Sociocultural and Historical Aspects of Martial Arts in Southeast China from World War II to 2020

Henning Wittwer

Scholarly treatments of East Asian martial arts in the English language are still rare and occasionally leave a lot to be desired, which is why Hong Kong Martial Artists is a most welcome addition to the existing body of knowledge. With his new book Daniel Miles Amos affords his readers a captivating insight into the lived reality of martial arts teachers and students in Southeast China, particularly in the cities of Hong Kong and Guangzhou, from the 20th century until 2020. In doing so, he is able to rely on ethnographic data collected by him in that region from 1976 to the current pandemic (p. xvii). What caught my initial attention and what I consider to be especially worth mentioning is exactly this extended period of investigation. It enables the author to present not only his early findings on the subject matter but also to explain subsequent developments that happened during more than four decades. For the sake of a better comprehension, it was a useful decision to include Chinese characters for specific terminology and photos to support the text.

In more general terms, the book under review is a history of martial arts in Southeast China roughly from the time of World War II to recent times. Over 10 chapters in a mostly chronological order, Amos describes the lives and practices of martial artists based on his informant’s accounts and additional sources. He embeds this material in regional histories of Hong Kong and Guangzhou. As such his book may serve as a continuation of A History of Chinese Martial Arts,[i] published only three years before, which outlines China’s martial arts history ­– without focusing on a specific geographical zone – until the 1990s. Since informant’s names were anonymized by the author (p. xviii), some of them articulated surprisingly critical words about the Chinese Communist Party and its policies (p. 118) or, for example, the Chinese educational system (p. 103). Naturally, this kind of criticism is missing in A History of Chinese Martial Arts, a book originally published under the umbrella of the Ministry of Sport of China. At the same time, because of the disguised names, Amos’s text is less functional as a contemporary history per se.

However, more specifically, Amos delves deeply into the sociocultural situations of his research participants and draws detailed pictures of their martial arts and praxes associated with them. Readers will become aware that there was and is no uniformity in Southeast China’s martial traditions, neither in their designations, technical contents, morals, nor believe systems. While some martial arts became modernized and “reframed” as a performance sport by the state (p. 61), others, described by Amos as “kungfu cults” and “kungfu brotherhoods,” fulfill diverse purposes (p. 1). He explains the sociocultural dynamics within such groups as well as the way outside influences, for example globalization, effect regional cultural praxes like martial arts. Among other things in this connection, Amos presents lively descriptions of secret societies in Guangzhou and offers convincing analyses of them (p. 125). Based on his in-depth studies, he finally ventures to share a prognosis on the future of the “complex cultural systems of kungfu” in Hong Kong (p. 200), which reads well-reasoned.

When it comes to martial arts – even in today’s scholarly world – clichés are common. Amos’ nuanced, complex portrait of one martial arts teacher may serve as a helpful counterpart to imagined “Oriental Monks,” as Iwamura[ii]dubbed the fictional characters which were independent from the real and simultaneously co-opted or colonized the real, like the 1970s television kungfu hero “Kwai Chang Caine.” Based in the real world, Amos depicts a person who, besides leading a kungfu cult, engaged in stark alcohol and tobacco consumption, had to do day work as a kitchen laborer and waiter, got married and divorced, and developed serious health problems (p. 27). In this context the self-image of some informants is interesting, too. Amos gives examples of individuals who regarded themselves as a “Chinese knight errant” (p. 105) or stated that they are able to master “spirit possession” (p. 192), which in turn may be considered by outsiders as a kind of transfiguration, or at least as a romanticized attitude towards their martial training. Yet, mentioning these few examples from the text cannot but disguise the remarkable variety of individual characters, each with their own ideas on martial arts and society examined in the text. In fact, even after I had finished reading the book for the first time, all the colourful life stories resonated with me for days. In the best case, other anthropologists will follow Amos’ example and conduct similar long-term research projects on martial arts groups in other parts of Asia. This would make possible comparisons of various aspects like the social strata to which the martial artists in different areas belong, as well as their ideologies and evolutions.

If I had to criticize something about the book, I would wish for a little more editorial vigor here and there. For example, in one instance, the family name “Wong” is written when “Chau” is probably meant (p. 14). In another case, the reader finds “Golden Park Association” instead of “Golden Pork Association” (p. 32). With conscientious reading, the messages are still understandable in these cases; however, ultimately a certain level of ambiguity remains. Apart from that the book truly is a rare gem.

In short Amos’ work is a unique contribution to the understanding of historical, contentual, and sociocultural aspects of Southeast China’s martial arts. Sinologists and students of sinology will find it useful in better comprehending the diverse roles martial arts played in contemporary Chinese society. Students of Asian studies in general may be provided with insights and inspiration for future research – for example, similar investigations in other Asian regions. Moreover, it may prove to be a meaningful source for teachers and practitioners of Chinese martial arts who are eager to learn more about the history and culture of their pursuit.


[i] Huang, Fuhua and Fan Hong (eds.). 2019. A History of Chinese Martial Arts. London: Routledge.

[ii] Jane Naomi Iwamura. 2011. Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 111