I recently had the chance to attend (and deliver a keynote at) the 3rd Annual Martial Arts Studies conference, held at the Cardiff University. Having also attended the 2015 and 2016 conferences I can state with confidence that the field continues to move from strength to strength. Each of these gatherings has been a dynamic and exciting affair, and each has had its own unique strengths and topics of focus. Cultural and film studies marked the first gathering, anthropology and theatre studies were prominent topics at the second, while history and sociology seemed to play a more visible role in these meetings. Taken as a set the three conferences have showcased the breadth of questions asked in Martial Arts Studies. And the professionalism of the papers that I saw this year (a notable improvement over the already good quality of work being showcased in previous years) spoke to the increased expertise that a variety of scholars are bringing to these topics.
This year’s conference also felt “fresh” for another reason. After a couple of years I was finally able to convince my wife to come with me on this trip. I have often thought that she might be the hardest working woman in the field of martial arts studies who no one knows. There is no way to count the number of draft chapters that she has edited, or the hours that she has listened to me talk about these topics. It would be literally impossible for me to have dedicated this much time and energy to Martial Arts Studies without her support. Naturally I wanted her to come and see what she had helped to promote and create.
Cardiff is a fun, surprisingly walkable, city. It is full of gastropubs, clubs, theaters and shopping. The water front looks fun, though I admit that I have never taken the time off to visit. I suspected that my wife would probably come to see my keynote and spend the rest of the time exploring the city or the countryside. But to my surprise she instead decided to read the abstracts, found the papers that were the most interesting, and attended all of the conference panels! The result was that I got to hear someone’s impressions of the gathering who, while familiar with general outlines of the martial arts studies literature, has no professional investment in it. And that is always a refreshing point of view.
The conference formally began at 3:00 in the afternoon of July the 11th. My wife and I barely made it into the city as we had arrived in London the day before and stayed to do some ethnographic fieldwork with a martial arts school near Finsbury Park. Luckily, we made it to the conference venue in time to get checked in and to hear Prof. Peter Lorge’s opening keynote address titled “Inventing ‘traditional martial arts.’” Professor Lorge (author of Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty First Century) began by noting how exciting it was, after 15 years of often solitary research, to finally be in a room where everyone could appreciate and take seriously the notion of the martial arts as a valid subject of academic discussion. Indeed, with the rapid success of the last few years, it is easy to lose track of how far we have come. He then delved into the discussion of a research project, currently in the works, looking at the topics outlined in his title. Hopefully his talk will be posted on the Martial Arts Studies Research Network homepage in the next few weeks.
His keynote was followed by drinks and a “speed-networking” activity which was a great way to get to meet everyone at the conference on the first day. According to the program there were about 45 papers and presentations given this year, and Paul told me that 70 people had registered for the conference in total. Those numbers looked about right give or take a couple of people who could not make it due to last minute travel difficulties, and few last minute walk-ins.
As I met people both in this activity and at dinner it became clear that this was a substantially new crowd. It is my impression that many of the presenters at the first conference returned for the second with some new people joining the crew. This year was a bit different. While there were several familiar faces (including a healthy contingent of scholars from Germany and the continent, most of the presenters were individuals I had not met before. While it would have been great to catch up with some friends from past years, overall this was a great sign and speaks to the growing size of the Martial Arts Studies community. Not only is the quality of our work getting better, but our bench is also getting deeper.
Wednesday was the conferences “main event.” The morning started with some push-hands in the park across from Bute Hall (for those who were so inclined) or a late breakfast in Aberdare Hall for those of us still dealing with jetlag. The morning keynote was delivered by my good friend Dr. Sixt Wetzler. He opened the session with a frank assessment of the ways that martial arts are used as a coping strategy for the problem of violence. As well as calling for a greater focus on the problem of violence, Sixt also sought to expand the sorts of situations that Martial Arts Studies scholars might seek to address in thought provoking ways.
The rest of the morning was then dedicated to four concurrent panels. I chaired a great session that had three papers that all examined different aspects of the martial arts in Hong Kong. Hopefully I can rope each of the three presenters into sharing some of their research on the blog in the near future. Following lunch Prof. Meaghan Morris turned to the subject of both classic and modern kung fu films to explore the concept of the “river and lakes” in Chinese society as well as the role of the individual who turns their back on the martial arts in Chinese cinema. Hopefully her talk with be on YouTube soon, and I found myself scribbling down the titles of half a dozen movies that I suddenly realized that I needed to see.
After a quick break it was time for another set of panels. This time I attended a more historically oriented panel looking at various issues in the Chinese martial arts. It was then my turn to deliver an evening keynote titled “Show, Don’t Tell: Making Martial Arts Studies Matter.” Given that the full text of this paper will probably be posted sometime next week I am not going to review it here. I will say that I attempted to offer an assessment of the status of martial arts studies and made an argument about what is necessary to more effectively communicate the work we are doing to individuals who may not be as familiar (or enamored) with the martial arts as we all are.
Following this talk everyone left for another conference dinner and many hours of happy socializing. But there is no rest for the wicked. My wife and I broke ranks and headed out to meet with another martial arts group and put in two or three hours of additional field work.
Thursday morning began with a note by Paul Bowman. This was followed with a Keynote by Professor Gitanjali Kolanad who offered a comparative study of her experience in the worlds of traditional Indian dance and martial arts. Her paper sparked a vigorous discussion of the role of video in the study of embodied disciplines and other methodological issues. The final section of panels was then held.
I had to make a painful decision as to whether to go to a panel on the state of Martial Arts Studies, or a different one that looked at questions of narrative and identity. Eventually I chose the later and the papers by George Jennings, Leo Istas and P. S. Gowtham did not disappoint. All three scholars had fascinating projects which would make wonderful guest posts (hint, hint….).
After lunch, my wife and I had to leave so we could make it back to London in time for our departing flight. This was unfortunate as it meant missing the final workshop which attempted to tackle both a famous quote by the sociologist Loic Waquant and the more general topic of how we in martial arts studies should understand and approach the discussion of embodied knowledge. While I missed this final discussion, I understand that Paul Bowman, Sixt Wetzler, Daniel Jaquet, and Eric Burkart had a lot to say on the topic. Afterward Paul told me that there were some suggestions that the journal should offer a special methodology themed issue, which sounds exciting.
Impressions and Assessment
There are two kinds of conference reports that one can give, and one type is considerably more fraught than the other. Its easy enough to outline the structure, panels and keynotes of a conference; to talk about the warm and welcoming conference venues, or the hours of pleasant discussion and socialization. Yet no two people will attend the same mix of panels, or have the same conversations. In a very real sense no two of us ever attend the exact same conference. This makes the task of offering an overall set of “impressions” and “assessments” more difficult. Still, it’s a task worth trying.
My overall impression was that this set of meetings showcased the remarkable growth of our shared interdisciplinary field over the last three years. During the first set of meetings in 2015 we had serious discussions as to whether, and in what sense, Martial Arts Studies might be thought of as a “scholarly field.” Now the journal has just released its fourth issue, the book series from Rowman & Littlfield has three titles out, with multiple more expected. And the quality of the papers at this conference surpassed the mark set by our previous two efforts.
Still, the future presents us with both challenges and opportunities. The most immediate challenge would have been visible to anyone exiting Cardiff Central Station. The large glass and steel building being constructed just in front of the train station will be the new home of Cardiff University’s School of Journalism. As Paul noted in a private conversation, that means that our time in Bute Hall is limited. While that building will likely be closed next summer, its not entirely clear that the new one will yet be finished. Indeed, the organization of these meetings is always a moving target.
Oddly, it is the remarkable success of the field which will dictate some of the challenges that we will face in the immediate future. Larger conferences are more difficult and expensive to organize than smaller ones. The growing profile of Martial Arts Studies means that more classes on the topic are being offered in universities around the world. This opened the door to active discussions of what it would take to organize minors or majors in various places, yet such growth never comes without a measure of resistance. Indeed, it is our success in the fields of publishing, grant writing and teaching that increasingly bring us into contact with the sorts of academic gatekeepers that were less of frequently encountered when this field was basically a hobby or personal interest.
Yet one thing became abundantly clear by the end of the conference. In addition to laying down a track record of solid research and publications, a number of individuals are thinking about the next steps that need to be taken to both consolidate the gains that we have made, and ensure a pathway for growth in the future. If our first conference asked whether martial arts studies could occupy a place within the university, these meetings made it clear that we were both present, and uniquely well placed to address a wide range of questions that are of interest to the scholarly community more generally. Given that we have arrived, we now must ask “what is next?”
As Peter Lorge noted in his opening keynote, this is an exciting time. It is no small thing that academics and interested practitioners were willing to fly around the globe to cooperatively advance the state of Martial Arts Studies. And that is what these conferences really do. Physically meeting in one place allows for a type of networking, relationship building and exchange of ideas that transform a shared conversation from mere “potential” to a realized fact. Each gathering has spawned new collaborations, introduced us to new subjects and methods, and renewed our enthusiasm for the subject. Meetings like these do not just document fields, they build them. This is why these events are so very important. And by that measure the 2017 conference foreshadows new and exciting things in the upcoming year.
Of course, I have my own wish list of things that I would like to see. While the Chinese martial arts were well represented at this year’s meetings, I want to hear more about the scholarship on traditional and modern Japanese systems. It was great to have multiple presentations that dealt with both HEMA and the South Asian martial arts, but other areas, including African and Caribbean fighting systems, still remained underrepresented. An increased emphasis on the global nature of these issues and fighting systems would be a wonderful thing. It would also be great to see more scholars from North America presenting their research at these meetings in the future. While it is certainly a long trip, in my experience, it is one that is absolutely worth making. Again, new fields are created in conferences like these, and it is an ever evolving process.
But do not just take my word for it. Be sure to check out Daniel Jaquet’s report on this conference here! Cardiff University also did a short piece that might be interesting. And if you attended this year’s meetings feel free to post your thoughts or links to other conference reports in the comments below.
If you enjoyed this conference report, you might also want to read: Lineage and Social Analysis in Martial Arts Studies