Paul Bowman and I were recently chatting about milestones. It seems an apt metaphor. Some projects are so large and complex that individual goals don’t capture the scale of the task. That is what Martial Arts Studies has been for many of us. We put out books, journal issues and blog posts. That is the daily routine, but it’s just a small part of a whole. Then, every once in a while, something happens that makes you sit back and reflect on how far you have come.
This was the feeling that settled in as I flew back to New York from California. I find that most of the journeys to conferences are the same, regardless of my destination. It is always the same mixture of anticipation, anxiety and the portfolio of notes that I dutifully review. Fights home, in contrast, lend themselves to reflection.
The story of Martial Arts Studies is very much one about the creation of a community. Communities are processes rather than things. They grow by accretion, moving from one area to another. While scholars all over the world took an occasional (indeed, much too rare) interest in the Martial Arts, it was individuals in Europe (particularly in Germany and the UK) who were the first to embrace the potential of an interdisciplinary conversation around these arts. The development of a similar sense of community, or connectedness, among students in North America has been slower to develop.
This year’s meetings (May 22-23, 2019), graciously hosted by Andrea Molle at Chapman University in Southern California, represented a decisive step in a new direction. While individual North American scholars (figures like Daniel Mroz, Peter Lorge, or Adam Frank) might occasionally visit the annual meetings in the UK or Germany, this was the first set of meetings in which we could see representation of the broad contours of a new section of the community. Many of our friends and colleagues from Europe attended the conference. But the most rewarding thing was to finally see so many of my American colleagues who I have been corresponding with for years, but had never before had a chance to meet.
Indeed, the conference generated so much interest that it was difficult to find a moment to properly greet everyone! The 2019 meetings were slightly shorter than previous sessions in Cardiff (following a two rather than a three-day format), but there were still over 40 papers on the program meaning that it was necessary to run two, and occasionally three, concurrent sessions. As such, it was impossible to see every presentation, but the questions being asked in all of the panels were intriguing, and the quality of the work being presented was generally quite high. The Martial Arts Studies community seems to have gone through something of a natural professionalization process in the last five years, and many of the individuals who started off with us as Master’s degree students are now fully-fledged academics.
I think most people flew in for the conference the day before, and a few of us made the trip to UC Irvine to meet Glen Mimura and kick things off by watching Paul Bowman give an invited lecture titled “Everyone was Kung Fu Citing.” The paper itself was a riff on the song of similar title and asked listeners to think carefully about issues of representation, race and cultural appropriation within the martial arts. In addition to dealing with the popular culture of the period, Bowman outlined the ways in which European scholars are much more reluctant to deploy these terms of debate, highlighting some interesting differences within the field of cultural studies. After a coffee break a number of us headed to dinner at a local steakhouse and bar to prepare ourselves for the coming event.
The conference itself was held on the impeccably manicured, and palm tree blessed, grounds of Chapman University. Things began with some breakfast and opening remarks at 9:00 a.m. before everyone split up for their panels. I found myself in one titled “Cultural and Institutional Challenges” in which Daniel Amos (someone whose work I have frequently cited but had never previously met) discussed his most recent fieldwork in Hong Kong and the ways in which notions of social marginality have evolved in relation to the Chinese martial arts. Next my good friend Leo Istas came with a message from the German Commission on Martial Arts and Combat Sports, and talked about the evolution of Martial Arts Studies in the German context.
The second set of panels presented me with some uniquely painful choices, and I ultimately opted to attend Historical Perspectives (learning from books and other media.) Peter Lorge introduced his work on a Chinese wrestling classic from the 10thcentury (perhaps the oldest surviving work on any martial art). Stefania Skowron-Markowska presented a fascinating paper on the importance of books and VHS tapes which were smuggled into Poland in the 1980s and 1990s in shaping that country’s early Chinese martial arts community. Lastly, Randy Brown talked about the evolution of the traditional Chinese martial arts (with Mantis being his case study) in relation to both parallel and divergent processes in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Everyone fanned out in small groups for lunch, and the local community had a nice selection of restaurants. Jared Miracle, myself and a number of other people found ourselves walking into a place that specialized in vegetarian cooking. And after that it was back to campus for a group of papers on what motivated individuals to study the martial arts. The conclusions presented by Sonja Bickford and Martin Meyer both built on survey research and inspired a particularly wide ranging and interesting conversation. I will be re-reading both of these papers in the near future.
Lauren Griffith then presented our opening keynote, titled “The Serious Side of Leisure: Capoeira and Social Justice in the USA.” After reviewing some background on her community, Griffith asked whether every martial arts movement has a signature pedagogy designed to teach a certain type of “habitus.” Second, does this physical practice teach or convey signature norms and ideologies within that community? Obviously, governments have been sponsoring martial arts programs for generations precisely because they expect the answers to these questions to be a resounding yes. It was not by accident that all of those Japanese boys got sent to Kendo classes in the 1930s. But it was fascinating to see Griffith explore these questions in a very different institutional and social setting, drawing complex conclusions.
The keynote marked the end of the first day of the conference, but not the fun. At this point everyone adjourned for a roof top party. Sadly, I had to make a hasty exist to get back to the hotel and do some work on my own paper. The first day had set a high bar.
The next morning, breakfast was once again provided at the conference. My first morning panel was titled “Race and Ethnicity”. TJ Desch-Obi (a fellow New Yorker who I was thrilled to see) discussed his fieldwork with the Columbian stick and machete fighting community. Thomas Green then offered an assessment on the figure “Mother Dear” in the origin story of the prison fighting system known as the 52 Hand Blocks. This opened into a wide-ranging conversation on the centrality of homosexual rape and sexual violence in these narratives. Lastly, Gerry Chisolm discussed the image and cultural impact of female African warriors in the blockbuster Blackpanther. All of this led to another engaging spirited discussion.
After that I moved on to “Nationalism and Nation Building.” Historically speaking, the Asian martial arts have often been linked to nationalist projects, and this has been a frequent topic of discussion in my own research. Spencer Bennington proved himself to be the young scholar to watch in his discussion of rhetoric and the development of modern Taekwondo. Laurent Chirop-Reyes presented a discussion of the frequently mentioned, but rarely investigated Tainjin Warriors Society and its role in the formulation of a nationalist vision of the Chinese martial arts. Finally, Jared Miracle presented a paper (coauthored with Thomas Green and Guodong Zhang) titled “From Kongfu to Wushu: Political Application of Chinese Martial Arts.” This paper would prove to be a great prologue to my own keynote presented later in the evening.
During Friday’s lunch I had a chance to meet up with some friends and was introduced to one of the undergraduate students from Chapman’s campus martial arts club. This organization works closely with the Budo-lab. That led to some fascinating discussions and opened a different window onto things going on at the university.
Friday afternoon flew by. First, I was forced to make another tough decision, choosing the more fieldwork-oriented panel “Expeditions.” (For the record, I also heard good reports from “Political Theory, Nationalism, Fascism and the Alt-Right.”) That panel began with Michael J. Ryan presenting a spirited defense of Donn F. Draeger’s practitioner focused vision of hoplology. This was followed by Mahipal Lunia’s discussion of a series of ongoing fieldwork projects looking at little known or forgotten martial arts systems in need of documentation. Finally, Jared Miracle discussed the social function of informal and vernacular martial arts in modern Japan in a paper evocatively titled “’Wednesday. Late Night. Bring a Sword.’ Folk Martial Arts in Rural Japan.” I am really hoping to convince him to contribute this as a guest post on the blog.
Finally (or perhaps inevitably), it was time for my own keynote titled “Contesting Kung Fu’s Soft Power: What Modern Chinese History Can Teach Us About Public and Cultural Diplomacy.” Turning to two distinct media discourses that arose within the Chinese martial arts in the 1930s, I asked when, and under what circumstances, the traditional fighting systems can be effectively deployed in the pursuit of “soft power” within the global system.
This is a major concern of China today. Yet by turning to the 1930s I hoped to accomplish two goals. First, I wanted to suggest that the roots of China’s current strategic use of the martial arts run much deeper than most observers recognize. Second, by examining a time when China was still a developing country, I wanted to draw some conclusions regarding the utility and pitfalls for cultural diplomacy when deployed by similarly positioned states in the current global system.
With the formal conclusion of the meeting we retreated down the hall for a catered meal, socializing, celebration and lots of pictures. After that a number of us ended up in one of the neighborhoods’ many bars. Many memories were made, and some were promptly drunk away.
These conferences leave you with a lot to think about. I suspect that I will still be processing all of this during the next couple of weeks. It was interesting to note that a slightly different mix of martial arts seemed to dominate discussions at these meetings. Arts like Krav Maga and Capoeira played a much more visible role in the discussion. And as my friend Daniel Jacquet noted in his own conference report, North American and European scholars often speak slightly different conceptual or methodological languages. And I must report that the conference lived up to its title, highlighting the many complex ways in the martial arts relate to politics. Overall, I believe that staging the conference in California helped to highlight some of the intellectual diversity of our growing field in ways that will be useful going forward.
Yet one thing was certain. Thanks to the excellent organization of Andrea Molle and Paul Bowman, as well as the generosity of Chapman University, the North American Martial Arts Studies community was finding its sense of self. Debating new ideas, proposing new ideas and making new friends is never a secondary feature of these meetings. When we add a line to our cv, our individual career grows. When we take the time to come together and do all of these other things, it is an entire community that grows. And there is really no other way that this happens.