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Book Review: Jingwu: The School That Transformed Kung Fu by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guao

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In 1909, because of relations with the failed Boxer Rebellion and the rise of modern weapons and fighting tactics, Chinese martial arts were in serious danger of extinction. The Jingwu Association was formed to keep these ancient arts alive. Published by Blue Snake Books, Jingwu: The School That Transformed Kung Fu tells the story of this legendary institution. Based on material from the 1919 Jingwu Association Anniversary Book, this book shows Jingwu as the first public martial arts training school and the first to teach kung fu as a recreational activity.

The Jingwu Association was also the first to incorporate women into Chinese martial arts, and the first to use Western methods to promote Chinese martial arts as both sport and entertainment. Through these activities, the Jingwu Association helped Chinese martial arts transition from traditional to modern China.

This well-written and entertaining history covers the school’s turbulent beginnings; the four historical phases of Chinese martial arts that guide it; short biographies of important practitioners such as Huo Yuanjia; relatively unknown elements, such as the integration of Western training methods to make kung fu appear “modern”; rare historical documents, vintage photographs, and more.

Besides providing an excellent historical overview of an organization that played a major role in the modernization of traditional Chinese martial arts, Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guao also have taken a step towards demystifying much of the mystical fog that surrounds Chinese martial arts. Were the Chinese martial arts created by a lone Shaolin Monk who retreated to a magic mountain? Most certainly not! Is there such a thing as a death touch that allows Chinese martial artists to kill their opponents without touching them? Again, no!

Rather, through this latest work the authors illuminate a problem that plagues all of history – when historical records are lacking and oral transmission is the prime means of communicating a given culture’s history, humans have a tendency to fill in the missing gaps with fantastic stories. Using the best available sources, the authors present a cautiously accurate overview of Jingwu, and in doing so, they also provide an exemplary model for future Chinese historians.

This book should be required reading for anyone who is studying a Chinese martial art. Traditional martial artists of the Japanese and Korean varieties will also find this book worth reading, as well as those who are interested in Eastern or Chinese history and culture.

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