Five Thoughts on Lineage, Legitimacy and Manipulation in the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts⋅
Anyone who has done much reading on the history of the traditional Chinese martial arts will be very familiar with the idea of “lineage politics.” Even the average practitioner, on either side of the Pacific, usually has more than a passing acquaintance with this unpleasant phenomenon. Disputes typically arise within styles as different students of the same teacher vie for seniority and legitimacy.
This competition can take many forms, ranging from the subtle exclusion of individuals from high profile projects to occasional outbursts of interpersonal violence. Very often this competition is carried out through competing “folk histories” in which different sides attempt to promote narratives that shape how the past is remembered. This use of rhetoric and memory as a tool to secure social dominance coincides closely with James C. Scott’s findings on the use of folklore as a “weapon of the weak” in South East Asia.
One purpose of a “lineage” is to create the image of unwavering historical continuity over time. It denotes who inherits the family legacy as well as the responsibility for preserving the memory of the ancestors through the execution of certain rites. Few institutions seem more static and non-negotiable. Yet as generations of anthropologists have warned us, few social structures turn out to be quite as plastic and open to continual renegotiation as lineage genealogies.
I think that many students, when faced with a lineage dispute, simply want to “get to the bottom of it.” They would like to know which side is “right” and which is a historical pretender or fraud. In the following essay I would like to encourage readers to take a step back and consider the structure of the actual social disputes that they are witnessing. These processes reveal a veritable goldmine of information about the nature of the traditional Chinese martial arts and how they are evolving over time.
Academically speaking, who is “right” is often much less interesting than how they go about framing and promoting their argument. The first question only tells us something about the history of an individual style, but the second points to a larger set of fundamental truths about culture. Actually appreciating what is at stake, and grasping how these issues are understood and debated, can be even more difficult for the average student than resolving the purely historical issues.
As the term “lineage politics” implies, these disputes are usually “political” in nature. By definition this sort of conflict is often subtle and hard to observe. The challenge is all the more insurmountable when the drama is being played out in a language and cultural system that are very different from one’s own.
This is precisely what we see in the Chinese martial arts. A few lineage disputes are loud affairs that make the pages of popular magazines. But most are much more subtle attempts at appropriating a group’s legitimacy. These attempts are sometimes highly symbolic and hence opaque to foreign observers. Western students can often sense some tension, or they might guess that something odd is happening, but we need a much more finely ground lens to actually see the structure of the dispute.
In 2003 Jeff Takacs published an intriguing study of the artificial kinship systems seen in the traditional Chinese martial arts which was intended to serve just such a purpose. His article, titled “A Case of Contagious Legitimacy: Kinship, Ritual and Manipulation in Chinese Martial Arts Societies” (Modern Asian Studies 37:4 885-917) begins by noting that most traditional hand combat schools organize themselves as an artificially created family unit. He asserts that while the bonds between members of the school are technically fictive, they can be as strong as those seen in any other kinship group.
This artificial structure is supported and reinforced through the adoption of certain simple, but socially powerful, rituals. While the correspondence between the ideal ancient Chinese family and most modern martial arts associations is not exact (an important point that we will return to later), they are close enough for these rituals to be easily transported. By creating a clear set of expectations about who has the responsibility for insuring that the proper rites are observed, these guidelines also denote who is entitled to inherit the master’s martial reputation and legitimacy.
This is the actual difference between a “disciple” and a “student” in the traditional Chinese martial arts. I suspect that many readers might profit by going back and reviewing Takacs very clear discussion of this point. While a disciple may or may not inherit any special secret knowledge, he or she actually gains their status from where they stands within a larger ritual process. Once that process is done away with (say in modern theater schools or some of the more progressive hand combat styles to arise in the Republic period), the term quickly loses its theoretical moorings.
Takacs argues that while it might appear that a strict lineage structure creates transparency and limits the number of individuals who can “inherit the system,” the very rituals that it is based on actually create opportunities for opposing factions within the clan to creatively nudge (or sometimes shove) history in one direction or another.
He illustrates these points by reviewing a seemingly innocuous stele raising ceremony held in honor of an important Bagua teacher in Northern Taiwan. While on the surface this ceremony looked entirely uncontroversial, and even somewhat bland, subtle manipulations of the language of ritual revealed that it was actually a successful attempt by an outside teacher to appropriate the martial legitimacy of an important regional master.
The entire case is fascinating and well worth reading. This article is easy to follow and relatively free of jargon. It’s a nice example of traditional British Social Anthropology (in the tradition of Victor Turner) and the clarity that it can bring to our understanding of social structures. While his research focused on Taiwan’s Bagua community, the article’s conclusions are actually fairly portable and may help to illuminate puzzles in a great many arts. In the remainder of this essay I outline, and briefly discuss, five of the broader implications of this approach to understanding lineages for Chinese martial studies.