Martial Arts on Cornell Campus. Photo from the Cornell Wushu Club.


A New Semester, A New Course

Welcome to the first week of “History of East Asian Martial Arts” (History 2960)!  As some of you may know, I am a Visiting Scholar at Cornell. One of my colleagues, Prof. T. J. Hinrichs, is teaching another session of her Martial Arts Studies class this semester.  Needless to say, I have set aside some time to sit in on the lectures and am following the readings in the syllabus.  Some of this material I have read before, but not all of it.  Prof. Hinrichs is a practitioner of the Japanese arts, so it is interesting to see a number of readings focused on them, and theoretical discussions emerging from a slightly different perspective.

I decided that this is such a great opportunity for “continuing education” within the field of Martial Arts Studies that I should share it here with the readers of Kung Fu Tea.  My approach to this may change over the course of the semester, but right now I think weekly updates are the way to go.  In each post I plan on listing the readings that we are covering in class.  Rather than just reproducing an entire syllabus (which is always overwhelming) I hope that by breaking things into small chunks some people will find the time to read along with us.

Where possible I will post links to resources that can be found on-line. Some of the books may need to be purchased or found in a local library.  But the good news is that Prof. Hinrichs has tried to keep that to a minimum out of consideration of her student’s budgets, and that will work to our advantage as well.  Where something is impossible to track down without access to a university library I may recommend a thematically related “suggested reading” in its place.

From what I have observed in the first week of class, HEAMA will be a discussion heavy course with some lecture material and occasional on-line slides or videos of martial arts performance.  That sort of experience is a challenge to reproduce in blog format.  And to be totally honest, I don’t want to transcribe the (really great) discussions that the undergrads are having.  It is important to protect the privacy of their classroom experience.

Instead I will be posting some of the discussion questions that are given at the start of the lectures so that we can think about them as we follow along with the readings.  I will also see if I can jump-start some discussion in the comments section by giving my own quick reflections on these issues.

The question of how we approach these topics in the classroom will become increasingly important as the field of Martial Arts Studies continues to grow.  A handful of these classes are already being taught in North America, often in History, Asian Studies or Anthropology departments.  I hope that as we go through this exercise together we can all begin to think about what sorts of opportunities for classes or modules might exist at our own institutions.  And if you have ever wanted to take such a class, this is your chance.

Every university course has its requirements and grading criteria.  HEAMA is no exception.  Each student is expected to write three short essays and complete a slightly longer (5-7 page) final essay.  Ironically 5-7 pages is exactly how long an average post at KFT is.  I will pass these questions along to you when we hit that point in the semester, and if anyone would like to submit their essays to me they might make for excellent guest-posts and spark some fun conversation.

Nobody has to do anything like that as just keeping up with the readings is its own reward.  But Prof. Hinrichs has imposed one more requirement on the undergraduates that I think the readers of KFT will find very interesting.  This class has a “fieldwork” component.  Each student is required to visit a new martial arts class at least once during the course of the semester, taking careful notes on what they observe in relation to the larger themes of the class.

As one would expect, many of the students taking this class are martial artists themselves.  It is always fun to walk into into a lecture room and spot gear and weapon bags stashed under chairs and piled up by the wall.  However, to keep this fun students are being asked to observe a different martial art than the one(s) they study.  So if you are a kung fu guy, maybe observe a Japanese art instead.  If you are BJJ player, go to a Judo or Aikido class.

Armed with some good theoretical and historical readings, I think the undergrads will get a lot out of this.  I would like to challenge all of KFT’s readers who are following along with this class to do something similar.  Find a new school or class in your area to observe (or participate in) for a few classes.  Take detailed notes, and think carefully about how this experience informs your understanding of the class readings.  I suspect that I will be joining the Cornell Judo Club for my own mini-fieldwork section.


Required Texts

It is time to get on with the first week of class.  But before doing that I need to begin by listing the required texts that students are excepted to buy at the bookstore.  After that we will review the first week’s readings.


G. Cameron Hurst. Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Miyamoto Musashi. The Book of Five Rings. Trans. Thomas Cleary. Boston: Shambhala, 2005.

Wile, Douglas. Lost T’ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Martial Arts Studies Journal (All articles are free to read or download)


Photo by the Cornell Wushu Club.



Week One – Understanding Martial Arts as “Invented Traditions”


Required Reading

Thomas A. Green, “Historical Narrative in the Martial Arts: A Case Study,” in Tad Tuleja, ed., Usable Pasts: Traditions and Group Expressions in North America, (Logan, Utah:  Utah State University Press, 1997), 156-174.

Luckily anyone can download a copy of our readings for the first week.  If you haven’t read this piece before I recommend it as a good starting point for thinking about these questions.


Study Questions

  1. In what ways did the members of Green’s martial arts school consider history to be integral to their practice?
  2. Why is the historical veracity of “The System’s” philosophy not relevant to Green’s argument? (Or to put it more plainly, why does it not matter if the history is made up?)
  3. What role does violence play in this account?  Is there a single discourse around violence or many?
  4. How might the internet and easy access to historical information effected the sorts of folk-history that Green is interested in?


My Thoughts

This post has already run long with start of term business.  As such, I am only going to address a single discussion question.  Given my own research I am most interested in the role of violence in Kung Fu creation legends and will be tackling the third question. Luckily for us, the folklore that Green presents in his chapter is particularly blood soaked, even by the standards of most martial arts stories.

One might start by simply cataloging the sorts of violence that we see in the story.  I am not going to rehearse the details here as readers can (and should) click on the link above and consider the account for themselves.  But within this account we see political violence, domestic violence and fratricidal murder, pure economically motivated violence, social banditry and even the murder of more senior members of one’s own martial arts lineage.

It is also important to consider who is telling these stories and in what context.  With one exception, no one in this chapter is discussing violent acts that they were actually involved in.  Rather, these are understood as the violent actions of prior generations.  They are remote from the teller in either a geographic or a temporal sense.  As such, a boundary is established around the reality of violence.  Accounts of violence function as a sort of constitution for “The System,” explaining the trials of training, or the arts philosophy.  Yet it is also something that is rhetorically distanced from the training hall or a student’s relationships with the individuals that they train with on a daily basis.

In that sense Green’s creation myth (while a literal Confucian nightmare) functions in the same way as similar origin myths such as the burning of the Shaolin Temple, or the exploits of the Ten Tiger of Canton in the 19th century.  In a modern environment where the vast majority of martial arts training is never employed in a true life or death situation, such stories speak to the authenticity and legitimacy of the skills being practiced.  They also serve to justify the sacrifices that we make to train even when there is no immediate or obvious payoff.

Nor, as Prof. Hinrichs reminded us in the lecture, can we ignore the glamor of violence.  In some senses we tell these stories because they are fun and exciting, regardless of how historically improbably they may actually be.  Who doesn’t want to believe that the martial art they study is a bit dangerous and a portal to adventure?

I think these would be the conventional answers to this question.  And all of them strike me as true and important.  Yet the rhetoric surrounding violence in this account may also be serving another, even more fundamental, purpose.  Recall that Green was quite careful to note that various students in the class understood “The System’s” history in their own way as much of this was left to personal research and discovery.  Hence some of the Brown Belts (the individuals who were most frequently tasked with the carrying out the historical lectures at new student orientations) seemed to have constructed more or less violent interpretations of the past according to both their personalities and depth of research.

Nevertheless, there was one piece of information regarding an act of violence that seemed to be universally understood by everyone in the school.  According to Green, the very first Kata learned and practiced was understood as a ritual enactment of a historical fight in which the school’s founder murdered his own teacher, and thereby won his “freedom” to leave China during the Republic period. The actual sequence of techniques presented in the Kata were understood to be the same as those used in the fateful encounter. Students were instructed to visualize their practice as the real thing.

The few times I have seen actual violence emerge within a martial arts community I have been impressed with its corrosive power.  Simply put, any act of violence ruptures trust.  Relationships dissolve, and shortly after that organizations and institutions can fall apart.  I think we all have an intuitive understanding of how this might happen.  Yet the rhetoric around this particular story is important as it reminds us that acts of violence can also be the glue that binds new types of communities together.

This is a major theme in the work of Tony Marx, one of my former instructors at Columbia and a historian of nationalism.  He was particularly intrigued by the ways in which in which horrific acts of communal violence (such as the murder of protestants in early modern France, or Catholics and witches in the UK) would lead to a sense of shared communal guilt.  This was often followed by entirely transparent efforts to manipulate the remembrance or forgetting of these acts.  Those strategies gave rise to new types of community bound by a common rhetoric and ideology.

Upon reading Green’s account I found myself forced to wonder how a student would process their social proximity to so much senseless violence within their own lineage.  Yes, the “deadly” nature of their art could become a source of pride or a justification for elitism. Yet if those feelings became truly internalized, there must also have been a lot of subconscious collective guilt.  Green seems to admit as much in his observation that students treated the performance of the first kata as a “sacramental rite.”  The rhetorical transformation of a victim of fratricidal murder into a religious sacrifice to “The System” suggest that both myth and ritual were being invoked to deal with the memory of trauma.  Further, the shared necessity of participating in this expiating sacrament seems to be a critical way in which the community found cohesion and unity.

I should hasten to add that Green’s article, and this discussion, focus on the rhetoric of violence, not its historical reality.  Many terrible things did happened in China during the 1920s, but as scholarly readers of this account will quickly realize, most of the events discussed in the link above lack historical plausibility.  For Green, none of that matters.  It is the rhetoric around past events (and rarely their first hand experience) that constructs our social reality.  In that sense this article is a reminder of the power of the “dark side” within martial arts.  While we typically view these practices as fundamentally peaceful, such sentiments can gloss over a lot of ugly history, ideology and rhetoric.  Violence, whether real or imagined, has played a role in the creation of martial arts communities, just as it has shaped the societies and nations that gave rise to them.