***What follows is the text of my keynote address delivered at the 2019 Exploring Imperial China Workshop held on June 5-6 at Tel Aviv University. I would like to thank both the Department of East Asian Studies and the Confucius Institute for inviting me to take part in this event which showcased some great work by young scholars. You can read my report on the conference here. This paper was read to a mixed group of historians and social scientists who, with a few notable exceptions, were not familiar with the field of Martial Arts Studies. However, the conference organizers asked me to discuss some of the methodological challenges and possibilities that I have encountered in this exciting new research area. I have not altered the text of the paper that I read, but I have selected a much smaller number of slides to accompany this presentation of the material. Enjoy!***
I have been asked to discuss some points regarding methodological challenges in my own research, and how some of these same issues have been manifest in the creation of Martial Arts Studies. That is a quickly growing interdisciplinary field comprised of social scientists, historians, critical theorists, anthropologists and media studies scholars, all interested in asking related questions about the emergence and function of various hand combat systems which have existed historically, as well as those that we see in the world today.
Given that this is a fairly young research field, and one that I have been involved with since before the beginning of its formal institutionalization, I believe that I can speak to these issues. By way of introduction my own background is in the field of International Relations, and my research interests focus on the ways in which globalization, meaning increased flows of information and trade, can disrupt society.
My first project in this area was a social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts (published by SUNY Press in 2015) and the creation of a scholarly blog, titled Kung Fu Tea. The blog helped to assemble, and give shape to, a nascent academic conversation between scholars in a wide variety of field on the martial arts. In 2015 I helped to co-found, along with Paul Bowman, an interdisciplinary journal intended to give this sort of research a formal home. Since then we have seen the creation of conferences, book series, other journals, research networks and large research grants.
Today we have scholars from a wide variety of disciplines, and in a wider variety of countries, all coming together to discuss the development and meaning of these fighting systems. Whereas in the 1990s or early 2000s it was unusual to find any academic work being published on these systems, the last few years have seen a veritable explosion of articles, monographs and collected volumes.
Still, this rapid success suggests some issues that require careful consideration. The martial arts, as a social phenomenon can be examined through a variety of disciplinary lens because they sit, rather uncomfortably, at the intersection of social institutions, embodied practice, media-scape, political ideology and historical process. As Paul Bowman, Douglas Farrer, Thomas Green, myself and others have noted, if we want to understand the social function of the martial arts in the world today, or at any point in the past, it is difficult to do so using only a single set of disciplinary lens, no matter how finely ground they might be.
This does not mean that we should never conduct research on the martial arts within a disciplinary framework. The young scholars who are contributing to these literatures today will inevitably be evaluated by hiring and promotion committees largely on the extent to which they have succeeded in contributing to a disciplinary literature. And the good news is that it is not that difficult to use some aspect of the martial arts to make insightful arguments about historical processes, social structures or the evolution of the media landscape.
We can always think of these practices either as a dependent variable (the thing explained), or an independent variable (part of the explanation), of a larger descriptive story or causal theory. When we employ some aspect of the martial arts as a descriptive lens to explore a disciplinary problem, we are typically employing these practices as independent variable within a larger investigation of some other topic, say, the rise of specific notions of nationalism, modernity or identity.
But here is the catch to a purely disciplinary approach. One can only do this for so long before the afore mentioned promotion committees and publishers begin to ask, “why martial arts?” Yes, it is an interesting lens, but they are many other, better understood, facets of life, from labor movements to other aspects of popular culture that might cover the same ground just as well.
This is what really sets the current martial arts studies literature apart from the sorts of disciplinary discussions that we have seen from time to time. It is more willing to take the exploration of the martial arts themselves as its central object. Noting that some types of combative practices are almost universal, yet their form and social meaning varies widely, Martial Arts Studies allows us to investigate an even more basic set of questions.
How have specific practices been constructed and stabilized? How do cultural, environment and social patterns manifest themselves in martial practice? Or what is the relationship between the martial arts and the varieties of modernity that arose in the 19thand 20thcentury.
When we explicitly make martial practice the object of our investigation, it becomes almost impossible to ignore the advantages of interdisciplinary approaches. In an era in which our lives are ever more subject to the iron logic of specialization, individuals turn to the martial arts at least in part as they are a single tool that promises to create unity across many areas of one’s life.
In a world increasingly fraught with perceived personal insecurity, they offer the assurance of self-defense. As traditional communities crumble, they offer a new type of belonging and the promise of social capital. Their often-touted spiritual value is invoked within increasingly secular societies. Even their health benefits have become a common talking point.
Nor are the effects of martial practice confined to the individual. The creation and expansion of these practices can generate systemic effects, hence the enthusiasm of many government (from the Japanese in the 1920s, to the Koreans in the 1970s) in promoting these practices. Still, coming to terms with the benefits of interdisciplinary approaches can be more or less challenging depending on the disciplinary background that one emerges from. My training within Political Science has been helpful in this regard as “Methodological Triangulation” has become the order of the day during the early 2000s.
Any well-constructed study within International Relations might now begin with a purely theoretical argument, using concepts derived from critical theory, political philosophy or game theory. These might be explored with qualitative historical case studies. And the entire thing would inevitably be finished off with large-N statistical analysis meant to test some sort of causal or descriptive theory. Given the complexity of global events, the claim here is that any single interpretive lens might only offer an incomplete image. But a mixture of approaches increases the reliability of the final image. Methodological triangulation is thus a way (imperfect to be sure) to deal with the “single observer” problem.
A similar consensus seems to be emerging within the field of Martial Arts Studies. Gratefully, it is not quite so formulaic as what we see in the IR literature. Our interdisciplinary insights more often emerge through edited volumes, or single projects completed by a team of researchers. Yet the basic insights about the importance of methodological triangulation, especially as we begin to tackle questions that sit at the intersections of the traditional disciplines, remains the same.
Yet some very different methodological challenges arise in the actual execution of a Martial Arts Studies project. Much that the data that goes into methodological triangulation in political science comes from well-established public records, datasets, established literatures, or occasionally “expert interviews.” When I describe my martial arts centered research to my colleagues in political science, their first question is typically something along of the lines of “yes, but how can you study that?” It is not that they doubt the theoretical validity of the projects, but rather, they can’t imagine where you would get reliable data on something like martial arts practice by working class individuals in China during the 1920s.
Therein lies both the strength and the day to day challenge of martial arts studies. Rather than diplomatic history or national politics, our subject is almost always a matter of previously unexamined popular culture. Even when governments attempt to interject themselves into these practices it is typically because they are searching for tools to project their influence within society itself. And very little of this sort of popular history ever gets recorded, archived and made available in your local university library. Much of it is epiphenomenal and is immediately lost once the initial moment of practice or consumption is gone. Yet the impacts and externalities of these actives can live on in unexpected ways.
Salvaging Social Memory
Consider if you will the following clip. This footage was shot for a newsreel in the Manhattan Chinatown during the celebration of the Lunar New Year in 1929. In this clip we can see a number of unarmed forms being demonstrated. These are followed by demonstrations of various traditional weapons, and two-man weapons sets. It was not unheard of for newsreels to have the occasional clip of Lion Dancing or one of the martial arts demonstrations that went along with it. But those features were almost always very brief and not terribly informative.
This piece of film, however, is very different. It contains long representations of complete sets. It is probably the earliest recording that we currently possess of Southern Chinese martial arts being practice in North America. Indeed, I don’t think there is any doubt that this is the single most significant representation of the Chinese martial arts in the pre-war diaspora that we currently possess.
So where was it found? Literally in the trash. Or more specifically on the cutting room floor. All of this wonderful material? We have it because it never made it into a completed newsreel. These are the out-takes that were gathered together along with miscellaneous clippings of other scenes of singing and dancing from the same time period. They were quickly forgotten, never displayed, and never discussed by any source in the martial arts studies literature. Indeed, you are the first scholarly audience to ever see this material which I ran across, totally by accident, while searching a video archive for examples of “big sword” wielding Chinese troops in the 1930s (a slightly more common topic in that era’s newsreels).
Maybe it’s a good thing that this footage was never used as the vast majority of American newsreels from the 1920s and 1930s were simply destroyed or allowed to rot. They were never archived at the time as they were viewed as that week’s ephemera. While historians look back on these things as a vitally important resource for understanding the era’s popular culture, norms and beliefs, at the time they were garbage. So we are very lucky that this footage has survived, even if it has continued to escape serious historical or social study.
Nor is it alone. Much of the empirical evidence that my research draws on comes, either metaphorically or directly, out of society’s waste bins. This charming postcard was actually sent to me as backing material when I ordered another photograph from an auction company. That is important as it reminds us that images of the Chinese martial arts circulated much more freely in the pre-WII era than most people would suspect. But its very difficult to flesh out the details of what was in the public imagination. By in large there are no catalogs of these images in your university library. To locate this material you have to spend hours going through piles of random vintage postcards. Sometimes this happens on-line. But some of my best finds have been at antique shops.
Newspaper photographs are also an important witness how the Chinese martial arts appeared, and were imagined, by the public at various points in time. But again, in the 2000s photo archives that had taken decades to collect were taken out and tossed in dumpsters across North America. Luckily some of these have been recovered and these sorts of images now occasionally show up in places like ebay. And that is important as a few of these images are really irreplaceable and almost none of them are in University collections.
Likewise, China’s foreign language treaty port newspapers have proved to be an incredible source of insight into the public discussion of the martial arts during the Republic period of the 1920s-1930s. But again, society doesn’t really value 100 year old newspaper clippings, and relatively few historians ever address these sources.
Obviously, there are reasons for this. Chinese language papers, and the newsletters of various Jingwu or Guoshu branches, offer an even greater wealth of information (at least those that survived do). Some of China’s pre-war martial arts reformers were acutely aware of the low social esteem that their practices were held in, often being associated with the illiterate working class. To combat this tendency, they went out of their way to publish practical manuals, patriotic discussions and photographs showing their martial arts as resolutely rational, modern and scientific projects free from the taint of regionalism, religious superstition or the opera.
By in large these were the sources that survived as their creators went to some length to ensure that it would. Unsurprisingly their reading forms the backbone of many current historical discussions of the Chinese martial arts. Yet just as society makes efforts to remember some material, it also goes to lengths to forget other facts. As Ernest Renan reminds us the nation, and really any identity, in constructed through the dual process of remembering and forgetting.
At the same time that the central Guoshu Association was circulating images middle class martial arts reformers, dressed as though they were headed out for an afternoon of golf, tens of millions of desperate peasants in China’s impoverished northern regions were joining Red Spear militia societies. Here they received training in both their name sake weapon and a rich catalog of magical practices that were designed to make them invulnerable to bullets. Remember this is happening in the 1920s-1940s.
These groups were not all that different from the Yihi Boxers of the 1900 Boxer Uprising. And they proved to be surprisingly effective when it came to beating back both government tax collectors and the intrusions of independent Warlords. I would love to show you some gripping photographs of these groups, but somehow, very few, have survived. While the Red Spears outnumbered China’s middle-class martial arts reformers by at least 10 to 1, their existence has been effectively expunged from the socially accepted narrative of the Chinese martial arts.
This process of forgetting is by no means confined to events and identities in China. Any review of the secondary literature on the spread of the Chinese martial arts to North America, particularly those things written from the perspective of cultural and media studies, suggests that these practices were unknown prior to the “Kung Fu Fever” that Bruce Lee unleased upon global media markets in the early 1970s.
Now, in one sense it should be obvious that this cannot be strictly true. When Lee arrived in America, he found other individuals already teaching and studying and Chinese martial arts, as outlined so well by Charles Russo in his excellent history of period, Striking Distance (Nebraska UP, 2016). And the burgeoning Judo/Karate debate that was dominating the pages of popular publications like Black Belt in the 1960s ensured that a small but dedicated group of striking enthusiasts were actively searching for knowledge about Chinese Kung Fu in an effort to better understand the origins of Okinawan Karate.
Still, one might argue that this knowledge was restricted to a small number of hand combat aficionados. The vast majority of Americans would never hear of Kung Fu until Bruce Lee brought them that revelation through the silver screen.
This is the conventional wisdom as it currently exists in my field. And it makes sense until we start looking at the era’s cultural trash and asking what can be salvaged? Lets start by thinking again about the newsreels, the postcards and all of the photographs of “Big Sword Troops” that we find. Japanese aggression in China was a major point of public debate prior to, and during WWII, and every time the Chinese army was brought up, somewhere in the background lurks images of Chinese solider training to use their intimidating dadao.
Nor can we forget that China debuted its martial arts in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The Nazi government made sure to give these displays glowing reports on all of the newswire services as at the time they were equipping and training the Chinese military. If we want to go further back, the Boxer Rebellion was the single largest media event of the early 20thcentury. Everyone in the Western world knew exactly what Chinese boxing was in 1900. Lastly, martial practices were demonstrated by Chinese student associations on pretty much every American University or College campus where they had a presence throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
So how did all of this come to be forgotten in 1945? That is the actual question. And the answer appears to be something quite different from what we have supposed.
While a group of teens, children and young adults may have been introduced to Kung Fu through Lee’s films, by in large their parents and grand-parents were more familiar than one might think with Chinese boxing. Yet they remained unimpressed as these things were ideologically associated with defeat on the battlefield and a stubborn resistance to economic modernization.
All of this was explicitly forgotten by Hollywood when the timing was right to sell a new and more compelling vision of the martial arts that resounded with the post-colonial and anti-establishment politics of the 1970s. When we begin our investigation by salvaging what has been forgotten, we see that the real question isn’t “Why did Kung Fu have to wait until 1973 to be discovered,” but rather “why in the early 1970s was a radical realignment of popular views on Chinese culture possible, and how did that shape martial practice at that specific point in time.”
It is these acts of salvage that remind us that the past is not simply a linear extrapolation of the present. It was a different, highly contingent, country, and the martial arts were at times very different practices. A cultivated air of timelessness not-withstanding, they are flexible structures constantly adapting to, and expressing, the environment that they are embedded within.
Salvage as Method in Martial Arts Studies
Within the context of martial arts studies this methodology of salvage is more than simply an antiquarian impulse, or an obsession with the sort of connoisseurship which defines so much of today’s popular culture. Yet recently we have seen the question of salvage emerge within the realm of methodological discussions.
While the current field of Martial Art Studies is fairly young, it is only the latest (and most successful) in a long line of attempts to bring the study of hand combat into the academy. Perhaps its best-known predecessor was “hoplology,” a proposed field dedicated to the study of human combative behavior that never really succeeded in finding its foothold in the University.
In some respects, hoplology itself is the product of its own revitalization movement. The term was originally coined by Sir Richard Burton, a pioneering student of anthology and human culture, in the late 19thcentury as a label under which to publish some of his various cross-cultural studies of fencing and other fighting techniques. A longtime veteran of the British Army, Burton had plenty of opportunities to study “human combative behavior” while stationed in South Asia. The label gained some currency and other early anthropologists, engaged in the practice of Salvage Ethnography, contributed to the literature.
The term “Salvage Ethnography,” used to characterize the work of Franz Boaz and his American students, described their attempts to catalog the languages, lifeways and material cultures of the world’s indigenous populations before they vanished forever. Boaz and other also collected weapons and stories of their use contributing to the nascent hoplology literature.
Unfortunately shifting intellectual trends after WWI led to the abandonment of the field. And it would be hard to argue that much of the early literature was not coming out of, and developed in service of, the era’s history of colonialism. Again, one only has to remember what brought Burton into contact with South Asia’s various martial traditions.
Yet rather than simply fading away, hoplology was rescued (or perhaps reinvented) by another soldier and amateur scholar, this time in the wake of WWII. Donn F. Draeger spent much of the postwar period in Japan studying first Judo and Kendo, and then a wide selection of older and more traditional Japanese arts. Again, in the wake of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War it was widely believed that many of its indigenous fighting systems were on the cusp of vanishing forever.
Under the banner of Hoplology Draeger, who had no formal graduate level academic training in any scholarly discipline, but was profoundly shaped by his time as a US Marine, began to send other students into the field, placing them with threatened traditional schools and systematically publishing the results of his study of Japan’s true battlefield martial arts. Later he and his followers would mount expeditions to other areas, including South East Asia, adding a greater comparative dimension to their work.
Ultimately this vision of hoplology also failed to find a home in the academy for a variety of reasons. Draeger had planned to start a research center at the University of Hawaii, but that fell apart following his unexpected death in 1982. Clearly, we owe figures like Draeger and R. W. Smith a debt of gratitude for bringing some rigor to the discussion of the martial arts. Yet ultimately the structures they constructed were not something that future scholars could build on.
Salvage, while empirically useful, also has a negative aspect. In their rush to document arts which they believed (possibly incorrectly) to be dying, the hoplology literature of the post-war era created a skewed view of these practices. In its obsession to recover the “battle field secrets” of “professional soldiers”, an interest that doubtless stemmed from the more recent military experience of many of these former-GI’s turned social observers, Draeger and the others failed to note that not only were the traditional martial arts not vanishing, they were about to enter their period of greatest popularity.
Indeed, during the 1970s and 1980s more people around the planet were suddenly studying these combative systems than ever before. Yet this was not the sort of phenomenon that a methodology based in salvage anthropology was well positioned to examine.
And the questions that were asked were often skewed by the perspectives of those making the inquiries. In his work Draeger sharply differentiated between civilian arts (which he made a point of dismissing as “plebian”) and the “real” military martial arts that reflected his understandings, and misunderstandings, of Japanese history. Yet those same categories could not really deal with fine gradations of social violence that dominated Chinese life during the Late Imperial period. It was this, along with China’s poor battlefield showing during the Second World War, that led Draeger to dismiss these arts as unimportant at every turn.
And yet when Bruce Lee would explode onto the scene, aside from clutching at their pearls, he and R. W. Smith would have very little productive to say about perhaps the single most important event in the global spread of the Asian martial arts during their lifetime. Indeed, rereading this material from our current vantage point, it becomes evident that almost every methodological criticism directed at Salvage Anthropology during the 1980s and 1990s applies equally to Draeger’s postwar experiments in Hoplology.
Doubtless this was the reason why the early pioneers of the current field of Martial Art Studies sought to make a clear break with the past. Much of the earlier Hoplology literature was pre-theoretical. Then, in its later stages when more comparative questions were being asked, it tended to turn to varieties of socio-biology that have not aged well. I would like to argue instead that the actual strength of this earlier literature was always in its observations and reporting of empirical practices.
The current martial arts studies literature, on the other hand, is also not perfect. It often seems oddly detached from the details of a specific set of practices. Perhaps because it quite consciously seeks to draw on the most up to date theoretical innovations, it has tended to focus on larger questions of meaning, identity and embodiment. While specific practices may inspire these studies, or even provided the basis for a case study, projects are written in such a way as to be as broadly applicable as possible. The strength of a highly theoretical is to make our insights portable.
Yet in the last year or so the pendulum seems to have swung in the other direction. In an effort to bring the same sort of precision and richness to the empirical side of the equation, I and a few others have started to discuss the possibility of a New Hoplology. Again, this is a conscious effort to turn to past insights to address a current need in the literature. Yet we cannot allow ourselves to be driven by a pure sense of nostalgia. There is often a very good reason that something ends up on the scrap-heap of history, and so our borrowing must be discerning.
What might a New Hoplology look like? At a minimum a New Hoplology would need to be a theoretically rather than socially driven project. It must acknowledge that recording the details of practice in newly emerging arts offers no less insight into the nature of human culture than recording vanishing practices. Indeed, it must acknowledge clearly that culture and society are the proper field of study, rather than socio-bilogy and “human evolution.” As I have argued at length elsewhere, a constant (evolution) cannot explain a variable (how combative behavior varies by time and place). And those aspects of combative behavior which are truly constant throughout the human experience also tend to be of relatively little social relevance. Finally, a New Hoplology must also begin by critically examining its own past and distancing itself from the project of empire and imperialism, something that colored its work both in the late 19th and mid 20th century.
Perhaps the best way to do this would be, without hierarchy or judgement, to look at a much wider range human experience, telling the often neglected stories of females within or around martial arts communities, or documenting marginal and neglected practices, such as machete fencing in Columbia or Haiti, or stick fighting in the Caribbean.
In conclusion, salvaging the past can be a powerful tool within Martial Arts Studies. But only if we remember that the things we find there were also aspects of complex, ever shifting, social systems, and not artifacts of a mythic “better time.” Properly contextualized, these discussions can help us to understand the social functions that the martial arts perform now, as well as what they are likely to become in the future.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Through a Lens Darkly (39): The Strength of Chinese Boxers