If you’re interested in the history of Japanese martial arts then I would also recommend this talk by Dr Oleg Benesch on the Martial Studies podcast, which talks about a lot of the same stuff, particularly the interplay of Western and Eastern ideas after 1852, the invention of the ideal of the honorable Samurai warrior and, most importantly, castles!
Are you a scholar boxer? Then I’ve got just the book for you.
While origin myths and lineages do feature from time to time in Mythologies of Martial Arts, the “Mythologies” in the title here relates instead to Roland Barthes 1957 book, Mythologies, which starts with an essay on wrestling – not the sportif, Olympic or college style of wrestling, but the entertainment-based, scripted type, which was popular in Paris at the time, and later found its way onto Saturday morning television in the UK throughout the 80s and is still hugely popular in the US. Essentially, Barthes was undertaking a high-brow analysis of low-brow entertainment – taking seriously what was not meant to be taken seriously; comparing the scripted wrestling dramas to the themes found in mythic tales of the Gods or Greek tragedies. That gives you an inkling of what this book is about. Using Barthes ideas on wrestling as a springboard, Bowman goes on to look at how Eastern martial arts are treated in popular culture, and why. It’s a fascinating discourse across a diverse range of subjects, which somehow all follow on from one another, yet all build towards returning to the central premise of the mythologies of today’s martial arts.
Perhaps unusually for an academic, Bowman is not talking from some lofty perch, looking down upon the martial arts, but rather as a lifelong martial arts enthusiast and practitioner he’s down in the trenches doing it with the rest of us, and asking the question, what exactly is happening here?
The chapter headings reveal the eclectic brew on offer:
The status of martial arts in the west: From the Kung Fu craze to Master Ken
Cross-cultural desire in the Western Eastern martial arts
The circulation of Qi (in media and culture)
Myths of martial arts history, authority and authenticity
On kicking, Kung Fu and knowing your lineage
Enter the ethnicity
The gender of martial arts studies
Everybody was action film fighting
From weird to wonderful and back again
Martial arts myth today
I’ll be honest, your average martial artists will not have even thought about half of these topics before. I hadn’t. In that sense, this book is mind expanding. Most martial artists just get on with doing it without really thinking about why we’re doing it, or what is actually happening when they do it. As such this book will shine some lights on the unexamined parts of your psyche, your unacknowledged assumptions about martial arts and your own blind spots.
I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the aesthetic appeal of kicking, the similarity of ground fighting to the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien, and the “delicious aural quality” of the sound of the words “Kung Fu” and “Gong Fu” in English. I also enjoyed the way he tackled his own real life critic in Chapter 5, combining the critic’s furious reactions into his research. (The critic remains nameless, but anybody involved in discussions of Chinese Martial Arts on Internet discussion forums will recognise him instantly). But frankly, a lot of this book is beyond me. When Bowman drifts into quoting Derrida (as he does often) and discussing ideas of deconstructionism I find myself drifting off and wanting to skip pages, but then he’ll talk about how Alien’s Facehugger bears striking similarities to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu ground fighting technique, or how Kung Fu technique keeps him awake at night and I’m right back in the room with him, enjoying his unique perspective.
Bowman’s focus is often on Eastern martial arts (or martial artists) that have been transplanted to the West and the cultural ramifications thereof, Bruce Lee being a perfect example. It should also be noted that Bowman is an authority on Bruce Lee, having written several books about him, and Chapter 7 here is dedicated to understanding this key figure to modern martial arts in more detail.
Bowman uses his own experience of training in these Eastern martial arts in the West as his fieldwork, which is fine, but has some downsides. So much of cultural significance seems to be going on with the incredible popularity of Mixed Martial Arts at the moment that it seems like a missed opportunity that it only gets the briefest of mentions here, mainly because it has not featured as heavily in the lived experience of the author as the Eastern arts of Taekwondo, Kung Fu and Tai Chi have.
Having been to an academic conference (only once in my life, so far though) it strikes me that the key to delivering a good academic paper is to present lots of ideas, backed up by evidence, but to never come to any definitive conclusion about any of them. Academics naturally see their work as contributing to a larger conversation. Whereas most of us presented with the task of writing a book, an article, or a blog post would reduce it to a point we were trying to convey, to move towards, to solidify on, academics seem more interested in asking questions, which in turn spark more questions, which in turn keeps the conversation moving and developing. They are worker ants contributing to the overall health of the colony, not brave explorers conquering and claiming new lands and while it would be a disservice to accuse Mythologies of Martial Arts as lacking coherence, or building to good final act, I’m left with the impression that this book, hailing from the world of academia, holds true to the same ideals.
Full Disclaimer: A long time ago (possibly in a galaxy far, far away) I taught the author of this book Tai Chi and Kung Fu, and while I’m not mentioned by name I find my ghost wandering the pages of several chapters, where I am mentioned as the “instructor”, noted for knowing my martial arts lineage by heart, or as the person who introduced him to what he’d been searching for: Chinese Kung Fu, for the first time.