Introduction: Two Types of “Martial Arts Books”
For supposedly oral traditions, the Asian martial arts have generated a surprising number of books. Broadly speaking these fall into two separate categories. The first are book “of” martial arts, while the second are volumes “about” these traditional fighting systems. Both sorts of literatures have a long history, with the first group being the older and more important. Here we find everything from Ming era manuals to Sun Lutang’s groundbreaking publications on the “internal arts.” The success of these early 20th century volumes went on to spawn and inspire much of the “how to” literature, all aimed at practitioners of the various kung fu schools, which seems to dominate bookshelves today.
Like most martial artists I have my own shelves groaning under the weight of stacks of introductory “how to” books. From the perspective of a student of martial arts studies this is the primary literature of the field. Properly understood these volumes allow us to trace not just the evolution of certain techniques in the modern era, but the constantly evolving super-structure of beliefs, ideas and identities that supports the martial arts as a social system as well. Even the most facile examples of the “how to” genre can be an important source of data for either cultural theorists or social scientists.
While I often turn to such works in my own research, looking back over the various reviews that I have written it is interesting to note that I rarely discuss them here. I am much more likely to engage with works about the history, sociology, cultural or artistic side of the martial arts than I am ones primarily focused on their techniques. Obviously these historical and cultural discussions are central to the major debates that happen within the field of martial arts studies.
Yet I suspect that this is only part of the answer. Most works that engage with the actual practice of the martial arts are written for an “insider audience” (usually students who are just starting off in a given system, or much more rarely for experienced practitioners). As such the advice that they offer tends to speak to only a narrow range of all students within the TCMA. Even different lineages within arts like Bagua or Wing Chun have formulated unique approaches to their shared challenges. It is not uncommon to see practitioners of one lineage disagreeing strenuously with those of other branches about seemingly fundamental practices.
While I try to keep this blog focused on the larger theoretical questions, I suspect that one of the other (less conscious) reasons why I avoid in-depth treatments of this “how to” literature is a simple desire to keep the peace between practitioners of various competing schools. While the technical discussions of the martial arts are more commonly encountered than any other sort of literature, in all honesty the appeal of any one of these volumes is usually limited to a rather small subset of all readers.
Reviewing Bluestein’s Research of Martial Arts
Jonathan Bluestein’s recent volume, Research of Martial Arts (2014), is a fascinating contribution to the literature on the Chinese hand combat systems. While this work is firmly grounded in a technical discussion of the conceptual and scientific basis of the martial arts, it remains a work that will have broad appeal to a number of different sorts of readers. While most of his examples and discussions draw explicitly on his background in the Chinese systems, students of the Japanese, Filipino or eclectic arts may find much in these discussions with which to engage. It has always been surprising to me that we see so little literature aimed at this broader audience and Bluestein has produced an exceptionally interesting contribution.
Bluestein’s work, the product of his extensive background in several schools of martial training ranging from Western Boxing to Xingyiquan, is something that readers will want to give themselves time to digest. Weighting in at over 400 pages this book is a far cry from the rather slim volumes that make up most discussions on the martial arts. In terms of genera his work somewhat resembles the short essays and chapters of authors like Adam Hsu and Daniele Bolelli. While the material in this book is presented in short chapters, the various discussions do build on one another. This allows the author to draw together wider arguments over the course of his work.
In a sense Bluestein presents his readers with three somewhat autonomous books under a single set of covers. The first section of his book (taking up a little under half of its total pages) is dedicated to a conceptual discussion of the practice of the martial arts. Obviously there are a number of ways that an author could choose to approach this topic. Bluestein used the traditional typology of “Internal” and “External” styles to structure his discussion.
I suspect that this section of his book will prove to be the most controversial. As I mentioned earlier it is simply impossible to say anything concrete about the practice of the various styles without generating a wave of denials and counter characterizations. For instance, Bluestein’s discussion of the weapons (particularly the pole) in Wing Chun bears little resemblance to the art that I practice.
Given the vast differences that can exist even between different lineages in the same style (consider for instance that Bruce Lee, Chu Shong Tin and Ip Ching all had the same teacher, Ip Man) it is hard to see any way around this problem. On the one hand Bluestein gives his readers a lot to think about. In so doing he is likely to attract a fair number of disagreements as well.
Debate is not the worst thing in the world. Conceptually grounded discussions could go a long way towards increasing our understanding of, and ability to explain, the various hand combat systems. Unfortunately we as martial artists we have not always handled such “discussions” with as much grace and generosity as one might hope.
Bluestein notes in his introduction that this is a text that benefits from sequential reading. In general I agree with that assessment. Nevertheless, readers might want to consider starting with his own biographical history (“Origins – My Story in Martial Arts” pp. 213-221) and the short essay “The Crime of Creating Ignorance” (pp. 225-228). These two pieces will provide an overview of Bluestein’s background and general approach to the subject. As such they frame some of his more technical discussions of various aspects of the “internal” and “external” approaches to the martial arts in ways that certain readers will find helpful and illuminating.
If I have one major criticism of this section it would be his reliance on the internal/external paradigm as a device to structure his discussion. In a sense it is no surprise that Bluestein would employ this framework. It has the definite advantages of being historically well established and widely understood by modern Chinese stylists. In fact, if one were to ask a randomly selected practitioner to describe her style there is a good chance that she would begin by attempting to situate the art somewhere on the continuum that seems to stretch between these two ideal points.
In many respects structuring this conversation around the internal/external divide is simply common sense. Still, “what everyone already knows” has a funny way of becoming “what no one critically examines.” I have long suspected that these categories can lead us to overemphasize parallels between certain arts while ignoring relationships between others.
For instance, Meir Shahar has noted a number of very interesting parallels in the development of early Taijiquan and Shaolin during the first decades of the Qing dynasty. This relationship can easily be obscured by conceptual methods of categorization that ignore the geographic and sociological links between these arts. While the “internal” category has some basis in the sociology of the modern Chinese martial arts, it is not always clear how to apply these terms when engaging in deeper historical discussions.
These categories, as they exist today, are really the product of certain martial reformers in Northern China at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century. They then played an important role in the spread and popularization of these same styles in the 1920s and 1930s. Unsurprisingly these categories seem to work best for the sorts of arts that reformers like Sun Lutang were familiar with.
These rhetorical categories were never part of the traditional discussion and development of the martial arts in Southern China. As such it should not be surprising that many of the regional arts seem to defy easy categorization. Bluestein notes for instance that certain lineages of “Wing Chun” seem more “external” than others. The same observation could easily be extended to the wide variety of approaches seen in any large regional style including Hung Gar or White Crane.
Other authors have started to experiment with different ways of classifying and discussing the various martial arts. Hing Chao has recently undertaken a major historical and technical study of the southern Chinese fighting systems. In attempting to understand the relationship between these arts he has turned to sociologically based categories structured around the linguistic groups that used or conveyed various martial practices. He argues that in southern China the most salient categories for understanding the nature of the traditional fighting systems focused on the unique tradition of the Cantonese speaking community of the Pearl River Delta, the Hakka tradition along the East River and the more northern fighting systems of Fujian Province (White Crane and Five Ancestors being the most important). In my own book on the development of the southern Chinese martial arts I employed a very similar system.
Alternatively one might focus on the era when these arts were developed. Many of the systems that were spread during the 1920s and 1930s have a very different flavor than arts that emerged out of the middle to late 19th century. Ted Mancuso recently wrote a short post exploring the variety of traditional combat systems based on their “size.” He noted some interesting parallels in how “large” arts (which have incorporated many forms and traditions over the years) and “small” styles (which tend to have very specific goals and thus value parsimony) operate.
None of these systems will be perfect. No typology ever is. Each will reveal certain relationships while ignoring or obscuring other interesting facts. Still, if one were to have a comprehensive discussion of the principals behind the TCMA, it might be interesting to see what we could discover without the relying on the internal/external divide as an organizing mechanism. After all, these categories are relative newcomers in the vast historical flow of Chinese martial culture.
While I would like to see the field of martial arts studies develop some newer and more rigorous concepts, it may be unrealistic to expect Bluestein to produce them for a project like this. As I mentioned previously, the great advantage of the internal/external paradigm is that it is one that readers are likely already familiar with. While I find it to be somewhat polarizing, it does provide a handy framework for readers to begin to engage with the substance of Bluestein’s arguments.
While well written and carefully argued throughout, Bluestein’s book only improves as the reader moves through it. The second section of this work (about 50 pages) is dedicated to a number of short essays grouped together under the heading “Contemplations on Controlled Violence.” I personally found these to be among the most engaging and authentic materials included in the book. After reviewing the section I began to feel like I was developing more of an appreciation for the author’s background and perspective.
Students of martial arts studies will probably be most interested in the volume’s final section. Titled “The Wisdom of Martial Spirits: Teacher, and the Things they Hold Dear” this section includes six highly detailed interviews with contemporary masters covering styles as diverse as Taijiquan, Wing Chun and Karate.
I have written on the importance of preserving the history of the modern martial arts in many places on this blog, and I feel that these interviews are an excellent example of what is to be gained by such an enterprise. Bluestein addresses important topics (including difficult questions about what life was like for Chinese martial artists during the Cultural Revolution) and comes up with some fascinating discussions. Readers will want to take their time working their way through these interviews as there is a lot of material to consider and engage with.
The importance of this material is really driven home by the untimely death of Master James Cama. A student of both Fut Sao Wing Chun and Southern Mantis, Cama had a long and interesting career. He died on August 15th of this year. As such it was very gratifying to open my copy of this volume and to see an almost 25 page interview preserving his thoughts on the martial arts for future generations.
Conclusion: Research Worth Reading
Bluestein’s volume is easy to recommend. Here we have a rare example of a conceptual discussion of the martial arts that will be accessible and interesting to students from a wide variety of styles. Even students of non-Chinese systems are likely to find fascinating ideas and debates within these pages.
While I do not expect that everyone will agree with everything that Bluestein has to say, his volume is remarkable for the type and variety of conversations that it seeks to start. While different readers may find themselves attracted to either the first, second or third sections of his study, each contributes to the overall value of the volume.
As a physical object the book is well constructed and laid out, with clearly labeled illustrations. It is obvious that a lot of personal time and dedication went into this project. I hope that this volume will open a door for more vibrant discussions of what unites the traditional martial arts and gives them meaning in the current era. Bluestein’s engagement with both traditional Chinese thought and modern scientific research suggests the vitality of these practices, as well as the benefits that can be had from dialogues that do not seek to confine themselves to a single stylistic approach.
If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: The Book Club: Chinese Kung Fu by Wang Guangxi.