Infinity Loops, Forgotten Applications and Daoist Thunder Rituals – New Research Yields Exciting Insights Into the Martial Arts

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Infinity Dragons by DanMWithATwist. Licensed under a Creative Commons 3.0

Unfortunately, academic writing often turns people right off. Even if it’s original and well-researched, many people just find it dry, wordy, full of jargon – and generally boring and hard to get through.

But in the martial arts, we’re perhaps less likely to shy away from difficult things – and indeed more likely to seek them out. So the new journal Martial Arts Studies (November 2015) is definitely worth a look. It’s a FREE peer reviewed online open access academic journal focusing on martial arts studies, and published by Cardiff University Press.

In the text below, I’ve pulled out some specific key points that will hopefully be of real life interest to those martial arts practitioners who aren’t inclined to read the full 108 pages of academic text . . .

However if you do fancy having a look at the full first issue of this journal, it’s available at: with the second issue due out in May 2016 . . .

Just to clarify, I have no financial or other interest in this journal – just found it online and thought it was awesome!






Page 3: Asking the Question Is Martial Arts Studies an Academic Field? – Paul Bowman

Summary: This article explores whether “Martial Arts Studies” can be seen as a “proper” academic subject. It’s an extract from the book, Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries by Paul Bowman, which is reviewed below.

Most interesting takeaways:

  1. Martial Arts Studies could be approached from many academic angles – for example philosophy, sociology, art, medicine, history, anthropology, psychology, sports studies and so on.
  2. It’s hard to talk about the martial arts with precision. Because terms such as “Karate”, “Silat”, “Chinese Culture”, “martial arts” and so on don’t refer to any one fixed thing.

 Memorable quote: Martial arts can be defined as: the things done to make the study of fighting appear refined enough to survive elite social prohibitions. (page 11)


Page 20: Martial Arts Studies as Kulturwissenschaft; A Possible Theoretical Framework – Sixt Wetzler

Summary: This paper looks for a useful framework for analysing the martial arts.

Most interesting takeaway:

  1. We can use five “dimensions” to talk about different martial arts. (NB the descriptions of these dimensions are really good, and can be found on page 26).
  • Dimension 1: Preparation for Violent Conflict
  • Dimension 2: Play and Competitive Sports
  • Dimension 3: Performance
  • Dimension 4: Transcendent Goals
  • Dimension 5: Health Care (both physical and psychological).
  1. We can also talk about the martial arts in terms of nine “phenomena”. Again, the descriptions of these are excellent (pages 26-28). These are:
  • The Body:
  • Movement / Techniques:
  • Tactics / Concepts:
  • Weapons / Materiality:
  • Media Representation:
  • Teaching Methodology/Learning Process:
  • Myths / Philosophy:
  • Social Structures:
  • Wider Cultural Context:

The idea of a “polysystem” is very helpful for understanding and talking about the martial arts. A polysystem is: a “multiple system”, made up of many smaller systems. Within the polysystem, there are hierarchies and power struggles. The group at the centre “governs” the polysystem, i.e. sets the rules about what is most valued.

Memorable quote: The ‘group which governs’ the polysystem ‘martial arts’ in the West [is] MMA. Today, MMA is the point of reference against which pop culture reads most other martial arts. Traditional techniques ‘would never work in the cage’, one often hears, and even Bruce Lee’s skill has to be re-assessed when internet boards discuss whether he would have been a successful UFC fighter. 


Page 34: Efficacy and Entertainment in Martial Arts Studies; Anthropological Perspectives – D.S. Farrer

Summary: This paper explores the relationship between effectiveness and entertainment in the martial arts.

Most interesting takeaway: We tend to judge martial arts as EITHER effective, OR for entertainment. But in fact the relationship is more like an “Infinity loop”. All martial arts have elements of both, which keep on feeding back into each other.

The writer tells stories of his own martial arts experience to illustrate this. For example, he watches a Yapese stick dance, and becomes convinced that he is watching the lost Carolinian martial art of Bwang – even though the islanders deny this.

Another time, he sees a Koontow Sifu demonstrating some potentially devastating attacks – but only in order to teach some basic “shadow” defences against them. It seems as if the teacher doesn’t realise their real application as a sequence. Farrer wonders: Had the correct application been hidden so well that even the masters had forgotten it?

He also uses the example of MMA, which is the ultimate in entertainment but can also be brutal and even lethal.

 Memorable quote: MMA was the ultimately the product of, and feeds back into a massive entertainment industry. Indeed, most fans’ only contact with the art is through its entertainment function as the number of people who actually train in it are relatively small compared to the number of people who watch the competitions and buy the brands, thereby participating in an MMA ‘lifestyle’ without actually becoming martial artists [Benjamin Judkins] – Page 42


Page 46: Imposing the Terms of the Battle: Donn F. Draeger, Count Dante and the Struggle for American Martial Arts Identity – Jared Miracle

Summary: This paper tells the colourful story of Robert W. Smith, Donn F. Draeger, and Jon Bluming and their work to introduce the Asian martial arts to the West. The paper also tells the story of “Count Dante” – a far more dubious figure who was more in it for the money and his own personal glory.

Most interesting takeaways:

  1. The paper paints Draeger, Smith and Bluming as very real people, with dreams, aspirations and vulnerabilities that played out in their work, and shaped the decisions they made. It also includes some very interesting copies of actual newspaper clippings from those days.
  2. At that time, Westerners didn’t really know any Chinese and Japanese martial arts words and phrases. So Draeger and Smith (in particular) had to introduce a whole new vocabulary to the West.  

Memorable quote: Count Dante, with his flamboyant, provocative personality and memorable public image, was fertile ground for creating myths and legends about an imagined Asia, home to elusive masters of esoteric fighting arts. The narratives that grew over time formed the basis for popular culture of the 1970s through the 1990s as films and television, especially, latched onto the desires and whims of a generation of young men in search of a new means to express masculinity […] in the wake of the civil rights movement, the Cold War, and the rise of feminism – p58


Page 60: The Art and Politics of Fence Subtexts and Ideologies of Late 16th Century Fencing Manuals – Alexander Hay

Summary: This writer takes two very old English fencing manuals (dated 1595 and 1599), to see what they tell us about cultural attitudes to violence and the martial arts in London in those days. At that time London was a very crime-ridden and violent place with poor law enforcement. Martial arts training was therefore very popular.

Most interesting takeaway: The first manual is by an Italian master, whose manual shows very “Italian” methods and ideology. He is pessimistic, and sees violence as a necessary but sad evil, which should only be used for self-defence, or on extreme provocation.

The second manual is by an English gentleman who resents the Italians taking over the art, and pushing out English fencing masters such as himself. He therefore tries to appeal to people’s patriotism, and persuade them to keep their English heritage and traditions.

Memorable quote: Instruction in English swordsmanship [had] been directly challenged and out-competed by Italian instructors. These newcomers had not only attracted the most prestigious students but charged far more in terms of tuition fees – Saviolo charged up to £100 a lesson [McElroy 1986: 197] – which deftly characterised their training as somehow more exotic and so more valid than the mundanities of the English methods. This continues to the present time – many martial arts and weapons have been sold to new audiences on a mix of the exotic and the potent, be it the Japanese katana or the ground fighting methods of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This tendency to imbue the new with special powers or a certain mystique is not new – certainly it was something Silver and the Companie of Maisters knew only too well in 1599. 


Page 72: History in the Making Martial Arts between Planet Hollywood and Planet Hong Kong – Kyle Barrowman

Summary: This paper challenges the accusation that American martial arts movies tend to be racist, and inferior to Asian movies.

Most interesting takeaway: Barrowman suggests that scholars might become less concerned with dry, academic “criticism” of martial arts movies. They could focus more instead on their own personal experience of the movie, and appreciating the “art of film”.

Memorable quotes:

(a) American cinema is not a thing. Like karate, American cinema has always been ‘an evolving set of practices’. – Page 80

(b) The renowned film historian Tom Gunning once remarked that ‘history is never simply the surviving records of the past, but always a creative and imaginative act of trying to understand the past, a belief that it says something to us’ [Gunning 1991: 2] – Page 73


Page 83: The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts – Benjamin N. Judkins and Jon Nielson – Review by Douglas Wile

Summary: This is a review of a new book, which aims to uncover and tell the true history of Wing Chun.

Most interesting takeaway: The book shows how some popular myths about Wing Chun are not true – such as the burning of the Southern Shaolin Temple. It also shows how various influences – such as globalisation; economic development; the May Fourth New Culture Movement; and the media (including the role of Bruce Lee and the Ip Man films) – all helped to create the current wing chun “brand”.

Memorable quote: 

Asian myths of origin have often enjoyed a second life in their adopted Western homes, but they play differently to different audiences: to Chinese they speak to national essence; to Westerners they evoke exoticism. This is what the Chinese call, ‘same bed; different dreams’. (page 85)


Page 86: Jet Li: Chinese Masculinity and Transnational Film Stardom – Sabrina Yu – Review by Wayne Wong

Summary: This is a review of a book which explores the development of Jet Li’s “gender transgressive” and “transnational” screen persona” since the early 1990s.

Most interesting takeaway: The article argues that the Hollywood view of ideal masculinity is “white, heterosexual, aggressive heroes who rescue and develop sexual intimacy with heroines”. To a Western audience therefore, Jet Li’s characters can seem very “unmasculine” or asexual.

However, Yu argues that Jet Li is actually portraying “an ideal form of maleness in the Chinese context”. This appears in his chaste relationships with heroines, and in some of his characters which prioritise family values, and “Chinese fidelity and respect”.

Memorable quote: The mesmerizing power of martial arts cinema lies in the constant interplay between the real and the fictional, the violent and the elegant, moments of belief and of disbelief. page 91


Page 97: Demonic Warfare: Daoism, Territorial Networks and the History of a Ming Novel – Mark R.E. Meulenbeld – Review by Scott P. Phillips

Summary: This is a review of a book which shows how Chinese warfare, Daoist thunder rituals and other religious rituals were interlinked.

Most interesting takeaway: Twentieth century Chinese intellectuals tried to distance the martial arts from religious ritual and theatre – so that China could be seen as more modern. But in fact, combat skills, theatricality, and religion were interconnected in China, through “canonizaton rituals”.

These rituals had many roles. They were fun and entertaining for villagers, and helped them to learn history and mythology. They also taught people how to work together and organise themselves, both in battle and in everyday life.

They were also used as “performances before battles”, to invoke the support of the gods. Canonisation rituals after battles honoured the dead, including the enemy’s dead, and enlisted their spirits as a source of power.

Memorable quote: Should we look at martial arts forms as rituals of canonization? Does the modern dojo transform conflicting emotions into righteous causes, viz., demons into gods? If martial arts forms (taolu) tell stories, what kind of stories do they tell? Are they fragments of canonization rituals or are they intact rituals obscured by time and distance? – Page 101


Page 103 – Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries – Paul Bowman – Review by Adam Frank

Summary: This is a review of a book which explores whether “Martial Arts Studies” can be seen as a “proper” academic subject.

Most interesting takeaway: Bowman compares creating a new academic field (i.e. Martial Arts Studies) to creating new martial arts styles such as Jeet Kune Do and MMA. He argues that in both cases, people are disrupting traditional boundaries, and concepts such as “truth”, “form” and “style”.

Memorable quote: The article refers to Bowman’s idea of the ‘Fight-Club-ization’ of the martial arts. What Bowman means by this, is that many martial artists no longer just accept their art and their sensei on trust. Instead, they demand verification in the form of trial by actual combat. 

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