Two students of Shaolin Kung Fu Training.  Source: Wikimedia.
Two students of Shaolin Kung Fu Training. Source: Wikimedia.




I recently stumbled across a 1930s English language newspaper, printed by some office within the Japanese government, designed to promote American tourism.  Leafing through its pages I discovered a glowing article about recent events at the Kodokan, the home of the Judo.

The Western reading public had been well aware of the existence of Judo for at least three decades.  Clubs existed to support the sport in a variety of West Coast cities, and even in European centers like London.  One might even be able to see Judo matches in the various newsreels that were a ubiquitous aspect of the era’s popular culture. Still, I had no idea that there was enough interest in the art to actually make it worthwhile to prioritize the Kodokan as a tourism destination.  It seems that martial arts tourism, like so much else, has deeper roots than one might suspect.

International travel has become a ubiquitous aspect of the modern martial arts environment, yet it remains understudied.  China is currently a major promoter of “Kung Fu tourism,” and there is more than one location (the Shaolin Temple, the Taijiquan schools of Mt. Wudang, Chen Village) whose economic fortunes are closely tied to the influx of both domestic and international seekers.  If Chinese tourists might spend a day or two in one of these august locations, Western students commonly spend a few months (or more) in their schools.

Other localities in China have been diligent in their efforts to appeal to these same markets.  Multiple municipalities within Southern China have claimed to be the home of the (basically legendary) Southern Shaolin temple in an attempt to develop their martial arts sector.  Hong Kong has long been a destination for Western students of a variety of arts, including Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut, Southern Mantis and Wing Chun.  Recent efforts to renovate downtown Foshan (returning it to a more “traditional” appearance) were carried out with an explicit eye towards luring some of these tourists up the Pearl River so that they might visit the former haunts of such luminaries as Wong Fei Hung, Chan Ngau Sing and Ip Man.

Martial arts tourism has become big business.  While conducting phone interviews with a firm that specializes in arranging these sorts of training opportunities I was surprised to discover just how far afield the phenomenon has spread.  Beyond traditional destinations like China and Japan, new generations of students are heading for training camps in Thailand, Israel and Brazil.

One cannot help but wonder what motivates individuals to put their careers and lives on hold for months at a time to pursue this sort of training.  The problem becomes all the more acute when you realize that in a global era it is not really necessary to go to Japan to find really excellent Judo instruction.  The same goes for arts like Wing Chun or Muay Thai.  For better or worse globalization has attenuated the connection between local identity and martial excellence.

So who exactly travels abroad when the forces of globalization have brought a variety of highly trained instructors to one’s own community?  What do these students hope to gain, other than the adventure of a lifetime?  And what sort of lasting effects does martial arts tourism have on those who undertake the journey?

Capoeira, according to the Discover Brazil tourism campaign.
Capoeira, according to the Discover Brazil tourism campaign.


How Outsiders Become Insiders in Brazil


Lauren M. Griffith (Hanover College) has set out to answer these questions in a series projects including a number of articles and her recent book In Search of Legitimacy: How Outsiders Become Part of the Afro-Brazilian Capoeria Tradition (Berghan, 2016).  Unfortunately I have not yet had a chance to read her book, a copy of which currently sits atop the “pile of guilt” that rests beside my computer.

Nevertheless, in the current post I would like to explore a few of the ideas found in her recent article “Beyond Martial Arts Tourism: Outcomes of Capoeiristas’ Apprenticeship Pilgrimages” in the journal IDO MOVEMENT FOR CULTURE. Journal of Martial Arts Anthropology, Vol. 16, no. 2 (2016), pp. 32–40.  This paper is of interest precisely because it focuses on the motivations and outcomes (not all of them expected) arising from martial arts tourism.

Worried that the term “tourism” might be offensive to some students, or be seen as trivializing the depth of their dedication, Griffith begins her project by introducing a new concept.  Noting both the pedagogical aspect of these journeys, as well as their importance to an individual’s identity construction, she terms this sort of travel an “apprenticeship pilgrimage.”  Those interested in her construction and use of this idea, or who would like additional background on her larger project, should be sure to see her short article “Apprenticeship Pilgrimages: An Alternate Analytical Lens” in the  Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 41, pp. 228–231 (2013).

Even students of Martial Arts Studies not interested in travel or Capoeira will still want to take a look at Griffith’s work.  From a purely methodological standpoint this short article is a fascinating exercise in gaining as much utility as possible from the data at hand.  It is the sort of thing that graduate students, or anyone currently designing their own project, will want to think about.

Griffith notes in her introduction that while there are a variety of literatures on the experience of pilgrimage itself, very little work (especially in the context of the martial arts) has been done to assess the impact of such experiences on those who have returned.  In the medium to long run, how do these experiences influence one’s dedication to a given art?  What do they reveal to a student about themselves and the nature of the global community of which they are a part? Given the ever increasing number of martial artists setting out on their own “Kung Fu Quests,” these are critical questions.

Unfortunately answering them is not easy, particularly in the case of Capoeira.  In a relatively decentralized tradition without a comprehensive regulatory body, Griffith’s first (and in some ways most critical) challenge was simply locating a sizable sample of those individuals who had made the journey to Brazil in the first place.

In any graduate level research design class students will spend a fair amount of time learning how to randomly sample a population in such a way that large-N statistical inferences can be drawn from the data.  Most of my graduate school career was actually spent assembling massive datasets on trade and economic sanctions which could then be subjected to complex multi-level statistical models.

What we often neglect to mention in these classes is that gathering this sort of data is often very expensive.  Without some sort of fairly hefty grant it may be impossible to design your own phone interviews (carried out by professional polling firms), which can provide the sort of data necessary for testing a more complex hypothesis.  Needless to say, there is not much of that kind of money floating around the martial arts studies community at the moment.

Griffith sidestepped these issues by attempting to design a pilot project that would be more manageable for a single researcher.  In her paper she begins by describing her efforts to create a Facebook community called “Capoeira Research.”  She hoped that by engaging in community building activities, and posting links to academic research on the art, she would build a base of followers who might be interested in advancing our understanding of these questions.  She would then be able to sample and interview members of this community in various research projects, including the current one on “apprentice pilgrimages.”

From a purely statistical standpoint there are some issues with this methodology.  Obviously it is not a random sample.  Individuals decide to opt-in at multiple points.  Only those individuals seeking out information on “Capoeira research” are likely to find the group.  Likewise, individuals who speak English as their first language, or who spend a lot of time on Facebook, are likely to be over represented in Griffith’s sample.

Sample size also proved to be an obstacle.  Of the 400 or so followers in her group, only a few dozen individuals who had traveled to Brazil ended up responding to her survey.  A procedure like Snowball sampling may have provided a larger and higher quality sample set, but it would also have been more expensive and time consuming to put together.  Still, with the understanding that we must be careful not to generalize about these findings, did her research turn up anything interesting?

I think that the answer is yes.  Her findings suggest some very interesting puzzles for future investigations that might not otherwise have emerged.  That is particularly valuable when thinking about an undertheorized area, such as the long term impact of martial arts tourism.

Consider the connection between personal crisis and legitimacy. In her earlier 2013 article Griffith provides a valuable description of the sorts of apprentice pilgrims that she encountered during the course of her own ethnographic work in Brazil.  In general these individuals were extremely dedicated to capoeira.  In fact, one gets the feeling that some may have been a bit too dedicated to their art.  She describes individuals who routinely skipped out on their jobs to train, or others who broke off personal relationships with partners who did not understand their obsession with these martial arts.  It was often in the midst of some such crisis that the initial decision to travel to Brazil was made.

This bit of background is important for interpreting the first major finding that Griffith discusses when reviewing the results of her 2016 survey.  One might assume that Western Capoeira teachers would suggest that their students undertake a pilgrimage because it would increase their “fervor” or enthusiasm for their study.  That is certainly how we tend to think about the function of a religious pilgrimage, at least on the popular level.

Surprisingly Griffith found that even extended periods of study in Brazil (the average trip in her sample being two months) tended not to increase a student’s commitment to the art.  That fact makes more sense when we look at her prior description of who was undertaking this sort of travel.  By in large these were individuals with years of experience who already exhibited the highest degree of dedication.  They had already reached the upper bounds of commitment.

While many of these students set out with high expectations, it appears that, by in large, they were met.  When asked about specific shortcomings individuals almost universally expressed a desire for even more training, but relatively few reported disappointment with what they got.  Still, Griffith’s initial findings suggested what the quality of one’s experience was often highly idiosyncratic.  Those students who were most successful at establishing a personal mentorship relationship with a local teacher were the most likely to accomplish their goals.

This led to another major finding.  A notable percentage of female students reported lower long term satisfaction with their pilgrimage experience than males.  Looking at both the individual responses of those in her sample set, as well as her own personal experience in the region, Griffith noted that the machismo that had traditionally dominated the practice of Capoeira continues to be a deterrent for female students, and by extension the global spread of the art.  More specifically it can interfere with the creation of the sorts of relationships with local practitioners that are necessary for a successful experience.

From a theoretical perspective, perhaps the most interesting finding of Griffith’s research was the ongoing importance of the relationships that were forged not just between outside students and Brazilian teachers, but within the membership of the highly diverse body of international students who were all undertaking similar pilgrimages together.  In fact, many of the respondents in her sample set had undertaken more than one journey to Brazil.  After their initial trip they reported that these other sorts of relationships became a more important motivating factor in their continued travel.


Students practice the traditional Chinese Martial Arts in Qufu, Shandong Province.
Students practice the traditional Chinese Martial Arts in Qufu, Shandong Province.



Martial Practice and the Crisis of Legitimacy


Griffith notes that the underlying crisis that seemed to motivate the majority of her pilgrims was one of legitimacy.  These were individuals who had spent substantial resources studying what was traditionally a local art.  The practice of capoeira emerged from types of identity, moments in history and varieties of struggle that were usually not their own.  How could you know that the Capoeira that one was studying in NY or London was legitimate?  And how could one verify that you were in fact a “legitimate” practitioner of the community (one that was traditionally founded on Afro-Brazilian masculine identity) when you are differently situated in the global system? Griffith hypothesizes that the quest for legitimacy (rather than simply technical excellence) is a driving force behind the growth of martial arts tourism.

This is an interesting point that bears further consideration.  Legitimacy often functions within a community as a source of influence.  As one of her respondents noted, after returning from an extended period of study in Brazil, one’s fellow students back home were more likely to take your thoughts into consideration than they were before you left.

Legitimacy can be conceptualized as one of the many faces of social power as defined by the sociologist Robert Dahl.  For Dahl power was simply any means of influence that might get someone to do (or think) something that they would not otherwise do (or accept).

Given that concepts like “power” or “legitimacy” are inherently relational (meaning that they do not exist in abstract, but are instead a characteristic of a preexisting relationship), we can only discuss about them if we start by specifying scope and domain conditions.  More succinctly, when we say that a student has gained legitimacy we must specify within what audience (scope), and in relation to what questions (domain).  Even a resource as slippery as legitimacy is not infinitely fungible.

This aside is important as it brings to the fore a latent tension in Griffith’s 2016 article.  In whose eyes is the pilgrim really trying to gain legitimacy or social status?  Do they seek to succeed within the orbit of their teacher in Brazil?  Or possibly before the larger body of international Capoeira students, including both their fellow travelers.

Clearly building a strong personal relationship with a local teacher is a critical part of a successful pilgrimage experience.  And the existence of that relationship might assuage a student’s existential concerns as to the authenticity of their acceptance in the community.  Yet I remain unclear as to how the majority of Griffith’s respondents viewed the community in question.  While some seem to have elevated the legitimacy of Brazilian practitioners in almost absolute terms, others saw Brazil as a single (if central) node in a larger web of associations.  One might term these hierarchical versus horizontal modes of social organization.  To oversimplify what is a clearly a subtle situation, does one wish to gain legitimacy in the eyes of a teacher in Brazil, or the local instructors and students back home?

I would like to resist the immediate urge to just assert “both” as I think there might be an important (if difficult to articulate) puzzle lurking in the shadows.  To begin with, strategies for gaining legitimacy within a horizontal group of fellow travelers are often different from what might allow one to make ever higher and tighter orbits of pilgrimage around a central point that is capable of granting legitimacy on a monopoly basis.  While such strategies may overlap at times, they will also have distinctive features.

As I was reading Griffith I found myself remembering Benedict Anderson’s discussion of the contrasting pilgrimages made by Creole officials and Spanish officers in Latin America just prior to the outburst of national independence movements in the region.  The Creole officials, barred by birth from ever serving in the metropole, created very different sorts of horizontal relationships than Spanish officials who were both sent from, and would ultimately return to, the center.  Interestingly both Anderson and Griffith’s observations seem to build upon Victor Turner’s earlier insights about the transformative nature of any pilgrimage.

At the end of her article Griffith notes that the Brazilian Capoeira community will ultimately be forced to respond to the desires and needs of this growing body of transnational students, and so practice within the art’s cultural center (Brazil itself) will eventually change.  Indeed, the advent of larger group classes would seem to indicate that this is happening already.

Yet at the same time one might also find signs of resistance in her narrative.  The persistent problems faced by female students, issues severe enough to have impacted their valuation of their own pilgrimages, suggest that some aspects of the community are not likely to change in response to the demands of global capitalism.  To the extent that female students are deterred from visiting, machismo carries a very real economic price.

Nevertheless, Griffith paints a picture of an art that is increasingly open to international participation. It is one where relationships between pilgrims are becoming as important as relationships with the center.  In short she describes an increasingly horizontal set of associations that is compatible with the demands of the international tourism market.  Increasingly students go to Brazil not just to learn from (and gain the respect of local teachers), but a growing body of global colleagues.

How should we understand all of this?  Does this openness reflect the choices that groups of Capoeira teachers have made, or perhaps a shared cultural environment?  Or instead are we seeing the homogenizing effects of globalization at play?

To answer this question more scholars will need to take up the questions that she ends her paper with.  When looking at the state of Kung Fu tourism in China, it is not hard to agree with Griffith’s assessment that market realities might be driving “facts on the ground.”  On the other hand, Alexander Bennet has recently argued that Kendo has failed to globalize (at least on the same scale as Judo or Karate) precisely because it has refused to make the accommodations necessary to extend the privilege of legitimacy to outsiders.  Its close association with Japanese ethnicity and nationalism has ensured that outsiders will have great trouble becoming insiders, and few will be interested in trying.  Of course Bennett’s analysis is based on his historical research and personal experience, rather than attempts to gather data and interview those making pilgrimages into the heart of Budo.

What is at stake is a fundamental question about the shape of the global martial arts community.  Will market forces push all martial arts towards horizontal modes of social organization, in which legitimacy is ultimately diffused throughout a churning body of international pilgrims?  Or is it possible to resist this trend.  Can socially viable arts continue to organize themselves around closed, vertically organized, sets of values that effectively withhold the promise of true acceptance from those who are nevertheless willing to study them?  To put it slightly differently, is it possible in the current era for the martial arts to reflect the values and identities of those who created them, or does their global translation ensure that they ultimately reflect only the values of those who consume them?

This short article cannot provide a definitive answer to this question.  But by suggesting the growing importance of legitimacy within a horizontally organized community of peers, it exposes a critical puzzle in the global development of the martial arts.


If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read:  Yim Wing Chun and the “Primitive Passions” of Southern Kung Fu