Martial Arts Social Movements

A new (composite) thought about martial arts social movements.

There are three types of martial arts social movements.  For the sake of neat categories we will call them Nationalist, Universalist, and Trader.  I will explain each in turn.  Each type of social movement contains a unique value system and has identifying characteristics that can allow us to understand most of the conflicts that happen between them.  

Nationalist, socialist, fascist, anti-colonialist, anarcho-feminist (etc), irredentist, or revolutionary—these martial arts social movements are structured to be in service of “the cause.”  While these movements often take on the language of modernity (science, purity, rationality, progress), it is used as a test of conformity rather than a defining characteristic of these arts.1 

  • These martial arts social movements treat dance/dancing either as a weakness to be suppressed and ridiculed, or a romantic bouquet of flowers to remind them of their claim to a place (or identity) it is often called “folk” dance. 
  • Religion is either a unified monotheistic structure or a militant atheist one.  A few outliers may have made “the cause” itself into a religion.  Polytheism, paganism, improvisation, and open-ended spiritual exploration are all violations of the creed.  
  • Titles within the system are actual ranks in a social structure.
  • Self-defense is a justification more than it is a method.   

Universalist2 martial arts social movements pride themselves on their ability to assimilate (suck in) techniques from anywhere and everywhere.  They assemble a progressive method and then promote it as gospel.  Mix Martial Arts (MMA) is a great example.  Muay Thai is a Nationalist movement inside of Thailand, but a Universalist one outside.3 Olympic Judo and Boxing are Universalist too.  Wushu is born out a contradiction between its Universalist character and its Nationalist aims.   

  • The advocates or this tradition are called coaches or trainers (artists are competitors).    
  • Self-defense is largely part of a fantasy about what violence looks like.  

Trader martial arts social movements are named after the trader peoples: Jews, Sogdians, Gujarati, and Senegalese.4 These peoples have traditionally sought out things of value to buy or learn and then taken them to other places to sell rather than sticking to a place or a social hierarchy.  

  • These martial arts social movements can be like antiques, preserved and quirky, or well cared for.  They can also be new inventions, or re-packaged products.  
  • The major characteristic of this social movement is that the story about the art is inseparable from the art as a product.  
  • Modularity is common because any attribute can be sold as a separate product.  Self-defense is simply an attribute.  Kick-boxing conditioning can be packaged for weight-loss.  Taijiquan can be sold as medicine.  
  • Antiques are of little value without their story.  New assemblages must have a creation story.  


 What is a thought?  My regular readers know what a thought is, but most people in the world do not.  This is particularly obvious to me when I mix in academic circles where knowledge production or nuance of argument is the goal.   

A thought is a verbal construction which changes the way people see or perceive a social institution.  Thoughts are tools for understanding how things (ideas, behaviors, movements, objects, principles) are constructed and organized.  Thoughts are very powerful because they allow us to sort, re-frame, re-organize, re-start, filter, group, and interpret.5

Thoughts are not about knowledge, they are about knowing how we know.  Some thoughts are specific to a milieu, and some thoughts are more general.  Some thoughts are composites of other thoughts, others are re-workings of established thoughts to new contexts.  And very rarely, a new thought is actually generated.  The total number of original thoughts is probably less than fifty.6

Richard Rorty warned against the “narcissism of a good idea.”7 Thoughts which have the power to organize and re-frame are seductive.  They carry with them the danger of obsession.  The image of the Wizard of Oz insisting that everyone wear his rose colored glasses comes to mind.  The more thoughts we apply to our studies the safer we are from this “narcissism” because we can use one thought to counter another.   

The thought above is obviously a composite of other thoughts.  It’s value is that it can be used to see conflicts between these different martial arts social movements.  Each movement has an ethos and an ethic.8 

The field (or anti-field) of martial arts studies needs some common dreams so that we can talk to each other.9This is my contribution.  


1Morris (2004) and Cohen (1997).

2Shweder (1991)

3Rennesson (2011)


5Phillips (1988-1998)


7Rorty (1999)

8Shweder (2003)

9Douglas (1986)


Allen, Ernest.  “‘When Japan Was Champion of the Darker Races’:  Satokata Takahashi and the Flowering of Black Messianic Nationalism” in The Black Scholar 24 (Winter 1994): 23-46. 

Cohen, Paul A. History in three keys: The Boxers as event, experience, and myth. Columbia University Press, 1997.

Douglas, Mary. How institutions think. Syracuse University Press, 1986.

Jackson, George. Soledad brother: The prison letters of George Jackson. Chicago Review Press, 1970.

Meyer, Michael A. The Origins of the Modern Jew: Jewish Identity and European Culture in Germany, 1749-1824. Wayne State University Press, 1972.

Morris, Andrew D. Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China. Vol. 10. Univ of California Press, 2004.

Phillips, Michael.  Social Thought, a radio show that played for ten years on NPR.  1988-1998.

Rennesson, Stéphane. "Thai Boxing: Networking of a Polymorphous Clinch”." Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge (2011): 145-60.

Rorty, Richard. "Achieving our country: Leftist thought in twentieth-century America." (1999).

Shweder, Richard A. Thinking through cultures: Expeditions in cultural psychology. Harvard University Press, 1991.

Shweder, Richard A. Why do men barbecue?: Recipes for cultural psychology. Harvard University Press, 2003. 

Sowell, Thomas. Migrations and cultures: a world view. Basic Books,1996.