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 ~

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Cultural Translation of Martial Arts

Over at Kung Fu Tea, Dr. Jenkins has begun a series on a serious topic regarding the practice of martial arts: when a martial art is imported from it's native culture, things will be added, deleted, adopted and/or distorted. 

Below is an excerpt. The original post may be read here.

“In the case of Tai Chi however, the major defining feature of hybridity, the sense of mixture and the equal status of the different cultures involving in the mixture, is absent.  In the eyes of its UK practitioners Tai Chi is not a combination or mixture of Chinese and English bodily/spiritual disciplines.  On the contrary, they consider their practices to be more authentic and original than their contemporary Chinese counterparts, since they see them as having a direct linkage to Tai Chi’s ancient lineage and continuing a tradition which they claim was lost in Communist China.  As we will see, in fact, they have added, deleted, adopted and distorted practices derived from their Chinese (or English) masters in a continuous process of translation based on an imagined construction of Chineseness.”
Gehao Zhang.  2010. “Invented Tradition and Translated Practices: The Career of Tai Chi in the West.” Doctoral Thesis, Loughborough University. P. 16


Other commitments have taken me away from blogging over the last few weeks.  The Spring 2016 issue of Martial Arts Studies (now available for download) required attention, as did the draft of my paper for this year’s conference at the University of Cardiff in July.  I recently finished a first draft of what will be my keynote address, but it will still require work over the next week or so.

These commitments also distracted me from something else that I had been working on.  Recently I received a copy of Prof. Gehao Zheng’s dissertation “Invented Tradition and Translated Practices: The Career of Tai Chi in the West.” Given that the theme of our recent journal issue was “The Invention of Martial Arts,” I had been reading this with a great deal of interest.  Unfortunately I was not able to finish his manuscript before other commitments caught up with me, but it is something that I intend to return to once things settle down.

Gehao’s discussion of the cultural appropriation of Taijiquan in the West is significant.  And while many of these sorts of studies tend to focus on events in America I found his case-study of the British community quite interesting.  In short, this is the sort of dissertation that warrants a close reading.

Unfortunately that will have to wait for later.   This will be a much lighter essay as I attempt to ease back into my writing schedule.

In today’s post I would like to focus on a single passage from his introductory discussion which I have been mulling over for the last few weeks.  While it speaks directly to the process by which Taijiquan has been received in the West, it carries some basic insights applicable to discussions of all sorts of martial arts.  In fact, it is not hard to spot many of the same basic trends that he notes at work in the Wing Chun community (the area of the traditional arts with which I have the greatest familiarity).
Consider the following observation, “As we will see, in fact, they have added, deleted, adopted and distorted practices derived from their Chinese (or English) masters in a continuous process of translation based on an imagined construction of Chineseness.”  When thinking about the cultural appropriation or translation of the Asian martial arts I think there is a tendency to simplify, or see only a single aspect of this process.

Yet Gehao notes that a community’s preexisting beliefs about the nature of Chinese identity (as well as their own cultural identity) can actually result in a number of strategies of translation.  Here he quickly lists four possibilities.  Obviously his dissertation takes a more nuanced approach and introduces additional concepts.

Nevertheless, over the last few weeks I have decided that I like this simple formulation as it is both easy to remember and reminds us to look for an entire constellation of changes.  To quickly explore the utility of these four descriptive concepts, this post will consider some of the ways that Wing Chun, a traditional martial art hailing from Southern China, has been “translated” into an American commercial and cultural context.  As Gehao found in the case of Taijiquan, popular ideas about the nature of Chinese identity would have an important impact on the resulting reconstruction of Wing Chun in the West.

Added, Deleted, Adopted and Distorted

Before delving into this discussion a few caveats are in order.  As much as we might want to practice our art in a “perfect” and pristine state, we should admit that this is probably not possible.  We might also go further and ask why the idea of “purity of transmission” has gained such a hold on the popular discussion of the martial arts?  What set of values and desires does this rhetoric advance?

How are they different in the West than China?

In reality cultural translation is an unavoidable process whenever a given set of practices or identities crosses global and cultural borders.  There have even been substantial periods of “translation” within China itself as the martial arts went from being a mostly rural, occupationally focused, pursuit in the 19th century to being promoted as a nationally focused urban, middle class hobby in the 20th.

Given that none of us are Cantonese speaking tradesmen living in Foshan in the 1850s, our understanding and embodied experience of Wing Chun must be different from Leung Jan’s.  The notion that “identity moves” (to borrow a memorable turn of phrase from Adam Frank) is not an inherently bad thing.  While the process of cultural translation inevitably changes something about an identity or sets of practices as it seeks to make them legible in a very different context, we do not need to view the end product of this process as inherently illegitimate.  This is not to imply that one cannot find better or more unfortunate examples of such translations within the martial arts world.

How can we understand the sorts of transformations that we are likely to see?  As Western practitioners of these systems attempt to make sense of their arts they are forced to negotiate their own experience of these practices with an inevitably imperfect understanding of Chinese identity.

When the transmitted techniques do not conform to their culturally conditioned expectations, change is often the result.

First, “additions” might be made to a system.  These sometimes take the form of core Western cultural values being read onto an Asian art.  In other cases what is added is an inappropriate element of Asian culture or philosophy so that the practice better meets Western expectations about what an “Oriental” art should be.

On the opposite end of the spectrum certain practices or elements of identity might be “deleted” from a westernized version of an art.  Again, specific cultural elements that do not match Western expectations often receive this treatment.

The traditional Chinese martial arts were often rigidly located with regards to questions of social class and gender in ways that would make students in liberal western countries uncomfortable.  While their modern schools often go to great lengths to demonstrate how “traditional” they are, no one that I am aware of refuses to teach women, or prohibits physical contact between unrelated men and women in class even though that would have been a common taboo at the time that Wing Chun was first formulated.  What was once an important set of practices regarding the construction and maintenance of masculinity within a Chinese cultural context has simply been deleted with very little notice.

In addition to these first two responses, Western students might also strategically “adopt” certain practices and identities which fit their expectations about Asian culture.  While relatively few Western martial artists seem inclined to actually learn the native language of their arts (often a daunting challenge), many nevertheless make the mastery of foreign language names and labels something of a fetish.  Yet to Western students this vocabulary often carries connotations that are quite different from how the same terms might be perceived by a native speaker.  Paradoxically, attempts to achieve linguistic accuracy by avoiding the processes of “translation” can actually lead to even greater levels of cultural mystification.

Lastly there is the problem of “distortion.”  In my own experience there are a number of ways that distortion might arise.  The first is a simple misunderstanding.  The lack of cultural and linguistic expertise noted in the previous examples suggests that fighting against the tide of this distortion is the daily work of a dedicated martial arts student seeking a serious encounter with their chosen art.
Distortions are also likely to arise because of the very nature of cultural appropriation.  Once a practice has come to be socially accepted and commercially successful, consumers and students will naturally begin to hybridize the values of their chosen practice with the (often quite different) social discourses that surround them.  Consider how often we encounter advertising materials promoting the health benefits of Kung Fu within the commercially driven paradigm of western athleticism.  It is simply human nature to want all good things to fit together.

In truth the culture of Taekwondo that is practiced in strip malls across America is quite different from that which is seen in Korean military units.  And yet there is an almost universal tendency to accept one’s own vision of the art as uniquely legitimate.  This was one of the more interesting aspects of Gehao’s discussion which I hope to explore in future posts.

No comments: