“In business, be competent.
In action, watch the timing.
No fight: No blame.”
I bet you didn’t know that the Dao De Jing was full of Christmas shopping advice. It turns out that it is, and this is the perfect time to start thinking hard about what you are going to get that hard to please martial artist on your list. Or if you are the one looking for some martial arts books and gear to help you pass those long winter nights, this is the post for you.
This year’s shopping list is split into four categories: books, weapons (mostly sharp), training equipment, and items of cultural interest. I have tried to select items at a variety of price points for each category. Some of the gift ideas are quite reasonable while others are admittedly aspirational. After all, Christmas is a time for dreams, so why not dream big!
Given the emphasis of this blog, most of these ideas pertain to the Chinese martial arts, but I do try to branch out in places. I have also put at least one Wing Chun item in each category. Nevertheless, with a little work many of these ideas could be adapted to fit the interests of just about any martial artists.
As a disclaimer I should point out that I have no financial relationship with any of the firms listed below (except for the part where I plug my own book). This is simply a list of gift ideas that I thought were interesting. It is not an endorsement or a formal product review. Lastly, I would like to thank my friend Bernard the “Kung Fu Elf” (see above) for helping me to brainstorm this list.
Books: Feed your Head
For a supposedly oral branch of popular culture the Chinese martial arts sure do produce a lot of books. In fact, books make the ideal gift as they cater to a wide variety of interests, are never the wrong size and (unlike a number of items slightly further down) will not slow you down in the airport security line. My first pick for this year would have to be Kung Kuen Fundamentals and Hung Kuen Training by Lam Chun Fai (and Hing Chao). You can think of these as volumes one and two of the same project. At about $50 they will be the most interesting to students of Hung Gar in all of its many incarnations. But the historical discussions in these volumes will also make them of interest to any student of the Southern Chinese martial arts. The quality of these volumes is excellent and you can find a description of the contents of both books here.
Of course one of the challenge that Bernard and I face every year is coming up with gift ideas that might appeal to a wide range of readers, and not just those from a single style . That is why I like this next suggestion. As some of you already know Ted Mancuso has been working on a short series of books looking at the basic weapons that appear in the Chinese (and Asian) martial arts. Probably no weapon is more commonly encountered than the staff or pole. In this volume this often overlooked weapon and training tool gets the detailed discussion and focus that it so richly deserves. If you have been thinking of taking another look at your pole form, you may find the discussion in this book to be interesting and helpful. While you are at it you might also want to check out his discussion of the spear.
The sorts of literature that we see engaging with the martial arts has now expanded well beyond the “how to” manual. Those whose tastes run towards the philosophical and autobiographical may want to check out Not Afraid: On Fear, Heartbreak, Raising a Baby Girl, and Cage Fighting by Daniele Bolelli. This book tackles some pretty intense subject matter but Bolelli is always an engaging writer with a flair to discussing the martial life. Better yet it just started to ship a few days ago, making it the perfect gift for the martial artist on your list.
Readers interested in exploring beyond the standard literature on the Chinese martial arts may be interested in Alexander C. Bennett’s recent historical, cultural and political account of the development of Kendo. Kendo: Culture of the Sword (published by the University of California Press) is a nice example of the sort of work that we are seeing in this new generation of martial arts studies research. Obviously many of the individual events that Bennett discusses are grounded in Japanese history, yet the more general themes that arise in an investigation of the origins of Kendo can be seen in the evolution of a number of arts throughout Asia. Hopefully the next couple of years will see the publication of some serious comparative studies which will allow us to better leverage our growing understanding of these individual arts to tackle more basic theoretical questions.
What gift list would be complete without an author plugging their own book? Obviously students of Wing Chun (and those interested in the lives of Ip Man or Bruce Lee) will find this work to be very interesting. In addition to providing a detailed case study of the development of Wing Chun in and around Foshan, this book outlines a social history of the broader hand combat community of the Pearl River Delta region. Thus readers from a variety of Chinese styles may find this discussion quite helpful. While I realize this book maybe in the “aspirational” category at $90 for some, it is a very good example of how an interdisplinary approach (economic, political, and historical) can lead to a better understanding of what factors influence the development of martial arts styles. For those who may not be familiar with the specifics of these systems, don’t worry, it has been written in a very accessible way. No prior experience in Wing Chun is necessary. I should also mention that I have seen copies of this book on-line going for about $75 if you shop around.
Weapons: The Cutting Edge
The Christmas Gift Guide is always one of the most popular end of the year features here at Kung Fu Tea, and I know from prior reader feedback the “weapons” category seems to demand the lion’s share of that attention. The big news this year is that Kris cutlery had brought their line of hand crafted hudiedao back! I have always really liked these swords as they are in many ways the closest copies that you will see to the sorts of swords that were actually carried for combat purposes in the middle and later parts of the 19th century. As this post reminds us, we do need to be careful about making broad generalizations as there was always a huge amount of variation in the styles, dimensions and even construction techniques seen in this class of weapon. Nevertheless, most of the antique hudoiedao that one will encounter today will look a lot more like this than what you typically see hanging on the walls of the average Wing Chun school.
I have always been particularly fond of this blade profile as well as the steel handguards. The form feels different when performed with knives like these and they force you to reprioritize your approach. And if you ever wanted to do any cutting exercises, these blades (rather than very expensive period antiques) would be the way to go. (It goes without saying however that either forms practice or cutting with live blades can be very dangerous and these exercises should be supervised by someone who knows what they are doing). The last time I I talked with Kris about these swords they had dropped them from their lineup as they were too expensive to make, so I am thrilled to see them back and comparably priced ($265) to what they were.
Those looking to get a feel for this older style of blade without making the big investment necessary to purchase a set of vintage swords (or the more moderate investment necessary to get a set of decent reproductions) might want to consider these plastic training swords from Everything Wing Chun. The blade profile is close to correct and long enough (14 inches) to get you into the sorts of sizes that were commonly encountered in historic weapons. Better yet, you can practice your forms or train at the school without having to worry about getting cut or destroying your $1200 antiques! For $35 these are a great training tool. And if the “stabbers” are not your style you can get very similar practice swords with a wide range of blade shapes and lengths from the same source. The Wing Chun practitioner on your list would get a lot of use out of these training knives.
Of course the Butterfly Swords are only half of the Wing Chun weapons equation. Even more critical in the training of basic skills in the long pole. I love the pole because of its versatility. In skilled hands its a fearsome weapon, yet it is also a simple piece of equipment for strength training and conditioning. Really nice poles made from exotic hardwoods can set you back a $200-$300, but for basic daily training its hard to go wrong with these red oak poles, also from everything Wing Chun. At $70 they are priced to sell.
Of course there is no reason to stick with the tried and true. Why not consider giving yourself the gift of a new set of weapons skills (and possibly a trip to the emergency room) over the holidays. Various sorts of chain whips have been a part of southern Kung Fu culture for a long time. I have always been interested in learning more about them, but never had the time. But if you decide that this if your project Tiger Claw had both seven and nine section whips as well as instructional DVDs and books. Just remember what I said about the emergency room.
Our last selection is strictly for the seasoned weapons collector looking for something really unique. This late 19th or early 20th century sword appears to be Jian but in fact is slightly different. The blade has only been sharpened on one edge and had a different cross-section than what you might be expecting. This style of sword (called a Zhibeidao) shows up from time to time but is not very common. I have always wanted to handle one of these but have yet to get the chance. But that chance could be yours for the (not totally unreasonable) price of $1500.
Do you want to train like a Shaolin monk? No, I don’t either. But at least you can wear their now iconic foot gear as you train in the (relative) comfort of your local school. These are inexpensive, no frills, shoes that won’t break the bank. But they are also instantly recognizable in the world of the Chinese martial arts and sure to bring a smile when unwrapped. These shoes are available in white and black. Personally I like the black better, but white is definitely the classic look.
If there is a Wing Chun stylist in your life, why not help them to upgrade their wall bag? As I tell my own students, a wall bag is both the most important, and the least expensive, piece of training equipment you will ever use. It does everything from training the basic punch to conditioning the hands and more. Lots of places on the internet carry decent wall bags, though I have always appreciated the little bit of extra quality that you get when you splurge for the leather lining or embroidery. For Christmas this year why not give the gift of chain punches?
Speaking of bags, here is something else to consider. We certainly used the heavy bag in my Wing Chun school, but I didn’t come to appreciate how important a training tool it was until I started with a group of kickboxers as part of an ongoing research project. Now I am a convert. Rounds on the heavy bag are always going to be a part of my basic boxing and conditioning workout. I like this particular model for a couple of reasons. First, its free standing so you don’t have to worry about hanging it. Secondly at 72 inches its tall enough to be “realistic.” At the same time padding goes all the way down to the base allowing you to train the low kicks and knees that are critical for self defense drills. At $250 its not cheap, but its still a great investment if you have the space.
If you are going to start using the heavy bag for serious training routines you will probably want to invest in a set of gloves at some point. Either the lighter MMA or the more traditional Boxing models will do. For bag work I prefer the heavier traditional boxing gloves. There is no need to spend a fortune on these and you can generally get a pair of decent gloves for between $30 and $70 dollars. The two most common makers are Title and Everlast. Between the two I always feel more comfortable with the slightly squarer fist shape of the Everlast gloves. Your millage may vary. Its also nice to have some gel in the gloves, especially if you plan on using traditional wrist wraps. These gloves will only set you back about $60. And if you ask around at your local gym or YMCA you will probably discover that they already have a heavy bag in a closet or back room. Add a round timer and an mouth guard and you are ready to add a new dimension to your workout.
No Christmas gift list would be complete without a nod to the traditional wooden dummy (particularly where Wing Chun students are concerned). But this year I thought I would feature something a little different. The hanging dummies made famous by Ip Man and Bruce Lee get most of the press, but the Chinese martial arts have generated a lot of other sorts of training devices that are technically “wooden dummies” as well. Perhaps the best known of these are Plum Blossom Poles. Wooden pillars are typically sunk into the ground and are supposed to help students with their balance, stepping and shifting. Some Wing Chun schools (including mine) even practice Chi Sao on the Plum Blossom Poles. Recently Buick Yip, who makes some of the very nicest wooden dummies out there, has started to produce his own line of portable Plum Blossom poles. Each pole is seven inches across and six inches high. They are made of camphor wood and could be attached to a board, though they are meant to be portable. I think this last feature is great as I have worked in a couple of training spaces that are small enough that it would certainly have been nice to be able to pack up the plum blossom poles when not is use. Like everything Buick Yip does, this footwork dummy is a thing of beauty, and at $300 you will pay for it.
Artistic and Cultural Objects
Our final set of suggestions is less specific to any given tradition or training method, and instead focuses on the artistic or cultural aspect of the Asian martial arts. Everyone loves a good martial arts documentary, and one of the best ones to come out in the last couple of years was “The Black Kung Fu Experience” directed by Martha Burr and Mei-Juin Chen. One of the reasons why I personally like this documentary is that touches on a number of sorts of themes that we often discuss in martial arts studies, but it does so in very concrete and personal ways. All in all, its a nice introduction to what is too often an overlooked chapter in the history of the martial arts in the west.
Or perhaps you would like to spend a few of the upcoming cold and dark winter evenings exploring the origins of Chinese martial arts culture? In such case it might be worth investing in a good translation of Outlaws of the Marsh (also sometimes called Water Margin). This sprawling novel has had a profound impact on the way that the martial arts have been imagined and understood within many successive generations of Chinese popular culture. Some researchers have gone so far as to call it the “Old Testament” of the Chinese martial art world. That assessment seems about right to me, and I have always been a bit surprised that we have not seen more discussions of it in the recent literature. Certainly for those interested in how the Martial Arts may have been imagined in the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties, this is a critical resource. But the 108 Heroes of the marsh are also living and vital figures in modern popular culture traditions.
Or how about a little art for the wall? The Chinese martial arts have always generated great visual images, but these days I find that I am more interested in photographs that manage to escape the stereotyped misty mountains and show these traditions in a more vital, modern and urban context. While quickly perusing the offerings of allposters.com I found a couple of great images that could grace the wall of either your home or school and are available in wide variety of sizes and framing options. The first of these is the now iconic image of a Shaolin monk walking onto the grounds of the temple in Henan while carrying an Burger King bag. This image became somewhat famous after it graced the cover of Matthew Polly’s book American Shaolin (which might also make nice Christmas gift for someone). Now it can hang on your walls as well. The second image captures a slice of modern Taiji culture, as well as the Shanghai city skyline. Both are great pictures.
Miniature wooden dummies are apparently now a thing. This actually makes me glad as I am always looking for sculptural expressions of Chinese martial arts culture, and I have always felt that the strong lines of the traditional Mook Yan Jong make a great architectural statement. Now you can put that same statement on your desk. Buick Yip (the maker of the Plum Blossom Poles that we discussed above) has released his own line of miniature dummies made to the same exacting standards as his full size models. And like the originals these too are available in a variety of exotic hardwoods including Lychee and Tiger Marble. The dummy stands about a foot tall and the body has a diameter of one and half inches. Its the perfect size to use either as a gift or award. At $130 I suspect that it is as close as I will get to owning a Buick Yip dummy for the next couple of years.
Conclusion: The Best Things in Life are Free
Its important to remember that many of the best things about the holidays come free of charge. These include the chance to spend time with our friends and families, to get caught up with old training partners or teachers, and to reflect on what the new year might hold. But now you can also add a subscription to the new interdisciplinary journal Martial Arts Studies to that list. Published twice yearly this journal is available for free to anyone with an internet connection. It features research and discussion by some of the top names in the field and it will look great on your tablet, desktop or phone. So as you get caught up with your “Kung Fu Family” over the holidays please consider passing the link along.