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The Bridge Between East and West: Robert W. Smith Remembered (1926-2011)

July 8, 2011

Robert W. SmithFor over two generations Americans have indulged in countless cultural phenomenons rooted in the influence of Eastern martial arts. Bruce Lee, Kung Fu Panda, Jackie Chan and the thousands of adolescent Americans enrolled in karate courses are just a few examples that come to mind; the list is too extensive to complete in a single blog post. The bottom line is simple:  many Americans feel martial arts is as much a part of Western culture as it is a part of Eastern tradition. However, the countless forms of martial arts we are familiar with today may not have become so universal without the writings of Robert W. Smith — the martial arts pioneer that bridged the East and West. He passed on July 1st, 2011.

Robert William Smith is credited as an important factor in the rapid spread of interest in Asian martial arts such as judo, karate, and taijiquan into the postwar United States. Born on a farm in Iowa on December 27, 1926, Robert was sent to an orphanage at the age of 3 where he cultivated a love for reading an writing. At the age of 17 he joined the U.S. Marines with whom he served diligently in the Pacific Theater. This was where he first learned of Judo. After the war he tenaciously enrolled in the Russian and Far Eastern Studies master’s program at University of Washington. In 1955 Robert joined the CIA writing team as an Intelligence Analyst. On his own volition he learned Chinese and in 1959 moved to Taiwan as an advisor to the Admiral of the Taiwan Defense Command.

Robert’s drive to learn never ceased. While in Taiwan he took it upon himself to indulge in the cultural complexities of Chinese martial arts. Following his heart, Robert trained under Professor Cheng Man-ch’ing as the first Western student to learn T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Rumors circulate throughout the martial arts community that Smith had to knock on Cheng’s door for half a year before the master would accept his first non-Chinese student. Robert’s motto in life was “wisdom leavened with love,” advice he followed throughout his training and beyond.

Robert’s importation of Eastern knowledge to The United States began in the 1950s with his contributions to such niche-market martial arts magazines as Budokwai Quarterly BulletinStrength and Health, Black Belt, and the Journal of Asian Martial Arts. He also served on the editorial board of Taijiquan Journal. During this time Robert also taught Chinese boxing and Taijiquan at his local YMCA where he amassed an extensive following of students. He taught this same class for 26 years. He continued to write books that dispelled the mysterious nature of martial arts and clarified the complexities of a misunderstood tradition for an increasingly interested American public. His first book on esoteric Chinese martial arts, Pa-Kua: Chinese Boxing for Fitness and Self Defense, was originally printed in 1967 and has remained in print as America’s interest in martial arts continues to skyrocket with every decade.

As an editor, author, co-author and co-translator, Robert produced 14 books, dozens of magazine articles, and wrote over 240 book reviews on a wide variety of topics for top newspapers across America.Three of Robert’s books, Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods, Hsing-I: Chinese Mind-Body Boxing and, a reprint of his first book, Pa-Kua: Chinese Boxing for Fitness and Self Defense, are published by North Atlantic Books. He will be a dearly missed figure remembered for his lasting influence on both Eastern and Western martial arts traditions.

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