Daniel Miles Amos. 2021. Hong Kong Martial Artists: Sociocultural Change from World War II to 2020. Rowman & Littlefield. 230 pages. $115 HC/$38 Kindle
Some years ago, one of my younger brothers married into a Hakka family after moving to Hong Kong to teach. My sister-in-law finds my interest in the Chinese martial arts fascinating and even admirable. And she insists that her children should have an opportunity to practice martial arts as well. Yet she did not enroll them in a local Wing Chun class, despite the media buzz around the art. Nor did she seek out one of the traditional Hakka styles from her family’s home village. Like so many other parents, she placed them in one of the city’s many thriving Tae Kwon Do schools.
I asked her about this once while we were discussing martial arts films and her answer was both blunt and revealing. “Why would I turn my kids over to some sketchy alcoholic! Besides, after ten years in Tae Kwon Do you get a black belt and something to put on your resume when applying for University. What did they give you after 10 years of Wing Chun?”
I was not entirely surprised by her mental calculus. Some version of this argument has been going on in middle class homes in Southern China for generations now. Traditional Kung Fu is something for consenting adults with an interest in cultural revival or a desire to go slumming. It is not where most middle-class parents want to invest their children’s scarce time and educational resources. The traditional Chinese martial arts as a whole are in trouble precisely because membership in any sort of voluntary community ultimately becomes an economic decision. How desirable are the benefits of group membership versus the costs of entry? For the last few decades many of Hong Kong’s traditional fighting arts have found themselves on the wrong side of this simple equation. How did this happen?
Daniel Amos seeks to answer that question in his 2021 volume, Hong Kong Martial Artists: Sociocultural Change from World War II to 2020 (Rowman & Littlefield). Amos first traveled to the city as a graduate student in the late 1970s while working on a doctorate in Anthropology. His research was unique in that it was both the first modern ethnographic examination of Hong Kong’s martial artists, and also the first work to closely compare the state of martial arts there to Guangzhou in the years immediately following the end of the Cultural Revolution.
I became intimately familiar with Amos’ dissertation while working on my own cultural history of Wing Chun and the Southern Chinese martial arts in Foshan and Hong Kong. It was one of the works which helped to convince me that the creation of a truly intellectually rigorous version of martial arts studies was possible and worth investing some of my own scarce time and resources into.
However, such investments are always a tricky business. I suspect that Amos initial field work, while timed brilliantly from a historical perspective, came a couple of decades too soon for his own academic aspirations. It is much easier to convince fellow academics of the value of such studies today compared to the early 1980s. As a result, readers could never enjoy an easily accessible book length treatment of his work. While some of the most interesting bits of his research came out in various journal articles over the years, I always had the nagging feeling that an important volume was missing from our collective shelves. Luckily for the field, that is no longer the case.
Hong Kong Martial Artists is structured around three sections. The first two are condensed and reedited version of material that first appeared in Amos’ dissertation. Chapters 1-4 cover much of his early work in Hong Kong. After setting the economic and political stage (a vital step overlooked by too much writing on the martial arts) Amos provides some vividly descriptive material on a Southern Mantis school which was his main site for fieldwork as a graduate student. Much of this work focuses on how a group of rather marginal individuals sought, with mixed result, to create social status and a heroic persona through membership in a traditional lineage based martial arts school or “kung fu cult.”
Amos goes to some lengths to show this group as a complete and multi-faceted community. In addition to a discussion of martial arts training much time is also spent on the cultural and religious value of Qilin dancing, as well as the organization’s somewhat fraught relationship with both the police and other groups in Hong Kong society.
The second section of the book (roughly chapters 6-8) follow the Pearl River upstream to ask about the fate of mainland China’s folk martial artists after WWII. This topic is rarely explored in the depth that it deserves. Many popular Western publications simply assume that everything was bulldozed by the Communist party or, alternatively, that all of the various lineages managed to survive on some distant mountain top with minimal interference.
As one would expect, the reality of what happened is more complex. Amos has argued that what truly disrupted the world of village level amateur martial art (as opposed to elite wushu athletes at a handful of national university programs) was not any single set of restrictions or legislation. Rather, these were practices that had always existed within a social, cultural and economic framework that defined village and urban life. As the Communists party’s economic reforms transformed life across the country, the martial arts lost their unique niche. They no longer had a social purpose and people, by in large, quickly lost interest in them and did not look back.
Ironically it was the Cultural Revolution, often pointed to as the nadir of the mainland martial arts community, that germinated the seeds of their revival. As it became clear to citizens that local communist officials, and even the police and military, could no longer ensure one’s safety demand grew to bring back the secret societies and patronage networks of a previous era as a means of mutual support. Amos’ field work immediately after the end of the Cultural Revolution allowed him to observe the flowering of China’s martial arts revival in real time. I suspect that for many readers this will be the newest and most interesting material in his book.
However, the material that I was most looking forward to can be found in Chapter 8-10. While Amos maintained his relationships with his kung fu brothers for many years, in 2017 and 2018 he received a senior Fulbright research grant that allowed him to return to Hong Kong and renew his field work in earnest. Observant readers will note that his last period of research also included a period of growing tension in Hong Kong society that would eventually erupt into the protests that gained worldwide attention in 2019. Because Amos hides the identities of his ethnographic informants with pseudonyms, he is able to discuss their responses to these trends and events with some candor.
This book marks an important contribution to our overall understanding of the Chinese martial arts. It does not attempt to be a theoretical work, yet it seeks to ground our understanding of the evolution of these fighting systems in larger ritual, culture and economic systems. Amos spends quite a bit of time getting readers up to speed on topics as diverse as the evolution of Hong Kong’s university system, its position in the post-WWII global trade network, the details of ritual at clan temples and local law enforcements attitudes towards corruption and organized crime at various points in time.
All of this may seem to be “off topic” for readers who are just coming for the kung fu. Yet the martial arts have never been one single cohesive thing. They have served a variety of purposes for many different types of communities across the scope of China’s geographic and historical reach. A structural inability to fully embrace that simple fact is the ultimate Achilles heel of any attempt to write national level narratives of these practices. As I have argued before, good martial arts history is inevitably a branch of local history. Yes, it must acknowledge and explore the grand themes that are sweeping through the national, and even global, system. Yet those pressures will always find unique expression in different environments. It is critical to acknowledge the uniqueness of local martial practices as that is what truly unlocks our understanding of how real people encounter, and attempt to deal with, these larger structural forces.
While Amos’ dissertation was more concerned with anthropological theory, the present work does not burden its readers with the author’s commitments on these issues. The focus of this work is entirely empirical in nature, often comparing and contrasting interview responses from different types of informants. Indeed, the work will be valuable to many other researchers seeking a database of insights to help test and develop their own theories. I look forward to the day when we might see similar books tackling specific martial traditions in other cities and villages. Only in that way will we gain a true sense of the scope and variety of China’s martial culture.
Still, a lack of explicit theoretical debate is not the same thing as a work lacking in theoretical relevance. No other ethnographic account within modern Martial Arts Studies can claim to offer a 40-year observational horizon on a single community. In Amos we see the shifting fortunes of a kung fu cult while readers can follow the evolving cultural relevance of the Southern China’s martial arts as a whole. The immense scope of this work free’s Amos from the dangers of perpetuating an allochronistic ‘ethnographic present’ which so many other observational and ethnographic studies have been accused of perpetuating by post-structuralist critics.
Easy assertions about the value of martial arts practice in someone’s life also quickly fall away when we are presented with dozens of detailed life histories over such a long timeframe. The martial arts did have a powerful impact on everyone in the study. Yet, ironically, it does not appear to have been their practice that was most important. By in large these systems did not cure people health issues or inspire them to give up smoking and drinking. Nor do they seem to have done much to eliminate the ego and extinguish petty jealousies in the communities that Amos observed. Indeed, most of Amos’ informants would give up their practice of the martial arts at some point, either because of distance, health issues or life changes. Yet the thing that they never seemed to lose, indeed, that element that had the greatest shaping impact on their life, was membership within the voluntary community itself. Decades after individuals have ceased to practice, they were still in contact with each other and attending banquets and other social events. It was the community that remained a critical part of their life experience, and it takes a certain sort of anthropological mind to highlight the importance of what should be an obvious fact.
Perhaps the most pressing question that Amos can answer for us is what happened to all of those marginal young men who he encountered in the Hong Kong during the 1970s. Did the martial arts transform, or truly empower, them in the eyes of society as a whole?
My conversation with my sister-in-law at the start of this review would suggest that the traditional martial arts, as a whole, have yet to escape that shadow. Amos brings several more interviews to bear on this question, all reinforcing the same conclusion. While there is a growing sense of pride around certain practices (Taijiquan, Lion Dancing and Wing Chun – thanks to Bruce Lee) kung fu is still seen as socially undesirable by most of Hong Kong’s middle class.
While that judgment is near universal, things get murky when one actually attempts to pin down specific objections. As I wrote out the grievances of Amos’ various informants on a whiteboard in my office, I found that most were part of an opposing binary. To illustrate what I mean consider the following partial list: Either the ritual life and etiquette of a traditional Kung Fu school was too rigid and suffocating for the modern world, or, in the eyes of another observer, such groups are devoid of any structure and the discipline you might find in a Tae Kwon Do class. While many asserted that kids these days could not stand the pain and hard work of traditional Kung Fu training, others noted that they flock to kickboxing, MMA and Western boxing classes because the pain in those practices was somehow more culturally desirable. The self-proclaimed emphasis on violence in traditional arts seemed unseemly some respondents, yet there is universal public outcry when traditional masters are trounced in one YouTube video after another by pretty average MMA fighters. Young people have too many entertainment options for the martial arts to succeed in a competitive marketplace, yet they are flocking to kickboxing schools as a way to stay fit. Indeed, the one real question I was left with after finishing this book was whether any ethnographer could really claim to put forward a complete study of the city’s martial artists and not spend some serious time with its kickboxers.
All of this returns us to the equation at the start of this review. Amos does not attempt to tightly structure his final chapter, or to shape the various competing voices of his interview subjects into a single narrative. While he finds wide agreement that the “soft power” of the traditional martial arts is waning, there was no universal consensus as to what about them is most irritating to the city’s residents as a whole.
More progress was made on the second half of our opening equation though. Here the basic discussions of economic history and political trends paid dividends, illustrating the pathways that led to Hong Kong becoming one of the least affordable cities on the planet. At the same time that the cultural capital of most martial arts communities has been declining, skyrocketing rents and city’s unique real estate market have forced nearly half of its schools to close for good. Those that remain have fewer students, meet less frequently, and are now renting time at the local community center or YMCA. These compromises effectively sever the relationship between a martial arts community and its geographic territory which was precisely what gave ritual observances like Lion Dance their social relevance. In such an environment, fewer experienced students will have the incentive or ability to take up the mantle of Sifu.
Taken as a whole it not difficult to understand the struggles of the TCMA community in Hong Kong. The growing prosperity of many practitioners from the 1980s and 1990s have left them with less time to dedicate to their art. As parents foresee more and better possibilities for their children, they are less likely to approve of long hours spent in actives with no anticipated economic benefit. And despite the best efforts of figures like Bruce Lee and Donnie Yen (particularly in his guise as Ip Man) the TCMA retain more than a hint of their old marginality, even if few people now fear Triad connections. The rising fortunes of the city as a whole have transformed its connection to the martial arts. Its citizens now seek out arts that reflect a different set of instrumentalist (Muay Thai, Tae Kwon Do) or cultural (Taijiquan, Wing Chun), values.
Amos’ work is a must read for anyone interested in Hong Kong martial arts. Those interested in the religious and ritual life of Chinese martial artistic will appreciate his keen anthropological eye and his ability to center these considerations in the narrative. More sociological or historical readers will appreciate his comprehensive reviews of the economic and political factors surrounding many of these discussions. They also make several sections of this book very accessible to undergraduate classes who might not otherwise be familiar with the region. Lastly, his dedication to showcasing long range change within a single geographic region provides the sort of detailed focus that is necessary to move our discussion of martial arts history beyond broad platitudes, or an over emphasis on a handful of national trends. While already available on Kindle, I am sure that this work will find a broad readership when the paperback version is released.