On Reading Old Books
The idea of reading old books tends to conjure romantic images of dusty tomes and arcane libraries. As martial artists we imagine ourselves clustered around forgotten Ming dynasty manuals, decoding the secrets of the ancient. Sadly, those are not the books that we will be discussing in this post. Instead we will be examining something much less fashionable, the study of works that are merely dated, rather than ancient.

How and when something becomes dated is a fascinating question. In the social scientific realm this occurs when a new theory is advanced that can explain everything that the older ones could, and some additional puzzle as well, in the same number of steps or fewer. This is a fairly straightforward model of intellectual progress, at least so far as one is interested in generating theories that explain why things happen (simple causality), rather than what they mean.

Still, even this barebones model of the scientific method generates an interesting corollary. It suggests that we do not discard our old theories because we have discovered that they are wrong, or that there are certain cases that they can’t explain. That would be pointless as every explanatory model ever advanced has some sort of blind spot from the moment of its inception. Simply put, there are no perfect theories. Rather, we discard our theories only when they stop being “useful.”

In literatures where the growth of knowledge has hit a plateau, certain works can have surprising longevity. In some fields it is not uncommon to encounter a 70-year-old work that is still considered a “classic” and mandatory ready in any intro classes. Yet when breakthroughs happen quickly, a theory’s lifespan is fleeting.  A book published 10 or 15 years ago suddenly becomes an embarrassment.

This is the position that martial arts studies, as an interdisciplinary academic field, currently finds itself in.  Our project has seen remarkable growth in both size and sophistication over the last decade.  Where we once had to search for relevant discussions in historical or anthropological studies of other subjects, the last ten years has witnessed an explosion of monographs and edited volumes dedicated exclusively to the study of these fighting systems.  While it was once vitually impossible to publish scholarly articles on martial arts, authors now have a variety of journals to choose from. This is all very exciting and a good thing. Yet the inevitable corollary is that much of what came before this burst of activity (and even some things that appeared in its earliest stages), now look rather dated. Either they address questions which no longer seem as relevant, or they don’t bring the same sort of explanatory power to the table as later approaches.

The fact that we have achieved this sort of generational turnover was driven home by a recent conversation. I had reposted an early essay from 2012 on the blog in which I asked readers to suggest five sources to quickly get someone up to speed on Chinese martial studies. Two of the suggestions could be books, and the other three pieces had to be articles or chapters.

Needless to say, not everyone in 2020 was thrilled with my picks from 2012. That is entirely reasonable as so much has happened in the study of the Chinese martial arts over the last decade.  This is a field that has moved very quickly, and that has left some of the “classics” of the previous era looking limited and a bit shabby. My own book, articles and blog posts on that subject have all appeared in the last decade.

Underscoring this disjoint between past and present was the entire point of exercise.  Lists like this need to be continually updated and reevaluated, especially in fields like ours. It is important to maintain a certain level of self-awareness as to what is put on these lists and what is being excluded (and why).

Yet rather than having that conversation, questions arose as to whether any of this “old” literature should even be read at all. Would it be better to just chuck it out and study only state of the art descriptions of Chinese martial arts? Afterall, if we have determined that another approach is more useful, if it does a better job of making sense of the world, why should we invest scarce time reading dated material? Isn’t that what intellectual progress looks like?

If one is only interest in Martial Arts Studies as an avenue for exploring, and finding meaning in, personal embodied practice, that may be a fair point. A number of amateur scholars who are primarily interested in teaching and practicing their individual systems have made some important contributions to our field, and they remain free to approach their engagement with the field in any way that they personally see fit. Afterall, no one can force you to read a dated, unfashionable and probably boring book.

Unless you go to graduate school. In that case you may very well be expected to read five hundred to a thousand pages a week of such material. This is the stuff that field surveys courses are made of. It is the intensive interaction with this literature that molds young scholars into members of a discipline. I still recall taking one such class in graduate school where the instructor would assign, and then publicly demolish, 3-4 books per class, week after week. A few of my classmates were under the mistaken impression that the point of her class was to receive the correct answers, to teach them how the world really worked. When would we get to the “good stuff,” the stuff they my professor actually liked? The look of surprise on her face was evident when they finally asked that question. She proceeded to explain that most of the works we read as professionals are flawed. Much of it will be objectively bad. In fact, she didn’t actually like any of the books on her syllabus. None of these books contained the one true way to understand global politics. But that was never the point of the exercise.

We become intelligent and independent scholars not from reading the best, most cutting-edge, works. Everyone must certainly be conversant in those works, but if that is all you are familiar with you will only parrot other people’s ideas. Instead, we improve our own work by first learning to take apart other people’s arguments. Criticism is the first step on the path towards creativity.

There are several other reasons that scholars immerse themselves in dated works. Brilliant pieces of research in top journals do not just appear as acts of isolated genius.  Rather, these works emerge out of (and respond to) ongoing conversation within in a literature. One can’t really understand this process unless you have read these prior works, most of which have been superseded by the next set of publications. And yet the actual foundations of the discussion remain key to understanding how we have arrived at our current location, and where we might go in the future.

Even the most dated work is typically full of useful facts and clever ideas. These might not have been fully developed when they were first written down, but recent events may make them more relevant, or suggest new ways that older theories could be reframed to meet our current challenges.  Last but not least, we read older works because academic literatures are based on real-life social communities. Most of these communities are not that larger, and if you actively go to conferences and give papers you will eventually have a chance to deal with all of these authors (or their students) in a live setting. That will generally go much more smoothly if you are actually familiar with their ideas before you arrive.

Martial Arts Studies, as it is currently constituted, is first and foremost a scholarly project. Interdisciplinary in nature, individuals from many academic backgrounds have come together to ask how a better understanding these fighting systems contributes to larger questions such as the development of modern Chinese identity, the process of globalization or even the nature of the human condition. While closely studying a variety of viewpoints (including ones that are now dated) may not be essential to improving one’s personal practice, it is absolutely a prerequisite to participate in any truly scholarly project. This is the basic homework that enables future understanding, both of our subject and the community that is producing these discussions.

Sadly, this also seems to be one of the elements that is missing from current discussions. The launching of a new field is no easy task, and many of us have been consumed by the effort to take Martial Arts Studies from the realm of aspiration to institutional reality. Understandably, we have been mostly concerned with our own projects and contributions. Yet we can never lose sight of the fact that this same aspirational force has existed at multiple points in the past. Whether we care to admit it or not, much of our current literature is built on foundations first laid down by individuals like Stanley Henning, Charles Holombe, Joseph Esherick, Donn F. Draeger and R. W. Smith.

Paul Bowman as attempted to engage some of Henning’s work, and Jared Miracle has tackled certain aspects of Smith and Draeger’s legacy. Yet the field has shown little enthusiasm for critically engaging the empirical observations or theoretical world view of the scholars and movements that came before us.  This failure to come to terms with the complex legacy of hoplology, or related works in military history, is a missed opportunity. First, by neglecting these texts we lose access to an important database of potential observations and puzzles that could enrich our own work. Second, by ignoring the troubled trajectory of prior scholarship we have less insight into what is driving the current moment, or what obstacles we might face.

It is not difficult to explain our failure to fully engage with hoplology, or a reluctance to read old books generally. All of this takes time, and that is the one resource that none of us have. Still, understanding how our current discussions emerged, and what insights past works may have held, is the basic prerequisite for engaging in any type of academic project. The quality of the latest generation of martial arts studies publications is higher than ever, but it is critical that we keep reading those old, unfashionable, and even bad, books.


If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Salvage as Method in Martial Arts Studies


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *