This book consists of 21 short stories from the lives of martial arts masters: some modern, some historical, and some anonymous folktales with unknown origins. The majority of the stories are about Japanese or Okinawan martial artists, but Chinese, Thai, American, and Koreans are also represented.
These stories can be roughly grouped by theme (though they aren’t organized in that way in the book and some stories cut across more than one of the themes.) The first theme is peacefulness, non-violence, or minimization of violence. This idea is central to the stories featuring Tsukahara Bokuden and his school of “no sword,” Yasutsune Itosu who invites an attacker for tea, Hisamori Takenouchi who is taught the folly of war by an old man, and Gichin Funokoshi who gives robbers cake.
The second theme is the power of an immovable mindset. This can be seen in the story of the sumo wrestler Onami who had to overcome a stint of choking, the parable of the tea master who is challenged to a duel and is advised by a swordsmanship teacher to take up the sword with the mindset with which he takes up his tea utensils, and the tale of the unbreakable prisoner Gogen Yamaguchi. There are also stories about the ability to win by preventing the opponent from achieving this mindset. This was most famously achieved by Miyamoto Musashi (on several occasions,) but it’s also seen in the story about an archer who is unable to make a shot from a perilous position even though the shot wouldn’t be a hard one for him from stable ground.
The third theme is the importance of the student/teacher relationship and the value of a teacher’s wisdom. This can be seen in the stories about American Karate founder Robert Trias and his experience with the master who wanted to trade him Hsing-I lessons for his own boxing lessons, about Morihei Ueshiba’s demystification of mysteries that perplexed his students, and about Chatan Yara’s reversal of a would-be student’s tactic.
The final story theme deals with the virtue of being diligent in one’s training. These include the amazing feats of the likes of Sokon Matsumura (an Okinawan fighter who fought a bull), Nai Khanom Tom (a Muay Thai legend who defeated twelve of Burma’s best fighters in rapid succession), and Mas Oyama who sentenced himself to training exile for what most would consider a minute infraction. There are other tales in this category such as how Duk Ki Song and other Korean students practiced secretly under a martial arts prohibition or how Yim Wing Chun got out of an arranged marriage to a cad through her diligent training.
This is a short book (about 120 pages) and most stories are only 4 to 6 pages. If you are a long-time practitioner of martial arts, you’ll probably have heard some of these stories, but you’re also likely to come across something new. There are obscure tales intertwined with one so popular it’s been made into multiple movies (e.g. Mu-lan.)
It should be noted that this is more of a collection of morality tales than historical accounts. One shouldn’t take these stories as established history as opposed to mythology or folktales. To her credit, Peterson leaves tales like the parable of the tea master and the tale of the three sons anonymous. Famous martial artists, like Miyamoto Musashi, are often cast into these stories either because people read a fictional account that borrowed from folktales, to lend more power to the story, or because the facts have become muddled in retelling. However, for example, the chapter on the Bodhidharma is most likely wrong. (The consensus view among historians is that Bodhidharma didn’t introduce martial arts to the Shaolin temple as is popularly thought, and that the popular myth is the result of revisionist history.) That doesn’t mean the story doesn’t have virtue—it’s got great hang time for some reason.
I’d recommend this book for martial artists who are interested in the philosophy and ethos of the martial arts. It’s a quick and easy read.