Conference Report: Martial Arts and Society – On the Societal Relevance of Martial Arts, Combat Sports and Self-Defense






One of the most exciting, and simultaneously frustrating, aspects of the academic study of the martial arts is their international nature.  Self-defense systems, combat sports or traditional martial arts can be found in practically every region of the globe.  Hence it is not surprising that the scholarly investigation of these fighting systems tends to be equally widely distributed.

This unending supply of observation and debate makes for an exciting field of investigation.  Yet scholars in different literatures and areas of the world have traditionally worked in isolation from one another.  This isolation has impeded the flow of ideas and the development of anything like a comprehensive scholarly literature on these practices.  Such a lack of engagement can be frustrating.

One of the main goals of Martial Arts Studies has been to move beyond the isolated “studies of martial arts” that have appeared in various disciplinary and nationally bounded literatures and to attempt to foster a more interconnected conversation.  Put slightly differently, it is time to bring the “globally connected” aspect of the martial arts and combat sports into sharper focus.

The Martial Arts Commission of the German Society of Sport Science took a major step in that direction earlier this month when they hosted their 5th annual meeting at the German Sport University of Cologne.  From October 6th to the 8th they presented a set of meetings titled “Martial Arts and Society: On the Societal Relevance of Martial Arts, Combat Sports and Self-Defense.”

While always an important gathering of Martial Arts Studies scholars (especially for European students), this year’s conference was notable for its efforts to broaden the scope of the discussion in ways that would welcome the international academic community.  In addition to a number of German language presentations, this year’s conference provided English language panels in which a wide range of research projects and approaches could be discussed.  The conference organizers also graciously invited two foreign speakers (Prof. Paul Bowman from the UK, and myself) to present keynote addresses.

In the remainder of this post I would like to briefly discuss the background leading up to this year’s conference, the basic structure and schedule of the conference and some of the papers that were presented.  Finally I will offer a few of my own thoughts on both the lessons learned from this event and the future of Martial Arts Studies in Germany.

Paul Bowman, with coffee, walking through the poster session on Friday afternoon.



Three Days, Thirty Papers


As always, there is a lot going on at an academic conference of this size, and things can be a bit of a blur.  This is especially true when parts of the event are taking place in a language that you do not speak.  Surprisingly, that turned out to be less of an impediment than one might guess.  Germany is a relatively easy country for English language speakers to navigate, and the conference itself was remarkably accessible.

Still, a few words of orientation might be in order.  The relatively young Martial Arts Commission of the German Society for Sport Sciences has been hosting annual conferences for the last five years.  Each of these events proposes a theme that organizes the presentations.  For instance, the 2015 conference, organized by Martin J. Meyer, took as its subject “Martial Arts Studies in Germany: Defining and Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries.”

Unlike the annual UK based conference organized by the Martial Arts Studies Research Network (which seems to have found a permanent home in Cardiff), the locations of these meetings rotate from year to year.  Interested students should also note that the Martial Arts Commission publishes a set of proceedings for each conference which includes all (or most) of the papers presented that year.  Obviously most of these articles are in German, but when I was looking through the 2015 volume (which Martin was kind enough to give me a copy of), I was surprised to see a few English language entries as well.  These proceedings are a valuable resource and an interesting record of the evolution of the MAS literature in Germany.

Each conference also includes the annual working meeting of the Martial Arts Commission itself.  At this year’s meeting Prof. Dr. Swen Körner (head of the Institute of Pedagogy and Philosophy at the Germany Sports University of Cologne) was elected to be the commission’s new Speaker.  All of the scholars whom I spoke with afterwards saw this as an important indication of the increased respect that Martial Arts Studies as a field is garnering within Germany, and a sign that the next phase of institution building is about to begin.

I also had an opportunity to discuss some of these issues with Prof. Dr. Körner as he generously offered to host my visit.  As any of us who have been involved with academia know, “institution building” is always a challenge.  Yet it seems clear that he, and a number of other individuals, are working quite seriously to chart both an intellectual and organization pathway that will ensure the continued development of Martial Arts Studies in Germany.

The conference itself began at 2:00 pm on Thursday October 6th.  After registration Prof. Dr. Körner opened the meeting with a short welcoming address.  He then introduced Prof. Dr. Norbert Finzsch of the University of Cologne’s Institute of History.  An expert on Anglo-American history (as well as an experienced boxer and martial artist) Finzsch delivered a German language keynote titled “On Style: Boxing and Intellectuals in the 20th and the 21st Century.”

While I was obviously unable to follow his talk in detail it was clear that he touched on the spread of not just boxing but also the globalization of other forms of martial arts in the current era.  His talk also seems to have framed at least part of this discussion in terms of the rise and fall of various discourses of masculinity.  Obviously this is a fascinating discussion and I had a number of opportunities to talk with Prof. Dr. Finzsch over the course of the conference.  He was ever kind enough to provide me with real time translations in a couple of the other German language sessions.  Needless to say, I will be asking for an English language version of his paper that might be shared either at Kung Fu Tea or the journal at some point in the future.

Following this first keynote the time was turned over for panel presentations from 4-6 pm.  Most panels at the conference seem to have had from 3-5 papers, each of which was allotted about half an hour for the presentation and discussion.  It appears that there were always two panels running simultaneously, so at best an attendee might see half of the papers that were presented in this year’s meetings.

The Thursday panels were all held in German, and I am afraid that I am simply unable to do the researchers who presented most of these papers justice.  But I will note that Martin Meyer did present what appeared to be a fascinating study of the interaction and overlapping development of wrestling in America and Sumo in Japan, particularly as they related to questions of national identity and rivalry.  This is another paper that I look forward to seeing an English language treatment of.

Later in the evening a set of “Open Training” modules were held in which various issues in pedagogy and practice could be explored in the more “hands on” manner that martial artists seem to find so attractive.  These included a technical demonstration of a new system of recording 3-D motion capture, a method for introducing middle school students to boxing, an exploration of emotional and psychological responses in self-defense situations, and lastly the demonstration of a karate system that is being used with students in wheel chairs (I still regret missing that one).

At 8:00pm we headed to a local restaurant for the first conference dinner.   The food was great, as was the opportunity for more informal introductions and reconnecting with old friends.

A helpful waiter at a small restaurant in the Munich airport suggested that this was a "real" German breakfast.
A helpful waiter at a small restaurant in the Munich airport suggested that this was a “real” German breakfast.  Apparently the mustard was for the sausages and the pretzel was to be eaten with butter.


Things resumed the next morning at 9:00 when Prof. Paul Bowman of Cardiff University presented an English language keynote titled “What Can a Martial Body Do: Or, Theory Before Definition in Martial Arts Studies.”  This address had a two-fold purpose.  First it expressed Bowman’s growing unease with the sorts of debates around the “proper” definition of the martial arts that have emerged within the literature in recent years.

Bowman noted that while such efforts seem to “stabilize” the martial arts as a mutually understood subject of study, they inevitably result in the creation of a Procrustean bed in which violence is done to complex and complicated real world practices to make them fit (or simply to dismiss them from) our preconceived notions.  The danger in defining a thing is the impulse to do away with any element of semiotic openness and disorder by simply “defining it all away.”  In so doing we often lose the ability to see what is most interesting in a case.  Bowman argued that scholars should focus instead on the moments of association and identification that happen prior to definition.

This introduced the second aspect of his argument.  Once we cease to approach these questions through strictly empirical or “scientific” methods, an opening is presented whereby the tools of critical and post-structural theory can become a key lens by which scholars make sense of the world.  Rather than asking what the martial arts “are,” he concludes that we should adopt these theoretically driven approaches to inquire instead what they have done, where they have traveled and what meanings they have carried along the way.

As one might expect this line of argument opened up the most sustained discussion that I saw during the conference.  Various members of the audience asked questions including the difference between “indication” and “definition,” how Bowman balanced this unease with the idea of “definitions” with his attempts to define a new field of study, and lastly, supposing that scholars adopt the tools of deconstruction in the investigation of the martial arts, how then should they go about explaining our findings regarding the history and nature of these systems to the general public.

After a quick break for lunch the conference resumed with another round of panel presentations.  These papers were presented in English.  The first paper in the panel that I attended was presented by Martin Minarik (“Tae Kwon Do as Cultural Performance: A performance oriented evaluation of norms and values in the practice of Taekwondo in South Korea.”)  In this paper Martin introduced his research topic and discussed the area in which he was doing his field work.  He also presented some initial findings regarding the varieties of social functions performed by Taekwondo in South Korea today and noted that simplistic frameworks focused only on questions like nationalism could not really explain the range of values that the art was passing on in local communities.

Next Henrike Neuhaus discussed her current fieldwork which is also concerned with the creation of norms within the Taekwondo community.  However, she is conducting her research in local martial arts schools in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  After noting the various ways in which individuals from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds were integrated into seemingly egalitarian social structures (in the form of martial arts training institutions), she became interested in whether these practices were becoming a pathway for the creation of norms of equality and community building within a society that was otherwise marked by growing inequality and subtle social barriers.  Her presentation was particularly impressive given the depth of her engagement with the theoretical literature (I even noted a couple of references to Victor Turner), and the richness of her ethnographic field work.  While watching her presentation it became evident that this is a dissertation which I will be reading in a few years.

Next, my friend Martin Wolfgang Ehlen presented a paper exploring more of his ongoing project to come up with a better translation of the Wing Chun rhymed formula as taught within the Gary Lam lineage (though other branches of the Ip Man system share much of this same material).  His paper appears to have had a three part structure.  The first explored the broader world of southern Chinese oral traditions and verbal expressions.  Secondly, it turned to an explanation of Ip Man’s sayings (or those that his students have attributed to him).  Lastly it sought to ask where the Wing Chun tradition falls within the larger cultural pattern of rhymed aphorisms.  While a fascinating topic, time ran short and we did not make it all the way through the second point.  But I look forward to reading a complete version of this paper at some point in the future.

Finally Wayne Wong (who has recently moved from Hong Kong to the UK and is working on a joint doctoral program at King’s College) presented a paper titled “Reinventing Chinese Kung Fu: Wing Chun and Combativity in Donnie Yen’s Ip Man series (2008-2015).”  In this paper (which will be of great interest to many Kung Fu Tea readers) Wayne takes a closer look at the recent Donnie Yen films and argues that they advance a fundamentally new paradigm in Chinese martial arts cinema.  Or in his own words:


“It is aided by a new paradigm of cinematic representation emphasizing what I call shizhan (實戰; Combativity), which privileges practicality over intricacy, efficiency over complexity, quick fight over extended “dance” performance. This shizhan paradigm adds a sense of practicality to the zhanshi (真實; Authenticity) paradigm of kung fu cinema, which has long been dominated by theatricality and operatic traditions such as Peking Opera.

Originally, I used the term “Combative authenticity” instead of combativity. But the notion of combativity can better differentiate itself from the existing models, such as Leon Hunt’s idea of “authenticity”. While kung fu cinema is built on the premise of “realism” since its conception through The Story of Wong Fei-hung (1949) (as opposed to the wuxia tradition), the genre has highlighted the didactic dimensions of kung fu, portraying it as a means to philosophical and moral enlightenment rather than as a lethal combat technique. In addition to the content, the theatricality and cinematic expressivity of the genre also undermines the ideas of practicality and efficiency (Hunt 24).”


Donnie Yen’s films are significant precisely because they upend what has become the traditional way of publicly discussing Kung Fu in an attempt to capture why Wing Chun is “different.”  Once again, I expect that we will be hearing a complete version of Wayne’s argument in the next few months.

Following these presentations a poster session was organized.  About a dozen researchers presented their work while conference attendees had time to explore the papers, mingle and grab a snack.  I noticed quite a few of these projects had been published.

Finally at the end of a long day, most of the conference attendees headed off for a “pub crawl” through some of Cologne’s better known beer gardens, followed by the second conference dinner.  I decided to sit these festivities out in favor of some last minute preparation and sleeping off my jet-lag, but I hear that a great time was had by all.

The Saturday morning session began at 9:00am with my keynote address, “Creating Wing Chun: Towards a Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.”  This discussion began with a focused comparison of two different accounts of life altering “challenge matches” within the world of the late imperial Chinese martial arts.  The first of these was the relatively well known story of Yim Wing Chun, and her fight with the marketplace bully, as it was passed on by Ip Man.

This legend was contrasted with a recently discovered newspaper report on a real marketplace fight between two boxers that had taken place near Shanghai in the 1870s.  That account, describing the death of one of the fighters and the social fallout that followed, provided a much less romanticized view of the social world of the Chinese martial arts.

After introducing and comparing these accounts (neither of which proved to be totally reliable sources), I argued that students of martial arts histories are often presented with the sorts of puzzles found in these documents.  That provided a jumping-off point to briefly explore the process by which we might attempt to write more rigorous and theoretically informed studies of these fighting systems.  Finally I explored the social relevance of this type of academic discussion for martial artists and even general readers.

A number of questions also followed this keynote.  Perhaps my favorite, and the one that led to the most sustained discussion, came from Prof. Dr. Finzsch who also studies the history of photography.  He commented on a number of the 19th and early 20th century postcards and photos of martial artists that I had shown during the course of my talk.  We discussed some of the complex interpretive problems that these images raised, issues that in many respects mirrored those of the challenge fights discussed at the start of my paper.

The final round of paper presentations followed my talk.  These were once again in German.  Luckily my friend Sixt Wetlzer was able to provide me with some simultaneous translation, allowing me to better follow along with the arguments.  Perhaps the most surprising element of the last panel was its emphasis on virtual and gamic elements that touched upon the martial arts.

Much of this discussion also involved questions of pedagogy.  One paper in particular looked at ways in which games (often including the martial arts) could be used to encourage increased rates of physical activity among children.  Mario Staller (who offered at least three different projects over the course of this conference) presented his own study of whether (and to what extent) individuals could learn actual tactical concepts from the current generation of increasingly realistic first person shooter video games.  I will need to wait until I see an English language version of his paper before commenting on it in detail, but what I could make out from his discussion seemed very interesting.

Following this session there was a brief farewell address and we broke for the final lunch of the meeting.

Mario Staller presenting what must have his third paper at this conference!
Mario Staller presenting what must have his third paper at the last section of this conference!



Concluding Thoughts


Reflecting back on the conference, it is evident that some important trends were at play.  As I spoke with the organizers of previous meetings in this series it is clear that much progress has been made over the course of the last five years.  In many respects the success of this conference was the result of sustained efforts to move the German discussion of Martial Arts Studies in a more academic, professional and theoretically informed direction.

Obviously my experience of this conference will not be quite the same as anyone else’s (particularly as I do not speak German!).  Yet my impression was that the quality of work presented was generally quite high.  Further, many of the projects drew on the existing literature in interesting ways or posed new questions.  By any objective measure the efforts of the past conference organizers have started to bear fruit.

In addition to the meeting’s declared emphasis on social questions, a few other themes seem to have emerged from the papers presented during these meetings.  The interaction between martial practice, pedagogy and theory was a reoccurring element within many of the panels.  Likewise, a number of papers explored the boundaries of the martial arts, whether understood as firearms training for police officers, the connection between professional wrestling and national image, or even the virtual violence of video games.

I think that this speaks to an increased feeling of confidence among students of martial arts studies.  Rather than simply asking how social factors impact the practice or meaning of the traditional martial arts, we are increasingly comfortable taking concepts that we have learned from the study of these fighting systems and applying them as tools to understand larger social processes that might lay outside of the “martial arts” as they have been traditionally defined.  This is a good sign as it speaks to our ability to develop theories and insights that are relevant to core discussions that are currently happening in a variety of disciplines.

Martial Arts Studies in Germany clearly has a bright future.  At this conference I saw an entire generation of young scholars and graduate students making progress on important projects.  Serious thought is being given to the difficult task of securing resources and building institutions that will ensure both a continued supply, and demand, for this type of research in years to come.

It seems likely that Germany will become an important center for the production of martial art’s related scholarship in the near future.  Better yet, this conference demonstrated a notable commitment to ensuring that this literature will develop in dialogue with the best scholarship being produced in other areas of North and South America, Europe and Asia.  This is precisely what is needed for Martial Arts Studies to realize its full potential.  I left these meetings with a sense of enthusiasm for what is to come.

It goes without saying that I strongly encourage any international scholars thinking of submitting a paper to the next round of meetings to do so.  I personally found these meetings to be unusually productive, and Germany is a wonderful country to visit.  We all have a part to play in expanding the boundaries of our shared conversation.

Lastly a few heartfelt words of thanks are in order.  First off I must thank Leo Istas and Prof. Dr. Swen Körner for taking the time to organize this conference and making it possible for me to attend.  Prof. Körner’s entire family generously hosted my stay.  Lastly, I need to thank my good friend Sixt Wetzler for his efforts in translating a number of presentations and showing me around the area (more on that latter).  This experience once again illustrated the amazing ability of the martial arts to bring people together and create vital new communities.

Where the magic happens. Speaker Council meeting of our commission at the German Sport University Cologne - planning for the 2016 conference.  Source:
Where the magic happens. The Speaker Council meeting of the commission at the German Sport University Cologne. From left to right: Mario Staller, Peter Kuhn, Leo Istas, Sebastian Liebl, Holger Wiethäuper and MartinMeyer with Sixt Wetzler in the foreground. Source:




If you enjoyed this conference report you might also want to see: Religion, Violence and the Existence of the Southern Shaolin Temple



4 Comments Add yours

  1. wp1176479-ethnomedia says:

    Dear Ben Judkins, thank you very much for your well done report below. Though I am living in a Cologne outskirt, unfortunately I wasn’t informed on the conference that went on at the “Deutsche Sporthochschule Köln” recently. This is a pitty, as I would have liked to join, as you can imagine. It seems we have a problem of information hereover, the more on an interdisciplinary layer. Our Silek Tuo Pusako Minang (traditional Minangkabau silat) school once did a workshop at the “SpoHo Köln”, and I know they even had Pencak Silat courses on a non-mandatory level in their house then – but that is long ago, must have been 1996-97. Speaking more generally, there exists a bigger factor of ignorance, or at least desinterest, in the arts dedicated fields of anthropology (i.e. ethnomusicology, ethnochoreology) towards the martial arts. This is not solely a German problem, but an international one – in spite of researchers like Philip Zarilli (whom you certainly will know; kalaripayyattu and theater), Tiago de Oliveira Pinto (capoeira, samba, candomblé), or Kirstin Pauka, Paul H. Mason and myself (pencak silat cultures worldwide). Regarding the arts related disciplines named, the “Foreword” by J. Lawrence Witzleben of Paul H. Masons’ and myself: The Fighting Art of Pencak Silat and its Music – From Southeast Asian Village to Global Movement (see: can be regarded as a proof, he writes: “Although I have been reading about, teaching, and performing Indonesian music for several decades, until the ICTM Southeast Asia Study Group on the Performing Arts of Southeast Asia meeting in Singapore in 2010, pencak silat was a term I had encountered only in passing references. The paper presentations at the Singapore meeting were thus a complete revelation, and I am gratified to see these studies expanded into this important collection. Although ethnomusicologists have paid considerable attention to movement in the form of “dance”, we have ignored traditions such as pencak silat that blur the boundaries between dance, martial art, and spiritual discipline, but play an important role in the artistic life of many parts of Indonesia. As such, the articles in this collection are groundbreaking, and this collection will not only be of great value to scholars of Southeast Asian performing arts and culture, but also provide inspiration for those who work in other regions such as China, where the scholarly study of similarly genre-defying performative traditions has been sadly lacking.”

    His depiction is the state of things still – if I like it or not. Art researchers seem to be hesistant, or reluctant, to deal with martial arts matters. Unfortunately, and perhaps hard to believe. I have observed this a long time, i.e. during the last six years within the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM) Study Group on the Performing Arts of Southeast Asia – a really international forum, that meets every two years (2010: Singapore, 2012: Manila, 2014: Denpasar, 2016: Georgetown/Penang). Whilst in 2010 we had a massive double panel on pencak silat there, the following symposia “thinned out” in relation to the interest in martial arts.

    To put it short: I think though Paul H. Mason and myself (plus a few other colleagues from this circle) have made explicit the close proximity of ‘dance’, ‘performance’, and ‘fighting arts’, we were not as successful as desirable yet.

    I assume the following information may be of interest for you: I was given information yesterday there will be another symposium held in Cologne today (!) at the “Deutsche Tanzarchiv” (German Dance Archive), located in the Media Park Cologne. Please have a look via the link inserted below. I did an inhouse video DVD project for them during 2007-2010, and they selected some of my “silek Minang” materials on “Tari Piring” (West Sumatra) to be presented within this symposium. I guess I will meet some folks from the “SpoHo” there, too. Again, I appreciate your work and informations ! All the best, Uwe U. Paetzold [LINK] Symposium „Zugänge Schaffen! Wie Wissenschaft und Kunst vom Kulturerbe profitieren können“.

    Das Programm des Symposiums finden Sie auf der Website des SK-Stiftung Kultur:

    Es beginnt am Freitag um 14:00 und wird am Samstag von 10:00 bis 18:00 fortgesetzt.

    Christiane Hartter Filmsammlung / Film Collection

    Tel.: +49 221 / 88895 404 Fax: +49 221 / 88895 410 E-Mail:

    Deutsches Tanzarchiv Koeln / SK Stiftung Kultur der Sparkasse KoelnBonn Im Mediapark 7 50670 Koeln Germany

  2. benjudkins says:

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply and the links. Making connections, and focusing our attention on those areas that seem to defy simple definitions of what is “martial”, “dance” or “performance”, is certainly a critical issue. Yet as you note, it is not an easy one to solve.

    On a brighter note I noticed that our last MAS conference in Cardiff seemed to have more of a focus on these issues. There seems to be a growing awareness of these subjects from that martial perspective. Keynote speakers included Phillip Zaralli, Daniel Mroz (who works on the Chinese martial arts) and Ben Spatz (a younger scholar with a more theoretical interests). Of course my friend Scott Phillips, who is quite interested in traditional Chinese Opera and performance (another boundary crossing genre that students of the martial arts never quite know what to do with), has also been pushing these issues. Only time will tell if we see sustained progress in these areas, but I think that we are getting to a point in the development of the literature where there is at least the potential for greater interest in these questions.

  3. Gary Cordray says:

    What a dream it is for me think of what it must be like to sit at the same table as you all.

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