Swords at the German Blade Museum. Photo by Benjamin Judkins


The Pilgrim’s Progress

Observers have noted that while the meaning and object of worship varies, the pattern is universal.  I cannot help but agree as I contemplate the events of the last month.  First there was the ritual separation from family and friends.  While many have doubted the actual effectiveness of the TSA in stopping attacks, I don’t think that anyone would question their expertise in the construction of imposing ‘liminal barriers.”

The journey had been accompanied by all of the normal discomforts that come when one turns your mind to greater matters, rejecting the routine of daily life.  There is nothing quite like two days spent in airports, hotels and cabs to encourage the contemplative examination of one’s destiny.  As the expedition progresses one becomes ever more aware that travel is never a solitary venture.  Everywhere one sees their community of “common affliction,” also being shuttled from one terminal to the next, or from one line to another.

Once the destination has been reached a new phase of your identity must be assumed.  Special clothing is worn, and just in case one might forget who you are, or why you are here, name tags are ubiquitous.  I am never “Dr. Judkins” when going to the gym or grocery store.  Thus labeled, one is free to reunite with friends and fellow travelers who you have not seen for years.  In this way community is created and renewed.



I have been meaning to address the topic of pilgrimage within the martial arts for some time, but the right opportunity never seems to present itself.  It is a concept that should be a natural fit.  Martial artists spend a lot of time traveling, and when asked many will readily admit to pursuing existential goals.  Better yet, sociology and anthropology have generated a robust discussion of the seemingly universal patterns of pilgrimage that can be found throughout history.  It should not be that difficult to adapt these ideas to a new field of study.

As my friend Paul Bowman recently noted, modern scholars tend to be much more comfortable applying these sorts of insights to past civilizations or supposedly “primitive” people.  Rarely do we choose to examine our own endeavors through such an anthropological lens.  I have always found this puzzling.  I never had a chance to ask him, but one must suppose that when Durkheim decided to examine the most elementary forms of religious life, his interests were not actually focused upon the First Peoples of Australia.  Rather, by examining them he hoped to understand something about the patterns that dominated his own life experience.

It is always our own activities that require the most introspection.  I am, by nature, something of a homebody.  I enjoy seeing new places, but air travel tends to grate on me.

So why did I just travel to both Asia and Europe to present the finding of my research when I do that exact same thing from the comfort of this blog twice a week?  What desires drove that?  The lure of pilgrimage is strong.  In this case the underlying meaning of the journey is professional rather than spiritual or existential.  Certainly, that makes a difference.  Yet the central themes of renewal, identity formation and community building cannot be ignored.

Sitting in these venues I found myself wondering what makes a gathering successful, and why scholars are willing to expend scarce resources to stage them.  The prestige that comes from presenting a paper, networking with a group of like minded peers or the opportunity to hear about cutting edge research is all part of the attraction.  Yet we must delve a little deeper to understand the real value of professional pilgrimages in martial arts studies.

I have also been promising to write up reports on these conferences for a month now.  It is well past time to make good on that.  While my trips to Korea and Germany were not the only conferences I attended this year, they are the focus of the following report.  The final part of this essay then touches on the role of these meetings at the current moment in the development of our shared field.  That discussion is informed by a number of other gatherings that I have spoken at.  This includes the recent martial arts studies meetings in Cardiff, a gathering of political scientists at BYU this spring and an on-line round table on the academic study of lightsaber combat that I recently helped to organize.  While consuming substantial time, resources and energy, these gatherings have been critical to the creation of a field of martial arts studies.


View from my hotel window at dawn in Cheongju, South Korea.


Discovering the First English Language Kung Fu Manual in Cheongju, Korea

The first of this most recent round of meetings occurred on November 3-4 at Cheongju University in South Korea.  This was the opening “International Academic Conference” held in conjunction with a larger set of events collectively called the “World Youth Martial Arts Mastership.”  Indeed, Cheongju seemed to be filled with martial artists from the moment that I set foot in the city.  The hotel that the conference organizer graciously arranged for us was also hosting other events including the “2017 World Martial Arts Leaders Forum” and a tournament of some sort was clearly afoot in the city.

While our meetings were strictly academic, the larger atmosphere that they took place within was notably eclectic.  There were many martial arts instructors, individuals from the non-profit sector, and government officials all having breakfast in the same place.  Indeed, I am not sure that our event was the most interesting one being held in the city that week.  While at breakfast one morning I heard a Western martial arts instructor debating with a Korean gentleman about the relative risks of meeting with representatives from the North Korean government.  It seems he did not want his organization used for propaganda purposes.  And our meetings (while much less dramatic) listed as their sponsors the Korean Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the National Commission for UNESCO.  Dignitaries from the provincial government and the university also attended and graciously supported the meeting.

Nor could one ask for a more beautiful time of year.  The day that I arrived the weather was overcast and a foggy.  But the very next morning the sun broke through revealing a beautiful fall day on a modern and manicured university campus.  My only real regret about these meetings was that I didn’t have any time to explore the local area.

In terms of size this was probably the most intimate set of meetings that I attended this year.  The conference lasted a day and a half and included just over a dozen papers.  A number of other papers (many by graduate students) were presented as posters in the hallways of the conference venue.  The subjects discussed covered the complete range of topics that one might encounter in martial arts studies today.  Historical, anthropological, social scientific and interpretive studies were all seen.

The first keynote speech of the event was presented by Professor Douglas Farrer (an occasional guest author here at Kung Fu Tea) and discussed research methods within the anthropological approach to martial arts studies. This was followed by a presentation by Prof. Cheontaek Son of Inchon University which attempted to critically reexamine some of our common assumptions as to how, and whether the martial arts might be said to contribute to “character development” in youth.

After a quick lunch we returned for the first full panel.  This began with a presentation by Prof. Tymowski-Gionet on children’s rights and the ethics of pushing ever younger individuals into elite level sport training.  Obviously, this is a critical and timely topic given some of the controversies that have erupted about the treatment of students in China’s residential Wushu schools.

Following that I discussed China’s “Ivy League Boxers” and efforts to promote the martial arts in the West during the 1920s.  This included a description of the earliest English language kung fu manual that I have yet come across (1926). Prof. Luke White closed out the panel with a very nice paper on the image of “youth” in Hong Kong cinema.  I particularly liked this paper as it gave him a chance to delve into some of the great Kung Fu comedies of the 1970s and 1980s, which I feel are often neglected in favor of more “serious” films.

The conference provided simultaneous translation for all of the papers, and I suspect that the European and North American scholars were grouped together in an effort to ease the burden on the translation team.  That probably didn’t matter as in the second session (comprised of Korean and Chinese scholars) all presented their papers in English as well.  While the community of scholars at this event was diverse, communication never seems to have been an issue.  It was clearly a valuable opportunity for individuals who normally work in isolation to meet and exchange ideas.

The papers in the second section included a case study on youth sporting and martial arts program in Taiwan (presented by former Olympic TKD gold medalist, Chih-Hsiung Huang).  Next was a fascinating statistical examination of foreign perceptions of China and the Chinese martial arts by Prof. Yucheng Guo of Shanghai University.  While dealing with different time periods, much of his current research seems to dovetail with my own.  Finally, Hoisik Jang discussed the Korean refugee population of Okinawa during the 19th century and their contributions to the island’s martial heritage.  All of this was followed with a banquet that can only be described as a dream for any lover of Korean food.

Because of the timing of our return flights both Doug and I had to leave the following morning.  But before heading to the bus station I did manage to catch Prof. Gwang Ok’s paper on the cultural transmission of traditional wrestling styles in the UK.  This was a fascinating piece, and it appears to have been part of a larger study of folk wrestling systems that drew on his interest in traditional Korean wrestling.  That artform is declining in popularity and hence his current paper looked at some of the forces that led to the revitalization of parallel practices in Europe.  I even managed to get a quick demonstration of Korean wrestling before grabbing my luggage and heading to the airport.  Prof. Gwang Ok also deserves a huge amount of credit for organizing this event and bringing together a diverse group of scholars.  It was a great event.

Overall this conference was unlike any event I had attended in the past.  While most academic conferences in the West feel very isolated from the concerns of government, or even the university as a larger institution, these forces were visibly present in these meetings.  Officers of NGOs and provincial government officials were in attendance.  Each paper concluded with a brief ceremony in which a certificate of completion was awarded to the presenting scholar by a government or university figure.  And many of the papers directly addressed the role of the martial arts in supporting larger social goals (“character building” programs in education) or public policy.

Among other things, conferences serve as a site for community building.  This is precisely the reason why attempts to form a new research area are usually inaugurated by creating a conference series.  But it is worth stopping to think about the sorts of communities that are built, and how they reflect our assumptions about the relationship between academia and society.  In this case the community being supported included clearly vertical, as well as horizontal, elements linking the governmental, non-governmental and scholarly communities.  Given my current research on the diplomatic value of the martial arts, it was great to see all of this playing out firsthand.  The sociology of the martial arts in Korea is fascinating, and it is something that I will need to reflect on at greater length in the future.


The German Blade Museum in Solingen, early on the first day of the conference. Photo by Benjamin Judkins.


Wrestling with Fight Books

This brings us to the second recent event.  After a short 24 hour layover in Ithaca, I departed for the 1st St. Martin’s Conference hosted by the German Blade Museum in Solingen.  In addition to an excellent collection of swords from around the world, this institution also hosts an extensive assortment of period fight books.  These volumes became the theme to this year’s conference which was titled “Fight Books in Comparative Perspective.”  The conference was two full days (November 9-10), but this time I was able to stay a little longer to explore Dusseldorf and catch the start of the carnival season (that is a subject for a different blog post).

As was the case in Korea, all of the papers presented at this conference were in English.  While hiccups can always happen, I have found Germany to be remarkably accessible to English speaking visitors.  But in some ways this event felt very different from the conference I had attended just a few days before.

The most obvious factor was scale.  This conference included close to 20 papers and keynote presentations, and all of these were presented from a scholarly (rather than a public policy) perspective.  When one adds in another 20 students who attended the conference as visitors, as well as the museum’s staff (who seem to have enjoyed many the papers), we managed to fill a large conference room quite nicely.  The museum proved to the perfect location for this event, and a huge amount of credit must go to my friend Dr. Sixt Wetzler for organizing the event, and Dr. Isabell Immel (the museum’s director) for enthusiastically supporting it.

So many papers were presented that it is not possible to review them all individually.  Luckily the museum recorded all of the presentations and they are now being made available on YouTube. (I will post a link in the comments when everything is finalized).  And the proceedings will be appearing in an upcoming special issue of the journal Acta Periodica Duellatorum.

Still, I would like to touch on some highlights.  Dr. Eric Burkart (University of Trier) gave an opening keynote that set the theoretical tone for the meetings.  He examined fight books as attempts to organize embodied knowledge across a broad range of cultures and time periods, including the much maligned “how to” books of the 21st century.  This led him to a discussion of concepts such as “technique” vs. “practice” in martial arts studies, and he highlighted the essential difficulties of reconstructing lost fighting traditions from the sorts of written records that they have left behind.  Dr. Daniel Jaquet (University of Geneva) followed up with an important study on the classification of fight books.  Rather than a simple typology his discussion of “inscription, description and codification” aimed to shed light on the various (sometimes unexpected) strategies that these manuals have employed in a variety of cultures and times.   Both papers are sure to spark future discussions.

The University of Leeds (and the British Royal Armories) made a strong showing at this year’s conference.  A recent PhD and a current graduate student (Dr. Tzouriadis and Jacob Deacon) presented their research on staff weapons in 15th and 16th fight books.  Later in the first day Henry Yallop (also a student at Leeds) discussed the modern fight books of the British cavalry, with special emphasis being given to the co-evolution of blade form and tactical doctrine.

As always, these conferences are a great place to catch up with old friends.  Dr. Mario Staller (currently working on his 3rd PhD at the German Sports University of Cologne) was presenting a co-authored paper on the limits of media (broadly understood) in developing self-defense skills.  Likewise, Qays Stetkevych (a student at Cardiff University who works with Paul Bowman) gave a paper on wrestling techniques described in the Old Norse sagas.

Conferences are also great as they give you a chance to meet lots of new people in one place.  One of the individuals who I had been hoping to hang out with for some time was Prof. T. J. Desch-Obi (CUNY).  Many readers will already know him as the author of Fighting For Honor (University of South Carolina, 2008).  He is currently doing fieldwork in Columbia looking at nature and social meaning of machete fighting traditions (some of which are quite old and well established).  His paper included fascinating images of indigenous Columbian fight books dating back to the 18th century.  I was also quite happy to meet Dr. Bok Kyu Choi, who talked about the history of Ming era military encyclopedias in Korea.  As a fellow “independent scholar” it was great to have an opportunity to chat and share notes.  I hope to recruit him for some guest posts in the future.

The hospitality of everyone involved with this conference was wonderful.  The organizers provided an Indian buffet at the end of the first day, and many pleasant hours were shared in bars, restaurants and clubs between Solingen and Wuppertal.   In fact, I am having trouble reconstructing how we managed to fit that many hours into so few days.


Pilgrimage and the Creation of Community

One might suppose that the primary purpose of an academic conference is the creation and sharing of knowledge.  I suspect that this is not entirely the case.  Knowledge is created either in the library or the training hall, and the proliferation of academic journals, networks, presses and blogs in recent decades suggests that there are many other venues in which these ideas might be shared, often on a massive scale.  If one is looking to get feedback on works in progress, there are few venues that are better.  Still, I suspect that something more is going on.

The main thing that gets created at a successful conference is a cohesive and engaged community.  This is never totally separate from the question of knowledge creation, but it highlights the fact that knowledge is something that is almost always communally held and experienced.  The myth of the solitary genius notwithstanding, very few of us see the full picture, even in our area of specialization.  An entire community of scholars, engaged with each other and focusing on the same general topics, is necessary to bring this sort of wide angle view into focus.

It would be easy to say that the quality of the papers at Solingen was excellent.  Yet that observation would not really convey whether the conference was successful.  Instead we need to think more carefully about the communities that our gatherings create, and the ways in which they succeed in advancing the field.

While physically exhausting, these back-to-back gatherings in Korea and Germany were important as they reminded me that not everyone shares the same view of the ideal scholarly community, and that is probably a good thing.  The vision that emerged in Cheongju integrated multiple sectors of society along vertical lines.  As one would expect this structure opens certain synergistic possibilities while possibly closing others.  Still, there could be no doubt that scholarship on the martial arts was valued and supported within this framework.

The community of scholarship on display in Solingen was very different.  To begin with, it was radially horizontal.  With a few exceptions, everyone was either an advanced graduate student or a young PhD still establishing their academic career.  While the first venue was dominated by tenured professors, in the second they were almost entirely absent.  There were also no representatives of important NGOs, funding organizations or government offices at the German conference.  Instead there was a lot of enthusiasm mixed with persistent questions of how to institutionalize and win support for this line of research in the future.

There were other differences as well.  While smaller in size the Korean gathering covered a broader range of topics.  Perhaps because of this topical diversity there was also slightly more female participation, both on the panels and in the audience.  The German conference, possibly because of its exclusive focus on fight books, was exclusively male.  Indeed, the conference organizer confessed to be surprised when he realized that not a single female scholar had proposed a paper for what turned out to be a fairly sizable event.

There were also some notable structural similarities between these events.  Both focused on topics of study rather than privileging any single method of investigation.  In both venues the interdisciplinary approach was simply accepted without question, or even notice.  And while each meeting clearly represented the interests of the local academic communities that played host (public policy was a focus of the Korean meetings, and Germany fight books were a popular topic among European students), great care was taken to invite keynotes and speakers from other scholarly traditions and areas of the world.  Everyone was making an active effort to break out of the parochialism that has marred previous incarnations of martial arts studies and related fields.

Measured in conventional terms I am sure that both conferences will be counted as a great success.  I saw a dozen promising projects emerge out of conversations and papers over the course of two weeks.  I strongly suspect that a couple of books may have been launched as well.  Thus, these meetings can certainly be said to be “productive.”

Yet given the economic and environmental costs of global air travel, is that enough?  One of my colleagues has recently been arguing that we should move away from these sorts of meetings and do everything on-line for the sake of the planet.  Given my feelings about airports, I must admit a certain degree of sympathy with such concerns.  In fact, I recently helped to arrange an on-line workshop for a small group of scholars who were interested in discussing lightsaber combat, and it went well.

Still, it didn’t come close to generating the same level of enthusiasm that I saw in both Korea or Germany (let alone at this year’s martial arts studies meetings in Cardiff).  Such on-line discussions are, by necessity, somewhat structured.  Even the best meeting is still “a meeting.”

A traditional conference can transcend that because it offers individuals unstructured time in which unexpected ideas are generated, new identities can be tried on for size, and deeper relationships can be formed.  But this is not an original insight.  Pilgrimage functions not just by reinforcing existing identities, but by creating new understandings of the community and one’s relationship with it.  If martial arts studies is going to succeed and grow as an independent field of study, if scholars are going to be willing to take risks and make sacrifices to see that happen, this is precisely what we need.  Yet its critical to realize that we are engaged in the process of not just knowledge production, but community creation.  We have a choice as to what these communities will be, and we need to structure them wisely and as inclusively as possible.

Once these relationships are established, and a new direction has been forged, video chats are great.  They may even be more productive.  In fact, I first got to know some of the people involved in the recent lightsaber discussion at the martial arts studies meetings in Cardiff.  Nevertheless, while these two types of interactions can supplement each other, they are not substitutes.

What should you do if you are on the fence and wondering about getting involved in some aspect of martial arts studies?  Keep an eye out for conference opportunities.  Send in some proposals.  Buy a plane ticket and take a risk.  Great communities are not discovered, they are created by journeying and striving together.  At some point every pilgrim is confronted with the need to take that leap of faith.



If you enjoyed this discussion why not check out my presentations?

Getting to Know China’s “Ivy League Martial Artists” in the Republican Era (Presented in Korea, 2017)

A Lost Kung Fu Manual and Nature of “Chinese Boxing” (Presented in Germany, 2017)



A kung fu pilgrim setting out on the first leg of a long journey.