Martial Studies in Latin-America

“El hijo del Li Yuan, Li Shimin 李世民(el segundo emperador de la Dinastía Tang) quedó aprisionado en Luoyang. Para salvar a su hijo Li Shimin, Li Yuan buscó la ayuda del Monasterio Shaolin para reprimir la revuelta dirigida por Wang Shichong 王世充y rescatar a su hijo. El abad del monasterio Shaolin Zhi Cao y doce monjes más armados con palos dirigieron un ataque sorpresa contra las tropas de Wang Shichong creando la confusión entre los rebeldes y capturando al sobrino del General Wang, Wang Renze. Finalmente Wang Shicong se entregó a si mismo…” (Tombolato, 2014).


The son of Li Yuan, Li Shimin 李世民(the second Emperor of the Tang dynasty) was trapped in Luoyang. To save his son Li Shimin, Li Yuan sought the help of the Shaolin monastery to repress the revolt led by Wang Shichong 王世充 and rescue his son. The Abbot of the Shaolin monastery Zhi Cao and twelve monks armed with sticks led a surprise attack against the troops of Wang Shichong creating confusion among the rebels and capturing the nephew of General Wang, Wang Renze. Finally Wang Shichong surrendered himself… (Tombolato, 2014).

Latin America is home to more than 400 million Spanish speaking people (excluding Brazil), where there is a growing interest to all things Asian; it is not surprising China has started to pay attention to this untapped market (Mijares, 2014). Martial arts and Chinese martial arts in particular are clouded in mystery and full of fantastic stories attracting the attention of both the beginner and the seasoned practitioner. Most of what people know about martial arts has come from movies, games and other similar sources. The opening paragraph to this short essay is just one of many  appearing in martial arts publications even today, despite the wealth of research that has been published mainly in English in the recent years. We will briefly explore some efforts being pursue to raise the understanding of the historical evolution of martial arts and Asian culture in the Spanish speaking countries to date.

Asian Immigration to Latin-America

The interest of western powers in China during the 1800s was driven by economics and only few people sought to explore the richness of its culture. Latin-American countries on the other hand did not have the economic, political influence or military might to make any claim in China at that time. However, the abolition of slavery drove some to seek a way to replace the African labor by other means.  In 1835 Colombian citizen Nicolas Tanco Armero landed in the port of Hong Kong with the mission to find workers for the Cuban sugar mills owners affected by the abolition. Contacts between Asia and South America in the mid 1700s were due to the commercial exchanges between Manila (Philippines) and Acapulco (Mexico). Armero was educated in Europe and the United States and was fluent in English and French. During a period of political unrest against the Colombian government Armero sought asylum in Cuba; it was during this time Armero made contacts with rich sugar mills owners who hired him to work in their facilities. (Hincapie, 2011)

In his memoirs, Armero wrote about his disgust towards slavery, yet he was biased about the treatment of the sugar mill slaves claiming they received better treatment from its rulers. After the 1817 abolition treaty signed between England and Spain, the black market became the only option for those looking for slaves, yet at much higher costs. Cuba’s sugar production had exceed those of Jamaica, Brazil and Puerto Rico. The Haitian revolution (1791 – 1805) served as a wakeup call of what could happen if the black population decided to revolt. In parallel to the situation in Cuba, China was also facing problems of her own. Fiscal imbalance due to opium consumption, poverty, political unrest were all breeding ground for emigration overseas of Chinese workers or coolies. (Hincapie, 2011; Gernet, 2008)

Chinese Sugar Mill worker

Chinese sugar mill worker 1800s

From 1840 to 1875 almost a million southern Chinese were “hired” to work overseas under very poor conditions. Of those approximately 150,000 arrived in Cuba and 100,000 to Peru, which is estimated to have the largest Chinese population in Latin America (Perú muestra la inmigración china en la Expo de Shanghái, 2014). Unfortunately these immigrants were treated almost as bad as the black slaves before them. The latter is confirmed by the testimony of one of such Chinese workersthe owner constantly urges the foreman the only thing that matters is good sugar production, no considerations can be taken to the Chinese workers, so if one is beaten to death ten more can be bought to replaced him.

Opium was also used to control the will of the workers, all of the above drove many to suicide in order to escape their faith. Armero also traveled to Japan for similar reasons, however Japanese immigration took place decades after the Chinese workers trade was abolished. Japanese immigration started during the Meiji Restoration through Mexico, due to its proximity to the United States, Mexico attracted approximately 11,000 workers to coffee and sugar plantations. In 1899 Japanese workers landed in Peru, in 1908 others came to Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, Colombia, Panama, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, Venezuela and Central America. During WWII many more came to the Southern hemisphere, specially to the Brazilian cities of Sao Paulo and Parana. (Hincapie, 2011) Similarly, Korean workers arrived in Mexico in 1905, others in 1921 to Cuba hired to work for the sugar industry. In 1960 the Korean government defined policies to control population growth due to the surge of refugees from the North, the return of expats after WWII, the improvement in life quality that increase life expectancy of the population and the military dictatorships that followed after the war. For this reason family immigration and the creation of agricultural colonies overseas was encouraged. (Mera, 2005)

Being an immigrant myself it is easy to understand the reasons these men and women formed communities aimed for support, a link to their place of origin and to preserve their national identity given the hard conditions they faced in a foreign land. There is not as far as I am aware any study of the martial traditions that came with those first immigrants. We can only guess based on the fact that for the most part, the Chinese immigrants that came earlier were from ports in the eastern coast such as Fujian,  Xiamen, Shantou in Guangdong province (Gernet, 2008) etc. A quick survey of martial arts schools with web pages on the Internet revealed the traditions first introduced to Latin America were mostly southern styles such as Choy Gar, Hung Gar, Ng Ga Kuen (5 Families). In the 1960s styles like Eagle Claw, Xing Yi Quan, Tan Tui, Choy Li Fat, Northern Shaolin, Tam Tui, Cha Quan, Lo Hap, Lo Hon, Tong Long, Taiji Quan came to Brazil and spread to Argentina, Chile, Spain and other countries. Later immigration from Taiwan in 1968 saw the introduction of Tian Shan Pai to Brazil and in 1970 to the USA (Lin, 1976). In 1978 Bajiquan, Tanglang Quan, Baguazhang, Piguaquan arrived to Venezuela to name just a few. The Japanese brought arts such as Judo as early as 1906 (Argentina), Karate Do in 1959 (Argentina) from Argentina Karate Do was introduced to Colombia by Jose Fernandez Garzon MD in 1967. The Koreans brought Taekwondo, Hapkido and other arts starting in the 1960s (Jae-un, 2014).


Jose Fernandez Garzon MD in Bogota, Colombia 1970s. Source: Colegio de Cinturones Negros, Colombia

Challenges to the Diffusion of Martial Studies

Interest for the historical and social development of martial arts in the west is recent. “How to do it” articles on martial arts are still the norm in magazines such as Black Belt which started publication in 1961 (Black Belt Magazine, 2014) or Inside Kung Fu published between 1973 to 2011 (Inside Kung Fu Magazine, 2014). However, once in a while more scholarly papers were published in such venues by researcher William C.C. Hu in the 1960s, others such as Stanley Henning who published his famous “The Chinese Martial Arts in Historical Perspective” in 1981 to Meir Shahar‘s work on Shaolin involvement in martial arts, brought much needed awareness to the historical development of such skills. Some of the above publications made their way to Spanish speaking countries in many cases via people who had emigrated or visited North America. Making an educated guess Mexico could have seen more of this material due to its proximity to the USA and to a lesser degree to the countries located in the Southern hemisphere.

EF EPI Rankings

English Proficiency 2012. Source: EF Report 2012

The fist obstacle to  the larger population even today is the language barrier. In an independent study published by EF revealed that there is a low proficiency in this language even among university students (EF English Profiency Study 2012, 2012). Illiteracy is also another issue that is still prevalent in many Latin-American countries (El analfabetismo en América Latina, una deuda social, 2010), despite government efforts to correct it. The introduction of Internet service providers in the 1980s onward in North America and Europe brought one of the most powerful tools for the distribution of information on a global scale. Nevertheless the internet was not as common in Latin American homes (Internet World Stats, 2014). As a side anecdote, the first company I worked for did not get into the internet band wagon before 1997. When I was a teen my family was one of the rarely few who had a computer at home, by the time I left in 1999 Internet was still not a common service. Upon my first visit to my home country in 2008 the first thing I noticed was the explosion of Internet cafes in almost every corner on my old neighbourhood. We could attribute the lack of better educational services to corruption in every political level that has hindered it, military dictatorships that controlled the lives of millions spanning from the late XIX to XX centuries, civil wars in El Salvador, Colombia, Nicaragua to name just a few that held back the development of these countries. Mail delivery is also an issue in some places, based on experience parcels will take months to arrived in the best of cases, limiting the coverage of companies such as Amazon. However China’s push to open the controversial Confucius Institutes around the world, has help to slowly even up the skills necessary to read Chinese sources but only those written or translated to simplified characters; to date nine Latin American countries now have at least one of such institutes.

Martial Publications in Spanish

As we mentioned earlier in the discussion there is no lack of martial arts magazines and books that deal with techniques with or without weapons. Cinturon Negro and El Budoka are two of the magazines that are still in circulation in different countries of Latin America. Some of the earlier publications originated in Spain, Mexico and Argentina, many were only sold in the country of origin and never made it elsewhere. The earliest martial publications seemed to have appeared in Spain as early as 1906 with “100 lances de jiu-jitsu. (Ataques y quites)” by Émile André the Spanish translation of its French version and sold in Spain and Mexico (Garcia, 2007). From that point onward more martial arts publications started to appeared in Spain; whether other Spanish speaking countries saw the same influx of martial publications needs to be studied.

No Publications by Topic

Number of publications in Spain by martial art (Gutierrez & Garcia, 2008)

We will use the data for Spain as base line as this is well researched in the literature. In the graphs below we can see the steady increase on such material, starting with a high number of publications focused on Japanese methods until the 1980s after that we see an increase in publications dealing with Chinese arts from that decade onwards (Gutierrez & Garcia, 2008). Perhaps due to the focus on health cultivation, New Age style philosophies that made westerners to turn an eye to practices such as Qi Gong, and Taiji Quan as a means for self development (Gutierrez & Garcia, 2008).

Publications by Country

Number of publications with Japanese and Chinese focus per decade (Gutierrez & Garcia, 2008)

The bulk of publications both magazines and books had been mostly focused on teaching techniques to those interested in learning new ways to defeat the competition in some cases with brief historical introductions to the style in question. However, these attempts to describe their history are based mostly on hearsay lacking any bibliography that would allow the interested reader to fact check and expand what is being discussed.

Publications Spain

Number of publications per decade in Spain (Gutierrez and Garcia, 2008)

Revista de Artes Marciales Asiaticas

In 2006 the Universidad de Leon in Spain started sponsoring what is without a doubt the most important publication on Martial Studies in the Spanish speaking world. Under the Guidance of Dr. Carlos Gutierrez Garcia PhD the Revista de Artes Marciales Asiaticas (RAMA) started as the sister publication of the now defunct Journal of Asian Martial Arts (JAMA) published in the USA. In these initial years RAMA was mostly translating the articles that appeared in JAMA following the same layout, but including at least one original paper, report or book review written by some of  RAMA’s collaborators.

100 Lances y Quites 1906

100 lances de jiu-jitsu. (Ataques y quites)” by Émile André (Garcia, 2007)

What made RAMA’s approach different form other martial arts publications was the requirement of at least two academic peer reviews before any paper was published followed by these guidelines:

  • The topic of the manuscript fits to RAMA.
  • The manuscript is a good contribution to the knowledge of some aspect of martial arts and/or related topics.
  • The writing is clear and precise.
  • The manuscript is well structured into sections for easier reading and understanding.
  • The title matches with the content of the manuscript.
  • The summary properly informs about the different sections of the manuscript.
  • There are clear objectives that guide the development of the contents of the manuscript.
  • The information and references provided are relevant and, if appropriate, would make feasible the replication of the study.
  • Statistical analysis, if any, is accurate.
  • The results are clearly presented.
  • Tables, illustrations and/or images are necessary and suitable.
  • The manuscript convincingly develops the reasoning, theories or theses included within it.
  • The conclusions are derived from the evidences outlined in the article.
  • References to practical applications or the practical significance of the research are included.
  • The bibliographical references are relevant and necessary.
  • All authors cited in the text appear in the reference list, and vice versa.
  • The reference list is updated.
  • References are correctly written.(About, 2014)

There is no lack of people who want to write for the journal. However the requirements to do so, in place to ensure a high quality publication, can discourage many who are interested on having their ideas approved by the editorial board. By the end of 2011 and after six years of paper publication the journal faced its biggest challenge. Coverage was still a problem in many countries a reason that made the journal to become a free access publication rather than a paid subscription model. This change, at least in my personal opinion, did not come free of problems. Despite the free access, the articles became more universal in the sense that they could be either in English and Portuguese limiting once again the readership of the excellent articles in it, to those who can read either language.



The editor of the journal was also instrumental in the publication of perhaps the first book in the Spanish language that dealt with the historical evolution of Chinese martial arts. The book was a proposal from Ediciones Nowtilus who had been publishing a series called “Breve Historia” (Brief History) in topics as varied as Brief History of Spain, Brief History of the Samurai to Brief History of Communism; to date the collection has 81 titles. In early 2009 Professor Carlos Gutierrez for whom we have great admiration, was approached by Nowtilus to work on a book on Chinese martial arts, by that time we had already a couple of papers published in RAMA and professor Gutierrez thought we could help.

The first hurdle for the project was to line up what we thought would be interesting to include in the book vs. the guidelines of the Editorial house within the allocated time frame. The plan was that publication would kick off in Q1 of 2010, so we had little time to put together a book based on primary and secondary sources which we had acquired throughout the years in China, Japan and other places; the compromise then was a combination of information never published in English or Spanish combined with material already published in English by renown scholars as a way to bring to the attention of the Spanish speaking public material that was not available in the literature. With Professor Gutierrez we made sure that two bibliographies were included, a short one with commentary and a second one with all the sources used for the book. During the process we had the support of scholars Mr. Stanley Henning and Dennis Rovere who I bugged with questions in countless occasions and never complained, for which we will always be grateful. The reception to this project was well received by some as shown in the  reviews written by some scholars [1] [2], but not surprisingly it was more controversial by those who saw it as a challenge to the beliefs they had hold dear for many years. In 2011 Nowtilus made an agreement with Brazilian publishing house Madras and the book was translated to Portuguese. In case the reader wonder how many books have been sold, we can tell you that not many; martial arts is a niche market and unless one writes a Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of Grey, martial arts books are not best sellers. Despite the above and the fact this project was far from ground-breaking, we have the satisfaction to have contributed in a small way to help bring forth information that still needs to be know in Latin America.


(2014, 08 30). Retrieved from Internet World Stats:

About. (2014, 08 30). Retrieved from Revista de Artes Marciales Asiaticas:

Black Belt Magazine. (2014, 08 30). Retrieved from Black Belt Magazine:

(2012). EF English Profiency Study 2012. EF.

(2010). El analfabetismo en América Latina, una deuda social. SITEAL.

Garcia, C. G. (2007). Estudio De las primeras obras sobre artes marciales escritas en español. Revista de Artes MArciales Asiaticas, 8-27.

Gernet, J. (2008). A History of Chinese Civilization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gutierrez, M. P., & Garcia, C. G. (2008). Estudio Bibliometrico sobre las monografias de artes mariales publicadas en España (1906-2006). Revista de Artes Marciales Asiaticas, 22-33.

Hincapie, L. M. (2011). Rutas del Pacifico: Inmigrantes asiaticos a America Latina. Memorias del XIII Congreso Internacional de ALADAA. Bogota: ALADAA.

Inside Kung Fu Magazine. (2014, 08 30). Retrieved from Inside Kung Fu Magazine:

Jae-un, L. (2014, 08 30). Korea Net. Retrieved from Taekwondo’s popularity grows in Latin America :

Lin, W. (1976). T’ien Shan P’ai Kung Fu. Burbank: Ohara Publications.

Mera, C. (2005). Diáspora coreana en América Latina. Segundo Encuentro de Estudios Coreanos en América Latina.

Mijares, V. M. (2014, 08 30). China’s support of Latin America ‘doesn’t come for free’. Retrieved from DW:

Perú muestra la inmigración china en la Expo de Shanghái. (2014, 08 30). Retrieved from Terra:

Tombolato, B. (2014). El Origen de Shaolin Quan Fa. El Budoka 2.0, 19, 544-57.


4 thoughts on “Martial Studies in Latin-America

Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on Kung Fu Tea and commented:
    ***A few months ago I had the opportunity to exchange emails with William Acevedo regarding his various research projects. As we discussed the growing interest in martial arts studies around the globe we decided that it would be very interesting to have a short article that addressed the state of the Spanish language literature on Chinese martial studies. Luckily William is perfectly situated to write on this topic and he has recently posted his thoughts on the subject to his blog “Zhongguo Wu Xue” (which you should be following). Much of the discussion of this subject tends to revolve around the English and Chinese language literatures, but its important to remember that contributions are also being made in languages like Spanish, French, Japanese and German. Hopefully in the following months we can find out more about the pace of academic discovery in these other areas as well. Enjoy***

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