A classic postcard, circa 1920s.
A classic postcard, circa 1920s.


Kung Fu and the Marriage Market

Love and Kung Fu simply do not mix.  At least that is the strongly implied message to be found on the pages (and silver screens) of many traditional Chinese martial arts stories.  Things are different in the West.  In America audiences cheered when Daniel LaRusso walks away with both the tournament trophy and the girl after defeating the comically Californian villains of the Cobra Kai dojo.

In that case the hero’s mastery of the martial arts seems to be legitimated by his growing success in the romantic and social realms.  The result is a coming of age story in which the previously awkward Daniel is now seen as fully equipped to face the challenges of adulthood.   And it is clear by the end of the film that his girlfriend has decided that he is quite the catch.  That is a critical point which we will be returning to.

All of this makes a fascinating juxtaposition with the early Wong Fei Hung films produced between the 1950s and the 1970s.  In these films the hero goes to (what might appear to American audiences) ridiculous lengths to avoid even the appearance of fraternizing with members of the opposite sex.  In of my favorite scenes an older Wong has been badly beaten and is rescued by two women who find him unconscious in the street.  They tend to his wounds and give him a place to recover.  But upon awaking and finding himself in a woman’s bedroom the solidly patriarchal hero literally throws himself out a window to get back onto the street, where the bad guys are.  It is all done to great comic effect, but the underlying message is clear.  A woman’s bedroom is a greater threat to our hero than all of the sword wielding baddies that central casting can call up.

Or maybe Wong Fei Hung’s fears were more practical.  I am not a literary scholar, but I have noticed a few things when reading older martial arts stories.  Nothing good ever comes from romantic entanglements within the realm of the martial arts.  In general dedicated love stories seem to have focused on promising young scholars, headed off to the big city to make their mark on the world (usually through the examination system), and the various muses that inspired them.

Relationships in Kung Fu stories typically ended in either tragedy or treachery.  Water Margin, sometimes called the ‘Old Testament’ of the Chinese martial arts is a striking example of this.  Every appearance of a woman in the text (with one exception) is immediately followed by someone’s bloody death.  It is almost as though the narrator is trying to tell us something.  The Chinese hero stands at the crossroads of martial glory and romantic success, but he can only choose one path.

Various scholars have noted that this oddly persistent pattern in Chinese martial arts fiction reflects important underlying social patterns.  These, in turn, suggest some interesting conclusions about the social function of the traditional Chinese martial arts during the late Qing and Republic periods that are worth considering.

Specifically, the martial arts tended to attract socially marginal individuals.  These were the “bare sticks,” younger males from impoverished backgrounds with no prospects for an inheritance, marriage or families of their own (in point of fact these three factors were closely related).  These sometimes volatile young men made up the majority of many martial arts schools.

As Valerie Hudson has noted, historically there has been a strongly positive correlation between an increase in the percentage of marginal, unmarriageable males, and social instability in China.  In late imperial China this often took the form of community violence with an increase in the size and scale of clan warfare, salt and opium smuggling and both banditry and piracy.

The problems that these young men faced were not merely economic in nature.  Masculinity in Chinese culture was not seen as a default trait enjoyed by anyone who happened to be born male.  It was something that had to be socially enacted and accepted.  The highly Confucian society saw fatherhood and family leadership (and even waiting patiently to inherit such a role) as the only legitimate expression of masculinity.

Thus the “bare sticks” were forced to find alternate institutions by which they could construct a discourse arguing that they too were males.  The realm of the martial arts was an obvious choice.  Here they could literally embody male Yang energy.  And local society needed any organization that it could get to control and channel the disruptive potential of these young men.  At times the government would even open new militia units with the express purpose of keeping them away from banditry and off the streets.  If civil society decided that it wanted to finance very similar ventures in the form of boxing or crop-watching societies, so much the better.

Unfortunately the martial arts are associated with violence, and other social values that are not exactly “respectable” in Confucian discourse.  These negative associations again challenged the public honor (and masculinity) of students.  So what better way to demonstrate one’s capacity for self-control (and to reinforce the social values of the community as a whole) than to express an exaggerated dedication to chastity in other areas of one’s life?

Thus the traditional Kung Fu story does something pretty amazing.  It attempts to make a virtue of a necessity, and in so doing argues that individuals who are often dismissed as being useless and of no value to society should have a key role in upholding its values.  While commenting on this complex of stories and values, Boretz noted that the Confucian social system enjoyed so much stability for so long precisely because it transformed those groups most inclined to attack the status quo into its greatest defenders.  Wong Fei Hung was actually making a pretty complex argument about the role of martial artists in society when he threw himself out that window.


A vintage postcard showing a beauty in a western style dress.  Circa 1920.
A vintage postcard showing a beauty in a western style dress. Circa 1920.


The Martial Arts, Marginality and Marriage


The best efforts of the Jingwu Association and other reformers notwithstanding, it is not clear that the modern Chinese martial arts ever managed to leave behind their association with social marginality.  Most of the students at the large Wushu academies in Henan and Shandong come from impoverished farming families who simply cannot afford better educational opportunities for their children.  My own research has shown a strong correlation between economic class and membership in certain martial arts organizations in southern China during the 1920s-1930s.  And when Dr. Daniel Amos revisited the same area to conduct his doctoral research 50 years later, even though society had been totally transformed by the events of 1949, the linkages between class and the martial arts were still firmly in place.  In fact, he dedicated much of his research to an exploration of marginality in the world of southern China’s martial artists.

Similar patterns can be detected on this side of the Pacific as well.  Professional boxers disproportionately come from challenged backgrounds.  And while different sorts of adult martial arts students are drawn to the martial arts for their own reasons, many of them share feelings of personal, economic or social insecurity.  Yet (returning to Daniel-san) perpetual bachelorhood has not typically been part of the mental image of the average western martial artist.

In fact, I know a number of couples who were brought together by their mutual interest in the martial arts.  This is pretty well attested in the more traditional arts, but I have even started to run across it in my recent lightsaber research.  I was reviewing old youtube footage of NY Jedi performances while a member of the organization narrated the action for me.  Over the course of our conversation I was struck by the number of marriages and relationships that seem to have come out of this single group of lightsaber practitioners.

Given the ostensibly celibate nature of the Jedi Order (a trait which seems to have been inspired by stories of chaste Christian knights and mysterious Shaolin monks) I found this to be ironic.  But should it have been?

In the West the martial arts have always promised a certain measure of transcendence. Yet they have found their greatest success as “coming of age” tools, initiating individuals into a more empowered role in society.  A black belt meant something when I was growing up because every other kid in school believed that it did, and so did their parents.

One wonders, however, if this is about to change.  For that matter, how generalizable are my personal observations?  Perhaps the social situation of the martial arts in the West has been (or is about to become) more similar to the traditional Chinese case than we care to admit.

Powerful and much discussed demographic trends are afoot in American society.  Oddly students of martial arts studies have remained largely silent on their implications.  The most important of these are the growing gap in income inequality and the declining number of children being raised in stable two parent homes.  In fact, individuals across the board are marrying later or not at all.

These facts, seemingly separate observations, were brought together by two law school professors (June Carbone and Naomi Cahn) in their 2014 Oxford University Press volume, Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family.  To be clear, this frequently discussed book does not directly mention the martial arts at all, but it raises some interesting puzzles and possibilities for students of martial arts studies.

As was also the case with late 19th century China, America today is witnessing rapid increases in income inequality.  Much of this can be traced directly to the decline in certain modes of employment as more of the domestic economy has been exposed to international markets and free trade.  All of this has created a fairly predictable pattern of winners and losers.  Highly educated professionals in the right fields are the big winners from this shift in trade policy.  But those without a college education have been hit hard by the collapse in the manufacturing sector.

While a complicated argument, and too nuanced to fully review here, the authors argue that the expected social results of this shift have been reinforced by the rational decisions that American adults have been making about the utility of marriage. [Interested readers can find a more comprehensive review of their argument here]  Whereas Americans once married across class lines, increasingly individuals are marrying within their own social groups.

This tends to compound the accumulation of wealth at the top of the pyramid as more wealthy people delay marriage while looking for suitable partners.  They also tend to hold liberal views about the equitable distribution of household responsibilities, have a lower divorce rate and enjoy greater economic resources to invest in their children’s future (thus ensuring their future economic success).

At the bottom end of the spectrum the situation is very different. Job security has always mattered more to working class families than pure income, and in the current economy that seems to be the one luxury that no one can afford.  The employment fields once dominated by men have been hard hit by declining wages, massive restructuring efforts and a general deterioration in reliable employment.  Women, however, have seen their ability to earn a living increase.  Thus for an increasing number of working class women investing in a marriage partner seems like a bad deal.

Yet children raised in single income households do not enjoy all of the same educational and social benefits as their more wealthy peers.  It turns out that the greatest predictor of living in poverty is having grown up in poverty.  In this way a self-reinforcing cycle is established in which social dynamics are accelerating the trend toward a growing intergenerational income gap between the haves and the have not.

In short, Carbone and Cahn are arguing that shifts in economic structure and social norms have probably made Daniel a much less attractive marriage partner now than when he first appeared in movie theaters in 1984.  For much of America that cute boy next store has become an economic liability.


Vintage advertisement, circa 1920.
Vintage advertisement, circa 1920.


Testing the Promise of the Martial Arts


It is important to remember that many of the martial arts (particularly the Chinese ones) were born during moments of cultural, economic and social crisis.  Hard times should not doom these systems.   They have thrived during similar periods in the past.  But why was that so?

Scholars have noted that the traditional martial arts have made a number of explicit and implicit promises to communities in an attempt to demonstrate their utility.  It is probably no coincidence that during the economic upheavals that accompanied the end of the Qing dynasty guilds and labor unions across southern China became major sponsors of martial arts schools.  And as I have shown in my own research, certain martial arts organizations even offered some of the same social benefits and safety-nets found in guilds.

Less obviously, martial arts schools also offered their members resources to develop their store of social and human capital. Each of these organizations had committees dedicated to charitable associations, lion dance teams or community affairs.  Rising through the ranks of a martial arts association might give someone their first exposure to management experience, or lessons in accounting.

Of course the martial arts have always promised a certain boost in social status to aggrieved young men, whether the “bare sticks” of 19th century China or Daniel-san after his move from New Jersey to California.  In short, these sorts of arguments seem to imply that as more individuals find themselves falling into socially or economically marginal positions, the demand for membership in martial arts organizations should increase.  After all, these organizations have been promising to “make the weak strong” since at least the time of General Qijiguang.

Unfortunately I am not sure that recent history bears these expectations out.  A good many traditional martial arts organizations have been declining in the West at exactly the same time income inequality has been rising.  The economic uncertainty of the mid 1970s and early 1980s was in fact associated with a boom of interest in the martial arts, but the same cannot be said of the last decade.

Or can it?  While the fortunes of many traditional martial arts have declines, MMA, Krav Maga and BJJ have all seen their fortunes rise.  Successful film franchises have contributed to the growth of arts such as Wing Chun and Lightsaber Combat.  And parents seem just as interested in securing Taekwondo lessons for their children as ever.  That still seems to be regarded as a good “investment” in future success.

Has the economic downturn impacted the success of certain martial arts styles more than others?  Do some systems appeal to socially marginal individuals while other cater to the relatively well off (a situation seen in certain areas of China in early 20th century).  And what about the promises of the martial arts?  Can these systems help individuals to rebuild their confidence, gain social capital, acquire new skills and ultimately improve their lot in life?

All of these are fascinating questions, and as a social scientist I would like to test them.  Yet how one would go about doing this is not necessarily obvious.  In ethnographic or case study research it would be possible to rely on one’s own observations to establish the degree of marginality found in a specific setting.  Yet if we wished to test these hypothesis in a large-N framework, establishing a reliable proxy variable would be a challenge.

Again, the work of Carbone and Cahn suggest why this might be the case.  Marginality is a slippery if useful concept.  It is certainly related to income, but it cannot be reduced to income.  An individual earning $30,000 dollars a year in a secure job might be less marginal than someone who earned $40,000 but who went through seasonal layoffs.  Likewise educational status, the social prestige of one’s occupation, family background, shared values and other factors all seem to contribute to marginality in their findings on income inequality. In point of fact, it might be impossible for researchers to create a single statistical metric that captures all of these factors.

Then again, the research of Carbone and Cahn also suggests that other individuals may have done much of the heavy lifting for us.  After all, their work shows that socially marginal individuals get married at much lower rates than other groups within society.  Better yet, data on marital status is relatively transparent, easily coded and readily available in many of the sources of survey data that social scientists already use.

While not a direct measure of marginality, Carbone and Cahn’s work suggests that marriage rates might be an exceptionally accurate proxy variable, capable of capturing the nuances of how this situation has evolved over time.  This, in turn, might suggest more accurate ways of measuring what sorts of students are attracted to different martial arts, how this has shifted over time, and whether these systems are delivering on promises of social improvement.

Qing officials in late imperial China were well aware of the complex links between marginality, marital status, the martial arts and periodic outbreaks of community violence.  It appears that at least some similar mechanisms are still in place today.  One wonders how growing income inequality in the West will affect the success of the modern martial arts.

Can we expect a new generation of boxing bachelors?  Will the supply of social capital built up in styles like Karate or Wing Chun allow their organizations to cross-cut this growing social division?  Or might martial arts classrooms succeed in developing alternate status hierarchies and authentic communities where normal social relationships can continue?  Keeping a close eye on marriage rates might give us a simple tool to address some very complex problems.  But what would Wong Fei Hung think?





If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read:  China’s One Child Policy and Martial Arts Studies