Breaking ceramic action figure by Martin Klimas. Source:
Breaking ceramic action figure by Martin Klimas. Source:




Welcome to the fifth 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), the third by  Jared Miracle (learning new martial arts systems while immersed in a foreign culture), or the fourth by Thomas Green (who is only in it for the stories) 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. Daniel Amos is a pioneer of modern ethnographic research on the Chinese martial arts.  His work opened a window onto the social world of southern Chinese martial artists (both in Hong Kong and Guangzhou) during the late 1970s and early 1980s.  This was an incredibly important time in the spread of the modern Chinese fighting styles, making his detailed observations all the more important.  His work was hugely helpful to me when I began my own writing on the region a few decades later.  As such I am thrilled that he has agreed to join this discussion.  In the following essay Dr. Amos will tackle a number of questions regarding a researcher’s ethical responsibilities as they first become members of, and then report on, various (often marginal) communities.  While the political situation in China following the end of the Cultural Revolution threw these issues into stark relief, they are a topic that no ethnographer can afford to ignore.




Lies I have told about martial artists

by Daniel M. Amos, March 17, 2016


Recently, I joked with a friend of mine that I did not actually do ethnographic fieldwork in Post-Mao, Guangzhou, China and the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, but rather invented my studies of Cantonese martial artists while enjoying the sunshine of Santa Monica Beach.  At the very least, I can be thought of as a suspicious character.  My schoolmate at UCLA was Carlos Castaneda.  We shared the same graduate student mailbox (for surnames A-C), the same dissertation chair, and had many of the same anthropology faculty members on our dissertation committees.  Carlos was accused of poetic license, of embellishing the details of his well-known accounts of flying Yaqui brujos who perform magic in the Sonoran desert.  In his review of Castaneda’s first book, Edmund Leach, the eminent social anthropologist, observed that “…this is a work of art rather than of scholarship, and it is as a diary of unusual personal experiences that the book deserves attention (Leach 1969).”

Carlos frequently visited the UCLA anthropology department during my early graduate student days there, and he spoke with and cultivated a number of graduate students, mostly women.  I was not a member of Carlos’ inner-circle and only vaguely associated with him.  Yet it is probable that our ethnographic writing shares at least one trait: All the characters that appear in my ethnographic descriptions of martial artists in southern China during the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s are fiction.  My fiction, however, differed from that of my famous schoolmate in that I considered my study to be largely a political study.  During the time of my dissertation research (1976-1981) in two neighboring Cantonese cities, impoverished socialist Guangzhou and comparatively wealthy colonial Hong Kong, I felt that Chinese martial arts in both places could be partly understood as a form of cultural play that illuminated and revealed conflict between social classes.

Ultimately, the fictionalization of my ethnographic writing about Chinese martial artists was generated out of concern for protecting the privacy and personal identities of the participants in my study.   In Hong Kong from the beginning of colonial rule through the end of British rule in 1997, practitioners of Chinese martial artists who belonged to martial arts brotherhoods were suspected by the colonial government of being involved in criminal activities, organized crime, members of Triads.   A Hong Kong police report prepared in the 1970s by the Hong Kong Triad Society Bureau for Hong Kong police officers at the rank of lieutenant and above, for example, stated that one-third of independent Hong Kong martial arts brotherhoods were associated with Triads and engaged in criminal activities.

“In many cases local gymnasia, particularly gymnasia associated with the more traditional forms of Chinese martial arts training, serve as the local headquarters for Triad society factions, especially in respect of local enforcement work.  A percentage of the staff, managers, and instructors of such establishments are known to be or are suspected of being Triad officials or active Triad members.   Of the 419 such establishments in the Colony, 141 are suspected of Triad associations (Hong Kong Triad Bureau 1974:54)”

Although I could not definitively prove it, my own biases led me to feel that the strong official association of martial artists with criminality was exaggerated, generated out of natural fear by the ruling and middle classes of a mobilized and semi-militarized segment of the impoverished and working poor.  In a society where there were no guns except those carried by the local British-led military and police, the higher social orders felt anxiety about working class youth and adults who developed martial skills within their own voluntary associations.

However, I knew Hong Kong martial artists who, while not members of criminal Triad gangs, would suffer physical, psychological, social, economic, or legal harm, or damage to their dignitary if my writing exposed their identities and behavior.  I knew Hong Kong martial artists who were alcoholics, opium users, organizers of dog fights and gambling, butchers and sellers of dog meat, gay and transgender martial artists, frequenters of prostitutes, those with sexually transmitted diseases, martial artists who could not read, unemployed martial artists and martial artists who were undocumented immigrants.  For this reason I wrote fiction, not identifying individuals, but attempted to describe a variety of cultural scenes related to martial arts in Hong Kong.

Already sensitive about the potential harm to those who participated in my study of martial artists, my concern about protecting the identities of the participants in my study of martial artists in Guangzhou was heightened because of the Mosher Affair.   Steven Mosher, a Stanford University anthropology graduate student had conducted research in a Guangdong village for several months, from the end of 1979 to the beginning of summer 1980.  He was the first anthropology graduate student from the United States permitted to do ethnographic research in mainland China since the end of the Cultural Revolution.  The Chinese authorities repeatedly complained about Mr. Mosher’s behavior during his time in Guangdong province.  They abruptly ended his study and he was not permitted to remain in China.

As far as I am aware, I was the second U.S. graduate student ethnographer to do research in China during this time.  Although my stay in Guangdong province (June 1980 – August 1981) was of longer duration than Mr. Mosher’s, it caused far less controversy with the Chinese authorities and with fellow anthropologists.

During the time of Mr. Mosher’s project and my research project in China the fundamental rule taught to every beginning ethnographer and formally accepted by all in the field was that researchers were obligated to protect the participants of their studies.  The code of the American Anthropological Association at the time clearly stated this most basic requirement: “In research, an anthropologist’s paramount responsibility is to those he studies.   When there is a conflict of interest, these individuals must come first.  The anthropologist must do everything within his power to protect their physical, social and psychological welfare and to honor their dignity and privacy (Van Ness, The Mosher Affair, The Wilson Quarterly, 1984:160-172).”  

During his stay in the village where he did his research, Mr. Mosher discovered that some Chinese women had been forced by local officials to undergo involuntary abortions, sometimes late in pregnancy.  In May 1981, writing under the name Steven Westley, Mr. Mosher described forced abortions in Guangdong province in an article he produced for a popular Taiwanese magazine (Ibid.).  Taking no care to disguise their identities, in the same article he published photographs of women who had been forced to undergo this procedure (Ibid.).  By publishing their photos, clearly identifying and exposing those who had undergone involuntary abortions, Mr. Mosher subjected the women he wrote about to punishment by the Chinese government.

Both the Stanford University academic committee investigating his case and Mr. Mosher separately interviewed me about the incident.  I had nothing to add to their investigations.  Chinese officials had not shared information about Mr. Mosher with me, a lowly U.S. graduate student.

Based on information gather during the academic committee’s investigation of the affair, Stanford University produced a report, shared it with Mr. Mosher, and expelled him from the university’s anthropology program.  Neither side has revealed the contents of the report.

The fates of the women Mr. Mosher exposed to harm are unknown to me, but it is my hope that the damage they experienced from his selfish, reckless actions was not severe.  Clearly, they were the most important actors in this event, and had the most to lose.

At present, because of irresponsible researchers in the past who showed no concern about the consequences of their research on those who participated in their studies, there are now more rigorous institutional safeguards for research which use human subjects.  Researchers affiliated with a university or government agency must have their research projects approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB).   Research participants need to be informed and consent to research which involves them. They should understand the purpose and nature of the research, and their role in it.  Before proceeding with their investigations, researchers must rigorously assess and minimize possible harm to participants, and assure the confidentiality of their identities, including protecting them from exposure through photographs, videos, audio recordings, and computer records (Robert Yin, Qualitative Research from Start to Finish, 2016:49).  Hopefully, contemporary undergraduate martial arts researchers experience more rigorous human subjects training and research review of their projects than anthropology students of 40 years ago.


When I was in Guangzhou, I knew many martial artists who would suffer physical, psychological, social, economic, legal harm or damage to their dignitary if my writing exposed their identities, thoughts and actions.  Some hated Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, others engaged in gambling and fighting, some were alcoholics, others had pre-marital sex, then an illegal activity, and many others had positive, uncritical fantasies about developed, capitalist countries and hoped to emigrate.

The first several months I lived in Guangzhou I practiced kung fu with a private martial arts brotherhood.   Most mornings I awoke at 5 a.m. and rode my bicycle several miles into the city from Zhongshan University.   1980 was before the massive growth of Guangzhou, and at that time the university was on the outskirts of the city.  In my early ethnographic writing about Chinese martial artists, because of the sensitive nature of my research, none of the martial artists with whom I practiced kung fu appeared in the pages of my dissertation and early publications.  The identities of the martial artists I wrote about were changed.  Further, in my early publications all the martial artists from Guangzhou whom I described in detail had left the People’s Republic of China, and were residing in Hong Kong, Macau, overseas or were deceased.  In summary, my ethnographic descriptions did not portray any martial artist then living in the People’s Republic of China, and any similarity to any individual residing in China was strictly unintentional and coincidental.

When I finished my fieldwork, I brought home dozens of recorded interviews and translated and transcribed interviews with martial artists, articles and works in Chinese about martial arts, books of field notes, photographs, Super 8mm film, and video-recordings.    My primary field advisor, Barbara E. Ward, a brilliant, generous, creative anthropologist, with an appointment at Cambridge, and founder of the Anthropology program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, asked me what I was going to do with all my marvelous ethnographic data.   I did not have the slightest idea of where to begin, and was immobile, petrified, buried under a mountain of stuff.   Barbara said, “OK, start with this,” and handed me a copy of James Liu’s work, “The Chinese Knight-Errant (1967).”  Liu discussed how martial arts have long been associated in Chinese culture with knight errantry, an ancient symbol of resistance against social constraints.  He described the Chinese knight errant as a playful warrior who is rebellious, loyal to friends, altruistic, courageous, an extreme individualist who despises society’s conventions, but desires honor and fame.  Liu’s Chinese knight errant sounded a lot like some of the martial artists I knew in Hong Kong and Guangzhou.  Even more Chinese martial artists told stories about people who were similar to the Chinese knights Liu described.

The point that Barbara was making when she handed me James Liu’s book was that you can have a mountain of ethnographic data, but if you don’t come around to having an accurate and useful understanding of what you’ve discovered, it can be useless.   Like many anthropologists of my generation, the work of Victor Turner helped to illuminate my data.  Carlos G. Velez, one of my dissertation committee members, greatly influenced me on the topic of social marginality, as did the work of my friend Jean DeBernardi on social marginality in Penang’s black societies.

I have used the ideas of my mentors and friends and of the scholars that I admire to analyze the data about martial artists that I brought back with me.  It is my hope that the lies I have told about Chinese martial artists have been honest ones, protecting them, while adding some light to the field.



About the Author: Daniel M Amos has practiced martial arts for forty years, and has taught social science courses or been a faculty researcher at five Chinese and five U.S. universities, including the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Beijing Normal University, Wuhan University, Clark Atlanta University, and the University of Washington. He was awarded a PhD degree in Anthropology from UCLA in 1983.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Dr. Daniel Amos Discusses Marginality, Martial Arts Studies and the Modern Development of Southern Chinese Kung Fu