Given that this essay is being hosted on a blog mostly read by practitioners of the TCMA, I doubt that the question posed by the title will generate a great deal of enthusiasm. I suspect that most of us already have our minds made up on this point. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth sitting back and thinking a little more deeply about such questions, and why they are being asked by so many now.
The issue of timing would not seem to be much of a mystery given that new video clips of MMA (or BJJ, or Muay Thai…) athletes beating down traditional Kung Fu (or Taijiquan, or Karate) “masters” are going viral on YouTube every week. That alone would seem to answer our questions. The by now well-established visual formula of such fights have become so routine that it’s hard to see the participants as doing anything other than playing out their appointed roles in an ongoing social script.
Yet the more time one spends thinking about this phenomenon, the less such answers reveal. Social media is also full of clips of real-life acts of violence (stabbings, assaults, robberies) which tend not to go viral even though they are of much greater educational value to serious students of self-defense or gore-hounds alike. Nor is this debate a particularly new phenomenon. Students of the “sweet science” were regularly squaring off against jujutsu and judo men during the early 20th century. Win or lose, sports writers were only too happy to opine on the inferiority of the Asian methods at some points in time (say, prior to Japan’s victory over Russia) or to gush about their mysteries at others (such as after their victory in the Russo-Japanese war). What was happening on the newspaper’s front page seemed to have just as much of an impact on these conversations as anything that occurred in the ring. Similar patterns would repeat themselves in the wake of WWII, the Korean War and Vietnam.
Mixed contests are not new. Further, experienced professional fighters typically beat amateur martial teachers as a matter of course. That is pretty much part of the definition of being a “professional fighter” regardless of one’s specific discipline of specialization. Yet whether the public takes much notice of such bouts, finds them to be entertaining, or decides that they are edifying, varies dramatically over the decades. I cannot help but wonder whether it is significant that our new renewed interest in the clash between Western combat sports and Chinese martial arts is occurring at the same time that cultural and political fault lines are opening between China and West in the global arena. Domestically we are also seeing the growth of a new phase of nationalism within China itself.
Such political considerations probably don’t determine how often such contests occur, or whether they are uploaded to social media. But they are likely important to understanding why, out of all the cringy-worth things on the internet, millions of people who have never been in a competitive fight or trained in either combat sports or traditional martial arts are suddenly enjoying the schadenfreude which such one-sided contests offer. In an era when China is increasingly ascendant in the economic, military and political spheres, is it possible that large numbers of people who typically ignore the martial arts are suddenly taking an interest in such contests precisely to see the vanguard of traditional East Asian culture get its comeuppance? Again, it was anxiety over the military and economic rise of Japan that triggered Western interest in Judo and Jujutsu early in the 20th century. Yet studies of the era’s sports pages suggests, that this “interest” did not always take a positive form.
These questions were brought home when I read a recent editorial in the South China Morning Post (an English language newspaper published in Hong Kong) titled “It’s Time to Admit that Most Chinese Martial Arts are Fake.” By way of background I should explain that the SCMP typically goes out of its way to find and publish stories about the traditional Chinese martial arts and, short of some new scandal erupting at the Shaolin Temple, these are almost always positive. Indeed, the SCMP is the single best source for news coverage of the Chinese martial arts among the region’s foreign language papers and news services.
This editorial caught my attention not so much because its sentiments were particularly novel. Again, Western sports writers have been saying these things (sometimes with good reason) since the early 20th century. Rather, its appearance in this particular venue, and the writer’s repeated invocations of Wing Chun (a critical landmark in local cultural identity), almost seemed like an attempt to troll the paper’s normally martial arts loving readership.
The term “concern troll” came more fully into focus as I read the rest of the article. It quickly became apparent that the author’s definition of whether a martial art was fake or not depended almost entirely upon whether it prepared its students to win fights in a wide variety of settings. In reading the piece it quickly became clear that the author has no experience in the traditional martial arts of any country. Nor is he remotely aware of the vast range of activities, cultures, goals or training methods that fit into a category that encompasses everything from knife fighting in the Philippines, to stick fighting in Africa, to folk wrestling in the UK. But he had been in a few hockey fights as a child, and has more recently watched some videos on YouTube, and now feels a moral obligation to warn his readers against this shared delusion.
It is hard to argue with certain aspects of his conclusion. We have all seen faux Wing Chun and Taijiquan masters getting beaten down on YouTube. If the author had actually studied any of these arts (or even MMA or boxing) he might have been able to offer some actual insight into why these institutions failed to produce competent pugilists. Then again, if he had even a rudimentary understanding of Chinese martial arts culture, he probably wouldn’t have recommended Wing Chun as a style for people looking to “limber up” and increase their flexibility. One would have been better off naming almost any other Chinese art instead. Such missteps tend to undercut one’s faith in sweeping conclusions. Still, the author seemed to believe that he had some sort of fiduciary duty to warn the public about the dangers of karate.
Given the scope of his criticism one would have assumed that the author would simply dismiss the traditional martial arts out of hand. Interestingly, he pulled back at the last minute and was not willing to take his argument to its logical conclusion. Instead he noted that if one’s goals were simply to get in shape and increase confidence, then a karate class might be just the thing. Just don’t assume that it would be any use in a “real” fight.
Again, we could question the logical train of thought that might lead to such a conclusion. If one’s self-confidence is based on the acquisition of skills that are “fake” and fraudulent, is it really a good thing to be able to walk down the street with one’s head held high? Further, part of being a successful fighter is being in peak physical condition and knowing how to channel the forces of aggression. If the traditional martial arts really are inept when it comes to transforming people for combat, why do we assume they would be any better when it came to basic physical training? Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply advise that person looking to lose weight and get in shape to take up jogging and to buy a gym membership? Why pursue an activity that has fitness as a side effect when we now have entire industries that specialize in creating certain very specific fitness outcomes? The feeling of the editorial is of a person who bravely, if perhaps blindly, walks up a diving board but at the last minute is afraid to take the plunge.
Nevertheless, why are these conversations being led by random editorialists with no particular interest in the martial arts to begin with? When Rory Miller critiques the way that we handle violence in martial arts training its worth sitting up and taking notice. Yet that sort of discourse does not seem to be what is driving the current conversation.
To begin to respond to all of this we must begin by unpacking a few of our basic terms and being very clear what is actually under discussion. While the SCMP editorial framed the debate in terms of “traditional” arts vs. “real” fighting, most of the casual conversation that I encounter are not so careful. The most common reading of these contests seems to be Chinese (or Japanese) martial artists vs. MMA.
This rhetorical move to nationalize these conversations should be resisted. What are the “Chinese martial arts”? From my perspective as a social scientist they would involve any fighting system that has become localized and taken root in China. Thus, the rise of MMA in China over the last decade is very much an important part of the story of the modern “Chinese martial arts.”
China’s long history of border clashes and invasions means that it has absorbed and internalized many different foreign martial practices or technologies over the centuries. This flexibility is not a new thing.
If we are are discussing historical origins, we might not refer to MMA as a “Chinese art” given its origins in America and Brazil. But to speak of “Chinese martial artists” not being able to stand up to MMA fighters (as one so often sees in on-line discussions) commits category error. A nationality is not a style of combat. Indeed, most of the MMA fighters disrupting the traditional arts in China are Chinese. Further, they are primarily responding to events and social cues that originate within the local and national context. Thus, the category of “Chinese martial arts” is wide enough that we should exercise some caution when seeing it invoked in these discussions.
The adjective “traditional” is not without its own drawbacks. We have already noted the difficulty of pinning this term down at Kung Fu Tea. Rarely do authors specify what they mean when the term is invoked, and one suspects that in many instances it basically means something like authentic vs. inauthentic.
It is also interesting to note how many arts have trouble with this category. Does the Jingwu Association teach a traditional Chinese martial art? If asked in the context of the 1920s the answer would have to be no. It created a mixture of the “best” aspects of traditional Chinese martial arts and reframed them in an explicitly modernist context. Yet as D.S. Farrer has noted in his fieldwork, when encountered in the public parks of Singapore today, Jingwu teachers self-identify (and are labeled by others) as traditional martial artists. In fact, here we have the rare case of a mixed martial art that has gone from representing the vanguard of modernity to becoming the guardian of “traditional” Chinese culture simply by virtue of surviving for a few generations.
Similar discussions have emerged when individuals have attempted to classify BJJ. Sometimes it is treated as a modern combat sport, while in other cases the art is deemed to be a “traditional” system of practice. Even Wing Chun seems to vacillate between two identities. Some instructors stress that it is a modern system of self-defense (indeed, that is how Ip Man often discussed it), while in other circumstances it was held up as a jewel of traditional culture. Whether something is “traditional” in popular conversation seems to be a matter of framing and positionality more than a characteristic of the practice itself.
Perhaps the only way forward in this situation is to make explicit one’s frame of reference and propose that other individuals consider being equally transparent in their own discussions. I believe that we might make some progress by adopting the advent of modernity, understood in both a cultural and economic sense, as the common element that defines “traditional” and non-traditional martial arts. Of course, we must acknowledge that on some level all of the arts that we practice today are products of, and have made their peace with, the modern world. While some of us like to dress as Samurai, and others walk around with copies of Fiore, none of us can actually experience, or have privileged access to, the pre-modern world. All of the arts that exist in the world today are very much dependent on modern social, political and economic systems that define our social reality for their continued existence.
The difference arises in an institution’s attitude towards this fact. Modern arts, such as MMA, Krav Maga or (for our current purposes) BJJ, embrace this fact. In some instances, this includes aesthetic decisions touching on how an art is to be marketed or presented. But on a deeper level these more modern systems seem to function by presenting solutions to the specific problems or discontinuities that larger processes of modernity creates in society. In some cases, this might take the form of exploiting economic opportunities for certain types of recreational or entertainment activities. Or something like cardio kickboxing classes might emerge with the specific goal of addressing health problems which are now common due to the sedentary nature of most modern employment.
Traditional arts are not necessarily older than their “modern” brethren. Instead they seek to address the issues of modernization on a more fundamental level. Rather than offering specialized solutions to specific problems (commercial krav maga offers self-defense strategies for a world with easy access to firearms, cardio-kickboxing offers self-defense from diabetes and high blood pressure), they often seek to allow people to understand their lives in new ways through the creation of new fundamental identities. We might even say that the ultimate opponent of the traditional martial arts is a sense of alienation, or the progressive disenchantment of the world.
Religious studies scholars have noted that similar processes are happening in their field as well. Increasingly we see a division between progressive congregations seeking practical problems to the issues that modernity generates (hunger, refugees, global warming), while more fundamentalist religious movements seek to address the lack of meaning that many individuals feel in their lives by restructuring their identity on a more basic level. One does not have to examine the martial arts community for very long before it becomes evident that something similar is happening here.
This brings us to the issue of specialization. Acceptance of the logic of specialization, that one should maximize their economic gain or status in society by focusing only on a single type of activity, is one of the bedrock principles that allowed for the emergence of modernization in the West. Supported by more efficient markets and diversifying economies, ever increasingly levels of specialization became one of the most important engines of both growth and social change. This is how the monks of the middles ages came to be replaced with the doctors, lawyers and engineers of the 19th century. In the ensuing centuries, each of these professions has undergone its own, ever finer, process of specialization.
Yet specialization comes at a personal and psychological cost. It is one that we pay in alienation as each of us is pushed ever further away from most of the spheres of life that sustain us. Yes, specialization encourages trade and therefore economic growth. But it also separates most individuals from the products that they create, or ultimately use. And economic growth itself, while often beneficial, can also corrode the sorts of preexisting social structures (family, religion, local community) that traditionally gave life meaning. It is this growing sense of alienation that many of the traditional martial arts set out to address. This makes them, in some ways, very different from that cardio kickboxing class which can be thought of as a tool to address the “market failures” of modernity. Like religious fundamentalism, the traditional arts, by focusing on questions of value creation and identity formation, typically offer a far deeper critique of the current status quo.
Consider the case of Taijiquan, perhaps the most popular traditional Chinese martial art in the global system. Regardless of when it was first developed, it is clear that this art came into regional and then national prominence in the closing years of the Qing dynasty. Early advocates of this system sought to promote it at a time when China was under literal assault from imperialist powers and the populace was losing faith in their culture’s ability to stem the onslaught of new armies, religions, ideas and markets. The Taijiquan that we practice today is very much a response to calls for “self-strengthening” that went out in this environment, and then again during the period of revolution of warlordism that marked the 1920s-1930s. It was perhaps inevitable that such a practice would become of immense interest to the Western counter-culture movements in the 1960s and 1970s as they too sought new tools to deal with a paralyzing loss of cultural self-confidence.
Does this then mean that we should expect that Taijiquan has no interest in fighting, or that an art that has spent decades carrying water in national and cultural debates cannot be used to fight? That is a more complicated question. The critique of modernity advanced by several traditional martial arts seems to be explicitly tied to a rejection of the concept of specialization as expressed in Western modes of globalization. While this may not be true everywhere, a certain degree of suspicion of specialization does seem to be prevalent in the traditional Chinese martial arts community.
This fact was driven home while I was having a conversation with a professional martial artist from the PRC last year. While now a coach and teacher he had competed (in different years) in both taolu and sanda competition while a university student in the 1980s. While discussing his Sanda training he compared the preparation that he had received to the training of Muay Thai kickboxers noting, in an off-hand way, that of course the kickboxers would have won in any serious competion. When I asked him to elaborate on the remarks he basically noted the long duration and intensity of the Muay Thai training and concluded that in combat sports it all comes down to the preparation and the selection of the right athletes. But, of course, such kickboxers were “not real martial artists.”
Seeing that he would have to explain this last, rather inflammatory statement, he went on to note that there are multiple realms within the martial arts, and to truly be considered a master you must have worked in all of them and have excelled in multiple of them. Holding up one hand he counted off five categories.
True martial artists, in his opinion, must have competed at the professional level in Sanda, boxing or some equivalent event. But that was not enough. They also had to have a University education in sports science and Wushu practice to be considered a true scholar/warrior. This meant not just getting an undergraduate degree, but going on to complete a MA or PhD in either Wushu or a related field. Typically, such a degree would lead to a stint as a Wushu coach at some sort of institution of higher learning.
Third, it was necessary to go beyond the state-backed Wushu programs. One had to also enter the world of the folk martial arts, becoming a disciple of one or more traditional systems. However, one could not simply remain in the insular world (as he saw it) of the folk-masters.
It was also necessary to take a leading role in the development or management of community based martial arts organizations or charity groups. Anyone familiar with the Chinese martial arts world will know that that there are countless public schools, charity committees and community organizations that play an important role in this ecosystem.
Finally, because most people form their basic ideas of the martial arts through the media, one also needed to master that realm as well. This was traditionally done by making appearances in martial arts films, though he conceded that in the current era the internet offered other pathways of getting your image out there. Only someone who had succeeded in all five realms could call themselves a true martial artist.
He was doubtful that individuals who only specialized in a single realm could really be martial artists at all. Their skills might be spectacular, and their focus meant that they were better prepared to win in the ring, or on the screen, or in the classroom or anywhere else. Yet as he reflected on the issue, he could not shake the feeling that such individuals had missed the very point of being a martial artist. This wasn’t simply a job, it was a calling, something that defined who you were. As such you should strive to be a “complete” scholar/warrior.
Obviously, this is a highly selective, and somewhat self-serving, definition of the martial arts. Using his categories it is clear that I am no martial artist, nor could I ever aspire to be one. That actually seems to have been the point that he was trying to drive home. Being the “wrong sort” of college professor (one without a degree from Beijing Sports University) I had no business writing books and articles about the Chinese martial arts which would “confuse people.” That should be left to individuals like himself. Using these criteria, my guess is that there would be no more than a handful of “real” martial artists in all of China.
Again, it would be easy to dismiss all of this as inflammatory rhetoric. Yet I think that would be a mistake precisely because it would allow us to ignore the profoundly different value structure that underlays so much of the traditional Chinese martial arts community. What I had heard was basically an updated version of the scholar/warrior ideal that can be found throughout so much of classic Chinese literature.
By establishing a transcendent set of core values, the traditional martial arts can touch a variety of social realms. They can be seen as a single tool that impacts everything from self-defense to medicine to spiritual fulfillment to community organization. This is a powerful antidote to the alienation that plagues modern life. Who doesn’t fantasize about becoming the perfect scholar/warrior? To emphasize that one’s scholarship will always suffer as you spend too much time in the training hall, or that one’s Kung Fu could be better if you didn’t waste your time writing books, misses the point. Discovering the intersectionality of these realms has become the goal itself, even if that requires a frank assessment that one’s University trained Sanda students may not fair well against a team of professional kickboxers.
There are many technical and logical reasons why comparisons of traditional and modern martial arts systems break down. Other people have discussed these at length elsewhere. But what I want to emphasize here is a slightly different point. To say that something is “Fake” presupposes an understanding of an institution’s goals and values. Further, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that the average Taijiquan class in Beijing, and the median MMA gym in Shanghai, share much in common. Yet goals are not chosen out of thin air. They instead reflect preexisting values and identities. In the current case these are derived from very different notions of modernity and what is necessary to live a good life.
Will the average amateur Kung Fu fighter ever be able to beat even a b-string pro-MMA athlete in the ring? The fact that such a contest pits individuals who are structurally generalists against a specialist suggests that the answer is probably no. At the end of the day these things are contests of individuals, not styles, and the better conditioned, more experienced professional fighter should probably always win. These social media victories will attract certain sorts of individuals.
But just as fundamentalist religious movements show now sign of disappearing from our increasingly secular landscape, I expect that the traditional Asian martial arts will continue to survive as well. As long as people dream of becoming scholar/warriors, or seek systems of meanings that can make sense of an entire life rather than just addressing its most immediate problems, these systems will continue to find support. There is nothing fake about that.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (20): General Li Jinglin, the “Sword Saint” of Wudang