A statue in the Taiji series by the Taiwanese artist Ju Ming.




Are the martial arts good?  I think that most people who spend a lot of time practicing any of these systems would reflexively answer “Yes.”  I know that I would.  Fewer of us would pause to ask about the scope and domain that such a question begs.  Good for who? ‘Good’ in what sense?  Are we imagining a ‘private good’ that accrues simply to an individual or a bounded organization?  Can there by something more?

None of these answers are obvious.  Despite the positive public image that these arts have won in recent decades, they have always had a troubling dark side.  Historically they have been associated with ethno-nationalism and were consciously used by multiple states to militarize their citizens during the wars of the 20th century.  Even a quick survey of the history of community violence, local rebellions or organized crime in China’s tumultuous 19th and 20th centuries will quickly demonstrate that the martial artists were not always on the side of peace and social order.  And in the current era its all too easy to watch the coverage of modern combat sports and wonder about the spread of toxic visions of masculinity.  Indeed, the controversies that outrageous pre-fight statements generate only seem to sell more advertising.

As practitioners, we must maintain our faith that the martial arts can be a positive force in the world.  Yet as scholars and social scientists we must face the fact that this has not always been the case.  Understanding how, and under what circumstances, the martial arts might advance the common good is one of the key theoretical challenges that we face.  And given the amount of public and private support that various martial arts programs currently receive, these are policy questions with “real world implications.”

A previous post asking whether the martial arts might promote the creation of more just societies introduced the work of John Rawls and laid the foundation for a more systematic discussion of these subjects.  Most studies of the martial arts ask what impact they have on practitioners.  Are they beneficial, or might they promote anti-social behavior?  Do they deliver on their promises of increased physical health and psychological well-being, or are they ineffective?  Researchers have focused on assorted styles, different sorts of students, and even the impact of various motivations and philosophies (traditional practices vs. competitive sports) to ascertain their impact on individual outcomes.  We have learned much about these practices in the process.

Yet a Rawlsian approach suggests that such approaches tell only part of the story.  Martial arts practice always generated externalities (effects impacting third parties) that go well beyond the more common narratives of individual costs and benefits.  This is no secret.  Various governments, in both Asia and the West, have actually put in place policies promoting the martial arts (or even incorporated them directly into their educational systems) precisely because they were attempting to promote such externalities.

We cannot forget that martial arts are, in a number of ways, fundamentally social phenomenon. If we want to assess their impact, variables at the social level must be considered.  Further, the Rawlsian approach reminds us that most individuals will not have the right mix of attributes (income, age, health, access, interest) to take part in martial arts training, yet they will still be affected by the externalities that it generates.  Any discussion of the allotment of society’s resources must account for the majority of people who will not actively be engaged in these practices.  Again, most residents of Beijing in the summer of 1900 had no interest in the martial arts, yet they were all deeply impacted by the sudden eruption of the Yihi Boxers on the dusty plains of Shandong.




The Martial Arts as a Public Good


As conceptually useful as Rawls has been, once questions of public policy emerge, additional theoretical tools are necessary to sharpen our thinking.  Specifically, if martial arts might be shown to generate benefits for all of society, and not just the individuals who practice them, can they be thought of as a public good?  And might that lead to an argument for greater public support?

These questions arose near the conclusion of the previous essay on Rawls’ theories of justice.   Yet we cannot answer them without exploring what a “public good” actually is, and saying a few words about their typical relationship with society and the state.  The term itself is somewhat slippery in that it has been popularized in multiple contexts.  In political discussions, a public good might be anything that benefits society as a whole, or a specific service that the “public” (usually in the form of the government) provides.  An example might be the interstate highway system, or the construction of a new local high school.

This essay will instead employ the much more detailed version of this concept that was developed in the field of economics.  Specifically, economists claim that something is a public good only if it meets two standards; it must be “non-excludable” and “non-rival.”  Given that these are not terms that most of use in daily conversation, some unpacking may be in order.

First, a good is non-excludable if anyone is free to enjoy it.  If there is an apple tree in a public park, any visitor might take an apple.  In the absence of rules prohibiting this behavior (and probably a sturdy fence), we might call our imaginary apples a “non-excludable good.”  No one enjoys a property right to exclusively dispose of these goods.

An object is “non-rival” if your consumption of the good does not leave any less of it for me to consume.  Now our metaphorical apple tree runs into problems.  It may be heavy with fruit, but the number of apples must be finite.  At some point one more apple for you is one less for me.  As a result, apples are rival goods.  And as wonderful as our public apple tree might be, it is not a public good.

The park that the tree is located within may be a different matter.  Parks do not spontaneously appear in isolation.  They are the result of public policy initiatives that promote entire systems of parks throughout an urban landscape.  Beyond that there will likely be “green belts,” community campuses and waterfront recreation areas.  And while I may find that someone is already sitting under my favorite apple tree, there will be many other areas of the park system that are not being utilized to capacity.  Even in a city as busy as New York, it is not hard to find a quiet spot in Central Park, and something like Morningside Park, or The Bronx Park, will inevitably be mostly empty.  The creation of a parks system itself is much closer to being truly non-rival and thus approximates a public good.  As the old saying go, build a public park and the Taijiquan students will come.

This is where the distinction between a political “public good” and an economic one becomes especially relevant.  The creation of a new high school will certainly benefit some members of the public.  Yet these benefits are likely to be highly excludable.  Only the children of one neighborhood (which may contain a block of powerful voters) receive the benefits.  Further, other schools may lose funding as it is transferred to the new facility.  Yet economists would still argue that the creation of a public school educational system would be a public good.  Other public goods include things like clean air, national security and the creation of new academic fields, like martial arts studies!

Public goods are a critical component of our national wealth.  While its hard to put a monetary value on something like a solid public education system, or an interstate highway network that lets you travel quickly and easily anywhere you would like, these things contribute immensely to our day to day well-being.  Even if you are not attending school, you still derive benefits from living in a society that is widely literate.

Unfortunately, the unique characteristics of public goods also dictate that they will probably be underprovided.  Because no one must pay to take an apple from our tree, no one has an incentive to plant more trees (at least in our imaginary park).  The received wisdom is that this is one of the situations that justifies the state’s intervention in society and the market.  The state can tell us that we must educate our children, or impose taxes on our income to pay for public parks, precisely because the benefits that society receives from having a healthy and well-educated workforce vastly outweighs the cost.  Yet left to their own devices, markets have proved unable to provide these goods.  For this reason, many of the examples of “public goods” that you might find in a college textbook simply assume that they are the result of some public policy.  But can private groups, or society itself, also provide public goods?

This is where the martial arts become an object of interest as they often argue (at least in informal terms) that they can do just that.  On the surface this is something of a paradox as the process by which the martial arts are taught is clearly not a public good.  Most students must pay (sometimes quite hefty) tuition fees.  Indeed, martial arts instruction is usually encountered in the context of economic markets.  Like all for-profit enterprises, it is highly excludable.

It is not only the profit motive that is an issue.  The benefits of public goods must be available on a massive scale, yet martial arts instruction is typically a far more intimate affair. Even when Tai Chi instruction is offered in the park for free, there is a natural limit on the size of any class.

On the other hand, a given private activity might have unintended externalities, and sometimes their reach can be quite surprising.  Only a small number of individuals in the United States train in the mixed martial arts at an elite level.  Of them only a few dozen are actively involved in televised matches at any point in time.  And yet it is entirely possible that the immense media focus on their matches not only reflects social shifts, but is actually moving the needle on a number of issues from the importance that we put on “tradition” in the martial arts, to discussions of gender more generally.

Nor should this MMA example be taken as an indication that this phenomenon is in anyway new.  While the public often fixates on their “ancient” past, almost all of the traditional Asian fighting systems came into their own in the final years of the 19th century, or the opening decades of the 20th.  This was the great era of nationalism and state governments quickly seized upon the importance of physical culture and martial arts in the state building process.

We have already reviewed the ways in which both the Chinese and Japanese governments sought to introduce martial arts training into school curriculums.   There is no quicker way to create a unified national identity than by crafting a universal physical culture.  Yet these efforts never really were “universal.”  While Wushu may be China’s national sport, and its taught in many high schools, most people in China have never practiced it.  One could easily make a similar statement about Judo in Japan during the 1930s, or Boxing in America in the 1950s.

The key to understanding the actual social impact of such activities lay in the externalities that they generated.  Japanese parents, who by in large had never studied the martial arts, attended Kendo and Judo matches and festivals in the 1920s to support and cheer their children on.  They did so in the full knowledge that all over Japan countless other parents, who they would never meet, were also gathering in support of these practices and identities.  As Benedict Anderson has noted, this exercise in imagination and empathy is the process by which communities are formed and identities are stabilized.  One could tell an almost identical story about Jingwu demonstrations in Shanghai in the 1920s, Boxing events in New York in the 1930s and Taekwondo Tournaments in Seoul during the 1970s.

Across the globe the nationalization of the martial arts has been associated with both their homogenization (usually under the guise of modernization) and their sportification.  This last transformation, while often painful to traditionalists, is critical as it makes the martial arts an easy target for state control.  Competitive events (particularly those that are folded into educational structures) need to be regulated, promoted and properly supported.  At the same time, the introduction of competitive elements made what had once been small scale practices the subject of public empathy and identification on a vast scale.  One only has to consider the enthusiasm generated by the 1928 National Guoshu Examination, or the inclusion of Judo in the 1964 Olympic Games, to understand how combat sports and nationalism might interact.

Looking back over the conflict rich 20th century, its easy to view all of this with a fair degree of suspicion.  Modern nation states do not have a great track record when it comes to promoting peaceful and just societies.  Yet civically minded governments have also attempted to use this process in a way that more closely approximates the provision of public goods.  Combat sports often require little in the way of expensive training equipment and can be a cost-effective way of providing interesting physical education to the largest number of children.  This probably accounts for wrestling immense global popularity.  And any improvement in adolescent health is good for society.

Knowing that individuals develop networks of trust and reciprocity with their training partners, some governments (in both Europe and Asia) have attempted to turn to kickboxing leagues and martial arts societies as a way to promote friendships and healthy interactions between community groups who have previously come into conflict.  All sorts of sports have proved useful in similar projects, and there is no reason to think that the martial arts should be an exception.  The greater degree of trust and empathy that is often developed between training partners in combative situations suggest that they might be uniquely effective.  Again, an atmosphere of reduced social tensions is something that all citizens can reap the benefits from, regardless of whether they are the ones who are engaged in the training.

Even the purely private provision of the martial arts might be particularly important in areas with a history of sustained community violence.  In a previous essay we discussed the ways in which violence acts as a contagion within social networks.  This process goes beyond the bounds of metaphor, and epidemiologists have noted that it is possible to use the sorts of public health protocols that were originally developed for dealing with contagious diseases to contain the further spread of violence.

To the extent that traditional martial arts training provides a point of social intervention, where individuals can be sheltered from the immediate impact of violence while learning how to process and cope with its aftermath, it may render a valuable service.  This is another good that may accrue to the community as a whole.  By inoculating a greater number of at-risk individuals against the urge to retaliate or spread violence, the entire atmosphere of a community might be changed.

There has been some research suggesting that traditional martial arts training (rather than competitive combat sports) might be necessary to accomplish such goals.  I am not sure that this is really the case.  It is hard to think of a less traditional, or more competitive, sport than amateur boxing.  Yet minority communities have long relied on the boxing gym to be just such a point of intervention in local communities, providing social alternatives, getting young people “off the streets” and carefully regulating the spread of violence.  Loic Wacquant’s ethnographic study Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer (Oxford UP, 2004) must be counted among the most important foundation texts of Martial Arts Studies.  In it Wacquant painstakingly unpacks the place of the predominantly African-American boxing gym in the Chicago ghetto.

By the end of the volume its clear that the establishment he studied had a stabilizing effect on not just the lives of individuals boxers (who benefited from the discipline and social connections that the gym offered), but the neighborhood as a whole.  All of this was done on a shoestring budget.

Its relatively easy to find additional studies of boxing (and other combat sports) that come to similar conclusions.  Several such papers have been presented conferences over the last few years.  Perhaps this should not be a surprise.  Philosophies and norms are taught to, and experienced by, individuals.  Yet when discussing “public goods” we are looking at the social level of analysis, and this means considering the externalities of martial practices that impact those people who do not study them.  In this case its structural variables, specifically, how the martial arts relate to society and the state, that are likely to be the most important.

Wacquant’s Chicago boxing gym also illustrates another aspect of the public goods concept quite nicely. While it was a force for stability in the neighborhood, the condition of the gym itself was pitiful.  As a public facility, few individuals had an incentive to contribute to the success of Dee Dee’s program.  The training equipment was described as being in a constant state of tatters, and the gym itself clearly needed basic upkeep and maintenance.  While it produced multiple professional fighters, their wealthy managers seemed to have felt no obligation to invest in the “farm team” or its facilities.  Nor did most of the individuals who trained at the gym, even though (as Wacquant repeatedly noted) many of them were comparatively stable and well off.  As any economist would remind us, such goods are subject to the “free rider” problem and tend to be underprovided, even when the value that they provide is clear to all.






The question of whether the martial arts, as they exist in the Western world today, can provide public goods is really an issue of scale.  The existing schools, gyms and after-school programs do provide positive externalities to local communities that can be thought of as public goods.  Yet these are underprovided.  Further, the decline in real wages and the shrinking of the American middle class has put further pressure on these commercial institutions.  Public policies supporting or subsidizing the martial arts (as is sometimes seen in Asia and Europe) would doubtless increase the provision of these public goods.

Yet this comes at the cost of making the martial arts responsive to the demands of the state rather than their students.  Numerous false starts notwithstanding, I suspect that at some point Wushu will be accepted as an Olympic sport.  If nothing else, the IOC must bow to the quickly changing realities of the global balance of power and the growing popularity of the event across South-East Asia and Africa.

When this happens, millions of Chinese citizens will enjoy a sense of pride, validation and nationalism (itself a public good?) that will follow the undoubted triumph of their athletes on the global stage.  The spread of competitive Wushu may even promote understanding and empathy on the global stage as more individuals are drawn into the process.  And the state-backed nature of this enterprise strongly suggests that it will not be underprovided.  Still, one wonders what impact this success will have on China’s more traditional folk arts.  Such policies always create winners and losers.

As social scientists, we might argue that many of the strategies that we currently see (lobbying for inclusion in school curriculums, campaigning for intangible cultural heritage status) are attempts to interest the state in the externalities that traditional fighting systems can offer, and thus win a more permanent type of support insulated from the vagaries of changing tastes and market forces.  Indeed, this strategy is very like that of Chinese and Japanese martial artists in the early 20th century as they articulated their own vision of what the ideal modern society should be.  In the modern era it seems impossible to disentangle the fate of the traditional martial arts from the exploitation of the public goods that they are believed to produce.



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