Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, 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 ~


Sunday, August 04, 2019

Old Time Kung Fu Villians

Over at Kung Fu Tea, there was an article about the usefulness of the old time Kung Fu villains. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

Introduction

Antagonists seem to be the critical ingredient that make the martial arts possible. Yet to understand why that is the case we need to start by unpacking a few things.  An immense range of activities fall within the category that we term “martial arts,” so much so that simply defining the term is much more challenging than one might expect.  Still, all of these activities are essentially social pursuits.

The martial arts are really more about the pedagogy and the discussion of violence than its actual performance.  Indeed, the quality of some isolated hermit’s technique cannot make them a martial artist.  At a bare minimum they must be willing to pass that skill along, or perform it for others, before the label really applies.

This raises a few obvious questions.  Why should one desire to be a in a community that practices or passes on these skills?  What is the ultimate utility or meaning of these techniques?  Or to put the question rather crassly, are the varied benefit of practicing a given martial art worth the time, cost and effort necessary to do so?

It should surprise no one that all sorts of martial arts have formulated their own answers to these types of questions.  I sometimes think that indoctrinating students into their unique world view is just as important as the actual transmission of techniques.  Indeed, it is an open question in my mind as to whether the martial arts, as a social and cultural construction, can even exist without some sort of world defining narrative.

Psychologists have noted that telling stories is one of the most basic ways in which humans understand, and attempt to interact, with our world.  In fact, narrative seems to be key to how we as a species understand the process of causation in the world around us.  Sadly, there is less evidence that the physical world that we seek to understand is structured in this way.  Hence our theories and stories about the world, while certainly useful, always reveal some aspect of reality with one hand, as they hide certain things with the other.  To tell stories is human, but it may not be the best way to understand quantum mechanics.

On the other hand, paying close attention to the stories that people tell may be absolutely critical when our goal is understanding the functions of the voluntary communities that individuals create.

This is critical as not all groups, organizations or styles are attempting to do the same thing.  Not all fighting styles claim to do the same work, or provide the same social and personal benefits.

Students of martial arts studies thus require a number of discursive keys capable of opening the door to a more serious and sustained comparative study of these functions.  Sadly, the comparative method is not commonly seen within martial arts studies.  Yet such studies might help us to understand why, at a given point in time, individuals are drawn to one martial art versus another. Or why do some types of martial practice thrive in a given social or economic setting, yet struggle in another?

Nothing is More Useful than a Bad Guy

This sort of positivist research generally begins when researchers sit down and begin to measure things. Typically, one will start with the martial artists themselves.  You might collect data on their age, race or gender.  Other socio-economic indicators can be gleaned through formal surveys or participant observation.  One might conduct interviews, sample social media posts or examine their physical performance in public demonstrations or fights.  Anything that can be observed can be quantified and fed into a statistical model of human behavior.

That is all great.  Indeed, my earlier research relied quite heavily on data crunching and “large-N” analysis (granted, at the time I was more interested in the behavior of political parties and nation states than martial artists).  Yet some of the things that are most useful for adding nuance to comparative analysis might, at first, be a little less obvious. For instance, when you walk into the average martial arts school, it is highly unlikely that anyone will self-identify as the resident villain.

Yet such a figure is critical to understanding how the community functions.

This can often be seen in way that individuals discuss their styles. A good Kung Fu story is mostly a normatively loaded narrative about conflict which tends to identify one set of actors with positive social traits (or traits that are understood to be “good” in this situation) and another set of individuals or forces with negative ones.  John Christopher Hamm has done a wonderful job of exploring the way in which the literary imaginings of these conflicts have evolved in the sorts of Wuxia fiction produced in Southern China. Late 19thcentury novels valorized the sorts of feuding between neighboring clans and villages that characterized much of Southern Chinese life.  In contrast, Jin Yong’s much later novels reflected the larger scale struggle to control the “central plains” in an era when many of his readers had (like his protagonists) fled into exile.

Both folklore (the burning of the Shaolin temple by the Manchus) and film (Bruce Lee’s perpetual struggle against the markers of racial injustice and imperialism), offer a wide range of antagonists for our consideration.  Indeed, film studies scholars are correct in noting that the sorts of villains that films present, from the fear of brainwashing in the Cold War to the distrust of social and political institutions in the wake of Vietnam, can tell us a good deal about a society’s values and preoccupations.

Comparing the sorts of villains that appear in two different genera of martial arts films (say, the current run of John Wick stories, and Hong Kong Wuxia films of the 1960s) would doubtless be an informative, rewarding and enjoyable exercise.  A scaled down version of this might even make a great blog post.  Yet ultimately these films are meant to appeal to a general audience.  While they are certainly watched by some martial artists, they are primarily reflective of larger social trends.

Again, what would be most interesting would be the comparative case study.  How do the smaller scale narratives produced within the martial arts community, for its own exclusive consumption, reflect or contradict these larger sets of social anxieties?  Again, this is where we in martial arts studies might leverage our villains to collect some valuable insights about the varieties of social work performed by different types of martial arts communities.  After all, I am not sure that there is any reason to expect that the stories told in an MMA gym and the children’s Taekwondo gym across the street would share the same sorts of oppositional figures.

1 comment:

Dirk Bruere said...

" Why should one desire to be a in a community that practices or passes on these skills? What is the ultimate utility or meaning of these techniques? "

In much of Asia, and particularly China and Japan, martials arts cannot be separated from politics. The aim of the community which practices them is therefore political. Not sporting, and not a "hobby" in the Western sense. Think Freemasonry with party political affiliations and paramilitary violence not far beneath the surface for a Western analogy.