A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
Secrets of Chinese Karate
by Ed Parker
(Funk & Wagnalls, 1963, 240 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Secrets of Chinese Karate by Ed Parker occupies an early place in the production of Western martial arts literature. It was published by, of all companies, Funk & Wagnalls, more famous then for its dictionary and encyclopedia. The company was sold to Readers Digest two years after this book was published, and in 2009 it was acquired by World Book Encyclopedia. It’s pretty safe to say that Secrets of Chinese Karate was one of the few examples of a F&W’s publication other than its dictionary and encyclopedia, and it was an even rarer foray into the martial arts arena.
Ed Parker was born in 1931, and he began his martial arts training at age 12, beginning with judo and boxing before graduating to Kenpo karate, which is where he made his mark. The title of the book refers to “Chinese karate,” which might seem to be a misnomer to some. Back when this book was published, the term was somewhat widely used simply because American audiences had been introduced to karate before learning about kung fu, so any Eastern martial art automatically became “_______” karate—you fill in the blank.
That’s changed over the years, making the term obsolete, but there might be another, more legitimate reason to use the term here. Parker's art was Kenpo (Kempo), which, while being a Japanese martial art, is considered to be a direct offshoot of Shaolin kung fu. It was developed by Doshin So, who spent his youth as a Japanese intelligence officer in occupied China during World War II. There, he met Chen Lian, a Taoist monk, who taught him White Lotus Fist kung fu. In turn, Chen introduced So to Wen Taizong, a master of Righteous Harmony Fist. Wen passed on the title of grandmaster to So, who returned to Japan after the war. There he taught Buddhist philosophy and established Shorinji Kenpo until his death in 1980. (1)
During the decades since, Shorinji Kenpo has produced several major branches, one of which is American Kenpo, which evolved from a cluster of martial arts developed in Hawaii thanks to cross-cultural exchange between Japanese, Chinese, Okinawan, and Filipino martial artists. Parker learned from this lineage, and he opened his first school in 1954. By the end of the decade, he was a prominent and respected figure in the martial arts world—so much so, that his name became synonymous with American Kenpo, and he is referred to as the “Father of American Kenpo.”
Even more important, he opened up the martial art world further by introducing Bruce Lee at his International Karate Championships, thus expanding Western awareness of the deep history and diverse styles, methods, and practices of Chinese kung fu—which is, after all, the root ground of the Eastern martial arts as we know them. Parker died in 1990.
Kenpo, as practiced by Parker, employs circular blocking and diversions combined with hard linear strikes and kicks, and appears to use strength and power more prominently than it does chi. For an example of how Kenpo can be employed in fighting, watch the movie The Perfect Weapon. Parker assisted with the fight chorography and his student, Jeff Speakman, had the starring role.(2)
There is some controversy around Parker’s background, with some maintaining that his lineage was not what he claimed and that his skills were only marginal. Most critics focus on his early media appearances in the 1960s and find fault with his performances in them. He was, they say, a mediocre martial artist capitalizing on an art of which the public was largely ignorant. Unlike today, when knowledge of the martial arts runs deeper and broader, at the time of Parker’s rise, almost anyone with any sort of skill might pass himself off as a master.
Maybe, maybe not. I often think that lineage is, in some ways, less important than skills, and skills tend to be marginal in the beginning but accrue over time. During his lifetime, Parker was a tremendous influence in the rise of the martial arts in the West, and he trained many top martials artists of today. Those accomplishments count for something, as do his thirteen books published between 1960 and 1992. Secrets of Chinese Karate is the second of these.
Secrets of Chinese Karate is somewhat of an oddity among martial arts book in that it is a standard-size paperback instead of being something like 6'x9" or larger. This doesn’t give the interior much real estate for graphics, and this book, like most martial arts books aimed at basic instruction, is graphics heavy. All of the graphics are illustrations that seem to have been executed by Parker’s brother, David P. Parker, though the exact attribution is a little unclear.
The text begins with a forward by Joe Hyams, who, in addition to being a Hollywood columnist and the author of best-selling biographies of Hollywood stars, studied under Parker, Bruce Lee, and Bong Soo Han and wrote the book Zen in the Martial Arts.
Then it’s on to Parker’s first chapter, which credits Chinese kung fu as the root of the martial arts that subsequently proliferated throughout Korea, Japan, Okinawa, and Southeast Asia. Parker outlines this diaspora and concludes that kung fu is an art that had much to offer on multiple levels and that his purpose in producing the book is to help broaden Western knowledge of the Eastern martial arts. Remember, this was 1963, and kung fu was little known outside of East Asia.
Chapter two gives a more thorough history of Asian martial arts, beginning with the brilliant Chinese doctor, Hua T’o (190–265 AD), who devised a sequence of movements to relieve emotional tension and tone the body. The text then goes on to give a fairly thorough history of the development of kung fu from Hua T’o to its branching into karate and other martial art styles. Parker provides several anecdotes that help keep this from being just a dry historical recitation. This section is interesting, not just for the history it presents, but because it gives a view into the historical model for the development of the martial arts that existed prior to the worldwide explosion the martial arts would soon experience—an explosion created, in part by Parker, along with others of the martial arts community at the time.
The next chapter discusses, in broad strokes, the theories behind the various styles of martial arts, and the one after that lays out standards of proficiency, which includes the awarding of belts. These are, perhaps, dated now, and should be taken with a grain of salt, anyway, since a lot of kung fu masters eschew grading systems and uniforms. Theories of training comes next, and the scope of this chapter is very similar to that of the previous one. The chapter after that, however, titled “Methods of Training,” is not so cursory.
Here, after some prefatory text, Parker gets into the nuts and bolts of what he’s teaching:
Strengthening and toughening training methods and techniques
Stances and walking patterns, all of which are based on the square and its diagonals
More than fifteen fist forms
A series of charts showing the full range of movement for the body, the arms, and the legs—something I’ve never seen in any other martial arts book
Twenty types of punches
Nine types of kicks
A lengthy sequence of illustrations (47 pages) depicting a two-person fighting form
The penultimate chapter is a primer on weapons, and the book closes with a chapter on the tests, formalities, and customs of the Chinese martial arts—again, material that is, perhaps, obsolete or to be taken with a grain of salt.
Kenpo is known for blending circularity and linearity. As I said earlier, watch Jeff Speakman at work in The Perfect Weapon, and you’ll see this in action. But while the martial style depicted in this book aptly demonstrates the hard and linear, circularity is entirely absent. This stuff is for those who want to forge their bodies into hard weapons, not for those more interested in self-development. I’m not saying that you couldn’t reach the spiritual through Kenpo, but if this book is any indicator, you’d have to fight your way there.
Secrets of Chinese Karate, however, is very well done, particularly for its day, and it was packed with information not readily available at the time. As such, it provides a snapshot of the mindset of the Western martial arts community then in its burgeoning phase. The book is not a must—except, perhaps, for Kenpo practitioners or historians of martial arts literature in English—but it wouldn’t just be filler on your martial arts bookshelf, either.