“Without ‘letters,’ the effort to spread the martial arts across the nation is bound to fail.” −Cai Yangwu, a slogan of the Jingwu (Pure Martial) Association.
By Ben Judkins, Kung-fu Tea
It may seem odd or inauthentic to label a manual as “the Bible” of a given martial arts style. Certain students have taken issue with McCarthy’s use of the term in his translation of the Bubishi (often referred to as the “Bible of Karate.”) Beyond obscuring a complex textual tradition with cliché, such an idiom seems too closely linked with western popular culture.
While certain Chinese masters may have published manuals, these are largely seen as peripheral to the actual teaching and comprehension of their styles. That remains a stubbornly oral and embodied process. Everyone knows that “you cannot learn Kung Fu from a book.” The idea of a martial arts “Bible,” while romantically harkening back to stories of secret techniques, wandering monks and lost manuscripts, seems overdone.
Yet this is exactly how Yeng Tzi Wan described Yu Chiok Sam’s 1917 Five Ancestors Fist manual (The Chinese Gentle Art Complete) in his preface to the work (page XVII). His description is quite apt.
This book appeared at a time when the future of the Chinese martial arts was a subject of public debate. Many May 4th reformers saw little value in the continuation of traditions as feudal and superstitious as the traditional Chinese martial arts. They looked to “scientific” western sports, gymnastics and physical training programs as the key to strengthening the Chinese people.
Reformers within the traditional martial arts community took issue with this claim. But even they were forced to concede that these fighting systems would need to evolve if they wished to find a place in China’s newly emerging social order. Some saw books and publishing as the key to success. The martial arts could only be saved as quickly as they could be purified, recorded, and their techniques openly published for the consumption of a new type of urban middle-class student.
Given this ongoing (and at times quite heated) public discourse, it is not surprising that Yu Choik Sam’s manual seems to be so conscious of its own textuality. The work’s very existence as a physical object was meant to be a powerful sign of the system’s cultural value and modern outlook. Prior to the Republic period very few books had been published that dealt exclusively with the practice of traditional boxing. After the opening years of the 1920s such manuals became commonplace.
The call had gone out to the martial arts community. Books were to be the way. They demonstrated in solid, undeniable terms, that the martial arts could escape the taint of their largely illiterate, rural and secretive past. It is no coincidence that the 1920-1930s was the first golden age of the publishing within the modern Chinese martial arts community. In many ways this burst of media creativity has continued to shape our practice of these fighting systems to the present day.
The following post reviews Alexander Lim Co, Russ L. Smith and Mark V. Wiley’s (ed.) new bilingual translation of Yu Chiok Sam’s classic manual, the Chinese Gentle Art: The Bible of Ngo Cho Kun (Tambuli Media, 2014). I had been meaning to take a look at this book since it came out last year, and when the publisher offered to send me a review copy I jumped at the chance. While I have never studied this particular system (which remains popular in Fujian, Taiwan and South East Asia) I was nevertheless very interested in the text. After all, there simply are not that many examples of Republic era martial arts manuals that deal explicitly with the arts of Fujian and Guangdong.
This is not to the say that the area has not produced important literature of its own. It certainly has. Lam Sai Wing’s works on Hung Gar is an obvious example. A century earlier Guangdong and Fujian also produced a number of hand-written “Cotton Boxing” manuals, as well as the previously noted manuscript collection now referred to as the Bubishi. Still, compared to the more numerous publications dealing with the internal and northern Shaolin styles, the martial arts of the south seem to be somewhat underrepresented in the existing literature.
The following discussion proceeds in two sections. In the first I offer a brief review of Tambuli Media’s recent republication of this manual. Following that I would like to go back and take a more detailed look at the process by which this book has come down to us and what it reveals to us about the public discussion of the TCMA in the first two decades of the twentieth century… (more at Kung-Fu Tea)