Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Comparison of the Cultural Differences in Japanese and Chinese Martial Arts

Bernard Kwan is the proprietor of the excellent blog, Be Not Defeated by the Rain. Mr. Kwan is in a unique position to comment on the cultural similarities and differences in Japanese and Chinese martial arts. 

He is Chinese, lives in Hong Kong and not only studies a traditional Chinese martial art, but Japanese martial arts as well. 

He was kind enough to provide this guest post. Please pay his blog, Be Not Defeated by the Rain , a visit.

I have been practicing martial arts since 1999, and came rather late into the game so to speak (in my mid 20s), as my parents did not want me to learn martial arts when I was young in case I accidentally killed my brother as we fought a lot. My first experience was learning Aikido in Philadelphia under Henry Smith, 7th dan Aikikai as well as some Yagyu Shin Kage Ryu under Paul Manogue Sensei who taught on the weekends in the Aikido studio. After leaving the US, I spent a lot of time practicing yoga under various "famous" teachers, and also studied Yang Taiji under Chen Han Bing (a wushu instructor in Taiwan), Chen Taiji under KK Chan (a disciple of Zhu Tian Cai) and finally settling on studying Baguazhang and Yiquan under CS Tang in Hong Kong and became a formal disciple earlier this year. I also resumed my Aikido studies under Hitoshi Nagai, 4th Dan, a deshi of Endo Seishiro, 8th Dan.

I was recently asked by Rick Matz of Cook Ding's Kitchen as to what I felt were the differences between Chinese and Japanese Budo and I wrote a couple of posts regarding similarities, in terms of the ideal of the scholar warrior and a code of ethics, but I believe there are several key differences.

1) The Individual versus the Collective

Although China has been unified for most of its history, there have been long periods of time when the country has been separated into different states. There are many regional differences, and even now there are conflicts between Shanghai and Beijing in the Chinese government. Due to the huge expanse of space, many regions were loosely administered from the center, especially towards the end of each dynasty, as corruption increased and areas descended into warlordism. Hence there was a lot of freedom for the development of the individual to take matters into his own hands, rather than rely on the state as the "Emperor was far away". Indeed in martial arts novels, many of the martial artists are inhabitants of Jiang Hu, living by their own code of justice, righting wrongs perpetrated by corrupt officials. Martial artists were often viewed with suspicion by the state, and martial arts suppressed during many periods in history, and many martial arts schools along with religious cults were hotbeds of revolutionary activity plotting to overthrow the government.

This can be contrasted against the long rule of the Tokugawa state, which has been described as the longest lasting totalitarian state in history. The daimyos were closely monitored and bankrupted by having to spend a great deal of time in the capital away from their domains. Travel and thought were closely monitored and restricted and the country was effectively closed from the outside world. An ideology of loyalty was instilled in the population and the group was promoted over the individual and social mores were rigidly enforced within each community. Hence when you read texts like the Hagakure absolute loyalty was paramount and even minor transgressions could lead to a show of contrition through seppuku. The Samurai were bound to the state by awarding them status and privileges, such as their own names and ability to carry swords and kill with impunity. Although Ronin (masterless Samurai) existed they were seen as beyond the pale and not ideals to be emulated. Miyamoto Mushashi is perhaps the exception that proves the rule.

2) Taoism versus Buddhism

D.T. Suzuki has written much on the role of Zen Buddhism in Japanese culture and indeed the role of Zen is pervades many of the Japanese arts such as tea ceremony, flower arranging, etc. Its spartan ascetic, its meditative discipline and attitude towards impermanence and death has informed the Samurai culture and is captured in many books such as Takuan Soho's "The Unfettered Mind". The role of Esoteric Buddhism is also important, if less widely known as Samurai would ask certain Gods to protect them in battle and may also have inscribed talismans and chanted mantras for protection. Ever since Buddhism came to Japan in the 800s it has remained a national religion alongside Shintoism.

In China, the role of Buddhism declined after the Tang dynasty and never regained its prominence as a national religion. Although the Zen schools originated and flourished in China during the Sung dynasty, they also went into almost terminal decline. While Shaolin is a Buddhist based martial art it has been Taoism that has been the more influential philosophy behind martial arts, especially in the internal arts. Aphorisms such as being like water, or the hard overcoming the soft, or Wu wei all stem from Taoism. Indeed in Chinese culture bagua, taiji and the five elements are pervasive through the Chinese arts such as music, medicine, feng shui, chess,, statecraft and the art of war.

3) Importance of Lineage

In the Japanese Koryu a great deal of effort is placed in preserving the art exactly as was handed down by the previous generation without any scope for substantive innovation. This is the same for many traditional Japanese handicrafts such as pottery, or sword making. In this respect the Soke or headmaster of the school is the ultimate authority on orthodoxy and the student is to defer to Sensei is all respects. Before the second world war there was still sufficient scope to be somewhat innovative as a menkyo kaiden or license to teach could be obtained after 3-6 years of diligent practice. Post war, it may take 10 or more years to obtain such a license and it may only be awarded to one or two individuals each generation making it difficult to have the authority to innovate within a school. Even in Aikido, the third Doshu is trying his best to standardize Aikido teaching at Hombu so most of the newer Shihan look the same.

In China, due to the cultural revolution the relationship between the teacher and student has become less rigid with the decline of traditional mores and broken lines, and lineage has also become a trickier subject due to the Chinese diaspora into Hong Kong and Taiwan. But even in the past, the evolution of Taiji into different schools has shown that there is room to evolve and change. In a more modern school like Yiquan, the marked difference in the styles of the various students of the founder attest to a much looser mechanism for enforcing conformity and as long as the basic principles are adhered to there is a great deal of room for innovation and change.
4) Gaman versus Heart Method

There is a emphasis and glorification within the Japanese character of the ability to "endure". Thus it is not uncommon for a student of Japanese Budo to repeat a basic exercise without question until the Sensei tells him to stop. This relentless focus on the fundamentals shows in the craftmanship of their products and also the basic skills of the Japanese players in sports where they excel, such as baseball and the the recent win by their football team in the Women's World Cup.

For Chinese students there is a corollary in that one should "eat bitter" in order to master an art. But for ever student that eats bitter, there are 10 students who would rather find out the "heart method" or short cut. Hence the glorification of stealing the martial arts manuals in wushu literature and killing your Sifu to learn his secrets.

5) Personal Experiences
In my personal experience with a Chinese and Japanese Sensei, my relationship with Chinese Sifu is more like a father and son, where I can question and challenge, but I defer to his authority and he encourages me to explore and innovate. My Japanese Sensei, will allow me some room to explore, but he brooks no argument in matters of authority and his word is the final word. He often emphasizes that the Dojo is not a sports club. I understand that not all teachers are like that and some Chinese are authority figures akin to Japanese. But on the flip side the Japanese dojo is a collective endeavor where there is a hierarchy but yet people are encouraged to progress together and to socialize together, whereas the Chinese way is a more lonely endeavor where we come together to train, but progress at our own pace and different students are taught different things according to their strengths and interests.

These are by necessity broad brush strokes but would be interested to see if other people share the same thoughts as me.



Bernard Kwan said...

Thank you for posting this Rick!

Rick Matz said...

... and thank you for the excellent post!

Anonymous said...

Hi Bernard and Rick,

Just to chime in as someone who has also studied Chinese and Japanese martial arts, I have had some of the same feelings about their differences.

The Japanese-ness of aikido has been difficult for me at times. The regimentation that comes through from Japanese culture is part of it I think. I'm normally a very casual informal kind of guy not prone to bowing and scraping (as I might pejoratively put it). Yet the seriousness of what aikido is trying to accomplish manages to transcend that for me most of the time.

I've also noticed a great difference in teaching methods between the Japanese and Chinese arts I've been exposed to. The Chinese method, say for t'ai chi, seems to be more intuitive and listening based (I'm thinking of some aspects of push hands, and of how you get yourself right with the form, say).

The Japanese method seems to be more rote, until the sheer repetition without much guidance starts to finally maybe sink in, and the relaxation and listening can start to happen.

Of course both traditions can have the opposite features, but this is the trend in what I've noticed....

Thanks for the thought-provoking discussion!


Rick Matz said...

It seems like in Chinese martial arts, the master will recreate the art as his own expression. Even if using old methods and drills, he will bring his own insight into them, and would certainly be willing to create new methods.

It also seems like in Japanese martial arts, the characteristic is to hand down the methods exactly as they were taught and rely on the concept of Shu, Ha, Ri ( to bring about independence.

Having said that about Japanese martial arts, the counter argument is: what we recognize as aikido is the result of the efforts of that first generation of Ueshiba’s students who organized his martial art in various forms: Shioda, Tomiki and so on.

Bernard Kwan said...


If you ever get a chance to study Koryu you will probably be even more unhappy at the level of ritual. I didn't understand ritual at first until I watched the Japanese film "Departures" - you should google it. The role of ritual is a means for you to disengage or step out from the mental chatter of daily life and the ego especially (hence the term "extasis".

When properly done and expressed it can raise our level of consciousness and let us express emotions in a purer and truer form, akin to a performance. Thus if the bowing and scraping is done properly with the right frame of mind, it should help cultivate a deep sense of humility and respect for your counterpart as a person in their own right, rather than as a tool to help you improve your skills. This is how I see it - but would definitely encourage you to see the movie!

Hmmm... I see a blog post theme emerging here....

Rick Matz said...

I think Confucius gets a bad rap when he writes about ritual. The thing that leaps out of Confucius for me is _sincerity_.

The rituals, if not done sincerely, are empty movements. If they are done with sincerity, they are a natural expression of man's finest nature.

I think this sort of sincerity, this _intent_ was what Wang Xiang Zhai might have been after when he evolved Xingyiquan into Yiquan.

Matt said...

very enjoyable article! well written. Thanks for encouraging this post to happen Rick.

Rick Matz said...

I think it's a fascinating topic, too.

Compass Strategist said...

For some situations, rituals counts alot. I am a big believer in it. My favorite is SLT's concept is "wuji and taiji"

Rick Matz said...

Different strategies to approach learning.

Anonymous said...

I tend to find that Japanese arts have more of a focus on applied strength through training and through the techniques themselves where as Chinese arts have a much more subtle approach. Whether it's in the style or method of teaching it just seems much softer but by no means less effective.

Interesting post though. A good read.

Rick Matz said...

Thanks for stopping in! Please visit again.

Anonymous said...

A great post by Bernard. I've stumbled apon his blog at the end of last year and alswyas look forward to his posts.

On the subject matter I have had training in both and agree with his conclusions. Japanese arts as a whole are much more of a text book following learning pattern (do this, now do that)while I find chinese martial arts are taught a little more on the self exploration side.

Rick Matz said...

I agree. Bernard's blog is excellent.

Bernard Kwan said...

Thank you for reading and supporting my blog Ogriv83!

Mike Sigman said...

Great post, Bernard. Gave me some thoughts.

Rick Matz said...

Thanks for stopping by!