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Algorithms and Hand Combat

This essay began as a thought experiment.  After that it evolved into a real experiment.  It is not a terribly scientific exercise, certainly not the sort of thing that involves actual databases and statistical analysis.  Still, it might be heuristically useful as we attempt to unravel some questions about the place of the martial arts in modern society.  Specifically, in a crowded marketplace, how do people go about deciding which martial art to study?  In what way do popular culture representations of these practices (often created by non-practitioners) play a role in this?

As I mulled over the kernels of these questions it occurred to me increasingly its not just film directors, comic book artists or video game designers who are creating pop-culture impressions of the martial arts.  It may not even be human beings at all.  Rather, it is search engine algorithms that are increasingly responsible for shaping our view of the outside world.

At first glance these algorithms seem to be perfectly neutral arbiters of relevance.  Yet a moment’s thought suggests that there cannot be any truly neutral way of presenting data.  Some facts must be given priority over others, and those that come closest to the top of any list will inevitably form our first and strongest impressions of the “world” around us.  Nor can our own identities ever really be understood in isolation from these larger processes of social construction.

So how exactly does the internet frame society’s understanding of the martial arts?  I began by typing the phrase “Chinese martial art” into a google image search and……immediately discovered a dozen of my own photographs that have already been posted here at Kung Fu Tea.  That is the thing about search engines, they are aware of our interests and can tailor their results quite specifically.  This brings up questions of selection bias and “echo chambers,” all of which would make a great blog post.  But that will have to wait for another day.

Rather, I was much more interested in how these practices were being framed and presented to non-practitioners and those new to the martial art.  What type of first impression is a search engine likely to generate for the genuinely uninitiated?  To find out I booted, a new search engine went to Google and did image searches for five key terms.  These were: self-defense, mixed martial arts, traditional Chinese martial arts, kali and karate.  In each case I took the first five real images that the search generated (excluding things like clip art) and dumped them into a visual “search collage.”

I looked at other terms as well, and each one of them turned up some interesting patterns.  But for the sake of brevity I am going to keep the list short.  Each of these collections suggests something about both the popular image of a given art, and the way that this discourse is amplified through our use of the internet.  Taken as a set they suggest both how powerful these framing effects might be, as well as the increasing degree of specialization that we are seeing in the current martial arts marketplace.


Top google image results for “self-defense”.


Who is interested in “self-defense” training?  If Google is to believed, the answer is overwhelming women.  In only one of the top five images is the victim a man. Nor was this an isolated trend.  Women overwhelming dominated the image search for “self-defense.”  On the one hand this may be a marketing tactic.  Wing Chun prides itself on being a “self-defense” art, and male students seem to dominate most of the schools I have visited.  But what better way to showcase the effectiveness of one’s techniques than by showing a small female overcoming a larger attacker (preferably wearing a hoodie).

I suspect that there are also other factors at play.  In fact, the popularity of hoodies among the attackers in these photos appears to be the key.  We know that in real life women are vastly more likely to be violently attacked by their domestic partners or family members than random strangers on the street.  Nevertheless, the social mythology of self-defense seems to focus only on random property crimes or sexual assaults, just as we see in these photographs.  Our image search also suggests that the victims of these imagined-assaults are overwhelmingly white females who exhibit upper-middle class values.  The attackers are universally male and almost always dressed in dark colors.

Looking at the images generated by a search for “self-defense” was very interesting for me as it suggested that my own perception of the phrase (shaped as it is by a decade in and around a certain type of martial arts schools) may be vastly different from what the public at large imagines when they hear the term.  It also suggested an incident from the very first martial arts studies that I attended in Cardiff in the summer of 2015.  At one of the panels a scholar and female MMA competitor was noting that she absolutely could not stand being called a “martial artist” (despite the fact the phrase was in the name of her sport), because if she identified as such everyone would just assume that she was interested in self-defense and not “real fighting.”  As a Wing Chun guy, that turn of phrase immediately struck me, and it has stuck with me.  Yet Google’s framing of this search term both suggests (and reinforces) the gendered, class based and racialized nature of “self-defense” within the modern martial arts discourse.


Top image results for “MMA.”


Given its current cultural profile, perhaps we should next turn or attention to MMA (mixed martial arts).  Again, the first five images pulled from google were remarkably homogeneous in nature.  Nor would things have been much different if the sample size had been expanded out to 10 or 15.  One’s first thought looking at most of these pictures vacillates between “that must have hurt” and “that is a lot of ink.”

This search term also generates a greater degree of racial diversity than “self-defense,” but it remains just as gendered.  Two things surprised me as I went through these images (and the others that followed.)  The first was the extent to which high kicks were making the “highlight reel.”  As Paul Bowman has noted, the high kick just seems to dominate the martial arts in the popular imagination, even when less visually impressive techniques tend to be more common in the ring.  Secondly, once you moved beyond the top five, quite a few of these images focused on emotional displays rather than actual fighting (though two of our photographs fall into that camp as well).  This marks a departure from the stoicism that dominates so many images of the other martial arts.

One suspects that this might have something to do with who publishes and distributes these images.  The sporting press, which is often at pains to impose some sort of narrative meaning on what might otherwise be seen as a purely violent event, are responsible for the creation of many of these photographs.  These sorts of magazines, blogs and sports shows seem to have an outsized impact on defining the nature of this martial art.

Top Google image results for “traditional Chinese martial arts.”


The situation is once again very different if we turn our attention to the “traditional Chinese martial arts.”  I should begin by noting that the results for this category seemed to be the most sensitive to small details of how the search term was specified.  For instance, dropping the “traditional” from the search would yield lots of pictures of Shaolin monks (mostly suspended in mid-air in improbably heroic poses).  Oddly adding the term “traditional” back in seems to have suppressed the famous temple’s memory.  At least for my searches.  YMMV.

Still, the current set of images gives us much to think about.  Every one of these images features individuals (in some sort of “traditional” costume) performing complex sets.  In two cases we have pictures of individual performers, and the other three emphasize mass movement in romantic locations.  It would appear that the Chinese martial arts are defined in the public imagination by dance like taolu.  Four of the five photos also feature Asian students.

One might also note that three of these images bear watermarks from Chinese tabloid publications.  In recent years these types of publications have run a large number of English language stories attempting to explain some aspect of the cultural legacy of the Chinese martial arts to the West.  Very often these stories are reports of initiatives funded by either the national or local government.  In other cases, they seem to be part of China’s “kung fu diplomacy” strategy where reporting on the martial arts (and other cultural practices) are used to shape popular opinion in the West.  Very often these same stories do double-duty promoting tourism and travel to China.   The upper-left hand photo was also published in a newspaper (in this case run by Falon Dafa) which has its own well-established history of using the martial arts to shape its own preferred narrative of Chinese identity.  Only the central image (drawn from a book cover) seems to clearly fall outside of these sorts of exercises.

Taken as a set these photographs suggest just how successful the various efforts to politicize the traditional Chinese martial arts have been.  It is now the products of “Kung Fu Diplomacy”, rather than the schools and classes of expatriate practitioners in the West, that dominate the top search results and hence public perception.  Even such venerable institutions as Bruce Lee and the Shaolin Temple have been bumped down a step.

Top Google image results for “Kali”.


China is not the only state that enjoyed a steady stream of hand combat pilgrims.  The Filipino martial arts have also attracted an increasing share of the limelight over the last decade.  Yet as valuable as this growing recognition has been, a google search doesn’t reveal any evidence of a centrally coordinated marketing strategy, let alone a government sponsored cultural diplomacy push.

The top five Kali photos display a diverse group of individuals (mostly, but not exclusively men).  There is no set dress code in these photos.  “Traditional” uniforms, training T-shirts and regular street cloths are all on display, as are the region’s signature sticks and knives.  This is also the only category to feature a photograph of someone who appears to be a senior citizen practicing (and probably teaching) the art.

Overall, the trends in these photographs are somewhat disorienting.  The lack of uniforms and greater diversity of students makes that art appear to be more approachable than most of what we have seen to this point.  Yet the prominent display of weapons increases the level of perceived danger.  It is probably not a coincidence that we see no children in any of these photos, even though they always comprise the largest cohort of martial arts students in the West.


Top image results for “Karate.”


So where are the children?  They all seem to have been sent to karate camp. The visual framing of Karate was tighter than any other search term that I examined.  Unfortunately, several the top images for this search were coming directly from school promotional materials, and for one reason or another I couldn’t just copy them.  As such we only have four “top ranked” images for our last search collage.  Still, these basic results hold (with remarkable consistency) all the way down the list.

According to Google Karate is basically a Western after-school activity for affluent (almost always Caucasian) students.  And these kids are young.  Most seem to range in age from 7-12.  High kicks are once again central to the arts public image, as are determined stances.  There is little suggestion of actual danger in most of these images (the upper-left corner was a solitary exception).  Brightly colored belts are seen in abundance, but anything that resembling a weapon or serious self-defense work is totally absent.

What about the other arts?  Is this visual profile typical for all “traditional” Asian martial arts?  Innumerable children are enrolled in taekwondo and judo classes as well.  Do their google searchers look the same?

The answer is a resounding no.  Again, part of the answer seems to be who is distributing and publishing these images.  All of the karate images I ran across are from the promotional material of individual schools.  But if you do a google search for either taekwondo or judo the top results will be dominated by pictures of professional athletes engaged in international competitions or even the Olympics.  And who is distributing those photos?  Many come from various Olympic committees or professional organizations.  Some are from news organizations.  So, if you want your kid to go to the Olympics, Google clearly thinks that judo is the best after-school activity (at least on this list).



Each of the previous sets of photos reveals something about our desires.  Each is also a lens showing how we perceive the world.  Yet that same lens often has a distorting effect on our understanding of the martial arts.  The framing of “self-defense” advertising perpetuates misconceptions about the real sources and victims of violence.  The clear majority of individuals taking a MMA class will never get three rounds of glory in the octagon, but they will spend a lot of time on basic grappling drills.  Nor was karate a martial art invented by and for small American children.  Only in the photos of the Filipino martial arts do we see scenes that appear to be training sequences rather than staged performance.

Still, this emphasis on performance reminds us of an essential and often overlooked truth.  In the modern era the martial arts exist as a commodity within in an economic market.  We access them not by discovering exotic temples, but by paying tuition.  And consumers have many choices as to where to invest their scarce dollars and hours.  Is it any surprise that we should see a trend towards market specialization within the martial arts?  The concept of “comparative advantage” seems to be alive and well when reviewing these search results.

The algorithms that act as gatekeepers of the larger world both reflect and accentuate these tendencies.  The end result is that one’s understanding of your own “real life experiences” might not line up with the social expectations that most people have of such things.

Do these algorithms have the power to shape our personal view of the martial arts?  Might they be telling us what to practice by how they frame our first impressions of these systems?  In a strong sense the answer is probably no.  As a political scientist, I am regularly subjected to discussions of election advertising strategies.  The fact that campaigns are willing to spend vast amounts of money on advertising suggests that they have a rational expectation that one can shape public perception on a range of issues.  Yet we also know that advertising alone (no matter how big the ad buys) is not enough to sell the public a candidate, cause or product that they don’t want.  After all, every election has a loser, and most potential “summer box office hits” actually fizzle when put in front of an audience.  Despite the best efforts of political consultants and advertising executives alike, the creation of demand remains more of an art than a science.  It is more easily accentuated or manipulated than conjured from thin air.

Still, that same literature suggests that issue framing and advertising may have more subtle second order effects.  While campaign ads rarely convince anyone to cross party lines (at least in the American system), negative attacks have been shown to sap public enthusiasm for a candidate or cause.  One wonders whether something similar may be at play here.  Political psychology suggests that human beings often respond to perceived “rules of appropriateness,” rather than carefully weighing all of the costs and benefits of every option.  A woman searching for information on the mixed martial arts could easily receive subtle messages that such an activity is not socially appropriate for her.  Likewise, an adult investigating karate might end up feeling that kali or escrima is a “better fit for someone like me” before ever having a chance to set foot in a dojo.  Its not so much the art that must be considered, but the community of practitioners.

In many ways martial artists are living in a golden age.  We have access to more information than any generation to come before us.  Yet it may be that the medium by which we access this information is having just as much of an impact on us as the messages that it seeks to convey.