I was a little sceptical of the title and whether Professor Lorge could do such a vast topic justice. But it goes to show you should never judge a book by its cover, and luckily enough I had enough trust in Cambridge University Press to take a chance on this book. Peter Lorge is a historian of 10th and 11th century Chinese at Vanderbilt University, with a particular interest in Chinese military, political and social history. This book is written from an academic perspective and seeks to given an overview of the development of the Chinese Martial arts (in the broadest sense) from prehistory to the present day. It is not light reading, but should be quite accessible to an educated reader, although a good grounding in Chinese History is also helpful.
This book differs markedly from other more popular texts in that Professor Lorge, from beginning seeks to ground his arguments in solid textual and archaeological evidence and aims to deflate some of the myths regarding Chinese martial arts. And in the early centuries from the Shang Dynasty up to the Han, this approach is highly effective as he is able to put together a convincing case for the development of CMA which parallels the development of weapons on the battlefield, such as the evolution of the sword and longsword, and the replacement of the halberd by the spear on the battlefield.
From an archaeological perspective, he traces how there is a period of great variety and innovation when a new weapon type is introduced, as the military and martial artists come to grips with the strength and weaknesses of the weapon, followed by a period of mass standardization, and finally by a period of personalized customization where the weapons are again tailored to the attributes of the user, spawning many variants. And in the early centuries, despite the association of arts such as archery with personal cultivation, it is the military and wars that drive the development of the martial arts.
From the Tang Dynasty onwards his main argument is while the military remained an important part in the development of Chinese martial arts, the needs of the military are necessarily constrained by needs of standardization and the ability to act effectively in formation. Instead it is through the medium of performance and dance that martial arts evolved into the myriad schools that we see today. His argument being there is a fixed universe of techniques that are effective martially and the choice of which techniques to emphasize and to drop were originally driven by aesthetic concerns, in order to present something that remained interesting to the viewer and these sets developed into given schools.
Besides being a military historian, Lorge is also a social historian and from this perspective he also delves into many themes that broaden our understanding of CMA, such as the role of women, the difference between steppe warfare and southern warfare, the need for the government to balance a need to maintain a monopoly over violence and the need to have an effective pool of skilled soldiers to draw upon and the need of local elites to ensure security in a violent world.
In the final part of the book, Lorge deals with the decisive confrontation between the Chinese martial arts and western power. And what is interesting is that he convincingly shows us that unlike in Japan, the use of gunpowder and guns had remained widespread through the Ming and Qing dynasties but could not match European technology. Although Lorge is a martial artist, his background is not in the Chinese arts so he is able to view CMA with a degree of emotional detachment, which is necessary for slaughtering sacred cows. For instance he plays down the importance of the Shaolin Temple, and cites political reasons for the rise of internal martial arts, such as Taiji, Bagua and Xingyi. But even when he goes against the grain, he does in a most polite manner and leaves room for alternative explanations.
It took me some time to work my way slowly through the book as there were many fascinating ideas and anecdotes that I needed to take time to ponder and digest. The style begins in quite dry logical manner in the early chapters (along the lines of thesis - support - implications - conclusion - new idea) but begins to pick up the pace in the later chapters, but this could also be a constraint of the source material at hand. Lorge also shows an interesting choice in his use of vocabulary, with some less common words used repeatedly such as "ecumene" and his choice of sword for '"Dao" and longsword for "Jian"'. Another choice that he made was the use of knightly class, which then changed to literati in the later chapters for '"Shi". This sometimes made for a little bit of confusion, but it is not fatal to the enjoyment of the book.
But all in all this was an impressive addition to the field of research on the development of Chinese Martial Arts and is one of those that should be on the bookshelf of anyone with a serious interest in martial arts.