The Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Note that the full beauty of the wall can only be seen if one takes a step back and looks at it from multiple perspectives. Source: Wikimedia.


On Looking Back and Looking Forwards

The start of a new year is a time for list making. Posts with titles like “The Top Five Trends that Defined 2020!” seem to be the mainstay of seasonal publishing. In all honesty, 2020 has been such a depressing year that I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm for such a retrospective. And in any case, Kung Fu Tea has already published quite a few essays documenting the ups and downs of the last year.

Still, a little self-examination is often a good thing, particularly within a rapidly growing field such as ours. My good friend Daniel Mroz recently challenged me to come up with a list of the most significant trends and advances in the scholarship on the Chinese martial arts over the last decade or two. Taking his question to heart, I decided to sketch out some of the high points that we seen since the year 2000. This has, without a doubt, been the richest period for scholarship on the Chinese martial arts, and it is amazing to see how far we have come since the speculative discussions of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Daniel and I had such fun trading emails that we thought it might be a good idea to share some of our conclusions with the readers of Kung Fu Tea. There should be lots of room for discussion as such list are, almost by definition, too brief and focus only on a few highpoint. Daniel and I also decided to spread our list of achievements among a number of different categories and to try and pick a few works from the early, middle and later years of our time period. Rather than just focusing on foundational piece, or state of the art publications, the idea was to give some insight into how we go where we are. So, without further preamble, here are our highlights from the two decades of Chinese martial studies!


Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.


Culture of the CMA (Ethnography/Phenomenology/Religion)

When discussing the history of the Chinese martial arts one must remember that these are practices that originated in a different culture and society. Even more challenging are efforts to understand what they reveal about the changing state of Chinese culture and society today. A number of ethnographers have weighted in on this topic and produced some uniquely insightful pieces. Several of these most be considered foundational contributions to the current Chinese martial studies literature.

Perhaps no work shows the potential of this school more than Jeff Takacs’ 2003 study of legitimacy and competition within the TCMA community. Farrer’s work on several martial arts communities in Singapore was very important to the development of my own thinking about the subject, as were the finely crafted ethnographies of both Frank and Bortez. Lastly, Mroz’s recent article on the social meaning and individual experience of taolu suggests that more nuanced understandings of Chinese culture still have much to contribute to our understanding of these fighting systems. If you have missed any of these pieces, do yourself a favor and check them out!




Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.


The Historians – Beyond Dojo Lore

Perhaps no area has shown more improvement over the last two decades than the historical discussion of the TCMA. Works like Wakeman’s Strangers at the Gate, or Esherick’s Origins of the Boxer Uprising really set the stage for this transformation in terms of both sources and research methods. Yet it would take decades for this sort of rigor to find its way into more specialized discussion of the Chinese martial arts.

Green and Svinth’s Martial Arts and the Modern World deserves special mention for making actual scholarship on the martial arts accessible to a wide audience of practitioners early on in the period. They provided initial models that so many other scholars would follow. In my view Andrew Morris 2004 chapter on the development of Jingwu and Goushu remains the single most significant historical work on the Chinese martial arts published in English. Pretty much everything that comes after him draws on that discussion. Meir Shahar’s work on the Shaolin Temple and Lorge’s 2012 historical survey both became instant classics, even though they embody different assumptions about the nature and development of these fighting systems. Lastly, Yupeng Jiao’s recent paper on wandering rural martial arts teachers in the 1920s and 1930s is a must read. I can’t wait to see his dissertation turned into a book.



Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.


The Literary Turn

The last two decades have seen an increased awareness of the role of media in the development and spread on the Chinese martial arts. Simply put, it is impossible to separate people’s culturally defined notions of what the Chinese martial arts should be from the actual things that martial arts communities (as well as individual practitioners) seek to do. In the current era were are blessed with a rich assortment of films, TV programs, social media videos and even podcasts, all of which reveal the cultural discourses surrounding the Chinese martial arts. Scholars such as Paul Bowman have done important work in developing the media studies approach within the field of Martial Arts Studies as a whole.

Yet these basic trends are nothing new. Studies of classic martial arts novels, as well as their later Kung Fu and Wuxia successors, have proved to be an invaluable guide to understanding the evolution of Chinese martial culture through the centuries. Christopher Hamm’s investigation of Jin Yong’s novels remains one of the best examples of the literary turn, and is particularly important for anyone seeking to understand the evolution of the Southern Chinese martial arts. Petrus Liu’s work illustrates the serious political discourses that frequently defined martial arts story telling. Further, the literary archeology of figures like Mark Meulenbeld and Scott Park Phillips remind us that literature, ritual, theater and martial practice were often associated in ways which modern martial artists either misunderstand or actively seek to forget.  If only we could get a book length study of martial arts and martial culture in Water Margin! Given the work’s status as the “Old Testament” of the Chinese martial arts, such a volume would certainly fill a critical hole in the existing literature.



A final panel bringing two dragons together.


The Emergence of Chinese National Scholarship 

Perhaps the most significant trend to emerge in last decade as been the increased availability of scholarly voices from the People’s Republic of China being published in English. Obviously ethnically Chinese individuals have long been a major source of information on the Chinese martial arts.  Some of the first reliable information on these subjects was published by individuals like William C. C. Hu in the page of Black Belt magazine during the 1960s. Still, the Chinese martial arts have mostly been academically explored and made available through the accounts of Western scholars. While there is a robust academic literature on wushu that is published within Chinese universities, very little of this has ever been distributed in the West.

This started to change during the last decade.  The excellent (though short lived) Journal of Chinese Martial Studies (2009-2012) inaugurated a new era of academic exchange by publishing english language translations of Chinese scholarly discussion by figures such as Professor Ma Mingda. Some of Hing Chao’s other projects, especially those having to do with the construction of a motion capture archives of TCMA movements, also deserve special notice. The recent “3rd International Martial Studies Conference: Sword Culture Across the Eurasian Continent” continued this trend by posting English language translations of papers by Chinese scholars on YouTube.

Routledge has also contributed to these efforts by publishing several English language books by Chinese martial arts studies scholars. One the one hand, these works offer an exciting view into current Chinese language research. These author are often well positioned to discuss aspects of martial development (such as post-war events in the PRC) which are typically neglected in works by Western writers.  At the same time, there seems to be almost no evidence of intellectual engagement between Western and Chinese scholars of martial arts studies in these works. While scholars such as Lorge, Shahar and Judkins all made extensive use of Chinese language scholarship in their previous publications, it is very odd to see Lu Zhouxiang writing a book on the history of Shaolin and its martial arts in English without so much as an acknowledgement of Shahar widely respected monograph on the same subject published more than a decade earlier. This latest generation of Chinese scholarship responds almost entirely to prior developments, imperatives and ideological priorities within the PRC’s wushu literature. Still, one suspects that the appearance of this new literature may constitute the first steps in a more robust future engagement between Chinese and global scholars.




Looking Forward

2020 was a challenging year, yet it capped off a two decade period of incredible growth in the area of Chinese martial studies. Pioneering scholars, such as Douglas Wile, have seen their efforts expanded into a truly global and interdisciplinary conversation of surprising sophistication. Nor does this trend show any sign of slowing down. The rate at which new voices and perspectives have been entering the fray is only acceleration. 2021 promises to see the release of yet more projects that will expand our understanding of these fighting systems. I am particularly excited to read Daniel Amos’ forthcoming Hong Kong Martial Artists: Sociocultural Change from World War II to 2020 (Rowman&Littlefield, March 2021).  

The previous list of achievements has been partial, hitting only a few of the high points that stood out to me as I thought about the evolution of the field.  If I missed your favorite article or book please feel free to leave a note about it in the comments below.  And be sure to let us know what you are looking forward to in 2021!



If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Spirituality in the Traditional Martial Arts – Between History and Theory