Robert W. Smith was one of the most important American writers on Asian martial arts, particularly those of Taiwan (and those mainland teachers who settle in Taiwan after the 2nd World War). He was a powerful man, with a background in judo, wrestling and boxing. After serving with the Marines, he joined the Central Intelligence Agency, serving in Taiwan from 1959 to 1962. While there, he undertook a peripatetic study/entry into a number of Chinese martial arts schools. The result of this three years survey of teachers were outlined in a number of his books. Most notably, Smith became a student of Zheng Manqing, an artist and innovative Yang Taijiquan instructor. Zheng, a master of a number of traditional Chinese arts, was an instructor to the family of Chiang Kai Shek.
Smith was an important figure due to his genuine achievements in Chinese martial arts and more so, due to his writings: he brought some wonderful teachers to the attention of Western practitioners. In addition, his writing, itself, was old-school, with a sense of humor and wit. To be sure, there were times that he was both pompous and verbose, but he was one of the first writers on martial arts, after E.J. Harrison, who actually brought these people to life.
Smith’s most important collaborator was Donn F. Draeger. Donn was a remarkable physical specimen. He started in some form of Yoshin-ryu jujutsu as a child, and later become a brilliant judo practitioner–the formidable Jon Bluming idolized Donn, and stated that he could not beat him in newaza (ground fighting). Donn made martial arts study the center of his life, achieving expertise in more arts than I believe anyone knows, including judo, karate, several forms of Indonesian pentjak silat, Shinto Muso-ryu jo, Katori Shinto-ryu and a number of forms of Chinese martial arts. He had a 5th dan in Tomiki Aikido, something that none of his closest friends were even aware that he studied. In his fifties, he could use 400+ pounds in full squats as a workout weight, and in fact, he was one of the pioneers using weightlifting to augment combat sports (coaching, among others Inokuma Isao, Anton Geesink, and Doug Rogers, all Olympians in judo). He revived the old academic discipline of hoplology, the study of the evolution and development of human combative behavior.
When I was on my way to Japan, Terry Dobson, my mentor in aikido recommended that I look up Draeger. The only thing I knew about him were his books. Donn was a witty, even bawdy guy in person – he was an ex-Marine, after all – but he very much desired to have his writing accepted in academic circles. He leaned on John ‘Jack’ Hanson-Lowe, an elderly man from a previous generation, who practiced ‘gentleman’s judo’ (He started in his 50’s. There was a place for cultured men such as he in the Kodokan, and he rose to 6th dan. John was legit—not a fighter, but knowledgeable, and well respected by the older Japanese teachers of the Kodokan, who still appreciated the idea of judo as a form of ethical culture). Unfortunately, Jack edited in a very stiff English style, and truly leached the humanity out of much of Donn’s writing. Therefore, I had a certain impression; I actually imagined Donn to be a tweedy academic who wrote about things that he didn’t do. I mentioned this to Terry, and said, “I’ll look him up if I have a spare moment from training.” Terry just smiled.
I first met Donn at the Renbukan, the dojo of Shimizu Takaji, of Shindo Muso-ryu. Contrary my imagination, the man was built like a Greek god, well muscled and as flexible as a gymnast (despite some serious chronic injuries). I only saw him in action a few times—practicing jo and once doing an embu of Katori Shinto-ryu. He was a terrifying man. His weapon would sound a CRACK when contacting his training partner’s weapon. He was not brutal or untrustworthy, but he was also so intense that the only way you wouldn’t get hurt would be if you matched his intensity. Imagine wrestling with a dog—you are used to a golden retriever, but today it is a mastiff, friendly to be sure, but built to kill. Illustration Donn Draeger & Shimizu Takji – Isshin-ryu kusarigamajutsu
He was training one day at the Korakuen gym, and came out of the shower to find himself facing Muhammad Ali and his entourage, there to fight Antonio Inoki in what turned out to be their absurd ‘boxing vs. wrestling’ match (absurd not because of the idea, but because of the way the bout transpired). Anyway, Ali pointed at Donn, commented on his muscles, and said that he could drop him with a single punch. Donn asked him to punch him in the stomach. Ali gave him a hook, and Donn didn’t even blink. So Ali hit him several more times, with escalating power, but Donn, again, did not blink. He just smiled. Ali was starting to get quite disconcerted when a member of his entourage wisely pulled him away, saying, “C’mon champ, we have no time to play around. We got to get ready”Illustration Donn Draeger on Set of You Only Live Twice
Donn was very kind to me, as he was to all young practitioners of martial arts who moved to Japan (Jim Bregman, Jon Bluming, Terry Dobson, Don Buck, C.W. Nicol, Meik Skoss, Ken Cottier, Quentin Chambers Phil Relnick, Larry Bieri, Hunter Armstrong, Liam Keeley, Dave Hall, to name a few). Some became his students; others he mentored: Donn believed that the classical Japanese martial traditions were dying, devolving into hobbies, and he thought that if each art could be leavened by one or two dedicated non-Japanese, their commitment would shame some teachers, and enliven others—in either case, the teacher would find himself ‘compelled’ to teach such a sincere student. He was right—some of these young men and women saved ryūha that would have largely died out, had it not been for their presence.
There was a famous xingyiquan and baguazhang teacher in Japan in those days, named Wang Shujin. He had a son-in-law living in Japan, running a Chinese restaurant. He was associated with the son of the infamous Toyama Mitsuru (founder of the Genyosha), Toyama Ryusuke, and stayed in his home. Toyama, father and son, had always been Shimizu Takaji’s sponsors, and through this connection, I believe, Donn met Wang. On the other hand, Robert Smith was already connected to Wang in Taiwan, and Robert and Donn were good friends, so the initial meeting could have come through Smith’s auspices. Illustration – WangShujin Bagua
Donn (and a number of other of his associates) began training with Wang on the grounds of the Meiji Shrine, in any and all weather. During winter, Phil Relnick told me, they would get so cold they would uncontrollably tremble, and Wang would offer a huge hand and they would grasp it with their two hands, and find that it was not just warm but hot, warming them at the touch. Wang was massively powerful – about five feet six inches and I’m guessing about 260 or more pounds. He was so round that his students nicknamed him “The Chubby Chucker.” When I later travelled in Taiwan, every prominent teacher I visited claimed to have defeated Wang Shujin one way or another—and from what I knew of the Chinese martial arts culture, this revealed that Wang probably was the dragon that they all believed they had to beat, but couldn’t.
Wang was famous for his ability to take any blow below the neck—using soft power, not rigid muscular strength (like Donn with Muhammad Ali). He could allow you to punch him in the belly, and if he didn’t like you, ‘punch’ you back with his belly, sending the arm rocketing out of his flesh behind your ear, at such speed that it nearly dislocated. I personally saw him hug a Kyokushinkai karate champion, dropping him wheezing to the ground, ‘punched’ by Wang’s massive paunch, and this, only several months before his death from cancer. He could barely walk, but he could still make any part of his body a ‘fist,’ and drive through the man with a connected body augmented with an impeccable usage of ground and gravity. Illustration Robert Smith and Wang Shujin
Wang took to Donn—as did, I believe, any truly martial human being. Donn gave people respect, when they merited it, but he never displayed a trace of arrogance. When in Japan, Wang mostly taught his adaptation of Chen Pan Ling’s synthetic t’ai chi form, but if you found favor with him, he would select either xingyiquan or baguazhang as your personal art. For Donn, he chose baguazhang, and thought well enough of him that he actually had him do the traditional tree circling for two years – no form – he simply had to circle round the tree for several hours every morning, until he’d dug a trench with his feet (or, in the most traditional mythos, this was done until the roots weakened and the tree would begin to topple). Donn said Wang would walk up, look at the track scuffed in the soil around the tree, and say “not deep enough” and then pursue Donn around the tree in a game of tag, panther pursued by Leviathan, the former always caught.
Wang visited Donn at his small home, and in the conversation, said to him, “Your trouble is you have insufficient control of your body,” reached over and picked up a meteorite, the size of a shot-put that Donn used for a paperweight. He took a pose on one leg, extended his arm straight out and held the meteorite, palm DOWN, for ten minutes, immobile, then shifted to his mirror image and did it again for another ten.
Perhaps the greatest mark of Wang’s reported power was this. Some of you may know the immense torii at Meiji shrine. Donn stated that Wang went up to it, and shook it so it swayed. (I wish I could have seen that myself—it seems an impossible feat—but so was the gymnasium building that I personally saw Chen Xiao Wang shake with a foot stomp, creating the same vibration as an earthquake…I didn’t believe it when I saw it, assuming this was either due to a sprung floor, or something similar, so I waited until everyone left, got up on the six foot stage, and jumped down straight legged. The floor, much less the building, was unaffected. Chen, on the other hand, catapulted his leg downwards, using his connective tissue, this augmenting the utterly relaxed stomp downwards, as if firing his leg like an arrow, his body being the bow). Given what I’ve seen, I can believe that Donn was possibly reporting things accurately.
In sum, then, Donn had some experience and expertise in Chinese martial arts. Nonetheless, when Draeger and Smith decided to collaborate on their seminal book, Asian Fighting Arts, they had a ‘geographic agreement.’ I don’t remember all of it, but important to this piece is that they agreed that Robert would be responsible for the writing on China. This very successful book was published, and Donn subsequently continued researching martial arts in Indonesia and Malaysia. As the reader may know, there are innumerable Chinese martial arts in the Indonesian Archipelago and in what used to be called Indochina. They are a mixed bag: on the one hand, these overseas Chinese were linked to a pre-communist form of martial arts study, in some ways more traditional than what remained in China itself, except what you might find far out in rural areas; on the other hand, they amalgamated, making heterodox systems, blending together elements of varying degrees of compatibility.
Donn found some wonderful teachers in southeast Asia. He wrote books on Indonesian fighting arts, joined several systems of silat, and actually contributed to their development by teaching them judo throws, altered to fit their particular systems. And he found Chinese arts as well, eventually writing books on Phoenix Eye boxing, Shantung Black Tiger boxing, and Shaolin Lohan fist. This offended Smith, who believed that he had, in a sense, a franchise on Chinese martial arts. As Chas Clements put it, “A herd of martial artists gets together and a fight breaks out; quelle surprise.”
I was never part of Donn’s inner circle—I felt that although the merits of close association with the man were immeasurable, I wanted to make my own way. Any introduction received from Donn made me, in Japanese eyes, one of Donn’s boys. Furthermore, I didn’t need another father, and that’s what he would have been to me. But he was very kind to me, and unfailingly helpful. In my correspondence with him, I would describe a form I had seen or was working on and would get back the equivalent of a Britannica entry – concise, pithy and erudite.
(And we got drunk one time and started planning the kidnapping a famous pseudo-neo-ninja, hanging him upside down in his underwear and sending the pictures to Black Belt Magazine—one of my great regrets was that we stuck to beer instead of hard liquor, because drunk enough, we might have done it. I might have ended up thrown out of the country [or with seven throwing stars sticking in my forehead], but that would have been one of the best nights of my life!) .
This leads me to Robert Smith’s last book, Martial Musings, where he writes more wondrous anecdotes, and sums up his truly remarkable life. But in between very intelligent and lyric writing, he also expresses some unfounded, frankly incorrect opinions. For example, he is as off-base as Meryl Streep in his discussion of Brazilian jiujitsu and MMA. He also settled scores in the book, most notably with Donn, writing an ostensibly respectful chapter, but with passive-aggressive digs that ill becomes him. In Martial Musings, Smith claims that Draeger realized the ‘superiority’ of Chinese internal methods at one point in his career, but later renounced that insight to concentrate on Japanese martial arts. Specifically: “Either consciously or deep down, their egos would not permit them to ever know that their years in the more or less”hard” arts availed nothing against a soft, old man. Ego, that monkey on all our backs, prevented them from ever knowing that Laozi was right in saying the soft overcomes the hard…but where other than in Zheng Manqing did these friends of mine ever have a chance to see it physically demonstrated? It remains a pity.” (Martial Musiings pg. 101)
What this really came down to was his belief that his teacher, Zheng Manqing, was the greatest martial artist to walk the face of the earth. Donn disagreed, and also pointed out that he could find no independent documentary evidence of Zheng ever in a real match/fight. On the other hand, he did find newspaper accounts of his being easily defeated by the Gao bagua/Taiji master Wu Mengxia
Smith claimed that he tried to set up a ‘match’ with Zheng, and Donn demurred. Smith then psychologizes that Donn here met his limit – that he couldn’t conceive of, much less approach the power of the ‘soft.’ But interestingly, Donn and I had a conversation about just this subject at this same time period. We were sitting in an underground restaurant, a dingy place under Shibuya station, and Donn told me, “Robert is after me to cross hands with Zheng Manqing. What am I supposed to do? Go easy on a fragile old man and enhance his reputation or beat up a fragile old man and damage mine? So Robert said I should check out Huang Sheng Shyan. That he was the man I should go through if I wanted Zheng. So I did” [Huang had a lifelong background in martial arts, particularly ‘white crane boxing.’ He became a leading student of Zheng Manqing in Malaysia.]
Amdur – “How did you do?” – By the way, do remember that this was not a conversation between equals – I was a young kid, comparatively, and he was kindly hanging out with me and showing me a few of the ropes, so to speak.
Draeger – “The man could push, I’ll give him that. I must have gone twenty feet back . . . but I had a hold of his jacket as I went and I rolled over in a tomoenage and choked him out.”
Donn continued, saying that he had upmost respect for baguazhang and xingyiquan as wonderful ‘civilian fighting arts.’ He said that xingyi fighters were the only internal martial arts who were generally successful in the full-contact, limited rules fights in East Asia (Incidentally, he confined the word ‘martial’ for fighting arts that were created and functioned for the battlefield. He used to make Western martial artists froth at the mouth when he’d say, “aikido-karate-judo-wu shu . . . is not a martial art, it’s a civilian fighting art.”) He continued that he always thought taiji was no more than a pseudo fighting art/exercise, because that is all he ever saw in Hong Kong/Taiwan, etc.
But then he met some groups in Malaysia, really old school – describing one that did a fast push hands coupled with round house and ax kicks at full speed, the practitioners young ethnic Chinese, some well over 240 pounds, and also a teacher known as the “Butcher” (that’s how he made his living). Other guys who were there described a friendly sparring match between these two where they totally trashed the Butcher’s room, including the two of them crashing into a sink and tearing it off the wall, then becoming friends. That’s the kind of stories that SHOULD be told about Donn—not Smith’s very subtle, self-aggrandizing patronization of his deceased good friend. To be fair, Robert tells some wonderful stories about Donn, and in many ways, pays him homage. But that chapter of his book would have been a gem had he not played out his own agenda in the process.
Here’s a last funny story about Donn (My God, what a life. I hope that his biographers get all their interviews done with his close friends, because it is too late). Donn and some associates, all practitioners of koryu (mostly jo), visited one tough Malaysian-Chinese school, and asked the translator to say, “We are honored to be here. If it pleases all of you, we will demonstrate some of our weapon-based training and then, if you’d be so kind, would you demonstrate some of your empty handed art which I’ve heard such wonderful things.”
The translator ‘repeated’ this, and all of a sudden the mood changed, like a Run Run Shaw flick – everyone drew themselves up, and you could almost hear the bad Hong Kong dubbing, with the mouth movements three seconds behind – “So, sport, you think your blue goose kung fu is a match for my white plum blossom. We’ll see about that, chappie. Let’s have a go” Donn whispered, “what did you say?” and the translator whispered back, “What you told me. We’d like to test our weapons against your empty handed art.”
Donn was able to get everyone to pause, got it slowly retranslated, and all was smiles.
I think the best way to describe Donn was that any school he joined–any martial art group–immediately became better. His presence and the demands he made on himself had such power that everyone there pulled out the best from himself. Otherwise you’d be ashamed to be training next to him. It was not what he said – he drew you up just because of who he was.