By Martin Boedicker
Text 14 of the 40 Secret Classics of the Yang family states:
The Explanation of the Cultural (wen) and Martial (wu) Aspects in Taijiquan
Wen, the cultural, is the foundation (ti)
and wu, the martial, is the application (yong).
The achievement of the cultural lies in the martial.
It is applied through the essence, qi and spirit (shen)
and the practice of physical training.
The achievement of the martial is attained by the cultural.
It is established on the foundation of body, heart/mind (xin)
and found in fighting.
Further on in case of the cultural and the martial
we speak of the right time and duration.
In the proper sequence it is the foundation of physical training.
When the cultural and the martial are applied in sparring,
the root of fighting is in the capability of storing and exerting.
Therefore, when fighting is done in a cultural way,
it is a soft physical exercise.
The sinew power of the essence, qi, and the spirit.
When in fighting the martial is applied,
it will be hard fighting.
The power of the heart/mind and the body.
The cultural without the preparation of the martial
is like foundation without application.
The martial without the accompaniment of the cultural
is application without foundation.
A single beam of wood cannot provide support
or a single palm, clap.
This is not only true for the achievements
in physical training or fighting –
all things are subject to this principle.
The cultural is an internal principle.
The martial is an external skill.
External skill without internal principle
is surely only brute strength.
It has lost its true face
and consequently one will be defeated
when attacked by an opponent.
Inner principle without external skill
is only the scholarship of stillness
without knowing the application.
But in a confrontation,
the smallest error can lead to death.
In the application against others,
how can one not understand the explanation
of the two words ‘the cultural’ and ‘the martial’?
Further on, in the foreword to Taijiquan Master Ma Hailong’s book, The Basics of Taijiquan, he writes e.g. about himself:
“I was born into a martial arts family. The education I received from my family in my youth was the way (dao) of the cultural (wen) and the martial (wu) as a means of furthering self-cultivation. The purpose of this education is to help others and to develop righteousness. At the age of five I began to study the books of Confucius under my paternal grandfather, Ma Chanquan, a lecturer at Zhejiang University. At seven I began training in Taijiquan under the guidance of my maternal grandfather, Wu Jianquan (the founder of the Wu Style).” (Wu and Ma p. 125)
Thus the education Ma Hailong received was a unification of both, the cultural and the martial. Reading as a Westerner, the chances are that such a passage will be glossed over, with no inkling of the importance this statement acquires in its Chinese context. The cultural and the martial, wen and wu, are twin concepts of huge significance in Chinese culture.
Wen and wu in Chinese culture
Wen in its original, literal meaning refers to a zigzag, to a drawing or to pattern in general. Thus the term is applied to decorations on bronzes from the Zhou period. On the wider meaning of the term, Smith writes:
“Wen conveys a wide range of meanings, most of which derive from the basic sense of ‘makings’ or ‘patterns’. Wen refers narrowly to Chinese writing and literature, but more broadly to a whole constellation of distinctive cultural attributes – art, music, ritual and so on – each which, like literature, had an expressly moral component. Wen was the measure of a Confucian gentleman in traditional China, the mark of true ‘civilization’.” (Smith p. 2)
That places wen in opposition to wu, the martial. The ideogram for wu covers the concepts ‘military’, ’martial’, ‘belligerent’, ‘violent’ and ‘fierce’, ‘vehement’. Significantly, it follows that wu can denote both man-to-man combat and a battle of many against many and so incorporates an association of war. The twin concepts wen and wu and so, the relationship between the cultural and the martial, or between the civil and the military, is a topic that has always been a matter of fervent debate in China. Given this importance it has left its mark in the language itself. Table 1 gives an impression of the use of wen and wu in word pairs.
In China’s cultural history, the twin concepts of wen and wu figure as early as in the names of the first two kings of the Zhou Dynasty. King Wen is regarded as the dynasty’s founder and is lauded for his cultural achievements. King Wu, on the other hand, is said to have established the Zhou Dynasty once and for all through his military successes. The Analects of Confucius, for example, tell us that “the way of the kings Wen and Wu has never utterly fallen to the ground. Among men, those of great understanding have recorded the major principles of this Way and those of less understanding have recorded the minor principles. So there is no one who has not access to the Way of Wen and Wu.” (The Analects p. 225)
Although both King Wen and King Wu are glorified, Confucianism places wen before wu. The civil always controls the military and the cultural is in all cases preferable to the martial. In Confucianism the rule of moderation and the medium is one of the main precepts. Martial altercation is an extreme to be avoided. This is not to say, however, that martial readiness is an unknown quantity in Confucianism. Thus the six arts (liuyi) of the Confucian scholar included archery and horsemanship alongside command of the rituals, music, calligraphy and arithmetic.
“The popular image of a Confucian scholar as an over-refined and effeminate bookworm came into being centuries later, and is any case not true of all Confucian scholars even in later periods.” (Liu James J. Y. p. 8).
In fact, things military have proved to be an astonishingly intense, continual preoccupation throughout Chinese Philosophy.
“It is a seldom-advertised fact that many if not most of the classical Chinese philosophical works contain lengthy treatises on military thought: the Master Mo, Master Xun, Master Guan, the Book of Lord Shang, the Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Lü, the Master of Huainan, and so on. In addition, other central texts such as the Analects, Mencius, Laozi, Master Han Fei, and the recently recovered Silk Manuscripts of the Yellow Emperor contain extended statements on military thoughts.” (Ames p. 39)
In China’s classical period there were two groups for whom martial issues were a particular concern. The first were the strategists. They would advise princes and kings in matters of war. Yet even given their profession, war for them, too, was only ever a last resort and to be avoided as far possible. It always represented a high risk and even in the case of a victorious outcome, devoured resources in great quantity.
One of the greatest of these strategists, Sunzi, wrote:
“War is a vital matter of state. It is the field on which life or death is determined and the road that leads to either survival or ruin, and must be examined with the greatest care.” (Ames p. 103)
This stands in stark contrast to the attitude of the knights errant or youxia. Politics would not rouse them; what they rose to with fervour was man-to-man combat. Whenever justice and renown were at stake, the sword was drawn. This made the knight-errant the incarnation of the martial.
What amounted to an anarchist desire for independence in these wandering knights also characterised the Daoists; but the latter favoured the principle of non-action (wuwei) and of absolute spiritual liberty, whereas the knight-errants found sufficient fulfilment in social freedom. Thus Laozi Daoism would reject both the cultural and the martial principle. With reference to the cultural, Laozi verse 18 narrates:
It was when the Great Way declined
human kindness and morality arose;
It was when intelligence and knowledge appeared
that the Great Artifice began.
It was when the six near ones were no longer at peace
that there was talk of ‘dutiful sons’
Nor till fatherland was dark with strife
did we hear of ‘loyal slaves’.
(Laozi, p 37)
And, regarding the martial (Laozi Verse 31):
Fine weapons are none the less ill-omened things.
And he who delights in the slaughter of men
will never get
what he looks for out of those that dwell under heaven.
A host that has slain men
is received with grief and mourning;
he that has conquered in battle
is received with rites of mourning.
(Laozi, p 63)
One should picture the early Daoists as recluses and independent farmers who eschewed social contact and thought that everyone could coexist peaceably if they were only left alone and without the constraints of a government or other kinds of social organisation. Even so, Laozi-Daoism does not entirely exclude military power. But how is it to be applied? Liu writes:
„The answer can be found in the classic Daoist writings, which develop an original and remarkably wise way of dealing with the problems and dangers of military confrontations, an approach that follows naturally from basic Daoist principles.“ (Liu Da p. 39).
Such principles are reflected for example in verse 30 of the Laozi:
Therefore, a good general effects his purpose
and then stops;
he does not take further advantage of his victory.
Fulfils his purpose and does not glory in what he has done.
Fulfils his purpose and does not boast of what he has done.
Fulfils his purpose, but takes no pride in what he has done.
Fulfils his purpose, but only as a step that could not be avoided.
Fulfils his purpose, but without violence.
(Laozi, p 61)
In Huanglao Daoism, which developed later, wen and wu are encountered as a mutually complementary principle.
“Haeven has a season for life and death,
states have policies for life and death.
To rely on Heaven’s seasons of life
to nourish the living is called wen (Patterning).
To rely on Heaven’s season of killing
to attack the dying is called wu (Martiality).
When both [wen, paterning] and wu martiality
are carried out, then the world will follow and obey.”
(Yates p. 63)
The field of tension acknowledged in classical Chinese philosophy as wen and wu ultimately finds expression in imperial Chinese society itself. Wen is accorded primacy, and as far possible, the civil principle is to prevail. For emergencies only, there is wu, the military. All of society is structured according to this ideal. There is a ruling bureaucratic state which controls the military sphere. Glorification of war was unknown and the attitude to the army was based on three premises: “… firstly, a low esteem of all things military: ‘hao ren bu dang bing’, ‘a good person will not be a soldier,' a saying familiar to all Chinese has it.
From a Confucian point of view the soldier performs a function as dubious as that of criminal law: it is a practical necessity, but it is only grudgingly acknowledged as it is an indication of the failure of the Confucian moral code. Popular tradition has its notorious generals and at their head, Guan Yu, later elevated to the status of God of War, but even he distinguished himself less by heroism than by his pronounced shrewdness. It is no coincidence that he his also revered as the tutelary god of traders. To foil one’s opponent, political means are preferred to military, for example by forming ‘alliance with the far away in order to combat what is close by’ in placating one’s foe with gifts or in recourse to the tribute system to ‘civilise’ the ‘barbarians’.
In such concepts a second tradition is already implicit, namely that of the strict monitoring of the army (wu) by the civil mandarinate (wen). Throughout the course of history, it was wen elements that proved to be both the state-upholding and the integrative forces, whereas, whenever the armed forces gained control, disarray was in the offing.
A third notion had to do with the ‘educational’ uses of the army. Territorial gain or the securing or protecting of economic advantages were exceptions as far as the chief aims of military action were concerned. Rather, their usual purpose was ‘punitive and educational campaigns’ against ‘disobedient’ and insubordinate neighbours; which, in passing, was still the view in the campaigns against India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979.” (Weggel p. 139)
Wen and wu in Taijiquan
The twin concept of wen and wu is also a highly important feature in Taijiquan and is an explicit topic in various works of the classical literature. In Taijiquan, wen is endowed with the qualities of yin and wu with those of yang. In line with the theory of the taiji, Taijiquan endeavours to unite yin and yang or, in this case, wen and wu. This has been part of the practice of Taiji-masters since ages past, but for Chinese society it is certainly out of the ordinary. Thus one finds Sun Lutang reflecting in 1915:
“There was a prejudice in the old days. Literates despised martial arts as martial arts were short of literary learning.” (Sun p. 60)
In Taijiquan, wen is applied in a narrower sense to physical education (tiyu) and in a wider sense to classical Chinese or, later, modern education. By virtue of their education, Taiji-masters not infrequently attained posts as state officials or became university lecturers. Li Yiyu, a nephew of the founder of the Wu (Hao) style, Wu Yuxiang, is an example, rising to the post of Governor of Henan; another is Ma Yueliang, who was a pioneer in the establishing of laboratories for blood tests. The wu aspect would come to light mainly as military service and this mostly as an officer or in a post as martial arts instructor for members of the armed forces. Masters such as Chen Wangting would apply their skills in battle, or, like Wu Jianquan, to train the higher generals in the army. Table 2 offers a summary of the professional profiles of some taijiquan masters.
The end of Imperial China in 1911 and the introduction of modern Western weapons technology meant that traditional combat techniques would no longer be as relevant as they had been. At this turning-point in the history of martial arts, it was the achievement of several masters of Taijiquan to have modernised what had been until then a secret martial art.
“In 1911, the head of the Research Society for Physical Education in Beijing, Xu Yusheng (1879 – 1945) was already supporting traditional techniques of physical training. In 1912 he issued invitations to renowned Taiji-masters to teach at his institute in Beijing. That was Taijiquan’s ‘coming out’ – its first emergence out of a restricted private sphere into the public at large.” (Boedicker, Sievers pp. 47 f).
With its wider dissemination, the practice of Taijiquan was changed. Fast movements were replaced by slow ones and complicated positions were simplified.
Along with this development, the art of Pushhands (tuishou) as an application of the combative was also given new prominence. Thus a tenet in modern Taijiquan says, the (Taijiquan) form is the foundation (system, body; ti) and pushhands is its application (yong), and therefore the martial. In this way Taijiquan has succeeded in preserving its roots and in establishing them in the modern era.
It is the reciprocal stimulus between the form and pushhands that gives Taijiquan such an appeal both as a form of physical training and as a martial art. The term ‘martial art’ itself conveys the fact that its concern is not self-defence alone, but that it requires an art that is founded on China’s cultural heritage. The name Taijiquan implies the challenge to apply to martial art the idea of the taiji, i.e., to develop in Taijiquan a mutual penetration of yin and yang. If wen is the yin aspect of Taijiquan and wu its yang aspect, then the practice of Taijiquan in its ultimate form will consist in the interpenetration of these aspects. Ma Yueliang elucidates:
“A characteristic of the movements is that they are a manifestation of slowness without the use of force. This is the exercise of the cultural, the cultural being the foundation. In this respect the basis points to the manner of activity of body and heart/mind (xin) and to the regularity of the circulation of qi and blood. To practise the foundation simply means the acquisition of elementary skills. This seems obvious enough, but in practice the path is long. Only training can make it part of one’s own nature. Thus to train the foundation is to train self-knowledge. The martial is its application, i.e., its use against someone. Thence to learn push hands is to train the knowledge of others. The cultural without the martial is like the foundation (body) without application. The martial without the fundament of the cultural is like having a theory but without a body. It is asking overmuch of a single beam to be a support and a single hand will not resound.’ (Ma, Xu p. 12)
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Laozi, Hunan People’s Publishing House, Changsha 1999
Liu Da, The Tao and Chinese Culture, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, Henley-on-Thames 1979
Liu James J. Y., The Chinese Knight-Errant, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London 1967
Ma Yueliang, Xu Wen, Wushi Taijiquan Tuishou, Xianggang Shanghai Shuju Chuban, Hong Kong 1986
Schwarz Ernst (ed.), Laudse, Daudedsching, dtv, Munich 1985
Smith Richard J., China’s Cultural Heritage, Westview Press, Boulder 1983
Sun Lutang, Xing Yi Quan Xue – The study of Form-Mind Boxing, Unique Publications, Burbank 2000
The Analects, Hunan People’s Publishing House, Changsha 1999
Weggel Oskar, Die Asiaten, Beck, Munich 1990
Wu Yinghua, Ma Yueliang, Wushi Taijijian, Renmin Tiyu Chubanshe, Beijing 2001
Yates Robin D.S., Five lost classics: Tao, Huang-Lao, and Yin-yang in Han China, Random House 1997