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Cross Big Knives, early 1930s. By Thomas Handforth. Source: Oregon State University Digital Collections.


***Greetings. I am currently hard at work on a few different research projects.  One of these involves quite a bit of thinking (and reading) about the process of “standard setting” in an international context and what implications this might have for understanding the development of martial arts practices and institutions.  On the surface that might sound like a dry topic, but it actually cuts right to quick of so many of the “political” fights that seem to plague martial arts communities today. Hopefully that will be one of the next big topics which we tackle here at Kung Fu Tea. In the mean time, I wanted to repost an essay from a few years ago tacking another core issue in our field, the persistent problem of presentism and the way that it distorts our understanding of the past.  Enjoy!***




I would like to begin today’s post by noting that Joseph Svinth (whom most of you will already know from his many contributions to Martial Arts Studies) really deserves to be listed as a co-author on this piece. Joe was kind enough to bring Thomas Handforth’s many prints to my attention and noted some of the debates that his career as an illustrator inspired.  Further, he suggested that “presentism”, a topic that has been a part of the discussion of Handforth’s illustrations of Chinese life, is one of those central issues that must also be periodically addressed within Chinese martial studies, a position with which I strongly agree.  In short, Joe was the driving force behind today’s post.  Any errors of omission or commission are mine alone.


Archer, early 1930s. By Thomas Handforth. Source: Oregon State University Digital Collections.



A Quest for Art


Given the physically explosive nature of kung fu, I have always been surprised that these hand combat practices have not generated more in the way of visual art outside the world of film.  Obviously, there have been some notable exceptions.  And I have gone out of my way to showcase vintage photographic images of these practices here at Kung Fu Tea over the years. Still, I cannot help but feel that something is missing.

Perhaps the situation is over-determined.  The kung fu movies of the 1970s certainly gained a huge pop-culture following, but maybe that has been part of the problem.  Perhaps these practices just seem too trivial to be the subject of “serious” art.  Or maybe it is more difficult to translate explosive physical movement into static visual composition than one might think?

Still, my biggest frustration is that the Chinese martial arts are so often portrayed in a remote, mysterious or down-right orientalist way.  And yet all the Chinese martial artists that I have encountered are modern individuals who have integrated these practices into their daily lives.  In attempting to stabilize these practices “exotic” and “mysterious” origins, we lose sight of their lived reality and dynamism.

Plus, I run a blog.  The internet is an unrelentingly visual medium.  The difference between a successful essay and one that no one clicks can come down to something as simple as the choice of cover images.

Still, on a more personal level I want to see something more than just ethnographic accuracy or nice composition in a photograph.  For me, the best martially themed artistic images are interesting precisely because they capture something about the time, place and feeling that prevailed at the moment of creation.  When Joseph Svinth started to email me the images of Chinese life that Thomas Handforth published during the 1930s, I knew that he had come across something special.

A few words of introduction will be helpful.  Handforth was born in Tacoma in 1897 (died 1947) and studied art at the University of Washington before dropping out and moving to New York City.  Eventually he was swept up in the fires of WWI and served with the US Army’s medical and sanitation corps in France.

Like other artistic individuals of his generation he showed no immediate interest in returning to the US.  Handforth lived in Paris for a time and studied at the L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, before moving on to the less traveled places where he would sharpen his artistic vision and establish his reputation as one of the period’s great illustrators.  These other destinations included Africa, Latin America and (most importantly for us) China.  During the late 1920s Handforth began to receive commissions to illustrate children’s picturebooks, though all but one of these early efforts have fallen into obscurity.

In 1931 Handforth’s life changed when he won a Guggenheim Fellowship funding a five year tour across Asia.  Horning reports that after spending two weeks in Beijing he decided that this single city had enough visual richness to keep him busy for years.  He settled down in a traditional home, became a fixture in the city’s gay arts scene, and began to experiment with lithography.

Handforth seemed to be at his best when capturing the views of street life and the common people.  Vibrant marketplaces attracted his attention and a number of his pieces from the period display vignettes of daily life.  Chinese physical culture was a special point of interest.  Many of his most interesting pieces feature wrestlers, acrobats, marketplace performers and “sword dancers.”  After corresponding with Handforth’s surviving family Alexander Lee obtained some his vintage photographs and noted how these images were reworked and developed into his better-known illustrations.

His commercially produced prints from this period typify trends that were sweeping through the worlds of art and graphic design.  Archers (probably strongmen pulling heavy bows as part of a performance) and wrestlers stand against stark, empty, backgrounds.  The result is a heightened sense of visual tension and drama.  The classic conventions of art deco design are employed to further stylize and strengthen the visual form.  No one would look at Handforth’s well muscled figures and call them “The sick men of east Asia.”  Indeed, his work seems to fetishize the link between masculinity and the martial arts.

It is also interesting to note what does not appear in his art.  There is no sign of the modernizing Guoshu or Jingwu influence in his prints.  Rather than recording the rise of rational, middle class, martial arts, Handforth was fascinated by the older traditions that persisted in the era’s marketplaces.  I suspect this is why we see less unarmed boxing (and no female martial artists) in his catalog.  On the other hand, he left future generations many scenes celebrating China’s various wrestling traditions, a topic that receives surprisingly little attention today, even within Martial Arts Studies circles.  He also covered darker aspects of the city’s life, such as the gruesome public executions and beheadings that became increasingly common in Beijing as the political situation deteriorated.


The actual Mei Li, reading her book. Source: KATHLEEN T. HORNING, the Horn Book.


Enter Mei Li


This does not mean that female figures were absent from his art.  Handfroth drew a number of sketches of female acrobats and gymnasts.  And it was one four-year-old girl by the name of Mei Li who was without a doubt responsible for his greatest success as an illustrator.

Kathleen Horning notes that Handforth was rather shy by nature and one wonders whether this was why he decided to settle in a neighborhood in Beijing rather than performing a five-year grand tour of Asia.  Whatever the case, local markets and public spaces provided him with an unending supply of a subjects.  And closer to home a small girl named Mei Li ruled over the courtyard that Horning did much of his sketching in.  Mei seems to have been responsible for lining up some of Handforth’s subjects and translating instructions as to how they were to stand.  His writings indicate that while small in size, the child had a personality that was well suited to management.

A young sword dancer that Handforth produced many studies of. Photo by Handforth. Source: http://www.waking-green-dragon.com/2014/02/mei-li-real-story.html


The same boy, now as a finished fine art print. The photo and finished study give us some idea of Handforths method of interpreting and producing images. Source: http://www.waking-green-dragon.com/2014/02/mei-li-real-story.html

As Handforth’s collection of local friends and models grew he decided to illustrate a story that might plausibly bring them all together in a single place.  As such, he composed a narrative in which the irrepressible Mei Li, with the help of her brother, would sneak off to see and take part in the annual New Year festival.  Of course, this involved breaking a few social conventions for a female from her background and social standing.  Still, the real-life Mei seems to have been only too happy to become the protagonist of such a story.

Handforth was clearly aware of, and attempted to comment on, the changing gender relations in China during the 1920s.  This can be seen in three spots in his short story.  It opens with the translation of a Chinese poem lamenting the uselessness of an unconventional (or possibly any) female child in a traditional home.  Indeed, Mei’s escapades in the festival might be best understood as an elaborate (and pointed) answer to the poems rhetorical question of “what can a girl do?”

Second, while at the festival the young girl has her fortune told and it is revealed that she would one-day rule over of a kingdom.  Such a prediction was clearly not far off the mark for either the real-world Mei or her literary doppelganger.  Handforth’s writings make it clear that he expected great things in the girl’s future.

The problem of gender really comes to a head, however, when Mei returns from the festival, only to be greeted by the home’s Kitchen God.  The family’s deity informs her that the kingdom she is actually destined to rule over is that which has traditionally been assigned to females, the hearth and home.  Mei’s response to this assertion is quizzical.  She accepts the answer, but only up to a point, noting, “It will do for a while, anyway.”

Some modern critics (including Xiaoli Hong) have detected in this a failure of imagination on Handforth’s part, and seen in it a message that was potentially damaging to female children.  Indeed, the fact that the book won the 1939 Caldecott prize, and received critical acclaim in venues such as the NY Times, make the subtle implications of its contents even more important.   Rather than clearly facing and overcoming an unjust barrier, the irrepressible Mei seems to have been stifled by social convention and accepted the norms barring her from participating in public life.

Horning, however, has disputed this reading of the text.   She notes that it is entirely too easy for modern readers and critics to forget what the actual situation in China was like during the 1920s and 1930s.  While this was a period in which modern feminist principals took root, they were not yet firmly established.  Students of Chinese martial studies will already be aware that there was a good deal of push-back on these ideas.  Indeed, the entire thrust of the story shows Mei challenging the attitudes of her time (in a very physical and embodied way) and the community being richer for it.

In a revolutionary situation, rather than focusing on her statement that “It will do…”, the clear implication is that readers should take much more seriously her qualification of “..for a while, anyway.”  Mei is an irrepressible force glimpsed in a moment of radical change.  Indeed, every time we read accounts of female martial artists in the Guoshu or Jingwu movements, it is important to remember that they were commented upon precisely because they seemed to be exceptions and signs of impending social transformation.

The Clinch, early 1930s. By Thomas Handforth. Source: Oregon State University Digital Collections.


After encountering Horning’s treatment of Mei Li, Xiaoli Hong reevaluated her approach to Handforth’s classic picturebook.  She read it again with a more sophisticated set of theoretical tools and paid special attention to the tension that existed between how events were described in the text and what was actually shown in the illustration (indeed, the story seems to feature a somewhat unreliable narrator).  She concluded:

“Horning’s article also evoked wonderings about whether I applied a presentist lens in my first reading of Mei Li. According to Power (2003), readerly presentism—a reader’s perception that a book written in or about the past is, racist and sexist—is “to a large degree inevitable as readers cannot completely identify and control their own cultural and social conditioning “(p.425). However, it “would be a grievous problem if it in fact denied the integrity of a past era” (p.457). After recollecting my first encounter with Mei Li, I think I imposed my modern beliefs and values onto a past era without going deep into how the social structure of discrimination and oppression against women was (and may still be). Based on stories I read and heard about in contemporary society, I assumed that a female character would triumph over sexism or at least make some life-transforming decisions at the end of the story. My presentist lens precipitated me into a quick yet narrow judgment of the picturebook. Thus, as McClure (1995) argued, “the milieu of the time in which a book is set should be considered for its influence upon the book’s perspective and content” (p.11).


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Breaking Ceramic Figurines by Martin Klimas.

Paul Bowman. 2019. Deconstructing the Martial Arts. Cardiff: Cardiff University Press. 165 pages.  Free to Download.


Summer is typically the time when scholars get caught up on their reading. Yet judging from the pile of books, manuscripts, dissertations and articles on my desk, I seem to be falling behind.  As such, I have decided to inaugurate a series of short book reviews here at Kung Fu Tea in an effort to make a dent in this pile, and to bring my study and writing goals into closer alignment.

The first book we will be tackling was the most recently released.  Nor does it, technically speaking, occupy any physical space on my desk at all.  Paul Bowman’s recent volume Deconstructing Martial Arts (2019) has been released as part of a new initiative by Cardiff University Press to get relevant academic work into the hands of its readership more quickly and easily.  As such, anyone can download a copy of this work free of charge from their webpage. Libraries, students and bibliophiles can always pay to have a physical copy of the book produced and mailed to them.  But there is something that feels very different about approaching a book which seems to have been designed as an electronic text from the ground up, as opposed to a more traditional tome where the publisher releases an over-priced ebook as an afterthought.

Perhaps there is a degree of intentionality in all of this.  One of Bowman’s major themes throughout his project is to gently prod us to reexamine the relationship between the various types of knowledge which we value, and the mediums that bring them to us.  What can we learn about the social perception of the martial arts from non-action films?  Is embodied knowledge really generated in the body, or does it only crystalize and take shape through an interaction of body and media (print, video or other)?  And how should we describe the fields of meaning that bodily practices generate?  Is this a task that calls for the mixing of radically different writing styles (as Wacquant first proposed in Body & Soul), or should we follow Ben Spatz in questioning the hegemony of written work in academic discourse, and begin to consider a richer array of media specifically tailored to our needs?

For his part, Bowman seems content to stick with words as the main medium by which to convey his arguments (though the data that he draws on comes from sources as diverse as the training hall, research archives and darkened film theaters).  Still, any reviewer would be remiss in failing to note that this book feels like it sits at an inflection point.  This does not have so much to do with the arguments that Bowman makes (the basic outlines of which will already be familiar to readers of his prior works), but the way in which they were packaged and distributed.

Of course, I should note (disclose?) that Paul Bowman and I are friends and colleagues. We jointly edit the interdisciplinary journal Martial Arts Studies, which is also an imprint of Cardiff University Press.  When we first started that project we were in agreement that readers anywhere in the world should be able to access the articles we would publish for free, without having to trek to a university library or negotiate costly subscriptions.  We wanted this work to be easily accessible to other scholars.  But we also wanted it to remain relevant to the communities of practice that helped to create it.

One can only imagine how the decision to distribute free electronic copies of a scholarly book would impact any publisher’s business plan.  I am sure that this will be, in many ways, be quite disruptive.  Yet it’s a disruption that is probably necessary as we strive to demonstrate the value of our project (or any academic undertaking) to the broader world.  After all, much of the work produced in our field was directly financed by the public.  It seems only right that they should have access to it.

Perhaps that is a bit of an overstatement.  “The public” is an overly large category which no doubt includes a wide range of people who will have no interest in reading any work on a good many topics.  So, to move beyond the economics of Bowman’s publishing model, and to begin to engage with the actual substance of his argument, perhaps we should begin by asking who this book was actually written for?  What is the intended audience?

Breaking ceramic figurines by Martin Klimas.

What are Martial Arts?

It is not uncommon for authors to open a chapter or volume with some sort of attention catching hook which, after drawing the reader in, is ultimately of only secondary importance.  This is such a typical writing strategy that I often find myself reading over the first half on an introduction pretty fast as I try to get to the “good stuff.”

I would caution readers to resist that urge in this case.  The opening lines of the book asks two seemingly similar questions.  First, what are martial arts?  Second, what do we mean when we say martial arts?  These two questions are critical in that they structure the first and second half of this work respectively.  Indeed, the overarching theme of Bowman’s work, his main argument, is that the field of Martial Arts Studies will better position itself for growth and development if it focuses on the second (more qualitative) question and abandons the illusion of coming up with a coherent or “scientific” answer to the first.

This also frames the present volume in relation to his two other works dedicated to martial arts studies.  Where as his first work on the subject (Marital Arts Studies, Rowman and Littlefield 2015) laid out the possibility of a field, the present volume attempts to spread and popularize Bowman’s notion of what sort of field it should be, the approaches that it should include (critical theory and deconstruction) and those that it should avoid (anything that smacks of naïve empiricism or scientists).  While his second book was concerned with the construction of Barthian myths of the martial arts, this work instead focused on what the deconstruction of these edifices suggested about the development of Martial Arts Studies itself.

Many themes and passages in this work may already be familiar to those who follow Bowman’s work closely.  A number of chapters are reworked conference papers and keynote presentations.  I believe that I even saw a few opening editorials from our journal being quoted.  However, much of this material has been rework, and sometimes even reevaluated.  This is an inevitable result of thoughtfully rereading one’s own work when it is placed in dialogue with new arguments and themes.

The end result is a volume in which the chapters largely (but not entirely) stand on their own.  Those looking to tackle a single subject (say, critiques of embodiment), or to harvest material for a class reading list, should have no trouble approaching individual chapters in isolation. Yet I would encourage readers not to do that.  Taken as a whole the entire volume lays out a careful argument that will be critical to anyone who is seriously involved in the field of Martial Arts Studies.

Bowman begins by asking readers to imagine the essence of the martial arts, and how one might approach such a question given the manifestly complex, plural and even contradictory nature of these practices.  The introduction, first and second chapters of this book lay out a spirited argument outlining why we cannot simply address this question by constructing a definition of the martial arts.  His reasoning on this point is nuanced, but perhaps we might sum it up by noting that if we really could simply define the martial arts in a way that seamlessly captured their full boom and buzz, there would be no reason to study them as a social phenomenon or individual practice.  The big questions would already have been answered. Indeed, Bowman locates the failure of past projects (such as hoplology) as stemming, at least partially, from a too hasty attempt to define away its central object of study. While done in an attempt to make these projects appear “scientific”, what this approach actually did was to stifle emergence of fruitful questions that might have propelled the conversation forward.

Breaking ceramic action figure by Martin Klimas. Source: http://www.whudat.de/exploding-porcelain-action-figures-by-martin-klimas-7-pictures/

The first three chapters of this work then make an argument for why, rather than structuring our field around mutually agreed upon definitions, we should instead think deeply about the sorts of theoretical frameworks that we would employ in our studies.  More specifically, how should we allow those same frameworks to examine our motivations in undertaking this research in the first place?

A call to consider theory before jumping into a sea of data would not appear to be too controversial from my perspective as a social scientist.  The central problem facing any researcher is that the world contains too much texture and too many points of observation. The human mind cannot make sense of it all.  Our struggle is not to bring back ever more detail, but to create generalizations about what it means and whether any of this is significant within a specific context.  Theories are the simplified models of causation and meaning that make this possible.  As my old professors used to tell me, we all have unstated assumptions that guide our perceptions of the world, which tell us what is obvious and what is surprising. We may choose to ignore the subconscious values and theories that we apply when “just looking at the world” or “just reading the texts”, yet those theories will always be there shaping what we see.  It is thus critical that we discuss our theories, and choose them carefully, precisely because we can never really go without them.

What some readers may find more controversial in Bowman’s argument that deconstruction (as that methodological concept is defined and understood within the field of cultural studies) is a useful tool with which to approach a wide range of issues within Martial Arts Studies, particularly at this current moment.  He even seems to see the open-ended and remarkably congenial nature of the field (as it has evolved so far) as in some ways a testament to validity of the basic values of this approach.

Again, Bowman outlines all of this through direct discussions in the first half of his book.  This sort of philosophical argument will be critical to certain readers.  But I suspect that the second half of the volume (specifically chapters four through seven) will convince a larger group of readers of the validity of his approach.  As the old adage goes, “show don’t tell.”

In these chapters Bowman turns to a set of more concrete questions on a variety of topics: How can we talk about embodied experiences? What is the danger of self-delusion in martial arts training? What do we really mean when asserting (or denying) that the Chinese martial arts are Taoist?

As he addresses each of these points (and many more) he demonstrates how deconstruction might act as a philosophical lamp which illuminates previously unseen pathways or paradoxes within Martial Arts Studies, and occasionally our own personal training. All of this is critical to the field as it suggests predictions and paradoxes that more conventionally trained historians, anthropologists or sociologists might wish to investigate.  Again, the value of theory is not that it supersedes data, but that it directs one’s research efforts to more clearly search for the sorts of observations that will be helpful in coming to terms with the nature of practice.

Does theory (in this case deconstruction) lead scholars to detach themselves from the real world, as so many critics of post-modern thought have claimed?  I suspect in some cases it does, but that is probably more a reflection of the values and interests of those particularly scholars than critical theory as a method for understanding the world around us.  Still, few of these tendencies are evident in Bowan’s writings.  While his exercises in deconstruction may not allow for the creation of strict definitions, they instead lead him to ask a variety of ever more pressing and uncomfortable questions about the nature of real world martial practice and the communities that support them.  One can deal with “authentic texts” and derive from them only visions of the 18th century Chinese martial arts which are not only detached from anything going on today, but also mostly likely much of what was happening then as well.  In contrast, Bowman’s deconstructions tend to emphasize the many unexpected ways that the martial arts impinge on core values and social questions, suggesting that how we choose to practice these arts really does have critical consequences for ourselves and others.

With all of this in mind, perhaps we can now answer my initial question.  Who exactly is this book for?  Who is its intended audience?  In this regard Bowman presents us with one last paradox.  The entire point of making a book freely available online would be to increase its potential readership.  Ideally one might even reach beyond the confines of the academy, delving more deeply into the “cross-over” audience of practicing, thoughtful, martial artists. After all, professors and graduate students would normally get books like this from the library anyway.

Yet by the time you get to the end of this work two things are clear.  First, this was not so much a loose connection of chapters as a coherent, heartfelt, plea about what the shape of our field should be going forward.  As such, it really does benefit from a “front to back” reading.  Second, such a work must inevitably be aimed at individuals who are already deeply involved within the field of Martial Arts Studies.

Chapter four (one of the strongest elements of the volume) is a clear example of this.  Within its pages Bowman sets about systematically exploring and problematizing much of the conventional wisdom that seems to be driving the trend towards greater numbers of “embodiment studies” within the field.  This is a critical conversation, and one that needs to be pushed farther by both Bowan and the defenders of embodiment as a critical paradigm within Martial Arts Studies.  Yet it is also the sort of discussion that is likely to be most captivating to readers who are designing or planning their own research projects.

Indeed, this seems to be an attempt to reach not just students who passively consume this material, but rather the researcher and writers who are currently producing it.  Whereas Bowman’s first book on the subject was an attempt to argue for the viability of the field, this work should be understood as an attempt to move the needle on what sort of literature it generates.

Ironically this orientation works to the advantage of undergraduates and more general readers.  Bowman is quite self-consciously attempting to reach scholars who do not have a background in critical theory or deconstruction.  As such he explains his basic concerns, introduced core concepts in a transparent way, avoids unnecessary jargon, keeps dense quotes by continental theorists to a minimum and attempts to show how deconstruction can function as a (paradoxically) common sense way of dealing with real world issues.  All of that makes this among his most accessible works and probably one of the most readable introductions to deconstruction as a method that one is likely to find in any field.  Again, none of that is a coincidence.  But it does suggest that while Bowman wrote a book with a very definite message to his colleagues, parts of this discussion would fit seamlessly on an undergraduate reading list.

In the final analysis, what kind of project are the martial arts?  Bowman deftly reveals them as practices (and discourses) that are deeply meaningful, transformative, ideological, delusional, hierarchic, liberating, dangerous and so much more.  This work illustrates that only when we loosen our assumptions about what we think we already know can we see richness around us.


If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: A (Taijiquan) Mystery in Yellow


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Students in a lightsaber training exercise. Source: Author’s personal collection.


In the coming months I expect that readers will be seeing a few new blog posts discussing my ongoing work with the Lightsaber Combat community.  I have a chapter and conference paper that will be looking at performance ethnography and material culture within this research area, so I would be very surprised if at least some of that does not find its way onto the blog.  This much shorter piece might be thought of as a warmup.  My friend Jared Miracle (who has guest authored a number of posts here at Kung Fu Tea) and I recently wrote the following introduction to the subject for a more popular martial arts magazine.  The editor asked about the development of the current Lightsaber Combat community and role of history and mythology within it.  So those were some of the questions that we tackled.

Lightsaber Combat as a Global Movement

In February of 2019 the French Fencing Federation (Fédération Française d’Escrime or FFE) made the news.  Stories were run in many major magazines and the comedian Trevor Noah even graced the FFE with a Daily Show segment. Yet the topic of debate was not traditional sport fencing.  Rather, the FFE had announced that the LED Saber (or replica lightsaber) was being added as an official fourth weapon within the French fencing establishment, alongside the better-established foil, epee and saber.

The response to this announcement was electric.  Some commentators were delighted, others aghast. The viral spread of this conversation, which went far beyond the sorts of individuals who normally took any interest in fencing, played directly into the FFE’s media strategy.  Like many old guard sports federations, it was concerned as fewer new students took up fencing.  And it should be remembered that other governing bodies had already proved that adopting a new telegenic “extreme sport,” such as snowboarding, parkour, skateboarding or rock-climbing, was a tried and true strategy for boosting an organization’s relevance in the current era.

This announcement did not come as a surprise to members of France’s Lightsaber Combat community.  The FFE had openly announced its intentions and publicly examined several different approaches to the LED saber championed by various preexisting clubs before finally settling on its preferred model. It is interesting to note that while Star Wars is often thought of as a quintessentially American film, Lightsaber Combat is a global phenomenon which has grown more quickly in France than perhaps anywhere else.

Yet how did this global community emerge and what is the nature of their practice? Clearly one might design a competitive sport based on ideas found in a fictional film, but is it really possible to create a new martial art while drawing inspiration from these sources?  What specifically is the relationship between historical practice and the modern media?  Most importantly, were the many traditional instructors who contributed to the development of these practices (and even the FFE) correct in their assertions that as a teaching tool the LED saber could reach new audiences uninterested in historical blade or stick fighting?

The following article addresses these questions.  It begins with a brief description of the LED saber both as a material object and in relation to development of the larger Star Wars film franchise.  Next, we review the creation and expansion of the Lightsaber Combat community between its first stirrings in the early 2000s and the current moment.  Last, we directly address the function of history, fiction and hyper-reality within the martial arts.

For most individuals it is virtually impossible to separate the term “traditional” from “martial art.”  Many practitioners exhibit something close to religious reverence for the history of their practice.  For some cultural traditions (such as those often seen in the Chinese martial arts), the authenticity of one’s art is inexorably linked with the legitimacy of one’s lineage status.  Within such a framework, a practice without the proper sort of history (such as Lightsaber Combat, Mixed Martial Arts, or even something like the Keysi Fighting Method) could not be fully accepted as a “legitimate” martial art.

Much debate has occurred recently in scholarly circles as to how we should define the concept of “martial arts” in a cross-cultural context, and whether engaging in such a definitional exercise is even a good idea.[1] Benjamin Judkins has made his own contributions to this discussion specifically addressing why lightsaber combat should be accepted as a martial art (for theoretical purposes), and the ways in which this realization effects our understanding of how these communities function.[2]

We do not intend to relitigate those debates here.  In this article we instead focus on a related problem. Practitioners often claim to be deeply impacted by the historical legacies of their arts.  Yet the development of the interdisciplinary field of Martial Arts Studies has demonstrated that a great many of the claims passed on within traditional hand combat communities actually fall into the realm of myths and legends.  Most of the Chinese martial arts practiced today are not the product of an ineffable past. Instead, they are the legacies the final decades of the 19th century and the Republic of China period (1911-1949).  Rather than being an “ancient Korean art,” Taekwondo developed as a clear attempt to appropriate and nationalize Japanese Karate in the post-war period.  Further, the entire understanding of the “Samurai Spirit” promoted in many Japanese Budo contexts is largely the product of nationalist reformers (some working with Western sources) in the Meiji period rather than an authentic reflection of the medieval past.[3]

While all martial arts have a history, it does not always bear a close resemblance to the stories venerated by their students.  What happens to our experience of the practice of a fighting system when we cannot attempt to historicize our legends? Can real techniques be transmitted and honed when we are forced to fully accept the mythic nature of the exercise?  The Star Wars films, after all, may be the most successful modern myth ever produced, but no one would claim the lightsaber as history. Yet the very nature of Lightsaber Combat forces one to practice as if they were.

A promotional image noting the recent partnership between the American based Terra Prime Light Armory (TPLA) and the French Fencing Federation (FFE).

Origins of a Community

One suspects that fan-sponsored lightsaber duels began to occur the day after George Lucas’ epic space opera opened in 1977. Yet the first identifiable Lightsaber Combat organizations did not emerge until late 2005 and 2006.  Given the immense popularity of these films, and the iconic nature of their signature weapon, how should we understand this delay?

The current generation of replica lightsabers (including the LED illuminated stunt sabers most often used in a martial arts context) date only to the early years of the 2000s.  They were initially developed as part of the marketing effort surrounding the release of the prequel trilogy (1999, 2002, 2005).  It was at this time that Lucasfilm began to issue licensed replicas of a number of weapons seen on screen.  These had detailed metal hilts, sound effects, and blades that appeared to ignite.  It was difficult for individuals who held these early sabers not to feel as though they had just been given a relic from that far off galaxy.

Soon third-party vendors entered this market space, offering simple training sabers with in-hilt LED modules and hollow polycarbonate blades. These sabers still had aluminum hilts, though they tended to be more ergonomically designed and better balanced that the original film props.  And while some of these sabers were marketed to collectors, other (nearly indestructible) weapons were developed specifically for staged choreography and martial arts applications. It was only a matter of time before a variety of martial artists decided to seriously investigate what these new sabers were capable of within a training context.

This desire to more fully explore the world of lightsabers was encouraged by the franchise’s other marketing efforts.  In 2002, Dr. David West Reynolds (an archeologist employed as an author by Lucas Film) published an article titled “Fightsaber” in the October issue of the Star Wars Insider fan magazine.[4]  While lightsabers had dominated much of the personal combat on screen (and they played a progressively greater role in each new film), nothing had ever been said about the specialized training needed to wield such a weapon.  Dr. Reynolds, who was not a martial artist, sought to fill this lacuna by exploring the “seven classic forms of lightsaber combat” as taught in the fictional Jedi temple.  His descriptions borrow much from the image of the Asian martial arts which circulates in popular culture. This tendency towards Orientalism only grew as successive video games, novels and comic books sought to expand the lore, drawing on an ever-widening body of pop culture references.

Again, it was only a matter of time before actual martial artists started to ask what combination of real-world fighting techniques could best replicate the alluring reality that was starting to emerge around the idea of lightsaber combat.  The inexpensive, durable and versatile nature of LED sabers as material objects ensured that a wide variety of practitioners would be swept up in the task of reconstructing the “lost” systems of lightsaber combat. For some this was simply an extension of their Star Wars fandom.  In other cases, individuals saw it as an intellectual and technical puzzle deepening their appreciation for various stick and blade based martial arts.

Given the global appeal of this franchise, it is probably impossible to know, with certainty, where the very first dedicated lightsaber group emerged.  Greg Ember, who has carefully tracked the creation of groups within this community, hypothesizes that the first schools or performance troops may actually have formed in either Russia or the Philippines.[5]  Lightsaber combat remains extremely popular in Russia and across Southeast Asia. However, the first group to generate sustained media attention was NY Jedi, which began to offer classes in New York City after marching in the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in 2005. The press coverage that this group would generate (along with the creation of the Saber Guild in 2006) led to an explosion of other small clubs across the Eastern seaboard of the United States in the coming years.

Most of this first generation of groups focused on a type of fight choreography that attempted to emulate the techniques (and even costumes) which were seen in the films.  They often organized themselves as non-profit enterprises and would perform at fan gatherings and charity events.  However, as there was not yet an ecosystem of specialized lightsaber schools and organizations, many of their members actually had a relatively diverse set of interests and practices.

Perhaps the first truly specialized group to emerge was Ludosport, created in 2006.  This Italian organization used the same LED sabers to develop a fast-paced combat sport. Their approach to Lightsaber Combat is unique in that they favor light contact and tend not to wear protective gear beyond light gloves and occasionally eye protection.  While organized as a sports league, Ludosport offers instruction in a set of progressive techniques (originally drawing inspiration from the seven classic forms of lightsaber combat) that have been carefully selected and modified to allow for safe play with minimal gear.  For much of the next decade Ludosport expanded its network of academies across Europe before, in 2016, opening its first location in North America.

Nor has Ludopsort been the only actor to approach Lightsaber Combat as a competitive sport.  The publicity preceding the 2015 release of The Force Awakens helped to support a wave of specialization within the Lightsaber Combat Community.  On May 4th of 2015, two important groups were created.  In North America, this date saw the formal emergence of the Saber Legion, a heavy dueling league featuring full contact, full force striking.  Participants in these contests wear heavy hockey, motorcycle or HEMA armor, much of which has been selected and decorated to invoke a specific persona.  On the same day, the Sport Saber League was created in France.  It occupies what might be thought of as a middle ground requiring the use of Fencing masks, heavy gloves, and some other minimal equipment while only allowing medium intensity contact.

A third category of Lightsaber Combat groups also emerged in the lead-up to the most recent trilogy of Star Wars films.  While choreography clubs and sport leagues often appropriated the pedagogical or tactical insights of traditional combat systems, this last set of organizations explicitly identify themselves as martial arts schools. This is something that leagues such as Ludosport or the Saber Legion have been hesitant to do, even when their members or creators have been traditional martial artists.

This rhetorical choice reflects a more fundamental shift in the goals and self-understanding of these groups. The growth and differentiation of the community in recent years has allowed for the establishment of a number of schools focused on questions of “realism.” In a few cases (like the Lightspeed Saber League, formally organized in southern California in 2016) this discourse centers on the hypothesized nature of the lightsaber as a weapon with very unique characteristics. Depending on how these are understood, one can then attempt to derive a body of technique fitting this mental map.

Details of three LED Saber hilts. This model is the Pilgrim by JQ Sabers.

More common are schools that seek to achieve a sense of “realism” in the sorts of techniques employed.  This approach allows them to use the lightsaber as a means of testing and teaching a vast range of real-world fighting philosophies that might not otherwise come into contact with one another.  One cannot easily walk into a Kendo school to test your HEMA techniques against unsuspecting Japanese martial artists.  The historic, national and even ideological aspects of these practices tend to prevent this sort of exchange, except in special limited circumstances.

Yet the ahistorical nature of the lightsaber, as well as the complex mythology that surrounds it, tends to encourage exactly this sort of “creative play.”  In some cases, this means mixing and matching techniques from within a single cultural framework. Other organizations might draw on a much wider variety of source materials in their attempt to realize the full breadth of the “seven classical forms of lightsaber combat,” essentially imagining each component as a distinct and separate art.

One of the first, and most influential, martial schools within the Lightsaber Combat community is the Terra Prime Light Armory. Established in 2012 it has posted instructional videos on YouTube in order to create an open-source instructional system drawing on a variety of Chinese (and to a lesser extent European) fighting styles. Indeed, the creators of this system viewed the lightsaber as an ideal tool to both test and preserve these techniques in a quickly changing era. It should also be noted that the TPLA’s approach and progressive curriculum formed the basis of the LED saber program recently adopted by the FFE. Further, it has recently entered into a partnership with the FFE to promote their competitive ruleset in the United States.

Unsurprisingly, there is often a regional component to the relationship between martially oriented lightsaber groups and the historic styles from which they draw.  HEMA techniques appear more frequently in European lightsaber schools. Likewise, organizations like the Saber Authority (established in 2014) have promoted systems with a distinctly Southeast Asian flavor, drawing on their region’s rich traditions of stick and blade work.

Instructors in this last group of schools often express enthusiasm for two ideas that may at first appear to be in tension with each other.  On the one hand, they note the freedom that the LED saber grants them to test and combine styles that might not otherwise meet on culturally neutral ground.  This allows for genuine martial exchange and a welcome escape from the “politics” of the traditional martial arts.  At the same time, they also note the LED saber’s potential to reach new audiences, popularizing and preserving skills which have emerged from historic martial arts.  When commenting on his students who regularly compete in Saber Legion tournaments, Steaphen Fick, a noted HEMA instructor who also runs a saber training program notes:

“One of the things that I like about working with them [the Lightsaber Combat Community] is that they are taking what is essentially a silly weapon and learning how to bring it to life. The skills that they learn, the questions they ask and the work they put into learning the lightsaber is what makes it a valid martial training tool.”[6]

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Bruce Lee Graffiti. Source: Wikimedia.


It is so hot outside that it is almost impossible to think about training, which means that there is no better time to get caught up on news – particularly if some of these stories give you something to do while hunkered down in an air conditioned cave! For new readers, this is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea  in which we review media stories that mention the traditional fighting arts.  In addition to discussing important events, this column also considers how the Asian hand combat systems are portrayed in the mainstream media.

While we try to summarize the major stories over the last month, there is always a chance that we may have missed something.  If you are aware of an important news event relating to the TCMA, drop a link in the comments section below.  If you know of a developing story that should be covered in the future feel free to send me an email.

Its been way too long since our last update so let’s get to the news!

A sign seen at recent protests in Hong Kong.  This is not a message about staying hydrated in the heat, but that is probably a good idea too. Source: South China Morning Post.

Speaking of the Chinese Martial Arts

As everyone is well aware, Hong Kong has been rocked with sustained massive protests demanding the total withdrawal of a (for now only suspended) extradition bill which would allow suspected criminals to be sent to mainland China for trial, outside of Hong Kong’s unique judicial institutions.  The specific details of this controversy are not so much our concern as the way that the rhetoric around this conflict is touching on the city’s rich martial arts heritage.  While the actual practice of the TCMA has declined in HK in recent years, the idea and memory of these fighting systems have (somewhat paradoxically) become ever more important as markers of local identity and sometimes resistance.

One place where this trend can be seen is in the recent appropriation of Bruce Lee’s image, memory and philosophy by a number of protesters.  Given the strong anti-colonial themes within his films, its not that surprising that Lee’s memory would be making frequent appearances in this conflict.  The SCMP even notes that new and updated protest tactics (quickly repositioning mobile swarms of protesters as opposed to more static methods of conducting “sit ins”) are being attributed to, and explained through, Lee’s famous “be like water” discussion.

Not all local martial artists are equally popular with the crowd.  Jackie Chan, perhaps the city’s second most famous martial arts figure, has courted controversy among Hong Kong residents for some time with his numerous pro-Beijing statements and stances.  His current publicity tours, and claims to be unaware of the situation in the streets, do not appear to be endearing him to local residents.

Pierre Flores (Left) and Xu Xiaodong (Right). Source: South China Morning Post.

It seems that no discussion of the news would be complete without an update on Xu Xiaodong’s exploits and controversies.  A Canadian Wing Chun exponent named Pierre Flores is publicly renewing his challenge against Xu Xiaodong. Interestingly enough, when it comes to punching out individuals whose claim super-human abilities, both of these gentlemen seem to be in the same line of work.  However, Flores, who previously defeated a Vietnamese “Kung Fu master” named Huynh Tan Kiet, notes that Xu is going about it all wrong.  “The way he does it is wrong. It is not right to assume all martial arts are fake.”

Our final Wing Chun story for this update comes in the form a school profile titled “Carrying on the Ip Man Legacy.”  It presents a brief discussion with Penang Ip Man Wing Chun Sifu Aaron Boey.  In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Boey and myself are both part of the same lineage (Ip Man via Ip Ching) which is probably why I noticed this particular article in the first place.  After all, school profiles are pretty common.  But what was really interesting upon closer reading was the role of the 2008 Ip Man bio-pic in Sifu Boey decision to take up Wing Chun in the first place.  Obviously this film inspired many new students and I remember seeing a distinct surge of interest in the art while studying with my own teacher in Salt Lake.  But as we think about the number of years that have past, it may be important to note that many of that generation of students will now have schools of their own.  I think its safe to say that we are firmly living in the “post-Donnie Yen” era of global Wing Chun.

Still shot of Bruce Lee in the opening scene of “Enter the Dragon.”

“Bruce Lee’s fitness regime and diet made him a pioneer among athletes and martial artists alike.”   So proclaims a second, less political, article in the South China Morning Post.  In other news, protein shakes have come along way.  I guess we should all be grateful that no one has to drink raw hamburger slurries anymore.  I am sure that FDA and CDC are…

Is Taijiquan more your speed?  If so, you may want to check out the discussion with this “Milwaukee Tai Chi Instructor on why this martial art is so good for you.”  The article doesn’t break any new ground in terms of medical or sports science.  Rather it offers a brief profile of a program run by a former Judo player which servers a largely female and senior citizen student base.  Of course these are two groups that are often left out of discussions of the Chinese martial arts.

Chinese Martial Arts in Media

Given the heat, maybe you want to stay inside an air conditioned room (or possibly theater) and watch other people do the work?  While waiting for the release of Ip Man 4, why not review some of Yuen Woo-ping’s incredible body of work.  He was recently honored at the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival, which was the occasion of this rather extensive piece in the South China Morning Post (which is clearly gunning for this year’s KFT award for “best martial arts news coverage by a major news paper.”)  You can check it out here. So what is my favorite “classic”  Yuen Woo-ping film?  I would probably have to go with Drunken Master.  I have always had a weakness for the Kung Fu comedies.


If you are at all interested in the connection between Hip Hop and the traditional Chinese martial arts, you need to check out this article at Vice.com.  It is an interview with Lupe Fiasco (aka ‘Beat N’Path’) discussing his life long involvement with the martial arts and the new documentary series taking him from Chicago to Shaolin.  Its a very nice narrative that touches on many critical points in the spread of the Chinese martial arts to America with a special emphasis on the Hip Hop connection.

Or if you feel like you are desperately in need of a second opinion of Fiasco’s Japanese Sword work (which is apparently decent but not brilliant), Vice.com has you covered.

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Bujutsu joran 武術上覧 (The Shogun Views a Demonstration of Martial Arts) / Chiyoda no on-omote 千代田之御表 (The Central Office at Chiyoda). Right side panel. Source: britishmuseum.org

Bear up under days of cold and heat, withstand exposure to wind, rain, sleet. Walk mountains and difficult paths. Do not sleep under a roof; consider it fundamental to sleep out in the open. Be patient with hunger and cold. Carry no money or food provisions.

If there are unavoidable battles at a destination, participate and achieve meritorious deeds. Be direct in combat, let your deeds speak. Go alone to places frightening to the common run of men; places where evil spirits congregate or where there are bewitching foxes and poisonous snakes.

Become a criminal on purpose, be put in jail and extricate yourself by your own wisdom, perseverance, character. Consider your own position to be below that of farmers and make your living by helping in the paddies and fields.

Bukoyo Shigen, 1603, “The Seven Austerities.”

A Time for Travel

This post follows up on my recent essay about marginality in the martial arts. Yet before turning to this topic, I would like to discuss the journeys that we take within the martial arts and Martial Arts Studies scholarship.  I don’t mean this is in a metaphorical sense, at least not primarily.  Rather, the academic life has its own rhythms and summer is the time for travel.  Some of this is professional (conference and research related). Other outings are purely personal.

Whenever visiting a new city, I try to check out at least one local martial arts school.  My research in the Southern Chinese martial arts and Lightsaber Combat provide a wonderful justification of this, and the Martial Arts Studies community comes with a great network of contacts.  I dutifully treat most of these visits as ethnographic opportunities, taking notes and conducting interviews in addition to the normal training. But at the end of the day what motivates me is the experience of working with someone who shares my passion but approaches these practices from a different perspective.

At times the martial arts seem to function almost as a second passport.  The small blue book that I carry may get me into a different country. Yet once there, it is a shared dedication to (or even a curiosity about) an art which allows me to cross thresholds into new communities. During the pre-War era it was very fashionable for reformers in the Chinese martial arts to decry the secretive and clannish nature of folk masters, often opining at length as to how traditional martial culture would lead inevitably to the death of these practices, and shortly thereafter, the nation.  In truth China’s folk martial arts were not in crisis during this period.  Rather, they were growing so quickly that they often defied the attempts of social elites and government agents who wanted to bend them to their own ends.  Nor was “secrecy” the only result of traditional martial culture.

The discussion of (often entirely mythic) lineages also functions as a mechanism to facilitate the “discovery” of unexpected connections between geographically distant practitioners.  These identities survive in the current environment as they provide a handy mental map for classifying social relationships between practitioners, and that is always the first step in expressing a new notion of shared community.

Of course, sometimes our wanderings take us far beyond the confines of a shared style or combative philosophy.  While visiting a large East Coast city with my wife, I recently decided to stop in for an introductory lesson at a Shaolin school.  This particular class was being taught by a former warrior monk who, after touring extensively, was sent to the United States to spread Shaolin Kung Fu and Buddhism.  One can only imagine what his warrior’s journey has been like.

This was my first experience working with an instructor who had emerged from the modern Shaolin temple system, and what I saw was nuanced, skillful and extremely impressive. Yet China is a big place, and its martial arts comprise a vast system of practice. As someone who really focuses on the folk arts that arose in Southern China in the first half of the 20thcentury, I was not particularly well positioned to absorb all of the material that was being carefully presented to the students. Yet even if travel and comparative study do not lead to mastery, they can be invaluable aids in understanding the communities and cultural frameworks the surround the martial arts.

Bujutsu joran 武術上覧 (The Shogun Views a Demonstration of Martial Arts) / Chiyoda no on-omote 千代田之御表 (The Central Office at Chiyoda). Central panel. Source: britishmuseum.org

The Warrior’s Pilgrimage

Not all travel is the same.  When I mentioned my recent Shaolin experience to a colleague he mused (mixing cultural metaphors) that by walking into such a different school I had undertaken my own Musha shugyō.  This Japanese term refers to a sort of “warrior’s pilgrimage” that was performed by the Bushi and later Samurai.  Their goals were diverse, but typically included improving one’s technical skill through training, developing mental and spiritual toughness, establishing a reputation as a skilled warrior, and finding gainful employment with a local Daimyo.

While I am hardly a wandering swordsman, this struck me as in some ways an apt metaphor for the sorts of travel that I see being undertaken by some martial artists (and younger scholars) today.  Indeed, there seems to be a strong structural connection between training in an embodied skill and the necessity of travel.  My friend’s metaphor was all the more intriguing as this tendency can also be seen across cultures and time periods.

China has a long literary tradition of tales of wandering youxia in both ancient literature and classic Ming and Qing era novels.  Indeed, during the Republic period it was a common refrain that a well-trained martial artist with a sword on his back was free to walk from one side of China to the other, a task that few others would dare to take up.  In a very real sense martial accomplishment was associated with geographic freedom. Likewise, Western knight errantry was also well-established in both the fabric of European feudalism as well as the region’s literature.  Still, it would be unwise to conflate all “martial pilgrimages” under a single label as doing so could cause us to lose sight of the importance of socio-economic marginality in these patterns, or the role of the martial arts as a strategy for dealing with one’s marginalization within society.  Traditional modes of hand combat functioned not only as a concrete qualification by which one might gain certain sorts of employment, but also as an ideological construct allowing one to find value, and even virtue, in difficult circumstances. Or to draw on a more sociological terminology, they were means by which marginal individuals might establish effective sub-cultures.

Let us begin by considering whether the journeys in question are essentially circular in nature, or linear and non-repeating. When analyzing a pattern of movement timing is often the critical element, even more so than distance. Some types of travel are undertaken at regular intervals, or with a regular group of companions.  In my academic life I might travel to the annual Martial Arts Studies meeting on a yearly basis.  Beyond that I see many of these same colleagues either at smaller workshops or perhaps bump into them in large disciplinary or area studies conferences. In any case, the defining characteristic of these journeys is their regularity.  The physical location of the movable feast may change, but by design the food and company is usually quite similar.

It is not difficult to imagine how these circuits of travel and professional circulation might shape a new intellectual community. Benedict Anderson has talked about the ways that shared literatures (such as newspapers, or academic journals) and shared professional experiences can lead to the emergence of “imaginary communities.” One becomes a member of the Martial Arts Studies community (or any professional specialization) in large part by joining this pattern of physical travel and intellectual circulation.  The journeys that we undertake, and the stories that we tell about them, are powerful tools in the creation of community.

Lauren Miller Griffith and Jonathan S. Marion, in their recent volume Apprenticeship Pilgrimage: Developing Expertise through Travel and Training (Lexington Books, 2018), remind us that these basic patterns are not unique to the scholarly realm. Their ethnographic study of various ballroom dance and martial arts communities reveals the many ways in which participation in circuits of training workshops, tournaments, and regular visits with a revered school or master, served to both create specific types of embodied skills and status within these communities.

I quite like this book as it speaks to a set of conditions which are increasingly prevalent within North American martial culture.  The much-discussed decline of the traditional martial arts means that fewer towns and small cities will be able to support dedicated schools in any given discipline.  Further, even when a school exists within driving distance, the declining population density of students within traditional communities suggests that there will be fewer truly skilled individuals to work with.  Those with specific interests (a less common style of martial art, or perhaps an interest in a specific lineage) are increasingly likely to find themselves undertaking precisely the sorts of journeys that Griffith and Marion describe in their quest for embodied knowledge.

As useful as their description and framework is, it does not exhaust the role that travel plays (and has played) within the martial arts.  The notion of pilgrimage as used in their text implies a degree of circular repetition and regularity.  Mircea Eliade might remind us that even if an individual traveler only makes the journey to Mecca once in their life, they are nevertheless imagining themselves as part of a vast and unending circumbulation of a transcended world axis that gives mundane life meaning.  In more mundane terms, one may return to a martial art’s headquarters multiple times a year for “additional training.” In some cases, this may be important for maintaining one’s own social status in the organization or teaching credentials. In such a situation there is no need to imagine community as being defined by shared journeys between the center and the peripheries.  One will have ample time to experience the texture of this reality for yourself.

This last pattern is something that many of us in the martial arts will be familiar with. These types of travel are often very expensive, not only in terms of direct costs but also foregone opportunities in other areas of one’s professional or family life. The strength of the communities that are forged through these pilgrimages comes in large part of from the high barriers to entry which exist within such organizations.  Frequent and expensive travel can serve to ensure that you are investing your time and resources into a group that is both prosperous and full of individuals who have already publicly demonstrated their dedication to the organization.  In this case the expense of the undertaking is a feature of this social system, and not a bug.

The social scientific literature on “strict churches” suggests that this type of cost structure may function as an important mechanism for dealing with the “free rider problem” in a variety of social institutions.  But again, this stability comes at the cost of skewing the socio-economic make-up of a community towards those who have both abundant resources and the privilege to invest them into purely personal projects.  The very nature of such travel is to exclude those with fewer resources who might otherwise extract more from the community than they contribute.

While an accurate description of a certain sort of “apprenticeship pilgrimage” which we see in the West today, it is important to remember that this pattern is also fairly new.  Historically speaking, the martial artists and warriors most likely to set out on such journeys were typically more marginal individuals with the fewest resources to contribute.  More specifically, knight-entry was often a strategy undertaken by those who were economically destitute and traveling across the realm in search of employment.

Before we can go much further it may be necessary to stop and consider Musha shugyō in greater historical detail. This turns out to be a surprisingly complex task as, like so much else in the martial arts, the term (and even the underlying images that accompany it) has been frequently reinvented and reused to support a number of different projects.  Part of this can be seen in an ongoing conversation regarding when, and if, the institution went into decline.  Scholars who see the practice of Musha shugyō as being closely associated with dueling and feuding are more likely to see a decline after the beginning of the Tokugawa period.

For them the true essence of Musha shugyō might be exemplified in the ascetic (and violent) travels of Musashi Miyamoto, or the many other young warriors looking to make a name for themselves from the Muromachi period onward.  They note that in a system where second sons could not inherit their father’s feudal responsibilities, there was a strong incentive for marginal youth from the warrior class to undertake these journeys to build their reputations, and martial abilities, while searching for gainful employment.

For such youth the conditions outlined in the opening quote might be understood as giving social meaning or validation to the sorts of trials that they were likely to face anyway.  Many of them were undertaking such a task precisely because they did not have money, warm clothing and schools or friends to support them.  Accepting temporary work as a mercenary or farm laborer was not just an exercise in spiritual discipline. It really was an economic necessity.  And yet the norms that surrounded this sort of martial travel (borrowed in large part from the journeys of Buddhist monks) helped to contextualize and endow these trials with a veneer of personal and social meaning.

In truth the warrior’s pilgrimage never really vanished during the Tokugawa period, though like all other aspects of life in Japan, it came to be regulated through a system of complex law and social norms about the proper behavior of the wandering samurai (which again, makes a great deal of sense if you are looking at these as extended job interviews.) Students who tend to understand dueling and Musha shugyō as distinct activities that only overlapped in certain times and places (and not even totally then) are less likely to see the practice as having been fundamentally threatened.  From their less romantic perspective, the high point of Musha shugyō may not have been reached until the final decades of the Tokugawa era.  The spread of various schools of fencing using split bamboo Shina and protective armor led to an explosion of interest in the practice as young martial artists from around the Japan could now compete with each other in spirited matches in a new generation of revitalized training halls.

Alexander Bennet, drawing on the detailed diaries of Muta Bunnosuke Takaatsu (1831-1890), a Saga warrior, describes one episode of martial pilgrimage that took place between 1853 and 1855 (pp. 77-80).  Gone were the days of extreme deprivation described in the opening quotes.  Young warriors, and sometimes their more experienced elders who were being awarded what amounted to a paid sabbatical by their Lords, would now be provided with letters of introduction by home domains to the various schools they intended to visit.  Upon arriving in a city these individuals would check into well-appointed inns that catered specifically to the large numbers of swordsmen on the road undertaking training pilgrimages. It is fascinating to realize that by the end of the Tokugawa period the practice of Musha shugyō had become so popular that extensive networks of infrastructure were necessary to support it!

Generally speaking, the local domain being visited would pick up the tab for these lodgings, and representatives of the local schools would come to greet new travelers and introduce them to the training halls.  Complex rules of etiquette were observed in these training sessions and the traveling warriors were given official documents proving that they had visited such and such a school, at such and such a date.  Again, all of this served an economic and social function.  Young warriors undertook such training to improve their employment prospects.  More experienced swordsmen sought to polish their reputations and expand their social networks.

Nor was this the last time that the notion of the Musha shugyō would be revived. During the Meiji period it was realized that circuits of national martial pilgrimage might help to promote the notion of Japan as a unified modern state with a shared national culture.  Whereas these journeys had previously served an economic function, and perhaps contributed to the notion of the Samurai as a coherent social class, this same basic pattern of travel could now be made to serve a new purpose.  Bennett even goes on to note that the idea of Musha shugyō was once again resurrected by Japanese martial arts organizations in the post-WWII era in an effort to spread and revive the traditional martial arts through creating new networks of practitioners in the modern era.

All of this is a far cry from Mushashi Miyomoto’s many duels. Yet it would be historically naïve to argue that the latter practices were some-how degenerated or less legitimate simply because they served the needs of their respective era. And in any case, it is interesting to note that while the details of the practice changed, at heart martial pilgrimages were always seen as a way of dealing with an excess of young warriors who could not be immediately integrated into Japan’s feudal structures.

Travel was also a critical means of advancement for young warriors in other areas of the world.  Europe’s young knights faced similar dilemmas of underemployment as their Japanese counterparts.  Those who could not inherit a title or fief from their father often traveled extensively seeking employment with a local baron, or attempting to get noticed in the tournament circuit.  By all accounts this was a tenuous and stressful existence.

China differed from Japan and Europe in that it was not a feudal society.  Still, martial arts training was often seen as a critical means of advancement for younger sons, or individuals from underprivileged areas.  Lacking an inheritance, it was often impossible for these individuals (termed “bare sticks”) to find wives, or even a place in a local social order based on landownership and family lineage.  Martial arts training offered one a chance to establish a career in the military, as a security guard, a yaman runner, even as a petty bandit.  It was not uncommon for such individuals to spend the agricultural seasons at home working in the fields, and on the off months to engage in salt smuggling or some other “grey market” pursuit.

While the relationship between the martial arts and travel was not institutionalized to the same extent that was seen in Japan, it was never the less present in China as well.  In a notably static agrarian society, martial arts instructors and their students (along with actors, soldiers and itinerant doctors) were unique in that they so often had the ability to travel from place to place.  This travel was sometimes an economic necessity reflecting the geographically displaced nature of many martial artists.  Nevertheless, complex embodied skills..

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Stick fighting in Venezuela. Source: CNN.com


Greetings, and welcome to the second part of Michael J. Ryan’s guest series on stick and knife fighting in the Caribbean region.  If you missed the first installment of this series I would suggest clicking here to get caught up before going on.  That said, the traditional combat schools of Colombia and Venezuela are unique and notable for their technical and social complexity.  It is good that we are beginning to acknowledge these systems within the field of Martial Arts Studies, and hopefully laying the foundation for many future discussions as well.  Enjoy!

Garrote in Venezuela

Separated by only ten miles of water making up the Gulf of Praia, Trinidad and eastern Venezuela have had a long history of trade and exchange.  The links between the South American mainland and Trinidad go back to the pre-conquest days. One element shared by Trinidad, Venezuela, and Colombia was a lack of mineral deposits, or large urban Indigenous populations, that could be rapidly exploited. As a result, the area quickly became a backwater of the Spanish empire.

Unlike many other areas of the New World, such as the Valley of Mexico and the Eastern seaboard of the USA, Venezuela never suffered the horrific demographic decline of Indigenous peoples.  This dynamic, in conjunction with a low population density, has always plagued colonial and post-independent Venezuelan authorities. Socially Venezuela was organized into strict racial hierarchies that the country continues to struggle with up until the present.  The lack of wealth meant that only 120,000 African slaves were imported into the region and were used mainly in the cultivation of cacao along the coastal regions. Immigrants from the Canary Islands after the Spanish contributed most of the population after Indians while a much smaller but continual movement of free African from neighboring islands into Venezuela rounded out the population. The Segovia highlands of the Midwest, where most of the research on garrote has been conducted, was different from Barbados and Trinidad as the population was composed predominantly of de-tribalized and Hispanicized Indian populations.  Economically Venezuela was, and still is, based on export-oriented raw materials. There was much geographic variation over time and across space in the country.

The province of Venezuela was governed from several towns in the Midwest before settling in Caracas.  The geography of the region discouraged intra-regional trade and goods were usually shipped to local ports along the Caribbean coast for export. The regional economy was also reflected in the political sphere where from the time of the wars of Independent to the early 20th century there has been two major parties calling for a looser federated type of political state or a more unified centralized regime.  For example, the old province of Barquisimeto once served as a dividing line between Royalists and Centralists forces to the North and Liberationist and the Federalist forces to the South and West. This political dividing line proved to a be garrote stronghold and was a prime battleground between competing factions for over a century.

Lacking a standing professional army until the early 20th century, regional power brokers working through ties of kinship and patronage would align themselves with current politicians or presidents in Caracas who could supply money and some arms.  Supplies were directed downwards through social networks and kinship structures to hacienda foremen and local merchants. They would then rally local workers and relatives to arms. Drawing on these relationships of mutual support competing politicians could quickly mobilize large numbers of hastily organized rural laborers and farmers to attack each other to increase their holdings, or band together in larger groups to drive a regime change. The Federal Wars of the mid-19th century, for example, began as a fight over which political party was to take the presidency. Soon the violence spiraled out of control becoming a class/race war leading to the death of five percent of the population and the cessation of almost all organized economic activity and government rule.  Coups by local warlords continued acting as a normal channel for regime change until the mid-20th century.

A military junta of Generals from the Andes took over in 1935 after the death of the dictator Gomez.  Finally, a military coup in 1958 that turned the government over to civilians led to a degree of political stabilization. The installation of Hugo Chavez and then his successor Maduro led to the institution of a socialist state that as of this writing has resulted in the almost total collapse of the infrastructure which is held up solely by armed forces loyal to the ruling party.

What is Garrote

The definitive history of Garrote in Venezuela has yet to be written. Most research on garrote has focused on its development in the Segovia highlands.  The research I conducted in 2005 and 2013 has shown there was, or still is, strong pockets of garrote throughout many regions of the country with some possible links to some styles of Colombian Grima.  As garrote was or is still found in many pockets of Venezuela each with their unique ethnic history, the question arises whether garrote is one art or many?

My research suggests garrote came from Spain as a result of a ‘Civilizing Process’ in that country in which the merchant class and elites stopped carrying blades in favor of walking sticks and canes.  The wooden goads of herding cultures in the south of Spain and military saber fencing brought over by soldiers were other lines of combative knowledge that existed parallel to garrote and had influenced many practitioners over the years. Other sources would include the Canary Islands and West Africa. In summary, instead of one origin, I suggest garrote was developed many times and, in many places, repeatedly as people continually reinvented and reconfigured the art according to their local needs.  The innumerable styles of Garrote grew out of these tangled roots.

At its most basic, a garrote is a hardwood tapered and oiled walking-length stick used in the civilian sphere as a weapon and as an integral part of a man’s public dress.  In the Midwest, a man would not appear in public without his garrote, regardless of his level of skill. By the early 20th century the disappearance of garrote seems to have taken place along the coast in big urban towns.  In more rural regions of the far Midwest, the local government was finally able to enforce a ban on the carrying of garrote in the 1950’s and in the center mid – west by the 1970’s.  Nowadays, I was told men keep their garrotes behind their front door, strapped to their mopeds or in the trunk of their cars for when the need arises.

FIGURE 5: William Liscano teaching author La riña con palo. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.

One element shared in common by a number of the countries under consideration is that accounts of local stick arts emerged in the 19th century and were used in a wide range of different modalities such as civil self-defense, local forms of communal recreation and in religious festivities accompanied by music.  Garrote was always seen as an art of the civil sphere although chroniclers write how certain individuals had studied Spanish military saber, and local Garrote styles or Canarian stick arts, suggesting that authors sought to keep the military and civil spheres separate. It was an often said that ‘Garrote was never meant to kill just gain respect’, signifying the stick was used in intracommunal disputes to reduce the outbreak of unrestrained violence and the spread of blood feuds in a place where state control was weak.  If individuals sought to kill another person, they would turn to the blade and later increasingly firearms.

Some styles of garrote only trained with the stick or palo other styles trained with the palo, the machete and the knife. Policeman up until the 1950’s in the city of Barquisimeto were armed with machetes and learned to use different parts of the weapon to inflict pain, break bones without cutting, or slice open bodies depending on the severity of the offense of those they were dealing with suggesting another highly developed method of civil combat developed by local security forces.

Garrote was also treated as a rough brutal recreational past time where young men could while away the time between friends and create deep bonds of comraderies. The practice was also seen as a valuable method to teach young men physical toughness, mental resilience, and a set of quick reflexes and a sharp mind to set up and escape tricks, ambushes or other traps that might be set by those claiming to be your friends. Readers should bear in mind that during this time there were bands of roving militias crisscrossing the entire area. They might be found shooting at their political enemies or resisting the encroachment of large landowners against small Indian or mixed-blood farms. Of course these militias also survived by taking everything they could from the local farms and villages they came across.

Venezuela has been called Latin America’s least catholic county (Dineen 2001). Nevertheless, there are numerous traditions of the local worship of saints.  Originally there were only six main towns and several smaller villages in the midwestern state of Lara, carved out of the larger province of Barquisimeto that celebrated the feast of St. Anthony of Padua.  Sometime in the early 20th century, Garrote was incorporated into this religious ritual. Not long afterward, local scholars turning to popular cultural manifestation began to write about the beauty of these local festivities.  Finally, in 1948 the newly elected civilian government of Venezuela, seeking to unite the diverse people that made up this country, (who had no broader identity beyond that of a city or province) co-opted this local festival and changed its name to the Tamunangue.

This rearrangement served as an example of how the three primary races that settled Venezuela have been perfectly harmonized in the Tamunangue, instilling in the people of Venezuela the notion that they all share the same blood and history of everybody else in the country.  Another result of co-opting this local pastime as a national icon was the marginalizing of the violence associated with it.  This was accomplished by substituting thin sticks, allowing women to participate and breaking up any impromptu fights. In the working-class neighborhoods and rural hamlets, real violence with sticks, and blades still breaks out on occasion, much to the embarrassment of the more ‘educated’ and ‘refined’ member of society. In other parts of Venezuela, this type of “Garrote” is now seen as a performance art while the styles of Garrote that they continue to practice are visualized as purely fighting arts.

Grima in Communia.


Moving West across the Andes then down then across to where the Magdalena river empties into the Pacific Ocean, a unique local collection of stick and machete arts known as Grima emerged.  The colonization of what was to become Colombia began in 1525. The growing importance of the colony to the Spanish crown can be seen in the way the province was soon raised to the status of the Viceroyalty of New Granada by the King of Spain. At this time New Granada encompassed the present-day countries of Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and Venezuela.

Independence came about in 1830 after years of hard-fought struggles. Victorious generals Simon Bolivar and Francisco Santander became the first president and vice-president respectively.  Emerging from these two men’s political ideas arose the main political parties of the Liberals and Conservatives whose platforms have shaped every event occurring in Columbia up through the present. Although a democratic system has remained in place since independence, there have been three military coups as well two major civil wars, “The War of a Thousand Days” taking place from 1899-1902 took 100,000 lives and ‘La Violencia’ from 1948-1958 costing 300,000 lives. A truce resulting in the two parties alternating the presidency put an end to the violence lasting until the 1970’s, when ideologically leftist guerillas began building states within states in remote or marginal areas of the country.  These groups at first found a sympathetic reception among peasants for opening up the new lands after having fled the large plantation owners and their hired gunmen who sought to reduce small farmers into landless wage laborers. The 1980’s marked the rise of drug cartel violence. The onset of the 21st century has seen a leveling of political and drug cartel violence. However, outside the major urban centers, state control is still weak, and low levels of violence are endemic, greatly compromising the functioning of civil society (Herrera 2016).

Economically, gold proved to be the primary source of wealth to the conquistadores and colonists, but as in other states in the region, it was soon replaced by sugar cane.  Later tobacco took off as a major export crop in the 18thcentury, followed by coffee in the 19thcentury and bananas in the 20th.

Indigenous peoples provided the first pool of forced labor but they were soon replaced by enslaved African’s after the widespread deaths of numerous Native American communities.  African slaves were brought into Colombia soon after the founding of its first city and in such numbers that at present Colombia has the second largest African descended community in South America after Brazil.  Unlike the other countries where maroonage did not play a significant role in the country’s development (with parts of Venezuela being an example of this) there were several escaped or free-African colonies (or Palenques) that acted as strongholds of African cultures and traditions until recently (Herrera 2016).  Within the Pacific coast Cauca region, El Palenque de El Castigo and El Palenque de Monte Oscuro were the most well-known. Men trained in Grima played a prominent role in every major conflict from the wars of Independence onward, fighting on any side that would promise them freedom. After slavery was abolished in 1851, due to the support of the Liberal party, Afrodecendeantes armed with lances and machetes, as well as some old rifles, fought valiantly in the War of Thousand Days, the Border wars with Peru in 1932, la Violencia, all the way up through the guerilla movements of the 1970’s-80’s. In the area occupied by Afro Colombians, community members often found themselves caught between the firing lines of the guerrillas and the Colombian armed forces exacerbating the already harsh and oppressive conditions (Desch 2009).

Grima. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kINByttAKw

What is Grima

Grima, like Garrote, is best seen as an umbrella term for several predominantly Afro-Colombian armed combative systems done with a single stick, single machete or stick and a machete in each hand. Peinillas (a shorter thinner machete), double peinillas, lance, knife, whip and straight razors have also been employed.  Like Venezuela, styles such as Sombra Caucana, Palo Negro, Cubano, Español, Frances, Relancino, Venezolano, el Costeño, Sombra Japonés, are some of the 35 styles known today (Desch 145). However, as T.J. Desch explains, all these styles were all related and shared a common core of eight strikes and fundamental defenses (146). What is unique in the history of Grima was that an economically driven out migration of people leaving Cauca early in the 20th century led to Grimadores teaching the art professionally in other parts of the country.

Grima and the Military

The contribution of Afro-Colombian Grimadores has been largely ignored in Colombian history.  Both in the Wars of Independence and the War of a Thousand days squadrons of lancers and machetes provided the determining force in key clashes.  Recruited to serve in the border war with Peru, Afro-Colombians comfortable with machete combat took part using the machete or the peinillas as their principal assault weapon because the single shot rifles issued to them were no match for the modern repeating rifles the Peruvian soldiery possessed.  Waiting until nightfall squads of machete and peinillas wielding Afro-Colombians would assault Peruvian encampments where they could close the distance between combatants and use their blades with great effectiveness.

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What follows is the first part of a short series on New World stick and knife fighting traditions by my friend Dr. Michael J. Ryan (SUNY Oneonta).  I first became aware of this vast and fascinating body of material when I had an opportunity to attend a workshop on Haitian Machete fencing sponsored by the German Blade Museum and arranged by Dr. Sixt Wetzler (another good friend whose name will already be familiar to many readers of this blog).  The material that I saw was fascinating and it convinced me of the need for a deeper and more detailed discussion of the fighting systems seen throughout the Caribbean and South America.

It is thus with great pleasure that I introduce a two part series on this very topic.  In the first half of this essay Ryan described the unique fighting arts that developed in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago.  The second installment will explore the geographically and stylistically diverse fighting methods of Venezuela and Columbia.  Ryan’s discussion focuses on the development of unique stick and machete fighting methods in each of these areas, and the various ways in which patterns of trade, colonialism and slavery shaped the development of these New World fighting methods.  Now, if only we could find someone to contribute an essay on Haitian Machete fencing….


A number of tell-tale signs point to a wealth of living combative traditions in Latin America and the Caribbean, if one goes off the beaten path and keeps one’s eyes open.  A farmer riding his bicycle along a rural path with a three-foot stick, strapped underneath his frame. A night watchman in Barbados strolling along the grounds of a factory late one night giving a twirl a three and a half foot stick.  Alternatively, while enjoying Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago one may come across two men in brightly adorned devil costumes thrashing each other mercilessly with a long rope or shorter steel cable whips.

One question arising from this wealth of traditions is the differences in the way these men choose to fight.  There are common elements among these arts, such as the one-on-one ritualistic nature of these combats and that many of these arts deeply connect with local African-descended communities (with midwestern Venezuela being a notable exception). Also the use of the stick or the blade being highly valued over firearms (again, with the use of whips in Tobago being a notable exception).  Examining the variety of the sticks or blades used in these areas in different combative modalities such as bar brawls, sporting events, or traditional celebrations leads to a range of interesting questions.

At this time, however, the focus of our discussion turns to the connections surrounding the development of these arts as emerging out of a set of historical, political, economic structures, and cultural norms.  In order to further explore the nature of these linkages, instead of looking solely at the Caribbean or only Latin America, two countries are chosen from each region, recognizing that these areas have a long history with each other where the movements of peoples, ideas and technologies crisscrossed the area for centuries. Due to the unique conditions of conquest, colonization, and incorporation into the North Atlantic trade network, this area provides a unique site to examine various ways local combative traditions have shaped and are shaped by larger socio-political and cultural forces that swept through the region.

One proviso to keep in mind when thinking about the origins and development of combative arts was that no ethnic group has ever had a monopoly on armed fighting traditions.  In Western Europe, people regularly fought with sticks and blades of various sizes and engaged in rock-throwing melees or duels at both at both the individual and communal levels until the mid-19th century.  In the case of Africa, the number of scattered accounts published over the years suggests a widespread existence of armed combative traditions throughout the continent. What this means is there is a real possibility that any combative technique may have quite a convoluted genealogy and that one must draw on other sources to trace an art to specific area and point of time.  Furthermore, many of these arts were developed by men whose only goal was to achieve some form of victory and were often quick to take moves wherever they encountered them as long as they were seen as effective. Since combat is a very pragmatic endeavor, this adds another layer of difficulty in trying to trace back a community repertoire of combat. With this mind, we begin in the Caribbean.

Gilpin on the Beach in Barbados with Benji and Keegan. Source: From the Collection of Michael J. Ryan.


The easternmost island of the Caribbean, Barbados shares elements with other countries of interest. This study provides a unique perspective on how the art of stickfighting (or Sticklicking as it is known on the island) evolved over the last 50 years. From a diverse collection of armed and unarmed self-defense and ritual fighting techniques to a popular recreational sport before receding from the public consciousness in the face of cricket and other modern sports. At present it is mainly recognized as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of Barbados.

In simple terms, Sticklicking utilizes an approximately  39 x 1 1/4” hardwood stick against similarly armed individuals. Up until the 1950’s, especially in the rural areas, most men armed themselves with a stick upon leaving their houses. Historically, Sticklicking is best seen as a collection of African stick and single-edged blade fighting traditions that were later influenced by the English saber and single stick traditions.  The earliest accounts of stick fighting in Barbados only go back to the 1940’s, which probably betrays the lack of interest local chroniclers had in Afro-Barbadian popular culture rather than a centuries long absence of combative traditions in the country.

One element Barbados shares with every other country under consideration here was the insatiable demand of Western Europeans for sugar.  The demand for sugar is what drove a great deal of the transatlantic slave trade and the importation of Africans into the New World. Barbados was first settled by English in 1627.  By the 1630’s, the spread of sugar cane plantations on the island had led to the need for a large pool of cheap reliable labor. Captured Africans were brought to the island to deal with this labor issue in such great numbers that after a few decades, the enslaved African populations were double the English population of free and indentured servants.

Another consequence of the ascendancy of an export-oriented plantation-economy was a displacement of small farmers in favor of a planter class who dominated the social, political life of Barbados up through the abolition of slavery in 1834.  The Planter class then continued to dominate the countries affairs up through the 1930’s. At this time violent civil unrest spread throughout the British held colonies of Latin America and the Caribbean revolving around the diminishing global demand for sugar exacerbated the already harsh and exploitative conditions of workers who lacked political representation.  Only with the advent of independence in 1966 did the plutocracy of the planter elites come to an end.

Phillip and David in sticklicking match in front of a local rum shop. Source: Collection of Michael J. Ryan.

In conjunction with a stranglehold on the political and economic system by a small number of elites, the Church of England played a prominent role in the history of Barbados controlling the educational system and by extension the means for social advancement. For anybody seeking to escape the toil of poorly paid agricultural labor, those in power ensured aspirants embraced English values and cultural practices espoused by the church and supported by the government.

As in many other areas, the beginnings of combative arts that we see today in the New World are challenging to pinpoint.  Nevertheless, by the early to mid-19th century chroniclers began to document the existence of unique combative systems throughout the region.

Research by Motteley (2014), and Forde (2018), provides an overview of Sticklicking in Barbados from the 1940’s to today and informs much of the following information.  During this time, Sticklicking was present both as an art of self-defense/security tool and as a leisure activity. Interviews with men who were active Sticklickers in the 1940’s present a picture where Sticklicking is highly popular throughout the island and treated as a valued skill.  The once wide popularity of sticklicking can be seen in in the number of different styles remembered as being practiced at the time such as Donelly, Maps, Square, Diamond Sword, San Francis, Queensbury, and Johnson. Of these, only the last two remain at present.

In addition to fighting with a 39” or longer stick, some stick lickers also learned how to fight with empty hands alone and in conjunction with stick techniques that included punches, slaps, kicks, trips, hip and shoulder throws. These variations suggest a wide range of combative moves to deal with a variety of modalities, or the rough and tumble nature of combat where one does anything needed to win.  Due to the lack of firearms, and possibly a valorization of close quarter combat as the manly ideal of ‘fair-fights’ at the time, men predominately fought with occupational tools such as knives, machetes, and walking sticks. Thus, security personnel such as police officers, night watchmen, and labor foremen, had to possess a level of skill with the stick to control unruly crowds of disgruntled or overly excited peoples.

The value of possessing sticklicking skills can be seen on occasions when local policemen would swing by the houses and pick-up locally renowned sticklickers to help arrest particularly noticeable troublemakers.  The reputation that these stickmen possessed was carried along as part of a long ongoing pattern of Barbadian emigration around the Caribbean and Latin America to escape the overpopulation and depressed living conditions back home.  Many times, their skills with their sticks were used by colonial governments or plantation owners to quell political violence or labor unrest. In fact, the local form of British Guyanese stickfighting of Setoo supposedly disappeared in favor of the proved efficacy of Barbadian sticklicking (Forde 2018). And so came the old adage “Stickman doh ‘fraid no damom.” With a long, oiled hardwood stick in his hand, a Bajan (Barbadian) man would strike fear in the devil himself with his ferocious attacks.

As a recreational activity, Sticklicking was intimately associated with African practices as Africans made up the majority of the population for centuries.  From early accounts around the WWII, sticklicking involved men holding the stick near the ends in both hands and dividing the stick into thirds, as is done today in Trinidad and other islands.  A shift from a two-handed to a one-handed grip in turn suggests a shift from African understanding towards a European understanding regarding the best way to wield a stick.

Sticklicking as a leisure activity, revolves around social events ranging from dancehalls, casinos, and house parties.  Matches were held in a boxing ring, a marked off area or just within a circle of spectators. Three-minute rounds with one-minute rest periods were adhered to.  Judges were picked, to enforce a rule system based on points given for successful hits or knockouts, and prize money was put up for the winners. Neighborhood champions would also travel to other parishes to challenge other resident champions.  Friends and family and fans would rent trucks or walk to these matches to support their local heroes.

On a more informal level, weekends especially Sundays were times for informal house parties where Tuk bands played, people could buy drinks and food from the woman of the house and men could fight all night long in refereed bouts.  Finally, more informal spontaneous fights broke out at parties and rum-shops. Altogether, the evidence suggests that there was a widespread appreciation of sticklicking matches outside the purview of British authorities. In other words, in the face of oppression and injustice, Afro-Barbadian men created and maintained their own social space where older masculine values of toughness, cunning, and physical agility could be tested, cultivated and appreciated by family, friends, and neighbors, creating a sense of community in opposition to the elite planter class and their views of what was proper entertainment. Still, it is interesting is that there appears to be a lack of heavy-handed enforcement of the ban on carrying these types of weapons that was seen in Trinidad and Venezuela.

Nevertheless, the effects of English hegemony seemed to spread among the popular classes during the latter half of the 20th century when the incorporation of English cultural values of sportsmanship, fair-play and even a repertoire of specific techniques, appeared to have reshaped sticklicking. This influence could be seen the way the stick was held, manipulated, areas targeted as well as victory determined being determined by third-party judges.  Rules prohibiting the hitting of a person when his back was turned, when he dropped his stick or when he was lying on the ground further reinforced new ideas of sportsmanship.

Around the time of independence, oral accounts suggest the central role of Tuk bands accompanying Sticklicking bouts (playing before and after individual bouts) began to lessen.  The way Kalinda is done in Trinidad, the music is key to mastering the art and it is performed in a way that highlights strong African roots. This time of independence is also when the Barbadian search for a national identity came to fruition, and more universal English sports such as Cricket (introduced earlier to promote English values) began to gain in popularity almost wiping out the existence of local art Sticklicking on the island of Barbados.  Today there are only three active teachers left on the island who at times give demonstrations at schools and state holidays to promote the island’s heritage.

Kalinda and Whip Jab in Trinidad and Tobago

Flying 200 miles South by Southwest we come to another former English colony whose stickfighting traditions have undergone a journey quite distinct from that seen in Barbados.  On the islands of Trinidad and Tobago the stickfighting art of Kalinda is still heavily associated with the pre-Lenten celebration of Carnival. While the whipping arts of the Jab-Jabs are a lesser-known aspect of Carnival and Gilpin, the art of the double-machete was just revealed to outsiders in 2018.

The development of Kalinda, The Whip-Jab and Gilpin, much like Sticklicking in Barbados is connected with the expansion of sugar cane production as one the principal export crops of the New World. First settled by Spanish colonists, Trinidad remained sparsely settled until invitations by local Spanish authorities led French planters with their slaves, free blacks and mixed-blood freemen to relocate from neighboring Caribbean countries in the late 1700’s.  England took possession of the island in 1797. By then African slaves were double the population of European inhabitants. Trinidad also shares with Colombia, Venezuela and other countries a tradition of marronage or independent African/ Indian communities; however, the maroon communities were small and relatively quiet in comparison to other colonies in the New World.

Slaves continued to be brought to Trinidad from other Caribbean islands until 1834 when Britain outlawed the practice.  This further muddies our attempts sort out the origins of these people’s practices.  After the abolition of slavery, the continual need for a reliable, docile and a cheap labor force led planters to bring in indentured servants from India beginning in 1845. By the time WWI was under way, and further emigration ended, an estimated 145,000 people had immigrated to the islands from North-Central India.

Sugar cane dominated the economy in Trinidad until 1884, when the cultivation of cacao began to replace it.  The Cacao boom lasted until the 1930’s when a global economic downturn, urban rioting, and local crop related diseases destroyed the market.  By the early 20th century the production of oil had overtaken other export crops. Politically, a colony of Britain since 1797, Trinidad and Tobago were ruled by governors selected by the crown who were given almost unlimited powers until 1925, when limited suffrage allowed the election of a proportion of a legislative council.  Universal suffrage arrived in 1946, and full independence was achieved in 1976. This progress should not blind the reader to the fact that the state continues to repress alternative ways of belonging and exercising one’s citizenship in a free manner as seen in significant government crackdowns on dissidents as recently as 1980 and 1990.

Benji and Keegan demonstrating Kalinda. From the Collection of Michael J. Ryan.

Kalinda as a stick fighting art and the Whip-Jab is intimately associated with Carnival. However, we cannot forget..

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A vintage tourist photo captioned “Acrobatic School, Hong Kong” in pencil. Note the simple matching shirts. Source: Author’s personal collection.

There are a number of popular topics within Martial Arts Studies which suggest the deeply interdisciplinary nature of our project.  Sociologists, following in the footsteps of Wacquant’s “Carnal Sociology” have invested much effort exploring notions such as habitus and embodiment (see Wacquant 2000, Garcia and Spencer 2013).  Anthologists have tackled many topics, some of them touching on the ways in which martial arts reflect more cultural notions of identity (Frank 2007; Valera 2019). Critical theorists have found within the martial arts sites for social resistance (Kato 2007; Bowman 2015, 2016). Historians, for their part, have spilled much ink looking at the 20thcentury connections between these revived fighting practices and the construction of competing notions of nationalism or the varieties of modernity (Morris 2004; Gainty 2013; Judkins and Nielson 2015).

This only scratches the surface of the literature that our field is assembling.  Still, if I were forced to identify just a single thread connecting this diverse body of research, it would probably be the notion of social marginality.  Any such judgement would be difficult, and one can discover other strands of connective tissues running through this increasingly complex body of literature.  Yet marginality occupies a special place within Martial Arts Studies.

It is worth noting that a number of authors have directly addressed this concept.  Daniel Amos’ dissertation, an ethnography of Southern Chinese Martial Arts in Guangzhou and Hong Kong in the aftermath of Cultural Revolution, was titled “Marginality and the Heroes’ Art” (University of California, 1983) and included a rich descriptive exploration of the limitations that shaped the lives of the region’s martial artists.  The topic was also on Wacquant’s mind when he decided that a working class boxing gym would be an ideal location from which to study life in the Chicago ghetto. More recently, Boretz (Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters: Ritual Violence Martial Arts and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society, 2010) has offered his own explanation of this linkage within a modern Chinese cultural context.  The insight is hardly new.  Alfred Lister, a British civil servant and one of the first individuals to publish multiple descriptions of Hong Kong’s martial arts performances, noted the connection between these arts and the extreme marginality of their practitioners (soldiers, gamblers, patent medicine salesmen, retired actors) as far back as the 1870s.

The over-riding goal of all of the 20th century reform movements within the Chinese martial arts (Jingwu, Guoshu and later Wushu) has been to redeem these fighting systems from their plebeian origins so that they might be accepted as tools for the nation building project.  Similar projects can be seen in other states as well.  Kano went to some lengths to distinguish judo from what he saw as the more problematic and backwards looking traditional jujitsu community.  And many a book chapter has been written on the development of capoeira and its relationship to larger political processes within the Brazilian state.  Across the globe, 20thcentury reform movements sought to rescue hand combat practices from the people so that those very same populations could be reimagined through the application of slightly modified hand combat practices.  Of course, this was only a single example of larger strategy of appropriating “folk cultures” as part of the nation building project.

The degree to which any of these efforts succeeded is closely tied to how one understands what it means to be a “modern” Japanese, Chinese, Brazilian or even global citizen. These are almost always open questions. Gainty noted that contesting differing visions of the martial art became a mechanism by which citizens could debate the relationship between society and the state.

There has been much discussion of Xu Xiaodong’s stand-off with the Chinese government over his vocal (and occasionally physical) attacks on the traditional Chinese martial arts.  Yet the vision of the ideal martial arts community championed by both sides (a network of globally compatible MMA gyms vs. a nationally subsidized understanding of Taijiquan as intangible cultural heritage) is simply one manifestation of a more profound dispute over what sort of country modern China should be, and the role of the government in shaping it.

Still, it would be difficult to look at Xu’s recent interviews and not to see him as a socially marginal figure.  His professional career as an actual mixed martial arts fighter and trainer have been average.  He did not emerge from the ranks of China’s most successful or elite fighters. Indeed, Xu’s success both in challenge matches and on social media is based in large part on the fact that he makes a living by only fighting individuals who are clearly deluded about a great many things.   In doing so Xu has attempted to position himself as the champion for one vision of Chinese society.  The critical thing to note here is that economic and social questions are not secondary considerations within this unfolding story.  They have always had a huge impact on the relationship between individuals within the martial arts community and the state.

Nor does marginality show any sign of vanishing from the martial arts community.  Despite the best efforts of several reform movements, Chinese martial artists are still seen as socially peripheral.  Likewise, several of the most talented professional and semi-professional fighters that I have met here in central NY are African Americans who come from underprivileged backgrounds or basic poverty.

I think that one of the reasons why marginality has emerged as a critical concept within the Martial Arts Studies literature is that it is readily apparent (though not always understood in precisely the same way) from both an emic and etic perspective.  Martial artists themselves cling to the notion that through hard work, training and discipline personal change is possible.  By transforming the self, these fighting systems are seen as a way of either changing one’s circumstances (the aspiring boxer who dreams of making it big by going pro), or at least handling them with a degree of equanimity (the janitor of a Japanese high school who, by night, is a highly accomplished member of the local kendo establishment).  Our rhetoric about the martial arts as a vehicle for this sort of transformation presupposes the existence of marginality, even when it is not explicitly invoked.

A martial arts performance at a marketplace in Shanghai, circa 1930. Source: Huan Fei Hung Museum.

As such, I was not surprised that the topic came up at both of the conferences which I recently attended, albeit in slightly different ways.  The very first paper I saw at the 2019 MAS meetings at Chapman University was a discussion by Daniel Amos in which he reviewed the shifting socio-economic status of martial artists in Hong Kong between the late 1970s (when he first started doing fieldwork in the region) and last year, when he returned to Hong Kong as a Fulbright scholar.  Given the area’s rapid economic growth, the story he related may sound familiar. His “Kung Fu Brothers” who had been underemployed or marginal youth in the 1970s have now become much more successful, at least in purely economic terms.  They no longer perceive themselves as marginal.  And yet the actual practice of the traditional Southern arts, very popular during the late 1970s, has reduced drastically in size and scope.

Part of this can be attributed to the realities of a tight real estate market.  As prices skyrocket fewer organizations can afford a private location for their school.  And when multiple teachers do come together to share space in a municipal recreation center, Amos notes that they effectively surrender the links which once bound martial arts group and lion dance societies to specific neighborhoods. This loss of the spatial dimension of identity has had a detrimental impact on the character of Hong Kong’s martial arts communities.

Ergo Amos’ paradox comes into focus.  His Kung Fu brothers are no longer economically impoverished or underemployed. Nor does the middle class fear a relationship between martial arts groups and illegal triad behavior as they did during the 1960s and 1970s. On the surface it looks as though the southern Chinese martial arts are less marginal. Yet what was once a popular and vibrant local activity is slipping into obscurity. It occupies an ever-smaller slice of public sphere through neglect and lack of engagement rather than social opposition.

A similar conversation emerged at the end of my keynote at the workshop on life in Imperial China at Tel Aviv University. I had been speaking on methodological challenges within the field of Martial Arts Studies to a group of historians who, while enthusiastic about the material, were largely unfamiliar with our field. At the end of the conversation one of the participants signaled that they were uncomfortable elevating the discussions of martial artists.  At first this scholar had a bit of trouble articulating the source of this anxiety. But as we discussed some of the issues that they had become aware of through the news (the rise of the alt-right in certain MMA and HEMA circles, domestic abuse allegation, a general unease with the way that martial artists constructed cultural/ethnic/gendered fantasies about the past), the underlying concern eventually came out, “so many of these people just seem so marginal.”

The questioner seemed at first confused, and then perhaps relieved, when I noted that yes, this is precisely the point of the exercise.  The martial arts provide a valuable tool for the analysis of issues in popular and local history precisely because they allow us to understand what is going on in communities that are experiencing stress.  As I often explain to my undergraduate International Relations classes, shifts in the global economy produce winners and losers.  And when we start to look at the situation in a comparative context, it seems that the most enthusiastic or dedicated martial arts communities often arise among the losers.  The winners are just too busy writing the official histories that we all remember.  Again, something like this would be a pretty standard framework for understanding Xu’s simmering face-off with the Chinese state.

In the weeks following these conferences marginality, and how one observers or conceptualizes it, has continued to be on my mind.  Very often we discuss it as though it was a concrete thing that can be observed and scientifically measured.  Indeed, social scientists have devised all sorts of indexes measuring marginality as a mixture of economic poverty, social isolation and a lack of human capital.  It is valuable work, but I am not sure that these measures always capture what is really significant about marginality within martial arts communities.

In all fairness these more material definitions of marginality can be important.  The situation that Amos first described in 1983 correlated very highly with a purely material understanding of marginality.  Further, sociologists such as Wacquant have used these scores to make some interesting observations.  Boxing was not taken up by the most destitute residents of Chicago’s ghetto as they had neither the resources nor inclination to devote their lives to a competitive sport.  In economic terms we might say that their discount rate was simply too high.  Rather, it was individuals from the better off neighborhoods, many of whom had relatively stable jobs, who found boxing to be the most appealing.  A relationship between marginality and boxing existed, but it was non-linear in nature.  These are the sorts of questions that we as a field need to be asking about other communities as well.

Nevertheless, there are clearly other ways of being marginalized that are less easily quantified.  Ip Man came from a privileged economic background. Yet as a second son it would have been evident from a young age that he would not go on to inherit that prestige.  His status as a supplementary son both gave him the freedom to study the martial arts but also an incentive to prove himself in a different social realm. Other sons of wealthy families have noted that they came to the martial arts after being bullied, or as a way of dealing with chronic illnesses.

Detail of postcard showing traditional practitioners performing in a marketplace. Japanese postcard circa 1920.  Source: Author’s Personal Collection.

On a more meta-level, all of this comes together in the shame-induced desire to throw off the title of “Sick Man of East Asia,” a rallying cry adopted by all of China’s martial artists throughout the early and mid 20th century.  While a Chinese merchant or scholar may be high status by local standard, the very nature of imperialism led them to formulate a self-image which was both marginal and threatened.  Douglas Wile noted that this exact process likely accounts for the compiling and canonization of the “Taiji Classics” during the Self-Strengthening Movement of the late 19thcentury (1996).

This sets the stage for my final point.  When attempting to understand the role marginality within the martial arts we must distinguish between the actual lack of status or resources, and the less easily quantified fear of losing these same things.  It is difficult (perhaps impossible) to establish objective baselines of material status that predict martial behavior because very often these communities arise in response to the perception of loss (or even the possibility of loss) rather than an actual change in one’s concrete situation.

Again, this observation will not be surprising to most political scientists or economists.  We have known for some time that individuals tend not to act in mathematically rational ways.  Doing so would require us to value the possibility of gain equally to potential loss.  Yet as Prospect Theory reminds us, people discount potential future gains highly, but obsesses over immediate or coming losses.  All of this has critical political implications.  A state does not become unstable simply because its citizens are poor. Humans actually have a rather amazing ability to normalize terrible circumstances.  Yet the fear of future loss has pushed more than one state into unrest or revolution.  Thwarted expectations about the future have led to open revolts and multiple civil wars.

All of this suggests that rather than simply looking at baseline levels of marginality when attempting to understand the emergence of martial culture, we must also take into account individuals fears and expectations about their future status.  This probably explains why so many governments have found it possible to create national martial arts programs in the first place.  By reframing discourses at the level of national competition or anti-imperialism, it became possible for groups like the Jingwu Association and Central Guoshu Institute to feed off of an immense well of national anxiety.

Likewise, moral panics about the loss of masculinity in the West in the early 20thcentury, knife attacks in London today, or the changing racial composition of continental Europe can all become focal points for the development of different types of martial arts communities.  This can be the case even if the individual practitioners behind these communities rank low on any objective score of social marginalities.  Social scientists would remind us that is often the anxiety over potential losses that lead to the perception of marginality, and everything that comes from it.

This is much more difficult to observe than simply coding someone’s income level, education and social background.  Yet this is also where Martial Arts Studies might be able to make a unique contribution. Very often within the practices and internal narratives of a given martial arts community we will find a record of the fears and anxiety that may have motivated them.  Even the most marginal of these myths can be a source of important social insight.


If you enjoyed these thoughts you might also want to read: “Fighting Styles” or “Martial Brands”? An economic approach to understanding “lost lineages” in the Chinese Martial Arts.


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Title slide for Judkins’ 2019 MAS Keynote, delivered on May 24 at Chapman University.


On May 24th I was asked to deliver the closing keynote address for the 2019 Martial Arts Studies meetings at Chapman University.  A special note of thanks must be extended to both Andrea Molle and Paul Bowman for organizing such an incredible set of meetings, and hosting this conference in North America for the very first time.  Their efforts allowed us to bring together a vibrant group of talented scholars and new faces. What follows is the text of my presentation, accompanied by a selection of slides. Hopefully this will convey something of the spirit of these wonderful meetings.

The Utility of Kung Fu Diplomacy

Every paper begins with a question.  Here is mine: Can the spread of a new method of sword combat encourage peace?  And what sort of connections might exist between any of the martial arts and politics, or conflict, more generally?

This second question has been the overarching theme of this year’s Martial Arts Studies conference, and as a political scientist, it’s a question that is near to my heart. My professional concerns tend to focus on the arena of international politics and inter-state competition.  Within that reified realm we might want to rephrase our question in the following way.  What links might exist between globalization of various martial traditions and patterns of international conflict? Might the practice of the East Asian Martial arts, or indeed any fighting system, help to contain the spread of mistrust, suspicion and ultimately inter-state violence?  Are these tools that we can look to in an increasingly isolationist and nationalist era?

Even suggesting such a question might seem audacious.  We could reasonably ask why the popularizations of certain combat systems, many of which claim to be rooted in specific moments of historical violence, might not strengthen nationalism and lead to increased isolation.  That certainly seems possible, and we might even see some support for that in the period prior to WWII.  But from a Realist position conflict within the international system is overdetermined, it is the natural order of things, so in some ways such a finding would not be very interesting.  It is those unexpected moments when cooperation emerges between potential rivals that are more interesting.

Yet our first question keeps remerging.  For instance, we might note that martial artists, individuals like Kano Jigoro or Morihei Ueshiba throughout the modern era have claimed, in all sincerity, that the practice of their arts would promote understanding, and through that a vision of world peace.  Can this homage to the “life-giving sword” ever be more than empty rhetoric?

Yu Chenghui in two of his more iconic film roles.

I was reminded of this question while conducting some fieldwork on modern Chinese swordsmanship at a recent workshop.  Yu Cheunghui is probably best remembered in the West for his various film appearances.  Within the TCMA he is most famous for inventing a taolu, or set, for the archaic double handed Jian, a weapon that was last used in anger by the Chinese military during the Tang dynasty.  I have always been interested in his set and so I was thrilled to be invited to a small workshop hosted by a couple of individuals who had studied briefly with Yu.

What was somewhat ironic was that such an event was taking place in Michigan rather than someplace in China.  Of course, Yu toured the US and taught his set to a number of Western students, including two of the people whom I was working with.  Neither of them spoke Chinese, but they could both recount the details of their time with Yu in great detail.  And both told a remarkably similar story.  When asked why he had created a somewhat archaic longsword form, Yu noted that he did this to promote global understanding and ultimately world peace.  Unable to speak English he decided that he needed to develop a different medium of communication. More specifically, Yu observed that many cultures around the world had some sort of longsword in their history.  In his views it was one of the universal notes of the human experience. So Yu believed that if he could revive the Chinese tradition, propagating it both in China and abroad, individuals who might never speak Chinese would still have an ability to understand something of the beauty of Chinese culture, and the nature of Chinese society, through experiencing their martial practices. This was possible, in his view, as Yu’s long sword was a culturally specific manifestation on a universal phenomenon.

Yu is by no means unique in this general conviction. I have run into similar ideas in the Wing Chun community. Nor can we forget that the entire Olympic movement builds strongly on the belief that athletic competition can foster mutual understanding and respect.

Scholars have theorized, probably correctly, that incomplete information and fear about another population or state’s intentions are leading causes of conflict.  Trans-national communities of commerce, study and practice are widely seen as creating the sorts of social networks that can both provide mutual understanding and act as an interest group in favor of increased cooperation rather than conflict.

Governments have often sought to encourage networks of trust as part of their larger “public diplomacy” strategy.  Public Diplomacy might be defined as a state supported effort to encourage either direct, or socially mediated, communication with the citizens of a target state to inform them or promote certain values, typically in a way that would further the sending state’s long-term strategic objectives. America’s efforts to build free lending libraries within its embassies, or to arrange for global tours of jazz musicians during the Cold War, are often pointed to as classic examples of public diplomacy campaigns.  Both efforts were designed to directly engage citizens in other countries and to give them first-hand knowledge of some aspect of American culture, thus generating mutual understanding.

American Jazz Diplomacy was a critical element of democratic and liberal outreach efforts during the Cold War.

Now, in light of the recent spike in information warfare directed at elections in various countries, I should immediately note that public diplomacy is not the same thing as propaganda, which is typically dealt with through a different body of theory.  What is envisioned here is a more open system of exchange and learning that does not presuppose a single “correct answer” that citizens of the target state are expected to be indoctrinated into. Public diplomacy campaigns tend to focus on long and medium range goals, rather than short term issues. Diplomacy has always been about locating and reaching those areas where mutual benefits are possible, and in this respect public diplomacy is not different from its traditional counterparts.

In actual practice there are many types of public diplomacy. In some cases, information campaigns are run out of embassies and are overseen directly by foreign service officers. In other instances, governments sign agreements allowing for educational or cultural exchanges, and then pretty much get out of the way, allowing private actors to speak directly to each other, carrying out the sorts of programs that private actors identify a local demand for.  There has been something of a debate in the literature as to which of these two approaches is the most effective (in my opinion it’s clearly the latter), though that is something that I hope to explore in the following cases.

Indeed, Yu Chenghui’s self-financed tour across America to promote the beauty of the Chinese longsword is one possible vision of what public diplomacy can look like.  Governments give out the visa’s, and the occasional travel grant, while private actors respond to preexisting demands to form links directly with their counterparts.  We might think of this as a horizontal model of public or cultural diplomacy.

One does not have to look hard to find the other possible models of organization.  Any search for news stories on the Chinese martial arts will quickly turn up dozens of nearly identical accounts of Wushu tournaments being held in various countries across the global South, inevitably sponsored by either the local Confucius Institute or directly supported by the staff of the local Chinese embassy.

Other stories will focus on martial arts exchange programs where promising local students, often from Africa, are sent to China, or Chinese instructors are brought on tours of regional schools. The English language press releases that chronical these events will inevitably contain quotes from local officials or consular staff explaining the positive social values that the study of the Chinese martial arts creates, and the strength of the transnational networks which are created.

Nor is China the only country interested in promoting their traditional fighting systems as a means of branding themselves within global markets, increasing their reserves of soft power.  States like Japan and Korea were quick to note the utility of the martial arts in building up one’s soft power reserves.  Both of these states have been perfecting kung fu diplomacy for decades.

Yet how effective can these efforts really be, and what sorts of strategies are most likely to be effective?  The PRC’s current efforts are doubly blessed in that Bruce Lee almost single handedly built the sort of name recognition for Kung Fu that most commercial brands can only dream of.  Further, China is now a wealthy country that can devote immense resources to promoting its public diplomacy strategy.

But what about less developed states like Indonesia or Brazil?  What can they hope to accomplish with fewer resources and perhaps less well-known practices? Can this typeof cultural diplomacy be an effective tool for a wide range of states, or is this something restricted to the Great Powers.  And how effective can the martial arts ever be as part of a global branding strategy?

Guoshu and the Olympic Spirit

While China’s current situation might not be the best guide for smaller states contemplating a similar strategy, I think that we will find a surprising amount of insight if we instead examine its first experimentations with these policies back in the 1920s and 1930s, many decades before Bruce Lee would make Kung Fu a household term around the world.  Prior to WWII China itself was a developing country in a hostile security environment.  The popularity of the Japanese martial arts in the pre-war period suggested to the financially and militarily struggling Nationalist government that it might enjoy more success in shoring up its international position by cultivating the “soft power” of its martial arts and making them part of the state’s public diplomacy strategy.

In order to address these questions, I would like to review two, closely linked, historical cases from this period.  These instances are important because they remind us that the notion of cultural or public diplomacy is not a new thing. While the academic literature on these topics only became fashionable after 9/11, these are diplomatic tools that nations have sought to use throughout the modern period, and they need to be studied in a historical as well as a theoretical context.

Second, these two observations struck me as interesting as they contrast with one another in important ways. One campaign focused on images that were largely civil in nature. The other emphasized the military, and militant, associations of the martial arts.  One set of images was designed to appeal to the Western middle class and emphasize the modernization within Chinese society, while the other focused attention on its traditionalism.  In one case a public campaign was constructed around somewhat problematic images that were already popular in the West, attempting to recast them in a heroic light, while in the other considerable resources were dedicated to shifting foreign perceptions on a much more fundamental level.  Lastly, while one of these strategies gained something of a foothold in the West’s public imagination, despite that great expense and effort, the other was quickly forgotten. I expect that even in this room few of us will remember the full story of Wushu’s first appearance in the Olympic games, or why it was that Hitler instructed his Ambassador in China to present special swastika adorned commemorative medals to two of China’s top martial arts authorities in 1936.

Perhaps this, our first Kung Fu Diplomacy case study, must begin by introducing the Western educated Chu Minyi (1884-1946), the most prominent civilian supporter of martial arts diplomacy within the Nationalist government during the 1930s.  He believed quite deeply in the necessity of spreading the practice of the martial arts within China, and their fame abroad.  In fact, he saw this as a necessity for national survival.

In many ways Chu was the ideal figure for such a mission, despite the fact that he never studied the martial arts in his youth. Like many young men from prominent families in his generation, he was sent abroad to acquire an international education. His global exploration began in Japan (where he studied politics) before he moved on to Belgium (where he earned a degree in medicine) and France. He was eventually awarded a doctorate from the University of Strasburg.  Chu was quite comfortable in the West and he possessed a modern, urbane and worldly outlook.

He returned to China and took up permanent residence in 1925. Rather than practicing medicine, the now middle-aged Chu received a variety of educational and political appointments from the government and he would move in and out of government circles for a number of years. Following the Japanese invasion in 1937..

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Vintage Chinese postcard. Weapons in front of the Chongzheng Hall in the Mukden Palace Complex. Source: Author’s personal collection.

A Recent Find

Chinese martial arts themed (or simply adjacent) postcards from the pre-WWII era are not very common.  These things certainly existed and circulated, but they are now difficult for most researchers to find. That is one of the reasons why I have tried to catalog as many of these images as I could locate here at Kung Fu Tea.

During the course of my research it has become apparent that there are at least a few readily identifiable sub-categories within this genre.  The solo “sword dancer” exhibiting his skills in either a marketplace, or occasionally a more formal demonstration, is a common figure.  The soldier or guard wielding a dadao also makes frequent appearances.  And who could forget the ever popular “kung fu kids.”

Yet another readily identifiable set of cards focuses on the material culture of the Chinese martial arts.  More specifically, it tends to examine groups of weapons.  What topic could be more exotic?

If the first set of cards are derivative of the larger “scenes from daily life” genre, I have always felt these other images are basically a variation on the architectural photographs showing China’s traditional palaces, monuments and temples, all stubbornly resisting the tide of global modernization.  Needless to say, these exotic (and supposedly timeless) scenes were among the most commonly purchased and collected cards.  I don’t think its surprising that we see some of the same cultural themes repeated in so many of the period’s visual treatments of Chinese weapons.

Nevertheless, simply getting my hands on one of these postcards proved to be something of a challenge.  Several publishers distributed a card like the one above, featuring selected pole-arms in a stand against a traditional architectural backdrop.  But for whatever reason these images and cards seem to be fairly popular with other collectors, so actually finding an example at a reasonable price took a while.  I finally succeeded about a month ago.

I particularly like how the assorted weapons in this image are arranged.  Both the shorter weapons (the mallets and maces) and the longer spears were placed in an order of descending height to giving the scene a sense of forced perspective.  The broken, slightly asymmetric, weapons rack certainly feels authentic. Still, its difficult to say much about the quality of the weapons themselves in this photo.  They were the sorts of arms that were typically carried in processions.  But by the 1920s-1930s much of this material had been relegated to either museums or the scrap heap of history.

In this case the inscription at the bottom of the card lets us know that we are firmly in the realm of the museum.  The weapons seemed to be labeled on the left, while the right half of the inscription informs readers that these are being exhibited at the Mukden Imperial Palace Museum.  Perhaps that explains the slightly forlorn feel of the image.

Within a traditional procession or temple display, a rack of assorted pole arms (and it was almost always an assortment, rather than a more militarily sensible collection of uniform spears or halberds) signaled a depth of human capital and achievement.  This was a community that had mastered the many nuances of these weapons, and hence the martial realm.  Within western popular culture that same rack of pole-arms was more likely to evoke a morbid fascination with “Chinese pirates,” and play to the perception that the people who produced such arms were both paradoxically obsessed with violence in its more primate forms, but ultimately unable to modernize themselves and master its modern varieties.  A Republic era museum commemorating both the glory and vanquishing of China’s imperial past would seem to sit exactly at the confluence of these streams of discourse.

that same quality can be felt in other photos in the same genre, such as this rack of weapons in front of an old guard house in Quanzhou.  This photo was probably taken by a visiting missionary.  I personally suspect that those weapons may have been a bit more functional.  I, for one, would not want to be on the wrong end of either of those Tiger Forks.  Still, these photos were being collected and passed around because of the discursive, rather than the practical, value of these weapons.

In any case, we can easily verify the Chinese language caption on the first card.  The roof line and staircase behind the weapon rack confirms that this photo was taken in the Qing palace complex.  More specifically, it was taken just in front of the Chongzheng Hall (built, I believe, in 1627) which once housed the Emperor’s throne and office.

A much more recent photograph of the Chongzheng Hall. Sadly no weapons are currently displayed in front of this structure. Source: Wikimedia.

In conclusion, we should note that some things never change.  The Mukden Palace remains a popular tourist destination.  And just as in the Republic period, various traditional weapons are displayed on the grounds as part of the effort to interpret and understand the Imperial past. Indeed, I spent the better part of an afternoon looking at tourist photos to see if there was any evidence that the pole-arms in our initial postcard are still on display.  While I found a number of spears, sadly I didn’t find anything matched this particular set.  But there were quite a few interesting swords.  The Qing dynasty evokes very different feelings today than it did in the 1910s or 1920s.  What was once widely despised for its failure to modernize and stand-up to the West is now appreciated as cultural and historical heritage. Yet traditional weapons are still called upon to act as physical manifestations of an imagined past.

A more modern weapons display at the Mukden Palace. Source: https://steemit.com/photography/@helene/travel-in-the-shenyang-imperial-palace-3-3


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Through a Lens Darkly (54): Preserving a Fading China


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