A Chinese guerrilla team armed with rifles and dadaos near Guangzhou in 1941. Source: Vintage War photograph, Everett Collection.




An Old Metaphor


Violence has many faces.  It may appear in an inter-personal, domestic, social or political form.  It’s physical aspects exist on a spectrum ranging from school yard fights all the way up to interstate war.  And as the recent attack on a group of Republican congressional representatives and staff members illustrates, no neighborhood or group, is totally beyond its grasp.


For all this diversity, certain fundamental patterns are hard to ignore.  One of the best predictors of whether an individual will become a target of violence is if they have encounter another person who has also been victimized.  The logic of retaliation ensures that some forms of violence perpetuate themselves within a given area.  The spread of negative “social scripts” (learned norms regarding appropriate behavior), frustration and fear also suggest that an initial attack (say a mugging) can fester, morph and manifest itself in a very different guise (an act of aggression directed at a family member).


Violence has a strange way of begetting more violence.  This is not a novel, or particularly controversial, insight.  More philosophers, sages and teachers than I can count have noted this basic truth of human existence.  The insight has even worked its way into popular speech through a variety of metaphors.


While short in duration, the Boxer Uprising saw an unprecedented outpouring of violence that marred much of northern China.  In only a few months a handful of acts of inter-communal violence sparked a blaze that swept over the region.  This then escalated into a surprisingly bloody interstate war in which China’s government took the unprecedented step of declaring war on all of the era’s great powers.


Specific patterns of violence, as well as new types of social organization necessary to support it, leaped from village to village faster than observers on the ground (or even modern historians) could reconstruct the chain of events.  Careful academic writers like Eshrick and Cohen, not ones to exaggerate, describe this rapid escalation (both in terms of intensity and geographic scope) as a “wildfire.”  It is easy to imagine the event as a vast man-made natural disaster.  But a better metaphor, one that takes both social and psychological factors into account, might have been ‘contagion’ or ‘plague.’


The Boxer Uprising is only a single example of the seemingly infectious nature of violence.  Given the persistence of this pattern, what can be done?  And what roles have the martial arts played in spreading the contagion or inoculating potential host communities?




The Medical Model of Violence


Dr. Gary Slutkin is well acquainted with the realities of death.  Trained as an epidemiologist he spent the first decade of his career in Africa where he dealt with threats such as tuberculosis and cholera in environments like Somali refugee camps.  After returning to the United States he turned his attention to the topic of community violence and its causes.

Looking at maps that plotted instances of gun violence, Slutkin noted that the basic patterns closely mimicked the outbreak of certain biological diseases.  A variety of psychologists were already working to understand the ways that ideas, and even strong emotions, could become something like a contagion that quickly spread through social networks.  What if violent tendencies might be spread in the same way?

Dr. Slutkin then began to develop a model of community intervention based on a few simple premises.  First off, medical professionals, while not normally thought of as the first line of defense in these situations, were well positioned to observe and intervene when certain types of violence ended up in the hospital system.

Just as public health agents might be sent into the community to monitor and address the situation when an instance of tuberculosis appeared, a similar protocol could be put in place in response to an instance of domestic abuse or a gun shot.  Medical health professionals with special training in community intervention could be dispatched to locate the friends, family and social networks of the individuals involved.  The lives of these individuals would no doubt be touched by fallout from the initial act of violence, often in very negative ways.  In some respects (using the biological disease model) they might be thought as having been potentially “infected” by the initial event and in need of intervention, either to ensure their own health and well-being, or (in some instances) to prevent an escalation and that might lead to new attacks.

Dr. Slutkin noted that while such an approach could be successful, it would require a fundamental rethinking of how we, as a society, understand violence.  Before the biological model of disease was developed, individuals with conditions like leprosy were often condemned as it was believed that their symptoms were the result of a moral failing.  One’s medical circumstances in life were taken as an outward sign of an inner fault.

Likewise, Dr. Slutkin observed that individuals who committed acts of violence were usually condemned simply as “bad people,” and yet these types of social mechanism did little to deter the spread and escalation of violence as they did not address its root causes, intervene in an ongoing crisis, or provide individuals with other sorts of behavioral options.  Violence, he has argued, is not simply the domain of “bad people.”  While not wishing to deny the existence of some genuine monsters, what instances like the Boxer Uprising (or WWII) suggest is that, given the right circumstances, pretty much anyone can commit previously unthinkable acts of violence.

Those wishing to delve into the actual psychological and physiological mechanisms supporting Dr. Slutkin’s model (and I fully admit to not having done justice to its nuance and detail) have a wide variety of publications to choose from.  Non-medical specialists may want to start with this short paper which does an excellent job of summing up his approach and research findings. Or, if you are looking for something to listen to while driving, you can always check out his Ted Talk.

I expect that a few readers will already be familiar with the basic outline of his work, as well as the success that programs based on his approach have now had in a variety of neighborhoods and cities.  I first heard about this while listening to NPR at the gym, but his findings and approach have been widely discussed in many venues.  Nor have they always been accepted without controversy.  Violence in America is typically treated as a law-enforcement problem, rather than as a public health issue.  Still, the reports that I have seen on the actual implementation of Slutkin’s methods have been impressive, and it appears that he has succeeded in winning over many members of the law enforcement community.  If nothing else, interventionist policies are always expensive, and any proposal to invest large sums of money in struggling communities is sure to be controversial.


Ip Man visiting Ho Ka Ming’s School in Macau.




Martial Arts as Contagion/Martial Arts as Inoculation


All of this brings us back to the questions of the martial arts.  Around the world, in Europe, Asia, Latin America and other places, martial arts organizations have thrived by positioning themselves as specialists in the realm of personal and community violence.  Fencing instructors in 17th century Europe, machete masters in 19th century Haiti, Kung Fu teachers in Hong Kong during the 1950s, or Boxing trainers in the Chicago ghetto during the 1980s, all had this one thing in common.  Young men came to them seeking training in the arts of violence.  In some cases, the discipline and skill that they instilled in their students won these organizations respect in the community.  In other instances, the waves of escalatory brawling (or even dueling) that they unleashed resulted in fear.

Fear is important.  I suspect that the fear of violence needs to be addressed just as much as the reality of the violence itself.  Fear seems to drive so many human responses.  Dr. Slutkin seems to have created very interesting protocols for intervention.  And yet the scholar in me cannot help but ask for a bit of clarification.  Interventions by who, and against what?  Are we always reacting to a contagion, or do we sometimes react to our fears of violence?

The nice thing about a bacteria or virus is that it is a truly alien entity.  A doctor’s responsibilities are to her patients and she suffers no ethical qualms about the microscopic lives that are lost when she treats a patient for an infection.  Nor do these diseases have an intrinsic right to seek out new hosts.

Things become more complicated when discussing the human realm.  For instance, one cannot help but notice that many of the “social scripts” that trained intervention specialists may want to alter are in fact cultural norms.  And the teaching of new dispute resolution techniques, which if carried out might in fact lower the frequency of assaults, also looks a lot like the imposition of outside cultural practices.  This is not necessarily a problem.  All cultures change.  They are inherently adaptive structures.  People often desire and strive for cultural change.  Yet this does begin to raise the question of “how” and “why.”

If the new social scripts being created always reflected the preferences of a dominant social group, perhaps one that fears and stigmatizes a minority population living along-side them (maybe even describing them as intrinsically diseased or inferior), we might have a problem.  Indeed, there exists names (such as cultural imperialism and colonialism) for this sort of process.  I want to be very clear that this is not to accuse Dr. Slutkin of any of this.  All accounts suggest that the neighborhoods who have collaborated with him on violence reduction strategies have been part of the process and were well served by it.

Still, as a historian of the martial arts, I cannot help but notice echoes of the past.  Police forces have long sought to use punishment strategies to change the way that minority communities understood themselves, and their fighting traditions have always been easy targets.  Yet they were not alone in these efforts.  The great missionary programs of the 19th and 20th centuries also had their own plans for remaking the world in their own behavioral image (see, once again, the Boxer Uprising).  And various sorts of educators and even public health officials have shown a propensity for pathologizing variations in culture in ways that have been detrimental to large groups of people, whether racial or cultural minorities, or simply disabled individuals.  One of the real advantages of Dr. Slutkin’s program is that rather than seeking broad based “reforms” within local society, he has been content to work with it in an attempt to address a single very specific issue.  Yet the historical record on cultural interventions is checkered at best.

This pattern becomes particularly obvious when one examines the modern histories of many current martial arts styles.  Before capoeira was a “national treasure” it existed as an aspect of street culture criminalized by white elites who both feared and wish to suppress the role of Afro-Brazilian men in the public sphere.  And while China now promotes its indigenous fighting arts as a source of “soft power” on the global stage, it is worth remembering that this was not always the case.  These same hand combat traditions have been suppressed at multiple points in the past when the dominant forces in society perceived them as a sign of backwardness and disorder.  Of course, these practices also functioned as sites of local, economic or ethnic resistance to the expansion of a rapacious social order.  Indeed, this was a topic that I explored at length in my own work on the Southern Chinese martial arts.

Yet did the intellectual and social elites have a point?  Were the Chinese martial arts, on balance, a force for disorder?  This is a complicated question.

Kung Fu schools never exist entirely separate from the community structures that must support, or simply tolerate, them.  Nor were southern Chinese cities and towns always harmonious places.  They could be riven with tension and defined by economic and political competition between distinct factions.  As such, it can be difficult to determine when a specific instance of disorder originated within a given martial arts society, and when it was caught up in a larger pattern of events.

Some cases are clearer than others.  Consider the teaching career of Ip Man.  After fleeing to Hong Kong in 1949 he studiously avoided the sorts of political entanglements that had become such a danger to martial artists in Foshan during the 1930s and 1940s. We also have some very good accounts of his school during the critical decades of its development in the 1950s and 1960s.

These accounts all seem to suggest the same thing.  Ip Man’s students got in a lot of fights.  Nor was this always a matter of self-defense, understood in simple terms.  Several of his students became active participants in the rooftop fight culture which both middle-class parents and the police perceived as a serious form of youth delinquency.  Some of his students even took to harassing members of other local martial arts schools.

Ip Man’s role in this was two-fold.  On the one hand, we have reports of him actively encouraging his students to go out on the street and to get involved in actual fights.  I have never heard a suggestion of Ip Man instructing his students to unilaterally attack anyone, or to seek to profit from this.  Rather, his feelings seem to have been that fights between teenagers were inevitable, so they should be used (and even encouraged) as a valuable training tool.  Not only was Ip Man not interested to suppressing this sort of youth violence, his school was actively contributing to it.

Yet only up to a certain point.  There were limits as to what he was willing to accept.  Unarmed fights between Kung Fu students of assorted styles were not only tolerated but encouraged.  As odd as it might seem, this sort of low level fighting was an important aspect of the daily social interaction that defined the Hong Kong Kung Fu community in the post-War period, giving it life and purpose.

Yet just as Dr. Slutkin might warn, acts of violence can escalate and spread.  Individual students have a way of becoming proto-gangs, and those groups can be much more destructive when they decide to avenge a loss.  If things were to spin out of control the famously corrupt Hong Kong police (who often went out of their way to suppress martial art culture because of its working-class and Triad associations) would become involved.

That never really happened to Ip Man’s school during the two decades under consideration.  When things reached a certain point a separate set of behavioral norms were invoked.  The teachers and senior students of the local schools would meet (usually without the distraction of their more volatile teenage members), differences would be worked out, banquets would be eaten, relationships would be restored and the situation would be deescalated.

What this suggests to me is that the overall effect of the martial arts in the spread of violence is quite complicated.  In some cases, like the Boxer Uprising and the creation of the Yi Hi movement, they can act as an accelerant.  The very nature of the Yi Hi Boxers offers a few clues as to why this might occur.  They were a very loosely organized social movement that was both dominated by teenagers and lacked any form of coherent leadership above the village level (and sometimes even that was missing).  Such a movement could spread quickly, yet it contained few internal checks.  The case of Ip Man’s repeated negotiations with the neighborhood instructors indicates that other types of martial organizations can (and often have) developed exactly the sorts of norms and social scripts that are necessary to prevent additional outbreaks of violence.  Such an ability might have been necessary to succeed in Hong Kong’s more socially complex landscape.

This suggests two issues that sociologically oriented students of martial arts studies may want to consider when contemplating the relationship between these groups and social violence.  First, how strong is the leadership of a given movement?  Does it have the institutional structures in place to effectively influence the behavior of its membership.? And just as importantly, why do groups sometimes tolerate or even encourage a certain type or level of violence?  Are their reasons pedagogical, political or economic?  At what point do they decide to draw a line in the sand.  What motivates them to do so?

One suspects that their line may often be drawn in a different place than ours.  This was certainly a topic that most of Hong Kong’s working class martial arts schools and the colonial police disagreed on.  Yet understanding where and how these lines are drawn, as well as how they shift over time, may allow these groups to be effectively integrated into community violence intervention strategies in countries around the world.


Bronze acupuncture figure, in silk covered box bearing text
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images



The Road to Recovery


This brings us to the concluding point. Admittedly, it is more of a supposition than an assertion.  There can be no doubt that there is a “dark side” to the martial arts.  You simply cannot teach people more effective ways of committing acts of violence without empowering a (hopefully small) minority of individuals to going to go out and abuse that training.  On some level, we all understand this.  After all, half of all the martial arts themed movies, comic books and TV shows start out this way.  Those stories often contain powerful narratives about why, when things get rough, you really do not want to start acting like “that guy.”

And yet, there is so much more that happens in any martial art tradition, regardless of their immediate goals or countries of origin.  Whether it’s the sociality of a HEMA tournament, or students working together to clean the floors after a Kendo class, all of these interaction may serve a variety of social functions.

I have always wondered if one of the roles of a martial arts school, unspoken and only dimly understood, is to help students deal with the aftermath of violence in a productive and positive way.  As I think back on my time in the martial arts, so many of my Kung Fu brothers and sisters had been assaulted at some point in the past.  Some were horribly bullied in school, others were veterans suffering from PTSD.  Very few of them were actively facing violence at the time that we trained together, but it often seemed to lurk in their shadows.

I suspect that when we focus only on the effectiveness of our methods in teaching someone how to fight we are missing half of the picture.  Violence has a way of finding us, one way or another.  Dealing with the aftermath of those events, and learning to control the fear of violence is also a critical aspect of what martial arts training.  Hopefully an awareness of Dr. Slutkin’s findings will inspire students of Martial Arts Studies to ask new questions about the role that these institutions can play in both the processes of inoculation and recovery.




If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Spreading the Gospel of Kung Fu: Print Media and the Popularization of Wing Chun (Part I)