Peace Park in Salt Lake City, UT. Source: Photo by Benjamin Judkins.

Never let it be said that I was afraid to go big in a title. But in all seriousness, we need to talk about the international global order. Over the last few of years I have found myself thinking more frequently about the 1930s, and for someone who was trained in International Relations, that is not a good thing. Within my field the 1930s is held up as a sort of worst-case scenario for Realist politics.  It was an era that we were supposed to be moving away from through the creation of liberal norms, economic institutions, regional integration and democratization. While the Realist school warned that the international system would always be defined by power and self-interest, many of my Neo-liberal professors wrote articles and books explaining how it was now functionally impossible for us to slip back into the turmoil of previous decades. They claimed that the institutionalization of the international system had just gone too far.

Yet in the end history makes fools of all of us. It has been amazing to watch how fast cherished norms fell, global institutions were sidelined, nationalism increased, and democratization rolled back. And all of that was prior to the current crisis that has left many of us wondering what type of landscape we will face when things return to “normal.”

If nothing else, the current interregnum is a valuable reminder that for “peace” to be a meaningful concept, it must be understood as more than just the absence of great power war. Rather, it is a quality of interaction that supports states, societies and economies in accomplishing their most basic goals. In a world characterized by fear and mistrust, the dogs of war are forever barking at the door. 

One of the ironies of martial arts practice is that several of the masters of these seemingly violent systems have thought quite a bit about the subject of peace and their own relationship to it. I remember once reading a fencing manual written by an Italian instructor in early modern England that spent quite a bit of time instruction potential students not to fight, and laying out all of the reasons why doing so was a terrible idea, before venturing into the details of actual self-defense. This same sentiment is shared by most instructors today. While it is absolutely not the case that all martial arts masters were pacifists, there are good reasons why these systems have come to be imagined in this way throughout the global system. 

Kano Jigoro was a nationalist at heart, but he also believed in the power of the Olympic movement to create a better world. Aikido is widely regarded as a non-violent system precisely because that rhetoric has been part of its practice since the beginning, reflecting Ueshiba’s unique religious views. As I have discussed previously, KMT martial arts reformers such as Chu Minyi believed that spreading an appreciation of Chinese martial arts to the West was vital to eventually bring peace to the region by shifting the foreign policies of other nations toward China.

My favorite example of this sentiment remains the brilliant Chinese swordsman Yu Chenghui who stated on numerous occasions while teaching in the United States that he wished to share his longsword techniques as fencing was a nearly universal activity within human history and he believed that by doing so he could help people to understand the essential beauty of Chinese culture. There are good reasons that so many students in the West have adopted the somewhat Orientalist narrative that martial arts “aren’t about violence,” or that they inexorably create more pacific students and communities, even in the face of a decidedly mixed historical record.

Waterfall at the Robert H. Treman State Park. Photo by Benjamin Judkins.

Still, we are entering a moment when it will be increasingly important for groups of citizens to reach out and attempt to establish positive links between societies. The rapidly deteriorating relationship between the United States and China is unlikely to aid the cause of global stability and growth. This is not to underplay the seriousness of many of the current disputes, or the way that they impinge upon our fundamental understanding of what the future geopolitical order will be like. Yet the Chinese people and the American people share many core values and both stand to lose much if the relationship between the world’s two largest national economies deteriorates much further. Nor would the damage be limited to only these states.

Students of the Chinese martial arts in the West are in a unique position in that they straddle two worlds, often being parts of communities that function simultaneously on multiple continents. Is it possible that these fighting systems really could promote world peace, at least to the same extent that ping pong did in the 1970s, or the State Department’s tours of American jazz musicians did in post-war Europe?

 If I were to answer this question as a hardheaded student of International Relations, rather than as a sentimental martial artist, I would have to begin by laying out some sort of conceptual framework. Generally, the variables that contribute to the emergence of war or peace are categorized by their “level of analysis.” In other words, do these things effect change at the individual, group, state or systemic level? The interesting thing about the martial arts is that they actually have some utility in each of these spaces.  Perhaps this accounts for the rather muddled discussions that occasionally emerge on their normative value.  While everyone seems to agree that “if one seeks peace, prepare for war,” no one is quite certain what the functional mechanism behind this actually looks like.

Perhaps the most intuitive place to start is at the level of the individual. Given the restraints of space, that is what the present discussion explores. Perhaps I will take a look at a couple of the other levels in a subsequent posts. Yet in defense of the individual level of analysis, I will point out that even the most massive political actions ultimately require the cooperation of specific individuals who must decide whether they will comply with, or resist, the events of the day. Given that (at least in the modern world) martial arts training also tends to be a voluntary recreational activity, it makes sense to begin here.

Several scholars have noted that the martial arts have an important effect on one’s norms and identities. These are critical as much social and political behavior revolves around the adoption of situationally appropriate cultural scripts. When you give someone a new identity you many change the set of possible responses that they have in a crisis. That is the ultimate goal of most martial arts in a narrow tactical sense, but the same logic also applies at the social level.

Nevertheless, another even more powerful factor may come into play. As social animals, human beings are inherently strategic, meaning we choose our actions based on how we suspect others will react to us. In a sense it doesn’t really matter what identities or social scripts you give someone. If they believe that they are surrounded by individuals who are untrustworthy, or who mean them harm, cooperative outcomes will be pretty much impossible. Psychologist have noted that trust is a learned rather than an innate behavior, and much of our success in life revolves around working with others.  Of course, acquiring the ability to trust is more difficult in certain environments, and often with good reason.

That last observation has become a touchstone for much of the empirical research done on social capital within sociology and political science during the second half of the 20th century. Social capital can be thought of as a diffuse network of trust that go beyond simple exchange or face to face interactions.  For a democracy to function, citizens must trust their government and fellow voters to prioritize the national interest.  Well-functioning democracies are those that have learned these lessons well. When that trust is replaced with suspicion, things fall apart with alarming speed.

Voluntary associations (like martial arts clubs) are an important sites where individuals learn trust and thus acquire social capital.  On an immediate physical level, we all learn to trust that our sparring partners will fight at an appropriate level of intensity or release us when we tap. It is easy to trust training partners and coaches that we work with every day.  The really interesting leap happens when you attend a tournament and find yourself extending that same level of trust to officials you have never met and competitors who are actively trying to thwart your goals. Even in a zero-sum environment where we know that eventually all of us will lose, those diffuse notions of trust hold strong, allowing the community to operate. This is what social scientists often refer to as “bonding capital.”

Stairs at the Robert H. Treman State Park. Photo by Benjamin Judkins.

There are many other ways that participation in martial arts training can encourage the creation of vibrant civil societies. Anyone who has been around the Chinese martial arts long enough knows that these styles love nothing so much as a good committee.  Eventually all of us end up on some sort of committee, either within our school (perhaps planning an award banquet) or within the larger community (coordinating a street festival or a series of Lion Dances). Functioning within these groups requires one to cultivate new skills (applying for city permits, keeping an account ledger), and also new types of trust.  We now find ourselves working with local officials, merchants, other civic group and law enforcement. Suddenly our circle of trust has been transformed into what the literature calls “bridging capital.”

This is the essential step as it allows us to begin to act empathetically toward groups that we are not members of as we come to understand that they face many of the same experiences that we do and, at least in some cases, share common objectives.  Bridging capital is the glue that hold civil society together.  It is the bedrock that our understanding of good citizenship is based on. Empirically speaking, the functioning of any sort of governmental institution (but especially democratic ones) is tied to its health. Lastly, when conflicts do arise, as they inevitably will in any type of political situation, a reserve of bridging capital allows people to seek for mutual solutions rather than mutual destruction. When looking back at my own career in the martial arts, the most important lessons that I have learned are not the technical or kinetic ones. Those have a narrow realm of application. It is social experiences that truly transform us, giving us new tools to interact with the world.

Nevertheless, history suggests that martial artists can become as insular, violent and nationalistic as anyone else. The Red Spears, who we discussed earlier this week, were notorious for using their institutional capacity for violence against other factions within their home regions. These militias frequently intervened in local democratic elections, violating core tenants of any civil society. It would not be hard to find other examples where martial artists have aligned themselves with illiberal forces in government or become a voice for violence and disorder on the streets. As such, it is not clear that the creation of social capital will always prevail over countervailing pressures, or even that all groups will generate it. How can we explain this variation?  Should we be looking at the philosophy and practice of these groups, or something else entirely?

If we want to understand whether the martial arts will promote peaceful civic exchange we need to start by considering the regulatory environment (both legal and social) that condition their behavior. To understand why it is important to return to the distinction between bonding and bridging capital.  While some form of trust is learned in any type of physical culture exercise (I trust that my partner won’t actually punch me in the face during this drill), the creation of bridging capital is far less certain.  Generally speaking, when civil society is weak fewer people join voluntary associations that function independently of the political and economic realm.  But even when they do, there are fewer opportunities to interact with other groups within the community. That is critical as trust is a learned behavior, as well as something that requires periodic reinforcement. Having access to a rich web of repeated interactions is the key.

Both the formal and informal institutions of governance have an important impact on the development of civil society, as does economic regulations. Even historical and cultural factors appear to play an important role in establishing these norms. Some countries restrict the right of assembly altogether, while other promote it.  In some times and places governments give tax incentives to private groups, where in others they effectively take over aspects of civil society by directly funding and regulating what was once private activity. All of this is vitally important to understanding how martial arts communities function. For instance, in what ways does the direct government licensing and subsidization of martial arts instruction in France result in a very different community structure than less regulated markets in places like America or Hong Kong?

We should not be surprised to discover that Japan’s martial arts institutions functioned very differently during the 1930s compared to the way that an Aikido school or a Kendo club might operate in America today. The deciding factor is neither the art nor its philosophy. Those might have a marginal effect on determining what is possible within a given setting. But understanding whether, and under what circumstances, these fighting systems will promote peace requires that we first take a long look at the ways in which they are regulated by, and their relationship with, the state. 

Perhaps what is really remarkable is their resilience in the face of external regulation (possibly due to the generation of bonding capital). Yet rather than seeing these systems as something apart from the world of politics, we can only understand what they are truly capable of if we place them within their broader social context. While the levels of analysis are a good starting point for discussion, almost inevitably an examination of one set of variables leads to questions about other levels.  Perhaps in our next essay we will take a closer look at the regulatory state and its impact on the development of martial arts communities.

Boats in Foshan’s Zhongshan Park. Source: Wikimedia.


If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: “The Professor in the Cage”: Can Gottschall Bring Science to the Study of Violence?