The Cymbalista Synagogue and Jewish Heritage Center at Aviv University. Photo by author.


I recently had the opportunity to visit Israel for the first time.  It was quite an experience and I would like to share a few details about that trip with the readers of Kung Fu Tea.

The occasion was a conference titled “Exploring Imperial China: An International Young Scholars Workshop” held on June 5-6 of 2019.  The Conference itself was co-hosted by the Department of East Asian Studies and the university’s Confucius Institute.  It was structured as a graduate student workshop in which young scholars from Tel Aviv and Renmin Universities presented papers which then received thoughtful feedback from guest professors who had been invited from a variety of other institutions around the world.  I had an opportunity to get to know Israel Kanner (one of the conference’s graduate student organizers) while he was doing fieldwork in China on Plum Blossom Boxing, and he invited me to be the discussant for a panel titled “Martial Arts and Religion in Late Imperial China.”  I was also asked to present a keynote on the second day of the conference discussing methodological issues that I had encountered in my own work, and in the growing field of martial arts studies.

The trip was something of a whirlwind affair.  It takes about ten hours to fly from New York to Tel Aviv.  After getting checked in at the Yam Hotel (a small beachfront establishment which I highly recommend to anyone looking to spend a couple of days in the sun and surf), I met up with Ernest Kozin and Israel Kanner.  We hopped in a cab and headed to Jaffa for a little sight-seeing.  We explored an outdoor market then headed to the old citadel, one of the most ancient ports in the area.  After learning about the area’s history, exploring the beaches, seeing the winding streets of the old city, I headed back to the hotel to collapse after going almost 24 hours without sleep.

The beach at Jaffa. Photo by author.


It turns out that there is much to do in Tel Aviv, especially if you have local guides as helpful and well informed as Israel and Eric.  But sadly, there wasn’t much time for exploring the neighborhood’s boardwalks and bars.  The conference began the next morning at 9:30 with opening remarks by Prof. Asaf Goldschmidt (Director of the Confucius Institute), Prof. Wu Yang (Co-Director of the CI) and Dr. Ori Sela (Chair of East Asian Studies at the university).   Two things became evident in these remarks.  First, the department was hosting back to back conferences and our meetings were the second half of the series.  Hence all of the faculty who came should be commended for both their diligence and endurance.

Second, the Tel Aviv Confucius Institute prides itself on academic rigor and independence. This was especially evident in the remarks of Wu Yang who expressed strong feelings on topic.  In his view the proper role of a CI was not primarily to be an instrument of public relations, but to promote the highest quality scholarly discussions as a way to encourage understanding. He noted that conferences such as this, which brought scholars together from all over the world, were the critical venues in which such discussions might happen, and he intended to push for more of them in the future.

After that the papers began.  Thirteen projects were presented by junior faculty or graduate students, five responses were given by visiting professors, and a keynote was presented on both the opening and closing day of the conference. Parallel sessions were not necessary and we all had a chance to learn from, and respond to, all of the papers.

For the sake of time I am only going to focus on the material most directly related to martial arts studies. Briefly, the first panel was titled “Qing History Through Rare Manuscripts” and included three very interesting papers and a response from Prof. Kurtz from Heidlberg University.


A narrow street in Jaffa. Photo by author.


After a short coffee break, we had our first keynote.  This was presented by Prof. Meir Shahar.  Obviously, most readers of this blog will be familiar with Prof. Shahar as the author of the excellent study, The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts (Hawaii UP, 2008). Prof. Shahar notes that he is no longer researching the Chinese martial arts, and yet even his non-martial works remain important for students of martial arts studies.  Some of the best discussions of martial performance in public marketplaces that I have ever seen in the academic literature occurred in his work on Crazy Ji. Rather than separating Chinese life into involatile spheres, Shahar has always focused on the ways that politics, social life, culture, religion and the martial arts intersect.  Indeed, the Chinese martial arts have never been separate from these other social forces, and have mostly been understood as a way of expressing agency within these realms.  I was looking forward to what he had to say.

Nor did he disappoint.  Shahar began by noting that historians find themselves in an interesting moment, methodologically speaking. The rapid pace of economic growth and urban expansion in China has wiped away many of the last vestiges of the Ming and Qing worlds which we in academia seek to study. But these same forces have ensured that thousands of previously unknown texts and period records are showing up on Chinese internet auctions cites every day, and selling for less than $100.


A colorful door on Jaffa. Photo by author.


While one always wonders about questions of authenticity, Shahar noted that most of the religious text that he is interested in are of so little economic value that it is not really worth anyone’s time to attempt to forge them.  The more pressing problem facing scholars, is finding ways to deal with texts that have been ripped out of their original social and geographic context.  It turns out that a good many temple texts never bother to specify the village or geographic location of the organization in question as the individuals who began to keep the group’s financial or social records knew where they were, and never anticipated that a later generation of scholars would be scouring these texts looking for geographic clues.  While fewer martial arts related texts are showing up, the general challenges that Shahar explored, as well as his methods for hunting down lost village temples, were still quite relevant.

The specific group of texts that Shahar is now exploring have to do with village level worship of the Ox King (more often venerated in the South of China), or the Horse King (worshipped in purpose-built temples in the North).  Given the vital importance of these animals to a farming family’s economic fortunes, the worship of the Ox and Horse Kings was taken quite seriously.  These temples might also offer ritual veterinary assistance in the case of a sick animal, as well as prayers for preventing maladies and injuries.  I also learned that the beef eating taboo seen throughout southern China in the Late Imperial period stemmed from the same belief complex that supported the Ox King.

It is his northern counterpart, the Horse King, that might be of more interest to students of martial arts studies. As a field we do not know much about the ritual and religious life of Chinese soldiers and other sorts of para-military personal.  However, Shahar noted that regulations were in place mandating the worship of the Horse King by military units due to his vital importance in the maintenance of a well-regulated Calvary.  He was also venerated by other officers of the state, including the mail service. Indeed, anyone who had to travel in Northern China likely venerated the Horse King.


A campus sculpture. Photo by author.


After that we broke for lunch. Unsurprisingly, seafood is quite popular in Tel Aviv.  What was slightly more surprising was that it was also served in abundance (and quite well) in the university’s cafeteria.

When the conference reconvened, it was time for the martial arts studies panel.  The first paper was presented by Israel Kanner, who is just finishing his PhD. It was titled “Understanding the Lie of Tang Hengle: The Religious Facets of Plum Blossom Fighting in the late 17th and 18th Centuries.”  This title requires a bit of explanation.  Kanner began by recounting the facts of the Eight Trigram Rebellion. One of the three leaders of this ill-fated movement was a martial arts specialist.  His teacher was a prominent Plum Blossom teacher named Tang Hengle.

Tang’s own teacher had served in the imperial court as a bodyguard and was well known.  Perhaps because of this he was not simply arrested and executed as a matter of course given the actions of his students.  Rather, he was detained and questioned.  Tang admitted that he had trained the rebel leader but insisted that he had only instructed him in physical fighting techniques.  When he heard that his student was associated with a religious group he confronted him, and the association was denied.  Tang warned his student that if he were ever found to be mixed up with a heterodox cult he would be cut off from the Plum Blossom family. This narrative seems to have satisfied the Qing authorities who simply let Tang Hengle go, despite the tens of thousands of other associates of the rebels who were treated much more harshly. Kanner further noted that later historians have pointed to this testimony as evidence of Plum Blossom’s secular nature.

While conducting two years of both archival research and field work in China, Kanner became convinced that this narrative could not have been true.  While visiting villages and meeting local martial artists, he located a number of original, Qing era, documents describing the inter-relationship of the “Martial” (Wu) and “Civil” (Wen) branches of local Plum Flower Boxing societies.  While the Wu groups engaged in the sorts of physical training that we now associated with the martial arts, the Wen groups had their own heterodox religious teaching and bodies of ritual lore.  Further, in the textual tradition which he examined, it was the civil groups that were the dominant aspect of the society.  It was only the leaders of the civil faction whose names were included in the group’s genealogy, and it was they who determined who would be allowed to study the martial teachings.


Grafitti in Tel Aviv. Photo by Author.


The ritual and religious aspects of the Plum Blossom Boxing continues to exist at the village level in the same region today.  And just as in the past, the government is forced to engage in a balancing act where they actively encourage villagers to practice (and display) the physical aspect of the martial arts for “heritage preservation,” while also pressuring them to keep any religious or ritual practices out of public sight.  Kanner addressed a number of questions about the dating and authenticity of these texts.  When I noted the immense local variation within Plum Blossom Boxing, and the lack of a direct connection between Tang and the specific text being discussed, Kanner noted that Tang’s teacher was associated with another text which also discussed the distinction between civil and martial factions within the community.  As such this should be considered a general organizing motif of the community throughout the region.

Kanner’s reading of the situation was not that Tang had come from a less religiously inclined faction, but rather that his lie had been instrumental in sparing the Plum Blossom Boxers of the region the full brunt of a Qing inquisition.  Kanner stressed in closing that while it was clear that the martial and religious aspects of Plum Blossom were tightly linked on the social level, he found no evidence that the physical practice of boxing was seen as having any spiritual or philosophical value.  Those sorts of concerns and practices were exclusive the domain of the organization’s civil officers.

Following that Eric Kozin presented a paper titled “Religious and Martial Practices in Late-Imperial Rural North China: The Evidence of a Recently Discovered Manuscript.”  While Kanner had been forced to discover his own documentary evidence while in the field, Kozin was fortunate to have received the manuscript in question directly from his supervising professor, Meir Shahar.  Shahar’s prior involvement with it served to vouch for its fundamental authenticity, yet this work still suffered from the same detachment from its original milieu that afflicts many recent document finds.  In this case a local villager had approached the Shaolin Monastery with the newly discovered document.  They purchased the manuscript for their own library, and eventually gave a copy of it to Prof. Shahar for further study.  Kozin is currently exploring this manuscript as part of his dissertation research.

I suspect that Kozin will get quite a few publications out of his current project.  The hand written manuscript is 83 pages long, containing 11,000 characters. It is a collected volume containing a number of distinct works apparently selected and curated by Li Jingshuan (1835-?), a martial artist who lived in Henan at the end of the Qing dynasty.  The work contains a number of prefaces authored by low level local licentiates who also appear in other places in the text.

According to these prefaces (most written by family and friends) Li was an accomplished martial artist who studied boxing, fencing and archery before turning to the collection of martial arts manuals and composing his own encyclopedic work.  Much of that was borrowed from a no longer extent martial arts encyclopedia titled “Comprehensive and Orthodox Hand Combat Manual.”

However, Kozin’s main interests in the current paper were three instances of spirit writing seances (taking place in 1903-1904) recorded in this collection in which the spirit of the deceased master Zhang Qingdong was invoked by Li and a number of local degree holders, in an effort to both secure magical talisman and to gain additional information about the lineage of the martial arts practice which Li was documenting.  As with Kanner’s paper, this recently recovered document sheds additional light on the close linkage between martial practice and popular religion in the late imperial period.  Yet in this case the community did not support a distinct body of religious or ritual specialists.

In discussing this work, I encouraged Kozin to consider examining his find in a comparative context with other martial collections which were also being assembled at the end of the Qing, in order to better locate what was significant or new in this collection.  I also asked him to consider contextualizing the collection of this text within the important events of the 19thcentury (such as the Taiping Rebellion or the Self-Strengthening movement, to name only two possible examples).


A street sign in Jaffa. Photo by author.


Next a number of graduate students from Renmin University presented their own works.  I quite enjoyed Dong Jianing’s paper on the construction of spacial awareness in early China, as well as Liu Jingyao’s examination of political cartoons editorializing on the creation of the Republic of China.  The first day of the conference concluded with an excellent dinner at an Asian fusion restaurant, and me heading back to the hotel to prepare my own presentation.  The first day had set a high bar.

The second day opened with a panel focusing on the development and social function of railways in China.  It was a topic that I had never considered before but the papers of both Galia Lavi (another of the conferences tireless student organizers) and Dylan Brady (the event’s sole geographer) really opened my eyes to a new and fascinating research area.  Prof. Shellen Xiao Wu provided invaluable feedback on both projects.

After that I offered my own keynote titled “Salvage as Method in Martial Arts Studies.” My discussion of it will be brief as I intend to post the entire thing next week. It was interesting to note that my talk had a number of thematic resonances with the paper that Prof. Shahar had presented on the first day.  Noting that the martial arts are an aspect of popular culture which often fades from memory, or is continually reimagined, I advocated focusing on images, practices and discourses that society has discarded when reconstructing patterns of martial practice.  And much of this material shows up, often in a decontextualized way, in the most unexpected places, including auction webpages and second-hand stores in both China and the West.  I concluded by extending this discussion into the various ways that martial arts studies, as a field, has attempted to apply this same principal of salvage when dealing with the disciplines, and even its own previous incarnations, within the methodological realm.

I believe that the paper was well received, and it made a strong argument for both the necessity and utility of martial arts studies.  Much of the following conversation focused on questions of social marginality and identity within the martial arts.  The other topic of conversation was a two-minute clip of newsreel out-takes which I discussed showing detailed scenes of a southern kung fu demonstration in New York City in the 1920s.  While not as impressive as secret Plum Blossom manuscripts, or a lost book from the Shaolin library, as a visual record it had its own charms.


City view as seen from my hotel balcony. Photo by author.


The final panel of the conference was titled “Landscape Transformation in Border Areas.”  Dr. Lia Wei (an archeologist teaching at Renmin University) discussed her research on early imperial cave burials in the upper Yang river area.  Meny Vakin of Tel Aviv University looked at Song era colonial strategies (a topic which resonated with me as a political scientist).  And the final paper of the conference was offered by Su Rimeng, who discussed changing patterns of agriculture and environmental degradation secondary to Han migration into Inner Mongolia.  Prof. James Anderson of the University of North Carolina offered the final set of comments.

Following that everyone enjoyed a brief walking tour of the campus, which featured some impressive modern architecture. And at the conclusion of our final conference dinner Prof. Anderson and I hopped in a cab, headed to the airport and prepared to take a midnight flight back to JFK.  I can’t speak for him, but I had no trouble sleeping on that flight.

I would like to thank everyone involved with this conference, the Department of East Asian Studies, the Confucius Institute, and all of the graduate student organizers for their incredible hospitality.  I was happy to have an opportunity to discuss Martial Arts Studies with an entirely new group of scholars, and I was thrilled to see the depth of research that a new generation of young scholars are bringing to these questions.

As Prof. Shahar noted, moments of social dislocation are a mixed blessing for scholars.  Yes, they erase the past, but they also have a way of shaking loose texts and resources that would have otherwise remained hidden. One of the challenges that has faced Chinese martial studies is that the body of textual evidence that we have been working with (especially in the pre-Republic period) is fairly limited. The discovery of new text will pose certain methodological challenges, especially as we attempt to recontextualize what are often salvaged documents.  Yet the addition of new sources has the ability to add both depth and complexity to our understanding of the Chinese martial arts. Some may speak to moments in martial arts history that have been entirely forgotten, while others may call for a more general reevaluation of what we thought we knew. This conference underlined what an exciting moment it is for all students of martial arts studies.


From left to right: Ernest Kozin, Prof. Meir Shahar, Benjamin Judkins and Israel Kanner. The Chinese martial studies crew.