Answering their Questions

COVID-19 has badly disrupted our world.  Both jobs and lives have been lost.  Professional commitments have been put on hold and training schedules transformed. Yet the oddest thing about this virus is its seeming ability to warp the fabric of space and time itself. Days become harder to distinguish as the work week loses its distinctive rhythm.  And with the miracle of video conferencing applications, it seems that everyone in the world is now equally accessible.  Over the last few weeks I have found myself spending considerably more time with friends living far away than colleagues and coworkers who are much closer to home. A number of those conversations have forced me to articulate previously unstated aspects of my own thinking about the martial arts in general, and martial arts studies as an academic field of study.

It is not unusual that a colleague at Cornell, or someone in my field, might ask me to explain Martial Arts Studies.  When I was a graduate student my advisor, Helen Milner, told me that I needed to formulate three answers to the inevitable question, “What is your dissertation about?” She said that I needed a 10 second answer suitable for elevator rides, a 30 second expansion for casual conversations, and finally a 3-minute version to be reserved only for people who were in my field. Anything longer than that would bore people and it was better to send them a copy of one of my conference papers instead.

I took her advice to heart and I still stand by it now.  We all need to be ready to promote our work and short, well formulated, answers can pique someone’s interest.  More than that and you risk losing your audience.  All of which is to say, my “elevator pitch” for Martial Arts Studies is on point.  And generally speaking, if someone wants to know more than what you can cover in 3-4 minutes, it is time to point them to a recent article or book in the field.  In discussions of academic legitimacy, the literary adage “Show, don’t tell” hold true.

That is, after all, what most of these conversations come down too. Is Martial Arts Studies really a legitimate field of scholarly study?  We are certainly in a better position to argue that point now than we were ten years ago.  The proliferation of studies of other areas of popular culture has paved the way for serious work on martial arts.  Still, it is up to us to make the argument.  We should all have our 10 second, 30 second, and a 3-minute answers handy.

Nevertheless, “What is Martial Arts Studies?”  isn’t a very interesting question in these contexts precisely because it remains focused on the issue of legitimacy.  More important are those instances when we find ourselves explaining our understanding of the field to someone who is also part of it, having written their own books and articles. Such musings are unlikely to confine themselves to three-minute increments, but they can help to reveal our assumptions and understandings.

Over the last few weeks I have been fortunate to have this foundational conversation with multiple researchers in our field.  As always, one’s approach to defining the martial arts as a physical or cultural set of practices cannot be fully disentangled from our understanding of Martial Arts Studies as a field of study.  This then is the first point of discussion.  What is a martial art?


Vintage postcard circa 1898-1901. Authors personal collection.


Defining Martial Arts

I have already gone on record noting that I am (generally) not in favor of a priori definitions of martial arts for a number of reasons.  In my own research, I prefer discussions that focus on the social function that some activity fulfills, and the community that practices it, rather than to pontificate about its limits.  Sixt Wetzler laid out a strong case for this approach in our first issue of Martial Arts Studies and I attempted to extend his argument and suggest what it might look like in my own response to his piece.

Paul Bowman has proved to be the most adamant voice in the “anti-definition” camp.  He notes (as did Wetzler) that dictionary type definitions seem incapable of escaping the problem of hierarchy.  They are designed to tell us what activities qualify as a “real” martial art based on an abstract set of qualities.  Yet it is all too easily to begin to read these markers as proof of excellence, especially in a practice that rhetorically frames itself as a source of social status or expertise.

It is fine when practicing martial artists say this sort of stuff. Such claims are very common and theoretically interesting. If a Filipino stick and knife instructor wishes to declare on their own social media channels that machete fighting in Haiti doesn’t have the technical sophistication to qualify as a “real martial art,” they are perfectly within their rights to do so. Understanding why they would make such a declaration might tell us quite a bit about practices and values in either the school that they are representing, or perhaps global markets more generally.

Nevertheless, if a professor or some other academic expert were to declare that Haitian Machete fighting did not qualify as a real martial art for the same reasons, the effect is altogether different.  I would go so far as to assert that it would be chilling.  Upon reading such a statement Bowman might advise us that we have some deconstruction to do and value hierarchies that need to be examined.  Or if one prefers their theory in a more social-scientific vein, Wetzler would remind us that our job as a scholar is to understand the origin, social function and meaning of the martial arts, not to perpetuate our own subjective judgements as to what is good or bad practice within a competitive marketplace.  While we have all “gone native” in our own personal practice, those technical values should not define our research and writing.  Such is the danger of the adage, “Write what you know.”

Bowman is correct when he asserts that the nuances and qualifications of the term “martial art” are precisely the thing that needs to be wrestled with, rather than taken as our starting assumption.  In purely etymological terms, its current usage in English is actually rather recent, and its closest analogs in Chinese and Japanese evolved quite a bit over the last two hundred years.  Nor should that be surprising.  Like all other branches of popular culture, martial arts are in a state of constant flux.

If you asked someone in Beijing what the most important martial arts were in the year 1770 they would likely have said (in the following order) 1) archery 2) riding 3) strength training.  Why?  These were the specific skills that were tested on the imperial military service exams. It is often forgotten now, but many working martial artists actually made their living coaching students to pass this exam.  Wrestling, fencing, boxing and spear work were also widely taught and had their own specialists.  But archery was clearly at the apex of martial culture during much of imperial China’s long history. Many more books seem to have been published about archery than fencing or boxing.

If you were to ask a group of Chinese martial artists the same question two hundred years later, in 1970, you would get an entirely different set of answers.  By that point traditional archery was largely forgotten and different styles of unarmed combat were perceived globally as “national arts.” As a field we need concepts that are flexible enough to help us deal with both eras of history, or to understand how one period flows into the next.  What is unhelpful are definitions that privileges our current cultural values over those held by people in different places or eras.


Chinese fighters with spears. Northern China, 1930s. Original photographer unkown. Source: The private album of a Japanese soldier.


Describing Martial Arts Studies

Should practices like archery, or more provocatively sorcery and battle magic, be understood as part of Martial Arts Studies?  My gut feeling is that we miss the boat whenever we focus on questions of technique in isolation.  Martial arts may have been many things in many times and places.  Whether we are interested in wrestling, fencing or the use of soft weapons, there are an almost infinite number of techniques, combinations and hybridizations that can be imagined.  But the critical thing is that all of this knowledge, while experienced on the individual level, was socially generated and shared.  A single technical genius sitting on a mountain with no teacher or students is not yet a martial artist.  Only at the point that this knowledge can be passed on are we moving into the realm of martial arts.  When engaged in the scholarly study of martial arts, we take as our subject the ways in which specific types of social experience are created and utilized.  Even embodied experiences (a popular current research topic) are not self-interpreting.  Individuals are forever turning to sources outside themselves in an attempt to create meaning and establish identity around bodily practice.

Martial Arts Studies may at times deal with questions about the technical execution of some movement or fighting system.  They may even be a critical aspect of a specific author’s research topic.  But what the field as a whole must deal with is the social creation, function and meaning of these practices.  It is here that the defining characteristics of martial arts are to be found.  Many bushi in ancient Japan learned how to use a sword long before the earliest fencing schools were created (perhaps in the Kamakura period).  We must remember that being a soldier and a martial artist are not always the same thing.  Likewise, lots of groups have studied occult lore and offensive magic who were not martial artists.  The Yihi Boxer of 1900 are an interesting case precisely because they used both swords and magic as part of their arsenal.  But if we want to understand why they were martial artists, and how their actions were understood by the rest of Chinese society, we must move beyond questions of technique and into patterns of social organization and discourse.

This conclusion suggests something very important about our field. Martial Arts Studies is interdisciplinary not simply because these sorts of approaches are currently fashionable. As any young academic can tell you, it is much harder to get your Review, Promotion and Tenure Committee to accept interdisciplinary projects than more easily categorized ones. Rather, it is the nature of martial arts themselves that demands such an approach. As Paul Bowman argued in his first book on the subject, they explicitly challenge the construction and utility of our current disciplinary boundaries.

Martial Arts Studies is thus comprised of two strands. The first is the study of technique and practice.  The second is an examination of ideas, discourses and images associated with these practices. It is the fundamentally social nature of the arts which ensures that they will always manifest these two aspects. As scholars we must ask, “What do individuals actually do?” “How did a given style emerge from its source material?”  “How do training practices shape performance outcomes?”  We can never come to grips with these fighting systems unless we are willing to engage in a detailed examination of some aspect of their physical practice.

At the same time, we need to be conscious of the fact that martial arts movements rarely dominate society.  They typically exist as distinct subcultural units.  As such, technical transmission is not happening in a vacuum.  It is conditioned by sets of ideas and images within the schools seeking to give meaning to these practices.  But that is not all.  Society at large will have its own sets of ideas and discourses about the martial arts that must also be taken into account.

In the modern world these are typically perpetuated through film, social media or video games.  In the past radio dramas and novels had a profound impact on how people imagined martial practice.  Just as today, in 19th and 20th century China, most people had no personal experience with the martial arts.  Their understanding of these practices came largely from theater, story telling and later film.  Martial artists themselves were often enthusiastic consumers of these narratives.

Still, we must be cautious that we do not reify this duality between practice, on the one hand, and discourse, on the other.  Too often amateur students of the history or anthropology of martial arts do precisely this by proclaiming that they will only examine the “real practices” of some style, dismissing everything else as a fantasy which should be ignored by serious students.  What results can sometimes be used as a handbook illustrating dangers of false dualities.

The practice of technique and our beliefs about it (where it came from, what its supposed to do, who “owns” it, etc…) can’t be separated.  Most of us were not led to the martial arts by an urgent need to defend our village from bandits in the hill.  Rather, we (or our parents) had certain notions of how the martial arts might contribute to a process of personal transformation.  That belief was in turn conditioned on other norms regarding the characteristics of a useful citizen, a dutiful child, or the definition of the “good life.”

We might want to believe that these norms emerged from a system of well-reasoned education and prolonged self-examination. In reality many of our core values seem to originate in, and be reinforced by, the same sources of popular culture that are telling us what martial arts are and why we need to sign up for classes at that new MMA club. In some societies (Japan during the 1930s) the martial arts were understood as an extension of dominant cultural values.  In others (America during the 1970s-80s) they were seen as a reaction against broader trends.  But one way or another, you cannot understand what martial artists hope to accomplish, and hence how they train on a technical level, if you do not first understand their relationship with the major discursive structures of the day.

We can also see the inter-relationship between martial arts images and practices emerging on a much more granular level. Simply put, the physical characteristics of martial practice condition how they are imagined by society at large. No where is this more apparent than in the world of film and television.

Boredom with dominant modes of fight choreography (drawing on Taekwondo, boxing or karate), led the directors of the Jason Borne films to delve into visual representations of close range fighting. As a result, the image of a new type of highly kinetic secret agent was born out of specific, very real, training modalities. Of course, the run-away success of these films also filled the classes of several martial arts styles with students who had a rather skewed notion of where Kali, JKD, Krav Maga or even Wing Chun might take them, or what the basic assumptions of these arts actually were.

At times these images and expectations have come to exercise a surprising degree of influence on the way that arts are understood and practiced.  For instance, the once literary classification of all Chinese martial arts styles as either “Shaolin or Wudang,” “Internal or External” has had a profound shaping effect on both the sociology and practice of the Chinese martial arts. What at first appeared to be a dichotomy is revealed to be a deeply recursive system in which both practice and beliefs combine to give rise to that thing we call “martial arts.”

While recursive systems may ultimately yield a singular outcome, understanding them still requires a variety of specialized research methodologies.  Certain approaches may be better suited to exploring ideas or images surrounding the martial arts, while others focus on their physical practices.  The logic of interdisciplinarity is thus baked into the project.

Some authors may approach these questions by employing mixed methods within a single project.  Others might put together teams of specialists to pursue a single research agenda from multiple angles.  Of course, not every article or monograph has the space to include a wide variety of approaches.  Yet what makes a project part of the Martial Arts Studies literature is an awareness of these various perspectives and an ability to make a contribution to that broader conversation. As researchers, we must be willing to approach our subject as a set of practices, but also as a set of images and beliefs.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Five Moments that Transformed Kung Fu