Welcome to the second week of History of East Asian Martial Arts (HIST 2960).  This is a course taught by Prof. T. J. Hinrichs here at Cornell University that I am auditing in my capacity as a Visiting Scholar with the East Asia Program.  You can find my introduction to this series of posts, as well as the notes for Week 1, here.

My goal is to introduce the relevant readings and discussion questions to a broader audience in the hopes that some of you will follow along with this class from the comfort of your own homes as this is a great opportunity to engage in a little “continuing education” within the field of Martial Arts Studies.  I also want to encourage some thought and conversation as to what we can do to promote more courses or units on martial arts in both North America and Europe.  Hopefully Prof. Hinrichs’ syllabus will be inspiring in that regard as well.

Finally, I am quite purposefully not going to relate or comment on any of the discussions that are happening in the classroom to maintain everyone’s expectations of privacy.  Instead I will outline the readings and discussion questions that the students are given at the start of class as a way of inspiring some unique insights of our own.



Required Readings for Week 2

Raul Sanchez Garcia, “Taming the Habitus: The Gym and the Dojo as ‘Civilizing Workshops,’” Fighting Scholars: Habitus and Ethnographies of Martial Arts and Combat Sports, Raul Sanchez Garcia, and Dale C. Spencer, eds. (London: Anthem Press, 2013), 155-170.


Mitsunari Kanai (2938-2004), “A thought on Reigi Saho,” AikidoSphere,


Avron A. Boretz, “Martial Gods and Magic Swords: Identity, Myth, and Violence in Chinese Popular Religion,” Journal of Popular Culture 29.1 (Summer 1995): 93-109. (Note that this is the first appearance of the God Nezha in the class, but he will be returning again in readings from Week 4 and will be the subject of Meir Shahar’s invited presentation on Cornell Campus on April 9th.)


Recommended Reading


Einat Bar-on Cohen, “Opening and Closing Ritual in Aikido and Karate and the Dismantling of Violence,” Journal of Ritual Studies 32.1 (2009): 29-44.


Avron A. Boretz. 2010. Ghosts, Gods and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society. University of Hawaii Press. Chapters 3-4


A quick word about the readings before moving on.  Garcia and Spencer’s Fighting Scholars is an important collection that should be in the library of any serious student of martial arts studies.  I recommend buying this book if you don’t already have it.  Cohen’s article is quite good but is somewhat repetitive if you have already read Garcia (a secondary source) and Kanai (a primary source).  If you have access to a university library it’s great to download, but it’s not the end of the world if you can’t find it.

“Martial Gods and Magic Swords: Identity, Myth, and Violence in Chinese Popular Religion,” by Boretz might be tricky to find even if you do have access to a University Library.  I actually had to try a couple of different databases to find a downloadable copy of this one.  Rather than going through that I would recommend just getting a hold a copy of his volume Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters (Hawaii UP 2010) and read chapters 3-4.  This is also a critical book for any student of Chinese martial studies that should be in your library.  Or if you don’t want to purchase a copy, pretty much any library should be able to get a copy for you through ILL.


Study Questions

The readings for this week ask us to consider how violence is both cultivated and contained within the communities that teach martial arts and the societies that support them.


  1. In what ways do the various practices (training, ritual, Han Tan Ie procession) described by Sanchez Garcia and Boretz inculcate or cultivate certain dispositions in relation to violence? How do they do so differently?


  1. Kanai Sensei was a live-in student of the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, and a prominent teacher of Aikido based in Cambridge Massachusetts (1966-2004). He published his first drafts of this article in the 1970s and continued to distribute copies of this to all students in his dojo. What might have inspired him to do this in terms of his goals as an Aikido instructor?  What do discussions of etiquette have to do with concepts such as the cultivation of ‘habitus’ and social violence?


  1. How is the performance of “real” violence within a community tied to the performance of violence in literature, culture, media and theater?


  1. What aspect of Boretz’s discussion of violence in popular religion are generalizable to China as a whole? What is specific to the context of Taiwan? Or perhaps the more rural areas of Southern Taiwan?  Lastly, what in this narrative is very specific to the area of Taidong itself?  How can we derive generalizable principals from ethnographic investigation of unique cases?




My Thoughts

As regular readers of this blog will already be aware, I think very highly of Avron Boretz’s work, particular with regard to his treatment of marginality, masculinity and the cultural performance of violence in southern China. I have often referred to him when my own writing touches on these subject.  As such I am going to very briefly address some of the issues in question four.  Ideally readers of the blog will go and check out either the article or the two chapters I recommended above before going on.  Go ahead, it’s great stuff.  I can wait….


Ok, are we all on the same page?  Good.


To review, in this case study Boretz presents a focused case study of the revival of a local festival in Taidong in Southern Taiwan.  As part of the town’s celebration of the lantern festival temple troupes parade an effigy of a god of wealth through the streets who is “blasted” with fireworks (thrown at it by members of the local community) as he makes his way between businesses and homes bestowing his various blessings.  The temple troupes are made of up of marginal young men who are often petty gangsters and also martial artists.  In exchange for their performance they receive red envelopes of money from the businesses visited, much as you might see in any Lion Dance festival in New York or San Francisco.

Everything in the description of the ritual up to this point has been pretty pedestrian.  The one important deviation from the norm that you see in Taidong (and local politicians have used it encourage a thriving tourist industry) is that in this area the typical wooden statue of the god has been replaced by a volunteer “Brave” from the temple troupes.  This individual (wearing only a t-shirt and sunglasses) is violently pelted with live fireworks and explosives as his palanquin is carried from stop to stop.  You can find video of this process on YouTube, and it is clear that this ritual is serious, often resulting in painful burns and scarring.

To further complicate the matter, the volunteer (while always a devotee of the God of Wealth) is not in a state of spirit possession or trance.  He is fully aware of the flames and explosions around him.  In that sense the performers of this ritual are a bit different from the other “flagellants” that one sometimes encounters in Taiwanese festivals who are in deep trances and do not appear to be aware of the pain that they are subjected to in the course of a public performance.  It is the very uniqueness (or violence) of this festival that has allowed it to become a tourist destination for individuals from the larger cities looking to take in an exotic spectacle. The tourism-based wealth generated by the festival seems to validate the efficaciousness of the god’s blessings on the local community.

So what about this case is unique to Taidong, and where do we see more general cultural concepts?

Obviously, the details of this ritual are unique to a specific community.  But we should not think of this variation as some sort of “primordial tradition.”  Boretz reviews in depth the ways in which a single local adherent of the God’s cult attempted to reinvent and promote this ritual as a way of gaining social respect both for himself and his deity.  This process involved coopting local political elites (with the promise of tourism dollars) who had previously opposed the cult in the past (as it was deemed to be both socially marginal and potentially disruptive).

To understand the motivations of the various actors Boretz introduces a type of actor referred to as the “Man of Prowess.” Such an individual typifies and embodies the martial values (wu) which are constructed through the wen (civil)/wu (martial) dichotomy.  Typical examples of a “Man of Prowess” in Southern Taiwanese society might include soldiers, commanders, martial arts experts, shamans (who can command spirits) and ritual experts (often employed for exorcisms).

Marginal males, petty criminals and gangsters are accorded very little social respect.  More specifically, their claims to masculinity are denied or denigrated by middle class citizens.  By taking on dangerous tasks on behalf of the community they embrace the reputation for violence that they have been saddled with, and use it to reposition themselves as “Men of Prowess” whose masculinity is affirmed through a type of service.  In that way they hope to be accorded a modicum of respect, though in his book Boretz is fairly pessimistic as to how much the views of middle-class citizens towards these individuals actually change.

The blending of unique circumstances and more general social categories in this case study is important as Boretz succinctly illustrates why so many marginal young men have turned to the martial arts as a means of social advancement through the course of Chinese history.  In a more traditional community such sacrifices may be illustrates in ritual terms, such as volunteering to be “blasted” in the local lantern festival, or more commonly taking part in Lion Dances that are viewed as defining and defending the boundaries of the local community.

In a modern context those same sacrifices might be reimagined as going to a Wushu vocational high school so that one might get a job as a soldier or police officer.  Note that these are professions that also deal with the definition and maintenance of community boundaries.  The details of the process vary over place, time, and social status.  Yet the fundamental logic of self-creation through hard work and sacrifice on behalf of the community (one of the original meanings of the term ‘kung fu’) remains essentially what Boretz lays out in this case study.  All of this a logical result of the construction and adoption of identities based on wu (martial) values.

While rituals tend to be very different from one locality to the next, the social categories that Boretz outlines are important to understanding the cultural appeal of the martial arts to marginal individuals within traditional Chinese society.  However, caution is still in order.  Japan has borrowed many concepts and terms from China over the centuries, yet the ways in which all of this relates to hand combat is quite different.  Afterall, in Japan martial arts were the purview of the feudal elite, and not those at the bottom of the social order.  These are issues that will be explored further in the readings for next week.



If you are interested in masculinity, marginality and violence you might also want to read: Historical Fact vs. Social Discourse in the World of China’s 19th Century Martial Artists