Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Karate's Literary Link to Chinese Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from an article at  Kung Fu Tea which reviews a book linking the Bubishi with the martial arts manuals of Southern China. The full post may be read here.

A few words of introduction may be necessary for readers who are not familiar with the manuscript tradition generally referred to as “the Bubishi.”  This Japanese romanization of the Chinese title Wǔbèi Zhì, does not refer to the venerable Ming era military encyclopedia compiled by Mao Yuanyi.  Rather, it is a term that in the 1930s came to be retrospectively applied to a diverse manuscript tradition preserved in Okinawan hand combat circles.  Yet the exact nature of these “books” is difficult to pin down.

These untitled works were essentially collections of texts dealing with a range of topics including medicine, martial philosophy and unarmed fighting techniques.  (Andreas Quast suggests that it is significant that the Bubishi contains no discussion of weapon techniques.)  No surviving editions include a title page, preface or statement of authorship.  In that sense they are even more mysterious than the Taiji Classics, though they likely date to the same period and may have been at least partially the product of similar social forces.  While there was some overlap in critical material, various lineages of Bubishi transmission included different numbers of articles organized in a wide variety of ways.  While clearly a compiled work with multiple authors (or editors) the Bubishi was not so much a cohesive edited volume as an ongoing research file or, in the words of Nisan and Liu, “a notebook.”

While Japanese authors have been discussing this manuscript tradition since the pre-WWII period, in the current era it is best known to English speaking audiences through the efforts of Patrick McCarthy who has published multiple editions of translation and commentary. McCarthy’s once characterized the Bubishi as the “Bible of Karate,” and the symbolic resemblance is certainly recognizable.  While very little in this work outwardly resembles modern karate practice, many of the art’s pioneers drew inspiration from its pages.  The Bubishi functioned as a textual witness linking what became a modern martial art to an idealized and supposedly pure past tradition.

Karate students have dominated the discussion of this manuscript in the West.  Yet, as Nisan and Liu argue (and as I have repeatedly noted on this blog), that is only half of the story. In fact, it may be a good deal less.

Very few individuals in Japan can read the Bubishi as it is written in a combination of classical Chinese and the local Minnan dialect of Fujian province.  When accounting for the various textual errors that arose from poor copying and mistakes in the transcription of local dialects, it is a challenging document for anyone to work with.  Yet it is a uniquely Chinese document, one that is tied to the Fuzhou region and the folk martial art traditions still popular in the area, including White Crane and Luohan Boxing.  The authors of the present volume lay out a convincing case that it was probably compiled sometime in the second half of the 19th century (and probably after 1860).  As such, the Bubishi is a potentially invaluable textual witness to a period of rapid transformation within the Southern Chinese martial arts.  Yet students of Chinese martial history have, for the most art, passed over this manuscript tradition in silence.

The efforts of Nisan and Liu may well provide the push needed to spark a long over-due discussion.  By examining this work within its original cultural context, they hope to both shed light on the nature, origin and authorship of the collection, as well as providing martial artists with a new set of concepts for making sense of it.  This effort was facilitated when Lionbooks acquired a previously unpublished Bubishi manuscript from the estate of a Japanese-American karate student that was unique in a number of ways.  While badly damaged in places, this copy seems to represent an early textual variant.  Further, it is unique in that it contains a very large number of beautifully painted, full color, images.  While a few other hand painted Chinese fight books are known to exist (see the Golden Saber Illustrated Manual, 1725) such works are extremely rare and suggest interesting questions about their ownership and the social function of these texts.  Yet this work is not a translation project.  Rather, the beautiful facsimile edition is accompanied by a text that seeks to explore the place of the Bubishi in Chinese martial arts history.

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