Reinventing Martial Arts in the 21st Century

Eastern Stimulus, Western Response

by George Jennings (Author)
Monographs XXXVI, 222 Pages


Based on over 15 years of research, this text proposes a new definition of the martial arts to examine how such fighting systems are being re-imagined and reconstructed beyond the arenas of combat and sport in the 21st century Western context. Taking the viewpoint of the martial arts as art forms open to reinterpretation, this unique book considers the ways in which martial arts can be used for different purposes, such as within movement systems and for self-help and therapy. However, the martial arts industry is a highly unregulated space. The book, therefore, considers the ways in which the martial arts are being regulated by Western influencers on social media as well as more formal international organisations connected to UNESCO. The project then examines the lives of long-term martial arts instructors and practitioners of historical European martial arts (HEMA), Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan), Wing Chun Kung Fu and other internal martial arts such as Cheng Hsin. This book draws on a wide range of data sources including autoethnography, ethnography, life history interviews and social media and textual analysis to paint a vivid picture of the reinvention process in contemporary society. It shows how elements of the martial arts (often from East Asian societies) are being adapted, critiqued, managed and merged to suit the social needs of today’s martial artists and the public. This monograph will appeal to all scholars and students interested in combat sports, martial arts and physical culture from a social scientific and qualitative perspective.
"…his research on Mexican traditions brings a fresh perspective to the analysis of cultural influences and theoretical reflection on the heritage of martial arts…"—WOJCIECH J. CYNARSKI
"Written in a clear, precise and simple language, it addresses many of the topics inspiring contemporary social research on martial arts…"—CARLOS GUTIÉRREZ GARCÍA
"Jennings has…drawn together several of the key themes in martial arts studies which became highly visible during the COVID-19 pandemic."—SARA DELAMONT
"…a highly readable academic account of colorful vignettes and vivid insights shared from a lifetime in martial arts and scholarship."—DS FARRER
"…a fascinating exploration of multiple overlooked aspects of the living and breathing richness and diversity of martial arts as lived practices, often intertwined with different livelihoods, issues and aspects of health and wellbeing, and ways of growing."—PAUL BOWMAN

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations
  • 1. Introduction: Conceptualising the Martial Arts in Contemporary Society
  • Part I: Reimagining the Martial Arts
  • 2. Chinese Martial Arts as Art Forms
  • 3. Martial Arts as the Basis for Mixed Movement Systems
  • 4. Martial Arts as the Social Structure for Self-Help
  • 5. The Restructuring of Martial Arts as Therapy
  • Part II: Reconstructing the Martial Arts
  • 6. Regulating the Martial Arts Industry: The McDojo Critique
  • 7. The Revival and Protection of Martial Arts as Heritage
  • Part III: Living and Breathing the Martial Arts
  • 8. Teachers, Networks and Relationships in the Martial Arts
  • 9. Investing into the Martial Arts and Related Practices
  • 10. My Martial Arts Journey: An Autoethnography
  • 11. Conclusions and Future Directions
  • Index

←viii | ix→


Martial Arts before, during and after COVID-19: Three Arts, Three Stories, One Pandemic

I began planning this book in 2019 to meet the expansion of the Sport in East and Southeast Asian Societies series, thinking that it would be ready for 2020, but it has taken three years to finish the writing of my first monograph. Something unexpected swept from East Asia to change contemporary martial arts and society. This major global event in the 21st century has been the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that is believed to have begun in Wuhan, China in late 2019 and is still affecting many people at the time of writing, with new strains emerging across the world.

Research and early commentaries on the pandemic and martial arts has helped us know more about how martial artists might return to training in a safe manner (Anderucci, 2020), how we might train specific supplementary routines alone, or even utilise distance learning previously overlooked for civilian self-defence (Koerner & Staller, 2022) and the ways in which specific schools have adapted to the governmental restrictions such as staying at home – by continuing social and learning activities online (Jennings, 2020). The following short set of stories tells the tales of three martial arts that I have practised and researched ←x | x→as an ethnographer: Wing Chun Kung Fu, Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) and Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan).

The first set of vignettes are from 2017 to 2019, when travel and physical exchanges permitted travel of practitioners and teachers from different countries to work in singular spaces. The second trio of vignettes returns to these three martial arts schools to show how their pedagogies were flipped online in the spring to summer period of 2020, making use of the technological advances of the 21st century. The third set of tales returns to these training sites to show how the pedagogies had adapted to social distancing and awkwardness when returning to human touch.

These are impressionist tales that follow the convention set out by Van Maanen (2011), which is designed to invite the reader into the social and sensuous world of a fieldwork setting while minimising the authoritarian and theoretical voice of the author. This genre is a way of representing ethnographic research, making the most of long-term immersion in fieldwork sites, as I have done over several years. As such, this chapter makes a contribution to knowledge by showing how three different martial arts schools operated before, during and after the main wave of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. The reader will notice the contrasts between the special events (a Wing Chun seminar, a guest workshop and a Taijiquan course) to the regular online training from the main instructors and their supportive network of students, followed by gradual adjustments to partner training and the use of physical equipment. We begin with the story from Bridge’s Wing Chun Academy in which two guest instructors from the United States gave a two-day seminar over one weekend, only for the school to close its doors once the “stay at home” mandate was enacted. One theme that unites the three groups in dealing with the issue of the virus and the related problems of isolation, loneliness and lack of touch is humour among tightly-knit martial arts communities, which features in the second set of tales.

Bridge’s Wing Chun Academy

Weekend seminar from a martial arts couple. Bridge’s Academy is a former chapel converted to a full-time Chinese martial arts centre. Led by the charismatic Sifu John Bridge (seen in Jennings, Brown, & Sparkes, 2010), now in his fifties, it is hidden within a tough working-class community of long terraces in a sadly rundown seaside town, accessible through a narrow alley descending to the temple-like entrance, with its pagoda-like surroundings. Bridge had learned from three main teachers in the UK until he sought out his current Sifu, Master Li, who is ←x | xi→from the former Portuguese colony of Macao but is has been based in the United States since the 1970s. A year before Li would return to British soil after a 20-year absence from his first European seminar, two of his senior students, Sifus Karl and Jemima, visited England for a weekend seminar. This pair are a real-life husband and wife team who run their Kwoon (School) in the South-West United States. Their seminar was followed by a holiday in the English Westcountry and Wales, the latter venue being the home of a Wing Chun student they have befriended while she had visited Master Li in the U.S. There was even a Wing Chun instructor who had travelled all the way from Greece, where some of the senior members of the lineage had visited recently. The couple, Karl and Jemima, have an excellent reputation for professionalism and exactitude when it comes to the biomechanics of Wing Chun; with my friend and regular training partner George (real name requested) recalling that Sifu had told me, “they like things really precise over there [in the USA].” He added to my surprise, “but they’re not as interested in learning Wing Chun for self-defence as we are. Over in their state, people carry guns with them in the supermarket. If someone tried to attack them, they would just get their gun out and shoot them. If someone hits them in chi sau [sticking hands], they just reset.” This was apparent in the level of precision expected from the participants, who included Wing Chun practitioners from as far and wide as the West of Scotland, the English East Midlands, three different schools in South Wales and people in the Academy. They all came in their groups, with their own uniforms bearing the mark of their associations – since Master Li had disbanded his European federation. I bought two of the t-shirts from Karl and Jemima’s school in the U.S. lying on Sifu’s counter, which have an attractive design involving Chinese symbols such as the plum blossom that is distinctive to Wing Chun and other Southern Chinese martial arts.

The first day of the weekend seminar involved honing the basic movements of Wing Chun Kung Fu, from the basic stance to turning and punching in the air, followed by techniques in the air. These gradually became more complex, with kicks in the air developed using combinations at mid and lower gates of the body (as in the midsection and knees). Students formed a large circle around the edge of the large hall, while Sifus Jemima and Karl gave demonstrations from the centre. This position differed from the convention series of rows in a class, and it enabled the guest teachers to walk around the room to check on each student in equal measure. Jemima stood in front of me, noticing that I was exaggerating the pulling mechanism in an excessively circular fashion. This was something I was working on it at home in order to explore the circles within the Wing Chun system, as in when dragging the opponent’s arm back with one first while firing ←xi | xii→out the other. However, this exaggeration was exposed by someone with a very discerning eye for the finer aspects of the system.

Once our basic movements were checked on the first day, we moved onto partner training on the Sunday. Karl and Jemima wanted to get out “rolling” mechanism correct, and each of them would check on how it felt. Karl moved with me in a slow and thoughtful fashion, and I could feel his solid structures coming up from his strong stance. My own teacher crossed the room to take a look at me. “He’s crap!” He joked, laughing as I smiled to meet the joke. He meant this in a sarcastic manner, as he had normally regarded me as a skilful student who had been trained to a high level. Karl did not seem to register this humour, and he defended me with a serious reply in a steady, monotone voice: “He’s doing very well.” It was interesting to note how the very professional couple wouldn’t mock the students or make jokes about any other Wing Chun school, while Sifu Bridge felt comfortable to joke about many things with both his students and peers. During a demonstration of a partner exercise, Jemima corrected Karl, and suggested a different way to explain the technique, leaving John to quip: “We know who’s in charge at home, don’t we, Karl!” Everyone laughed at this joke, including the guest instructors, who obviously had a strong bond with John, understanding his cockney working-class and direct sense of humour. Karl often deferred to Jemima, and he noted, “there is no doubt in my mind that she could hurt me.” The two also became very passionate about their teacher Sifu Li, noting that “there’s always something that he can spot with your technique to make you better.” Jemima later added, “you keep on getting better and better each day…and then you die” smiling with the realisation that our goal of perfection will never be reached.

Not only did the Wing Chun practitioners travel down for the seminar, but also their partners. My girlfriend Barbara stayed with me in a hotel near the harbour, while one of the Scottish instructors’ girlfriends came along with him. “I’m not very good…It wouldn’t be worth your bother.” She said in a strong Scots accent when I offered to work on a drill together. The Greek Wing Chun instructor was greatly impressed by the style of Wing Chun that Master Li had developed off the basis of his own Sifu’s style, noting its superiority. However, his long-suffering wife was waiting patiently with Barbara on the Sunday afternoon, whispering to her, “when is this going to end?!” To the outsider, Wing Chun can look rather monotonous and static, as it is more about inside sensations felt through proprioception. Barbara was surprised that I was interested in Wing Chun, as it appeared to be rather violent for her: “I was wondering to myself, why does George like this?! But then again, I can see you deeply concentrating ←xii | xiii→in the drills, as in a form of meditation” she added, taking her perspective from a mindfulness facilitator and researcher.

Reuniting the Kung Fu family online.

Two and a half years on from the seminar and later weekend seminar from Master Li and his son (also travelling for the corresponding family holiday enabled by the student fees from the weekend), the COVID-19 pandemic led the UK Government, like many governments around the world, to initiate measures including the stay and work from home policies. Letter from the Prime Minister’s office were posted to each household, while martial arts schools had to close with no idea when they would return, and Sifu Bridge used the Facebook platform to set up a private member’s group that George and I could join, along with another former student who lived far away.

Normally, it would be very difficult to learn from our formative teacher on a regular basis, as the special events of the quarterly seminars and the occasional guest seminar would enable us to learn more about Wing Chun from our teacher who lives two and a half hours away (as far distance by British standards) in another country (England), which had slightly different restrictions due to the Welsh Government’s localised control over the pandemic. However, now that no one could learn in person – even the locals – Sifu developed twice-weekly online classes to teach Wing Chun on the same evenings as he normally taught in the gym, making sure the times suited his senior student and confidant, Jim, who has a young family. Using the Messenger application connecting to the Facebook group (renamed from “Dragon Gym is Closed” used to announce the closure of the doors to the more vulgar “Dragon Gym Fucked Off” with the exchange of jokes, memes and action plans), he started a group call with current and former students united by his lineage. People answered the call from their homes, sometimes with a beer or snack in hand after a hard day’s work online, with many taking a brief break at 8 p.m. for the “clap for carers” in honour of the National Health Service (NHS) workers who were struggling to maintain the health system afloat during the pandemic. Clangs of saucepans erupted for a moment as we took a break midway through the class.

The classes varied from demonstrations involving students copying Sifu’s movements to more theoretical sessions in which we took copious notes. At the time, Sifu was working as his own elderly mother’s carer, and was living in her home near his Kwoon, which had a spacious kitchen with a new floor that made sound effects when he moved. Using his mobile phone, Sifu was able to show us students his footwork and stances, even placing the phone onto the floor…until ←xiii | xiv→his dog appeared wanting attention! With these domestic responsibilities, Sifu did need to open the kitchen door for the dog to go to toilet while other students had interruptions from their young children, whose bedtime was pending. We waved at the kids, as their unexpected entrance and antics made people smile and laugh. Another source of unexpected laughter came from the “pizza face” function that Sifu had imposed over his real face. This turned out to be accidental, as Sifu had learned about this function from a friend in a previous chat, but did not know how to turn it off. This was funny for a few minutes, but after a while, it became frustrating for me, as I was very motivated to continue my lessons with Sifu in his usual format, having my notebook and pen at the ready. After hanging up and starting a new call, we could then concentrate on our learning, with our teacher’s normal face resurfacing. Besides the visual interruptions, we sometimes noted the sound effects each other made in the air, with my former senior Ben noting, “I like the swoosh noises that George makes.” I was proud of this effect, which seemed to be aided by the relaxation that I was developing from my Taijiquan training.

Sifu wanted students to study the videos he posted on our members-only Facebook group, which included a palm and chopping sequence in the air, which consisted of eight techniques (as with the eight stances, eight punches and eight elbows corresponding to the eight directions characteristic of our lineage). He appeared to have filmed this while visiting another Kwoon either in the warmer climes of the South West United States or Macao (with him wearing shorts and a vest), and he would then test our understanding by asking us to demonstrate. This was a new sequence that I wrote down in my technical notebook, which I would then take photographs of and send to my training partner George (who could not attend due to him working evening shifts) via WhatsApp, as he told me he was able to read my rather illegible handwriting often taken very quickly as I watched, interpreted and tried to emulate the movements while standing up. Sometimes Sifu laughed at my extensive notetaking, making the others chuckle at my different mannerisms and habits. My manner of speaking and profession often made me feel different from the other, more local, working-class students. It seems rarer for students to take notes by hand these days as they spent more time on YouTube scrutinising videos and training off handouts and posters – as did Kyle, a beginner who had plastered his walls with posters of the fundamental sequences and maxims of our style of Wing Chun.


XXXVI, 222
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (January)
Reinventing Martial Arts in the 21st Century: Eastern Stimulus, Western Response George Jennings reinterpreting martial arts social media influencers martial arts therapies self-help mixed movement systems Chinese martial arts historical European martial arts
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2023. XXXVI, 222 pp.

Biographical notes

George Jennings (Author)

Dr. George Jennings has been researching the martial arts since his undergraduate dissertation in 2004. He holds a PhD in Sport and Health Sciences from the University of Exeter, United Kingdom, and is Senior Lecturer in Sport Sociology at Cardiff Metropolitan University. George has over 40 publications.


Title: Reinventing Martial Arts in the 21st Century