It is that time of year again. A time for lights and laughter. A time for memory and reflection. But mostly it is a time of terror as you contemplate what you will get for that “very particular” martial artist on your gift list. Or possibly you face the even more acute question of how to occupy the long winter nights that lay ahead (at least for those of us in the Northern hemisphere). If any of this sounds familiar, fear not–you are in the right place.
It is “Cyber Monday” (if that is still a thing) and therefore the perfect time to get your holiday shopping out of the way. To help I have assembled a list of my top twelve gift picks for discerning martial artists. These picks have been split into four categories: recent books, training equipment, classic weapons and fine art. Each category contains three items that range in price from very reasonable to totally aspirational. While Wing Chun students may find a lot on this list to like, most of my picks are more general in nature. As such I hope that this exercise offers something for every taste and budget. And lets face it. You are probably going to need all the help that you can get. In my experience martial artists are not the easiest group of people to shop for.
Which brings us to the next point. If you were drawing up a gift list, what would you put it on it? Have you seen a “must have” book or item come out in the last year? If so drop a link in the comments and be sure to let us know. After all, this is a time for wishlists and sharing!
Just as a disclaimer I should point out that I have no financial relationship with any of the firms listed below. This is simply a list of gift ideas and not an endorsement or a formal product review. Lastly, I would like to thank my friend Bernard the “Kung Fu Elf” for helping me to brainstorm this list.
Books are, in my humble opinion, a staple ingredient for any martial arts gift-list. Obviously there are a lot of style-specific introductory texts floating around out there. They may be great for someone just starting off, but we are more interested in those texts that can make a contribution to our understanding of martial studies. Luckily some important new books have been released in the last year.
1. This years list starts off with a return to the classic military literature of ancient China. Shawn Connors has gathered and edited a bilingual Chinese/English edition titled Military Strategy Classics of Ancient China: The Art of War, Methods of War, 36 Stratagems & Selected Teachings (Special Edition Books, 2013).
These texts have been quoted, debated and reused by Chinese thinkers, military officers and martial artists for centuries. Inevitably some of this trickled down onto the militia leader and popular martial artists of the late imperial period. It is an important topic to be familiar with, and Connor’s volume looks like a great way to get up to speed on the classic texts of Chinese military culture. Best of all you can pick this up for $4.99 on your kindle.
2. Our list also has a strong contender for anyone interested in the more recent global spread of Chinese martial culture. It is impossible to address this subject without talking about Bruce Lee. In his second academic book on the subject Paul Bowman has generously offered to help us see Beyond Bruce Lee: Chasing the Dragon Through Film, Philosophy, and Popular Culture (Wallflower Press, 2013). The paperback edition of this book will set you back about $25.
3. Lam Chun Fai and Hing Chao recently released a critical text for any student of Hung Gar. This same book may also make a valuable addition to the libraries of many other southern Chinese martial artists. Hung Kuen Fundamentals (International Guoshu Association, 2013) has managed to generate more discussion and buzz than any other text on the Chinese fighting arts in recent memory. It has been favorably reviewed in a couple of major newspapers, and it will likely be remembered as making a contribution to our appreciation of the southern Kung Fu styles for years to come. After an initial delay these texts are now available in the west. This would be a great time to pick up your copy if you have not already done so. You can purchase this book for $45.
Of course this is only a handful of the wonderful books that are out there. But hopefully its enough to inspire you to invest in some serious reading.
Of course there are other ways to pass the time on those dark winter nights. This is a great time of the year to invest a couple of additional hours at the school or gym. Here are a few gift ideas for individuals looking to upgrade their training regime.
1. A good wall bag remains one of my favorite tools. These items will be very familiar to Wing Chun students, but pretty much anyone can use them to add power and technique to their punches. I particularly like the ones distributed by Everything Wing Chun. This particular model has canvas on one side and leather on the other to accommodate a variety of tastes in striking surfaces. Best of all, wall bags are fairly inexpensive ($10-$25). I have given a number of these as gifts to friends and students and they have always been well received. Its hard to think of a more useful training tool in this price range.
2. Its no secret that weapons training is a hot topic right now. Many styles are seeing a resurgence of interest in fencing as well as spear and knife fighting. Last year I suggested Kendo shinai as a great training tool for those interested in developing a more practical approach to long blades. Nevertheless, there are times when a more accurately balanced wooden weapon will improve your training experience. This is particularly true when working on forms as its not always possible (or even a good idea) to use a vintage antique or a steel blunt in public.
Raven Studio’s offers a full line of beautiful, hand made wooden swords. I particularly like the fact that they offer some less common weapons such as double ox-tailed dao’s and dadaos. Prices range from about $80 to $180 USD depending on the style of the blade and its specifications. Always exercise caution when training with wooden swords. While these are not sharp a misplaced blow can still cause serious injury!
3. What do you get for the Wing Chun Sifu who has everything? Why not consider one of the Buick Yip’s beautifully produced wooden dummies? I am very interested in his line of “Temple Pillar Dummies.” Each of these is an individuals work of art that combines architectural salvage and Wing Chun training.
These dummies are constructed from supporting pillars and posts which are recycled from Qing and Republic era buildings which are currently being torn down all across China to make way for new real estate developments. I live in an area with big swings in temperature and humidity, so I am pretty much restricted to laminated dummies, but I have always liked how these examples seem to mirror the pathway of the traditional Chinese martial arts themselves. After all, these styles also date from the late imperial and Qing eras and are often discarded in China while being highly valued abroad. There is something almost poetic about that.
But all of that poetry does not come cheap. A “Temple Pillar” Dummy will set you back between $1200 – $1500 USD plus more for shipping and handling. But how often do you get a chance to buy some architectural history and make a statement about the nature of the Chinese martial arts at the same time?
Over the last couple of years I have written a handful of posts focusing on the study and collection of antique Asian weapons. These have consistently been the most popular things that I have published here at Kung Fu Tea. And what self-respecting martial artists would not want to find one of these items under their tree on Christmas morning?
1. Have you ever wanted to own an authentic Nepalese kukri, the proven combat knife and survival tool of the famed Gurkha soldiers? If so you will need to exercise a lot of caution when shopping for your first example. The market is rife with recently produced replicas, fakes and outright junk. And a lot of the more desirable knives from WWI and WWII have become much more expensive in the last few years.
Nevertheless, one of these “Long Leaf Kukris” from IMA would be a great way to start your collection. Each of these blades dates to the early 20th century. Many have interesting markings on the spine which will tell you a little bit about the knife’s age and service history. At $99 USD these knives are appropriately priced, but I have a feeling that in a few years we will look back on this period wonder at how under-valued these kukris were. Once you receive you knife head on over to here or here to learn out more about it.
2. Archery in all its many guises is a hot topic right now. This is also true for traditional Chinese archery. In fact, the current upswing in these practices actually seems to predate the more general cultural shift by a couple of years. If you are looking for a source for information and gear why not head over to the Seven Star Trading Company. They have a great assortment of bows, arrows, quivers, thumbrings and other equipment to get you started. Obviously the prices will vary according to what you need, but a hand-made Chinese style bow will set you back $300-$330 USD.
3. Butterfly Sword (also Hudiedao) are an iconic weapon within the Southern Chinese martial sphere. Different styles often favor a specific set of measurements and characteristics, but the basic form of the weapon remains pretty recognizable across the region. Wing Chun is closely associated with the use of hudiedao, but they are also commonly seen in Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar and White Crane, to name just a few styles.
Unfortunately I have trouble finding modern production swords that I like. Generally I favor the older style swords of the 1840s and 1850s. These were usually produced with a longer blade and a more pronounced stabbing or hatchet tip. Some of these swords resembled short rapiers while others had heavier chopping blades.
Recently Tim Lee produced a set of swords which brings together many of the best qualities of modern production methods with the aesthetic and handling characteristics of older style blades. If you are in the market for some new hudiedao these are worth checking out. Beyond that I like the basic nature of his project. I hope that we see more attempts to work with and reproduce historic blade designs in the coming years.
Fine Art and Collectables
Art always makes a great gift. As we have seen in the other categories it runs the gamete in both style and price. Unfortunately finding really good art that takes the Chinese martial arts as its subject can be a challenge. I always keep an eye open for nice examples, and occasionally feature images of these pieces on the blog. But I have always been a little surprised that there are not more high quality pieces being produced.
1. One of the places were we do see a lot of good work right now is photography. Starting in the 1980s photojournalists and reporters began to capture great images of the contemporary practice of the traditional Chinese martial arts. I find myself drawn to the gritter images of life in urban China, especially those pictures which manage to capture the martial arts as street photography. If you are looking to decorate your studio and don’t want to fall back on the old cliches, these images can also make a powerful argument that the martial arts are a living and vital aspect of life in the modern world.
Justin Brice Guariglia (who goes by Justin Brice) has captured some wonderfully evocative images of the Chinese martial arts during his time working with the National Geographic Magazine. A number of his images highlight the juxtapostion of order and disorder in the modern Wushu vocational schools of mainland China. Art prints of his work are available from the National Geographic for less that $20 a piece.
2. Of course photography is far from the only medium to attempt to capture something about the nature of the traditional Chinese martial arts. I am always drawn to the starkly contrasting imagery of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. When I was in college studying Japanese I dabbled in the art but never showed any great promise. Still, I enjoy contemplating the beautiful works produced by others.
One of the things that I really like about calligraphy as a gift idea is that it can look great when displayed in either austere modern spaces or more traditionally themed “Asian” ones. Almost all of the Chinese martial arts have some body of sayings, rhymed couplets or literature that has grown up around them. These can made wonderful subjects for custom calligraphy and look great when displayed in either the home or school.
Wing Chun students may appreciate this custom piece by Buick Yip which records one of the arts traditional aphorisms (“Wing Chun has no Invincible Techniques.“) Most his works go for about $99 USD. This is a pretty common price point, but if you look around you can find a number of places that will do custom calligraphy for less. But be careful and make sure that you see examples of their work. In the custom art world you occasionally end up getting what you pay for.
3. Kung Fu street photography and custom calligraphy are one thing. But sometime you need to make a real statement. How can a well heeled gentleman amuse his friends and subtly intimidate his enemies? By buying an army of life size terracotta soldiers of course. There are now a number of firms in China, South East Asia and West that are manufacturing these. One of my favorite (due to the variety of models that it carries) is located in Thailand. Their prices also seem fairly reasonable in comparison to some of the other places that I have run across.
I have always been partial to the kneeling archers of pit 2. A 1/1 life size replica of this iconic work will set you back about $400 USD plus another $200 USD to have it shipped by freight to your local port. After that it is up to you to transport it back your secret lair and install it in a place of honor.
But in all seriousness, I have always been a little surprised that we don’t see more martial arts themed sculpture. Smaller versions of each of the major groups of soldier can be bought for much less, and many of these would look great in a variety of settings. They are a great reminder of China’s rich martial heritage without being too closely tied to any specific modern style or movement.
Hopefully some of the items on this list will get you thinking about unique or unexpected gifts. But its a big marketplace and tastes differ. What do you think Santa should be putting in his sack? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.