Introduction: A Secret Book
We have all seen the movie. We have all had this dream. A mysterious Kung Fu manual, purporting to relate the secrets of past masters, falls into your possession. What will you find within its pages?
It must contain the keys to excellence in combat. That is the basis of any good Kung Fu drama. It should no doubt share profound ethical lessons, occasionally drawing on Buddhist or Daoist images. Such a book would probably contain knowledge that could be used to heal as well as harm. That is a well-established aspect of the modern mental image of the Asian martial arts. It might even hint mysteriously at the role of Qi energy in the combative arts.
Now take a look at your bookshelf. The one with all of the martial arts primers, manuals and magazines that you probably haven’t look at in years. Do you see it? Yup, it is right there in front of you.
Its title is the Bubishi: A Classical Manual of Combat. While it is one of the most commonly owned martial arts manuals (my local Barnes and Nobles even keeps copies on hand), it also appears to be one of the less frequently read and discussed examples of the genera. This is especially true within Chinese martial arts circles.
I have always found the general silence surrounding this book to be somewhat mysterious. After all, so many of our debates on the evolution of the modern Chinese martial arts revolve around events that took place in the second half of the 19th century. And while a number of late 19th and early 20th century manuals from Northern China have been translated and widely distributed (e.g., the Taiji Classics), how many translations of Southern China’s rich manuscript literature of “Cotton Boxing” and “Bronze Man” manuals do you currently have on that same book shelf? None? Well you are not alone.
Ever since the first modern Japanese translations of this book were released in the middle of the 1930s, the Bubishi has been overwhelmingly seen as the key to understanding Karate’s Okinawan pre-history. Partick McCarthy’s English language efforts hit all of the same notes. The book has even been marketed as “the Bible of Karate.”
It is thus understandable that students of Chinese martial studies might neglect this text. Yet once you crack its open the pages, what one quickly discovers is a small library of textual fragments dealing with White Crane and Monk Fist boxing, traditional Chinese medicine, combat tactics and martial ethics. Much, though not all, of this literature refers to places and traditions that will be familiar to students of the southern Chinese martial arts. While questions of dating and provenance bedevil attempts to easily relate these texts to modern Karate practice, even a quick look at the various illustrations that accompany the text suggests that Chinese martial artists are likely to find it very interesting.
Southern China has a long history of producing martial arts manuals. Unfortunately they have not generated the same degree of interest among historians and practitioners as northern works such as the Taiji Classics. Many of these manuals currently reside in the cabinets of private collectors and in the special collections departments of university libraries.
In their general format, many bear more than a passing resemblance to the Bubishi. Ip Man owned one such collection containing both a boxing and medical manual that he inherited from his teacher. Visitor’s to his small museum in Foshan can see these hand copied manuscripts on public display. But like so much of Southern China’s martial literature, there has yet to be a serious scholarly effort to translate, describe and classify these works.
For students of Karate the Bubishi is interesting because it is unique within the art’s historical landscape. Things are a little different for the Chinese martial studies community. We should be asking ourselves how we can get more out of this text precisely because it is not totally unique. Rather it is the most easily accessible example of a genre of manuscripts that, while not all that rare, have yet to elicit the sustained scholarly attention that they deserve.
In an attempt to rectify this situation, the current essay will proceed with a brief review of Tuttle’s 2016 edition of Patrick McCarthy’s translation of the Bubishi. We will then attempt to answer three questions.
First, what does it suggest about the nature of the Southern Chinese martial arts at the time of its compilation? Secondly, how has it impacted the practice of the martial arts, both at the time of its first appearance in the 1930s as well as in subsequent decades? Lastly, what does both the Bubishi and Tuttle’s most recent edition suggest about the social work done by discussions of “tradition” within the modern martial arts landscape?
Widely owned, rarely read and encased within intricate webs of overlapping Orientalist fantasies, the Bubishi remains something of a mystery. Basic questions about the date, authorship and composition of these texts remain unsolved. Yet this manuscript tradition may yet yield up treasures worth the hunt for students of martial arts studies.
Bubishi: The Classic Manual of Combat
First a word of clarification may be in order. The term “Bubishi” is the Japanese transliteration of the Chinese term Wubei Zhi. This title was given to a massive encyclopedia of Chinese military technology, strategy and practice edited by the Ming era officer Mao Yuanyi. The Okinawan Bubishi, translated by Patrick McCarthy is also an edited collection of texts. It shares the same title, possibly in homage to its much more comprehensive namesake. But there is little other resemblance between these books.
Most likely brought to Okinawa sometime during the 19th (or early 20th) century, the Bubishi appears to have been a manuscript tradition in which a number of separate, often unrelated, articles were compiled, copied and passed on. These remained in an unbound state until the 20th century. As such the order (and exact number) of articles varies between textual lineages, but there is enough overlap to suggest the existence of an identifiable tradition. This collection was initially passed on without either a formal title or the sort of preface that often accompanied Chinese martial arts manuals.
This is both an unfortunate and critical fact to bear in mind. It is unfortunate in that the prefaces of such manuals are rich sources of data that describe the social world that a text sought to situate itself within. It is important in that this textual tradition makes no self-conscious claims to editorship, individual authorship, title or even date. It seems unlikely that the term “Bubishi” came to be applied to these texts until later in the 20th century, possibly the 1930s, according to the detailed introductory article by Andreas Quast.
While Quast traces the suggestions of a textual tradition existing in Okinawa back to the 1880s at the latest, it is worth remembering that the oldest extent hand copied Bubishi manuscripts date to 1930. This is only a few years prior to the first translations of the text appearing for sale in Japan in the middle of the 1930s. To paraphrase Paul Bowman, we are once again confronted with a book that is treated as ancient yet, upon closer inspection, turns out to not even be all that old.
Still, a possible origin in the last two decades of the 19th century is suggestive as it would make these texts roughly contemporaneous to the Taiji Classics, another edited collection which was beginning to enter into circulation at the same time. Further, these years are a critical period for those of us wishing to better understand the evolution of the modern Chinese martial arts.
While the text of the Bubishi is relatively brief and stable in size, the length of the various modern editions of it that are now in circulation seem to grow with age. Tuttle’s current offering comes in at 319 pages, up from the comparatively svelte 255 pages of the 2008 edition. The additional material includes new introductory prefaces and essays by McCarthy, Jesse Enkamp, Cezar Borkowshi, Evan Pantazi, Jose Swift and Andreas Quast. Readers can rest assured that the 19th century original’s lack of any type of descriptive front matter has been more than compensated for with a deluge of modern prefaces and glowing testimonials.
Some of the newer material included in the 2016 volume was interesting. McCarthy’s essay “No Time like the Past” provided a series of reflections on his involvement with the Bubishi over the decades. Anyone looking to test Krug’s thesis on the stages of the Western appropriation of Okinawan Karate could do worse than starting with this autobiographical essay. Swift’s contribution was shorter but also valuable.
By far the single most important addition in the new volume is Andreas Quast’s concluding essay, “The Creation and the Creator.” It alone will more than compensate readers for the price of the book.
Quast’s paper proceeds in two parts. In the first section he carefully details what is known about the textual history of every manuscript (confirmed or hypothesized) relating to the Bubishi. This sort of work requires a painstaking eye to for detail, but it is critical to actually establishing the dates of both the earliest existing manuscripts, as well as the probable origins of the Bubishi. The absence of this sort of discussion was a real problem in earlier editions of the book.
As previously noted, Quast found that the oldest hand copied manuscripts still in existence date only to the 1930s. This is of some concern as it is the same decade in which Karate began to be popularized on the Japanese mainland and the first translations of the Bubishi were published. While Quast finds evidence of older manuscripts dating back to the 1880s, these items were physically destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa, or due to the various earthquakes and fires that periodically afflict the region.
While we can be confident that a “Bubishi-like tradition” existed in Okinawa during the late 19th and early 20th century, it is actually impossible to say exactly what it contained on the basis of the sources that currently exist. This fact will become of greater importance as Quast reaches the conclusion of his essay. It is also interesting that Quast’s textual criticism, while not resolving all of the outstanding questions, tends to cast doubt on those theories that see a very early date (such as the 18th century) for the text’s transmission to Okinawa.
Quast sees a few basic possibilities when he turns his attention to the matter of origins. To begin with, he notes that the Bubishi is much more likely a collection of texts rather than a single authored work. Given that not all of the articles within this volume date to the same era, reference the same geographic regions, or even discuss the same subjects, this should be obvious to all readers. But it is probably worth stating anyway.
Quast also quickly dismisses the possibility that a single family or small group of private individuals might have assembled a collection such as this on Okinawa. That seemed a bit premature to me as we know that martial clans and individuals in China did assemble textual collections not unlike the Bubishi. Again, Wing Chun students can see (if not read) something similar at the Ip Man Tong in Foshan.
Instead Quast favors one of two possibilities. The first is that a book of this degree of “sophistication” was acquired by an Okinawan official and maintained, in multiple official copies, by the government. This would yield a relatively earlier date. Alternatively, Quast notes that such a collection could have been assembled by the sorts of martial artists, rebels and revolutionaries that occasionally fled from China to Okinawa in the late 19th or early 20th century. Once in Okinawa the various texts which are now referred to as the “Bubishi” may have been adopted as they seemed to capture the same flavor of national resistance and community mythmaking that many Okinawans were then invested in.
This would suggest both a later date of entry and a more tangential relationship with Karate’s early development. However, to my ear it also seems to fit the time period of many of the more interesting articles included in the Bubishi. Certain ideas such as the “Sick Man of Asia”, or the trauma of the Boxer Rebellion, that strongly mark later martial manuals are notably absent from this document. As such I suspect that it probably predates 1900.
Yet for some of the later articles, it may not be by more than a decade or two. Of course there could be a range of dates here. Some of the Monk fist material (including the list of movements in the various training forms) seems a bit older. A few 18th century training manuals contain similar lists of names. In contrast, the pairs of “winning/losing techniques” (complete with illustration) bear an uncanny resemblance to the printed version of very similar material that the British writer L.C.P. found and described in a local marketplace in Guangzhou during the 1870s.
Other material, such as the history of White Crane Boxing, appears to be from an even more recent period when creation myths of the “weak” and “feminine” overcoming the hard and foreign became culturally important and increasingly reified. Douglas Wile, in his own treatment of the origins of the Taiji Classics, found that such themes were particularly popular in the 1880s as the self-strengthening movement encouraged martial artists to search their own stories and cultural histories for the key to resisting foreign imperialism. Some of the texts within the Bubishi resonate with his findings.
Confirmation of these dates would require additional research. That would probably take the form of detailed comparisons with previously unpublished versions of similar texts from Chinese collections. Yet a cursory reading suggests that in addition to a variety of authors, subjects and styles, the articles within the Bubishi may also reflect that sorts trends and concerns seen within the Chinese martial arts literature during different points in the 19th century. That further suggests a Chinese textual tradition that was later imported to Okinawa.
Quast’s final point turns on what is missing from the Bubishi. A number of similar texts in China include discussions of armed combat. Hudiedao, sabers, poles, spears and shields were all commonly carried by militia members and became the focus of southern Chinese martial arts training. Yet any discussion of armed training is conspicuous by its absence from existing Bubishi texts. Nor is there any hint of militia organization or community defense. These texts are all self-consciously oriented towards civilian personal-defense, health and leisure. Such a vision of the proper social role of the martial arts is also suggestive of a very late 19th or 20th century date.
At this point Quast reminds readers that the oldest existing examples of this textual tradition date only to the period that Karate was coming under intense pressure to conform to Japanese social expectations about what a “proper, ancient and authentic” system of unarmed martial arts should be. It was within this specific environment that the Bubishi first came forth.
We generally think of the Bubishi as a text representing the tradition from which Karate first emerged. It is the origin, the creator. It is what is “authentic and legitimate.” Our modern forms of practice are “the creation.” In a word, they are derivative.
These are the terms that many of the modern introductions and prefaces included in the 2016 Tuttle edition explicitly encourages readers to think within. The Bubishi holds the key to “forgotten” combat applications. It is a font of ethical martial wisdom as well as esoteric knowledge. It can lead to a sense of renewal for students who practice has become stale. Within its pages we can commune with the minds of the “founders.”
Reading these praises it is clear that the Bubishi has come to be much more than a book. It is an artifact whose very physical existence legitimates one’s martial practice. There is nothing particularly unique about this. Kennedy and Guo noted that the Chinese martial manuscript tradition existed in large part to convey legitimacy rather than simply knowledge. Yet as the essays and prefaces of this volume make clear, such functions have carried over into the age of digital reproduction with surprising efficacy.
Clearly a degree of caution may be called for. Martial arts studies notes that all martial practices, to a large extent, are invented traditions. Applying this general principle to the Bubishi, Quast suggests that there might be a more obvious explanation for the lack of weaponry, as well as the general tightness of fit between Karate’s early philosophy and what in seen in the Bubishi.
In his view it is entirely possible (even likely) that the original manuscript tradition contained additional material that was simply edited out of both hand copied and later printed versions of these texts because it did not meet Japanese expectations of what Karate should be. This is an intriguing possibility. Given the small number of actual manuscript lineages, and the dearth of truly older copies, it would be hard to falsify this hypothesis.
We must be careful not to rely too heavily on arguments from silence. After all, while many Chinese manuscript traditions discuss weapons, not all do. There are some solely dedicated to boxing.
Yet Quast raises critical questions. Manuscripts do not simply propagate themselves. They are copied (or not) by individuals for specific reasons at a given point in history. Thus they are just as much the products of existing social discourses as they are “artifacts” from an unsullied past.
Perhaps we should accept that it may not be possible to use the Bubishi to decipher Karate’s deep origins. Nor is it likely to reveal much about the state of the Chinese martial arts in the 1780s. But ultimately those questions may not matter. More pressing is what it demonstrates about Chinese boxing in the late 19th century, or the struggles of Karate to become accepted on the Japanese mainland in the 1920s. Or maybe this volume should inspire us to ask an even more introspective set of questions.
Conclusion: Tradition as Innovation
Why does this text sit (often unread) on our own bookshelf? What does its popularity indicate about the needs and desires that motivate modern western martial artists? How does our mental image of Asian history shape our experience of physical practice? How are historical and cultural artifacts assembled to create the markers of legitimacy?
Obviously “legitimacy” is the critical ingredient in any discussion of the social meaning of the Bubishi. Yet what kind of legitimacy do modern practitioners actually want?
A close reading of the book’s abundant prefaces and introductory essays yields some interesting results. By in large these authors are not really concerned with issues of “purity” or proving the “authenticity” of their transmission. All of that seems to be taken for granted.
Rather they are looking for something else. They turn to the Bubishi because they seek “permission.” They are looking for permission to conduct their own research into the self-defense applications of the kata (as well as for an argument that such material should, at one point in time, have been common knowledge). They desire a justification to delve into the esoteric aspect of the martial arts, whether understood in a medical or historical sense. Multiple individuals seem to be looking for permission to begin to include a larger dose of grappling in their daily training.
The section of “winning and losing techniques” (Article 29) is particularly interesting in this regard. As Harry Cook notes in his preface, 39% of the “winning techniques” involve boxing, 29% are throws or escapes, 17% include locks and submissions and only 4% are kicks.
In an era when MMA and BJJ are ascendant, the “wisdom of the masters” would seem to be on the side of modernizing one’s practice. And, in strictly historical terms, this is a pretty accurate vision of the vast variety of techniques that can be found in the Southern Chinese martial arts. Yet Karate is, by design, not the same as its Fujianese cousins. That small fact seems to be lost in many of these discussions.
This suggests something critical about the nature of historical debates. History and legitimacy are resources to be employed not just in the preservation of an art. They are equally important resources in the quest for innovation and reform. They are the means by which a social consensus is constructed behind new movements and schools. Arguments about “tradition” in the martial arts have never really been about what was done in the past. Rather, they are about what we should do in the future.
It is this conversation that we see repeatedly throughout both the modern and older sections of McCarthy’s publication. Southern Chinese martial artists began to develop the folk histories of their own schools in the 19th century at precisely the moment when everything began to change beyond the point of recognition. Likewise, Karate’s reformers and popularizers rediscovered the value of these Chinese texts as their art was once again reformed to fit the rhythms of modern Japanese life. In our own era a deeper study of the past has become a license to explore various pathways to revitalize arts facing competition from grapplers on the one side and qigong masters on the other.
Perhaps the Bubishi has a great secret to reveal to us after all. The principle of continual change is the oldest and most important tradition to be found within the martial arts. Both the contents and evolution of this textual tradition make that fact abundantly clear.
If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Butterfly Swords and Boxing: Exploring a Lost Southern Chinese Martial Arts Training Manual.