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 ~


Friday, April 05, 2019

Zombie Martial Arts

Do we practice "zombie" martial arts that have lost their meaning in today's day and age?

Below is an excerpt from a very thought provoking post at Kung Fu Tea. The full post may be read here.

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To oversimplify, Habermas began by asking students to think carefully about how authority emerges and functions within a social system. Such systems are composed of the governmental institutions (both formal and informal) that wield authority, socio-cultural considerations (values, identities, norms, etc) and economic exchanges (who gets what resource).  In a well-functioning social system it may not be necessary to split out these various realms as they will tend to blend into one another, supported by overarching social discourses.  Individual values will uphold political authority, as will economic markets.

Issues arise when competing discourses emerge and the fractures between these realms become more pronounced. Or we might imagine them as being constructed or reconstructed by a new set of competitive discourses.  More specifically, a “crisis of legitimacy” erupts when citizens cease to believe that a political system reflects their socio-cultural values, or that the old values that it is based on continue to have utilitarian (political/economic) value.  In this instance their “life world” (lebenswelt) ruptures. One would hope that the political system would adapt to the new reality, but that is never the only possibility. It might rupture into competing factions (civil wars) or simply shamble along as a failed state, incapable of drawing on the creative resources of society.
That brings us back to the zombies. One does not have to watch the news for very long to realize that modern nation states are not the only institutions that can suffer this fate. Indeed, we are increasingly surrounded by all sorts of economic and cultural institutions who have been crippled by rapid social change. If I were to level a single criticism at Habermas it would be that he drew the boundaries of his discussion of the legitimization crisis much too narrowly, focusing primarily on states. Historical investigation would seem to support the hypothesis that all sorts of other social values and cultural institutions must fall into crisis before the nation-state (typically a very resilient entity) is imperiled. Thus, for the logic of Habermas to be true at the macro level (something that is hard to empirically test) it must first hold true at the at the micro level (which is more easily observed).
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It is not difficult to perceive the signs of a legitimization crisis within the traditional martial arts. Class enrollments are down almost across the board and many schools struggle to stay open.  Traditional styles are openly derided in one-sided contests with MMA or Muay Thai stylists on social media. There even seems to be fewer martial arts movies.

Yet not all of the trends are easily interpreted.  There is more high quality popular, and even academic, publishing on these systems being produced and consumed than ever before. Judged by the quality of the information we have access to, we are living in the golden age of kung fu scholarship. Yet popular magazines are struggling.  While the potential market for information on the traditional martial arts is expanding in terms of the number of serious readers, its dollar value has radically diminished. While this trend has hurt traditional publishers and book sellers, more small scale “prosumers” are putting out content (typically on Youtube or Facebook) than ever before.

The general state of affairs might best be summed up as one of confusion. The leading traditional forces that have structured the Chinese martial arts community still exist. We still have large lineage-based schools. There are a number of stylistic and regional associations, as well as commercial producers of both books and training gear. Yet they all seem unable to lead the community toward a meaningful revitalization effort.  In the mean-time, large numbers of students adopt unorthodox modes of practices or simply leave the martial arts all together.

As with zombies, I am not aware that Habermas ever mentioned the martial arts community.  Yet if he did, I suspect that he would not be surprised by the general state of affairs.  Drawing on the more sociological aspects of his work, I he would note our situation is particularly complicated as we face a legitimization crisis on not one, but two, fronts.  Further, these two sources of tension might interact with each other in complicated ways.  All of this, in turn, stems from a change in the cost of communication, making transformative contact between people much less expensive than it had been. Yet to see how a change in one social variable (the price of communication) might lead to two slightly different types of legitimization crises, we first need to revisit the last era of major social/political realignment within the Chinese martial arts.

During the Republic period internal communication within China was relatively expensive. Even the Chinese government, which dedicated substantial resources to the project, found it practically impossible to transmit its point of view on critical diplomatic issues to citizens in Western countries.  In this sort of situation, effective communication required a sponsor with substantial resources. This forced the Chinese martial arts into alliances with various political actors.  Traditionally these had either been the Imperial military, or local social elites who needed to maintain a degree of order within their own village, marketplace or clan. As such, Chinese martial arts networks derived their legitimacy from their relationship with regional or clan based identities. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying a complicated situation, it was their tight alignment with these narrow forces that gave them access to (and legitimacy within) local communities.

None of this was particularly helpful to the wave of national reformers who came to power after 1911. Seeing the importance of budo in the creation of a cohesive and modern Japanese state, they wished to do something similar in China.  Yet that required talking and thinking about the martial arts in a fundamentally different way.  What had been particularistic and local now needed to be universal and open.  Whereas local elites had benefited from their relationship with martial arts societies, these allegiances needed to be transferred to the national level.

A variety of new institutions were created to do just that.  Formal establishments like the New Wushu and Guoshu movements sought to give the state direct control over the organization of local martial arts societies. Other reformers (such as the Jingwu movement, and much of the Taijiquan community) favored a less statist (but equally nationalist) strategy in which universal creation myths were promoted and “lineage” communities that may have once been very local were reimagined as being national in scope.

It should be remembered that this new vision of the Chinese martial arts did not emerge in a vacuum. Rather, it was the result of a sophisticated debate on what the “new China” should be.  Nor was the victory of these views immediate or even total. A full blown legitimization crisis emerged within the Chinese martial arts.  The Guoshu program looked very powerful on paper, but most of China’s local martial artists simply ignored its tournaments and directives as they did not directly address their values or local needs. Worse yet, many intellectuals within the May 4thmovement openly derided its goals and methods. The result was a long legitimization dispute which Jon Nielson and I described in our book.

Yet from this transformation arose the system of allotting “authority” within the traditional Chinese martial arts that most of us now take for granted.  A system of dual legitimization was created.  Formal political institutions (first Guoshu, and later Wushu) claimed legitimacy through their adherence to scientific and modernizing principals which placed the martial arts at the disposal of the state.  This became the dominant way in which the Chinese martial arts were legitimated within the PRC.  In this case the “political element” of the community was a set of actual formal institutions answerable to the government.  Outside of that realm, a new set of “traditions” were made available to national, and then universal, communities. Regardless of your location or country of birth, one could experience some aspect of the Chinese nation by studying in any one of these open, commercial, schools.  They reconfigured China’s traditional folk arts in such a way that they were now available to students anywhere in the world.  This social system gained dominance in Taiwan, the South East Asian diaspora and the West.

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