Martial Arts and Conducting Oral History

What is oral history? In the most literal sense, it is a narrative, or parts of a narrative, that is never written down but passed onto the next generation through the spoken word. For the oral historian, it is their job (and part of my job too) to track down certain people and essentially archive their stories – their histories – so the world may know these stories and preserve them so another historian can utilize that information in a meaningful way. Then, why is history important? History is for the current generation to know where they came from, who and what propelled them to where they are today; to make sure past mistakes do not occur again – or at least are minimized – and to find inspiration for one’s own life or endeavors.

How does this relate to martial arts and its own history? The short of it is that most, if not all, martial arts history is oral history. Sometimes, to fully understand an event that occurred within a martial art’s history, it is imperative to gather as much information, opinions, and perspectives as possible – from as many practitioners that were involved in that event. The same goes for an art’s history in a specific region or area. Not everyone is putting pen to paper and recording certain events like the chroniclers of old. In these instances, oral historians step into the picture.

However, the job becomes difficult when practitioners from a specific art and members of whole communities stay silent about their history, intricacies of their political structure, and a deeper biography of some of their key characters. In my experience, I have found that there are three options that an oral historian can choose from: 1) continue to initiate first contact with a practitioner from that community; 2) end the research and start another set of research; or 3) move on to another region or community and circle back in the future. The first, while it demonstrates determination and focus on the task, many outside of yourself may take the constant reaching out as a form of harassment – and that is not a positive response. The second would be the easiest to do, as you would stop any productivity in that area of research and move onto to something else. Whether that is ultimately good or bad would be seen in the results of the new research. However, it would be difficult to start up the momentum and motivation again for the abandoned research. The third option is the best course of action in my opinion because it allows you to keep moving and working on the research you are doing.

The entire northern part of California not returning your phone calls or emails regarding some interviews, so what? Move to Southern California and work your way back up the state. Do the majority of Kung Fu practitioners flatly refuse your invitations? Maybe try a crossover art and work your way back in. The options are endless to allow you to continue your momentum with your research. Do not let a small bump in the road deter you from reaching your goal with the research you are conducting.


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