David S. Nisan and Liu Kangyi. 2016. The General Tian Wubeizhi: the Bubishi in Chinese Martial Arts History. Taipei: Lionbook Martial Arts Company. 136 pages of text, plus 128 pages of facsimile reprint. $47.95 USD.




Given life’s many obligations, it is all too easy let one’s personal study lapse.  Balancing the cross-cutting pressures of family, professional responsibility and martial arts training is never easy.  We walk by that growing pile of reading projects and think, “I will look at them this weekend.” Then we don’t.


Yet every so often a work comes along that reminds us of what we are missing, and what got us interested in martial arts history in the first place.  David S. Nisan and Liu Kangyi’s recent publication, The General Tian Wubeizhi is just such a book. This volume tackles one of the most well-known puzzles in the Southern Chinese martial arts.  (And Karate practitioners have been talking about this subject since the 1930s).  Yet their approach feels both fresh and strikingly original.


Nisan and Kangyi’s volume simultaneously gives readers an important new primary source, offers an original conceptual framework to understand both the meaning and significance of this find, and explains it all to a general readership in a way that is refreshingly clear and accessibly to anyone, regardless of their familiarity with the preexisting literature on Chinese martial studies.  It is hard to think of any work that has made quite so many contributions to the discussion of the Southern Chinese hand combat systems in so few pages.  Both academic and practical students will find many new insights in these pages.


An expanded cover detail from The General Tian Wubeizhi.




Bringing the Bubishi back to China


A few words of introduction may be necessary for readers who are not familiar with the manuscript tradition generally referred to as “the Bubishi.”  This Japanese romanization of the Chinese title Wǔbèi Zhì, does not refer to the venerable Ming era military encyclopedia compiled by Mao Yuanyi.  Rather, it is a term that in the 1930s came to be retrospectively applied to a diverse manuscript tradition preserved in Okinawan hand combat circles.  Yet the exact nature of these “books” is difficult to pin down.


These untitled works were essentially collections of texts dealing with a range of topics including medicine, martial philosophy and unarmed fighting techniques.  (Andreas Quast suggests that it is significant that the Bubishi contains no discussion of weapon techniques.)  No surviving editions include a title page, preface or statement of authorship.  In that sense they are even more mysterious than the Taiji Classics, though they likely date to the same period and may have been at least partially the product of similar social forces.  While there was some overlap in critical material, various lineages of Bubishi transmission included different numbers of articles organized in a wide variety of ways.  While clearly a compiled work with multiple authors (or editors) the Bubishi was not so much a cohesive edited volume as an ongoing research file or, in the words of Nisan and Liu, “a notebook.”


While Japanese authors have been discussing this manuscript tradition since the pre-WWII period, in the current era it is best known to English speaking audiences through the efforts of Patrick McCarthy who has published multiple editions of translation and commentary. McCarthy’s once characterized the Bubishi as the “Bible of Karate,” and the symbolic resemblance is certainly recognizable.  While very little in this work outwardly resembles modern karate practice, many of the art’s pioneers drew inspiration from its pages.  The Bubishi functioned as a textual witness linking what became a modern martial art to an idealized and supposedly pure past tradition.


Karate students have dominated the discussion of this manuscript in the West.  Yet, as Nisan and Liu argue (and as I have repeatedly noted on this blog), that is only half of the story. In fact, it may be a good deal less.


Very few individuals in Japan can read the Bubishi as it is written in a combination of classical Chinese and the local Minnan dialect of Fujian province.  When accounting for the various textual errors that arose from poor copying and mistakes in the transcription of local dialects, it is a challenging document for anyone to work with.  Yet it is a uniquely Chinese document, one that is tied to the Fuzhou region and the folk martial art traditions still popular in the area, including White Crane and Luohan Boxing.  The authors of the present volume lay out a convincing case that it was probably compiled sometime in the second half of the 19th century (and probably after 1860).  As such, the Bubishi is a potentially invaluable textual witness to a period of rapid transformation within the Southern Chinese martial arts.  Yet students of Chinese martial history have, for the most art, passed over this manuscript tradition in silence.


The efforts of Nisan and Liu may well provide the push needed to spark a long over-due discussion.  By examining this work within its original cultural context, they hope to both shed light on the nature, origin and authorship of the collection, as well as providing martial artists with a new set of concepts for making sense of it.  This effort was facilitated when Lionbooks acquired a previously unpublished Bubishi manuscript from the estate of a Japanese-American karate student that was unique in a number of ways.  While badly damaged in places, this copy seems to represent an early textual variant.  Further, it is unique in that it contains a very large number of beautifully painted, full color, images.  While a few other hand painted Chinese fight books are known to exist (see the Golden Saber Illustrated Manual, 1725) such works are extremely rare and suggest interesting questions about their ownership and the social function of these texts.  Yet this work is not a translation project.  Rather, the beautiful facsimile edition is accompanied by a text that seeks to explore the place of the Bubishi in Chinese martial arts history.


A facsimile page from The General Tian Wubeizhi.


Reviewing the Argument


The authors begin in the first chapter by posing a fundamental, yet often neglected, question.  When looking at a tradition such as this, containing a wide range of both martial and medical materials, we must ask “What is this a case of? Where does this work fit in the typology of Chinese popular literature?”


While a respectable number of late imperial martial arts manuals still exist, most of them lack the unique structure and emphasis on medicine (specifically, trauma medicine), that we see in the Bubishi.  That does not mean that the book is utterly unique.  Wing Chun students are probably already thinking about “Leung Jan’s Book,” inherited by Ip Man, that is now on public display in his museum in Foshan.  This handwritten, two volume collection, also includes a mixture of medical and martial material.  In fact, readers who are already familiar with the Bubishi will find its medical illustrations quite familiar.


While the authors never actually mention this (or any other) specific example, they begin by asserting that the Bubishi belongs to the genre of popular literature known as “Bronze Man Notebooks.”  These works were the prized possessions of the sorts of physician/martial artists who were such a fixture in the towns, temples and marketplaces of southern China.  Citing Meir Shahar’s work on the development of late imperial boxing traditions, they note that by the 17th century it was becoming increasingly common to encounter discussions that mixed martial and medical knowledge. They argue that this was important as it allowed martial artists to both attend to the sorts of training injuries that naturally occur during vigorous practice, and to make a living while pursuing an itinerant lifestyle.


A “Bronze Man Notebook” recorded both the outlines and critical philosophy of boxing systems, as well as the prescriptions, herbs and theories of medical treatments.  Together they comprised a unified medical/martial understanding.  Indeed, it is hard not to think of figures like Leung Jan or Wong Fei Hung when reading Nisan and Liu’s discussion.  As such it is not a surprise that the Bubishi reads more like a medical text that martial arts notes have been added to, rather than a fight book with a medical appendix.  This is exactly the opposite of what most modern readers want and can be a source of frustration.


The economic value of such works dictated that they were only passed on to close disciples.  Nor could the medical (or martial) knowledge encoded in these works be called upon without a period of apprenticeships during which an extensive body of oral lore and clinical insights would be conveyed.  The second chapter of this work extends this textual discussion by exploring the contents and basic structure of four different lineages of the Bubishi textual tradition.


In Chapter Three the authors tackle the image of the deity known as General Tian who is occasionally found within these manuscripts.  This exploration begins with a discussion of the centrality of Confucian thought to Chinese martial arts philosophy which many readers will find useful.  I frequently receive questions about the supposed Buddhist or Daoist origins of some specific martial art (in my case its usually Wing Chun) and often end up suggesting that people think about Confucian practice first if they are serious about grasping the “philosophical roots” of their system.  I can now see myself directing individuals to this chapter in the future.  Incidentally, those interested in the links between the southern martial arts and opera will want to pay close attention to the exploration of General Tian and his links to both social spheres.


In Chapter Four readers will find a theory on the dating and the authorship of the Bubishi.  Nisan and Liu explicitly link the text to martial arts circles that gathered around the Ryukyu trade/tribute station in Fuzhou.  This compound also included a Confucian school that educated many of the best and brightest minds of the island kingdom.  Of course, Fuzhou was also a regional martial arts hot-spot.  Drawing on subtle clues from the text the authors convincingly argue that the text was compiled in the area sometime after 1860 (and somewhat less convincingly) that it was assembled by successive generations of Kung Fu obsessed students at the Ryukyu House before they were shipped back to their families.


Serious students of Southern China’s martial arts history will find Chapter Five even more interesting.  Once an approximate date for the text has been established (and the authors have made real progress in this area), it then becomes possible to ask what this text tells us about the development of the martial arts in a specific city at a known point in time.  Using the text of the Bubishi the authors explore the process by which the mid-century spread of Yongchun White Crane impacted the subsequent development of systems like Luohan Boxing and Five Ancestors.


Once dated to a specific period, the Bubishi offers a window onto the process by which the conceptual and philosophical basis of White Crane spread and was layered onto other preexisting regional martial practices.  The mid-19th century was a time of great innovation in the Fujianese martial arts, as masters were challenged to create more effective fighting systems.  They often did this through a process of “martial fusion” facilitated by the spread of the conceptual aspects of White Crane.  Indeed, the Bubishi seems to record an intermediary phase in the formation of Fuzhou White Crane that illustrates the process by which these arts became progressively softer as the century progressed.


Fuzhou did not exist in isolation.  Douglas Wile has explored the increasing emphasis on softness seen in Taijiquan circles during the late 19th century. Further, the mid-19th century expansion of martial fusion in Fujian corresponds to the explosive growth of Choy Li Fut (another remarkably acquisitive system) in Guangdong, and eventually the spread of the White Crane creation story and aspects of its conceptual system into the Pearl River Delta. Both forces would have a profound impact on the development of Wing Chun and other regional styles.


Their argument is elegant, textually supported and modest in nature.  It reinforces a number of other discussions of what was going on in other regional martial arts centers during the late 19th century.  Yet Nisan and Liu’s contribution is unique as the Bubishi provides an actual record of how this process of fusion and transformation unfolded.


Vintage Postcard (undivided back) dating to the late Qing dynasty. Note the resemblance of the queue arrangement of the individual on the left to many of the paintings in The General Tian Wubeizhi.



Concluding Thoughts



Beyond its many historical contributions, The General Tian Wubeizhi is clearly a labor of love.  The binding and covers are great, and the full color reproductions of the original manuscript pages (which read from back to front) are surprisingly good.  The authors did not attempt to interpolate areas of missing text.  As they point out, this is already available from other sources.  Nisan must be commended on the quality of his translations and editorial work as the entire argument is laid out in such a way that it is not only clear, but accessible to wide range of readers who may not be all that familiar with Chinese martial arts history or society.


Nevertheless, this sort of accessibility comes at a cost.  While this text is sure to reach a wide audience, serious researchers will find themselves wanting a more scholarly apparatus.  While there are footnotes throughout, the book contains no index or reference section.  I repeatedly found myself scanning back through 50 or more pages worth of footnotes in an attempt to identify the full citation of a reference that had sparked my interest.  This quickly becomes a frustration.  If this book ever gets a second edition these oversights need to be corrected.  Readers of a text like this might also appreciate a glossary of Chinese names and specialized terms.


The demands of making a nuanced argument about a moment of change ran up against the impulse to be as accessible as possible in other places as well.  Many readers will appreciate Chapter Three’s carefully laid out discussion of the system of filial piety and ancestor worship when it comes to understanding the nature of traditional (and even modern) Kung Fu schools.  Yet these sorts of discussions always run the risk of creating the illusion of an unchanging and static “ethnographic present.”  Authors like Faure and Wakeman have pointed out that some of the region’s most basic social structures (such as lineage organizations and clan temples) underwent substantial changes during the late imperial period.  This was especially evident during the middle years of the 19th century when the relationships between these larger social structures and the clan militias and other paramilitary societies began to shift.


Nor am I totally convinced by Nisan and Liu’s arguments about the ultimate authorship of the Bubishi.  To their credit they begin Chapter Four with a frank admission that it is just not possible to prove or reject theories in this area.  The historical record is too thin.  The best we can do is to decide which ideas seem the most credible. That is certainly a frustration that I can empathize with.


And in all honesty, I think that the authors made real progress in narrowing the dating of this text and locating it in the Fuzhou diplomatic compound.  Yet one cannot help but wonder whether their carefully constructed arguments in Chapter One actually cuts against their equally interesting theory in Chapter Four.  If the Bubishi really does fall into the “Bronze Man Notebook” genre, it seems much more likely that this text would have been inherited by one or more students in Fuzhou (who then made their own copies) rather than being substantially compiled or authored by them.  Indeed, the authors themselves argue that such works would be useless without the oral traditions of a master, and these insights could only have come from Chinese teachers.  It seems that the easiest way to read the presence of local dialects and orthographic errors is to argue that they were locally produced vernacular texts copied by the foreign students, rather than being notebooks that were composed and compiled by them.


I also tend to agree with Quast (p. 94) that the beautifully reproduced paintings in this edition of the Bubishi show Chinese martial artists rather than their Okinawan students.  In my reference collection I have a number of photographs of Chinese individuals who have arranged their queue as a “top knot” so that it cannot be grabbed in fighting or training.  To my eyes, many of the paintings strongly suggest that both the forehead and even the back of the head of these figures have been shaved, as one might expect if they were subjects of the Manchus.  The gauntleted boots/shoes of these figures certainly appear to be Chinese.  It seems eminently reasonable to assume that the Okinawan students were the ones who copied these paintings.  Yet they may very well have been working from Chinese models.


In many respects, it probably doesn’t matter whether the Bubishi was compiled by a group of Chinese instructors in the Fuzhou area or their foreign students.  In either case the critical insights of Chapter Five remain valid.  Yet this question does point to another issue.  When attempting to determine what is “unique” about this manuscript tradition, to what other texts should we be comparing it?


Many Ming era manuals had dozens of woodcuts, and the paintings in the Golden Saber Illustrated Manual are superior in their elegance and use of color to even this edition of the Bubishi.  One could easily argue that these comparisons are not valid.  The Ming dynasty publications were meant for an elite audience, and the painted sword manual came out of imperial court circles.  The Bubishi, in contrast, began life as a humble “Bronze Man Notebook.”


But what does that indicate?  To answer this question the authors would need to provide readers with a much more detailed discussion of this critical genre.  While we learned quite a bit about how these books were used, and their social function, we never saw any textually based discussions of other “Bronze Man Notebooks.”  We were assured that, by their nature, all such notebooks were unique.  But given the academic interest in traditional medicine (this is, after all, the sort of topic that university presses routinely publish books on), what sort of literature exists to describe this manuscript genre?  How many examples of these notebooks are known to exist?  What libraries or private collections can they be found in?  Are discernible “lineages” detectable in these manuscript traditions?  Or are they more personalized than the Bubishi as it came to be passed on in Okinawa?  Were certain boxing styles more likely to appear in one region than another?


While most chapters have footnotes throughout, this most critical discussion relied only on a few general comments by Meir Shahar in his work on the development of Qing era boxing (p. 152-153).  As noted above, it is clear that other manuscripts combing martial and medical chapters have played a role in the development of the Southern Chinese martial arts.  One suspects that at least some of these were passed on well into the Republic period (which is when Ip Man probably inherited his example).  Connecting the Bubishi to this larger medical tradition is almost certainly a step forward.  Yet we are not likely to reap the full benefits of this move (or to make progress on the issues raised in Chapter Four) until the basic textual research on this genre has been completed.  Indeed, a serious effort to gather, catalog, analyze and translate these texts is needed for our historical understanding of the Southern Chinese martial arts to advance.


This type of study would require both resources and the concerted efforts of multiple scholars.  What might we learn?  There can be no doubt that Nisan and Liu’s work stands as a prime example of the gains to be had through this sort of textual detective work.  The contributions of their book are manifold.  It will be valued not just by Karate and Kung Fu students, but it has made important contributions to our historical understanding of the regions martial arts development as well.  It is my hope that this volume inspires the next set of scholars to sharpen their tools and begin to seriously study the various notebook and manual traditions of the Southern Chinese martial arts.




If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: Zheng Manqing and the “Sick Man of Asia”: Strengthening Chinese Bodies and the Nation through the Martial Arts