There is no single method for reading movement. Rather, every movement performance must be read in reference to its context as well as in the context of other movement styles or performances that it itself reflects. Here I have argued for a specific reading of filmed martial arts combat as dance in relation to other styles of combat performance. I have also deliberately stressed the physical, kinesthetic aspects of decoding these martial spectacles in order to draw attention to the possibility of a physical origin for individual viewer’s differences in any such reading, as well as to counteract the long history of writing that dismisses aspects of bodily understanding. In doing so, I hope to illuminate some of the ways in which performed martial arts movement might both create categories of understanding and leave elements of these categories negotiable within and between cultures.

Ultimately, any understanding of physical movement requires some understanding of the culture and context from which the movement itself derives. To read movement as dance requires the additional step of first and foremost recognizing these movements as “intentionally rhythmic, culturally patterned sequences with value in and of themselves.” And acceptance of kinesthetic theories requires a further level of intellectual understanding, which recognizes concepts of beauty and revulsion as multiple and individualistic. Perhaps here my discussion of cultural aesthetics through movement should end. Any definition or theory of aesthetics, especially in regard to forms as ephemeral as human movement, must have at its core much which is purely and unabashedly subjective. If memory, and therefore comprehension, is unique in some way to each individual body, then any appreciation for beauty or revulsion for abnormality truly exists only in the eye— or body—of the beholder.


1. For instance: Dying for Action: the Life and Films of Jackie Chan lists “inside scoops on his most mind-boggling stunts, his many injuries in all their battle-scarred glory, and his favorite fighting styles.” I am Jackie Chan: My life in Action lists “My Top Ten Stunts,” “My Top Ten Fights,” and “‘It only hurts when I’m not laughing’: My Aches and Pains.” And The Essential Jackie Chan Sourcebook lists a “’Catalogue of Pain’— from concussions to broken bones—and his many stuntwork near-misses.”

2. Although the general story itself is relatively well-known, specific details differ from version to version. The specifics described here are taken from Paul Crompton’s The Complete Martial Arts.

3. Yeoh, in fact, was not trained as a martial artist, but rather she was classically trained as a ballet dancer, which may go a long way to explain the grace and agility of her fight scenes. Nor was Yeoh trained as a stunt person. Yet she, like Chan, has performed all of her own stunts— which is graphically evidenced by several of the signature out-takes in the film in which Yeoh is seen failing in her first two attempts to jump a motorcycle onto a moving train, and she falls from the hood of a moving car onto the road into oncoming traffic.

4. Qikung is both a part of and separate from kung fu itself. Qikung deals specifically with directing Qi (or Chi) to various parts of the body to promote either defense, offense, or health.


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