[Review] The Martial Arts by Susan Ribner and Dr. Richard Chen

One of my favorite research topics is the intersection of women’s rights movements and martial arts, in particular the women’s liberation movement in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. When I found out that a karateka and activist of that era, Susan Ribner had written a book1 – had to read it? Yes.

“The Martial Arts” is written in a clear, straightforward style, with time taken to explain vocabulary and martial arts concepts. It’s very clearly a book intended for a reader with little to no martial arts knowledge whatsoever. For an experienced martial artist, this can make it a tiresome read, but for the average American reader in 1978, I can imagine it could be eye-opening.

If the purpose of the book was to aim for that naive reader, I think that’s a worthy cause. Martial arts was on fire in the U.S. and pop culture was cashing in very loudly. A book that sat the reader down and set the record straight would have been an important tool for the martial arts community.

There are 7 chapters:

  • Kung Fu
  • Judo
  • Karate
  • Aikido and T’ai Chi Ch’uan
  • Kendo
  • Naginata
  • Ninjitsu

Each covers the history, philosophy, description of the art, and how it’s practiced today (well, in the 1970s).  As far as the actual technique and execution, Ribner goes into more detail than I would expect considering my evaluation above in the second paragraph. Topics like ch’i/ki, whole-body coordination, mechanics of a punch, the purposes of kata, the philosophy of Aikido.

The book also takes up space identifying and dispelling common myths about martial arts, such as the image of karateka with huge calloused knuckles, and that a black belt equates to ultimate mastery.

A Feminist Perspective

I still do a double-take when a hypothetical person is given she/her pronouns instead of the ‘default’ he/him. It’s clear to me that Ribner made a deliberate and effective effort to normalize women as both active participants in the history of martial arts, and as modern practitioners. Illustrations by Melanie Arwin depict both men and women. (And people of different ages and races. Nice!)

I was really pleased that this book, more than any other overview of martial arts history I’ve read, takes great care to include women’s contributions. Usually, “Women” is a sort of Fun Fact end note, brief details tucked away in a single paragraph. But Ribner emphasizes that some of Jigoro Kano’s first judo students were young women, tells the story of the woman samurai Itagaki and Tomoe Gozen.

That is a pretty powerful statement. I mean, it’s one of the foundations of this blog project and the new Resource Library, that women’s place in martial arts is not a token, that we deserve respect. I try to do this by saturating as much of my corner of the internet I can with depictions and experiences of women martial artists across time.

Like, in all the time I’ve been researching this, it’s been difficult to find this kind of inclusion. And here it is. I’m pleased as heck. :3

Concerns

There are many historical and factual inaccuracies in this book, and some attempts to explain complex concepts are simplified to the point of being incorrect, or at least incorrect in the modern understanding. As an admirer of Ribner, and as someone hoping to find new forgotten historical surprises, this was discouraging. But after some thought, I really can’t judge this as a major shortcoming. I know that might seem bizarre but hear me out: I mainly see the book itself a modern historical artifact. A reflection and reaction to a very change-making time for martial arts in the United States. From this book we can get a picture of what the popular conception of martial arts was, where the U.S. was in its martial arts development, and how things were changing.

Gems

That said, there are little forgotten historical gems! Things I found in this book that I haven’t come across anywhere else yet, and made me add another dog-ear to my copy.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • A suffragette named Nell Hall Humpherson said of Edith Garrud’s Suffrajitsu Bodyguard: “Nobody ever left the Bodyguard. Nobody ever resigned from the Bodyguard. We just got more people.” Cool.
  • In the United States, until 1976, women judoka had to wear belts with a white stripe down the middle if they wanted to compete at the national level. Diane Pierce, a major judo player at the time, is quoted: “I am a black belt, not a black-and-white belt. The strip looks to me like the wearer is not quite a brown belt and not quite a black belt. Surely if it isn’t there to show that you are a woman and not a man; or is it? I feel that those of us who choose to compete should wear a solid belt to show that we are one hundred percent brown belts or black belts.” Some women in protest of the rule, competed with white belts rather than wear the women’s belt. Cool.2
  • It was common and “quite fashionable” for there to be regulated contests between men wielding bokken and women wielding naginata. Cool.

The Martial Arts is worth a read, even with a grain of salt. It’s a fascinating insight into the state of things in the 1970s, a presents a solid general overview of martial arts, and has as fresh feminist perspective.


This book is a part of the She Kicks She Throws Resource Library

  1. Ribner, recently deceased, was a black belt of Shotokan karate. She helped found the National Woman’s Martial Arts Federation, and founded a karate school in New York City in the 1960s. []
  2. I have seen this belt in photos of Kodokan judo women. See this pic of the Joshi Judo Camp instructors. I’m finding that the relationship between Kodokan women to Judo and American women to judo was quite different. []

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