Paul Bowman: A Conversation with the Journal of the Tai Chi Union of Great Britain

Image of a Taiji Boxer. Source: Burkhardt, 1953.

 

***I had initially planned to share the first of my recent conference papers this weekend, but I think that should probably wait until next week.  Prof. Paul Bowman, whose contributions to the development of martial arts studies are literally too many to list (but include the publications of important books, the creation of a conference series, an academic book series and a journal) has recently done an interview with the Tai Chi Union of Great Britain.  Its a very nice piece that provides a great introductory discussion of “martial arts studies” for anyone who is trying to get their head around this project.  With his permission I thought that I would share it here.  Take a look at it, and feel free to pass it along to colleagues, students or friends who may be wondering what we are all about!***

 

Interviewer: Mark Langweiler
Interviewee: Paul Bowman

Before we get into Martial Arts Studies, could you tell me a bit of your background?

Despite everything else, at heart I still most often feel like I am a little boy from Newcastle who loves almost anything about martial arts, and almost never stops thinking about them. I wonder if a day has passed that I haven’t thought about something to do with martial arts. Anyway, I studied at Leeds University (English first, then cultural studies, then cultural and political theory). Then I worked in several universities before coming to Cardiff University ten years ago.

I assume you have some martial arts background, what is it? What attracted you in the first place?

In my life I have tried my hand at dozens of martial arts, but I have only really spent significant time on a few: taekwondo/kickboxing, tai chi, kung fu and escrima. I had practiced karate when I was a teenager, and then when at university I found taekwondo, and loved it. After moving around a bit, my practice fizzled out and I dabbled in other things. But in 2001 I met a guy at work who taught tai chi. I tried it and was hooked. When I left that place, I moved to a formal club and added in choy lee fut kung fu, then some xingyi.

A terrible ankle injury put paid to all of that, and for a while I was in the wilderness. Eventually I returned to sparring, but for a long time struggled with tai chi forms, so I looked for something that didn’t require sinking and low postures, as my ankle just couldn’t do it. I eventually found escrima, which does not require sinking and is much more up on the toes, which was great for me.

That was five years ago. Since then my ankle mobility has returned and I can now do tai chi properly again. I teach tai chi again, but this is mainly to fund my escrima habit. So, now I tend to say that I practice tai chi am studying escrima.

What got me into it in the first place was Bruce Lee, I think. Sonny Chiba to a lesser extent. But Bruce Lee overall. I always loved Bruce Lee. I still do, really.

You’re a Professor of Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. That seems pretty far removed from Martial Arts Studies… how are they related?

Well, for me the connection is Bruce Lee. When I was doing my MA in cultural studies and people would be discussing things like ‘cultural hybridity’, ‘postcolonialism’ and ethnic identity politics, I would often state that Bruce Lee was a very important figure. People would laugh out loud at the suggestion. Which I thought was a real pity. People just thought that Bruce Lee was a trivial action hero, when in fact his importance in so many realms and contexts is enormous. So I stopped writing about political theory and decided to write a book about Bruce Lee – not a fan book, but a book that showed how important a cultural (and, yes, ‘political’) figure Lee really was… I thought the book would vanish without a trace. But it actually had quite an impact in different places around the world; and more to the point, I was hooked. I was hooked on writing about Bruce Lee and martial arts. In fact, Bruce Lee was a kind of gateway for me into writing about martial arts in popular culture. That’s where my interests lie.

 

Tell me about Martial Arts Studies, what is it? How did you become involved in it as an academic study?

There are at least two ways of seeing it. On the one hand, studies of martial arts can take place in just about any academic field – so martial arts studies can just be a subsection of any old established field. But on the other hand, so many academics and scholars from so many disciplines are now coming together and having so many discussions and interactions, that these meetings exceed the confines of any one discipline. So something different seems to be happening – completely new discussions, new questions, new debates. So martial arts studies is a completely new research area.

My involvement in it came about thanks to the work on Bruce Lee. I was invited to contribute to a book about embodied knowledge and Asian martial arts in global popular culture. The editors’ introduction to that book discussed what they called ‘martial arts studies’. That was the first time I had seen the term. It may well be the first time it appeared in print, in any discussion of a possible new field. And it got me thinking. So in 2013 I organised a special issue of a journal called ‘martial arts studies’, and it attracted lots of great work. In 2014 I wrote a book with the same title. And in 2015 I held the first Martial Arts Studies Conference in Cardiff. The rest is, as they say, bunk – I mean, history.

The field appears to be quite broad, how would you define it?

It is quite broad! It’s the coming together of researchers from all sorts of different disciplines. And that’s really as far as I would want to define it. I don’t see it as a closed context, although obviously common terms and a kind of common language is emerging. But it draws mainly on key concepts from several different arts, humanities and social sciences areas.

Martial Arts Studies is a ‘new’ academic field, weren’t there earlier attempts to study the martial arts? What happened to those?

Yes, there have been numerous attempts to establish a stable basis for the academic study of martial arts. Famous failures include the hoplology project of Donn Draeger. I have written about why I think this failed in the journal Martial Arts Studies. But there are now lots of success stories emerging. China has had versions of martial arts studies for most of the 20th century, but in the Western world it is quite new. Nonetheless, conferences, publications, associations, networks and even different kinds of courses are all emerging now. I think that our interconnectedness thanks to the internet, combined with the fact that academic disciplines are much more in dialogue with each other today, have helped enormously.

A two prong question- who is involved in the studies? Is it limited to Eastern martial arts?

All kinds of scholars from all sorts of fields are involved. You name it and you will find martial arts researchers who come from there – sciences, arts, medicine – the lot. And while there seems to have been an East Asian bias, a great deal of attention is going to historical European martial arts (HEMA), the globally popular ‘Afro-Caribbean’ art of capoeira, and – of course – the explosion of MMA since the 1990s. All of these are huge research areas, along with quite a few others.

What do you see as the issues that need attention? How would this (these) relate to cultural contexts.

In martial arts studies, all kinds of ‘issues’ are receiving lots of attention. Studies abound of history, class, gender, ethnicity, economy, technology, pedagogy, culture, tradition, and so on. I am very happy to be part of this movement that gives a serious status to these practices that are so worthy of respect and attention. But I am equally happy that this scholarship often also  challenges problematic aspects of, for example, traditions and practices that involve prejudice, bias, religiosity, and so on. In my own work, I have tried to point out that often martial arts can be ideologically aligned with nationalism, ethnocentrism, and so on; and I would like to see more attention given to that. But in a completely different kind of way, I also want to see more attention given to neglected subjects, like, for example, the place of martial arts in British popular culture. This is what I hope to work on next.

You’re a very prolific writer, primarily scholarly works. Do you find that they support one another? How?

If you mean ‘do my academic and my non-academic writings support each other’, I’d have to say that I’ve only written one thing that was not academic (a coffee-table-type biography of Bruce Lee), and I only really did that because it paid well and the chimney on my house urgently needed to be rebuilt! But if you mean ‘do my different type of works support one another’, I’d have to say, yes, definitely. My early work was on cultural and political theory, followed by studies of popular culture. All of this is great context for giving serious attention to martial arts – these are, after all, trivial, mundane, day-to-day, yet bizarre, specialist, weird and complex practices – enigmatic, in many ways. So I find martial arts endlessly fascinating and rewarding, both in practicing them and in researching them. I also love the research community here. So even though my works on martial arts get considerably fewer readers than my works on cultural and political theory, I find that readers of my work in martial arts studies are both passionate about the subject and yet careful and respectful, even though many of them know considerably more about the specifics of individual martial arts than I ever could. You don’t get that in any other academic field that I know.

 

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If you enjoyed this article you might want to also see:  The “Undoing” of Gender in Martial Arts Training.

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