Although some people like to argue about this, you can’t really learn martial arts from a book. At least, you cannot in any exclusive sense. However, a good book can be used as a reference tool in conjunction with your studies. Most of the books I read in relation to kung fu training are historical in nature. To be honest, there aren’t many really good books out there, and most of the better ones are fairly obvious classics like The Book of Five Rings and The Art of War. Moving beyond those, here are some books I’ve extremely useful.
The Wing Chun Compendium Volume One by Wayne Belonoha. Probably the only solid Wing Chun reference guide available. Belonoha is extremely thorough in his presentation, starting with information as basic as how to find a school, and basic student etiquette and working his way through diagramming drills, forms and exercises. This is not a book designed to teach you Wing Chun, it is designed to provide a sort of study guide. In fact, it should be used at your Sifu’s direction, so he or she can point out differences between your school and Belonoha’s. In my case, Belonoha’s only a couple generations removed from Moy Yat, the same source of my family’s Wing Chun, so there are a lot of powerful similarities.
Kuen Kuit by Moy Yat and N.C. Kwong. This is definitely not a reference for learning martial arts techniques. Well, providing the book’s copy is appropriate:
“In 1967 Grandmaster Moy Yat and his student Chi-Nam Kwong engraved the Ving Tsun history and idioms (Kuen Kuit) onto a set of 51 seals, and were originally published as a Chinese-only edition. In 1980 Grandmaster Moy Yat’s disciple Moy Wo Tin was given the task of translating the seals into English. The first edition of this book was a result of his 2 year effort and included not only stampings of the seals and their English translation, but original artwork, photographs, and anecdotes by Grandmaster Moy Yat and his senior students concerning the proper study of the Ving Tsun System. “
This includes a lot of interesting proverbs, history and anecdotes related to Wing Chun training in particular. This is a great way to peak into the culture of Wing Chun training and is worth grabbing while it remains available. It went some 20+ years out of print.
The Shaolin monastery: history, religion, and the Chinese martial arts by Meir Shahar. This is strictly a historical book about the Shaolin Temple. Most of the accepted history of Shaolin is completely blurred by legends and myths, and most of the story is simply untraceable due to lost evidence, documents, etc. Shahar, who is Associate Professor of Chinese Studies at Tel Aviv University, breaks down this history as much as possible with extremely solid research. He approaches the subject in a truly scholarly fashion, and the information contained in this book is extremely compelling and enlightening. He explores motives, and answers many obvious problems that relate to Buddhism and why these monks would take up martial studies while being devoted to peace.