Bujutsu joran 武術上覧 (The Shogun Views a Demonstration of Martial Arts) / Chiyoda no on-omote 千代田之御表 (The Central Office at Chiyoda). Right side panel. Source: britishmuseum.org

Bear up under days of cold and heat, withstand exposure to wind, rain, sleet. Walk mountains and difficult paths. Do not sleep under a roof; consider it fundamental to sleep out in the open. Be patient with hunger and cold. Carry no money or food provisions.

If there are unavoidable battles at a destination, participate and achieve meritorious deeds. Be direct in combat, let your deeds speak. Go alone to places frightening to the common run of men; places where evil spirits congregate or where there are bewitching foxes and poisonous snakes.

Become a criminal on purpose, be put in jail and extricate yourself by your own wisdom, perseverance, character. Consider your own position to be below that of farmers and make your living by helping in the paddies and fields.

Bukoyo Shigen, 1603, “The Seven Austerities.”

A Time for Travel

This post follows up on my recent essay about marginality in the martial arts. Yet before turning to this topic, I would like to discuss the journeys that we take within the martial arts and Martial Arts Studies scholarship.  I don’t mean this is in a metaphorical sense, at least not primarily.  Rather, the academic life has its own rhythms and summer is the time for travel.  Some of this is professional (conference and research related). Other outings are purely personal.

Whenever visiting a new city, I try to check out at least one local martial arts school.  My research in the Southern Chinese martial arts and Lightsaber Combat provides a wonderful justification for this, and the Martial Arts Studies community comes with a great network of contacts.  I dutifully treat most of these visits as ethnographic opportunities, taking notes and conducting interviews in addition to the normal training. But at the end of the day what motivates me is the experience of working with someone who shares my passion but approaches these practices from a different perspective.

At times the martial arts seem to function almost as a second passport.  The small blue book that I carry may get me into a different country. Yet once there, it is a shared dedication to (or even a curiosity about) an art which allows me to cross thresholds into new communities. During the pre-War era it was very fashionable for reformers in the Chinese martial arts to decry the secretive and clannish nature of folk masters, often opining at length as to how traditional martial culture would lead inevitably to the death of these practices, and shortly thereafter, the nation.  In truth China’s folk martial arts were not in crisis during this period.  Rather, they were growing so quickly that they often defied the attempts of social elites and government agents who wanted to bend them to their own ends.  Nor was “secrecy” the only result of traditional martial culture.

The discussion of (often entirely mythic) lineages also functions as a mechanism to facilitate the “discovery” of unexpected connections between geographically distant practitioners.  These identities survive in the current environment as they provide a handy mental map for classifying social relationships between practitioners, and that is always the first step in expressing a new notion of shared community.

Of course, sometimes our wanderings take us far beyond the confines of a shared style or combative philosophy.  While visiting a large East Coast city with my wife, I recently decided to stop in for an introductory lesson at a Shaolin school.  This particular class was being taught by a former warrior monk who, after touring extensively, was sent to the United States to spread Shaolin Kung Fu and Buddhism.  One can only imagine what his warrior’s journey has been like.

This was my first experience working with an instructor who had emerged directly from the modern Shaolin temple system, and what I saw was nuanced, skillful and extremely impressive. Yet China is a big place, and its martial arts comprise a vast system of practice. As someone who really focuses on the folk arts that arose in Southern China in the first half of the 20thcentury, I was not particularly well positioned to absorb all of the material that was being carefully presented to the students. Yet even if travel and comparative study do not lead to mastery, they can be invaluable aids in understanding the communities and cultural frameworks the surround the martial arts.

Bujutsu joran 武術上覧 (The Shogun Views a Demonstration of Martial Arts) / Chiyoda no on-omote 千代田之御表 (The Central Office at Chiyoda). Central panel. Source: britishmuseum.org


The Warrior’s Pilgrimage

Not all travel is the same.  When I mentioned my recent Shaolin experience to a colleague he mused (mixing cultural metaphors) that by walking into such a different school I had undertaken my own Musha shugyō.  This Japanese term refers to a sort of “warrior’s pilgrimage” that was performed by the Bushi and later Samurai.  Their goals were diverse, but typically included improving one’s technical skill through training, developing mental and spiritual toughness, establishing a reputation as a skilled warrior, and finding gainful employment with a local Daimyo.

While I am hardly a wandering swordsman, this struck me as in some ways an apt metaphor for the sorts of travel that I see being undertaken by some martial artists (and younger scholars) today.  Indeed, there seems to be a strong structural connection between training in an embodied skill and the necessity of travel.  My friend’s metaphor was all the more intriguing as this tendency can also be seen across cultures and time periods.

China has a long literary tradition of tales of wandering youxia in both ancient literature and classic Ming and Qing era novels.  Indeed, during the Republic period it was a common refrain that a well-trained martial artist with a sword on his back was free to walk from one side of China to the other, a task that few others would dare to take up.  In a very real sense martial accomplishment was associated with geographic freedom. Likewise, Western knight errantry was also well-established in both the fabric of European feudalism as well as the region’s literature.  Still, it would be unwise to conflate all “martial pilgrimages” under a single label as doing so could cause us to lose sight of the importance of socio-economic marginality in these patterns, or the role of the martial arts as a strategy for dealing with one’s marginalization within society.  Traditional modes of hand combat functioned not only as a concrete qualification by which one might gain certain sorts of employment, but also as an ideological construct allowing one to find value, and even virtue, in difficult circumstances. Or to draw on a more sociological terminology, they were means by which marginal individuals might establish effective sub-cultures.

Let us begin by considering whether the journeys in question are essentially circular in nature, or linear and non-repeating. When analyzing a pattern of movement timing is often the critical element, even more so than distance. Some types of travel are undertaken at regular intervals, or with a regular group of companions.  In my academic life I might travel to the annual Martial Arts Studies meeting on a yearly basis.  Beyond that I see many of these same colleagues either at smaller workshops or perhaps bump into them in large disciplinary or area studies conferences. In any case, the defining characteristic of these journeys is their regularity.  The physical location of the movable feast may change, but by design the food and company is usually quite similar.

It is not difficult to imagine how these circuits of travel and professional circulation might shape a new intellectual community. Benedict Anderson has talked about the ways that shared literatures (such as newspapers, or academic journals) and shared professional experiences can lead to the emergence of “imaginary communities.” One becomes a member of the Martial Arts Studies community (or any professional specialization) in large part by joining this pattern of physical travel and intellectual circulation.  The journeys that we undertake, and the stories that we tell about them, are powerful tools in the creation of community.

Lauren Miller Griffith and Jonathan S. Marion, in their recent volume Apprenticeship Pilgrimage: Developing Expertise through Travel and Training (Lexington Books, 2018), remind us that these basic patterns are not unique to the scholarly realm. Their ethnographic study of various ballroom dance and martial arts communities reveals the many ways in which participation in circuits of training workshops, tournaments, and regular visits with a revered school or master, served to both create specific types of embodied skills and status within these communities.

I quite like this book as it speaks to a set of conditions which are increasingly prevalent within North American martial culture.  The much-discussed decline of the traditional martial arts means that fewer towns and small cities will be able to support dedicated schools in any given discipline.  Further, even when a school exists within driving distance, the declining population density of students within traditional communities suggests that there will be fewer truly skilled individuals to work with.  Those with specific interests (a less common style of martial art, or perhaps an interest in a specific lineage) are increasingly likely to find themselves undertaking precisely the sorts of journeys that Griffith and Marion describe in their quest for embodied knowledge.

As useful as their description and framework is, it does not exhaust the role that travel plays (and has played) within the martial arts.  The notion of pilgrimage as used in their text implies a degree of circular repetition and regularity.  Mircea Eliade might remind us that even if an individual traveler only makes the journey to Mecca once in their life, they are nevertheless imagining themselves as part of a vast and unending circumbulation of a transcended world axis that gives mundane life meaning.  In more prosaic terms, one may return to a martial art’s headquarters multiple times a year for “additional training.” In some cases, this is important for maintaining one’s own social status in the organization or teaching credentials. In such a situation there is no need to imagine community as being defined by shared journeys between the center and the peripheries.  One will have ample time to experience the texture of this reality for yourself.

This last pattern is something that many of us in the martial arts will be familiar with. These types of travel are often very expensive, not only in terms of direct costs but also foregone opportunities in other areas of one’s professional or family life. The strength of the communities that are forged through these pilgrimages comes in large part of from the high barriers to entry which exist within such organizations.  Frequent and expensive travel can serve to ensure that you are investing your time and resources into a group that is both prosperous and full of individuals who have already publicly demonstrated their dedication to the organization.  In this case the expense of the undertaking is a feature of this social system, and not a bug.

The social scientific literature on “strict churches” suggests that this type of cost structure may function as an important mechanism for dealing with the “free rider problem” in a variety of social institutions.  But again, this stability comes at the cost of skewing the socio-economic make-up of a community towards those who have both abundant resources and the privilege to invest them into purely personal projects.  The very nature of such travel is to exclude those with fewer resources who might otherwise extract more from the community than they contribute.

While an accurate description of a certain sort of “apprenticeship pilgrimage” which we see in the West today, it is important to remember that this pattern is also fairly new.  Historically speaking, the martial artists and warriors most likely to set out on such journeys were typically more marginal individuals with the fewest resources to contribute.  More specifically, knight-entry was often a strategy undertaken by those who were economically destitute and traveling across the realm in search of employment.

Before we can go much further it may be necessary to stop and consider Musha shugyō in greater historical detail. This turns out to be a surprisingly complex task as, like so much else in the martial arts, the term (and even the underlying images that accompany it) has been frequently reinvented and reused to support a number of different projects.  Part of this can be seen in an ongoing conversation regarding when, and if, the institution went into decline.  Scholars who see the practice of Musha shugyō as being closely associated with dueling and feuding are more likely to see a decline after the beginning of the Tokugawa period.

For them the true essence of Musha shugyō might be exemplified in the ascetic (and violent) travels of Musashi Miyamoto, or the many other young warriors looking to make a name for themselves from the Muromachi period onward.  They note that in a system where second sons could not inherit their father’s feudal responsibilities, there was a strong incentive for marginal youth from the warrior class to undertake these journeys to build their reputations, and martial abilities, while searching for gainful employment.

For such youth the conditions outlined in the opening quote might be understood as giving social meaning or validation to the sorts of trials that they were likely to face anyway.  Many of them were undertaking such a task precisely because they did not have money, warm clothing and schools or friends to support them.  Accepting temporary work as a mercenary or farm laborer was not just an exercise in spiritual discipline. It really was an economic necessity.  And yet the norms that surrounded this sort of martial travel (borrowed in large part from the journeys of Buddhist monks) helped to contextualize and endow these trials with a veneer of personal and social meaning.

In truth the warrior’s pilgrimage never really vanished during the Tokugawa period, though like all other aspects of life in Japan, it came to be regulated through a system of complex law and social norms about the proper behavior of the wandering samurai (which again, makes a great deal of sense if you are looking at these as extended job interviews.) Students who tend to understand dueling and Musha shugyō as distinct activities that only overlapped in certain times and places (and not even totally then) are less likely to see the practice as having been fundamentally threatened.  From their less romantic perspective, the high point of Musha shugyō may not have been reached until the final decades of the Tokugawa era.  The spread of various schools of fencing using split bamboo Shina and protective armor led to an explosion of interest in the practice as young martial artists from around the Japan could now compete with each other in spirited matches in a new generation of revitalized training halls.

Alexander Bennet, drawing on the detailed diaries of Muta Bunnosuke Takaatsu (1831-1890), a Saga warrior, describes one episode of martial pilgrimage that took place between 1853 and 1855 (pp. 77-80).  Gone were the days of extreme deprivation described in the opening quotes.  Young warriors, and sometimes their more experienced elders who were being awarded what amounted to a paid sabbatical by their Lords, would now be provided with letters of introduction by home domains to the various schools they intended to visit.  Upon arriving in a city these individuals would check into well-appointed inns that catered specifically to the large numbers of swordsmen on the road undertaking training pilgrimages. It is fascinating to realize that by the end of the Tokugawa period the practice of Musha shugyō had become so popular that extensive networks of infrastructure were necessary to support it!

Generally speaking, the local domain being visited would pick up the tab for these lodgings, and representatives of the local schools would come to greet new travelers and introduce them to the training halls.  Complex rules of etiquette were observed in these training sessions and the traveling warriors were given official documents proving that they had visited such and such a school, at such and such a date.  Again, all of this served an economic and social function.  Young warriors undertook such training to improve their employment prospects.  More experienced swordsmen sought to polish their reputations and expand their social networks.

Nor was this the last time that the notion of the Musha shugyō would be revived. During the Meiji period it was realized that circuits of national martial pilgrimage might help to promote the notion of Japan as a unified modern state with a shared national culture.  Whereas these journeys had previously served an economic function, and perhaps contributed to the notion of the Samurai as a coherent social class, this same basic pattern of travel could now be made to serve a new purpose.  Bennett even goes on to note that the idea of Musha shugyō was once again resurrected by Japanese martial arts organizations in the post-WWII era in an effort to spread and revive the traditional martial arts through creating new networks of practitioners in the modern era.

All of this is a far cry from Mushashi Miyomoto’s many duels. Yet it would be historically naïve to argue that the latter practices were some-how degenerated or less legitimate simply because they served the needs of their respective era. And in any case, it is interesting to note that while the details of the practice changed, at heart martial pilgrimages were always seen as a way of dealing with an excess of young warriors who could not be immediately integrated into Japan’s feudal structures.

Travel was also a critical means of advancement for young warriors in other areas of the world.  Europe’s young knights faced similar dilemmas of underemployment as their Japanese counterparts.  Those who could not inherit a title or fief from their father often traveled extensively seeking employment with a local baron, or attempting to get noticed in the tournament circuit.  By all accounts this was a tenuous and stressful existence.

China differed from Japan and Europe in that it was not a feudal society.  Still, martial arts training was often seen as a critical means of advancement for younger sons, or individuals from underprivileged areas.  Lacking an inheritance, it was often impossible for these individuals (termed “bare sticks”) to find wives, or even a place in a local social order based on landownership and family lineage.  Martial arts training offered one a chance to establish a career in the military, as a security guard, a yaman runner, even as a petty bandit.  It was not uncommon for such individuals to spend the agricultural seasons at home working in the fields, and on the off months to engage in salt smuggling or some other “grey market” pursuit.

While the relationship between the martial arts and travel was not institutionalized to the same extent that was seen in Japan, it was never the less present in China as well.  In a notably static agrarian society, martial arts instructors and their students (along with actors, soldiers and itinerant doctors) were unique in that they so often had the ability to travel from place to place.  This travel was sometimes an economic necessity reflecting the geographically displaced nature of many martial artists.  Nevertheless, complex embodied skills were acquired in these journeys, and stories were told that attempted to establish a degree of social value in these experiences.


Bujutsu joran 武術上覧 (The Shogun Views a Demonstration of Martial Arts) / Chiyoda no on-omote 千代田之御表 (The Central Office at Chiyoda). Left side panel. Source: britishmuseum.org


The Journey and the Destination

Throughout history the martial arts have been associated with travel.  The very nature of embodied learning suggests that at some point either a student or a teacher must undertake some sort of physical journey for a given skill to be conveyed.  Further, the inherently social nature of these practices suggests that skill acquisition will be aided by opportunities to cross fists or blades with a large number of skilled students.  At a certain level, travel may be a structural necessity within the martial arts.

That much seems to be constant throughout time. Other things have changed. In our current era extensive travel is a luxury undertaken by only the most dedicated students. It can be a means of acquiring greater levels of skills, but it also functions as a signal of one’s cultural sophistication and connoisseurship.  Through the constructions of “apprenticeship/pilgrimage” networks, stable communities can be formed, and prestige won, even when the overall population of traditional martial artists is shrinking.

In many ways this is a departure from the more linear, economically driven, journeys of the past.  In China and Japan the warriors pilgrimage was not simply a means of pursuing embodied skill or mental and spiritual training (though it could be all of those things). It was also a journey from one’s home domain (and poverty) to stability in the hall of a future employer.  This specific economic function seems to be missing from much of our current workshop travel, with a few exceptions (journeyman boxers and MMA fighters come to mind).

So was the recent visit to the school of a former Shaolin Monk part of my own personal Musha shugyō, even if understood only on a metaphorical level?  It is hard to say.  In large part that is because while broad patterns of travel in martial arts study seem to be consistent over time, the actual details of these practices are constantly changing.  At the most basic level my goals as a scholar and modern martial artist don’t have a lot in common with the economic necessity which defined the behavior of so many 19thcentury martial artists in Japan and China.

Perhaps that is precisely the point that we should focus on.  While martial journeys continue to occur, the once critical relationship between economic marginality and travel seem to have been weakened. While the idea of the Musha shugyō may still be deployed by socially stressed individuals within the martial arts today, the patterns of actual travel undertaken suggest that by in large these communities are much less marginal than they were in the past. The redefinition of martial pilgrimage as a luxury good (one option for conspicuous consumption among many) might also shed valuable light on our observations about the declining overall popularity of these practices in the current era.

It may be the case that high barriers to entry are a rational strategy for individual schools, but when seen across the entire community such a social shift may have unintended negative consequences for the traditional martial arts as a whole. When successive generations of marginal youth can no longer set out on a Musha shugyō of their own, not only do they lose an opportunity for embodied training, but they will inevitably turn elsewhere for symbols, images and stories to help them find meaning in their personal struggles.  Perhaps for the martial arts to thrive they must find more effective ways to reconnect with and serve marginal communities. Travel is important.  But we must also remember our roots.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Why do difficult and expensive martial arts thrive?