A class photo from Syracuse Kung Fu. A great place to visit and see some authentic Hung Ga.


What does it mean to be political?

I suspect that very few people in North America experience their weekly trips to the training hall, dojo or public park as inherently political.  There are clearly some exceptions to this.  As Lauren Miller Griffith has demonstrated in her ethnographic work, some Capoeira groups have explicitly linked their practice to raising awareness of various social justice issues.  Yet that sort of activism (on either the left or right) seems to be notable when it occurs precisely because it is the exception rather than the norm.

This is not to say that Western martial artists don’t have political views, or that we as social scientists should ignore them.  Nevertheless, in an era when every aspect of society and popular culture has become politicized, many individuals point to their weekly training as the one place where discussions of parties and electoral races does not intrude.  If there remains any shared space within American civil society defined by mutual respect rather than tribalism, there is a good chance that it can be found in your local martial arts classes.

Nevertheless, experiencing something as apolitical is not necessarily the same as it being truly free of politics.  Given my profession as a Political Scientist, discovering a political aspect to the most unlikely subjects seems to be something of a professional hazard.  And in any case, if we were to extend the range of our examination of hand combat beyond North America’s comfortable suburban training spaces, I suspect that we would be surprised with what we might find.

Recently I have been reviewing a lot of Chinese Communist propaganda publications from the 1950s and 1960s.  These sources make no attempt to hide the fact that at the time Wushu, like all sports, was understood as yet another means of carrying out class warfare in the global arena.  It is thus no mistake that when teams of Chinese negotiators traveled abroad during the Cold War they often took groups of martial artists with them.  Likewise, Wushu demonstrations were a common sight at the dinners honoring foreign diplomats traveling to China.

While the emphasis on class warfare might have seemed strange, its unlikely that martial artists from China’s earlier Republican era, or their cousins in Meiji Japan, would have been surprised to discover that the CCP understood the martial arts politically.  In both countries these fighting practices were explicitly cast as tools that strengthened the state by dragging the masses onto the stage of history through a regime of shared physical training. Strengthening national security, not self-defense, was the motivation behind the creation of the modern Asian martial arts. The common theory shared by both Japanese and Chinese reformers was that martial arts were capable of building up the body and spirit.  Nor could the strength of any nation exceed that of its citizens.

How transparent any of this would have been to the average child taking a wushu or judo class in the 1920s is an open question.  One suspect that it would have been highly variable based on their location and the interests of the specific instructor overseeing their training.  Yet anyone might miss political sentiments that are widely shared.  Ideologies that are promoted to strengthen the state in the global arena typically feel different from the horse race of domestic political competition.  They typically take the form of background assumptions that simply go unquestioned.  Still, embodied practices such as the martial arts can do much to promote or undermine the validity of such assumptions.

It is always easier to identify ideological currents when examining past events and different societies.  Knowing about the Cultural Revolution in China, or the rise and fall of Japan’s Co-Prosperity Sphere, it’s relatively easy to identify the nationalist, statist, and ideological aspects of martial arts training in the tumultuous years of the 20th century.  But what about the West?  What sorts of ideological assumptions likely aided the spread and globalization of the Asian martial arts in places like North America and Europe?

There are numerous places where we could start such a discussion.  The globalization of these fighting arts was clearly shaped by economic markets and social structures in the West. If one wishes to understand why something like Wing Chun evolved different in the United States than Germany, or why Judo in France is differently positioned than Judo in Canada, looking at the varieties of capitalism is a good place to start.  I have explored some of these factors at length in other articles.

This essay takes a slightly different approach and asks how some of our most basic political assumptions may have affected the spread of the Asian martial arts.  Specifically, by the post-WWII period the norms of liberal democratic governance became so engrained in the West as to be almost beyond questioning.  Likewise, as the Cold War progressed, more and more countries in Asia and other part of the developing world began to adopt democratic institutions and norms.  This process was not universal as America’s conflicts with China, North Korea and North Vietnam demonstrated.  But their is no denying that the global spread of Asian martial arts and Western democratic liberalism were often occurring at the same time.


Kanchu Kanazawa with students in Portugal. Photo by J P Casainho. Source: Wikimedia.


Three Waves

First a few words about the concept of “democratization” might be in order as that is a topic which has, to the best of my knowledge, never come up in the Martial Arts Studies literature.  In general terms, democratization occurs whenever a country adopts new political institutions or social norms that promote the popular election of government officials by the state’s citizens.  Within my field we often view democracy as something of a sliding scale allowing states to become more or less democratic.  Full transitions might occur when a state goes through a fundamental regime change and becomes democratic overnight (e.g., Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain).  But more often we see small incremental steps in which preexisting institutions are tweaked to promote greater participation.  This might take the form of legalizing opposition parties in a country that previously had elections without real competition or putting safeguards in place to protect the freedom of the press (preventing the government from using it as a propaganda organ).

Theoretically any state at any time should be free to become more or less democratic.  Yet when viewed in the aggregate political scientists quickly realized that these sorts of transitions are not random.  Rather, it is common for groups of states to either move towards or away from complete democracy at the same time.  These shifts sometimes reflect the emergence of new ideas and beliefs (after the French Revolution), or shifts in the global balance of power (the victory of the Allies over the fascist powers at the end of WWII). Domestic political considerations are always a part of the story as well.  But sometimes broadly-based shifts can happen (such as the current swing towards populism) that are less well understood.

In any case, the process of democratization often appears to emerge and recede in global waves.  Writers have been using the metaphor of the wave in this context since at least the end of the 19th century, but the image was most widely popularized by Samuel Hunting.  In various articles and a book the Harvard based Political Scientist claimed that in the modern period we have seen three distinct waves of democratization.  The first of these occured over the course of the 19thcentury, building up momentum towards the end of that era.  Then in the interwar years the democratic wave seemed to recede with the rise of new types of totalitarian government.  Immediately after WWII the second great democratic wave broke with a number of countries taking advantage of their liberation to join America’s new liberal global order.  This wave would recede during the 1960s and first years of the 1970s as the Soviet Union hit the zenith of its global influence during the Cold War. Finally, in the mid 1970s the so called 3rd wave of democratization would explode as renewed globalization and faith in liberal market and political structures reordered power relationships across the developing world.

Huntington is not the only scholar to have written about this subject.  The democratization debates have been large and spirited, defining much of the modern field of Comparative Politics.  Still, I bring up Huntington’s notion of three distinct waves as these correspond fairly well to what we might see as the three main eras in the globalization of the Asian martial arts.  We must remember that correlation is not proof of causation, and there is always danger in trying to fit historical facts to discussions of social scientific theories.  Still, we may want to consider the extent to which democratic norms and the Asian martial arts have been co-travelers through the global sphere during the 20th century.

The fit between these models is admittedly the weakest during the first era, but there are still some interesting resonances.  Jujutsu and Judo both caught the Western public’s attention in the final years of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, just as Huntington’s first wave is coming to an end.  In a historical sense this is not a surprise as Japan, with successive victories over China and Russia, was forcing the world to acknowledge its stature as an industrialized state and important naval power.  The shock of these victories upended certain notions of racial hierarchy in the West and inspired much of the popular interest in martial arts during this period.

While some individuals continued to study the martial arts during the 1920s and 30s, they did not generate the same level of enthusiasm that they first enjoyed in the days of Teddy Roosevelt.  However, America’s entrance into WWII (and its subsequent victory in that conflict) inspired a huge wave of interest in Judo and Karate.  Specifically, servicemen who studied these arts during the occupation became a readymade source of students and instructors in the 1950s.  This immense rise in popularity led to new levels of social visibility that had never previously been seen.  This corresponds almost perfectly in time with Huntington’s second wave.

While global democracy may have hit a rough patch during the 1960s I don’t think one could say the same for the martial arts in the United States.  I have spent a fair amount of time reviewing popular publications from this era and they seem to suggest steady growth throughout the decade.  Still, something remarkable happened in the early 1970s.  Just as Huntington’s 3rd wave of democratization was taking off, “Kung Fu Fever” gripped North America and Europe.

While the Asian martial arts had enjoyed a slowly expanding base of support through the 1950s-1960s, the situation shifted dramatically in the early 1970s. As the number of students skyrocketed terms like “Karate” and “Kung Fu” became, for first time, household words understood by everyone in Western society. Nor was this simply a matter of social recognition or popularity.  At the same time that the number of students was exploding, Western consumers suddenly found themselves with more options than ever before.  This was the decade when Taekwondo clearly established itself as something other than “Korean Karate” in the Western marketplace.  Thanks to Bruce Lee and new immigration policies Chinese styles generate a lot of enthusiasm.  But during the 1980s Americans also developed an appreciation for Filipino and other South East Asian fighting arts.

In the 1950s an interest in the Asian martial arts would almost certainly lead one to a Judo school.  Even in major cities there just weren’t that many other option.  But by the 1980s seemingly anything was possible.  Not only were a wide variety of Japanese and Chinese arts available, but the global interchange of people and ideas was making the fighting systems of South East Asia ever more accessible to global audience.  As I noted, the correlation is not 100%, yet it is difficult not to notice that the three great waves of democratization that shaped the 20th century correlated with the spread of the Asian fighting arts in interesting ways.


Students at a kickboxing seminar held in Ithaca NY.


Finding the Connection

The obvious question would be why?  In point of fact most Asian martial arts systems are not terribly democratic in their institutional structure.  We need to exercise caution when applying political categories to voluntary athletic organizations, but most Asian schools seem to have developed the sort of absolutist, top-down, authority structures that might be seen as antithetical to democratic norms.  Indeed, there is at least some evidence that during periods of rapid social change the promise of more traditional social structures and values attracted at least some Western students to the Asian martial arts. As such one might hypothesize that the spread of the Asian martial arts may have been a reaction against social dislocation generated by the spread of new types of social and economic liberalization.

Still, I don’t believe that this is what drove most of the growth during this period.  One of the things that strikes me as important is how willing most Westerners were to forget what they had previously known about the politics of the martial arts in both Japan and China.  During WWII these were topics that had been discussed and criticized in the pages of America’s top newspapers.  Yet in the post-war years, the extreme ideological nationalism of the 1920s-1940s was seen as an aberration rather than as something that was fundamental to the social creation of practices like Judo or Kendo.

Accounts from the era suggest that Western students may even have felt that there was a type of democratic work happening within the Asian martial arts.  In a time of tense racial politics, a karate or judo class was one of the few places where Asian, white and African American students might all find themselves interacting on relatively equal footing.  It is easy to take this for granted today, but we should not forget how radical this was in the America of the 1950s-1960s.

Likewise, women were often welcomed into martial arts classes and were invited to train, and sometimes compete, on equal footing with men.  In the era before Title IX such opportunities were limited.  On an even more fundamental level, Asian martial arts training typically demanded that a high level of ritualized respect be paid to everyone within a class, and served to constantly remind individuals that it was through hard work and dedication that victory was achieved, not natural strength.

As the Asian martial arts became localized in West it was easy to see them as schools that reproduced liberal social norms and a sort of meritocracy that mirrored the protestant work ethic.  It is easy to get caught up with the growing connections between certain types of Asian philosophies and the counter-culture movement of the 1960s-1970s.  Obviously, this helps to explain some of the subsequent appeal of these systems.  But we should not lose sight of the fact that the perceived norms found within a martial art class also offered validation to individuals both in the center and on the right of the political spectrum.  These classes seemed to invoke norms so widely shared within the Western democracies that they would likely be taken for granted.

Examined from a wider historical context, things looked very different.  The reformulation of the Japanese martial arts to allow for larger classes in educational institutions had been part of an attempt to promote modern political ideals that had nothing to do with Western norms of liberalisms.  Likewise, while the Jingwu Association seems to have accepted Western feminist goals in their promotion of women’s inclusion in training, the more right-leaning factions of the KMT quickly expunged these concepts from the public discourse surrounding the Chinese martial arts in the later 1920s and 1930s.  For them female participation was desirable mainly because a nation without healthy mothers could not produce strong sons.  It is thus ironic to note that during the post-War period America was full of rather conservative Japanese, Korean and Chinese teachers who were tasked with spreading their arts to young Western students with fundamentally different life histories, values and world views.  I have always been a bit surprised that we haven’t seen more discussions of the many ways in which students and teachers attempted to bridge these gaps.

Both democracy and the Asian martial arts found an opportunity to spread as shifts in the global balance of power made new values and types of social contact possible.  In that sense the soft power of Western liberalism and Eastern martial arts were both dependent upon the hard power victories of WWII and the Cold War.  These conflicts forcibly opened markets to trade and moved hundreds of thousands of soldier around the globe.  It would thus be easy to dismiss the perceived links between the spread of the Asian fighting systems and democratic governance as a fluke.  Likewise, we could dismiss the perception of Western martial arts students that there was something democratic or politically liberating about studying the Asian martial arts studies in the post-war years as an ethnocentric projection of their own values.

Still, I think we might miss something if we were to do that.  Obviously, the ideology that supports a martial arts system can evolve over time, just as its techniques do.  As such it would be unlikely that a Japanese karate teacher in America in the 1980s would have had the same political norms and dispositions that his father might have had in the 1930s.  As the Cold War progressed (imperiling both Japan and United States), one might very well discover an entire range of shared values and beliefs.

This brings us back to Hunting’s initial observation that while any country might undergo some sort of democratic reform at any time, in actual practice things rarely happen that way.  The process of democratization itself is a deeply social one.  Democratic transitions are more likely to succeed when they are supported by the widespread acceptance of liberal norms within the global system.  Further, newly democratic states often need the economic, political and sometimes even military support of more established democracies to thrive.  It is precisely this social aspect of the democratization process which explain why shifts in regime type seem to move in waves.

This might cause us to reflect again on the experience of liberal or democratic norms of social acceptance that students in the 1950s-1990s seem to have experienced as part of their training within the Asian martial arts.  Part of the process of being constructed as a liberal democratic subject is learning who else to accept as an ideological equal within the global system.  Most democracies are in some cultural or social respects different from each other.  Yet in the big and small matters of global politics they tend to acknowledge and respect each other. That suggests a process of learning and mutual accommodation.  Indeed, the Japanese and Americans developed very different models of democratic governance during the Cold War.  Yet they learned to be remarkably tolerant of this variation, even during times of notable economic competition.

It may well be that the explosion of interest in the Asian martial arts that corresponded to Huntington’s Second and Third Waves was one of the means by which Western populations understood and came to accept new fundamental facts about the nature of the global order within their own bodily experience.  Much has been written on how the growth of martial arts practice allowed for the creation of new “imagined communities” that facilitated the spread of nationalist ideologies in the first half of the 20th century.  It might also be worth considering the role of the globalization of these hand combat systems in creating the types of empathy, trust and shared experience needed to maintain the later post-war liberal democratic order.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Red Boats of the Cantonese Opera: Economics, Social Structure and Violence 1850-1950.