The YMCA Consensus

Sometimes for an intellectual project to move forward, a whole body of study has to be given a proper name. In this post I intend to coin a new term, The YMCA Consensus.

Some aspects of my first book, Possible Origins, are speculative. That is, I make the case that my explanation is the best explanation given what we know about culture and context; however, I leave open the possibility that even better explanations may come along. But the last section of my book is not speculative, it is simply an assembly of established relevant historical material about the changes that happened to martial arts, theater and religion between 1890 and 1940. 

The problem I was confronting was that most of the writing about Chinese martial arts history for the period neglected the larger changes happening in society. Because I had been reading about Chinese theater and religion in addition to reading about martial arts, I knew most scholars were getting parts of the story wrong. 

In 2011 David Chapman wrote a fantastic summary of the conflicts in modern Buddhism in which he coined the term Consensus Buddhism. His work is a powerful investigation of the way religion and culture interact, and how East meets West. It is essential reading for people interested in the history, dissemination and evolution of martial arts. 

So building on Chapman's work I would like to coin the term the "YMCA Consensus" to describe the transition to modernity that happened in China between 1890 and 1940. Specifically it refers to the process by which people came to see theater, religion and martial arts as separate subjects.

Under the new Republic (1911), the Young Men's Christian Association became the model of acceptable religious institutions. All religious organizations had to have outreach, charity, a membership, a regular constituency, a popular moral code for upright living, and many other elements of Evangelical Protestantism. Most importantly ritual was repressed and ridiculed if not outright banned. Theater which put gods and demons on the stage as sources of divine power was soundly rejected along with exorcisms of any kind. Martial arts which had been integrated with theater and religion had to be purified of its superstitious and backwards elements so that it could be taught at the YMCA. At first this movement was called Jingwu, pure martial arts. Later it was called Guoshu, national martial arts. And after 1949 it was called Wushu, the Communist name for defanged and atheist performance oriented martial arts in service of the state. The YMCA Consensus was established between 1911 and 1920. (All the well known martial arts publications were post-YMCA Consensus, although Sun Lutang, who was among the first to publish in 1915, still has some explicit religious content.)

There are only two scholarly books that discuss what I am calling the YMCA Consensus in terms of martial arts, Ben Judkins, Creation of Wing Chun, and Andrew Morris, Marrow of the Nation. Although both are excellent, neither addresses the parallel processes going on with religion and theater which are necessary for defining the YMCA Consensus. 

Previous scholars who have peeked in around the edges of this subject have most often referred to the YMCA Consensus as Nationalism, by which they usually mean Fascism. Understandably scholars wish to use the same terminology when discussing both China's and Japan's transitions to Modernity, but I'm afraid the parallels do not justify it, they are simply too different. Discussions of Communism sometimes get mixed in also--Communism broke the records for mass torture and intentional starvation of the Chinese people--but Communism did not change peoples understanding of martial arts, it simply continued the YMCA Consensus established earlier. Studies of theater and the arts use those same terms and also use the term Modernity to refer specifically to the process of aesthetic purification. Religious scholars use the term Protestant, or Protestantization, to describe the effects of the consensus. They also use Scientization to refer to the project of making inner alchemy, qigong, and martial arts scientific. This was done mainly by adopting scientific sounding language which conferred authority under the new consensus. I think the YMCA Consensus is a much better term for the whole intellectual project and the study of it. What do you think?

If anyone knows the provenance of this amazing picture I would love to know too!

For more books on the YMCA Consensus see my book reviews page.

It you are near the University of Minnesota, you might want to dig into the YMCA China archive.