Structure and Agency
Contrary to popular opinion, nature does not love parsimony. This frequently repeated opinion is more an aesthetic judgement on the part of some scholars rather than an empirical observation about the actual functioning of the natural or social worlds. When looking at questions as complex as the global spread of the Asian martial arts, we should treat single variable explanations with a high degree of caution.
History is not a series of isolated events. Rather, it is our understanding of a process that emerges when many streams meet and converge. Yes, American servicemen were exposed to Judo and Kendo during their occupation of Japan. But that doesn’t really explain why they would want to practice these arts once they got home.
Bruce Lee touched off a firestorm of cross-cultural desire. Yet the actual instruction of the following wave of students was left to teachers who often had a very different philosophy of the martial arts. Lee is credited as one of the 20th century’s most influential martial arts instructors, yet he actually had very few students. All of which is to say, it is easy to forget about the cultural soil that supported the spread of the martial arts if we become captivated only by the brilliance of its flowering. Students of martial arts studies must also be concerned with the roots.
Simply saying “its complicated,” isn’t always helpful. Theories that involve too many variables, or those which are unclear about their interactions, risk becoming subjective descriptions, rather than explanations, of some event. If we are only interested in the subjective experience of a single instance, what an anthropologist might call “thick description”, that is fine. Yet if we wish to explore the realm of causality we need a way to think about the work that our variables perform.
When theorizing about mass social movements, I have sometimes found it useful to think in terms of “supply” and “demand.” If we are speaking about consumption decisions within an economic market (why does someone decide to spend their hard earned cash on “Wing Chun” lessons?) this behavioral model can be very helpful. As researchers we are led to ask, how did they first find out about this practice? What social forces led them to decide that this was a desirable good? And what sorts of global economic and political exchanges made the establishment of Western Wing Chun schools possible in the 1980s but not the 1930s? After all, the art was pretty popular in southern China during both of these periods, but it only enjoyed a global spread in one.
Even when we leave behind questions directly touching on market rationality, this same analytical structure makes some sense. The immediate objection might be that we error in the assumption that self-aware actors exists in isolation of larger economic, social and cultural systems. Much of our “agency” may be an aspect of how we subjectively experience our lives, rather than an objective fact. If we have learned nothing else from the last century of sociological theorizing, it is that in the long-run such systems are responsible for constructing all of us.
Nevertheless, grand theorizing doesn’t always get at the most interesting questions. It is easy to multiply examples. Why did some working class Chinese martial artists become ardent members of the Communist Party while others supported the KMT? And how did they understand their physical experience of these hand combat systems as unique expressions of very different visions of what modern Chinese society should be?
In my own ethnographic field research I have been forced to wonder why some students walk into the Western style boxing gym, while others head to the Wing Chun/JKD school that sits literally next door to it. You cannot walk down the street without making a choice. Both schools basically teach the art of throwing a better punch, yet their students develop very different identities. Systems exist, but it is also impossible to ignore the very pressing experience of agency.
Rather than thinking only of “supply” and “demand,” at times I think we can get closer to what is going on by reframing the discussion in terms of “push” and “pull.” We all make choices. Yet rarely are they as free and unconstrained as we might think.
For instance, the emergence of a new media discourse promoting trans-national desire as a model for personal and community liberations (e.g., that awesome new Bruce Lee movie that all of your friends are talking about), might very well increase the glamor and attraction of the local Judo school. Such media representations are a powerful mechanism for the reproduction of desire.
On the other hand, certain institutions (say the US military during the 20th century) might use their organizational capabilities to make specific behaviors possible or compulsory. Yet even when something is not directly mandated, it can still bleed over in complex or unexpected ways (what social scientists call externalities). Indeed, you did not have to join the Army in 1941 to learn Judo or Karate. Rather, the US military unintentionally ensured that every small city in America would be stocked with instructors in the Japanese martial arts.
As a general rule, where the forces of “push” and “pull” overlap, rapid social change becomes possible.
Scouts as Vanguards of the Martial Arts Revolution
We must be cautious when actually constructing our historical narratives. Not every social organization functions by pushing a “supply.” How an organization functions is likely to be effected by the political and social institutions that it is embedded within. Thus we may see very similar groups working in unique ways in different environments.
This, of course, brings us to the international scouting movement. I was only involved in scouting for a few years when I was growing up. But reflecting back on that time I am struck by the degree to which the organization functioned as an engine for the reproduction of desire.
One desired to earn badges, to gain more senior ranks and to go on costly adventures. One desired camping gear emblazoned with the BSA logo, friendships and most of all to be part of this vast cosmopolitan adventure linking youth from around the globe. And while we knew that in a sense all scouts were equal, we were always fascinated by the differences in uniforms, appearance and regulations that you would occasionally encounter. The scouting movement managed to reproduce a sort of nationalist narrative while at the same time promoting an intensely globalized view.
All of this came flooding back when I ran across a brief mention of “Chinese sword dancing” in a 1935 New York Times article. The piece provided a short account of three groups of scouts (from Japan, China and Utah) who had attempted to travel to New York City for an international jamboree that was to be held in Central Park. Due to the difficulties of their journeys they missed the actual event. Still, the city rolled out the red carpet for them and it was very interesting to read about their exploration of Manhattan (they had lunch in Chinatown). The article, however, was dominated by a single large photo showing the group of Japanese and Chinese scouts siting on the steps of city hall watching one of their members perform a complex double saber routine. It was captioned “An Oriental Accomplishment Not in Western Boy Scouts’ Curricula.”
I was struck by this photograph and statement. On the one hand I am sure that it succeeded in the reproduced of desire within its target demographic. I cannot imagine a red-blooded American 12 year old who, upon seeing this photo, would not want to pick up six feet of sharpened steel and give it a ago. And yet the caption was careful to draw a very neat distinction between “us” and “them.” Western scouts were defined explicitly as the sort who do not play with swords.
Yet such an assertion is problematic in a number of ways. I have come across an early 20th century photo of Japanese-American and Caucasian Boy Scouts in California practicing Kendo together. And historians of the Scouting movement will be quick to point out that the Man-At-Arms program was one of the original merit badges offered by the Boy Scouts.
Any scout who forgot the requirements for this particular accomplishment could simply check the back of this handy cigarette card (which now mostly served to remind us that the early 20th century really was a very different time). There we read:
“To qualify for this badge it is necessary for the scout to attain proficiency in two of the following subjects: –
Single-stick, quarter-staff, fencing, boxing, ju-jitsu, gymnastics and wrestling.”
The same requirements were laid out in the earliest American release of the scouting handbook. Interestingly, on this side of the Atlantic the merit badge was dropped from the subsequent 1911 edition of book. However, it continued on in both Europe and many other countries around the globe. Anyone interested in learning more about what this training program might have looked like in the interwar years is invited to check out this PDF of a 1925 merit badge book.
Single stick and jujitsu were both options, but perhaps that should not be a surprise given the place that these exercises enjoyed in Edwardian society. One can even come across the occasional photo of British Scouts hard at work at their training. And while American scouts may not have been able to earn any merit badges in these subjects, I suspect that boxing and wrestling remained fairly popular activities on an informal level. Interestingly, the American Boy Scout program clarified its prohibition against martial arts training in 1974. One suspects that this may have had something to do with the sudden popularity of Bruce Lee and nunchucks among their target demographic. Still, specific exceptions were left in place for Judo, Akido and Tai Chi.
Thus Western scouts were no stranger to the Asian martial arts. An essay titled “‘Always prepared’- the Boy Scouts and self-defence” on the Bartitsu Society blog noted that the early inclusion of the Man-at-Arms badge likely reflected something fundamental within the organization’s founding vision. In 1906 Baden-Powell was deeply impressed with a martial arts exhibition given by Sadakazu Uyenishi (formerly of the Bartitsu Club). The following year Jiujitsu was included among the skills practiced at his very first Scouting gathering on Brownsea Island. It is thus no surprise to find that the activity was promoted among early scouts.
How it was understood by those same individuals is always the more difficult question. Reading through the 1925 Master-at-Arms manual, I was struck by the fact that Western boxing was introduced with a full three paragraphs of material lauding the moral education that the “sweet science” would impart to young pugilists. The section of jiujitsu contained no such preamble. Nor were Kano’s similar ideas about Judo ever referenced. Instead, the Japanese martial art was treated almost as an addendum to wrestling. While the existence of other fighting systems was advertised, readers were left with no doubt as to where the author’s cultural loyalties lay.
The situation in East Asia also seems to have echoed Baden-Powell’s original vision. As was noted before, Japanese scouts do not appear to have been strangers to Kendo gear. Likewise, Scouting generated a fair amount of interest in China during the pre-WWII period. It was promoted by multiple physical culture reformers as exactly the sort of strenuous activity that was necessary to build a strong nation.
Chinese intellectuals, always concerned with the nation’s public image, made sure that the West would know that China was participating in the global scouting fraternity. Gunson Hoh’s 1926 English language volume, Physical Education in China (Shanghai, the Commercial Press), includes a surprising number of photographs of both Boy and Girl Scouts. Better yet, images of Girl Scouts with swords and poles are used to illustrate his historical discussion of the evolution of the Chinese martial arts in the first chapter of this volume.
Institutions and Context
Such images would have been immediately familiar to scouts around the globe. The ox-tailed sabers of Chinese children, or Japanese Kendo gear, represented a difference of degree rather than kind. European scouts had their jujitsu and single stick, while American troops remained far from pacifist. Scouting managed to have a leveling effect. Its participants were encouraged to see jiujitsu, fencing, boxing and Chinese sword dancing as equivalent activities. And yet they never became interchangeable. An American Boy Scout might practice Kendo with his new Japanese friends, yet the activities remained framed by the era’s nationalist discourse.
What was the ultimate impact of the global scouting movement on the spread of the martial arts, both Asian and Western? This would be an opportune time to return to the distinction laid out in this essay’s introduction. Rather than making vague gestures towards the manifestly militaristic nature of the era’s engagement with traditional combat training, an interesting dichotomy arises. The answer to our question depends in large part on where one lived and the way in which scouting intersected with more elite political or social forces.
In Europe and Asia during the 1920s, scouting seems to have fallen on the “push” side of the equation. These were coherent institutions that had both the resources and manpower to introduce large numbers of young people to a variety of fighting systems. Some of this was cosmopolitan in nature, but there was clearly a degree of emphasis on the reproduction of “national culture.” Thus a young Chinese scout might very well be called upon to execute a complex sword dance on the steps of New York’s city hall before being taken to Chinatown for lunch. And while Baden-Powell may have ensured that a shadow of the Bartitsu Society lived on in his organizations promotion of jiujitsu, it was boxing, wrestling, fencing, single stick and quarter-staff clearly defined the ideal “Man-at-Arms.”
This was not the only way that scouting functioned. The BSA dropped the Man-at-Arms merit badge early on, and thus abandoned much of the organization’s ability to “push” combative activities. Still, by continuing to cultivate a cosmopolitan and global identity, it was ensured that some young scouts would be exposed to Kendo, Chinese Boxing and Europeans doing Jiujitsu. All of this would be seen within the context of exciting recreational activities overlaying a more fractured reality of national rivalry and global competition.
Sadly these American children were not able to study Jiujitsu within their own troops (at least not on an official basis). But it may not be a coincidence that they would make up the generation of soldiers who would enthusiastically embrace the Asian martial arts while stationed in the Pacific, and then go to great lengths to bring these practices back into their civilian lives.
History, as we have seen, is a complex thing. Certainly we choose, but it both pushes and pulls us.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Defining Wing Chun by What is “Missing”