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 ~

Friday, March 05, 2021

Who Owns a Martial Art?

Is Karate necessarily Okinawan or Japanese? Judo? What about BJJ? 

Kung Fu Tea has an interesting article about how martial arts undergo changes as they have gone out into the world, beyond their native homes and what that means. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

***In the last week I have found myself delving ever deeper into the literature on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) designations and the traditional martial arts.  When seeking to understand the relationship between politics and these fighting systems, one would be hard pressed to find a better case study.  Still, before going on to tackle some of the more complex aspects of this topic, it might be worth going back and asking a few basic questions about the timing of this trend.***

“Inoue said the Japanese style of judo traditionally focused more on quantity rather than quality, trying to instill a tough mentality. But in Europe, which Inoue describes as “the mainstream of judo today,” judoka train more efficiently.
“A balance between efficiency and inefficiency and a balance between scientific things and unscientific things — you have to look at those, otherwise there’s no progress for our game,” Inoue said. “We’ve switched our mind-set that way.”

Who owns a martial art?
On the surface this question would seem to have an obvious answer.  Most of these systems come with a specific name (kendo or taijiquan), and they fall into generally accepted categories, such as Japanese Budo or the Chinese martial arts. The very act of describing these systems in the English language seems to underline an obvious fact.  The martial arts are best understood as the technical and cultural property of the previously mentioned nations.  It is all a matter of common sense.
Unfortunately “common sense” has a nasty habit of transforming itself into complex assumptions that no one ever questions.  For students of nationalism, a fairly modern political ideology spread and popularized in the 19th and 20th centuries, an assertion like the one above might begin to raise eyebrows.
While Chinese citizens during the Qing dynasty were certainly aware of the existence of the state and their responsibilities to it, most contemporary accounts indicate they did not think of themselves as members of a unified, polyglot, “Chinese nation” during the late imperial period.  Instead they were much more likely to organize their identity around lineage groups, regional locations and patronage networks.  Strong feelings of national identification didn’t really grip the populace until the founding of the Republic in the post-1911 period.  And yet many of the traditional martial arts (including systems like taijiquan and wing chun) were already well established through local and regional networks prior to the rise of the “the nation.”
The case of “Japanese” Karate makes an even better case study of the complex relationship between the emergence of hand combat systems and national identities.  As many of us already know, this art first came to Japan from Okinawa.  There it went through a process of fundamental transformation, rationalization, and even renaming, before it was determined that it could be a vehicle for the new strain of Japanese nationalism that was then insinuating itself into the martial arts.
So does that mean that Karate is originally an Okinawan martial art?  Possibly.  Yet again the story is more complicated than our nationally focused narratives might suggest.  Hand combat was particularly popular in a couple of areas of Okinawa, and it is not clear to historians that all of these practitioners shared a common style.  And various arts from Southern China (including White Crane Boxing) likely played a critical role in popularizing these modes of hand combat in Okinawa.
So does that mean that Karate is really a Chinese art?  Probably not.  When we push historical arguments to their logical conclusion we find that knowledge about a practice’s “genetic origin” are often unhelpful in understanding how a community actually understands itself and functions today.
While a regionally focused approach to understanding the development of the Asian martial arts shows a lot of potential, the ancient origins of individual techniques have little bearing on their current identity.  This point seems obvious enough.
When a modern American undergoes genetic testing and learns that a certain percentage of his DNA originated in Poland, he may be able to claim previously unknown Eastern European ancestry.  Yet he can’t really claim to now possess a “Polish identity.”
That is a matter of deep cultural knowledge and life experience.  If you are depending on a blind genetic test to discover some aspect of your genetic heritage, we can safely assume that it plays little role in your actual cultural identity.  Nor would most people make the mistake of conflating these two categories when talking about genealogy.
So why do we tend to conflate similar categories when discussing the martial arts?  Why do we routinely assume that some quirk of our wing chun practice shows its deep “Chinese heritage,” particularly when hung gar and taijiquan people do things very differently in similar situations?

Nationalism, Globalization and the Martial Arts
I blame nationalism and, more recently, globalization.  Let’s start with nationalism.
When a country sought to enter the nation state system during the 19th and 20th century their acceptance was not assured.  One joins this club by being accepted by the other members.  As certain students of nationalism have observed, potential nations had to clear a couple of barriers to justify their claims.  First they had to prove that they possessed a unique culture (often in the form of a print language and folklore), a homeland, and a population.  In short one had to demonstrate that your national identity was unique, and not simply a variation of some larger identity.
Yet in joining the international system Benedict Anderson keenly observed that one accepted that your “unique nation” was now on equal footing with every other nation.  To be a member of a nation is to realize that every stranger that you encounter is also a member of an equally august body.  So while on one level all nations are unique, on a more fundamental level they are also interchangeable.  

And this realization cleared the way for a certain sort of competition between them.
One of the reasons that I am interested in the Asian martial arts is that they grew up in conjunction with this new category of “nation states.”  While we tend to assume that both of these things are impossibly ancient, emerging from the mists of time, in truth they are fairly recent.  Still, the roots of these combat systems in the late imperial period were well enough established that reformers could offer them up as proof of an “ancient and continuous” body of unique cultural traditions which supported the claims of legitimacy of the newly established national identity.
Why then do we believe that Karate reveals something essential about the “Japanese character”?  Or that Taijiquan is the key to understanding the Chinese “national experience”?  Because people have been repeating these assertions since about 1920.
Nor do I expect that these patterns of belief will change any time soon.  We now have a sound understanding of the actual historical development of these combat systems, and this is a good thing for those wishing to develop an academic discussion of the martial arts.  Yet the accelerating process of globalization has only served to reinforce the fundamental dilemma that popularized these myths in the first place.

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