Thai Boxing. Vintage postcard, circa 1910s. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.



Earlier this morning I was faced with a choice.  Should I write about Nietzsche (and a certain martial art), or Robert Putnam (and an entirely different fighting system).  Its hard to sit down and read the news these days without thinking of Nietzsche, so I opted for Putnam.  Both provided interesting thought experiments, but the second path has the added advantage of introducing new concepts, metaphors, authors and arts that are not often discussed in the current martial arts studies literature.

Putnam himself is a good example of this.  While not the most frequently invoked thinker within the field of martial arts studies, I certainly run across Nietzsche’s name from time to time.  Yet despite a high-profile career at Harvard University, the supervision of a generation of brilliant graduate students, and his many contributions to the social sciences, we do not hear much about Putnam.

Nor, for that matter, do we hear much about Muay Thai, one of the most popular combat sports in the world, and certainly Thailand’s most recognizable export.  But what connects the two?  For that we will need to turn to the work of another scholar most readers of Kung Fu Tea (even those who are professional scholars) may not be familiar with.  He is Prof. Peter Vail of the National University of Singapore.

Lets start off with Putnam.  I suspect that his work is rarely mentioned in martial arts studies discussions as it is positivist in orientation where as many of the most important discussions that are currently happening in our field tend to lean towards interpretivist approaches. Some of his work on social capital formation (Making Democracy Work, Bowling Alone) opens interesting avenues of research.  It was an exploration of the literature on social capital formation and violent conflict that first led me to the Boxer Uprising and from there martial arts studies.

In this essay I would like to turn my attention to another one of Putnam’s signature concepts.  The flexibility of this idea makes it suitable both as an interpretive metaphor or, if you wanted to approach things more rigorously, a model that can produce testable hypothesis.  I have always found this theory to be useful as it takes very seriously the complex interplay between domestic and international discourses that are so central to the spread of the martial arts in the current era.


This is not really what Putnam is describing, but the image is just too good to pass up.


Two-Level Games, for Fun and Profit!

Fellow political scientists have likely already guessed that I am referring to Putnam’s famous 1988 article “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games” (International Organization. 42: 427–460).  The basic insights of this paper are derived from Putnam’s game-theory research, but the best way to approach it (certainly the most intuitive) is with a metaphor.  Politics is often imagined as a game of chess in which one political leader maneuvers a set of well understood pieces against a similarly equipped opponent.  The advantage to this image is that it captures the essential fact that while the actors within international politics rarely get exactly what they want, they tend to act strategically and to expect that everyone else is acting strategically as well.

Still, this notion falls flat in several important respects.  Chess is totally transparent.  You can see all of your opponent’s moves.  The machinations of global politics are anything but.

Further, the game of chess is built on the idea of each side being a “unitary rational actor.”  Or to put it slightly differently, there is only a single hand that moves the pieces.  Yet anyone who has spent time in Washington (or any other capital) will quickly tell you that this isn’t even remotely how politics actually works.  All of those pieces move themselves across the board as they see fit, nor do they all share the same goal.  Finally, over the long run changing social discourses, identities and values can reshape the very nature of the board that you are playing on.

Putnam already knew all of this.  There are lots of problems with a “unitary rational actor” approach to politics, even though it’s the one that most of us reflexively turn to when discussing current events (you see this every time someone says, “well, China (or Russia, or Argentina) will do x because…”).  Still, we can learn quite a bit about the nature of social systems if we think in very careful ways about how our seemingly intuitive metaphors fail.

Putnam noted that the sorts of things that supposedly “rational” elected officials did in the global arena were often hard to explain.  Yet if you interviewed these same individuals you quickly came to understand that much of what appeared to be a gaff was purposive.  Part of the problem is that the board that policy makers face is systematically different from the one that we imagine.

Putnam instead asked us to imagine a game in which there are multiple boards in play at any given point in time.  To keep things as simple as possible, lets imagine a game in which there are only two boards.  “Board A” represents the global environment in a moment of change.  “Board B,” however, is more domestically focused.  It represents the re-election map that a given leader might face.  The true difficulty of being a political leader is that while you may face very different challenges on both boards, your pieces are linked.  If you move your queen to the center of Board A (because that is rational in this dispute), it also moves to the center of Board B (where it might be exposed to a devastating attack by the opposition party).

It is all too easy to note that political leaders aren’t actually “rational” in real life.  Matters of personality, limited resources, social discourse and good old fashioned bureaucratic politics all play a part in this.  Yet beyond all of that, Putnam noted that very often a seemingly obvious winning outcome cannot be reached because moves must be chosen to maximize one’s odds of survival on multiple boards.  Simply “playing to win” is a luxury that almost no leader has.

There is a lot more to Putnam’s argument than this.  Realizing that the existence of a second board acts as a powerful check on action, the question then becomes how, and in what circumstances, can a leader use events on one board to get better terms on another.  For instance, an American president may be able to negotiate better treaty terms with a foreign adversary if he is facing a hostile Senate that is looking for an excuse not to ratify the agreement (this gets us into discussions of “credible commitments” and “hand tying” but lets sidestep that for now).  This sort of interplay is the daily bread of real political leaders, and it is where Putnam can begin to get into some interesting game theory.  But for our purposes the critical point is that those seeking to create public policy have to think very carefully about how their moves in the international game effect their domestic situation and vice versa.


Thai Boxing, circa 1920s. Vintage Postcard. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.


The Invention of Muay Thai, and the Invention of Thai Nationalism

No where were these sorts of calculations taken more seriously than in Siam (modern Thailand) during the 19th century.  Thai citizens are often quick to point out that their state was the one country in the region to avoid colonization and imperial exploitation at the hands of European powers during the 19th and 20th centuries.  This is often attributed to the success of shrewd kings and other members of the royal family.  Not by coincidence, these same individuals were also working hard to revive and promote the combat sport that we now call Muay Thai while they were dealing with the West.

History, however, is nothing if not messy.  While its true that Thailand was never formally colonized, they had their own unequal treaties to deal with.  European powers were granted certain rights in the region, and the royal family attempted to play them off each other.  Indeed, students of Chinese history will spot several parallels.  As such, it might be better to think of Thailand as a “semi-colonized” area during much of this time rather than as a totally independent sphere of political action.

Colonialism was very much on the mind of the Thai government.  While they sought to avoid the carving knives of the outside powers, the state was actively borrowing western technologies of imperialism to bring its own frontiers under control.  In short, when it came to imperialism in the 19th century, the monarchy was playing a classic version of Putnam’s two-level game.

This brings us to our second author.  Prof. Peter Vail (University Scholars Program, University of Singapore) is not a well-known figure within martial arts studies circles.  An anthropologist, his current academic biography lists many interesting research topics (identity politics, language shift, and code-switching), but martial arts studies is not among them. 

Still, anyone who is curious about the creation of Muay Thai (as well as Muay Boran) will find his work to be of great interest.  He also has much to say on topics ranging from identity politics to nationalism within the martial arts. Vail’s most accessible publication is probably his short article on Muay Thai included in Green and Svinth’s 2010, Martial Arts of the World.  Those with access to a university library may want to start with his 2014 paper “Muay Thai: Inventing Tradition for a National Symbol” in Sojourn (Volume 29, Number 3, 509-533).  The truly ambitious can order a copy of his (Cornell, 1998) dissertation “Violence and Control: Social and Cultural Dimensions of ‘Muai Thai’ Boxing.”  In short, Vail seems to be the dominant voice in the English language academic discussion of these fighting systems from a martial arts studies perspective.

Much of Vail’s fieldwork and writing was completed before the explosion of interest in martial arts studies that we are currently experiencing.  That, as well as his exclusive focus on Thai arts, is probably why Vail’s name isn’t better known in the current literature.  Still, a quick exploration of his 2014 article reveals a scholar who has thought deeply about many of the most frequently discussed topics in the field.  While an empirical treasure trove, Vaile engages with a number of theoretical traditions including Nobert Elias’ thoughts on the “civilizing process,” Benedict Anderson’s work on nationalism, and (of course) the extensive anthropological literature on the nature of theater and the state in South East Asia.  The richness of his historical descriptions makes his work a possible secondary source for any scholar looking to pull together comparative case studies including Thailand.


Muay Boran training at the recent international gathering and tournament in Thailand. Source: NY Times.


The Paradox of “National Boxing”

If one is simply looking for a good historical overview of the development of Muay Thai, minus the many layers of political mythmaking, Vail’s 2014 article is a good place to start.  But if you are like me, and your main interest is how and why these myths were created, changed and promoted, his article really shines.

A quick review of his piece brings up all the standard points that we have come to expect from looking at other East Asian martial arts.  While discussions of “thousands” of years of history are common on webpages, Thai boxing as we know it is really a product of a series of innovations and reforms that started in the second half of the 19th century.  The strong association between Thai nationalism and the country’s favorite combat sport, which is taken for granted today, is basically a product of the 1930s-1940s when government officers attempted to promote a greater sense of popular nationalism and borrowed heavily from the Japanese use of “Budo” to do so.

Vail’s discussion of the evolution of the term “Muay Thai” was particularly interesting as it revealed the evolving connection between boxing and the state.  In a sense the mythmakers are not incorrect when they point to the close connections between the King and boxing during the 19th century.  As an important aspect of the funerary rites of significant individuals, the royal family seems to have always had an interest in boxing.

While the Chinese government was notoriously wary of the folk martial arts, Vail describes in some detail how the royal family of Thailand sought to promote and redeploy boxing as the state came under increased pressure in the 19th century.  The promotion of Muay domestically became a means by which the crown could control the theater of state and project an image of power.  It allowed them to establish patronage networks and symbolic connections to regions where the state wished to spread its influence.  And the creation of a more robust boxing sub-culture, under the government’s watchful eye, helped to ensure social stability among potentially volatile demographics.

As successfully as these measures were domestically, they did little to help the kingdom’s global position.  The monarchy seems to have realized at an early point that military power alone was not enough to deal with the full weight of the West.  Demonstrating that the state was “civilized”, and could succeed in material ways in the modern world, would deprive the ideologues of imperialism of much of their ammunition.  Again, the Japanese example is instructive.

One’s ability to take part (and win) in international sporting competitions was an aspect of this larger pattern of global political theater.  And given the domestic infrastructure that already existed, boxing was one area where Thailand had a comparative advantage.  Still, adjustments would have to be made.  The persistent ambivalence towards jujitsu in the West suggests that for many observers the genius of these systems could all too easily be explained away as “cheap” or “dirty” fighting.  If the goal was to succeed within Elias’ framework of the (largely Western) “civilizing discourse,” the Japanese strategy of converting the world to their preferred fighting method was starting from a distinct disadvantage.

As such, the Thai government decided to promote both Western and traditional boxing in some of its elite schools (as well as other disciplines such as Judo and fencing).  The result was the emergence of a dual discourse.  The type of boxing that was promoted domestically, and continued to use the knees, elbows and feet, came to be called “Muay Thai” (or Thai boxing).  Vail notes that prior to the 1930s this phrase did not carry the same nationalist undertones as it does now.  The spread of this art, and its visible connections to royal patronage, was part of the previously discussed process of “internal imperialism.”

When dealing with the outside world the state instead promoted Western style gloved boxing following the globally accepted norms of the day.  To the extent that their fighters could succeed in international competition, the state could claim a measure of prestige and “civilizational advancement.”  Vail notes that the simultaneous promotion of this mix of arts allowed the state to portray itself as both “modern” and “traditional” at the same time.

Foreign observers were very aware that when it came to boxing the Thai were playing a double game.  They tended to refer to the traditional system of combat as “Siamese Boxing” or “national boxing.”  Nor was this fighting tradition always treated with much respect.  One quote discussed by Vail is particularly interesting in this regard.  While commenting on the martial arts taught at Suan Kulap, a British observer noted “the boys have yet much to learn of the art [of Western boxing], but it is no mean achievement to have lifted them out of the national style [muay] and placed them under Queensbury rules” (Straits Times 1923).  Clearly for this observer Elias’ “civilizing process” ran through Western (and only the Western) sporting traditions.

This quote immediately caught my eye for two reasons.  This is not the only time that I have encountered the phrase “national boxing” in my research.  As I have noted before, the term “martial art” only became popularized in the post-WWII period.  Nor was there much understanding in the early 20th century that seemingly disparate practices such as French stick fighting, Siamese Boxing, Chinese Sword Dancing and Japanese Jujitsu could all be seen as different aspects of the same social activity.  Or to put it slightly differently, one of the main challenges in doing historical research on these fighting systems in that the modern vocabulary that we use to describe them, and even the more fundamental concepts and webs of associations that underlays that, were not yet stabilized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The upshot of this is that if you were to search American newspapers for references to the “Traditional Chinese Martial Arts” in the 1920s, you would find nothing.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that these practices were absent.  What we now call the Chinese martial arts were routinely referred to as gymnastics, juggling, acrobatics and dance (in addition to the more common “boxing”) in English language publications throughout the 1920s.

Given this profusion of verbs I am always on the lookout for a new search phrase to use as I go through period sources.  Last year I discovered that a local English language newspaper in southern China called the Canton Times ran a few martial arts related news items.  The editors of that paper also adopted the phrase “national boxing” as their standardized term for the local martial arts traditions.

What is relevant to the present case is the differing nuances of the phrases’ usage.  In the quote that Vail notes, the outside observers use “national boxing” as a form of derision.  To be identified with any non-Western nation was to place yourself lower on the hierarchy of civilization.  It is only the Marquis of Queensberry’s boxing which was comprehensible without any sort of introductory suffix.  It is the standard against which all measures were to be taken.  In this case, to be “national” is a mark of shame in the period’s imperialist discourse.

The Canton Times, however, harbored no such misgivings about the value of the Chinese martial arts.  The 1920s were a time of rising national consciousness in Southern China, and within its domestic discourse anything associated with “the nation” was touched with the rising vital energy of modernism and reform.  To be “a nation” was to enter the fraternity of modern states on the world stage.  One suspects that readers may even have claim that China must have its own form of boxing precisely because other nations possessed similar patrimonies.  All of this bled easily onto the paper’s pages.

At this point we come face to face with a few of the paradoxes of “the nation.”  They are known to be new constructions, yet are simultaneously believed to be utterly ancient.  To be considered legitimate each nation must be unique, and not reducible to any other identity.  It must have its own language, homeland, people or practices.  Yet within the society of states, all nations become interchangeable.  All “civilized” nations perform basically the same functions.  The expression of national desire is at the same time the mark of a patriot, but it is also the harbinger of tribal chaos that justifies a form of paternalistic imperialism that seeks to suppress the nation.


Womens Muay Thai Kickboxing match. Source: Wikimedia.


Conclusion: The Martial Arts as a Two-Level Game

Arguments which focus only on practical applications miss the real source of attraction between modern nations and the martial arts.  For states like Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, Brazil and even Israel the martial arts are valuable precisely because they can act as a Janus-faced symbol, simultaneously looking inward and outward.  When public policy is focused inward the martial arts can be imagined as very traditional, conveying what is believed to be the genetic core of the national identity.  When faced outward these same skills can be reimagined as a competitive sport, or even an Olympic Event, in which the once peripheral state is now looked to as the standard by which “civilized” achievements can be measured.  The nation, the state and the martial arts fit together so seamlessly because each is embroiled in same set of paradoxes, and each turns to the other seeking legitimacy.

Yet as Putnam would remind us, two-level games are difficult affairs and often inelegant to watch.  In rare cases there may be a single move that decisively wins on both boards.  More typically a policy maker is left with no good option and must try to cut her losses by choosing the least bad option.  In other cases, an event in one realm can send unexpected reverberations through the other.

Vail’s study suggests that these insights hold true in the realm of the martial arts as well.  During the early 20th century there was no single martial art in Thailand that could simultaneously build domestic nationalism while also demonstrating the state’s cultural achievements on a global stage.  As such the state split it resources and pursued both Western boxing and Muay Thai.  Later in the post-War era, the equation changed.  The emergence of the Kung Fu Craze altered global patterns of mimetic desire.  Suddenly Muay Thai was a valuable commodity within the foreign market.

That opened another set of concerns.  Vail recounts at length the anger of the Muay Thai community when Japanese martial artists appropriated their techniques for “K 1” kickboxing but stripped them of their national trappings.  Likewise, the spread of MMA has increased the demand for Muay Thai training, but some worry that this global success will come at the expense of its utility as a nationally focused and socially unifying art.  All of this remains at a very general level, but given the careful balancing that states like Thailand, Korea, China and even Brazil engage in when considering public policies that impact the martial arts, it may be worth taking a closer look at some of the more detailed predictions of Putnam’s model.

The martial arts always seem to touch upon that thin membrane that separates, and attempts to regulate, “inside” and “outside.”  How do we define the nation internally, versus how do we display our identity externally?  How do we know who is a member of our clan, or who is a rival?  And what kind of person am I?  Am I traditional or modern?  An athlete or an artist?

From a certain perspective this is all confusion.  That is why the traditional martial arts seems to be constantly imperiled by the modern world.  Modernity rewards specialized skills and narrowly trained individuals.  The martial arts claim to be a set of general skills that can operate in a dozen places at once. To be a jack of all trades is to be a master of none.

Given all of this, why is it that the martial arts have thrived in modern world?  In fact, the martial arts as we know them are very much a product of modernity, the same modernity that selects against so many other forms of “traditional” knowledge.  I addressed part of this paradox in the concluding epilogue of my volume on history of the southern Chinese martial arts.   But in writing this essay it now occurs to me that Putnam’s metaphor of the chessboard may also suggest part of the solution.

In chess both sides are given the same pieces.  Losing them may be costly, yet bringing them into play costs you nothing.  In real life the situation is very different.  Bringing pieces into play can be incredibly costly.  Perhaps this is part of the attraction that exists between states and the martial arts.  While it would be possible to create one system of signs and institutions for domestic consumption, and and a totally different one for international display, at some point it just becomes too costly.  Perhaps it is the effortless ease with which the martial arts cross the border between the personal, the domestic and the global that makes them a good investment despite their obvious “inefficiencies.”

Individual consumers in the West seem drawn to the martial arts precisely because they are a single activity that serves multiple needs.  They can simultaneously be a means of improving one’s health, seeking engagement with a community of friends, providing some level of self-defense and satisfying one’s demands for a deeper and more fulfilling identity.  Each of these goals could be better accomplished through a specialized activity. One could hire a personal trainer at the gym, join a bowling league, buy a gun and start going to church.  But would the added costs of all these activities really justify the incremental benefits?  The law of diminishing returns suggests that the answer is probably no.  Perhaps states, faced with a similar need to operate in multiple realms, have looked at their wallets and come to the same conclusion.  If so, we can expect to see the martial arts playing this two-level game for some time to come.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to see: Reforming the Chinese Martial Arts in the 1920s-1930s: The Role of Rapid Urbanization.