Women practicing martial arts in India. Source: Mirror.


Look at Me!


I took a break from the kicking drill just as an insistent, irritated, voice rang out.

“Coach, look at me!  Look at me!  LOOK AT ME!  Hey Coach. COACH! Look at me!” 

Of course it was Edward.*  A male pre-teen on the autism spectrum, who had been attending one of the Kung Fu classes where I was conducting field work for about a year.  While often physically awkward and unable to concentrate, there is something about martial arts training that seems to agree with Edward.  He can learn simplified versions of some of the drills that we run, but it is taolu that speaks to him.  He finds something about the repetitive performance of his single set calming.

Sifu is only too happy to work with Edward.  One of his own children is autistic and he has made a point of ensuring that his classes are always accessible to a wide variety of students.  Still, this inclusive policy does not come without its challenges.  Most of the students in the class are adults learning a “serious self-defense art.”  The instructor had been walking them through a couple of the finer points of their daily assignment when Edward realized that no one was watching him.

While he likes practicing his set, what he really desires is to be watched.  Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say, “being seen.” Edward craves the recognition of an audience. He insists that his mother, who brings him to class, dutifully records his performance on her cell phone. (When interviewed she happily admitted to erasing most repetitions at the end of each day). Aware of all of the ways that he is different from those around him, Edward exhibits a deep need to have his successes acknowledged.

Discussing the situation after class Sifu noted:

“Edward is a great kid.  On a rough day he can be a real handful.  But sometimes I feel like the biggest difference between him and other guys is that he just shouts out what everyone else is thinking.  I swear, some days I feel like I am running around here spinning plates.  Everyone needs a piece of me!”


Black martial artists on the cover of Karate Illustrated in 1973.



Seeing and Surveillance

Something about that last conversation stuck in my mind, and I typed it into my fieldnotes as soon as I got home.  The instructor, of course, was right.  This particular Kung Fu class has students of roughly three different levels working both together and on their own pieces of the curriculum.  This means that he must often split his attention between multiple groups, each of which would be more than happy to monopolize his attention for the entire class.  While Edward is the only individual willing to shout about his frustrations, I know from interviews and casual conversations that some of the middle-ranked students feel like they are not getting the attention and oversight that they need to really progress.  Everyone, it seems, just wants to be seen.

This is not always the case when it comes to physical pursuits.  In middle and high school gym classes one generally works quite hard at not being seen.  In such institutional environments one attempts to blend in among the faceless rabble as best one can.  Standing out is typically the result of some sort of mistake which can earn a rebuke. At least that is my memory of middle school. The same went for most of the sports teams that I was on.  Students who were too fast were determined to need “extra challenges,” those who were slow got extra laps.  Unsurprisingly the middle of the pack, safely unseen, was where everyone strived to be.  What happens in these environments is not so much recognition as it is a type of punitive surveillance.

The act of seeing, and being seen, feels very different in most of the well-functioning martial arts classes that I attend.  I have visited a few schools that gave me flash-backs to high-school gym classes, but luckily those sorts of classes seem to be rare.  In a properly functioning school instructors are not afraid to give their students challenging problems and let them work it out.  Likewise, students are not afraid to fail as they work their way through the learning process.  No matter what sort of skill it is that we are talking about, a kick, a punch, or a single legged takedown, chances are you are going to do it badly a number of times before you ever do it well.

And if you are really interested in improving your technique most students quickly realize that being seen is critical.  We can all tell when something isn’t working, but few of us (particularly early on in our training) have enough bodily awareness and spatial imagination to really understand why.  Being seen by an instructor is critical to improvement because they can reveal layers of subtle failure that one might not otherwise be able to put a finger on.  I suspect that non-martial artists imagine the training hall as primarily a disciplinary space. Such things exist. One imagines they are more commonly encountered in police and military training spaces.  But for most martial artists, being seen is a critical and desired part of the learning process.


“Monkey Boxers” performing in a public market in Shanghai circa 1930. Source: Taiping Institute.


The Politics of Recognition

Yet there is also so much more to it than that.  If we were to break things down and consider first causes, what really inspires most people to walk into a martial arts school to begin with?  It is certainly not an obsessive desire to explore technique.  That comes much later.  Rather, its typically a desire for some sort of personal transformation.  Or to put things even more fundamentally, to address a lack or a void that is perceived in one’s life.

For many individuals being seen, by which I mean being recognized as social beings with valid needs and contributions, is the first step in that movement from the edge of a desired identity to the center.  If, as Judith Butler and others claim, identity is fundamentally performative in nature, then we should not be surprised that community recognition might either accelerate or stymie that process.  This is precisely why Jacques Rancière notes that the act of recognition (and by extension, the quest to be seen) is the foundation of all politics.  One cannot engage in any social discussion about one’s place in the community without at first being recognized.

My friend and colleague Paul Bowman is an expert when it comes to understanding and critiquing Rancière’s unique and independent philosophy.  Indeed, Bowman has treated his works extensively (particularly the problem of the “Ignorant Schoolmaster”) within the context of martial arts studies.  Given the depth of this engagement, and my admitted lack of mastery of 20th century French philosophy, I have generally been content to avoid any unnecessary entanglements with Rancière’s work.  As one would expect, he is cited much less frequently in the social sciences than in philosophy and critical theory. Still, as I thought about Edward’s demand to be recognized, to be seen by his teacher, it occurred to me that there might be no better framework for understanding this aspect of the social work performed by the martial arts, both at the individual and the community level.

When approached from the perspective of the individual student, a martial arts class can be understood almost as a machine for producing recognition. One pays tuition to be seen, critiqued, instructed and encouraged by your teacher.  They may demonstrate a skill a hundred times, or perhaps they are now too elderly to perform that butterfly kick themselves.  In either case, with any physical skill it is ultimately up to the student to figure out how the puzzle will be solved.  The instructor provides direction and inspiration.  Yet much of the later stems from the fact that they are willing to invest time and resources into the recognition of a student and their needs when often few other institutions seem willing to.  Rancière would probably note that creating an institution fundamentally based on acknowledging the equality of students (everyone starts off as a white belt with the absolute right to know nothing), reinforces this ethics of recognition.

The average martial arts class has many institutionalized mechanisms for reinforcing and centering the act of mutual recognition.  Uniforms and special forms of coded speech are fundamentally symbols of in-group solidarity.  Students typically bow, salute or otherwise acknowledge each other at the start and end of any training exercises. Belt gradings are public events in which the entire community gathers to see the achievements of their members.  But as Edward’s cries remind us, it is often the least formalized instances of being seen and recognized that have the most profound impact on students.  It is in the these every-day interactions where a school’s culture will be defined.  Will it be a safe place for students to struggle?  Will it extend the legitimacy of recognition to all of its students? Or will that be with-held only for the chosen few? The “right” kind of people.

What makes the martial arts unique among the landscape of voluntary social organizations (all of which might be able to confer recognition to their members on an individual level), is the degree to which these schools have been historically successful in agitating for these same sorts of recognitions at the community, regional or national level.  Upon empowering a group of students locally, the obvious question becomes, how will this affect their relationship with society at large?

The development of Choy Li Fut, or really any of the Southern Chinese martial arts, offers us some possible guidance.  In Foshan during the late 19th and early 20th century this art tended to attract unskilled workers in the local handicraft industries (brass work, iron manufacture, ceramics, woven baskets, etc…) that made up the bulk of the town’s regional trade with Guangzhou.  Many of these individuals were “bare sticks,” essentially landless peasants who had been displaced from their home villages in which they could afford neither land or a wife.  Of course possessing these two things was the basic social requirement for being acknowledged as a responsible male adult.  The transition to an urban environment was not always an easy one, and the government then (as now) was acutely aware that bringing large numbers of dissatisfied young male workers together in one place could lead to social volatility.

The Hung Sing Association exploded in popularity in large part because its many branch locations provided opportunities for these workers to be reconfigured into new types of communities, ones in which they could be seen and their contributions to a greater cause validated.  The ultimate symbol of this recognition was the ability of school members to be included on the memorial wall after their death, thus ensuring the sort of recognition and veneration in the next life that their status as bachelors in this one would otherwise deny them.

While struggling with the high cost of real estate, many of these same martial arts societies continue to function in similar ways today.  Consider, for instance, Avron Boretz’s discussion of temple troops, martial artists, and the self-enactment of marginal visions of masculinity in his now classic Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters.  It is worth noting that everything that Boretz concludes is first grounded in Rancière’s observation that denying recognition of a population is the fundamental political act.  Further, the very same mechanisms within martial arts communities which allow them to generate recognition in the personal sphere also allows them to aggregate those demands at the social (and sometimes even the national) level.  Indeed, the development of both Japan and China in the 1920s-1930s was shaped in part by martial arts communities exercising their agency to articulate idealized visions of what the state should be.

Martial arts are not alone in this ability.  A handful of other social institutions might offer the promise of recognition at both the individual and the societal level.  Obviously religious congregations come to mind, yet rates of church attendance have dropped at the same time that interest in martial arts have risen.  Large labor unions might also have some of the same characteristics.

Still, the durability, and cultural flexibility, of the martial arts are remarkable.  Understanding how institutions which functioned effectively in Japan in the 1930s might also prosper in an American strip mall in the 1990s has always been something of a challenge.  Rancière and Edward might both remind us that there is no human need more fundamental than the desire to be seen.  Martial arts schools have prospered in part because they act as machines that reproduce a very specific (and highly desired) type of recognition.  But this also means that their potential to turn personal empowerment into social demands is equally fundamental and perhaps universal. Perhaps this is why martial arts always reveal themselves, in the end, as fundamentally political practices.


*Following standard ethnographic procedures, the names and locations of all individuals in this account have been changed to protect the anonymity of the individuals who have assisted my research.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to see: Revealing the Secrets of Wing Chun Kung Fu: Chao, Weakland and the Cultural Translation of the Chinese Martial Arts