June 29 – July 2, 2022, Lausanne University, Switzerland
Martial Arts, Tradition and Globalisation
This conference was originally planned for summer 2021, but was postponed until 2022 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This landmark international conference will be hosted and co-organised by the University of Lausanne, and will see for the first time the joining together of the annual conferences of the Martial Arts Studies Research Network and the martial arts and combat sports commission of the German Society of Sport Science (DVS-Kommission ‘Kampfkunst & Kampfsport’).
There seems to be a sudden influx of good things to listen to, so, rather than do individual posts on all of them, I’ve decided to round them up in a collection of Things You Should Be Listening To Right Now
1. Peter Lorge on Inventing Traditional Martial Arts
This was very entertaining. It’s a great lecture on the difference between traditional and modern in martial arts, and how ‘traditional’ is in fact usually created by the ‘modern’.
2. Lavell Marshall & Hohoo – Spirit of the Grassland
I loved this so much. It’s a look into Mongol wrestling culture. It’s from Byron Jacobs who filmed it on a recent trip to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia for a wrestling competition and features Lavell Marshal, who left his life in the west to move to the grasslands and practice Bökh.
“Bökh (Mongolian Wrestling) has been practiced by nomadic and steppe cultures for thousands of years. It epitomizes the culture of the Mongolian people and the spirit of the grassland.
Lavell Marshal (Hangai), left his life in the west to move to the grasslands of Inner-Mongolia to study the art under Ho Bagsh (Coach Hohoo), a well-known wrestler and former national Shuai Jiao champion.”
3. Why Conspiracy Theories Are So Damn Hard to Disprove, with Dr Hanan Bushkin
This podcast isn’t necessarily martial arts related, but a lot of martial artists seem to be the sort of people that fall prey to conspiracy theories. I know, because I talk to them. This podcast sheds some light on why that is.
“Dr Hanan Buskin is a clinical psychologist specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In this episode we go deep into the benefits conspiracy theorist get from believing and sharing their crazy ideas and the long, difficult process required to gently wean them off conspiratorial thinking. “
4. Belts, Ranking, Titles & Hierarchy In Jiu-Jitsu With Priit Mihkelson
I had Priit as my guest in episode 5 of my podcast. In his most recent appearance, on the Sonny Brown Breakdown, he lays into the traditional structure of belts and titles in marital arts. He’s always worth listening to and I always find he delivers a fresh and interesting perspective on things.
“I talk to Priit Mihkelson, A Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt From Estonia and founder of Defensive BJJ. Priit always has a lot of interesting takes on the teaching, training & traditions of Jiu-Jitsu and after recently relocating his school I took the chance to ask him about his thoughts on belt rankings. We have a great conversation about how he has applied them to his Defensive BJJ system and set up his new school. We then move on to the use of hierarchy & titles like Professor and Master and their place in Jiu-Jitsu”.
5. Ken Gullette on internal body mechanics.
Finally, here’s another plug for my own podcast, The Tai Chi Notebook Podcast. I had Ken Gullette on recently who practices and teaches all the main internal arts but specialises in Chen style. Here’s the link to the podcast.
I really enjoyed this chat and although it becomes something of, “two old men talking about all their injuries”, at one point I think there’s a lot of value here. It also introduced me to a marital artist called Nabil Ranné from Germany.
Here he is teaching “Lazily Tying Coat” from Chen style.
There’s a great book review by Ben Judkins over on Kung Fu Tea of Daniel Miles Amos’ 2021 book Hong Kong Martial Artists: Sociocultural Change from World War II to 2020.
The book sounds excellent and offers first hand experience of the changes in the Hong Kong martial arts scene has gone through over an extended period of years, and as such really pins down the economic and social challenges that traditional Chinese martial arts face in the modern world.
I really liked the opening of the review, because it somehow sums up the message of the whole book in one easy to follow exchange:
“Some years ago, one of my younger brothers married into a Hakka family after moving to Hong Kong to teach. My sister-in-law finds my interest in the Chinese martial arts fascinating and even admirable. And she insists that her children should have an opportunity to practice martial arts as well. Yet she did not enroll them in a local Wing Chun class, despite the media buzz around the art. Nor did she seek out one of the traditional Hakka styles from her family’s home village. Like so many other parents, she placed them in one of the city’s many thriving Tae Kwon Do schools.
I asked her about this once while we were discussing martial arts films and her answer was both blunt and revealing. “Why would I turn my kids over to some sketchy alcoholic! Besides, after ten years in Tae Kwon Do you get a black belt and something to put on your resume when applying for University. What did they give you after 10 years of Wing Chun?”
Click the link above, or you’ll find it on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Search for The Tai Chi Notebook.
Paul Bowman is a professor of cultural studies at Cardiff University. He’s the author of multiple books on martial arts, including several about Bruce Lee, and most recently, “The invention of martial arts: popular culture between Asia and America”, which was published by Oxford University press in 2020.
Paul also helped establish the academic journal Marital Arts Studies, and organised conferences for the Martial Arts Studies Research Network.
In this chat we reminisce about our times training together, talk about paul’s recent discovery of Brazilian jiujutsu and discuss the emergent field of martial arts studies.
In the last episode of the Heretics podcast we talked about Chinese wrestling – Shuai Jiao – but Damon also mentioned Manchu wrestling quite a bit. He described it, but you can’t get a proper idea of how it works without seeing it done, so let’s look a little closer.
Manchu wrestling is a unique form of puppetry popular in certain parts of China where the participant wears a life-sized puppet of two wrestlers in a costume that turns ther legs and arms into both the puppet’s legs. Various wrestling maneuvers are then performed. The skill is to make it look like the two puppets are really wrestling and pulling off moves on each other.
To a western martial artist interested in only “learning how to defend myself” this might all look a bit silly, but if you watch this documentary you’ll see that there’s quite a lot to it:
There are so many things here worthy of note.
Firstly, the connection between puppetry and Chinese martial art is ripe for research – I’m thinking of the other famous puppet show that martial artists are known for – Lion and Dragon dancing. These cultural and religious practices are still done by martial arts groups at demonstrations and festivals.
Everybody in the Manchu wrestling documentary calls it “wrestling” even though it’s a solo drill. They don’t call it a dance or puppetry. To them this is “wrestling”, but we’d never call it that in Britain, for example – I find that pretty interesting.
It’s a damn good work out. If you’ve ever done any BJJ floor drills where you walk around on your hands and feet you’ll know that it’s instantly exhausting. Manchu wrestling will get you fit! If you don’t believe me then have a go at some of these drills before you tell me I’m wrong:
Manchu wrestling actually looks pretty dangerous – you can easily break a wrist with the high-speed spinning they’re doing, especially if the stick you hold in the shoe breaks.
Mental health benefits: a part of the documentary is focused on the mental health benefits of Manchu wrestling, especially looking at its life-changing benefits for rural Chinese women whose lives seem to be reduced to raising children and farming. I found this interesting in light of how much mental health benefits are talked about in BJJ culture – “BJJ saved my life” is a commonly used phrase amongst gym rats. Perhaps there is something inherently therapeutic about any style of wrestling movements and the human body?
After battling hard through various technical challenges I’ve finally managed to create a Tai Chi Notebook podcast with humans on! (Previous episodes of my podcast have been a robot voice reading my blogs). I’m pleased to have my good friend Daniel Mroz on board for my first real episode where we have a conversation about what Chinese martial arts might be.
You can find it on all the usual places you find podcasts – search for The Tai Chi Notebook on Apple podcasts, Spotify, etc.. or here’s a link:
What is the relationship between Chinese martial arts and Chinese theatre, religion, mime, serious leisure activities and military tactics? How do all these factors intermingle and produce the arts we have today? In this wide ranging discussion between Graham Barlow of the Tai Chi Notebook Podcast and Daniel Mroz, Professor of Theatre at the University of Ottawa we tackle all these subjects and more. As well as being a professor of theatre, Daniel is also a Choy Li Fut and Taijiquan practitioner and has spoken at the Martial Arts Studies conference and contributes articles to various journals including the Martial Arts Studies journal.
1) That Daniel Mroz quote in full:
“By ‘Chinese martial arts’, I refer to folkways that began to assume their present forms from the mid 19th to the early 20th centuries, at the end of the Imperial, and the beginning of the Republican periods of Chinese history. These arts train credible fighting abilities through exacting physical conditioning; through partnered, combative drills and games; and through the practice of prearranged movement patterns called tàolù 套路 (Mroz, 2017 & 2020). For millennia, up end of the Imperial period in 1912, China explicitly understood itself as a religious state (Lagerwey 2010). Communities across China not only used their martial arts to defend themselves, they performed them as theatrical acts of religious self-consecration, communal blessing, and entertainment in an annual calendar of sacred festivals (Ward, 1978; Sutton, 2003; Boretz, 2010; Amos, 2021). Modernization, and secularization at the end of the Imperial period removed the original context of these practices. The Chinese martial arts were transformed over the course of the 20th century by both their worldwide spread, and by their ideological appropriation by the Chinese Republic of 1912, and the Communist state that succeeded it in 1949 (Morris, 2004). Their religious heritage forgotten in many social, and cultural contexts within greater China, and internationally, the arts we practice today combine a legacy of pragmatic combat skill, religious enaction, participatory recreation, competitive athleticism, and performed entertainment.”
A glorious analysis of Carl Douglas’ smash no.1 hit around the world, Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting, by Prof. Paul Bowman, proving once again that things do not need to be beyond a certain level of complexity to be an important cultural document.
You can get this on audio too, but you really need to watch the video as a lot of this is relying on visual performance of the song.
One of the frequent criticisms I hear of the idea that there is a connection between Chinese martial arts and Chinese theatre and religion is that no respectable Chinese martial arts teacher has ever implied their work comes from dance or spiritual ritual, so the idea is laughable. I have experienced a pretty negative reaction from some of my Chinese martial arts friends to these ideas. The thought that the rough and tough martial art they genuinely suffered to learn and dedicated their lives to had religious or (worse) theatrical origins is anathema to their world view, akin to an insult.
But the question really is, how can they not be theatrical? Just look at Chinese martial arts – of course they’re theatrical!
Here are some questions to ask yourself: Why do we do long complex, showy forms at all? Why is Chinese martial arts still so strongly associated with Lion Dance? Why do its modern day performers so often put on demonstrations for the local community, on stages? Why do performances sometimes have chaotic drumming soundtracks?
I’m sure any competent Chinese martial arts practitioner can produce answers to all these questions based entirely in the physical realm of pugilism – it’s all physical training at the end of the day – but when you put all these questions together an obvious picture begins to form.
Nobody looks at Capoeira and says, “this has nothing to do with dance”. So, why do most Chinese martial arts practitioners look at their long theatrical forms and say, “this has nothing to do with theatre or religious practice”?
There’s an inherent mystery to Tao Lu, or “forms” found in Chinese martial arts. This great video by The Scholar-General hopes to provide some answers:
I’ve just got a copy of The Invention of Martial Arts, Popular Culture Between Asia and America, by Paul Bowman. (Amazon link.Non-Amazon link). Firstly, yes, that excellent cover illustration is a picture of Jim Kelly playing the iconic character Williams in Enter the Dragon, a character who speaks volumes about the international and multi-ethnic appeal of East Asian martial arts in the early 1970s. It was created by the incredible Jon Daniel, who passed away in 2017.
Some of Bowman’s work is very academic, but this one is for “normal people”, like me. I’m still on the Introduction, but feel compelled to write something about it because this book is dripping with ideas to do with the conversations we all have around martial arts.
That to me is what much of Martial Arts Studies is – it’s not about the martial arts themselves, it’s about “what we talk about, when we talk about martial arts”, which would otherwise be left unexamined.
Take his writing on theory in the introduction:
“At first glance martial arts may seem simple. But any discussion of them will involve an implicit or explicit theory about them.”
So true. If you’ve ever been involved in any sort of online discussion about martial arts you’ll find the participant are talking past each other because of an assumption of (often contradictory) theory that underlines everything they say to each other about any subject to do with marital arts. One person thinks the martial art is really all about this, and the other person thinks the martial art is really all about that, and they go on busily talking about different things.
He raises the brilliant point that no theory of martial arts (or culture) can contain all the answers and that “different theories offer variations and varieties of perspective. Looking at things from the perspective of one paradigm, or orientation, followed by another, and then another is stimulating and illuminating in many ways. The shifts in perspective caused by this can produce more well-rounded or enriched understandings of phenomena, and can also instil a prudent awareness of the limits of our own understanding. However, by the same token, such shifts can also produce contradictory, conflicting incompatible pictures of ‘the same thing’.”
It should come as no surprise that the title of the book can then be viewed in multiple ways. He’s not talking about the literal invention of the term “martial arts”, or the actual martial arts themselves, but the invention of the ideas about martial arts, ways of thinking about them, depicting them and valuing them.
I could go on, but really, I’d recommend grabbing a copy yourself.
This is a fascinating talk between Drs Jared Miracle and Paul Bowman on martial arts. There’s a little section from 31.20 onwards where they get into the miasma that surrounds martial arts and how it can be manipulated for nation building and national identity. the example given is Tae Kwan Do and its need to be ancient. But they go on to talk about how, on a personal level, we often have an idea about what we are doing when we do martial arts that doesn’t necessarily match what we are actually doing or getting out of the martial art we practice.