I fundamentally dislike to the term “myth busting.” It reminds me of an American television program that gained great popularity by deconstructing urban legends and popular wisdom through the excessive use of car crashes and C-4 explosives. I can’t actually hear “myth busting” without seeing a giant explosion in my mind.

Historians, social scientists, or cultural theorists are not primarily concerned with explosions. Simply blowing up a popular narrative in a well-reasoned book chapter or blog post will have zero impact on the community of practitioners and most other scholars. It is just too easy to take things apart. That is a skill everyone learns in the first semester of graduate school. By the end of our first years we see that literally any theory can be broken. And because theories are, by their nature, brittle no one gets much credit for breaking them.  The much more challenging step is developing a rigorous causal story, or system of interpretation, that explains something about the world better than the thing that you just broke. Can you make a contribution to an ongoing conversation?  

Myth busting is easy. Understanding the world is not.

This is not to say that criticizing popular narratives about the martial arts is unnecessary. Yet it is only ever a first step in establishing a baseline of historical understanding. If done in an unbalanced way it can actually impede our ability to perceive more fundamental social or cultural processes. 

Consider the question of theatricality in the Chinese martial arts or, more specifically, the relatively modern systems from the Pearl River Delta region such as Wing Chun and Choy Li Fut. Certain Cantonese arts claim a connection with, or origin within, the area’s culturally famous “Red Boats Opera” tradition. The problem is that, like all other lineage creation myths, many of these stories distort or mangle the actual history of Cantonese Opera in the region. The Red Boats certainly existed, but not always at the times that martial arts myth-making seek to place them. Nor did they function in the ways that subsequent Wuxia novels and radio dramas would reimagine them. 

“Chinese Stage Shows.” Cigarette Card. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.

Responsible martial arts historians must point out that these origin myths are fundamentally a type of mystification that replaces an actual lived history with exciting and socially useful narratives that satisfy modern desires. Origin stories are useful in that they teach us about martial artists today, but they tend not to reveal very much about the past. If you try to locate your modern (and probably highly Westernized) Wing Chun on the actual opera barges of the late 19th century, you are likely to be disappointed.

However, in dealing with one set of modern myths we need to be careful to not to create a second, reactionary, set of historical distortions. That would be to claim that since we have dismissed one mystification, we can now accept the null hypothesis that the fighting systems of the Pearl River Delta region were marked only by their combat efficiency and had nothing to do with operatic performance or seasonal festivals. In fact, theatricality had a huge impact on not just martial arts, but pretty much every other aspect of Chinese popular culture. This is not to say that martial arts weren’t also practiced by soldiers, armed escorts and local pharmacists. They certainly were. Yet all of these people would also have been opera fans and influenced to one degree or another by that cultural system. The key to building a sound historical or cultural understanding lies not in the busting of myths about painted face actors, but in understandings of how theatricality shaped popular world views in southern China during the late 19th century.  Aside from Scott Park Philips and Daniel Mroz, not many researchers have been asking this question.   

In no area is this lack of balance between critical scholarship and cultural exploration more evident than in conversations about religion, spirituality and the East Asian martial arts. Some wonderful papers came out of the recent 2020 Martial Arts Studies conference, so I am hopeful that this is changing as the area receives sustained scholarly attention. Yet the pattern of previous debates, particularly those that have broken into the popular literature, has been less inspiring. Typically, the conversation begins by forgetting that fighting systems exist in other areas of the world besides East Asia, or that religion comes in flavors other than Zen Buddhism (always a crowd pleaser) and Daoism. Next a scholar latches onto a specific popular belief within a martial arts community (all samurai warriors were Zen masters; Bodhidharma invented Shaolin Kung Fu), which is already known to be prima facia untrue, and goes about explaining why. The conclusion is then reached that what we are dealing with is essentially a secular combat system, the protestation of its poorly informed students not-withstanding. 

Shi Yongxin (L), current abbot of the Shaolin Temple, presents a sculpture of Bodhidharma to Professor Charles Mattera of United Studios of Self Defense (USSD) from the United States.

It is true that many elements of current martial arts practice are much more modern than students might care to admit. Where relevant to an argument it is important to point this out. Yet as our theatrical example suggests, it does not follow that we have thus gained a full understanding of how these systems evolved or continue to function in the lives of practitioners today.  All we have done is the “myth busting,” and that is the easy bit.

To really make progress we would need to take a much closer look at all of our source material.  Further, we would need to be willing to abandon some preconceived modern notions as to what religion looks like, or what role it plays in society. Luckily for us Sixt Wetzler in “Martial Arts and Religion: An Evident Connection?” has done much of this heavy lifting. In my opinion this paper was one of the best things to emerge from the recent conference and I highly recommend that readers check it out for themselves. At the moment it is only available in oral form, but I hope that there will be a published version soon.

To begin with the conclusion, Wetzler finds that the seemingly self-evident connections between martial arts and religion are real, wide-spread and geographically varied. This does not mean we should accept popular mystification on the subject.  Bodhidharma was not a kung fu expert and, despite what the bumper-sticker claims, Jesus probably wouldn’t have been a professional MMA fighter. Yet these myths don’t emerge from a void, they reflect long standing cultural desires within the West. Jared Miracle (among others) has noted, that we must look to our own history with “muscular Christianity” and the mystification of 18th and 19th century public school sports to understand our reflexive insistence that East Asian form of physical culture must also contain these same “spiritual” values, or teach similar moral lessons. Ethnocentrism can function as a pathway to a certain type of Orientalism.

Wetzler further cautions that the fundamentally contested definitions of both “religion” and “martial arts” complicates any discussion of this project. To cut to the chase, it is all too easy for practitioners and scholars to cherry pick preferred understandings of what “real” martial arts, or “real” spirituality, actually is. These moves often carry with them types of value judgements and social hierarchies that are fundamentally unhelpful in coming to grips with a topic such as this. Instead Wetzler accepts a broad definition of religion and leaves martial art open.

Rather than a single hypothesized relationship, this yields a typography of ways in which religion might relate to a set of embodied practices. This paper addresses only hand combat system, but one suspects that a similar exercises could be undertaken for sports, theater, ritual, or any other set of embodied practices.

The broad definition of religion adopted by Wetzler comes from the writings of Thomas Luckmann. Similar to Peter Berger’s treatment (which I have cited extensively in my own research), it focuses on the way that religious communication allows individuals to approach or make sense of transcendent moments, and through them generate the fundamental social structures of life.  There are thus two main ways that systems of religious meaning can relate to patterns of martial exchange.  First, the combative nature of fighting can be taken as the dominant system, and religious or spiritual practices are subordinated to achieve some aim, such as victory on the battlefield.  

This is perhaps the most widespread, and certainly the most easily observed, relationship between religion and the fighting arts.  Practically every culture has some version of “war magic” where fighters call on esoteric powers before a confrontation. Wetzler shared an image of a South East Asian blade that was adorned with “magical squares” in his talk, but we could multiply examples almost infinitely. Students of Chinese martial arts history will probably think of the invulnerability rituals practiced by so many organizations in the final years of the Qing dynasty and the Republic including (but not limited to) the Big Sword Society, the Yihi Spirit Boxers and the Red Spears of the 1920s-1930s. 

The alternative scenario is that the sphere of religious communication remains dominant and martial practices or goals are subordinated to that.  Again, society wide examples are not impossible to come by. The Pope’s decision to employ the excess martial zeal of European knights in pursuit of the crusades in the Holy Lands is perhaps the most famous example of such a relationship, but it is far from alone.  One of my favorite papers in the recent conference looked at the way that Russian Orthodox parishes have been using Sambo classes as recruitment devices to keep young men active in local communities. Winning medals isn’t the real goal of such a club, so much as it is strengthening the parish. Other papers looked at the role of evangelical churches in the support of modern combat sports in both North and South America. While the details of these engagements differed (sometimes in important ways), the structural relationship between the two spheres remained similar.

I suspect that this second set of cases will be the most interesting to students of Chinese martial arts.  When new recruits arrive in a training hall and ask about spiritual or religious values, this is typically what they have in mind. Wetzler notes that it is also the site of much of the mystification that we see in popular culture surrounding the martial arts. Teachers ranging from Mr. Miyagi to Yoda seek to move their students from a shallow understanding of outer technique, to a more mature acceptance of their inner meaning.  Given the popularity of these cultural models, it is not surprising that students so often demand that their real-world systems offer the same pathways to the transcendent.

Whether or not they actually do, and whether or not such claims can be treated as authentic, depend in large part on how religion/spirituality is defined in a given conversation. Still, Wetzler notes that there seem to be fewer examples of the second type of relationship than the first.

Perhaps that is because in the modern era a third possible relationship is rapidly emerging. Individuals are increasingly dropping religious modes of identification all together and replacing them with martial arts communities. Rather than the transcendent experiences in these practices being understood through a religious lens, they are now taken as an end in themselves, effectively allowing individuals to pursue goals such as self-actualization, empowerment, or even the creation of their own esoteric pathways without reference to larger social structures. It is the massive demand for this kind of localized religious experience that helped to popularize a certain set of popular beliefs that are often targeted by the myth busting mentioned earlier in this paper.  

Within this more nuanced framework Wetzler concludes that it is simply self-evident that martial arts and religion have interacted in many ways at different times and places. These currents have never flowed in one direction, yet may be important to understanding social trends.  Just as obviously, the field of comparative religious study may give us the tools necessary to break out of the stalemate that these discussions so often descend into.

Listening to this discussion I found myself nodding along with Wetlzer’s presentation and agreeing with almost everything that he has to say. I have read a number of one side debates on this topic and agree that a more nuanced discussion of the many types of relationships that might emerge is a great place to start.  If nothing else, being able to draw clear distinctions between Wetzler’s first and second cases would help scholars to clarify the scope and domain of their hypotheses, or the sorts of evidence that they are willing to admit when testing it. That alone is an important stepforward.

Still, one can only say so much in a twenty-minute paper, and I would like to add a few additional thoughts to the wonderful discussion that Wetzler has started. The first of these has to do with the second case in which martial practice is subordinated to the religious impulse. While it is possible to generate examples of this, it is certainly true that they these seem to be less numerous than those for the first or the third category.

In a sense this a not a surprise.  Sociologists talk about the “secularization” hypothesis which claims that as society modernizes the public square will increasingly become the domain of rationalism and religion will fade from existence.  Luckmann scoffed at the notion that religion was disappearing and instead explored the ways in which it was being privatized and personalized.  I think that most sociologists today would agree with him.  Yet once religion exits the public square, it loses the sort of coercive ability necessary to capture other social institutions (like militias or martial arts groups) and repurpose them for its own material or ideological ends.  This still happens in the modern world (again, we have already established that “Jesus didn’t tap”), but probably in a much more limited way than in the past.

Muay Boran training at the recent international gathering and tournament in Thailand. Note the association of the ancient temple in the background with a modern combat sport. Source: NY Times.

Nevertheless, other intermediate range social institutions have become a prominent part of daily life, and they have had an important effect on martial practice.  The rise of the nation and nationalism in the developing world during the 20thcentury comes to mind. As one of my professors in graduate school was fond of staying, “religion is just a 16th century word for the nation.” Nations are also vast transcendent structure, held together by social construction, yet capable of exerting such influence on our daily lives that few of us stop to contemplate their essentially metaphysical nature and rather recent creation. Nations have also proved to be experts in promoting and subverting martial arts practice to serve their own ends practically everywhere around the world. Wetzler’s second case, while a bit more difficult to put our finger on, has become the dominant mode of existence for many fighting systems precisely because they are now subordinated to the secular religion of nationalism.

This transition from local religion to national secular religion is particularly important to understanding the process of modernization within the Chinese martial arts.  Groups like Jingwu and the later Guoshu movement succeeded precisely because they argued that the service and merit that kung fu (here used in its proper sense) accumulated in local communities could be metaphysically transferred to the state through the right sort of rationalized and purified practice. Indeed, an understanding of this meeting of local identity and growing nationalism in the first half of the 20th century is critical to understanding the actual development of a many specific martial art schools. It is even helpful in grasping the ongoing relationship between the state and martial arts groups today.

The other issue that this paper forces us to make explicit is our choice of the level of analysis.  Wetzler appears to take the individual practitioner as his starting point, and asks how she would understand the process.  What goals would she articulate? Is it victory at any cost, or the magnification of a larger spiritual vocation?

The obvious possibility is that individuals may understand these goals differently than the social groups that they are part of, and that these things may become contested. The classic case of such a story in fiction would be the young warrior who appropriates spiritual power that is supposed to reinforce the social order for his own private gains.  Enter Darth Vader, Cobra Kai or the Shredder stage right. We may also look at the Big Swords or Yihi Boxer reliance on war magic as possible historical examples of Wetzler’s first case.  Yet one wonders how the various civil societies of the Plum Flower Boxers would have viewed them? They too taught similar rituals, yet by in larger refused to become embroiled in the Boxer Uprising.  Eshrick goes so far as to suggest that a divide within the Plum Flower Boxers, when a single important teacher left the larger organization to take up a local conflict, may have contributed to rise of the Boxer Rebellion. Yet it is possible that the leaders of the Yihi movement understood their goals and relationship to the religious sphere very different than what outsiders (including the leadership of the region’s Plum Blossom Boxers) may have assumed?

Alternatively, Denis Gainty noted that the Meiji government did not initially squeeze the arm of Japanese Kendo and Judo players to get involved them with public schools. In fact, education officials were highly resistant to the notion that martial arts should play any official role in pre-war Japanese society, let alone the school system.  Rather, budos’ “subordinate” position to the nation-state in the 1930s-1940s was the result of generations of planning, lobbying and hard work by martial arts reformers themselves.  By creating this seemingly subordinate relationship, Gainty argues that Japanese martial artist were able to influence ongoing elite debates about what the relationship between Japanese society and the state should be, and shift the outcomes of these processes.

It is critical to have a typology of the relationships between religious/national and martial systems, and Wetzler has given us a great place to start.  At the same time, we also need to remember that these connections are often recursive and under continual negotiation. Nor will everyone always agree on the nature of a relationship.  Still, the martial arts are fascinating precisely because they have so often given individuals a platform to enter into debates about the shape of the community and its relationship with the wider world. More fully exploring the ways that these practices have been understood in religious terms helps to explain why.


If you enjoyed his essay you might also want to read: Violence and Peace: Reconsidering the Goals of Martial Arts