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Abstract

This paper examines key ways in which ideas such as ‘tradition’, ‘authenticity’, and ‘history’ are deployed in discourses around Asian martial arts. First introducing how such concepts are used in national contexts such as Korea and elsewhere in East Asia it then examines the case of a dispute between two English language writers on martial arts. It examines these different cases to illustrate the ways that ‘tradition’, ‘authenticity’, and ‘history’ can be deployed for different ideological ends, from nationalism to personal self-advancement, in different contexts. In doing so, the paper theorizes the consequences of antagonisms that have recently arisen between common beliefs about certain Asian martial arts and historical studies that challenge such beliefs. It concludes that the discursive status of ‘history’ is not fixed or permanent, but varies depending on context. This is the case to such an extent that the status of ‘history’ can be said to have changed decisively. Ultimately, the paper argues for the value of rigorous scholarship even when it runs counter to cultural beliefs, and highlights the significance of such scholarship for showing the ways in which martial arts history matters in more contexts and registers than martial arts alone.
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The International Journal of the History of Sport
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Making Martial Arts History Matter
Paul Bowman
To cite this article: Paul Bowman (2016): Making Martial Arts History Matter, The International
Journal of the History of Sport, DOI: 10.1080/09523367.2016.1212842
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09523367.2016.1212842
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THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF SPORT, 2016
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09523367.2016.1212842
Making Martial Arts History Matter
Paul Bowman
School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK
ABSTRACT
This paper examines key ways in which ideas such as ‘tradition’,
‘authenticity’, and ‘history’ are deployed in discourses around Asian
martial arts. First introducing how such concepts are used in national
contexts such as Korea and elsewhere in East Asia it then examines
the case of a dispute between two English language writers on
martial arts. It examines these dierent cases to illustrate the ways
that ‘tradition’, ‘authenticity’, and ‘history’ can be deployed for dierent
ideological ends, from nationalism to personal self-advancement, in
dierent contexts. In doing so, the paper theorizes the consequences
of antagonisms that have recently arisen between common beliefs
about certain Asian martial arts and historical studies that challenge
such beliefs. It concludes that the discursive status of ‘history’ is not
xed or permanent, but varies depending on context. This is the
case to such an extent that the status of ‘history’ can be said to have
changed decisively. Ultimately, the paper argues for the value of
rigorous scholarship even when it runs counter to cultural beliefs, and
highlights the signicance of such scholarship for showing the ways
in which martial arts history matters in more contexts and registers
than martial arts alone.
Introduction: Myths of History in Martial Arts
e topics of history, tradition, and authenticity in Asian martial arts are highly conicted. A
handful of scholars have oered well-researched martial arts histories, which challenge what
are oen quite obviously preposterous myths.1 Yet even the most outrageous and ludicrous
of myths about Asian martial arts seem tenacious. Articles and books – both scholarly and
popular – continue to be published that trade entirely in myths and legends, snake oil and
sorcery, presenting them as history.
2
However, with the recent increase in scholarly attention
to martial arts, plus the emergence of a new eld of ‘martial arts studies’ itself, combined
with the movement of peer-reviewed publications into the open-access realm,3 one has to
ask whether ‘smoke and mirrors’ martial arts ‘histories’ have a future. is paper seeks to
intervene into the eld of antagonisms between academic and popular approaches to martial
arts, by setting out the key terms, stakes and consequences of dierent kinds of approach
to ‘traditional’ martial arts, and arguing for the importance and value of a distinct kind of
KEYWORDS
Martial arts; history; invented
tradition; allochronism;
orientalism
© 2016 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/), which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.
CONTACT Paul Bowman BowmanP@cardiff.ac.uk
OPEN ACCESS
2 P. BOWMAN
self-reexive rigour in the development of academic martial arts studies, no matter what
kind of damage such approaches appear to do to older forms of engagement with them.
As Henning writes in ‘On Politically Correct Treatment of Myths in Chinese Martial Arts’:
ere is a rising trend in the ‘Occidental’ world of ‘Oriental’ martial arts – the number of
‘scholars’ who, in spite of making pretenses to upholding ‘academic standards’, are displaying
no small amount of intellectual compromise by acting as apologists for the myths surrounding
the Chinese martial arts. ey do this in a manner which gives one the impression that they
somehow feel that to expose these myths is an irreverent act, harming the sensitivities of the
Chinese people and insulting to pseudo-intellectual Occidentals seeking a New Age refuge in
Oriental mysticism or, worse yet, causing them to lose interest in a subject about which these
‘scholars’ delight in composing involved, ambiguous treatises.4
Unfortunately, neither pseudo-histories nor the ‘politically correct treatment of myths’
can be expected to vanish in a pu of smoke. is is not least because behind all studies,
articles, and books are interests, investments, institutions, types of desire and indeed types of
authority, that are deep rooted. ere are many examples of spurious histories and invented
authenticities that could be discussed. But, I want to begin with reference to one of the
most stark cases: a martial art structured by an antagonism between, on the one hand, an
overwhelmingly fabricated or invented ‘ancient’ history, and, on the other hand, a growing
body of academic studies that reveal its actual history to be little more than 60years. is is
the case of the Korean martial art and national sport, taekwondo. As with so many martial
arts, the history of taekwondo is presented as ancient, indigenous, ethnic, autochthonous,
and independent. But increasingly, historians of the art show that taekwondo cannot be
said to have existed before the end of the Second World War. Indeed, it was elaborated
primarily according to a nationalist and anti-Japanese post-war agenda. Ironically, however,
taekwondo was constructed from ingredients found almost exclusively in the Japanese
art of Shotokan karate.5 Nonetheless, taekwondos status as an ideological part of Koreas
de-Japanication is well documented. So are its founders’ eorts to invent a history for it.
eir project included, rst, trying to persuade martial arts teachers in Korea to use their
new name, ‘taekwondo’; second, coming up with a persuasive (albeit spurious) etymology
for the made-up characters of the new name; and, third, claiming that this modern practice
had an unbroken connection with the martial arts of ancient legendary warrior kingdoms,
folk traditions, indigenous sports, and heroic battles against invaders.
6
In this narrative, the
Japanese ingredients of taekwondo are erased, and Japan only features as the stooge within
preposterous scenarios – such as the one in which taekwondo is said to have developed its
high jumping kicks in order to kick samurais from their horses. As one martial arts writer
puts it, you only have to have seen a horse, never mind someone sitting on it, never mind
a warrior on a war-horse, to realize that this idea is ridiculous.7
Indeed, it is rather telling that it was only from the 1950s and 1960s that taekwondo began
to spread around the world (Surely an older martial art would have been likely to have spread
earlier). However, it soon becomes one of the most popular martial arts and martial sports
internationally. One taekwondo institution (the World Taekwondo Federation [WTF],
based in South Korea) became an Olympic sport. Another institution (the International
Taekwondo Federation [ITF], based in North Korea) perhaps unsurprisingly chose to
present itself instead as a lethal, pure, authentic killing art. In both incarnations, however,
taekwondo has historical and nationalistic myth stitched through all of its elements. Its
patterns (or kata) are named aer and are given interpretations that relate to the ancient
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF SPORT 3
kingdoms that preceded the establishment of Korea, and students the world over must learn
these names and related interpretations to pass their gradings. e inventors of modern
taekwondo are presented as merely the modern links in a very old lineage, one that comes
down to us unbroken through the ages.8 Given that all of this is in the syllabus, it is hardly
surprising that practitioners of taekwondo believe all sorts of grand things about its history.
But in this regard, of course, taekwondo is far from unique. Practitioners of all ‘traditional
martial arts, from wherever,
9
tend to believe in equivalent versions of magnicent histories.
10
In this context, it seems pertinent to ask: what about scholars, academics, historians?
What do they believe, write, and record? Unsurprisingly, in much scholarship on Asian
martial arts, the matter of history remains freighted and weighted down by the same popular
myths; so much so that even much that passes for scholarship seems to refuse to face up
to the evidence that suggests that, quite frequently, martial arts that present themselves
as ancient are hardly even old.11 So many massive social mutations occurred through the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries that most ‘traditional’ martial arts eectively have at
best little more than a century of continuous history to them, rather than the vast eons of
allochronic time that so many seem to want them to have spanned.12
I emphasize the word ‘want’, here. is is because wanting appears to be a key issue to
consider when approaching questions of martial arts history and culture. For instance, it
seems that the perpetuation of fantasy histories and the fetishistic fabrication of lineages
in ‘traditional’ martial arts evidently have everything to do with wanting. Practitioners
want taiji to be ancient. Many want there to have been a Southern Shaolin Temple which
was burned down, scattering the few surviving kung fu monks to the dierent corners of
China.13 We want Okinawan farmers to have fought samurai with rice ails. We want Yim
Wing Chun to have been a real proto-feminist warrior.14 We want the skill that wielded the
weapon that killed Magellan to remain alive today.
15
And we want ancient warrior armies to
have own at each other through the air, kicking each other o horses with ying sidekicks
and jumping spinning back kicks. e interesting question, on which much academic work
remains to be done, is why we want this, and why so much scholarship participates in
perpetuating so many myths.
Obvious avenues of enquiry include the exploration of what Edward Said called
orientalism, in both popular and scholarly discourses.16 And, against the hold of
allochronic and orientalist desires, scholarship is increasingly waking up to orientalism
and the inventedness of many traditions. But this is producing palpable disjunctions and
antagonisms between emergent academic enquiries, much popular knowledge and certain
older forms of scholarship.17
I have argued elsewhere that the emerging eld of martial arts studies needs to adopt and
develop disciplinary orientations that are dierent from and even sometimes in conict with
those of many ‘traditional’ academic disciplines, elsewhere.
18
e reasons why become clear
in this context, where we are faced with two dierent kinds of discourse, each claiming to
be knowledge: ideological and mystical, on the one hand, versus veriable and somewhat
more prosaic, on the other. e importance of this reorientation relates to the signicance
of a fundamental – yet oen overlooked – issue: namely, the question of what each of these
kinds of knowledge does. My contention is that the orientation of martial arts studies should
obviously not involve the perpetuation of trade in stereotypes, myths and ideologies, of
course. But, equally, it should not just boil down to the making of better or more ‘correct
knowledge’. Rather, it should also involve what Stuart Hall called ‘conjunctural analysis’,
4 P. BOWMAN
which entails a thoroughgoing reection on and study of the eects and the consequences
of dierent kinds of knowledges as they intervene and circulate within dierent kinds of
context in dierent kinds of way.19
ere are clearly dierent kinds of context of and for historical knowledge. If we consider
only taekwondo and Korea, we can see immediately why a post-Second World War Korea
would want to distance itself from Japan, and why its military and other martial arts leaders
might want to construct a new ancient history for themselves, free from Japan, and of
course, implicitly, superior, or at least equal.20 We can also discern immediately why, still
in the terms of nationalism and taekwondo, there were desires for the new invention to
become a global sport. ‘Taekwondo diplomacy’ is surely no bad thing. At the same time,
the emergence of the contrary desire, to remain free from the tarnish of ‘sport’ and to claim
a purely martial character also makes sense, as emerged in North Korea. In both contexts,
it makes obvious sense to go on to build museums, institutes, and exhibition centres, to
educate’ people about the art and its place within the culture; to commission research, to
produce studies, and books, television programmes, documentaries, websites, and so on
and so forth. It makes absolute sense for the new to become repackaged as the ancient, to
represent the country, to capture hearts and minds, to become the heritage, with a centre,
a Mecca for tourist-pilgrims, with ambassadors, embassies, annexes, and so on.
In such contexts, there is no guarantee that academic knowledge production can or will
proceed independently or free from, say, state, governmental, political, economic or other
kinds of coaxing and coercion – if indeed academia ever can. ere are huge pressures
and forces working on researchers in dierent places to conform to ideologies in all sorts
of ways. For instance, in a study of taijiquan, Adam Frank points to the ways that Chinese
academic studies of taiji, qigong, and qi in general overwhelmingly toe an ideological line in
terms of the ways that these subjects are approached, which questions are brought to bear on
them, and what conclusions are reached.21 is may seem dispiriting. For, what does it say
about the purity and integrity of honest scholarship?22 Whatever our answers, we have to
concede that there is big business, big PR, and myriad nancial and ideological opportunities
in nationalizing martial arts along self-orientalizing lines, as is clearly happening in such
places as the PRC, Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines, and both North and South Korea.23
The Next Blow to Authentic, Traditional Martial Arts …
Having introduced these issues in a general way via this macro-focus on East Asia, it seems
important to pose the question of whether and in what ways these issues, or versions of
them, exist and operate at other levels and in other contexts. Consequently, in the remainder
of this paper, I will consider one considerably less ‘East Asian’ case study, one that was
played out over email and on an online social network, in the English language, between
two authors, one Israeli, the other British, on the matter of two dierent English language
books about martial arts. Aer exploring this case study, I will return to a reection on the
ramications of the issues raised for our wider understandings of tradition, authenticity,
history, and culture.
To begin, we might ask, what about other contexts – neither Asian nor national – where
martial arts are not nationalist ideological interests? What is the situation between the two
dierent orientations I have set out in other kinds of local, deracinated or transnational
contexts? To broach this, I will bring this discussion as close to ‘home’ as I can.
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF SPORT 5
Early in 2015, I published a book (mentioned above), called Martial Arts Studies:
Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries.24 Almost as soon as the book was announced online,
I was alerted by a friend that someone on Facebook was laying into me and my book. His
settings were public, so anyone was able to see his post, and I was able to read it. e post was
extremely thought-provoking, and I want to discuss it in this context. However, owing to its
hostile tone, and the fact that posts on social media may be regarded as ‘private’ (certainly
informal) even when settings are ‘public’, as well as for a number of other reasons, I felt
reluctant to quote directly from the post. However, I have subsequently checked several
times, and the post remains there. Most importantly, the settings are still ‘public’, and it is
clear that the author uses his Facebook page to advertize and publicly promote his books,
products, services and self, so I have decided to treat the post as a text that is in the public
domain. Nonetheless (and despite a request from one of the peer reviewers of this paper), I
have decided to leave the text anonymous, and not to give the author’s name. is is because,
as I hope will soon become apparent, my interest is less in who is saying what to whom
about what, and more in why it is being said and what reection on this example can teach
us about competing discourses of power/knowledge – specically authority – in the eld
of studies of martial arts. To be sure, I do not want to get into a public dispute. I do not
feel aggrieved and have no score to settle. In actual fact I found the whole thing extremely
stimulating. Consequently, for better or for worse, I quote the full post:
e next blow to authentic, traditional martial arts will not come from the pop-culture or the
industry, but from pompous academics. Alongside many ne teachers who are pushing for real
academic studies of the arts, there are now quite a few oce nerds who have never punched
a person in their lives, who wish to put martial arts under the microscope and examine them
as if they were crystals in a tube. More and more do I see such people publishing ‘scholarly
articles’, in which they talk about everything somehow related to the martial arts, besides all
that matters. e martial arts are for these people simply obscure subjects of research, to which
they can attach themselves to become ‘academic experts’ and write their Phd [sic] thesis.
One such person have [sic] just released a book called ‘Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting
Disciplinary Boundaries’. What the fuck does that have to do with martial arts? Look at the
book’s description:
e phrase ‘martial arts studies’ is increasingly circulating as a term to describe a new eld
of interest. But many academic elds including history, philosophy, anthropology, and area
studies already engage with martial arts in their own particular way. erefore, is there really
such a thing as a unique eld of martial arts studies?
Martial Arts Studies is the rst book to engage directly with these questions. It assesses
the multiplicity and heterogeneity of possible approaches to martial arts studies, exploring
orientations and limitations of existing approaches. It makes a case for constructing the eld
of martial arts studies in terms of key coordinates from post-structuralism, cultural studies,
media studies, and post-colonialism.
By using these anti-disciplinary approaches to disrupt the approaches of other disciplines,
Martial Arts Studies proposes a eld that both emerges out of and diers from its many
disciplinary locations.
What the heck does this even mean? Who cares??
You know what that author wrote me when I oered he review my book, as he presents himself
as a ‘martial arts expert’? I will quote from his email. Aer he got a free copy, he wrote to me
6 P. BOWMAN
of the book: ‘Its a bit outside of my areas, overall’. For me, that says everything of his level of
expertise’.25
I leave the author of this public Facebook post from March 2015 anonymous for the reasons
given in the paragraph preceding it.
Aside from everything else that is going on here, I want us to notice the bookishness of
all of this. It is all about books. Yet, we tend to think that martial arts are about training
bodies into weapons, how to use weapons, how to deal with weapons or withstand bodily
weapons – ‘body callousing’, as it has been called.26 But what we see in this anecdote is
not a bodily battle. It is, rather a battle over the book – ultimately, indeed, a dispute about
authority, about kinds of authority. Each of us, my critic and myself, have a sense of what is
a good book and what is a bad book, a right book and a wrong book. e problem is that,
faced with each other’s books, we do not agree on which is which.
As Jean-François Lyotard would once have said, there is a dierend between us – a
fundamental dierence of opinion as to what is right and what is wrong; and moreover a
dierence that cannot really be settled without some damage being done to one or both
of the parties.27 If we side with me, we damage him; if we side with him, we damage me. If
we compromise in some kind of half-way settlement, we damage both of us. is is part of
what Lyotard means by dierend.
Noting this dierend recasts my critic’s opening salvo. It no longer looks so much like
pure hyperbole. It now looks, surprisingly, like he may have a point. From his perspective:
on the one hand, there are martial arts experts who are good teachers and good scholars.
Because of this, they are authorized to write what will therefore be good books. On the
other hand, there are oce nerds with no martial arts mastery who are so ensnared in the
academic machine that they can only write bad books. So this is the battle over the book:
the determination of the proper book and the improper book. Behind the two books, two
kinds of master: in the good corner, the true martial master with his true mastery; in the
bad corner, the ignorant school master with his ignorant non-mastery – a non-mastery that
abuses true mastery28 – and actually deals a blow to it. e inside of one realm is presented
as the outside of the other: the inside of martial arts mastery is outside academic mastery;
the inside of academic mastery is outside martial arts mastery. My critic’s solution to the
dierend is the production of equal, symmetrical, simultaneous, and balanced mastery of
both realms. So, as long as all writers have black belts with loads of dans on them, and at
least one PhD each, then everything should be ne, right?
Unfortunately not. ere are many writers of scholarly works on martial arts who
(should they feel the need to do so) could claim both academic and martial arts expertise.
(Fortunately, most understand that it is immodest to do so.) Unfortunately, these border-
crossing ‘experts’ all produce very dierent kinds of writing to each other. is is because,
just as going to a particular martial arts class will draw you into a particular kind of behaviour
(at least while you are there), so do dierent branches of academia. Hence, even experts
in the same martial art, if they are working within dierent academic elds, will produce
very dierent academic writing to each other, even if on ostensibly ‘the same’ subject.
is is because dierent academic discourses each have their own distinct orientations,
questions, concerns, methods, values, principles of verication and styles; and hence they
each produce – or invent – their own specic ‘disciplinary objects’.29 e kung fu of lm
studies is not the kung fu of historical studies which is not the kung fu of sports studies
which is not the kung fu of philosophy or the kung fu of subcultural studies. is is why
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF SPORT 7
any and every piece of writing, when viewed from any other viewpoint, will always stand
accused of – in my critic’s words – ‘talk[ing] about everything somehow related to the
martial arts, besides all that matters’.
is is why, in my own book, I argued that the academic study of martial arts is always
going to disappoint non-academic martial artist readers: academic writing about martial
arts is never going to be simply about martial arts. It is always going to have to be also
about something else – because academic writing can never simply be about one thing.30
e ‘something else’ that academic writing about martial arts could also (or ultimately)
be about might include: identity, gender, ethnicity, class, nation, history, diaspora,
globalization, media, technology, ideology, religion, philosophy, physiology, treatment of
injury, rehabilitation, and so on and so forth, through many disciplines and the waxing or
waning of many problematics structuring and restructuring each eld. For, many – perhaps
any – disciplines can accommodate studies of martial arts; but each will demand that the
topic be formulated, explored, examined, and elaborated in terms of two crucial other
things – rst, one of that discipline’s own preferred problematics, and, second, according
to one of that discipline’s approaches.
is is the source of the ‘disconnectedness’ of academic discourses, of course. But it is
also the source of their connectivity, and of their capacities. On the one hand, academic
studies of martial arts or anything else become disconnected from non-academic discourses
when they vanish into their eld’s problematics. But, on the other hand, this supposed
disconnect is precisely the source of their capacity to reconnect: the medical or mechanical
study of the knee in taiji or taekwondo, or of blood pressure, or brain function, or the study
of historical legislation around weapons, or political projects around street violence, and
so on, might all come to have the capacity to intervene in ‘the real world’ precisely because
of their principled dri or distance away from everyday discourses.
When it comes to my book, then, perhaps my critic has a point. Perhaps my kind of
book is indeed part of striking a blow against all that he holds dear, up to and including his
own claim to authority. Certainly, my kind of book takes aim at much of the baggage that
goes along with certain ‘traditional’ ways of understanding tradition, authentic approaches
to authenticity and authoritative understandings of authority; and the associated ways of
‘preserving’ these things, such as in certain kinds of ‘traditional’ or ‘authentic’ martial
arts books. In the same way, methodologically rigorous studies of taekwondo and other
martial arts could come to interrupt, disturb, and disrupt nationalistic discourses, if not at
their points of production or popular reception, then at least in their academic moments
and locations.31 For, if nothing else, such academic studies stand in stark contrast to
both touristic-orientalist versions of martial arts histories and cultures, and the smooth
deployment of such versions in ethnonationalist ideological fantasies, and the trade in
emotive (and oen emetic) evocations of ‘history’, ‘tradition, and ‘authenticity’.32
History and Tradition in Theory and Practice
e key point to be reiterated and developed is that despite their palpable and veriable
reality, neither history nor tradition are actually givens, simple referents or neutral entities.
ey are neither xed nor permanent; they can be rewritten, revised, and transformed in
any number of ways, just as they can be, and oen are, used to manipulate and manage
both people and practices.33 One or another version of this argument has been reiterated
8 P. BOWMAN
by historians, theorists, and philosophers so many times and in so many ways that all of
these points could be said to constitute something of a commonplace in historical and
cultural studies today. Traditions are invented, communities are imagined, culture can
never be separated from management, and histories are rarely as long, pure, continuous
or unbroken as many want them to be. Yet, as indicated earlier, some scholarship and a
great deal of the discourse on traditional Asian martial arts oen seems utterly resistant to
many of the lessons of contemporary critical cultural theory and historiography. Traditional
Asian martial arts are all too oen believed to be ancient and exotic. But what happens
when histories and other studies begin to challenge and dislodge these ideas, as when the
results of such studies are disseminated via widely read para-academic sites, such as the
popular blog Kung Fu Tea: Martial Arts History, Wing Chun and Chinese Martial Studies,34
for instance, or open-access academic journals, such as Martial Arts Studies?35 Another
way to pose this question might be: what happens when everything you thought you knew
about your martial art requires revision, or even complete rejection?
According to certain psychoanalytically-orientated cultural theorists, if too many of
the certainties in our lives turn out to be false too quickly, this can have profound eects
on our subjective stability and psychological well-being.36 So, what happens if the long-
term practitioner of, say, taijiquan, learns that taiji is not actually ancient, unchanging
and timeless, but rather more of a nineteenth-century ideological invention, and that the
putatively ancient form they practice turns out to be no older than the 1980s?37 Or what
happens if a practitioner of Southern Shaolin learns that there was no Southern Shaolin
Temple to be burned to the ground, and hence no few remaining monks to escape, and
that all of the characters in the creation narratives and stories deriving from this are made
up too?38 And what happens if the practitioner of Shotokan learns that Shotokan is really
a twentieth century practice,39 or the practitioner of taekwondo learns that taekwondo
was conceived, devised, and named in the 1950s and that it derives from no continuous
indigenous tradition?40
My questions may provoke some historians, and may cause many martial artists to
stir. I may be greeted with incredulity, resistance, rejection. I may be disputed – and my
claims met with counter-claims and assertions of dierent kinds of evidence. is is to
be expected, indeed encouraged. But, at this level, the matter remains a ght between
historians and ideologues, each disputing each other’s evidence-claims, each denouncing the
other as ideologue. Around these issues, it seems clear that there is currently a kind of war
raging, between a belief in Asian martial arts as ancient, and a new wave of historians, who
increasingly point out both the lack of evidence for claims of long continuous histories for
many ‘traditional’ martial arts, and an abundance of evidence suggesting their rather recent
invention. To state where I am in relation to this dispute, I will come clean and say that the
romantic in me always wanted Asian martial arts to be really ancient, but the academic in
me has to side with those who propose that history tends much more towards discontinuity
and rupture than duration and continuity,41 that traditions are invented as ancient in the
present,42 that lineages and heritages are established and instituted rather than inherited,43
and that communities are imagined, primarily so as to be more eectively managed.44
I cannot say that I was delighted when I rst learned that the kung fu and taiji that
I loved and practiced religiously in my thirties was not in fact aeons old, but eectively
germinated and elaborated in the chaotic nineteenth century, and regularly reconstituted
in the twentieth45; that the Shotokan karate I studied as a teenager was a twentieth-century
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF SPORT 9
formalization46; and that the taekwondo of my twenties is considerably younger than my
own parents47 (By the time I met escrima in my forties, I had learned neither to ask nor to
expect too much of history).
None of this made me happy. But it never stopped me training. Finding out that these
histories were not chiey matters of misty mountains, demigod warriors, and Taoist
immortals caused denite pangs of disappointment. But I never stopped loving the skills I
was learning. Yet part of me still wants my martial arts to be ancient. e question I want
to explore at this juncture, then, is why. Why does the size of a history or length of a lineage
matter so much, to so many people, in so many discourses about Asian martial arts? My aim
at this point is not to dispute facts. It is rather to reect on how and why, when and where,
for whom and in what ways history matters. Do practitioners care about their martial arts
history? Why should anyone care? Who is it who cares? What is it that such a care is a care
of or a care for? In many cases, it does not actually seem to be a care for history at all: as my
words have already suggested, what at least some people want, in wanting martial arts to
date back millennia, does not seem to be history at all, but rather mythology.
48
For, history is
made of discontinuities, breaks, revisions, revolutions, reconstructions, reinstitutions, and
reimaginings. Only in myth is there permanence and the feeling of temporal transcendence.
is means that certain valuations of history are at root investments in myth.
Interestingly, in a preliminary discussion of the initial ndings of an ethnographic study,
Benjamin Judkins notes a distinct lack of interest in the history of kickboxing among the
practitioners of at least one club in the US. Judkins himself is a long-time practitioner of wing
chun kung fu, who researches and writes on the history of Southern Chinese martial arts,
and is author of e Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial
Arts.49 In his initial discussion of kickboxers’ relationship with their own practice’s history,
Judkins was evidently rather surprised to be greeted by the almost absolute lack of interest
in kickboxing’s history in his local club. If we were to generalize the implications of this, then
we might be inclined to propose that traditional Asian martial artists either ‘are’ or ‘come
to be’ (or perhaps ‘learn to be’) deeply invested in the sense of the history of their practice,
while non-traditional martial artists seem to be rather less so, and seem rather more invested
in alternative sets of concerns – such as eciency for combat or competition, for instance.
Of course, we may not be able to generalize from Judkins’ anecdote. We may suspect that
Judkins’ reading involves a certain amount of projection, or ‘conrmation bias’, for instance,
in which Judkins the-history-obsessed-scholar may be drastically inating the value that he
believes all or most practitioners of traditional Asian martial arts ascribe to their history.
Or we may regard this case as too conspicuously isolated to have any generalizable value.
But, as both I and others have argued elsewhere, there are a variety of kinds of evidence that
might be called upon to support the idea of a kind of binary or antagonism between two
dierent kinds of investment that structure martial arts discourses. is would be a binary
or antagonism that can be formulated in terms of such couples as: history versus eciency,
or tradition versus innovation, and so on.50
One common way of organizing the binary involves spatializing, or imagining it in
cultural or regional terms. Accordingly, ‘the East’ is said to ‘value tradition’ while ‘the West’
is said to ‘value eciency’ and to happily deracinate, deconstruct, and reconstruct martial
arts practices with a view to eciency.51 But, of course, these binaries collapse as soon as
one sees, on the one hand, the way traditions recongure and reconstitute themselves in
the light of innovation, and, on the other hand, the way eciency-focused institutions
10 P. BOWMAN
develop into traditions. So, the idea of ‘tradition’ that would see ‘tradition’ as somehow
simply in opposition to ‘change’ is in itself perhaps a romanticization of ‘tradition’ – one
that is perhaps in the sway of a kind of orientalist phantasy. But what is the phantasy? And
whose is it? And why is it there?
Self and Orient
We have come to associate the notion of ‘fantasies about Asian martial arts’ with Western
orientalism: the fetishistic obsession with the idea that Asian cultural practices are ancient
and timeless.52 However, we have an obligation to look both ways, or at least to enquire
further into the logics and engines driving so-called orientalism.53 So we must look not
only at the orientalizing West but also at the oen equally (self) orientalizing East54; and
at other situations that complicate the western-orientalism paradigm. For instance, Adam
Frank’s study55 proposes that when Westerners (and I would add, Easterners too) practise
Asian martial arts, part of their desire and part of the pleasure produced by practice relates
to what he calls the sensuous feeling of and feeling for Chineseness (or, one might add,
Japaneseness, or Koreanness, or even just generic Asianness). In other words, bound up in
the desire to learn a traditional Asian martial art are Asiaphilic desires, orientalist fantasies,
and allochronic imaginings of timeless embodied wisdom traditions. But, the point is:
anyone can harbour these fantasies. So if we go down to our local dojo or dojang or kwoon,
or join the taiji group in the park, part of what we are searching for is the feeling of what it
is like to become a part of an ancient culture – to fantasize an involvement in that culture,
in its ancientness – and to feel its embodied knowledge, techniques, movement systems,
and ‘wisdom, in our limbs, in our movements, and on our pulse.
Although this kind of structure of feeling seems more pertinent to martial arts like
taiji than martial arts like taekwondo, nonetheless in all such cases a sense of ‘history’ is
enormously important.56 Fantasies about ‘history’ are in a sense an integral part of the
enjoyment. e longer the history, the better. is is because history functions within
this orientation as a fetish category around, through and in terms of which practitioners
fantasize.57 e age and origin of such arts become key coordinates in what Edward Said
called an ‘imagined geography’.58
Note that ‘history’, here, is not an actually existing property of the world. It is an element of
discourse.59 And notice also that, because ‘the past is a foreign country’, it can be ‘orientalized’,
mythologized, idealized. is is why, in the countries of their origins, ideas of tradition in
local martial arts can have ideologically powerful uses and abuses. Here, mytho-histories can
easily feature as objects of regionalist or nationalist discourse. As Douglas Wile has argued
convincingly, a large part of the intellectual, ideological, and philosophical elaboration of
taijiquan in China during the nineteenth century can be understood as a symptomatic
response to the perceived cultural threat that the west posed to China at that time.60 Similarly,
Stephen Chan has argued that what he calls ‘the Japanese cultural authorities’ have long
been more than happy to trade in orientalist myths in order to cash in on the assumption
that all Japanese martial arts are ancient. And as more and more historians are showing, in
the post-war (or post-wars) context(s) of both North and South Korea, the perceived need
to both de-Japanify and to reconstruct a national culture was acute. It is in this context that
the name ‘taekwondo’ was proposed, its obvious direct derivation from Shotokan disavowed,
and extravagant claims made about its ancient and indigenous character.
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF SPORT 11
From this position, the supposed enigma or mystery of what has been called ‘self-
orientalization’ evaporates. Inventing ‘ancient’ traditions in the present actually makes
perfect sense. As Rey Chow has argued, a fascination with the ancient, the pre-modern,
and the primitive can oen be read as a symptom of cultural crisis.61 Chow argues that
‘primitive passions’ are symptomatic of the chaotic or traumatic conditions of industrial
modernity and postmodernity. In other words, passionate investment in ideas about ancient
natives and their practices can be read as symptoms of anxieties about roots and identity
in the present.62 In this light, ‘history matters’, in this kind of way, in contexts of untethered
identity and anxious nationalism. But this kind of history very oen boils down to what
I have already called myth and what Jean-François Lyotard called ‘narrative knowledge.63
For Lyotard, ‘narrative knowledge’ (or cultural/lineage knowledge) is not simply a matter
of knowledge. It is also a matter of power. For, Lyotard argues, knowledge legitimates – both
itself and also the institutions, practices, and people that it supports. In this sense, knowledge
is a part of culture, and by the same token a force of politics. is much has been known for
quite some time: Lyotard was writing in the 1970s, aer all. But the question is: what has
this got to do with traditional Asian martial arts? My contention is that a very great number
of practitioners of avowedly ‘traditional’ and ‘Asian’ martial arts, have a great deal invested
in the ideas of tradition and of specic areas of Asia.64 Even without the formalization of
mythology within their curriculum, students pick up bits and pieces of what Lyotard calls
‘narrative knowledge’ – stories about lineage, masters, legendary ghts, legendary locations,
the proven superiority of ‘our’ art, and so on. is is precisely narrative/cultural knowledge
in Lyotard’s sense: words and phrases within language games that legitimate activities,
values, hierarchies, and practices. In such language games, anything that casts established
knowledge into doubt can precipitate not merely existential crisis but also institutional and
cultural crisis. How do we proceed if our history (and hence sense of identity) is no longer
what we thought it was?
For the martial arts practitioner, tradition and history are certainly not everything. Indeed,
such considerations are precisely supplements in the sense given to the term by Derrida:
things from the outside that add to and add on but in a way complete and ll a lack.65 But,
the inside of martial arts practice seems clearly to be identied with the practice itself – the
physical practice – the training, the sparring – the embodiedness of the practice.66 In other
words, martial arts and martial artists do not in and of themselves need history. Grand
historical narratives are not necessary to the legitimation and legitimization of martial
arts. Such narratives primarily legitimate and legitimize other things anyway: institutional
hierarchies, ethnonationalist myths, nationalist structures of feeling, lm fantasies, tourist
industries, and so on. So, what does the martial artist actually ‘need’?
Performativity
Lyotard proposes that the key alternative and major antagonist facing ‘narrative knowledge’
is what he calls ‘scientic knowledge’. Scientic knowledge, for Lyotard, does not depend
principally upon narratives, such as history or lineage, for its legitimation – although
narrative cannot be removed entirely from it. Rather, scientic knowledge is legitimated
through performativity – through the performative, regular, stable, and predictable
demonstration of eciency and eectiveness. And I think that this provides us with the
12 P. BOWMAN
clue necessary for establishing the source of alternative approaches to the legitimation of
martial arts: their performative eciency.
Most martial arts claim not just narrative (historical) legitimacy but also, at the same
time, oen primarily, legitimacy based on ecacy.
67
All practices taught as martial arts make
some claim to practical combative or self-defence utility. e emergence of mediatized
competitions such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (the UFC) and other limited-
rules full-contact martial arts competitions in the 1990s arguably pushed the matter of the
public verication or veriability of martial arts ecacy fully into martial arts discourse.68
Along with this, a range of online videos have depicted the disastrous outcomes for certain
representatives of traditional or mystical martial arts – such as those of ‘qi masters’ being
battered by full-contact ghters, for instance.69 In other words, the full-contact arena has
gained the status of Lyotard’s science lab; and the digital camera and Internet serve to
disseminate the results of many experiments.70 As such, the mediatization of martial arts
challenges the legitimacy claims of many traditional martial arts, oen revealing martial
styles or institutions to have based their legitimacy claims on tautological values that cannot
be subject to any kind of verication other than those they choose for themselves.
Ultimately, then, this is to point out two key things. First, that diligent historiography is
revealing many martial lineages to be less than linear, many histories to be primarily stories,
and many traditions to be at best disjointed and more commonly invented.71 Second, that
the media saturation of daily life has thrust into the spotlight the question of the verication
of the ecacy of martial arts. Both of these factors have transformed the discursive context,
and hence induced a transformation at the ‘genetic’ level of martial arts. To clarify what
this means, it may help to indulge in some crude periodizing for a moment. So, it might be
proposed that the twentieth century saw certain ‘traditional Asian martial arts’ move rst
into elds of formalization: on the one hand, universities, schools, the police, the military,
etc., and on the other hand, sport. From there they moved into lm, and hence deeper into
mythology. ey also moved into discourses of lifestyles, belief-systems, self-improvement
and, of course, self-defence. Now, however, the twenty-rst century is seeing, on the one
hand, the mytho-histories that were invented during these periods come under academic
scrutiny, and on the other hand, the question of their performativity and ecacy coming
under media and cultural scrutiny.
ere are many other things going on at the same time, of course. I am not making
totalizing claims. Discourses are contingent constellations of mobile and moving positions
and possibilities, rather than linear narratives. And discursive constellations are always
subject to internal and external pressures and forces, which hegemonize and orientate them
– not unlike the ways that magnets can organize iron lings into constellations, shapes,
and directions. In this sense, the hegemonic forces acting on and ‘directing’ martial arts
discourses now include not only sportization, militarization, and senses of communing with
the ancients, but also more intensive scholarly interrogation and more intensive mediatized
interrogation. is means that the status of ‘history’ has been changed.
Of course, history always matters. We should always historicize. But this also means
questioning the discursive status of history itself. And just as historical ignorance is deeply
problematic, so too is ignoring a dearth of history, insisting on its presence, inventing it.
Claiming an unbroken connection between something like modern taekwondo and pre-
twentieth century Korean kicking games,72 without facing up to the central presence of
Shotokan via the Japanese military, is a bit like claiming an unbroken connection between
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF SPORT 13
people tapping their ngers on table tops throughout the ages and the invention of
contemporary computer keyboards. Yet neither Microso nor Apple nor IBM nor Samsung
nor anyone else needs to make this kind of narrative or lineage claim. History does not
matter much in people’s thinking about computer keyboards. is is because computer
keyboards are legitimated principally by performativity – by eciency and enjoyment73
not by narrative.
Of course, neither performativity nor ecacy need boil down to cold, heartless, ruthless
eciency. When I take my youngest daughter down to the local karate club, where they teach
a mixture of karate, taekwondo, and kickboxing, I know that what she is doing has about as
much connection with Japan or Korea or indeed combat as when I take my other daughter
to ballet. But this connection is not the point. e point is the pleasure. e pleasure is part
of the ecacy. And this is important because the history of traditional Asian martial arts
in the present only has a future by way of this pleasure.
In conclusion, what this paper has tried to emphasize is not only the problems and
pitfalls of certain approaches to martial arts history, but also their connections with matters
and mechanisms of power, authority, legitimation and other aspects of what may be called
cultural politics. e contention is that the kind of approach advocated here – encompassing
not only discernment and attention to fact and ction but also the awareness of questions of
power and pleasure in dierent kinds of context and conjuncture – can show how martial
arts history matters in more ways and contexts than those of martial arts alone.
Notes
1. Most relevant to this paper, see, for example: Douglas Wile, Lost T’ai Chi Classics of the Late
Ch’ing Dynasty (New York: SUNY Press, 1996); Benjamin N. Judkins and Jon Nielson, e
Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts (New York:
SUNY Press, 2015); Udo Moenig, Taekwondo: From a Martial Art to a Martial Sport (London:
Routledge, 2015).
2. e scholar who has perhaps done most to identify, discuss, and debunk many of the most
tenacious myths and legends of Chinese martial arts is Stanley Henning. (See, for instance,
Stanley Henning, ‘Ignorance, Legend and Taijiquan’, Journal of the Chen Style Taijiquan
Research Association of Hawaii 2, no. 3 (1994), 1–7; Stanley Henning, ‘On Politically Correct
Treatment of Myths in the Chinese Martial Arts’, Journal of the Chen Style Taijiquan 3, no.
2 (1995), 1–2; Stanley Henning, ‘Academia Encounters the Chinese Martial Arts’, China
Review International 6, no. 2 (1999), 319–32; Stanley Henning, ‘Martial Arts Myths of Shaolin
Monastery, Part I: e Giant with the Flaming Sta, Journal of the Chen Style Taijiquan
Research Association of Hawaii 5, no. 1 (1999), 1–4. Despite such eorts, however, countless
books and all kinds of articles that present themselves as based on research continue to appear.
As Henning’s studies of even such an important scholar of Chinese history and culture as
Joseph Needham indicate, many myths and legends that circulate in cultural discourses can
easily seep into and skew even the most scholarly of works. For a discussion of the wider issues
and theoretical signicance of Hennings important study of Needham, see Paul Bowman,
Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries (London: Rowman and Littleeld
International, 2015).
3. See, for instance, Cardi University Presss open-access journal, Martial Arts Studies, which
is at the forefront of this movement, http://martialartsstudies.org/, doi:10.18573/ISSN 2057-
5696.
4. Henning, ‘On Politically Correct Treatment of Myths in the Chinese Martial Arts’, 1. It is
important to note that in making this argument, Henning is not taking an isolated stand.
In reecting on the eld of postcolonial studies, for instance, Rey Chow has frequently
14 P. BOWMAN
commented on the problem that arises when ‘rst world’ academics feel obliged to maintain
‘political correctness’ by not challenging even the most problematic ethnonationalist and/
or racist positions voiced by certain ethnic subjects. See, for instance, Chow’s discussions
of political correctness on contemporary postcolonialist- and poststructuralist-informed
academia, in Rey Chow, Ethics Aer Idealism: eory, Culture, Ethnicity, Reading. eories of
Contemporary Culture (Bloomington, IL: Indiana University Press, 1998).
5. Of course, the nationalists who devised taekwondo through the 1950s did not merely
rename Japanese moves and techniques. Rather, they preferred to modify and manipulate
the techniques they all already knew from the Japanese styles, and claim that these forms
were actually distinctly Korean. Hence, on the one hand, taekwondo blocks and strikes look
remarkably like those of Shotokan, but they are just that bit dierent (and the dierences are
insisted upon). On the other hand, because Japanese kicks were low and conservative, a whole
new repertoire of kicking techniques was invented. Indeed, one of taekwondo founder Choi
Hong His key criteria for allowing a kick into his syllabus was that it should not look like
any of the kicks used in Japanese styles. See Alex Gillis, A Killing Art: e Untold History of
Tae Kwon Do (Ontario: ECW Press, 2008); Moenig, Taekwondo.
6. Gillis, A Killing Art; Moenig, Taekwondo.
7. Raymond Rand, T’ai Chi Ch’üan: A Comprehensive Training Manual (Marlborough: e
Crowood Press, 2004).
8. Moreover, its ocial history is highly selective: on a research trip in November 2015 to the
taekwondo museum in the Taekwondowon in Muju, South Korea, I noted that one of the most
instrumental and controversial players in the invention and dissemination of taekwondo, Choi
Hong Hi, was entirely absent from the museum. Given that some histories of taekwondo place
Choi at the forefront of its development, his exclusion from the ocial national museum is
telling. For what his absence from the ocial museum indicates is that Choi has been written
out of the ocial historical narrative.
9. In the west, when we say ‘traditional’ martial arts, we normally seem to be evoking arts from
China, Japan, ailand, Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines. is is because ‘traditional
martial arts’ seems to be interchangeable with ‘Asian martial art’, and by ‘Asian martial art’
we seem to refer primarily to the styles that ‘made it here, i.e. to the West. e list of such
styles is short and selective.
10. For an interesting recent discussion of the role that Hollywood lms play in the perpetuation
of such beliefs, see Mie Hiramoto, ‘Wax On, Wax O: Commodication of Asian Masculinity
in a Global Market rough Hollywood Films’, Text & Talk 35, no. 1 (2015), 1–23.
11. Stephen Chan, ‘e Construction and Export of Culture as Artefact: e Case of Japanese
Martial Arts’, Body & Society 6, no. 1 (2000), 69–74.
12. See also: Wile, Lost T’ai Chi Classics of the Late Ch’ing Dynasty; Douglas Wile, T'ai Chi's
Ancestors: e Making of an Internal Martial Art (New York: Sweet Chi Press, 1999); Brian
Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo, Jingwu: e School at Transformed Kung Fu (Berkeley, CA:
Blue Snake Books, 2010).
13. e Southern Shaolin Temple is a staple myth in stories of the origins of Southern Chinese
martial arts. It seems unlikely to have existed, but the lack of evidence does not deter the
endless recycling of myths about it. See Meir Shahar, e Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion
and the Chinese Martial Arts (Hawai'i: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008); Judkins and Jon
Nielson, e Creation of Wing Chun.
14. Yim Wing Chun is the rst practitioner of the new ghting style in the origin story of Wing
Chun Kung Fu. See Judkins and Nielson, e Creation of Wing Chun.
15. e Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521), was killed during the Battle of
Mactan in the Philippines in 1521. e fact that Filipino warriors (and ‘hence’ Filipino martial
arts) were responsible for the demise of this important historical gure is oen used to ‘sell’
the idea of the age and excellence of contemporary Filipino martial arts. On the history of
Filipino martial arts, see Mark V. Wiley, Filipino Martial Culture (Clarendon, VT: Tuttle,
1996); Mark V. Wiley, Filipino Martial Arts: e Secrets of Cabales Serrada Escrima, rev. and
expanded ed. (Boston, MA: Tuttle Pub, 2001).
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF SPORT 15
16. See E.W. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (London: Penguin, 1995 [1978]).
17. In this paper, we are dealing with history versus myth in martial arts history, but other (in)
famous examples are the cases of qi or dim mak, for instance. See David A. Palmer, Qigong
Fever: Body, Science and Utopia in China ([Kindle Edition] London: Hurst & Co. in association
with the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, Paris, 2007); Gary J. Krug, ‘At
the Feet of the Master: ree Stages in the Appropriation of Okinawan Karate into Anglo-
American Culture, Cultural Studies: Critical Methodologies 1, no. 4 (2001), 395–410; Adam
Frank, Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man: Understanding Identity through
Martial Arts (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
18. Bowman, Martial Arts Studies.
19. See, for instance, Stuart Hall, David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, Stuart Hall: Critical
Dialogues in Cultural Studies (London: Routledge, 1996).
20. As Benedict Anderson argues in Imagined Communities, in the modern world, nationalism
really became the only game in town. ‘Nations’ had to play it for themselves, and for keeps,
or someone else would play it for them, for keeps. And the invention of tradition and the
imagining of community and continuity essentially involve what Derrida calls ‘teleiopoeisis’
and Said calls ‘imagined geographies’ – imagining and making grand claims about the past
to glorify and justify the present. See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reections
on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991); E.J. Hobsbawm and
T.O. Ranger (eds), e Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992,
[1983]); Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship (London: Verso, 1997); E.W. Said, ‘Invention,
Memory, and Place’, in Pepi Leistyna (ed.), Cultural Studies: From eory to Action (Oxford:
Blackwell, 2005), 256–69.
21. Frank, Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man.
22. However, rather than reaching the dispiriting conclusion that academics working in intensely
nationalistic contexts will produce implicitly or explicitly nationalist ‘knowledge’, I would
prefer to think that Adam Frank’s pioneering study of taijiquan will itself be read in China
now, among the highly globally aware and English-language reading Chinese academics
and students, and that as such his book constitutes a crucial and active contribution to the
development of discourses about taijiquan, even in China.
23. As indicated earlier, ‘self-orientalization’ in Japan is discussed in Stephen Chan, ‘e
Construction and Export of Culture as Artefact: e Case of Japanese Martial Arts’, Body &
Society 6, no. 1 (2000), 69–74, and in China in Frank, Taijiquan and the Search for the Little
Old Chinese Man. ere is ongoing research into these contexts. Similarly, ongoing research is
being carried out on the self-orientalizing eects of UNESCO’s ‘intangible cultural heritage’ on
the discourse of martial arts such as wing chun in Hong Kong and Southern China. Similarly,
the 2012 documentary e Bladed Hand, directed by Jay Ignacio, indicates the eects of both
neglecting and ‘nationalizing’ martial arts in the Philippines.
24. Bowman, Martial Arts Studies.
26. Dale Spencer, Ultimate Fighting and Embodiment: Violence, Gender and Mixed Martial Arts
(London: Routledge, 2011).
27. Jean-François Lyotard, e Dierend: Phrases in Dispute (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1988).
28. Jacques Rancière, e Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).
29. John Mowitt, Text: e Genealogy of an Antidisciplinary Object (Durham: Duke, 1992);
Bowman, Martial Arts Studies.
30. I hasten to add: the same goes for non-academic writing about them too – but a discussion
about this now would take us too far aeld. However, for a discussion of what I mean by
this, see Alexander Hay, ‘e Art and Politics of Fence: Subtexts and Ideologies of Late 16th
Century Fencing Manuals, Martial Arts Studies, no. 1 (2015), 60–71.
31. Paul Bowman, ‘Alterdisciplinarity’, Culture, eory and Critique 49, no. 1 (2008), 93–110.
32. It is in this way that I would most hope that the work of both me and my oce nerd colleagues
could indeed deliver the next big ‘blow to authentic, traditional martial arts’. For, the authentic
16 P. BOWMAN
and traditional in this formulation seem to be valuable only to the extent that they remain
mystied and occulted, and controlled by ‘masters’ with ‘secret’ and ‘ultimate’ and ‘enigmatic’
mysterious ‘knowledge. is kind of knowledge is snake oil and shark n, or rhino horn and
tiger penis. All such things are precious, of course – and precisely because they are precious,
they should not be consumed (I invite any who disagree with me, to try to kick me from
my horse!). is is unlikely to be a threat to their continued existence, of course – just as
the existence of sliced bread is really not a threat to the existence of bread knives. But it is
a threat to their status, to their cultural capital, or indeed their brand. Put bluntly, my kind
of book and his kind of book cannot coexist easily side by side. is is because, to borrow a
phrase used by Stephen Chan in his keynote address at the martial arts studies conference at
Cardi University in June 2015, the academic study of martial arts (martial arts studies) is
disciplinary rather than religious. (e video of Professor Chan’s talk is available at: https://
goo.gl/R9HNAJ) is is a provocative binary, with a great deal condensed into it. ‘Religious’
here means, at the very least, based on belief, based on faith. It may also mean following
rituals that work (as both Pascal and Althusser saw it) to produce belief where before the
ritual there was none (Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (London:
New Le Books, 1977)). It may also evoke, following Marx and Engels, the idea of religion as
ideology, the opium of the people (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, e Communist Manifesto.
Pelican Book (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967)). And so on. ‘Discipline, on the other hand, is
working in Stephen Chan’s binary as ‘the good guy’: the rigorous, analytical force, chasing out
superstition without reason. So, discipline – meaning academic discipline – stands opposed
to and vigilant in the face of religion or religiosity. When he used this binary, Professor Chan
was looking directly at me and addressing me, because I had only just nished talking about
discipline’ as less of a hero, less of a ‘good guy’. In my own use of the term, in my introduction
to the conference and to Chan’s keynote, ‘discipline’ had been evoked as a kind of stultifying,
streamlining, conservative force, drawing people’s approaches and questions into a kind of
conformity. However, I was not at that moment contrasting disciplined academic inquiry
with religious faith. Rather, I had been depicting disciplines as stabilized, convention-loving,
regulated and regulating institutions, and contrasting them with the exciting possibilities of a
relatively chaotic and undisciplined cross-, inter-, and even anti-disciplinary nexus. However,
clearly, when push comes to shove, both Stephen Chan and myself are on the side of all things
academic – invested equally in ideas like rigour and critical questioning, demands for clear
processes of verication, and so on.
33. Anderson, Imagined Communities; Hobsbawm and Ranger, e Invention of Tradition.
34. is professional and popular yet academic blog can be found at http://chinesemartialstudies.
com/.
35. is Cardi University Press publication can be found at http://martialartsstudies.org/.
36. Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek (eds), Contingency, Hegemony, Universality:
Contemporary Dialogues on the Le (London: Verso, 2000).
37. Wile, Lost T’ai Chi Classics of the Late Ch’ing Dynasty; Wile, T'ai Chi's Ancestors.
38. Judkins and Nielson, Wing Chun; Douglas Wile, ‘Review of Benjamin N. Judkins and Jon
Nielson, e Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts’,
Martial Arts Studies no. 1 (2015), 83–5.
39. Krug, ‘At the Feet of the Master’; Chan, ‘e Construction and Export of Culture as Artefact’,
69–74.
40. Gillis, A Killing Art; Moenig, Taekwondo.
41. omas Kuhn, e Structure of Scientic Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1962); Michel Foucault, e Order of ings: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London:
Tavistock Publications, 1970).
42. Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1983); Anderson, Imagined Communities.
43. Rey Chow, e Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Columbia University
Press, 2002).
44. Hobsbawm and Ranger, e Invention of Tradition; Said, ‘Invention, Memory, and Place.
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF SPORT 17
45. Frank, Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man; Kennedy and Guo, Jingwu.
46. Gichin Funakoshi, Karate-Do: My Way of Life (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1975); Krug, ‘At the Feet
of the Master’, 395–410.
47. Gillis, A Killing Art; Moenig, Taekwondo.
48. Roland Barthes, Mythologies (London: Vintage, 1993); Anderson, Imagined Communities.
49. Judkins and Nielson, Wing Chun.
50. Paul Bowman, eorizing Bruce Lee: Film-Fantasy-Fighting-Philosophy (Amsterdam: Rodopi,
2010); Paul Bowman, Beyond Bruce Lee: Chasing the Dragon through Film, Philosophy and
Popular Culture (London: Wallower Press, 2013); Bowman, Martial Arts Studies.
51. Daniele Bolelli, On the Warrior’s Path: Philosophy, Fighting, and Martial Arts Mythology
(Berkeley, CA: Blue Snake Books, 2003); Bowman, eorizing Bruce Lee.
52. Said, Orientalism.
53. Ch ow, Ethics Aer Idealism.
54. Chan, ‘e Construction and Export of Culture as Artefact’, 69–74; John R. Eperjesi,
‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Kung Fu Diplomacy and the Dream of Cultural China’,
Asian Studies Review 28 (2004), 25–39; Wile, Lost T’ai Chi Classics of the Late Ch’ing Dynasty;
Wile, T'ai Chi's Ancestors.
55. Frank, Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man.
56. However, on my visit to the Taekwondowon in November 2015, I was struck by the extent to
which taekwondo was positioned not only as ‘fun for children’ (by way of pictures of cutesy
animals wearing taekwondo uniforms) and hyper-gymnastic and sporty (via countless video
screens showing amazing feats of taekwondo athleticism on a loop), but also as mystical and
meditative, in an entirely orientalist mode, by way of video screens showing sequences of older
practitioners sitting in meditative poses by rivers and atop mountains. All of which indicates
the extent to which the South Korean taekwondo institutions are attempting to capitalize on
a very wide range of ‘brand values’ for taekwondo, including full-blown orientalism.
57. Ernesto Laclau, ‘Identity and Hegemony: e Role of Universality in the Constitution
of Political Logics’, in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek (eds), Contingency,
Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Le (London: Verso, 2000); Said,
‘Invention, Memory, and Place’, 256–69.
58. Said, ‘Invention, Memory, and Place’, 256–69. e third term that triangulates and completes
the picture is ones own place in relation to this ancient alterity in the present; namely, the
self. Which is one obvious way in which Asian martial arts become bound up in identity – as
coordinates of a fantasy life that structures values and activities.
59. ‘Personal’ discourse, rst (communing with ancient civilizations is a private fantasy), but
one whose raw materials and their conguration have come from a somewhat more public
context – such as the vast and deep reservoirs of allochronistic and orientalist renderings of
cultural or historical otherness. Fabian, Time and the Other.
60. Indeed, in Adam Frank’s analysis of its status in China to this very day, taiji remains what he
calls the quintessential symbol of Chineseness. Frank, Taijiquan and the Search for the Little
Old Chinese Man.
61. Rey Chow, Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemporary Chinese
Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).
62. Ch ow, Primitive Passions. See also Bowman, Martial Arts Studies.
63. Jean-François Lyotard, e Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
64. Even the least research-inclined Western student of the least preachy instructor will doubtless
harbour a vague sense of the ancientness of the art they practice. is is not alleviated in any
way by martial arts institutions that require students to regurgitate verbatim mythological
accounts of their art’s history, in order to pass their belt/gradings, as is the case with taekwondo.
65. Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy (Brighton: Harvester, 1982); Jacques Derrida,
Monolingualism of the Other, or, the Prosthesis of Origin (Stanford, CA: Stanford University
Press, 1998).
18 P. BOWMAN
66. However, many theorists have proposed that the essence of even apparently totally embodied
practices are not simply bodily. As Slavoj Žižek argues, what drives physical activities is
fantasy in the minds of practitioners: in the case of sex, it is the fantasies of both partners that
determines and drives both desire and physical sex. So we cannot discount the importance
of the ways that cultural fantasies work within us and organize our desires and pleasures.
However, unlike Žižek, I would not stop there. For, we have to remember that, even if a
sense of culture or history permeates our relation to a practice, and even if the grand lineage
narrative of our style seems important or precious to us, our joys, pleasures, frustrations, and
desires within that practice relate to the successful execution of a perfect technique with a
perfect result. ere is no getting away from the fact that executing a perfect head kick, sweep,
throw, lock, choke or punch produces delight. And in these moments, fantasies of history or
lineage are not at all present. e joy to be had in a jumping spinning kick does not depend
on historical narratives. True, the source of the satisfaction derived from the physical event
is undoubtedly to be found elsewhere by any kind of analyst: why someone wants to kick
and why they derive delight from it can doubtless be psychoanalyzed, and dierent kinds
of claims can be made about the origin and nature of the pleasure – whether it is regarded
as coming from an individuals personal psychological make-up or whether it is regarded
as exemplifying wider cultural pathologies (whether of patriarchy or phallocentrism). But,
whatever other conscious or unconscious areas such pleasures relate to, the fact remains that
martial arts practices do not need mytho-history for their legitimation.
67. See also D.S. Farrer, ‘Ecacy and Entertainment in Martial Arts Studies: Anthropological
Perspectives’, Martial Arts Studies no. 1 (2015), 46–59.
68. Greg Downey, ‘“As Real as It Gets!”: Producing Hyperviolence in Mixed Martial Arts’, JOMEC
Journal no. 5 (2014), 1–28.
69. Perhaps the most famous example is that of a ‘ki master’ who reputedly oered $5000 to
anyone who could beat him. e unfortunate video of that beating still circulates online, and
can be found at: https://goo.gl/Hfcn03.
70. Dale Spencer, ‘From Many Masters to Many Students: Youtube, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and
Communities of Practice, JOMEC Journal no. 5 (2014), 1–12.
71. Hobsbawm and Ranger, e Invention of Tradition.
72. e narrative of taekwondo’s development in South Korea almost always makes reference
to the older kicking-based practice known as taekkyeon. Both Gillis and Moenig dispute the
causal connection between an older taekkyeon and a newer taekwondo; and Moenig even goes
so far as to dispute the survival of a living tradition of taekkyeon into the twentieth century
at all. However, my attention here is not on the question of the history of taekkyeon, or its
use and abuse in the creation narrative of taekwondo (although I do believe it has been used
and abused), but rather on the tendentious manipulation of history itself to produce certain
kinds of deliberate visibilities and invisibilities.
73. e allusion here is to Farrer, ‘Ecacy and Entertainment in Martial Arts Studies’; and through
this allusion, readers of Farrers text may be able to perceive the basis of my critique or
deconstruction of his binary of ‘ecacy versus enjoyment.
Acknowledgements
I owe thanks to the Korean Association of Martial Arts and Professor Fan Hong for inviting me
to give a keynote address at the conference ‘Martial Arts and Traditional Sports in Asia: History,
Politics and Culture’, held in the Taekwondowon, Muju, South Korea, 21–22 November 2015. is
invitation allowed me carry out further research into the ocial curation of the history of taekwondo
and other martial arts in South Korea. I would also like to thank Professor Michael Molasky for
inviting me to present to a Research Group Meeting at Waseda University, Tokyo, in March 2016, as
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF SPORT 19
part of the collaborative research project, ‘East Asian Martial Arts as Global Culture: Transmission,
Representation, and Transformation in Japan, the US, and the UK’ (ーバル文化としての
東アジア武術――日・米・英における伝授、表象、変容」). is invitation enabled me to carry
out further research relevant to this paper.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author.
Notes on contributor
Paul Bowman is a professor of cultural studies at Cardi University, UK.
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First “discovered” by Anglo-Americans following the Second World War, karate has undergone a series of changes in the way in which it is presented and taught in the United States and Australia. In the 1990s, the publication of key secret texts, the establishment of a large body of historical information, the rapidly growing acceptance of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, and the establishment of second- and third-generation dojos and instructors in Euro-American cultures have contributed to the demystification of karate and a lessening need for attachments to the people and culture of Okinawa. With these new representations of karate, the art is being remade as a set of Western knowledge and practices. These changes in the representation of karate trace a trajectory that transforms the pragmatic and spiritual characteristics of karate first into a marker of Asianess, then into a myth of origins, and finally into a set of historical and semiscientific practices.
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The Japanese martial arts are suggested to the West, and to the Japanese themselves as `old'. They are less old than the suggestion and are, indeed, part of an attempt to make the Japanese suitably `samurai', in the first instance, so that an export of an image can take place in the second instance. Under outer shells and forms, however, something spiritual is indeed old, but people - Japanese and non-Japanese alike - have tended within modernity to reify the shells and forms.