The Bible of Karate

What is the Bubishi? It is many things, but it’s most common attribution is “the Bible of Karate.”

Why should Chinese stylists take an interest in a book that is fundamental to an Okinawan art? Because a closer look at this remarkable text opens up a widely different estimation, one that is both more expansive, less secular, and most certainly pertinent to traditional Chinese Wushu.

It’s true that the word ‘bible’ might imply a proscribed code, the basis—in this case—for a style that traveled from Okinawa to Japan, and elsewhere. But a ‘bible’ can be more than that: a multi-authored text, a compilation of different voices, records and accounts, and not necessarily the same compilation in every edition.

This Bubishi closely resembles this collection of texts. Historically, it had no single name, sometimes going by The White Crane Records, or The Bubishi or, in the case of this newly discovered version, the General Tian Wubeizhi. Although we don’t know its common nickname, we do know that it was born in China and raised in Okinawa—in Ryukyu, to be exact, the center for Chinese learning on this island. It was originally written in classical Chinese, and contained simple but wonderful pen-and-ink illustrations of figures practicing martial arts techniques, two-person routines and, perhaps most importantly, medical information in the form of Chinese anatomical charts and hand-drawn herbal lists and identifiers.

bubishiThe Bubishi (or Wubeizhi) is a time capsule, like the one I buried as a kid. What to put in? What to leave out? The first impression on reading it is a haphazard recipe book compiled at haste.  If you are familiar with Chinese martial arts then much of it might sound trite or obvious, recounting principles and sayings from long ago. Reading on, though, you notice how well-chosen much of this material is, drilling right to the core of the art.

Take the section on Sun Tzu—but not Sun Tzu—because what is abstract in Sun Tzu is concrete here.

             “7. Low counters are the rule for high attacks.”

             “29. If you want to throw an opponent, first feint to his shadow.”

At the same time, there are specific sections on herbs and treatments for healing, and timed striking on the meridians related to time of the day. It outlines the precepts of Kempo and also the four incurable diseases. History, such as the lineage of White Crane, is mixed with Iron Hit Die Da formulas. And then there are the illustrations, wonderful, charming, primitive, untutored. Very few people outside of Ryukyu and China could read and understand the limited text of the Bubishi.

Even the part-time self-taught Okinawan martial artist might try to find a formula or a fighting technique among the miscellaneous pages. The Chinese characters are not always correct, adding to the legend that the secrets are in the characters. As a matter of fact, opening my newly acquired copy of the Bubishi, I immediately found an incorrect but homophonic mistake. Some people think this is something of a “secret language.” Mostly, I think, it is simply a case of garbled efforts. That aside, there are those who believe that a copy of the Bubishi did reach Japan at an early stage, becoming a key text foundation for the organization of Ju Jitsu.

Reading this you have to ask, “What would I assemble to represent my knowledge of the martial arts?” Not an easy question, because you would deeply know that some of the best things you could say would be almost nonsensical, unless it was already understood.

Even as a reflection, a glance in the mirror, the Bubishi holds up to Chinese Martial Arts just what was deemed important. True, the methods are “External” and, even more to the point, HARD. But contrary to the confusion about Internal/External and Hard/Soft, there is none of that later-day elitist belief that HARD is somehow an inferior form of the arts.

For the Chinese practitioner, it might be fair to assume that classic texts such as those by QiJi Guang,  Mao Yuan Yi, Wu Shu,  and others would make a study of the Wubeishi superfluous. That might be true if we were buried in famous texts but, frankly, it is only in the last few decades that much of this information has attracted interest, especially form the west. And the BBS adds the honor of influencing entire styles of Karate and Kempo and as a sifter for what was important to practitioners hundreds of years back. 

Note: At Plum, we love Southern styles and there are undisputed links between some of them—like White Crane—and Karate. We are awaiting copies of Patrick McCarthy’s great book on the Bubishi, not to mention a second helping (we sold out quickly on the first shipment) of a never-before seen color version, with new commentary on its Chinese aspects.

One Response to “The Bible of Karate”

  1. Hal Asbury says:

    I have seen quite frequent use of homophones in Chinese medicine hand-written formulas. Some are so common as to be standard. Niu Qi (牛七) is a standard rendering for Niu Xi (牛膝). I get the impression that practitioners sometimes will default to a character with less strokes that sounds similar. I’m not sure if such a practice is common generally, however.

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