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, March 08, 2020

The Individual Stamp on Martial Arts Schools

Have you ever noticed that even within the same organization, individual martial arts schools are always a little different? How could they not be, with different teachers, students, locations, etc.

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea that explores this question. The full post may be read here.

Fragmentation and Unification

Recently I had a chance to catch up with one of my old Kung Fu training brothers. We had a great time training at the same Wing Chun studio.  That was years ago.  Then I left Salt Lake City for Western New York and, a few years later, our Sifu relocated to the mid-Atlantic region.  What had been an anchor for both of our identities, the place that we trained five night a week for years on end, was once again nothing more than an empty warehouse unit in a struggling industrial mall.  Neither of us have given up on our art, though we have both had trouble finding a new “home.”

Which is odd when you think about it.  The Chinese martial arts (Taijiquan excluded) don’t have the same sort of market presence as Taekwondo or BJJ.  Still, if you do run into a Kung Fu school, there is a pretty decent chance that one of the instructors there will offer Wing Chun classes.  It is easy to visit lots of WC schools as you travel around the country, which I have always found valuable as a researcher.

I pointed this out, but my friend remained unconvinced.  “Yeah, but there is always something wrong.”  Catching himself he added, “I mean different. There is always something different about them.  None of them feel like our school.”  This is certainly true.  How could they?

Difference takes many forms.  Wing Chun has as many competing lineages as any similarly sized martial art that I have ever encountered.  They all have their unique take of the basic unarmed forms, creation myths, tactical philosophy and sometimes even the basic goals of the art.  But I knew from my own experience that this wasn’t really what my friend meant.  Even within the same lineage (in our case Ip Ching) different instructors had their own teaching methods and interests. Every school seems to develop its own small rituals of greeting, departing, and classroom management.  One might visit a school that is very friendly, but it still doesn’t feel “like home.”  It is difficult to simply jump into a new school, especially when there is the subtle expectation that in adopting a new home you would also be expected to repudiate the old one.

This conversation lingered in my mind long after it ended.  I found myself wondering why I was so sensitive to differences within WC environments, and whether the highly idiosyncratic nature of the Chinese martial arts was working against their success.  How many other displaced martial artists are there who were as likely to simply leave training all together as to succeed in finding a new home?

It is not all that difficult to trace the sources of fragmentation, in either practice or identity, within the traditional Asian martial arts.  In Northern China every small farming village seemed to have its own boxing ground which would recruit its own instructor. Rarely did hard working peasants have a chance to train extensively in the surrounding region or an incentive to do so.  One might tell a similar story in Southern China but with clan or guild hall backed martial arts institutions, slowly morphing into the roof-top schools of the Post-WWII period that we are all so familiar with.

Something about the fragmentation of traditional Chinese social organization seems to map easily onto the isolating distances that define the potential (and limitations) of any sort of training in America.  I am still in frequent contact with my Sifu, and regard him as such.  But how often can we really train?  Within this continental landscape, where individuals are often displaced by work or economic happenstance, maintaining the unique identity of a martial arts community becomes a battle against entropy.  Why do we hold so tightly to those prior identities and social roles?

The Art and the State

There may be no simple solution to the challenges of geography, but a number of organizations and groups have attempted to find solutions to the question of one’s “home.”  Almost universally they have come in the form of standardization. That word immediately conjures images of a McDonalds and Starbucks on every corner.  These businesses carefully curate their menus and dining experience not to maximize the quality of the food, or to take advantage of the local setting. Rather, they want every burger, or every cup of coffee, to taste exactly as you were expecting when you walked in. No exotic local ingredients or blends are necessary as the goal is to satisfy one’s expectations of what is an appropriate cup of coffee, not the best one imaginable.  It is easy to criticize this sort of project.

Yet we should acknowledge that these sorts of businesses thrive for a reason.  People may claim to desire quality, but what they actually need is to have their expectations met.  We are all willing to pay for that sense of what is familiar and situationally appropriate.

The martial arts world is no stranger to similar franchise models. Traditional Chinese martial arts schools have resisted this mode of organization better than other sectors of the community.  Or more likely, they have not proven themselves to be profitable enough to attract its gaze.   But we are all familiar with the “McDojo’s” that dot the suburban landscape.

What we may not realize is that this phenomenon is not particularly recent. Nor does it have as much to do with American consumerism as one might guess. The Jingwu Association, which probably did more to shape the development of the modern Chinese martial arts than any other private organization, was a firm believer in the power of branding.  Created by a group of Chinese businessmen and friends in the 1910s (and dominating China’s martial arts landscape through the early 1920s) this organization sought to strengthen both the martial arts and the Chinese nation by creating a standardized martial arts curriculum that could be practiced by individuals anywhere in the country.  This was comprised of curated bits of a number of (mostly Northern) arts which could be practiced by solo students arranged in long symmetric lines while being led by a single instructor.

Matching uniforms were also a big thing.  In some part of China, new Jingwu branches were the very first commercial schools, open to all members of the public, to be opened.  It would not be overstating the situation to say that Jingwu modernized the martial arts, and in large part they did that through their own system of franchised-esque expansion.

The unifying, modernizing and nationalizing mission of the Central Guoshu Institute was, in many ways, a natural continuation of the path that the Jingwu Association pioneered.  Yet both groups were firmly rooted in a species of early 20th century nationalism that sought to use physical culture to weld diverse communities into a nation that would serve the needs of the state.  Whether on the playing fields of Eton or the training halls of Shanghai, physical culture was to be the school of the “body politic.”

The same movement towards standardization within the martial arts was evident (indeed, had been pioneered) in Japan.  The modern sports of kendo and judo are a product of similar discourses and reform movements.  Chinese modernizers within the arena of physical culture followed their development with great interest.

What was created was in many ways remarkable.  Certainly, dojos differ, and instructors have always been a diverse lot. Yet the cacophony of competing fencing schools and training methodologies that had dominated the Tokugawa period largely gave way to a single national sport (kendo) which was played in largely identical ways across the country.  One might feel out of place traveling to a new city for business. Yet entering the local Butokukai you would find something familiar, a metaphorical home.  Jingwu schools across China’s diverse landscape, and even through the South East Asian diaspora, functioned in a similar way.

That was exactly the point.  If a diverse group of communities are to be welded together into a singular modern “nation” they must be given a shared place where they can imagine (to use benedict Anderson’s famous turn of phrase) and better yet physically experience (say, through standardized martial arts training), what it means to be a member of the Chinese or Japanese nation.  The creation of this shared space, full of students executing the same shared lessons, succeeded because it created social roles that could be experienced, built upon and combined into new identities.

Similar projects were underway throughout society.  It is the intersection of many such institutions, foreclosing older and alternate ways of understanding the self, by which “the nation” grows.  And yet what happened in East Asia’s martial arts schools was critical as it not only wrapped an “invented tradition” in a shared flag, but actually walked students through the process of being thrust into a new and strange social role, transforming that into a legible social identity, and then allowing these new institutions to shape what behavior would be considered appropriate for a person of this status.  The martial arts schools of the 20thcentury not only indoctrinated individuals into new identities, but they prepared them to become active participants in a process of social reconstruction that was unfolding all around them. Dennis Gainty has even argued that this process (possibly inadvertently) granted martial artists a sense of agency and the tools necessary to negotiate their own vision of Japanese (and Chinese) modernity with the developmental state.

Yet we must return to the flag that I noted in the previous paragraph. My old Wing Chun school in Salt Lake City lacked any overt trappings of nationalism.  It’s only declaration of identity was a giant neon “Kung Fu” sign (which had once graced the front of a previous location) hanging from the rafters.  Few of the other Wing Chun schools I have visited display a Chinese, or American, flag. Yet our disciplinary preference for traditional Chinese memorial walls over flags actually seems to mark us as outliers in the traditional martial arts community.

Chinese flags seem to be much more common in Wushu schools.  And I don’t think I have ever entered a Taekwondo school (at least in the US) that did not prominently display both a South Korean and American flag at the front of the school.  Individual Japanese citizens are often wary of displaying their national flag in public as this often is associated with the far right.  As such, it is not surprising that Japanese schools have had a more mixed relationship with the flag.  Yet I noted that American students of the Budo arts often have no qualms about displaying the colors of the rising sun.  If asked they would likely answer that it just seems like the “appropriate” thing to do.

In this way the standardization of the traditional martial arts is actually quite different from the sorts of global fast-food and coffee brands I noted above.  Critical theorists have no difficulty in identifying them with a sort of pernicious American neo-imperialism. I have often wondered whether the same writers would judge Tim Horton’s as harshly as Starbucks.  But within this specific context such critiques may be overblown. When entering the Tim Horton’s in my hometown there are no immediate markers that I am taking part in a Canadian commercial project.  Of the many tasty items that are offered, Canadian nationalism doesn’t seem to be anywhere on their racks.  Much the same could probably be said of deli cases at any Starbucks.  The goal of these establishments is to maximize their profits rather than to evangelize a national cause.  Their reach aspires to be truly global in a way that one never really sees within a traditional martial arts school.

I suspect that our Wing Chun school lacked Chinese flags as few of the schools in Hong Kong in the 1960s-1980s (the era that gave rise to American Wing Chun) were so appointed.  When we discussed Wing Chun it was always as an exclusively Southern Chinese practice, even though by the late 1990s

I suspect that more people in Germany were probably practicing the art than Hong Kong proper.  Our warehouse school in Salt Lake was imagined as a microcosm of the apartment and warehouse schools in Hong Kong which it emulated.  They defined the social roles to be found within such a school, as well as outlining the curriculum and basic teaching methods. We sought to follow them in ways that fit with our North American location.  Thus “appropriateness” must sometimes be negotiated.

I have only had the chance to visit South Korea once, but I suspect Korean flags dominate American Taekwondo schools not because of any sense of acquired nationalism on the part of the Western students (many of whom are children). Rather, Korean schools prominently display flags and have long connected the practice of their art to an awareness of Korean nationalism.  American Taekwondo schools (and Wushu academies, and Capoeira groups, and Krav Maga classes) basically follow these perceived rule of appropriateness.

Some schools care more about the transmission of cultural values than others. But in general you would be hard pressed to guess which is which simply from the presence (or absence) of a flag. Rather, the flag serves as a constant reminder that so many of the modern arts are products of 20thcentury nationalism and identity formation. When I enter a Starbucks I have stepped into a global marketplace, and it may not be immediately evident whether I am in North America, Europe or Asia.

That is a feature of the experience, not a bug. This is a brand that aspires to universalism.  But there is no doubt that when entering most traditional martial arts schools I am setting foot within a sort of cultural embassy, a place designed to reflect and transmit social roles and identities that were crafted elsewhere.  While the modern combat sports may seek to escape this sort of particularism, it remains deeply ingrained in a wide variety of traditional practices.

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