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ISSN 1652–7224 ::: Published 9 May 2012
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Martial art covers a wide variety of forms of combat, mostly traditional and mostly of Asian origins, although the term martial arts, derived from Latin and referring to the Roman war god Mars, was originally used to describe combat systems in sixteenth century Europe. Today, some martial arts have crossed over into sport; termed combat sports, they include boxing, kickboxing, amateur wrestling, judo, mixed martial arts, Muay Thai and Swordsmanship, some of which are recognized by the IOC and included in the Olympic games. However, the traditional Asian martial arts, untainted by the sportification process, are being studied by academic scholars with less interest in sport than in the philosophical, cultural and social aspects of the practice. This is evident in a new collection of essays from SUNY Press, Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World, edited by D. S. Farrer and John Whalen-Bridge. Most of the contributors to the volume are practitioners of the martial arts as well as schilars, and the book’s cutting-edge research includes ethnography and approaches from film, literature, performance, and theater studies. Three central aspects emerge: martial arts as embodied fantasy, as a culturally embedded form of self-cultivation, and as a continuous process of identity formation. We managed to get an exceptionally well qualified reviewer for this book; Anna Kavoura is herself a martial arts practitioner in the process of concluding a dissertation on martial arts and gender. Her review is thoroughly appreciative and her recommendation of the book unambiguous.

Significant and innovative

Anna Kavoura
University of Jyväskylä, Finland

D. S. Farrer & John Whalen-Bridge (red)
Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World
249 sidor, inb.
Albany, NY: State University of New York Press 2011
ISBN 978-1-4384-3967-9

It was with great joy and excitement that I accepted to review this book. As a judo and Brazilian jiu jitsu athlete myself, and as a researcher interested in issues of gender, culture and equality in the martial arts domain, various books and articles on martial arts fall into my hands. However, I got immediately excited about this book, because already from the title I could say that Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World is not an ordinary book on martial arts. While much has been written so far regarding the training methods of various oriental combat systems, as well as their history and their philosophy, far too little attention has been paid to issues such as embodiment, or the understanding of martial arts through cultural and historical experience. In fact, martial art studies is a newly emerging field. The editors D.S. Farrer and John Whalen-Bridge aim to introduce the reader to this area of studies by presenting a wide range of essays on Asian martial arts.

A few words about the editors are in order here. Social anthropologist and martial arts expert D. S. Farrer has published widely in the field of martial arts studies. His scholarly endeavors include ethnographic research on Malay and Chinese martial arts. John Whalen-Bridge has published many articles on American literature in relation to Buddhism and Orientalism. Being located in Singapore, he has existential experiences of the orient traditions. Furthermore, the editors have done a great job in selecting contributors for this volume. Experts from different academic disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology and cultural studies, that are also dedicated martial art practitioners, have contributed to the production of this very authentic and innovative work.

The format of the book is simple. On the cover there is a kung fu illustration from 1950’s Singapore. In fact, one can find some quite old and rare images in the book, probably taken from the personal archives of the authors. A table of contents and a list of illustrations in the beginning of the book help the reader to locate easily information in the book. The text flows smoothly and the headings and subheads are clear. At the end of the book the contributors are presented. There are notes and a list of references at the end of each chapter that help the reader to find the exact sources that were used for each essay.

The essays are divided into three thematic sections. The central aspect of the first section is martial arts as embodied fantasy. It deals with the representation of oriental martial arts heroes in films and literature, as well as what effects the interpretation of these images has had on the evolution of Asian martial arts. The essays in this section explore all levels of interpretation (individual, national and international), as well as the correlations between them. John Whalen-Bridge, Paul Bowman and Jie Lu discuss martial arts discourse in several popular novels and films, such as Don DeLillo’s Running Dog, Bruce Lee movies and Chinese wuxia films.

Anthropological fieldwork concerning how the social body trains in martial arts is presented in the second section. Jean-Marc de Grave and Stephane Rennesson introduce remarkable findings from their research projects on the Indonesian and Thai martial arts. In their essays, different ways to approach bodily action are discussed by exploring the distinct sensory rationality of pancak silat or the social definition of a Thai boxer’s body and the various networks around it.

In the third part, Martin Welton, Stephen Chan and D.S. Farrer examine matters of self-construction associated with transnational martial arts training. The travel of kalaripayattu from India to the United Kingdom, the training of Japanese martial arts in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and the maintenance of Chinese kung fu in contemporary Singapore are the themes of the essays in the concluding section. Taken together, these essays indicate the continual adaptation of traditional martial arts to the changing environments around them.

Overall, I consider this book a significant and very innovative piece of work that is a must read for everyone interested in martial arts studies. Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge shows that traditional martial arts cannot be studied as static entities; the social, cultural and historical context needs to be taken into consideration. I have to say here that a strong quest exists within the general sport studies scholarship (sport sociology and psychology) for an opening-up of the field to methodologies sensible to cultural hybridity. This volume will definitely satisfy all these scholars that argue for a consideration of the social and cultural influences in the study of sports.

As a gender scholar and as a female martial artist myself, I was delighted to read Jie Lu’s chapter on body and masculinity in Chinese martial art films. However, I would have liked to read more about the gender discourse around various martial art cultures. The contributors (of which all but Jie Lu are men) did not address such issues in this volume, but this must be done in future research. In general, this book provides insights for further work in several directions. Since martial arts studies is a field that emerged just recently, several questions can be thrown up for further investigation.

In conclusion, allow me to mention some of the reasons why I enjoyed reading this book. It made me wonder about issues such as the hybridity of my personal style as a martial artist, my travels for martial arts training, as well as my own interpretations of my favorite martial art movies. In addition, before reading this book I knew very little about the amazing practices of martial art styles such as pencak silat and kalaripayattu. Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge offers food for deep thought and adds substantially to our understanding of traditional Asian martial arts.

© Anna Kavoura 2012.

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Buy Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge from | Editor Kjell E. Eriksson | Publisher Kristian Sjövik