“Martial Virtue” and other nonsense people don’t really understand

15 Jul

In one sense, I am happy to report there is much activity in my Facebook group Real Kung Fu Application. However, much activity in that group often revolves around debunking frauds and misconceptions. Once again, because of the “guru” like relationship between martial arts teachers and their students, the students often believe things just because their teacher said so. Clearly, I answer to a higher authority, FACT.

Much is made of “martial virtue” (“Wu De” in Mandarin, “Mo Duhk” in Guangdonghua) in discussions of martial arts. It is often wrongly compared to “Budo”. Not only does “Budo”, the code of what we would commonly call the samurai, have nothing to do with the historical context of China, people also do not understand Budo very much. To speak of Budo can mean to speak of the modern application of traditional Japanese martial arts for physical culture, the distinction between kenJITSU and kenDO. If you intend to mean the code practiced by the samurai, you are for even a more difficult discussion. The code of the samurai allowed them, as higher class, to “test their blades” on innocent peasants, their inferiors. There are many similarly hideous associations with the code of the samurai class that would shock those who intend to invoke it as some sort of MORAL code.

In discussions about Chinese martial arts, “martial virtue” is similarly frequently offered as some sort of moral code to indicate “higher aspirations”. Of course, this ignores all the immoral things that martial artists in China engaged in. Even the legal occupations, the “four staff”, were marginal and rooted in random violence for the most part. Your teacher may have told you Chinese martial arts had some sort of higher moral code, but let’s look more closely at the facts;

Failure to understand the real history of Chinese martial arts, and the cultural context it existed within, lead to these misunderstandings. “Martial virtue” was not constructed as a moral code in the Western sense. Rather, it was created simply as part of an attempted structural shift from marginalization to social acceptance. I will quote in detail from my book “Chinese Martial Arts: A Historical Outline”

Another group of martial artists sought to remove themselves
from the milieu of violence altogether. While they could not
pretend their vocation was literary, they could follow the example
set by herbalists, bone setters and skilled artisans. They could open
martial arts academies (Wu Guan), refuting their associations
with the itinerant JiangHu sub culture. They could claim social
acceptance as teachers of a recognized trade.

In a society with clearly defined (and limited) social constructions, you also have “templates” towards some social mobility;

The change in orientation also resulted in changes in the
terminology. The man who opened a school was now said to have
hung up or put away his staff (Guan Gun). Ming Dynasty
sources, which also influenced Korean and Japanese martial arts
traditions, had often referred to the techniques of empty hand
fighting as Quan Fa. A small but subtle difference can be
seen in the adoption a new term, Quan Shu.

William C.C. Hu has suggested that the original designation
for such men, “Wu Shu Lao Shi” was also rather
utilitarian. A new term evolved, “Shi Fu”, though there were two
variations on this new title using different Chinese characters. The
first variation, had also been used as a
complimentary term for a Buddhist priest. However, it was used in
recognition of a physical, not literary, accomplishment. Thus, this
term could also be used for a chef, head servant, tailor, or other
artisan. The second variation, combines the
character “shi” meaning to initiate or teach with “fu”
meaning father. The second variation connected the new traditions
with ancestor-worship and Confucian values relating to familial
lineages and paternal authority.

To have parallel Confucian structures required lineages,
histories and hierarchies to be created. Since many of these martial
artists had been at best semi-literate, these creations were more
often based upon myth and legend than historical fact.138 In order
to establish yourself as a Zongshi, the inheritor of a lineage,
a recognized ancestor or founder (Shi Zu) had to be
established. More often than not, there was no real historical record
and a method was simply attributed to a famous general such as
Yue Fei, a mythical Buddhist monk or a wandering Daoist hermit.
When these invented lineages were finally put into print,
subsequent “histories” simply copied previous account without fact
checking them.

Similar to Confucian scholars, a shifu was supposed to be a
person of high moral character who cultivated his virtue, but in this
case martial virtue (Wu De). A shifu was not employed by
others and did not teach for a contracted sum of money. They were
free to choose or refuse students. They could also adopt disciples
through the “bai shi” ceremony. This ceremony not only
entered the disciple into a formal apprenticeship, it allowed the
shifu to demand from the student the same loyalty and respect that
a father could demand from his son.

Perhaps I should have highlighted the “supposed to be” part, because that is NOT how things most frequently played out.

As should perhaps be expected, gaining social acceptance and
complete assimilation into the wider society was a slow and
imperfect process. Vestiges of their origins in violence remained in
the practice of the challenge match. For many martial
artists, maintaining the respect of his peers was also important.
One method a would-be instructor could use would be to issue a
challenge and defeat several local fighters before opening one’s
school. Until it was declared illegal by the government in 1928, it
was relatively common in especially southern China to see public

Another popular method of making a name for oneself was to
challenge an already established instructor in hopes of defeating
him and earning a reputation. It was, as Joseph Esherick noted, an
extension of the itinerant culture where upon meeting one martial
artist would challenge the other to a test of fighting skills.140 Thus,
even a well-established instructor still had to prove himself and the
effectiveness of his method on a regular basis. As Donn F. Draeger
and Robert W. Smith noted, “challenges were a central part of a
master’s existence and could not be refused.”141

In the context of challenging an established teacher, it was
certainly a gamble. Some of the most popular and successful
schools were the ones where such challengers were frequently
beaten senseless and left out front for everyone to see. Indeed, an
instructor who routinely beat such challengers was sought out by
all segments of society; the military, the local militias, landlords,
secret societies, local commoners and even the elite who had
become to view the martial arts as an esoteric hobby.

Of course, as other parts of my book detail, many martial artists also remained affiliated with sectarians, criminals and revolutionaries. Which is to say, they were not all that “virtuous”.

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