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The Martial Arts Studies Reader

The Martial Arts Studies Reader

by Paul Bowman Professor of Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, UK (Editor)


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A decade ago, the question was ‘could martial arts ever be studied academically?’ Today we are witnessing the global emergence and rapid proliferation of Martial Arts Studies – an exciting and dynamic new field that studies all aspects of martial arts in culture, history, and society. In recent years there have been a proliferation of studies of martial arts and race, gender, class, nation, ethnicity, identity, culture, politics, history, economics, film, media, art, philosophy, gaming, education, embodiment, performance, technology and many other matters. Given the diversity of topics and approaches, the question for new students and researchers is one of how to orientate oneself and gain awareness of the richness and diversity of the field, make sense of different styles of academic approach, and organise one’s own study, research and writing.

The Martial Arts Studies Reader answers this need, by bringing together pioneers of the field and scholars at its cutting edges to offer authoritative and accessible insights into its key concerns and areas. Each chapter introduces and sets out an approach to and a route through a key issue in a specific area of martial arts studies. Taken together or in isolation, the chapters offer stimulating and exciting insights into this fascinating research area. In this way, The Martial Arts Studies Reader offers the first authoritative field-defining overview of the global and multidisciplinary phenomena of martial arts and martial arts studies.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786605498
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 09/20/2018
Series: Martial Arts Studies
Pages: 244
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Paul Bowman is professor of cultural studies at Cardiff University.

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What, Where and Why is Martial Arts Studies?

Paul Bowman

The Martial Arts Studies Reader heralds the arrival of a dynamic multidisciplinary research area and offers the best way into this exciting new field for students and researchers of martial arts from both inside and outside the university. It showcases the work of established and emergent scholars from many different areas and sets out many of the key questions in the academic study of martial arts.

Such a collection is a significant achievement for martial arts studies. This is because the question of whether martial arts could ever become a serious object of academic attention is one that vexed many people, in many contexts, for many years. Many who pondered this question in the past tended to assume that the answer would always be no, that martial arts cannot, could not, will not and would not gain a foothold or be taken seriously within the academic world. It is certainly true to say (and important to remember) that only ten years ago – maybe even only five years ago – the idea of publishing a Martial Arts Studies Reader such as this would have seemed implausible. There was no 'martial arts studies', as such, and no clear sign of its emergence.

But there certainly is now. Indeed, what we have witnessed in terms of the formulation, development and spread of martial arts studies in the past five years is truly remarkable. Of course, it was not born out of nothing: it is important to be aware that for a long time before anyone had proposed 'martial arts studies' as a possible research field, it was nonetheless true that academic studies of martial arts had long been appearing, in all kinds of different disciplines and fields. Studies of martial arts had for many years been appearing in fields as diverse as anthropology, cultural studies, film studies, law, management, philosophy, psychology, sociology, sports science, history, medicine and more.

Nonetheless, the question whether martial arts could ever become a serious field of academic study in its own right is a very different matter (Bowman 2015). Establishing a field is very different to choosing a case study within a pre-existing field. In fact, it is easy to imagine academic studies of just about anything. It is quite another matter, however, to propose that such a topic could or should mutate from being a specific object of study within a discipline, and morph into a disciplinary field in its own right. There need to be pressing reasons for the development of a discrete new field – reasons based on answering some kind of demand, filling a lack or redressing an inadequacy or limitation.

Answering a demand or responding to a perceived lack has led to the emergence of many 'suffix-studies' subjects in recent decades: cultural studies, media studies, gender studies, African American and other ethnic identity studies, film studies, sports studies, management studies, postcolonial studies and so on. The rationale for the development of a new subject always involves answering a need or a demand, by redressing a perceived lack or limitation in the current configuration of the disciplines. Researchers may find that a specific topic that they find important has inadequate space to develop within current disciplinary demarcations, or that current approaches to that topic are inadequate or even stifling. Alternatively, a topic may simply be entirely absent, unrepresented, overlooked; and the development of ways to study it may well not fit into any established disciplinary space.

All of the aforementioned 'suffix-studies' subjects emerged in recent decades to fill a perceived gap. The driving forces for their development came from both the inside and the outside of the university. Such fields endure, and research proliferates under their umbrellas, for as long as and to the extent that they adequately accommodate the direction of research questions. Taught courses in universities and colleges continue for as long as students turn up to take them and as long as they are deemed legitimate by the powers that be.

So, the question is: To what extent is there a demand or a need for an enduring field of martial arts studies? Can it really be something tangible and enduring? Is work that is currently being done under this title actually doing something unique, new or different, or are we really only ever dealing with discrete studies of martial arts organized by established disciplinary concerns? On the one hand, it is certain that there will always be studies of martial arts that can be straightforwardly positioned as fitting comfortably into established academic fields. There will be straightforward 'case studies' of martial arts that are written in film studies, literary studies, anthropology, psychology, area studies, history, sports studies and so on. But, on the other hand, there are questions whose exploration entails breaking out of and moving beyond conventional disciplinary parameters.

This kind of work can be difficult, particularly for scholars working in isolation. In the academic world, it is always safer and easier to stick to the established questions, methods, points of reference and protocols of discussion within a pre-established disciplinary field than to explore things differently, to explore different things or to explore different things differently. Fortunately, many academics and scholars from many disciplines are now being drawn together under the banner of 'martial arts studies', attending conferences and publishing in newly emergent journals and book series, such as the journal Martial Arts Studies and the martial arts studies conferences that have taken place annually at Cardiff University since 2015. The immediate effect of this is that people researching questions in and around martial arts are coming to feel less isolated and more able to locate or express their interests in terms of an emerging discourse.

The importance of developing a collectivity cannot be overstated. It is absolutely vital for researchers. On the one hand, it produces not just affiliations and supportive conversations but also informed disagreement and focused criticisms, even rifts, all of which stimulate both circumspect and precise questions, argumentation, analysis and methods. On the other hand, it must be remembered that, in the university, if you cannot demonstrate what your research contributes to, then you cannot easily justify your activities. And if you cannot justify your activities, then you will sooner or later encounter innumerable pressures to change your priorities. There are certainly no funding opportunities available for projects that cannot relate their point, purpose and value to existing discourses.

So, the establishment of a discourse is essential to the production of meaningful work. As the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan put it, the first signifier (the 'unary signifier') is always essentially meaningless or unintelligible. It is only when there is more than one – when there are binaries, iterations, reiterations, responses, differences, positions and ultimately constellations – that meanings and values can start to be formed. Without a discourse, individual utterances will be taken to be nothing other than odd, eccentric, isolated, unintelligible and therefore meaningless or irrelevant follies. A context of reception needs to be established.

Fortunately, in recent years, researchers have been attracted to martial arts studies conferences and to reading and publishing in self-consciously martial arts studies publications. This cross-disciplinary attraction to martial arts studies events and publications has enabled many kinds of discussions and interactions to take place across disciplinary divides, where before they would have been unlikely. Inevitably, this cross-fertilization has begun to produce thought, questions, research and work that exceeds the confines of any one discipline. The net result is that different work is happening and completely new discussions are under way, organized by new questions, in new debates, generating all kinds of new knowledge.

In this sense, 'martial arts studies' is the term for an interdisciplinary research nexus. A shared interest in the organizing terms – everything that is conjured up by the term 'martial arts' – is what holds the field together. It is tempting to think that a shared interest in martial arts is the 'glue' that binds the field together, but this is not quite correct. For, we may not even agree on what the term 'martial arts' designates or evokes. We may not agree on an approach to the object or field. Yet 'martial arts' provide the magnetism that draws researchers together. People are attracted to the field because of a shared interest in what is perceived to be a shared object. People care about martial arts for multiple reasons in myriad different ways. Whether people stay within the field depends on whether they are stimulated by what they find in it (Bowman and Judkins 2017).

What can be found in the young field (or fields) of martial arts studies is surprisingly diverse. This diversity made the question of what The Martial Arts Studies Reader should include and exclude very hard to answer. Space was the ultimate issue. The hope was always for a single volume publication that could both give a good sense of the range of work being published in martial arts studies and offer unique and new contributions to it while also being of a manageable and affordable size. Not everything could be included. Only a selection of established and emergent scholars could be approached to contribute, covering some key areas from across the spectrum of concerns and research areas in martial arts studies. Unfortunately, not every field and area of research in martial arts studies is included here. Nor could they have been, given the inevitable limitations of space. In any case, this collection certainly does not seek to be the final word on the subject. Its orientation may be foundational, but its aim is not to be canonical, in the sense of presenting positions to be revered, claiming timelessness, or the universality of a small set of issues to be respected in perpetuity. Rather, the hope is to capture and convey something of the emerging constellation of martial arts studies, in its first full emergence in the Anglophone academic world.

Given both the historical and contemporary importance of China in many discourses on martial arts, it seemed reasonable to start with a focus on Chinese martial arts. Peter Lorge therefore opens the volume, with 'Early Chinese Works on Martial Arts'. This chapter traces the appearance, the contents and the categorizations used in the earliest Chinese texts on martial arts, beginning from the Bibliography section of the Hanshu, written by the historian Ban Gu (32–92 CE) and continuing up to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) (see Ban Gu 1998). Lorge argues that the meaning of martial arts works changed as the categories of intellectual inquiry with respect to martial matters evolved.

Staying with China, Douglas Wile then shows the intimate connection between martial and bedroom arts in China, in 'The Battlefield and the Bedroom: Chinese Martial Arts and Art of the Bedchamber'. Wile's chapter explores the rhetorical, theoretical and practical intersections between the Chinese martial arts and bedroom arts. On the rhetorical level, both bedroom arts (fangzhongshu) and martial arts (wushu) are referred to as arts (shu) because they require trained skill. Knowledge in these arts is encoded in canonical writings (jing), featuring mnemonic aphorisms (jue) and specialized vocabulary unique to the separate arts. Wile shows how they borrow language from the common metaphysical stock and from each other.

Next, Daniel Jaquet's chapter 'Martial Arts by the Book: Late Medieval and Early Modern European Martial Arts' provides an overview of the primary sources used in studying European martial arts – the corpus of texts known as the 'fight books'. Here, Jaquet focuses on texts written between the fourteenth century and the Industrial Revolution. He argues that even though this technical literature was mainly produced by and for what we today call martial artists, the knowledge recorded by the words and images often remains cryptic. This is because books are an imperfect and incomplete way to pass down embodied knowledge such as fighting. Nonetheless, Jaquet offers a compelling methodology and means of approach for use in the analysis of such material, which boils down to his threefold categorization of authorial intent: inscription, description and encryption. After illustrating this, Jaquet then reviews the development of academic studies of fight books and clarifies some of the key caveats, problems and possibilities for researchers working with such source material, especially when trying to access technical knowledge about historical fighting. In so doing, the chapter also reveals the perhaps-unexpected centrality of the field of historical European martial arts studies for researchers engaging not only with problems specific to martial arts studies but also key issues in a range of subjects, including history, cross-cultural studies, ethnography, anthropology, dance, theatre and performance studies.

After this focus on the development of historical European martial arts studies, Michael Molasky offers insights into the development of Asian martial arts in the United States, in his chapter, 'The Phone Book Project: Tracing the Diffusion of Asian Martial Arts in America through the Yellow Pages'. Molasky begins by acknowledging the inherent challenges in documenting any process of cultural reception. He then considers the particular difficulties in tracing the culturally diverse 150-year history of Asian martial arts in the United States. On the one hand, the American martial arts scene is distinguished by broad geographic variation rooted in local demographic and immigration patterns. On the other hand, as in other countries, the diffusion of martial arts was shaped by modes of transmission that range from personal instruction in martial arts classes to staged, simulated fighting in film, television and video games. In the case of post–Second World War America, however, returning soldiers from the nation's wars and ongoing military presence in the Asia-Pacific have played a critical role in spreading – and domesticating – East Asian martial arts, especially those from Japan (including Okinawa) and Korea. Despite the challenges in providing a thorough account of this complex history, Molasky argues that it is possible to trace the rough contours of this history; and he offers one approach, by focusing on adverts and information in the 'Yellow Pages' (or business directories of telephone books) from four American cities, between the years 1945 and 2000. By drawing attention to the central role played by these seemingly mundane sources, Molasky enriches our understanding of the changing ways Asian martial arts have been represented and understood over time.

In 'Martial Arts, Media and (Material) Religion', Esther Berg-Chan then turns our attention to the changing representations and understandings of martial arts, religion and their relation to each other, which she investigates from a religious studies perspective. As Berg-Chan notes, claiming martial arts as an object of religious studies and in turn claiming that religious studies has the potential to produce valuable insights for the field of martial arts studies might raise some eyebrows. The relation and (maybe not coincidentally) also the definition of both martial arts and religion are an issue of debate among both outside observers and practitioners. Consequently, she makes this very relation the object of her investigation, drawing on both a discourse theoretical approach and the perspective of material religion. Her objective is twofold: investigating different representations of kung fu and of the nineteenth-/twentieth-century Boxers' martial practices from a 'material religion' perspective, she draws our attention to the role martial arts may play in religious practices as 'mediators' (Latour) of religious and therapeutic aspirations. She further highlights the profound importance of popular media discourses and practices for the study of religions and martial arts past and present. At the same time, she argues that the particular understandings of martial arts, religion and their relation to each other articulated in the examples investigated are contingent but not arbitrary; that is, they each constitute one possible actualization amid multiple discursive potentialities that have been enabled and gained plausibility in specific historical and sociocultural processes and contexts. Such a discourse theoretical approach, she argues, has methodological consequences for the way in which the relation of martial arts and religion should be approached as an object of research within both religious and martial arts studies alike.


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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: What, Where and Why is Martial Arts Studies? Paul Bowman / 2. Early Chinese Works on Martial Arts Peter Lorge / 3. The Battlefield and the Bedroom: Chinese Martial Arts and Art of the Bedchamber Douglas Wile / 4. Martial Arts by the Book: Historical European Martial Arts Daniel Jaquet / 5. The Phone Book Project: Tracing the Diffusion of Asian Martial Arts in America Through the Yellow Pages, Michael Molasky / 6. Martial Arts, Media, and (Material) Religion, Esther Berg-Chan / 7. Liminoid Longings and Liminal Belonging: Hyper-reality, History and the Search for Meaning in the Modern Martial Arts, Benjamin N. Judkins / 8. ‘He’s an Animal’: Naturalizing the Hyperreal in Modern Combat Sport, Janet O’Shea / 9. Martial Arts as a Coping Strategy for Violence, Sixt Wetzler / 10. Performance Ethnography, D. S. Farrer / 11. Martial Arts Studies and the Sociology of Gender: Theory, Research and Pedagogical Application, Alex Channon / 12. Masculinities, Bodies, and Martial Arts, Dale C. Spencer / 13. Martial Arts as Embodied, Discursive, and Aesthetic Practice, Tim Trausch / 14. Carnival of the Drunken Master: The Politics of the Kung Fu Comedic Body, Luke White / 15. Learning from Martial Arts, Meaghan Morris and Paul Bowman

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