Martial arts transport us to the realms of legends. Every single day, countless stories are told of history’s martial heroes: warriors that overcame seemingly impossible odds to defeat their enemies, find spiritual transcendence, or simply survive. 

Although the legends of historical martial arts warriors are undoubtedly gripping, playing on our darkest fears and tugging at our heartstrings with acts of hope, adversity, and triumphs of the human spirit, they often cause one to wonder where fact ends and fiction begins. 

No stories are more gripping than those surrounding the founders and great masters of modern-day practices. It is with these legendary figures and their tales that this book concerns itself. 

The “hero” and “underdog” story structures, a staple of humanity since antiquity, are commonplace throughout the canon of martial arts legends, with their familiar plot points and character types. For example, the student being frail or sickly, their study being prohibited by parents or other authority characters, an (often old) mentor figure teaching them ancient secrets, and a final test of skills that must be undertaken alone. 

The protagonists of each martial arts legend are varied, and may be of different genders, ages, or backgrounds. They may face a spiritual crisis, a physical enemy, a natural enemy, or even be their own greatest enemy. 

However, it cannot be ignored that we do often see specific formats and themes reoccurring in supposedly real-life events. This then raises the question: “Do we tell the legends of martial arts figures because of their magnificent characters and gripping stories, or do we insert these elements into what may be far more mundane realities?” 

This is a conundrum that this book intends to investigate further by examining three key questions. 

  • Why are the legendary martial arts founders and figureheads held in such high regard? 
  • How factual are their legends? 
  • What is the function of these legends, both historically and in the modern day? 

Twelve “true” tales of some of the most legendary martial arts figures are presented in this book. These legends have been specifically selected as they represent a spread of well- known martial arts communities (rather than just a single style or nation), and because they are highly dramatic and widespread in numerous formats. 

The legends have been divided into four thematic categories, based upon what is widely considered to be their key content (however, these categories are subject to personal interpretation, as many of the tales could be placed into two or more). 

These categories include: 

1. Spiritual Journeys 

2. Rebellion Tales

3. Duels

4. Challenges 

The legends will first be retold as they commonly appear within informal martial arts histories, usually repeated orally, seen in film or television, or other media formats. The known facts are presented about each figure and legend, present possible reasons for their longevity, and discuss key functions that they have served for followers and practitioners of martial arts both historically and in the modern world. 

From looking at twelve of the best-known tales of legendary martial artists in relation to their commonly circulated stories, the known facts, and their relevance to modern-day martial artists, there are several key conclusions that can be drawn. 

First, as briefly there are many similarities between these figures and their tales. Although there is often not a single set type of story that reoccurs, there are definite themes, plot structures, and archetypes that appear to run through them. However, it remains unclear whether these similarities (such as being an underdog who is vastly outnumbered or outweighed, or being a sickly, weak child who is trained by a mysterious old master) are coincidentally absorbed into such stories due to their dramatic appeal or if we simply favor these types of stories. Regardless of this consideration, the legends themselves serve a variety of purposes both historically and through to the modern day. Some key functions include the following: 

Establishing Shared Identity Among Practitioners 

For example, uniting a particular marginalized or political group. This is especially relevant for modern nation building purposes, such as within post WWII Korea or Japan, twentieth- century Thailand, and Vietnam. It could be argued that all the countries above have used their martial arts legends to create a shared identity for nationalistic purposes. Meanwhile, creating a shared identity among practitioners takes place all over the world (albeit on a smaller scale) to this very day. 

Practitioners often find social acceptance and friendship among groups that they can identify with because of some specific lineage, historical figure, or site. In fact, John Donohue states that upon merely donning the uniform of a martial art, the student is offered “a statement of individual conformity and identification with the group.”1 

This may also take the form of providing lineages and orders for certain peoples and practitioners to follow or call their own. For example, the Northern and Southern Shaolin Buddhist orders, Gracie Clan Jiu Jitsu, Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, or even by belonging to a certain genre of martial arts (such as striking, grappling, or weapons). 

Providing Legitimization for Physical Practices 

Taekwondo, Muay Thai, Kyokushin, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Wing Chun, and others have all used the legends to provide a rationale for the inclusion of certain techniques, strategies, or even equipment within their training. 

Legitimizing physical practices is, however, somewhat of a “chicken or the egg” scenario. Often it is impossible to identify whether the legends have been reworked to include specific techniques, or if the techniques have simply been emphasized due to their roles in the legends. 

Moral and Spiritual Teachings 

Although more apparent in the legends of ancient and mysterious figures such as Bodhidharma, Zhang Sanfeng, Miyamoto Musashi, and Morihei Ueshiba, most of the legends have some kind of overarching lesson that displays moral principles or philosophies. For example, those of Japanese Budo, Taoism, or Buddhism. Although, whether we agree with these lessons or not is a different matter. 

Inspiring or Challenging Practitioners 

Without a doubt, many of the legends discussed feature extremely impressive acts that are mostly achieved through sheer determination and desire for excellence. Much like the legends told in any sport, these tales serve as inspirations, leading followers to challenge and push themselves further, striving for perfection. This desire for practitioners to one day match the legendary status and skills of their heroes is a powerful thing. Whether martial artists want to prosper in competition and become champions, defend themselves in dangerous scenarios, or even transcend mortality itself, these legends set a high bar to aim for. 

Inspiring Societal Change 

Whether or not the actual events took place (for example, Bruce Lee being forbidden from teaching his art to non-Chinese, or Gogen Yamaguchi fighting to change the perception of Okinawan martial arts in Japan), they still hold the potential to make large-scale differences. For example, it could be argued that Bruce Lee’s tale assisted in bringing the issue of a divide between Chinese and American communities to the forefront of public consciousness, even though it may have been essentially untrue. Similarly, by creating a widespread system of “Ancient Korean” martial arts with Taekwondo, who can deny the physical benefits that having millions of adults with black belts must have provided for South Korea? 


Possibly the most important purpose all of these legends serve in the modern world is that of enjoyment. We all love great stories, and with those that stem from real life (or are at least partially true) our enjoyment is often compounded. While it can be argued that in many cases, we are simply pulling the wool over our own eyes by choosing to believe in “orientalist fantasies,”2 the fact of the matter is that these legends and stories are fun. As long as the legends we tell do not enable negative behaviors or present negative ramifications to the followers of a martial art, then it is this author’s opinion that we should simply be able to enjoy these legends, fact or fiction, for what they are. Whether the tales told about these legendary figures of martial arts are entirely accurate, somewhat accurate, or complete fiction, the purposes they have served historically and continue to serve are real. 

Therefore, knowing the facts from the fiction and function should not be detrimental to the way we interact with our chosen disciplines or those of our peers. Instead, we should try to focus on the myriad of benefits, teachings, and enjoyment provided by such stories about the legendary figures of martial arts. 

References & Figures 

1 Donohue, J. J. (1993). “The Ritual Dimension of Karate-do.” Journal of Ritual Studies 7(1): 105–124. stable/44398891. 

2 Said, E. W. (2019). Orientalism. Penguin Books. p. 20. 

The above is an excerpt from Legendary Masters of the Martial Arts: Unraveling Fact from Fiction by Augustus John Roe, Publication Date October 1, 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594399626.