From the Archives: A Really Short Reading List on Chinese Martial Studies.

Patrons of a market stall selling sequentially illustrated martial arts novels in 1948.  Source: Vintage AP Press Photo
Patrons of a market stall selling sequentially illustrated martial arts novels in 1948. Source: Vintage AP Press Photo


As I mentioned over at the Facebook group, I need to take a week off from Kung Fu Tea.  My father, who is also a college professor, is recovering from surgery and has asked to me cover some of his lectures.  That means that I will be busily engaged in class preparations for a bit, and probably will not have time to think that much about the Chinese martial arts.  Of course I am planning on slipping the legend of the burning of the Shaolin temple into a lecture on “Myth and Religion,” and I am excited to see how the class responds to that.

In the mean time, I have decided to dip into the archives and pull out some “oldies but goodies” from the first few months of this project.  The readership of this site has grown so quickly in the last few months that I suspect most of you will have never seen these posts before.  As such they may very well be new reads for you.  Enjoy!

A Really Short Reading List on the Chinese Martial Arts (Originally Posted July 27th, 2012).

Suppose you had a friend or a colleague who was interested in Chinese Martial Studies, was willing to invest some time and effort in learning what it was about, but had substantial professional commitments.  What sort of a reading list would you put together to show the possibilities of the field without overwhelming them?  Your list must not include more than five entries and no more than two books.  What would you choose and why?  And keep it brief, she is a busy woman!

  1. Peter Lorge.  Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty First Century. Cambridge University Press. 2012.

I wish this book had been out when I was first trying to get my hands around the field!  If you are new to the area Lorge provides a very workable single volume introduction to practically everything you want to know about the Chinese martial arts in under 250 pages.  Sure I have a couple of issues with this book, but creating a single volume introduction with that much information in so few pages is just a remarkable achievement.  Strong work.

2. Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo. “Chapter 4: Chinese Martial Arts Historians.” In Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals.  Blue Snake Books. 2005.

Again, very minor quibbles aside the entire first half of this book is a great introduction to the field of Chinese Martial Studies that should be accessible to anyone.  I can’t begin to count the number of times I have photocopied this material for students and research assistants.  I choose chapter 4 because it provides a great introduction to the early (pre WWII) Chinese language academic literature on the martial arts which is basically inaccessible to most students in the west, but is still very important to know about.

3. Andrew D. Morris. “Chapter 7: From Martial Arts to National Skills: The Construction of a Modern Indigenous Physical Culture, 1912-1937.” in The Marrow of the Nation. University of California Press. 2004.

This chapter is a great place to go next after reading Kennedy and Guo.  Morris has done the field a huge service by excavating the 1930s dialogue about the fate of the traditional martial arts out of old newspapers, magazines and journals, all of which are basically inaccessible without spending some serious time in rare book collections in China.  It also seems that Morris’ work ends up in a lot of secondary sources (like magazine articles) without proper credit being given.  More people should read the original.  He has perhaps the best brief overviews of the Jingwu (Pure Martial) and Guoshu (National Arts) movements available in the literature.

4. Stanley Henning. “The Martial Arts in Chinese Physical Culture, 1865-1965.” In Green and Svinth (eds) Martial Arts in the Modern World.  Praeger. 2003.

Henning offers a very solid overview of the evolution of modern Chinese martial arts.  His approach is similar to Lorge and it is easy to see the influence between the two.  I like this piece because you can achieve a certain level of focus in a well-crafted essay that is just not possible in a volume.  Also, the edited volume where this essay was published is a wonderful example of the possibilities available to creative researchers in the modern field of martial studies as a whole.

5. Meir Shahar. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts. University of Hawai’i Press.  2008.

Looking back over my list I saw a lot of discussion of the modern era.  So for my final selection I am going old school.  As a matter of fact, you just can’t get any more “old school” than the Shaolin Temple.  This highly readable volume documents the martial traditions of what is probably China’s most venerated Kung Fu institution.  It also looks at the evolution of the Shaolin mythology and the reality of their fighting arts in the Ming and Qing dynasties.  I have read it multiple times and for my money this is the best book out there in the field of Chinese martial studies right now.  I can’t wait to see Shahar’s upcoming research of the myth of the southern Shaolin temple (spoiler alert: no, it never existed.)

Ok, so that is my starter list of books, chapters and articles to introduce someone to the field of Chinese martial studies.  How did I do?  To historical perhaps?  Maybe I need some ethnography, or critical theory?  What would be on your list?

So what do you read? Photo Credit Alex Judkins. Scene on the Street (SOS) Photography.  Thanks Alex!

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Daniel Mroz says:

    Dear Ben,

    I hope this finds you well.

    I’d suggest the following three essays as they help set up a systemic view of the elements of martial practice. I think these elements are useful across all of the areas of discussion in Chinese martial studies: military practices, civilian practices, theatrical practices, religious practices and medical practices.

    These essays have some shortcomings – they were not peer reviewed at the time of publication and some of the research they cite on human development and the stress response has become dated. However, there is much more of use here than not.

    1. Armstrong, H. B. (2001). The Two Faces of Combatives. Sedona, International Hoplology Society.

    Differentiates human combative behaviour into two related but distinct aspects.

    2. Armstrong, H. B. (1988). “Pre-Arranged Movement Patterns.” Hoplos: The Journal of the International Hoplology Society 6 (1 & 2). Sedona, International Hoplology Society.

    Sets up the ‘pre-arranged movement pattern’ as a kind of basic unit of measure for the study of codified, trained combative behaviour. An essential idea for the study of all manifestations of the martial in China.

    3. Hayes, R. (no date). Paleolithic Adaptive Traits and the Fighting Man. Sedona, International Hoplology Society.

    A detailed systemic overview comparing behavioural and intentional categories of martial arts skill with evolutionary adaptations already present in humans. My summary does not do this thorough and foundational piece justice. It needs to be improved and developed, but it should also be recognized and celebrated for the excellent work it is.

    All three can be seen or purchased here:

    I hope you have a fine week disguised as an anthropologist…

    All the best,


    1. benjudkins says:

      Hi Daniel,

      Thanks so much for the recommendations. I have not read any of these yet but they certainly sound interesting. They are going on my list. Great suggestions!

      Let me ask you another question. Lets say that I am interested in Chinese martial arts and traditional opera? Do you know any decent introductory texts or articles that really explore the connection between the subjects that we can suggest to readers?


      1. Daniel Mrozz says:

        Hi Ben,

        As yet, I can’t find a single introductory source. Peripherally, there has been a spate of popular and scholarly books on Hong Kong Action Cinema, wherein there are probably a few gems. However, ‘Xiju and Martial Arts’ has yet to find its monograph as far as I know. In Chinese, there’s apparently a thorough book on the staging of fight choreography by my friend and colleague Lu Suosen who teaches the martial roles at NACTA (National Academy of Theatre Arts) in Beijing, which I will pick up when I’m there next month…

        That said, I’d look at:

        1. Yao, H. (2001). “Martial-Acrobatic Arts in Peking Opera.” Journal of Asian Martial Arts 10(1).

        A very basic introductory article. Its more about today’s practice in Taiwanese theatre schools than about history.

        2. Riley, J. (1997). Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance. Cambridge, Cambridge UP.

        The ‘king’ of books on Chinese theatre in English from my perspective. Does a lot more to develop the relationship between traditional theatre and religion than theatre and martial arts, nevertheless, there’s a good bit about the village temple courtyard as a nexus martial, theatrical and religious practice.

        All the best,


      2. benjudkins says:

        Once again, thanks for the suggestions. The one thing that I might add to the discussion of Opera and the martial arts is “Operatic China: Staging Chinese Identity across the Pacific” (Palgrave, 2006) by Daphne P. Lei. I don’t know if you have any opinions on this book, but it has some nice discussions of the role of opera in popular rebellions in the 19th century. I know that is often a subject of interest for martial artists.

  2. Daniel Mroz says:


    Its always very flattering to be asked for one’s opinion! I worry that in my eagerness to answer you I didn’t point out that my area of research as far as history goes is contemporary cosmopolitan theatre and dance, mostly in the late 20th century. While I mainly work as an artist, my small amount of historical expertise lies in how contemporary artists have employed various kinds of traditional physical culture in their work, so an expert on Xi Qu (Chinese theatre) in and of itself, I’m not!

    To use the internet for what its best at, I make and study things like this: (Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi)

    Rather than things like this: (Mei Lanfang filmed by Sergei Eisenstein)

    Although both merit, and have probably generated, significant studies.

    I’ll have a look at Lei’s book for sure.

    Thanks again,


  3. Alex Lamas says:

    Hi Ben,

    Great list, I have and read two of these books and on your recommendation I’ll read two more. I’m not sure if this fits your criteria but I’d also add “Jingwu: the School that transformed Kung Fu” by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo, Published by Blue Snake Books. Kennedy and Guo again do an amazing job of getting to the heart of the history of Jingwu and dispelling the myths and shibboleths that have grown around it in the past Century. An excellent source for those who want quality scholarship.

    Alex Lamas

    1. benjudkins says:

      Hi Alex,

      I agree, its an excellent book and a valuable contribution to the conversation. We were very lucky to have Kennedy here as a guest author earlier in the fall. I think that all of this stuff is worthy of careful consideration.

      Still, the point of the exercise was to recommend a short list of only five items. So if the Jingwu volume goes on the list, what comes off? What would your ideal list look like?

  4. Alex Lamas says:

    Hi Ben,

    Unfortunately I don’t have five original books but my list would include:

    1. Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo. Blue Snake Books. 2005. This was a fascinating read and prompted me to get some of the books they covered to read them for myself.

    2. The above mentioned Jingwu: the School that Transformed Kung Fu by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo, Published by Blue Snake.

    3.The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts. University of Hawai’i Press. 2008. I’m just starting the second chapter and I’m already very impressed.

    4.The Sword Polisher’s Record; The Way of Kung Fu by Adam Hsu, Tuttle Publishing. Shifu Hsu is a renowned Kung Fu master from Taiwan and a great writer. The book is a collection of essays and I would say a must read for any martial arts practitioner.

    5.The Spring Autumn of Chinese Martial Arts – 5000 Years- by Kang Gewu, Plum Publishing. This is a very comprehensive chronological study of the history of Chinese martial arts from paleolithic to the present day. It’s compiled with the latest research and archeological data. He records all the significant events year by year, era by era. A must for any martial arts library.

    This last one is also a handy reference book for names, dates, dynastys and martial arts terminology.



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