Some books change your life and From Lee to Li: An A-Z Guide of Martial Arts will not be one of them. But it is fun and straightforward. I won’t add that it’s unlikely to trouble the Trade Descriptions people because Lee and Li both begin with L – but Adams to Yuksa lacks the oomph of alliteration, I guess. You’d buy this book for the scruffy younger brother or the dad who habitually rents Steven Seagal DVDs. It’s not a book with a scholarly bent, so serious martial artists might turn up their noses, but there’s plenty of interest for anyone who has picked up nanchaku and spun it around pointlessly or tensed in sympathy as Jackie Chan crashed through a skylight.
From Lee to Li is written by Ben Stevens, a lifelong martial artist (according to HarperCollins) and author of The Gaijin’s Guide to Japan, gaijin being the somewhat pejorative term used in Japanese to describe foreigners. It’s published by The Friday Project.
As an A-Z, how comprehensive is this book? Well, one problem is the that Stevens combines two groups: great warriors in the history of martial arts and famous movie stars. For another, Stevens is somewhat elastic in his definition of martial arts. He writes, on several occasions, that any learned fighting skill (be it with empty hands or rice flails) can be termed a martial art. This explains the somewhat odd inclusion of Robin Hood (archer, boxer, wrestler, quarter-staff twiddler extraordinaire) and likewise some English boxers and Russian wrestlers. All to the good…so why don’t we find an entry on Muhammed Ali?
We do, however, get a bevvy of martial arts stars. Stevens dutifully repeats the legends surrounding such stalwarts as Jean-Claude Van Damme, who almost kicked a Hollywood producer in the face to land his earliest and perhaps best role, that of Frank Dux in Bloodsport, and others, including the American actor and karateka Chuck Norris. Of course, while Norris’ backstory is interesting, it pales against those now-famous Norris aphorisms (not authored by Norris himself) like ‘Chuck Norris doesn’t read books. He stares them down until he gets the information he wants’ and ‘Chuck Norris’s tears cure cancer. Too bad he never cries.’ Priceless. But some influential Western martial arts stars aren’t included. I would have liked entries on Brandon Lee and Dolph Lundgren.
As for the Asian stars, the usual suspects are present and correct. Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan get treated to longish articles but, arguably, these only scratch the surface. Lee’s article, in particular, could have been bolstered with more on the revolutionary aspects of his Jeet Kune Do style. Sammo Hung is included, but what about Yuen Biao, the third member the of Chan-Hung-Biao triumvirate? Other overlooked stars include Toshiro Mifune, who is surely worthy of a mention, too. While considered a traditional actor, he was a pillar of Akira Kurosawa’s early jidaigeki works such as Rashomon, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro, in which kenjutsu and iaido feature heavily.
As well as modern-day heroes, Stevens includes many legendary characters who made contributions to the creation of particular styles. Some my personal favourites are absent, however, including Matsaaki Hatsumi, the modern ninja master, and Sosui Ichikawa, the goju stylist.
This book is a little like a finger buffet for a sumo wrestler. In its attempt to be light, it can lack depth. Any fan of martial arts or the movie genre is likely to know a great deal more about, say, Jackie Chan than Stevens covers in his brief article. So the emphasis is on trivia rather than information. It is not encyclopedic or comprehensive. It’s a book to open at random and browse. At times, it pegs the Jumpers for For Goal-Posts meter: martial arts – you know; isn’t it, mmm? marvellous; 1980s video boom; dubbed dialogue; wax on? wax off? But, overall, it’s a fun book and does (most of) what it says on the tin.