On Reading Old Books

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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

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Chinese Martial Arts in the News: September 21, 2020: Mulan Struggles, Return of the Guandao, and the Future of Kung Fu Tea


It has been over a months since our last news update. For new readers, this is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea in which we review media stories that mention the traditional fighting arts. In addition to discussing important events, this column also considers how the Asian hand combat systems are portrayed in the mainstream media.

While we try to summarize the major stories over the last month, there is always a chance that we may have missed something. If you are aware of an important news event relating to the TCMA, drop a link in the comments section below.

Lastly, this month’s news update ends with an important announcement about the blog.  Thanks for your patience.


It is surprising how often a single event dominates the monthly news cycle for Chinese martial arts. This time the clear leading story was the release, and subsequent struggles, of Disney’s long awaited live action Mulan project. As most theaters in the US are still closed, or operating on a very limited basis, the studio decided to release the project on their Disney+ streaming service for an additional $30 fee.  Needless to say, that decision generated all sorts of controversy, and more followed quickly including renewed calls to boycott the film after consumers began to question the ethics of filming in a region of China where Uighurs Muslims are being detained in large numbers.

Mulan received an even more hostile reception in China (an increasingly important market for American films) where audiences felt that it suffered from wooden performances and cringeworthy cultural tropes, despite its obvious efforts to pander to Chinese audiences. The general consensus seems to be that the new project is a step backward from the beloved animated classic.  All of this is terrible news for Disney in a year when they badly needed a financial win. But it did generate a fair amount of discussion on topics related to the Chinese martial arts!

One of the more positive treatments of the film can be found in this piece on its co-star Donnie Yen who is “proud of the richness of Chinese culture, and celebration of family” in Mulan.

Action star Donnie Yen gets the chance to dazzle us on the big screen with his martial arts skills in Disney’s “Mulan.” But he had a very personal reason for wanting to be part of this movie. The veteran actor said he is completely familiar with the story; first, as part of Chinese lore. Secondly… because his daughter loved the 1998 animated movie!

“She grew up watching with me, ‘Mulan,’” said Yen. “We sang the songs over 100 times!”

More typical of the ensuring frustration was this conversation in South China Morning Post, which noted that Disney is just one US company to be called out for missteps regarding human rights in Xinjiang.  Alternatively, a reviewer in the Observer called Mulan “A mess of hollow representation and real-world controversy.”

More interesting than the reviews of the film itself were some of the stories that it inspired.  We might call these “Mulan adjacent” essays.  The first of these, published on the National Geographic webpage, provides a surprisingly indepth overview of Chinese martial arts history.  With the assistance of Dr. Johnathan Clements, who has been a talking head on a number of National Geographic projects, it touches on everything from General Qi Jiguang, the Maiden of Yue, Shaolin, the Shaw Brothers and (of course) Bruce Lee. At this this point my main question is, how does one get on the interview list for these sorts of things?

Equally interesting is this piece in the South China Morning Post modestly titled “Forget Mulan: meet Khutulun, Mongolia’s undefeated wrestling princess, Genghis Khan’s great-great-granddaughter and Turandot inspiration.” So far as a summery goes, the title pretty much says it all.

Rather than folk fable, the Mongolian warrior princess Khutulun was quite real and had the body count and fearsome reputation to prove it. She was the daughter of Kaidu Khan and great-great-granddaughter of Genghis, a cousin of Kublai Khan who would found China’s Yuan dynasty.

Chinese Martial Arts in the News

Earlier in the year we saw accounts of deadly skirmishes along the China-India boarder between groups of soldiers using improvised weapons and spiked clubs in an area where the use of firearms was prohibited by a treaty between the two countries.  Apparently tensions in the region have flared up once again, and Chinese soldiers have now augmented their arsenal with quickly made guangdao and spears. This story has been getting a lot of coverage both globally and in India.  For instance, Forbes magazine notes that “China May Be Arming Its Soldiers With Medieval Halberds To Fight India.”

Forget tanks and jet fighters. Chinese soldiers may have found a new weapon to battle the Indian army: medieval-style halberds.

Photos have surfaced that purportedly show Chinese troops in Tibet carrying polearms. Chinese soldiers in modern battle gear – including body armor and helmets – are seen holding long sticks topped with curved blades that resemble machetes. Presumably the weapons are meant to be used against Indian soldiers, with whom China has fought recent border clashes.

Not all of the news has been so grim.  Asian One ran a story on the growing popularity of Shuai Jiao, or traditional jacketed wrestling, in the Beijing area.

Chinese wrestling is making a return thanks to a veteran of the fighting sport.

At an indoor facility in downtown Beijing, a group of young enthusiasts was recently training and practicing the traditional martial art of shuai jiao, which is little known outside China.

As usual, there have been a fair number of “public diplomacy” stories in which the promotion of fighting arts is used as a way of strengthening, or celebrate, cultural ties between countries. The government run China Daily reported that “Martial arts supplies from China delight Romanians.” I thought that this story was interesting as one of the beneficiaries of this diplomatic largess was a Wing Chun school.  Generally speaking, these sorts of efforts favor official Wushu programs and sometimes community Taijiquan classes.  I don’t think I can recall seeing a Wing Chun school discussed in this context before.

Despite the prevailing pandemic, Romanian people’s passion for Chinese martial arts hasn’t faded. Recently, about 200 pieces of equipment for the sport were sent to many clubs in Romania, in large packages with “Friendship Lasts Forever” printed on the side.

-Interesting to see that in addition to the expected Wushu organizations a Wing Chun club was also the recipient of some of this gear.  We don’t as often see these sorts of folk styles being included in these programs.

Likewise, the Shanghai Daily news enthusiastically reported that a “Sword-wielding 17-year-old cuts a new path in martial arts world.” A fair amount of this report was actually on Wushu’s continued attempts to enter the Olympic arena, with some biography towards the end.

In January this year, the International Olympic Committee confirmed that wushu would make its debut as an official sport at the 2022 Dakar Youth Olympic Games.

“It’s exciting news for martial arts lovers, because it’s a good chance to make more people aware of this wonderful sport, and we hope it features at the summer Olympic Games one day,” said Wang Liang, chief range officer of the Ningxia championship. “More teenagers are engaged in martial arts competitions nowadays, and their competitiveness is improving daily.”

Who are the “Seven Best Taiwanese Martial Artists Masters of all Time?”  Click the link to find out!  Unfortunately this is more a list than an actual collection of biographies.  Still, it could be a great jumping off point for future exploration.  And yes, Cheng Man-Ch’ing does make the list.

Every once and a while, you run a cross an article that is a lot more detailed than you were expecting.  Such is the case with this breakdown of the various unarmed fighting styles practiced and implied throughout the Karate Kid saga at the Den of Geeks. If you are a fan of the franchise be sure to check this out!

More disappointing was this reprint of stories on martial arts in Hong Kong in the South China Morning Post.  While this is one of my favorite topics, I am not entirely thrilled to see a somewhat deceptive discussion of how Hong Kong (and Bruce Lee) is the true origin point for modern MMA. The city’s martial arts history is fascinating on its own without trying to pander in this way. But I have already critiqued a couple of these articles elsewhere so there is no need to repeat myself here.

Next up in the pop culture category, we have a new video game out of China staring the Monkey King.  On a technical level the gameplay in this looks great, but the project may also have added significance for students of Martial Arts Studies. Over the last decade video-games have become as an increasingly important vector for introducing all sorts of people to martial arts imagery, essentially supplanting the role of television as a pop-culture incubator. With increased competition between China and America in all sorts of cultural and tech spaces, this may be a potentially important story to watch.

Still shot of Bruce Lee in the opening scene of “Enter the Dragon.”

Next we have a couple of feature on the Little Dragon. What is better than a discussion of Bruce Lee in ForbesA Discussion of Bruce Lee and James Bond!  Second, the exhibition “Bruce Lee: Kung Fu, Art, Life” at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum has been extended to 2026.  The exhibit is also going to be restaged and expanded in 2021, and will continue to feature more that 600 Lee-related items, including 400 on loan from the Bruce Lee Foundation in the United States. I was planning on heading to Hong Kong this summer (thanks COVID-19!), but I guess I will now have plenty of time to check it out in the next couple of years.

Its facebook time!

News About the Kung Fu Tea

I recently accepted a job working with one of the federal government’s COVID-19 relief programs.  Needless to say, this isn’t what I anticipated I would be doing at the start of the year, but given that it has become difficult to travel for my research, or even visit library collections, this seems like a good use of the next six months or so. As a professional political economist I am really looking forward to getting a granular view of what is happening in the economy and society.

All of that is great news. The downside is that I am about to become very busy as I immerse myself in this new, 60+ hours a week, venture. Sadly, this means that I will have less time for blogging.

I am hesitant to declare the blog on hiatus as I hope to work on the occasional post once things settle down and I can establish a new schedule.  I also have a few guest posts and reviews lined up. Still, I expect that regular readers will note a marked decrease in the frequency of my posts over the next few months. WordPress tells me that I have published well over 800 posts (or 3.2 million words) at Kung Fu Tea since 2012, and I am guessing that no one has actually read more than a fraction of that material. As such, I will also be republishing some of my favorite pieces from the archives during this time just to keep things fresh.

I would like to thanks all of you for your support over the last eight years, without which this never would have been possible. A special note of thanks also goes to my wife Tara for her long  suffering and editing much of this material. It is amazing to see how much the field of Martial Arts Studies has grown in that time. I look forward to a return to regular blogging and research soon.