top of page
  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

Why Do We Bow?

Hello and welcome back to Rhetorical Roundhouse. Last week I celebrated going "Back to Class" and talked a little bit about the Expository Writing course I'm teaching this semester. Make sure to give that a read and check back next week for some exciting video content from that class.

This week, though, I thought I'd workshop some words that I hope find their way into my final dissertation chapter. As I started thinking through how to outline the fifth chapter, I found myself asking, "what are the long-lasting implications of the research that I present in my project?" In other words, why does the concept of "embodied topoi" matter? Or, why is it important to recognize that martial arts are "institutions," regulatory agencies of control that teach students how to enact and perform various rhetorical concepts? Why does it matter that martial arts, generally, teach students how to "behave" instead of simply how to fight or compete in a sport?

When I think about these questions, I think about a fairly common practice at most Tae Kwon Do schools I've been a part of. When it comes time to test for a new belt, students are often asked to demonstrate heir knowledge of the martial art, Korean culture, or Tae Kwon Do terminology. These tasks can range from counting to 10 in Korean to listing the five tenets of Tae Kwon Do etc. Most of the time, these are simple memorization tasks. But, that does not make them insignificant. In fact, the questions that I think about most often are asked to every student at Pil Seung Taekwondo in Blacksburg, VA before they can become a white belt.

1. Why do we bow?

2. Why do we shake hands after sparring?

These questions are REALLY important to me because they demand that students think critically about what they are doing with their bodies and WHY they are being asked to do it.

The answer to question 1 is "to show respect." This means that the very first thing a student learns how to do when they train at Pil Seung is perform a fully embodied sign of respect to their teachers, their elders, their parents, and their classmates. Not only that, but they are tested on their knowledge of what that sign (the bow) represents.

Question 2 is similar--we shake hands to show "good sportsmanship." Again, the student is asked to reflect on the action that many people might simply do out of habit or expectation. Students become acculturated to being respectful always, as well as understanding a different set of civic conduct procedures during sparring. Again though, the action is brought to the forefront and interrogated as something that has symbolic meaning and social implications.

I think about these two questions quite frequently because they exhibit rather succinctly what it means to embody rhetorical concepts in a critically reflexive way. This means that that student not only performs the embodied sign of respect (the bow) or sportsmanship (the handshake) but also thinks critically about what each means (both to them personally and to their audience contextually). Finally, the reflexive part means that students can not only cognitively interpret the action, but that the action can summon associated thoughts or emotions. This is to say that a student can focus on the idea of respect BECAUSE of the action of the bow (if it has been fully habituated). That is the fully recursive relationship established between the bodily technique and rhetorical concept--one can always find the other.

So why is that important? Because it means that if a martial arts school can associate one particular action with a specific line of thinking or feeling, then it means there is a serious ethical dimension to how martial arts are being taught and by whom. Imagine if the answer to "why do we bow" was "to show reverence" instead of "to show respect." Suddenly, the same bow can be used to create a power dynamic placing certain instructors and masters in an even more elevated position, one that might be more reminiscent of a martial cult. This might sound like a silly example, but these are the major tactics used by radical political militant groups to brainwash and train potential recruits. But, before I jump to far into the world of hypotheticals, I'll give some various implications that will appeal to different readers.

1. Embodied Non-Western Rhetorics

The biggest reason my research should matter to academics in the field of Rhetoric and Composition is that it opens the door to explore some of the ways Debra Hawhee (2004) understood rhetoric as embodied and performed through athletics in environments disconnected from the Grecco-Roman tradition. This means that there are countless other ways Non-Western rhetorics have been embodied historically or preserved through athletic practices yet to be explored--my project focuses primarily on Ancient Chinese rhetorics (specifically those from the Daoist school of thought) as they apply to the modern Tae Kwon Do taegeuk pumsae. Even in the scope of just Martial Arts Studies, there are countless martial systems and related practices from various cultures and eras that preserve and perform rhetorical ideologies separate from those originating in Ancient Greece. Researching these can only add a layer of understanding to how various athletic practices reflect associated communicative or discursive practices. A lot of this work (understanding martial arts discursively) is being done already in the Martial Arts Studies Journal

2. Pedagogical Applications for the Writing Classroom

As I have written about and presented on before, my research is, at its core, interested in how concepts become ingrained in the body, become habituated, become automatic. This process is not just something important to martial arts communities, but for any classroom environment. Last year at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (4Cs), I demonstrated how the eight philosophical qualities embodied in the taegeuk pumsae align almost flawlessly with the eight "habits of mind" necessary for student success in college. What this means to me is there are other ways of teaching things like "creativity" or "adaptability" that many writing instructors haven't necessarily explored. Certain folks in Composition have started to investigate more mindfulness and contemplative educational techniques, even those embodied through Eastern or martial practices. For example, Wenger (2015) discusses the practical applications of certain yoga exercises in her writing classroom for teaching students to embody such inter/intrapersonal skills. Kroll (2008) does something similar for how to conceive of different argumentative moves using physical analogues from Aikido. And the larger martial arts special interest group at 4C's presents similar research every year. Ultimately, a sub-group of researchers has keyed in to the fact that certain useful skills, ones transferable from the college classroom to the business world and even to personal lives are best taught through the process of bodily habituation. Of course, there is still much more work to do here. It's not enough for individual instructors to realize this. Rather, as I discussed at the Association for Teacher's of Technical Writing (ATTTW) conference last year, this is an important thing for writing program administrators (WPAs) to understand as well. Writing programs need to be better designed to help professionalize their instructors and this is one key concept for WPAs to understand in order to accomplish that.

3. Future Quantitative Research in Violence Prevention

Right now I can only anecdotally say that a martial arts education helps students become more emotionally stable and less likely to commit violent acts. I believe it, but I don't have any real hard evidence. There are some studies out there that start to gather some data one way or the other, but they are few and far between. Back (2009) for example, presents some survey data indicating that participants in "traditional" martial arts scored higher than other athletes on a test designed to indicate some sort of universal morality. Notably, martial artists who sparred competitively scored roughly the same as those other athletes. This kind of data tells me a few things. First, there is a difference, both real and perceived, between various types of martial arts education. Not all dojangs are created equally.

One thing that makes these training facilities different is the kinds of rhetorical concepts they teach students to embody. The Karate Kid movies come to mind here. Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel-san blocking techniques in the form of household chores (wax on/wax off, paint the fence, sand the floor) as his introduction to Karate. In this way, Miyagi's Karate was about defending one's own body in the same way you protect or preserve other things. Daniel-san learned martial arts as a constructive activity, one that creates and builds new life in the world. Johnny Lawrence, on the other hand, is introduced to Karate with the maxim "strike first, strike hard, no mercy." Right off the bat, Kobra Kai Karate is dedicated to the attack, the opportunity to destroy without hesitation or remorse. As the film and franchise progresses, these two characters transport these ideologies into different facets of their lives, intersecting with other people, often violently. While both character's learned the same physical techniques, the Karate-do they embodied was distinctly different because of the rhetorical underpinnings.

Daniel-san still getting it wrong.

Yes, Karate Kid is a fictional film, but it's also an illustration of a longstanding cultural belief about how athletic training can change the social behavior of a person. The Back (2009) survey indicates that this belief may be rooted in actuality. Future research could help codify which martial arts institutions (the more "traditional" schools as Back labels them) more frequently provide that kind of critically reflexive education in order to understand if these curricula can actually promote non-violence in students. Additional research could help us understand if martial arts education could help populations who are at a higher risk of being involved in a violent crime avoid such an instance. If so, this data would be especially persuasive in securing grant funding for future Rhetorical Roundhouse Network initiatives, ones designed to help provide opportunities and education for students from lower-income communities.


So, somehow, I guess I did it. This has been a rough week--I was sick and just feeling sort of out of it for a while. These things happen from time to time. But, thanks to this blog, I now have a few starting ideas for chapter 5. I hope they made some kind of sense. As always, feel free to contact me with any questions or feedback at

Thanks for reading.


16 views0 comments


bottom of page