Book Review – Bubishi: The Classic Manual of Combat

Bubishi illustrations from Mabuni Kenwa's book, Seipai no Kenkyu (The Study of Seipai)

Illustrations from Mabuni Kenwa’s book, Seipai no Kenkyu (The Study of Seipai), which he supposedly got from Itosu Anko’s copy of the Bubishi

The Bubishi is considered, by many, to be required reading for any karateka. It is a collection of essays, recipes, and diagrams transferred to Okinawa from China–most likely in small sections over time–and it is believed to be related to, or part of, a Chinese war manual called the Wu Bei Zhi, which was written in the 16th and 17th Centuries. The Wu Bei Zhi is a very long work, containing mostly instructions for generals relating to battlefield tactics, but it does contain some instructions for one-on-one combat with weapons, and unarmed. The material that made it to Okinawa is primarily the unarmed, one-on-one fighting methods, as well as medicinal practices, and sections of it have been incorporated into a variety of karate books over the years, including works by Funakoshi Gichin and Mabuni Kenwa–the founders of Shotokan and Shito-Ryu, respectively. These days, the Bubishi has been compiled into more cohesive works by a few authors, but none more popular or well known than Patrick McCarthy (Hanshi, Kudan, founder of Koryu Uchinadi). He and his wife have put a great deal of time and effort into translating and fleshing out the Bubishi material found on Okinawa, and building it into a single detailed book. This book has been available to the public for some time, now, but McCarthy Sensei and Tuttle Publishing are releasing a brand new edition, which they have kindly provided me with a copy of to review in advance of its release on June 21st, 2016.

The covers of three editions of the Bubishi, by Patrick McCarthy

The covers of the three most recent editions of the Bubishi, by Patrick McCarthy

The first thing you will notice about the Bubishi: The Classic Manual of Combat, is the new cover art. While it is certainly true that one should not judge a book by its cover, it is notable that previous versions of the Bubishi have had rather bland or muted cover art in comparison to the new edition. While the older covers get the job done, they can seem a bit dated, while the new edition’s cover makes it look like something that sits on the “Best Seller” table in the book store. It’s a minor change, really, but it does give the book a modern, professional look. Additionally, the book is over 100 pages longer than the previous version, The Bible of Karate: Bubishi, coming in at 319 pages to the older copy’s 214. The paper used to make the book is also slightly heavier, which gives it a more substantial feel and is indicative of high quality production. Aesthetically, Bubishi: The Classic Manual of Combat, is definitely an improvement on its predecessors.

This edition of the Bubishi contains several new forewords by a number of well known karate researchers and practitioners. Where you previously would have read words of praise from Asian martial arts experts, such as Nagamine Shoshin, Kinjo Hiroshi, and Hokama Tetsuhiro, you will now find kudos from Western martial arts experts. These include Jesse Enkamp (the author of the popular Karate by Jesse website), and Cezar Borkowski (a Canadian karate pioneer). There is also a Preface discussing the history of how McCarthy Sensei developed the book over time, starting in the late 1980’s, as well as his views on the nature of violence and realistic training practices, and the founding of the International Ryukyu Karate Research Society (IRKRS). Following this section, you will find the forewords found in the older editions, and another collection of essays by Joe Swift (a well-known karate practitioner and researcher) and Andreas Quast (author of Karate 1.0, a master text of karate history). There is also an essay by Evan Pantazi (a kyusho-jutsu expert) at the head of the section on vital points. Overall, this book incorporates a significant number of contributions from well-known martial artists, which could be seen as “fluff” to some, but undoubtedly adds a layer of depth to the work, as these additions can provide more “food for thought” for the reader to consider as they explore the rest of the book.

An original Bubishi illustration, titled "18 Hands"

A compilation image of several Bubishi postures, found in the Alexander-Penland version of the Bubishi

Part One of this book covers the history and transmission of the Bubishi, and karate, generally. While this is largely the same content found in previous editions, Bubishi: The Classic Manual of Combat, contains additional images and original Bubishi illustrations. It also includes a new section covering Itosu’s Ten Precepts, which are often referred to as a solid set of guidelines for karateka to follow. A universal dojo kun, of sorts. The final segment in Part One is an essay on the principles and fighting methods of White Crane.

Jars of dit da jow, a liniment for martial artists, made by Plum Dragon Herbs

Part Two delves into the folk medicine and health practices covered in original Bubishi manuscripts, as well as expansions by the author based on his own research and consultation with other experts on the subject. In the modern age, this type of content is more historical and cultural in nature than practical advice, as we have highly developed scientific medicine we can rely on. It includes recipes of medicines and tinctures that modern medicine may disprove the effectiveness of, but for those with an interest in traditional Chinese medicine, it can provide a very interesting look at how it can be applied to martial artists.


A diagram of vital points on the front of the body

Part Three is the “vital points” section of the Bubishi. Following the essay by Evan Pantazi, it discusses the 36 primary vulnerable targets on the body. As a pragmatic martial artist, I can acknowledge that many of these points are effective targets for combat, and the book includes modern, Western anatomical diagrams of where these points are located, in addition to the traditional Chinese diagrams. That said, these is also a good deal of material discussing time cycles and energy circulation, as well as descriptions of the potential effects of attacking these points. Some of this content is questionable, with regard to its efficacy and legitimacy, when looking at it from the perspective of modern science. That said, as with the medicinal section of the book, this material can still be valuable for those with an interest in studying the approach and beliefs of martial artists over 100 years ago.

Part Four is likely the most commonly and deeply studied section of this book, as it covers the actual fighting techniques of the Bubishi. It covers fighting principles found in Chinese martial arts, hand formations, the “forty-eight self defense diagrams” that are most frequently seen in other books, and additional Chinese fighting postures, which have all been transmitted from China to Okinawa over the course of generations. As with older versions of this book, these illustrations have been redrawn for clarity. I recently put together a video with my Sensei, Richard Poage (Renshi, Godan, Shorin-Ryu Shorinkan), covering some of our interpretations of the self defense diagrams in the Bubishi, which can be watched, above. Patrick McCarthy Sensei was kind enough to watch the video before we published it, and gave us an introduction video with some kind words, which we were very happy to receive.


Overall, this book is very well done, and the additions provide valuable insights into the origins and development of the Bubishi. This has long been a staple of karate research material, and I believe that it will continue to be so. If you practice karate, but do not own a copy of this book, I highly recommend that you add it to your library. Even if, like me, you are skeptical about traditional Chinese medicine and vital point practices, there is plenty of practical information along with valuable historical information to be found within these pages. For those who already own an older edition of the Bubishi, it may not be necessary to purchase the new edition, as the majority of the content is the same, but even then, the added original illustrations and new content add to the depth of study possible with this classic work. To order the book, you can find it on Amazon.

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About Noah

I began training in karate (Shuri-Ryu) in the Summer of 2006. Subsequently, I started training in judo, kobudo, and iaijutsu within the next 6 months. During my training there, I earned the rank of Sankyu (3rd Degree Brown Belt) in Shuri-Ryu, Gokyu (Green Belt) in judo, a certification in the use of the bo, and passed proficiency tests for the four tachigata of Shinkage-Ryu iaijutsu. I moved to Arizona in the Summer of 2008, and continued training and researching karate at home. I continued regular training in judo at a local club until 2010, when I was able to start training in Shorin-Ryu with Sensei Richard Poage. I have been training with him ever since, and currently hold the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in Shorin-Ryu under him. In addition, I began studying KishimotoDi under Sensei Ulf Karlsson in 2014.