Wude: The Spirit of Martial Arts

Martial arts date back thousands of years and developed as a result of man’s need for self preservation. Along with the rigorous physical training, there evolved a very strict code of behavior and honor.  This became known as Martial Art Virtue, or Wude in Chinese. In this article I will give two examples of masters to demonstrate the importance of Wude in martial arts.

Wude: The Spirit of Martial Arts Gichin Funakoshi

Gichin Funakoshi (1865-1957)

Gichin Funakoshi is known as the “father of modern karate”.  He is the founder of Japanese Shotokan Karate.

Mr. Funakoshi lived his life by a strict code of honor of the warrior class of his day in Okinawa, and brought karate to mainland

Japan. He was a true proponent of the warrior spirit (bushido) and followed it in his everyday life.

Mr. Funakoshi, among other things, left many famous quotes regarding the practice of karate and all martial arts.  Below you will find two of his most famous quotes:

“There is no first attack in karate”.

“The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants”.

Martial art: for fighting or self defense?

From these two quotes we can see that Mr. Funakoshi lived by the martial art virtue and never viewed karate as an aggressive sport or fighting system, but rather that it should be used for self defense only in an extreme situation in which one’s life is in danger. Master Funakoshi believed the purpose of martial art training was to develop one’s character and spirit as a human being.

Wude the spirit of martial arts

Grandmaster Wang Xi’an

My teacher, Grandmaster Wang Xi’an is another living example of the embodiment of martial virtue (wude).  Below I will give two accounts to demonstrate this.

The first is a story related to me years ago by a long time student of Master Wang’s.

Accepting a Challenge

When Master Wang was a much younger man, he had to accept a challenge from a famous gong fu master from another village.  The reason was that he had to uphold the Chen family name. In those days it was still fairly common that martial artists made challenges to prove their skills.

This gong fu master was widely known for his skill and was considered very dangerous.

Master Wang went to the gong fu master’s village to accept the challenge.  When he met this man, he bowed and said very politely that since the gong fu master offered the challenge, it was only fair that he attack first.

Master Wang: the gentle giant

When the gong fu master attacked with his full force punch, Master Wang gently patted his hand, neutralized his punch, and struck him in the solar plexus with his elbow.  The gong fu master went down, and was gasping for air.  When he looked up, Master Wang was smiling calmly, and extended his hand to help the man up.  The gong fu master realized that Master Wang had barely touched him with his elbow, and if he wanted, could have easily killed him if he issued more force.  When his astonishment at Master Wang’s skill was realized, he bowed and apologized, and asked Master Wang to please teach him.

Issuing restraint

Master Wang only issued enough force to end the fight, but did not seriously injure this man.  This shows Master Wang’s true understanding of martial virtue (wude).  Had he chosen to penetrate a fraction of an inch more, the man could have been seriously injured or killed.  But Master Wang had no need to prove anything to anyone.

The second story of Master Wang is based on my first contact when I started training with him.

“Grab my wrist”

It was my first visit to Wushu Guan (Martial Art School) in Wenxian, first day training with Master Wang.

He was teaching me the sequence of movements of his Laojia Yilu (Old Frame First Routine).  On the movement called Cover Hand and Punch, I was having a difficult time understanding the correct method.

Master Wang extended his wrist and told me to grab it and pull him down  (I know, sounds pretty stupid right?)  As I grabbed his wrist, the next thing I remember was getting hit in my chest with what felt like a cannonball, and my hip driving into the ground (thank goodness for that old thick padded carpet in the training hall!)

When I got over the disorientation (and nauseous feeling in my stomach) of moving faster than I probably ever have in my entire lifetime, and tried to understand how the cannonball (his shoulder strike) and my hip hitting the ground at the exact same moment was even possible. I looked up and there he was, same calm smile, and hand extended to help me up off of the floor.  And I realized that he barely touched me, and with the slightest bit more penetration on his part, I probably would have walked with a limp the rest of my life…

The important point here is, he did not hurt me (bruised ego maybe?) But the pain in my hip and chest were gone in a minute.

Again Master Wang’s lack of having to prove anything, just teaching me real tai chi skills…

Maybe some of you are wondering why I took the time here to relate these stories to you, and to include Master Funakoshi’s quotes?

A dying art?

It is because I believe martial virtue, or Wude, is dying out.  I come across so many “masters” these days who have little or no gong fu (skill) but promote themselves as “Supreme Great Grand Masters” and parade around in flowing silk robes like strutting peacocks, and offering their opinions and making claims as to how they are the “real deal”, and about how they have the real secrets, and and and…

And for what?  What is their intention?  Is it to impress others? Is it for ego and to gain more money?

Lately I have studied many videos of these “masters” demonstrating their forms and push hands skills.  What I mostly see is incredibly stiff forceful movements and struggling wrestling matches between ex high school football players who haven’t distinguished the difference between football and tai chi.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I am in no way saying I am the real deal, or I have received the secret teaching. I have practiced daily since 1969.  I consider that I have some knowledge, but I also know that I must always have the mind and attitude of a beginner every day.

There is a very famous saying in tai chi:

“Never try to control anything outside yourself.  When you do, you are out of balance”.

The subtitle of this article is Martial Art: For Fighting or Self Defense?

Tai chi, like all martial arts, is meant as a defensive art always, it was never meant for attacking people.  There is a huge difference in these.

I am sure I will receive comments from “masters” disagreeing.  Mostly the ones I am (subtly?) calling out.

It will always come down to semantics though.  And I truly am not interested in this.

My reason for writing this editorial is strictly to express my opinion.  I do not expect any one to agree with me, and I will not defend my opinion for those who disagree.  You all have your opinion and that is fine.

 A final story

Upon my first meeting with Master Wang Xi’an, he brought me to a hotel room, and had me sit on a bed with 8 Chinese men all smoking continuously.  This was my interview through a translator to decide whether or not he would give his time to teach me.  (I saved a long time and flew literally half way around the world to study with him, but it was not sure if he would teach me.  And this interview was the first step for him to decide if I was worthy of his teaching me.

He asked many questions thru the interpreter: what I wanted to learn, who were my previous teachers, etc.  His last question I found very strange.  He asked me if I was a tai chi master!

What I did not realize at the time is this was his way of testing my character to determine if he would teach me.

My response was, that although I had practiced already 30 years, I understood that this is an art, and in the end, there will always be more to learn.  So to refer to myself as a master seemed ludicrous, a waste of time.  And what purpose would it serve?  To boost my ego?  To impress other people?  How ridiculous.

Well I guess I passed the interview, because the next words from the interpreter were that Master Wang would take personal responsibility for my training, and he would teach me every day privately for 5 hours.

For all of you “grandmasters” out there.  Well, I don’t know if you will realize that this editorial was written for you!

To everyone, I hope this longwinded editorial strikes something inside of you all.  I hope we can all move forward and practice Wude.  I hope innocent people who enter martial art schools will not be fooled and recognize the real from the fake,  that is all.

I thank everyone for their patience in reading this editorial.  If you took the time to read it, I hope it stimulates thought about why we do what we do.  Lets think in the direction of Wude – the spirit of martial arts.

I am attaching a short video of Grandmaster Wang Xi’an demonstrating self defense applications during tai chi Push Hands. This demonstrates clearly the spirit of martial arts.

Master Wang used to define the spirit of martial arts so:

Outside complete calm. Inside like water boiling up.

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