Nick Hust. Sugong: The Life of a Shaolin Grandmaster. Sports Books. 2012. pp. 291.
Introduction: Summer Reading for Chinese Martial Artists
It is that time of year again. It is the season when literally everyone I know packs a bag, prints out a boarding pass and heads out in search of the nirvana that is “summer vacation.” Yeah, I mostly hang out with other academics. And who can blame them. The pay is not that great, so it is critical to make the most of the “perks” of the job. And if the Dean calls, remember, you are out of the country doing “research.”
In reality a distressing amount of research actually will be done by the end of the summer. But everyone takes a few weeks off, and what you really need is a good book. Something that is well written, engaging and refreshing. You want something that addresses the Chinese martial arts, but does so in a way that will recharge your batteries, let you see things from a slightly different perspective and inspire you to come out swinging when it is time to get back to the research.
The one book you must read this summer is Sugong: The Life of a Shaolin Grandmaster by Nick Hurst (Sporting Books, 2012). This volume has gotten some good press and I have even linked to a couple of positive reviews of it in previous posts. Still, I haven’t really heard it discussed among the martial artists that I work with and talk to. That is a shame because Hurst’s narrative has a lot to offer the Chinese martial arts community, and he has wrapped it all up in an attractive and easy to read package.
Sugong: Exploring the life of a Shaolin Grandmaster.
As regular readers know, most of the books that I review here at Kung Fu Tea are decidedly scholarly in their manner and intended audience. I have a hard time detaching myself from that mode of analysis. Still, it has never been the case that only books by University Presses are worth reading. In fact, keeping up with the commercial literature is especially important if you write on the martial arts because, at heart, what we study really is part of modern “popular culture.”
There are three things that we need when thinking about martial arts studies. The first two are the most basic. We need theories of how the martial arts evolve and function in society, and we need data to test those stories. Sugong doesn’t really concern itself with the big theoretical questions. That is just as well, there are a lot of other authors who specialize in that sort of thing.
What Sugong brings to the table is a truly gripping narrative that is absolutely packed with careful social observation, interviews and ethnographic analysis. This is the sort of data that can only come from a painstakingly researched study of a small number of careers and schools in a given time and space. Hurst offers the sort of highly granular observation and information that comes only from tightly focused studies.
If you are interested in how the monastic fighting monk tradition evolved in the modern era, if you are curious about the traditional Chinese martial arts in South East Asia, if you have questions about how the martial arts relate to identity and marginality, you will find this volume to be an incredibly rich source of data. If you want to see how these large scale issues actually play themselves out in the lives of a handful of martial artists in the post-WWII period, this book is indispensable.
Truth be told, we in the field of Chinese martial studies, need more books like Sugong. We just don’t have a large enough body of carefully written case studies, and few of the ones that we do have are this enjoyable to read.
In literary terms Hurst’s work is somewhat difficult to classify. It is part biography, part memoir of a beloved teacher, part Kung Fu travelogue and part social history. To make these various strains fit together Hurst made a number of interesting editorial decisions. I think that he wisely allowed the “travelogue” aspect of his work serve as a thin framing mechanism for exploring the story’s social history, rather than actually attempting to make himself the hero of the volume.
Further, Hurst appears to have been pulled between two different goals. On the one hand he attempts to let his primary source tell his own story in his own voice. This is a very valuable exercise. But on the other hand Hurst also appears to be drawn towards a more classical mode writing history, based on “the facts” and drawing on archival resources. One might call this the “warts and all” mode of biographical history.
What emerged from this dual process was a remarkably nuanced portrait of at least two generations of Chinese Shaolin instructors in South East Asia. Hurst presented a detailed personality sketch of his protagonists that did not attempt to hide their faults or shortcomings. Yet at the same time they were contextualized and presented in such a way that it was still possible for the reader to understand how they could inspire such fierce devotion from their students.
Of course there is more to the exercise than simply presenting interesting observations and developing reliable character sketches. The third thing that we really need any good book on the Chinese martial arts to do is to answer the “so what” question. Why should readers care? Why should martial artists today invest themselves in learning about the lives of individuals that they will never meet, in countries that most of us will never have a chance to visit?
Too often we seem content to languish in our myths. In one sense there is nothing wrong with the story of the burning of the Shaolin temple. Many people find it deeply inspiring. It has a certain emotional power behind it. But rarely do we stop to ask more serious and socially grounded questions about what it all means. Why exactly do some monks, but not others (most), study martial arts? What does this actually tell us about the martial arts themselves, and the role that they can play in the life of a community?
This is an area where Hurst really excels. He shows us not one, but three or four (depending on how you split them) different aspects of how “Shaolin” training has happened, inside and outside of real temples with real monks and their apprentices. In one instance we see monks (in Fujian) who teach martial arts to students as part of a more general education program at their temple. In short, they teach martial arts to local students for the same reason that they teach literacy, because they are paid to do so by the local community.
In another instance we see a different martial monk being recruited by a local temple committee because their sanctuary has been taken over by squatters. He is not expected to kick these individuals out with his bare hands, but as a “martial monk” he is expected to have expertise in dealing with these sorts of situations, as well as negotiating with the local government, police and triads.
These are remarkable portraits. What emerges from these stories, and many others that I do not have the space to recount here, was how much traditional martial arts training was meant to be an education. It may not have been a conventional education of the sort that we readily imagine in the west today. But it was an education nonetheless. It gave young adults the tools they needed to negotiate difficulties in society and to become community leaders. Over and over again in Hurst’s narratives we see martial artists being called on to settle local disputes not with their hands, but through negotiations.
This is precisely why we should care about the Chinese martial arts in general and Hurst’s book in particular. These systems have always been about more than combat. They have played an important part in the political economy of traditional Chinese communities for hundreds of years. Further, this is an aspect of community leadership or management that we have tended to overlook. Our fantasies about Kung Fu fighting Buddhist monks have led us to neglect some much more interesting questions about how these monks interacted economically and socially with the community around them, and what role the martial arts actually played in all of this.
Sugong reminds us that these are interesting questions. Further, it demonstrates that martial arts masters have continued to play a unique, if often overlooked, role in the life of the local community well into the post-WWII period.
Conclusion: Perfect Summer Reading for Kung Fu Geeks.
On a certain level I wish that Hurst had focused solely on the social history when writing this volume. That is clearly the aspect of his work that I am the most drawn to. Still, one of the things that gives his work punch is its page-turning narrative structure and easy reading style. One cannot help but conclude that this is the perfect beach-book for Kung Fu geeks and students of Chinese martial studies alike.
I suspect that come fall, this work could also be used in a university classroom. Undergraduate students in particular would likely respond well to the text. It could easily be used to illustrate any number of theoretical arguments about the Chinese martial arts. Further, the data that Hurst presents would probably be very helpful for students looking for arguments or topics for research papers. Best of all, the characters in this book are so vividly written that they are likely to stick with students long after most of the more theoretical class material has been forgotten.
Sugong is an impressive work, especially when one considers that this was the author’s first book and first martial arts related research project. There are a lot of other topics out there that could use a similar treatment. Hopefully Hurst will consider following this volume up with another study in the same vein.
Click here to read Kung Fu Tea’s exclusive interview with Nick Hurst where he discusses the process of researching and writing Sugong.