The Martial Arts Studies Reader: 2018’s Essential Book

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An Essential Book


This is a time of year to sit back and reflect on our achievements and struggles.  I suspect that within the broader historical record 2018 will be remembered for its calamities.  Yet it has been a remarkable year for Martial Arts Studies.  And that is where my trouble begins. It is one thing to make lists of important events or news stories. It is quite another to name the most significant achievements within a quickly growing academic field.

In the past Kung Fu Tea’s New Year’s post has honored either the best blog or scholarly book on the martial arts. Given the avalanche of new publications, one suspects that this would be a good year to once again focus our attention on the best books.  And I have read quite a few excellent works.  I am even tempted to simply give the honor to Lauren Miller Griffith and Jonathan Marion’s Apprentice Pilgrimages: Developing Expertise Through Travel and Training (Lexington, 2018) as it provided a great ethnographic examination of the role of travel in martial arts practice. On a more personal note, it was also a fascinating explanation of why I seem to spend so much time in airports even though I am not particularly fond of flying.

Unfortunately, there are still several books that I have not read, and some that I am really looking forward to. I will try do better on that front in 2019 but, as it stands now, naming a “best book” seems a bit presumptuous.  Still, there was one publication that deserves special consideration. I can, without hesitation, name The Martial Arts Studies Reader (Cardiff UP) 2018’s most “essential” book. If you only read a single new book within the field, it should be this one.

Even that more limited pronouncement may raise suspicion.  Edited collections have never commanded the same prestige as single-authored monographs. They tend to tell the reader a great deal about where a field is at, but they typically do not to advance the high-stakes theoretical arguments that can actually shape a research area going forward. Some might accuse me of choosing an edited volume, which includes excellent chapters by many of my friends and colleagues, so that I would not have to go out on a limb and favor just one. And they would be absolutely correct! At least partially.

Fields are advanced when top scholars put out the sorts of books that tenure committees love.  But they also progress when a community of readers takes a long and reflective look at where we stand now.  What type of work are we producing in our field?  How did we even become a research field?  What set of needs or desires is Martial Arts Studies fulfilling within both the academy and the larger social discussion of these fighting systems?  And, most importantly, how do we ensure that a desire for this sort of work continues to grow in the future?

The Martial Arts Studies Reader can claim two great accomplishments. The first is that it provides a comprehensive collection of brief articles ideal for class room use. As Bowman and Morris observe in their concluding dialog, the desire for some activity (even the scholarly study of the martial arts) does not necessarily exist in some platonic state prior to anyone actually doing it.  Rather, we typically only develop a desire for something once we have been exposed to it, seen other people do it, and been asked to take part in it ourselves.  In fact, the story of Martial Arts Studies, as a field, is very much the story of how an ever-wider circle of readers and scholars have been drawn into a dialog with each other, catalyzed by a mutual attraction to these fighting systems.

Discussions of the state of our field often focus on theoretical discourses, conferences or important publications.  Yet the desire for any sort of academic discussion is typically born and nurtured in the classroom.  It was in the lecture hall that most of us chose our disciplines and research fields. And it will likely be in the class room that a new generation of undergraduates will be exposed to Martial Arts Studies and decide to pursue their own research on these topics in graduate school.  The creation of resources that can spark a desire for more scholarly investigations of the martial arts is in no way secondary, or “supplemental,” to the development of the field.  It is something that we should all strive to do.

Yet for readers who have already found a home within Martial Arts Studies, Paul Bowman’s edited volume does something else.  Through a broad survey that touches on many critical trends in the field, he asks us to consider what sort of field MAS has become?  What sort of academic and social work is it doing? Do we like the current direction? Indeed, his collection holds a remarkably clear and incisive mirror to the field’s face.

Each of these questions is important enough that it deserves an in-depth response of its own.  Yet rather than writing several separate posts, I think that a turn to the comparative method may begin to address these issues.  As important as this reader is, it is not the first edited volume on the academic study of the martial arts.  There have been quite a few important collections on this subject over the decades, probably due to the lack of journal outlets for research of the martial arts between the 1980s and 2000s.  One might even say that the desire for a larger, more independent, field of martial arts studies was born out of edited volumes which, by choice or necessity, brought together scholars from many disciplines, as well as independent researchers that who often approached these questions without any disciplinary commitments at all.

If we really wish to understand the significance of the Martial Arts Studies Reader, and what it suggests about the current state of the field, we need to place it side by side with these other collections and subject them all to a focused comparison.  In the interests of time I will restrict my own investigation to three other volumes. While hardly comprehensive, I have selected these works as I suspect that anyone who will buy the Martial Arts Studies Readerlikely owns them as well, suggesting that a meaningful exercise in comparative reading really is possible.



Honest question, what could be more masculine that Donn F. Draeger and Sean Connery together on the set of “You only Live Twice.” Lets call this Martial Arts Studies mark 1.



The Comparative Context


There is one critical, yet paradoxically unaddressed, question which haunts the modern field of Martial Arts Studies. At what point, and in what ways, has this exercise diverged from the older approaches to Hoplology, pioneered by William Burton, Donn F. Draeger and others?  Why has this effort (so far) succeeded when so many others failed to launch?

I am aware of a few researchers who refuse to admit that such a split has taken place and simply use the terms ‘Hoplology’ and ‘Martial Arts Studies’ interchangeably.  Yet if I had to note one specific instance that signaled the rise of something fresh and new it would be Green and Svinth’s 2003 edited collection, Martial Arts in the Modern World (Praeger).  Released a few years after Wile’s pioneering work on Taijiquan (SUNY, 1996) and Hurst’s efforts on the Armed Martial Arts of Japan (Yale UP, 1998), this collection signaled to readers both the vitality of these early efforts and the ability of scholarly discussions of the martial arts to move beyond traditional disciplinary and geographic boundaries.  Anthropological discussions were most meaningful when they were placed next to historical studies of events on a different continent, or sociological investigations of community formation.

It is somewhat telling that this volume was dedicated to “John F. Gilbey, who inadvertently showed us the way.”  Of course, Gilbey was the literary creation of Donn F. Draeger and R. W. Smith, the early pioneers of Hoplology. Frustrated by the seemingly endless gullibility (or perhaps orientalist longing) of North American readers who could not distinguish reliable truths from fantasy, these early researchers decided to get in on the act by publishing pseudo-biographical accounts of a fictional martial arts adventurer that read like an early draft for “the most interesting man in the world” advertisements mashed up with the spy-cartoon Archer.  Exactly what “direction” Gilbey showed anyone is left open to speculation, but he certainly fanned the same flames of cultural desire which had given him birth.

Yet what interests me the most about this collection is what does not appear within it.  A single pseudonymous dedication is the closest that Smith and Draeger come to substantive inclusion in this volume.  Smith’s unfortunate publication on the Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing gets a mention by Stanley Henning, who otherwise enjoyed his work with the caveats that one had to consider the “limitations” that the author was working under at the time.  Neither Smith nor Draeger are even listed in the index.  Nor does their highly empirical vision of hoplology, one based on the recovery, recording and comparison of technique, appear at all in the historically and socially focused volume curated by Green and Svinth.  The authors included in this collection came from both academic backgrounds and the more practical worlds of martial arts practice. Yet while acknowledging a debt of gratitude to Hoplology (or more precisely, it’s fantastic doppelganger), already by 2003 the desires of these authors was moving in a substantially different direction.

“Desire” may be the critical term when thinking about this volume’s place in evolution of our current field.  It spoke to, and fanned the flames of, a certain type of desire for community and communication.  And yet with the possible exception of a few articles this was not the desire for a new “interdisciplinary disciplinary academic field.”  Not exactly.  This was a book that appears to have been produced more for “the love of the game” than any sort of professional obligation. Only a couple of these authors had even came out of traditional university departments. In no way do I seek to impugn the quality of the work that was produced by pointing that out.  Scholarly investigations of the martial arts was clearly something that people desired, but it still remained secondary to disciplinary concerns, or the more serious business of actual practice.  Much like the afore mentioned Gilby, current readers might view this volume as a promise that pointed the way.

The situation seems to have been quite different in 2011 when Farrer and Whalen-Bridge published Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World (SUNY Press). It is striking to consider how differently scholarly studies of the martial arts are socially positioned within their volume. The introduction begins with the editors laying out the case for the existence of a new approach to Martial Arts Studies.  They explicitly address the contributions of Burton and Draeger (as well as modern students of Hoplology) before arguing that if progress is to be made in this new field we must de-centralize “how-to” studies in favor of “a more theoretically informed strategy grounded in serious contemporary scholarship that questions the practice of martial arts in their social, cultural, aesthetic, ideological, and transnational embodiment.” (p. 8) If one were to look for a simple constitution outlining the intellectual mandate and responsibilities of Martial Arts Studies, this paragraph would be an critical place to start.

Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge remains among the better organized collections within the field of martial arts studies. The move towards a sustained engagement with academic theory meant that there was much less room for those without extensive scholarly training and a continual engagement with these discourses. As one reads through the list of contributors to this volume (all of whom were professional academics) one can only note that the professionalism that Draeger had hoped to achieve had finally arrived but, ironically, shut the door on Hoplology’s hopes of ever being the primary vehicle for the academic study of the martial arts.

Professionalization also brings with it the possibility of increasingly fruitful specialization.  This was reflected in the scope of Farrer and Whallen-Bridges collection.  Arranged in three sections the article sought to address “Embodied [and media] Fantasy,” ways in which the “Social Body Trains” and finally “Transnational Self-Construction.”  Each topic was approached from a variety of perspectives yielding one of the first truly interdisciplinary conversations within Martial Arts Studies. And all of these categories of investigating have remained central to martial arts studies today.

Garcia and Spencer’s 2013 Fighting Scholars: Habitus and Ethnographies of Martial Arts and Combat Sports (Anthem Press),demonstrated progress in different ways.  Rather than broadly surveying the sorts of work that could be done within an interdisciplinary field, it chose a single conceptual framework, the notions of habitus and carnal sociology as developed by Wacquant in his groundbreaking Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. By design this was a narrower collection, but it was one that demonstrated that Martial Arts Studies was capable of engaging with (and in turn being engaged by) some of the most seminal thinkers of the day.

Where as Farrer and Whalen-Bridge had emphasized the professionalization of the field, Garcia and Spencer’s promoted the work of many younger and up and coming scholars. This choice illustrated the explosion of interest that had taken place in the decade since Green and Svinth’s 2003 volume, and foreshadowed the publishing boom that we see now.

Within our survey this volume is unique in its focus on a single conceptual framework and debate.  In that way it helped to establish the discourse on habitus and embodiment that has come to dominate much of the Martial Arts Studies literature.  Yet I have always felt that it also (often inadvertently) demonstrated the limits of this approach.  That was a point that Bowman would explicitly return to in the concluding discussion of the Martial Arts Studies Reader.  Fields are constructed just as much by debates over key concepts as agreements. Even the ability to identify weaknesses in certain contributions marks an important point of progress.

All of which returns us to Bowman’s own effort. The Martial Arts Studies Readeris, in many ways, a natural culmination of what has come before.  It is the fully realized fruit of the desire for community signaled by Martial Arts in the Modern World.  Like Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledgeit is a fully professionalized volume, and one that explicitly seeks a broad engagement with critical trends in recent scholarship.  Yet it also shows increasing sophistication in that its contributors seek not just to borrow from the disciplines, but to either contribute to their critical debates, or to move beyond them all together.  All of this is organized and curated in a collection ideally suited for survey courses on the growing field of Martial Arts Studies.


Martial arts studies conference group photograph (taken the closing day), July 1017 at Cardiff University. Martial Arts Studies Mark 2?


Concluding Thoughts


Comparing this work against the collections which have come before also allows us to ask some critical questions about the direction that martial arts studies is headed. To address one of Bowman’s earlier questions, this collection suggests that a research field emerges when a group of authors decide that it is more desirable to ask question of, and address their work to, scholars who write on the same subject from different disciplinary perspectives, as opposed to their colleagues in their own departments.  This is always a difficult move as it requires energy and creativity. Nor do our interdisciplinary interlocuters sit on our tenure, promotion or hiring committees.  Still, at some point either theoretical necessity or the search for intellectual community may inspire such a move.  Thus, a research field exists first and foremost as a social fact.  It is created when a certain density of communication is achieved, and it exists for as long as that is seen as desirable.

If we were to view the health of the field through this sort of lens, what does the Martial Arts Studies Readersuggest? As I reviewed the various chapters and read footnotes it became apparent to me that we are united not just through the magnetism of the martial arts, but by a general agreement upon (or at least a mutual interest in) certain approaches to them.  The essays in this volume are marked with an interest in identity, desire, media, community, communication and interpretation. What is shared between any set of chapters is often a reliance on a shared set of theorists who have addressed one or more of these topics, and thus provided a common conceptual or methodological lens.

What remains much less common is direct engagement, debate, or even creative borrowing between martial arts studies scholars. Bowman wonders in his concluding remarks if perhaps people give lip service to the importance of media-discourses and the like in their analysis before reverting back to their entrenched disciplinary habits.  It is an interesting point, but it may well be worth extending that question to include the entire social construct that is “Martial Arts Studies.”  To what degree are we reallygetting the most out of the contributions of our fellow scholars? Have we reached a point where we can build off of debates (or discoveries) that have already happened in the field?  Or is a core of shared concepts and methods being used to power a wide range of forever idiosyncratic research questions?

Put another way, if Martial Arts Studies is an independent research area, can we agree on what sorts of questions are important, or even how we might discover important questions in the field?  How do we see this reflected in the sorts of communications that authors have with each other?

These are difficult questions to answer.  I chose this collection as 2018’s essential volume as it represents perhaps the best image of the current state of the field that we are likely to get.  Yet an image can never be mistaken for the original thing. Simple editorial choices can skew the way that conversations appear.  Broad field surveys (such as this) are less likely to encourage meaningful dialogue between pieces than much more focused volumes (such as the one produced by Garcia and Spencer) precisely because we have asked scholars to show us the breadth of what might be done.

Then there is the issue of the medium.  Most scholarly monographs have a “theory chapter” which encourages both the author and the reader to explicitly consider the ways that a new work builds upon, is indebted to, and challenges its predecessors. Journal articles might get a few paragraphs to do the same thing.

The even tighter word-limits found in edited volumes require authors to get to their point even more quickly. That can certainly obscure much of the background that goes into any research project. In my own contribution to this volume I had to drop an extended engagement with the work of Meaghan Morris who had also addressed Victor Turner’s notion of liminoid symbols and transformation in the modern world.  Yet regardless of their limitations, field surveys always present us with an opportunity to assess where we personally have failed to engage with the literature, and what we might stand to gain by doing so.

So long as we are contemplating absences (always a tricky task as an infinite number of things could be said to be missing from any work), I would like to close this post with a final thought on Hoplology. If Green and Svinth’s 2003 volume marked a definitive turning away from the “how-to” salvage expeditions of an earlier era, and a move towards a vision of Martial Arts Studies that put their social and cultural functions first, where do we stand today?  Reading through this latest volume I think it is safe to say that the mandate that Farrer and Whalen-Bridge outlined in 2011 has now been fully realized.  Indeed, the older works of Draeger and Smith seem to have left no trace on this volume. While Bowman acknowledges that things like Martial Arts Studies have existed in different forms in the past, he provides no hint of what they might have been, or why they might have failed.

Still, my personal feeling is that many of the strongest chapters in this volume are those that are the most steeped in the empirical record.  I am drawn to instances where authors went out into the world and actually wrestled with the technical “how-to” questions because that was often where new puzzles, unimagined by prior theoretical debates, emerged.  The modern incarnation of Martial Arts Studies never seems to have time to discuss the details of what was actually done, and how it was actually learned.  Yet that is precisely the soil that many of the most interesting discussions emerge from.

So I am left to close this essay where I started it. What is the relationship between Martial Arts Studies and Hoplology?  As a truly academic field, the later no longer exists.  Yet on a deeper level, what is our personal debt to the “how-to” question?  Is there theoretical value in the seemingly simple act of documenting a system of practice? If the best minds of the modern Martial Arts Studies era were to recreate Hoplology, what would it be?

Martial Arts Studies can only grow as fast it replicates a desire for communication between its students.  A greater degree of engagement with the existing literature is always desirable.  But its growth is also linked to our ability to identify powerful and paradoxical questions that reflect the reality of our lived experience.  A fully realized “New Hoplology” might not be necessary to generate these questions, as fascinating as that project might be. Yet placing as much emphasis on the quality and documentation of our empirical research as we do on our theoretical analysis probably is.



If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: Striking Distance: Charles Russo Recounts the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts in America


A (Taijiquan) Mystery in Yellow

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An English language edition of Chen Yanlin’s volume. While covers might be blue, red, yellow or purple, the dust jackets were typically the same yellow design seen on the original 1947 Shanghai release.



Unanswered Questions


Everyone likes a good mystery. They engage, they motivate and (whether we want to admit it or not) they make the hours vanish. That certainly explains at least part of the popularity of historical studies of the Chinese martial arts. Decades of nationalist myth-making and inspired entrepreneurial marketing have helped to create the impression that it is the veneer of history that determines the value of these practices. That has never actually been true. Still, once you move past the illusions of history and begin to dig into the sources, it is disturbingly easy to lose a weekend.

Let’s begin today’s investigation by asking two simple questions.  What was the first English language book on the Chinese martial arts, and when was it published.  Of course, such questions are never really that simple.  If we were to count as a “book” rough translations of Chinese language martial arts manuals republished in an English language magazine, the answer would be sometime in the 1870s.  If we insisted on two hard covers, but relaxed the requirement of commercial sales, then we have the case of a little-known English language xingyi quan manual (produced by a famous Chinese track and field coach) in the 1920s.

Still, neither of these answers feel quite right.  While both are important in their own right, these weren’t the sort of “books” that one might find sitting on a shelf in a shop.  Perhaps we should begin by narrowing things down a bit.  What was the first commercially printed English language book on Taijiquan to be widely distributed to a mass audience? If asked that way, it would seem that the answer must be Sophia Delza’s 1961 Tai Chi Chuan: Body and Mind in Harmony, a book that I have previously discussed here and here.

At least that is what I would have thought up until recently. I will readily admit to being neither a student of taijiquan, or an expert on its history, my own interests being more focused on the Southern arts.  Still, I have tried to keep up with everything published on the martial arts in the Republic period (1911-1949).  As such I was vaguely aware of Chen Yanling’s controversial 1943 book, Taiji Compiled: Boxing, Saber, Sword, Pole and Sparring. What I had missed was that this book was translated into English and distributed by at least three different Shanghai publishers in 1947.  By the 1960s additional English language translations would be produced in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and a number of these volumes would find their way into American and British martial arts schools.

Whether Delza’s volume, or a pirated edition of Chen’s, showed up in your neighborhood book store first remains an open question.  After a week trying to piece together this volume’s publication history I can safely declare that there is still quite a bit that we don’t know.  I would go so far as to suggest that we have a minor mystery on our hands.  Still, its early date of publication and wide circulation suggests that this book may be worth considering in greater detail.  If nothing else, its existence signals a growing curiosity about the Chinese martial arts long before the Kung Fu Craze of the 1970s came to fruition.


A typical example of the line drawn illustration in both the Chinese and English language edition of Chen, derived from earlier published photographs.


A Yang Family Controversy


Before delving into the publication history of the English language edition, it may be helpful to know a little more about Chen Yanling’s original volume. Anyone interested in checking out this work can find a copy at the Brennan Translations blog. Even a quick glance at the table of contents is enough to signal that this was a substantial work, and quite different from many of the simple technical manuals that dominated the era’s martial arts markets.  Chen’s work was appreciated as he sought to develop new philosophical concepts within the study of Taijiquan. Rather than simply rehashing the ancient myths he also looked at the art’s more recent history, particularly as it pertained to the experiences of the Yang family.  His work provided discussions of not just the solo unarmed set, but also push-hands and no fewer than three weapons. Readers could even find material from the Taiji Classics and Yang family teaching traditions in his publication. Needless to say, his book made quite a splash when it was released in 1943.

Not all of this attention was positive.  Chen’s work proved to be quite controversial within some corners of the Yang style. This was not so much a concern about the reliability of what he said, but the more complex question of whether he had the right to say it at all. Rumors started to spread that somehow Chen had swindled Yang Cheng-fu out of his family patrimony.

The story went that Chen, a diligent student, had approached Yang Cheng-fu and asked to borrow the family’s private manual for a single evening of study.  Knowing that anyone’s ability to work through such complex material in a single night was limited, Yang Cheng-fu relented.  However, he was unaware that Chen had hired seven copyists who would fully transcribe the book that night.  This material would then become the basis of this own 1943 publication, much to the displeasure of the Yang family. This would force them to eventually release their own version of these texts.

As martial arts legends go, I quite like this story. It reveals much about the values and anxieties of the individuals who passed it around.  But that is the actual intelligence value of any rumor.  They always reveal more about the motivations and fears of those who tell them, rather than their purported subjects.

While the controversy that Chen instigated was real, its actual causes were more prosaic. When discussing this book in a recent exchange with Douglas Wile, he noted that Chen Yanlin was in fact a student of Tian Zhaolin, who was a student of Yang Jianhou, the son of Yang Luchan. Chen’s manuscript was actually based on the study and transcriptions of Tian Zhaolin’s teachings.  In point of fact, the drive to systematically record this material (a common project during the Republic era) had been a collective undertaking led by several of Tian’s students.  They were enraged when Chen put his name on what had been, in their view, a collective project.  Wile related that the group was actually preparing to take Chen to court over his “theft” when Tian intervened to restore the peace between his students.

This bit of the manuscript’s history makes for a compelling story.  But the real mysteries emerge four years later, in 1947.  In many ways this was not a great era for the Chinese martial arts. The country’s long running civil war was heating up, the Guoshu Institute was in tatters and, after the initial enthusiasm for the dadao troops had subsided, the Chinese martial arts had taken a beating in the country’s newspapers over the course of the second world war. Given all of this, it might come as a surprise to learn that there was actually a small (but notable) spike in interest in the Chinese martial arts in the West during the late 1940s.

In an apparent attempt to capitalize on this interest, an English language edition of Chen’s book was released in Shanghai in 1947 by the well-known Willow Pattern Press. The edition was titled Tai-Chi Chuan: Its Effects and Practical Applications, and the author was listed as Yearning K. Chen. This latest iteration of the manuscript must have been a time consuming undertaking. Library catalogs list Kuo Shui-chang as the translator (I must rely on them as I do not own a personal copy of the Willow Patterns Press edition).  C. C. Chiu offered a new preface, specifically intended for Western audiences. It provided a health and wellness focused overview of the art, and a brief introduction to its author.

Sadly, I have not been able locate any substantive information on Kuo or Chiu.  That is an issue as even a cursory examination of the text reveals that what they provided is not a typical “translation” of Chen’s text.  Large parts of Chen’s text (including many of this more detailed discussions, and everything on Taijiquan’s history) have been left out of this volume.  In their place Western readers would find short introductions designed to get them up to speed on topics such as “Yin” and “Yang”, as well as the definition of Chinese boxing and taijiquan’s relationship to both philosophy and the martial arts.

The differences did not stop there.  These introductory notes were followed by multiple full chapters that attempted to rationalize the discussion of taijiquan and to present it to Western audiences within a scientific framework.  Topics covered included the art’s relationship with physiology, psychology and physics.  This last chapter, which featured a “proof” of the application of Newton’s laws to the martial arts, can only be described as a triumph of “scientism.” It would have made even the most diehard guoshu modernizer proud. Its pages featured rows of orderly equations and geometric diagrams.  To ask who “translated” this volume is really to inquire as to who wrote what was in many respects an independent book on taijiquan designed to cater to the (perceived) tastes of educated Western readers.



A modern (and mechanical) approach to taijiquan, featured in all of the English language editions of Chen. This specific example was printed in Hong Kong during the 1960s.


That said, this was not an entirely original undertaking.  The substantive discussions of both the solo form and push hands were taken directly from Chen, as were his pen and ink illustrations.  Yet even here, some subtle changes can be noted.  The Chinese language inserts that had labeled these illustrations in Chen’s original volume were deleted but not replaced in the English books.  Further, whoever wrote the new English text was familiar with, and had an appreciation for, Chen’s arguments.  While many of the discussions were new, care was taken to paraphrase quotes from the Chinese version.  These were distributed creatively throughout the English language text as its chapters and introductory discussions did not align with the underlying Chinese “original.”

In short, Kuo Shui-chang did not provide readers with a faithful translation of Chen’s work.  The entire first half of this book might be better thought of as a translation of a work that Chen did not actually write, but might have if he wished to appeal to a room full of western engineers and educators. In that sense the real value of this work is what it suggests about the growing demand for English language information in the late 1940s, and how elite Chinese martial artists perceived that cross-cultural desire.

Perhaps the clearest indication of the size of this demand would be the massive piracy campaign that this book experienced.  The original Willow Pattern Press edition was released in 1947.  Yet because of lax intellectual property rights, the book was quickly picked up by other distributors.  1947 dated editions were also produced in Shanghai by P. D. Boss and Millington.  While I assume that Willow printed the original book, it is actually hard to confirm the order in which they appeared.

Booksellers in Hong Kong also expressed enthusiasm for the volume.  Numerous, almost identical, printings were released that listed no publishing house or date. Many of these volumes listed their price as either “$10” or “H.K. $10.”  It is probably impossible to date these books with precision, but it seems that they were produced sometime in the 1960s.  I have a Hong Kong copy with a red cover, as opposed to the original Shanghai release that was blue.  Other colors can be found as well.  The version produced by the Sun Wah Printing Company may have been more legitimate than the others as they at least printed their name and the address of their offices on the title page.

By the 1960s these volumes began to find their way into circulation (and libraries) in the West, though I have not been able to determine if they had an official American distributor. I ran across one account of a student whose taiji class used this text as part of their study material during the 1960s. But that was not the end of the volume’s complex publishing history. Pan American Books in Taipei (Taiwan) released their own undated edition of the volume (probably in the 1970s).  And by the late 1970s multiple American publishing houses took advantage of the volume’s confused ownership to release their own editions.  The 1979 New Castle printing seems to be the most commonly encountered, though there are several others.

I have not had an opportunity to track down copies of all of these printings and subject them to a detailed comparison.  That would no doubt be interesting, and it might reveal more about this book’s circuitous travels through the post-war global environment. A detailed study of the similarities between Chen’s original 1943 volume and its strangely independent 1947 Shanghai translation could also be quite interesting for what it might reveal about the different intended audiences of both books.

While some details of this mystery are likely to remain unsolved, what we know about Chen’s book is quite interesting. During the course of my historical research I had basically concluded that Zhang, Chu and the other guoshu reformers had basically failed to create an image of the Chinese martial arts that would be appealing to Western readers or martial artists. In many ways Chen’s translated volume is a natural intellectual successor to their efforts, and its tortured publishing history suggests that there may have been a lot more demand than I was able to previously estimate from personal reminisces and newspaper accounts alone.  After all, no one bothers to pirate a book that doesn’t sell, and this book managed to stay in print for a very long time.

Cheng’s effort was the first English language book commercially printed on taijiquan, though Delza’s volume almost certainly arrived on the shelves of most American martial artists first. Still, Cheng has much to teach us, not only about the practice of taijiquan, but its post-war migration throughout the global system.


Acknowledgements: Special thanks go to two individuals who made this essay possible. First, I would like to thank Qin Qin (秦琴) from Henan Polytechnic University for sharing with me the discovery of a 1947 P. B. Boss edition of Tai-Chi-Chuan: Its Effects and Practical Applications. That was really what got me interested in looking more deeply at Chen’s contributions to the global spread of the art.  Thanks also go to Douglas Wile for providing invaluable context regarding the true origin of the controversy that surrounded the book’s 1943 publication.



If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Prof. Maofu Gong Discusses the State of Folk Wushu and Martial Arts Studies in China Today


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