Taijiquan practitioners in a park. Source: http://english.cntv.cn



***On May 11th and 12th I will be participating in a Political Science workshop at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah.  While there I will discuss my Kung Fu Diplomacy project.  The actual paper that I am submitting for review is one of my draft chapters from the manuscript.  But I am also supposed to give a short presentation to the assembled group, and I anticipate that this will be everyone’s first exposure to Martial Arts Studies.  As such I decided that a more basic overview of the topic, geared towards political scientists, might be in order.  This is just a first draft, and I anticipate that things will change over the next couple of days.  But I thought that I would share it here as a “work in progress.”****



Martial Arts Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach


After starting her new job as an Assistant for the Indonesian Ambassador, a close friend from graduate school was faced with a dilemma.  Rather than only focusing only on politics, she decided that she needed to learn more about Indonesian culture.  Of course, the embassy offered many educational programs as part of its public diplomacy outreach to help people do just that.  It hosted free classes on language, music and cooking in addition to many other demonstrations and exhibitions.  But the embassy also advertised classes in self-defense.  Which, if you think about it, is an odd thing given the astronomical cost of Washington DC real estate.  The Indonesian government was willing to pay a lot of money to subsidize a relatively small martial arts class.

Yet as my friend quickly discovered, this was not just any self-defense class.  The embassy had brought in an instructor who taught Pencak Silat, a set of combative practices (including knife and stick fighting techniques) that is widely seen as an important aspect of the country’s intangible cultural heritage.[1]  Despite my emphatic pleas, my friend opted for the free language classes, and that was probably the wiser path.

Yet the choice always stood out in her mind.  Why Silat?  What message was the embassy attempting to send the American public by promoting this, seemingly dangerous, martial art?  How had this situation come about?  And was it likely to succeed?

The short answer to her question is that the Indonesian embassy probably decided to promote Pencak Silat because quite a few other countries had done something similar first, often with striking success.  It was following, rather than leading, a trend in which all of the leading Asian states had crafted a global discourse around their “national arts.”

Since the 1960s Korea has promoted “Taekwondo diplomacy” as part of its official image building campaign, and even succeeded in getting its national sport included in the Olympics.[2]  Chinese diplomatic missions and educational outreach programs are currently providing free or low cost martial arts lessons and coordinating tournaments and festivals around the globe. No country has done more to promote the mystique of its fighting systems than Japan, which has been mixing the martial arts and diplomacy since at least the 1880s.[3]  By 1905, people across the Western world were taking up Jujitsu to better understand Japanese culture and the dual miracles of the country’s rapid modernization and its stunning defeat of Russia.

If “soft power” is a state’s ability to employ its institutions and traditional culture to attract others to its preferred norms and identities, the martial arts have become an effective instrument in the public diplomacy tool kit.  Nor are these developments restricted to Asia.  Brazil actively promotes capoeira as a celebration of the nation’s racial diversity and African heritage.  Small farmers in Haiti are asking earnest questions as to why their symbolically and historically rich forms of machete fighting should not be taken just as seriously.  Nor can we forget the uniquely American phenomenon of Mixed Martial Arts that is currently being broadcast around the world, often in ways that explicitly challenge the efficacy and legitimacy of other traditional martial arts.

Sports have always been a lens through which people imagine competition within modern global society.  That is precisely why nations have been willing to pour scarce resources into entirely symbolic Olympic victories.  As we know, in global politics, signals have consequences.  The martial arts are no different.  Yet in the current era of rising populism and nationalist sentiments, such issues take on an increased sense of urgency.

These are some of the basic questions that structure my current book project, tentatively titled “Kung Fu Diplomacy: Soft Power, Martial Arts and the Development of China’s Global Brand.”  While questions of public diplomacy and soft power animate this project, its execution is deeply interdisciplinary.  As I argue, it is impossible to understand the genesis of these diplomatic efforts, let alone why some succeed or fail, by looking only at the actions of states or consular officers in the current era.

We must also carefully consider how private individuals and cultural entrepreneurs have promoted the martial arts, as well as the ways that foreign actors and audiences have understood and framed these practices.  The complex interaction of these three sets of actors (private actors, government officers and the targeted public) often takes on a path dependent aspect.  As such, this project draws from, and expand upon, the growing literature on Martial Arts Studies.

By way of introduction, Martial Arts Studies is a newly emerging research area that has the potential to speak to critical problems in fields as diverse as anthropology, sociology, history, media studies and of course political science.  This literature, which has seen sustained growth over the last decade, is both interdisciplinary in character and global in scope.  In addition to many university press monographs and edited collections, it has seen the start of multiple annual conferences, journals, the awarding of research grants and even the creation of a book series.

There are many areas where the interest of political scientists and the expertise of martial arts studies researcher may overlap.  For instance, the domestic regulation of these practices may reveal much about the way government intervention effects the development of actors within civil society.[4]  The detailed history of some arts illustrates how some groups in civil society have advanced competing narratives of modernity and national identity.[5]  The evolution of the martial arts can aid our understanding of shifting gender norms and the global spread of traditional practices, to name just a few possibilities.[6]  Rather than approaching each of these questions in disciplinary and geographic isolation, the development of Martial Arts Studies as a research area allows for the creation of a body of descriptive concepts and theoretical insights that makes both comparative and interdisciplinary work possible.


A group of African disciples study the traditional arts at Shaolin.



Kung Fu Diplomacy


Now that we know a bit about what Martial Arts Studies is, let us return to China’s various efforts to promote its own brand of “Kung Fu diplomacy.”  In the current era symbols of “traditional culture” have become important political resources, both within states and the global system.  Nowhere is this better illustrated than in an examination of the People’s Republic of China’s evolving strategy of public diplomacy and the current scramble (seen in China and elsewhere) to have as many martial practices as possible awarded UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status.

Since the events of 9/11 both scholars and policy makers have developed a renewed interest in “public diplomacy” as an essential tool of statecraft.[7]  These strategies, designed to communicate an identity and even spread specific norms and expectations directly to the citizens of other states, are critical to addressing many challenges in global politics today.  Yet the academic literature on public diplomacy is still developing, and key questions remain about when, and under what circumstances, such strategies are most likely to be successful.

Much of this literature has focused exclusively on a few super powers, or a handful of rich developed nations, in the modern era.  Less attention has been focused on the ability of rising powers to employ these strategies or whether we can accurately use concepts like public diplomacy and soft power to describe the functioning of global politics in prior periods.

The current project attempts to address these questions by investigating the role of cultural influence, or “soft power,” in the development of China’s public relations efforts from roughly 1800 to the present.  More specifically, it examines the ways in which ideas and images of the traditional martial arts have been cultivated by individuals both within and outside of the state as master symbols related to the strength, identity, goals and nature of the Chinese body politic.

In the current era, practices such as taijiquan and “kung fu” are synonymous with traditional Chinese culture in the global public imagination.  These martial arts are viewed in strikingly positive terms and are often associated with core values that members of Western societies aspire too.  As such, the Chinese government has sought to promote these fighting systems throughout the global system as a means of promoting good will and a deeper level of engagement with their preferred values and identities.

Yet this was not always the case.  The Chinese state has not always been so supportive of their indigenous fighting arts, nor have they always enjoyed cultural recognition and respect in the West.  How and why did the current situation develop?  And in what ways have ideas about the traditional martial arts tempered fears of China’s rapid rise?

To answer these questions my research for this volume proceeds in three parts.  Chapters 1 and 2 of the project focus on the role of foreign audiences and media outlets in laying a basic cultural foundation that would shape later attempts to use the martial arts to spread Chinese culture.  Chapter 2, which I have submitted in a slightly modified form to the conference proceedings, focuses specifically on the Boxer Uprising and the ways that foreign diplomats, missionaries and newspaper editors shaped descriptions of Chinese martial artists and social violence more generally to advance their own policy preferences toward China.  Their actions, quite unexpectedly, laid much of the cultural foundation for the explosion of interest in the Chinese martial arts that would make modern public diplomacy efforts in this area viable.

In chapters 3-4 we turn our attention to the role of Chinese reformers and cultural entrepreneurs in shaping the image of China and its fighting system on the global stage.  Discussions of the Asian martial arts and the topics of nationalism or modernism often assume a top down model of influence in which the government captures these institutions and then imposes them on society and the educational system to promote the state’s goals.  Yet in the case of China, most notably prior to 1949 and then after 1975, what a closer examination shows is groups within civil society attempting to use the martial arts to argue for their own, multiple, visions of what a strong and modern Chinese state should look like. Nor can we ignore the success of market actors in the film and entertainment industry (particularly in Hong Kong, but also Taiwan), in crafting radically different visions of China.

The volume’s final chapters turns our attention to the actions of state actors and diplomats.  Here the emphasis is on formal efforts to co-opt this legacy and employ the martial arts within specific propaganda and public diplomacy programs.  I hope to look at a selection of efforts starting at about the end of the cultural revolution and going up to current attempts to have Wushu added to the official list of Olympic sports.

While “Kung Fu” has become a household term, examining the rise of Chinese soft power across a longer time horizon yields some interesting puzzles.  For instance, more than 40 years after his death Bruce Lee is still a beloved film star.  Yet who remembers when the CCP sent a young Jet Li to perform Wushu for Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on the front lawn of the White House?

Why has the Shaolin Temple succeeded in making inroads in the Western suburban landscape, setting up many small-scale temples and martial arts classes, yet the vastly better funded and more coordinated government efforts to promote the state sponsored sport Wushu, or to win it a birth in the Olympics, have largely failed?  The Chinese martial arts are a genuinely beloved, globally popular, traditional practice.  There is no doubt regarding the cultural attraction that they generate.  And yet the officers of the Chinese government have had a mixed record when it comes to effectively harnessing them as an element of the states public diplomacy strategy.


Chinese martial arts students in Kenya.



The Boxer Uprising as a Modern Event


To better understand this puzzle I would like to briefly consider some of the findings that arose out of the first section of this project.  The Boxer Uprising was a seminal event laying the groundwork for the modern image of the Chinese martial arts in Western popular culture, though it is rarely understood as such.  What it suggests, more than anything else, is the staying power of a good symbol.

It is easy to forget what a major event the Boxer Rebellion was, and the way that it dominated the media during the summer and autumn of 1900.  Every major newspaper, and most magazines, ran articles not just recounting events in Beijing, but attempting to explain to the Western public what exactly a Chinese Boxer was, what they looked like, how they fought, and what they stood for.

And as you would expect, the answers they generated were neither positive nor particularly descriptively accurate.  Boxers were invariably armed with large swords and exotic weapons.  They were cruel, dirty and poor.  They drew their strength from a combination backwards superstition and primordial xenophobia.  Their very existence was a threat to the civilized order and a standing argument for the necessity of military intervention in China.

And the public loved these images.  They powered decades worth of Yellow peril novels and shaped elements of Western policy towards China.  In fact, the very first action film ever made was an attempt to show Western audiences exactly what a Chinese Boxer attack looked like.[8]  It turns out that martial arts films (very loosely defined) have been with us since basically the beginning of cinema.

And these images had real staying power.  But their meanings were not always stable.  During the 1970s a new generation of cinematographers, including a young Chinese-American actor named Bruce Lee, would draw on these same images of rage and vengeance against the forces of imperialism to create films like “Fists of Fury” (1972).  Yet in the very different social and political environment of the 1970s the one time villains became ethno-nationalist heroes.  The disciplined body of the martial artist was transformed from something intrinsically criminal, to an object of cross-cultural desire.

Audiences knew that China had been a victim of imperialism.  Yet now they saw that within its traditional culture lay the tools necessary for both community resistance and personal liberation.  And in the 1970s, as the situation in Vietnam worsened, and social unrest in the US grew, this message was taken seriously.

This narrative is also a powerful testament to the importance of good timing and path dependency.  Other countries may look at the success of China and Japan’s martial arts in the realm of soft power and seek to replicate it in their own attempts to bolster their national influence.  Clearly that was the goal of the Indonesian cultural diplomacy officer that my friend encountered.  Yet without the decades of prior media exposure that Chinese or Japanese images enjoyed, or the growing political and economic clout that they experienced during the post-Vietnam era, success is less certain.

And there is something else.  Bruce Lee understood his audience, and he was willing to draw from the Chinese martial arts only those things that both Chinese and Western consumer wanted.  That is how market transactions work, and so we should never be surprised to discover that consumers are satisfied with the goods and images that they decide to purchase.

Yet that is not how a centralized state led model of public diplomacy works.  That is often understood as an attempt to push consumer preferences rather than conform to them.  It is not always clear that political officers will have the deep knowledge necessary to craft an effective campaign.  And the very involvement of a government office in what is supposed to be a cultural practice can undercut an art in the eyes of the global public. To put it bluntly, most consumers don’t find propaganda all that interesting.

Kung Fu diplomacy, like the martial arts themselves, is most likely to succeed when it creates cross cutting identities that can help to diffuse tensions and allow individuals to engage in more authentic forms of cross cultural encounters.  While many state actors desire this, achieving it may require them to take a step back and let civil society, market forces and time find a way.




[1] Lee Wilson. 2015. Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Indonesia. Brill.

[2] Udo Moenig. 2015. Taekwondo: From a Martial Art to a Martial Sport. London: Routledge; Alex Gillis. 2008. A Killing Art. Ontario: ECW Press.

[3] Thomas Lindsay, and Kanō, Jigorō. 1889. “The Old Samurai Art of Fighting without Weapons”, Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, XVI, Pt II, pp. 202–217; T. Shidachi. 1892. “Ju-Jitsu,’ The Ancient Art of Self-Defence by Slight of Body.” Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society. Volume I. Transactions April-July, 1892. pp. 4-21

[4] Jasmijn Rana. 2014. “Producing Healthy Citizens: Encouraging Participation in Ladies-Only Kickboxing.” Etnofoor, Participation. Vol. 26 Issue 2. pp 33-48.

[5] Denis Gainty. 2013. Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan. Routledge.

[6] Wendy L. Rouse. 2017. Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self Defense Movement. NYU Press (Forthcoming).

[7] See for instance Peter van Ham. 2005. “Power, Public Diplomacy, and the Pax Americana.” In Jan Melissen (ed.) The New Public Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. 47-66.

[8] James Williamson. 1900. “Attack on a China Mission.”