Breaking Ceramic Figurines by Martin Klimas.

Paul Bowman. 2019. Deconstructing the Martial Arts. Cardiff: Cardiff University Press. 165 pages.  Free to Download.




Summer is typically the time when scholars get caught up on their reading. Yet judging from the pile of books, manuscripts, dissertations and articles on my desk, I seem to be falling behind.  As such, I have decided to inaugurate a series of short book reviews here at Kung Fu Tea in an effort to make a dent in this pile, and to bring my study and writing goals into closer alignment.

The first book we will be tackling was the most recently released.  Nor does it, technically speaking, occupy any physical space on my desk at all.  Paul Bowman’s recent volume Deconstructing Martial Arts (2019) has been released as part of a new initiative by Cardiff University Press to get relevant academic work into the hands of its readership more quickly and easily.  As such, anyone can download a copy of this work free of charge from their webpage. Libraries, students and bibliophiles can always pay to have a physical copy of the book produced and mailed to them.  But there is something that feels very different about approaching a book which seems to have been designed as an electronic text from the ground up, as opposed to a more traditional tome where the publisher releases an over-priced ebook as an afterthought.

Perhaps there is a degree of intentionality in all of this.  One of Bowman’s major themes throughout his project is to gently prod us to reexamine the relationship between the various types of knowledge which we value, and the mediums that bring them to us.  What can we learn about the social perception of the martial arts from non-action films?  Is embodied knowledge really generated in the body, or does it only crystalize and take shape through an interaction of body and media (print, video or other)?  And how should we describe the fields of meaning that bodily practices generate?  Is this a task that calls for the mixing of radically different writing styles (as Wacquant first proposed in Body & Soul), or should we follow Ben Spatz in questioning the hegemony of written work in academic discourse, and begin to consider a richer array of media specifically tailored to our needs?

For his part, Bowman seems content to stick with words as the main medium by which to convey his arguments (though the data that he draws on comes from sources as diverse as the training hall, research archives and darkened film theaters).  Still, any reviewer would be remiss in failing to note that this book feels like it sits at an inflection point.  This does not have so much to do with the arguments that Bowman makes (the basic outlines of which will already be familiar to readers of his prior works), but the way in which they were packaged and distributed.

Of course, I should note (disclose?) that Paul Bowman and I are friends and colleagues. We jointly edit the interdisciplinary journal Martial Arts Studies, which is also an imprint of Cardiff University Press.  When we first started that project we were in agreement that readers anywhere in the world should be able to access the articles we would publish for free, without having to trek to a university library or negotiate costly subscriptions.  We wanted this work to be easily accessible to other scholars.  But we also wanted it to remain relevant to the communities of practice that helped to create it.

One can only imagine how the decision to distribute free electronic copies of a scholarly book would impact any publisher’s business plan.  I am sure that this will be, in many ways, be quite disruptive.  Yet it’s a disruption that is probably necessary as we strive to demonstrate the value of our project (or any academic undertaking) to the broader world.  After all, much of the work produced in our field was directly financed by the public.  It seems only right that they should have access to it.

Perhaps that is a bit of an overstatement.  “The public” is an overly large category which no doubt includes a wide range of people who will have no interest in reading any work on a good many topics.  So, to move beyond the economics of Bowman’s publishing model, and to begin to engage with the actual substance of his argument, perhaps we should begin by asking who this book was actually written for?  What is the intended audience?


Breaking ceramic figurines by Martin Klimas.


What are Martial Arts?


It is not uncommon for authors to open a chapter or volume with some sort of attention catching hook which, after drawing the reader in, is ultimately of only secondary importance.  This is such a typical writing strategy that I often find myself reading over the first half on an introduction pretty fast as I try to get to the “good stuff.”

I would caution readers to resist that urge in this case.  The opening lines of the book asks two seemingly similar questions.  First, what are martial arts?  Second, what do we mean when we say martial arts?  These two questions are critical in that they structure the first and second half of this work respectively.  Indeed, the overarching theme of Bowman’s work, his main argument, is that the field of Martial Arts Studies will better position itself for growth and development if it focuses on the second (more qualitative) question and abandons the illusion of coming up with a coherent or “scientific” answer to the first.

This also frames the present volume in relation to his two other works dedicated to martial arts studies.  Where as his first work on the subject (Marital Arts Studies, Rowman and Littlefield 2015) laid out the possibility of a field, the present volume attempts to spread and popularize Bowman’s notion of what sort of field it should be, the approaches that it should include (critical theory and deconstruction) and those that it should avoid (anything that smacks of naïve empiricism or scientists).  While his second book was concerned with the construction of Barthian myths of the martial arts, this work instead focused on what the deconstruction of these edifices suggested about the development of Martial Arts Studies itself.

Many themes and passages in this work may already be familiar to those who follow Bowman’s work closely.  A number of chapters are reworked conference papers and keynote presentations.  I believe that I even saw a few opening editorials from our journal being quoted.  However, much of this material has been rework, and sometimes even reevaluated.  This is an inevitable result of thoughtfully rereading one’s own work when it is placed in dialogue with new arguments and themes.

The end result is a volume in which the chapters largely (but not entirely) stand on their own.  Those looking to tackle a single subject (say, critiques of embodiment), or to harvest material for a class reading list, should have no trouble approaching individual chapters in isolation. Yet I would encourage readers not to do that.  Taken as a whole the entire volume lays out a careful argument that will be critical to anyone who is seriously involved in the field of Martial Arts Studies.

Bowman begins by asking readers to imagine the essence of the martial arts, and how one might approach such a question given the manifestly complex, plural and even contradictory nature of these practices.  The introduction, first and second chapters of this book lay out a spirited argument outlining why we cannot simply address this question by constructing a definition of the martial arts.  His reasoning on this point is nuanced, but perhaps we might sum it up by noting that if we really could simply define the martial arts in a way that seamlessly captured their full boom and buzz, there would be no reason to study them as a social phenomenon or individual practice.  The big questions would already have been answered. Indeed, Bowman locates the failure of past projects (such as hoplology) as stemming, at least partially, from a too hasty attempt to define away its central object of study. While done in an attempt to make these projects appear “scientific”, what this approach actually did was to stifle emergence of fruitful questions that might have propelled the conversation forward.


Breaking ceramic action figure by Martin Klimas. Source:


The first three chapters of this work then make an argument for why, rather than structuring our field around mutually agreed upon definitions, we should instead think deeply about the sorts of theoretical frameworks that we would employ in our studies.  More specifically, how should we allow those same frameworks to examine our motivations in undertaking this research in the first place?

A call to consider theory before jumping into a sea of data would not appear to be too controversial from my perspective as a social scientist.  The central problem facing any researcher is that the world contains too much texture and too many points of observation. The human mind cannot make sense of it all.  Our struggle is not to bring back ever more detail, but to create generalizations about what it means and whether any of this is significant within a specific context.  Theories are the simplified models of causation and meaning that make this possible.  As my old professors used to tell me, we all have unstated assumptions that guide our perceptions of the world, which tell us what is obvious and what is surprising. We may choose to ignore the subconscious values and theories that we apply when “just looking at the world” or “just reading the texts”, yet those theories will always be there shaping what we see.  It is thus critical that we discuss our theories, and choose them carefully, precisely because we can never really go without them.

What some readers may find more controversial in Bowman’s argument that deconstruction (as that methodological concept is defined and understood within the field of cultural studies) is a useful tool with which to approach a wide range of issues within Martial Arts Studies, particularly at this current moment.  He even seems to see the open-ended and remarkably congenial nature of the field (as it has evolved so far) as in some ways a testament to validity of the basic values of this approach.

Again, Bowman outlines all of this through direct discussions in the first half of his book.  This sort of philosophical argument will be critical to certain readers.  But I suspect that the second half of the volume (specifically chapters four through seven) will convince a larger group of readers of the validity of his approach.  As the old adage goes, “show don’t tell.”

In these chapters Bowman turns to a set of more concrete questions on a variety of topics: How can we talk about embodied experiences? What is the danger of self-delusion in martial arts training? What do we really mean when asserting (or denying) that the Chinese martial arts are Taoist?

As he addresses each of these points (and many more) he demonstrates how deconstruction might act as a philosophical lamp which illuminates previously unseen pathways or paradoxes within Martial Arts Studies, and occasionally our own personal training. All of this is critical to the field as it suggests predictions and paradoxes that more conventionally trained historians, anthropologists or sociologists might wish to investigate.  Again, the value of theory is not that it supersedes data, but that it directs one’s research efforts to more clearly search for the sorts of observations that will be helpful in coming to terms with the nature of practice.

Does theory (in this case deconstruction) lead scholars to detach themselves from the real world, as so many critics of post-modern thought have claimed?  I suspect in some cases it does, but that is probably more a reflection of the values and interests of those particularly scholars than critical theory as a method for understanding the world around us.  Still, few of these tendencies are evident in Bowan’s writings.  While his exercises in deconstruction may not allow for the creation of strict definitions, they instead lead him to ask a variety of ever more pressing and uncomfortable questions about the nature of real world martial practice and the communities that support them.  One can deal with “authentic texts” and derive from them only visions of the 18th century Chinese martial arts which are not only detached from anything going on today, but also mostly likely much of what was happening then as well.  In contrast, Bowman’s deconstructions tend to emphasize the many unexpected ways that the martial arts impinge on core values and social questions, suggesting that how we choose to practice these arts really does have critical consequences for ourselves and others.

With all of this in mind, perhaps we can now answer my initial question.  Who exactly is this book for?  Who is its intended audience?  In this regard Bowman presents us with one last paradox.  The entire point of making a book freely available online would be to increase its potential readership.  Ideally one might even reach beyond the confines of the academy, delving more deeply into the “cross-over” audience of practicing, thoughtful, martial artists. After all, professors and graduate students would normally get books like this from the library anyway.

Yet by the time you get to the end of this work two things are clear.  First, this was not so much a loose connection of chapters as a coherent, heartfelt, plea about what the shape of our field should be going forward.  As such, it really does benefit from a “front to back” reading.  Second, such a work must inevitably be aimed at individuals who are already deeply involved within the field of Martial Arts Studies.

Chapter four (one of the strongest elements of the volume) is a clear example of this.  Within its pages Bowman sets about systematically exploring and problematizing much of the conventional wisdom that seems to be driving the trend towards greater numbers of “embodiment studies” within the field.  This is a critical conversation, and one that needs to be pushed farther by both Bowan and the defenders of embodiment as a critical paradigm within Martial Arts Studies.  Yet it is also the sort of discussion that is likely to be most captivating to readers who are designing or planning their own research projects.

Indeed, this seems to be an attempt to reach not just students who passively consume this material, but rather the researcher and writers who are currently producing it.  Whereas Bowman’s first book on the subject was an attempt to argue for the viability of the field, this work should be understood as an attempt to move the needle on what sort of literature it generates.

Ironically this orientation works to the advantage of undergraduates and more general readers.  Bowman is quite self-consciously attempting to reach scholars who do not have a background in critical theory or deconstruction.  As such he explains his basic concerns, introduced core concepts in a transparent way, avoids unnecessary jargon, keeps dense quotes by continental theorists to a minimum and attempts to show how deconstruction can function as a (paradoxically) common sense way of dealing with real world issues.  All of that makes this among his most accessible works and probably one of the most readable introductions to deconstruction as a method that one is likely to find in any field.  Again, none of that is a coincidence.  But it does suggest that while Bowman wrote a book with a very definite message to his colleagues, parts of this discussion would fit seamlessly on an undergraduate reading list.

In the final analysis, what kind of project are the martial arts?  Bowman deftly reveals them as practices (and discourses) that are deeply meaningful, transformative, ideological, delusional, hierarchic, liberating, dangerous and so much more.  This work illustrates that only when we loosen our assumptions about what we think we already know can we see richness around us.



If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: A (Taijiquan) Mystery in Yellow