“Fighting Styles” or “Martial Brands”? An economic approach to understanding “lost lineages” in the Chinese Martial Arts.⋅
Much of our modern writing on the Chinese martial arts is premised on the examination of difference. Nor is this an abstract categorization of dry facts. Our discussions always seem to run along a similar track. Of all of the techniques, styles and teachers out there, we want to know which one is “the best.” It should come as no surprise that the “hand combat industry” (and it is an industry, complete with its own markets, trade organizations, lobbying efforts, and publications) has no lack of individuals offering to answer this question for consumers.
Different sources of authority are sometimes claimed. Occasionally a writer or teacher will have had an extensive career in the military or law enforcement. A long and illustrious record on the tournament circuit is usually taken as a sign of expertise. We also encounter instructors whose credentials are more esoteric. Specifically, these writers or teachers note that they are part of an “alternate” or “lost” lineage of some esteemed fighting system. Often it is claimed that this lineage is somehow older, purer or just more hardcore than the one you belong to.
These sorts of competitive lineage claims have become a staple for major publishers. Just take a look at the monthly covers of the any martial arts magazine (Blackbelt, Combat, Kung Fu Tai Chi ect…) and you are sure to find at least one story about an “alternate lineage.” Variety facilitates competition and comparison; together they make for interesting reading.
In fact, the media surrounding the martial arts are central to the existence and continual rediscovery of “lost lineages.” During the early 19th century (before the market reforms of the Republican era) China had a huge number of local fighting styles. Most of them were very small village or family affairs. A lot of what they did actually focused on militia training, opera or banditry. Many of these styles did not actually have names, though there were some notable exceptions.
Why did so many of these pedagogical systems lack names? They were not studied so much as a particular “style” of fighting (or in the case of opera, acting). They simply were fighting (and acting).
Later in the 19th century as the demand for martial instruction increased, and the number of reasons it was pursued diversified, it became necessary to market these skills on a broader scale than had been undertaken in the past. Names and shiny new creation myths began to appear as the fighting techniques of the previous generation were increasingly repackaged as a “martial commodity.”
The martial arts publishing industry is not new. Already in late 19th century Guangzhou and Hong Kong publishers were churning out cheap chapbooks of martial techniques and elaborate swordsmen novels full of the exploits of fictional schools. During the 1920s and 1930s there was a literal explosion of training manuals and newspaper stories about the exploits of local heroes and martial artists. As the marketplace got more crowded, product differentiation and advertising became more critical to the actual careers and business success of boxing instructors.
The debates that we see played out on the covers of our current Kung Fu magazines are not much of a departure from the past. This sort of competition and bickering has been a part of the world of the “authentic” Chinese martial arts for over 100 years now. Yet why the persistent narrative of the “lost lineage?” These stories tend to be among the most controversial, yet they are seen throughout the Chinese martial arts. Why not simply develop a new identity and market the art as your own creation (or your teachers)? Surely this would be easier than an eternal public debate as to the legitimacy of your practice?