A vintage tourist photo captioned “Acrobatic School, Hong Kong” in pencil. Note the simple matching shirts. Source: Author’s personal collection.


There are a number of popular topics within Martial Arts Studies which suggest the deeply interdisciplinary nature of our project.  Sociologists, following in the footsteps of Wacquant’s “Carnal Sociology” have invested much effort exploring notions such as habitus and embodiment (see Wacquant 2000, Garcia and Spencer 2013).  Anthologists have tackled many topics, some of them touching on the ways in which martial arts reflect more cultural notions of identity (Frank 2007; Valera 2019). Critical theorists have found within the martial arts sites for social resistance (Kato 2007; Bowman 2015, 2016). Historians, for their part, have spilled much ink looking at the 20thcentury connections between these revived fighting practices and the construction of competing notions of nationalism or the varieties of modernity (Morris 2004; Gainty 2013; Judkins and Nielson 2015).

This only scratches the surface of the literature that our field is assembling.  Still, if I were forced to identify just a single thread connecting this diverse body of research, it would probably be the notion of social marginality.  Any such judgement would be difficult, and one can discover other strands of connective tissues running through this increasingly complex body of literature.  Yet marginality occupies a special place within Martial Arts Studies.

It is worth noting that a number of authors have directly addressed this concept.  Daniel Amos’ dissertation, an ethnography of Southern Chinese Martial Arts in Guangzhou and Hong Kong in the aftermath of Cultural Revolution, was titled “Marginality and the Heroes’ Art” (University of California, 1983) and included a rich descriptive exploration of the limitations that shaped the lives of the region’s martial artists.  The topic was also on Wacquant’s mind when he decided that a working class boxing gym would be an ideal location from which to study life in the Chicago ghetto. More recently, Boretz (Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters: Ritual Violence Martial Arts and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society, 2010) has offered his own explanation of this linkage within a modern Chinese cultural context.  The insight is hardly new.  Alfred Lister, a British civil servant and one of the first individuals to publish multiple descriptions of Hong Kong’s martial arts performances, noted the connection between these arts and the extreme marginality of their practitioners (soldiers, gamblers, patent medicine salesmen, retired actors) as far back as the 1870s.

The over-riding goal of all of the 20th century reform movements within the Chinese martial arts (Jingwu, Guoshu and later Wushu) has been to redeem these fighting systems from their plebeian origins so that they might be accepted as tools for the nation building project.  Similar projects can be seen in other states as well.  Kano went to some lengths to distinguish judo from what he saw as the more problematic and backwards looking traditional jujitsu community.  And many a book chapter has been written on the development of capoeira and its relationship to larger political processes within the Brazilian state.  Across the globe, 20thcentury reform movements sought to rescue hand combat practices from the people so that those very same populations could be reimagined through the application of slightly modified hand combat practices.  Of course, this was only a single example of larger strategy of appropriating “folk cultures” as part of the nation building project.

The degree to which any of these efforts succeeded is closely tied to how one understands what it means to be a “modern” Japanese, Chinese, Brazilian or even global citizen. These are almost always open questions. Gainty noted that contesting differing visions of the martial art became a mechanism by which citizens could debate the relationship between society and the state.

There has been much discussion of Xu Xiaodong’s stand-off with the Chinese government over his vocal (and occasionally physical) attacks on the traditional Chinese martial arts.  Yet the vision of the ideal martial arts community championed by both sides (a network of globally compatible MMA gyms vs. a nationally subsidized understanding of Taijiquan as intangible cultural heritage) is simply one manifestation of a more profound dispute over what sort of country modern China should be, and the role of the government in shaping it.

Still, it would be difficult to look at Xu’s recent interviews and not to see him as a socially marginal figure.  His professional career as an actual mixed martial arts fighter and trainer have been average.  He did not emerge from the ranks of China’s most successful or elite fighters. Indeed, Xu’s success both in challenge matches and on social media is based in large part on the fact that he makes a living by only fighting individuals who are clearly deluded about a great many things.   In doing so Xu has attempted to position himself as the champion for one vision of Chinese society.  The critical thing to note here is that economic and social questions are not secondary considerations within this unfolding story.  They have always had a huge impact on the relationship between individuals within the martial arts community and the state.

Nor does marginality show any sign of vanishing from the martial arts community.  Despite the best efforts of several reform movements, Chinese martial artists are still seen as socially peripheral.  Likewise, several of the most talented professional and semi-professional fighters that I have met here in central NY are African Americans who come from underprivileged backgrounds or basic poverty.

I think that one of the reasons why marginality has emerged as a critical concept within the Martial Arts Studies literature is that it is readily apparent (though not always understood in precisely the same way) from both an emic and etic perspective.  Martial artists themselves cling to the notion that through hard work, training and discipline personal change is possible.  By transforming the self, these fighting systems are seen as a way of either changing one’s circumstances (the aspiring boxer who dreams of making it big by going pro), or at least handling them with a degree of equanimity (the janitor of a Japanese high school who, by night, is a highly accomplished member of the local kendo establishment).  Our rhetoric about the martial arts as a vehicle for this sort of transformation presupposes the existence of marginality, even when it is not explicitly invoked.


A martial arts performance at a marketplace in Shanghai, circa 1930. Source: Huan Fei Hung Museum.


As such, I was not surprised that the topic came up at both of the conferences which I recently attended, albeit in slightly different ways.  The very first paper I saw at the 2019 MAS meetings at Chapman University was a discussion by Daniel Amos in which he reviewed the shifting socio-economic status of martial artists in Hong Kong between the late 1970s (when he first started doing fieldwork in the region) and last year, when he returned to Hong Kong as a Fulbright scholar.  Given the area’s rapid economic growth, the story he related may sound familiar. His “Kung Fu Brothers” who had been underemployed or marginal youth in the 1970s have now become much more successful, at least in purely economic terms.  They no longer perceive themselves as marginal.  And yet the actual practice of the traditional Southern arts, very popular during the late 1970s, has reduced drastically in size and scope.

Part of this can be attributed to the realities of a tight real estate market.  As prices skyrocket fewer organizations can afford a private location for their school.  And when multiple teachers do come together to share space in a municipal recreation center, Amos notes that they effectively surrender the links which once bound martial arts group and lion dance societies to specific neighborhoods. This loss of the spatial dimension of identity has had a detrimental impact on the character of Hong Kong’s martial arts communities.

Ergo Amos’ paradox comes into focus.  His Kung Fu brothers are no longer economically impoverished or underemployed. Nor does the middle class fear a relationship between martial arts groups and illegal triad behavior as they did during the 1960s and 1970s. On the surface it looks as though the southern Chinese martial arts are less marginal. Yet what was once a popular and vibrant local activity is slipping into obscurity. It occupies an ever-smaller slice of public sphere through neglect and lack of engagement rather than social opposition.

A similar conversation emerged at the end of my keynote at the workshop on life in Imperial China at Tel Aviv University. I had been speaking on methodological challenges within the field of Martial Arts Studies to a group of historians who, while enthusiastic about the material, were largely unfamiliar with our field. At the end of the conversation one of the participants signaled that they were uncomfortable elevating the discussions of martial artists.  At first this scholar had a bit of trouble articulating the source of this anxiety. But as we discussed some of the issues that they had become aware of through the news (the rise of the alt-right in certain MMA and HEMA circles, domestic abuse allegation, a general unease with the way that martial artists constructed cultural/ethnic/gendered fantasies about the past), the underlying concern eventually came out, “so many of these people just seem so marginal.”

The questioner seemed at first confused, and then perhaps relieved, when I noted that yes, this is precisely the point of the exercise.  The martial arts provide a valuable tool for the analysis of issues in popular and local history precisely because they allow us to understand what is going on in communities that are experiencing stress.  As I often explain to my undergraduate International Relations classes, shifts in the global economy produce winners and losers.  And when we start to look at the situation in a comparative context, it seems that the most enthusiastic or dedicated martial arts communities often arise among the losers.  The winners are just too busy writing the official histories that we all remember.  Again, something like this would be a pretty standard framework for understanding Xu’s simmering face-off with the Chinese state.

In the weeks following these conferences marginality, and how one observers or conceptualizes it, has continued to be on my mind.  Very often we discuss it as though it was a concrete thing that can be observed and scientifically measured.  Indeed, social scientists have devised all sorts of indexes measuring marginality as a mixture of economic poverty, social isolation and a lack of human capital.  It is valuable work, but I am not sure that these measures always capture what is really significant about marginality within martial arts communities.

In all fairness these more material definitions of marginality can be important.  The situation that Amos first described in 1983 correlated very highly with a purely material understanding of marginality.  Further, sociologists such as Wacquant have used these scores to make some interesting observations.  Boxing was not taken up by the most destitute residents of Chicago’s ghetto as they had neither the resources nor inclination to devote their lives to a competitive sport.  In economic terms we might say that their discount rate was simply too high.  Rather, it was individuals from the better off neighborhoods, many of whom had relatively stable jobs, who found boxing to be the most appealing.  A relationship between marginality and boxing existed, but it was non-linear in nature.  These are the sorts of questions that we as a field need to be asking about other communities as well.

Nevertheless, there are clearly other ways of being marginalized that are less easily quantified.  Ip Man came from a privileged economic background. Yet as a second son it would have been evident from a young age that he would not go on to inherit that prestige.  His status as a supplementary son both gave him the freedom to study the martial arts but also an incentive to prove himself in a different social realm. Other sons of wealthy families have noted that they came to the martial arts after being bullied, or as a way of dealing with chronic illnesses.


Detail of postcard showing traditional practitioners performing in a marketplace. Japanese postcard circa 1920.  Source: Author’s Personal Collection.


On a more meta-level, all of this comes together in the shame-induced desire to throw off the title of “Sick Man of East Asia,” a rallying cry adopted by all of China’s martial artists throughout the early and mid 20th century.  While a Chinese merchant or scholar may be high status by local standard, the very nature of imperialism led them to formulate a self-image which was both marginal and threatened.  Douglas Wile noted that this exact process likely accounts for the compiling and canonization of the “Taiji Classics” during the Self-Strengthening Movement of the late 19thcentury (1996).

This sets the stage for my final point.  When attempting to understand the role marginality within the martial arts we must distinguish between the actual lack of status or resources, and the less easily quantified fear of losing these same things.  It is difficult (perhaps impossible) to establish objective baselines of material status that predict martial behavior because very often these communities arise in response to the perception of loss (or even the possibility of loss) rather than an actual change in one’s concrete situation.

Again, this observation will not be surprising to most political scientists or economists.  We have known for some time that individuals tend not to act in mathematically rational ways.  Doing so would require us to value the possibility of gain equally to potential loss.  Yet as Prospect Theory reminds us, people discount potential future gains highly, but obsesses over immediate or coming losses.  All of this has critical political implications.  A state does not become unstable simply because its citizens are poor. Humans actually have a rather amazing ability to normalize terrible circumstances.  Yet the fear of future loss has pushed more than one state into unrest or revolution.  Thwarted expectations about the future have led to open revolts and multiple civil wars.

All of this suggests that rather than simply looking at baseline levels of marginality when attempting to understand the emergence of martial culture, we must also take into account individuals fears and expectations about their future status.  This probably explains why so many governments have found it possible to create national martial arts programs in the first place.  By reframing discourses at the level of national competition or anti-imperialism, it became possible for groups like the Jingwu Association and Central Guoshu Institute to feed off of an immense well of national anxiety.

Likewise, moral panics about the loss of masculinity in the West in the early 20thcentury, knife attacks in London today, or the changing racial composition of continental Europe can all become focal points for the development of different types of martial arts communities.  This can be the case even if the individual practitioners behind these communities rank low on any objective score of social marginalities.  Social scientists would remind us that is often the anxiety over potential losses that lead to the perception of marginality, and everything that comes from it.

This is much more difficult to observe than simply coding someone’s income level, education and social background.  Yet this is also where Martial Arts Studies might be able to make a unique contribution. Very often within the practices and internal narratives of a given martial arts community we will find a record of the fears and anxiety that may have motivated them.  Even the most marginal of these myths can be a source of important social insight.



If you enjoyed these thoughts you might also want to read: “Fighting Styles” or “Martial Brands”? An economic approach to understanding “lost lineages” in the Chinese Martial Arts.