A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
Mass Marketing of the Martial Arts
by Christopher Dow
As with almost every aspect in the world today, mass marketing has touched even the martial arts. This situation developed through history in a steady progression—like life itself—from single-celled organisms to creatures as complex as humans, though perhaps not quite human. But before we look at the sorry state of affairs that now is beginning to manifest in the martial arts, let’s take a look at the history and follow the development of martial arts marketing from the olden days until the present. I’ll focus mainly on Tai Chi because that’s what I practice and the martial art I know the most about. But many other martial arts have followed a similar progression.
The history of the formalized martial arts in general—as with the specific origins of many martial arts styles—is steeped in the fogs of time that obscure and confound all but the most prominent details. But we can organize the martial artists of then, as now, into several categories: 1) those trained by the military, law enforcement, or bodyguard services, 2) those trained in Buddhist and Taoist temples, 3) those trained in schools or in traditional family arts, 4) those who are criminals, and 5) those who are lone, singular, or itinerate martial artists. The idea here is not to distinguish the particular type of training—which, for the most part, should be obvious in general outlines for each type of martial artist. Nor is it to assign a ranking of the relative qualities of the different categories—an impossibility, anyway. A great martial artist might be a criminal, but he’s still a great martial artist. Instead, we’ll look at the methods that these types of martial artists have used over the centuries to promote their art and, sometimes, earn a living at teaching it.
To do that, we can group the above five categories into two subgroups: a) those who promulgate successive training over a long historical period and who usually produce successors or “offspring” styles and b) those whose martial arts do not necessarily produce successors or offspring. The former subgroup encompasses categories 1, 2, and 3, while the latter subgroup is made up of categories 4 and 5. Individuals in the second subgroup—criminals—were not usually specifically involved in training successors or starting schools. Nor were itinerate martial artist, though it is possible for a traveling martial artist to pass on his or her art in such a way that it becomes the foundation for a formal school or family-based style. This apparently happened with Wang Tsung-yueh, an itinerate martial artist of the sixteenth century or so, who passed his internal martial art to the Chen Village of Henan Province, China. The Chen family then further refined it into Tai Chi, forming a family style that was later very widely disseminated via several other family-based forms.
While this kind of adoption of an itinerate martial artist’s style has probably been the exception rather than the norm, it is interesting that the case just mentioned provides an example of the earliest form of mass-marketing of a martial arts style. Through a wide-ranging personal tour, Wang essentially engaged in an advertising blitz that included evidence of his product’s superiority demonstrated through public matches of martial skill.
Proponents of particular schools and family-based styles engaged in similar efforts. Think of Yang Lu-chan traveling around, taking on all challengers until he earned the name “Invincible Yang,” in the process cementing Yang Style Tai Chi’s excellence in the mind of the public. In a very real sense, a martial art’s family name was a trademark that was synonymous with a given martial product, and through this sort of advertising, a martial arts master was able to advertise his style, school, or family style, garnering not just fame but dues-paying students.
Something similar had already occurred with the Shaolin Temple, though in this case, the point was to draw new adherents, and less concern was given to financial gain. As a result, Shaolin accrued nationwide—and now international—martial renown, and the styles created there subsequently proliferated through the public at large, generating a great number of secular schools, family styles, and lone itinerate martial artists. Shaolin styles also improved the fighting abilities of those in the underworld—an irony considering the superior moral inclinations of the Shaolin monks who contributed so much to the development of the fighting arts.
The lone itinerate martial artist, too, was subject to the same parameters, even if his or her goal was not to found a martial arts dynasty but simply to earn a living. The legendary and afore-mentioned Wang Tsung-yueh is a good example. He reputedly traveled through a swath of China, moving from village to village, disparaging the local martial arts, handily defeating all challengers, then earning a living by teaching them some or all of his internal style. Chen Village is supposedly one location where he stopped to teach and where the art he passed down morphed into Chen Style, which then proliferated into the numerous Tai Chi styles we know today. Another of Wang’s stops supposedly was the nearby Zhaobao Village, whose Tai Chi style is reminiscent of but different from Chen style and which seems to have an equally antique background.
The history of the martial arts, it would seem, is as convoluted as a bowl of lo mein noodles, each strand so interwoven with those around it that determining where each begins and ends is an insurmountable challenge. But one thing is clear: Right from the beginning, martial artists often attempted to build up followings to support themselves through the only form of advertising available to them at the time: word-of-mouth spread over a relatively broad section of the country.
Sometimes such a situation was taken advantage of by a person not only of great skill, but with questionable morals or of an authoritarian bent. Criminal organizations and martial arts cults could rise as easily as a village or family school, particularly in times of the kind of great social and political upheaval experienced by China for centuries. But for the most part, loyalty to a family, school, temple, or even a loner willing to teach you, did not involve manipulative or criminal behavior.
These early forms of mass marketing of the martial arts continued for centuries until the invention of mechanized printing processes enabled the creation of martial arts literature on a large scale. There probably always had been martial arts manuals, carefully hand-scribed or perhaps etched into wooden printing blocks. But most such efforts were one-offs and were unable to reach a large and simultaneous market in the same way that printed books could.
On occasion, the earlier, hand-scribed manuals crossed over into the burgeoning mainstream literature, though sometimes not immediately. A good example is the collection of old writings on Tai Chi called the Tai Chi Classics, most of which date to the nineteenth century. Some of these Classics were supposedly composed by Chang San-feng, the legendary founder of Tai Chi, some by the aforementioned Wang Tsung-yueh, and yet others by significant past Tai Chi luminaries. A few of the Classics were discovered in a salt-shop, a few in a bookstall, and the rest were largely held by the Yang family. Until the 1920s, they could be found only in hand-scribed form, but today, versions and translations of the Classics have appeared in dozens of Tai Chi books and on even more Tai Chi websites. This almost spontaneous mass-marketing was sparked by Chen Kung’s somewhat underhanded publication of closely held and heretofore secret documents belonging to the Yang family. But the subsequent proliferation happened without deliberate effort, spreading virally, though obviously it was a slower-working viral meme than you’d see on today’s Internet. (For more about Chen Kung, see HERE.)
With the development of mass printing, would-be mass-marketing martial artists had a new tool at their disposal to more widely disseminate their expertise and art. Their books might help draw students, but even if they didn’t, they were marketable items in their own right, earning money for their authors. And mass-marketing martial artists could now also resort not only to newspaper advertisements, but to flyers that could be posted around town to let prospective students know about the teacher and his art.
And there matters rested until the twentieth century and the development of moving pictures. A number of early twentieth-century martial arts films are available online or elsewhere. Most are grainy, jerky, and sporadic in terms of completeness of the form depicted. But it doesn’t seem that the martial artists of the time gleaned the marketing value of film as an advertising medium and way to disseminate martial information. This might seem odd to us today, particularly because moving pictures can convey the movements and pacing of a style far better than can arrays of still photos in the pages of a book. But it often takes people a while to see the value in new methods or media.
So, until just after the middle of the twentieth century, books still held sway in the martial arts marketing realm. But then things began to heat up, and in many ways, that was due to the efforts of one now largely-forgotten proponent of the martial arts.