when started. While true in some sense, this discussion has done much to enrich our conceptual understanding while highlighting dangers that must be guarded against in any such exercise.

Each of the preceding authors has made a valuable contribution to our overall level of understanding. Further, Wetzler has provided us with a conceptual framework for dealing with a wide range of activities that may previously have been overlooked while at the same time developing rigorous comparative case studies.

Perhaps the most fruitful avenue of investigation would be the systematic testing of “hard cases.” A hard case is one that is designed to explore the limits of a concept or hypothesis. Rather than simply wondering whether a martial art could be developed from a video game perhaps we must find someone who has claimed to have done just that and examine the results along the “five dimensions of meaning” proposed above.

Is there any validity to the common assumption that “proper” martial arts must emerge from historically grounded combat systems? Again, that seems like the sort of question that should be investigated rather than simply assumed away by definitional fiat. The discovery of true “hyper-real” martial arts might have a substantive impact on our understanding of both the actual evolution and social functions of these practices.

It may be that we have come to the point in our discussion where further theoretical and conceptual developments cannot happen in the absence of new empirical findings. Luckily Wetzler has provided us with a framework for discovery.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Martial Arts Studies: Answering the “So what?” question.