BOOK REVIEW: Legends of the Martial Arts Masters by Susan Lynn Peterson

Legends of the Martial Arts MastersLegends of the Martial Arts Masters by Susan Lynn Peterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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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.

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The Legend of Nai Khanomtom: Hero of Muay Thai


Muay Thai Institute in Rangsit, Thailand

In 1767 the Ayutthaya Kingdom of Siam fell to the Burmese. Burma occupied Siam only briefly because Burma’s king, King Hsinbyushin (a.k.a. King Mangra), was forced to withdraw his troops to combat a Chinese invasion to his homeland. The Thais were fabled to be valiant fighters and even had a numeric advantage, but they were easily put into disarray by Burmese forces. Even King Mangra was said to have declared that he couldn’t have taken Ayutthaya had the leadership of the opposition been more effective. [Keep in mind that even if he did say this, it might have been more a dig at his Thai counterpart than an expression of his true feelings.]

The Burmese captured a many prisoners during their Thai campaign and true warriors were particularly coveted as prisoners. One such fighter was Nai Khanomtom (fyi: it’s also written Nai Khanom Tom.) Nai Khonomtom was renowned for his skill in Muay Boran, an early Thai fighting style related to Muay Thai. This made him a logical choice to headline for the Thais in a tournament that would pit Muay Boran against Thiang–i.e. the indigenous martial arts of Burma (e.g. Lethwei and Bando.) The tournament would be part of King Mangra’s seven day festival in honor of Buddhist relics, the festivities of which would also include plays, comedians, and sword fights.

Nai Khanomtom was pitted against a Burmese champion, a man who was clearly the audience favorite. Timed rounds didn’t exist in those days. Fights stopped when one of the fighters was physically unable to continue, and not before. The Burmese fighter wore a kind of sarong that was the usual attire for the men of Burma, and Nai Khanomtom wore a loin cloth tied up in the traditional Thai style (see the statue pic above.) Each fighter wrapped only ropes on their forearms and hands, and each may have had some padding over the groin–though not as insurance against an accident, but because crotch kicks were fair game.

Nai Khanomtom began with a Wai Kru, which perplexed the Burmese. Wai Kru is a pre-fight ritual that has several purposes, the most important of which is to show respect for one’s teachers, deities, and the audience. The practice can take several minutes and some variants of it can be physically demanding.

When the fight started, Nai Khanomtom charged over the fight space taking the fight to his opponent and laying down a barrage of kicks, knees, elbows, and punches. By some accounts, his victory was declared invalid by a judge, who’d been distracted by other festival events (and who–no doubt–wasn’t pleased by the swift defeat of the Burmese champion.) The decision was made despite the fact that the Burmese fighter had been knocked unconscious.

The King was thrilled by the fight and offered Nai Khanomtom his freedom if he could fight nine more Burmese fighters. Nai Khanomtom didn’t get breaks between these fights, and as soon as an opponent went down the next was queued up to come after the Thai fighter. And so it was that Nai Khanomtom took on the Burmese fighters in an ironman fashion. The last of his opponents was a famous martial arts master teacher from Rakhine, a coastal region in Burma’s southwest. Nai Khanomtom went after the Rakhine master with flurry of kicks. It’s worth noting that in those days Burmese fighters were said to have relied much more heavily on hand strikes than kicks, and so the kicks may have given Nai Khanomtom a range advantage while presenting his opponent with attacks that the Burmese fighter was less practiced at defeating.

At the fight’s end, King Mangra honored his agreement, and Nai Khanomtom was granted his freedom and provided safe-conduct back to Siam. There are varying accounts that say that Nai Khonomtom returned home with either two Burmese wives or a number of his fellow prisoners as an additional payment for providing a spectacle that the Burmese king found gripping. In these accounts, Nai Khanomtom is usually said to have turned down a cash payment.

There’s a quote that’s often attributed to King Mangra that goes, “Every part of the Thai is blessed with venom, even with his bare hands he can fell ten opponents.” [FYI-It should be noted that seeing the same words quoted by several sources isn’t proof of truth, because the quotes could have a common (and false) point of origin.  So take it all with a grain of salt.]

[Note: The details of this story vary. So you may hear–or have heard–a slightly different version of events. The exact details are likely lost to history and–when that happens–embellishment may creep in. That said, the variations that I’ve heard are neither great nor particularly significant. It’s also worth noting that these events are celebrated in Thailand every March 17th on what is called Boxer’s Day or National Muay Boran Day.]