Martial arts and Asian American identity

Huntsman rising junior Angela Shen researches the ritual and practice of judo, taekwondo, kung fu, and karate.

Angela Shen smiles in front of the red steel sculpture on Locust Walk
Angela Shen, a rising junior in the Huntsman program, is researching Asian American identity and martial arts. 

The first thing to learn in judo is how to fall, says Angela Shen, a rising junior in the Huntsman Program for International Studies and Business.

You start in a low squat, feet flat on the floor, chin tucked, rolling backwards, trying to land your back and forearms in the same moment, she says. “When you do it right, there should be one loud slapping sound,” Shen says. “Being able to fall gracefully and not get injured is the root of the practice. You need to know how to take failure gracefully before you move on.”

A member of Penn’s student judo and taekwondo clubs, Shen’s interest in martial arts began as academic inquiry, when a paper she wrote for an Asian American Religions course in the fall of 2021 turned into an ethnographic research project about exploring Asian American identity through martial arts.

“Starting with my freshman year at Penn, I’ve gone through a long journey of exploration of my Asian American identity,” says Shen, who is in the Huntsman program, a four-year, dual degree undergraduate program in language, the liberal arts, and business, through the Wharton School and the School of Arts & Sciences.

Her parents immigrated from China’s Eastern coast, settling in Newtown, Pennsylvania, where Shen grew up. At Penn, she began to explore the wider Asian American community, participating in the Asian Pacific American Leadership Institute, the Asian American Studies Program Undergraduate Advisory Board, and the Asian Pacific American Heritage Week planning committee.

She also signed up for the Asian American Religions course her sophomore year, where she analyzed examples of racial, cultural, and religious connectivity, including the racialization of Islam post-9/11 and the oft-stereotyped Oriental monk figure, Shen says.

Religion and spirituality are much broader categories than many students appreciate, says Rupa Pillai, senior lecturer in the Asian American Studies Program. “Our perception of what constitutes a religion is really guided by Western categories where religion is defined by and compared to Christianity,” says Pillai. The Asian American Religions seminar helps students interrogate their understanding of religion and spiritual traditions, she says. For more philosophical examples, she says, “way of life” becomes a better way to think about religion.

A mural of four figures handling a reflective ball painted on a brink wall
As part of her research, Shen photographed Chinatown murals depicting martial arts.

After writing a final paper on the martial arts for Pillai’s class, Shen received a Turner-Schulman Undergraduate Fellowship from the Center for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Immigration and a College Alumni Society Research Grant from the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships to expand her research. She took an ethnographic approach to her project, using interviews as her main source of data, and attended martial arts classes, she says.

“Doing an Asian martial art as an Asian American often has underlying connections to culture,” Shen says. Some martial arts began as an extension of spiritual practice, she says. “Shaolin kung fu is linked to Shaolin Monastery, the birthplace of Chan Buddhism; Japanese Aikido is influenced by Mahayana Buddhism.”

While modern martial arts classes typically focus on technical skills, rarely referring to the historical or spiritual contexts, Shen says many martial arts classes demonstrate the continued presence of religion and culture through the process of ritualization. “Interaction with symbols and engagement in certain customs and norms during class, despite the lack of any articulated religious intent by teachers or other students, can be imbued with significance that extends beyond the physical,” she says.

For example, competitors are taught to bow when they step on and off the mat, to bow to their opponents, and to bow to their more senior students and teachers. “Following those rules and embracing the rationale behind them—that it’s important to be humble, that everyone deserves dignity—helps give martial arts a level of mental and spiritual discipline,” she says.

At a taekwondo practice, students in a mirrored studio stand on red mats with padding protecting their shins, forearms, and torsos.
Shen also joined Penn’s taekwondo club, seen practicing here. (Image: Angela Shen)

It’s an ideal of sportsmanship that is taken “to a higher level for martial arts, because a lot of the time you’re one on one, engaging with someone else in physical combat,” Shen says. “You have to respect your opponent.”

Martial arts practitioners develop a strong mind-body connection, which can be especially empowering for women of color who might be vulnerable to struggles with body image and stereotypes of weakness and submissiveness, Shen says. Through practicing drills, learning new moves, and sparring on the training mat, martial artists of all backgrounds and skill levels build confidence, she says.

As a beginner, “I’m being beat up and losing a lot,” Shen says. “It’s definitely kept me humble, but at the same time I’m learning. You get this sense of progression and accomplishment … alongside a team, supported by everyone in the community.”

Physical confidence translates to mental confidence, she says, which is one of the reasons she’ll stick with the practice, long after she turns in the paper.