Alex Gillis Discusses Tae Kwon Do and “A Killing Art” with Kung Fu Tea

Alex Gillis, author of A Killing Art.

***Alex Gillis was the very first special guest ever interviewed on Kung Fu Tea.  His book, A Killing Art, remains one of the most readable and engaging histories of an Asian martial art ever written. Be sure to check it out as soon as you are done with this interview!***

Welcome of the Halloween 2012 edition of Kung Fu Tea!  A few weeks ago I had the chance to review Alex Gillis’ groundbreaking work on the origins and development of Tae Kwon Do, A Killing Art.  Click on the links to see that post or the book.  This detailed study is a wonderful example of martial arts history and the sort of thing that I think we need to see more of in the field of martial studies.

I also had the opportunity to exchange emails with Alex and found him to be friendly and open.  He clearly has a passion for his subject and is immensely knowledgeable.  He agreed to drop by Kung Fu Tea and answer some questions about the process of writing this sort of history and the reception that the book has received.


Kung Fu Tea (KFT): How have Tae Kwon Do practitioners, both in Korea and the rest of the world, received your book?  Has it received a generally positive reception?  Has it affected your relationships with other individuals in Tae Kwon Do community?

Alex Gillis (AG): Hundreds of people have sent me notes over the past four years, all of them positive about the English, Spanish and German books. I haven’t counted, but I estimate I received nearly 1,000 emails. Also, during book signings in the US, UK, Canada and Germany, I’ve spoken to thousands of people, and almost all the feedback has been positive — overwhelmingly so.

There have been negative comments, I’ve heard, on blogs, but most of them have been anonymous. I haven’t looked up the chat groups, listservs and blogs where I’m getting anonymously slagged, but I’m sure they’re out there somewhere. What I find incredible is that the major international Tae Kwon Do organizations, especially in South Korea, have ignored my book, but their instructors and masters (and some grandmasters) have contacted me individually, almost as if they were doing something wrong in talking to me.

The support has been over-the-top positive, because people have been gossiping for decades, so many people knew parts of the true history, but A Killing Art brings together different strands of the history, which, I now realize, readers appreciate. I put seven years of work into the book, ensuring that I got facts right, and I footnoted heavily, because I knew readers would say, “What the hell?! How does he know that?”

A fallen monument in the Goodleberg Town Cemetery, Wales NY. Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins, September 2012.

KFT: What was the most challenging aspect of researching a project like this? Was it difficult to get your sources to agree to give “on the record” interviews about such challenging topics?

AG: The most challenging part of the research was finding solid proof that secret-service agents (those who worked for or with the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and North Korean secret service) were helping to run Tae Kwon Do federations, and that the agents/instructors collaborated with the South and North Korean dictatorships during different decades. Also challenging was figuring out what the founders added to the art as opposed to simply stole from Karate or Taekkyeon (an old Korean martial art).

It was difficult to get on-the-record interviews on these topic and others, but many masters and instructors participated when they realized that I knew a lot about the history. Interviews rise to a different level when interviewees know that one-liners or the “party line” won’t work. So, for example, telling a journalist that Tae Kwon Do is 2,000 years old might fly with a local newspaper reporter who doesn’t have time to check facts, but it didn’t work on me, as I knew the truth from background research. Tae Kwon Do is only 50 or 60 years old, and it developed mainly from Japanese Karate. However, if you type “Taekwondo” in Wikipedia or Google, you’ll find sites that state or imply that it’s hundreds or thousands of years old and that contain all sorts of drivel about ancient dynasties and hwarang warriors. I’m empowered by the fact that well known war heroes and super-athletes developed my martial art, not flowery unnamed warriors.

KFT: You have a background both as an investigative journalist and as a university instructor.  Do you think that this book would have looked substantially different if you had been a pure historian?  What skills did journalism allow you to bring to table that might be missing in more “academic” writing on the martial arts?

AG: Perhaps the book would have been different if a historian had tackled the topic — perhaps a historian would have made it more abstract and less concrete and dramatic. Depends on the historian! I’ve read dramatic, concrete histories. My skills as an investigative journalist allowed me to ask the right questions and to delve into topics that were deeper than those asked by news journalists. Also, with all my research and interviews, I pushed myself to find engaging ways to present the facts and tell people’s stories — with storytelling that would go beyond lists of facts. Basically, I added heart and emotions where I could.

Presenting General Choi Hong-Hi’s life is an example. He was a complex person (as most of us are), and I wanted to show why people thought he was a genius and a dictator, a generous man and a selfish one, too — all at the same time. He seemed to be a megalomaniac and an extremely aggressive leader, but he had to seem that way when facing down homicidal dictators and rogue secret-service agents who wanted to kidnap him and his pioneers. I have a lot of respect for him (but not for all of his actions). While presenting people like that in my book, I felt I had to stick to the facts while adding complex emotions and context.

Barbed wire hanging from an oak tree. Conewango Valley, NY. Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins, September 2012.

KFT: When I was reading Chapter 19 of your book (“Reprieve”) I could not help but be struck by the contrast between what you had written about, and what you and your daughter actually experienced in your neighborhood Tae Kwon Do school.  Has there always been this disconnect between what was happening at the top of the sport and at the bottom?  It seems hard to imagine that the chaos you describe in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t deeply affect the lives and careers of many aspiring martial artists.

AG: Yes, there has always been a disconnect between what happens at the top of a sport or martial art and what happens among instructors and students. From what I know, this occurs in many sports. Look at soccer and FIFA for instance! Tae Kwon Do practitioners typically had and have no idea how much corruption and cheating occurred in the Olympics for instance. When coaches and athletes did discover the levels of cheating, many had to keep quiet in order to compete, hoping that they wouldn’t be the next victims of “branch trimming,” which was the sophisticated cheating-system that ensured the strongest fighters got eliminated in opening rounds at the Olympics. Careers and lives were deeply affected.

KFT: It has been about four years since your book first came out.  How are things looking in the Tae Kwon Do world today? Have the governing bodies of the sport in Korea and abroad managed to clean up their act and live up to their promises for reform? Is the sport growing and healthy?

AG: There has been a lot of promise about cleaning up their acts — being transparent and fair — but I’m not certain that the governing bodies have lived up to their promises. I keep hoping.

KFT: What are the biggest trends you are seeing in the Korean martial arts today outside of the world of Tae Kwon Do?

AG: The unacknowledged Tae Kwon Do backgrounds of fighters in the MMA, UFC and other popular sports.

KFT: Yes, I can see how that might be frustrating to a lot of individuals within the Tae Kwon Do community.  Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by!

Pumpkin Still Life. Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins

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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Why Religion Needs to Play a Greater Role in Chinese Martial Studies than it does in the Chinese Martial Arts.

Koi in a Hong Kong park (HT Dad).

***Greetings! Here is one of my earlier attempts to talk about the topic of theory within martial arts studies (from back in 2012, when there was a lot less of it).  It is one area where my thinking has certainly evolved over the years.  Still, I continue to find the literature on comparative religion very helpful, and I love the photo that my father took of the koi in Hong Kong above.  Enjoy!***


Lately I have been thinking about the role of religion in the Chinese martial arts and the different (though related) question of its place in Chinese martial studies.  I blame Stanley Henning.

I should preface this post by saying how much I actually appreciate the scholarship of Stanley Henning and how much I have gained from him over the years.  If it seems like I keep coming back to criticize him it is not personal, far from it.  There are not that many prominent voices in the field of Chinese martial studies at any one time, and given how many topics he has written on, his is an easy one to engage with.

One of Henning’s many contributions over the last few years has been to shape the academic discussions of the Chinese martial arts and religion.  In the popular view all forms of Kung Fu are inherently mystical and every Sifu is expected to be a spiritual guru.  This is a dangerous attitude for martial arts students.  Great care and discretion needs to be taken in the selection of a guru, and I can tell you right now that there is nothing in the average martial arts education—even at the expert level—that actually qualifies one for the post.  If your Sifu expects you to defer to him or her as a spiritual guru that is not “traditional,” it is creepy and you should seriously consider leaving.

Such an attitude is also harmful in academic discussions.  It leads us to fundamentally misunderstand the economic, social and political nature of the martial arts and the role that they played in Chinese history.  As Henning, Kennedy and Guo, Lorge and many others have now pointed out, the vast majority of people who studied martial arts in China did so on a professional basis.  They were soldiers, caravan guards, criminals, mercenaries or opera performers.

A hand full of individuals probably studied the martial arts for health reasons.  There may well have been some cross-over between the martial arts and Daoist longevity exercises, but this association developed rather late and prior to 1911 was never really all that common.  Likewise, when one ran into the rare monk or a priest who studied the martial arts, it was usually that the temple needed to protect its wealth, rather than there being any sense of deep mystical connection between Buddhism and Daoism on the one hand and hand combat training on the other.

All of which is good and true and I won’t argue with one bit of it.  Generally speaking, religion is not really all that helpful when it comes to understanding the traditional Chinese martial arts.  So why do we in Chinese martial studies spend so much time talking about it?  Why do my posts on the martial arts and religion always command the biggest readership?  It’s a complex subject and it can be hard to take an unambiguous position on this.

Boats in Foshan’s Zhongshan Park

Stanley Henning on “Asia in Review”

While doing some research I recently discovered an interview with Stanley Henning that had been recorded in 2011.  Somehow I missed it at the time and with everything going on I haven’t had time to watch it until quite recently.  You can find it here.

Unfortunately the interview turned out to be pretty disappointing.  It was recorded for a program called “Asia in Review” that is somehow associated with the University of Hawaii.  The topic of the interview (how the martial arts effect Chinese thought) sounded interesting, and the entire thing ran close to an hour long, but there were problems.  The production was distractingly low budget, the interviewer knew nothing about the Chinese martial arts and he cared even less.  Needless to say the questions were not very interesting or informative.  They really only spent about ten minutes at the end of the program addressing the ostensible subject of the interview.

In short, it was just a distressing waste of time.  It was all the more upsetting as I would love to have an hour to sit down with Henning and pick his brain about the relationship between Chinese thought and the martial arts, or even just Chinese martial studies in general.  I morn for all of the interesting and insightful questions that never got asked, and the great discussion that never happened.

The silver lining was that Henning got ample opportunity to discuss his life story and military career (this seemed to be the only subject that generated actual interest on the part of the interviewer) and I got to learn all sorts of interesting personal information about this author I have been reading for years.  Some of it, like his exposure to the martial arts while deployed to Taiwan with the military during the Cold War, was interesting and potentially helpful in understanding where his scholarship and interests come from.  Henning himself came off as a very nice guy and was patient and good-natured to a fault.

The other slightly annoying thing about the interview was that Henning kept dropping these really interesting hints or nuggets of information that the interviewer, for the most part, didn’t pick-up on.  One of the most interesting of these (at least to me) happens at around 6:34.  Addressing the philosophical background of the martial arts Henning says that basically they are influenced by Daoism and folk Daoism, and that this shaped their view of strategy and the world.  Why?  Well because they [the creators of the Chinese martial arts] all read the ancient military classic by Sun Tzu.  He was in turn influenced by Daoism and so, by the transitive property, are the modern Chinese martial arts.  The interview came back to Sun Tzu a number of times, so he was definitely in the air.

This really surprised me.  It surprised me enough that I rewound the interview twice to make sure I actually understood what he was saying.  Why?  Because of this:

Stanley, E. Henning.  “Academia Encounters the Chinese Martial Arts.” China Review International. Vol. 6 Num. 2, Fall 1999, pp. 319-332.

Henning’s 1999 article, part literature review, part call to arms, was a watershed moment for the field of Chinese martial studies.  I don’t think it would be too strong to call this article the Constitution of the modern field.  Or perhaps it would be more fitting to call it our “Declaration of Independence.”

Henning’s writing career had started a few years before “Academia” was published, but many of his initial efforts were published in Taiji or martial arts journals with limited circulation.  This was the first of his articles that was published in a widely respected mainstream academic journal.  Further, this was the very first article to deal with Chinese martial studies as a separate and valuable sub-field which transcended normal disciplinary lines.  Throughout its pages Henning argued that the study of Chinese history, popular culture and literature often made grievous mistakes when they ignored the role of the martial arts in culture, language and thought.  A specialized body of knowledge was needed to counteract these systematic misconceptions of the past.

The article was well timed and it caught the crest of a wave of academic thought that was just beginning to swell.  Setting aside for a moment the older English language literature on the martial arts, championed by individuals like R. W. Smith and Donn F. Draeger, a new and distinct conversation was starting to emerge in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  This growing scholarly interest in martial things was part of a broader shift in the way that popular culture was valued and understood.  The first English language monograph dedicated solely to Chinese martial studies in its most recent incarnation was the Lost T’ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty by Douglas Wiles published in 1996 by the State University of New York (SUNY) University Press.

This fine volume notwithstanding, I prefer to date the start of the current discussion a bit earlier.  Joseph W. Esherick’s landmark study, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (California UP, 1987), while not dedicated solely to the martial arts, devotes substantial resources to the topic.  It also demonstrates all of the research and methodological innovations, from extensive archival research, to expert interviews, to attempting to place the martial arts in a broader social context, which would eventually come to define accepted practice in the current literature.

As impressive as the efforts of Esherick in the late 1980s and Wiles in the mid 1990s were, Henning took things one step farther.  He explicitly made the argument that Chinese martial studies was a field of expertise in and of itself, with its own vocabulary and concepts, and that other scholars in literature, history and area studies ignored it at their own peril.

In making his argument Henning focused on his linguistic skills and translation issues in the works of better known writers on Chinese culture.  Time and again he demonstrated that a lack of familiarity with the language of Chinese martial culture led these scholars to make incorrect translations or draw faulty conclusions.  Occasionally even specialists showed an embarrassing lack of familiarity with the most basic and ancient martial texts and references, including titles from the Former Han Bibliographies.

Henning reserved his sharpest criticism for Joseph Needham.  The highly respected author of Science in Traditional China (Harvard UP, 1981) did not claim martial pursuits as a special area of expertise, but that did not stop him from making the occasional pronouncement about the martial arts and their origins in his writings.  Henning quite correctly faults Needham for ignoring the original Chinese language resources and relying much too heavily on a single, highly unreliable, article (Herbert A. Giles. “The Home of Jujitsu” Adversaria Sinica. 1906).

The basic argument that Needham advanced, and Henning later savaged, was that the Chinese martial arts were descended from a branch of Daoist gymnastic exercises.  Henning dismisses this connection out of hand.  I think that Meir Shahar’s careful parsing of the issue probably comes the closest to the truth.  In the Shaolin Monastery (2008, pp. 137-182) he demonstrates that in fact there may be a connection, but that it is much later (late Ming) and more tenuous than either scholars or practitioners generally accept.

So one can imagine my surprise when I heard Henning in 2011 stating in an off-hand way that the culture of the martial arts was shaped by Daoism or, better yet, folk Daoism.  The connection to SunTzu is an interesting one.  On the one hand we know that Sun Tzu was very widely read.  Most educated people probably had a passing familiarity with him.  But most educated people did not do martial arts.  Sun Tzu was a standard text for the military service exam, though how much familiarity and critical analysis of the text was necessary varied, usually in a declining direction, over time.

Still, this is an intriguing notion.  Critics widely accept that Sun Tzu was influenced by then current philosophical ideas that were shaped by Daoism.  And the officers who were responsible for training the troops in the military arts were steeped in Sun Tzu.  Given that a disproportionate number of civilian martial arts instructors were retired military men, or individuals who had studied for the military service exam, might Sun Tzu really be the thread that runs through all of the Chinese martial arts?  And by extension, is modern Chinese martial culture “Daoist” in any meaningful way?

To be totally honest I have a hard time accepting either proposition.  The role of Sun Tzu is interesting.  I am going to dust off my copy of the military classics and give them another read through to see if I can get my head around the point he was trying to make.  But very few of the Chinese martial artists I know are at all familiar with any sort of classic literature.  I suspect that this is might be a generational thing.

Or maybe it is not.  As you go further back in time, the state of affairs appears to become bleaker.  In the 1930s the majority of martial artists were not even literate.  The situation in the late 19th century was even worse.  Sure the average peasant had an impressive familiarity with the Confucian Classics, but that was because those books were regularly read in public for the edification of the masses.  No one was hosting public readings of Sun Tzu’s thoughts on military leadership, or best practices for setting fire to an enemy camp, for public edification.

This right here is the problem.  Most of the martial arts that we have now emerged during the later 19th century, or early 20th century, and were created by people from working class backgrounds who would not have been overly familiar with these texts.  I am going to keep reading and thinking about it, but my gut tells me that it is a stretch.

That doesn’t mean that I think we should give up on studying the role of religion in the martial arts; yet ironically Henning does, or at least he appears to.

If Henning had focused on folk Daoism I think he would have much better support.  As near as I can tell every 10th building in some neighborhoods in Taiwan in a small traditional temple, everyone one of which has a military procession and lion dance team associated with it.  Occasionally these performances are put on by local kids from the neighborhood.  Yet as often as not it is actually a martial arts group that performs these functions, and very often this group is of a decidedly shady (dare I say “Rivers and Lakes”) nature.  These sorts of quasi-military processions are so common that Bortez has written an entire book about their relationship to martial arts, criminal sub-cultures and masculinity (Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters. University of Hawaii Press. 2011).  It is well worth the read if you have not looked at it yet.

Examples of these sorts of relationships are not hard to multiply.  I would venture a guess that a solid majority of anthropologists who have done ethnography on martial arts group in the Chinese community have also been interested in the cross-over between hand combat, group ritual and spiritual experience.  Adam D. Frank (2006) paints a picture of the Yang style Taiji community in Shanghai that, while not religious, is pretty explicitly spiritual.  Discussions of chi abound and everyone seems interested in plumbing the esoteric secrets of the art.  In fact, these Shanghai Taiji players are every bit as much a part of the “New Age” health and spirituality movement as their American students.  As far as Taiji is concerned both sets of students are part of the same movement, with the same books, products and gurus on both sides of the Pacific.

My sense is that this “New Age” stuff bothers Henning, and being part of the Taiji community he probably has to put up with more than his share of it.  He is absolutely correct that this sort of mysticism was not originally part of the vast majority of the Chinese martial arts.  And yet as the anthropologists are so fond of pointing out, it is part of them now, and understanding hand combat communities—as they actually exist in the here and now—necessitates addressing these questions.

Given that the ethnographers and “participant observers” have no choice but to wrestle with these issues, is it then safe for the historians to ignore them?  I suspect that this is another area where Henning and I might disagree.

Turtles in HK Garden (HT Dad).

Esherick, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts  

I think the nature of our disagreement is best illustrated by a divergence in our reading of Esherick.  In “Academia” Henning critiqued the propensity of historians to obsess unduly about the 19th century rebellions (White Lotus, Eight Trigrams, Taiping and Boxer) and the relationship of the radical religious groups that initiated these events to the martial arts.

Briefly, throughout the first half of his book (1987) Esherick notes a pattern whereby radical religious groups (which the average peasant wants nothing to do with) create martial arts schools as front organizations which allow them to operate in the community.  These martial groups are also sometimes used to funnel recruits, either disillusioned with their lot in life or perhaps entrapped in a web of favors and face, into the main body of the religious cult proper.

So the question now becomes, how closely aligned are these two halves (religious and military) of the organization?  Are the martial arts simply an extension of the group’s core religious ideology?  When you teach someone Plum Blossom Boxing in Shandong in 1897 are you actually indoctrinating them into the White Lotus millennial theology?

After examining the question Esherick concludes that the answer is a pretty resounding “no.”  Far from the martial arts being some sort of gateway drug to hard-core Daoist or Buddhist mysticism there was actually very little relationship between the two, even when joined in a single revolutionary organization.  Rather than being an extension of the religion, Esherick found that membership in a martial arts school was basically an enticement or a side-payment.

Martial arts lessons were a private good offered to members who valued the entertainment, sense of community, martial skills and health benefits they reaped for their own sake.  The whole thing was sort of like 19th century American fraternal orders offering life insurance policies to encourage membership.  Would it really make sense to say that a “term life policy” somehow reflected the esoteric world view of the Odd Fellows, or that that death benefits granted to the families of Masons were an artifact of 17th century European thought?  Probably not.  These things were fringe benefits to boost membership, clear and simple.

In fact, there is even the danger that once you have created these quasi-monetary rewards people might be less interested in the more ethereal bonds of friendship and social capital that the actual fraternal order is offering.  We know that this actually happened in a few cases.  More than one fraternal order ceased to operate as such and actually turned into a commercial life insurance company.  Amazingly some of these firms are still selling policies today.

This seems to have been the case in 19th century China as well.  These martial arts societies do not appear to have been terribly successful recruitment devices for the religious groups that sponsored them.  One must wonder whether in the minds of the students (or potential converts) they didn’t come to replace the religious community that backed them.

Thinking along similar lines Esherick notes, “The two elements, martial arts and heterodox beliefs, are clearly alternatives, not linked elements of a single tradition.” (note 25, p. 357).  Henning quotes this insight on page 327 of his article and then add “Members of heterodox sects might practice martial arts, but martial arts were not inextricably linked to spiritual practice.”  Throughout this article he seems to say that the job of Chinese martial studies is to correct the misconception that religion is critical to the Chinese martial arts, and then to move on, to get to what is really important, to the history of the arts themselves.

In practice it is not so simple.   Consider again the Lost T’ai-Chi Classic by Douglas Wiles (1996).  This was one of the few works that Henning gave a passing grade in his review.  Still, it did not escape unscathed.  While he notes that Wiles’ literary skills are excellent, unless you are deeply versed in the intricacies of Yang style Taiji, the book is of limited value, even to other martial artists.  Its scope is so narrow that its utility to the field is limited.

I believe this problem will emerge whenever we insist that the Chinese martial arts are our sole focus, or the “dependent variable” of our study.  Studies that attempt to explain a given martial art are always, by their very nature, going to have a narrow appeal.  Instead we need to look for ways in to use the martial arts as “independent variables,” the parts of the equation that do the explaining.  Chinese martial studies will only gain acceptance by the wider academic world through repeated demonstration that we can improve theories on a wide variety of topics such as identity formation, the emergence of nationalism, the evolution of civil society, the nature of epistemic communities or the interplay between local cultural values and the broader pressures of globalization (just to name a few possible examples).

It was Esherick back in 1987 who really demonstrated the direction that Chinese martial studies as a field should go.  Yes it is fun to know about bandits, militias and martial arts masters in Shandong in the late 19th century, if you are into that sort of thing.  Most scholars are not.  Yet it is vital to master this same information if you wish to discuss critical events surrounding the end of the Qing dynasty in an intelligent way.  What he gives us is a wonderful example of how we can structure our research using the martial arts as an independent variable in ways that will appeal to the broadest possible cross-section of readers and reviewers.

Deviant Behavior, Socio-Economic Analysis and Chinese Martial Studies

In that spirit, let’s briefly revisit Esherick’s essential insight about the nature of heterodox religion and martial arts in 19th century China.  He concludes that these activities were “substitutes.”  Take a moment to really think about what that means.  Two goods are substitutes precisely because they can both play the same basic functions in a person’s consumption decisions or life.  Well, no wonder the sorts of anthropologists who are interested in religious communities are also so interested in martial arts classes.  They note quite correctly that these structures seem to share a similar function in people’s lives.  That means you can actually learn something about how religious communities might function in unexpected ways by looking at a martial arts class.

And you know who else noticed this?  The imperial Chinese government.  Martial arts groups were dangerous and subject to periodic suppression for precisely the same reasons that religious groups were.  They were both avenues by which individuals in civil society might build strong associations and independent bases of power that the government could not control.  This sort of independent social organization was a danger, both socially and politically, and would not be tolerated.

So what else did traditional Chinese society and government see as being an “alternative” (or in my terminology a “substitute”) for martial arts training?  Criminality would have to be right at the top of this list.  The martial arts are very strongly linked to organized crime throughout China and its cultural diaspora.  These links were stronger prior to the 1990s, but they have by no means disappeared.  Triads have quite commonly used martial arts schools as front companies and recruiting stations, just as 19th century heterodox cults did.  The practice has been so common that throughout China and South East Asia that Kung Fu schools are often subject to police harassment as local government attempts to combat the growth of street gangs and youth delinquency.

And of course there is entertainment, usually the gritty, unappealing types of entertainment that involves a lot of “eating bitter.”  These modes of entertainment are typically characterized by a lot of strenuous physical training, like opera, military parades and Lion dancing.  Interestingly enough these are also all modes of performance that flirt quite explicitly with the idea that the dancer or the performer is subject to spirit possession.   Spirit possession practices are the most openly discussed with regard to temple military processions and ascetic demonstrations, but there is also a substantial literature on the role of “ghosts” in theater.

Let’s put all of our “alternative” deviant behaviors together.  We have heterodox religious practice–>martial arts–>criminality–>low class forms of public entertainment–>heterodox spiritual practices and the danger of rebellion.   Right here we have a pretty good snapshot of the margins of Chinese society, the so called land of “Rivers and Lakes.”  And from the perspective of Chinese martial studies this is great, because culturally “alternate” behaviors are also strongly linked to questions of socio-economic status, ethnic identity and gender.  So if you are an expert in Chinese martial studies you have a lot to bring to the table when it comes to studying anything related to popular culture, a hot topic.  It is precisely because these behaviors and traits are “substitutes” with each other, in the sense that Esherick identified, that we matter.

In a narrow sense religion is not particularly helpful to understanding the martial arts.  One can learn Five Ancestors Boxing, Hung Gar or Xingyi Quan and never wrestle with a single thorny theological issue.  But that does not mean that the field of Chinese martial studies can or should ignore these topics, as Henning seems to suggest.

On a methodological level the fact that martial arts and religious communities often seem to act as substitutes means that we can probably borrow or adapt a number of theories that have already been developed to deal with these more common questions.  Second, the fact that these activities are alternatives means that the boundaries between them may not be as hard and fast in the minds of actual practitioners as western trained historians might expect.  They may all be parts of a given lifestyle or identity.  Third, we need to continue to examine the relationship between the Chinese martial arts and (often heterodox) spirituality as this is important to the broader academic community.  Again we will only attract readers and get published if we address issues that are of actual relevance to readers today.  Helping to explore the popular dimension of the 19th century rebellions that brought down imperial China would be a great way to start.

Upon reviewing “Academia” it seems to me that Henning has not quite grasped the critical importance of this last point.  His historical approach doesn’t allow martial studies to provide the independent, rather than the dependent, variable.  He criticizes Wiles for writing a book that is impossible for the non-specialist to follow.  For spending his time producing something that is of no value to the vast majority of readers, and therefore not making an argument about why Chinese studies matters.

So what is Henning’s argument?  Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be one.  His article “Academia” is overly obsessed with questions of translation and sourcing.  On a technical level these are important, but if no one cares about martial texts it doesn’t really matter if you mistranslate some minor detail in them.  Likewise Joseph Needham may not have had a great grasp on the relationship between Daoism and boxing, but in the final analysis that wasn’t really what his book was about.  Hennings criticisms do nothing to decrease his stature as a scholar.  Instead they end up looking petty precisely because nowhere in this article does he actually articulate a vision of what Chinese martial studies could be.  Ironically to answer that question we need to shift our focus away from the martial arts and deepen our engagement with the rest of the field.

From the Archives: A Really Short Reading List on Chinese Martial Studies

Patrons of a market stall selling sequentially illustrated martial arts novels in 1948. Source: Vintage AP Press Photo
Patrons of a market stall selling sequentially illustrated martial arts novels in 1948. Source: Vintage AP Press Photo


Ok, here is a fun post that I originally wrote in 2012 that really needs to be updated.  So many new articles and books have come out in the last eight years (including ones written by myself) that I am not sure where to start. So I am leaving it up to you dear readers.  In the year 2020 what are the five essential resources necessary to get up to speed on Chinese martial studies?  Remember, only two books per list.  Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

A Really Short Reading List on the Chinese Martial Arts (Originally Posted July 27th, 2012).

Suppose you had a friend or a colleague who was interested in Chinese Martial Studies, was willing to invest some time and effort in learning what it was about, but had substantial professional commitments.  What sort of a reading list would you put together to show the possibilities of the field without overwhelming them?  Your list must not include more than five entries and no more than two books.  What would you choose and why?  And keep it brief, she is a busy woman!

  1. Peter Lorge.  Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty First Century. Cambridge University Press. 2012.

I wish this book had been out when I was first trying to get my hands around the field!  If you are new to the area Lorge provides a very workable single volume introduction to practically everything you want to know about the Chinese martial arts in under 250 pages.  Sure I have a couple of issues with this book, but creating a single volume introduction with that much information in so few pages is just a remarkable achievement.  Strong work.

2. Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo. “Chapter 4: Chinese Martial Arts Historians.” In Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals.  Blue Snake Books. 2005.

Again, very minor quibbles aside the entire first half of this book is a great introduction to the field of Chinese Martial Studies that should be accessible to anyone.  I can’t begin to count the number of times I have photocopied this material for students and research assistants.  I choose chapter 4 because it provides a great introduction to the early (pre WWII) Chinese language academic literature on the martial arts which is basically inaccessible to most students in the west, but is still very important to know about.

3. Andrew D. Morris. “Chapter 7: From Martial Arts to National Skills: The Construction of a Modern Indigenous Physical Culture, 1912-1937.” in The Marrow of the Nation. University of California Press. 2004.

This chapter is a great place to go next after reading Kennedy and Guo.  Morris has done the field a huge service by excavating the 1930s dialogue about the fate of the traditional martial arts out of old newspapers, magazines and journals, all of which are basically inaccessible without spending some serious time in rare book collections in China.  It also seems that Morris’ work ends up in a lot of secondary sources (like magazine articles) without proper credit being given.  More people should read the original.  He has perhaps the best brief overviews of the Jingwu (Pure Martial) and Guoshu (National Arts) movements available in the literature.

4. Stanley Henning. “The Martial Arts in Chinese Physical Culture, 1865-1965.” In Green and Svinth (eds) Martial Arts in the Modern World.  Praeger. 2003.

Henning offers a very solid overview of the evolution of modern Chinese martial arts.  His approach is similar to Lorge and it is easy to see the influence between the two.  I like this piece because you can achieve a certain level of focus in a well-crafted essay that is just not possible in a volume.  Also, the edited volume where this essay was published is a wonderful example of the possibilities available to creative researchers in the modern field of martial studies as a whole.

5. Meir Shahar. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts. University of Hawai’i Press.  2008.

Looking back over my list I saw a lot of discussion of the modern era.  So for my final selection I am going old school.  As a matter of fact, you just can’t get any more “old school” than the Shaolin Temple.  This highly readable volume documents the martial traditions of what is probably China’s most venerated Kung Fu institution.  It also looks at the evolution of the Shaolin mythology and the reality of their fighting arts in the Ming and Qing dynasties.  I have read it multiple times and for my money this is the best book out there in the field of Chinese martial studies right now.  I can’t wait to see Shahar’s upcoming research of the myth of the southern Shaolin temple (spoiler alert: no, it never existed.)

Ok, so that is my starter list of books, chapters and articles to introduce someone to the field of Chinese martial studies.  How did I do?  To historical perhaps?  Maybe I need some ethnography, or critical theory?  What would be on your list?

So what do you read? Photo Credit Alex Judkins. Scene on the Street (SOS) Photography. Thanks Alex!

Research Note: A Challenge Match in Hong Kong, 1890

Vintage Postcard (undivided back) dating to the late Qing dynasty. Source: Author’s personal collection.

Today’s post comes courtesy of Joseph Svinth who shared an intriguing, if brief, find with me a few weeks ago. Kung Fu legends revel in accounts of high stakes challenge matches. In a typical story a young martial arts instructor enters a neighborhood seeking to set up shop.  He is challenged by one or more members of the local establishment on the understanding that if he loses, he must close down his school and head elsewhere.  Such showdowns are the bread and butter of martial arts films and novels. Their memory even seems to affect the behavior of contemporary North American martial artists as I have, over the years, heard of a good number of challenges issued and received under various circumstances.

I suspect that casual brawling between rival martial artists was probably more common in the 1970s and 1980s, but a certain amount of this still happens. Of course, in the current atmosphere such standoffs may be more likely to end in police involvement than in the past.  Or maybe not.

The following article lets us take a close look at how one specific challenge match evolved between two martial artists in the Hung Hom neighborhood of Kowloon (Hong Kong) in the year 1890.  Not only do we get a glimpse of the truth behind the legends, but this account is interesting for two other reasons as well. First off, our would be combatants advertised their disagreements through a series of public placards, giving us a look at the sort of rhetoric that surrounded one of these events.  Unsurprisingly they attempted to hail the neighborhood, invoking its honor and making Hung Hom not just the prize, but a participant in their grievance. One wonders whether such a rhetorical strategy reflected the fundamental marginality of such figures and their attempt to claim a place within local society by loudly advertising that they alone could protect the neighborhood’s honor.

The second interesting thing about this fight is that it never actually took place. While our would-be participants felt that publicly posting placards was the appropriate way to go about airing their grievances, Hong Kong’s law enforcement officers strenuously disagreed. When the promised fight caused public excitement they swept in, removed the offending placards and apparently arrested Hok Lo Chun, the instructor who had more recently moved into the area.

This is a valuable reminded that the “good old days” were never quite so free as modern stories tend to imagine. Both the Qing Empire and later Western imperialists took a dim view of any type of public disorder, particularly episodes caused by martial artist in areas under their control. I wouldn’t say that challenge matches never happened, but they could and did result in serious legal consequences. It seems almost certain that we know about this aborted bout precisely because it generated a court case (and written records) that could be discussed by a Hong Kong reporter looking for a juicy story.

This brings us to the second point of significance. I am not yet sure which paper (or reporter) first published this account, but it quickly got taken up by a newswire service and was eventually republished around the globe in the autumn (August-November) of 1890. Joseph Svinth sent me a clipping from The Sportsman, an athletic newspaper published in Melbourne. A few moments of searching revealed that at least three other Australian newspapers carried the same story within a month of when the Sportsman ran it. It was also republished in the Boston Globe Weekly, the Times of Philadelphia and the London Evening News and Post.  I am sure that it made other appearances as well, but given how popular it clearly was, I did not feel like making a more comprehensive search.  I think it is sufficient to say that the account was widely read on at least four continents…in 1890.

To put this in a more historical context, a decade before the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion we can already find stories about Chinese martial artists circulating widely in the global press. The ways in which they were reported was unflattering to be sure. Yet this suggests that the existence of unique forms of Chinese hand combat was not unknown to the reading public.

A few notes on the article itself may be helpful before going on. As is often the cases in news reports from this era, the romanization of Chinese names and places did not enjoy any universally agreed upon standard. The “Hungham” neighborhood that the reporter identifies is almost certainly Hung Hom. Likewise, I suspect that the Kwan Yun Temple of Hungham is a reference to Hung Hom’s Kwan Yum (or Guan Yin) temple, which was a prominent structure in the region at the time.

I haven’t located any information about the two martial artists discussed in the piece.  Lau A Kwan seems to have established a successful public school in Hung Hom sometime before 1890. Sadly, the article says nothing about his style.  Hok Lo Chun, who subsequently moved into the area, is said to have studied both boxing and fencing.  If anyone has insight into these two figures, feel free to contact me or leave it in the comments bellow.

A Chinese Boxing Professor’s Challenge

A Chinese professor of boxing and fencing in Hong Kong published, by means of placards, the following challenge:–“Having been informed that a man named Lau A Kwan, who keeps a place in Hungham, where he instructs pupils in the art of fighting and self-defence, boasts that he has no equal in his profession, and that he is a perfect Hercules in strength and offers an inducement in the shape of 10 dol. to anyone who has the courage to meet him at the manly art and bend his arm—his strength being equal to several hundred cattles [sic.]—now I, Hok Lo Chun, have traveled over many countries of the globe, but never met a man who was so boastful and proud of his superiority in his profession.  I also have some knowledge of fighting, and therefore write this and post it up, so that all men can see me challenge him to meet me at the spot in front of the Kwan Yun Temple, Hungham, at 5 p.m. this day, man against man, there to try with me his skill in fighting, and the results of the test will be to settle beyond a doubt who is the best man.  If this Lau Kwan refuses to come out, then he is a vain boaster and rank coward, and he must clear out of the place all together, for he is only an upstart, and, and when put to the test, a baby at heart, and therefore not fit to associate with respectable men. I hope all people will excuse me.  Dated this day of the 3rd moon. Hop Lo Chun.”

The placards were removed by the police after attracting much attention, and the pugilist himself was arrested and punished.

The Sportsman, Melbourne, October 29, 1890. Page 2.
Boston Globe weekly on September 6, 1890. Page 4.
The Times (Philadelphia), August 24, 1890. Page 7.
London Evening News and Post, August 5, 1890. Page 3.