Skip to main content

Blog Post

Anatomies of the Body and Sword: Where Martial Arts and Language Meet

19 November 2018

By George Jennings, Cardiff Metropolitan University

I was pleased to give a seminar entitled “The Pen and the Sword: The Linguistic Pedagogies of Chinese Taijiquan and the European Longsword” at the Linguistic Ethnography Discussion and Study Group (LEDS) on 14 November. The aim of the talk was to gain some further ideas and feedback on the very early stages of a dual ethnographic project investigating embodiment in a) Taijiquan/Tai Chi Chuan (in association with other “internal” arts) and b) Historic European Martial Arts (HEMA) combining the “Italian” (Holy Roman Empire) longsword and medieval unit combat. And it was achieved thanks to the excellent comments and questions from the diverse audience – linguistic ethnographers, PhD students, budding researchers and martial arts enthusiasts among them in the supportive and intimate gathering.

My original intention was to look at the terms used in various languages in largely English-speaking communities of practice. Following recent trends in martial arts ethnographies adopting an embodied, phenomenological or ‘carnal’ perspective, I was originally going to examine the aspects of experiential pedagogy through the senses. However, following my joining of LEDS and some early participation in the martial arts classes over the last few weeks, I soon found my turn to linguistics for understanding how the arts are taught and learned. With Mandarin used in conjunction with English in Taijiquan and some Italian terms used in the longsword class I am attending, authenticity, lineage, ancestry and many other themes could be explored over the next three to five years of fieldwork.

The presentation itself outlined my revised focus on two pedagogies of anatomy: the anatomy of the practitioner’s human body in Taijiquan and the anatomy of the blade in HEMA. Language plays a key role in these conceptualisations of anatomy, with terms like qi, qua, dantien, yin and yang being present in Taijiquan practice and supporting practitioner literature. I have started to find this in ‘The School of Internal Arts’, which stresses the relationships between the ‘flesh’ (fascia, organs and muscles) that sinks and sags and ‘bones’ that remain upright. Meanwhile, in HEMA, I am learning about the weak and strong parts of the blade for blocking and cutting (such as the ‘true’ and ‘false’ edge), and ways of pummelling an opponent with the hilt of the sword. Through both pedagogies, I am relearning what I thought I knew about the body and weaponry – taking in information and slowly embodying the linguistic principles. This approach to linguistic bodies – a new area of inquiry and theorising – is now the avenue for this research project.

In order to explore both the written and spoken word in these two groups, I am currently designing the research project for consideration of the School of Sport and Health Sciences Research Ethics Committee (Social Science Panel). Within this long-term study, I intend on making the most of various qualitative research methods: 1) My own experience via direct participant observation and my own private training through autophenomenography; 2) the understandings of other practitioners through interviews, focus groups and diaries; 3) the formalised language accessed through documental analysis of recommended books, codices, manuscripts and websites, alongside my intended media analysis of online

resources developed in the schools themselves. In terms of this social media, we discussed the rich potential for the closed Facebook group of the HEMA school (‘The Blade Academy’) that the Marshal (teacher) set up. Video analysis could be crucial here, as the HEMA classes are frequently filmed and discussed among this forum. Ideas on learning among non-native speakers of English who reside in a cosmopolitan city were also very helpful to avoid binary and Anglocentric notions of indigenous and foreign language – especially in the Taijiquan class, which is ethnically diverse. Masculinity and the ‘saggy’ male body in Taijiquan were also suggested as possible themes as contrasting to idealised modern Western views of firm and seemingly ‘fit’ bodies.

In summary, the seminar was greatly assisted by the participants’ thoughtful comments and questions, and I would like to express my gratitude for their ideas on the intersections between language, the body and the blade.

Selected bibliography

Jennings, G. (2018). Health research: Where medicine meets martial arts studies? International Society of Critical Health Psychology. Available at:

Jennings, G. & Vaittinen, A. (2016). Multimedia Wing Chun: Learning and practice in the age of YouTube. In Chinese Martial Arts Studies (Kung Fu Tea). Available at:

Partikova, V. & Jennings, G. (2018). Kung Fu family: A metaphor of belonging across time and place. Revista de Artes Marciales Asiáticas, 13(1), 35-52.  Available at [Open Access]