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 ~

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Confucianism and Martial Arts

Today we have another guest post by Jonathan Bluestein.

We tend to think of martial arts as mostly related to Daoism and Zen. Actually, Confucianism has had a great influence on the study and practice of martial arts. 

Generally, people have a very poor understanding of Confucianism. The common belief is that it is a rigid system of rule and rituals. What is missed is that these rules and rituals are only an outer form and are spontaneously enacted when there is what I would call "sincerity." Otherwise, they are indeed considered by the Confucians to be empty.

Another concept is the Rectification of Names, i.e. calling something by it's correct name. When something can be called by it's correct name and all pretense drops away, then all is well in the world. If only we had more of that in our modern society and less marketing bullshit in every aspect of our lives.

Below is Jonathan's article. Enjoy.

Martial Arts and the Great Learning

By Jonathan Bluestein

Much is said and written of how martial arts, especially the Oriental varieties, have been affected by various philosophies. Yet very little has been written of how we as martial artists can learn from the social philosophy of Confucianism. The purpose of this article is therefore to introduce the reader to some of the doctrines of Confucius, and explain in great detail how his thoughts and ideas can be readily applied to the practice of martial arts, as well as our everyday lives over 2000 years past his time.

To begin this journey into ancient Chinese thought, first it is important to describe the nature of Confucianism, as it is somewhat different to other ‘philosophies’ and thinking methods.

In the course of a human life there are, at the least, three distinct and parallel processes of so called Self-Improvement that relate to the body and mind; that is – ways in which we gradually evolve our human capacity.

The Three Type of Self-Improvement
Type of Cognitive Process




The process of developing one’s Cognitive Functions to the fullest extent possible; thus enabling one to become the ‘best of himself’.
The gradual understanding and realization of ‘the Way of the world’ (the Dao). Some would argue: also the becoming of its embodiment.
The evolution of one’s thoughts and actions into an ideal model, which is created by a combination of one’s own wishes and society’s expectations through the medium of culture and social traditions.
Some of the Associated schools of thought
Freudian and Jungian psychology, and their successors. Humanistic Psychology (Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, etc).
Daoism, Buddhism.

It is a common mistake, made by most people, to think of these three processes are the same thing. Not only are they separate, but moreover – they are often unevenly developed. Nonetheless, they have an intricate relationship between them, and advances made in one open up more potential for developing the others further.

What both Martial Arts and Confucianism have in common is that they focus, more so than other things, on the behavioural process of Self-Betterment. This therefore shall be the subject of the article.

In all human beings, Self-betterment is process of attaining balance between their Nature and their Nurture. It is the process of becoming a 'cultivated person' - what Confucius has called "The Superior Man”. In his time, Confucius had a rather specific list of traits for his ‘superior man’, with some of them better suited the feudal society he lived in. However in our time, and under a different cultural context, we are free to utilize his practical notions of self-betterment using broader, more liberal terms and interpretations.

Now then - what is the meaning of this “balance”, which supposedly can turn one into “a superior version of himself”? And how can this help with my martial arts?  
To understand partly what Confucius had thought of as ‘balance’, and how achieving this balance can help with martial arts, we shall have to first refer to one of the famous texts associated with him, called the Great Learning. It is a very short text, and I have included it below in its entirety (translation by A. Charles Muller):

The way of great learning consists in manifesting one's bright virtue, consists in loving the people, consists in stopping in perfect goodness.
When you know where to stop, you have stability.
When you have stability, you can be tranquil.
When you are tranquil, you can be at ease.
When you are at ease, you can deliberate.
When you can deliberate you can attain your aims.

Things have their roots and branches, affairs have their end and beginning. When you know what comes first and what comes last, then you are near the Way.

The ancients who wanted to manifest their bright virtue to all in the world first governed well their own states.
Wanting to govern well their states, they first harmonized their own clans.
Wanting to harmonize their own clan, they first cultivated themselves.
Wanting to cultivate themselves, they first corrected their minds.
Wanting to correct their minds, they first made their wills sincere.
Wanting to make their wills sincere, they first extended their knowledge.
Extension of knowledge consists of the investigation of things.
When things are investigated, knowledge is extended.
When knowledge is extended, the will becomes sincere.
When the will is sincere, the mind is correct.
When the mind is correct, the self is cultivated.
When the self is cultivated, the clan is harmonized.
When the clan is harmonized, the country is well governed.
When the country is well governed, there will be peace throughout the land.
From the king down to the common people, all must regard the cultivation of the self as the most essential thing.
It is impossible to have a situation wherein the essentials are in disorder, and the externals are well-managed. You simply cannot take the essential things as superficial, and the superficial things as essential. This is called, “Knowing the root.” This is called “The extension of knowledge.”

So, what was Confucius talking about?

The way of being a superior version of oneself, in martial arts or any other endeavor, depends on several factors and methods. I will now present these according to their order of appearance in the text of The Great Learning, discussing those I find more relevant to our practice.

Perfect Goodness

In the first part of the text, Confucius spoke about “stopping in perfect goodness”. It is about knowing your limits. The concept of “stopping in perfect goodness” is the Golden Rule, also found in Greek Philosophy and Judaism. A great example for it would be that of stopping eating once you are nearly full, but not completely so – to not over-satisfy your hunger, for the prevention of fattening and disease. This also applies to martial arts. One needs to learn when “to stop in perfect goodness” – to not stop training until one has trained enough, but to stop training before one becomes too exhausted, to avoid over-training. Most practitioners suffer from not knowing ‘perfect goodness’ in that sense, for they do not push their limits to the best of their ability. The majority of competing athletes, on the other hand, overreaches their upper limit, and push their body into a state of injury.  

Wherein you know the location of ‘perfect goodness’ (where or when to stop) on your scale of doing things, you can also know your limits. So Confucius tells us one thing leads to the next:

Locating perfect goodness leads to >>> Stability. Both mental and physical. Consider that in movement too, if I can find the perfect stoppage point in the middle of a martial technique, I have stability. This is one reason why in the Internal Martial Arts one is often practicing at very slow speeds – to find the point of perfect goodness and stability.

Stability leads to >>> Tranquility. Because when I am stable, I no longer have to think about gaining balance all the time. 

Tranquility leads to >>> Being at ease with one’s movements, thoughts and actions.

Being at ease >>> Allows me to be deliberate. This means that both practice and fighting are no longer on ‘auto pilot’ – I can actually direct what I want to do, because I feel more comfortable.
And when I am deliberate >>> I can attain my aims.

In the long shot therefore, the point Confucius was making is as follows:
Balance will eventually lead you to attaining your goals.

Therefore to make it in life and in martial arts, first find your balance, which in turn is located at the point of ‘perfect goodness’, and so forth. This is the first measure in one’s Self-Betterment according to these teachings.

Confucius also said the following in the text quoted before:       
Things have their roots and branches, affairs have their end and beginning. When you know what comes first and what comes last, then you are near the Way.

This stresses further that the root of things must be known. In martial arts, this can relate to the origins of methods and techniques. Why were these techniques and methods I practice created? What is the most basic variation on them, and what can be the most complex? Answering these questions is also a part of the exploration of Balance, as it relates to what should come first and what should come last in one’s training.

The Investigation of Things 
Before, Confucius was talking about why it is necessary to find balance, and how balance leads to the attaining of one’s goals. In the second part of the text, Confucius deals with a social philosophy that strives to explain how balance affects not just one person, but the entire world. He draws the following line of influence:

Well-governed State >>> Harmonized Clan (or family) >>> A cultivated person >>> A person with a correct mindset >>> A sincere person >>> A person whose knowledge is ‘extended’ >>> Meaning he or she have ‘investigated things’.

And also vice-versa:
 The ‘investigation of things’ >>> An extension of one’s knowledge >>> Sincere Will >>> A corrected mindset >>> A cultivated person >>> A harmonized clan (or family) >>> A well governed state.               

In between these lines are hidden the following understatements:
1. If all states were well-governed, then all people would have been proficient in the ‘investigation of things’.
2. If everyone had put an effort to ‘investigate things’, then eventually this would have such a huge effect, that even the state would naturally become well-governed and there would be peace everywhere.
The ‘investigation of things’ is a concept in Confucianism that revolves around avoiding self-delusion in the social context. What is self-delusion? The inability to discern between Nature and Nurture. There are things, habits and tendencies which we are born with – Nature. There are also many more things which we were taught to do, think or believe – Nurture. The investigation of things consists of asking difficult questions about the things we do in daily life, especially those we take for granted.

Why do I sit on a chair?  Why do you sit on chairs? Is it because the chair is the natural mode of human sitting? It is not. Observe all small children who can walk – they naturally squat, or sit on the floor. The chair destroys part of your natural flexibility. It often makes you lean, causing your back to hurt in the long term. It costs you money. Over time you have to buy more of these items, and take care of their maintenance. Many chairs cause the arms to rest in uncomfortable positions. Most chairs are bad for your back posture. A chair is most commonly fixated and does not adapt to different legs lengths.

There is no reason whatsoever to make chairs the preferred method of sitting or resting, yet we have done so for countless generations. This is because as an ingrained cultural habit, barely anyone bothered to question it. But through the investigation of things, we can discern and know better – about the history of chairs, their shapes, why they were invented and by whom, what are the reasons for which we sit on them and, most importantly – why this is something we ought to do or avoid. 

This is why Confucius has written that the investigation of things leads to the extension of one’s knowledge, which in turn leads to a sincere will (being honest with oneself about things) and having a corrected mindset.

The same notion is ought to be applied to martial arts methods and techniques. The vast majority of practitioners never questions what they have been taught. They do not make time for the investigation of things, and therefore their knowledge of their art cannot be extended. It can for this reason be said, that by looking deeply into one’s habits in the martial arts, one would be able to discern what is the original purpose (Nature), and what is merely habit (nurture). This provides one with balance, and extends one’s knowledge. This requires deliberate, thoughtful practice.

Another aspect of our training heavily affected by the non-existent investigation of things is habitual physical cues. These are movements or sounds we make out of habit, usually to deal with difficulty or stress. There are many examples I have seen with my own students. One student, while practicing Zhan Zhuang, would blow air evenly through a small hole he made with his lips, and use that action to alleviate the mental pain. Another student would say: “OK, I understand” often after I have explained something. She did not actually understand much, and said it to convince herself that she could deal with what was being said. A very silly thing we are all used to doing is making a sound when we are hurt– in the West, the famous ‘Ouch’ sound and its many variations. In the martial arts, the latter effect signals to opponents that we are vulnerable.        
All the above examples are Nurture, not Nature. They are taught mechanisms that we use to deal with difficulty, instead of taking charge of that difficulty in a conscious manner. We transfer the mental load unto the habit to relieve it. This is very bad. It hinders our self-betterment, and also our progress in the martial arts. To make progress, we ought to investigate such things, and get rid of them. For this reason Confucius has written that the extension of knowledge depends of “knowing the root” (the causes and reasons for things). Such is the process of learning to avoid and break down self-delusion.

Once we investigate things, our knowledge is extended. Once our knowledge is extended, our Will becomes sincere. This means that we can be honest with ourselves about what we do and why we do it. This in turn leads us to correct our mindset – our way of thinking of the world, and gradually evolves us into more cultivated versions of ourselves.  Thus we can see, that the wise words of Confucius bear much significance to our time and the practice of martial arts. Though he had spoken and written of a social and political philosophy, its essence points to the central process of making ourselves better as human beings.

Using Proper Names

Another doctrine of Confucius which is very relevant to our previous discussions and the martial arts is called the Rectification of Names. It is not originally from the Great Learning, but is found in The Analects – a collections of Confucius’ teachings, collected and written by his students. The premise of this concept is simple – the use of either correct or incorrect language can shape one’s reality in very profound ways. So says Confucius in the Analects (chapter 13, verse 3, translation by James Legge):
“A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”

These ideas can be broken down as follows:

The superior man does not speak of what he does not know, because then he would not be using the right words (or facts) to describe things. He must be careful about the usage of words and knowledge, or lack thereof. Incorrect language is not aligned with how things truly are – does not represent well the reality one speaks of. Failing to describe things well hinders the possibility of success in one’s endeavors. Confucius then goes to claim this affects other things too, but these related to his political philosophy more so than to our discussion here. The bottom line and most important point he raises is that the precise use of language is vital to the successful implementation of whatever one seeks to achieve.

In this we see, that the proper use of names is but another aspect of ‘the investigation of things’ – it is the investigation of proper use of language. But how can this be applied to the martial arts? I can propose several examples.

Let us consider first the case of translation of martial arts technical terms. One of the most well-known movements in martial arts worldwide is the ‘karate sideways block’ – either its ‘inward blocking’ or ‘outward blocking’ variation. The original Japanese term is known as either ‘Uchi Uke’ or ‘Soto Uke’. The original word Uke (受け), however, does not mean ‘to block’, but ‘to receive’. A comparison of these two meanings, alongside with a similar movement from Xing Yi Quan called ‘Heng Quan’, reveals interesting things:
Technique name
Uchi/Soto Uke
Uchi/Soto Uke
Heng Quan
Inward/Outward Receiving
Inward/Outward Blocking
Crossing Fist
Nature of translated word
Yielding to incoming force.
Passive in the face of an incoming force.
Aggressive towards an incoming force (crossing it).
Psychological / verbal connotations
Taking in. Receiving punishment. Absorbing. Not going against. A Yin nature to the movement.
Stiff. Being like a stone. A metal object. Clogging something. A road-block.
Coming to meet an obstacle. Going through something. Passing across. A Yang nature to the movement.
In this we see that the name of a given technique can do a lot to how we perceive it, and how we imagine things to be, consciously or subconsciously, in turn affects greatly the way we move, and the emphasis we put into movements. To receive something is not the same as to block it, and certainly not identical to the action of crossing it.

The same phenomenon can be noted with many different examples. Another is that of the ‘Karate punch’, which I would be comparing with the most basic punch of Xing Yi, known as ‘Beng Quan’:
Technique name
Tsuki (突き)
Tsuki (突き)
Beng Quan
(original Japanese translation)
(altered translation used in the West)
Crushing Fist
Nature of translated word
Penetrating into something.
Blunt striking.
Compressing something until it breaks apart.
Psychological / verbal connotations
Fencing thrust. A stake. Sexual connotations (in terms of dominance; very Yang in nature). Making something forcefully stick into a tight spot and embedding it into that place. 
A boxing punch (probably the most well-known cultural reference in the West). Punches seen in movies. Baseball bat hitting something. The distinctive ‘punching sounds’ used in films and television series.
Pestle (the tool used to crush herbs and spices). Breaking into many small pieces. Overwhelming force. Something that cannot be resisted. Causing deformation.

Here we see the effect of language on the type of power one perceives his strike is ought to have. The three translations carry differing flavours, and arguably these can affect the manifestation of the type of power put behind each technique.

The Chinese were aware of this, perhaps stemming from the influence of Confucianism on their culture, and possibly simply through insight and experience. For this reason, the Chinese martial arts use a lot of creative language tricks to make the practitioner realize a point in practice. Oftentimes, this is done in the form of borrowing metaphors from Nature. In many Chinese martial arts, movements are codified by short cultural descriptions. In Taiji Quan, each movement in the forms uses a matching phrase, such as ‘White Crane Spreads its Wings’, or ‘Parting the Horse’s Mane’. 

Each of them illustrate a different mindset, and a way of doing things physically. One of the most famous examples is ‘Monkey Steals the Peach’, which often referred to technique wherein the gonads of the opponent are grabbed and pulled. The analogy to a ‘stealing monkey’ is very useful, since monkeys are abundant in the Orient, and people are familiar with their type of movement from first-hand experience and many folk tales. A stealing monkey is manipulative, cunning, quick, stealthy, surprising in action, agile, grips hard, grabs and pulls towards his body and then changes direction, does not stare at the object about to be stolen, etc. In saying ‘Monkey Steals the Peach’ are therefore contained a multitude of analogies and distinct hidden meanings. Similarly, certain movements and forms (kata) are attributed the name of an animal, so that the practitioner would know which mindset these methods and techniques should assume.

Back in the day, a contemporary of Confucius had been Zhuang Zi (pronounced: Juang Dze) – a famous exponent of Daoism, which had been a competing school of thought with Confucianism. Zhuang Zi criticized Confucius a lot, and famously mocked his obsession with names through this short passage:
“Nets are for catching fish; after one gets the fish, one forgets the net. Traps are for catching rabbits; after one gets the rabbit, one forgets the trap. Words are for getting meaning; after one gets the meaning, one forgets the words. Where can I find people who have forgotten words, and have a word with them?”.

In this humorous paragraph, Zhuang Zi makes the point that words are an inferior way of conveying the essence of things. By so saying, he supposedly dulls Confucius’ point about the importance of using correct language. In reality though, both Confucius and Zhuang Zi were right in their thoughts and observations. They were simply discussing these matters with differing goals in mind. 
Confucius was interested in teaching (associated with his orientation with his Behavioural Self-Betterment). Zhuang Zi wrote of the process of becoming one with the Dao and realizing intuitively the way things work (related to his Philosophical Enlightenment approach). For the purpose of teaching and the transmission of knowledge, one requires the usage of correct and precise language as Confucius has demanded. But then as a person reaches a high level of understanding in a given field of study or practice, that person can transcend words and attain an intuitive understanding. 

This indeed describes the end result of the transformational process that both schools seek. One talks of the Way, and the other describes its qualities.

The Superior Man
Treading the Middle Path
Looks into the Nature of things
And by the virtue of his sincere will
Finds the Dao


Jonathan Bluestein is best-selling author, martial arts teacher, and head of Blue Jade Martial Arts International. For more articles by shifu Bluestein, his books and classes offered by his organization, visit his website at:

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1 comment:

Compass Architect said...

This post is quite informative and well written.

Good internal martial art practice is a about understanding how the practice affects the behavior while balancing one's view between their philosophy and the psychology behind the extension of their practice.