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Virtue: The Foundation of Traditional Martial Arts

“When you can take the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave,” is a memorable quote from the classic 70’s TV series Kung Fu. Along with Bruce Lee’s rise to stardom, this show introduced kung fu to the American audience. With kung fu’s introduction outside China came the emergence of martial arts films like Fist of Fury, Drunken Master, and so on.

Many of us think that martial arts are all about leaping into the air, executing quick and agile kicks, and fighting fists against armed men. But that is just one aspect. The big-screen depictions are to be blamed partially for only taking us to the surface level of kung fu. In the words of Zeng Hairuo, director of the documentary series Kung Fu: “Hong Kong films and some Hollywood films about kung fu are very well known, but what they have presented to audiences is a very limited portion of real kung fu culture in China.”

Kung fu: More than a system of fighting

The general notion is that kung fu is a single martial art like Judo and Aikido, but kung fu is a term encompassing hundreds of Chinese martial art styles such as Long Fist and Taiji Quan.

Furthermore, history suggests that kung fu in China is an integral part of the Chinese education system. It is more than a system of combat as it emphasizes the values of respect, humility, trust, righteousness, and honor. These values are essential aspects of martial arts because attaining mastery means looking at kung fu as a way of life. As encouraged by master Youfu Li: “Martial virtue must be cultivated.”

Martial virtue or Wu De

Master Youfu Li said that martial virtue, or wu de, is “to stop the evil and promote the kind. It is actually to be a good person.” The idea consists of two sets of morals: morality of deed and morality of mind. The morality of the deed pertains to morals and ethics that have real-world applications, particularly to our relationships with other people. Embedded in this morality are the values of humility, respect, righteousness, trust, and loyalty. By practicing the morality of deed, you become receptive to the actions of other men and be more understanding.

Martial virtue consists of two sets of morals: morality of deed and morality of mind. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

On the other hand, the morality of mind speaks of the internal traits that one can develop. Will, perseverance, endurance, courage, and patience are the values ingrained in this morality. The mind is sharpened when these values are cultivated, resulting in a harmonized xin (wisdom mind) and yi (emotional mind).

The morality of deed is rudimentary before delving into all kinds of learning. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Essentially, the morality of deed is rudimentary before delving into all kinds of learning while the morality of mind is needed to deepen one’s knowledge.

In general, wu de is a Chinese martial arts code for a peaceful social life. This is backed up by the Chinese character for martial arts, wu (武) — a combination of “stop” (止) and “war” (戈). As Master Li said: “If a candidate is able to keep practicing the real traditional martial arts, his martial virtue will be good.”

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