The Bubishi is an ancient manual of karate combat as used for civil self-defense. Chojun Miyaji, the founder of Okinawan Goju-Ryu karate, famously referred to the Bubishi as “the ‘Bible’ of Karate-do.” The Bubishi covers not only fighting strategy, tactics, and techniques but also history, etiquette, anatomy, healing and medicine.
While the Bubishi should not be regarded as an authoritative text on karate, it is a treasure trove of information. Any serious martial artist would do well to read and re-read it.
Patrick McCarthy Sensei recently re-published an expanded edition of his book “Bubishi, The Classical Manual of Combat.” I have recommended the book to several students at our karate dojo in San Diego, and in response to their questions, I put together this synopsis and review of the Bubishi, as well as the 2016 edition of Patrick McCarthy’s book.
Why should I care about an Ancient Text?
Although an ancient text, the Bubishi is extremely relevant to the martial arts we practice around the world today. This is because the Bubishi imparts principals of strategy, tactics, power generation, leverage and human anatomy, which are both universal and timeless. Take a look at the figure below. This is just one example for the relevance of the Bubishi to contemporary martial arts. On the right is one of the “48 self-defense techniques” from the Bubishi. On the left is an attempted application of the technique in a UFC Mixed Martial Arts fight. (I am using MMA here simply as an example for a contemporary martial art, with no intent to suggest that MMA is the pinnacle of present-day martial arts.) The Bubishi shows us that we can learn a lot by standing on the shoulders of those martial artists who came before us.
What is the (Okinawan) Bubishi?
The Japanese term “Bubishi” (武備志) (Wu Bei Zhi in Chinese) means “Record of Martial Preparation.” Over time, there have been several books entitled “Wu Bei Zhi” / “Bubishi.”
Knowing some of the history of the Bubishi is helpful to understanding it. The Okinawan Bubishi (which, for simplicity, we will refer to here in shorthand as “Bubishi”) originated from Fuzhou in China’s Fujian province. It is not clear when this text arrived from China to the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa), although most karate historian believe this to have taken place in the middle of the 19th century. Some historians believe there were multiple transmissions of the Bubishi from China to Okinawa. Lastly, it is debatable whether the text that originally came to Okinawa was called “Bubishi,” and several Karate historians believe that the title “Bubishi” was attached to the text later on, probably in the first part of the 20th century as karate was seeking to establish itself in the Japanese mainland.
The Bubishi is interlinked with the transformation that the martial art of karate underwent between the latter part of the 19th century and World War II. During this period:
- Karate evolved from a secretive martial art taught within families and to select few, to an art practiced in schools and offered openly to the general public.
- The Okinawan martial art, which was called tuidi/touidi, China Hand, or Ryukyu kempo/kenpo, entered the Japanese mainland, and came to be called Karate (empty hand). In that context, Karate had to establish its credibility with respect to traditional Japanese martial arts such as Jiu-Jitsu, Judo and Kendo.
The Bubishi is a unique text because the tradition of secrecy of karate means that there are very few ancient texts. The Bubishi can be considered to be the earliest manual of Okinawan Karate. The Bubishi played an important role in the creation of modern karate, and was itself popularized by karate, lending credibility to the martial arts Okinawans brought to the mainland. Early publications of parts of the Bubishi go back to Gichin Funakoshi’s 1922 book “Ryukyu Kenpo Karate-jutsu,” as well other books books depicted below.
The (Okinawan) Bubishi is focused on civilian self-defense, rather than warfare combat. Therefore, unlike other texts such as Mao Yuanyi’s comprehensive “Wu Bei Zhi” of 1621, or the earlier “Jixiao Xinshu” of 1561, the (Okinawan) Bubishi does not discuss combat weapons, and covers only unarmed combat.
The Bubishi is a compilation of 32 articles about Chinese Fujian White Crane Kung Fu and Chinese Monk-Fist Kung Fu. The articles discuss a broad range of topics, including the following:
- History of White Crane Kung Fu
- Comparison of White Crane Kung Fu and Monk Fist Kung Fu
- Classical Chinese medicine and prescriptions for various herbal medicines, ointments and pills
- Vital points (also called “pressure points”), and seizing and striking techniques involving vital points
- Fighting and self-defense techniques, including grappling and escapes
- Training and conditioning methods
There is a strong link in the Bubishi between combat and medicine. This is partly because, with the medical systems of their time age being far less accessible than it is today, martial artists of the past needed to have sufficient knowledge of medicine in order to treat themselves. While a Navy SEAL is trained in first aid and basic medicine, the pre 20th century martial artist needed to know much more in order to survive infections or other maladies inflicted in combat. The knowledge of medicine also helped the martial artist in gaining a better understanding of the human body, and how to manipulate the body to inflict higher damage on his or her adversary.
A few words about Dim-Mak (Death Touch) and the Bubishi
When early English translations of the Bubishi started appearing in the 1980s, many martial artists were drawn to the Bubishi for its revelation of “secret” Dim-Mak (点脉) death touch techniques. Dim Mak is a supposedly secret body of knowledge that is purported to confer upon the martial artist the ability to inflict incapacitation, immediate death, and even delayed death on their opponent.
Dim Mak and the art of “delayed death touch” bring back memories of Quentin Tarantino’s movie Kill Bill and the fictional sifu Pai Mei “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique.” I say this, of course, with a big dose of humor. (By the way, Tarantino’s Kill Bill was heavily influenced by two Shaw Brothers’ films Clan of the White Lotus (1980) and Executioners from Shaolin (1977), which feature the same “lethal” Dim Mak “exploding heart” techniques.)
If your pursuit of martial arts is solely for the legendary skills of Dim Mak, I am afraid you are likely to be disappointed. Putting aside fictions such as the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart” and others, Dim Mak is based on Chinese medicine, and on hitting and disrupting the energy (“chi”/”qi”) of your opponent. In that regard, the Bubishi offers advice on different pressure points, and even on the recommended time of day to strike those. This knowledge is based on Traditional Chinese Medicine, which is covered in other articles in the Bubishi. You may already be familiar with many of these points such as eyes, groin, and various nerve plexuses, including the carotid sinus, which is further discussed in another article.
Here is one of the vital points / pressure points diagram from two different versions of the Bubishi: the manuscript on which Patrick McCarthy’s book is based, and a version that Kenwa Mabuni Sensei, founder of Shito-Ryu karate, published in his 1934 book “Sepai no Kenkyu” (study of the karate kata “Sepai”).
Unfortunately, a lot of controversy surrounds pressure point (Kyusho-Jitsu) practitioners from the 1980s and 1990s such as Seiyu Oyata, George Dilllman and others. While I have my personal doubts about the use of pressure points as a primary fighting technique, I do believe that knowledge of pressure points and their effect can help strengthen our skills as martial artists and karateka. To that end, studying the Bubishi and other texts is very useful.
Karate – a Striking-only Martial Art (?)
The Bubishi gives a good view of traditional karate. While some people today regard karate as a martial art that predominantly relies on strikes, the Bubishi proves that karate is well balanced between striking and grappling.
Several articles in the Bubishi discuss grappling and escapes, as well as throws, takedowns, and the arts of seizing and grabbing. Among the 48 self-defense diagrams in the Bubishi, which show responses to then-common self-defense situations, at least 24 deal with grappling or grappling defenses. Twenty four out of forty eight — how is that for balance between striking and grappling?
Does the following takedown (technically, a throw) look familiar?
Patrick McCarthy’s book “Bubishi, The Classical Manual of Combat”
In 2016, Patrick McCarthy Sensei and edited and re-published his book “Bubishi, The Classical Manual of Combat”. The book includes not just a translation of the Bubishi (or, as we discussed before, one version of the Bubishi), but also chapters that provide background and context on the different articles of the Bubishi. The 2016 version also includes new content, ranging from a motivation preface by Jesse Enkamp to a historical preface from Cezar Borkowski. The best new content in this edition is a fascinating study entitled “Creation and Creator” by Andreas Quast, on the history and context surrounding the Bubishi. Andreas Quast lays out a detailed account of the history and origin of the Bubishi, tracing different editions throughout their respective lineages. He then makes a very convincing case that the Bubishi is as much itself a creation of (modern) karate as it has played an important role in creating and popularizing karate. Without stealing Andrea Quant’s punch line, I will hint that this dual role of creator and creation for the Bubishi has to do with the transformation of karate, in the early 20th century, from a secretive martial art in Okinawa, to a martial art taught to the public in mainland Japan. This study is a very worthwhile read.
I own the previous (2008) edition of “Bubishi, The Classical Manual of Combat,” and found the new content in the 2016 edition to be worthwhile. Patrick McCarthy Sensei is a true practitioner of Bunburyodo (文武両道)the pen and the sword – someone who is striving to become accomplished in the both the martial and the literary arts.
A big caveat is that although ancient, the Bubishi is not a bible. Due to the Bubishi being hand copied from one manuscript to another, there are many differences between alternative versions of the Bubishi. Some of those are due to transcription errors. Others are due to each manuscript copier interpreting and modifying the copied text based on their personal view and knowledge of martial arts. The Bubishi, as other texts of the era, were hand-written by brush. Copies were made either by senior students of the teacher, or by professional copyists who probably lacked a background in martial arts. It is therefore not surprising that transcription errors crept in.
Here is just one example: The 48 self-defense diagrams/techniques shown in alternative versions of the Bubishi are different. Take a look at a comparison between a diagram in Patrick McCarthy’s book (which were re-drawn by a modern day artist based on the original diagram in the Bubishi manuscript McCarthy used for his book), and a diagram in Kenwa Mabuni’s 1934 book “Sepai no Kenkyu,” which contains articles from the Bubishi manuscript Mabuni possessed. As you can see, there are slight differences between the techniques from those two versions of the Bubishi. Other self-defense diagrams can differ significantly between different versions of the Bubishi, including in the actual anatomical structure being attacked.
Remember also that Bubishi is written in classical Chinese ideograms of Fujian dialect. Many times those ideograms have multiple meanings. Chinese, and certainly Okinawan people, may easily be confused about what meaning the manuscript intends to convey in a particular use of an ideogram. Language barriers and transcription errors make it difficult to fully understand the Bubishi.
In my opinion, all this does not diminish the value of the Bubishi. It just means that it should not be studied as depicting the “best” way to pursue martial arts.
Another caveat with respect to the Bubishi has to do with one’s tendency to want to find the “source” of the martial art they are practicing, due to a notion that the “source” provides the “purest” from of martial arts knowledge. We must, however, understand, that the styles that were brought from China to Okinawa no longer exist. Therefore, focusing our efforts on uncovering the secrets of karate for ourselves is much more useful and practical than searching for some “ultimate and uncontaminated source” in vain. As Matsuo Basho said:
Don’t blindly follow in the footsteps of the old masters, but rather seek what they sought.
As martial artists, many of us are interested in a deeper understanding of Karate. The study of kata can help us learn techniques, but not with applications. The Bubishi, and Patrick McCarthy’s book “Bubishi, The Classical Manual of Combat” help us get a deeper understanding of the context of karate, the ancient life of martial artists, their culture, and the threats they faced. Such knowledge is invaluable in helping us better understand kata and their application to combat – bunkai.
If you are a serious or aspiring martial artist, I highly recommend you add the Bubishi to your library, and that you read and study it. By the way, for those interested in ancient (Chinese) martial arts training manuals, I would also recommend Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo’s book “Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals, a Historical Survey.”
I will finish with one of my favorite quotes from Patrick McCarthy’s book, which reminds us why we practice karate:
A mind tempered in the tradition of true karate-do will remain impervious to worldly delusion and illuminate the darkness of selfishness and ignorance. With greater control over our minds, we have greater control over our bodies, lives, and the exterior world of which we are a part. It is by putting this power to work every day that our lives are enriched and fulfilled in ways we never thought possible.
Keep training and learning!