Sumatran Tiger. By Nichollas Harrison - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: Wikimedia
Sumatran Tiger. By Nichollas Harrison – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: Wikimedia




Introduction: “What’s your style?”


A couple of months ago a conversion emerged between a few of my colleagues which got me thinking about the effects of personal training on those who wish to write on martial arts studies. Simply broaching such a question tends to elicit a number of knee-jerk responses.  These range from the ever popular “only a Grand Master of the system is qualified to discuss it” to, on the other side of the spectrum, “practitioners of an art are typically little more than apologists.” Variants of both of these ideas can be found in the popular and more scholarly discussion of the traditional fighting systems.

One does not have to delve very far into the actual process of conducting research before encountering problems with these sorts of initial responses.  My recent book on the social history of the southern Chinese martial arts ended up touching on the evolution of dozens of distinct styles and community organizations.  The world of the TCMA is an incredibly diverse yet highly interconnected place.  In practice it is impossible to discuss any individual style or practitioner in pristine isolation.  Nor is it even imaginable that a single researcher, no matter how great her level of dedication, could gain actual expertise in all of the arts practiced throughout a given region.  At some point it becomes necessary to write about things that one is not an expert in or nothing could ever be said.

If we are honest with ourselves, it is also apparent that this first set of objections is fundamentally about controlling who has a “legitimate right” to frame the public discussion of a given style.  Since the practice of the traditional martial arts are deeply embedded within both social and market structures, certain types of academic discussions might directly affect their cultural prestige or economic value.

This raises some interesting questions as to who “owns” a martial art.  That would make a great topic to explore in a future post.  Yet appeals to traditional modes of authority generally hold very little value in the social sciences or history, and it is not clear why the situation should be any different in martial arts studies.

Questions of objectivity are equally complicated.  The modern martial arts are, by their very nature, designed to transform the individuals who practice them. This is not simply an accidental byproduct of training.  It is the stated goal of a great many systems.

We know that individuals often seek out martial arts training because they feel somehow vulnerable or inadequate.  They are looking for the means to transform their position in their community, to improve their health or appearance, or even to find a way of transcending the self.  Many students of martial arts studies are drawn to the topic precisely because they want to better understand the nature and consequences of this transformational promise.  What happens to an individual when they become part of this community?  Yet once we as researchers enter the training hall we too become the medium upon which this transformation is worked.

Mandarin Rat Snake.
Mandarin Rat Snake.

This can be construed as a problem as the culture of the training hall is not the same as the culture of the academy.  Specifically, researchers may pick up some of the beliefs, norms and biases seen in the community that they have become embedded within.

Sometimes we are aware of changes and can “control” for them when recording our observations.  Everyone in my school may believe that the Kung Fu of “lineage X” is superior to anything else in the style.  And I may even have come to accept on practical grounds that it is pretty impressive.  But my basic training as a scholar should prevent me from filling my academic work with all sorts of unsubstantiated value judgements.

Or will it?  More troubling is less explicit, though no less potent, ideas that are absorbed into our subconscious value structure.  Dr. Luke White recently critiqued the atmosphere of a martial arts studies conference that he attended on the grounds that it felt subtly “hostile” (especially to those who might no be martial artists themselves.  As various researchers inquired what fighting styles their counterparts studied, he detected both a competitive impulse and an accusatory finger.

It is well worth remembering that not everyone who writes within the field of martial arts studies is also a martial artist.  Indeed, if you research medieval military history or wuxia novels it is probably not even possible to practice most of what you read about (which, of course, is not to say that such a scholar might not take up some other aspect of the martial arts for the sheer enjoyment of it).

Nor are all of the norms and values of the training hall welcome in an academic setting.  While by no means universal, overly competitive, homophobic, sexist, classist, nationalist, and even “style-ist” sentiments sometimes emerge within elements of the martial arts community.  It may be the origins and cultivation of such socially marginal values that is the focus of our research. Yet we would do well to remember that no one is inherently immune to the pull of such ideas.

Is it better then to preserve a scientific distance from the subject of our study?  Is strict “objectivity” something to be desired in martial arts studies?  In more practical terms, can one do ethnography in a boxing gym from the sidelines?  Or must one actually put on gloves, do rounds with a trainer, and finally enter the ring before you can understand and successfully communicate what it means to be a member of that specific community?

The answers to these questions are not self-evident.  Various scholars have come to different conclusions over the years. I remember a conversation that I once had with my father, an anthropologist who works with Native American communities.  He mentioned an invitation that he had once received to join a secret “medicine society” in a community that he was doing ethnography with.

I realized how rare such an opportunity was.  As such I was shocked to hear that he had turned it down.  When I asked him why, he explained that everything comes with a cost.  Every new identity alters a pre-existing one.  And at some point we all (even ethnographers) have to think very carefully about what price we are willing to pay for knowledge.

On the other hand we have examples of researchers who have thrown themselves into extraordinary situations with abandon.   Loic Wacquant, in Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer, discusses some of the problems with the notion of “objectivity” in ethnographic research. He fully committed himself to membership in his new found community in a boxing gym within the Chicago ghetto and all that this entailed.  Wacquant has advised young ethnographers not to fear “going native.”  In his view, it is a necessity.  He does qualify this assertion by stating that the student should “go native,” but also go “armed” with the proper theoretical tool kit.  That way, when the time comes, they can make sense of what they have experienced.

It is not my intention to definitively resolve this debate.  Indeed, that would go well beyond what is possible in a relatively short blog post.  Instead I would like to use this essay to outline some ways that personal experience seems to affect one type of research that is produced in martial arts studies.  The exercise is purely personal and it is my hope that it will help me to work through some of my own struggles in understanding the value of discussing one’s background in the martial arts.


By Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE - Green Mantis (Mantidae), CC BY-SA 2.0. Source:
By Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE – Green Mantis (Mantidae), CC BY-SA 2.0. Source:


Unspoken Influences: Selecting a Research Topic


Whether we choose to discuss them or not, our own backgrounds can have a shaping influence on our research agendas.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the selection of a topic and the formulation of a basic theory.  While it is true that not all researchers within martial arts studies engage in personal practice, it seems clear that serious students of the traditional fighting systems are rather over-represented within our ranks.

This is not a surprise.  One of the challenges of an academic life is finding a research topic that can inspire fresh productivity and new publications year after year.  This is probably why a great many scholars choose to write about topics that touch on their own lives.

Yet this does not mean that they are always eager to place themselves at the center of the narrative.  A few months ago I was speaking with a colleague who has the sort of first hand training experience that most martial artists could only dream of.  His interest in writing about the martial arts is rivaled only by his dedication to practicing them at a high level.

He confessed that he gets annoyed when individuals approaching his historical research immediately begin by asking about his practical background.  Rather than second guessing his credentials as a “legitimate” researcher, he would prefer that readers simply engage with the substance of his work, judging both the arguments and data on their own merits.

A scholar’s personal background, even one as fascinating as my friend’s, rarely makes it into the discussion of most historical works.  Nor are they all that commonly seen in quantitative driven social scientific studies.

The reasons why are obvious.  If one’s field of study is the development of Ming era battlefield tactics no style, no matter how traditionally taught, can grant an accurate window onto the military training and life experience of General Qi Jiguang’s troops.  As a scholar you will instead be expected to introduce and interpret a wide variety of historical documents that come closer to capturing the essence of that time and place.

Likewise, students who do quantitatively driven sociological work know that their own life experience is a single (probably atypical) observation within a vast sea of data.  Successful theory testing requires the gathering of hundreds, or even thousands, of other data points before proceeding on to analysis.  To dwell too much on one’s own experience in these sorts of settings might be misleading. We should not be surprised that most historical and social scientific works makes little reference to the author’s personal practice.

It can be debated as to whether this is a good thing.  While these sorts of scholars may be reluctant to treat their own life experience as “data,” it might have had a profound impact on the subject matter they choose to investigate, the specific theories that were tested or even what literature they drew their inspiration from.

My recent work on the history of the Southern Chinese martial arts makes few explicit references to Jon Nielson’s and my own extensive training in Wing Chun.  Why? At the most basic level, solid “sticky hand” skills do not grant any privileged insight into the state of Guangdong’s gentry led militia movement in the 1850s.

Snow Monkeys, Nagano Japan. Source: Wikimedia.
Snow Monkeys, Nagano Japan. Source: Wikimedia.

Yet my background in this style did introduce me to the region’s colorful, and at times violent, social history.  It inspired to me to hypothesize that the formation of these fighting systems might grant us insight into a number of ongoing conversations regarding the spread of globalization and its attendant social disruptions.  Indeed, it even granted us an initial set of contacts from which to begin our research.  So while we did not devote all that many pages to a discussion of our combined years of practice, it was our relationship with Wing Chun that made this specific book possible.

The flip side of this insight is that our dedication to this specific fighting system inevitably foreclosed other possible avenues of investigation.  Consider simply the question of geography.  Wing Chun turned our attention to events in Guangdong in the 19th century.  Yet would our study have been better served by looking at events in Shanghai during the “roaring 1920s?”  Globalization certainly played a role in the story of that city’s martial arts as well.

The economic development of the Pearl River Delta led us to investigate the urbanization of the TCMA as they found new middle class students in the Republic period.  Clearly that was an important development in the modern history of the Chinese hand combat tradition.  But in directing our attention to these issues we never addressed the much more plebeian Red Spear Uprisings that were ravaging much of the rural countryside of northern China at exactly the same time.

That is an interesting dichotomy precisely because the magical practices of the Red Spears, and Ip Man’s “rationalization” of his Wing Chun system, demonstrate two very different pathways by which China’s martial artists attempted to adjust to the challenges of social and economic upheaval.  Both are fascinating interludes in China’s modern martial arts history.

Nor is it simply possible to investigate everything within a single volume.  Every manuscript has a page limit.  The broadening of a study to include more regions or arts always requires a corresponding sacrifice of depth and detail.  At some point researchers must choose which cases allow them to best test their theories or develop their concepts.

The danger in writing about what we know is that we short-circuit this critical process.  Rather than choosing the best data to test our theories, we begin to select hypothesis based on the data that we already have and want to talk about.  And this can lead to all sorts of problematic tautologies.

In some ways the problem originates with our very concept of “objectivity.”  Short of random assignment, there simply isn’t an objective way to choose a research topic.

Once a research question and theory have been settled on, there are all sorts of checks and balances that can be put in place to try and make the research process more objective.  Yet most students are drawn to invest their scarce resources of time and research funding into those topics that already speak to them.

This suggests that we rarely approach our research questions as perfectly blank slates.  When beginning a “new” project, students will already have some idea of what the interesting puzzles are as they begin to formulate their research design.  As a result, some sorts of questions are never asked.  Or there may be certain types of data that are rarely considered.  These silences can have a profound impact on the sort of literature that develops and our overall level of understanding.

Objectivity is a more complicated subject than it first appears.  Bias can be introduced into a study not just in the formal ways in which theories are tested.  It can get baked into the very topics that we choose to investigate.  That fact that all of us bring our own life experience to the table when deciding what research projects to pursue suggests that we must proceed with caution when evaluating our own work.

In some ways I envy modern anthropologists.  The nature of the ethnographic method suggests that they must think deeply about how their own cultural background and assumptions affects their ability to observe and understand the communities that they seek to engage with.  In recent decades we have seen the rise of a somewhat “confessional” strain within the literature as anthropologists realize that they cannot treat their own backgrounds with silence.

Rather, to fully understand the ethnographic data that they seek to relate, readers must also know something about the individuals what produced the record.  What were their goals?  What theories shape their understanding of the tasks at hand?  What possible conflicts or sources of bias might color their presentation of the material?

The structure of your typical “Large-N” quantitative study does not provide much room for this sort of self-reflection. Yet at the bare minimum authors can discuss the hypothesis formation and data selection process. The Introduction or Preface of a historical work may grant a researcher more room to reflect on what drew her to a given project.  What sorts of theoretical tools and life experiences led her to the conclusion that the questions asked are significant ones?

Alexander C. Bennett’s recent historical study Kendo: Culture of the Sword (University of California Press, 2015) is an interesting example of how this sort of discussion might develop. While noting that modern kendo simply is not the same thing as medieval Japanese military fencing, the author goes to great lengths to outline both his personal introduction to the art as a high-school student living in Japan, and his subsequent professional engagement with the world of Budo.

Some of the stories that he relates in the first few sections of his book are helpful in giving readers the tools to understand the basic social and technical structures of a new martial arts system.  More importantly, these discussions create a window onto the background of the author who shaped this research, including his own training history, academic background and potential sources of bias as he discusses an art that has had a profound formative impact on his life.

Photo Credit: Alan D. Wilson.
Photo Credit: Alan D. Wilson.


Conclusion: “What is my style?”


Readers of even empirically grounded works might benefit from knowing a little more about an author’s personal practice.  Yet on a deeper level the individuals who would probably benefit the most from this exercise would be the authors themselves.  None of us approach our research as perfectly disinterested automatons.  In preparing to explain our backgrounds to others we begin the process of revealing to ourselves motivations that may otherwise have remained unspoken.

Only then can we start to ask ourselves some really important questions.  Have I really selected the best set of observations to explore my theory?  What unconscious assumptions have led me here?  Am I asking a question that is critical to the development of the literature, and if not, what would make it more relevant to my readers?

In short, I fully understand the unease that might be invoked by questions such as, “What is your style?” in an academic conference setting.  As was already pointed out, they can all too easily slip into a sort of posturing where reasoned arguments are replaced with appeals to authority that, while common in some training halls, may have no place in the lecture hall.

It is also well worth remembering that as we succeed in promoting martial arts studies as a research area we are likely to see an increasing number of scholars entering our ranks for purely theoretical, rather than personal, reasons.  Of course they will have their own unstated assumptions, biases and backgrounds that need unpacking.  Still, this would be an important sign that we are succeeding in demonstrating the utility of our field to the disciplines at large.  As such, this question may lose some of its salience in the future.

Yet at the present moment in time, it seems that most students in this research area have a strong personal attachment to one or more martial arts styles.  By design these are social institutions that promote a surprising degree of dedication and personal loyalty.  A number of studies in our own literature have shown the profound ways in which they can shape an individual’s norms, beliefs and identity.

We have no reason to believe that scholars are inherently immune to these processes.  This suggests that we also have no apriori reason to believe that an individual’s personal study won’t have some sort of impact on their research. Indeed, most social scientists long ago gave up the notion that something like perfect objectivity was possible or even desirable.

It may be bad form to go around challenging our colleagues by asking, “What’s your style?”  Yet the question is not without value.  It is one that we should constantly be asking ourselves.  How has my practice shaped my approach to martial arts studies?  It is a question with an almost infinite number of answers.  They may even evolve and change as we move from one project to the next.  Everyone will reap the benefits from these critical moments of introspection.





If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read:  Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (12): Tang Hao – The First Historian of the Chinese Martial Arts