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 ~

Monday, December 30, 2019

What is Traditional About Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from an article by Paul Bowman from the Martial Arts Studies blog. The full post may be read here.

In discourses about East Asian martial arts, the term 'authentic' has connotations that can easily be taken to imply a kind of unchanging monocultural purity. The term 'traditional' is its partner in crime: in the context of discussions about martial arts, both traditional and authentic can all too easily imply a long unchanging history, and a pure unbroken lineage (Bowman, 2017). 'Authentic' and 'traditional' are very easily read interchangeably as meaning 'the way things have been, since the origin, unchanging down through the generations' (Fabian, 1983a; Krug, 2001). As such, discussions about authenticity and tradition in Asian martial arts often betray deep affections for – even fantasies about – mythical ideas of pure and perfect ancient origins.

However, such narratives are often misconstrued. For instance, the most familiar of 'ancient' East Asian martial arts emerged in their present form during the twentieth century. Virtually all styles of karate, aikido, taekwondo and Brazilian jiujitsu, for instance, are twentieth-century inventions (Chan, 2000; Funakoshi, 1975; Moenig, 2015). The avowedly 'modern' (late nineteenth to early twentieth century) martial art of judo is actually older than many avowedly ancient martial arts, such as taekwondo (which was devised, named and formalised in the 1950s (Gillis, 2008; Moenig, 2015)). Similarly, what is now known as either kung fu or wushu should properly be understood as a modern construction (B. Judkins, 2014; Kennedy, 2010). Perhaps most surprisingly, even the 'ancient' art of taijiquan (also known as tai chi or t'ai chi ch'üan) can actually be understood as a nineteenth century cultural and ideological response to modernity (Wile, 1996). This short list is merely the tip of an iceberg.

What is rarely acknowledged in histories and studies of traditional East Asian martial arts are the complex cultural processes and logics involved in the (modern) invention of (ancient) martial arts. Processes of 'orientalism' (Said, 1978) and 'allochronism' (Fabian, 1983b) – both of which are species of mythic romanticising – are key. Similarly rarely acknowledged is the fact that when they move from one society or cultural context to another, one institution to another, one medium to another, 'traditional' martial arts are substantially reinvented each time (Krug, 2001). Narratives of 'movement' or 'discovery' often work to obscure complex processes of transformation (Bowman, 2015). For instance, when Asian martial arts 'arrived' in Western contexts, such as Europe or the USA, they were often instituted according to problematic beliefs not only about their countries and cultures of origin, but also about the practices themselves (Tan, 2004).

In debates about authenticity and tradition in martial arts, the status of origin stories is immense (B. N. Judkins & Nielson, 2015; Wile, 2015). Fantasies of the origin are combined with a deep investment in the idea of pedagogy as pure transmission – in which the practice of teaching and learning is imagined as nothing other than the smooth transmission of established knowledge, unbroken and unmodified, from teacher to student, down through the ages, from era to era and cultural context to cultural context. In such a paradigm, change cannot but be regarded as bad, because (1) if the origin is pure and (2) if the ancestors are superlative, then therefore (3) any change cannot but be a sign of either arrogance or corruption.

Of course, such investments are fantasies. An origin is always a complex process of formation that is always ongoing and that only ever looks like a clean break or a pure moment of emergence in retrospect (B. N. Judkins & Nielson, 2015). A tradition is always fractured, multiple, heterogeneous, inventive, transforming, partial, changing and – as scholars since the early 1980s have been increasingly aware – very often invented recently and passed off as ancient for the sake of attempting to gain cultural capital, kudos, mystique, gravitas and/or legitimacy (Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983).

Like tradition, pedagogical processes are far from simply the smooth, unchanged and unchanging transmissions of established knowledge from one body to another. Teaching and learning are partial, plural, variable, often inventive, and inevitably differing across time and space in form, content, and reception (Bowman, 2016b; Rancière, 1991). Of course, 'traditional' Asian martial arts as they are encountered around the world often attempt to police any drift or shift in form and content by insisting on the maintenance of strict ritualistic structures and strictures. The 'traditional' club, dōjō (道場), dojang (도장 or ) or kwoon ( or ), has its familiar rituals, hierarchies, and visual insignia. A strong emphasis on ritualistic repetition can work to prevent the drift and transformation of the core content of a syllabus. Supplementing this with clear written codification of content and criteria for progression is equally important in preserving and maintaining 'standards'.

The value and function of written rules and regulations within an institutional structure can be seen when comparing the similarity of martial sports like Kōdōkan (講道館)or Olympic jūdō (), on the one hand, and the difference between clubs of 'the same' style of kung fu, on the other. For, while practices like jūdō and taekwondo (태권도/跆拳) have all manner of diverse centralised and dispersed institutional factors supervening on their practice, performance and appearance (Law, 2008; Yabu, 2018), the international dissemination of various styles of kung fu (gōngfu, ) have rarely (until recently) been subject to the demands to adhere to the rules, practices and yardsticks set out by any overarching governing body (Berg & Prohl, 2014; Ryan, 2008). The net result is that jūdō tends to be more or less the same the world over, while styles of other (unformalized, unregulated) martial arts vary enormously.

However, in all cases, traditional East Asian martial arts clubs the world over can be said to self-consciously attempt to institute and inculcate ideas of the 'traditional East Asian' (Tan, 2004), via the institutions of rituals, repetitions, hierarchies, the way the training space is organised, the terms and language used, the religions and philosophies evoked, and so on. 

The paradox is that they can all do so differently, meaning that, in the final analysis, these 'traditions' often have the status of simulations (Baudrillard, 1983) – manifest in the overarching attempt to construct an imagined ideal Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or other national, regional or ethno-linguistic scene. To use Jean Baudrillard's term, many 'traditional' martial arts clubs should properly be regarded as hyperreal (Baudrillard, 1994). Like a traditional Irish pub in Hong Kong or a traditional British pub in Tokyo, traditional martial arts clubs around the world are ontologically akin to theme parks (Baudrillard, 1988).

This is not to suggest that this is all about ignorant Westerners being guilty of yet another species of orientalist fantasy. Highly knowledgeable Easterners are often equally guilty of exactly the same thing – especially when it comes to what is sometimes called self-orientalisation (Bowman, 2016a; Chan, 2000; Frank, 2006). Many teachers of 'regional' or 'national' martial arts have spent time studying in the source or origin cultures of the arts that they teach. So, this is not a matter of authenticity versus inauthenticity, or ignorance versus knowledge. Rather, it is a matter that springs from the irreducibly constructed character of any such practice.

The attempt to capture and convey the 'essence' or 'authenticity' of a traditional martial art involves the deployment of all manner of conventional 'secondary' or supplementary things – from bowing, to standing in lines, to wearing uniforms and insignia of rank, to using Chinese or Japanese terms, and many other matters besides (Bowman, 2019). Such contexts, whether in Asia or elsewhere in the world, constitute hyperreal simulations that attempt to create an imagined authentic East Asian origin. It is not merely 'ignorant Westerners' who take part in this process. There is much to be gained from the invention of tradition no matter who or where you are. It is well known that East Asian nation states often actively promote mysterious, timeless and romantic images of themselves and their cultural heritage, precisely in order to attract tourist income (Bowman, 2016a; Frank, 2006). By the same token, diasporic communities romanticise and fantasise about their wonderful homeland (Abbas, 1997; Osman, 2017). And there are several other species of invention besides.

Such 'postmodern' formulations as these may seem pessimistic to some readers. This is not my intention. The point is not to suggest that some cultures or contexts are 'false' while others are somehow 'true'. It is precisely this perspective that fuels and fires the martial arts pilgrimage industry, which floods countries such as China, Japan and (more recently) Brazil with tourists looking for true, authentic, traditional (etc.) kung fu, taiji (tàijíquán; 太极), jūjutsu (柔術) or capoeira. The point is rather to acknowledge the inevitability of inventiveness and the constructed character of entities and identities, even and especially at the very heart of the pedagogical scene – which is the forge and furnace of the 'reproduction' of martial arts.


Mike Sigman said...

What's interesting to me is the number of these "experts" who really can't do Asian martial-arts with any basic facility. The commonality in the Asian martial-arts is their reliance on "qi", "jin", and use of the dantian to move the body. I would like to ask at least one of these experts to demonstrate some body movement using his dantian in a slow and exaggerated fashion.

How is this germane? Use Taijiquan as just one example of many: Taijiquan states that it is an art that is an outgrowth of the ancient Daoyin, the theory of the Jingluo, and also of specialized breath training (Tu Na). If you know anything about Taijiquan, those relationships are obviously true and there are documents showing these practices that go back thousands of years. So this recent premise that the Asian arts are relatively new are just the maunderings of dilettantes.

Rick Matz said...

I think the key premise of Bowman, Judkins, et al, is that our conception of how CMA have been organized and taught over the millenia is largely a "modern" (100-150 years) phenomenon, rather than the content themselves.

Taijiquan, aikido, karate "styles" for example didn't exist once upon a time.