The Pagoda Temple at the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province. Source:
The Pagoda Forest at the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province. Source:


***In the last week I have found myself delving ever deeper into the literature on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) designations and the traditional martial arts.  When seeking to understand the relationship between politics and these fighting systems, one would be hard pressed to find a better case study.  Still, before going on to tackle some of the more complex aspects of this topic, it might be worth going back and asking a few basic questions about the timing of this trend.***

“Inoue said the Japanese style of judo traditionally focused more on quantity rather than quality, trying to instill a tough mentality. But in Europe, which Inoue describes as “the mainstream of judo today,” judoka train more efficiently.

“A balance between efficiency and inefficiency and a balance between scientific things and unscientific things — you have to look at those, otherwise there’s no progress for our game,” Inoue said. “We’ve switched our mind-set that way.”

“Inoue Determined to Help Japan Keep Pace.” Japan Times, 5/2/2016.




Who owns a martial art?

On the surface this question would seem to have an obvious answer.  Most of these systems come with a specific name (kendo or taijiquan), and they fall into generally accepted categories, such as Japanese Budo or the Chinese martial arts. The very act of describing these systems in the English language seems to underline an obvious fact.  The martial arts are best understood as the technical and cultural property of the previously mentioned nations.  It is all a matter of common sense.

Unfortunately “common sense” has a nasty habit of transforming itself into complex assumptions that no one ever questions.  For students of nationalism, a fairly modern political ideology spread and popularized in the 19th and 20th centuries, an assertion like the one above might begin to raise eyebrows.

While Chinese citizens during the Qing dynasty were certainly aware of the existence of the state and their responsibilities to it, most contemporary accounts indicate they did not think of themselves as members of a unified, polyglot, “Chinese nation” during the late imperial period.  Instead they were much more likely to organize their identity around lineage groups, regional locations and patronage networks.  Strong feelings of national identification didn’t really grip the populace until the founding of the Republic in the post-1911 period.  And yet many of the traditional martial arts (including systems like taijiquan and wing chun) were already well established through local and regional networks prior to the rise of the “the nation.”

The case of “Japanese” Karate makes an even better case study of the complex relationship between the emergence of hand combat systems and national identities.  As many of us already know, this art first came to Japan from Okinawa.  There it went through a process of fundamental transformation, rationalization, and even renaming, before it was determined that it could be a vehicle for the new strain of Japanese nationalism that was then insinuating itself into the martial arts.

So does that mean that Karate is originally an Okinawan martial art?  Possibly.  Yet again the story is more complicated than our nationally focused narratives might suggest.  Hand combat was particularly popular in a couple of areas of Okinawa, and it is not clear to historians that all of these practitioners shared a common style.  And various arts from Southern China (including White Crane Boxing) likely played a critical role in popularizing these modes of hand combat in Okinawa.

So does that mean that Karate is really a Chinese art?  Probably not.  When we push historical arguments to their logical conclusion we find that knowledge about a practice’s “genetic origin” are often unhelpful in understanding how a community actually understands itself and functions today.

While a regionally focused approach to understanding the development of the Asian martial arts shows a lot of potential, the ancient origins of individual techniques have little bearing on their current identity.  This point seems obvious enough.

When a modern American undergoes genetic testing and learns that a certain percentage of his DNA originated in Poland, he may be able to claim previously unknown Eastern European ancestry.  Yet he can’t really claim to now possess a “Polish identity.”

That is a matter of deep cultural knowledge and life experience.  If you are depending on a blind genetic test to discover some aspect of your genetic heritage, we can safely assume that it plays little role in your actual cultural identity.  Nor would most people make the mistake of conflating these two categories when talking about genealogy.

So why do we tend to conflate similar categories when discussing the martial arts?  Why do we routinely assume that some quirk of our wing chun practice shows its deep “Chinese heritage,” particularly when hung gar and taijiquan people do things very differently in similar situations?


A hand colored magic lantern slide, produced in Japan, showing both Judo and Kendo. Source: Author's Personal Collection.
A hand colored magic lantern slide, produced in Japan, showing both Judo and Kendo. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.


Nationalism, Globalization and the Martial Arts


I blame nationalism and, more recently, globalization.  Let’s start with nationalism.

When a country sought to enter the nation state system during the 19th and 20th century their acceptance was not assured.  One joins this club by being accepted by the other members.  As certain students of nationalism have observed, potential nations had to clear a couple of barriers to justify their claims.  First they had to prove that they possessed a unique culture (often in the form of a print language and folklore), a homeland, and a population.  In short one had to demonstrate that your national identity was unique, and not simply a variation of some larger identity.

Yet in joining the international system Benedict Anderson keenly observed that one accepted that your “unique nation” was now on equal footing with every other nation.  To be a member of a nation is to realize that every stranger that you encounter is also a member of an equally august body.  So while on one level all nations are unique, on a more fundamental level they are also interchangeable.  And this realization cleared the way for a certain sort of competition between them.

One of the reasons that I am interested in the Asian martial arts is that they grew up in conjunction with this new category of “nation states.”  While we tend to assume that both of these things are impossibly ancient, emerging from the mists of time, in truth they are fairly recent.  Still, the roots of these combat systems in the late imperial period were well enough established that reformers could offer them up as proof of an “ancient and continuous” body of unique cultural traditions which supported the claims of legitimacy of the newly established national identity.

Why then do we believe that Karate reveals something essential about the “Japanese character”?  Or that Taijiquan is the key to understanding the Chinese “national experience”?  Because people have been repeating these assertions since about 1920.

Nor do I expect that these patterns of belief will change any time soon.  We now have a sound understanding of the actual historical development of these combat systems, and this is a good thing for those wishing to develop an academic discussion of the martial arts.  Yet the accelerating process of globalization has only served to reinforce the fundamental dilemma that popularized these myths in the first place.


A celebration of the 2011 "world tai chi day."
A celebration of the 2011 “world tai chi day.”


Global Decentering of the Asian Martial Arts


Global markets demand a degree of conformity between states that was previously unimaginable.  Nevertheless, national identity is not fading from the stage of history.  The incentive to argue for one’s uniqueness in the face of corrosive global pressures is accelerating rather than vanishing.  The research of martial arts studies scholars notwithstanding, I suspect that many practitioners will continue to seek “the essence” of ethno-nationalist identity in practices far divorced from the communities that actually created them.

Ironically, this quasi-fundamentalist turn in the development of the martial arts may arise from the very trends that seem to be pushing the development of the martial arts in a more open direction.  The creation of free markets, relatively inexpensive travel and virtually free communication via the internet has created a situation in which all sorts of once local identities now have an ability to migrate to new locations, effectively establishing transnational communities.  In many ways the traditional Asian martial arts are ideally situated to take advantage of these openings.

The types of institutional organization established during the early 20th century were designed to facilitate the creation of branch schools and “franchises” as a way of spreading an economically lucrative and politically advantageous movement.  Further, having students outside of one’s own ethno-linguistic group reinforces the perception of value, and hence legitimacy, of this body of practice.  Cultivating certain sorts of over-seas teaching opportunities generates not only income but social prestige.  Lastly, cultural factors in the West following WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the counter-culture explosion of the 1960s and 1970s ensured that these practices would find a receptive audience.

The end result has been an almost unparalleled growth in the global martial arts movement.  This change has been so rapid that many arts have become “decentered.”  If one were to plot the median geographic location of their practitioners on a map it would be clear that their social center of gravity has moved out of their country of origin.

The quote at the start of this article is taken from a recent newspaper profile of the new coach of the Japanese men’s judo team.  In it he is forced to confront the fact that Japan’s standing at the highest levels of international competition has been challenged in recent years.  They simply are not winning as many gold medals as the folks back home demand.

The reasons why are clear.  It is not that the quality of the Japanese Judo community has degraded.  Rather, as he plainly states, the center of Judo practice is now found in Europe.

In a sense this should not be a surprise.  As any of its citizens will be quick to remind us, Japan is a “small island nation.”  Its total population is limited.  This also constrains the number of youth that are available to go into serious Judo training at any point in time.

Further, its approach to training has often prioritized cultural factors over scientifically rational innovation.  Given the huge number of practitioners now found in the rest of the world, the end result seems obvious.  The era of Japan monopolizing the medal podium in this sport is probably over.  Yet the close connection between Japanese nationalism and their years of success in judo (the only Japanese sport to be accepted as an Olympic event) suggests that this realization is likely to be somewhat painful.

Nor is this decentering limited to the case of judo.  Alexander Bennett concludes his recent history of kendo (California UP, 2015) with an argument that the spread of Japanese Budo practices abroad will always be limited by the intimate connections of these practices with identity and nationalism in the eyes of many of their Japanese supporters.  While they may be forced to acknowledge their losses in global sporting events, it is simply too easy to say that on a fundamental level, the “foreigners” will never understand the “true essence” of the art, while leaving all of the relevant terms undefined.  In Bennett’s view this corrosive discourse (something that he has had the chance to observe first hand) may end up limiting the ultimate growth of sports like kendo.

This general pattern is not limited to the Japanese arts.  Despite the old trope of Chinese masters who refuses to teach “outsiders,” huge numbers of students have taken up various aspects of the TCMA since the 1970s.  Most of the traditional Chinese systems have been very supportive of the growing size and sophistication of their foreign student bases.  After all, they have the potential to increase both the prestige and revenue flowing to a given style.

Still, it is not uncommon to hear worried discussions that at some point Shanghai, Henan, or Hong Kong will no longer be the center of a given practice.  What will happen to the Chinese martial arts when, in an ethnic sense, they cease to be “Chinese?”  One of the very first reviews I did for this blog actually looked at a (nicely produced) Wing Chun documentary in which this exact possibility was debated by some masters in Hong Kong.

The case of Wing Chun is actually particularly interesting as this is not simply a “Chinese” art.  It is even more strongly associated with the region surrounding the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong and (since 1950) Hong Kong.  Both shifts in the global economy and a changing relationship with mainland China have sensitized individuals to the value of these local identities.  As such, the growing overseas popularity of Wing Chun has reinforced the area’s claim to possessing an independent and distinct cultural heritage while, at the same time, threatening to decenter one of its most important elements of cultural heritage.

But we should be clear about the facts on the ground.  It is not the case that at some point in the distant future the geographic center of Wing Chun might shift out of southern China.  That probably happened during the 1990s.

Once again, I think that we can thank Europe.  It is not a case of Hong Kong’s martial excellence declining.  Rather Europe has a huge (relatively unified) market for martial arts training, and Wing Chun has now been established abroad for enough years to develop some real expertise.

This general pattern of cultural drift is in no way unique to the martial arts.  It is a mathematical fact given the way that globalization works.  Any product which gains a degree of popularity will quickly discover that the size of the potential export market (the entire world) is by definition larger than the size of the domestic market (a single country).  This basic fact is why the domestic price of a good always goes up when you open the market to exports.  It also helps to explain why America’s most talented jazz musicians spend their summers in Europe and much of our best single malt whiskey ends up in Asia.

We return then to the essential paradox that has been driving this discussion.  On the one hand national identity has not vanished in the current era.  In fact, the challenges of globalization have made some elements of the national discourse more popular than ever.  Yet the nature of global markets dictate that the transnational demand for many of these most popular symbols and practices will always be greater than the domestic audience in any single city, region or state.  To paraphrase Adam Frank, we live in an era when identity moves, whether you want it to or not.


Hong Kong Airline flight crews practice Wing Chun. Source: South China Morning Post.
Hong Kong Airline flight crews practice Wing Chun. Source: South China Morning Post.


Conclusion: The Rise of Intangible Cultural Heritage


This brings us to the final point.  The acceleration of globalization after the 1990s has coincided with the rise of what scholars have called the “cultural heritage” discourse.  Here we see more state and local governments seeking to identify, label and curate either places or practices seen as worthy of protection by the international community.

I recently had an opportunity to watch a lecture delivered at Cornell University by Prof. Yujie Zhu on the various ways in which the cultural heritage discourse has affected communities in China.  It has been posted online and anyone interested in these topics would be well advised to take a moment and check it out.

One of the points to merged from this discussion was that the movement toward designating practices as examples of “intangible cultural heritage” (as opposed to simply concentrating on historic locations) was driven in large part by lobbying on the part of China, Japan and Korea.  They noted that in many cases it was the Confucian value of “faithful transmission” of past beliefs and practices that constituted examples of “heritage” within their cultural framework.

Further, with the massive disruption of China’s urban geography during this period of rapid growth, one suspects that the people were forced to turn to practices, beliefs and identities in an effort to both establish a relationship with the past as well as to build new social networks in the present.

It is interesting to consider the global movement of the Asian martial arts in light of the rise of ICH discussions.  As I have reported in numerous news updates, there has been a lot of pressure to include various martial arts styles, and even specific lineages, on ICH lists drawn up by national or local governments in China.  This has certainly been the case in Hong Kong which, in the last few years, seems to have awaken to the heritage of potential of such quintessentially southern arts as Hung Gar and Wing Chun.

Yet Hong Kong’s government has generally taken a “market led” approach to preserving the past.  They have ignored repeated calls (often coming from individuals within the martial arts community) to provide actual funding or material support to preserve these practices, and have instead claimed that their intention is to establish a list so that private citizens, firms and donors will have a better sense of where they wished to invest their scarce time and money.

On the mainland the support for ICH practices has been somewhat more robust, especially in those cases where a local practice can be tied to heritage tourism (the martial arts at Shaolin or Mt. Wudang are classic examples of this).  Yet given that this same situation is unlikely to play out in Hong Kong (where martial arts tourism is not a large part of the city’s economy) what else could be gained from winning ICH status?

In thinking over Prof. Zhu’s fine talk I began to wonder whether ICH status was not in some way seen as a counterweight to the decentering effects of globalization.  Yes, the basic laws of mathematics dictate that most of the individuals who practice and teach Wing Chun must live outside of the city of Hong Kong.  Yet the establishment of an ICH discourse around the art affirms that it is not simply a self-defense system, or even a pure martial arts tradition.  Rather it is a matter of cultural, regional and ethnic heritage.

Whether this is true, and if such a declaration would have convinced a skeptical middle class in the year 1950 (when the martial arts tended to be much less popular in Hong Kong), is an interesting question.  But this is not today’s question.  Rather, once we have established that a given martial art is linked to traditional cultural values (as defined by the appropriate government committee), after sufficient repetition, it becomes a social fact.

This has the effect of creating a zone within the Wing Chun community that cannot be decentered.  No matter what level of technical excellence is achieved in a school in Germany or San Francisco, one must always return to, and look towards, the art’s “traditional home” to discover its essence.  And to the extent that Hong Kong and Foshan may find themselves competing for the scarce dollars of Wing Chun tourists, an ICH designation cannot hurt!

In some senses this is a very positive development.  Wing Chun has become a critical part of Hong Kong’s identity and that should be emphasized and defended.  And I think that any martial art community will be made stronger through the establishment of a rich web of exchange and travel.  Finally, the historian in me loves the idea of “preservation.”

Yet as a social scientist I know that these topics must be approached critically.  The establishment of an ICH discourse does not just “preserve,” it also changes, sometimes in fundamental ways.

Its aim is to take that which was “threatened” and create “stability.”  Items of low social status are transformed to become centers of  cultural complex programs.  Practices that were economically marginal are redefined as upstanding middle class behaviors.  And in the martial arts it might take what was once a simple hand combat system and transforms it into a bastion of values and identity.

This is all particularly interesting as there are ongoing debates within most martial arts systems as to what their goals should be.  What values should they advance?  Are they effective self-defense mechanisms, or ways of learning about traditional culture?  It is hard to imagine that the establishment of an ICH system would not somehow shuffle this deck and deal out a new round of winning and losing hands.

In conclusion, the complicated discussions that surround identity in the martial arts are, on some level, an inheritance from their brush with nationalism.  The acceleration of these same trends in the current era of globalization has led to the geographic and cultural decentering of many arts.  This is a trend that will likely continue in the future.

Within this context we might be able to understand the sudden interest in ICH labels (even in places where there is no immediate payoff in terms of tourism) as a way of resisting these pressures and reclaiming cultural ownership over a set of practices.  Yet the inherently political nature of this process guarantees that ICH designations will change certain aspects of a given martial arts community while attempting to preserve others.

This complicated balance between local and national identities (seeking to reinforce their own legitimacy) and the transnational communities of students who actually practice and financially support these arts, suggest that it is not really possible to know who “owns” kung fu.  But this debate has been underway (in one form or another) for some time, and it has done much to shape the arts that we currently know.  As such it is a question worth asking.




If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Producing “Healthy Citizens”: Social Capital, Rancière and Ladies-Only Kickboxing