Synopsis: Jonathan Bluestein’s new book Research of Martial Arts is an ambitious book that discusses many important and difficult topics in more details than most martial arts books. In particular, it discusses and compares the external approach to martial arts (also known as external martial arts) and the internal approach to martial arts (also known as internal martial arts). It discusses various martial arts from the health perspective, physiological perspective, philosophical perspective, and the combat perspective. Of course for such an ambitious book, what Jonathan wrote is not necessarily the final word on the subject, but it is definitely a significant contribution to stimulate additional discussion on these important topics. To his credit, I believe that Jonathan also agrees with the previous statement, as he wrote in his Introduction: “This book was written to promote understanding – of martial arts, life and other human beings. It is through understanding that we grow. Still, it is only natural that many of you will have disagreements with some parts of my book, or with my personal opinions, and I wholeheartedly accept this reality. …”
Nevertheless, I think many people will learn some valuable information from this 418-page book.
About the book author: Jonathan Bluestein is a martial arts teacher and author from Israel who has studied a variety of martial arts. He is the founder of Tianjin Martial Arts Academy in Israel where he teaches the traditional Chinese martial arts Xing Yi Quan and Pigua Zhang.
I start this review by discussing several topics discussed in the book that different people may find certain parts to be informative. A very important but complex topic is the differences between an external approach to martial art (also known as external martial arts) and an internal approach to martial art (also known as internal martial arts). An external approach has a tendency to rely on strong muscular contractions and toughened body parts. They use training methods such as weightlifting, hitting immobile and semi-mobile objects, jabbing and slamming the fingers into water, marbles, beans, stone, sand and all sorts of materials to improve finger hitting strength and the fingers’ capacity to remain stable when hitting, and using dynamic tension exercises. The externalist also likes to divide the training into segmented exercises, such as training of the muscles, tendons, or of the hands, feet, shoulders, hips, elbows, knees, etc. The externalist also focuses much more on the combat aspect, and usually neglects the long-term health aspect. An internal approach takes a holistic approach of training all (or most of) the components together as a whole. It also focuses as much on the health aspect (both short-term and long-term) as on the combat aspect, because the internal approach is very much related to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The internal approach also emphasizes more on deflecting (or resolving) the opponent’s attacking force (four ounces can deflect a thousand pounds), then followed by counter attacking, and relies more on the yi (or intention of the mind) to relax the mind and the whole body to control and direct the body’s response.
Of course, a martial art is not necessarily purely based on an external approach or an internal approach. As a matter of fact, many external martial arts masters, especially when they reach a high level of their arts, will often train in both approaches or exhibit traits of both approaches. That is why Jonathan has a 10-page chapter on combining external and internal.
The book in the section “The Muscles, Tendons and Fasciae” on pages 103-104 provides a good explanation of the physiology of relaxation and generation of more force, and the important role of the relaxation of the mind. I want to recall two quotes:
- “A muscle can generate more force the more it is elongated – then, it has more contraction-potential. A tensed-up muscle is less elongated than a loose muscle, hurting its power generating potential.”
- “When you relax, you first relax your mind. This is most important because the mind is the host of the entire body. After the mind is relaxed, the whole body then also is relaxed. If you use your mind to influence the body, after a while you will automatically achieve real relaxation. This will allow production of your internal energy.”
In discussing the essence of the spirit to excel and what is the key to real skills, Jonathan captured it excellently when he wrote “Where do people fail? … It is during practice, when fatigue sinks in. It is then when they neglect to do that one more repetition, and allow other repetitions to follow. It is afterwards, when they choose not to train outside of class, doing other things instead. … It is when there is no winning or losing. There is no competition to be prepared for. Your teacher isn’t there, looking, nudging you to go on. These are special, accumulative moments in time. Those moments when you face your harshest enemy – yourself. Most people voluntarily lose most of these tiny struggles. They settle on mediocrity.” (Jonathan acknowledged that he learned this from Morio Higaonna, master of Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate)
Similar to the earlier (1998) book The Power of Internal Martial Arts by B. K. Frantzis which was acknowledged by Jonathan to be very influential in his own training and in writing this book, Jonathan’s book discusses a large variety of martial arts and interviews many martial arts masters from around the world, accompanied by photos. This helps to provide a roadmap of the many types of martial arts, and also often puts a face behind a particular martial art. For example, in the section “A Curious Mind” on pages 185-187, Jonathan provides an interesting and educational write-up about Zhou Jingxuan, the teacher of his teacher Nitzan Oren (Jonathan also has had direct training from Zhou). He discussed the curiosity of Zhou about everything which was one of the reasons that made Zhou so good as a martial artist because he was always exploring and trying to figure out things. That was why Jonathan wrote “People think a child acting like an adult is special, but what is even more special, in my opinion, is an adult that can think like a child.”
The author on page 64 wrote “The Internally-oriented teachers … (usually) do not try to teach combat or self-defense practicality right away. Instead, traditionally, the focus over the first few years is on the refinement of body alignment and movement, fine bodily control and the development of a specific mindset.” If the word “teach” means to teach the students so that they can implement the self-defense techniques, then I agree with Jonathan, although I think putting the time interval to be the first few years is an exaggeration. However, if the word “teach” means to show the students the self-defense applications, but not teaching them to be able to use the self-defense applications, then I differ from the statement. When I teach Taiji to beginning students, even to a class of senior citizens (to as old as 80 or 90 year-olds), I always show them the martial applications of almost every form. There are two reasons for doing this: (1) so that the students have an idea why these forms were created, since Taiji originated as a martial art, and (2) seeing the martial applications can help them to do the form more correctly. Almost all of my students enjoy and appreciate seeing these demonstrations.
The author on page 62 mentions that when a method is passed on, unless it was passed on and instructed in the original, traditional manner in which it was conceived, then it would diminish in quality. Although this is true in general, we have to be careful not to make it absolute, because later generations could improve on the original method. This happens all the time in science, as new theories are invented or discovered that are improvements over current theories.
One thing that is missing in this book is a more detailed discussion of Qi or Qigong which is so central to internal martial arts. To be fair to Jonathan, Qigong is an extremely complex subject. and currently not necessarily well understood in terms of modern science and medicine, and therefore is subject to interpretations and may be controversial. Jonathan also acknowledged this when he wrote on page 56 “Unfortunately, it would take a chapter 10 times longer than this one (which is 112 pages), written by someone with 10 times my experience and knowledge, to try and explain what Qi is, and how it interacts with the practice of martial arts in general according to TCM theory.”
I also found that the discussion on pages 58 and 59 trying to explain the analogy among the Daoist theory, TCM theory, and Xing Yi theory is somewhat forced. I know that this kind of explanation did not originate from Jonathan and it has gone back many, many years, but I always found it to be hard to understand and not very convincing. For example, the human body has 13 major organs and 78 organs, why only the five organs of liver, heart, spleen, lungs, and kidneys are used in that TCM theory diagram, even though they may be generalized organs? Why is air not shown in that Daoist theory diagram?
Finally I like to make a comment on the main quote of the book (shown on the book cover and also on page 12): “Skill is acquired through continuous practice, sophistication & depth (are achieved) by giving thought to it.” I think it should be modified to read: “Skill is acquired through continuous practice, sophistication & depth (are achieved) by giving thought to it, through an iterative process.” This means that our thoughts can possibly provide a more sophisticated and deeper theoretical understanding, but that theoretical understanding must be verified via more practice. This is exactly the situation in science. Experiments provide us with ingredients to formulate a theory, but the theory must be verified by more experiments, that could lead to a new and better theory, which again must be verified by experiments.
Summary: Jonathan Bluestein has written a very ambitious book that discusses a large variety of topics on martial arts, as well as discussing many types of martial arts and many martial arts masters. It is a valuable contribution to our library of martial arts books. Readers should be able to find value in the book, although different readers may find value in different parts of the book. The book should be used as a reference. I am sure that in the future I will come back to this book and reread certain sections, and will gain a deeper understanding of that particular subject. This is also the intention of the author as he wrote “After you have finished reading the book, I advise that you make sure to read it again a few months or years from now. I guarantee that considering you keep on your diligent practice and research of martial arts, you will be surprised at how your interpretation of the text has changed by the time you read it again, and for the better.”
I do wish that the book can provide more explanation of the Qigong aspect of internal martial arts based on modern science and medicine, which in my opinion is still missing in the world of martial arts.