This weekend has been a blur of activity. Friday evening was consumed by the first “open mat” sparring night at the Central Lightsaber Academy (which was a blast), Saturday was devoted to a day-long seminar on Sicilian knife fighting (a grimmer vision of weapons training), and about half of Sunday was spent helping out with the Autumn open-house at another martial arts school here in Ithaca. I have barely had time to upload my photos and draft out some quick field-notes.
Still, a nagging feeling emerged as I began to meditate on these very different events. While I have not had time to fully develop these ideas, I thought that it might be helpful to write down a few of my impressions. The golden thread uniting and giving meaning to each of the activities seemed to be a “hidden” discussion on the problems of transmission and market viability within the martial arts.
Or maybe that is not entirely correct. The discussion happened openly in the second event. I hope to write a fuller account of the Sicilian knife seminar led by Sifu John Crescione in a future post. But from a social scientific perspective, one of the more interesting things that came up was a debate as to whether it would really just be better to let this art die out. Granted, no one in the room thought that this was a good idea, but Sifu Crescione noted that many of the “old timers” back in Sicily who had learned and studied practical knife fighting as a family based “combative practice” saw no point in taking on students or promoting themselves within the current revival of the Italian martial arts. For them, knife fighting was a direct response to a violent environment and teaching strangers better ways to kill each other was not a wise course of action. If a changing world no longer required these skills, so much the better.
For other instructors, Sicilian knife fighting’s true value was found in areas outside prison yards and narrow alleys. It could give individuals a chance to reconnect (and even re-imagine) their heritage. Acting as an intermediary between the “old master” and interested foreign students might open social and economic pathways for a more professionalized generation of instructors. Finally, there is a very exciting renaissance in all sorts of traditional Italian martial arts (including stick, knife and sword), and these skills have a special historical and cultural value within that context.
The complex dialectic relationship between regional identity and more universal notions of understanding national identity is one of the things that I find most interesting about this area. Yet equally important is the emergence of a thoughtful conversation seeking to tackle the relationship between martial practice and violence in a changing social environment. How a given master of the art defined the relevant community (his family, his city, a national organization, a global network) has an important impact on how they understand the future of the art.
These conversations are far from unique. They are happening in many places within the martial arts world. Consider the reoccurring debates as to whether the traditional Asian arts are dying in the West (and the East too for that matter). I note that these debate(s) happen in the plural since I am aware of written discussions of this topic dating back to the 16th century, roughly 300 years before the Chinese martial arts as most of us know them came into being. More recently, this was a popular topic in the 1910s, the 1920s, the 1940s, 1950s and the 1970s (post-Cultural Revolution in the PRC). The Chinese martial arts seem to exist in a state of a perpetual revival and re-invention, and the desire to “save” them is one of the motivations driving them into the future. I suspect that social elites within the Chinese martial arts community understand this, and that is why they so often push the narrative that kung fu is dying. Nothing brings a community together quite like the threat of extinction.
Still, knowledgeable critics might point out that, “this time it is different.” The rise of modern combat sports (such as MMA or competitive BJJ) has sapped the traditional arts of their air of invincibility. As a result, it is harder to make the argument that these practices are “cool” no matter how many times Bruce Lee’s image finds itself on a magazine cover. Still, boxing was a mainstay of American sporting life in the 1960s and 1970s, just when the martial arts were coming into vogue. And a quick review of the humor of that same period leads me to suspect that most people never viewed karate or judo as infallible.
A more serious problem might be the current real estate market. Old buildings are being redeveloped and rents are high. Gentrification is a problem in many cities. All of this has proved problematic for many martial arts schools and gyms. In my own research I have seen multiple schools lose their locations in an area of the country where real estate prices are relatively stable. In global cities like Hong Kong and Guangzhou (the home of the southern Chinese martial arts) the combination of declining student enrollment and skyrocketing real estate values have created a true crisis. That is an empirical fact.
When looking at cities like Hong Kong, New York or London, land is the one thing that they just aren’t making any more of. While many martial arts can be trained with minimal equipment, they all need space (more so if one practices with weapons). So maybe this time it really is different?
Which brings me to another one of my weekend activities, the open house that I was tapped to help-out with at a local school here in Ithaca. To be honest, I thought that there probably wouldn’t be much for me to do. It was one of those spectacular October days that comes too rarely. Who wants to spend their afternoon learning about the new class schedules when you could be outside taking in the fall leaves?
To my surprise the answer turned out to be about a hundred people. The school was so packed with potential students that one needed excellent kung fu just to make it to the cheese platters. One would never guess that the martial arts were “dying” as you surveyed this sea of humanity. Many of the institution’s current students were hard at work chatting up potential recruits for the school’s various classes.
That last detail, the multitude of the classes offered, is probably the critical part of this story. While this particular school has some very solid Asian martial arts (Silat, JKD, various types of kickboxing), it also offers a wide range of other fitness and martial arts training. Various types of strength and conditioning classes are offered, as is a vibrant after school program for kids. A local BJJ teacher rents space there, as do more yoga and Pilates instructors than I can keep track of.
I am sure that many of you are familiar with schools that use this sort of business model. Yes, real estate prices are high. But the class rooms in this building see very little down time. The end result is that rather than competing, the various types of modern and traditional martial arts, combative classes and fitness’s groups, actually end up subsidizing each other.
This isn’t to say that there is anything easy about running a school that looks like this, or that the strategy always succeeds. I have even heard some instructors criticize these sorts of arrangements as “selling out,” seeing them as sign of decay from the situation in the 1980s or 1990s where every class or style might maintain its own storefront and absolute sovereignty. But what if we looked just a bit further back in time? What might we discover about the “good old days?”
As I milled around the packed open-house I found myself thinking about Alberto Biraghi’s memoir a Hung Ga Story: Me and Master Chan Hon Chung. This was a bit of a surprise as Hung Ga was one of the few arts that was notable by its absence at this event. But something about the turnout, and the relationships I saw between people within the crowd, reminded me very strongly of Biraghi’s account (which I have previously reviewed here).
Once again, the problem was real estate. This is not the first era in which this has become an issue within the Chinese martial arts. In truth, it has never been particularly easy to run a kung fu school in Hong Kong. Most Sifus during the 1970s did so by teaching in the evenings in their own apartments after all of the furniture was cleared out of the way. That is a reality that is often overlooked in all of the discussion of “roof top schools.”
The basic issue was that Hong Kong was already a densely crowded place in the late 1940s. The waves of refugees that poured in during the early 1950s, and then again in the 1960s, filled the city to a bursting point. Rents were high in comparison to wages, and if one was lucky enough to own a building, or a group of apartments, it wasn’t clear that running a martial arts school offered the best return on one’s investment (even in a period where the martial arts were relatively popular).
Biraghi provides a fascinating account of his various stays in Hong Kong during the 1970s, and his narrative offers insight into how instructors navigated these harsh economic realities. What became evident as I read his account was that his teacher’s social standing in the neighborhood was not simply a result of his title of Sifu. Or rather, much more went into that title than simply running a martial arts school. It certainly helped that he controlled access to real estate in his building.
Chan Hon Chung’s property was full of a wide variety of small businesses, all renting space from him, and all contributing to the fabric of the local neighborhood. Yes, kung fu was more popular in the 1970s than today. Yet in this case, it still benefited from being subsidized by an entire web of economic and social relationships, many of which might have been only dimly visible to visitors coming to the martial arts school. The respect that Chan commanded as a “Sifu” was a reflection of this wider social reality which transcended his technical function as “only” a martial arts teacher, or “only” a landlord. He opened a space where an economic and social community could exist.
When viewed from this perspective, the Ithaca open house seems less novel or “post-modern.” Martial arts schools have always been forced to deal with fundamental economic realities. Sometimes a recession leaves lots of empty commercial real estate (e.g., the early 1980s), and one model school organization is possible. In other periods real estate is relatively expensive and other modes of economic organization are necessary.
In either case, martial arts schools succeed through the act of community building. They must build a compelling internal community for their own students, but also reach out and find a place in the broader neighborhood (where future students will come from). In this respect it was interesting to note that the Ithaca school which I visited, and the Hong Kong establishment of the 1970s, came to slightly different solutions. Reflecting the shop-based small scale manufacturing model of the time, Chan rented to businesses in a variety of different sectors of the economy.
In a modern consumer and service-based economy, my local school has instead specialized in a single sector (fitness and physical culture). Its secret seems to be that it provides a range of classes designed to appeal to every member of a family, or various individuals in a group of college-aged friends. There is an after-school program for the kids, a yoga class for mom, and a JKD study group for teens. In that way it has become a “one stop shop” for an entire neighborhood. Indeed, orienting its core identity around a neighborhood rather than just one style seems to be working out quite nicely. But I doubt that this success would have come as much of a surprise to Chan.
This brings us to a critical question about history. What is the purpose of writing and reading martial arts history? For many martial artists the answer seems to come down to authenticity. We seek to legitimate our personal practice (at least in our own minds) by finding evidence that we are indeed part of a vast chain of practices crossing national and temporal boundaries.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with establishing a sense of belonging. Still, this exercise always makes me a bit nervous as it leads us to read our own practices and conceptual understanding backwards in time. In so doing we can more easily see our own reflections, but we lose sight of the actual subjects of our initial fascination. On some level we must take seriously the warning that the past is a foreign country, and people did things differently there. What we gain by studying history is an appreciation for the vast complexity of the human experience.
Yet this discussion suggests that something else may be possible. While there is rarely a one-to-one correlation, I don’t think anyone disputes that past innovation impacts current practice. In that sense a style’s history is a bit like its DNA. Not in a simple a deterministic sense, but rather as a repository for a wide variety of potential behaviors and strategies, most of which lay dormant and forgotten at any moment in time. Rather than tell us who we are, or what we must be in the future, history reminds us that tree of human experiences branches radically in both directions. Below us as roots drawing from the past, and above us as branches reaching rhizomatically to the future.
The nature of life is that things must change. In every generation we must determine whether our communities will live on, which practices will be preserved, and how they will be developed. While our myths about the past may inspire us, I suspect that it is within those forgotten and “dormant” corners of our historical DNA that we will find the clues necessary to navigate a complex future.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: A Tale of Two Challenge Fights – Or, Writing Better Martial Arts History
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