Book Review: A Brief History of the Martial Arts

32603294I found this book in the library, and I was drawn in by the contents page, which spans large swathes of history and seemed to be quite comprehensive.

The book is written by Jonathan Clements, a “proper historian” – that is, it focuses on what the evidence actually says happened, rather than taking at face value the various myths and legends which have built up around almost all martial arts.  As it says:

This has often led me into frustrating dead ends and quagmires as paper trails go cold or evaporate into hearsay.  Many times, I have had to force myself to bear in mind a comment made by Stephen Turnbull, who has similarly struggled with the contradictions of martial arts history: “All invented traditions have a basis in fact, no matter how tenuously the links may be made between the developed tradition and recorded history.”

Many times, the author takes a martial arts origin story, compares it to the historical record and finds mismatches between them.  For example of the many arts whose stories start with the Shaolin Temple he says:

Tales of its warring monks form the opening paragraphs of many a martial art’s history. … But if we tell the story of the Shaolin Temple using actual historical documents, in the order those documents were produced, it takes literally centuries for the best-known and most-cited tales to appear.

The book begins in China, passes through Japan, Korea and Indonesia, before finally discussing the spread of martial arts in the West.

Of particular interest to me were the mentions of Shorinji Kempo.  I was gratified to see that most of the stories I had been told of the founding were supported by evidence. Given that our art is relatively young, this is less surprising than it could have been – after all, the founder So Doshin only died in 1980 and there are still people alive who knew him and trained with him.

I even learned some interesting new facts – such as the reason that Shorinji Kempo is technically a religion (Kongo Zen Buddhism), which is that at the time of founding martial arts were illegal under the US occupation of Japan.  Thus black belts are entitled to wear hoi (buddhist priests robes), and So Doshin explained to the authorities that his disciples’ worship involved a kind of ‘dance’.

Overall I found the book an interesting read.  The language is easy to follow and the stories are well curated.  It is, as the title indicates, only a brief history, but a detailed chronology is listed at the back, along with copious notes and suggestions for further reading.

I would recommend this book as a starting point for anyone who wants to know more about how martial arts developed over time.  You can find it on Amazon (or, as I did, in your local library).

Published by Nicola Higgins

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something* martial artist, Girlguiding Brownie and Ranger Leader, and actuary. She somehow also finds time to read, fuss her cat, and occasionally spends time with her husband. [* please note that "ten or more" is still something.]

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