July 2023 Book Highlights

 As of July 2023 I (Richard) am no longer publishing a survey of books each month. At this point in the Martial History Team project, I will highlight only a few books that I read or surveyed in a given period. This is the first post to use this new approach. I have three books to share from July.

Chinese Archery, Stephen Selby, 2000 (2003 reprint)

Chinese Archery is an impressive book. It features an outstanding integration of translated primary sources, along with the original Chinese text. Despite being a solid resource for domain experts, as a newcomer I was comfortable with the material.

I appreciated the author's insights into Chinese culture. Here are a few I highlighted:

"It is a tradition in Chinese culture to assign an 'inventor' to objects and activities which are culturally significant. Chinese society shows its respect for certain things by ascribing their invention to some character venerated in Chinese history (or respect for the person by ascribing to him an important invention). Bows and arrows have been ascribed a very distinguished pedigree." (p 36)

"You will come across Chinese history books (mostly published in the West) which put detailed dates against these five [Chinese emperors]; but in fact as with the more general historical setting mentioned above, there is no way to know when exactly they lived, or whether in fact they were anything more than mythical characters, perhaps based on famous tribal leaders from the mists of China's Neolithic past. It is just as impossible to say whether or not any one of these ever 'invented' the bow and arrow." (p 38)

"The folklore fragments I have quoted above all come down to us through literary works either dating from, or heavily revised during the Han Dynasty (207 BC - 220 AD). So they are records of folk memories originating perhaps as many as 1500 years before the time they were recorded in the form (more or less) that I have quoted. Seen like that, we can say that they represented to the Han Dynasty authors what the Greek legends represent to Western culture." (p 50)

Here is an example of how the author integrates primary sources:

This book is out of print, but well worth seeking if you are interested in Chinese archery. The human aspect is never lost:

"In the 1930s, traditional bowyer, Yang Wentong followed his father, Yang Ruilin into the family business, Ju Yuan Hao, in the traditional bow-makers' quarter of Beijing. In 1957, they were allowed to convert to an industrial co-operative, and continued to make bows, pellet-bows and pellet crossbows - especially for traditional Mongolian and Tibetan archers in Inner Mongolia, Qinghai and Tibet. 

But at the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, their profession was denounced by the Red Guards as bourgeois and father and son were ordered to turn their skills to carpentry. Recently retired from his carpentry, Yang Wentong, aged over 70, is now slowly starting once again to build traditional Chinese bows. A three-thousand-year-old tradition is today held in the hands of one man."

I do not know if the situation is better or worse now, over 20 years since Mr. Selby wrote this, but I hope we do not lose this tradition.

Heavenly Warriors: The Evolution of Japan's Military 500-1300, William Wayne Farris, 1996

Heavenly Warriors is another intriguing book that I surveyed in July. It is well-written, and I thought that the ending chapter summaries alone were a great way to make quick work of the contents. 

The following summarizes the book's thesis:

"By the turn of the twentieth century, many leading Japanese scholars had "discovered medieval Europe in Japan," explaining their own early history according to a "Western-analogue theory." This interpretation stated that, although both Japan and Western Europe possessed tribal fighting specialists in the sixth century and before, those early sprouts of Japanese feudalism were all but wiped out by the adoption of Chinese-style institutions beginning in the mid-seventh century...

The Western-analogue theorists thus hold that within about 500 years, Japan had moved from the public, civilian system of the Chinese-style law codes to private, feudal rule, just as the West had gone from the Roman Empire to Charlemagne...

In contrast to the Western-analogue theory, this book will offer an evolutionary model to explain the origins and development of martial power in early Japan. The evolutionary model emphasizes the underlying continuities in the early Japanese military by maintaining that an equestrian martial elite was a critical factor in society, economy, and politics as early as about A.D. 500...

It is the central contention of this book that the twelfth-century warrior (bushi) was not a new figure but had roots that dated back to A.D. 500 or thereabouts. The bushi, like many of the manonofu and tsuwamono before him, was merely one variant of the Asian style mounted archer predominant in the Middle East and the steppe; similarities among all the fighting men of these early centuries of Japanese history far outweigh the differences." (pp 29-34, emphasis added)

Therefore, the book argues that Japan's history does not mirror that of Europe, and offers much more consistency and gradual evolution over the centuries as far as the warring class is considered.

The author offers this timeline to assist readers:

This is a fairly specialized book, but if you enjoy counter-narratives about Japanese history then you will likely enjoy it.

Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting, Jonathan Snowden, 2008

Total MMA surprised me. I did not expect a book published in 2008 to push back against at least one of the Gracie jiu-jitsu origin stories, only 15 years after the first UFC:

"At the time it was considered a crime against the nation for a Japanese national to teach jiu-jitsu to a non-Japanese. But Count Koma [Mitsuyo Maeda] decided to teach my [Carlson Gracie's] dad [Carlos Gracie]. 

I think because my father was so skinny, Count Koma didn’t think much about teaching him; he could never have guessed it would develop into such a large thing,” Carlson Gracie said. 

“My father was the only one of the brothers to learn jiu-jitsu, and he taught all of his brothers. The brothers then passed the knowledge on to their sons.”

Of course, this is patently ridiculous. Maeda was not only permitted to teach the martial arts to non-Japanese nationals; it was the purpose of his trip to the Americas. 

It’s all part of the Gracie myth, an attempt by the family to sell their brand of judo to the masses. 

It sounds better to be in possession of a secret system, known only to the Gracies, than to be particularly gifted proponents of judo ne-waza (ground fighting). 

The Gracies are adamant that they are practitioners of “jiu-jitsu,” not judo, that Maeda taught them ancient techniques, not Kano’s judo. 

This seems unlikely, as Maeda was a Judoka and the system he taught the Gracies looks strikingly similar to judo. 

There is some confusion about the use of the term jujutsu instead of judo. They were interchangeable in Maeda’s time, with Kano’s judo seen as just a school of jujutsu. 

No matter what Maeda called it, there is little doubt that what he taught Carlos Gracie was judo, though perhaps it was tempered by his real world fighting experience." (p 14)

There are so many myths packed into this section, but it's good to see author Jonathan Snowden not accept them.

If you'd like to read an early history of mixed martial arts (through about 2007), then Total MMA is worth a look.


Check in next month for a look at a few other books that have made it through my queue.

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