Home » Culture & Society » Musings 052911: The Role of Martial Arts and Masculinity

Musings 052911: The Role of Martial Arts and Masculinity


– Note: this post will highlight the Asian American community and the years following World War 2 to the present day. I understand however that the sentiments are applicable to any and all martial arts from around the world and any person from anywhere around the globe.

Is martial arts the key to being a man? I can only imagine it being one of the many routes to becoming one. You can’t however deny that evidence of how in the past, forms of martial training were considered a big part of the “rite of passage” for most if not all young lads growing up.

A friend a while back wrote an opinion piece regarding the movie Fearless starring Jet Li.

In the Eastern perspective, a man’s strength should be used to support and protect the greater communal good, as opposed to the Western, where a man’s strength is used to obliterate and defeat the forces preventing him from reaching his personal goals and/or moral imperatives.

Which is where my journey for this post begins. So basically it all starts with a different mindset of the “ideal” form of masculinity between East and West. Back in the days before the modern era (pre-1900s), martial artists at least in China were held in high regard by their local village or town. A man capable of defending himself and the people who he cares about is on the manliness pedestal in that area.

So what does this have to do with masculinity? My personal theory is that martial arts has been one of the few ways that Asian men in particular have been able to “prove themselves” as having made the transition from boyhood to manhood. That and/or academics.

For those of you don’t know, the transcontinental railroad was built from both ends in the 1860s: California and Nebraska. The Union Pacific Railroad started the work in Nebraska using a primarily Irish workforce while the Central Pacific Railroad of California used a primarily Chinese workforce that began in California. Due to the racism during that time, the Chinese workers with their white team drivers didn’t fare very well (lower wages than their white counterparts, more hours, etc.). It didn’t come to a surprise then that stories of Chinese workers fighting back (against anyone) who knew Kung Fu and winning were the stuff of legends among the work camps and abroad.

Conditions depicted here are worse than they were in real life.

These men were usually married, leaving their families in China, and traveling by boat all the way to California, only to suffer extremely poverty, social and lawful discrimination in the US. To top it all off, their chances of going back to China alive were slim. The ones who fought back (for whatever reason) were considered mini-heros and were held to high regard.

Has this trend continued to this day and translated to the scale which those brave, individual Chinese workers have attained? Not really.

As far as martial arts never got too much mainstream exposure (in the USA at least) until Bruce Lee came on to the scene, first as Kato in “The Green Hornet” TV series and then his starring movies such as Enter the Dragon. As the status of Asian males in the US went up, the correlation between martial art and man was blurred. The stereotype of Asian men (regardless of country origin) being the “Karate Master” was lovable at best. Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid movies come to mind. Did it really help the status of Asian and American men of Asian ancestry? As my Sensei put it – and I paraphrase:

When Bruce Lee was around yes…From the 60s well into the 90s definitely with guys like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. But from the turn of the century till now there have been no icons of their caliber.

~ J.Wada Sensei, 6th Dan

My Sensei forgot about Donnie Yen of the Ip Man and Ip Man 2 fame, but whatever. In accordance to what we’ve discussed so far, many icons using martial arts eventually use their skill to the betterment of the community that they are in. Movies such as Ip Man, Fearless, Enter the Dragon, etc. show the protagonist martial artist using their skills for good – the betterment of their cause. Which is in many extents defending the rights of people other than himself. Was this manly, oh hell yes it was. But is it sexy and brought your personal glory? Yes but not so much.

Before I continue – Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa, and other Asian male action stars don’t count as Asian American icons. That is because that they are not American born. Bruce Lee counts because he was born in San Francisco.

I’m making this distinction because although someone will state that someone of Chinese ancestry myself, shouldn’t I identify myself with such great action icons? To be honest not really because as I mentioned, the majority of them (minus the great Bruce Lee) are not American born.

Currently in the mainstream media you do not see many strong American-born men of Asian ancestry, even fewer are in positions of power and none with protagonist power. There’s a joke among my peers regarding Asian American men. We are usually regulated to five roles in the mainstream media and they are 1.) the guy who dies early 2.) the guy who is gay 3.)the guy who never gets the girl 4.) the scientist or engineer and 5.) Any combination of the four.

Now I am who I am and I really don’t care what “the media” thinks so long as I am continually growing and becoming a better man day by day. But seeing how there’s such little to no positive representation is disheartening to say the least.

Can martial arts be used as a vehicle towards masculinity in the Asian American community? Of course; however my gripe is that it is considered “not favorable” or “not economical” as compared to the professions that most of my peers are in (accounting, doctor, lawyer, etc.). And that is the problem; too much emphasis on how to blend in and no enough emphasis on social mobility. I remember my Sensei (who is a Sansei 三世 – a third generation Japanese-American) mentioning that when Bruce Lee was around, his presence in film instilled great pride in him as a young man growing up as among the White Caucasian majority in his hometown. In fact he did mention that Bruce Lee was one of the reasons why he picked up Aikido as his career and passion – as oppose to what his parents wanted him to be which was a Ph.D in languages.

There needs to be more of my peers who are willing to stand up for what needs to happen: social mobility. Like the unknown Chinese railway workers who stood up for their comrades, like the kung fu masters in films that we all so love and idolize, like Bruce Lee himself who toke on not only his own challenges but the racism found in Hollywood at that time. There needs to be more done.

This is obviously a much deeper and complicated topic than a post can handle but this is my two cents into this matter that has been a growing hobby of mine since my undergraduate days. For those of you who are finding hard to relate I thank you for your quiet patience and ears.

As always, till next time ladies and gents!

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