Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

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 ~

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Lineage in Martial Arts

Kung Fu Tea has a very interesting article on the topic of lineage in martial arts. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.


Consider the following, seemingly unrelated, incidents:

While conducting field work in Sioux City Iowa in 1862 the lawyer and self-trained ethnographer Lewis Henry Morgan received a telegraph informing him that his two daughters, ages two and six, had just died of scarlet fever. Left emotionally broken and despondent the early anthropologist abandoned the field project that he had been working on since 1859. His diary entry for the day reads in part “Thus ends my last expedition. I go home to my stricken and mourning wife, a miserable and destroyed man.”

Following this unexpected blow Morgan must have doubted that his partially completed (but incredibly complex and expensive) project would ever see the light of day. Luckily for us and the field of anthropology it did. But for now we must leave him to his grief and check in with a more recent project.

Early last year I sat down with an informant of my own. Unlike Morgan, who was studying the terminology of kinship systems across a wide range of cultures and languages (e.g., “What do you call your fathers sister?”  “What do you call you mother’s system?”), my research interest were more “kinetic” in nature. I was just beginning a period of participant-observation in a local kickboxing community.

From a martial studies standpoint I like kickboxing as it provides a nice contrast with the traditional schools of Chinese hand combat I normally focus on. In more practical terms it also gives me a way of interacting with the modern combat sports community without having to dedicate myself to jujitsu (it seems that I am a striker at heart).  Nor does it hurt that the workouts are great.

No one would consider me to be an experienced ethnographer. Most of my writing is social scientific and historical in nature. Still, the very nature of martial arts studies makes it difficult to ignore the anthropological angle. At some point those of us who discuss the value of “interdisciplinary work” must move beyond the comfort zone of forever replicating what we did in graduate school and go do something about it. Luckily I had a little experience with ethnographic fieldwork to call on.

One afternoon I got together with my trainer James (who was preparing for an important fight) for an additional workout (unending rounds on the heavy bag followed by some combinations and defense drills). After a grueling workout I steered the conversation towards his own trainer (a well-known figure in local circles who had competed at all levels as a younger man before opening his own gym.)

As we discussed his background and career, I started to ask a line of questions that Lewis Henry Morgan would have found quite familiar.

So who was your teacher’s trainer? How is he discussed back at the home gym in Rochester?
[Locations and names have been scrubbed of identifying information following the normal protocol].

What kinds of disciplines was he trained in? Are there pictures of those guys in his gym? What was it like to be a kickboxer back in the 1970a-1980s? And where did this style of kickboxing come from anyway? In short, I started to ask all of the very basic questions that would give any martial artist a chance to talk about their “lineage.”

What happened next surprised us both. James, who understood and shared my interest in martial arts studies, found that he did not have much to say. He could tell me about his relationship with his trainer, but he didn’t know that much about how he had gotten into the fight game or where his specific skills came from. He could talk about some of his teacher’s better known fights, but he didn’t really know that much about the environment that he came out of. Nor had he ever thought to ask about the deep history of kickboxing.

Lineages in the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

I say that this surprised us both because James was familiar with some aspects of the Chinese martial arts. He wanted to cross-train in Wing Chun, was a huge Bruce Lee fan and had a deep interest in Jeet Kune Do. James knew about lineages as they existed in the Chinese martial arts and he understood what I was driving at. He knew specific lineage narratives for Wing Chun, Taiji and the Gospel according to Bruce. But it had never occurred to him that these sorts of modes of social organization could (or should) apply to the world of Kickboxing.

In Wing Chun we both knew that you called your teacher’s (Sifu) teacher “Sigung.” Lineages have a specific kinship terminology that defines everyone’s relationship with regards to both the speaker and the creator of the system. In Kickboxing things weren’t as clear. It wasn’t simply a matter of substituting “Coach” for “Sifu.” James couldn’t tell me who his trainer’s coaches had been because it really didn’t matter. It had just never come up. He followed his trainer (with almost filial devotion) because he had been a champion as a younger man and his teaching methods got results. That was it.

The more I listened to the conversations that arose organically, the more I realized that I had been asking the wrong questions to really understand the nature of this community.

As I spent more time with this group I quickly learned that all of my questions had straight forward answers. The information was out there. In fact, Jame’s trainer turned out to be full of fascinating historical reminisces and could explain the evolution of the local Kickboxing community in excruciating detail. Yet while everyone involved agreed that this sort of stuff was fascinating, it wasn’t what you indoctrinated new students into.

Of course that is exactly what we tend to do in the Chinese martial arts. We don’t just teach you basic punching, kicking and footwork skills in the first few months of class. We also set aside time to tell the lineage creation stories, to fill you in on proper modes of address, and explain in some detail who those guys in the pictures are that you bow to at the start and end of every class. This is a critical part of becoming a member of a Kung Fu “family” or “clan.

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