The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Gender in Martial Arts Training

Another thought provoking article at Kung Fu Tea on issues surrounding mixed gender martial arts training from an academic viewpoint. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.


Channon’s article is brief enough that I do not want to rehash the entire structure of his argument here. However, he offers some tentative suggestions that I would like to introduce to our discussion. First, instructors interested in changing the way that gender is typically constructed within martial arts schools should “look for ways in which to highlight the abilities of ‘senior’ female practitioners whenever possible, particularly doing so in ways that are visible to younger members of the club” (p. 594) Secondly, they should “encourage integration in training as much as possible, including the more physically intense, partnered activities, such as sparring” (p. 597). Lastly, proceed with caution as circumstances differ. “Instructors and practitioners ought to be careful not to always insist upon integration, just as they do nevertheless encourage such practices among those who are not fundamentally opposed to them” (P. 599). The word “fundamental” is the key concept in this final caution.

While succinct, each of these recommendations requires a little unpacking. In Channon’s findings perhaps the key element in redefining student’s subconscious ideas about what their bodies are capable of is the provision of female role models. These are certainly easier to find in some associations and styles than others. Yet even those systems that seem to emphasize the “feminine” aspects of their art can still face difficulties in this regard.

Consider the case of Wing Chun. Most Chinese martial arts offer students one or more “creation myths.”  The vast majority of these stories focus on male creators who attain martial excellence and then go on to found the social structures that the student is about to join. Given that China has traditionally been a highly patriarchal society, and most Kung Fu schools explicitly organize themselves as artificial kinship groups, the resulting emphasis on exclusively male “ancestors” is not surprising.

The Wing Chun creation myth is fascinating as it resists what was the dominant discourse within martial arts storytelling, and turns instead to a more esoteric set of motifs focusing on female warriors.  Specifically, this system claims to have been created by the Shaolin nun Ng Moy and then taught to her first student Yim Wing Chun, a teenage girl facing the threat of a broken engagement and forced marriage to a local trouble causer. While the lineage myths of most systems are exclusively male, Wing Chun practitioners look back to not one but two female initiatory figures.

Many current female Wing Chun students find a great deal of inspiration in the story of Ng Moy and Yim Wing Chun. So do these characters always function as effective role models? This is a difficult question to answer in universal terms, but I suspect that the answer is probably no. As fictional figures from the geographically and culturally remote land of “Rivers and Lakes,” they are not as immediately accessible to the imaginations of all students as one might like.

The other issue has to do with the way that their story is typically told. Ng Moy is said to have modified the Kung Fu that she learned at the Shaolin Temple to be more evasive and strategic. Rather than relying on brute strength, as the Abbot Jee Shim did, Ng Moy decided to create a combat system that would be effective even when practiced by physically weaker females. Yim Wing Chun, the somewhat hapless teenage girl who becomes synonymous with the art, is adopted as a student precisely because she serves to rhetorically illustrate this point. If someone as young, weak and inexperienced as her could be turned into a deadly warrior, then the fighting system itself must really have a superior conceptual framework.

All of this nicely illustrates some of the core concepts and goals of the Wing Chun system. Yet the not so subtle implication of these stories is that all women must fight this way because they are all physically weak. I am not sure that this is a positive message for my female students to hear.

Nor, truth be told, does the origin of the story really have much to do with actual females at all. All of the early students of Wing Chun who can be historically verified are male. For instance, it does not appear that any of Chan Wah Shun’s 16 students were female. Despite the positive portrayal of female fighters in these legends, the first confirmed female students of the art do not appear until Ip Man starts to teach in Hong Kong in the 1950s.

So where did these stories actually come from, and how were they interpreted by their intended audience? Readers should recall that during the late 19th and early 20th century stories of female warriors became more common within various areas Chinese literature and popular culture. Douglas Wile has argued that this stemmed from the cultural shock that resulted from China’s various failed attempts to stand up to western aggression and imperialism. Given that the nation had now been shown to be militarily weak, it suddenly became critical to argue that some other inherent characteristic of Chinese culture would be sufficient to see it through. The turn to narratives about female warriors who could assure the people victory without relying on material strength was more of a commentary on China’s ongoing identity crisis (and military weakness) during the late Qing and Republic periods than it was an actual discussion of changing gender roles.

More valuable than “mythic types” are flesh and blood role models. Respondents to Channon’s study consistently noted that having highly visible female students or instructors was critical to changing their perceptions of what women in the martial arts were capable of doing. Of course we are now faced with a chicken and egg problem. It is hard to cultivate female leaders within a school if the retention of women is lacking. Nor can one improve retention without visible female role models.

There are a few things that might help to ease this transition. Channon notes that using female students to demonstrate techniques can be highly visually effective, and this is something that can be done at pretty much any level of instruction. I should also point out that it may also be possible to “borrow” good role models. In my area there is a pretty serious amateur kickboxing community with a lot of very talented female fighters on every card. A “class trip” to an event like this not only builds comradery, but it also showcases exactly how strong and skilled female fighters can actually be.
Instructors may also wish to consider what sorts of imagery they display in their schools (if any). Studies have shown that female science students will perform notably better if their high school textbooks and labs display pictures of women (rather than just men) working in related professional fields.  I have no comparable empirical research to back this up, but I suspect that the same thing might hold true for martial arts training hall. Every type of student gains confidence when they see representations of people like themselves succeeding.

Channon’s second point has to do with the integration of all students into the classroom’s learning structure. Actual integration within mixed-sex environments might fail in a number of different ways. If every time students pair up for partner activities the female students are left to work by themselves in one corner of the room we have a fairly obvious problem.

Other times Channon’s interview subjects reported that the failures of integration were more subtle or rhetorical in nature. A number of women objected to being told “girl’s push-ups” when they were capable of doing plain push-ups during physical training sessions. In a martial arts class age, strength and physical ability are likely to vary tremendously. Being able to tell someone to do push-ups from their knees is probably quite useful. Verbally associating that variant of the exercise with the universal physical inferiority of women is not.

More troublesome is the issue of physical contact in sparring, rolling or the various sensitivity drills (push hands, chi sao…) that are used as critical training tools in a number of arts. A certain amount of restraint has to be shown whenever these exercises are used. Still, one of the most common complaints in Channon’s study (and my own experience fully supports this) is female students noting that their male classmates refuse to hit or seriously engage with them for “fear of causing injury.” Again, injuring your training partner is never the goal of such exercises, but such caution can be taken to ridiculous lengths. Occasionally male students will flat out refuse to spar with women as it violates their internal sense of “chivalry.”

Such attitudes are very destructive within a training environment. By refusing to use appropriate force female students are deprived of the opportunity to ever become competent fighters. When a school’s main goal is self-defense instruction there is the added danger of building a false sense of security which borders on negligence.

As I was reading the various interview reports in Channon’s paper it occurred to me that there may be an even more fundamental problem being brought to light here that in some ways transcends the topic at hand. One of the central goals of almost any martial art is to restructure how students approach the question of violence. Rather than responding to the threat of violence in the typical ways favored by cultural indoctrination, we wish to give our students both enhanced physical abilities as well as new options for thinking about the meaning and use of force. This is one of the many types of empowerment that can come out of martial arts training.

When male students refuse to engage with females because they are uncomfortable with the idea of “hitting a girl,” or their sense of chivalry is somehow violated by training with a woman, it is a pretty clear indication that they are not responding to their system’s ideas about the proper uses of force. Instead they are still subject to the dominant cultural discourse on violence. Thus it may be that a failure on the gender integration front points to other equally fundamental issues that need to be addressed.

Channon’s third point is to go slow. While it may seem uncontroversial to instructors within a style that there is no reason why men and women should not chi sao, spar or roll together, it may be much less obvious to a new student showing up at the school for the first time. Certain female students are hesitant to engage in mixed sex training.

Channon reviews two specific cases that instructors are likely to encounter. The first of these has to do with strongly held religious objections to the mixing of the sexes. Respondents to his survey reported that in some instances Muslim men refused to work with, or even acknowledge, female students in classes. Of course this issue is not totally unique to Muslims. As I pointed out at the start of this essay, our ideas about mixed sex training environments today are much different than what was acceptable in China a hundred years ago. If an individual takes a strongly principled view that mixed sex training is undesirable there is not much to do about it in purely practical terms.

Sexual abuse survivors were another category of students who (understandably) tended to be wary of mixed-sex touch. In this case the consensus view seems to have been to go slowly, but to eventually try to move the student to more robust forms of mixed-sex training. Again this was seen as especially important when a student’s goals included the building of real-world self-defense skills rather than just fitness or recreation.


RunBikeThrow said...

"...female students noting that their male classmates refuse to hit or seriously engage with them for “fear of causing injury..."

In my Aikido club we often have the opposite problem - new female students are sometimes reluctant to make the strong opening grab or strike needed for a good technique. Sometimes the chest grasp doesn't even reach me, so I just stand there. I have whispered things like, "Pretend I'm your ex-boyfriend", which sometimes helps.

Rick Matz said...

Back in the late 70's when I was training very hard in Yoshinkan Aikido, I was practicing an elbow lock, hiji shime, with a female white belt student. She happened to be my brother's girlfriend.

She was a bit over enthusiastic and really messed up my elbow. It still bothers me to this day.