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Chinese Martial Studies, Guest Posts, Martial Studies

Why do you draw the line? More on Definition in Martial Arts Studies

A Daoist Priest in Modern Beijing.  Source: Wikimedia.

A Daoist Priest in Modern Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.


***Paul Bowman recently wrote an essay dealing with attempts to both define the martial arts and to think about the development of martial arts studies as a distinct field.  Given the importance of the points that he raises, and the amount of interest that they are likely to generate among readers of Kung Fu Tea, I am re-blogging it here.  I should also note that Paul has a forthcoming article in the (quickly approaching) Winter 2016 edition of the journal Martial Arts Studies.  This shorter essay is a good way to prepare for the more substantial piece to follow.  Enjoy!***


Why do you draw the line? More on Definition in Martial Arts Studies
by Paul Bowman


I know I keep saying that we need to move on from the question of ‘defining martial arts’ in martial arts studies, and I know that I then keep returning to the topic, but I feel it important to clarify why I think that that ‘how to define martial arts’ is not only a pseudo-problem but also regressive and potentially damaging for martial arts studies.

Consider it this way. The question of definition (in martial arts studies and elsewhere) involves asking and exploring the question of where to draw the line. When we ask ‘what is or are martial arts?’, we are asking a specifically focused version of ‘where do we draw the line?’

Once asked, ‘what is or are martial arts’ is a question that people get stuck on, or stuck in. So, to avoid this quicksand, in what follows, I want to walk around the trap, reflecting less on ‘where do we draw the line?’ and more on ‘why draw the line?’ and, indeed, ‘how – or in what ways – should anyone draw the line?’

What is the line, anyway? What is a definition? Stated bluntly, the line that people believe needs to be drawn is a line between ‘martial arts’ (on one side – the inside) and ‘not martial arts’ (on the other side – outside). The line, the definition, is the border between an inside and an outside. On one side of the line (on the inside), there will be martial arts (proper). On the other side of the line is the outside, which is everything else, and which is not proper to martial arts.

So, this is one way to depict the ideal tidy, well defined situation: on one side of the line, the inside, the proper object of martial arts studies. On the other side of the line, the outside, all the stuff that is not the object of martial arts studies. Simple.

Or not. It does not take too much time to realise that ‘martial arts’ could not actually be disentangled, disambiguated or extricated from many of the things that any definition will try to say is not proper to them. The definition will be an abstraction. More: a ‘representation’ of something that does not actually exist anywhere. For there are always supplements, images, ideas, practices, products, fantasies, realia, phantasmagoria, simulacra, prosthesis, grafts, add-ons, extras, and ‘related’, that cannot and will not be removed.

The dawning realisation of this ineradicable proliferation and constitutive multiplicity accounts for why people move from the singular to the plural. People realise that there is no simple unity, but they nonetheless still want to erect a definition. So, realising that the category ‘martial arts’ is constitutively imprecise, people try to return us to precision by adding categories. So, we get more categories. Refinements. Differentiations. Martial arts and/or combat sports, self-defence, military martial arts, combatives, weapons-based combat systems, religious practices, cultural traditions, calisthenics taught in schools, traditional, non-traditional, deracinated, de- and re-territorialized, etc. Then entities that are called hybrids. And so on, with each addition seeking to introduce a level of clarity and precision whilst nonetheless inexorably introducing even more grey area, imprecision and further grounds for disagreement.

This occurs because the perceived need to introduce more and more terms and concepts in order to try to clarify things is a paradoxical drive that comes in response to a fundamental lack of precision and clarity. This can never actually be eradicated by trying to mop it up by throwing more categories at it. The addition of ever more categories, gradations and combinations does not actually produce clarity or reduce unclarity. Rather, it principally produces metalanguages and language games.

Metalanguages and language games are not somehow simply or necessarily universally true. They are themselves locally-produced cauldrons of terminological soup. When they sound scientific, they may be impressive. But they are, at root, just variable attempts to solve the problem of how to conceptualise and communicate with clarity and precision.

How we make pasta sauce in our house may be very different from how they make pasta sauce next door. How people steeped in anthropological approaches may have long been inclined to conceptualise and demarcate ‘martial arts’ may differ hugely from how people working in sociology, cultural studies, philosophy, religious studies, dance or theatre studies may have done so. Each approach involves a language game, the production of a metalanguage, and each of these is almost certainly going to be different.

This is what academic (and other) discourses do. They do not simply strip away and reveal bare or naked essentials. They construct and fabricate lenses through which to see differently. They produce alternatives. They challenge each other. They generate more.

In the field of martial arts studies, discussions often circulate around different conceptualisations of the object ‘martial arts’. It is clear that different people draw the line around their conceptualisation of their object of attention differently. It is my hope that over time it should become more and more clear that the definitional act of drawing a line is inherently problematic.


Zheng Manqing, the Master of Five Excellences, painting a different sort of line.

Zheng Manqing, the Master of Five Excellences, painting a different sort of line.

This is not to say that it is not going to be done. Everyone needs to find ways to be able to refer, or to say ‘I am talking about this, and not that’. Every academic study needs to draw the line between the inside (what it is about) and the outside (what it is not, cannot or will not be about or even look at). As I regularly say to my PhD students, there are two questions that every examiner will ask you in one way or another. First, why did you draw the line here and not there? And second, why did you approach it in this way and not another?

Both of these questions must be answered. You need to know that you could have drawn your line elsewhere and differently, and that this would inevitably have changed things. You also need to know that you could have approached it differently, and that this would have produced very different kinds of insight, perspective, result, outcome or conclusion.

In other words, what academic works need more than some inevitably failed definition is a critical reflection on the necessary act of drawing a line – any and every ‘I am talking about this (and not that) in this way (and not another way)’. Indeed, doing so enables us to see that there are more important matters than where to draw the line. These involve thinking about how and why a line has been drawn.

In conversation with a colleague who works in performance studies, for instance, my colleague voiced reluctance to work under the heading of ‘martial arts studies’ at all. This is because the act of drawing a line around such practices seemed not only somewhat arbitrary, stifling and artificial, in terms of his own interests, but also ethically problematic.

As someone interested in performance, why would he separate martial arts from other kinds of physical practice? And anyway, how and why could or would anyone really draw convincing lines between martial arts practices and dance or theatre or ritual or religion, or indeed athletics, somatics, or therapeutics, and so on?

On thinking about this, I became inclined to expand the problem further and wider. Maybe my colleague is actually still too limited – too steeped in thinking about embodied practices. For, what about media and technology? Can we separate martial arts, or the study thereof, from practices and studies of film, drama, gaming, literature, or heritage? What about philosophy?

Nonetheless, the ethical dimension of my colleague’s reluctance seemed particularly thought-provoking. What does it mean to cast a net that only looks for and at martial, combative, fighting, defensive or offensive practices? What does it mean to insist on identifying all of the practices out there that seem to fit the bill in terms of their ‘martial’ dimensions? Is this not in and of itself a violent contortion, and a bending of the world to the will or the mind’s eye of the observer? Maybe my escrima practice seems fairly obviously martially orientated. But what about my tai chi? Just because I search in my tai chi practice for combative dimensions and applications, must I insist on reducing tai chi to this dimension for everyone, and enshrining it in academic discourse in this particular contingent and motivated way?

Conceptualising and chopping up the conceptual spectrum in such a way as to enable the claim that ‘martial arts’ is an obvious and necessary field, fit for an academic discipline to congregate around it, may actually seem like a fairly contorted and contorting act, when viewed from a broader perspective. Privileging ‘martial’ over ‘art’ may also amount to doing a kind of violence to the very objects that fall within its purview.

How can such a tendentious act be justified? Should, indeed, martial arts studies really be a subset of other fields, such as performance studies, for instance? The answer could be yes. As long as it can also be agreed that it should also be a subset of religious studies, and a subset of film studies, as well as a subset of subcultural studies, ethnic studies, area studies, sports studies, history, and so on.

The point is: none of these subsets exist on a fixed or immutable map. There is no Venn diagram or flow chart that could adequately depict some real or permanent relation of inclusivity or exclusivity. There is no essential or necessary ‘proper place’ for this or any other field. Its ‘proper place’ is always a consequence not of fit but of performative elaboration. This is because ‘martial arts’, like anything else (‘literature’, ‘religion’, ‘science’) is a contingent discursive establishment (a construct) rather than an essential referential category (a datum).

To evoke a Kantian distinction, ‘martial arts’ is synthetic rather than analytic. It is not an object proper to scientific study, and nor does it need to be. The study of something like this is not really scientific because – to borrow an insight that Rodowick once made about ‘film studies’ – it is something we simply know about, that we experience in different ways at different times and in different places, something that changes, that changes us, that we can change, and so on. We can’t really ‘do’ martial arts studies as some kind of science. It doesn’t lend itself to that kind of treatment at all. Rather, it presents itself as a range of phenomena for reflection, philosophy, theory, rumination. Martial arts, however conceived or however instantiated, seem or seems to beg questions – questions about ‘what it is’ and about ‘other things’. Life. Value. Health. Gender. Nation. Strength. Honour. Fun. Commerce. Ethnicity. Culture. Identity. Whatever.

To choose martial arts studies as a category – to attempt to institute it as a field – is to accept or at least trade in an inheritance. We have the term ‘martial arts’. It is a discursive category, even if it is not properly referential, indeed even if it is barely able to evoke its own content. Nonetheless, the world has given it to us. People are likely to ‘kind of just know’ what you mean when you say it, even if their understandings are hugely different, even utterly incompatible, and even though any attempt to specify the content of the field cannot but produce contradictory objects and practices.

This is one reason I have avoided the so-called problem of definition for so long. One need not define. Definition is a pseudo-problem, and the effect of a certain orientation in the face of what it means to study or do academic work.

Of course, one always has to negotiate competing injunctions. Definitions and categories do emerge. But they often fall down when pressed or pushed. Such definitions need to be pressed or pushed and pulled, because they can come to seem stifling. And they can come to be stifling – because of the effects that they can have on our orientations.

This is why, in martial arts studies, as elsewhere, the question should not simply be ‘where do you draw the line?’ The equally – perhaps more – important questions to engage with are ‘why draw a line?’ and indeed ‘how are we able to draw a line?’

If one feels compelled to draw a line around a field or object, and to map it out in a certain way, this is a compulsion one might expect to be matched with an equal compulsion when it comes to policing the territory that has been marked out. In other words, those scholars who seem merely to be exercising an honest and innocent drive to speak clearly and precisely and to define coherently may yet turn out to be the most diligent border guards, hostile to any non-legitimate travelers.

Gayatri Spivak once argued that making any distinction, making any discrimination, specifying, erecting or using any conceptual categories, is irreducibly and inescapably political in some sense. This is because producing differentials erects binaries, and binaries are inevitably hierarchical. The inside is the proper, the outside is the improper, the other. The question thus becomes, how hospitable are we to be to impropriety, to alterity? How is difference to be treated? This is both the ethico-political and conceptual-orientation problem of all disciplinary discourse. For martial arts studies, it suggests that what needs to be asked is: how do we define the hospitality of martial arts studies to that which requests admittance but seems improper?


If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Reforming the Chinese Martial Arts in the 1920s-1930s: The Role of Rapid Urbanization.



4 thoughts on “Why do you draw the line? More on Definition in Martial Arts Studies

  1. One needs to have real language skills to work on primary sources and real immersion time with Chinese teachers, at least several yrs, before writting on that topic. And one cannot rely on people as sources, who have neither, no Chinese classical/modern language skills and no trad. martial arts training and skill!

    Posted by Hong Daozi | December 2, 2016, 12:49 am
    • Paul is certainly capable of responding to this comment if he feels like there is any value in doing so. But as the moderator I have got to say that this sounds like almost the literal definition of a non-sequitur. The post in question is a theoretical one about how we conceptualize the modern academic field of martial arts studies (something that Paul is uniquely qualified to speak to). It never even mentions primary language source material in languages other than English, and it mentions a Chinese martial art only in passing (and the questions that the author asks would apply just as relevant to karate or capoeira). Please keep your future comments on topic and respectful or they will be deleted.

      Posted by benjudkins | December 2, 2016, 8:48 am
  2. I think that “martial arts” is “ethically problematic” because it is taboo, not the other way around.

    The level of introspection implied by this distinction may not be productive, from an evolutionary point of view; but it is exactly what we are looking to develop in certain martial arts.

    For proof that martial arts are taboo — as if any more was needed- we could reference that classic lyric from the song Ether, by Nas:

    [Regarding Jay-Z] You a fan, a phony, a fake, a pussy, a Stan
    I still whip your ass; you 36 in a karate class?
    You Tae-Bo ho, tryna work it out, you tryna get brolic?

    There is no need to explain why Jay-Z is ridiculous for studying karate as a full-grown adult man. Everyone already knows it.

    Posted by Chris | Martial Development | December 2, 2016, 4:32 pm
    • Hi Chris,

      “I think that “martial arts” is “ethically problematic” because it is taboo, not the other way around.”

      That is a good point. I was sort of wondering the same thing myself. The taboo status of the martial arts in polite company is a social fact in search of an explanation. But admittedly Naz makes the point more vividly.

      Posted by benjudkins | December 2, 2016, 5:12 pm

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