Political Conflict and the Martial Arts

In social conflict, martial arts emerge not only as direct confrontations, but particularly in politically stratified situations (e.g., in colonial contexts) oppressed groups commonly employ martial arts to confront oppressors symbolically. In such cases martial arts have been utilized to support sociopolitical action pursued by subordinated groups. Such strategies draw on both indigenous combative traditions and newly synthesized systems as focal points for resistance. Examples of the former are provided by the Chinese Boxer Rebellion (1900), the fugitive slave resistance of the Brazilian macambos (nineteenth century), Okinawan opposition to Japanese Sat-suma domination (seventeenth-nineteenth centuries), and Indonesian resistance to Dutch colonization (eighteenth-twentieth centuries). The latter strategy emerges in modern taekwondo and Vovinam-Viet Vo Dao.

The martial traditions in the first category share common elements: indigenous origins that promote ethnic pride, a belief in the superiority of their techniques to competing systems (particularly those of the dominant group), notions of elitism within an oppressed ethnic group, the belief in the ability to magically generate power that confers invulnerability and invincibility, and a body of oral tradition that substantiates claims as to origins and efficacy. The catalyst for their symbolic deployment in cultural conflict comes with the perception of a politically dominated status.

Responses to sociocultural disorganization that culminate in movements to regenerate traumatized populations and synthesize new world-views have been labeled by Anthony F. C. Wallace as cultural revitalization movements. The revitalization response may be triggered by various forms of stress; however, in the cases considered here the stress is political (e.g., military invasion, economic hegemony). While such movements are, essentially, politically motivated, their trappings are most often spiritual/religious. Frantz Fanon notes that when a people want to regain a sense of self-worth they return to ancient religions and creation myths in order to validate cultural or political resistance. Martial arts practitioners often claim that their esoteric martial traditions have their origins in the remote legendary, or even mythic, past. This feature of martial arts lends itself to revitalization strategies. Finding solutions for current pressures in terms of past events provides a point of cohesion for oppressed people.

Moreover, in the majority of cases of cultural revitalization (whether they seek a return to a past “golden age” or a new world order) there is the implementation of a special ethnic or religious identity (often as a means of directly confronting stereotypes imposed by dominant groups) for purposes of unification. These ethnic and religious identities engender feelings of elitism among the subordinated group and create a debased image of the dominant group, thus establishing the basis (and justification) for ethnic warfare. In the martial traditions under consideration, it is common for practitioners to argue for the superiority of their tradition over systems maintained among oppressors.

A painting of a burning station and derailed train on the Manchurian railway, with Chinese Nationalists celebrating their action during the Boxer Rebellion, ca. 1900.

A painting of a burning station and derailed train on the Manchurian railway, with Chinese Nationalists celebrating their action during the Boxer Rebellion, ca. 1900.

Colonial situations provide a vast array of case studies on the role of martial arts in revitalization. The reasons for the correspondence between colonialism and revitalization are obvious. There is a dominant-dominated relationship between two groups who differ in terms of culture, ethnic identification, and political loyalties. In addition, there are feelings of relative deprivation on the part of the dominated group and a conviction that a prevailing religious, social, or political system has failed them. Thus, an alternative that can confront the current dilemma must emerge to prevent collapse of the dominated culture.

Despite the spiritual orientation of many of these movements, there remains a potential for conflict with the dominant group. For example, the Ghost Dance movement that swept the western United States from 1888 to 1890 as espoused by the Paiute messiah Wovoka—despite prophecies foretelling the eradication of the whites—was pacifistic in orientation. Wovoka urged his followers to cooperate and enter into no conflicts with whites. As the religion spread from the Basin Cultures of Nevada to the Northern Plains Cultures, the rhetoric became increasingly militant, and the power that would bring about renewal was increasingly drawn upon for protection in warfare through the creation of “Ghost Dance Shirts” that would turn aside knives and bullets in battle. These “Ghost Shirts” were based on a traditional Plains model, the war shirt, which, like the ghost shirt, was painted with magical symbols designed to protect the wearer.

Anthropologist James C. Scott’s observations regarding magic in mil-lenarian movements are illuminating. He considers a belief in invulnerability engendered by magical means to be a standard feature of most millenar-ian movements. In the case of millenarian movements, both the oppressors and the power that supports their regime are to be negated by supernatural intervention. In one form or another, many indigenous martial arts claim to invest practitioners with supernormal powers, including resistance to injury or even invulnerability. Therefore, in certain cases not only is there a general divine mantle of protection created through the use of ritual practice or talismans, but also the resistance incorporates indigenous esoteric martial systems into its arsenal. Unlike the doctrines accompanying the movement that may be new revelations, esoteric militarism turns a traditional fighting art— with all its traditional powers—to new goals.

Perhaps the most widely known example of the use of esoteric martial arts in resisting political domination is found in the Boxer Rebellion. Rising during the Chinese Qing monarchy, the Boxers responded to attempts to colonize China from without and to modernize the nation from within at the close of the nineteenth century. In about 1898, members of a secret society of martial artists called Yi He Tuan (Righteous Harmonious Fist) arose against modernization and foreign influence. The Yi He Tuan (or I Ho) Boxers claimed that their rites rendered them impervious to bullets. With the invulnerability promised by their esoteric tradition and the blessings of Empress Dowager Ci Xi, they began a campaign of terrorism by attacking Christian missionaries, destroying symbols of foreign influence (e.g., telegraph lines), and ultimately storming the Legation Quarter in Beijing in June of 1900. Susan Naquin, in her analysis of the White Lotus sects of nineteenth-century China, reports similar claims of invulnerability to various weapons in these and related sects that combined esotericism with boxing.

Similarly, during the Dutch colonial period in Indonesia, esoteric indigenous martial traditions played a role. According to contemporary sources, in Java the secrets of the system of Southeast Asian combat called pentjak or pencak silat have been guarded largely because of the role played by groups of silat adepts in the fight for independence from the Dutch in the wake of World War II. At least some of these secrets entail the ways of developing tenaga dalam, a form of mystical energy utilized in various styles of silat. Like the power of the Ghost Shirt and that engendered by the Boxers’ exercises, tenaga dalam is said to turn aside bullets. According to some sources, the origins of silat should be traced to the variety of Islamic mysticism called Sufism. Clearly, the extraordinary powers be-lieved to follow in the wake of Sufi enlightenment would prove an asset to the practice of silat. Although the connections between pentjak silat and Sufism are based primarily on oral traditions at this point, the esoteric martial system appears to have originated in a milieu that saw the rise of a religious tradition that had as at least one of its goals the generation of mystical power. Especially in the light of other esoteric martial traditions, the subsequent incorporation of magical elements of silat into the final struggle against Dutch colonialism (1945-1949) was predictable. Moreover, the fact that some Javanese claim the Dutch were ousted because of the magical superiority of silat over European technological warfare suggests that the martial tradition as a whole, as distinct from any individual technical aspects of it, bolstered ethnic and national pride. Accordingly, we see not merely a connection to a colonial rebellion, but to incipient Indonesian nationalism as well.

A photo of the Ghost Dance of the Arapaho Indians, who believed the ritual would make them invincible, ca. 1900.

A photo of the Ghost Dance of the Arapaho Indians, who believed the ritual would make them invincible, ca. 1900.

From neighboring Malaysia, James Scott reports compelling evidence of a bond between millenarianism and esoteric martial traditions when the eruption of Malaysian urban race riots in 1969 brought attention to the Red Sash Society (Pertubohan Selendang Merah), whose membership included not only politicians and religious figures but silat masters as well. The ties between ethnicity, nationalism, religion, and martial esotericism are clear in the Red Sash Society’s dedication to defending the race and religion and its relationship to UMNO (United Malay Nationalists’ Organization) politicians. Similarly, ten years later, the 30,000-member organization Nasrul Haq (NH) was singled out not only for its suspect political connections, but because of claims that members of NH posed a threat to the prevailing social order not only by teaching silat and allowing female participation, but also by practicing magical chants and engaging in trances. Both practices suggest a connection to martial esotericism. For Malaysia as a whole, the record demonstrates the reappearance of millennial and ecstatic Islamic cults during virtually every episode of historical crisis. It is likely that research would reveal crucial ways in which religion, silat, and nationalism are intertwined in these movements.

Okinawan martial arts oral tradition depicts similar ethnic and cultural struggles, supported in similar ways by the esoteric indigenous art of di, or te (hand). Like all folk histories, these narratives are sometimes at odds with the written record. Nevertheless, the historical traditions of te trace its development as an underground art to the conquest of the Ryukyu Islands by the Shimazu clan of Satsuma in southern Japan (Kyushu Island) in 1609. At this time, the private possession of weapons, banned by Okinawan king Sho Shin’s edict of the late fifteenth century, came to be more stringently enforced by the Shimazu, as did prohibitions on the practice of the arts of war. Oral tradition maintains that Ryukyuans (Okinawans) continued to practice martial arts at odd hours and in secret locations to avoid detection, and that for over three hundred years te was practiced secretly and transmitted orally or by means of privately transcribed “secret texts.” After the Satsuma conquest and until the Meiji Restoration (1868), Okinawans were systematically oppressed. Oral narratives among practitioners of te consistently embody the theme of turning adversity to strength via martial esotericism, a theme that is consistent with the situations described above. In addition, these traditions maintain that the practice of te leads to the development of ki (Japanese) or qi (Chinese; chi)—a form of intrinsic energy said to ward off blows and increase the practitioner’s strength to supernormal levels. Te, according to oral tradition, was used against the Japanese in a guerilla fashion reminiscent of the strategies described for Indonesia.

Brazilian capoeira constitutes a final example of a connection between esoteric martial arts, a dominated group, and ethnic conflict. In attempting to determine the origins of the martial art, J. Lowell Lewis cites a range of oral traditions tying the development of capoeira to the African Brazilian slave population; some commentators, in fact, posit an African origin for the fighting techniques and some of the terminology employed. The early record (pre-1920) is sketchy and heavily dependent on folk history, but the relevance of capoeira to the current issue is obvious. Oral tradition connects capoeira with the fugitive slave “kingdom” of Palmares in the region of Pernambuco, Brazil. The successful resistance movement by the Palmareans was attributed to the skills of “King” Zumbi, reputedly a capoeira master. Even as the art exists in the twentieth century among the urban underclasses, there is a strong identification with the slave experience—even down to the typical attire of some modern capoeiristas, which is said to be patterned on the dress of slaves during the colonial period. The esotericism noted for the other arts emerges in the dedication of some capoeiristas to specific orixas (divinities) of the African Brazilian syncretic religion Can-domble who aid and even possess the fighter from time to time. A contemporary master, Mestre No, speaks of a mystic leap he takes, describing it as an attitude similar to the “no-mind” state of Asian Zen-based martial traditions. A further, linguistic, connection is provided by the synonym for capoeirista, mandigueiro (sorcerer). Not surprisingly, capoeira tradition claims that invulnerability, labeled corpo fechado (closed body), may be rit-ually attained by practitioners. The practice of the art continues to have nationalistic significance and especially, in the style called Capoeira Angola, serves as a source of ethnic pride and a link to African heritage. Lewis notes the power of this martial art as a means of both real and symbolic empowerment for economic and political underclasses.

Martial arts connect to political conflict in a less mystical but equally crucial way as well. In colonial situations in twentieth-century Asia, martial arts have been utilized by threatened cultures, not only according to the Indonesian and Malaysian patterns discussed above, but as vehicles for modern nationalism. The cases of Korean taekwondo and Vietnamese Vovinam-Viet Vo Dao are representative.

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art synthesized in the latter half of the twentieth century from native styles (primarily t’aek’kyon and subak, which had survived a Japanese occupation of almost fifty years) and elements of both Chinese and Japanese combat arts. In 1945, the end of Japanese occupation served as the catalyst for Korean nationalism, which was signaled in part by the opening of the Chung Do Kwan (“School,” from the Chinese guan) for instruction in Korean martial arts. The formation of the Korean Armed Forces (1945) and the ensuing Korean Conflict (1950) further fueled the fires of nationalism and, not incidentally, provided the rationale for the study of martial skills. While no existing kwan (or kwon) had attained dominance, t’aek’kyon was introduced into some military training programs as early as 1946. In 1952, a half-hour martial arts demonstration attended by South Korean president Syngmann Rhee led to the official recognition of the Korean arts by means of Rhee’s order for all Korean troops to be trained in these arts. Although t’aek’kyon was formally introduced into Korean military training by the end of the war (1953), the unification of various kwan into what eventually became modern taekwondo did not occur until 1955. Tradition maintains that the name taekwondo was agreed upon because of its resemblance to the more traditional art of t’aek’kyon, which makes the nationalistic qualities of the art obvious.

Vovinam (later renamed Viet Vo Dao) is a Vietnamese martial arts system founded by Nguyen Loc (1912-1960) in the late 1930s. The system was developed with both the practical intent of providing, after a short period of study, an efficient means of self-defense, and establishing a focus for national identity for the Vietnamese people. Founder Nguyen saw martial arts as a vehicle for freeing Vietnam, under French rule from 1859 to 1954, from outside domination. Thus, the traditional history maintains that at the age of 26 he added elements of Chinese and Japanese systems to his knowledge of indigenous Vietnamese arts to create an early version of Vov-inam by at least 1938. Therefore, Vovinam, like taekwondo, is a modern eclectic system created, at least in part, as a nationalistic response to political conflict. At this time, the impulse to overthrow foreign domination gained impetus across Vietnam. In 1940, Nguyen and his disciples were invited to Hanoi to demonstrate Vovinam publicly, which led to an invitation to teach the art at Hanoi Ecole Normal (Hanoi University of Education). Slogans such as “Vietnamese practice Vietnamese martial arts” and “Not a Vovinam disciple, not a Vietnamese patriot” attest to the fact that the system succeeded in promoting nationalism. In 1940 and 1941, in this nationalistic climate and on the heels of a Japanese invasion, Communist-led revolts erupted in the south as Tay tribesmen rebelled in the north. At the end of this period, Ho Chi Minh founded the nationalistic Vietminh to oppose both Japanese and French colonialism. At this time, Vovinam training focused on endurance, speed, and strength with a course of study designed to last about three months; the system also maintained a political orientation beyond simple physical improvement. Therefore, the art was suppressed by both the French and the Japanese. By the time an agreement was signed by France and the Vietminh that provided for the temporary partition of Vietnam at about the 17th parallel, with North Vietnam under control of the Communist Vietminh and South Vietnam under Nationalist control (1954), Nguyen Loc had immigrated to South Vietnam, opening a Vovinam school in Saigon and others subsequently. Following the fall of Saigon, teachers immigrated to Europe and the Americas. Vovinam currently exists as Vovinam-Viet Vo Dao, a contemporary martial art without overt political focus.

Whether deployed as magic used to esoterically defeat an enemy or utilized as a focus for nationalism, the symbolic functions of the martial arts in political conflict seem to be a cross-cultural strategy. This facet of combatives deserves further study.

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