“The classic trope of the hero’s journey demands that the hero figure venture far away from home and face exotic danger to fulfill his/her destiny.”
We’ve had a burst of academic activity in the area of martial arts study this year (or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention before).
Since I started reading the website Kung Fu Tea, overseen and often written by academic writer and Wing Chun practitioner Ben Judkins (currently a Visiting Scholar at Cornell University and author of Creation of Wing Chun, The: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts with Jon Nielson), I’ve been more on top of the books in this area.
I am a recovering academic myself (having done a MA in English Literature and a Library degree and now working at UC Berkeley), so following doctor’s orders, I have mostly avoided reading academic articles and books since my last schoolwork in 2008.
Some of these works do suffer from the issues plaguing much academic writing, namely they are sometimes slow and a bit of a slog. And yet, they are doing the legwork for the rest of us, investigating the history of our martial systems and trying to separate fact from fiction and wheat from chaff.
I still can read “academic” more or less. Thankfully, the writers in Martial Studies are better than most and are blessed with a subject matter with more juice than the stuff I read on Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism back in the day.
It helps a lot when the field is new and you are not writing in some tiny corner of the subject. These guys, like Ben himself, Jared Miracle, Charles Russo, and so on, can write the broad strokes and big ideas. In 20 years, the the academics who follow in their footsteps will be doing articles on the Marxist Implications of Drunken Boxing Practices in 1920s Shanghai and the like.
Now with Kung Fu Grip! How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America by Jared Miracle (what a cool name!) is a new book taking a fresh look at some elements of recent martial arts history. Dr. Miracle (yes, I know, he sounds like a superhero, but he actually has a PhD. in anthropology from Texas A&M) covers a wide range of subjects in this book, but they are all really one — where do our ideas about physical power come from?
He examines the development of physical culture in the US (from Dr. Kellogg to Eugene Sandow and Superman) and shows how this intersected with the arrival on our shores of the Asian martial arts (through American servicemen, Japanese and Chinese immigrants, and especially through TV and the movies).
The area I found most fascinating in this book (and this is a thread that has run through all the books I’ve read recently on the culture of martial arts) is how our ideas and even histories have been overtly manufactured, invented, and often, completely made-up!
In my articles, I often taken the Chinese martial arts to task because of the high BS quotient in our arts. This BS quotient has led directly to such counter-reactions as Bruce Lee’s anti-“Classical Mess” arguments, Joe Rogan’s comments about kung fu, and a general outpouring of disrespect against Chinese fighting systems.
But from reading Miracle’s book (and other martial histories) its clear that much of what has been preached as gospel and factual history in martial circles was completely made up or have origins quite different from what you would expect.