The kukri is a curved knife, considered by one authority to be the best slashing knife in the world, and used most expertly by Nepalese soldiers known as Gurkhas. "A famous and often repeated story tells of a Gurkha who sliced an enemy's neck. The enemy laughed and said. 'You missed.' The Gurkha also laughed, and said, 'Wait till you try to turn your head!' "
By the time you reach this entry on the kukri in The Martial Arts Encyclopedia (Inscape, $19.50), you may begin to feel that all those dirty tricks attributed to the legendary Jack the Ripper were, by comparison, mere undergraduate pranks.
The encyclopedia is a large and handsome volume, splendidly illustrated with photographs and drawings, and earnestly researched. The student of martial artistry need never again wonder who practices krabi krabong (Thai fencing) or mukkey bazi (Indian boxing) or yabusame (Japanese archery from horseback), only three of more than 1,000 entries describing the varieties of sport still practiced in the East, along with hundreds of weapons we all hope our unimaginative muggers never discover.
Publisher-editor Roger Glenn Brown, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, was once a specialist in Asian affairs for the CIA. As such, he has perhaps a special fondness for ancient Japan's practice of ninjutsu—the art of invisibility. "The ninja", says the encyclopedia, were superior athletes trained for espionage. They excelled in concealment, disguise and escape...and some of the greatest ninja were women." Naturally, karate, judo, aikido and kung fu, the most popular of the martial arts exported to the West, get elaborate treatment.
There is a fine bibliography, enabling students in search of elaboration to find material specializing in the martial arts, plus a listing of colleges, schools, summer camps and short-term programs for intensive training. Susan Murdock, who runs the Women's Martial Arts Center in New York, has contributed an article justifiably feminist in tone (women were often relegated to the children's section in competition) and she lists schools with a nice geographical spread.
The encyclopedia also contains a trove of fascinating anecdotes. My favorite concerns Musashi Miyamoto (hero of the classic film Samurai) who, to demonstrate control, once caught several flies in midair with chopsticks. Try that the next time you visit a Japanese restaurant.