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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“Ankō” Itosu Transforms a Thug

Source: "The Okinawan Times" February 28, 2006

Source: “The Okinawan Times” February 28, 2006

One day Yasutsune “Ankō” Itosu walked down to the waterfront to have lunch at a local restaurant. As the renowned karate master rounded a corner, a ruffian leapt forward, launching a punch at Itosu-sensei’s midsection. The elderly Itosu subtly shifted his position and the punch glanced harmlessly off his ribs. But Itosu trapped the thug’s arm before the young man could retract it. Pivoting to face the same direction as the young hoodlum, the karate teacher scanned his surroundings seeing that the young man had friends nearby, but they weren’t coming to his assistance.

Maintaining a vice-like grip on the young man’s forearm, Itosu-sensei switched the arm under his other arm–attacking pressure points as he did.

Establishing control and taking the fight out of the young man with jolts of pain, Itosu said, “Come join me for lunch, we have much to talk about. But first, what is your name.”

“Kojo, everybody calls me Kojo,” the young man said through gritted teeth

“Pleased to meet you, Kojo. My name is Ankō Itosu,” the karate master said.

Itosu led Kojo into the restaurant. At a cursory glance it looked like the older man was walking arm-in-arm with the younger. The two sat down side-by-side.

“So, Kojo, do I know you? Have I done something to lead you to give an old man such a start?” Itosu asked.

“No. My friends dared me. They told me you were Itosu-sensei. We often come down here to test our skills,” Kojo explained.

“And how does your karate teacher feel about this?” Itosu asked.

“Uh… well, I don’t have a teacher,” Kojo replied.

“Ah. Then that’s the problem. You’ll become my student. Your technique could use improvement, and you need to stop this brawling, and especially stop trying to scare old men,” Itosu explained as he released the young man’s arm.

Kojo was taken aback, but didn’t dare turn down the teacher’s offer. He never brawled again, and eventually became a committed student.