Thursday, September 13, 2012

Internal Martial Arts Books: Sorting Fact From Fiction

For the newcomer to Chinese internal martial arts, sorting fact from fiction is a near impossible task. In that beginner's enthusiasm, there is a tendency to trust all published material at face value. However, doing so could "muddy the waters" of developing a functional framework for practicing the internal arts.

As you know, books are typically divided into categories by subject area. For example, the Book Industry Study Group lists "Martial Arts & Self-Defense" under "Sports & Recreation". Alternatively, Plum Publications, my favorite site for martial arts books and DVDs, categorizes martial arts books by style.

Point being, if you want to find a book on Chinese internal martial arts, you are largely restricted to using the category listings of the book seller. This system may not serve your best interest. And so while these categories are effective at the level of grouping topics or titles, they do not answer the fundamental concern, "Can I trust what the author has written?"

Hopefully, applying the categories below will help you sort fact from fiction both in your book selection process and while reading that which you've selected...

Academic Scholarship
These books and journal articles may be direct translations of primary sources (original documents in the original "source" language) with an accompanying analysis or interpretation. These can also be presentations of original field research. These works can reference prior scholastic publications and typically provide footnotes and a lengthy bibliography. Works are published by a university press and meet the rigors of the scholastic, peer-reviewed methodology.

Non-Academic Scholarship
These books and journal/magazine articles are usually well written. "Facts" may be presented but the source document where this "fact" originated may or may not be referenced; may or may not be reference-able. These works may or may not include a section on "Further Reading". Quality can vary by publisher.

Autobiographical Experience or Point of View
These books and journal/magazine articles are primarily experience-based or perspective-based and typically do not include efforts at being a work of non-academic scholarship. Some of these works may include a section on "Further Reading" and are also published by a wide variety of presses.

Evaluating Chinese Nei-Gong Books
Given these three broad ways of viewing books on Chinese internal martial arts, how can you use this information to be more selective in your reading and to get a clearer understanding of what the author really has to offer?

First, there is value in reading books and articles in each of these categories. Each has something to offer and conversely, each has a hidden danger. Here are some Pros and Cons:

Academic Scholarship
  • Pro: Peer review process maintains certain academic publishing standards. It keeps everyone in line. Scholars in academia have a different audience and criteria of success than martial arts teachers publishing and selling their own books.

    Sometimes, too, scholars will re-publish their Ph.D. dissertations in a more easily accessible format for public consumption. These re-workings may either appear as books or articles.
  • Con: What is considered acceptable academic work in contemporary, scholarly circles may exclude certain documents, translations or traditions from consideration. For example, martial artists of old were usually not literate and so there is no written documentation that scholars can reference. And where old martial family poems do exist, these are usually not translated correctly by scholars because these poems are written in a "code" whose meaning is only relevant to the practitioners of that style.

    Even within academia, scholars may not be in complete agreement over certain points. Be wary of taking one author's point of view as absolute truth without reading others in the same field.

    Scholars of today look back on scholarship of even a century ago and assign new understandings and interpretations. Just because a scholar makes a particular interpretation today does not mean that that interpretation can stand the test of time. Pay attention to publication date.

    Some popular books in China about martial arts (as well as their translations) may be problematic due to the close relation of the media and publishers to the central government. I once read a bi-lingual "History of Chinese Martial Arts" which was published by a reputable university press in China and parts of it contradicted American scholarship on this topic. Who's right? Who's wrong? What and how much is a matter of interpretation? I don't know.

Non-Academic Scholarship

  • Pro: Publishing houses have a reputation to maintain though what qualifies as "publishable" is not as narrowly defined as at a university press. A wider range of valuable material can be found here.
  • Con: When references and citations are not required, editors, and not a stringent peer review process may allow some questionable documents and interpretations to be published. It can be difficult to know which authors are telling the truth.

    Some earlier books on the internal martial arts may reference "historical facts" as they were known at that time. Since then, more recent scholarship may have updated these "facts". Some newer works reference these older works and out-dated "facts" instead of the more current historical "facts". Pay attention to publication date.

Auto-biographical and Personal Experience
  • Pro: Probably one of the best sources of good insights on internal martial arts practice! These can be particularly valuable in learning how another practitioner describes his or her internal experience or how another practitioner approaches the art. You've found a real gem if the author includes challenges and problems as well as gains and triumphs. Finding someone who shares both the good and bad is more likely to be telling the truth; reporting their true experience.

    After reading a few of these accounts, you may begin to understand how the same or similar experiences can be described in different ways. And you may also learn that you don't necessarily need to force yourself into an alien paradigm to learn and acquire nei-gong skill sets.
  • Con: When the author claims everything is great and there are no problems, or talks about extra-ordinary powers, you may wonder, "Is this for real?" Sure enough, people can imagine and fabricate all kinds of stories.

The bottom line is that it may take you as long to learn how to distinguish fact from fiction and real from fake as it takes to develop internal skill itself. And it may be the case that the two go hand-in-hand; until you start to get some skill of your own, it is difficult to sort out all that has been written on the subject.

In all my years of pursuing and later learning what's required to develop internal skills, I have to admit that all the reading I've done over the past two decades has not contributed one iota to my developing internal skills. Learning and practicing under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher is of paramount importance!

Reading and developing theoretical frameworks and memorizing lineages and history and staying current in the field all have their place. Just keep in mind that reading is no substitute for feet-on-the-floor practice if your goal is to develop physical skills!

Finally, if you have any insights that have helped you sort out and understand the wide range of writings on the internal martial arts, feel free to share.


  1. Listening to senior school brothers and sisters, skillful friends and teachers then reading the books they suggest has been helpful. Also study groups outside of the formal school style with people with different styles and veiwpoints has turned up some interesting reads. More important talking about them after we read them is always useful and fun.

  2. Thanks for sharng about Martial Arts Books on your blog!!
    your blog is very informative.
    I am also looking for Kung Fu books.