Lam Shu-shing practices with a student.Photographer: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg


It was the best of times….

I like going to the gym.  My reasons are not overly complicated.  Nice treadmills are surprisingly expensive and running outside in the dead of winter (or the dog days of summer) is not always pleasant, or even possible, for someone with my type of asthma.  As an added bonus there is abundant air-conditioning.  My old gym even had a bunch of heavy bags, making it almost perfect.

It was thus distressing to open my newsfeed and discover not one, but two, separate piece on the disaster that is now besetting the fitness industry.  While the economy is slowly beginning to reopen, enclosed spaces where large groups of strangers assemble to sweat and pant are pretty low on most municipalities list of businesses to get running.  The first article noted that while many gyms (including the smaller independently operated ones) have attempted to maintain their customer base via on-line programing, most are hemorrhaging members. Rents and utilities bills, however, are still due.  None of that is really surprising and we have seen a wave of martial arts schools shut down due to similar pressures.  Still, I took (some) comfort in the fact that my big box gym with the nice treadmills would probably be the last guy standing.

The second article undercut that assumption.  Remember all of those home fitness Zoom classes that we just mentioned?  It turns out that all sorts of people have realized two things.  First, it is entirely possible to get a great workout without half an acre of expensive exercise equipment in a cavernous space. Most people can do it with a very modest investment in some free weights and a yoga matt in their own living rooms.  Second, much of the benefit of having access to nicer equipment and trainers is negated by the travel time of going to and from the gym.

In point of fact, I have never seen so many joggers and walkers on the local roads as I have over the last three months. There is some worry that as part of the “new normal,” all of those people who paid for gym memberships but rarely went (thus subsidizing my treadmill use) will have learned that they can exercise more cheaply and easily in their own homes and municipal parks.  Unless a gym offers something really irreplaceable (e.g., pools, tennis courts or really great personal training), the future could be bleak.  But what about martial arts classes?

Or, more to the point, what will be the fate of the many martial arts schools that have attempted to navigate the high costs of the current real estate market by renting out space to various fitness, yoga and kettlebell instructors, as well as other hand combat teachers? The traditional model of instruction in North America saw was built around dedicated spaces for single-style schools. Yet in recent years some businesses have thrived in a tightening market by renting space to a wide variety of other fitness instructors.  Sharing the rent across multiple schools certainly helped everyone’s bottom line.  And in this scenario popular morning yoga and bootcamp classes subsidized the more esoteric (and generally much smaller) traditional martial arts classes in the evening.  Given the success of this business model, any blow to the fitness industry could also rebound onto the current martial arts landscape.  Not that it needs any more bad news.


Silver Linings

There is no point in denying how serious the current situation is for all sorts of martial arts-based businesses.  Everyone, from the largest BJJ academies to the smallest HEMA study groups, is feeling the squeeze.  My Facebook feed has been full of stories of martial arts schools closing their doors and going out of business in both Europe and North America.  More recently, we have seen highly publicized news reports of some schools reopening in defiance of local regulations in an attempt to avoid that fate. Nevertheless, the profit margins in this business are thin enough in the best of times that it is not really clear how long most clubs can last at 50% capacity and without their kid’s programs.

Still, there are reasons to be hopeful. A historically informed view would remind us that martial arts cultures have traditionally been shaped by, and emerged from, periods of crisis and extreme disruption.  Within Chinese history it is clear that while war, famine and disease disrupted training in the past, they also led to important innovations in the next generation of schools.

Guangdong’s iconic modern styles (Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar and Wing Chun) are all a product of the social reordering that happened in the wake of the devastating Red Turban Revolt of the 1850s.  The great modernizing movements of the 20th century, the Jingwu and Guoshu campaigns, can both be read as a reaction to the trauma of Boxer Uprising, the 1911 Revolution and then the May 4th movement. All of those events put immense pressure of China’s martial artists, yet they also resulted in something new and exciting.  In much the same way, the golden (1950s) and silver (1980s-1990s) ages of modern Kung Fu emerged in the wake of the massive social disruption of WWII and the Cultural Revolution.

Perhaps this should not be surprising. The Chinese martial arts take survival, on both the individual and community level, as their core problématique. While practices and communities change from one generation to the next, it should not be a surprise that, so long as some sort of social relevance can be identified, these practices have endured.  I also suspect that some of the most seemingly archaic and paradoxical elements of these practices, things that are pointed to as holding back their growth in boom years, have also helped to ensure their survival during times of crisis.

Perhaps the most obvious of these would be the lineage system itself. My Chinese sister-in-law in Hong Kong insists that all of her children study martial arts, but not Kung Fu.  Like most of the city’s martially inclined youngsters, they are enrolled in an impeccably credentialed Taekwondo school.  When asked why, she explained that one could spend a decade studying a traditional Chinese system and have nothing to show for it but the grudging approval of a single old man. A Black Belt in Taekwondo, on the other hand, was universally recognized.  It could go on a college application. The rationalized and business friendly way in which the art was organized made it not just accessible, but somehow legible in a global context in ways that the traditional Chinese arts are not.

On the other hand, an immense amount of organization, effort and direct government support is necessary to keep a project like Olympic Taekwondo afloat. In contrast, all that is necessary to convey an art within the Chinese lineage system is a master and a single student.  While some lineage organizations are quite large and complex, by their very nature this is a type of social organization that is infinitely scalable.  It may expand to generate international organizations, but it does not need them to function.  Ip Man became the “grand master” of Hong Kong Wing Chun (a title, I should hasten to add, he never used himself), not because he was Chan Wah Shun’s most talented or senior student.  Rather, in the chaos of 1949 he was the one guy who managed to flee across the border in time, bringing with him all of the knowledge necessary to reformulate and reproduce the system.

There is something intensely admirable about that sort of organizational resilience.  Nor is it unique.  The history of the East Asian martial arts are littered with similar occurrences. The same basic traits that have prevented true unification within the Chinese martial arts sector have also contributed to the survival of many styles.

What about our current moment?  Which seeming weaknesses within the current landscape might, in unexpected ways, contribute to a resurgence of martial arts in the West?  Let’s consider three possibilities.


Photo from the Cornell Wushu Club.


Specialists vs. Generalists

Despite being products of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the East Asian martial arts continue to be viewed by the public as notably “traditional.”  Rather than always pushing back against this as a historical fallacy or misunderstanding, perhaps it is worthwhile to ask why students continue to experience them in this way? I think that if we did one of the first things that we would discover is that in the popular imagination modernity is associated with ever increasingly levels of specialization and scientific focus.

Even modern combat systems tend to focus on only one or two core missions.  MMA schools train for a very specific sport with carefully delineated rules. It would be odd to walk into an MMA gym and discover elite athletes taking the night off to work on knife defense drills. They certainly could do that. They might even be very good at it.  But most of us would look at this material and see is as excursion or interesting fieldtrip, not something that is core to modern combat sports training.

Traditional martial arts schools, on the other hand, are more likely to be generalists in their orientation.  Obviously, caution is critical in making any broad generalizations.  There are probably Judo and Taekwondo training facilities that are every bit as focused on preparing individuals for high stakes competitive fights as any Boxing or MMA camp.

Still, my bet is that if you were to walk into a scientific sample of neighborhood TKD, Karate or Kung Fu schools, you would encounter a startling range of activities, goals and training modalities. One class might be focused on self-defense while the next is preparing a group of colored belts for their first point-tournament.  Some schools will have extensive children’s programing, while others will only admit teens and adults into their classes.  Basic fitness training might take up half of a class in one school, whereas another instructor might decide that this time is better spent drilling techniques and preparing for belt tests.  Some of these schools will be relatively “traditional” in their cultural orientation, featuring crisp white uniforms and extensive codes of conduct. Others might favor t-shirts and a simple communal bow at the end of the training sessions. All of these variations are commonly encountered with “traditional” fighting systems.

One of the great frustrations of such schools is that they function as all things to all people. What this means is that no matter one’s particular interests, there is likely some martial arts schools out there that would be a perfect fit for you.  But without the focus that comes from years of specialized training, it also suggests that their students may struggle to excel in specialized tasks.  Setting questions of charlatans, deluded masters and outdated training methods aside, I am going to hypothesize that even in the best-case scenario, there is a pretty simple reason why professional boxer/mma fighters will always beat the traditional martial arts master in those YouTube videos.  It comes down to specialization, or simply putting in the hours.  All else being, equal the individual who trains all day for one task will be beat the individual who trains for four and then runs an afterschool program to pay the bills.  It is a mathematical fact, and the reason why ever-increasing degrees of specialization have become the dominant paradigm for social development in the current era.

Still, specialization has its costs. Many of them are economic in nature. While the “gains from trade” argument dictates that economic specialization can produce greater net value for society as a whole, it is also dependent on a well-run marketplace with lots of consumers flush with disposable income to support all of this.  In contrast, relatively smaller communities composed of individuals with different primary objectives can more easily support generalists instructors.  Narrow specializations presupposes economies of scale that may be achievable in some-times and places, but not others.  In periods of prolonged economic contraction a neighborhood martial arts schools which can do a little bit of everything might have a better chance of surviving than the large BJJ academy focused only on competition, the reality fighting school focused only on paramilitary knife/gun defense ,and the Wushu program with an emphasis on gymnastics.



The Small Business Apocalypse and Real Estate

It is easy to fixate on the role of social media and viral videos in diminishing enthusiasm for the traditional martial arts in recent years. Still, there is one factor that has put more pressure on traditional martial arts (in Asia, Europe and North America) than any other.  That is the steady rise of rents.  Even when schools have managed to adapt and survive, changes in the real estate markets have fundamentally altered the relationship between Chinese martial arts schools and the surrounding neighborhood in cities like Hong Kong, New York and Singapore.

As a community we tend to overestimate how wonderful things really were back in the “good old days” of the 1970s-1980s. It is no coincidence that small martial arts schools were able to rent a store front or warehouse loft as these decades saw prolonged economic disruption and a flight away from downtown areas to suburbia. The ideal martial arts school that many of us still imagine, an exclusive space dedicated to only one style with some exposed brick and quirky architecture, was in large part made possible by the decline of manufacturing and the hollowing out of those neighborhoods. As economic growth accelerated during and after the 1990s, these spaces became prized by different types of businesses and real estate developers. Rent were going up at exactly the same time that young people in China discovered that they had more leisure choices, and their counterparts in North America became transfixed with the UFC. It wasn’t just that there were fewer new students walking in the doors, but the rate of profit per hour of student instruction was also dropping.

This brings us to the current moment. For the last few months news outlets have been full of dire predictions about a coming small business apocalypse.  It is not just gyms that are in trouble. It is likely that a sizable percentage of all restaurants and bars will close during the phased reopening period as these sorts of establishments just aren’t economically viable when forced to operate at 50% of their full capacity.  Likewise, all sorts of retailers of non-essential items have already shut their doors. And if consumers (up to 25% of whom have recently lost a job) don’t show up ready to spend, everyone is in trouble.

The natural consequence of this immediate pain will be high rates of vacancy for commercial real estate and, in time, lower rents.  What is more, the slow “U-shaped” recovery that most economists are now predicting suggests that rents are likely to stay depressed for some time to come.  This is likely cold comfort to the school owners who are being forced to close down their current locations now. One hopes that many of these individuals will retreat to garages and basements, keeping some kernel of their organizations intact during the worst of the recession to come.  That is, after all, the beauty of a highly personalized lineage-based model of transmission.  While it has trouble scaling up during boom times, it can easily survive very depressed economic circumstances. Hopefully in the medium-run, high rates of commercial vacancy will once again play to the advantage of those who would like an exclusive training space to call their own.



Build it and they will come…

Factors like licensing requirements (lineage vs. certification) and real estate prices primally effect conditions under which martial arts instruction can be supplied. Yet knowing about the supply of classes or instructors is not enough.  To understand what is likely to happen in the future we must also know something about the demand for these services.  Only when we know how the supply and demand for martial arts instruction are likely to shift can we understand what is coming.

In this case the prognosis is quite good, and that is an unfortunate thing. The United States has entered a period of unprecedented political, social and economic crisis. All of this is contributing to a groundswell of insecurity and anxiety among consumers.

One of the first observations that I made when starting my ethnographic research was that very few people walk into a martial arts school because everything in their life is going well. On the contrary, the decision to join a club is often motivated by some sort of anxiety.  This can be relatively minor (such as one former collegiate wrestler who took up BJJ because he “didn’t feel right” being away from the mat), to quite acute (individuals dealing with ongoing domestic abuse). In general, most people turn to martial arts precisely because they perceive some sort of problem and they are looking to effect change in their life.

Given that observation, it is interesting to think about the types of rhetoric that surround the topic of “self-defense” in the modern marketplace.  Individuals are promised a release from fear and physical insecurity by mastering certain combat skills.  Yet this in no ways exhausts the promises of most martial arts schools. Training is also seen as a way to “get in shape” and ward off the threat of serious health problems down the road.  In an era when fewer people have health insurance in the United States (where such services are typically tied to one’s place of employment) such preventative promises are taken increasingly seriously. Exercise and mindfulness training are also promoted as a way to deal with the stress, anxiety and dislocation of the neo-liberal economic order.  COVID-19 has exponentially increased anxieties about health, employment and what tomorrow might bring.  Indeed, it seems that everyone is now looking for an exercise program and a mindfulness routine. What better place to find them than in a martial arts class?

All of this returns us to our original question.  The East Asian martial arts are “traditional” because they have largely resisted the pull towards specialization that has characterized so many other sectors of the economy and society over the last few decades.  Their propensity for thinking in holistic terms, for understanding insecurity as not just a physical but also a social and a spiritual condition, has left these arts unique well suited for the current moment.

On one level it would be all too easy to note that the types of solo-practice seen in these systems is better suited to world of dispersed and fragmented training (perhaps facilitated by a teacher on Zoom) than the more tactile and tactical sports such as BJJ or Judo.  At best that is only half of the story.  Serious taijiquan students need the sensory feedback of push hands just as serious Wing Chun students are addicted to their sticky hands.

Instead, it may be that the sort of conversations that occur within the more “traditional” system is never as tightly focused on a singular overarching goal as what is sometimes seen in modern combat sports. It isn’t that BJJ or boxing practice cannot be a wholistic and deeply therapeutic experience. For many people these practices clearly are. Yet more of that conversation seems survive the switch to solo training within the traditional arts.

All of this leads us to once again ask, what is “traditional” about these practices which clearly arose in the modern period? I will focus on the Chinese arts as that is the area with which I am most familiar.

Almost everything that we practice today, from Taijiquan to Wing Chun, is a product of the second half of the 19th century or the first decades of the 20th.  Some of these arts were created in response to periods of unprecedent upheaval in Chinese society, whereas others were fundamentally reformed and popularized among new groups of students. Individuals in China faced existential questions about the future of their state, society and economy during the century that spanned from 1850 to 1950. Some of the decades most important to the development of the modern martial arts (1890s, 1920s) were characterized by growing international conflict, domestic physical insecurity and warlordism.  Of course, these were the precisely issues that inspired China’s martial arts reformers as they sought to reformulate cultural ideas and practices that had been inherited from the past. Seen in this light the generalist nature of these systems, and their holistic understanding of questions of human security and survival are less surprising. These systems were developed out of, and in response to, a unique period of crisis.  As such, they may also be exactly what we need today.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Our Fist is Black: Martial Arts, Black Arts, and Black Power in the 1960s and 1970s