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Understanding Wu De as Martial Virtue

Many people have a “feeling” of what 武德 Martial Virtue or Wu De is. Some say it’s a list of moral attributes, much akin to those found in the Boy Scouts. Others might quickly think of the common religions. I can still recite the 12 virtues of the Scout Law and the Scout Oath from memory. However, does memory mean that one would automatically live these virtues?

The great thing about Wu De is that it is more than a memorized code of rules, but rather a working tool one uses to “act out” virtue. At PATHS Atlanta Kung Fu, we ensure that our Kung Fu students learn this.

Respectful conduct of martial artists in meeting & communicating with one another; an underground cult-ish view on the martial arts; old traditions of titles and greetings in the martial arts world; an ongoing self-examination where one is constantly trying to “walk the talk,” fraternal rites & rituals, etc.

Wu De encompasses all of these things and more.

It can be a way of life for the traditional martial artist; the way he carries himself, a code of ethics, interactions with other students, other teachers, in class and out, visiting other schools or events, and how they accomplish goals are just some of the contexts wherein Wu De may be found.

In traditional martial arts, a student selects their teacher. However, more importantly – the teacher also decides whether or not to accept the student. And showing proper Wu De can get one a long way in being selected; whether you’re the student or the teacher; more on this in a moment.

Martial Virtue or Wu De, expressed by A Buddhist monk bowing
Martial Virtue or Wu De, expressed by A Buddhist monk bowing

The General Virtues

Virtues are not the sole property of the 武林 Wu Lin or martial forest (world of traditional Chinese martial artists). The world has seen across the globe and throughout history many who place a good deal of importance on various virtues, and this occurrence will no doubt continue.

Jewish tradition has thirteen attributes of compassion. Virtues are listed in the Bible. The Qur’an has many virtues, as well as Hinduism, Taoism, the Sikhs, and of course there is the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.

But we also know that virtues are not the sole property of religions and spirituality either.

Indeed, the Greek Plato spoke of temperance (σωφροσύνη), prudence (φρόνησις), fortitude (ανδρεία), and justice (δικαιοσύνη), as being the four Cardinal Virtues. Ancient Rome had their listing. And our very own Benjamin Franklin had his “Moral Perfection,” a program of virtues.

And then, of course we have Chivalry, Bushido, and Wu De; all of these being systems that tie together martial systems with martial virtues, a code of ethics or honor.

But what are some of these ethics or virtues?

Acceptance, appreciation, assertiveness, awareness, balance, benevolence, candor, charity, cleanliness, compassion, confidence, consideration, courteousness, creativity, dependability, determination, diligence, encouragement, endurance, flexibility, forgiveness, friendliness, helpfulness, honesty, honor, hospitality, humor, imagination, integrity, justice, kindness, mercy, moderation, morality, optimism, patience, perseverance, piety, resilience, respectfulness, reverence, responsibility, restraint, service, sincerity, sympathy, tactfulness, thankfulness, thoughtfulness, righteousness, justice, respect, politeness, knowledge, reason, education & learning, trust, sincerity, trustworthy, courage, bravery, patience, willingness to learn wholeheartedly, ready and willing to “eat bitter”, endurance, helpfulness, loyalty, and many others, depending on circumstances.

One can see that indeed, these virtues may be applied generally in life, regardless of involvement in the Martial Arts; that adopting these standards would strengthen the moral character of the individual, and perhaps create that strong “hero” people could turn to and depend on; a view not so different from the typical view a child has of their father.

Martial Arts - Teacher and Student

Aside from simply being a better person, how does this play into the martial arts specifically? Looking at the current situation between many teachers and students will help clarify.

Individuals who eat bitter for long periods of time, training deeply and devotedly, learning and personally expressing the depths of their martial arts style, often go on to become teachers.

Today, these teachers who have literally spent decades sacrificing and training to develop a high level of skill, are unfortunately all too often treated as if they were a piece of furniture or an appliance; something there for the students convenience!

Whether an indoor or outdoor class, some are filled with chatter, music and chaos that continue even after the teacher enters. Students chit-chat while the teacher is lecturing and do not show him or her proper respect inside or out of class. 

Martial Virtue in Chivalry - Being Knighted
Martial Virtue in Chivalry - Being Knighted

“But this is the modern age” you may be shouting. Is there truly a need for such antiquated customs today? In a word, Yes. In short, this is a break-down of simple polite courtesy.

Not to mention that the teacher can also be under scrutiny. Are they intentionally belittling the students? Do they hide knowledge under the veil of mysticism? How much do they care about the students’ progress? Do they intentionally cause harm? You get the idea; Wu De can often be a two-way street.

Although we are in the modern age, we are practicing “traditional” art and should heed traditional rules of respect. This does not mean we must address the teacher as “master” and kowtow, etc.; Wu De is flexible and adaptable to fit circumstances and preferences. However Wu De does imply a basic code of ethics, a proper showing of respect, and as previously mentioned, an actual working tool that may even offer benefit to either or both parties.

Implementing Martial Virtue

At a very basic level, one must learn How to Learn Martial Arts. And apply those principles to progress. During this foundational stage, one should also be learning about Martial Virtue; how to apply the principles, what they mean, and more.

So then, what is the proper way to carry out Martial Virtue, to show respect, and to apply Wu De? 

Begin with the general principles listed above. See if you can apply these virtues in your daily life. No one expects us to be saints, but this is a great start to working the tool of Wu De. It’s easiest to start with those close to you – your loved ones and friends. Then you may branch out to your martial family and environs, or perhaps even your colleagues.

Mistress mayoress complained that the pottage was cold;
'And all long of your fiddle-faddle,' quoth she.
'Why, then, Goody Two-shoes, what if it be?
Hold you, if you can, your tittle-tattle,' quoth he.

No need to be a “Goody Two-Shoes” but simply work on an intelligent sense of honor, if you would.

Be sure to check out Martial Arts Schools – Rules or Virtues or see What Our Students Say about our Kung Fu classes. Or maybe just take a look at Video Time Machine! Back to CNY 2013 and then reserve your spot for a Free Trial

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