Another individual sharing a moment with the image of Bruce Lee, LA Chinatown. Source: Huffington Post.



As the saying goes, “amateurs borrow, professionals steal.” That adage certainly holds true in the world of blogging. Of course the real key to the exercise (both on-line and in life) is to focus on “incremental improvements.” That is why we now have well over 100 Wong Fei Hung films. Nor would many of us trade ‘Once Upon a Time in China’ for the 1959 serial ‘Wong Fei Hung Trapped in Hell,’ simply on the grounds that originality equals enjoyment.

All of this brings me to the topic of today’s post. I recently ran across an article ambitiously titled “2017’s Top Ten Asian Martial Arts Figures” or something like that. The premise sounded fascinating but I was disappointed to discover that it was little more than a list of CEOs of the most successful MMA fight promotion companies in Asia. I like MMA and kickboxing as much as the next guy, but this seemed like an oddly narrow view of the “Asian martial arts.” That is especially true in a year when China and Japan openly feuded about changes in middle school martial arts curriculums and Chinese social media was overrun with challenge matches pitting traditional master against more “modern” challengers.

Beyond that, the historian in me feels that focusing just on 2017 might be a bit narrow. I think a more interesting question might be, who are the top ten (non-mythological) figures who shaped the development of the modern Asian martial arts?

Answering that sort of question is always a challenge. We are, after all, the products of specialized training, and a subject like “Asian Martial Arts” is impossibly broad. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It is a fun thought exercise, and it may reveal something about the way that we imagine and value the martial arts in the current era. If nothing else it might serve as the basis for a great reading project!

So here is my list of the top ten individuals who have helped to shape the modern Asian martial arts. Note that this is not an exercise in finding the top ten fighters. That would be a totally different sort of list. Also, this post is long enough that I will be presenting it in two parts, so check back later this week for part II. [Note, Part II is now available here.]


Kano Jigoro. Source: Wikimedia.


Kano Jigoro (1860-1938). I doubt that my first selection will cause much controversy. Kano Jigoro was a professional educator, the first Asian representative named to the International Olympic Committee, and one of Japan’s most important modern martial artists. As a youth he studied multiple styles of Jujitsu at a time when the popularity of such practices was flagging. Yet Kano’s faith in the value of the martial arts in the modern world was unwavering. He even had a chance to demonstrate them before the former American president Ulysses S. Grant when he visited Japan in 1879.

Today Kano is best remembered for the creation of Kodokan judo in the late 19th century and its subsequent explosion of popularity in the 20th. His organization was one of the first to establish a truly global network of schools. Further, many western servicemen sought out judo training during or following WWII, ensuring that this would be the most popular Asian martial art on the global stage during the middle decades of the 20th century. Judo would even be chosen as the first Asian sport accepted into Olympic competition.

Yet Kano’s impact on the martial arts world extended well beyond his own style. In Japan he used his background as an educator to lobby for the inclusion of martial arts such as kendo and karate into school curriculums. This was a critical step necessary to popularize the Japanese martial arts and make them a truly mass phenomenon. Of course it also opened the way for their eventual appropriation by nationalist militants.

Kano also reached out to international audiences by writing about judo in English and explicitly laying out his philosophical and historical understanding of the Japanese martial arts. His schools were the first to introduce the now familiar standardized uniforms, colored belts and dan ranks that are part of almost every modern commercial style. It was largely Kano’s vision of the social function of these fighting systems (or at least what American audiences understood it to be) that came to dominate pop-culture expectations of what a “proper martial art” is. Even if you have never studied judo, there is a very good chance that you have picked up some of Kano’s world view. And that is why he is opening our list as one of the most influential personalities in the modern martial art. If you are interested in learning more see John Stevens’ The Way of Judo: A Portrait of Jigoro Kano and his Students (Shambala, 2013).


General Choi Hong Hi, often regarded as the founder of taekwondo.


General Choi Hong Hi (1918-2002). It would be an understatement to say that General Choi has been a controversial figure within the Korean martial arts community. He is either considered to be the “founder of taekwondo” or a disreputable figure that had little to do with it. The creation of anything as vast as a national martial arts movement is, almost by definition, the sort of project that exceeds the grasp of any one individual. Still, if one must choose between two myths, the former is probably more accurate than the latter.

Nevertheless, General Choi wins a spot on our list not for the transformation of Korean karate schools into taekwondo. Rather, while their personalities could not have been more different, Choi was similar to Kano in his dedication to the global expansion of the Asian martial arts. Choi was responsible for writing the first English language taekwondo manuals, he sent waves of instructors to North America and Europe, and even lived in Canada for a time. When his efforts to promote his vision of the Korean martial arts were blocked at home, he turned to global markets and found great success. Indeed, taekwondo is probably the most popular “traditional” Asian martial in America today. It has become a means of promoting Korean identity, self defense, fitness and even Olympic competition (though the last item on the list takes us well beyond Choi’s ITF). Sorting out the actual history of taekwondo can be tricky. It is a fascinating subject, but not one for the unwary. If you would like to learn more (and further explore General Choi’s place in the drama) see Alex Gillis’ volume A Killing Art: the Untold History of Tae Kwon Do (or check out my review here).


Honest question, what could be more masculine that Donn F. Draeger and Sean Connery together on the set of You only Live Twice.


Donn F. Draeger (1922-1982) and Robert W. Smith (1926-2011). Fair warning. The next entry cheats and introduces two names rather than one. But given that they often collaborated I think that allowances might be made.

Donn Draeger was a marine corp veteran who seemed to be constantly auditioning for the part of “most interesting man in the world.” Much of his energy was focused on a virtual crusade to find and document traditional Asia fighting systems. Smith was a CIA analyst who used his posting in Taiwan to explore the Chinese martial arts. While less physically imposing, he was just as dedicated to the investigation of the martial arts. Together these men explored the post WWII fighting systems of Japan, China and South East Asia. Smith made the more important contributions to our understanding of Chinese boxing, where as Draeger (who had a different set of priorities) focused on Japanese Budo and the indigenous arts of Maylasia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Still, history is littered with forgotten explorers. One becomes a pioneer not by being the first, but by encouraging others to follow. This was where Draeger and Smith (both separately and together) excelled. They not only explored the world of the Asian martial arts in a systematic and empirical way, they documented it. Smith was an engaging writer with wry journalist sensibilities. His books on the Chinese martial arts were among the first solid sources of information available to Western students. In addition to his many pioneering writings on Japan and South East Asia, Draeger turned his attention to the resurrection of hoplology, and argued that the study of human combative behavior should have a place in the university.

For various reasons both of these projects fell short of their full potential. Draeger died before his planned institute at the University of Hawaii could be brought to fruition, and Smith’s journalistic sensibilities led him to occasionally pass on myths as well as gems of insight. Still, together these two individuals opened a space for the serious intellectual study of the martial arts in the Western world. While Chinese boxing and jujitsu had been discussed in the West since the late 19th century, this sort of sustained intellectual and cultural engagement was new. Those wishing to learn more about them and their milieu should check out Jared Miracle’s book Now with Kung Fu Grip: How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America (McFarland 2016).


Sakakibara Kenkichi. Source: Wikimedia.


Sakakibara Kenkichi (1830-1894). Perhaps no country has done more to promote the global spread of the Asian martial arts than Japan. Yet while karate and judo are the best known Japanese systems in the West, they are vastly overshadowed by kendo in their home country. Japan, it seems, is still ruled by the sword. If one were to assign credit for the survival of traditional swordsmanship (on a mass scale) it would have to go to such Meiji institutions as the Dai Nihon Butokukai and the Tokyo Police force. But I am not sure that either institution would have succeeded without the prior efforts of Sakakibara.

Born to a poor Samurai family in Edo, Sakakibara became a student of Jikishin kage-ryu at age 13. He was later appointed to be a sword instructor at the short lived Kobusho and then the Shogun’s personal fencing tutor. Nor were his skills merely theoretical. Sakakibara is known to have killed three Samurai from the Tosa domain while visiting Kyoto in 1861. Following the dissolution of the Kobusho the Meiji government ordered Sakakibara to join the new Tokyo Police force. Disturbed by the fate of the traditional martial arts (in a period in which the wearing the swords had been banned and the Samurai class dissolved), he refused and instead focused on preserving swordsmanship.

His methods, however, were far from traditional. Noting the popularity of sumo wrestling, Sakaibara created the Gekken Kaisha in a dojo turned public theater. Taking his cues from the wrestling world he organized two competing teams made up of celebrity fencers representing some of Japan’s most elite schools. Specialists in other weapons, female fighters using the naganita, and even English swordsmen also joined the spectacle. Crowds thronged the event to see previously secretive and elite skills demonstrated in public. Its hard not to think about the rise of MMA and the UFC when reading early accounts of the Gekken Kaisha.

Sakaibara’s company became a victim of its own success. The Tokyo Police started to recruit his most famous fencers in an effort to build their own training program. The throngs of spectators also inspired other companies to open their own competing shows across Japan. Still, his efforts helped to democratize an interest in Japanese swordsmanship and to keep that spark alive in what were very lean years for the country’s martial artists. Who knows what the Japanese martial arts would look like today without his efforts. Those wishing to learn more about this colorful individual and his world should check out G. Cameron Hurst’s Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery (Princeton Yale, 1998).



Jin Yong. Source: China Plus


Jin Yong (1924-) is one of the few members of this list who is still alive today. He is also unique in that he is not a student of the martial arts, at least in an embodied sense. Born to a scholarly family in Zhejiang, his main contact with the world of the martial arts came through the Wuxia novels that he read as a youth. After moving to Hong Kong and becoming involved with the newspaper industry Jin Yong was convinced to start working on serialized novels of his own. Published in regular installments, these serialized novels were a successful promotional gimmick for many of the region’s newspapers.

Jin Yong’s stories proved to be phenomenally popular, though they were not without controversy. For a time his major works were banned in both mainland China (where they were seen as anti-Communist) and Taiwan (for being too pro-Communist). His works are, in fact, political. Yet they tend to focus more on the experience of exile and alienation which defined refugee life in British Hong Kong after 1949.

These novels are still read very widely throughout Asia, and English language translations of select works are starting to appear. All of his novels have been adapted for either movies or TV. Judging by book sales alone, Jin Yong must be consider the most popular and widely read Chinese author of the modern era (and probably by a healthy margin). It goes without saying that his epic kung fu tales (always presented as historical costume dramas) defined the way in which successive generations of readers came to imagine the role and social meaning of the martial arts. The conversations that his novels started have influenced the development of modern “martial culture” in ways that are subtle and profound. The analysis of his novels (and their social impact) has even evolved into a distinct academic field in China called “Jinology.”
While not always a well known figure in the West, Jin Yong had a profound influence on the generation of teachers that brought traditional Chinese martial arts instruction to the global market in the 1960s-1990s. As such, his major themes and ideas are well worth exploring. I would suggest starting with Christopher Hamm’s book Paper Swordsmen (Hawaii UP, 2005).




Click here to see Part II of the Top 10 Figures in the Asian Martial Arts


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