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Chinese Martial Arts, Religion and Spirituality: A Guide for the Perplexed

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


Can the confused lead others to clarity?  Perhaps the title of this essay risks overselling the contents as I can think of no subject within the field more demanding of nuance, yet less likely to receive it, than the relationship between the martial arts, religion and spirituality.  Entire books have been written attempting to define the latter two terms, both of which are always culturally and historically bounded.  And we all expect that it’s only a matter of time until someone decides to give us a book length definition of martial arts as well. (Whether that is a good idea is another question altogether).  All of which is to say that bringing these three subjects together in the same sentence is a recipe for complexity.

Nor is it a coincidence that this subject creates polarized opinions within the ranks of practitioners and scholars of martial arts. How could it be otherwise? On some level I think that we all look to the actions and opinions of others to lend credibility to our own investments in the martial arts.  And what could be more fundamental to understanding the nature and purpose of these practices than the notion that they convey a deeper mystery that transcends the outward practices which we all observe?

If you are of a certain generation, chances are you were introduced to the Chinese martial arts by the image of either David Carradine (Kung Fu) or Bruce Lee (Enter the Dragon) philosophizing with warrior monks in mysterious temples.  This orientalist imagery fit nicely with the growing currency of the TCMA in a counterculture movement that was steeped in the writing of popularizers like Alan Watts. Nor was it simply a product of the Western imagination. Important early teachers of the Chinese martial arts in the West, individuals like Zheng Manqing, explicitly framed their efforts with the promise that one could combine martial, artistic, medical and spiritual achievement through the mastery of a single martial discipline.  Such a promise must have been music to the ears of a generation dealing with the disenchantment of globalization, social upheaval and geo-political conflict.  When looking at period sources it is thus interesting to note that the Asian martial arts seem to be spiritualized in the discussions of the 1970s-1980s in ways that even the same systems were not in the 1920s-1940s.

The excesses of this countercultural approach to the martial arts sparked their own backlash.  In the practical realm a number of arts and schools increasingly defined themselves in opposition to these images or, in their view, misconceptions.  Wing Chun schools in America tended to do away with the incense burning and memorial walls so common in other Hong Kong derived kung fu traditions.  Ip Man himself discouraged the practice of music and Lion Dancing within his organization and moved any discussion of traditional medicine into the private realm.  His practice was to be a modern self-defense art open to all.  And in a situation like this, it is hard to read the term “modern” and not also think “secular.”  The post-war process of embedding and localizing the Asian martial arts in North America (such as the rise of competitive contact Karate or Olympic Judo) often seemed to be accompanied with the distancing of these practices from their “traditional” (or perhaps spiritual) missions.

Researchers like Stanley Henning, Brian Kennedy and others in the first generation of what we might think of modern Martial Arts Studies would tackle the supposed spiritual origins of these practices head on.  Both individuals were influenced by traditions of Chinese martial arts histography that were established by scholars of the 1930s-1940s. These were the decades of the state sponsored Guoshu reform movement, perhaps the first moment in China’s history when the tools of modern scholarship and cultural criticism could be turned on the Chinese martial arts.  In general, scholars of the era (individuals like the pioneering Tang Hao) attempted to place the martial arts on a sound materialist footing by rejecting stories of wandering monks, Daoist immortals and divine inspiration. They instead sought to find the origins of systems like Taijiquan or Bagua through documentary criticism, sociological theory and fieldwork in places like Chen Village.

The image of the Chinese martial arts which the work of Kennedy and Henning generated was remarkably secular and mundane compared to the clear flights of fancy that television programs like Kung Fu had promoted a few decades earlier.  They focused on martial arts traditions that were eminently practical, the domain of village militias, KMT sponsored military academies, government sponsored programs or university-based physical culture programs.  All of this stuff did exist, and it did dominate much (though not all) of the public discussions of the Chinese martial arts in the 1930s.  I have written about these same subjects in many places on this blog. These were the sorts of modern martial artists that were sent to represent China at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Its probably worth noting that the reformers guiding the KMT and the Central Guoshu Association during these years were very influenced by Western ideology and scholarship. Indeed, their writings are full of contemporary concepts like “Social Darwinism.” They were well versed with the sorts of theories and concepts that are now called the Modernization Hypothesis, and they seemed to accept its corollary, the Secularization Hypothesis. They believed that China could not reach its potential as a modern state without dumping the superstition and backwardness of its past.

In effect that meant purging traditional religion and activities associated with ritual religious practice (such as vernacular theater traditions which were at the heart of every town’s temple festival) from their reformed and modernized martial arts.  Given that individuals supporting these notions both wrote many of the surviving records of the period and laid the theoretical foundations for future historical studies of the Chinese martial arts, it is perhaps no surprise that later scholarship came to see the traditional martial as being primarily practical and secular practices.  The always excellent work of Peter Lorge would be one example of this school.  As is so often the case, the sort of image that the Central Guoshu Institute wished to project into the future also came to define much of how we see China’s past.

Clearly much of this scholarship has value.  And we are all better off if we are not forced to rely on David Carradine as our defining image of the Chinese martial arts.  The vast modernization efforts of the early 20th century generated a broad base of support within Chinese society and largely continue to define our experience of the Chinese martial arts today.  They are the proximate cause of the world that we have inherited, and so scholars must respect and deal with these impulses.  Still, it would be a mistake to assume that this is all that has ever existed.

My own historical work on the development of the Southern Chinese martial arts illustrated, at great length, how successful Guangdong’s martial arts community was at resisting and subverting these modernization efforts during the 1920s-1930s.  When Masters fled the Pearl River Delta to areas like Hong Kong, Taiwan or Malaysia in the 1950s they were able to preserve many of the “superstitious” cultural practices and beliefs (practices like spirit writing, spirit possession, and exorcism rites) that the KMT had worked so hard to stamp out decades previously. And the love of supernal warriors that had dominated Cantonese opera stages soon found a new home (minus its former ritual context) in Hong Kong’s martial arts film industry. Anthropological scholars like Daniel Amos were able to document all of these practices in the 1970s and 1980s during the course of their fieldwork.

While the practice of the TCMA seems to be struggling, we are currently living in the golden age of martial arts studies scholarship.  We now know, as Scott Phillips has argued, that accounts of Southern Chinese martial arts interacting with the world of opera are very plausible (though it did not always take the glorious forms that various kung fu stories would have one believe).  While scholars like Shahar have demonstrated that the Southern Shaolin Temple of legend is a myth, interviews and fieldwork have demonstrated that Guangdong and Fujian had multiple Buddhist temples where monks really did supplement their income by teaching marital arts (in addition to basic literacy) during the early 20th century, and a few of these seem to have adopted the Shaolin label as good advertising.  Further, the careful ethnographic work of Avron Boretz in Southern Taiwan and Southern China has demonstrated that the religious and spiritual aspect of the martial culture is not only very much alive, but also remains a primary method of self-actualization for marginalized young men throughout the region.

Yet Boretz’s work also located and illustrated the point where this conversation becomes difficult.  While his field work initially focused on martial arts students in Taiwan, he became interested in the fact that many of them were also members of temple ritual societies. These temple troops led processions through the neighborhood and were often practicing both a mixture of mundane skills (music, lion dancing, theatrical martial performance), as well as more exotic spiritual technologies (possession, exorcism rituals).  In point of fact, the individuals who ran these groups were often martial artists.  Yet the temple troop (which was a community non-profit organization) often maintained a separate corporate identity from any of the commercial martial arts schools that these individuals may also have been part of.  So to what extent can we say that the practice of martial arts in Southern Taiwan, in the community of marginal individuals that Boretz observed, had a religious or a spiritual component to it?


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


For students of Chinese martial studies this question is neither new nor unique.  Earlier this year I had the opportunity to travel to the Tel Aviv University and give a keynote at a conference for young scholars whose research focused on (mostly) historical studies of imperial China. Israel Kanner and Eric Kozin presented research drawing from both field work and the discovery of previously unknown Qing era documents that are relevant to this question.  Kanner’s dissertation presents documentation that 18th-19th century Plum Blossom schools across larger parts of Northern China typically contained distinct “martial” (wu) and “civil” (wen) organizations. The civil faction of these groups typically taught heterodox religious beliefs and promoted magical practices which might be very interesting to martial artists.  While only members of the “martial” factions were allowed to study Plum Blossom Boxing, such individuals could only join if they were previously selected by the leadership of the religious faction.  Again, this unique arrangement was specific to a single set of organizations in one region of China. Yet it also reinforces the sense that perhaps the simplistic way in which this debate has evolved (“Are the Asian martial arts a product of Zen/Daoism/Confucianism…?”) has failed to facilitate a robust understanding of what was actually happening, and the process by which these things changed.

Luckily next year’s Martial Arts Studies Conference, which will be held on July 15-17 at Aix-Marseille Université in Marseille, will be dedicated to a more detailed examination of exactly what terms like “religion” and “spirituality” mean when used in conjunction with “martial arts.”  Any such conversation will be a challenge as there is good reason to believe that late imperial Chinese understanding of the term “religion” diverges in critical ways from the popular usage of that term in the West today. I suspect that one of the reasons why the debate on these questions took on the characteristics that it did was precisely because the physical culture reformers of the 1920s-1940’s, inspired by Western philosophy and social sciences, adopted new understandings of these terms as part of their effort to “modernize” and purify China’s many local martial groups, thereby creating a truly national practice.

Lacking any sort of universal definition of religion (or spirituality, or martial arts) it might seem foolhardy to attempt to delve too deeply into this topic, or even to attempt to classify some of the variability that we have seen in a rough typology.  Still, I think that the best way to advance these discussions is to move beyond simple yes/no debates and consider an array of dimensions along which these variables might intersect.  Doing so may also suggest some of the more fundamental mechanisms by which either religion or spirituality may play a role in the function of the martial arts (or vice versa).

Perhaps the best way to generate such an understanding is to locate a moment of definitive change, when one social system began to give way to another, revealing instability of concepts that previously went unquestioned.  In the case of China, both the May 4th intellectuals and their allies in the physical culture movement noted that the period directly following the fall of the Qing dynasty, and the creation of a new and uncertain Republic, was one such era.

The need for rapid modernization in the early years of the 20th century did not come as a surprise.  China had been involved in the project of “self-strengthening” and modernization since the Opium Wars and the domestic turmoil of the 1850s.  This process was only accelerated by their defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the 1890s, and then the combined militaries of the Western imperialists during the Boxer Uprising of 1899-1900.  Yet most of these earlier efforts took the form of holding tight to the best elements of Chinese culture (including its philosophy, social system and martial arts), while adopting Western technology and learning as needed.

In early years of the Republic a new generation of public intellectuals reversed this formula advocating a whole-sale abandonment of traditional Chinese culture in favor of a type of aggressive modernization which would only allow certain, carefully curated, elements of the past to remain. In the eyes of most of these reformers, China’s traditional religions (along with the operas and social systems that supported them), had to go.  In this more radical climate, the only way to preserve a space for the Chinese martial arts in the national discourse was to argue that they could be transformed into a tool that the state would use to modernize and unify society.  This was essentially what the New Wushu, Jingwu, Guoshu and later Communist Wushu movements did in rapid succession.

Yet what would it mean for martial arts to remain in the “national discourse”?  Peter Beyer’s study of the Modernization and Secularization Hypothesis, as outlined in his now classic Religion and Globalization (Sage, 1994) offers some suggestions. He notes that in traditional societies (including China in the Late Imperial Period) religion played a privileged role in almost all social, political and economic functions as it provided a framework for identifying and discussing transcendent values.  By monopolizing the discussion of those elements that transcended daily life, it became the fixed point more instrumental discussions of policy, ethics, markets and society could be attached to.  As such, the conduct of certain rites was central to the maintenance of a vast range of social structures that one might in the modern era understand in exclusively secular terms.

Examples of this abound in Late Imperial China.  The powerful clan association of the Pearl River Delta (who often employed large numbers of martial artists and security guards) were the result of ritual reforms that permitted commoners to create shared temples where older ancestral tables (with more generations than a single household was permitted to worship) could be stored and collectively worshiped by an extended clan network. This ritual innovation led to the accumulation of capital (tax free lands donated to support these temples) which concentrated wealth in the hands of a few families who then patronized local martial artists who could help with security issues and militia training.  Nothing that these de facto real estate corporations was doing was even remotely “spiritual.” Yet they owed their very existence to the regular observance of universally accepted religious rituals.

One can see similar processes at work within the martial arts organizations they patronized.  In late imperial China one created a community through common sacrifice and ritual observance.  Even if that community was an economically focused guild, it could not exist without the creation of an altar.  Nor could one simply opt out of the sometimes economically costly participation in these rituals.  As Victor Turner so correctly noted, in pre-modern social settings ritual observance is a type of work that the community demands from the individual. Only in modernity did it become an object of choice, or a means of expressing purely personal values.

In the case of martial arts societies, the adoption of fictive kinship networks allowed former generations of teachers and masters of the art to be venerated in much the same way that one’s family ancestors might be.  This pattern of common worship both unified the current generation students and assured the many “bare sticks” among their ranks (economically marginal young men with no prospects of marriage or children to carry on their ancestral cult) that they would not be forgotten in death.  The promise of being remembered on a school’s memorial wall was a strong incentive for many marginal individuals to join a martial art.  Thus, in the Qing dynasty even martial communities that lacked the heterodox spiritual teachings of the Plum Blossom Boxers noted above tended to be united through a common practice of religious worship.  This also applied to military units in both the Manchu Banners and the Green Standard Armies.

Did individuals derive spiritual value from this mandatory religious activity?  Peter Beyer might warn us that in a pre-modern context such a question might not be very relevant.  Probably some did and others did not.  But that had no bearing on people’s observation of the rites.  Because these ritual practices were central to the creation and maintenance of social, political or economic groups, their maintenance was mandatory.  One simply could not opt out of them and remain a member of the community.  Hence, they were in a position to make strong demands on the behavior (if not the beliefs) of every member of society.

All of this changed rapidly with the onset of market driven rationality and the expansion of the Western mode of globalization starting in the late 19th century.  As I discussed in this essay systems that derived meaning through universal systems of communication with and about the transcendent were rapidly replaced with highly utilitarian and specialized modes of communication dominated by professional specialists.  While both a religiously trained monk and a scientifically trained medical doctor can attempt to treat the sick, it is certain that the individual with the more specialized education will have the better outcomes.  This principal seems to be universally true.  So even within the field of medicine we seek out ever more narrow degrees of specialization (orthopedic surgeons, neurologists, forensic pathologists) rather than just relying on general practitioners.

As this same process happens in every aspect of the economy and society (including the martial realm) religion is pushed out of the public sphere.  Many early advocates of the Secularization Hypothesis, individuals like Durkheim, Marx or Freud, simply assumed that with no obvious role, religion would seek to exist.


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


Of course, that particular prediction has not been born out.  While fewer individuals identify as religious in Western Europe than any other part of the globe (perhaps with the exception of Japan), I still know members of the Church of England in the UK and devout Catholics in Germany.  America is among the most modernized states on the globe, yet it also has fairly robust religious communities.  And around the globe new types of fundamentalist worship have emerged in every major world religion (including Buddhism and Hinduism). All of this leads us to ask, were the Modernization and Secularization Hypotheses wrong?

Beyer argues that the early advocates of these theories were mistaken when they assumed that religions (or any social institution) would simply go quietly into that good night.  Instead these organizations will struggle to survive. To do that they must first locate a mission or new problem that would grant them renewed legitimacy.  Nor, in a rapidly modernizing society, does one have to look far to locate such things. The dislocations of rapid economic change have created all sorts of problems.  And most communities have a rather limited set of voluntary institutions to deal with these issues.  It was perhaps inevitable that religion would be retooled for the modern age.

Yet in modern and secular societies, religions can no longer fill the same roles that they once did.  They no longer define universal values let alone command universal obedience from believers and doubters alike.  One can join or leave a religious community just as one may join or leave any other voluntary social organization, which makes these groups fundamentally different from their predecessors.  They cannot demand a privileged position in the public sphere.  They may only attain that if enough of their backers demand it.  This then is the process that gives rise to fundamentalism.  While fundamentalism may appear to predate modernity, in truth these religious struggles are a quintessential expression of modern social dislocation.

The fact that individuals can now treat religious communities like market commodities, picking and choosing the one that meets their personal tastes, opens a number of other possibilities’ which may also be useful to introduce.  This is where modern notions of spirituality may enter our conversation.  Whereas religious communities are by definition social bodies, spirituality is something that (while it can be shared) is typically understood as being experienced on a personal level.  In short, it may easily become yet another good that can be commodified and sold in the current era.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Hegemonic religious institutions had no obligation to provide much in the way of spiritual enlightenment to the peasants that they collected taxes from. After all, they existed in a system where participation was compelled.  Yet once you are dependent on your congregation’s voluntary tithing for your continued existence, suddenly one has a strong incentive to make sure that the flock is being fed, both literally and figuratively.  It is thus no surprise that that in this age of declining religious relevance, survey research continually notes that individuals are as interested in finding sources of spiritual enlightenment as ever.

We now have all of the pieces necessary to assemble a more complete understanding of the variety of ways in which the Chinese martial arts (or any hand combat practice) might interact with religion and spirituality.  Though again, we must be cautious as both of these terms are very slippery and they tend to mean radically different things when applied in an imperial Chinese or modern Western context.  For that reason, we will be restricting our discussion to the era surrounding the emergence of global modernity as, in many respects, the movement away from transcendent modes of communication, towards utilitarian specialization, also provides us with something closer to a shared conceptual framework.

Just prior to the advent of modernity, hand combat societies in China, like practically all social groups, were founded on the basis of some sort of shared ritual observance.  In some cases these rites might have been fairly thin (such as a unit of the Banner cavalry men carrying out the annual, imperial mandated, sacrifices to the Horse King), while in other cases heterodox religious beliefs might have been absolutely central to the nature and identity of a more revolutionary group’s practice (the Yihi Spirit Boxers of 1900, or perhaps Kanner’s Plumb Blossom Boxers in the 18th century both come to mind).  In both cases the religious nature of the group was fundamentally a matter of social organization.  The impact of these ritual observations on the practice of martial skills is a more complicated question. I think that it is doubtful that a sacrifice to the Horse King would have had a great tactical significance for our Banner troops, but beliefs in spirit possession and regular attendance at local operas did have a powerful impact on how the Yihi Boxers trained and fought at the turn of the century.

While some sort of religious rite was practically mandatory in any pre-modern Chinese society (even Southern China’s pirates seemed to have shared a common worship), one suspects that degree of spiritual fulfillment that one experienced in these practices varied dramatically.  We know, for instance, that many Confucian ritual masters were utterly unconcerned with the existence of gods or spiritual forces.  Yet it seems likely that White Lotus Rebels (to say nothing of individuals like the Red Spears who actually used battle magic in the course of their engagements) probably had a more vivid experience of the divine through their martial practice.  A range of possibilities exists here.  However, one suspects that individuals involved in voluntary spiritual communities (such as local heterodox cults) likely experienced a great degree of spirituality in the course of their martial practice.

Moving into the modern period we see major changes in this landscape.  To begin with, the degree to which religious observance can be compelled from non-believers is massively reduced.  Certain Warlords in the 1920s might try to require that their troops convert to Christianity.  Yet even junior officers unwilling to accept the waters of baptism would have had little trouble finding alternate employment with the many competing Warlords (most of which were notably hedonist) during the period.

This is not to say that all martial groups were devoid of a common religious worship.  The folk martial arts of Southern China, drawing on a stock of marginal and often reactionary young men, continued to offer opportunities for common worship.  In some cases, this was attached to a local temple (as Avron Boretz observed), but in most instances it was restricted to ritual observances at the schools own memorial wall.  While some individuals continued to study spirit possession and exorcism rites in the first half of the 20th century, these practices became more marginal throughout China’s increasingly middle-class martial arts market. Other practitioners in this era sought to cleanse the martial arts from any association with religion at all, emphasizing only its practical, military and national elements.

The modern era is also when we see increased diversification of what might be thought of as the spiritual goals associated with martial practice.  When examining heterodox religious rebels in the late imperial period, sources often discuss their spiritualty in terms of traditional categories such as messianic expectation, eschatological beliefs, faith healing or various magical or alchemical practices.  Of course, the widespread interest in theater and its connection with martial practice might also fit here.

Yet as we move into the post-1911 era something changes.  While many of these older impulses remain accessible, they are soon joined by more modern expressions of spirituality.  A veneration of the nation gripped many of China’s (and Japan’s) martial artists during this period.  In the “New China” one could now find personal spiritual satisfaction in the act of self-strengthening as this was understood as type of sacrifice by which individuals could participate in the life of the nation.

The allure of nationalism has never left the martial arts.  Some observers including Jared Miracle have noted, tendencies which last reached a fevered pitch in the 1930s seem to once again be on the rise.  Yet as economic growth has progressed, the value systems that many martial artists pursue has also evolved.  Just as Inglehart predicted, the current martial arts marketplace seems to be rife with what might be called “post-modern spiritual values.” Anything that can contribute to “self-actualization” is now being defined as a potentially spiritual practice.  Likewise, types of community struggle that might have been viewed in strictly political terms in the past are increasingly being endowed with spiritual overtones by some practitioners of arts like Capoeira.

Still, just as Beyer observed with modern religious and spiritual practice, the relevant qualifier here is that only some individuals hold these values or see their arts in this way.  In the current era one cannot be compelled to practice any religious system or martial art.  Consumers can choose where they want to spend their money.  Likewise, while some individuals are free to see their Wing Chun practice as a type of personal religion, other individuals in the very same school would be equally justified in arguing that they are involved in an entirely secular system of modern self-defense devoid of the illusions of spirituality.

As Beyer would note, the single defining characteristic of modern spirituality is its voluntary nature.  Some teachers of an art may view their practice in secular terms, while others actively attempt to cultivate a spiritual experience.  Students are free to find (or not find) religion where they will.

I suspect that this last point is precisely why the subject has become hotly contested in the current era.  The ongoing shocks of rapid economic change and social dislocation continue to erode to many of the “traditional” institutions from which individuals derive meaning.  As these fail, there is an incentive to turn to other voluntary social institutions (such as new religious movements or martial arts) in an attempt to cope with the challenges that modernity imposes on us.  Yet not everyone is actually looking for the same thing.  Some individuals may only be seeking a means to lose weight, or an engaging combat sport which can provide a sense of achievement within a likeminded community. Others may be looking for something to anchor their identity on a more fundamental level.

Nor is it clear that both groups of students can find what they seek in the same community of practice.  Thick systems of spiritual and philosophical teachings which answer the big questions such as “Who am I? Why am I here?  Where am I going?” tend to offer less reliable guidance in the Octagon than specialized and practical trainers with a strong background in boxing or MMA.  Which is not to say that there are no individuals in the modern combat sports who derive spiritual satisfaction from the quest to be the best that they can be.  But again, not all spiritual pathways are mutually compatible.  Hence individuals will continue to contest whether a given martial art has a spiritual orientation and, if so, what it should be. We are forever attempting to stabilize (and legitimize) our own personal understanding of these things.

As history progresses, and basic social values are renegotiated, the very meaning of terms like religion and spirituality will once again change.  While we might be able to study the many complex ways in which these concepts have intersected with certain martial arts in the past, it is impossible to say with certainty what those relationships will be in the future.  Yet ultimately that is a good thing as the only social institutions that are unchanging are those which are already dead.


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.



If you enjoyed this essay please see: The Five Tiger Stick Society: Pilgrimage, Local Religion and the Martial Arts


Addiction, Wellness and Martial Arts

photo credit: Helen Cho



Winning and Losing

In the movies martial artists win their battles.  Early losses, inserted into a script for the purposes of “character development,” are redeemed in a climatic final scene.  Those of us who train, however, know that this formula is often backwards.  In real life defeats follow initial victories.  At 59 years of age, and reflecting on his own experience in the martial arts, Anthony Bourdain observed that time and injury take an inevitable toll.

“I tape my fingers (in the forlorn hope that it might mitigate the osteoarthritis and Heberden’s nodes associated with grip fighting). I will never be a black belt. I will never successfully compete against similarly ranked opponents half my age, I will never be great at Brazilian jiu jitsu. There is an urgency to my training because I’m sure as shit not getting any younger, or more flexible. I’m certainly not getting any faster.” 

Some systems of training are easier on the body than others, but the cold truth is that the practice of any fighting art inevitably cannibalizes much of the physical capital that it seeks to create.  All of us reach a point in life when we begin to grimly calculate how many “good training years” we have left, and how much more we might reasonably seek to master.  Through careful practice and good luck we might forestall the inevitable, but this is a battle that we all must lose.  To train as a martial artist is to learn to face defeat with a degree of equanimity.  I would suggest that this lesson is not peripheral to our practice.  It is intrinsic to any quest for embodied knowledge.  

The tragic ending of Bourdain’s own battle against his inner demons has launched a wave of public reflection, as well as celebrations of his life.  I was struck by how many of these obituaries, reviews and think pieces have focused on his passionate engagement with the martial arts.  Indeed, his enthusiasm for Brazilian Jiujitsu was often brought up in practically the same sentence as praise for his willingness to talk about his past struggles with drug addiction.  The subtle implications of this pairing are, of course, clear.  Bourdain had found a higher power in the monastic discipline of serious martial arts practice and was drawing on this to combat a history of heroin and crack cocaine usage.  Even if he ultimately lost his battle, surely his martial arts practice helped him to hold out as long as he did.

Some of Bourdain’s own writings seem to wink at a connection between these two episodes in his life. He noted: 

“I used to hang around cold stairwells first thing in the morning waiting for dope. Now I hang around cold stairwells waiting for Jiu Jitsu.”

Photo Credit: Helen Cho


Very few of his casual viewers could probably guess what Bourdain actually felt waiting in that stairwell, anticipating a grueling workout.  Yet I would guess that this line of narrative nevertheless sparked of a wave of recognition within his audience.  After all, martial arts and drug addiction have long formed an oppositional pair in the public consciousness.

On strictly empirical grounds this is actually somewhat odd. The many elite fighters who are caught using banned substances for either recreational or performance enhancing reasons (or in Bruce Lee’s case, both) are quickly forgotten.  They do not conform to what we think we know about the martial arts, or the elite athletes who are lucky enough to pursue them.  Political psychologists would be quick to remind us that when a piece of new information does not comport with our prior theories or beliefs, its all too easy to find a reason to dismiss it. The end result is that experienced “reality” is a highly individualized phenomenon.

Yet accounts of celebrities who have turned to the martial arts in a bid to increase their personal wellness or combat drug addiction are amplified and echoed throughout the media.  The release of the initial Ip Man movies certainly brought some curious new students into my teacher’s school in Salt Lake City back in 2008 and 2010.  Even more impressive were the crowds which would appear following Robert Downy Jr.’s periodic discussions of the many ways that Wing Chun had helped him to get his life back on track.

There is no denying Downy’s star power.  And the ease with which Sherlock Holmes’ Japanese inflected Bartitsu was replaced with a Wing Chun inspired interpretation of bare knuckles boxing was striking.  Still, I suspect that Downy’s story (and endorsement) had such staying power within the public imagination as it conformed to a self-help narrative that was already widely accepted.  Rather than being a complex social, medical and economic phenomenon, in this view substance abuse reflects some sort of deficit in the national (or personal) character.  As such, something that teaches “self-control” and “discipline” is exactly what individuals struggling with addiction (or even underlying mental health problems) need.

This is an area where we must tread carefully, both as martial artists and scholars.  On the one hand, we know that practically any type of regular vigorous exercise has undeniable physical and psychological benefits.  And certain types of martial arts training may have an edge when it comes to teaching “mindfulness” and developing self-discipline.  It is also clear that an increasing number of addiction recovery programs are turning to the martial arts as one aspect of a wider treatment plan.

Still, I haven’t seen any clinical research suggesting that martial arts practice can fundamentally change the brain chemistry of someone struggling with a serious mental illness, or that individuals are more likely to become addicted to their prescription opioids because they somehow suffer from “weak characters.”  Indeed, one of the dangers in these sorts of discourses is that as we personalize the struggle for wellness and recovery, we simultaneously ignore the larger societal trends that lead to massive waves of addiction in the first place. An exclusive focus on “individual responsibility” risks falling prey to a pernicious species of policy blindness.


photo credit: Helen Cho


The Sick Man of Asia

Then there is the overwhelming sense of deja vu.  As a student of modern Chinese social history, it is hard not to draw the obvious parallels between the current (North American) opiod crisis and the one that gripped Southern China in the closing years of the Qing dynasty, stubbornly persisting through the Republic.

One wants to avoid facile equivalencies.  Shanghai in the 1920s was a vastly different place than San Francisco today.  If nothing else modern Americans do not have to contend with a trade system that allows the Japanese to export a limitless number of their notorious “red pills.”  Our own pharmaceutical industry has stepped into that breech, replacing old fashioned economic imperialism with an updated species of predatory medical capitalism.  Still, structural factors such as rapid social displacement, growing inequality and erratic policy making certainly compounded the problem in both eras.

And then there are the martial artists.  Again, one must be careful to avoid overly broad generalizations.  Both the martial arts and substance abuse were such widely distributed social phenomenon in Republican China that they tended to overlap in strange, and sometimes surprising, ways.  

Many martial artists were staunch opponents of opium use.  But those who worked as security officers for the state (which claimed to have a legal monopoly on the sale of opium) or as enforcers for various criminal gangs (who contested said monopoly), likely found themselves actively supporting the trade.  We also tend to forget that while Chinese social opinion saw opium use by marginal people (peasants, common laborers, soldiers) as a serious problem, the “better classes” were thought to be immune to many of the problems associated with long term drug use due to their innately “superior moral character.”  Hence it should not really be a surprise to learn that Ng Chung So’s Wing Chun school (catering to the sons of wealthy local business owners) operated out of the back room of a fashionable “opium den” in Foshan.

Still, there was enough opposition to opium usage within the martial arts community that a fairly recognizable discourse could emerge.  One of the more unvarnished accounts of this era can be found in the reminisces of the well known Taijiquan teacher T. T. Liang, as recorded and published by his student Stuart Alve Olson.  Liang provides the reader with colorful retellings of what it was like to be a Custom’s Officer caught in the crosshairs of competing opium interests during the “roaring 20s.”  But his personal journey within the martial arts really begins in a hospital bed in 1945 when, forced to confront his own imminent mortality, he resolved to save himself by finding a Taijiquan teacher.  His was hardly a unique story during that era. I suspect that at least some of the discussions of personal and “national health” that pepper the period’s martial arts manuals are veiled references to the scourge of addiction.

The more nationally focused movements didn’t bother to shroud their criticism of opium use, and proudly argued that the martial arts were a means to individual and national salvation.  As in so many other areas, the Jingwu Association seems to have pioneered this message in their publications.  Of course the group also had long standing campaigns to promote better public hygiene and education as well as the martial arts. 

Their ten year anniversary book, discussed at length by Kennedy and Guo, even included political cartoons (titled in English) editorializing on detrimental national effects of individual drug use.  They made their argument by juxtaposing the image of a young and healthy Jingwu student, capable of working or fighting for his nation, with an image of loafers and weaklings of “low character” who could only cluster around an opium pipe.



This returns us to one of the major differences between Republican China and the current situation in the United States.  While reformers in both places have promoted the martial arts as the key to recovery, character building and wellness, the end goal of this process is not always the same.  When reading through the front matter of various TCMA training manuals from the 1920s, it quickly becomes apparent that the health and recovery of citizens was being promoted precisely because it was believed that this would lead to the strengthening of the Chinese state in the global arena.  Individual wellness was not a goal in itself so much as it was portrayed as a means to a much greater end.  This promotion of middle class and urban martial arts was not a matter of “post-modern” values. Indeed, the nation’s martial arts teachers were expected to produce physical capital that could then be fed directly into China’s rapidly modernizing industrial sector.

In contrast, the current Western discourse linking wellness and the martial arts is an almost perfect example of what Ronald Inglehart would characterize as postmodern values.  These focus on the welfare of individuals (rather than the state or the economy) and emphasize the critical importance of the “intangible” aspects of life. While a surface reading might suggest a great deal of rhetorical continuity within the ongoing medicalization of the Chinese martial arts over the last 100 years, a closer examination reveals that these efforts have actually been tied to substantially different sets of values.


Anthony Bourdain and jiu-jitsu trainer Kurt Osiander in San Francisco in 2015. Photo Credit: Helen Cho.


Why Practice?

So what actually motivates individuals who take up the martial arts today, especially those who do so later in life?  Anthony Bourdain’s autobiographical accounts are suggestive.  Initially the pull of “social networks” seems to have had more to do with his choice than any lingering need to fight heroin addiction.  By most accounts he had ended his relationship with that drug in the 1980s.  It wasn’t until 2014 that Ottavia Bourdain, his first wife and an avid martial artist, convinced him to sign up for classes in Renzo Gracie’s gym in Manhattan, where she conducted much of her training.

It is clear from his writings that Bourdain quickly got “hooked” on his new hobby.  Soon he was training multiple hours a day whenever he was in NY and visiting schools around the globe as he traveled to shoot on location.  While he jokingly described his new found passion as “an addiction,” his public discussions of the art rarely touched on, or even alluded to, his own history with substance abuse.  That is interesting as this was a topic that Bourdain freely discussed.

His public discussion of BJJ seemed to focus instead on its all consuming nature.  He loved the physical and tactical challenges that it posed.  Bourdain seems to have been interested in the conceptual basis of his physical practice, repeatedly characterizing BJJ as a chess match.  And a brutal training schedule may have been quite helpful in his role as a television personality who needed to both eat and drink for a living while gaining no weight.

Another point that Bourdain repeatedly came back to was the emotional experience of engaging in something totally new.  His professional worlds had previously included kitchens, restaurants and writing desks.  He had never been one for the gym, let alone the training hall.  He described with awe the sensation of becoming an absolute beginner, of going back to square one and admitting that he knew nothing.

“It’s like being the newest, worst cook in the kitchen all over again, looking up that impossibly steep learning curve to the broiler station. I liked that feeling then. I like it now.

The first day, all those years ago, when my chef addressed me by name at the end of the shift, was a golden moment.”

One can hear echoes in this quote of Dan Inosanto’s famous extortion to always be a white belt in something.  Becoming that white belt is not just a technical process, it is an emotional one as well.  This quote suggests that it unleashed a wave of nostalgia in Bourdain for a much earlier point in his career, a period when everything was still touched by mystery.  To become a white belt is not just to accept a new teacher, or a new system.  It recaptures part of the inexperience of one’s own youth.  I still vividly recall my excitement as a new Wing Chun student, and the strange sense of freedom (even possibility) that arose from simply being a new student in the back of a class after having spent the better part of a decade performing at the front of lecture halls.

When discussing the connection between martial arts practice and addiction recovery most professionals are very careful to point out that this is a supplement to, rather than substitute for, other sorts of treatment (particularly if there are underlying mental health issues). Yet regardless of how you come to them, the martial arts can be an invaluable tool for restoring one’s physical health and mental calm.  They allow individuals to gain new social skills and an increased sense of psychological resilience.  And everyone enjoys a healthy self-esteem boost when discovering “My body can do what?”

In reading Bourdain’s accounts of his own training, and reflecting on my own experience, I think that there is something else.  There is just so much nostalgia in his final quote.  Of course the Asian martial arts have always traded in romantic images and feelings of nostalgia. Nostalgia can be a double edged sword, particularly if its strongly felt but not linked to any sort of action.  In those cases it risks turning into a form of toxic resentment for that which is new or different.  Yet by linking these powerful emotions to healthy activities, increased engagement with a community and a general desire to expand and improve ourselves, the martial arts can be an extraordinary vehicle for positive change.  

At the start of this essay Bourdain observed (with a tragic degree of foresight) that as a 59 year old BJJ novice he would never compete at the level he desired.  He would never earn a black belt.  He would probably never be faster or stronger than he already was at that moment.  So why should a middle aged person, or senior citizen, start a martial art that they will probably never master?  Because simply setting out on the journey can unlock both social and psychological forces that put us on a pathway to personal wellness. 




If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: A Brief History of Nostalgia and the Future of the Martial Arts.


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