The True Value of Chinese Martial Arts – Martial Virtue
Just like other arts and cultural aspects of Chinese civilization that are nurtured by morality, Chinese martial arts have gone through a process of change and degeneration in the recent historical period.
1. Rise and Fall: from the Present Examining the Past
How have Chinese Martial Arts degenerated under the current moral climate in contemporary society?
Firstly, this is the result of the overall degradation of social morality. History has taught us that human civilization, arts, and culture all originated from the development of human morality. Morality is the common thread within different cultures, arts and civilizations. For example, physicians should follow the moral requirements of the medical field, martial artists should follow the moral requirements in the field of martial arts, businessmen should follow the moral requirements in the field of business. Businessmen should trade fairly. Politicians should follow the moral requirements of the political field, serve the people and not be tempted by corruption. All professions speak of certain moral codes in their respective fields. Think of any art or profession. If it has lost its moral guidelines, it has definitely lost its value.
Chinese martial arts originate from the ancient past in China and Chinese martial arts masters hand down their knowledge and skills to the next generation in a unique way. In ancient times, people lived simple lives and they had high moral standards. Martial arts practitioners used to gather in remote mountain forests, or along rivers. They might run into masters with high levels of skill and become inspired. Such martial art practitioners would usually follow stringent guidelines and keep practicing the arts until they reached a state of “Dao”. These people then became the founders of various martial arts forms and forms of swordsmanship. At that time, a genuine martial art practitioner could wave his fists simply following his heart’s desire. A genuine swordsman could wield his sword as if it was part of his own physical body. Grand masters would sometimes appear and sometimes keep themselves hidden from society. They may wander around amongst the populace. Under the moon, or at dawn, such masters would quietly guide their disciples. Such disciples were usually hand-picked by the masters themselves through a strict process. Only people with high morality would have been chosen. It was said that one should not casually pass on one’s skills, unless on encounters a person of high morality.
After a few years, many of those disciples would become masters themselves. If they were not able to find people with high morality to teach, they would open martial arts schools and accept students. Students would be engaged in the cultivation of morality while being taught the martial art. The masters would only reveal the highest skills of their arts to the students who had developed the highest moral character. As a result, throughout history, two methodologies have been adopted for teaching martial arts to the public: hand-picking students to teach or teaching students a martial art while educating the students on the moral requirements.The ultimate goal of these two different ways is actually the same: martial virtue is the most important requirement for any martial arts practitioner.
The transmission of a Chinese martial art from a master to a disciple is based on martial virtue, and martial virtue is based on morality. Nowadays, the moral background of the Chinese nationality has been completely destroyed. It is a very obvious phenomenon. Chinese martial arts have degenerated along with the degeneration of morality in society.
If one loses faith in the spiritual, refuses to believe in gods, in the Dao, or in Buddha, one will soon be easily led by materialism and the pursuit of desires. No matter what kind of culture, art, or technical skill is studied or performed by such an individual, it will lose its true value. If an individual with a very low moral standard performs such arts or technical skills, the end result will be even worse.
Lao Zi once said, “Although a nation has lethal weapons, it should not resort to such weapons.” Sun Zi once said, “Capturing the whole enemy army without any casualties is the best strategy. Destroying the enemy army is only the second best strategy.” The both advocated the idea that even though you possess lethal force, you should not use it lightly. For martial art practitioners, their martial virtue comes from their religious faiths and moral requirements. One who possesses such virtue, first of all, can easily distinguish right from wrong, and his qualities will definitely be praised in society. Such martial arts practitioners will aim to stop evil and encourage what is good.
With the decline of morality in recent history, some martial arts masters have also started to seek fame and self interest. Gradually, the requirements on a martial arts practitioner to adhere to the moral rules of martial virtue became less and less. The shift towards laws governing society has led people to place less emphasis on moral standards. Yes, martial arts can help a country to win territory in war, and martial arts masters can attack those evil elements in society and protect the innocent. However, the ability to distinguish evil from righteous, good from bad, and justice from injustice is always the most fundamental requirement for a martial arts practitioner.
In ancient times, people focused on faith and morality, and took fame and self-interest lightly. In choosing students they were very strict about only choosing those with a high moral standard. As a result, such students would definitely reach a high level in the study of martial arts due to their emphasis on moral development. As human society reaches the age in which belief in religious faiths has degenerated, the whole moral standard of society is sliding downwards. The traditional ideal of martial virtue is also disappearing and martial artists’ skills can hardly reach any significant level of mastery.
If a society loses its faith in gods, those governing that society will find it hard to serve the people well and stay untempted by corruption. Those engaged in business will place profits above everything else. Doctors will not adhere to the moral codes of the medical profession and illnesses will abound. If an industry is without any moral constraints, such an industry will definitely pollute the environment. If a martial arts practitioner doesn’t follow the way of virtue, such a person will definitely end up helping evil people in attacking the vulnerable and will degenerate into a ruffian. If the various professions in society are all without morality, that society will definitely end up in a terrible state and the whole nation in a perilous situation. If the moral values of the whole world slide downwards, as it reaches the extreme low point, disasters will appear and the human race will be doomed.
To be able to distinguish good from bad, and to be able to stop evil while helping the righteous, are the most important moral requirements on martial arts practitioners. If one doesn’t know how to distinguish good from bad, even if one has developed certain martial skills, if one takes the wrong path and engages in bad or evil deeds, not only will one lose one’s martial virtue, but one will also develop a bad reputation and lose the things that are most important to a person’s life. Such a martial arts practitioner will sow the seeds of his own destruction. That’s the guaranteed end result for one who loses his moral code and becomes evil. Right now, morality has declined so much that social awareness is lost. Chinese people as a whole have reached a state where many are lacking human nature. How can traditional culture be revived?
2. Understanding Universal Characteristics
Ancient sages have already foretold that in the Dharma-ending period (the current historical period) all three major religions (China’s three religions – Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism) would be in a state of ruin. Human society would face the danger of complete destruction. There would be an enlightened being appearing in the world, spreading Dafa (the Great Law), saving sentient beings and uplifting moral standards of the human race once again.
In recent years, New Tang Dynasty Television has sponsored three Chinese martial arts competitions, in order to promote traditional Chinese culture and rectify people’s minds. Advocacy of traditional Chinese culture will inevitably lead to a renewed emphasis on virtue and moral requirements for people practicing traditional Chinese martial arts. First of all, the ability to distinguish what is good from bad, to help the vulnerable and stop evil, are the most fundamental moral requirements for martial arts practitioners. How are we going to promote traditional culture and elevate people’s martial virtue? We clearly state that the ultimate requirement for uplifting one’s moral values and virtue in martial arts is to follow the principles of “Zhen-Shan-Ren” or “Truthfulness, Compassion and Tolerance.” The book “Zhuan Falun” explains, “It is an exposition of the characteristic of the universe, ‘Zhen-Shan-Ren,’ expressed at different levels with different layers of meaning. It is also what the Tao School calls the ‘Tao,’ or what the Buddha School calls the ‘Fa.’”
I have discussed this issue with people from various Eastern and Western religious groups. I asked these people, “Are there any conflicts between the principles of ‘Zhen-Shan-Ren’ and any other religious belief?” All these people gave the same reply—no. Therefore, in today’s Age of the Law’s End, isn’t using a belief in the principles of ‘Zhen-Shan-Ren’ an unrivalled way to elevate morality and our level of martial virtue? If one takes the universal characteristics of “Zhen-Shan-Ren” as the Law of the Heart to guide oneself in cultivation, one’s morality will rise very quickly, and one’s martial virtue and martial arts skills will naturally reach a high level.
If one really takes the universe’s characteristic of “Zhen-Shan-Ren” to cultivate the heart, their morality will quickly ascend and their martial virtue and martial prowess will naturally reach a high level.
Because of having high martial virtue, a person will definitely abide by the laws of Heaven, Earth and man, and the universe in cultivating their martial arts skills, and thus he will be able to distinguish clearly benevolence and evil, good and bad. Such a person will definitely be able to bear hardships and most likely will be picked by a master. Such a person won’t get lost fighting for fame and gain in today’s society. He will cultivate his virtue. He will even start to disregard competition and take a very light view towards fame and power. Such a person will definitely start to focus on moral cultivation. Most importantly, such a person will realize that his martial skill can only be used to help the vulnerable and stop evil. Following the principle of retribution of good and evil, good actions will be met with a good outcome, because such a person is a kind-hearted human being. What I am talking about here is true martial virtue. This is the standard that all martial arts practitioners should set for themselves.
In speaking about martial virtue here, we must also speak of the real skills and techniques that can be used to win battles. Such skills include wisdom developed through cultivating virtue. High level martial arts and martial skills are not purely to be used in fighting, and if one was to just emphasise the fighting skills of Chinese martial arts, that wouldn’t be the most important part of a traditional Chinese martial arts system. The martial skills are actually the by-products of cultivating virtue. Martial virtue involves cultivation of moral character and a sense of art. Through endurance, one will gain enlightenment and wisdom and thus develop superior skills in martial arts. Such a martial arts practitioner will raise his personal moral standards and can be depended on to stop evil and help the righteous.
As a matter of fact, the battling skills one learns from Chinese martial arts are just natural exhibitions of one’s wisdom from one’s cultivation of virtue. A martial arts master can easily neutralize an opponent’s attack and stop their advance; in this way, one’s virtue of stopping evil while helping the righteous can be shown to the public. If martial arts just focus on fighting, then animals such as lions, tigers and elephants are the most vicious and powerful. But human beings can use wisdom to battle against such animals and succeed in capturing them. Just like the legendary story says, the Buddha himself easily got an elephant to yield before him without using violence, Taoist cultivators in the mountains also captured wild beasts with their bare hands. Today, people can also win face-to-face battles against ferocious animals when they apply wisdom. This principle also applies to martial arts exchanges between two people today. Every fight or martial arts competition has its own rules. For example, wrestling (Shuai Jiao) does not permit dislocating the opponent’s joints; but in the art of Qin Na one will tries one’s best to try to dislocate the opponent’s joints. The rules of boxing and Taekwondo are completely different, while Thai boxing again has its own more flexible rules. In Chinese style wrestling the rules are most civilized and the movements most elegant. If traditional Chinese martial arts competitions can take a lesson from Chinese wrestling competitions, that would definitely help Chinese martial artists to exhibit their unique skills and wisdom. Zhang Sanfeng (the founder of Tai Chi) never tried to use his Tai Chi skills to engage in battles. He simply used Tai Chi as a form to assist in cultivating his heart. Today, Tai Chi has already lost its original features; there is no cultivation of one’s heart anymore. Nonetheless, simply from the perspective of martial techniques, Tai Chi can still be used to dissolve the opponent’s strong force into nothingness. One can thus face a physically strong opponent and win the battle by applying the techniques of Tai Chi. From this one can see the wisdom gained out of cultivation of virtue.
Cultivating virtue is the only hope that we have right now to bring back the magnificence of traditional Chinese martial arts.
There are many reasons why one with martial virtue can inherit the true teachings of martial arts. Only one with virtue will be picked by a master to learn. The enduring of hardships also counts as a type of virtue. If one has virtue, one’s enlightenment quality will be good. As a result, one can develop wisdom and thus naturally know how to distinguish the good from bad. Such a person will never help evil. The ability to distinguish the good from bad, to stop evil and help the righteous, is true martial virtue.
3. Reviving traditional martial arts, taking fame and interest lightly
One aspect of martial virtue is that one should possess the courage to fight to the death for a just cause and this is called righteousness. Mencius said, “Life is what I desire; righteousness is also what I desire. If I can’t gain both, I’d rather lose my life for the sake of righteousness.” Since ancient times, righteousness has always been regarded as one of the virtues of people who practice martial arts. Ancient states such as Yan and Zhao were famous for their numerous righteous people. The righteousness of famous people such as Jing Ke and Ling Xiangru was once said to be more powerful than an army of one million brave warriors. Lu Zhonglian was another righteous individual. After Lu helped the Lord of Pin Yuan win a war against an enemy nation, Lu decided to leave. The lord asked Lu to stay and promised Lu some lands and a title, but Lu resolutely refused. Lord Pin Yuan then held a banquet in the name of Lu. During the ceremony lord Pin Yuan suddenly stood up and approached Lu. He wanted to give thousands of gold pieces to Lu. Lu smiled and said to lord Pin Yuan, “People respect righteous people because such a person can help others overcome difficulties and rid others of disasters. Yet righteous people will never take any rewards for their deeds. If they take rewards, they might as well become businessmen. I don’t want to be a businessman.” Lu then said goodbye to lord Pin Yuan and left the city forever. He was never seen in public again after he departed.
During the period of the Three Kingdoms (220 – 280 AD), the powerful warlord Cao Cao gave the warrior Guan Yu an army command and many pieces of gold. He renounced the title and never spent a piece of the gold. When he left Cao Cao’s camp, he rode alone for thousands of miles. Guan’s righteousness was said to reach the high sky. Zhang Sanfeng was interested in practicing swords when he was young. He eventually succeeded in his Taoist cultivation, but he never revealed himself to the public. Once a ruffian tried to attack Zhang. Zhang simply used Tai Chi to get the ruffian to swerve to the side and fall on the ground. As the moral standards started to decline, Zhang never passed down the real essence of his Tai Chi cultivation to later generations, so people now just learn the superficial Tai Chi movements.
During the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD), the founder of Wu Dang fist, Wang Zhennan, had no rival, but would always exercise restraint when attacked by strong opponents. Qing dynasty scholar Huang Zongxi wrote an epitaph for Wang Zhennan, “Superb skills, yet he never applied them in battles; keeping those skills to himself, what determination! The lake here is shallow, the mountain is aged, and who’s attending this lonely tomb?” As a matter of fact, Huang Zongxi was praising Wang Zhennan’s superior martial arts skills, and admiring Wang Zhennan’s determination to lead a simple life, without being dragged down by fame and self interest. Even though Wang Zhennan became penniless in his later years, he refused to sell his skills just for money.
Nowadays, people who practice martial arts are interested in fame and self interest. They seek money and they fight for fame. Isn’t it a shame when we compare them with those ancient masters? So it can be concluded that righteousness is the sacrificial spirit that a benevolent person possesses. It is also a manifestation of one’s wisdom and bravery. How can a martial arts practitioner lack such an essential element? When ancient people watched martial arts competitions, they didn’t simply pay attention to how ferocious the fight was. Guan Yu was looked upon as a martial arts sage because of his righteousness. Another character during that time period named Lu Bu was despised by the public even though he also possessed superb mastery in the field of combat. Why? Because Lu Bu was not a righteous individual. He sold himself to three different masters when he felt he could benefit from such betrayal. During the later years of the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911 AD), three prominent martial arts masters—Dong Haichuan, Li Luoneng and Yang Luchan—were known to the public. These three masters respected each other and often talked to each other to help improve their skills. They never cared who was the best. Their styles are referred to as the three internal martial arts: Ba Gua, Xing Yi and Yang Style Tai Chi. From their conduct one can see the realm of mind of these high level masters.
4. Unity and morality
In conclusion, the essence of traditional Chinese martial arts is martial virtue—that is—one learns a martial art in order to stop evil and help the righteous. For example, a physician can make a living curing diseases for people, but his medical skills are not solely used to earn money. He has the virtue and moral responsibility to relieve the suffering of patients. A businessman should help the public by providing what they need in their daily lives. He should not solely seek profits. A businessman’s virtue is to provide convenience for the public. A politician should serve his people and not seek power and gain. These concepts should become an essential code of morality amongst people from all walks of life. The martial virtue that we speak of is only a small part of the overall morality of mankind. All in all, if people are able to act in accordance with the standard of Zhen-Shan-Ren in doing things, achieving such a high level of morality shouldn’t be difficult. If people all speak of morality, humankind will be able to walk away from the path of being cruel and harming each other, towards a much better future.