Bernard the Kung Fu Elf riding Shotgun with Santa. (Source: Vintage American Postcard, authors personal collection.)
Bernard the Kung Fu Elf riding Shotgun with Santa. Source: Vintage American Postcard, authors personal collection.


Meet Bernard, the Kung Fu Elf

With only a week left until Christmas it is time to finish off that holiday shopping list.  Martial artists are hard to shop for and students of martial studies doubly so.  Who knows what those people are reading this week.  The following list might give you some last minute inspiration if you have one on your list.  Alternatively, if you are looking to put a little something in your own stocking this year, here are a couple of items to consider.

Our list was assembled with the cooperation of Bernard the “Kung Fu Elf.”  He is an acquaintance of mine who runs a Wing Chun class at the North Pole.  Lots of weapons work up there.  Have you ever seen the size of one of those polar bears?  My wonderful wife sometimes calls Bernard for gift giving advice, and he has yet to steer her wrong.

This year Bernard’s list follows the classic division in Chinese culture between “literary” and “martial” values.  The first set of gifts tend to be “long reads.”  Order these from Amazon (second day air) and they will be here in time for Christmas.  The second set of gifts…are more practical.  Lets get this started!

Santa in a green suit.  this card was dated 1907.  Already by that point the santa suit was more common.  Source: Vintage American Postcard from Authors personal collection.
Santa in a green suit. This card was dated 1907. Already by that point the red Santa suit was more common. This particular card is heavily embossed giving it an almost 3-D feel.  Source: Vintage American Postcard from Authors personal collection.

The Pen – Feed your mind.

1. Peter Lorge.  Chinese Martial Arts.  Cambridge UP. 2011.

Mandatory reading for every good girl and boy.  If you only own one book on the history of the Chinese martial arts, it should be this one.  Unfortunately most of the people that I talk to have never read it before.  I hope to change that by discussing this volume in the next installment of our “book club” starting in January.  This is a great chance to order your copy and get a jump on the reading.

2. Journal of Chinese Martial Studies.

Christmas is a time of the year when we traditionally think about the less fortunate among us, like the magazine industry….But seriously, this is one of the best sources of information for students of Chinese Martial Studies.  This publication is stuffed full of meaty academic articles and it seems to carry no advertisements.  The journal publishes twice a year, putting out a Summer and Winter edition.  Sign up for a multi-year subscription and its like sending yourself two, or even three, Christmas presents for the price of one.

3. Nick Hurst. Sugong: The Life of a Shaolin Grandmaster. SB Sports Books. 2012.

One of the styles of writing commonly encountered in the martial arts world is the “travelogue.”  These stories typically record the experiences and insights of an individual who heads into the inscrutable east for training.  Mathew Polly’s American Shaolin and Robert Twigger’s Angry White Pajamas are probably the best known examples of the genera.  I have got to admit that I do not really like the travelogue.  I think its because I have spent enough time traveling and studying in the far east that I just don’t find “hena gaijin” stories all that interesting.

I am willing to make an exception for Nick Hurst.  He spends relatively little time talking about his own life and a lot of effort describing the lives and careers of this teacher, and grand-teacher.  These stories provide wonderful accounts of martial arts training in rural China and the actual life of warrior monks in the 1930s.  there are no big revelations here, but it is very nice to see all of the things that you read about in more academic settings coming together in one place and actually manifesting themselves in an identifiable human’s life.  Sugong is a great addition to the field because its all about context, and that is something we do not have enough of.  Both Bernard and I highly recommend this book.

4. Alex Gillis.  A Killing Art. ECW Press. 2011.

Its not all about the Chinese arts here at Kung Fu Tea.  If you, or someone in your life, practices Tae Kwon Do and is at all curious about the history of their art or the current state of the discipline, this book would make some great holiday reading.  Check out my longer review of it here.

5. Green and Svinth. Martial Arts in the Modern World. Praeger. 2003.

Green and Svinth have done some fine work in the field of martial studies.  Anything that either of them has written is worth reading, but together they are dynamite.  Martial Arts in the Modern World is an edited collection of articles approaching the field of martial studies from a variety of perspectives.  I think it shows some of the richness and variety of our research and it provides a good model for future publications.  The first section of this book is particularly important, but critical insights and ideas are scattered throughout.

If you are feeling flush there is an even more interesting resource by these two that you might want to check out.  Green and Svinth.  Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation.  While marketed as a reference work, these two fat volumes do not conform to typical encyclopedic expectations.  They offer a variety of sometimes quite extensive articles that are topically arranged on a wide number of subjects.  You could actually sit down and read this “Encyclopedia” from cover to cover if you wanted to.  Its pricey, but if you are serious about martial studies, this might be worth the investment.

6. Stephen R. Platt.  Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom. Vintage. 2012.

In this volume Stephen Platt offers us a narrative history of the second half of the Taiping Rebellion.  He has been criticized in many places for not covering the whole war, but I think that this was actually a very wise choice on his part.  The logic of the second half of the Taiping Rebellion was distinct from its start.  It really was a different war, and as such it deserves its own story.

Why the Taiping Rebellion?  Because the field of Chinese martial studies hardly addresses it.  The events of the 1850s and 1860s had a huge impact on the development of civilian martial arts later in the 19th century, but we have yet to have a serious conversation about that.  Its time to start familiarizing ourselves with this conflict and asking how it provides needed context to understand the evolution of Chinese hand combat methods.  Platt’s work is far from the last word on the subject, but it is very readable, and hence provides a great introduction for readers that are unfamiliar with this subject.



Bernard the Kung Fu Elf, training for a spot on the elite North Pole Alpine Search a Rescue team. (Source: late 1940s Swedish Postcard, Authors personal collection.)
Bernard the Kung Fu Elf, training for a spot on the elite North Pole Alpine Search a Rescue team. Source: late 1940s Swedish Postcard, Authors personal collection.

The Sword-A great assortment of gifts for those looking to stay “active” over the holidays.

1. Everything Wing Chun Black Practice Butterfly Swords.

I love these.  For obvious reasons I don’t want to be swinging sharp swords around in the middle of a crowded class room while doing forms practice.  Nor do I like the idea of doing cutting practice with the really fat blades that are currently popular.  I just don’t think they are all that historically accurate (more on that in January).  Still, some big beefy butterfly swords are just the right weight to build up the strength in your hands and forearms that you need when manipulating longer sabers.  And the black finish is very hip.  I have got to get these.

2. Kris Cutlery – A more “traditional” shaped cutting hudiedao.

Ok, lets say you really do want to do some cutting practice with a shorter hudiedao (commonly used in a variety of southern martial styles) but you want a more traditional blade profile.  This offering by Kris Cutlery is what you are looking for.  Swords like this seem to still be favored by the Choy Li Fut and Hung Gar guys, and to be totally honest they are much more common in collections of old arms than anything that resembles the modern “Wing Chun Butterfly Sword.”

3. Shinai

Not weapons are high carbon steel.  Some of the most important blades that you can own will be made of bamboo.  I firmly believe that every practitioner of a Chinese sword arts should own and spar with a number of different shinais.  These bamboo practice swords were developed by the Japanese for kendo.  However, they are available in a number of weights and lengths making them suitable for all types of sparing.  E-bogu is running some massive sales right now, and I have always had good luck with their practice grade Shinai.

If you want to recreate fighting with a pair of hudiedao get two wakizashi length weapons.  If you want to go back a little farther in time (remember the hudiedao is primarily a 19th century weapon) and work with two sabers, I would suggest something about 30 inches in length.  You will find those in the children’s section.

4. “3 Weapon” Fencing Mask

The key to understanding weapons is realistic full contact training.  For obvious reasons we usually substitute three feet of pointy steel for wood or bamboo, but safety gear is still essential.  After having experimented with different sorts of headgear my school has settled on heavy fencing masks, the sorts used for saber matches.  These seem to offer a good combination of protection, visibility and ease of use.  Finding an economical model can help to take your skills to the next level.

P.S.  Don’t forget about your hands.  When fighting with short bambo Shinai motorcycle gloves work fine.  For longer or wooden weapons you will need either kendo or lacrosse gloves.

5. An Authentic early 20th century Nepalese Military Kukri

The two posts that I have written for Kung Fu Tea on the Nepalese kukri have been very popular with both regular readers and new visitors.  So maybe what you want to find in your Christmas stocking is really a foot long combat knife?  If so the good folks over at IMA have got you covered.  For less than $100 you can buy an authentic Nepalese military kukri housed in the Royal Arsenal at Lagan Silekhana in Katmandu.  Despite the copy in the advertisement I suspect that most of these knives were made in the opening years of the 20th century (all pre-WWI) or maybe the final years of the 19th century.  Most are marked with an inscription identifying the unit that they were issued to, and all are great pieces for historical study.  I bet you won’t be able to collect just one.

If you are feeling a little more prosperous you might also want to check this out.  This is the rifle that changed the course of the “San Wan Li Incident” (see the discussion in Wakeman, Strangers and the Gates, for the details).

6. Chinese Bows

If 2012 is remembered for anything in the annals of martial studies it will be as the year when archery exploded.  Between the “Hunger Games,” the Olympics, “Brave” and a resurgence of interest in archery in the traditional Asian martial arts community, it seems like everyone has picked up a bow.  A friend who make hand carved primitive bows literally cannot keep up with his orders, and I know that Empty Mind Films is working on a documentary right now looking at archery in Japan.

All of this is great for the field of Chinese martial studies.  We often forget it now, but archery was without a doubt the single most respected and widely practiced martial art in all of ancient China.  It is also bringing many women and girls into contact with the traditional Asian arts that otherwise would have never been exposed to them.  So if you have been thinking of investigating Chinese archery there are probably more resources available to you now than there have ever been before.

Well, that is the list that Bernard and I came up with.  What is on your Christmas list?

A home silhouetted by the moon on Christmas eve.  These architectural cards were some of the most commonly given and are a valuable remainder of the material lives that Americans at the turn of the century aspired to.  Note the art nouveau influenced gate.  (Source: Vintage American Postcard, authors personal collection.)
A home silhouetted by the moon on Christmas eve. These “architectural” cards were some of the most commonly given and are a valuable remainder of the material lives that Americans at the turn of the century aspired to. Note the fashionable art nouveau metal work in the gate. Source: Vintage American Postcard, authors personal collection.