December 2021 Book Survey


Welcome to the December 2021 reading survey! 


In December 2021, I (Richard) continued my reading plan that prioritized print books that have been on my shelf for months, or years. This post describes a mix of print and digital books I read in December. Read on to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Weapons of the Samurai, Stephen Turnbull, 2021

Weapons of the Samurai is one of the latest additions to the impressive catalog of Dr Stephen Turnbull. I devoted an entire post to him in March 2021 titled Survey of Stephen Turnbull Samurai Texts. This new book offers what you'd expect from publisher Osprey -- great illustrations, modern scholarship, and beautiful presentation. I was surprised to read about the use of Chinese-made firearms in Japan as early as 1468, well before their introduction by the Portuguese in the famous 1543 event. Dr Turnbull mentioned there is a record of a samurai being wounded by a firearm in 1524 or 1527 (p 55), for example.

I liked how the book presented examples of weapon use in battle from text and illustrations. That technique helped separate myth from likelihood, like deflecting arrows with a whirling naginata. The excellent bibliography features primary and secondary sources in English and Japanese.

Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century, Peter Lorge, 2011

Chinese Martial Arts by Dr Peter Lorge is just simply one of my favorite martial arts history texts available. I read it years ago, but re-read it for this survey. Dr Lorge essentially defines "martial arts" as combat arts, permitting him to stretch their use back to antiquity. This differs from stances taken by those such as Dr Paul Bowman, who consider the term a very recent one. I sit somewhere in the middle, dating them to the 16th century or so.

This is very much a military history book, featuring an overview of Chinese military and political history. It puts the combat arts in a Chinese historical context and offers sound summaries of key Chinese military history events. I liked the emphasis on the 16th century and Ming dynasty as sources for reliable history.

This is a must-read book, pure and simple, and easily in the top 5 of all time, in my opinion.

The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts, Meir Shahar, 2008

The Shaolin Monastery by Dr Meir Shahar is another outstanding book that I had read previously and revisited for this survey. There is no better book with the name "Shaolin" in the title. It relies on primary sources, pointing out deficiencies in the available evidence and remedies found in other sources. It contains original translations of key stele inscriptions, critical to understanding real Shaolin history and presentation.

Dr Shahar presents the case that Shaolin offered hand (unarmed) combat style experimentation beginning in the late 16th century. While I believe Stanley Henning and Peter Lorge have offered useful criticism (and praise) for the book, I also concur with the idea that this volume is an amazing accomplishment. 

This is another must-read book that belongs in the library of all fans of martial arts history. Those who prefer myths to reality will likely despise it.

The Spring and Autumn of Chinese Martial Arts - 5000 Years, Gewu Kang, 1995

I bought The Spring and Autumn of Chinese Martial Arts - 5000 Years, by Prof. Kang Gewu 康戈武 in the 1990s when it was tough to find anything reliable about martial arts history. It's tough to take this book seriously when the timeline starts with "about 1.7 million years ago... knives, swords, axes and arrowheads... their applications forming the seeds of the fighting techniques used in Wushu's weapons in later times" (p 15). This is a bridge too far, well beyond Dr Lorge's definition of martial arts being combat arts. This seems to me to be more of the "5,000 years of history" required by many Chinese authors to defend the supposed authenticity and therefore utility of their art. 

The book stands on firmer ground once it gets to the 16th century, talking about well-documented historical figures like Qi Jiguang (1528-1587) and Yu Dayou (1504-1579) on pp 59-61. Characters like Tang Shunzhi (1507-1560), Gu Yanwu (1613-1682), and Huang Rucheng (1799-1837) are also worth follow-up. 

This book does offer inline citation of sources, many of which provide investigative leads. For example, I tried tracking the Wu Jing Zong Yao, or Encyclopedia of Military Affairs from 1044, based on a mention on p 49. 

Get this book if you want a brief overview of sources for future research.

Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey, Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo, 2005

I would love to see more books like Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals. This title by Ms Guo and the late Mr Kennedy "aims to do some myth-busting" (p xiv), which I always appreciate. It's essentially two books in one, with the first being an introduction to Chinese martial arts history by Mr Kennedy and the second being a translation and overview of key texts by Ms Guo. 

The chapter on historian Tang Hao (1897-1959) was particularly illuminating. It's a shame that his 1941 A Study of the Secrets of Shaolin Boxing, a critique of the bogus Shaolin Quan Secret Lessons, did little to dispel the myths therein, which were unfortunately repeated in Robert W. Smith's "pernicious" (p 57) 1964 book Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing.  

Chapter 6 demolishes many Shaolin myths, and chapter 7 follows with critique of the false dichotomies of internal vs external training and systems, so-called northern vs southern styles, Shaolin vs Wudang/Wutang, and Buddhism vs Taoism. 

Regarding sources, Ms Guo says that a Han dynasty book mentions a book titled Six Chapters on Hand Fighting (p 99), but as no copy currently exists we cannot use it as "proof" that Chinese unarmed styles existed during the Han.

As noted elsewhere, general Qi Jiguang's book, published in 1584, 1592, 1604, and 1644, remains the "oldest extant [Chinese] training manual" (p 99). The oldest extant hand-copied training manuals date only to the 1730s, further evidence that what we consider to be "martial arts" today are fairly recent inventions. 

I concur with the review by the solid Stanley Henning who notes that this book is frustratingly uneven. I still recommend reading it, however, and would love to see a Japanese equivalent.

Jingwu: The School That Transformed Kung Fu, Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo, 2010

Jingwu is another great book by the Kennedy - Guo duo. It's largely based on translating the association's 1919 anniversary book, some of which is available courtesy of the amazing Paul Brennan. Like their previous work, this title is based on documents and evidence, in the best Martial History Team tradition. 

I was particularly surprised to see the original book's English text repeatedly mention the term "kung fu" -- decades before Bruce Lee used it. The Jingwu anniversary edition also pushed back on the contemporary popularity of judo.

I strongly recommend adding this book to your martial arts library as well.

Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China, Andrew Morris, 2004

I had to buy a hardcover of Marrow of the Nation after seeing so many other scholars citing it -- particularly chapter 7 on martial arts in Republican China. This book did not disappoint. I was not surprised to read that early 20th century Chinese thinkers claimed to have invented tiyu or "physical culture" once they learned about it from the West. I was disappointed to learn about the racist attitudes of many sports leaders towards Filipinos. I was pleased to hear that there was a vigorous Boy Scout movement in Republican China.

This book explains how modern martial arts developed in Republican China and provides lots of investigative leads. I became interested in figures like Chu Munyi who one might consider the inventor of modern "callisthenic" tai chi, or taijicao -- tai chi for the "middle class," wearing a tie and sweater while practicing (p 226). Dr Morrow talks about Jingwu, but also balances the school with coverage of the Central Guoshu Academy which arrived later. He emphasizes that Jingwu published martial arts texts to help dispel the negative and unscientific image many had of martial arts, similar to feelings in late 19th century Japan. 

With amazing sources, notes, and content, this book is a model for anyone doing similar research.

Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Mark Singleton, 2010

If your yoga teacher talks about the history of the practice but hasn't read this book, you can probably ignore everything they say. Yoga Body by Dr Mark Singleton is a tour-de-force, with top notch writing, sources, photos, logic, insights -- you name it. There are fascinating parallels with judo and professor Kano Jigoro as well. The TL;DR is that everyday popular yoga posture practice is a derivative of European physical culture exercise, another "invented tradition" from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is a must-read.

German Longsword Study Guide, Keith Farrell and Alex Bourdas, 2013

I am not a HEMA practitioner but I'm fascinated by the reliance on historical texts to guide legitimate practice. I had read several recommendations for German Longsword Study Guide, and it proved to be worth buying. This is not really a volume designed to reach German longsword. Rather, it's a short book to familiarize readers with sources, terms, and other resources. It was perfect for someone like me who is just trying to get an introduction to the Liechtenauer tradition, especially as a researcher.

Warrior Origins, Hutan Ashrafian, 2014  

We have now unfortunately arrived at the part of the post where I include books that you probably want to ignore. 

The first is Warrior Origins by Dr Hutan Ashrafian, a medical doctor. This book is flawed in many ways, beginning with its attempt to unravel what one can know about Bodhidharma. While that material is interesting, it's ultimately irrelevant as Bodhidharma had nothing to do with bringing martial arts to the Shaolin Temple. If you want to really know the history of the arts in this book, I recommend specific titles for each. For example, for Tae Kwon Do, read Alex Gillis' A Killing Art. For Shaolin, read Meir Shahar, mentioned earlier. For ninjitsu, read Stephen Turnbull's Ninja: Unmasking the Myth. I will have a karate recommendation later. This book has end notes to sources, which I appreciate, but the overall approach does not merit a recommendation.

Barefoot Zen: The Shaolin Roots of Kung Fu and Karate, Nathan J. Johnson, 2000

It's a shame that Barefoot Zen is mostly bunk. My print edition is nicely composed with good pictures, although some of the chapters are ridiculously short; e.g., 6 is 3 pages and 9 is 4 pages. I did like the movement comparisons for certain arts. The book has an interesting premise but it is completely at odds with reliable modern scholarship. The notes and bibliography might have some investigative leads, but I recommend skipping this book.

The Shaolin Grandmasters' Text: History, Philosophy, and Gung Fu of Shaolin Ch'an,  Order of Shaolin Ch'an, 2008 

I saved The Shaolin Grandmasters' Text for last because it is truly terrible. It claims to have been written by "The Order of Shaolin Ch'an," which turns out to be a gentleman named Daniel J. Diessner and his friends in Beaverton, Oregon. A lengthy Kung Fu Magazine forum thread from 2006-2007 revealed this book to be complete fiction. One of the funniest parts (to me at least) was the picture of the supposed "chief monk of the Shaolin Order, circa 1974" on p 282, who is conveniently hiding his face while moving! It's too bad this book is a fraud, since it is also nicely laid out and features a bibliography.


There are many books in this list that are worthy additions to your research, so I hope you acquire them while avoiding the others. 

Stay tuned for another book survey in about a month!

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