The Meaning of a Bruised Elbow


I have been working on a couple of projects that have taken me away from blogging in recent days.  These are the sorts of commitments that should bear fruit for the readers of Kung Fu Tea down the road, but in the mean time they are making it difficult to keep up with my regular writing schedule.  As such, this post may be a bit briefer and less structured than some of my other essays.

Even though my time has been tight, I still feel compelled to sit down and write about a subject that has come up multiple times, in different guises, over the last couple of weeks.  Specifically, how should we interpret instances of failure in when thinking about the martial arts?

Failure is a broad topic.  My right arm is currently sporting prominent bruises from my lightsaber combat class earlier this week.  They are an immediate reminder that I failed to properly defend myself from disarming attacks in a free-sparring session.  That in turn speaks to a certain failure in understanding of structure and range in a new style of fencing.  Had I been under attack from a real lightsaber wielding opponent, I likely would have ended up like Luke in Empire Strikes back or Anakin in Episode II!  Luckily in this galaxy functioning lightsabers are rare.

Practicing martial artists are quite used to dealing with these sorts of performance related failures.  It is a normal and expected part of training.  They point out areas where systemic effort can be applied and improvements in performance can be made.  In some cases they may even lead to a fundamental rethink of one’s basic concepts and approach to a problem.  Failure then becomes a valuable spur to new research that may lead to important innovation.

While I have no privileged knowledge of what actually happened in Bruce Lee’s much discussed duel with Wong Jack Man, it is interesting to note that the outcome of the fight is often discussed in these exact terms.  It was an instance of technical failure that led to a series of important innovations and eventually the development of a new combat philosophy, Jeet Kune Do.  In this sense the right sorts of failures are critical to both progress in our personal training and popular narratives about innovation in the martial arts more generally.

Yet failure is not always a strictly personal matter.  Scholars of martial arts studies can apply the “three levels of analysis” to an examination of this concept.  We might see failure as occurring at the level of individual practice (as in the Bruce Lee case), at the institutional level (such as the collapse of an individual school or lineage), or at the broader systemic level, such as the death of all the local folk arts in Guangdong following the 1949 liberation.

Just as an individual fighter might watch tapes of his or her previous fights in an attempt to improve their future performance, students might look at past failures of martial arts to create better theories of how they function and what social roles they actually perform.  Indeed, those of us in the social sciences often find ourselves in the rather paradoxical position of trying to create theories better able to “predict” instances of failure in the past, rather than talking very much about the future at all.

This sort of “post-diction” is one of the main ways that we attempt to test the actual strength of our understanding.  If I create a theory of institutional failure that can explain the decline of the Japanese martial arts in the current era, I would be more likely to put my trust in it if it could also be shown to also speak to their near disappearance in the middle of the 19th century.  Can our theories grant us insight into past events?




Finding Failure amid Success


All of this sounds simple enough.  Yet as any graduate student in the social sciences will quickly tell you, the most challenging aspects of research projects are often not theoretical but empirical.  Is it actually possible to gather enough reliable historical data to test a theory in anything like a scientific way?  Lots of promising projects simply don’t happen because basic issues in research design cannot be overcome.

Data reliability can also be a critical issue when we start to think about trends in popular culture.  Again, the idea of “failure” is critical to this entire discussion.  By definition most of the organizations that we are aware of entered the historical record and our personal consciousness precisely because, to one degree or another, they succeeded.  Instances of institutional failure have a much harder time making it into the historical record.  As such they tend to be systematically underrepresented.

This is especially true as you go back further in time.  In the case of the Chinese martial arts it does not take all that many decades for the historical record to become very slim indeed.  When we consider the dozen or so manuals that have come down to us form the late Ming period there is a disproportionate probability that these ideas or movements were quite popular at the time and enjoyed a wide circulation.  That is precisely the reason that they are what managed to make it down to us.  Being steeped in this literature it is all too easy to forget that we know very little of the “also-rans” that failed to leave a mark on the literary cannon.

This historical distortion is compounded by the ways in which we talk about important teachers, masters and lineages in the Chinese martial arts in the present.  During the construction of our folk histories success is duly noted, but instances of institutional failure tend to be glossed over.

Interestingly these omissions don’t always apply to the personal or systemic levels.  Instances of massive institutional collapse (for instance the fall of the Ming dynasty, or the Chinese civil war) often become the backdrops for important lineage narratives.  And cases of individual technical failure (frequently a lost challenge match or some other personal setback) are often invoked to demonstrate the persistence and determination of the ancestors.  But there is a middle range of failure that these accounts are usually silent on.

Ip Man’s biography is particularly instructive in this regard.  The popular sketch of his life notes that in 1949 he moved from Foshan to Hong Kong, bringing his beloved Wing Chun Kung Fu with him.  Due to his diminished economic circumstances he was forced to take on students and he began to publicly teach the art.  His students spread the system through their success in challenge matches, and in a remarkably short period of time (30 years) Wing Chun went from being an obscure local style (unknown even in Hong Kong) to one of the mostly widely practiced forms of kung fu within the global community.

All of which is good so far as it goes.  Yet it is interesting to consider what this account leaves out.  Many of Ip Man’s classes were not particularly successful.  In fact, at the beginning of his career in Hong Kong he struggled with student retention.  Class after class failed.  One of the reasons why he was teaching in so many locations was that he was looking for an institutional formula that could catch on, and his early efforts (by in large) failed.  Simply doing what had been done in Guangdong a generation earlier was not going to work.

Nor did his problems with student retention vanish once he discovered new ways to make Wing Chun training more interesting to Hong Kong’s peripatetic urban students.  Retention again became a problem in the middle of his career following the advent of his relationship with another woman.  Then at the end of his career there were institutional disputes that led to him walking out on the VTAA, taking much of the organization’s teaching staff with him.

Anyone interested in exploring these instances further can do so in a number of sources, including my own recent volume which details much of Ip Man’s career. Yet the more immediate point is that we tend to remember only the success of the Wing Chun system and have forgotten many of the setbacks and early failures that it faced.  This creates a distorted view of the past.  Specifically, when we systematically disregard instances of institutional failure we often find ourselves creating theories that have no ability to accurately explain the system’s eventual success.

The truly scary thing about the Ip Man example is how quickly all of this can happen.  A number of Ip Man’s personal students are still alive, as are his two sons.  These individuals have even offered (and sometimes published) very helpful accounts of his early years speaking to both his successes and failures.  Yet the sort of public discussions that have risen up around the style (even in more scholarly circles) exhibits an odd flattening of the historical record.  So often our discussions go from Ip Man arriving in HK in 1949, to his instruction of Bruce Lee, to the explosion of “Kung Fu Fever” in the 1970s while skipping all of the intervening moments in time.

The 1930s were another critical period in the history of the Chinese martial arts, as were the 1890s.  Yet every generation you go back the thinner the historical record becomes.  Most of the failures are simply lost to history.


Star Wars meme.Now your failure is complete


Failure in the Age of Google


Dealing with these sorts of distortions is challenging.  But in truth historians of popular culture have been aware of these issues for some time.  Once we realize that our data tends to skew we can do something about it.

Some of my recent work looking at the development of “Lightsaber Combat” as a hyper-real martial art in the post-2000 period made me realize that there is another side to this problem that has generated less thought. The internet has had a profound impact on our ability to trace the genesis and growth of all sorts of recent movements.  Once again, this forces us to carefully consider how we interpret instances of failure.

While trying to understand a little bit more about the origins and nature some of the lightsaber groups that currently exist, I found myself going through cached threads on old discussion forums.  What I found was a painstakingly complete record of every to attempt to start a local meet up in the park, a new club or to resurrect a beloved organization.  And most of these efforts were, on an objective level, failures.

No one showed up to the park.  No one could agree on the goal of the club.  Or everyone suddenly remembered why their beloved group had exploded the first time after an ill-conceived attempt to “get the band back together.”  Some of these groups (if you were lucky) failed with a whimper, others went out with a spectacular (and probably scarring) bang.

One way or another, the message was clear.  The vast majority of attempts to do anything end, at one point or another, in institutional failure.

I would be lying if I said that just reading this stuff was not incredibly depressing.  I started to wonder “why did lightsaber combat fail so completely”….and then I caught myself.

This is not a movement that has failed (at least not yet).  From its birth, sometime in the early 2000s, it has grown incredibly quickly.  And as long as Disney keeps putting out blockbuster Star Wars movies (which they look set to do for the foreseeable future) it will continue to grow at a healthy pace.

Suddenly I had a sense that this is what it must have been like to be Ip Man.  Even in a period of active growth, failed schools and empty classes will always outnumber cases of spectacular success.  Entrepreneurs note that nine out of ten small businesses fail in their first year.  I would suspect that the same must be true of martial arts clubs and even casual meet-ups.  Yet this is not always a reflection of the health of a system, whether it is taijiquan, wing chun or lightsaber combat.  Often it just reflects the inherent challenges of putting together a new group.

The problem that students of popular culture face when they look to the more distant history of the Chinese martial arts is that many of the instances of institutional failure are self-erasing.  They just don’t appear in the historical record, skewing our understanding of why some groups actually succeeded.

Students of modern movements face the opposite problem.  Google forgets nothing…absolutely nothing.

Every failed school or meet-up is just as visible now as the day that it occurred.  Within this vast landscape of data it becomes increasingly difficult to make out the shape of the forest for the density of the trees (both standing and fallen).  It is ironic that the digital footprints of a movement which has died, and one that is still exploding, often look pretty similar at a certain level of granularity.

While the lineage myths of the past may further obscure this data, I personally have found that a few well selected “expert interviews” can do wonders for revealing the lay of the land in the post-google era.  In econometrics we often speak of the difference between “statistical” and “substantive” significance.  The former tells us that a trend is real, while the later suggests how big it actually is.  In an era of data overload, ethnography and expert interviews are important tools for actually establishing the direction of trends and their growing or declining magnitude.  Methodological triangulation can really help us to get a handle on some of these issues.

In our personal training we all want to know how to become better martial artists.  Likewise in our academic research we seek to understand why these traditional fighting systems have succeeded.  Ironically, in both cases, the key to understanding success is to pay much more attention to instances of failure.  In the absence of true large-N datasets, keeping it all in perspective is a challenge.

Either failure is too hidden by the historical record, or too eternally present in the collective machine mind that defines our virtual consciousness. Both of these possibilities create problems for those wishing to understand the inner-working of the martial arts.   Nor are there always easy answers to separate out the signals from the noise.  Still, the value of failure has always been in its ability to point out the areas that still need work. As such it is always worthy of our study.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Why is Ip Man a “Role Model”?