A Quick Overview of Martial Arts Studies Books

This entry was first posted on the Martial Arts Studies Blog.

There is a full spectrum of publication on myriad aspects of martial arts. There are also many good reviews of the literature, such as thisby Douglas Wile and this by Channon and Jennings, not to mention the many regular reviews by Ben Judkins at Kung Fu Tea. In what follows, I merely aim to give an overview of some of the major works that I think really stand out.

Focusing solely on book publication, titles and publishers range from the most light and popular to the most serious and scholarly. Interestingly, there is a particularly significant amount of ‘scholarly’ but not technically ‘academic’ books published on martial arts – especially in the field of history, but also translations, commentaries on translations, manuals, histories of manuals, and commentary on manuals. In fact, there is so much highly literate and intelligent, but only technically para-academic scholarly publication that I will not be able to engage with it here. However, the existence of a broad base of intelligent publications on many aspects of martial arts by commercial publishers signifies the presence of a viable international research context of Martial Arts Studies outside the enclaves and disciplines of academia itself, a readership currently consuming the ever-growing non-academic but nevertheless scholarly titles related to this field.

There are also quite considerable numbers of articles on various aspects of martial arts being published regularly in a wide range of academic journals, but I will not engage directly with articles here. Instead, I will focus only on academic books published in the 21stcentury.

Douglas Farrer and John Whalen-Bridge’s collection Martial arts as embodied knowledge: Asian traditions in a transnational world (State University of New York Press, 2011) is the key text that announced ‘martial arts studies’ as a new field. Despite the many differences, I think what Farrer and Whalen-Bridge’s book undertakes is similar to what I was trying to do in both Theorizing Bruce Lee (Rodopi, 2010) and Beyond Bruce Lee (Wallflower/Columbia University Press, 2013).

Their concern with embodiment appeals to anthropological, sociological and cultural studies readers, especially those familiar with Greg Downey’s rightly respected study, Learning Capoeira: lessons in cunning from an Afro-Brazilian art (Oxford University Press, 2005), not to mention the many studies of ‘the body’ in cultural studies. There is also a connection here with Avron Boretz’ ethnographic/subcultural study Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters: ritual violence, martial arts, and masculinity on the margins of Chinese society(University of Hawai’i Press, 2011).

There are increasing numbers of historical, sociological, cultural and subcultural studies of different realms and regions of martial arts being published by university presses, including University of Hawai’i Press, Oxford University Press, Duke University Press, Yale University Press, and other North American, Pacific and East Asian university presses. Titles from University of Hawai’i Press include John Christopher Hamm’s Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the modern Chinese martial arts novel (University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), Anthony L. Schmieg’s Watching your Back: Chinese martial arts and traditional medicine (University of Hawaii Press, 2005), and Meir Shahar’s influential The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts (University of Hawai’i Press, 2008).

Historical studies of martial arts are among the most commonly published by University Presses. Influential examples include Sydney Anglo’s The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (Yale University Press, 2000) and Peter Lorge’s instantly influential Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty First Century (Cambridge University Press, 2012). The latter text is particularly related to the concerns ofMartial Arts Studies and readerships will overlap. Similarly, Petrus Liu’s book, Stateless Subjects: Chinese martial arts literature and postcolonial history (Cornell University Press, 2011) is an excellent example of the complex and sophisticated treatment of martial arts and the circuits of culture, upon which Martial Arts Studies will draw, and with which a similar readership might be assumed. The same can be said for T. M. Kato’s popular cultural and cultural theoretical study, From Kung Fu to Hip Hop: Revolution, Globalization and Popular Culture (State University of New York Press, 2007). At another end of the scale, Michael L. Raposa’s Meditation and the Martial Arts (University Press of Virginia, 2003) might be added, as an interesting example of a different sort of ‘literary studies’ treatment of embodied martial arts related practices.

There are of course quite a few other university press publications in and around martial arts related topics. Not all of these focus explicitly, telegraphically or entirely on martial arts. Moreover, I have not touched on either sports studies publications or film studies in this discussion – both of which are vast oceans of publication containing very many works that are more or less directly connected with the study of martial arts.

Many other academic presses make regular forays into explicitly martial arts related publications. Adam Frank’s (2006) Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man: Understanding Identity through Martial Arts, published by Palgrave Macmillan, engages with some of the themes that interest me, as does Dale C. Spencer’s (2012) ethnography, Ultimate Fighting and Embodiment: violence, gender, and mixed martial arts (Routledge) and Vijay Prashad’s Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity (Beacon Press, 2001). The latter is interestingly cultural-political, with a cultural-theoretical orientation. One of my all time favourites is Sylvia Shin Huey Chong’s The Oriental Obscene: violence and racial fantasies in the Vietnam era (Duke University Press, 2012) – a work which focuses on the complexity of East-West relations and identity construction in a war-torn mediatized age via studies of figures like Bruce Lee.

In the world of film studies publications, Leon Hunt’s canonical Kung Fu Cult Masters: From Bruce Lee to Crouching Tiger (Wallflower, 2003) stands out, as does Stephen Teo’s Chinese martial arts cinema: the wuxia tradition (Edinburgh University Press, 2009) and Kin-Yan Szeto’s The martial arts cinema of the Chinese diaspora: Ang Lee, John Woo, and Jackie Chan in Hollywood (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011). Indeed, there is arguably an appetite for works which pick up certain of the batons carried by film studies and visual cultural studies into the realm of embodied practices and the wider realms of people’s lives.

Similarly, there are many other sorts of martial arts study – such as John Clements’ Masters of medieval and Renaissance martial arts: rediscovering the Western combat heritage (Paladin, 2008), Douglas Farrer’s Shadows of the prophet: martial arts and sufi mysticism (Springer, 2009), Denis Gainty’s Martial arts and the body politic in Meiji Japan: martialing the national body (Routledge, 2013), and the forthcoming monograph of Ben Judkins from SUNY. My own contribution, Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries, is forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield International in June.

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