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Chinese Martial Arts Ethics (wu de)

Frances Lea Gander

When I walk into a traditional martial arts classroom, the order and the etiquette of behavior tells me that I am doing something significant. It’s a haven from the chaos of daily life. The order and etiquette of a traditional martial arts class follows the order of the family, a universally familiar template.

The classroom is a laboratory for transforming the competitiveness that often shapes behavior in our workplaces, in our homes, and social situations. In subtle ways, the teacher encourages us to experience our training within the context of familial relationships. We emulate the values and virtues of the teacher and the older students. If it were only preaching, we could easily disregard it.


Why a traditional classroom is more conducive to martial arts study

• We learn respect for the art, lineage, and the ancestors.
• You know what is expected of you.
• Each person is responsible for their own progress.
• More gets done (less jockeying).
• There is one teacher, not everyone talking at once.
• An orderly environment is ensured for everyone in class.

What is Wu De?
A system of ethics (wu de) is inherent in the study of traditional martial arts. The system was first mentioned between 613-591 BCE. Wu de (武 德) translates as “martial morality” — “wu” (武), which means martial, and “de” (德), which means morality. Wu de (武德) deals with “morality of deed” and “morality of mind”. Morality of deed concerns social relations; morality of mind means the heart-mind. The ultimate goal of martial arts study is reaching a place of wu wei, a peaceful state where wisdom and emotions are in harmony with each other.

Deed: Humility, Sincerity, Politeness, Loyalty, Trust
Heart-Mind: Courage, Patience, Endurance, Perseverance, Will

The motivation to do the right thing comes from our heart—not from fear of reprisal or promise of gain. Cultivation of a pure heart thus becomes an integral aspect in the study of martial arts. It may not be overtly stated. It is often most evident when it is lacking, since it is passed on by example. If you take wu de away from the study, it is like having only the recipe but not the whole meal. The late Master Jou said it was like ‘having the box without the shoes.’

The Family Context
Family reverence begins with the vigilance to not allow anyone to do injury to your person in word or deed. The sense of reverence extends to family and the responsibility toward our parents, brothers and sisters, i.e., teachers and classmates.

The centrality of family has been transmitted to us through our Chinese teachers and their tradition:
• Shifu Teacher-father
• Shimu Teacher-mother (usually the teacher’s wife)
• Older brother/sister
• Younger brother/sister
The “family” concept is an ideal that becomes real through practice. For most, it differs from our experience within the modern nuclear family. However that may be, we are all defined in a relational context. What we do is embedded in others’ lives, not separate from others. In other words, what we do has consequences for others as well as for ourselves. Broadly speaking, much of modern life’s ills are due to the absence of a root in family context. Lacking that foundation, it becomes difficult to properly respect lineage and ancestors. We are adrift, often making up our own rules.
A Responsibility to Honor the Treasure

The proper attitude and motivation are essential for studying martial arts. A teacher may want to know a potential student’s motivation. Does their desire to study arise from the heart (sincere)? Or is it for a more superficial reason?

Students should understand the treasure of lineage-based tai chi, qigong, or other martial arts forms. A teacher should not accept as student someone who doesn’t treasure the art. It will affect the teacher. The energy of the many people who have practiced these forms is present when we teach. A teacher will benefit from teaching people who understand the treasure. When teaching students who are unappreciative of the treasure, a shadow will be cast on the lineage and its ancestors.

For the above reason, it is important for teachers to Interview new students for attitude. New students, likewise, should ask themselves:

• In my study of martial arts, what is my responsibility to myself?

• What is my responsibility to my teacher?

• What is my responsibility to my classmates? (Learning to put others before yourself.)

Attitudes and Morals Required for Practicing the Martial Arts

Often a teacher will write or pass down a moral code to their students. A common one is the “Ten ‘NO’s.’” My grand-teacher Yin Qianhe’s list appears in his published sword manual, as translated by two of his students. The list is believed to be derived from the original list of the Seven Ethics of military affairs.

1. Substantiality
A person who practices Chinese martial arts must be substantial. A substantial person is simple and honest: you cannot be fidgety or proud. Confucius said that if a gentleman/gentlewoman is not substantial, they cannot be respected, and what they have learned cannot be maintained. [Substantiality is the opposite of superficiality.]

2. Respectfulness
When you contact people, you have to have a heart that respects others. Those who respect others will also be respected in return. Your attitude must be humble, respectful and honest. Do not flatter others or expect others to notice and compliment you.

3. Peacefulness
To practice Chinese martial arts’ one must be calm and peaceful. One cannot be fierce in order to suppress others. Wild behavior is most shameful. When interacting with people or things, one must be peaceful.

4. Generosity
A person who practices Chinese martial arts has to be unselfish and without prejudice. In handling your affairs, you must be generous, unselfish, open and sincere, having an uncompromising spirit.

5. Diligence
A person who practices Chinese martial arts has to be diligent. You cannot be lazy. If you practice diligently, your kung fu will naturally be deep.

6. Righteousness
A person who practices Chinese martial arts has to be righteous. You do what you should do, and you do not do what you should not do. If you know what is righteous and you don’t do it, you are without courage.

7. Kindness
A person who practices Chinese martial arts has to be kind, both to people and to things. Have a kind heart and a spirit of love.

8. Loyalty
A person who practices Chinese martial arts does not stir up fights for selfish gain. You should contribute your skill, body, and heart to your country and your people.


1. The Chinese Classic of Family Reverence: A philosophical commentary of the Xiaojing, Henry Rosemont and Roger T. Ames, 2009, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.
2. Lecture notes, the Jiashan Zen Monastery, Hunan, August 2010.
3. Sword book, published in Taiwan, 1950’s, Yin Qianhe, transl. by his Milwaukee, WI students in the 1980’s. You will find a 2015 translation of Yin Qianhe’s Sword Book and other Yin books by Paul Brennan on his website.