photo credit: Helen Cho



Winning and Losing

In the movies martial artists win their battles.  Early losses, inserted into a script for the purposes of “character development,” are redeemed in a climatic final scene.  Those of us who train, however, know that this formula is often backwards.  In real life defeats follow initial victories.  At 59 years of age, and reflecting on his own experience in the martial arts, Anthony Bourdain observed that time and injury take an inevitable toll.

“I tape my fingers (in the forlorn hope that it might mitigate the osteoarthritis and Heberden’s nodes associated with grip fighting). I will never be a black belt. I will never successfully compete against similarly ranked opponents half my age, I will never be great at Brazilian jiu jitsu. There is an urgency to my training because I’m sure as shit not getting any younger, or more flexible. I’m certainly not getting any faster.” 

Some systems of training are easier on the body than others, but the cold truth is that the practice of any fighting art inevitably cannibalizes much of the physical capital that it seeks to create.  All of us reach a point in life when we begin to grimly calculate how many “good training years” we have left, and how much more we might reasonably seek to master.  Through careful practice and good luck we might forestall the inevitable, but this is a battle that we all must lose.  To train as a martial artist is to learn to face defeat with a degree of equanimity.  I would suggest that this lesson is not peripheral to our practice.  It is intrinsic to any quest for embodied knowledge.  

The tragic ending of Bourdain’s own battle against his inner demons has launched a wave of public reflection, as well as celebrations of his life.  I was struck by how many of these obituaries, reviews and think pieces have focused on his passionate engagement with the martial arts.  Indeed, his enthusiasm for Brazilian Jiujitsu was often brought up in practically the same sentence as praise for his willingness to talk about his past struggles with drug addiction.  The subtle implications of this pairing are, of course, clear.  Bourdain had found a higher power in the monastic discipline of serious martial arts practice and was drawing on this to combat a history of heroin and crack cocaine usage.  Even if he ultimately lost his battle, surely his martial arts practice helped him to hold out as long as he did.

Some of Bourdain’s own writings seem to wink at a connection between these two episodes in his life. He noted: 

“I used to hang around cold stairwells first thing in the morning waiting for dope. Now I hang around cold stairwells waiting for Jiu Jitsu.”

Photo Credit: Helen Cho


Very few of his casual viewers could probably guess what Bourdain actually felt waiting in that stairwell, anticipating a grueling workout.  Yet I would guess that this line of narrative nevertheless sparked of a wave of recognition within his audience.  After all, martial arts and drug addiction have long formed an oppositional pair in the public consciousness.

On strictly empirical grounds this is actually somewhat odd. The many elite fighters who are caught using banned substances for either recreational or performance enhancing reasons (or in Bruce Lee’s case, both) are quickly forgotten.  They do not conform to what we think we know about the martial arts, or the elite athletes who are lucky enough to pursue them.  Political psychologists would be quick to remind us that when a piece of new information does not comport with our prior theories or beliefs, its all too easy to find a reason to dismiss it. The end result is that experienced “reality” is a highly individualized phenomenon.

Yet accounts of celebrities who have turned to the martial arts in a bid to increase their personal wellness or combat drug addiction are amplified and echoed throughout the media.  The release of the initial Ip Man movies certainly brought some curious new students into my teacher’s school in Salt Lake City back in 2008 and 2010.  Even more impressive were the crowds which would appear following Robert Downy Jr.’s periodic discussions of the many ways that Wing Chun had helped him to get his life back on track.

There is no denying Downy’s star power.  And the ease with which Sherlock Holmes’ Japanese inflected Bartitsu was replaced with a Wing Chun inspired interpretation of bare knuckles boxing was striking.  Still, I suspect that Downy’s story (and endorsement) had such staying power within the public imagination as it conformed to a self-help narrative that was already widely accepted.  Rather than being a complex social, medical and economic phenomenon, in this view substance abuse reflects some sort of deficit in the national (or personal) character.  As such, something that teaches “self-control” and “discipline” is exactly what individuals struggling with addiction (or even underlying mental health problems) need.

This is an area where we must tread carefully, both as martial artists and scholars.  On the one hand, we know that practically any type of regular vigorous exercise has undeniable physical and psychological benefits.  And certain types of martial arts training may have an edge when it comes to teaching “mindfulness” and developing self-discipline.  It is also clear that an increasing number of addiction recovery programs are turning to the martial arts as one aspect of a wider treatment plan.

Still, I haven’t seen any clinical research suggesting that martial arts practice can fundamentally change the brain chemistry of someone struggling with a serious mental illness, or that individuals are more likely to become addicted to their prescription opioids because they somehow suffer from “weak characters.”  Indeed, one of the dangers in these sorts of discourses is that as we personalize the struggle for wellness and recovery, we simultaneously ignore the larger societal trends that lead to massive waves of addiction in the first place. An exclusive focus on “individual responsibility” risks falling prey to a pernicious species of policy blindness.


photo credit: Helen Cho


The Sick Man of Asia

Then there is the overwhelming sense of deja vu.  As a student of modern Chinese social history, it is hard not to draw the obvious parallels between the current (North American) opiod crisis and the one that gripped Southern China in the closing years of the Qing dynasty, stubbornly persisting through the Republic.

One wants to avoid facile equivalencies.  Shanghai in the 1920s was a vastly different place than San Francisco today.  If nothing else modern Americans do not have to contend with a trade system that allows the Japanese to export a limitless number of their notorious “red pills.”  Our own pharmaceutical industry has stepped into that breech, replacing old fashioned economic imperialism with an updated species of predatory medical capitalism.  Still, structural factors such as rapid social displacement, growing inequality and erratic policy making certainly compounded the problem in both eras.

And then there are the martial artists.  Again, one must be careful to avoid overly broad generalizations.  Both the martial arts and substance abuse were such widely distributed social phenomenon in Republican China that they tended to overlap in strange, and sometimes surprising, ways.  

Many martial artists were staunch opponents of opium use.  But those who worked as security officers for the state (which claimed to have a legal monopoly on the sale of opium) or as enforcers for various criminal gangs (who contested said monopoly), likely found themselves actively supporting the trade.  We also tend to forget that while Chinese social opinion saw opium use by marginal people (peasants, common laborers, soldiers) as a serious problem, the “better classes” were thought to be immune to many of the problems associated with long term drug use due to their innately “superior moral character.”  Hence it should not really be a surprise to learn that Ng Chung So’s Wing Chun school (catering to the sons of wealthy local business owners) operated out of the back room of a fashionable “opium den” in Foshan.

Still, there was enough opposition to opium usage within the martial arts community that a fairly recognizable discourse could emerge.  One of the more unvarnished accounts of this era can be found in the reminisces of the well known Taijiquan teacher T. T. Liang, as recorded and published by his student Stuart Alve Olson.  Liang provides the reader with colorful retellings of what it was like to be a Custom’s Officer caught in the crosshairs of competing opium interests during the “roaring 20s.”  But his personal journey within the martial arts really begins in a hospital bed in 1945 when, forced to confront his own imminent mortality, he resolved to save himself by finding a Taijiquan teacher.  His was hardly a unique story during that era. I suspect that at least some of the discussions of personal and “national health” that pepper the period’s martial arts manuals are veiled references to the scourge of addiction.

The more nationally focused movements didn’t bother to shroud their criticism of opium use, and proudly argued that the martial arts were a means to individual and national salvation.  As in so many other areas, the Jingwu Association seems to have pioneered this message in their publications.  Of course the group also had long standing campaigns to promote better public hygiene and education as well as the martial arts. 

Their ten year anniversary book, discussed at length by Kennedy and Guo, even included political cartoons (titled in English) editorializing on detrimental national effects of individual drug use.  They made their argument by juxtaposing the image of a young and healthy Jingwu student, capable of working or fighting for his nation, with an image of loafers and weaklings of “low character” who could only cluster around an opium pipe.



This returns us to one of the major differences between Republican China and the current situation in the United States.  While reformers in both places have promoted the martial arts as the key to recovery, character building and wellness, the end goal of this process is not always the same.  When reading through the front matter of various TCMA training manuals from the 1920s, it quickly becomes apparent that the health and recovery of citizens was being promoted precisely because it was believed that this would lead to the strengthening of the Chinese state in the global arena.  Individual wellness was not a goal in itself so much as it was portrayed as a means to a much greater end.  This promotion of middle class and urban martial arts was not a matter of “post-modern” values. Indeed, the nation’s martial arts teachers were expected to produce physical capital that could then be fed directly into China’s rapidly modernizing industrial sector.

In contrast, the current Western discourse linking wellness and the martial arts is an almost perfect example of what Ronald Inglehart would characterize as postmodern values.  These focus on the welfare of individuals (rather than the state or the economy) and emphasize the critical importance of the “intangible” aspects of life. While a surface reading might suggest a great deal of rhetorical continuity within the ongoing medicalization of the Chinese martial arts over the last 100 years, a closer examination reveals that these efforts have actually been tied to substantially different sets of values.


Anthony Bourdain and jiu-jitsu trainer Kurt Osiander in San Francisco in 2015. Photo Credit: Helen Cho.


Why Practice?

So what actually motivates individuals who take up the martial arts today, especially those who do so later in life?  Anthony Bourdain’s autobiographical accounts are suggestive.  Initially the pull of “social networks” seems to have had more to do with his choice than any lingering need to fight heroin addiction.  By most accounts he had ended his relationship with that drug in the 1980s.  It wasn’t until 2014 that Ottavia Bourdain, his first wife and an avid martial artist, convinced him to sign up for classes in Renzo Gracie’s gym in Manhattan, where she conducted much of her training.

It is clear from his writings that Bourdain quickly got “hooked” on his new hobby.  Soon he was training multiple hours a day whenever he was in NY and visiting schools around the globe as he traveled to shoot on location.  While he jokingly described his new found passion as “an addiction,” his public discussions of the art rarely touched on, or even alluded to, his own history with substance abuse.  That is interesting as this was a topic that Bourdain freely discussed.

His public discussion of BJJ seemed to focus instead on its all consuming nature.  He loved the physical and tactical challenges that it posed.  Bourdain seems to have been interested in the conceptual basis of his physical practice, repeatedly characterizing BJJ as a chess match.  And a brutal training schedule may have been quite helpful in his role as a television personality who needed to both eat and drink for a living while gaining no weight.

Another point that Bourdain repeatedly came back to was the emotional experience of engaging in something totally new.  His professional worlds had previously included kitchens, restaurants and writing desks.  He had never been one for the gym, let alone the training hall.  He described with awe the sensation of becoming an absolute beginner, of going back to square one and admitting that he knew nothing.

“It’s like being the newest, worst cook in the kitchen all over again, looking up that impossibly steep learning curve to the broiler station. I liked that feeling then. I like it now.

The first day, all those years ago, when my chef addressed me by name at the end of the shift, was a golden moment.”

One can hear echoes in this quote of Dan Inosanto’s famous extortion to always be a white belt in something.  Becoming that white belt is not just a technical process, it is an emotional one as well.  This quote suggests that it unleashed a wave of nostalgia in Bourdain for a much earlier point in his career, a period when everything was still touched by mystery.  To become a white belt is not just to accept a new teacher, or a new system.  It recaptures part of the inexperience of one’s own youth.  I still vividly recall my excitement as a new Wing Chun student, and the strange sense of freedom (even possibility) that arose from simply being a new student in the back of a class after having spent the better part of a decade performing at the front of lecture halls.

When discussing the connection between martial arts practice and addiction recovery most professionals are very careful to point out that this is a supplement to, rather than substitute for, other sorts of treatment (particularly if there are underlying mental health issues). Yet regardless of how you come to them, the martial arts can be an invaluable tool for restoring one’s physical health and mental calm.  They allow individuals to gain new social skills and an increased sense of psychological resilience.  And everyone enjoys a healthy self-esteem boost when discovering “My body can do what?”

In reading Bourdain’s accounts of his own training, and reflecting on my own experience, I think that there is something else.  There is just so much nostalgia in his final quote.  Of course the Asian martial arts have always traded in romantic images and feelings of nostalgia. Nostalgia can be a double edged sword, particularly if its strongly felt but not linked to any sort of action.  In those cases it risks turning into a form of toxic resentment for that which is new or different.  Yet by linking these powerful emotions to healthy activities, increased engagement with a community and a general desire to expand and improve ourselves, the martial arts can be an extraordinary vehicle for positive change.  

At the start of this essay Bourdain observed (with a tragic degree of foresight) that as a 59 year old BJJ novice he would never compete at the level he desired.  He would never earn a black belt.  He would probably never be faster or stronger than he already was at that moment.  So why should a middle aged person, or senior citizen, start a martial art that they will probably never master?  Because simply setting out on the journey can unlock both social and psychological forces that put us on a pathway to personal wellness. 




If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: A Brief History of Nostalgia and the Future of the Martial Arts.