Reinventing Martial Arts in the 21st Century: Eastern Stimulus, Western Response

Henning Wittwer

What happens to certain types of knowledge from Asia after they have reached Europe or America and gained a foothold there, or how do they then develop in their new homeland? In his new book, George Jennings sets out to explore this question from the perspective of a cultural sociologist and sports scientist using the example of selected martial arts from East Asia. He combines his regional observations from Wales and Great Britain with his descriptions of more international developments, especially in the Western hemisphere. As the title suggests, Jennings examines certain "longer-term trends" in martial arts from the first decades of the 21st century to the present (p. 5). At the same time, he emphasises "that martial arts do not exist in a vacuum, but alongside wide range of physical cultures, forms of popular culture and material productions" (p. 126). This important insight has been brilliantly elaborated before in studies such as Amos's on martial artists in Hong Kong.1  Daniel Miles Amos. 2021. Hong Kong Martial Artists: Sociocultural Change from World War II to 2020. London: Rowman & Littlefield  Because of their contrasting perspectives – Amos looks at martial arts in China, Jennings at martial arts in Europe and America – the work reviewed here and that of Amos can, in my opinion, be read profitably one after the other or side by side.

Jennings facilitates the introduction to the topic by presenting his definition of the term "martial arts" (pp. 6). All chapters in the book, each of which is followed by its own bibliography, have content-related points of connection to his definition provided at the beginning. From a purely linguistic point of view, it must be mentioned that Jennings writes technical terms such as specific names for individual martial arts originating in Asia in the way they appear in popular Western media today. As a result, the same term may appear in different spellings in the book. For example, Jennings once gives the Japanese name of a martial art with the better transcription "Ninjutsu" (p. 39), but more often with "Ninjitsu" (p. xx, 111). From a linguistic point of view, the book also introduces interesting new "word formations" by Western martial arts representatives, such as the word combination "McDojo" made up of the Gaelic "Mc" and the Japanese "Dojo". The phenomena summarised by the term "McDojo" are examined in detail by the author (pp. 101).

Already in his preface, he provides clear indications of an intricate but also interesting constellation with his description of a weekend seminar of a martial arts school based in Great Britain: The British organiser had learned from a Macao-born bearer of that martial arts knowledge, invited two of his US-American students as seminar leaders and welcomed guests from Greece in addition to participants from Great Britain (pp. x). It is thus immediately clear that such knowledge originating in Asia must have influenced the lives of people from different Western nations. However, what may seem a self-evident process from today's perspective was by no means always the norm, as Jennings' collected data show. For example, as late as the early 1980s, most Chinese martial arts schools in London were said to be accessible only to people of Chinese descent (p. 27). This is an indication that intercultural knowledge transfer was only possible after certain barriers had been removed. However, the interesting question of how these barriers were removed is not the focus of the book reviewed here.

Readers very quickly understand that there is no uniformity in the world of martial arts, which possibly contributes to their appeal to active practitioners, outside lay people and occasional scholars who study their aspects. The division of the book into three parts with different emphases therefore seems sensible. Different ideas and approaches of five male persons whose lives have been strongly influenced by martial arts are presented and discussed in the third part of the book by way of example, using ethnographic data provided by the author. Here the reader learns, among other things, that teachers within this milieu usually also actively practice the martial arts they teach, which distinguishes them from a coach in football, for example (p. 31). This may come as a surprise to some readers who have so far seen martial arts more as a hobby for children. In fact, the case studies in the book repeatedly indicate that martial artists consider their hobby horse a lifelong practice.

In the second part, the book deals on the one hand with various efforts to have indigenous martial arts recognised and protected by official bodies such as UNESCO. On the other hand, it sheds light on private initiatives that make use of the modern possibilities of the internet (social media) to spread their messages regarding authentic or dubious martial arts.

Prior to this, Jennings describes in the first part how he would conceptualise two specific martial arts originating in China and practiced in the UK as "art". In the same part of the book, he discusses initiatives by Western protagonists who have gained certain experiences in Asian martial arts, on the basis of which they have created and marketed mixed systems of movement for general well-being, forms of therapy for specific ailments or even ways of self-help. This is evidence both of a creative use of such Asian-derived knowledge and of the skilful exploitation of a halo effect surrounding the Asian martial arts in the Western hemisphere. Jennings does not approach these developments uncritically, however, and points out fallacies, for example, in a self-help book published by the daughter of actor Bruce Lee (p. 65).

Although Jennings refers to "Western popular orientalist imagination" in connection with martial arts (p. 102), in the ninth chapter he contrasts two ways of life which, according to him, correspond to "a more spiritual, Eastern perspective on martial arts and life" on the one hand and are supposed to follow "Western training methods of lifting weights and sporting practices" on the other (p. 163). I was unable to find a possible resolution or discussion of this essentially orientalist division in the further course of the book. Sufficient and less ambiguous would have been formulations indicating that in one of his ethnographic case studies interest in spiritual ideas and various Asian belief systems played a greater role, while in the second case physical fitness was brought to the fore.

I found the tension raised by Jennings between excessive commercialisation of certain aspects of martial arts (pp. 101) and financial difficulties of some martial artists in Britain (p. xvii, p. 88, p. 96, p. 166) revealing. In contrast to the financial suffering of some players in the UK, China has been pumping astonishingly large amounts of money into promoting domestic martial arts projects in recent decades.2  Lu, Zhouxiang. 2018. Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 169  "Chinese stimulus" with regard to martial arts can therefore be expected to continue, while "older" martial arts activities that have already arrived in the West may become more sparse.

Finally, what struck me positively was the enthusiasm with which Jennings obviously wrote his work. Here and there he mentions research ideas and possible research projects related to the topics of his book (p. 139). For sinologists with the appropriate inclination, for example, his idea of a study of rare Chinese martial arts in Wales, Britain, would be a worthwhile task. Quite similar projects could be envisaged for other countries in Europe, which could of course also involve martial arts of Japan, Korea, etc.

In summary, Jennings’ work provides an overview of some of the trends affecting Asian martial arts in Europe and America. Students of Asian studies who are interested in the reception of Asian martial arts in the narrower sense, but also Asian arts in the broader sense, may find the book useful. It may provide a better and perhaps new understanding of martial arts as practised and disseminated outside Asia and inspire future research projects.