Looking Forward by Looking Back
Admittedly 2016 has been a rough year for many people. Yet it has been a great year for those interested in serious, thoughtful and even scholarly writing on the martial arts. It seems clear that publishers have been gearing up to meet the sustained growth in demand for such works.
As such we will be mixing things up a bit with our New Year post. In previous years Kung Fu Tea has selected a “top webpage” or blog. But this year I would like to take a closer look at some of the more significant publications to be released during 2016. As such the following post will offer my own pick for the “Best Martial Arts Studies Book of the Year.”
In many ways I am setting myself up for a thankless task. So many fascinating books came out in the last 12 months that choosing a single “winner” is almost cruel. To make this task a bit easier I set a few criteria to help guide by decision. Almost by definition a book needs to be able to reach a wide audience to have a real impact on any conversation. I am most interested in those works that, to one degree or another, sought a “cross-over audience” audience of both practical and academic students.
As I noted in a previous post detailing the top news stories of 2016, we have seen increased efforts to popularize and spread the findings of scholarly work on the martial arts into the popular realm. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about both literatures, this is a fascinating (but by no means inevitable) development. Still, what greater service can scholars offer current martial arts students than to provide them with resources to think more carefully about where their arts came from, why they function in society and how they create meaning in the lives of individual students.
Of course no single book can capture all of the trends that we have seen in scholarly and popular literatures in the last year. And readers will certainly need more than one volume to keep them occupied until the next major set of releases in 2017. This post concludes with a quick review of some of the other books from 2016 that made my own personal reading list.
It would not be fair to call these other works “runners up.” As we will see, many of them have distinct goals. Nor do they all attempt to reach a broad cross-over audience. But collectively they help to remind us of the many great things that students of Martial Arts Studies accomplished in 2016.
And the Winner Is
Charles Russo. 2016. Striking Distance: Bruce Lee & the Dawn of Martial Arts in America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 264 pages. $24.95 USD (Hardcover)
Simply put, Charlie Russo’s history of the Bay Area Chinese martial arts community during the middle of the 20th century was the right book at the right time. It occupies an interesting middle ground between the rigorously academic and more popular accounts of the Chinese martial arts. While published by the University of Nebraska Press, this is not, properly speaking, an “academic book.” It does not attempt to resolve any critical theoretical questions by examining the development of these fighting systems. Yet Russo is clearly aware of much of this literature. Further, the detailed local and oral history that he assembled is incredibly engaging. If any new publication in 2016 might convince the general public that the real history of the Asian martial arts is even more interesting than the myths and legends surrounding these systems, this is it.
What follows below in a brief excerpt from a more detailed review of Russo’s work that I wrote shortly after its initial release. Readers interested in a more detailed engagement and critique of this work can find my complete review here.
Anyone can tell you that it is easier to review a good book than a bad one. This simple truth makes Charles Russo’s latest volume a pleasure to discuss. Striking Distance: Bruce Lee & the Dawn of Martial Arts in America (Nebraska UP, 2016) is one of those rare martial arts volumes that is likely to be widely read by individuals practicing a variety of styles. It will also be of interest to those who are looking for a better vantage point from which to observe the history of the San Francisco Chinese community at a time of immense social change but have no background in the fighting arts.
Still, it is among martial artists that this book will have its greatest impact. I fully expect that it will be discussed for years to come. It may even play a similar role to R. W. Smith’s classic Chinese Boxing: Master and Methods (Kodansha, 1974) for a new generation of martial artists seeking to better understand their roots.
The comparison with Smith is an interesting one. The first thing that readers will notice is the quality of Russo’s writing. Simply put, this is a wonderfully written book. Its style is at turns lyrical yet succinct. Russo’s descriptions of individual events are rich and evoke a sense of texture and place that I have not encountered in very many descriptions of martial arts history.
His ability to reproduce a sense of intimacy, from smoked filled halls to creaky staircases, give his narrative a gripping quality. This is amplified by the use of short chapters, each of which flows easily into the next. The end result is a genuinely compelling story.
Smith was also an engaging writer. While an intelligence officer by trade his writing reflected the journalism of his day. His brief yet incisive descriptions of the martial artists that he encountered drew in many readers and earned him a great many fans. I suspect that Russo’s text will be received in much the same way.
Nevertheless, it is the contrasts that I find most interesting. Smith was a deeply devoted martial artist. Like many young men of his generation he had come up through the ranks of boxing and judo before moving on to the newer and more exotic fighting systems (karate, taijiquan, kali and the various schools of kung fu) that would erupt into the public consciousness during the 1970s.
R. W. Smith was an early adopter of the Chinese fighting arts and he eagerly sought to promote these in the West. He hoped to not just to document what he saw, but to shape public opinion about these subjects through his writing. While this gave his prose a bite that many readers found enjoyable, it also led him to make some assertions that now require reevaluation.
In comparison Russo has little skin in the game. He does not identify as a martial artist and has none of the personal or stylistic loyalties that dominate the work of his literary predecessor. Russo is a professional Bay Area journalist and writer with a keen interest in local history and a nose for a good story. The San Francisco martial arts scene, from the 1940s through the 1960s, provided ample material to satisfy both of these instincts.
It is even possible that Russo’s status as a non-practitioner was an advantage while researching this volume. As quickly becomes apparent, this work is not based so much on the sorts of historical research that one does in a library (though there is some of that) but on literally hundreds of interviews and casual conversations with individuals who were direct observers of the events in question. A certain “neutrality” on the question of local loyalties was probably beneficial in winning the trust of his various sources.
And like any good journalist Russo has spent a good deal of time cross-checking these verbal accounts and comparing them to previously published sources. When particularly complex issues arise serious thought is given to the credibility of the different perspectives that exist within the community.
The end result is a nuanced view of individuals like Lau Bun, Wally Jay, Ed Parker and Bruce Lee that steadfastly resists the temptation to romanticize them. Russo seems to understand that it is the “warts” that humanize us, which make empathy possible in a “warts and all” history. In this way he avoids the rhetorical extremes of his predecessor.
Yet this is more than the story of a handful of people. It is also the story of a place. San Francisco’s Chinatown stands out as a key actor in these events, exerting a type of influence on the unfolding story. Russo’s history provides critical insights into not just the martial arts, but the neighborhood that supported them.
What Else Should I be Reading?
Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of Russo’s work is that it will leave its audience wanting more. At about 150 pages of text I suspect that most readers will get through it in a couple of sittings (probably because they will find putting the book down to be difficult). So what other volumes from 2016 do you need to get caught up on? To tackle that question I would like to discuss a couple of works from my own personal reading list.
Chris Goto-Jones. 2016. The Virtual Ninja Manifesto: Fighting Games, Martial Arts and Gamic Orientalism. Rowman and Littlefield.
Our first work comes from the Martial Arts Studies book series currently being produced by Roman and Littlefield. Chris Goto-Jones is a philosopher with some provocative questions to ask. Specifically, to what extent can we think of video games as being like martial arts? Can we go beyond the realm of metaphor and simply treat them as martial arts? Looking at the literature on embodied cognition, Zen philosophy and “techno-Orientalism” Jones argues that these “virtual martial arts” can function as mechanisms for the same sorts of moral transformation and self-realization that people have always sought from the Asian hand combat systems.
While provocative, Jones’ argument stretches the boundaries of Martial Arts Studies in interesting ways. Nor should we forget that increasingly it is videogames, rather than Sunday afternoon Kung Fu films, that are introducing young people to the martial arts. Hopefully this monograph will also give me some new insight into my own investigation of “hyper-real” martial arts.
Jared Miracle. 2016. Now with Kung Fu Grip! How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America. Jefferson, North Carolina:McFarland & Company. 185 pages. $29.95
The second item on my 2016 reading list forms an interesting counterpoint to Russo’s book. Both projects are clearly seeking to popularize a more disciplined, even scholarly, approach to martial arts history. Yet despite their shared goal, they come at the task from strikingly different angles.
Russo approaches the project with the tools of investigative journalism, but Miracle is a trained academic. While Russo writes as an outsider, Miracle brings with him extensive personal experience in the martial arts. Russo’s work is largely devoid of theory but shows how much can be accomplished through the disciplined investigation of local history. Miracle takes a more global view, attempting to explain the modernization and spread of the martial arts in China, Japan and the West across a much longer time frame. To guide his readers through this labyrinthine journey he frequently turns to anthropological, historical and sociological theory. Despite these differences it appears that both authors seek to reach many of the same “cross-over” readers.
I think that many readers will find Miracle’s work to be a handy one volume reference to an important subject. It is at its best when attempting deal with the biographical legacies of figures like R. W. Smith or Don Draeger. Yet ultimately it attempts to do too much too quickly. You can see more detailed review of this work here. [Link]
Paul Bowman. 2016. Mythologies of Martial Arts. Rowman and Littlefield
This is Paul Bowman’s second work dedicated to Martial Arts Studies, and non-specialists will find it to be his most accessible work to date. Bowman does not abandon the tools of “critical theory” in this short volume. Rather he introduces and explains these theoretical approaches in ways that are rarely seen in academic publications. The fact that this work was structured as a collection of short essays, each of which tackles a single highly engaging subject, makes it a genuinely enjoyable read. I have already read this volume once since its release, and I think that it is a book I will find myself going back to frequently in the future.
Alex Channon & Christopher Matthews. 2016. Global perspectives on women in combat sports: Women warriors around the world. Palgrave.
No reading list of scholarly books would be complete without an edited volume. In this case the editors bring together a number of perspectives on questions of gender and the female experience in the traditional martial arts and combat sports. I have already looked at a couple of chapters from the project, but I have yet to sit down and read this volume from cover to cover. That will be a priority for 2017.
Lauren Miller Griffith. 2016. In Search of Legitimacy: How Outsiders Become Part of the Afro-Brazilian Capoeira Tradition. New York: Berghahn Books.
While Channon and Matthews may be near the top of my personal (e.g., non-research related) reading list, Griffith is what I am most looking forward to at the moment. Her book came out very in early in 2016 but I only just received a review copy in the mail. While her ethnographic study focuses on the practice of Capoeria, the questions that she tackles are critical for students of just about any of the traditional martial arts today, especially given the growing importance of martial arts related tourism.
“Every year, countless young adults from affluent, Western nations travel to Brazil to train in capoeira, the dance/martial art form that is one of the most visible strands of the Afro-Brazilian cultural tradition. In Search of Legitimacy explores why “first world” men and women leave behind their jobs, families, and friends to pursue a strenuous training regimen in a historically disparaged and marginalized practice. Using the concept of apprenticeship pilgrimage-studying with a local master at a historical point of origin-the author examines how non-Brazilian capoeiristas learn their art and claim legitimacy while navigating the complexities of wealth disparity, racial discrimination, and cultural appropriation.”
At $110 the hardcover is a bit expensive. But the good news is that readers can get the ebook for $16.
The next time someone tells you how awful 2016 was, show them one of the books from this list. Any of them would be a fascinating way to kick off 2017!
Want to read something shorter by Charles Russo? Check out this guest post: James Yimm Lee and T. Y. Wong: A Rivalry that Shaped the Chinese Martial Arts in America