Illustration from Meyer's Longsword. Source: Bloody Elbow, MMA History Blog.
Illustration from Meyer’s Longsword.





Situating the Martial Culture of Shii-cho


All of the Jedi I know speak with an accent.  A particularly keen observer might notice them as they walk into the Central Martial Arts Academy, shedding their boots and heavy winter coats.  But anyone with a background in the martial arts can start to pick out the pitches and tones of dialect once they ignite their lightsabers.  This became evident to me on my very first day of actual fieldwork on the hyper-real martial arts.  Looking back at my notes I ran across the following account of a demonstration which occurred at the end of my first class with this group.

As a quick note of background, the hyper-real martial art known as “Lightsaber Combat” is structured around the idea of the “Seven Classical Forms” of combat as laid out in the Star Wars mythology.  Each of these forms has been bequeathed with a basic outline and set of characteristics (Shii-cho is supposedly derived from older methods of fighting with metal swords and is considered a “battlefield art”) as well as some in universe culture (it is also known as the “Way of the Sarlacc” and was the first lightsaber form taught to “younglings” in the Jedi Temple).  Readers wanting to brush up on their lightsaber lore, or wondering what this has to do with the martial arts, may want to start by reviewing the following article that I wrote on that topic. [Following standard ethnographic procedure, pseudonyms are used throughout my field notes to better respect the privacy of my fellow students.]


“It was 3:10.  At this point the class had gone over schedule.  But since “we started late” Darth Nihilus decided to go on a bit longer.  Given the number of new students he talked to the class about the recent history of lightsaber fighting, and where the various forms we would be learning came from.  Next he spoke on the philosophy and intended purpose of the first of these forms.

At that point we were invited to sit on the edge of one of the mats.  The students did so casually without the formal discipline that one might see in a more traditional martial arts school.  Some stood off to the side, leaning on their sabers.  Darth Nihilus then called on three of his more senior students who had previously memorized Shii-cho, the first of the “classical forms of lightsaber combat.”

The first of these individuals was a self-described “Grey Jedi.”  As soon as he began to perform the form a distinct “HEMA” accent became evident in his blade work.  His movements alternated between slow nuanced detail and quick flashes which earned the instructor’s admonition to “slow down.”  Clearly he would have been just as at home with a German longsword.

The next student was also quite proficient in the form, but had a noticeably different take on things.  In his hands the lightsaber was transformed into a katana, or probably more properly a bamboo shinai.  This Jedi’s body posture, the rhythm of movement, and even the means of generating power all changed.  It almost felt like a drawn out kendo kata.

The third aspiring Jedi, like the other two, was a white male in his 20s.  He was a bit hesitant in his performance of the form.  His posture was upright and there was not yet a high degree of intentionality in his blade work.  Clearly he was new to the sword, and probably the martial arts in general, but he made it through the form with minimal prompting from the instructor. Everyone clapped at the end of each performance, and the audience watched with evident interest.

Darth Nihilus then turned to those of us clustered at the edge of the mat and pointed out that each student had their own distinct interpretation of the form.  He clarified that they were using it as a means of expressing what they knew and who they were, and that was a good thing.  He encouraged all of the students to contact him on Facebook for links to a recording of the full version of the form so they could continue to memorize and practice it at home throughout the rest of the week.  They were reminded to go slow.

At this point the instructor then claimed the floor to demonstrate a second, more complex and energetic version of Shii-cho which he said would be introduced to students who memorized the more basic introductory form.  The form was similar yet notably different in places.  But even more striking was his specific technique.  In his hands the lightsaber was transformed into something distinctly Chinese, even though few wushu routines seem to employ a double handed saber.  How do I know that this is “Chinese?” Was this the “Terra Prime” form that he mentioned previously?  The reaction of the class was enthusiastic….

Not surprisingly Darth Nihilus has an extensive background in the Chinese martial arts.  Obviously he teaches Wing Chun, but in a previous interview he mentioned a White Crane background as well.  When I approached the other students after class the first mentioned that he had grown up in a household that was obsessed with historical Western fencing, while the second had a brief background in Kendo.  The third student was gaining his initial exposure to the martial arts through this lightsaber class.”


It is not surprising that the lightsaber performances of various students reflect their prior backgrounds.  HEMA, Kung Fu, Kendo and Kali instructors have all contributed to the creation of lightsaber techniques practiced in schools like the Central Lightsaber Academy, or the Terra Prime Light Armory.  And stunt sabers themselves are such simple training tools that they make a great analog for whatever blade or stick weapons you already happen to know.  It is almost too easy to bring your prior training with you.

On the other hand this is also a bit odd.  Star Wars is, if nothing else, a strikingly visual story.  It has created a rich media archive of these supposed fighting systems.  Yes, Wushu is evident in Ray Park’s performance as Darth Maul, and Christopher Lee’s extensive background in Western and Stage fencing comes out in his performance as Count Dooku.  But the fight choreographers never allowed these “real world inflections” to dominate the scene.  That would have risked shattering the bubble of world creation that is at the heart of the storytelling project.  What made it to the silver screen always had a distinctly “Star Wars” feel.  It was at least partially that promise of the timeless and exotic, the familiar yet just out of reach, which seems to have drawn so many students to Lightsaber Combat in the first place.

Yet upon picking up a stunt saber, most students do not do a great job of moving and executing techniques in the same sorts of ways that they are shown on film.  Given the years of fight choreography experience and special effects wizardry that went into creating those scenes that is probably a good thing. Even those of us who have studied the Chinese martial arts for decades are unlikely to move like a young Ray Park.

Still, I get the sense that something else is going on.  In many cases it is not just that lightsaber students cannot do this.  For the most part that is not really their goal.  Or to avoid over-generalization based my specific research area, its not the goal of those individuals whom I have been working with.  Of course I am more than familiar with phenomenon of keyboard warriors in the comments section that are willing to go to war if your version of “Makashii” does not match their preconceived notion of what 17th rapier fencing is supposed to look like.  Yet for the most part this way of thinking does not seem to get dragged into the actual training hall.

Rather than disciplining their movements to replicate what they have seen on screen, most students (or those with some sort of background in prior martial arts training) have something else that they are trying to express with their blade work.  But what is it?  And why does it differ from the master symbols of how the ideal Jedi (or Sith) should fight?  Why does abstract symbolism only take you so far in the construction of a fighting system?

The Seven Form of Lightsaber Combat
The Seven Form of Lightsaber Combat


Fight Books and the Art of Resurrecting the Past


The answer to this question, as well as a number of much more pressing issues within both the world of HEMA and the traditional Asian martial arts, can be found in Eric Burkart’s recent article titled “The Limits of Understanding in the Study of Lost Martial Arts: Epistemological Reflection on the Mediality of Historical Records of Technique and the Status of Modern (Re-) Constructions.” (Acta Periodica Duellatorum, Volume 4, Issue 2 2016).  This article can be thought of as almost a companion piece to the one by Sixt Wetzler that I wrote about earlier.  While Wetzler suggests possible avenues for the fruitful comparative study of fight books (with his special interest being the intersection of Chinese and European sources), Burkart breaks new ground in determining the ultimate limits and limitations of such studies.

This article is sure to become mandatory reading for anyone involved in the HEMA research community.  And while Burkart confines himself to discussing European sources in the present piece, it is clear that the basic points he raises have wide applicability in a number of other areas as well.  Students of Ming and Qing era Chinese martial arts will also want to heed his warnings.  Indeed, given the relative youth of our current efforts to grapple with lost Chinese fighting systems in more practical terms, we are probably well positioned to digest his warnings and consider what they mean going forward.

Burkart’s article may appeal to other readers as well.  Those interested in the ongoing debate on the definition of the martial arts might want to take notice of his efforts to craft a more limited concept explicitly tailored to the theoretical needs of his specific research project.  Likewise students of embodied culture, and even “carnal sociology,” may find his discussion of Ben Spatz’s recent work on the importance of technique illuminating.  Indeed, this is the core concept that is necessary to grasp the full ramifications of his argument.

Unfortunately within the world of the Chinese martial arts the term “technique” has acquired something of a negative connotation.  Readers should be aware that Burkart’s use of the concept has little in common with the ways that it is tossed around in casual conversations by TCMA practitioners.  I think that most often when I hear that word used in training halls today it is preceded by the qualifier “mere.”

And what could be more empty and robotic than “mere technique?”  What could be more vacuous than copying the instructors movements but not understanding their application?  There are some pretty solid linguistic and historical reasons that Chinese martial arts often oppose the idea of “technique” and “substance” (or maybe “application.”)

Yet along with Spatz, Burkart defines technique as being something more.  Following Marcel Mauss, they see it as that aspect of ‘practice’ that is both repeatable and loaded with information about “application” and “substance.”  Technique always has an informational, and hence a cultural, component to it.  It is at the heart of teaching exercise.  Whereas “practice” and “application” is an individual moment in the stream of history that cannot be recovered, technique is what can be passed from generation to generation.  The realm of technique is therefore, by its very nature, epistemic.  It deals with the fundamental questions of both what a body is capable of doing in any situation, and the closely related issue of what a body should do.

Technique is not just a carrier of abstract movement or knowledge.  It is also both a product of, and a tool used in the creation of, culture.  Like all forms of cultural knowledge, its substance can be transformed during the act of transmission.  In fact, this plasticity is one of the great strengths of “techniques.”

As defined here technique is something that resides within the body.  These are skills that are understood not just on a mental, but also a physical, level.  While I might be able to watch a video of another martial artist doing Shii-cho on Youtube, I cannot rightly claim to “know,” or to have “experienced,” the technique until I can do it myself.

This brings us to our first paradox.  While “technique” implies an understanding capable of being conveyed from one generation to the next, at the present moment, most of it remains trapped within a given body.  My technique is not directly accessible by my students.  The great challenge facing all martial arts systems is how one, in a systematic and reproducible way, conveys embodied skills to the next group of students.  And how does any of this then relate to the actual application of these skills in the field?

Many cultures have turned to various types of “fight books” or manuals to simplify this process.  The vast majority of bodily skills are learned simply by osmosis, observation and repetition.  As Mauss would remind us, one learns to walk like an American teenager by being socialized, over a period of years, with other American teenagers.  Thus each and every one of us carries within our body a vast database of physical culture.  These are embodied techniques that tell us how to relate to our environment in ways that we are only dimly aware of.  Further, these subconscious ways of walking, running, sitting, swimming, eating, dancing and, yes, even fighting, can vary tremendously between locations and across time.

There is also the question of technique and culture within individual combat systems.  Here we move into the realm of basic assumptions that groups make about the nature of violence that one is likely to experience, proper modes of response (am I in a kickboxing school or a dueling salon?), proper tactics, the constraints of period clothing and available armor or weapons.

As Burkart points out, there is simply no way that this vast library of implicit embodied knowledge and cultural assumptions (that we all carry) could be fit into a single fight book.  As such manuals tend to focus explicitly on a limited number of assumptions about violence and the proper techniques to train students in so that they can respond to it.  Thus a symbolic language is adopted in which pictures or verbal descriptions allude to (or trigger the memory of) more complex understandings of embodied techniques, which result in students employing the optimal fighting practices (based on the concepts and cultural understanding embedded within the techniques.)

Diagram by Eric Burkart.
Diagram by Eric Burkart.


In an ideal case this leads to a triangular relationship like the one outlined by the author in the included diagram.  The symbol in the book trigger a specific conception of a technique that then leads to an optimal response, which is the same as what was described with the first symbol.

If this is all there was to it, then resurrecting a lost martial art would be relatively easy.  One would need to translate the text correctly, and understand both the aims of the author and the nature of the weapons used.  Certainly that can pose some challenges.  But at the end of the day we all have two arms, two legs, one head and there are only so many cuts a sword can make.  This set of assumptions is the root of the argument that one occasionally hears that all fighters and martial arts are essentially the same.  Ultimately there is only one set of “best” techniques and eventually they must rise to the top.

Yet in the lightsaber example above, a group of students can be given an identical set of weapons, goals and techniques (in this case Shii-cho), and we can sit back and watch them take these common ingredients in different directions.

The complicating factor is the small bubble on the upper left hand side of Burkart’s chart labeled “cultural technique.”  Indeed, if I have one suggestion about his article it is that this cycle should be much larger to more effectively convey to the reader just how important cultural history (rather than purely technical factors) is in the enactment of any fighting system.

“Cultural technique” can be seen in any number of areas.  How one walks, runs, dances, the games you play, depends in larger part on where (and when) you lived.  All of these basic motor skills will have an effect on how you approach more complex movement patterns.

The prior body of techniques you have learned will determine in large part what your specific body is capable of.  How strong are you?  How flexible are you?  How much time do you spend squatting on the ground in a resting position each day?  How many miles a day do you walk?  Again, all of these details effect your understanding of what a body is capable of doing.

Material factors must also be taken into account.  What sort of clothing are you wearing?  What type of fight do you anticipate being in, a boxing match or a judicial duel?  Seemingly identical techniques can play out very differently as your answers to these questions change.

We must also deal with the fact that combative situations are by their very nature dynamic.  One must take strategic stock not just of your own techniques, but of your opponent’s as well.  What type of reactions have you been conditioned to expect, either by your environment or your prior training?

Even the best and most detailed fight books are, by their nature, frustratingly limited in terms of the actual information content that they can convey about the martial cultures of their day.  Within their pages we see symbols denoting techniques.  Yet these guide books don’t really give us any clues as to what all of this actually looked like on the battlefield.  One can only venture a guess that practice is universally a much messier affair than theory.  Nor will we ever be able to access the vast, and ever shifting, body of tacit physical knowledge that most period readers would have approached the text with.

Ultimately Burkart concludes that it doesn’t matter whether one is looking at a brief and poetic Chinese manual, illustrated with a handful of line drawings, or an encyclopedic Renaissance masterpiece of the engravers art, in both cases the vast majority of the information that is necessary to understand the text is implicit in nature.  Given that all of this knowledge died with the generation that produced the book, it is basically impossible to fill in the remaining gaps in any “scientific” or “authentic” ways.  Claims to be following the methodology of experimental archeology notwithstanding, he concludes that there are simply too many variables and too little actual information (even in the best case scenarios) to make the exercise plausible.

One suspects that Burkarts conclusions will not be accepted without some debate.  So what he does next is particularly interesting.  In the concluding section of his paper the author turns away from HEMA, and looks instead to the controversies that gripped the literature on medieval music in the 1980s and 1990s.  Indeed, students of musical history have faced many of these same issues.

As in Martial Arts Studies, here we have a body of practitioner/scholars who bringing their personal experiences to the table. On the textual side, medieval manuscript collections exist with various sorts of musical notation systems.  We also have descriptions and artwork portraying musical instruments from the period.  In a few cases original instruments even exist in playable condition.  Thus it would appear possible to recreate the lost masterpieces of medieval European music.

Yet as the ensuing debates in that field conclusively demonstrated, these manuscripts also fail to convey the huge amounts of tacit knowledge that is actually necessary to make sense of the artifacts that have survived.  Musicologists were able to show that rather than reflecting “what really happened” most recreation of medieval music were actually guided by the (constantly shifting) musical tastes to the performer/scholars tasked with resurrecting the genre.  In short, those who followed this musical scene were eventually able to learn quite a bit about modern musical trends, but very little about the “authentic” nature of these songs.

Likewise students of lost fighting systems have no recourse but to turn to their own modern fighting culture(s) and background in contemporary martial arts when attempting to fill in the gaps when dealing with these older sources.  And when one considers how fast our modern fighting culture is changing, the essentialist claim that “everyone” will eventually come to the same “correct” answer rings hollow.


Eric Burkart (left) and Sixt Wetzler engaging in a frank exchange of ideas at the 2016 Martial Arts Studies Conference at the University of Cardiff.
Eric Burkart (left) and Sixt Wetzler engaging in a frank exchange of ideas at the 2016 Martial Arts Studies Conference at the University of Cardiff.




In the field notes that introduced this essay I described four different performances of the same taolu or form. What made them unique was the fact that each martial artist approached the exercise from the perspective of a different set of “cultural techniques.”  Yet all of these individuals lived within 20 miles of each other.

Certainly globalization has led to an explosion in the variety of fighting systems that are available to modern consumers.  Yet one must also suspect that a world in which swordsmanship was a life or death skill (and a great way to make a living) would also have generated its own factions and competing schools.  Even if we could reconstruct the “original” interpretation of a specific classic author, would we derive actual insight from the exercise?  Would it reveal to us what the martial culture of the Middle Ages or Renaissance was “really” like?  Or would such a discovery obscure the more fundamental reality of cultural variety and change in every time period.

It is important to note that Burkart does not appear to be oppose HEMA, or the reconstruction of fight books, per se.  Indeed, one suspects that he rather enjoys swordsmanship.

Rather the author appears to be seeking a greater degree of humility in our discussions of these projects, and a frank acknowledgement that rather than recreating an “authentic” past we are in fact interpreting historical resources in light of our current martial culture(s).  The end result is the construction of something that is new and interesting in its own right, but not a resurrection of the past.

Compared to the HEMA movement, the ongoing efforts to reconstruct Chinese fighting systems found in Ming and Qing era manuals is still in its infancy.  Burkart’s thoughts come at an opportune time for those who are involved in the study of these time periods.  It may also be interesting to consider how the existence of a much richer “living martial arts tradition” in China may (or may not) cause us to approach some of these questions differently.

For students of the Seven Forms of Lightsaber Combat, Burkart suggests that the combative accents I noted are not likely to go away any time soon.  Indeed, the existence of a shared mythology notwithstanding, not everyone in this community shares the same body of “cultural technique.”  Still, having an opportunity to observe the impact of this variation within a new movement might reveal fresh insights into how embodied techniques both accommodate and resist change as new identities come into being.




If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: Letting ‘Real’ Kung Fu Die: Paradoxes of the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts as Intangible Cultural Heritage