Jared Miracle. 2016. Now with Kung Fu Grip! How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America. Jefferson, North Carolina:McFarland & Company. 185 pages. $29.95
Now with Kung Fu Grip is the scholarly yet accessible one volume history of the Asian fighting arts in America that current students of martial arts studies and popular culture need. Drawing on years of both archival and field research Jared Miracle begins by asking how the traditional martial arts first arrive in America, who practiced them, and what it actually means to assert the fundamentally Asian nature of these practices in an era when one can easily buy a star spangled red, white and blue karate gi.
To answer these questions Dr. Miracle takes us on a historical tour of the various ways in which notions of masculinity and nationalism have contributed to the almost continual reinvention of these fighting systems in modern China, Japan and the United States. While readers may be surprised to learn that the “Asia” which they enact in their nightly taekwondo or kung fu classes is an almost entirely mythological construct (rather than a historically and geographically real place), they are also likely to take away from this book a better understanding of why they fight. Academic readers who are not yet familiar with the growing field of Martial Arts Studies will be confronted with a parsimonious yet powerful illustration of the central role of the martial arts and combat sports in the development of Western popular culture.
Stanley Henning’s greatest contribution to the field of history was to demonstrate that an improper understanding of the traditional Chinese fighting systems was dangerous not in that it led to a faulty understanding of the martial arts, but rather because it could potentially skew our mental image of all Chinese society. Far from being a topic of only secondary interest, he showed that the martial arts were deeply implicated in both the daily and political life of the empire and Republic. They simply cannot be ignored.
Drawing on a rich vein of archival and ethnographic evidence, Miracle has, in his first book, advanced a very similar argument about the role of hand combat practice in modern American life. We ignore these subjects at our peril. This volume deserves a spot of the shelf of any serious student of martial arts studies of 20th century popular culture.
Yet what sort of historical and cultural analysis has Dr. Miracle given us? Does it skew towards a popular or scholarly audience? Is it suitable for use in university courses? Lastly, how does this book interface with the existing Martial Arts Studies literature?
Drawing on the Thomas Kuhn’s sociological analysis of the sciences, we might be tempted to assert that the projects one encounters in Martial Arts Studies fall into one of two basic categories. First we have “grand theories” that attempt to establish a broad theoretical framework or world view. Some of these works may even attempt to establish a new paradigm for subsequent scholars to follow by promoting novel methodological approaches or by drawing on newly available bodies of empirical evidence.
Establishing a new and unique theoretical framework is tricky business. And a paradigm shift within a field’s thinking may only evident in retrospect. Unsurprisingly most researchers dedicate their time to more manageable, medium sized, research questions. The hope here is that our understanding will advance more quickly through a series of modest, easily replicable, steps. This is how the process of “normal science” unfolds.
It is not hard to find examples of these two approaches within the field of Martial Arts Studies. Paul Bowman’s 2015 volume Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries (Rowman & Littlefield) is, by its own admission, an attempt to introduce a broadly interdisciplinary audience (composed of historians, anthropologists, film studies students and social scientists) to a new set of questions and theoretical tools drawn from critical studies. The aim of his project seems to be to establish a new paradigm for the study of these fighting systems.
Meir Shahar’s groundbreaking work on the Shaolin Temple, in contrast, focuses only on a tightly focused set of historical questions. What were the historical Shaolin fighting arts, how did they evolve, and how did Buddhist monks (bound by their monastic vows to a path of pacifism) negotiate their involvement with the violent world of armies, bandits and martial artists? While a bracing read, Shahar did not attempt to fundamentally alter the historical and theoretical frameworks by which scholars have made sense of China’s past. His goal was to work within these structures, using them to contextualize and support his own findings. His is a textbook example of what can be accomplished through the process of “normal science.”
I have noticed that within the realm of Martial Arts Studies the size of an author’s epistemological goals often vary with the scope of the historical questions that they seek to tackle. I am not aware of any logical necessity why this must be the case. Yet it seems that projects attempting to explain more of the world are likely to push paradigmatic boundaries to a greater extent than tightly focused studies.
Readers will find Dr. Miracle’s book to be engaging precisely because attempts to do both of these things well. Such a goal is nothing if not ambitious. From the outset he theorizes that shifts in masculine identity can best explain the initial adoption and subsequent evolution of the Asian martial arts in America.
Interestingly, this pattern is not restricted to the United States. When considering the development and promotion of these fighting systems in both Japan and China he again sees a “crisis of masculinity” at work in each case. Other critical forces, such as the manipulation of nationalist imagery by the state, or periods of rapid economic change and dislocation, tend to be examined through the lens of masculinity rather than being treated as truly independent variables.
Miracle’s book is actually somewhat deceptive in this regard. He has gone to lengths to avoid excessive theoretical jargon and obscure abstract arguments. Indeed, for a book that is based in large part on the author’s doctoral dissertation, I am quite happy to report that this volume reads nothing like a typical dissertation. Care has been taken to make the text accessible to both undergraduates (more on that later) and a wide cross-over audience.
Yet it would be a mistake to assume that the work is purely empirical or somehow theoretically naive. Instead a very strong chain of causal assumptions (focused on evolving views of gender and masculinity) connects each of these chapters and guides the various case studies that Dr. Miracle presents.
This brings us to the second impulse that seems to motivate this book. In the second half of the volume the author increasingly steps away from broad historical discussions and instead focuses on the lives of key martial arts pioneers. These case studies, while they reinforce the book’s core theoretical arguments, are among the most engaging and best written aspects of this work.
Donn Draeger, Robert Smith and John Blumming, three of the early pioneers of Martial Arts Studies are singled out for detailed treatment. But the shorter discussions of some the “myth-makers,” including more colorful figures like Masuatsu Oyama and Count Dante, are just as interesting. Dr. Miracle’s archival skills are best showcased in these more focused discussions and they reinforce and add credibility to the preceding social history. Indeed, one is left wondering what more sustained case studies of these individuals (with the possible addition of other figures like Wally Jay or Bruce Lee) would have turned up.
This combined approach of fast paced social history and detailed biographical studies allows Dr. Miracle to cover a surprisingly amount of ground in a short book. With its relaxed prose, and at only about 170 pages of text, enthusiastic readers could easily finish this volume in a single weekend. His argument is parsimonious and focused. While developments in China and Japan are given decent treatments, most of the text is reserved for a longitudinal study of the fighting arts in America ranging from the rise of “muscular Christianity” and boxing in the 19th century to the most recent “crisis of masculinity” and the growth of MMA in the current era.
I suspect that the brevity of Dr. Miracle’s text was a matter of necessity rather than choice. Longer books cost more to produce and thus return lower profit margins to publishers. The shrinking size of the average academic book has more to do with increased market constraints than a new found love of brevity within the ivory tower.
In all honesty, the broad scope and limited page count of this book seems to pose some problems for Dr. Miracle’s argument. At multiple points in the text one gets the impression that a well-developed argument may have been omitted in favor of quick explanation. In these places the book’s already fast pace seems to accelerate to a gallop.
This tendency was particularly evident in the discussion of the evolution of the Chinese and Japanese martial arts. The total absence of Jingwu Association, China’s first “national martial art brand” and perhaps the single most important player in the development of the modern Chinese martial arts, is indicative of this problem. At one point Dr. Miracle asserts that in China the creation of the modern martial arts was a “top down” project imposed by the state on an uninterested population. He contrasts this with the clearly “bottom up” process seen in Japan where individual martial artists were busy lobbying the state for official support of their various project.
I must admit that this characterization strikes me as flawed. Many aspects of the Guoshu project look like a continuation and appropriation of the work that the Jingwu Association had already begun more than a decade earlier. Of course there is every possibility that Dr. Miracle’s reading of this case is correct. Yet this is a point of great enough importance that it needs to be spelled out in some detail, not simply asserted before moving on.
This same brevity has also affected the way that gender is discussed throughout the book. Dr. Miracle’s focus on masculinity is understandable as the majority of martial artists today are men. This was true in the past as well. While 19th century Chinese martial arts fiction is full of stories of valiant female-knights errant, in actual fact few women were involved in martial arts training.
Yet “few” is not the same as “none.” No less a figure than Wong Fei-hung instituted special classes for training women in Hung Gar. And later the Jingwu Association would go to surprising lengths to advance the training of female martial artists in China. Indeed, encouraging female participation within the martial arts became an important public marker of the modernization efforts within China.
In Japan Kano Jigoro envisioned a place for women in Judo. Meanwhile the suffragettes created a space for themselves within the world of martial arts training. Some of the first individuals to publicly teach Taijiquan in both America and the UK were women. While boxing is always imagined as an exclusively male affair (even by Joyce Carol Oates), one does not have to delve too far into the literature produced by feminist scholars to find the often forgotten history of female fighters.
Miracle’s theoretical focus on masculinity, combined with the text’s relatively limited page count, effectively erases much of the female experience from the discussion of the modern martial arts. In the book’s concluding discussion of MMA, the participation of an increasing number of female fighters is repeatedly acknowledged. Yet once again their motivations are glossed over and their experiences remain unexplored. This seems like a lost opportunity to really examine how the construction of various gender ideals effected the development of the martial arts over time.
It is probably not a coincidence that female martial artists appeared in so many of the newsreels from the 1920s and 1930s in which the martial arts were publicly demonstrated in small towns across the English speaking world. How are we to understand this aspect of the development of the modern martial arts? Even if female martial artists only account for 20-30% percent of the student base of most current martial arts schools (an admittedly hypothetical figure, but one that reflects my own limited experience), one wonder’s how many already struggling schools would simply go under without their patronage.
Other aspects of his argument also seem somewhat constrained. Overall there is less engagement with the growing body of literature generated by martial arts studies scholars than one might expect. Miracle’s specific arguments are all well sourced and supported. Indeed, students of martial arts studies are likely to build their personal libraries as they work their way through Dr. Miracle’s footnotes.
The influence of certain researchers, including Thomas Green, Stanley Henning and G. J. Krug can be felt throughout the text. Yet the works of other important scholars, including Paul Bowman, D. S. Farrer and Andrew Morris are conspicuous by their absence. Given that Miracle’s book is just as much a theoretical as an empirical project, it would have been interesting to see him more explicitly address, critique and build on some of these other (often related) conversations.
Conclusion: A Necessary Book at the Right Time
Of course every coin has two sides. While a slim volume on an important subject will, by its very nature, leave you wanting more, it is also important to consider what you get. The same lack of jargon and involved nuance that may disappoint a dedicated historian will likely delight undergraduate readers. This volume, theoretically grounded yet accessible, would be an ideal candidate for a variety of university level martial arts studies seminars. Between its reasonable price and engaging prose I would not hesitate to use this book, either in whole or in part, in any class examining the modern martial arts.
Instructors may want to take special note of Miracle’s concluding chapter. It is not hard to imagine a week’s worth of discussions emerging from just these pages. In addition to a comprehensive summery of the historical arguments advanced in the rest of the book, it goes on to tackle topics of relevance both now and in the future.
The first is a frank acknowledgement of the rising tide of ultra-right wing sentiments around the world and its often unfortunate relationship with the traditional fighting systems. Miracle briefly explores how the rise of the Japanese far right might once again shape the Budo arts. He even notes that we may already be seeing this process in action.
Also important is his discussion of the current drive by the United Nations, and the various member countries, to recognize martial arts as aspects of humanity’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage.” Miracle notes the ways in which these labels can (and have been) politicized in the past. Nor is it obvious that such designations will always succeed in ensuring the preservation of an art. In some cases they might actually hasten their demise. However, Miracle also outlines a number of strategies that might be employed to maximize the potential usefulness of this process while minimizing the threat of harm. These are both critical issues facing the traditional martial arts within a global context, and it was refreshing to see them dealt with in a forthright (if brief) discussion.
Jared Miracle also makes a number of more theoretical contributions to the field of Martial Arts Studies. His extensive use of Krug’s framework for understanding the West’s appropriation of the Asian martial arts in the post-war period is particularly noteworthy. Given Krug’s status as a foundational thinker within Martial Arts Studies, I felt that it was very helpful to see what an extended, empirically detailed, engagement with his framework actually looked like. In some ways Miracle can be thought of as providing further confirmation of (or at least failing to falsify) Krug’s basic theory.
Miracle’s focus on the changing nature of masculinity, while not without certain drawbacks, does provide a real sense of coherence to what might otherwise have become a sprawling historical narrative. After finishing this book, and considering both Miracle’s historical arguments and biographical vignettes, I felt that I better understood my own somewhat complex relationship with the martial arts.
As regular readers of Kung Fu Tea may have noted, my “academic side” loves the richness that the Asian martial arts exhibit when considered as “textures of knowledge.” Yet the part of me that is more concerned with what goes on within the practice hall manages to maintain a studied indifference to many of these questions, much preferring a “rational” approach to the subject of fighting. Dr. Miracle’s volume has become personally meaningful as it allowed me to better understand the origins of these two competing aspects of my practice and how it is that they may have come together at this moment in history.
In conclusion, Dr. Miracle has given us a concise history of the appropriation of the Asian martial arts in America that asks, and answers, the critical questions. How did these fighting systems get here, who practices them, and in what sense are the strip mall dojos that dot the landscape actually practicing “Asian” martial arts? This book is mandatory and quite enjoyable reading for anyone interested in martial arts history.
About the Author:
Dr. Jared Miracle is a social anthropologist who specializes in video games and education. He has a PhD (Texas A&M), he’s won tons of awards, and he wrote a book called Now With Kung Fu Grip!: How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America and has even given lectures on Pokemon. In short, he knows what he’s talking about. He has also been a regular guest contributor here at Kung Fu Tea. Be sure to check out his essay “It’s My Way or the Wu Wei – A note of Advice for Novice Field Researchers.”