Kendo tournament. Source:


Why do the rules matter?

Recently I was invited to help organize a local martial arts gathering and tournament.  I have never done anything like this before (most of my organizational expertise is concentrated in the academic realm) but it seemed like a good cause, so I said yes. Little did I suspect that this new item on the to do list would have me going through my bookshelves looking at some of the classic texts on the development of international trade systems.  It seems that organizing a tournament, or really any event that brings a diverse group of practitioners together, is a lot like creating a set of trade rules.  Or, to be more specific, several similar debates will come up, and most of those are actually about the institutional standards that you are planning to adopt rather than the more practical problem of how they will actually get implemented.  Within the martial arts we invent games to encourage training and play, but the rules are for fight over.

My specific project faces two sets of challenges.  First, this is a new event, so we cannot just fall back on the old standby of “lets, do it just like we did last year.”  With no inherited institutional memory, one is forced to think carefully about all sorts of rules, standards and goals that might otherwise be taken for granted.  Yet on a more fundamental level, an inherent tension exists between the goal of bringing a large group of people from diverse preexisting organizations together, and then organizing a single game that they can all play.

The rules of games are, by their very nature, exclusionary.  They structure participants’ incentives, demarcate permitted and proscribed techniques, create systems to officiate a contest, and describe the sorts of competitive equipment that can be used in minute detail.  In some cases, the rules of a contest may specifically exclude certain groups from play (perhaps those under 18 cannot join a tournament, or certain divisions are reserved specifically for female athletes). Yet it is ultimately the rules of the game that advantage certain sorts of player and strategies and disadvantage other.  It is our rules, as much as our athletic excellence, that creates winners and losers. And knowing that one’s preferred goals, techniques, strategies or equipment is disadvantaged by the rules leads to different, less visible, forms of exclusion.

This is precisely why so many discussions in the martial arts come down to debates about rules.  Yet even when we leave the sporting realm behind, we find that standards of practice and behavior still shape the day to day experience of most traditional martial arts.  Drawing on some of the current debates in Wing Chun, we might contest the degree of contact that is permissible in Chisao or sticky-hands training. Do we play to first touch, or should every exchange end with someone on the floor? Alternatively, other instructors are attempting to shift the art’s standards of practice in even more basic ways. Given the repeated failures of the traditional Chinese martial arts in ring (by which I really mean on YouTube), some instructors favor a reorientation of the art towards basic skills training on the one hand, and more modern forms of sparring on the other. They argue that this will produce more competitive fighters who can stand up to MMA trained athletes in the octogon.

Others question whether that is (or should be) the goal of traditional Wing Chun training.  Training to win in these sorts of situation naturally advantages certain kinds of specialists, and yet many individuals were drawn to the traditional martial arts precisely because they offered a more well-rounded view of physical culture, health and culture.  Hence when we debate the goals and norms of practice within the Wing Chun community, the actual questions being invoked are often much larger than points of pedagogical efficiency.  Again, the adoption of new standards of practice create winners and losers.  By in large individuals who have specialized in competitive sparring have not been able to specialize in sticky-hands to the same degree, to say nothing of the more esoteric aspects of “internal training.” There are only so many hours in the day and we all have to make hard choices as to how to allot our training time. The idea that one person can really be an expert in all areas, that mastery sidesteps comparative advantage, is among the most pernicious myths of the martial arts.  There are always economic consequences to shifts in practice. Some careers and schools will prosper, others will recede.  Our community’s standards of practice are contested precisely because they create winners and losers.



Live by the Sword

One of the really interesting things about the renewed interest in combative weapons training (whether in the Chinese martial arts, HEMA or lightsaber combat) is that very often these debates over values and standards can be observed directly in the material culture of the community in question.  Does your organization mandate the use of fencing masks in pairs practice? Or does it instead expect its students to “learn control?” If armor is worn, how much?  The use of nylon training blades allows for a generally less expensive kit.  Metal wasters, in contrast, require practitioners to invest large amounts of money in specialized gloves, plate gorgets and heavy padded jackets.  Thus, the increased realism of the metal blade comes at a very real economic cost.  And in any case, the same high-tech armor that allows one to compete “in a realistic way” also enables a wide range of behaviors that are probably not very credible from the perspective of the historical battlefield (intentionally seeking double strikes in certain HEMA tournament settings comes to mind).

One only has to visit any HEMA Facebook group to find elaborate discussions of these issues, many of which are distilled down to questions of material culture (“Should we create more specialized fencing helmets to allow for more robust thrusts to the face?  What types of gloves should be mandated, or prohibited, in this event?”) Yet these debates are rarely ever focused solely on questions of equipment design. Instead they often place the competitive nature of modern HEMA tournaments into direct opposition with the sport’s more academic and historically sensitive roots.  Debates over training blades, masks and gloves are often spirited exchanges about what sort of place the HEMA community should be.  Once again, this will impact both the social status of economic fortunes of many established or up and coming teachers.  Its very difficult to be a true expert in both aspects of the arts at the same time.

Unsurprisingly, we see similar discussions within the lightsaber combat community.  Should we restrict the wall diameter of the polycarbonate blades to 2mm, or allow the heavier 3mm blades?  Should fighters be able to compete with no gear (Ludosport), minimal gear (mask and gloves, as in the Sport Saber League), full gear (add elbows, knees, chest, as is required by the French Fencing Federation), or are we going to send our athletes out in heavy head to toe protection (the Saber Legion)?

This choice is more than aesthetic, though aesthetics are often explicitly invoked in people’s justification for one standard or another.  Most lightsaber leagues prohibit thrusts as polycarbonate tubes do not flex, and they are unwilling to impose the same barriers to entry on their athletes as the Saber Legion, whose armor tends to be much more extensive and expensive. Ludosport, on the other hand, carefully restricts and monitors the techniques of their fighters so that their game can be played safely no safety gear. But that end up imposing a different sort of barrier to entry in terms of the time and training that is necessary to ensure that each fighter has fully internalized the sports physical culture on a subconscious level before ever stepping foot in the ring.  As a relatively new sport, each school of Lightsaber Combat is forced to debate and establish all of its own standards.  Indeed, they use these standards to differentiate themselves from each other in an increasingly crowded landscape.

As a historian of the martial arts, I should also point out that there is nothing particularly new or post-modern about this situation.  Both Hurst and Bennett’s discussions of the practices that would eventually lead to modern kendo note that the early Tokugawa period was marked by heated debates about the benefits of various sorts of training gear (the bamboo shinai, the gloves, masks and chest piece, all of which evolved separately long before being brought together into a single standardized kit.) At that time a number of traditionalists noted that the habits and mindset of martial artists engaging in competitive fencing with safety gear was moving farther away from the requirements of the battlefield, not towards it.  In contrast they continued to advocate the use of wooden bokken and training by Kata. In their view these more abstract forms of training perpetuated fewer myths about the realities of combat.

The contestation and fragmentation of standards of practice within a given community is not a new phenomenon.  Indeed, the fact that they create economic or social winners and losers suggests that a degree of market fragmentation may be the natural order of things.


A pre-war Japanese dojo, complete with rifles and bayonets for the college’s military drill team.


Consolidating National Martial Arts Cultures

Still, one cannot help but notice that certain sports and martial arts have enjoyed a high degree of consolidation in terms of accepted standards or rules. While the deep history of Kendo seems to have been contested, today there is a high degree of agreement as to what the sport is, how it should be played, which techniques that are allowed, and the equipment that is to be used.  Many of Japan’s regional sword traditions dwindled in the Meiji period, but Kendo largely succeeded in consolidating its status as a national martial arts culture with a mutually agreed upon set of standards.  Judo did much the same thing for jujutsu.  Likewise, the rise of professional prizefighting in the UK and the United States displaced many smaller styles of wrestling and bareknuckle boxing as the manly pastime par-excellence in the late 19thand early 20thcentury.

Given the centrifugal social pressures that any set of standards might generate, why do we sometimes see consolidation and in other cases continued fragmentation? What can we learn from the examples of the past, as well as the political economy literature on “standard setting?”  Lastly, what is the likely fate of new practices such as lightsaber combat? Under what conditions might they escape fragmentation and grow into something more consolidated?

The growth of economic trade networks offers us a few critical variables to consider.  To begin with, shifts in patterns of trade also create winners and losers for reasons that are not that complicated, but never the less go far beyond the purposes of this essay.  Thus in cases where transportation or communication is difficult, the “winners” in a local trade regime (generally individuals who control scarce resources) create rules that advantage themselves (e.g., If I grow food for a local population I probably want to keep competing foreign products out so prices stay high). They will do this even if the outcome is not advantageous to the population as a whole.

What happens when we factor technological change into this situation? Specifically, how do systems of economic exchange evolve if the costs of transportation and communication drop dramatically?  Prior to the creation of the steam engine, one probably would not have had a difficult time keeping foreign products out of a local market as most things were prohibitively expensive to ship.  Thus, there was not a lot of reason for foreign producers to demand access to most markets, or for consumers to clamor for their goods.

However, the advent of the steam ship and the railroad changed all of that in the early 19thcentury.  They led to massive shifts in global trade flows, and the sorts of rules and standards that governed it.  The lower cost of transportation costs gave populations (sick of overpaying for basic goods) an incentive to demand open trade networks and standards of living shot up. Likewise, the reduced costs of communication also made social organization possible on a larger scale. Shifts in market consumption and bureaucratic maneuvering led to a wave of new nation states as the older empires broke up throughout the 19thcentury.

It is no coincidence that all of this is happening at exactly the same time that a new generation of martial arts are first rising to prominence.  I have argued elsewhere that the emergence of the martial arts in this period is over determined.  While open trade may lift all boats in the long run, in the short term it can be very disruptive, encouraging local populations to turn to the martial arts as social disorder spikes.  Likewise, newly globalized states (China, Japan, South Korea) all found themselves shopping for “traditional” practices that could act as powerful markers of national identity.  Taijiquan, Kendo and Taekwondo all filled that niche.

To recap, the development of new technologies that cause a rapid drop in the price of communication creates the possibility of larger economic markets and the greater profits that go along with them.  These expected profits may lead individuals to seek to create and consolidate new standards of trade and exchange that could take advantage of the changed environment.  Further, the regulatory state has an ability to put its thumb on the scale of social development by subsidizing one set of practices or organizations which are seen as particularly compatible with their goals (i.e., kendo in Japan).

Again, it is not that difficult to discover parallels for this situation in our current era.  The development of the internet and social media over the last two decades has had a similar effect on the global economy.  It has enabled massive drops in the price of both communication and transportation. While in the past each city or state may have had their own judo clubs which had only occasional contact with their neighbors, now one can see them all, sitting side by side, in your Facebook feed. The benefits of consolidating all of these small groups under a single umbrella are obvious.  And our current level of technology suggests the possibility of a truly global community, linking communities as far away as Europe, East Asia and the United States.  But will it happen?

Sadly, moving to a single set of shared standards and institutions, whether in global trade or HEMA gloves, is never guaranteed, even when we can all see the potential benefits.  The problem is that it is very difficult for individual groups to switch standards.  Doing so is economically costly as old equipment must be scrapped, new rules must be learned, and processes have to be put in place to ensure that this done.  This is true in the worlds of both martial arts and global trade.  Yet martial artists seem to face an additional hurdle.

If we are being honest with ourselves, we must admit that most martial practice has no immediate application in the current world. Taijiquan may be a decent way to grow old gracefully, but it doesn’t seem to be a great way to win a fight. And in any case, how many of us  are actually attacked on a regular basis (law enforcement officers not withstanding?)  By in large, the self-defense arts (at least in the United States) are practiced by middle class individuals who not systemically vulnerable.  MMA gyms are full of individuals who train, but do not compete at either the professional or the amateur level.  Nor will any of us ever have to call upon our longsword skills to fend off Swiss mercenaries or Japanese pirates.  Gratefully, that time has passed.

This is not to say that the individuals who do martial arts are foolish.  Recreational activities, by their very nature, don’t require elaborate justifications. And given the many benefits I have derived from my Wing Chun training, it probably shouldn’t matter that I am statistically unlikely to be attacked while wandering around Cornell’s campus. I have always found it interesting how resistant many martial artists are to suggest that their practices are, at base, a type of recreation.  But it does suggest that as social scientists and theorists we should think about the other goals and discourses that are motivating this behavior.

One of the most reliable observations about the martial arts that social scientists have made is that they are often practiced by individuals who feel somewhat marginal, either economically, culturally or personally. I have yet to see an individual walk into a traditional Kung Fu school because everything was going great in their life.  Individuals typically adopt a new life-altering activity because there is an issue that they seek to address.  Further, we know that the martial arts often function as a mechanism for the production of social status which can address some of these feelings of marginality (see both Daniel Amos and Avron Bortez on this point).

That is critical because now being asked to abandon one’s prior standards practice which have become a source of self-legitimization, and to start over under a new set of rules in a new organization, is socially and psychologically costly.  It seems that many instructors were drawn to the martial arts because they provided an avenue where they can exercise leadership.  Consolidation around a new set of practices may create leadership opportunities for an up and coming set of students. But those new opportunities often come at the expense of established schools or instructors who will struggle to retool as standards of practice change.  Even when it might be rational for the group as a whole to become part of a larger unit, its leadership will likely resist.

If all of the organization in question are roughly the same size (e.g., let’s say we have five competing lightsaber groups, none of whom control more than 25% of the possible global market), one may never see consolidation.  It is just too costly for any single group to undertake the process. But what if our martial arts groups are not equally distributed in size?  What if one was vastly larger, or had more resources than the others?

In point of fact, this is the best-case scenario for seeing consolidation around a single set of standards.  The argument goes something like this.  The existence of many small competing groups, each with their own standards, leads to a coordination problem.  No group wants to shift to another standard (as its costly) and it is not clear what standard you should shift to.  However, if there was a single dominate group that controlled a large share of the market (say, 50%) the coordination problem is solved.  We know that it would be cheaper for the small groups to shift to this dominant position than vice versa.  We also know that this one large player will capture much of the economic and social benefit of the new standard.  So it can use some of its windfall profits to pay off each of the smaller groups, effectively subsidizing the cost of adjustment and compensating them for their loss of independence.  In exchange for that each of the smaller groups accepts the hegemonic organization’s standards and leadership.

Of course, anyone with a background in International Political Economy will recognize this as a widely accepted argument about how the creation of trade unions typically works (see Walter Matti, the Logic of Regional Integration). As such, we might be tempted to dismiss it as its fundamentally a story about asymmetric states (Germany in the EU, the US in NAFTA) and not voluntary associations within civil society.  That would be a mistake. While rarely directly addressed, the regulatory state is a critical aspect of the martial arts landscape.

It would be impossible to understand kendo’s rapid rise and eventual dominance in pre-WWII Japan without taking a careful look at the policies of successive Japanese governments, both in the official realms of educational and military policy, but also in the less obvious areas of civic culture and the support of NGOs.  The creation and consolidation of WTF style Taekwondo is another statist narrative deriving from the tensions between North and South Korea.  There have also been similar periods of state involvement with Silat in Indonesia or the TCMA in the People’s Republic of China. Of course, states in the West have long backed and supported certain sports programs to the exclusion of others.  It should thus come as no surprise that many of the best examples of convergence on a single set of standards within the martial arts world have been the result of intervention by a single massive player with the capability to broadcast a new set of norms and either to compensate (or sanction) the losers in this process.  While Walter Mattli never wrote about the martial arts, I doubt that he would be all that surprised to see similar mechanism functioning here.


This is pretty much the ultimate Paris/Lightsaber Combat picture. Source: ASL-FFE.


Conclusion: Lightsaber Combat and the Rise of the FFE

What does all of this suggest for the prospects of future consolidation within the global martial arts marketplace?  What might the future hold for the fractured worlds of lightsaber combat or HEMA?  Knowing the former case better I will limit my remarks to it, but the general argument outlined above might apply to many situations.

The rapid growth of a globally interconnected lightsaber community in the last four years has been startling.  We have seen the emergence of multiple competitive sports leagues in this time, each attempting to differentiate itself in terms of the equipment used as well as the tactics that it favors.  Nor does there seem to be any sign of slowing on the horizon.

While the benefits of consolidating all of this energy into a single competitive league are obvious (increased market size, better visibility, improved branding), I originally thought that for the foreseeable future we were simply going to see continued fragmentation, with each league or group succeeding by appealing to a specific niche.  In a sense that is not a bad thing.  A variety of practices means that what consumers lose in accessibility and visibility, they might make up for in choice and innovation.  With no single player capable of defraying the costs of consolidation, it was hard to see how convergence could happen within the lightsaber combat community.

However, the recent entrance of the French Fencing Federation (FFE) into the fray has the potential to drastically change the landscape.  Like many of the older Olympic sport federations, the FFE has struggled with declining membership. At the same time that the French government has become concerned with rising levels of obesity among its increasingly sedentary population.  As such, programs are being put in place to encourage exercise, and one of these has been the adoption of the lightsaber as an official tournament weapon of the FFE alongside the better known foil, epee and saber.

Lightsaber fencing has been popular in France for a number of years and there were already at least three major competing leagues operating in the country before the FFE made its move.  As all martial arts teachers (and sports coaches) in France must be licensed by the government to receive payment for their work, this allowed the FFE to establish, essentially by fiat, one of these groups as the official national standard.  Further, they are also putting in place programs to subsidize the purchase of training gear and lightsaber for fencing clubs around the country who want to start their own lightsaber program.  That could lead to a rapid expansion of an already popular hobby in the future.

In essence, the story of the FFE is interesting as it has brought a regulatory state into the lightsaber combat community for the first time.  And according to our previous discussion, this should be critical to winning convergence on a single set of standards. Whether that will actually happen in this case may come down to a question of policy and bureaucratic will, a factor that Mattli basically took for granted.

So far, the competing lightsaber leagues that the FFE selected against show no sign of leaving the field, though their exclusion from the national licensing process must have imposed substantial costs on them.  Both have been making moves to become more international organizations (operating in other markets in Europe and North America).  Yet the FFE itself is now putting in place the basic structures necessary to expand their own version of Lightsaber Combat to global markets as well.

The question becomes whether the FFW is really willing to pay the upfront costs (both economic and political) to promote convergence on a single set of standards within a global market.  Alternatively, they might choose to remain a primarily nationally based project?  In either case, the future development of the lightsaber combat community will likely shed further light on process of standard setting within the global martial arts community in the 21stcentury.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Doing Research (8): Taking Seriously the Mundane, or How I Learned that a Choke is Never Just a Choke