For ten years I have been polishing this sword;
Its frosty edge has never been put to the test.
Now I am holding it and showing it to you, sir:
Is there anyone suffering from injustice?

-“The Swordsman” by Jia Dao (Tang dynasty).  Trans. Liu, 1967.


“Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal”

     -Post-Civil War advertising copy for Colt Firearms.



I have always been interested in the social effects of the martial arts.  More specifically, might the spread of voluntary associations which focus on violence (and preparing individuals for it) make society better off?  Such a question is interesting precisely because it is not easily solved.  There are the seemingly counterfactual cases in which we hear about the benefits that come from putting “at risk” youth in boxing programs, or integrating taijiquan into the therapy plans offered to homeless individuals.  And if we have learned nothing else from martial arts studies, it is that a wide variety of individuals who have encountered these fighting systems have reported an increased sense of empowerment and health.  Indeed, the popularization of traditional fighting systems (initially from Asia, but more recently Europe and Latin America as well) has sparked the creation of multiple cottage industries.

Yet demonstrating that certain individuals have been empowered by the spread of a hand combat system is not the same thing as proving that society itself is actually better off.  As a historian it is not all that difficult to locate instances in which the spread of martial arts has preceded social disasters.  The case of the Boxer Rebellion springs to mind.  While certain marginal individuals may have been empowered by the Yihi movement, they immediately turned their new found strength against other marginal groups in the Chinese countryside, most notably Chinese Christians.  What resulted was anything but “just.”  And while many Chinese villages have turned to martial arts trained militias for basic defense and security, the bandits that have always been the scourge of the countryside also drew on their own (often identical) martial training in the perfection of their criminal vocation.

None of these issues are unique to China.  I note them simply because I spend much of my time thinking about this particular case.  Indeed, various rulers during the Qing dynasty seem to have wrestled with this quandary.  Some early imperial edicts cautiously endorsed the notion of the martial arts for communal self-defense, whereas other emperors noted (possibly correctly) that these practices caused as much trouble as they solved, and that the only true pathway to social peace was to be found in rectifying the self and the family.  Similar versions of this paradox can easily be found in European, African or American history.

Still, I am not sure that framing this issue solely as a historical question really gets us to the root of the problem.  As a social scientist, I have always been more interested in the patterns of outcomes rather than singular discrete events.  Historical examination may be the main means by which we can test our hypothesis as to when, and under what circumstances, the martial arts lead to good outcomes.  Yet we can have no hypothesis without first developing a theory, a baseline set of expectations about the many ways that martial arts and society interact.

Shi Jin, the Nine Dragoned (Kyûmonryû Shishin), from the series One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Shuihuzhuan (Suikoden hyakuhachinin no uchi). 19th century Japanese Woodblock print.


Theories of Justice


This returns us to our opening quotes.  Many individuals have heard some variant of the statement “God made men, and Sam Colt made them equal.” It is the kind of statement that fits nicely on a bumper sticker and seems to capture something about the insecurities that run through American society.  More is at stake in this assertion than just the question of gun ownership.  The original version of this statement was released as an advertising slogan by Colt in the years following the conclusion of the Civil War.  By focusing on the political actions of Abraham Lincoln, rather than the inscrutable ways of an all omniscient being, it suggested a paradox about the nature of justice, and even the notion of the common good.

Before we can actually delve into the relationship between the fighting arts and justice, we must know more about this later concept.  Given that my background is in the social sciences rather than political theory, I am sure that there are others who could go into the subject in much greater detail.  Yet anyone who has looked at the literature on justice in even a cursory way will be forced to acknowledge that it is both one of the most fundamental, but also most contested, concepts in Western thought.  For instance, many of the partisan debates that periodically paralyze democratic states are actually about what a just or “fair” society looks like.

Ancient Greek philosophers defined justice as a state of social harmony that resulted from everyone properly adhering to their place in society, even if those roles were radically unequal.  So in Greek thought a society with legal slavery could still be “just.”  Justice maximized social rather than individual utility.  In later medieval and early modern thought notions of justice multiplied.  Concepts like the “social contract” and “natural rights” came into play.  Equality, rather than simply harmony, became the mark of a just society.

And yet societies tend to be radically unequal places.  What rights can we really claim, and who enforces them?

Clearly there are negative rights.  Abraham Lincoln might declare that one had the right not be a slave.  Yet in a society built on overt discrimination, this minimal assertion did not free African-Americans to participate in their communities or live a life free from violence.  These additional rights to social, political and economic equality might be thought of as “positive rights.”  Ironically, rather than turning to the government to enforce such rights, the Colt firearms company claimed that they could be ensured only through the consumption of their products.  Indeed, the one right that everyone seems willing to fight for in a capitalist system is the ability to purchase products promising a better tomorrow.  Still, this quip suggests that both private and public actors have weighed in on the provision of justice, a point that we will return to at the conclusion of this essay.

As distasteful as Colts advertising slogan may have been in the wake of the Civil War, it all makes a certain amount of sense.  Historically speaking the United States was a “weak state” both before and after the Civil War.  It had little in the way of a standing army and the federal government’s ability to actually enforce social outcomes at the local level was very limited (as the largely stalled process of Reconstruction demonstrated).  What the Colt quote seems to tacitly acknowledge (and even romanticize) is that during the 19th century many citizens were effectively living in a system of “self help” of the sort commonly encountered in international relations theory rather than domestic politics.  Still, it is worth asking what a just society would have looked like in the abstract.  Would anyone opt for the existence of martial arts, or even Colt’s revolvers, if given the ability to design the ideal community?

We cannot bring up the question of social contracts and the theoretical choices that might lead to a more just society without introducing John Rawls (1921-2002).  In 1971 he released a book titled A Theory of Justice, further developing an important paper that he had published in the late 1950s.  Rawls’ work, designed as a response to utilitarian philosophers, has generated many critiques and an immense secondary literature.  As such, it cannot be said to be the last word on these questions, but it is probably the most important work in American philosophy written during the second half of the 20th century.  The nature of current debates in American society suggest that this might be a good time to revisit Rawls, and the structure of his thought experiment makes him particularly useful when it comes to evaluating the social utility of the martial arts.

Rawls’ work is based on an abstract and ahistorical thought experiment designed to determine what sort of society most people would prefer if they had no idea what position they would eventually be forced to occupy within it.  To simplify what is a very nuanced argument, he claimed that to understand what actual justice looks like, we need to take a step back from the assurances and strengths that we derive from our own lives.

Rawls noted that many distributive gains within an economy accrue to individuals not because of their hard work, but because of accidents of birth.  He argued that the key predictor of an individual’s success in life was the position of their parents, and that simple statistics suggest that true instances of “self-made millionaires” are in fact so rare as to be statistically insignificant.  Yet we are very emotionally attached to these narratives, and that attachment simply complicates our efforts to build a more just society where everyone has an opportunity to succeed regardless of their circumstances of their birth.

This does not mean that Rawls advocated for absolutely equality.  He noted that situations of inequality could make society better off.  For instance, the creation of modern medicine requires the accumulation of vast amounts of capital, knowledge and professional expertise.  That is a good thing and it has vastly improved everyone’s quality of life.  Likewise, most of us would prefer that our political leaders would be given greater authority, and that the best individuals should be selected for the job.  That almost always means paying them more than the average civil servant.

Discussions about justice are debates about society, and all societies are unequal.  Yet they are not all unequal in the same way.  Rawls suggested that inequality in outcomes should be permitted, and even encouraged, if the resulting surplus is used to benefit all members of society, including the least well off, more than a pure redistribution of wealth would.  So the creation of some sort of medical industry would be almost certainly be “just,” even if leads to rich doctors and hospital administrators, whereas the local warlord collecting “taxes” from merchants wishing to use “his” roads is not.  The question really gets down to the provision of public versus private benefits.

Assuming that individuals are basically rational, but risk averse, Rawls proposed that when covered by a “veil of ignorance” most of us would choose a notion of justice (and hence social structure) that would advantage the least fortunate members of society.  In the real world (something that was purposefully excluded from Rawls thought experiment) this might look like a typical European welfare state.  And I am sure that Sweden is a very nice place to live.  But would we choose to live in a society with martial arts?

This is where the inclusion of real world elements into an otherwise abstract thought experiment gets tricky.  Let us begin by accepting, at least in broad terms, that Rawls’ original thought experiment would yield something approaching a just (or at least “more just”) society.  But upon adding the weight of history and real world constraints, his subjects now know that the societies that they will be born into will be, in some respects, fundamentally unjust.  Given a choice, would they prefer to be born into a mundane society with martial arts, or without?  Can the existence of these fighting systems help us to move towards the sort of society that Rawls imagined?

Answering this question turns out to be more difficult than one might think.  To begin with, most of the testimonies in favor of the transformative nature of these fighting systems come from those that practice them.  Indeed, it stands to reason that those who would have the most to gain from the martial arts would also be those who invest the most in them.  Thus our attempts to understand their impact in purely empirical terms will likely always suffer from a type of selection bias.

Rawls spoke directly to this point in his 1971 text.  He noted that individuals derive unearned benefits from all sorts of circumstances of birth that go well beyond the frequently discussed categories of gender, race and socioeconomic status.  Raw physical talent is nothing that anyone inherently deserves, yet some people are born with it in abundance.  Likewise intelligence, disability or age (the timing of our birth) are other factors that we cannot control. All of these circumstances can contribute to unearned rents or hardships that a just society must consider.

While a logical argument cant be made that both Samuel Colt’s revolver and the martial arts might contribute to greater sense of fairness or equality in society, I think that we need to give an edge to the martial arts in the case of a Rawlsian thought experiment.  In our modified version of his “original position,” all individuals know that they will be born into an unjust society.  Yet to paraphrase Tolstoy, while all just societies are basically the same, each of their opposite numbers might be unjust in their own unique way.  Cloaked in the veil of ignorance we do not know which set of injustices we will face.

If the problem is open violence and private warfare, Samuel Colts vision of equality may have something going for it.  Which is not to say that individuals do not, and have not, turned to the martial arts in the face of individuals and community violence.  Yet these fighting systems are fundamentally social in nature, and that gives them a huge added measure of flexibility in facing other types of challenges.  What if we emerge from the original position to find that we face some other sort of violence?  The social networks created by martial arts associations can be used to gather information about potential employment or to defray risks for those facing economic injustice.  Cultural inequality can be combated through the creation of new status hierarchies or the preservation of “intangible cultural heritage.”  The regular practice of certain arts might lead to better physical health, or the creation of “social capital” as different sorts of individuals are brought together under a single roof in a new type of community.

Yet Rawls would remind us that not all individuals will become martial artists.  Indeed, whether we can partake in these activities again comes down to questions that we do not directly control.  These include our economic status, age, level of physical ability and the randomness of access to preexisting martial arts networks.  The real questions revolve around those who do not, or cannot, practice.  Are they better off living in a society in which the martial arts thrive and consume scarce resources?

One suspects that the answer to this question will vary quite a bit.  Further, the specific ways in which the martial arts interact with both the local and national community may be quite important.  If the martial arts are treated as private goods, used to advance the interests of narrowly drawn social factions, I am not sure that there is any reason to assume that they will contribute to justice.  When the Triads have controlled a large percentage of the local martial arts schools, the broader community has generally seen these practices as a blight on the neighborhood, even if a group of independent martial artists existed who actively resisted the criminal element.  In general the weakest members of society were made no better off by this privatization of violence.  Indeed, many were probably left much worse off.

In other cases the equation seems to balance quite differently.  When the state is strong and able to resist organized criminal groups, the martial arts are less likely to become a tool of community exploitation.  That same state may also subsidize the cost of martial arts practice, or make it available to a wider range of people with many levels of ability, in an attempt to promote either public health or national identity.  Both of these can be thought of as “public goods” that advantage everyone (and not just those in the expanded pool of practitioners).  Less money being spent to control age related chronic illnesses means more health dollars for those facing other challenges.  And while nationalism has proved be a double edged sword, people crave the sense of belonging that healthy communities generate.

Statue with Sword and Wine Gourd. Another figure in China’s long tradition of eccentric warrior-sages. Source: Vintage German Postcard.



Can the martial arts contribute to the creation of a just society?  The answer seems to be, “It depends.”  A strictly empirical student might dismiss such a finding as really no improvement over a deep dive into the historical record.  As the introduction of this essay established, the relationship between popular fighting systems and justice has been debated for centuries.

Yet examining this question through the theoretical lens provided by John Rawls has helped to sharpen our thinking in a number of ways.  To begin with, we often ask the wrong questions when attempting to evaluate the social impact of the martial arts.  Rather than simply asking about the relatively small group of people who self-select to join a school or association, Rawls reminds us that we need to ask about the outcomes for the rest of society as well.  Secondly, by evaluating strategies for distributive justice by modeling their impact on the most marginal members of society, Rawls encourages us to think much more carefully about the classes of “public goods” (or “bads” in the form of negative externalities) that the martial arts might produce.

Traditionally, when evaluating the martial arts, we have focused our attention on either the “philosophy” of the group in question, or possibly the motivations and actions of its members.  An alternate focus on their ability to produce public goods suggests that such strategies have fallen short of revealing the full picture.  To understand outcomes we must instead think much more carefully about the relationships between these groups and either the state or the society that supports them.  It is this set of structural constraints that will really determine whether the martial arts produce public goods, and hence a more just society.  A detailed examination of the relationship between the martial arts and the concept of “public goods” will be the subject of an upcoming essay.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Do the martial arts unite or divide us? Kung Fu and the production of “social capital”