By: Robert W. Smith
Chinese Mind-Body Boxing
by Robert W. Smith
(Kodansha International, 1974, 112 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
The pen of Robert W. Smith produced a number of classic martial arts books. An early American researcher and writer on the martial arts—in particular, the Chinese martial arts—Smith probably wrote more on the subject than anyone at the time except Bruce Tegnér or Smith's sometimes co-author, Donn F. Draeger. As is the case with Smith’s previous book on Bagua (review below), Hsing-I appears to be the first description of the art in English.
Smith opens the book with a chapter on the history of Hsing-I, which, like Tai Chi and Bagua, was developed, it seems, by a mysterious Taoist monk living in remote mountains. Those mysterious Taoist monks sure were a creative lot. Maybe it was all that fresh mountain air and spring water. After presenting a chart showing the art’s family tree, Smith goes on to delineate the art’s two major schools: the Shanshi-Hopei School and the Honan School. A mini-biography of Sun Lu-t’ang, who went on to develop Sun Style Tai Chi, takes up about half of the latter section.
The relationship of Hsing-I to Tai Chi and Bagua is the subject of chapter two. Wrapped up in this is an examination of the stillness/presence inherent in the internal martial arts. Hsing-I fundamentals occupy chapter three, and chapter four details the five basic actions of Hsing-I. These are: splitting, crushing, drilling, pounding, and crossing. Each of these are given a thorough explication before Smith shows how to link them together into a single routine. Then comes an application section in which Smith demonstrates several uses for each basic action.
Chapter five is titled, “The Twelve Styles,” and it covers the dozen auxilliary movements that have been added to the five basic movements. Chapter six shows the Consecutive Step Yunnan Boxing, which links several movements into a single sequence that was once standard practice by Chinese Nationalist soldiers. Functions follow the form description. Longish chapter seven contains words of Hsing-I wisdom from a number of significant masters: Kuo Yun-shen, Pai Hsi-yuan, Liu Ch’i-lan, Sung Shih-jung, Ch’e I-chai, Chang Shu-te, and many others.
Throughout, there are plenty of photos to illustrate the movements. In the introduction, Smith apologizes for the diversity of the people in the photos, who are often his various teachers and fellow students. I counted seven different individuals in addition to Smith himself. No apology necessary. They all look proficient, and the photos are all adequate at the very least.
While this book will find its primary readership among Hsing-I, and perhaps Bagua, exponents, the words of wisdom from the masters in chapter seven contain plenty of substance for Tai Chi folks, as well.
Chinese Boxing for Fitness and Self-Defense
by Robert W. Smith
(Kodansha International, Ltd., 1967, 160 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
In his introduction to Pa-kua: Chinese Boxing for Fitness and Self-Defense, author Robert W. Smith makes an important statement:
Chinese books on Pa-kua boxing lay great stress on philosophical aspects which most Westerners would stamp as mysticism. My eschewing of most of these does not mean I disbelieve them. It merely means that I do not think a beginning text written for the Western reader is the place for philosophy—that too much philosophy would obfuscate material which by its very nature is difficult to present.
Pa-kua may be a Category I book, presenting basic background and instructional material, but it has historical significance, being the first book in English on the subject. Indeed, the author states that it is the first non-Chinese book on Pa-kua. This fact should almost be a given considering the author. Robert W. Smith was one of the earliest Westerners to widely promote the Asian martial arts in the West. His many books on the subject, under his own name and pseudonyms, would have dominated any English-language martial arts library prior to 1980. To my knowledge, his only rivals in this aspect would have been Bruce Tegnér and Donn F. Draeger.
Despite Smith’s demurring on the topic of philosophy, he opens the book with a historical section that includes the philosophy behind Pa-kua. This lies in the I-Ching and the resulting pa-kua diagram of the eight basic trigrams arranged in a circle. The history itself is amusing in that the origin of Pa-kua, like the origin of Tai Chi and Hsing-i, is shrouded in time, though all three arts were reputedly created and disseminated by mysterious Taoist monks living in remote mountains. Apparently Pa-kua, like Tai Chi and Hsing-i, is a gift presented to humankind directly from the Tao.
The first historical person associated with the art was Tung Hai-ch’uan (1798–1879), the student of Pa-qua's mysterious Taoist monk founder. Tung became famous in Beijing, and there was challenged by Kuo Yun-shen, a Hsing-i exponent who had killed men with his “crushing hand.” The duel lasted two days and ended in a crushing defeat for Kuo. Kuo was so impressed that he and Tung became fast friends, and they agreed that their students should learn both arts. This is why Pa-kua and Hsing-i often are coupled, and indeed, the circular nature of the former is complemented by the linear nature of the latter, and vice versa. Smith then takes us through time and a number of other masters who took up and further disseminated the art. Included are some amusing stories—legends—regarding the fantastic abilities of Tung and his successors.
Chapter two introduces what Smith calls a “beginning method.” This is not the characteristic walking of the circle usually associated with Pa-kua but a more simplified series of eighteen independent exercises whose postures embody given martial movement patterns. In these, the feet tend to remain firmly rooted, and there is little stepping. These movements, Smith admits, are not classical Pa-kua and are more linear in nature, showing the influence of Hsing-i. Most of the movements are presented in series of four to eight photos, and some are accompanied by secondary photos showing Smith applying the movements to an opponent. Striking dominates these movements, but there are a few sweeps and throws. The photos are clear and of adequate size.
The movements are not linked in the descriptions, but Smith later states that the practitioner should master the movements on both sides and then strive to link them into a flowing sequence, performing four in one direction, then four in the opposite direction, and so on.
The next chapter presents the classical Pa-kua circling method and modifications. One of the chief differences between the exercises described previously and the circling method is the application of strength. The Hsing-i-like movements emphasize vertical strength while the circling method emphasizes horizontal strength. Before going into the instruction on the circling method, Smith presents twenty pages relating the principles of the art as related to him by his teacher, Kuo Feng-Ch’ih.
This advice includes the concepts of relaxation and slowness, the mind, breathing, the use of strength, and the link between substance and function, among others. Each point is expanded on, winding up with the concept of the circle as a training tool.
The instructions for the circle walking begin with the single palm chang before moving on to the double palm change, snake posture, lion posture, standing palm, and dragon posture. Each style is defined in clear text that is accompanied by clear photos and foot-stepping patterns.
I don’t practice Pa-kua and I don’t have many books on the subject, so I don’t have a strong enough knowledge of the art to objectively assess the quality of the material, but Smith was an experienced, energetic, and perceptive student of the Chinese martial arts, and his postures look pretty good to me. Plus, the information he presents in his various books usually is solidly based, and this one seems to be no different. So, all-in-all, this seminal English-language text on pa-kua is pretty good at conveying the basics of the history, principles, and techniques of the art. Recommended.
Masters and Methods
By Robert W. Smith
(Kodansha International, Ltd., 1980, 142 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
It’s hard to overstate the influence of Robert W. Smith on the martial arts in the West, particularly America. Few martial arts writers, no matter the quality or quantity of their output, can match his importance. Smith began life in a tough way. Due to his family’s economic hardship, he was sent to an orphanage at age three. He took up boxing and wrestling while in high school, and after a stint in the U.S. Marines, he attended the University of Washington, where he earned an M.A. in history. After a brief turn with the American Red Cross, he joined the CIA as an intelligence officer.
All the while, he retained an interest in the martial arts, adding Judo to Western boxing and wrestling. While with the CIA, he was stationed in Taiwan for three years (1959–1962), and it was during this time that he traveled the country extensively, meeting, learning from, and training with a large number of martial artist there. Among the many masters he studied with, most notable was Cheng Man-ch’ing, and he became Cheng’s first non-Chinese student. The occasion was as beneficial for Cheng as it was for Smith, who helped Cheng write several of his book on Tai Chi.
Most of what Smith studied in Taiwan were the internal martial arts of Tai Chi, Bagua, and Hsing-I, and he wrote books on all of them. After returning to the U.S., he first taught Judo, but eventually gravitated to teaching the internal martial arts, which he did for twenty-eight years before retiring in 1988. A prolific author, Smith helped disseminate truly important and valid information about the martial arts—particularly the Chinese martial arts—at a time when such information was sorely lacking and much needed in the West. All told, he is the sole author of seven books under his own name, co-author of four books, translator of one book, and sole author of three more books under the pseudonym, John F. Gilbey. He also published thirty-seven magazine and journal articles under his own name, co-authored two more, and published an additional one under the Gilbey pseudonym.
Many of Smith’s books are in-depth looks at specific martial arts and masters of them, such as his books with Cheng and his volumes on Bagua and Hsing-i. But just as significant are his surveys of the martial arts, which give broader views of a number of martial arts styles and masters he encountered. Chinese Boxing is, perhaps, the epitome of this. In it, he recounts many of his martial adventures while he lived in Taiwan, and it is chock full of interesting information, mini-bios, and not least, great stories. These days, with the proliferation of martial arts videos on YouTube and elsewhere, it might be difficult to understand just how important Smith’s work was. But back in the day—and aside from just a few dozen films that could be purchased for viewing on an actual film projector—books and magazines were pretty much it regarding information on the martial arts for the average citizen.
Chinese Boxing begins with a solid introduction by the author in which he talks about living in Taiwan and how he came to travel around, seeking contact with as many masters as he could. He also discusses the idea of pure, valid, and effective martial arts as opposed to the charlatanism, chicanery, and gullibility that, unfortunately, still afflict the martial arts today. “In learning traditional Chinese boxing,” he writes, “I looked upon myself as a catalyst eliciting information on a little-known aspect of Chinese culture, overgrown and obscured by legend.”
Eight of the ten chapters cover individual martial artists who Smith studied with to one degree or another. They include Tai Chi exponents, a Monkey boxer, a Bagua expert, a chin na expert, a man versed in shuai chiao (Chinese wrestling), and others. Chapters nine and ten cover more than twenty other masters and teachers Smith encountered and with whom he trained only fleetingly or not at all. Some of the latter offered demonstrations and/or merely discussions, and not all were valid exponents of their styles. A few of the names are well known in the West, such as Cheng and William C. C. Chen, but most are more obscure, perhaps known outside of this book only in Taiwan.
The book winds up with five appendices. The first is “Chou Chi-Ch’uan’s Views on the Origin of T’ai-chi,” which is Chou’s take on the various legends surrounding the origins and history of Tai Chi. It is definitely an important read for those who want to understand—or to try to tell their students—where Tai Chi came from. Appendix B is “Sun Lu-tang’s Principles of T’ai-chi Ch’uan,” which comprise eleven points. Appendix C is “Ch’i-Kung, Exercise of Internal Energy,” which has to be one of the earliest writings in English on the subject. Appendix D is “T’ai-chi in the People’s Republic of China,” which is a look at how the Chinese communists have regarded and treated Tai Chi since they took over the Chinese government. The restrictions that this appendix discusses are, perhaps, no longer in-force, but they did have a dampening effect on Tai Chi and other martial arts in China for many decades. Appendix E is “Wu-Shu Forms in Taiwan. This is a three-page list of styles and exponents in Taiwan at the time of the book’s publication.
Smith writes with clarity and precision, using a style that often is peppered with dry wit and always with pungent observations. He also is fond of quoting from Western literature, where the observations of those writers serve to illuminate the points Smith is trying to make. And it works well, making the book interesting to read as well as filled with top-notch information.
The purpose of Chinese Boxing is not to teach but to elucidate and expand. There is nothing in the way of instruction, but everything in the way of learning and comprehension. You won’t learn a kung fu style from it, but you will learn what kung fu—excellence gained over time through diligent practice—means at a more profound level by hearing the words and seeing the actions of true masters viewed through the eyes of a man both sympathetic and expert in his own right.
Chinese Boxing is the sort of martial arts book that will never go out of style because it isn’t about style. It is about how art, perseverance, and dedication lead to expertise, and its lessons are profound. This book should be read by every martial artist, no matter what style they practice.
A Portrayal of Martial Arts in the 20th Century
(Via Media Publishing Company, 1999, 390 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the writings of Robert W. Smith in the dissemination and development of the Asian martial arts throughout the English-speaking world of the mid-20th century. Martial Musings: A Portrayal of Martial Arts in the 20th Century, which was his last book and published a dozen years before his death, can be considered to have three aspects. Primarily it is a memoir, but it also encompasses extensions of some of his previous books on the martial arts by profiling a number of individuals who excel in their particular combatives, as Smith prefers to call them. And finally, it is an extended opinion piece on the state of the martial arts worldwide.
Robert William Smith was born in 1926 and died in 2011. In between, he was a CIA analyst, a martial artist, and perhaps the most important writer on the martial arts—certainly of his era, though several other writers, such as Donn Draeger, also produced significant bodies of work. But none of them enjoyed the exposure that Smith did. Following a stressful and poverty-stricken childhood, Smith took up boxing and wrestling in high school then joined the U.S. Marines. He was discharged after the end of WWII, went to college on the G.I. Bill, and soon after joined the CIA. All through this time, he retained his interest in boxing and wrestling, and the latter led him to take up judo.
In 1959, he was posted to Taiwan, and during the three years he lived there, his interest in judo blossomed into a passion for the Chinese internal martial arts of tai chi, bagua, and hsing-i that remained powerful for the rest of his life. His books on Shaolin, bagua, and hsing-i were the first introductions of these arts to the general English-speaking audience, and over time, he became a prolific contributor to martial arts literature through his fourteen books, some with him as sole author, some collaborations with other experienced and distinguished martial arts authors such as Cheng Man-ching, Donn Draeger, and Ben Lo. This isn’t to mention his dozens of magazine and journal articles.
Following Smith’s return to the U.S., he spent his spare time for the next twenty-seven years teaching free martial arts classes at a Bethesda, Maryland, YMCA, concentrating on tai chi, bagua, and hsing-i. In 1988, he retired from teaching and, with his wife, Alice, moved to the foothills of North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains. There he continued to pursue his passion until his death, writing on the martial arts, serving occasionally as competition judge, and generally assuming the role of elder statesman—a role he accepted with acknowledgment but also with modesty.
It’s difficult to know where to begin a review of this book because, while at base it is a straightforward rendition of Smith’s life, his was a life with many tributaries and side channels. Just the list of acknowledgments at the beginning of the book numbers nearly 100. And notable in the dedication is the mention of Michael DeMarco, martial arts author and editor of the excellent Journal of the Asian Martial Arts and many superb targeted collections of martial arts articles and essays, “without whose iron urging this book would never have been written.” So I’ll just begin, as Smith does, at the beginning.
Smith opens with an introduction that nominally sets the tone and philosophical ground for the rest of the book and encompasses many of his traits as a writer. Immediately obvious is a friendly, casual, and witty writerly persona not only well versed in his subject matter, but widely read. At a moment, Smith can drop in quotes and ideas from a wide range of writers on a wide range of subjects to help focus his knowledge and understanding of the martial arts and to make his concepts clear. For example, on the first page alone, he cites Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, and William Butler Yeats, not counting the epigraph by Robert Lipsyte.
The concepts Smith brings to the fore during the course of the book, while they revolve around a core of the martial arts, are like distinct planets revolving around the sun, each with its own inclination, gravity, density, and character. We’ll parse many of them in the course of this review, but for now, I’ll let Smith define the one, that for me, is the warmest and most eternally useful and valid: “Generally, I incline toward the Daoist view of life, believing that if we all followed nature we’d find that less is better and that small is, indeed, beautiful. Key here is the notion of nothing in excess.” Please note that last statement for later.
The first actual chapter covers Smith’s early life, which he calls “Spartan,” through the end of high school. Most of it deals with Smith’s several years living in an orphanage due to his parents’ penury, where fights were common among the boys. Poverty—or perhaps something stronger—led him to habituate the local library, and he became a voracious reader, which continued until his death. No wonder his prose is not just sprinkled but liberally peppered with quotes and other tidbits from writers the world—and the centuries—over, each of which enlivens and further advances his narrative.
He first encountered the martial arts in the Sherlock Holmes stories, in the form of Baritsu, an English martial art developed by Edward William Barton-Wright in 1898. Baritsu combined Western boxing, French savate, and English cane fighting with jujitsu Barton-Wright picked up in Japan. The style enjoyed a rage of popularity among English gentlemen for about about five years before falling into obscurity, but it has recently seen a revival, as witnessed through the numerous YouTube videos on the art.
After high school, Smith joined the U.S. Marines, which is the subject of the short next chapter. During his stint, he learned a bit about Marine judo, which he describes as “a melange of punches, chops, elbows, and low kicks—most of them aimed at the groin. No locks or throws, just strikes by the number.” Toward the end of his enlistment, he began boxing and soon after coached a group of Golden Glove boxers and even promoted a few matches.
Smith was discharged in 1946 and then worked for two years as a fireman for the CB&Q Railroad. While doing that, he became interested in real judo as opposed to what he’d learned in the Marines. His doctor, he says, told him, “Give up boxing, or you’ll get killed.” He began training at the Chicago Judo Club in 1947, with 3rd Dan Minoru “Johnny” Osako. Smith’s practice of judo continued for thirty years, and he eventually reached the rank of 3rd Dan. This chapter is strewn with names, incidents, and bodies flying through the air as Smith delves into the state of U.S. judo at the time. If somebody was important to the sport, especially in the U.S., likely his or her name is mentioned, at the very least.
Smith graduated from college in 1953 with a master’s degree in Far Eastern studies. He set his sights on the CIA, but there was a hiring freeze at the time, so he joined the Red Cross, hoping to get posted to Japan. That opportunity did not materialize, but when the CIA began hiring again, Smith applied and was accepted. There he worked as an intelligence officer rather than as a “spook.” To his delight, he was posted to Taiwan. During these years, he became friends with Donn Draeger and Jon Bluming, both martial masters and eventually contributors (co-conspirators?) in the creation of the John Gilbey persona. More on that below, and check HERE for reviews of the Gilbey books.
Early in his Taiwan visit, Smith was scheduled to take a judo test, and to prepare, he worked out for a time in the dojo of Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido. While Smith didn’t actually take personal instruction from Ueshiba, he did participate in several of the master’s group classes. In one of these, he saw Ueshiba use a mere twitch to throw two men who grabbed his wrists on either side. Smith attempted to obtain a one-on-one session with the master to experience the technique himself, but he couldn’t get past Ueshiba’s son. Despite Ueshiba’s display, Smith was, and remained, critical of aikido’s “many wide circles, multiple moves, and derring-do dance steps.” He backs this up with a lengthy quote by judo 6th Dan Al Holtman, who’s assessment agrees with Smith’s. Even so, Smith acknowledges that Ueshiba was “a singular figure.” As was his top student, Koichi Tohei, who Smith saw stave off, with perfect élan, a simultaneous attack by fifteen black belt judokas. Later, Smith met him at lunch with Draeger.
More judo experiences—and judoka—follow in the next chapter, but in the one after, karate takes a kick. Smith includes a writeup on karate he penned in 1960, which is less than flattering and offers several criticisms of the art—some of which, incidentally, he also levels at Shaolin kung fu. He ends the chapter by admitting that he was rather harsh in his criticisms, but that he still thinks them valid.
The next few chapters are, in content and style, very similar to the material in his Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods—short to medium-length pieces on various top-notch judoka and their dojos. Art Broadbent, the Budokwai in London, and E. J. Harrison are just a few of those mentioned. Several of the pieces are by other writers, such as Harrison, Shaw Desmond, and Trevor Leggett, culled from the thirtieth issue of the Budokwai’s quarterly magazine, Judo. These pieces add not just other voices to Martial Musing’s mix, but give a sense of depth of time and experience to the club and its activities. That must have been one heck of a demanding—and giving—group.
That isn’t to say there wasn’t controversy, but I’ll let Smith tell you about its squabbles with the South African Robinson clan. This group of rowdies and bullies, fictionalized, was the basis for the Fancher clan in the “Pop Songs and Pa-qua” chapter of the John Gilbey book, The Way of a Warrior. For me, this story only proves the frailty of organizations founded on martial activities. People being who—and what—they are, someone’s bound to disagree with some degree of animosity and violence, especially in the martial arts.
The Chinese Boxing approach continues with Smith dropping more names than there are berries on a bush. But his saving grace is that he actually knew most of these people. One is the aforementioned and famed judoka and martial arts writer, E. J. Harrison. Smith never met Harrison in person, but the two carried on a correspondence until Harrison’s death in 1960. Their friendship was based on mutual interests in wrestling, judo, and writing, and they collaborated on at least one journal article. According to Smith, “Harrison was the first foreigner to knock at the Japanese judo door,” first learning the art in Yokohama, then later at the Kodokan in Tokyo.
Harrison’s life and experiences rate Smith’s somewhat lengthy treatment, as do those of Donn Draeger, the subject of the next chapter. A prolific author and master of many martial skills and weapons, Draeger was another of Smith’s occasional writing collaborators. His life was worthy of a book, but we’ll have to settle for Draeger: Pioneering Leader in Asian Martial Traditions (Via Media Publishing Co. 2016), a short volume edited by Smith from two long letters Draeger wrote to him on historical swordsmanship. In Martial Musings, Smith distills Draeger’s life to twenty-one pages, but brevity does not necessarily mean lack of depth. Smith knew Draeger well, and his reminisces show the man’s personal side as well as professional.
Next up is Jon Bluming, a Dutch judoka who Smith and Draeger met after watching him perform well in a match. A number of Bluming exploits follow. In one, Bluming’s old gi jacket was stolen from his car one night, so he and a friend laid a trap by planting bait in the car. From Smith’s report, it could have been a scene from a movie in which the martial arts protagonist beats up some street thugs.
The Draeger and Bluming chapters naturally segue into a chapter on John Gilbey. For those who don’t know of Gilbey, he’s the author of three books on the martial arts: Secret Fighting Arts of the World, The Way of a Warrior, and Western Boxing and World Wrestling. After the first of these, Secret Fighting Arts of the World, was released in 1962, it created a bit of a stir among readers of martial arts literature. Gilbey, his thumbnail bio claimed, was a hugely successful businessman with a Ph.D. whose fortune gave him the opportunity to travel the world over, following his true love: the martial arts. Through the course of the book—and the second, The Way of a Warrior—Gilbey meets martial artists of many styles and stripes in locals as diverse as Taiwan, Scandinavia, Hawaii, Patagonia, and the mainland U.S. The third book, which is a straightforward historical survey, focuses entirely on Western boxing and world wrestling.
Most early readers of the first Gilbey book—and many even now—swallowed the Gilbey line whole, not even noticing the hook. Here’s a review of the book from its Amazon.com page:
Very educational book about the secret fighting arts of the world. The author has done a lot of traveling all around the world searching out people based on rumors to see if they were true. Some of the techniques talked about in this book can have very devastating effects and long term injuries. It is a good read, but none of it should be tried at home unless there is an experienced person available.
The hook was that Gilbey was “born” in 1961 when Donn Draeger suggested that Smith adopt a more hard-boiled persona to write a book that parodied Smith’s own writings while at the same time exposing the excesses that exist in much of martial arts literature and lore. Jon Bluming got in on the act, and Smith says that one chapter in The Way of a Warrior was written by notable judoka Bill Paul.
Gilbey’s creators felt sure that readers would be smart enough to see through the ruse, but they were mistaken. Readers believed. Gilbey was cited and sighted. Numerous people wrote or told Smith that they’d met Gilbey in this place or that, and one man even claimed to be Gilbey’s son. Smith was not unaware of the flakiness of some martial artists and instructors. He criticizes them robustly throughout Martial Musings. But surely the responses he received regarding Gilbey cemented the point.
But let’s not dismiss the Gilbey books outright. Smith says that about half of the material is genuine. As for the other half, well, readers of fiction are well aware of the fact that you sometimes have to tell a lie to reveal a larger truth. This is another review from the book’s Amazon.com page:
Have you ever actually DONE the moves “Gilbey” describes???? I trained off and on with Robert Smith back in the ’60s and we discussed this book. He pointed out that very few people would see it as what it really was...a basic text on martial arts. He asked me how many of the chapters had I applied and developed as tools to use in combat? I first applied the Cantonese corkscrew technique from Xingyi. In a short time I applied it during a Karate free fight, and the person I was fighting doubled up, throwing up all over the mat. I then went to work applying the rest of the chapters and found good results across the board. So don’t read this book as a “fairy tale”. Treat it like what it is, a text book on martial arts very skillfully written by a true master, Robert Smith.
Smith continues Martial Musings with more profiles of notable judoka and some of their students: Takahiko Ishikawa, Masahiko Kimura, Bill Paul, and Pat O’Neill. The chapter on the latter leads into one on O’Neill’s mentor, the legendary military combat expert William E. Fairbairn. While Smith acknowledges the contributions of these two men to structured military combat training, he is somewhat critical of many of the techniques of their system. But I’ll let Smith tell you all that in his own words.
Smith’s involvement in the martial arts expanded—and simultaneously found focus—when the CIA assigned him to Taiwan in 1959. “This was to be a watershed event in my life. I had heard and read and written about Chinese boxing for years and here suddenly was Taiwan chock-full of every variety hard and soft.” Soon after being introduced to, especially, expert exponents of the internal martial arts, he gradually abandoned judo and wrestling and became an unwavering adherent and proselyte for tai chi, bagua, and hsing-i.
Over the next forty pages, Smith outlines the events of his three-year sojourn in Taiwan and profiles a number of the masters he worked with. Some of these men and women hadn’t been covered in Chinese Boxing, and while others had, he does not simply repeat himself here but adds additional information on them. Toward the end of the chapter, he describes his initial encounters with Cheng Man-ching, who he came to consider to be a singularly adept master far superior to any other he met in any martial discipline. He does not go deeply into Cheng here, but saves him for a later chapter of his own.
Following his stint in Taiwan, Smith returned to the U.S. and again took up judo, but his interest in it and wrestling and boxing were waning. He’d become critical of the changes he saw in the judo’s culture, and he believed that the rules of judo competition were in serious need of overhaul. “There is undue stress on contest judo,”he writes. “Judo today is strictly a varsity affair for the few who survive the bangings.” The competition aspect of judo had become less of an educational blending of forces and more of a contest of barely suppressed violence, leading the sport to become too much like ultimate fighting, with punching, kicking, tackling, and throws off the mat.
Smith also was critical of what he considered to be antiquated ritual surrounding judo, which, in his view, diminished the sport. “I think it beneficial that we rid the art of its ritual. The ritual actually contrives to rob the art of the courtesy which it is meant to nurture.… The Japanese ritual injected into a foreign milieu too often becomes mumbo-jumbo mystique for the masses.”
The next chapter concerns Smith’s segue from judo to the Chinese internal martial arts—mostly tai chi, but with bagua and hsing-i strong in the mix—which transpired over the course of a decade. “I found that judo espouses softness and suppleness and geared its techniques to those qualities,” he writes. “Judo was the high school of soft. Taiji, I learned the first time I touched Zheng Manqing, was its college.” He quit practicing judo in 1972 but says that it never entirely left him. By then, he’d already begun teaching tai chi at the YMCA in Bethesda.
Smith recounts some of his experiences with students—the good, the bad, and the ugly. While a few of his stories expose a touch of the curmudgeonly attitude that plagues his observations with growing intensity throughout the second half of the book, almost all have valid points to make. As for the curmudgeonly attitude, well, some people do not brook fools lightly, and a man with Smith’s profile and reputation was bound to draw crazies, lazies, liars, egotists, and the overly ambitious as well as the sincere and dedicated. And he did. But by all accounts, Smith was an experienced and generous teacher who salted his lessons with anecdotes and treated with kindness those who didn’t rub him the wrong way. If he taught anything like he wrote, his classes must have been fun and informative as well as instructive.
A lot of the material in this chapter has to do with teaching—by both the qualified and the unqualified. His bagua and hsing-i teacher, Paul Guo, told him:
You are capable of teaching but my advice is – Don’t do it! Don’t teach. You will invest your time, energy, and love and usually nothing comes back. The students always think they know more than you. They don’t believe you; they stop short; they are disloyal. They try to bend you to their own egotistic purposes. And in the end they disappoint you and end by breaking your heart.
As anyone who has taught tai chi knows, Guo’s advice and criticisms are valid, but thank goodness Smith didn’t take heed. If he had, we’d not only have no teaching by Smith, but fewer books. And while Smith did encounter his fair share of dud students, a few of whom he talks about though not by name, he also had many who thrived. As did he. The truth is, teaching is valuable for the student, but it is equally valuable for the teacher. The teacher who doesn’t learn while teaching needs to go back to school, and apparently, Smith was a good enough teacher that he also was an inveterate learner.
In the following chapter, Smith returns to his work at the CIA—or more properly, he layers the chapter with progressively critical observations on the War in Vietnam. These days, all this is ancient history, but for oldsters like me who were alive and cognizant at the time, much of what he talks about still resonates. There are no deep, dark spy secrets here, but the general political situation in America and the CIA at the time is taken to task.
The chapter after returns to the subject of teaching and the qualities of a good teacher. Certainly knowledge and experience in a teacher’s field are required, but those may not be of paramount importance. Grade school science teachers do not require a Ph.D. in physics to accurately teach students the basics any more than a grade school science teacher could instruct Ph.D. students. Knowledge and expertise are relative, but for Smith, there is one quality that cuts across teaching in all disciplines, and that is love.
Smith began teaching bagua and hsing-i to a few students, and his experiences with those classes are the subjects of the next chapter. Here, too, the narrative benefits from enlightening and often amusing stories of failed students and foolish and arrogant visitors. These tales only highlight the absolute miasma that constantly hovers around the martial arts world, settling here and there and too-frequently contaminating martial artists with lies, slander, innuendo, chicanery, phony bravado, and complete BS. But Smith kept teaching because that miasma cannot contaminate the dedicated soul able to penetrate the veil to the truer core of whatever art they practice. And so, Smith also presents vignettes of a couple of more dedicated students, and the chapter includes a list of observations and suggestions on learning bagua and hsing-i penned by one of his senior students—a list that is largely applicable to tai chi, as well.
The next chapter profiles Rose Li, an internal martial artist Smith calls, “the best female internal boxer I ever met.” Since he’d met a few who were top-notch, his praise here means a great deal. Li began her martial arts study at age eight under of famed internal master Deng Yunfeng, an associate of Sun Lutang, among other notable masters. She remained with Deng for fifteen years, during which time he became a second father to her. Deng often invited other masters to teach classes, giving Li a wide-ranging background in the internal arts. As usual, the narrative is filled with anecdotes and mini-bios that give a sense of personality to the players. And there is much good advice and many excellent suggestions in this chapter regarding the practice of the internal arts.
Weapons take up the next chapter, with Smith acknowledging that, aside from bayonet training during his military service and a little staff work later, he has relatively little experience with them. His attitudes toward weapons was colored by a hunting experience he once had, and he spends a couple of pages writing about sport hunting, the NRA, and the increasing proliferation of guns. Unsurprisingly, he is on the side of less proliferation rather than more. This was prior to the 2000s and the horrendous and far-too-numerous mass shootings that have plagued the decades since, and I have to wonder what he’d think of our current violent state of affairs.
Smith’s writerly career and the writers who influenced him come next, and many of his martial arts readers might be surprised that he frequently wrote non-martial arts essays, articles, opinion pieces, and reviews for a great number of magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Guardian. He eventually became disenchanted with the Washington Post, saying the paper had become, as he puts it, “downright illiberal,” and he quit writing for it. Among the many writers who influenced him were Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, George Orwell, G. K. Chesterton, Kay Boyle, and others, some obscure to readers today. He also recounts interviewing several notable writers—including, Sir Victor Pritchett, Frank Waters, Farley Mowat, Richard Adams, and Ray Bradbury—each telling including some amusing anecdote or other interesting tidbit.
Cheng Man-ching and his last decade are covered in the following chapter. Smith doesn’t give a thorough rendition of these years, leaving that to two books by Wolfe Lowenthal—There Are No Secrets: Professor Cheng Man-ch’ing and His Tai Chi Chuan and Gateway to the Miraculous: Further Explorations into the Tao of Cheng Man-Ch’ing—which, Smith says, “catch this time brilliantly.” What he does is present insights into Cheng’s character and accomplishments as a “Master of the Five Excellences”—painting, calligraphy, poetry, medicine, and tai chi. There are stories here, too, and the chapter gives Smith the opportunity to dilate on “mystical” tai chi, conserving the sexual essence, chi (qi), jing (tenacious energy), and the Tao.
A section on Cheng’s teachings, more specifically, comes next, and Smith does his best to explain that—and how—Cheng actually embodied the teachings he espoused. This is what made Cheng a Master of the Five Excellences, what made him such a superlative martial artist. As Smith states several times, many martial artists can win by hurting their opponents, but Cheng was the only one he met who could defeat an opponent without hurting him. And he was so yielding, that none could hurt him.
Such miraculous skill seems almost unworldly—outside of martial arts cinema, that is. Certainly Smith, thanks to his long years of personal practice and numerous encounters with martial artists of all stripes and degrees of expertise, knew true mastery when he saw—and felt—it. And Cheng had elevated his skill to a seriously high level. “How is this possible?” Smith asks, then answers:
He never tired of telling his secret. His Thirteen Chapters delineated the process fully. As a start, he advised us to do taiji as though it were a common everyday thing and something we did very well. Don’t posture and don’t pose. Do it as though you were walking…. Relax and sink, stand erect, and keep your qi at your dantian.
Famed tai chi exponent T. T. Liang, who was Smith’s first tai chi teacher and who learned from Cheng and at least fifteen other boxing masters, put Professor Cheng at the top. Liang is given a thumbnail bio here, followed by a slightly longer one on Cheng student Tam Gibbs. Then come more amusing stories about students and wannabes that further expose the lunatic fringe that surrounds the martial arts.
Any lunatic fringe requires an attractor to draw it and keep it floating around, and in the case of the martial arts, the attractor comprises the solid, knowledgeable, and truly remarkable people and amazing abilities at the core of the martial arts. Only people with that kind of gravitas can attracts such a cloud of debris. (I don’t mean to imply that gravitas is good or bad, but if the lunatic fringe of a generally positive attractor like the martial arts is unethical and otherwise corrupt, despair at the kind of madness and havoc that can be fomented by the lunatic fringe of a totally corrupt ideal.)
Thank goodness there are people like Ben Lo at the core of tai chi. Professor Cheng’s premier student, Lo began as sickly youth—so debilitated that he could not stand upright—but by the time Smith knew him, he’d become a respected master in his own right. Despite his statement that “I only got a little” from Professor Cheng, he was able, Smith says, to perform amazing martial feats without exhibiting the use of strength. Lo brought his tai chi to America, trained many students here, penned important additions to martial arts literature, and provided Smith with a bunch of humorous anecdotes to give character to the narrative. But those aren’t at the expense of lessons here and there on Lo’s methodology, particularly his insistence on training the root with rigorous leg exercises.
Next is an amusing set of encounters between Professor Cheng and Guo Lianyin, an internal martial arts teacher who’d been featured in the Sam Peckinpah movie, The Killer Elite. The story includes Smith’s hsing-i and bagua teacher, Paul Guo, but it and its denouement are Smith’s stories, so you’ll have to read the book to find out what happened. More of Professor Cheng’s encounters—and students—follow. One vignette, a visit with internal exponent Liu Xiheng, includes a very nice Q&A on tai chi principles. But immediately after, Smith goes into an issue that obviously vexed him, for that vexation comes through clearly in the section titled, “I Defend Laoshi.”
“Professor Zheng was envied and attacked by some in Asia, but few critics on the gossip-route ever stopped by to brace him,” Smith writes. “All who did were abruptly converted. A few who never visited sneered publicly.” Smith goes on to cite examples of people who denounced Cheng for a variety of reasons. Some said he was too small and gentle and his movements were too weak to produce any real fighting skill. Others said Cheng wasn’t truly a student of Yang Cheng-fu as he claimed.
Smith soundly refutes all such claims, avowing that, while Professor Cheng was small and gentle, he also was superlative and resolute in his skills. Smith was there, so he should know. And as he points out, many of Cheng’s critics “have never met or touched this man.” Unless they tried him on for size themselves, their words were empty and meaningless. “Only Cheng could beat you without hurting you,” Smith writes. “That, friends, is body management.” The same could be said of Yang Lu-chan, who also was reputedly undefeated yet never seriously injured an opponent.
As for the claim that Cheng’s bonafides regarding Yang are fraudulent, Smith presents the irrefutable evidence that Yang’s top student, Chen Wei-ming, acknowledged that Cheng was right up there at the top with him. Further, Cheng assisted Chen in ghostwriting Yang’s book, Yang’s Complete Principles and Applications of Taichi Ch’uan, and he wrote the preface. He would not have been allowed to participate so deeply in this project had he not been highly regarded by Yang himself. For further evidence, check out my look at a book by Chen Wei-ming, which might be the Chinese version of Chen’s T’ai Chi Ch’uan Ta Wen—I can’t tell for sure because the book is in Chinese, which I cannot read. This book contains several photos of Chen pushing hands with a young Cheng.
Then comes the chapter on Cheng’s death and its aftermath. With the master gone, the disciples fractured into camps based, too often, Smith writes, on ego and jealousy. But not always. A few carried on in a tradition that Smith lauds as being most in keeping with Cheng’s own teachings. And Smith is careful here not to use names when he feels it might be inappropriate. So don’t look for in-depth gossip, though the fracture lines of the issues become perfectly clear.
What isn’t so clear now is Cheng’s earlier statements on the “secret” to tai chi: “Do taiji as though it were a common everyday thing…. Don’t posture and don’t pose. Do it as though you were walking…. Relax and sink, stand erect, and keep your qi at your dantian.” Sounds easy, in principle, and though we know it’s not easy in practice, at least it is possible to follow this method. But here, Smith says:
Zheng was unique, a happy aberration. He was able through tedious practice (much of it so arcane that it is a safe bet that it resides now in no living person) to take an intelligent and creative mind and to soften, reduce, and even empty it in the service of a none-too-robust body.
Based on this statement, it looks like all that earlier business about mastery was actually incomplete, and without Cheng’s tedious, arcane, and now lost practices, well, good luck in attaining that level. But there are Ben Lo, William C. C. Chen, T. T. Liang, and other superlative tai chi practitioners whose martial careers sprouted from or cross-pollinated with Professor Cheng’s tradition and who gained much that they have passed on to new generations.
The next chapter, “The Weird and Wild,” takes another swim in waters teeming with toothless martial arts sharks, frauds, and kung foolishness. For the most part, Smith doesn’t identify the assorted miscreants he talks about, but no matter. Their name is legion, giving Smith the opportunity to lambaste their ignorance, fraudulence, and other misdeeds. He speaks from experience and from the heart, and much of his criticism is a valid as sunshine, but when he turns a jaundiced eye on martial arts terminology and attacks, in the following chapter, “The Bogus Hollywood,” martial arts cinema, I feel I have to parse his comments more fully. So I’ll digress on these two chapters later. For now, let’s finish our survey of the book
In 1989, Smith retired from the CIA and moved to the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina. He speaks of that in comfortable terms flavored with nostalgic memories of those from whom he learned and with whom he practiced but who were no longer in this world. Smith was not done with the martial arts, however, and in North Carolina, he met Tim Geoghegan, a transplanted Irishman who was an osteopath and first-rate martial artist, mostly in boxing, wrestling, and judo.
After profiling Geoghegan, Smith digresses a bit on music he loved. A lot of the musicians he mentions are long gone and forgotten, but he would be insulted and think you were a musical idiot if you didn’t know of them and their music. Now, I love music, too, but here, he’s kind of like that guy in the local bar who can cite every baseball statistic from the last century—a lot of “so what?” information. But if it makes Smith feel like all that was “real” music, unlike the stuff we listen to today, well, okay. It’s his book.
Smith then spends a short chapter extolling the virtues of poetry that contains elements of the martial arts, and he cites a few examples. The final few sections begin with this:
Winding down after this blizzard of words, I paraphrase philosopher Schopenhauer to the effect that we spend our lives in search of something and when, after a great struggle, we finally achieve it, we are not satisfied so much as relieved that the damned quest is over. Yes, relief there is and a body meant for rest, but there remains also the responsibility to leave something coherent for the reader to retain.
He closes, then, with a few reflections on teaching the martial arts, which he says was as much for himself as for his students. He also expresses hope for the future of the martial arts despite the dilution, chicanery, competitiveness, strains of violence, and growing commercialism he’s often railed against in these pages.
With all Smith’s railing in mind, let’s return to the chapters, “The Weird and Wild” and “The Bogus Hollywood.” There are several issues to deal with regarding these chapters, in which, for me, Smith too often falls into the same traps he sets for others. And for my taste, he swims a little too far into the gulf of cynicism regarding anyone and anything he does not consider to be legitimate in his eyes. So, though I reaffirm that I admire Smith greatly and have been an avid reader of his work, I also recognize that, in this reality, all men have feet of clay, and Smith was no exception. I’d say that everyone he does consider legitimate truly is so, but some of his negative criticism is off the mark or falls short. So I feel I have to take Smith to task for what I perceive as a strong surge of ill-directed spleen, though when it comes to his critiques of martial arts flakes, well, I tend to go along.
He states in the introduction, “Critics have called me outspoken and controversial. But someone has to be, otherwise who would tell the emperor that he is naked?” He does this, he says, because “I protest against things I think are wrong: evil, hatred, hunger, and war. I’m for goodness, love, full bellies, and peace.” Okay. I can get behind that sentiment, but now I find myself in the position of being the one to inform the emperor that, though he is not naked, his clothing is in some disarray. I hope Smith will forgive me from the grave, but it is my task in life to play the critic, and many of his attitudes expose whole realms of martial arts ossification and hypocrisy that, it seems, none of us can fully escape and that violate Smith’s own aforementioned precept of “nothing in excess.”
He begins “The Weird and Wild” by vociferously damning “teachers (invariably they crown themselves ‘masters’) of taiji who are wrongos of the worst stripe.” Even at my relatively low level, I’ve encountered a fair share and whole-heartedly agree with Smith on almost every point. I’ve written about some, in fact. But it seems that, in Smith’s opinion, any tai chi teacher other than those of the highest caliber could be anything less than a “wrongo of the worst stripe.” Does he mean that every grassroots tai chi teacher should be avoided like a plague?
So, while Smith is honest about his opinions, some of them can’t really be justified and often rub the wrong way. Put it like this: He’s honest about his own opinions, though sometimes those opinions are rather opinionated. And here I get into dangerous territory as I attempt to correct the master on several points. I’ll not take them in order but will begin with the simplest: martial arts terminology.
When Smith lambastes the use of the term “kung fu” instead of “wushu,” I begin to catch whiffs of mental ossification. Okay, in a limited technical sense, he’s right. Or was. “Kung fu” really means “excellence achieved through effort over time,” not “Chinese fighting arts.” Or does it?
Dictionaries fall into two basic types: prescriptive and descriptive. The former presents the formal definitions of words to which speakers and writers are expected to adhere, while the latter provides definitions according to how words are used by their speakers. Most of the time, the two are largely the same, but not always. And every year or two, compilers of both types of dictionaries have to add and subtract words to keep current. The Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of the English Language from 1974 does not define “kung fu” at all, but Merriam Webster’s College Dictionary (10th edition), from 1995, does—as “any of various Chinese arts of self-defense like karate.” Somewhere in that twenty-year span, English speakers became aware enough of “kung fu” that it was added to dictionaries. I prefer descriptive dictionaries because, in daily speech, words mean what people think they mean, not necessarily what they meant in the past or what people elsewhere dictate them to mean.
Smith cites the word “wushu” as being the more proper term, but even during the time he was writing this book, the term “wushu” had taken on two different meanings in China: one referring to the traditional martial arts (Smith’s definition) and the other referring to acrobatic displays of martial movements not necessarily tied to real self-defense—more like a gymnastic sport. While the word looks the same to English readers, the pronunciations are different: “wu-shu” for the acrobatic art and “wu-ssu” for the traditional arts. Even Smith acknowledges the differences, though not in specific terms and not here. But the truth is, even many Chinese people now use “kung fu” to denote the Chinese fighting arts and “wushu” for the acrobatic art. Smith may prefer “wushu” for all of it, but the sands of time have shifted the language beneath his feet. (Such things happen if you live long enough.) Nor does he admit that the English language is as much borrowed as it is indigenous and is constantly changing. Language is a living thing, and to insist on it remaining static is to insist on stagnation. The language Smith learned as a schoolboy prior to World War II, is not the language of the 21st century.
He then takes on the term “martial art.” The word “martial,” he says, is too harsh, and the word “art” is too nebulous.
Are these fighting systems arts? Or are they simply skills of varying levels, which on the higher levels sometimes become artistic? It is a helluva stretch to connect fighting or martial to art. We don’t add an “art” to music, history, philosophy, medicine, and other occupations. As bad as “martial art” is, “martial artist” is worse. Through the magic of euphemism, even the garbage collector or hauler can become a sanitary engineer, or more concisely a garbitian, but he would never call himself a garbage artist.
Well, no, actually we do call a lot of things “arts” and people “artists,” even some he says we don’t. There are the medical arts, the plastic arts, the cinematic arts, the art of map making, liberal arts, sword art, the occult arts (black arts), dramatic arts (theatre arts), literary arts, and oratory arts, to name a few. And some of their practitioners are called musical artists (recording artists), aerial artists, and con artists. We even have Sun Tsu’s The Art of War, an entire book on macro martial arts and strategy.
The brunt of all this is that the word “art” has come to mean any object or set of actions or skills that exhibit excellence in aesthetics as well as structure, and “artist” refers not just someone who creates what is generally thought of as art, but anyone who has become consummate in some skill or other. You could rightly say of a master welder that he is a true artist of his trade—and if you’ve ever seen examples of sculptures welded by “non-artist” welders, you’d agree. If Smith wants to complain about any term that includes “artist,” it should be “kung fu artist,” which is a tautology. Anyway, his alternative, “combatives,” isn’t any better than “martial arts” and has an odor of violence that would turn off most tai chi folks who might accept that the art has a martial basis but who have no desire to engage in combat.
Now let’s look at Smith’s criticisms of sport-style martial arts such as judo, wrestling, boxing, and mixed martial arts. Elsewhere in the book, he points out that most judoka are too busted up by age forty to take another fall. After all, Earth is the biggest fist we have available, and it slams judoka every time they tumble. And later in life, he felt that judo had become violence-oriented, wrestling was mostly a sham, and boxing was brutality personified in two men beating each others’ heads until no brains remained in them. “Although I grew up liking professional boxing—and Lord forgive me, I even promoted amateur boxing,” he writes, “I have long since believed that all boxing should be banned. Boxing is too brutal for civilized societies.”
I tend to agree, but when he writes, “Boxing is the only sport that has injury as its aim,” I have to take exception. Perhaps the statement is true if you label boxing a sport rather than a martial art. If you change the statement to read, “Boxing is the only martial art that has injury as its aim,” well, that’s clearly not true. Every martial art has injury (or at least the defeat of the opponent) as its aim. That why it’s a martial art. In any fight, the goals are to avoid injury and deal defeat. A rare martial artist superior enough to his or her opponent might be able to deliver defeat without injury, but such cases are the exception, not the norm. And besides, what does such a person do if the enemy keeps coming back, determined to inflict harm? Would even Cheng Man-ching simply divert him time and again, ad infinitum, or would he decide at some point that enough is enough and deliver a damaging move?
Throughout the book, Smith constantly decries most martial sport competition and challenges to prove superiority, saying it’s all too brutal—violence for the sake of violence. But also throughout, he relates—often almost gleefully—a large number of martial encounters of various sorts, from sparring in a gym or dojo to formal challenges to harsh words and harsher fists in some back alley. Often these occur to defend reputations or to teach miscreants a well-deserved lesson. Sometimes he’s forwarding some story or anecdote he’s heard, sometimes he’s describing something he personally witnessed, and occasionally he’s at the center of the melee. And he even disparages martial artists who refuse challenges, not because they’re superior, but precisely because they are inferior and know but won’t admit it.
It’s useful, then, to examine Smith’s take on mixed martial arts fighting, which Smith refers to as “Ultimate” and which is perhaps close to being the ultimate example of the purely fighting end of the martial arts spectrum. Smith takes it to task, referring to it as a “beastly activity reflecting nothing so much as a terribly neurotic insecurity in participants and fans.” He also states, “Ultimate fighting is ridiculous. It has minimal regulations, making for a brutal, dangerous hash that most competent fighters avoid, although their technical competence is much higher than the rag-tag participants Ultimate pulls, and they would have a fairly easy time of it if they entered.”
Unfortunately, this statement has not borne out. I’m no fan of mixed martial arts. Quite the opposite. I appreciate the small amount of martial skill I’ve gained through tai chi—and I think that developing at least some martial skill is important because it helps the practitioner learn more about the deeper aspects of the movements they practice. But I mostly practice tai chi for the self-development, not fighting. The men and women of MMA, however, train to take pain as well as deliver it in practical and intense circumstances. They don’t train for self-development, they train to fight and win. The few bouts I’ve seen between MMA fighters and martial arts “masters” of various stripes invariably ended with the master on the floor, out cold, within seconds. These masters might know their styles, but they haven’t trained incessantly as fighters. It’s probably true that profoundly competent martial masters might easily win the day if they entered, but that’s not likely to happen. At least not in MMA. And if they were to enter and win, victory would come only because they, too, have diligently practiced real fighting.
But as outlined above, Smith delights in relating many tales of street fights and honor challenges fought. None of these fights had any regulations, and by all reports, some of those contests would make MMA look like a schoolyard scuffle and often ended in serious injury, maiming, and death. Such an outcome was accepted by all, but if an MMA fighter regularly killed or maimed his opponents in the ring, he’d soon face multiple sorts of trouble, from the legal to being ousted from the sport.
So, aside from that, I fail to see much difference between street and honor fighting and MMA beyond the fact that MMA fighters appear to do it for money, while those fighting in the streets or for honor—even master-on-master—usually do it for ego. But for MMA fighters, it’s also about ego, and for masters and other teachers, it’s also about money, because money pays the bills. Another teacher in town is likely to take away students, so the teachers go at it, not just to prove who’s best, but to make sure their practice hall stays full of paying students. So fighting almost always is about ego and money. And despite the fact that Smith rails against mixed martial arts fighters, he does not acknowledge that they strive and train just as hard—and probably harder—than most martial artists to reach a high level in their discipline. But heck, he even denies legitimacy to Muhammad Ali.
Nowhere, however, is Smith as critical as he is of martial arts cinema, which he takes to task in “The Bogus Hollywood.” To put it simply, he despises and deplores every martial arts film and every man and woman martial artist in them. But the truth is, most blanket statements are structurally faulty and factually false, and Smith’s attack on cinematic martial arts is no different.
I’m not here to defend martial arts cinema and actors from Smith’s attacks. His criticisms are valid for a lot of martial arts cinema, much of which is vapidity laced with egregious and phony violence. And often its actors are not all that great martial artists. Or actors. But clearly a number of them were—or are—extremely expert. BS kung fu posturing on a movie set says nothing at all about an actor’s true knowledge and skill. But Smith takes them to task, each and every one, with a special animosity for Bruce Lee, who he berates for five pages. I’m not going to play the Bruce Lee apologist here. I’ve enjoyed his movies and the honor the visibility he brought to kung fu in America, but I’m not what you might call a devotee.
Smith derides Lee for his tension and barely concealed anger, and he states that Lee did not participate in tournaments and that none of his street fights could be verified. Thus, he concludes, Lee was a well-built actor who could mimic kung fu movements but could not really fight. These are very common criticisms of Lee, even today. But I have watched several of the biopics on Lee (which aren’t necessarily trustworthy) and watched many interviews with many topnotch martial artists who knew and practiced with or fought him, and to a person, they laud his skills as being of the highest order. Smith, however, wouldn’t take the words of any of these men and women as truth because, in his view, they’re all pathetic and incompetent, too.
Unfortunately, Smith too often has had harsh words for the concept of tournament fighting, which he felt had devolved into sport brutality engaged in by incompetent martial artists, to give his criticism of Lee’s lack of tournament participation any real bite. And as noted above, Smith relates stories of a great many street and honor fights engaged in by kung fu greats, and he often accepts them a credible despite the evidence for them being purely anecdotal, but then he is automatically dismissive of similar stories told about Lee.
He then says that Lee did not study kung fu conventionally and therefore could not know anything of value, ignoring the fact that there are in this world men and women of amazing and natural talent and skill—physical or otherwise—for whom systems are not sails but anchors. If she only mimicked her predecessors, incredible gymnast Simone Biles could never do the amazing acrobatic feats she seems to do with ease to earn more than thirty Olympic and World Championship medals. If David Belle had just accepted pushups and sit-ups as a workout, he would never have invented Parkour, which takes inspiration from martial arts film stars Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jean-Claude van Damme as well as from chi kung and other physical disciplines. Just two decades later, Parkour advocates prove that you don’t have to be Spiderman to be able to do amazing feats of climbing, leaping, jumping, swinging, and so forth. Smith has lavishly praised Professor Cheng as one such self-inventive man and does so for a handful of others, such as Morihei Ueshiba and Donn Draeger. These people—and I could name dozens more of the top of my head across many disciplines—prove that training doesn’t have to be formal traditional training to have meaning and utilitarian value.
And finally, Smith criticizes Lee’s skill from a distance—which is exactly what he slams Professor Cheng’s detractors for doing. Those detractors, he says, never touched hands with Cheng to feel his ability to yield and to deliver real power, but Smith never accorded Lee the same courtesy before damning him as a fake. If he had, maybe his observations might have borne out, maybe not. Again, I’m not being a Bruce Lee apologist here, simply pointing out that if criticisms of Professor Cheng’s martial skill by those who never met him are, de facto, worthless, then so are Smith’s of Lee.
But all Smith has done with Lee is briefly observe him in one of his early movies—and not even much of that before he walked out in disgust, determined that what was presented there was cinematic and phony. So what? Would anybody expect less. Or more? It’s a movie, after all, not real life. I prefer to listen more openly to the statements made by his contemporaries, who lauded Lee for his excellence and expertise and say they witnessed actual martial encounters he had. Are they all totally incompetent to judge? Are they all liars?
I have to wonder what caused Smith’s obvious vitriol toward Lee, and all I can come up with are the yin and yang of things. When Smith went to Taiwan, his main associations seemed to have been with internal stylists, of who he found a number of excellent examples. He had enough hard-style training with Western boxing and a little karate and Shaolin to recognize that flexible skills utilizing intrinsic energy were very likely to be superior to hard style martial arts with their emphasis on strength and speed—if for no other reason than, as we age, strength and speed naturally wane, but intrinsic energy can continue to increase.
We also have to take into account the often-antagonistic schism that exists between the internal and external martial arts, with exponents of each deriding and scorning the other. If Smith found himself associating almost exclusively with expert soft stylists, there would have been a fair amount of subtle—or not-so-subtle—discrimination against the hard styles that might have amounted to a sort of indoctrination against them and their practitioners.
Further, once Smith began studying the Chinese internal martial arts, he naturally sought and found a paragon of soft, intrinsic energy in Cheng Man-ching. Lee’s method was at polar opposites: extreme yang to Cheng’s extreme yin. In his book, Heal Yourself and the World with Tai-chi, Bob Klein writes, “To let the body absorb attention, you must let go of attention rather than holding it rigid. The rigidity of attention makes the body rigid. Rigidity separates attention from the body. That is why we practice to relax the body and to relax the attention—so that the two can merge.” (Bob Klein, 2021, p. 124). I tend to go along with Klein, but I also acknowledge that the world is filled with all sorts of people with all sorts of proclivities, many of which are as unfathomable as life itself.
Professor Cheng’s true artistry in artistry was at the flexible, yin end of the martial arts spectrum, while Lee’s true artistry in fighting was at the rigid, yang end. Reality has a way of balancing out between extremes, and it is not possible for one or the other of those extremes to be superior to the other—at least among martial artists in their prime. If such a thing were to happen, the balance of nature would be upset. If the one that becomes inferior is no longer the extreme it once was, another entity or idea will appears to become the new and very similar extreme. But perhaps Smith wasn’t thinking of balance, but saw Lee, even if only unconsciously, as the antithesis of all he’d come to believe and trust about the internal arts. If Lee, even in his “rigid” state, were a truly effective and superlative fighter, that would put lie to the internal arts’ claim of soft superiority in combat.
I’m not claiming superiority here of any method or style, though most of us tend to believe in the martial art we practice, otherwise we wouldn’t practice it. As far as I can tell, it’s not the martial art that counts, but the martial artist. Martial style has to do with taste and proclivities—and sometimes availability. Superiority lies, as with Cheng, within the individual. Cheng was a superlative of his method, as Lee presumably was of his. I’m not judging the skills of either, either of whom could wipe the floor with me. Who would win a fight between the two? Who cares? Only a small-minded person would want to see either beaten to a pulp, though it would be interesting and instructive to see how such polar opposites would deal with each other. But apparently for Smith, Lee’s biggest sin is that he died early precisely because he was one tense fellow unable to relax.
Again I say, so what? To expect a person like Lee to walk the path of a Professor Cheng is to desire to subvert the course of nature. One does not expect an apple to taste like or have the consistency of a kiwi, though both are fruit. Each of us are who we are, and not someone else. We either show movement or we stagnate. And our movements should journey into territory we desire—or perhaps were meant to explore—instead of into someone else’s reality.
And so what if Lee died young? Even Professor Cheng died at a non-advanced age, and so have a great many other tai chi and other martial arts masters. Smith himself mentions a number of them. As far as I can tell, the point of life isn’t to live long but to live thoroughly, and one person’s thorough is not the same as another’s. There’s simply not enough life in any of us to be everything we possibly can be. Perhaps Lee was so hard and packed-in and so bursting with force, intensity, and energy because his life was to be so short and he had much to do and offer. Perhaps the human frame, no matter how well trained, cannot stand the strain of such energies, be they martial or not. The French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who died at age thirty-six, left 737 canvas paintings, 275 watercolors, 363 prints and posters, 5,084 drawings, and some ceramic and stained-glass work and helped change the face of modern art. And guess what: He had very little formal training, but mostly just studied informally with his fellow artists—read: Sparred with his dojo mates instead of learning forms or katas. Jimi Hendrix, before his death at twenty-seven, changed the face of modern music though he did not go to music school but learned music by practicing and playing music—again, practiced with his dojo mates. As I said earlier, I could name dozens of such individuals off the top of my head in a great number of fields, including the martial arts.
As for Lee, well, I don’t know. I wasn’t there any more than Smith was. Nor am I one to judge anybody at that level of skill. But I do know this: Lee might not have been an internal stylist, but the light from his shooting star, though brief, illuminated the landscape, allowing many to find a way to the martial arts. And some of those people, once the landscape was illuminated, saw the realm of the internal, saw its beauty, and felt its call.
While Smith rightly lambastes some martial arts stars, he unfairly maligns others. One is Jackie Chan, who he says does not really do his own stunts—clearly not true, as anybody who’s bothered to watch his movies or the outtakes at the ends of them can readily observe with their own eyes. Making slanderous comments based on little evidence is, from the outset, a faulty approach, as he himself has said of Professor Cheng’s critics. But the irony is, Lee’s movies probably did more to spark Western interest in the Asian martial arts than all of Smith’s books combined. Maybe that’s what really irked Smith.
Unlike Smith, I admire anybody who can approach artistry in a physical sense, from jugglers, magicians, dancers, contortionists, acrobats, and athletes to martial artists, be they masters or not. And yes, martial arts movie actors, some of whom are truly incredible athletes and probably excellent martial artists in a real sense. The achievements of all these people, no matter what their pursuits, are no less important to human advancement than scientific breakthroughs, artistic achievements, improved living conditions, or new social and cultural opportunities. All help humanity move into a greater future. There is an evolutionary imperative toward greater complexity and improved abilities through time, and the proof positive of that is in the new generations now rising, whose members show advancement in many human skills and abilities significantly beyond those of my generation.
In order for a system to change, to exhibit motion, it must overcome inertia, which is defined scientifically as resistance to changes in velocity, which remains constant until some force changes its speed or direction. In other words, objects at rest tend to remain at rest, while objects in motion tend to remain in motion—though, of course, here on Earth, gravity and friction are forces that constantly affect momentum. So in essence, every time something is moved, it is torn free, at least in part, from its connection with the surrounding reality, which produces some degree of chaos and heat at the interface, which is manifest as friction.
Cultural change is no different. Change always brings heat and turmoil until things settle, for a time, at least, into a steady state. We see this phenomenon in politics all the time, and we’re seeing it now in the martial arts, which are undergoing a tremendous sea change from the traditional to the non-traditional. It could be said that the martial arts, after their introduction to America, began to become American, mixing styles and traditions just as America’s diversity creates admixtures of race and culture. It can’t be a coincidence that the mixed martial arts began as an American phenomenon. Smith, himself, was at the core of the initial impetus of Westernizing the Asian martial arts. He might have denigrated Lee for not being a traditionalist, but remember, Smith, himself, openly advocated for dropping traditional Japanese ritual from the martial arts in America, saying it eventually reverted to “mumbo-jumbo.” And he would further admit that a great many movements from traditional martial arts styles are worthless for combat.
Add to that the fact that martial arts practitioners engage in the martial arts for more reasons than you can shake a staff at, some of which have little to do with fighting anything but humankind’s two greatest enemies: aging and lack of spiritual connection with the Tao. (Say, “God,” if you like, or “Zeus” or “Ahura Mazda” or….) Beginning with the aforementioned schism between the internal and external families, this fracturing leads to all sorts of misunderstandings and antagonisms, particularly regarding the utility and ethics of fighting. Even those of us who do not actively engage in fighting usually understand that the martial arts are, first and foremost, martial, but many of us prefer the art rather than the fighting end of the spectrum.
I think what Smith misses—or perhaps ignores—is the fact that there are several classifications of people, and one is the warrior class. Warriors tend to value utility over art, the external over internal, and the actual over potential. For them, the purpose of practicing a martial art is not to improve themselves but to more efficiently defeat an enemy. That’s what they want to do. That’s what they like to do. Smith is in a category on the opposite side of the wheel: the shaman, who values art, the internal, and the potential—the one who seeks to defeat or at least sublimate his or her own ego. As with any polarity, antagonisms and criticisms are a natural result and often are directed in a scattershot fashion meant to take down an entire mindset rather than just a few of its precepts or practitioners. For folks with the warrior personality who value success in battle, Smith’s stance is just as faulty.
I know I’ve been somewhat harsh in my criticisms, but as I age, I can see how once-vital concepts often mentally ossify into staid opinions. It’s that old dichotomy of the flexible vs the rigid, and while Smith constantly decries the latter, that’s exactly what happened to his attitudes, at least in some instances. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still deeply admire him and value his writing as some of the most important in martial arts literature ever produced. Despite its flaws, Martial Musings is an important work, not just for its description of Smith’s life and the lives of other martial artists he knew, but for the great number of significant issues it raises about the state of the martial arts in the recent past and current with his writing.
Some of the good Smith hoped for has come to pass, but much of what he considered to be the ills have proliferated far beyond his lowest expectations. The literary genre of science-fiction clearly demonstrates the dangers of prognostication because all such tales are founded on understandings in the present. Spaceship pilots of pre-computer sci-fi have switches to throw and dials to twist instead of touchscreens and voice commands. It’s hard, in other words, to predict the future when the future adds so many unpredictable elements to the flow of time.
But the passengers of that space ship, despite their questionable technology, often have important things to say to us on a human level. Specific changes in technology might be largely unpredictable, but the human aspects are not as readily altered. People largely have the same concerns they’ve always had, though maybe with a few twists added due to the rapid technological changes and cultural complexity that are flooding humanity at present. In other words, the hardware changes more rapidly and readily than the software. The same is true of the martial arts, and while the hardware —read: martial arts systems—might eventually have gotten away from Smith, in his life and work, he contributed mightily to the software that is the foundation for the modern martial arts.
I’ll wind up with a couple of details on the book. Reading is as much a technical process as it is an absorptive one. The art of good writing is to make the reading process enjoyable, informative, and smooth, while the aim of good publishing is to make the vehicle of the book as transparent as possible for the reader. This book is written with Smith’s usual style and élan, but I have a couple of issues with the book’s production. I’ll start off with praise, though. Unlike most martial arts literature that sees the light of day between paperbound covers, Martial Musings is a hardbound book printed on durable paper—a format worthy of this author and this book. However, the publisher chose to use a coated paper stock that is less than ideal.
Coated paper is a paper with a light amount of clay impressed into its surface. Printers and publishers generally use a coated stock for printed pieces—particularly magazines and brochures—that have photographs and other detailed graphics. This is because the ink of graphic images will sit on top of the slick surface of coated paper and retain its crispness, where it would soak into an uncoated stock, sort of like a sponge, blurring the image even if ever so slightly. Since this book has a fair number of photographs, it’s perhaps sensible to use a coated stock, but that can lead to its own problems.
For one, this coated stock is light tan. I have any one piece of advice for publishers who want to use a colored stock: Don’t. I’ve been guilty of this myself. Once. A colored stock—even one that is light tan—lessens the contrast between the words and images on the paper, and the coating readily picks up glare from surrounding light sources. Both factors make reading more of a chore for the eyes. And it’s even worse on images, even if they’re printed in black-and-white, and in this book, they’re not. All the photos are rendered in sepia tones, seriously lessening the contrast of the images as much as any potential blurring on uncoated stock might have done. Book publishers should almost always use an acid-free, non-coated white paper stock, which will both facilitate the reading process, preserve the crispness of the type and images, and provide durability.
I have another quibble with this book—and some readers might think I’m being overly picky here, but I spent a lifetime in the writing, editing, and publishing industries, and I tend to be a stickler for, if not form, then format. In this book, the page numbering begins on a left-hand page, where it should begin on the right. Most readers might not know that, but to a publications professional, it looks sloppy. What isn’t sloppy is the inclusion at the end of the book of a selected bibliography of Smith’s work, glossaries of Japanese and Chinese terms, and a good but not absolutely inclusive index.
In closing, all I can really add is, if you’re a reader of martial arts literature, you should read everything by Robert W. Smith that you can lay your hands on, including Martial Musings. You won’t be sorry.
A mostly complete bibliography of Smith’s works can be found at https://ejmas.com/jcs/jcssmith_bibliog.htm.