7 – Channeled violence & transcendant experiences


The presenters will discuss symbols and practices of collective exorcism, access to the sacred through physical confrontation, and co-construction of risked situations shared by practitioners in sparring context.

    • Discussant: Benoît Gaudin (Versailles Saint-Quentin University)



  • Jiao Yupeng (University of California) – “You Cannot Harm Me:” Martial Arts Networks and the Cult of Invulnerability Rituals in Modern China


The flourishing of rural martial arts sects in Modern China was largely facilitated by popular belief in invulnerability rituals. Invulnerability rituals, defined as the ability to defend oneself from all weapons through spells and talismans, played a significant role in uniting various martial arts sects during the Boxer Uprising that is well-known for targeting Christian missionaries. Through the teachings of a nationwide network of wandering martial arts masters, invulnerability rituals were initially used for the purpose of defending rural communities against bandits by local self-defense groups. Through the perspective of invulnerability rituals, physical fighting was simultaneously a demonic warfare in nature. Through learning invulnerability rituals, people could tame the demonic power through summoning the presence of martial gods. Those wandering martial arts masters, who preached the effectiveness of practicing invulnerability rituals, were careerist teachers who first promoted the use of protective martial arts (invulnerability rituals) against bandit threats and then expanded the use of invulnerability rituals in resolving all local disputes, including but not limited to lineage conflicts and competition for natural resources. The cult of invulnerability rituals then became one of the most dangerous players which threatened the security of people’s livelihood. Eventually, during the early People’s Republic, the cult of invulnerability rituals completely disappeared as a result of the Communist Party’s nationwide campaigns against counterrevolutionaries.

Keywords: Invulnerability Rituals, Wandering Martial Arts Masters, Demonic Warfare, People’s Republic of China, Boxer Uprising.

Bio & contact

Yupeng Jiao is a doctoral student at the History Department of University of California, San Diego. Yupeng’s research interests include popular religion and new religion in modern China, rural power structure, and legal history. Yupeng’s dissertation, Martial Arts, Apocalypse, and Counterrevolutionaries: Secret Societies and Rural Governance in Modern China, 1919-1959, is a socio-political microhistory on rural power structure in a pre-capitalist agrarian society. This study examines the role of secret societies (huidaomen), especially martial arts sects and millenarian religious sects, in the complex cultural nexus of power in rural China. Based on the public security materials Yupeng has collected, he is also ready to begin a second book project on legal history in the PRC, especially the development of police surveillance, criminal sentences, and thought reform inside the labor camps.


Video presentation 

  • Fiorella Allio (CNRS – IRASIA) – Symbolic Fights and Real Confronts: The Stand Point of Martial Troupes in Taiwan’s Religious Processions


This presentation, which is part of an anthropological approach, proposes to examine the practices and the symbolic function of martial troupes in the religious context of the territorial processions of Taiwan, having most often an exorcist scope. Two directions of research will be favored here: the first explores the collective practice of martial arts for ritual purposes in contemporary villages; the second examines the question of disguised efficacy of martial arts’ prearranged patterns of fighting, and attempts to overcome the opposition between actual and figurative violence, based on the analysis of a symbolically expected efficacy. Attached to Chinese popular religion, these processions, presented as tours of inspection by local protective gods, attribute a particular role to the martial troupes who parade, perform and execute ceremonial contributions. The troupes open the march of the village delegations where the palanquins of the gods occupy the place of honor. The martial arts troops are each composed of about fifty participants who always operate in a collective way, guided by the sound of the drum. When they walk in rank, the participants look like battalions in exercise. At specific moments of the processional ritual, they invest the places and execute collective figures of deployment, withdrawal, encirclement, attack. It is also in the circle formed by their blade weapons and sticks deposited on the ground that they engage in figurative combats, in solo, in duet, with bare hands or armed hands, according to a pre-established order and pattern. These fights, prepared during a long ritual apprenticeship, under the direction of a master and the spiritual supervision of a tutelary god, which one could mistakenly equate with shows, are performed with a palpable tension that refers to latent dangers, fears of injury, plots of revenge. Who are the opponents engaged in this face to face? The members of the same troupe who mimic fighting with pre-arranged patterns? Or the whole troop opposed to external adversaries, invisible to the uninitiated? According to the local symbolic representations, these invisible but tangible entities are the very harmful souls of the dead who died of violent death, therefore condemned to wandering. The ritual moment is the opportunity to collectively set with them the terms of a pact enabling humans to live safely for several years and, in the longer term, to prosper. This Taiwanese ritual context, in which several types of oppositions are represented, allows us to define the way in which the registers of executed and imagined actions are linked, to understand how actual performances, demonstrations and combats interplay, and finally to grasp the whole value and scope of the martial register within popular religion and probably far beyond.

Keywords: martial arts troupes, ritual processions, Taiwan, performance, combats.

Bio & contact

Dr. Fiorella Allio is a senior researcher in anthropology and history at the French National Scientific Research Center (CNRS) and is based in Marseilles (Institute for Research on Asia). After receiving a Superior Diploma in Chinese Language and Civilization at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Paris, and completing her Ph.D. in Anthropology and Comparative Sociology in 1996 at Paris’ 10th University, she pursued post-doctoral research in anthropology at Columbia University in the city of NY, where she returned in 2008-2009 for a semester as a visiting professor (Anthropology Department / Weatherhead East Asian Institute) to teach a course on Taiwanese Society, Identity and Culture. From 1998 to 2003, Dr. Allio served as Director of the Taipei Branch of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC), based at the Academia Sinica. From 2003 to 2012, she was the director of the International Center for Tainan Area Humanities and Social Sciences Research (Taiwan). In 2004 she was awarded the honorary citizenship of Tainan. From 2006 to 2009, she was the director of the national research unit on Taiwan (GFRT) at the CNRS. Dr. Allio has conducted extensive fieldwork in Taiwan ever since her first stay in 1983, and her current studies focus on folk religion, collective rituals such as processions, martial rituals and practices, Tainan local society, heritage-making processes, electoral culture. Related recent publications include: “The spreading cult of Baosheng Dadi through hun-hiun (分香) and its territorialization through koah-hiun (刈香): the case study of Hsuehchia (Hakkah) 學甲 (Tainan)” (2019) pp. 225-253; “Playing in Human’s Sphere and Gods’ Kingdoms: An Anthropological Perspective on Taiwan’s Processional Troupes (tin-thau)” (2016) pp. 60-84; Fiorella Allio, Fan I-chun (eds), Atlas of the 2012 Religious Processions in the Tainan Region [ 臺南地區壬辰年 (2012) 遶境儀式香路圖圖集], Center for Geographic Information Science, Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, Academia Sinica (2014); “Capturing Intangible Culture and Ephemeral Manifestations: The Perpetuation of Taiwanese Traditions in Temple Processions” (2009), pp. 239-282.


Video presentation

  • Thomas Mallette (University of Victoria) – Accessing the sacred: An ethnographic Account of MMA Sparring.


Research from ethnographic participation, observation, photos, and participant data in MMA sparring dynamics has produced questions regarding the relationship between direct experiences of vigorous sparring and early religious rituals. Durkheim’s analysis of the sociology of religion in early human societies not only offers insight into the way human sparring functions in encouraging group solidarity and feelings of togetherness in the contemporary MMA combat space, but also offers insight into the relationship between sparring and the elementary ingredients of existentially meaningful human social interactions per se. Building on the work of MMA sociologist Dale Spencer, this paper examines some gaps in Loic Wacquant’s carnal sociology to explore the sociological and philosophical complexity of the concept of sparring “intensity”. New ethnographical insights from the study of human sparring dynamics suggest that contemporary sparring practices provide human beings with unique, perhaps unacknowledged access to Durkheim’s ‘sacred object.’ In sparring, supposedly profane practice is brought into close proximity with a pure, ‘pre-cultural,’ originary social experience, similar to the euphoric and ineffable experiences described by religious practitioners, prophets and seers. Due to the way human sparring inherently distorts perception through its intensity, this ethnographic research reveals elements of carnal sociology that Loic Wacquant and other MMA sociologists have overlooked.

Keywords: Human Sparring, Mixed-Martial Arts, Religious Experience, The Sacred, Intensity.

Bio & contact

Thomas Mallette is a 3rd year MA student in the Cultural Studies and Political Thought (CSPT) program at the University of Victoria. Under the supervision of Dr. Steven Garlick, Dr. Emile Fromet de Rosnay, and Dr. William Little, he is conducting an ongoing ethnography at ZUMA mixed martial arts in Victoria BC, Canada. With only a 3-year background in Western boxing, he took on roughly 7-10 hours a week of Brazilian Jujitsu, wrestling, Muay Thai, boxing, and no-Gi grappling, from mid-August 2018 through to mid-April 2019. The climax of the study ended with a sanctioned amateur MMA fight at the National Amateur MMA championships held in Lethbridge, Canada. The MA thesis is projected to be defended in the Fall, 2020.


Video presentation

  • Alex Channon (University of Brighton) – Violence, Communities, and the Constitution of the Self through ‘Edgework’ in Mixed Martial Arts


In this paper I outline the ways in which Stephen Lyng’s concept of ‘edgework’ offers a valuable and unique vantage point for making sense of the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA). I propose that theorising this form of fighting as an example of edgework helps clarify the experiences and motivations of its participants within a social-psychological framework that is well-attuned to the extant research literature. In illustrating its potential utility, I focus on how the concept provides a means of addressing the paradoxical problem of ‘violence’ in MMA; that is, in understanding how and why people might engage in ostensibly ‘violent’ activities with those whom they simultaneously claim to respect and admire. I contend that the notion of edgework can be used to reconceptualise the action of MMA as a form of mutually-constructed risk, instead of ‘violence’. Central to this discussion is the importance of collaboration between competitive opponents in MMA, whose purposeful attempts to beat one-another are necessary in order to sustain the activity’s appeal in offering opportunities to experience ‘authentic’ reflexivity, identity construction, and community formation.

Keywords: Violence, Communities, and the Constitution of the Self through ‘Edgework’ in Mixed Martial Arts.



Video presentation