'Martial Arts' studies intriguing history

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“Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century” by Peter A. Lorge. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 282 pages, $39.99 (hardcover).

Author Peter Lorge, a history professor at Vanderbilt University, has written an intriguing and thorough history of martial arts in China. Readers interested in military history or the nation of China will find this a rewarding book.

An important distinction for readers to be aware of is that martial arts literally mean the arts of war. Drawing on the written record that stretches back many centuries, Lorge examines how men really fought in battle as well as how subsequent fictional accounts embellished the skills of warriors and heroes. There is much more in this book about the development and use of weapons and battlefield tactics than unarmed fighting techniques or spiritual matters. Readers looking for a critical discussion of the differences between Crane Technique and the Cobra Kai school should look elsewhere.

China is both an ancient country and a large one, so it comes as no surprise that the history of warfare in that nation is long and varied. The most important and longest-lasting martial skill is that of archery. From the nomadic warriors of the northern steppes who practiced on horseback to the refined gentlemen scholar/bureaucrats of the latter dynasties who were more concerned with form than with hitting or piercing the target, archery was the primary skill expected of warriors. In the early years of battle in China, mounted archers would ride to the enemy line, fire a quick volley of arrows and then dash back out of range. As technology advanced and first crossbows and then gunpowder-based weaponry assumed a greater importance, a graceful and smooth form as one drew and released the bow became a symbol of one’s own refinement and status since only the upper class had the time to devote to the study of archaic matters.

Most foot soldiers carried spears, both to attack other infantry and to defend against cavalry. Knives and axes were carried in the early periods, but as metalworking skills increased, bronze and then iron swords became more generally issued to troops. These blades also grew in durability as they lost their individuality. Armies grew in size over the centuries, and generals became administrators as much as warriors. Skill in logistics and strategy supplanted excellence in weapons handling as the mark of a good commander.

As time goes on, the written record, including the first novels, grows larger, and the documentation of weaponry and its use grows as well. By the 17th and 18th centuries, there is a general consensus about when various weapons arose and how their use changed over time. During the Ming period, the Shaolin monastery became famous for its fighting monks and their amazing martial arts skills. Lorge is careful to keep separate what the historical record will support and what popular culture has imagined the Shaolin monks to be. Apparently there was a small coterie of skillful monks, most of them probably retired military, at the monastery who might be considered adjunct faculty. Not technically part of the greater monastery, which was dedicated to nonviolent religious practices, these monks did bring publicity and paying students to the area, which was good for the whole community.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, China developed more and greater contact with the western world. Events such as the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion demonstrated the effectiveness of the western way of war. China adopted many of the forms and tactics of the western armies for their own soldiers. After the ascension of the communists to power, anything that smacked of religion or imperial nostalgia was ruthlessly suppressed, including traditional martial arts. Increasing interest in the west in eastern spiritual practices in the 1960s led to the relaxation of some of these rules. Westerners were able to travel to China and practice tai chi or visit the famous sites to expand their consciousnesses, all the while leaving hard currency in their wake.

The other major factor in the growth of interest in the martial arts, in China as well as abroad, was the rise of Hong Kong martial arts cinema. Trained fighters and performers who had left the mainland found a way to make a living working in the motion picture industry. With often no more than a nod to actual history, many of these films made use of historical people and places (like the Shaolin monastery, vital to kung fu cinema and the Wu Tang) to attract audiences in China and around the world. The critical success of films such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” have added another layer of interest in both the history and the popular culture of the weapons and the fighting styles in China from the earliest times to the present.

“Chinese Martial Arts” provides a well-written and thorough introduction to the evolution of military tactics and fighting styles in China. Readers interested in the military history of one of the largest and oldest countries in the world will find much information here that helps broaden their understanding of this immense subject. Even a casual reader will enjoy the many interesting characters and vignettes that populate this work.

— Reviewed by Dan Forrest, associate professor and access services coordinator, WKU Libraries.

— Editor’s note: The author will discuss his book in WKU Libraries’ “Far Away Places” series at 7 p.m. Thursday at Barnes & Noble Booksellers on Campbell Lane. The public is invited.

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