Best Book Winner: General Martial Arts Histories in English


What English language general martial art history book does Martial History Team recommend? 


When I (Richard) started Martial History Team in late January 2020, I said that the goal of the project was to promote martial arts history based on sound evidence and sourced research.

In late June I published Best Book Winner: Professor Kano Biographies in English, my first attempt at guiding interested readers toward specific resources on a single topic.

Today I'm pleased to provide a second specific recommendation, based on reading several books, some of which were quite lengthy. That delayed production, along with my focus on publishing several book relating to cybersecurity, explained in my post Quick Update on Martial History Team Status.

With that groundwork laid, on to the list!

The List

The following are the 6 titles in consideration. The title links to an Amazon page, if available, or to the publisher. The rating links to my reviews at Martial Journal, when available.

Removing Contenders

Perhaps I should not have included the two Martial Arts Reader titles in this list, as they were more collections of essays that were not specifically addressing history. Yes, some of the articles involved history, but I don't think the editors selected them to as a way to focus on history.

The Runners Up

From lowest to highest recommendation, we now have:

3. I gave Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts 4 stars, mainly because of its dated research. There are better alternatives available in 2020.

2. I gave Martial Arts in the Modern World 5 stars. This is a very strong book that interested readers should acquire anyway.

The Winner

A Brief History of the Martial Arts by Dr. Jonathan Clements

If I had to pick a single general martial arts history book in English, I would recommend A Brief History of the Martial Arts by Dr. Jonathan Clements. 

This is the book I recommend if you want a single volume on martial arts history based on sound evidence and sourced research. I highlighted so many sentences in my Kindle edition that I ran over Amazon's limit! At $3.99 for the Kindle version, it's an absolute steal and would make a great gift for any martial artist. At 304 pages the book is still a fast read, thanks to Dr. Clements' clear and engaging writing style.

At the beginning of the book, Dr. Clements notes that "fiction has become an immensely influential element within the community of martial artists, sometimes accepted as a form of shared delusion." This book is one of the answers to this problem.

Scholar's Award Winner

Martial Arts of the World, 2 volumes, by Dr. Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth

But what about Martial Arts of the World, 2 volumes, by Dr. Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth? I didn't list it in my Runners Up section!

This book didn't make the runners up list because of its cost. It lists at almost $200 for a new copy of both volumes, or about $150 in the secondary market.

However, I absolutely love this book. This two-volume work is required reading and a foundational reference for every martial arts scholar. While the price prevents me from endorsing it as the single best volume for the average reader on general martial arts history, I have created a special "scholar's award" category to honor it. I recommend saving your money for this book, as it is worth the price for the dedicated student and researcher of the martial arts. 


I hope you enjoyed these selections. Are you aware of other possibilities? I have other books in my library, but only these titles appeared to hold up to my Criteria for Martial History Team Source Reviews.

I'm currently reading translations of works by Musashi Miyamoto and will likely provide my suggestion on the best resource for those next.

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The image at top is from the New Book of Military Efficiency (Ji Xiao Xin Shu 紀效新書), which contains a chapter called Essentials of the Fist (Quan Jing Jie Yao 拳經捷要). Chinese General Qi Jiguang wrote the book circa 1560, hence Dr. Clements' claim that he can't go further back in time with written documents past the 1560s. This specific content was extracted from the Military Preparation Manual (Wu Bei Zhi 武備志) by Mao Yuan Yi (茅元儀), published in 1621. (This is not the same title that influenced Okinawan karate in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.)

For more on this book, see Jack Chen's excellent translation, titled Essentials of the Fist.


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