Dr Paul Bowman on Making Martial Arts History Matter (2016)

A few months ago I (Richard) wrote a post titled Why Should Practitioners Care About Martial Arts History?  I spoke about this on Whistlekick Live in December 2020, thanks to host Jeremy Lesniak. 

(Note the Pedro Sauer gi over my work shirt.)

Whistlekick Live, 2 December 2020

Thanks to a post in a private Facebook group, I came across a quote from a 2016 article by Dr Paul Bomwan titled Making Martial Arts History Matter. As I read the entire paper, I realized I had encountered some or all of the material before -- probably in one of Dr Bowman's excellent books.

I decided to highlight a few passages here, as they speak to the relevance of martial arts history. I thought Dr Bowman's article was well-cited and made several compelling points. I have added all of the emphasis in bold to Dr Bowman's original material.

"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 effectively 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. This 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 different corners of China.[13] We want Okinawan farmers to have fought samurai with rice flails. 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 flown at each other through the air, kicking each other off horses with flying sidekicks and jumping spinning back kicks. 

The 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..."

[T]here is big business, big PR, and myriad financial 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].

[D]espite their palpable and verifiable reality, neither history nor tradition are actually givens, simple referents or neutral entities. They are neither fixed nor permanent; they can be rewritten, revised, and transformed in any number of ways, just as they can be, and often are, used to manipulate and manage both people and practices...

[W]hat 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 effects 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]

[T]here 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 effectively managed.[44]...

[I]t does not actually seem to be a care for history at all... 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. This means that certain valuations of history are at root investments in myth...

[P]art 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. The longer the history, the better. 

This is because history functions within this orientation as a fetish category around, through and in terms of which practitioners fantasize.[57] The age and origin of such arts become key coordinates in what Edward Said called an ‘imagined geography’.[58]...

[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 specific 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 fights, legendary locations, the proven superiority of ‘our’ art, and so on. 

This 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?

[W]hat does the martial artist actually ‘need’?

Lyotard proposes that the key alternative and major antagonist facing ‘narrative knowledge’ is what he calls ‘scientific knowledge’. Scientific 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, scientific knowledge is legitimated through performativity – through the performative, regular, stable, and predictable demonstration of efficiency and effectiveness. And I think that this provides us with the clue necessary for establishing the source of alternative approaches to the legitimation of martial arts: their performative efficiency.

Most martial arts claim not just narrative (historical) legitimacy but also, at the same time, often primarily, legitimacy based on efficacy.[67] All practices taught as martial arts make some claim to practical combative or self-defence utility. The 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 verification or verifiability of martial arts efficacy fully into martial arts discourse.[68]..."

I hope these excerpts carried the main points of Dr Bowman's paper. His last point is not as self-evident as his previous statements, but it resonated with the point I made in my blog post about "Technician Conformists," namely, that "correctly replicating the techniques requires faith that the art's methods worked at some point in an unconstrained conflict."

History consists of events that were current for someone, whether they are alive or long gone. If one believes that truth matters now, then it should matter for the past as well. Martial History Team exists to promote martial arts history based on sound evidence and sourced research. We do this not to disrespect anyone's beliefs, but to provide the healthiest foundation for their traditions. 

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