Martial arts between culture and sport

Anne Tjønndal
Nord University, Bodø, Norway

Paul Bowman
Deconstructing Martial Arts
169 pages, paperback.
Cardiff: Cardiff University Press 2019
ISBN 978-1-911653-00-4

In his latest book, Deconstructing Martial Arts, Paul Bowman explores the essence of martial arts. Bowman aspires to answer the questions “what is martial arts?”, “what do we mean when we say martial arts?” and “what is their place within or their relationship to culture and society?” Secondly, Bowman seeks to show that the approach known as deconstruction is a uniquely insightful method of cultural analysis. To do this, he deconstructs key aspects of martial arts to reveal the ways that their construction always involves political, ideological and mythological dimensions. The author is a professor of cultural studies at Cardiff University and has previously published several books on martial arts, including Beyond Bruce Lee in 2013, Martial Arts Studies in 2015 and Mythologies of Martial Arts in 2017. He is also the editor of the academic journal Martial Arts Studies, which published its first issue in 2015.

Deconstructing Martial Arts is comprised of seven chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. Chapter One, “The Triviality of Martial Arts Studies”, engages with the question of whether martial arts and the emergent field of martial arts studies should be regarded as trivial or a legitimate academic field. The main argument is that trivializing martial arts as a research field in cultural studies reflects a specific Western popular culture history with connections to orientalism (Bowman, 2013). A key feature of this chapter is an illustration of the value deconstruction has as an analytical approach to culture. In chapter two, “Theory Before Definition in Martial Arts Studies”, Bowman argues against what he calls a ‘widespread perceived need’ to define martial arts to study martial arts. Instead, he argues, there is a need for theory development before definition. By this, he means a greater theorization of the orientation of the research field martial arts studies. Specifically, this chapter critiques the hopology field developed by Donn F. Draeger.

Chapter Three, “Martial Arts and Media Supplements”, aims to deconstruct the idea that martial arts are purely physical or embodied practices. It does so by focusing on the contexts, forces, and structures outside of embodied practices that influence physical culture in a myriad of complex ways. In “On Embodiment” (the fourth chapter), Bowman presents embodiment as a uniquely challenging problem for certain approaches to scholarship, in particular those that are implicitly or explicitly organized with the aim of establishing meanings. A central question of discussion in this chapter is whether scholars interested in embodiment should reject or move beyond approaches like deconstruction. The fifth chapter, “Taoism in Bits”, explores the increased popularity of ideas connected with Taoism and Zen Buddhism in Western popular culture in the mid to late 20th Century. A main argument in this chapter is that the translation of Eastern ideas to the West involved huge imaginative leaps and complex processes of transformation and projection. Here Bowman uses examples from the films and writings of Bruce Lee to show how the translation of Eastern ideas rooted in Taoism was always ‘in bits’.

In the latter case, Bowman uses Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik and his explicit outlook as an example.

Something that is clearly outlined in Bowman’s book is the connections between Eastern martial arts and (embodied) philosophy, and how such associations often involve images of calm detachment and tranquility. In “Mindfulness and Madness in Martial Arts Philosophy” (chapter six), Bowman deconstructs these images and their function in contemporary discourses. Bowman does this by exploring connections such as Zen Buddhist meditation to contemporary mindfulness, and Samurai/kamikaze themes to militarism. In the latter case, Bowman uses Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik and his explicit outlook as an example. By doing this, Bowman attempts to demonstrate the political, ideological and ethical complexities of martial arts discourse vis-à-vis serenity, psychopathy, sanity and insanity.

Finally, chapter seven “Fighting Talk – Martial Arts Discourse in Mainstream Films”, focuses on how martial arts are regarded in the wider world, outside of the martial arts context. Here, Bowman examines conversations, dialogues and statements about martial arts in films that are not regarded as ‘martial arts films’, such as Meet the Fockers (2004), Lolita(1962) and Full Metal Jacket (1987).

A main contribution of this book is Bowman’s demonstrations of how martial arts cannot be disentangled from many of the things that various definitions of the martial arts concept will try to say is not proper to them. A central argument made by Bowman in this book is that scholars researching martial arts should move beyond trying to define martial arts because such definitions are always a reduction of what martial arts are in various cultural practices.

In my opinion as a reader, this is probably not a book for students or even academics getting into martial arts studies, since it is not the easiest book to read and understand as a first step into the research field. Still, this is not Bowman’s aim with this book, and it might be that one of his earlier works is better suited for readers in that position. The same can be said for readers looking to grasp deconstruction as an analytical approach to scholarly exploration of physical culture and sports. Having read this book, and having no previous experience with deconstruction as a methodological approach in sport science, I cannot say that Bowman has succeeded in convincing me of the unique fruitfulness of utilizing deconstruction to understand political, ideological and ethical connections in sports. Yet, Bowman’s scope here is rooted in cultural studies, and readers with a background in this discipline (rather than sport science) will most likely have a different understanding of the book.

Above all else, “Deconstructing Martial Arts” does a good job of highlighting the problems with trying to impose strict definitions of martial arts as a concept, and placing martial arts in relation to key themes in media studies, cultural studies and wider topics such as identity and embodiment. Bowman’s critique of scientists’ inherent need to define concepts and ‘draw the line’ rather than explore physical/cultural phenomena more openly is refreshing and much needed in various branches of sport science.


Bowman, P. (2013). Beyond Bruce Lee: Chasing the Dragon through Film, Photography, and Popular Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Copyright © Anne Tjønndal 2019

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