The Chinese martial studies community suffered a great loss with the recent passing of Brian Kennedy (1958-2019) at the age of 61. Any such event is a tragedy, and this was all the more unexpected as Brian was active and continuing to train in BJJ until the end. After hearing the news I began to go back through the many emails that we exchanged through the years. I was immediately reminded what a kind and intellectually generous person Brian was, always willing to point another student towards a critical source or offer timely advice. His insight will be greatly missed.
Brian was also a historian, and cultural translator, of the traditional Chinese martial arts. This is the capacity in which most of our readers will know him. Trained in law he had a fine analytical mind and a razor-sharp sense of discernment when it came to evaluating the many “newly discovered manuscripts” that began to emerge in the 2000s. His extended residence in Taiwan gave him an opportunity to study both the history and the practice of a variety of Chinese martial arts at a critical point in time. This combined experience allowed him to become something of a fixture in the world of popular martial arts magazines and publications well before his two better known volumes emerged in 2005 and 2010.
I find it somewhat jarring to realize that a student of martial arts studies has now entered the realm of history that he cared so much about. Still, as Brian would have been the first to note, there are different kinds of history. Most immediately, we have the history of individuals and their practices. Much of Kennedy and Guo’s co-authored work concerned itself directly with this material. His writings clearly conveyed the methodological understanding that verifiable, credible, sources on the activities of historic figures were proper subjects of historical writing. And I think that this was an area where his legal reasoning allowed him to excel.
But there has always been another sort of history. It resides in the study of the flow of ideas over time, the history of discourse, understanding and popular culture. Rather than simply asking “What did Wong Fei Hung do?” we can also ask, “What did his actions mean?” This is the school of historical thought that I am most interested in. And after some consideration I have decided that perhaps the best way to remember Brian Kennedy is to seriously examine his contributions to the development of Chinese martial studies. What were his ideas? And how did they shape the understanding of the TCMA that has emerged in the last two decades?
This blog post must be considered a very preliminary effort at what is an important question. Fully answering this question would require a lot of leg-work and thought. In part this is because I have yet to see a full bibliography of Kennedy’s writings on the Chinese martial arts. Assembling such a list would require some work as Brian (best known for his volumes on Jingwu and Chinese martial arts training manuals), was primarily an essayist.
Much of his research was originally released as columns or articles in various popular martial arts publications. He placed pieces in magazines like Kung Fu Tai Chi, and the para-scholarly journal Chinese Martial Studies. Perhaps the single greatest distributor of his writing was Classical Fighting Arts (and its prior incarnations) where Kennedy was a frequent contributor and columnist.
Nor were his articles the sort of light puff pieces that readers of popular martial arts magazines so often encountered. His topics varied widely ranging from a focused technical comparison of Jack Dempsey’s writings on boxing and Xingyiquan (published in Kung Fu Tai Chi), to a biographical analysis of Sun Lu Tang, a critical figure in China’s Republic era martial arts history (Classical Fighting Arts). Each piece was clearly laid out, rigorously argued, modest in its conclusions and written in such a way that one did not have to be a scholar to understand both the gist of the argument and its importance to current practice.
And these pieces just kept coming, year after year, in a variety of outlets. Every time I picked up a copy a Classical Fighting Arts I would immediately turn to Kennedy’s column to see what topic he was tackling in the current issue. He probably inspired my own approach to blogging.
The outlets that distributed Kennedy’s writing also shaped his role in the community. Rather than engaging with academic debates regarding the revisionist interpretations of the Qing era, or the role of violence in Chinese society, Kennedy primarily functioned as a sort of cultural translator placing the practices of current students in a larger historical context. His great contribution was the democratization of previously specialized knowledge about the Chinese martial arts.
This was possible due to his extensive personal study of several arts, and his access to a variety of historical sources while living and traveling in Taiwan. Yet the entire project was also anchored firmly in the realm of actual translation. Kennedy and Guo would offer Western readers a number of partial translations of important texts, such as the Jingwu Associations first memorial book. This project would serve as the basis of some magazine articles, and then eventually their 2010 book Jingwu: The School that Transformed Kung Fu (Blue Snake). The somewhat episodic nature of this work and their earlier 2005 study of martial arts training manuals stemmed from the fact that both books were essentially collections of previously published articles and essays.
Still, these tended not to be conventional translations in which a work is linguistically transcribed and reproduced in full. Kennedy’s goals was often to use the introduction of high quality, authentic, sources to stimulate a certain sort of understanding of the origin and nature of the Chinese martial arts themselves. I have always considered this to be a rather shrewd strategy. In truth very few of us are actually capable of learning much from a 90 year old manual with poor photographs. Yet while it may not be possible to learn Kung Fu from a book, one can certainly build a much more complete picture of the Chinese martial arts community that produced and supported such a project from the same pages. Specifically, how did these arts emerge? What were their creators’ values? How did this manifest within their physical practices? And how should the answers to these previous questions shape our understanding of the emergence of the modern Chinese martial arts more generally?
The success of this as a research strategy was born out by Kennedy and Guo’s 2005 Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey (Blue Snake). This book was something of a landmark in popular discussions of the Chinese martial arts. Again, many of the chapters in this volume were originally published elsewhere giving it an episodic feel. Other readers have complained that the authors essentially did what the title promised, offering only a survey and bibliography of Republic era Chinese fightbooks, rather than complete translations. One would need to wait for the emergence of the Brennan Translation Blog for that sort of project.
Besides offering a handy reference volume, this survey allowed Kennedy and Guo to advance what was, up to that point, one of the clearest, most reasonable, accounts of the evolution of the Chinese martial arts to date. Certainly the story focused around the production of texts (and thus it tended to skew heavily towards the modernist inflected reading of these practices favored by the Jingwu and Guoshu associations), yet from there the authors could chase down a surprising number of topics that provided readers with a flavor of the actual lives of China’s martial artists.
The volume featured good biographical material. Kennedy’s writings on Tang Hao, an important early scholar of Chinese martial arts history, remain one of the most complete discussions of his life available in the English language. True to form, this extensive discussion was not the result of original archival research on primary source data. Kennedy and Guo instead brought Western readers translations of preexisting Chinese sources on Tang’s life.
Occasionally other academic trends entered this mix. Andrew Morris’s 2004 volume Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China (California UP) had a major impact on Kennedy and Guo and is echoed at many points in their writing. Given the quality of Morris’ archival research into the evolution of the Chinese martial arts in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as his ability to contextualize this information within the larger trends effecting Chinese physical culture, that is not surprising. I frequently refer to Morris in my own work. Yet his book is largely inaccessible to those who do not frequent University libraries, and in any case, his writing is academic in nature. Morris also came to benefit from Kennedy and Guo’s ability to mediate between spheres: the Chinese and the Western, the past and the present, the rigorously historical and the often fantastic.
Kennedy also seemed to stand at another crossroads, the one that separated a largely amateur approach to writing and recording information about the martial arts from the increasing professionalization (for better or worse) of fields like Martial Arts Studies and Chinese Martial Studies. His writings helped to create a demand for more academic methods and attitudes within the discussion of the martial arts. Kennedy’s columns remind one of the pioneering efforts of William C. C. Hu in the early issues of Black Belt Magazine. Like Kennedy and Guo, Hu went to great lengths to attempt to demystify the Chinese martial arts for sincere American students by drawing on established bodies of historical and anthropological knowledge. Kennedy and Guo’s articles are more rigorous, and have generally aged better. Of course, our current understanding of Chinese history has progressed far beyond what Hu had access to in the 1960s.
Likewise, one is very much reminded of the work of Stanley Henning when reading some of Kennedy and Guo’s pieces. While Henning is more concerned with academic questions and engagements, they both share a common concern with proper translation and a desire to bring a similar vision of the history of Chinese martial arts to Western students. It is also interesting to note that both sets of authors seem to be largely sympathetic to the revisionist and often utilitarian readings of the Chinese martial arts advanced by groups like the Guoshu Institute and Jingwu Association in the 1920s-1930s. I have sometimes wondered if that is an artifact of a textual and historical approach to studying these practices when in truth a very small number of elite martial artists (with a clear ideological agenda) were responsible for producing almost all of the written sources that currently exist.
I have not always agreed with all of Kennedy and Guo’s conclusions. My own archival and historical research has led me to conclude that by the 19th century there were at least a handful of (woodblock) printed martial arts manuals being sold commercially in Southern China which do not fit into their otherwise helpful typology of Chinese fight books. Likewise, I disagree with their assertion that Jingwu (while certainly early) was the very first public commercial martial arts school in all of China. But this is a good sign and it speaks to the fundamental strength and intellectual integrity of their work. When one writes about primary source documents and engages with the historical record, there is always the possibility that new documents may be discovered, or a better way of thinking about existing sources may be developed. That is a feature of good academic arguments, not a weakness to be overcome.
Clearly the best way to remember Kennedy’s work, and to come to terms with the immense impact that he had on a generation of Chinese martial arts students and readers, is to take some time to review a few of his best essays. Again, coming up with a concise list is a challenge given the many topics that he addressed, but here are three of my favorites that showcase the range of Brian’s intellectual curiosity.
The first of these is actually a guest post that Kennedy and Guo were kind enough to submit to Kung Fu Tea after having previously published a version of the same essay in Classical Fighting Arts. Given my interest in Chinese swords and Republic era martial arts I think that any reading list would need to start off with their now classic essay, “Bridges and Big Knives: The Use of the “Big Knife” saber in the Chinese Republican Army.” It is well worth checking out.
The fact that this essay is housed on the blog makes it easy for readers to find. My next two picks will require some digging, but your effort will be rewarded. In the Winter 2010 issue of Chinese Martial Studies, Kennedy and Guo published an essay titled “Taiwanese Martial Motifs” examining the colorful temple processions which they often observed. While not directly related to the practice of the martial arts, this article presents a valuable study of the ways in which martial images and ideas permeate local Chinese society. It also offers some hints as to the sorts of roles that martial artists occasionally play in the more marginal sectors of Southern Chinese life.
Finally, the one absolutely mandatory article for any reader of this blog would have to be “Historical Methods in Chinese Martial Arts Research.” This surprisingly lengthy piece was published in Volume 2 Number 17 (2010) of Classical Fighting Arts. One suspects that it was the product of many years of frustration as the authors continued to encounter martial arts marketing and myths being presented as academic history. Sensing that there might be some confusion as to what the discipline of history actually entails, Kennedy set about explaining in simple terms, and with great patience, what sorts of standards we should hold would-be researchers too. Everyone with an interest in Chinese martial arts history should read this piece. Nor does one have to track down back issues of magazines on ebay to do so. This essay was reprinted in the same year as Appendix A in Jingwu: The School that Transformed Kung Fu.
It seems only fitting that we should close this remembrance with a few of Kennedy’s own words from the previously mentioned essay on why we as students have a responsibility to do history well:
One might ask why historical accuracy matters, what difference does it make if the comic book version of martial arts history is the one that you see in the magazines, the internet and the chat forums. The reason it matters is “respect.” Real life people, not cartoon characters, not Shaw Brother Shaolin Monks, not Daoist Immortals, but real life people living in the real world with real problems made Chinese martial arts what it is today. And these real people, working in real life circumstances, deserve the credit for having developed Chinese martial arts into the strong and proud thing that it is today.
To honor these people, the teachers, students, developers and creators of Chinese martial arts means looking at the historical realities of their lives. To paint them up as cartoon characters or to fill their lives with absurd feats is not honoring them. To honor them we must present them as they were and that is why history matters.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (12): Tang Hao – The First Historian of the Chinese Martial Arts.