The Shaolin Temple, home to countless theories on the origins of the Chinese martial arts. Source: Wikimedia.


Something Old, Something New

Everyone has a favorite TV show, film genre or martial art.  So here is a quick experiment that you can carry out from the comfort of your own smart phone.  Head on over to YouTube, drop the title of your chosen passion in the search box, and take a look at what comes up.  If you interests are anything like mine there will be lots hits on Star Wars, Wing Chun and Rick and Morty (don’t judge).  

Now take a closer look at what you see.  What sorts of videos are actually populating your feed?  If your search results are anything like mine there will be a mixture of popular action clips (Rey and Kylo taking out the praetorian guard in Snoke’s throne room), instructional material (it seems that literally every Wing Chun school in existence now has their own version of the Six and a Half Point Pole form) and lots and lots of “theory videos.”  Indeed, YouTube has become a hub for distributing not just video clips of popular programs and practices, but extensive fan discussions as well.  

These fan theories can take various forms.  There are lots of film theories that attempt to ferret out the “secret” connections between characters, plot points or even franchises.  Others draw on trailers, advertisements and the release of merchandise to speculate about what will happen in upcoming episodes of a series.  And if we turn our attention to videos focusing on the traditional Asian martial arts, we will encounter many amateur sleuths attempting to reveal the “forgotten history” of some teacher, lineage or specific practice.

Once you start to pay attention to these “theory videos” you quickly realize that they have become ubiquitous, crossing all sorts of boundaries separating genres and practices.  They are now a near universal constant within popular culture.  Of course there has always been speculation about what really motivated Hamlet, or the fuzzy origins of Karate.  And in all honesty, I love those sorts of conversations. Yet something feels different about the current moment.  

Again, lets go back to our search results.  When I type in “Rick and Morty” I can find links to the official pay-per-view episodes, pirated episodes and video clips, but they are dwarfed by the number of fan produced videos commenting, theorizing and speculating on “what it all means” or “what will happen next.”  In a very real sense it seems that everyone has a theory.  The official content has been displaced from the center of the community.  The actual number of hours of this cartoon ever produced is minuscule compared to the amount of amateur content, mostly responding to other amateur critics, that has now been posted.

And as far as YouTube or Facebook is concerned, that is a great thing.  After all, they don’t really control the content or advertising streams around the original show.  But they can certainly monetize all of these fan produced theory videos.  The more you think about them, the less puzzling their prominence becomes.  Fans want to be part of the process of “creating” the story (or at least their small corner of the community that follows it), while social networks are only too happy to encourage this type of discussion because they can make a lot of money from it.  How much money? Just take a look the number of views those Star Wars or Rick and Morty theory videos get.  Fan theories are now big business (just not for the fans, ironically).

My interest in this process is two-fold.  On a structural level I have noticed that a lot of these “fan theories” are similar to the sorts of popular battles over martial arts history that have been going on for decades.  “Theorizing” is pervasive in both areas.  What are the effects of this?  How does our experience of the martial arts, or our treatment of martial arts history, change now that the internet has taken this type of conversation and turned the volume up to eleven?  Secondly, how should academics and other students of martial arts studies approach the fan theory phenomenon?  Rather than following our initial instincts to simply dismiss all of this as “bad history”, I argue that the self-referential nature of many of these narratives makes them an important source of information on the needs and desires that motivate the current generation of martial art students (particularly the ones who are interested in questions of identity, community and authenticity). 


Leia for First Senator. I am with her!


Experiencing a Fan Theory

While my own training within Political Science focuses on questions of international relations and political economy, I have a number of colleagues who specialized instead on the messy business of winning elections.  What we have learned about the “dark arts” of political advertising and messaging on social media in the last few years is genuinely fascinating.  My recent research on public and cultural diplomacy (sometimes mistaken for the related field of propaganda) has led me to develop an interest in some of these questions.  Much of this may be helpful when attempting to disentangle the impact of pop culture theorizing within the martial arts.

Perhaps the first realization that we must accept is that every piece of media we consume has some impact on how we perceive our world.  This does not mean that we automatically rush out and buy the first product that we see advertised.  Persuading potential customers or voters is a tricky business.  But all of the messages that we have been previously exposed to frame our perception of each new piece of information that we get in significant, and sometimes perplexing, ways.  Hence any diplomat, advertising executive or political operative worth their salt thinks about the long game (lets call it “brand management”) and not just immediate returns.  Effective exponents of the martial arts have historically taken similar approaches.

Their patience is based on an understanding of the value of repetition.  A psychological observation called the “mere exposure effect” notes that people develop positive associations with claims or statements that they hear repeatedly, even if they do not fully understand them.  This principal is the basis of the tried and true political strategy of “coordinating your talking points.”  While watching two hours of Sunday morning news programing, a viewer might be exposed to various guests and reporters repeating the same pre-scripted talking point a dozen times.  The first time you hear the argument it is simply a rumor, but by Monday morning a significant percentage of the population will accept it as a fact.  Again, this is based simply upon their repeated exposure to the idea.  

This is disturbing as on a conscious level we all know that simply repeating a claim over and over does not make it true.  Yet on a subconscious level that does not seem to matter.  We often feel more favorably disposed to ideas simply because we have been repeatedly exposed to them.  Nor does intellectually knowing about the “mere exposure effect” do much to blunt its psychological impact.

All of this is important as most of us also inhabit a social “echo chamber” of some sort.  Certain theories or debates have a way of dominating on-line communities (e.g., in The Last Jedi we will learn that Han Solo is (or is not) Rey’s father; Wing Chun is structured this way as it was (or was not) invented by a woman, etc…).  Indeed, this may even be considered to be a core feature of the traditional Asian folk arts.  In his discussion of “folk history” Prof. Thomas Green (2003) noted that martial art communities are constructed, at least in part, through their acceptance of unverified narratives (e.g., historical legends) that are used to explain why certain things are done they way they are.   Green actually went so far as to question whether one could be a “real” member of a community if you rejected these folk theories.

In my personal experience, community boundaries within the Chinese martial arts in America are not drawn quite so strictly.  Rather, it seems that the community itself is defined through its acceptance of certain debates.  It may not actually matter much whether you accept or reject the historical reality of Ng Moy.  Your Chi Sao will be just as good.  Rather, to be a member of the Wing Chun clan is to acknowledge that you are part of the larger group that debates the question of whether she existed, and what impact she may (or may not) have had on the shared art.  In short, we define ourselves not so much by the acceptance of a legend, but rather through our interest in theorizing about it.  The advent of YouTube and Facebook has simply accelerated, rather than changed, this underlying pattern of identity formation.

Next we must consider the “confidence effect.”  It seems to me that most good fan theories on any subject (whether its Rick and Morty or the pre-history of Karate) operate by linking disparate facts in an attempt to prove a seemingly counter-intuitive hypothesis.  For instance, I recently saw a paper presentation arguing that, contrary to the accepted wisdom, Taekwondo wasn’t simply a localized adaptation of Japanese karate.  Rather, Japanese Karate was itself transmitted by mostly Korean refugees who washed up in Okinawa.  So without denying the obvious historical sequence of events that has now been documented by so many Korean and Western sports historians, one could still argue that Taekwondo is essentially an ancient Korean martial art.

On the surface this argument seems unlikely.  Indeed, it reads as a classic case of a theorist starting off with the conclusion that they wanted to reach (TKD really is Korean) and then finding a group of facts that fit the scenario.  Still, I loved the paper.  As I listened to it I learned all sorts of interesting facts about how the fishing and maritime trade industries in Korea worked, and how the Okinawan kingdom handled refugees.  

Of course, none of that really spoke directly to the question at hand.  If you want to know about the origins of Taekwondo its a lot easier to examine what was happening in Korea in the 1950s than to theorize about what may have happened in Okinawa in the 1850s.  Unfortunately, that is not the way the confidence effect actually works.  Rather, we are more likely to be confident in a theory the more tantalizing clues and pieces of information we are given, even if they don’t actually add up to anything.

In a famous experiment researchers asked respondents to predict the outcome of sporting events.  In successive rounds of the test they gave respondents more “facts” about the two teams.  Further, respondents were asked to rank their confidence in their predictions.  While the long lists of spurious facts about each team did nothing to improve the actually quality of the predictions made, everyone was universally more confident in the accuracy of their theory when they went into it armed with a well stocked list of “clues.”  It seems that the human mind is very invested in the discovery of clues, even if we have to make them up or convince ourselves of their significance.

This then brings us to our last psychological mechanism, the endowment effect.  This insight actually comes from experimental economics.  Simply stated, individuals very rarely feel comfortable selling an item for less than the price that they bought it for.  So if I were to ask you how much you paid for that coffee mug you might brag about only having paid $10.  If I asked you what it was worth you might well tell me $15, even though you just saw that very item (and probably many more like it), change hands for $10.  This isn’t just because people love a “bargain” (or rather, being convinced that what they just bought was, in fact, a bargain).  It happens because we endow items, identities and practices with intangible value simply because they are now ours.  They come to reflect the value that we place on our own ego.

Nor are we eager to reevaluate those prices.  In fact, we tend to psychologically isolate ourselves from information that suggests that these values are overstated.  This is an  important aspect of human psychology that all political operatives seek to exploit.  Once an individual adopts a political party or candidate as part of their identity, they will tend to discount or ignore any future information they receive that is critical of those institutions.  Hence politicians frequently attempt to reframe attacks on themselves as attacks on their voters.

The end result is that people tend to have a natural bias against new information, particularly if it challenges their current practices or community identity.  Its not hard to see similar trends within the debates that erupt between martial arts styles.  Once again, simply knowing about the endowment effect, or the “illusory truth effect” (the more frequently one hears an assertion, the more likely you are to accept it, even if its labeled as “just a theory”), does not make one immune to them.  Indeed, each of these mechanisms is deeply embedded in human psychology and helps to make us fundamentally social animals.  We define ourselves, in large part, by what others tell us.

Extended to their natural conclusion, it is easy to see how these theories or debates are not really the products of individuals.  Knowledge is always fundamentally social, and its exposition has consequences.  That is probably why theory videos, whether on the martial arts or the latest Star Wars film, are so popular in the first place.  We seek to be part of, and at the same time to influence, these communities.

The danger arises when we run into physical facts or historical discoveries that stand apart from these social discourses.  A striker will not always beat a grappler (or vice versa).  And we are always on the verge of new historical discoveries that could rewrite our understanding of a given community or era.  Just as holding too tightly to a favorite fan theory might lead to disappointment when a TV series goes in a different direction,  our pursuit of “effective self-defense”, “historically accurate swordsmanship” or “authentic history” will not always be well served by a propensity to engage in popular theorizing about the arts we practice.  Because these ideas are so easily conflated with our own identity, the temptation to ignore challenging new discoveries is immense.


So who doesn’t feel inspired by an epic martial arts infused landscape shot?


The Creator and the Creation

Given my own interests, I am particularly concerned with how popular discussions might lead individuals to ignore or misread social history.  I worry that the sorts of fan theories that something like YouTube normalizes might complicate the growing popular discussion of the martial arts.  Responding to social media trends, certain shows and films have taken to leaving elaborate trails of breadcrumbs throughout their scripts.  Within the show this serves the purpose of “world building.”  But in the larger on-line discussion it is effectively a type of “fan service” that drives endless speculation.  These sorts of organic discussions are now seen as a critical way to maintain a fanbase even when new episodes or films are not being produced.

Yet actual history does not leave neatly marked trails of breadcrumbs, and the social significance of popular practices rarely follows a single, linear, narrative track.  The real world is complex.  History only rarely makes for a good theory video.  There are many narratives that might emerge from one event, nor is it always clear what sort of data constitutes a useful “clue” and what is simply noise.

Its also important to think carefully about our goals.  Most fan theories, whether on the martial arts or popular culture, seek to fill in the gaps in our understanding.  They wonder about events that occurred before the start of the film or which fall outside the accepted historical record.  They seek to clarify the relationships between characters which are left unresolved on screen or in the history books.

As such, much of this popular theorizing is based on what we in academics call “arguments from silence.”  And that is not an accident.  Rather, these productions are fascinating and highly creative attempts to fill in the gaps while still staying loyal to a group of known facts.

This is one of the areas where you can most easily perceive the difference between what might be popular or “folk” theorizing and its more academic cousins.  I specifically tell my students not to theorize about the empty spaces because, lacking evidence, such theories can never really be challenged or falsified.  And I try to practice what I preach.  

When working on the Creation of Wing Chun, my co-author and I actually cut multiple chapters of deep historical speculation on Wing Chun’s early origins from the manuscript because, in our judgement, the sources were just too thin to support a truly scholarly discussion.  As interesting as the subject may be, it was more important to focus on recent events in the 1910s-1970s.  Not only was this period well enough documented to allow for real theory testing, but it was also the proximate source of the Wing Chun community that exists today.  The key to maintaining a legitimate scholarly discussion is the ability to say, “we simply don’t know.” 

Those are my concerns as a social scientist.  At the same time, we should admit that falsification is not really the point of most pop-culture theorizing.  For instance, not many Star Wars fans were happy to hear that their theory about Rey’s parentage was wrong.  They didn’t just update their genealogical databases and move on.  Rather, they (in many cases) felt personally disrespected to a degree that is quite significant to students of cultural studies.

I am hesitant to simply reduce this vast body of popular discourse to “bad martial arts history” or “bad film studies.”  Again, I think that misses its larger significance.  The logic of what dictates a good “fan theory” is certainly different from anything that I would teach in a class on social scientific methods.  Yet such a logic does seem to exist.  Further, there is something undeniably creative and exciting about all of this.  If we are being honest, we would have to admit that this has always been one of the most dynamic and interesting realms of discussion surrounding the traditional martial arts.

In short, I think that students of Martial Arts Studies, particularly those with sociological and anthropological interests, probably need to pay more attention to fan theories.  They suggest a great deal about what certain types of student seeks to find within the modern martial arts.  Their concerns with legitimacy, authenticity and historical rootedness are topics that we can, and should, speak to.  Yet beyond those obvious issues we find in their narratives an attempt to cast the martial experience in such a way that it redefines the horizon of what is possible (and desirable) at this moment in history.  While we may not learn much about Taekwondo’s history (or Rey’s parentage) by watching these videos, their creators are telling us a great deal about how the martial arts function as an avenue for self-creation.



If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: What “Everyone” Knows: Empowerment, Social Competition and Conspiracy Theories in the Martial Arts