Welcome! This is the second (and concluding) section of my list of the top ten figures who helped to shape the development and spread of the modern Asian martial arts. Putting such a list together is easy, but once you start to explain why certain individuals made the cut, or what their contributions were, things inevitably start to run long. If you are just joining us now, you probably want to start here, with section one. My goal has been to select the most influential individuals from a variety of styles, professions and areas of the world so that we can better understand these global fighting systems.
The broad nature of “the Asian martial arts” probably makes this an impossible task. Still, it is fun to speculate and I think that the experiment is a helpful one as it forces us to consider the many social functions that these fighting systems serve. Who would be on your list? Drop some suggestions in the comments below and let us know.
Bruce Lee (1940-1973) The individuals on this list fall into several categories. Some invented styles, others were authors or popularizers. Lee was a seminal figure precisely because he crossed so many boundaries, and inspired generations of others to follow in his footsteps. Born in San Francisco and raised in Hong Kong (where he appeared in a number of films as a child actor), Lee returned to the United States to take up his American citizenship at the urging of his parents. He brought with him a love of the martial arts and a basic knowledge of the wing chun system which he learned from his Sifu Ip Man and a number of his older kung fu brothers.
Once in the United States Lee set about promoting the Chinese martial arts both through his own schools, public demonstrations and occasional appearances in the pages of Black Belt magazine. Yet it was his role as Kato in the short lived Green Hornet series that sparked his actual fame among martial artists in the West and much wider audiences in Asia. After returning to Hong Kong Lee made a number of martial arts movies which gave him a chance to develop as an actor and filmmaker. His final project, Enter the Dragon (released the same year that he died) propelled him to global superstardom. This single event, as much as any other confluence of forces, was responsible for the initial “kung fu fever” of the 1970s, and the subsequent pop-culture recognition that the Chinese martial arts came to enjoy in the 1980s and 1990s.
Like other figures on this list, Lee remains a subject of controversy within the traditional martial arts community. Yet there is no doubt that without his success the global TCMA community would be much smaller than it currently is, and it might look very different. While Lee directly taught relatively few individuals, he created a set of desires and discourses that would drive the growth of the martial arts for decades to come. Check out Charlie Russo’s book Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America (Nebraska, 2016) for a more detailed account of Lee’s time in Bay Area.
Dan Inosanto (1936-) A few consistent themes emerge when you examine the development of the traditional martial arts within a global context over the last 150 years or so. None is more prominent than the geographically expanding, and ever reifying, nature of this interest. The existence of Chinese boxing was well known in the West in 1900, yet no one was interested in seeking out instruction. At the time jujitsu was the only art that inspired any sort of sustained following. Over the decades the changing currents of nationalism, globalization and market forces have expanded our desire for all sorts of traditional fighting methods.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the explosion of interest in the martial arts of South East Asia (specifically, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines). The history of these arts in the West is just as complex as that of judo or kung fu. Yet in the current era Dan Inosanto has done much to promote, and be the public face of, this movement.
Inosanto’s biography in many ways mirror’s the progress of the globalization of the Asian martial arts. He started off studying the then popular Japanese styles with his uncle before moving on to become a student of Ed Parker and then Bruce Lee. While an extremely talented martial artist in his own right, his association with Lee gave Inosanto a degree of national name recognition which probably aided his quest to introduce and popularize a number of lesser known South East Asian styles. Nor has Inosanto ever stopped learning, experiment with, and teaching the martial arts. Luckily for us he is still active enough that no one has yet had a chance to write a definitive life story!
Akira Kurosawa (1910 – 1998) My next selection is going to be more controversial, but I think that a reasonable case can be made. Like most public school students of his generation, Kurosawa had some exposure to the martial arts. We know, for instance, that he studied Kendo. Judging by the films that he produced later in his career, this practice must have had quite an impact on the young student. Yet it was as a film maker, rather than a martial artist, that Kurosawa would have the greatest impact on the global dissemination of these fighting systems. His vision would prove to be instrumental in the post-war rehabilitation of traditional Japanese martial culture in the West.
Our discussion of Bruce Lee’s legacy has already introduced the notion that film was essential to both defining the martial arts in the popular imagination as well as creating a sense of desire for these practices. Kurosawa captured the beauty of Japanese fencing, and the drama of battle, in a way that few other directors have. He is universally acclaimed as one of the 20th century’s most important directors, and his films played a role in popularizing Samurai dramas on the global stage.
Yet his pathway to cultural influence was very different from the 1970s “kung fu fever.” Whereas Lee was often most attractive to minorities and those who felt disenfranchised (because of either their ethnicity, youth or social situation), Kurosawa’s films (at least in North America) were art house affairs. This is not to say that they didn’t acquire a popular following. But they were ideally positioned to influence multiple generations of Hollywood directors including such notables as Quentin Tarantino and George Lucas. Indeed, the Star Wars franchise has become something of a running homage to Kurosawa’s work. This tendency was especially evident in The Last Jedi whose central storyline was clearly influenced by Rashomon. If the other names on this list shaped and introduced specific practices, Kurosawa helped to create a cultural milieu in which those activities would be desired and thrive.
If you want to take a deep dive into some interesting questions surrounding these works see Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema (Duke UP) or, better yet, check out his films for yourself.
Yang Luchan (1799–1872) The basic idea of the “top 10” list is that the author will draw upon their expertise to offer up a definitive ranking. Yet the broad (and ever evolving nature) of the Asian martial arts makes that impossible. Given the topic of this blog it is probably not a surprise that I am more sensitive towards events within the Chinese cultural sphere. And no Chinese martial art is more recognizable or globally successful than Taijiquan. Indeed, the fusion of health, culture, spirituality and defensive ability that define this practice in the popular imagination has come to be read onto many other areas of the Asian martial arts.
Selecting a single individual who embodied these currents is difficult. Sun Lutang’s modern synthesis of the “internal arts”, as well as his pioneering commercial manuals, certainly puts him in the running. Some of the first public Chinese martial arts instruction in the West, such as the classes offered by Sophia Delza in New York City during the 1950s, focused on Taijiquan. Still, Yang Luchan must be considered the seminal figure in the emergence of modern Taijiquan. He was responsible for carrying the art from Chen Village to Beijing. There he introduced it to military and cultural elites, created its now famous pacing, and by some accounts even coined its name. There can be no doubt that if Yang Luchan had never lived Chinese martial culture would be a different thing today. Douglas Wile is always a great starting point for learning about the early history of Taijiquan.
Edith Margaret Garrud (1872–1971) The Asian martial arts have been intersecting with gender in important and complex ways from the late 19th century to the present. This tendency has been seen in both the East and the West. Chinese martial artists and readers of Wuxia fiction alike were fascinated with the idea of “softness” (often symbolized by a girl who stood in for traditional Chinese cultural values) overcoming “strength” (including western military, economic and scientific might) in the late Qing and Republic periods. This discourse probably contributed to the creation of the many legends of female heroes and style creators that are popular in the Kung Fu community today.
In the West, turn of the century advertisements for jujitsu or judo training invariably focused on the ways in which the martial arts would allow the small and disadvantaged to overcome the strong. Sometimes these ideal types were portrayed as Japanese soldiers and Russian Cossacks. In other cases it was white western females pitted against a variety of male harassers and attackers. Yet both images were united under a single political narrative. The rigid racial and gendered hierarchies that defined the social world might be overturned (both figurative and literally) by individuals who were capable of mastering this mysterious Asian physical technology.
Perhaps no individual captures this formative moment in the creation of the modern martial arts quite so well as Edith Margaret Garrud. Students of first Barton-Wright and then Sadakazu Uyenishi, Edith and her husband (a physical education instructor specializing in boxing and wrestling) were noted as being at the vanguard of jujutsu’s transmission to the West. Edith would go on to become one of the very first female instructors of the Asian martial arts in Europe.
In addition to instructing students she also helped to promote women’s involvement in the marital arts by writing articles, appearing in public demonstrations and even early films. Today she is best remembered for her role in training the “Jiujitsuffragettes” who acted as body guards for the movement’s leadership. These women were tasked with preventing the arrest of key activists. At times they even brawled with the police using clubs and the jujitsu that Garrud introduced to the movement.
While individual styles or schools may fall short of the mark, in the West the martial arts are still widely perceived as a realm where a student’s gender does not, and should not, matter. Nor can we ignore the long history of political activism (often focusing on questions of gender and race) that has emerged from Asian martial arts schools. Edith Margaret Garrud did not invent these things, but she worked to put them at the very center of the way that the Western public imagined these practices. In that respect she is still shaping our kung fu dreams today. I am not aware of any scholarly biographies of Garrud, though her career would make a great topic for a manuscript or dissertation. In the mean time, checkout this post on her legacy at Fightland.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Five Thoughts on Lineage, Legitimacy and Manipulation in the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts