Interpreting the Bubishi: One Thousand Pounds Falls to the Ground

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Being a historian and collector, I have come to own some of the rarer and more beautiful books which have been published on the martial arts. Some provide a thousand bizarre techniques of questionable efficacy—like Mas Oyama's Advanced Karate—while others provide a fascinating insight on a point in history or the development of an individual fighter—such as Georges Carpentier's My Methods: Boxing as a Fine Art. Frankly, it's just gotten to the point that if I hear about a martial arts publication I didn't know about, I make it my mission for the week to procure it and devour its contents.

I am often asked by readers for a definitive reading list which I believe everyone invested in this pastime should study, and I often end up feeling like I've done a very incomplete job with my reply. More recently, I have decided to devote some time to actually studying and interpreting a few martial arts classics in my columns.

I have written two features—MMA's Book of Five Rings and Touching the Corner—examining Miyamoto Musashi's timeless Book of Five Rings, and in fact the next episode of Jack Slack's Ringcraft is largely based around Musashi's ideas. And I have also devoted two features (so far) to Edwin Haislet's On Boxing—The Bible of Striking and Elements of Defense. I expect to devote more time to both because I consider them tremendously important texts to the fight game and to martial arts in general.

The text which I want to begin discussing today is a little different from those. It has been called The Bible of Karate by many, and until it was translated to English and published on mass it was considered the most treasured possession of anyone who came to own a copy. For some background on the text I recommend that you check out our own Sascha Matuszak's Karate's Sacred Tome, or better yet—pick up the great Patrick McCarthy's translation which contains copious notes and background on the text. McCarthy has done more than anyone to study and apply the Bubishi and to connect Okinawan karate with the Chinese gung fu roots.

History and Anatomy in Brief

All you really need to know about the Bubishi is that it is a Chinese martial arts manual which made its way to Okinawa and became a treasured text to the locals who developed what came to be known as karate. There are two books known as the Bubishi which was compiled by Mao Yuanyi and contained thousands of chapters on the art of warfare on mass and all the things a general would need to know. The Bubishi as it found its way to Okinawa was a mishmash of essays pertaining to gung fu.

The first portion of the Bubishi is devoted to essays on the history of White Crane gung fu—the precursor to Okinawan karate, and to general notes on fighting. The second section of the Bubishi regards Chinese medicine. The third regards vital points and the death touch. And the last section—containing the Forty Eight Diagrams—deals with the actual details of fighting.

Hold on, Chinese Medicine? Death touch? This all seems a little far-fetched. Am I about to reveal to you that MMA is just a pastime I enjoy in between my researches into the cycles of blood and chi through the body, and that I've really spent the last ten years of my life trying to master the Dim Mak? Nope, but the Bubishi is a historical document from a simpler time.

What makes it fascinating is that there is plenty of stuff which has been proven to be hopelessly erroneous—as Dara O'Brien says about acupuncture and homoeopathy: we tested all of the 'alternative medicine', then the stuff that worked became 'medicine'—But the stuff that holds true in the Bubishi is often simple, to the point stuff, which could have been written by a top coach or drill sergeant just yesterday. Time and experience sort the chaff from the wheat, and I would posit that the same has happened with the Bubishi.

The Forty-Eight Diagrams

Because the Bubishi is an anthology and no one has any idea how many people were involved in writing it or compiling it, there is a wealth of opinion to be found in it, but ultimately I want to focus on the Forty-Eight diagrams. When the founder of Shito-ryu, Kenwa Mabuni revealed the Bubishi's existence to the world in his Study in Seipai, it was the Forty-Eight diagrams which drew the most attention.

The Forty-Eight Diagrams lay out principles of all out, bare handed fighting, but it isn't quite that simple. In fact, if they were laid out in simple language and simpler diagrams, the Bubishi might not have become the life's work of men like Kenwa Mabuni, Gogen Yamaguchi, and so on. The actions in the exchanges are not described in the text, rather they are explained almost in riddles. You will, of course, have heard of “Monkey Steals a Peach”. Here it is demonstrated by legendary fake ninja, Ashida Kim

It was made more difficult by the fact that the Bubishi was copied by hand by a student from his teacher's copy. Slight differences in distances, hand positions and so on make all the difference when trying to interpret meaning from line drawings and seemingly nonsensical prose.

Take, for example, this technique from George Alexander's translation, Bubishi: Martial Art Spirit.

Of course!

Nope, I'm not seeing it. Looking at this for the first time, I would have to think that 'attacking as if ringing a bell' as drawn would be 'bell clapping' the opponent's ears.  Most of us can't deadlift a thousand pounds (“speak for yourself, Jack”), but stooping down as if to deadlift something, with your hands low as shown, seems like an excellent way to get deafened. Unless the man on the right's 'trap' is to blame his opponent's behavior on the 'You've been Tangoed' advertising campaign and attempt to sue the corporation for millions.

Some karateka, including Tadahiko Otsuka, have attempted to interpret the Bubishi in a more traditional (read: modern) karate style. Unfortunately this means that everything must relate directly to the stepping punch, which no-one in real world engagements actually uses.

Here's the version that Otsuka was working from:

And here is the application he decided upon:

Just not terribly useful stuff. But the exact same part of the Bubishi, yet looking completely different. Somehow the distance wound up being greater, and the 'single blade of grass' style hand position was adopted in Otsuka's sketch.

It was the aforementioned Patrick McCarthy who recognized the significance of the Chinese connection, the similarities of much of the Bubishi with existing schools of White Crane and Monk Fist gung fu, and set about researching the meanings of the enigmatic phrases used to describe the techniques shown in the Forty-Eight Diagrams.

To McCarthy this is a simple defense against a bear hug over the arms. The man on the left seizes a hold, the man on the right drops down to escape it. It's a classic bear hug escape that has been taught on self-defense courses for years. Here's a younger Bas Rutten teaching exactly the same principle but taking it a bit further, dropping to his backside.

Of course, the great weakness of the bear hug over the arms—from the front or the rear—is that there are no natural 'handles'. If you secure a bodylock, under the arms, from the front or the rear, the armpits of the opponent give you a handle to lift by, and a means to hold him upright. Grab over the arms, and you're basically hugging a heavy weight. It isn't necessary to drop all the way out of the bear hug, of course, just enough that the arms aren't pinioned to the body any more. At that point, one can turn in and establish one's own underhooks.

Now the body lock, UNDER the arms is what you want to freak out about.

The over the arms grip is an extremely poor wrestling hold, but a remarkably common hold among untrained assailants. Particularly of men attempting to assault women, and of groups attempting to attack a single person. Holds from behind which occupy the hands momentarily are especially useful in group assaults and so must be kept in mind for anyone training for self defense.

A similar raising and dropping of weight is used to deal with the Full Nelson in the Goju-ryu form, Kururunfa. Reading through the Forty-Eight Diagrams with a background in any kind of karate makes it very easy to see the techniques of kata in action, clearly not against the usual, silly stepping punch.

We've focused entirely on sketch number one from the diagrams, but sketch number twenty-seven deals with a similar bear hug attack from the rear. It highlights the second weak point of the bear hug over the arms, the hips are largely free to move. A slight turn or lateral movement of the hips and the hand has a clear path to the opponent's crotch.

But the posture will be familiar to anyone with a karate background, from any style. It is the same one hand in front, one hand low and behind posture from most versions of Seisan / Hangetsu, and from the Shotokan kata, Unsu.

If you are interested in the history of martial arts, or the meanings of traditional forms you might have learned, the Bubishi is well worth your time. I've prattled on for several pages about just one technique from one section of the text, imagine how much you could look into this book.

The Forty-Eight Diagrams are completely up for interpretation, but a brief scan through by a competent grappler will show it to contain low singles:

Chin strap control:

And a host of other principles which we see in action from the sloppiest street fights to the elite levels of MMA today. Will it make you an awesome fighter? Hell no, why would I claim a book can do that? Especially one which is a couple of hundred years old and devotes pages and pages to the idea of the death touch. But it certainly makes for great reading and hammers home the point that what is simple and to the point will always be relevant. I hope to study this enigmatic text further here at Fightland in the future.


Check out these related stories:

Karate 2.0: Seipai in the Modern World

Flying Kicks: The Roots of Taekwondo and the Future of Martial Arts

Fighting Motives: The Kingdom with No Weapons