The Passing of Robert Smith

July 1st, Robert Smith passed away. Someone in the martial arts field once called him “the Grand-daddy of us all.”

Robert Smith practices Kung Fu at

Robert Smith discussing punching with John Gilby Senior

He was referring to writers in the martial field, and I have to agree. I remember the thrill I had as a teenager reading his Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing. There it was, beautifully published by Tuttle as I recall,  a copy of a “real” Shaolin manuscript. I half squatted next to my bed trying to imitate the formidable horse stance shown in the pictures, just close enough to my bed frame so I could steady myself on a post when my legs gave out. I practiced the Yi Jin JIng muscles tension exercises— shown in old wood block illustrations— for months and STILL, forty plus years later, occasionally suggest them for certain types of training. I tried to unravel the Shaolin moves shown with the text.

Smith was a strange guy. He wrote under his own name and an undisguised pseudonym and his first book, Secret Fighting Arts of the World, was a pastiche of send-ups/reportage;  everyone should read it for the lark if nothing else. Here was a somewhat unashamed ego and a quirky personality. I remember his PaKua book where in the text he immortalized one of his helpers as a “coward” because the guy refused to take a fall for the camera.

He certainly had opinions and his own slant, mixing educated quotes with oddly tabloid coverage. Not a commonly spotted member of the scene, he was a bit of a mystery. I know people who say he never met anyone of top skill in Taiwan. I know others who felt he was sucked into the Chen Man Ching thing blindly. Was he even a top notch martial practitioner?

You know what, none of that matters. He wrote with style, humor and a dash of magic. He inspired us all even if these were tall tales spiced with the occasional howler. Formerly a Judo man, he was cutting edge on describing a new level of martial engagement, and he didn’t always have time to check everything out. His low point was that silly explanation of the elements defeating one another in the classic “destruction” cycle of Chinese philosophy; as your opponent attacks with an uppercut, FIRE, you employ the action of WATER to smother… etc.  It was all laid out in his Xing Yi book which disappeared from the book world, I assume because he pulled it. It was a minor blip in a whole career that launched a thousand journeys toward an art which, years later, we still love. He didn’t steer us wrong, there was something here and Robert Smith was the first to say so. I would still recommend every one of his books and that’s enough to show a footprint that will not soon wash away.


10 Responses to “The Passing of Robert Smith”

  1. Elliott F. Monds says:

    I have spoken with and written to Robert W. Smith many times over the years. Since my youth; I’ve read any and everything by him and about him. In addition to that, I have studied with Top Masters from Taiwan during the early 70’s in Chicago….

    Yes, RIP. Robert W. Smith. He was strange, original. An undercover
    C.I.A Officer stationed in Taiwan/Formosa during the early
    50’s/60’s.Robert’s martial arts records, personal books and film
    library speak for themselves. We must remember that Robert was a westerner on Taiwan island during the nationalist years. He met two famous masters that I saw in action here in the United States; masters Chang Tung Sheng and Kuo Lin Ying of the famous tai-chi park in San Fransisco Chinatown. Robert pushed back the bamboo
    curtain a lot during his lifetime. A Big Thanks to Bob.


    PS a lot more could be said about this man and his life.

  2. patrick hodges says:

    I too, as a youngster, unable to find sources like plumpub. nowadays =) read his books over and over finding something different each time. Secret Figting Arts still had some awesome advice although he changed the names, etc. He really served as an inspiration to those who couldn’t afford the plane tickets or high fees charged by some unscrupulous characters.

  3. Rick says:

    Asian Fighting Arts was the first martial arts book I ever bought, probably sometime around 1974. I devoured it, from cover to cover.

    Even now, his book on Pa Kua is on my nightstand. I found a used copy in a bookstore about a month ago, and bought it because some of the photos depicted Bagua techniques that were very similar to techniques in the style I am learning (Bamboo Forest Temple Praying Mantis). I showed the photos to my Sifu, and because of my interest, he decided to teach me some of the Bagua palm changes (my suspicion that Sifu might know more Bagua than he was letting on was confirmed by his offer to teach me). Robert Smith’s book on Pa Kua was thus the catalyst for my formal introduction to Bagua.

    Back when I first began reading Asian Fighting Arts, two arts in particular intrigued me– Hsing I, and Pa Kua. It was Robert Smith (with Donn Draeger) who first piqued my interest in these arts, and now, all these years later, I find myself training these arts that have been an intriguing dream since I first read Robert Smith’s tales of Kuo Yun Shen and Tung Hai Chuan. The pages are now yellow and somewhat brittle, but the book is still on my shelf.

    Rest in Peace, Mr. Smith.

  4. Herb Rich says:

    As a teenager in the 70s, Mr. Smith’s work introduced me to a wide world of martial arts, especially Neijia. A line in Chinese boxing: Masters and Methods led me to T.T. Liang, and from there to other teachers. Without Mr. Smith’s books, I would have travelled a far different path in the martial arts. I owe him much.

    Rest in Peace, Sir. You’ve earned it.

  5. Mark Schek says:

    I lived 3 miles from Mr Smith in DC. A Taiwanese family he brought back lived on the next block. When I practiced with the grandfather who said” advance like the tiger and retreat like the monkey.” At 16 years old, it absolutely blew my mind!

  6. wayne ripley says:

    ……Robert Smith’s books also changed my emphasis (70’s) toward the Nei-Jya……once or twice he visited William C.C. Chen’s school on Chinese New Year… year he brought with him footage from some “savate” fights in France (1938)……that Savate was totally different than I had expected……some martial artists are fighters, some are scholars, some are teachers, some are popularisers and historians………………….strength and honor.

  7. TImothy Des Roches says:

    Joined the Saturday morning (7 AM) T’ai Chi Ch’uan crowd at the Bethesda YMCA in ’76, i was 13. The instruction from the advanced student was top notch and Mr. Smith was there to correct and mold. The classes were FREE. Mr. Smith was the real deal, I once watched him send a push hands buddy of mine flying – both feet off the ground – across the room. It was a classic ti fang. If you can find some students of Mr. Smith, you’ll find their push hands to be well above the average. The Pa Kua and Hsing I practiced by Mr. Smith’s students isn’t flashy, but it is correct. Robert W. Smith was a grand teacher, a kind and giving man, and a truly admirable martial artist. Mr. Smith taught me to learn how to move four decades ago and I am learning still.

  8. Plum Staff says:

    Dear Timothy,
    Many thanks for your comments. It is always good to hear from someone who worked with Mr Smith; also, to see that a Sifu made such a positive and lasting impression on a student as well as the Arts, themselves.

  9. Don Auth says:

    I was a student of Mr. Smith and his wife from 1981-1983, in Bethesda, Maryland. His wife taught the first third of the 36 Tai Chi movements then he taught us the rest. I still practice this every day.
    RIP to a great Mentor-Thank You!!

  10. Steve says:

    his work set me on my journey into the internal arts, i have a lot of respect for the man, he changed my life in so many ways.

    rest in peace

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