Interior Architectural Detail of a “tulou,” or traditional Hakka walled village.

Veronika Partikova and George Jennings. 2018. “The Kung Fu Family: A metaphor of belonging across time and place,”Revista de Artes Marciales Asiáticas.Volume 13(1), 35-­52.


A Success Story

The latest issue of Revista de Artes Marciales Asiáticas(RAMA) is now available on-line, free to anyone with an internet connection. This journal is published twice yearly by the Department of Physical Education and Sport at the University of León in Spain. In circulation since 2006, they began by reprinting Spanish language translations of articles in the (now defunct) para-scholarly Journal of Martial Arts Studies.  In 2012 RAMA transformed itself into an independent, open-source, journal of original scholarly content in Spanish, Portuguese and (more recently) English.  While their catalog of contributions to the critical and theoretical English language literatures is still growing, RAMA has featured work by talented scholars including Thomas Green and Jared Miracle.

Scrolling through the Table of Contents for the latest issue I was delighted to discover that we can now add George Jennings and Veronika Partikova to that list. Their co-authored paper is an extensively researched qualitative study titled “The Kung Fu Family: A metaphor of belonging across time and place.” This article is based on the content analysis of field interviews conducted by Partikova and Jennings for other, independent, research projects.

I really like this paper for a number of reasons.  First, as even a quick glance at its extensive bibliography indicates, this project has been fully engaged with recent developments within the field of martial arts studies since its inception. That not only minimizes the probability of treading over old ground, but it often leads to papers based on theoretical insights (or methods) that will be of interest to a broader range of scholars. A closer examination of their argument suggests that this is certainly the case here.

My second reason for really liking this paper is more personal.  In 2017 I served as the chair for a panel at the Martial Arts Studies meetings where Partikova presented some of her research on a related topic.  That led to a conversation with Jennings (also present at the panel) which resulted in the paper under discussion.  The very existence of this article is an illustration of the gains to be had from cross-disciplinary discussions, as well as the value of regular conferences and seminars in the promotion of new research areas.  While both of these authors deserve congratulations for their achievement, the publication of this piece also strikes me as something of an “institutional success story,” illustrating the cohesive growth of the field of martial arts studies over the last couple of years.  Its a bit like watching a child grow up…


A traditional Hakka village. One does not have to be an expert on castles to see the defensive nature of the tulou. Typically these dwellings are made from stone or rammed earth, have one a single entrance and no windows on the ground floor.


Researching the Kung Fu Family

Which brings us back to the article in question.  Have you ever noticed how common family-based metaphors are within in martial arts discussions in general, and the traditional Chinese martial arts in particular?  Consider the ease with which we deploy terms such as calling someone a “kung fu brother,” or asserting that one’s teacher has become “like a second father.”  At times this rhetoric seems to transcend the realm of mere metaphor and speaks to something deeper.  We probably all know someone who has forsaken a degree of contact with their biological family to spend more time with their “kung fu family,” either by moving to a different city or country.

In a more metaphysical sense many of us see our involvement with the martial arts as connecting us to something “greater” than ourselves.  This might be a sprawling global community of practitioners who share an aspect of our identity, even if we will only meet or touch hands with a small fraction of them.  Or perhaps we feel the genealogical weight our “family tree” establishing us as part of a lineage of students that transcends time itself.  Through our practice we touch immortality.  Looking at the pictures that hang on the memorial walls of many traditional schools, we may feel an emotional connection to our “ancestors” and even come understand ourselves as part of what Douglas Farrer terms the style’s “deathscape.”

In the modern world membership in any martial arts organization is typically a voluntary undertaking.  The kinship ties that we physically enact and verbally invoke are clearly understood to be fictive in nature.  Yet one cannot easily dismiss the strength of these bonds.  Perhaps this is why martial artists form many cultures, and in many time periods, have turned to the family as their favored metaphor to explain the nature of belonging within such a community.

The notion of a “kung fu family” clearly does certain sorts of work within the TCMA.  Like all families, this concept seems to mediate between the manifest reality of visible change and our deep psychological need for continuity.  On a personal level the notion of “family” provides the role models that that we will strive to emulate.  At the same time it explains in implicit terms how it is that an art clearly evolving in each generation may still lay claim to an unchanging “essential” nature. Within the logic of mundane life it is impossible to maintain this sort of contradiction.  Yet it is the very thing that allows a family’s corporate identity to maintain itself intergenerationally.

Partikova and Jennings set out to shed some light on this phenomenon by carefully examining patterns of speech and metaphor in a set of roughly two dozen interviews conducted by the researcher in both Europe and Asia.  While their research locations varied, as did the styles practiced by individual respondents, they focused their energy exclusively on Western students of traditional Chinese martial arts.  As such individuals of Chinese nationality, or participants in more sport-oriented activities (Wushu, boxing, etc…) are not represented in this survey.

The authors drew on the theoretical insights of Lakoff and Johnson (1980, 1999) and Lakoff (1992) to develop a set of theoretical tools that would allow them to analyze and bring into focus a wide variety of linguistic metaphors that seemed to equate membership in a martial arts group to that of a family.  Rather than seeing metaphors as purely poetic (or political) linguistic constructions, Lakoff and Johnson posited that each of these emerges from our prior embodied physical experience.  Language and metaphor thus arise out of our experience of embodied physicality. Nor is there any more common shared experience than growing up within, and being subject to the authority of, one’s family.  More specifically, in their interviews with various martial artists they examined and found commonalities among the following six sentiments all related to the notion of “martial art as family”:

  • Lineage as Family Tree
  • School as Home
  • The Club as a Nuclear Family
  • Teacher as Father
  • Classmates as Siblings
  • Kung Fu as Relationships

Having explored a number of shared rhetorical patterns they then concluded that the metaphorical concept of “family” is critical to establishing a sense of shared belonging and place within what are otherwise surprisingly diverse communities. The family metaphor seems to be a critical tool whereby the previously exclusive Chinese martial arts have managed to transcend boundaries of time and culture, thereby emerging as a truly global phenomenon.

While this paper is empirical in nature and focuses specifically on a handful of (mostly Southern) Chinese martial arts, one suspects that the images that the authors explored can be found much more broadly throughout global martial arts culture.  I have certainly had a number of individuals describe their coaches and trainers are being “like a father” while conducting research with other types of martial arts. Indeed, the family unit is such a basic aspect of human psychology that I suspect we are prone to seeing it everywhere. It is precisely that sort of fungibility which makes the paper methodologically interesting and likely to appear on course reading lists and syllabi, even if one’s research interests do not focus on the traditional Chinese martial arts.

Indeed, I suspect that it is the paper’s theory section which will generate the most attention.  While this piece features the qualitative analysis of dozens of interviews conducted on two continents, their most innovative move was the use of Lakoff (1992) and Lakoff and Johnson (1980, 1999) as a theoretical framework.  They argue that not only could this approach be applied to a number of fruitful research questions, but that it might be particularly important in dealing with the embodied nature of identity. In underlining what they see as their unique contribution they go on to state:

Besides this article, to date and to our knowledge, no published study on traditional martial arts has overtly used the Contemporary Theory of Metaphor or metaphor analysis as a theoretical and methodological guiding point. (140)

This last assertion seems somewhat problematic.  Denis Gainty relied very heavily on Lakoff and Johnson in the construction of his ethnographically grounded approach to historical research in Martial Arts and Body Politic in Meiji Japan (Routledge, 2013).  While it is true that Gainty didn’t specifically favor Lakoff’s 1992 “Contemporary Theory of Metaphor,” much of the rest of their discussions overlap.  Indeed, Gainty goes even farther than Partikova and Jennings in the use of Lakoff and Johnson to construct a theory of embodied identity within the martial arts that would make obsolete the critical approaches built on Foucault, Derrida and Bourdieu (among others) who he viewed as overused (Gainty, 138-141).  It would not be an understatement to say that Gainty also built his entire study around what he considered to be the unique theoretical contribution of Lakoff and Johnson.


Detail of a Hakka walled Village. Source: Wikimedia


It would have been potentially constructive to see a more direct theoretical engagement between these two sets of authors who clearly share similar theoretical concerns and yet developed different research methods for approaching them (qualitative interview analysis vs historical ethnography).  The unfortunate death of Denis Gainty makes any sort of mutual exchange along these lines impossible.  But we appear to be reaching a tipping point where Lakoff and Johnson’s possible contributions to the martial arts studies literature will need to be studied and debated in a more systematic way.  If nothing else their reoccurrence seems to signal a degree of discontent in how embodied identities and knowledge are currently treated.

Still, Partikova and Jennings have opened a rich area for future investigation simply by verifying and documenting what might seem to be an idiosyncratic, even orientalist, verbal tick among some Western students.  Unfortunately, their study looked only at a narrow range of similarly situated practitioners, and thus doesn’t really provide us with the degree of variation that we need to delve more deeply into the sorts of social work that these familial metaphors might do.  Still, this paper suggests a pretty clear research agenda.

For instance, it would be very interesting to see how other sorts of martial arts traditions employ family-based metaphors.  How might Mexican boxers, German judo students and Brazilian capoeira practitioners score on the six points outlined above?  What about lightsaber combat students?  I will certainly be keeping an ear open for familial metaphors in my own fieldwork from now on.

It seems intuitively unlikely to me that the density or type of family-based metaphors would be a constant across all martial art and combat sport practices. That is probably a good thing as variables are much more interesting than constants.  Understanding more about the metaphors employed by different arts could potentially tell us something about how they seek to position themselves in society. For instance, in a forthcoming article Swen Koerner, Mario Staller and I note that the EWTO seems to have employed certain patriarchal familial metaphors in its popular publications when attempting to reach German Wing Chun students who were socially discomforted by the rising acceptance of feminist norms in the early 1980s.  Being able to document how various groups evaluate, tweak or strategically deploy this stock of shared metaphors might, in turn, reveal something about why some individuals might be drawn to a traditional martial art versus a modern combat sport or simply a non-competitive cardio-kickboxing class.

Second, the logic of Lakoff and Johnson would suggest a need to carefully interrogate our key terms.  Partikova and Jennings note, of course, that the very notion of “family” is culturally bounded.  Any Anthropology graduate student can explain in excruciating detail how kinship terms, marriage and child rearing practices vary from one culture to another.  In certain key respects the embodied experience of life within the average Chinese family is probably quite different for its American, German or Brazilian counterparts.

While we may all be displaying a great deal of agreement in metaphors that we use (everyone talks about the Sifu as “father”), one suspects that this actually means something vastly different for rural martial artists in the PRC than for a small Wing Chun school in upstate NY.  To paraphrase Krug (2001), we have come to agree on the exterior form of interculturally shared knowledge, but we still experience its texture quite differently.  Perhaps Lakoff and Johnson’s insights about the essentially embodied (and hence always culturally bounded) nature of language and metaphor might provide a mechanism for explaining the repeated failures to interculturally convey the “texture of knowledge” in his article on the “Three Stages of the Appropriation of Okinawan Karate” (Cultural Studies <-> Critical Methodologies, Volume: 1 issue: 4, page(s): 395-410).

Nor are all of the implications of this research purely theoretical.  Once we become aware of the metaphors that we use to describe our experiences within the martial arts, we can start to think more clearly about the impact that they might have on others in our training spaces.  For instance, it is probably not a coincidence that women are underrepresented in so many traditional Chinese martial arts schools while at the same time the familial metaphors that we use can have a notably patriarchal ring to them. Does our language really create open and inclusive spaces? Given that many of these social and linguistic structures are rooted in late 19thand early 20thcentury Confucian society (which was patriarchal in ways that are difficult for modern westerners to even imagine), this should probably not be a surprise. On a normative level the work of Partikova and Jennings may also present us with an opportunity to stop and reflect on the types of kung fu families that we want to build today.



If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: Dream Factories: The Silver Screen and the Popularity of Close Range Fighting Styles