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Dao (2014) 13:251–266
DOI 10.1007/s11712-014-9371-4
Daoism and Chinese Martial Arts
Barry Allen
Published online: 4 April 2014
# Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014
Abstract The now-global phenomenon of Asian martial arts traces back to something
that began in China. The idea the Chinese communicated was the dual cultivation of the
spiritual and the martial, each perfected in the other, with the proof of perfection being
an effortless mastery of violence. I look at one phase of the interaction between Asian
martial arts and Chinese thought, with a reading of the Zhuangzi 莊子 and the
Daodejing 道德經 from a martial arts perspective. I do not claim that the authors knew
about martial arts. It was not Daoist masters who took up martial arts, but martial arts
masters who, at a specific time, turned to Daoism to explain the significance of their art.
Today, though, Daoist concepts are ubiquitous in martial arts literature, and a reading of
these classics from a martial arts perspective shows how they lend themselves to
philosophical thinking about this practice.
Keywords Daoism . Asian martial arts . the Zhuangzi . the Daodejing
1 Introduction
China is not the only civilization to have spiritualized its arts of combat. There are
other, no less ancient examples in India and Mesopotamia (Draeger and Smith 1969;
Poliakoff 1982). However, the now-global phenomenon of Asian martial arts goes back
to something that began in China. The idea that the Chinese communicated to practically all the (later) fighting arts of East Asia (Karate, Jujitsu, Hapkido, Taekwondo, etc.)
was the dual cultivation of the spiritual and the martial, each through the other, each
perfected in the other, with the proof of the perfection consisting in a kind of effortless
mastery of violence. The Chinese took martial arts steps beyond self-defence or alleged
medical benefits, to merge with Buddhist meditation and Daoist inner alchemy, two of
the most dynamic currents of their postclassical culture. They reconciled and synthesized ingenious and completely realistic combative techniques with prestigious spiritual
teachings. They made martial arts practice a way to enlightenment, whether conceived
B. Allen (*)
Department of Philosophy, McMaster University, University Hall, 1280 Main St. W. Hamilton,
Ontario L8S 4K1, Canada
e-mail: [email protected]
Barry Allen
in the manner of Daoism or Chan (禪 Zen) Buddhism. The result is very different from
Greek or Indian combat sports—in fact Chinese martial arts are not sports at all. The
emphasis is not on competition but self-cultivation. The training is not so acrobatic that
it must be reserved to the young; instead it is approached as a lifelong practice that
unites self-cultivation with somatic development.
Chinese martial arts thinking never entirely spiritualizes combat arts. They remain
effective instruments of violence. The martial arts masters do not follow the model of
the Confucians in their spiritualization of archery. Archery is one of the Six Arts that
Confucians consider worthy of practice (Analects 1.6).1 The five excellences of archery
are: lack of contentiousness, correct ritual deportment, skill in hitting the target, singing,
and dancing. Confucians separate the intelligence that aims the arrow from the strength
that pierces the target (Analects 3.16). Thus spiritualized, archery becomes an image of
Confucian self-cultivation. The Master says, “Surely archery can serve as an illustration
of the fact that the gentleman does not compete! Before mounting the stairs to the
archery hall, gentlemen bow and defer to one another, and after descending from the
hall they mutually offer up toasts. This is how a gentleman ‘competes’” (Analects 3.7).
We see another example of this sublimation of combat arts in words attributed to the
Japanese Master in Zen and the Art of Archery: “By performing the ceremony [shooting
the bow] like a religious dance, your spiritual awareness will develop its full force”
(Herrigel 1989: 136). Here Zen reveals a Confucian face. For the Confucians, archery
provides a ritual occasion for gentlemen to gather and express benevolence. The skill
that barely grazes the target outweighs the combative strength to impale it. One touches
but does not kill. Among Confucians archery is indeed a religious ceremony (li 禮) and
they explicitly include dance among the arts of archery. The result, however, is not a
spiritual martial art. It is the sublimation of everything martial or combative right out of
the art. The training is emptied of external, instrumental value, and the resulting vacuity
sanctified as ritual purity.
That is not the way of Chinese martial arts, which resist the dichotomy of spiritual
and combative, and instead find the perfection of each in the other. When martial artists
look at Confucian archery they see an evacuated ritual form. A Confucian might think
that any Daoist insight reflected in martial art merely makes combative techniques more
effective, that is, violent. Is that their idea of “enlightenment”? Yes! The height of
spiritual cultivation is also a corporeal height, what Nietzsche called great health.
Martial arts practice is at once a way of self-cultivation and an effective fighting art.
Thus the Yang Family Forty Chapters, a taiji 太極 classic:
When the martial is matched with the spiritual and it is experienced in the body
and mind, this then is the practice of martial arts.
Our ancestors who were masters of the spiritual and the martial taught the arts of
self-cultivation through physical culture, but not through the martial arts. . . . I
have applied this to the martial arts, but it must not be viewed as a superficial
technique. It must remain on the level of physical culture, self-cultivation, the
dual development of body and mind, and the realm of sagehood and immortality.
All citations from the Analects are from Slingerland 2003.
Daoism and Chinese Martial Arts
. . . My teachings should be transmitted as a martial art for self-cultivation. (Wile
1996: 70, 86–87)
In this essay I look at one phase of the interaction between martial arts and Chinese
philosophy, the interaction with the Daoist classics Zhuangzi 莊子 and Daodejing 道德
經. My reading of these works in the context of Chinese martial arts is philosophical
rather than historical. I do not claim that the authors of these classics knew about
martial arts; in fact, my argument is that they did not, that the connection between
Daoist self-cultivation and martial arts practice came only after an interval of no less
than a thousand years. It is not until the late Ming 明-early Qing 清 period that we find
evidence of this Daoification of the martial arts, which had been practiced for centuries
without interaction with Daoism. It was not Daoist masters who took up martial arts,
but martial arts masters who, at a specific time, turned to the language of Daoist inner
cultivation to explain the spiritual significance of their art. Anyone familiar with the
literature that contemporary Asian martial arts makes for itself knows that Daoist terms
and concepts are ubiquitous, and include the idea of effortless effectiveness (wuwei 無
為), noncontention (buzheng 不爭), no mind (wuxin 無心), and the imagery of flowing
water, hard and soft, and empty and full. I would like to put some order to this
impression, with a systematic survey of these two Daoist classics from a martial arts
perspective. If, as I said, the Chinese made martial arts a way to enlightenment, the
appropriation of these classics into martial art discourse is one major crossroad where
the connection is made.
2 A Mind Like Dead Ashes
The “Qiwulun” 齊物論 chapter of the Zhuangzi opens with an allusion to what will
become a distinctive Daoist form of meditative breathing. “Ziqi [子綦] of the Southern
Wall was reclining against a low table on the ground, releasing his breath into Heaven
above, all in a scatter, as if loosed from a partner” (Ziporyn 2009: 9). The scene alludes
to a meditation practice that will eventually be known as “sitting in oblivion” (zuowang
坐忘), an expression that first appears in the Zhuangzi Inner Chapters (Kohn 2010;
Robinet 1993). There is another terse account of breathing exercises in the early Han 漢
Daoist-leaning Huainanzi 淮南子. The passage alludes to WANG Qiao 王喬, one of the
foremost reputed fangshi (方士 shaman), with a reputation for shape-shifting, instantaneous travel, and alchemy (Raz 2012: 99), linking his powers to something in his
The method of the sages may be seen but the source of their practice cannot be
found. . . . WANG Qiao and Chisong [赤松] blew, puffed, exhaled, and inhaled.
Exhaling the old and inhaling the new they abandoned their form and rejected
their consciousness, embraced the unhewn and reverted to perfection. They
I refer to “Daoism” and even to Chinese “philosophy,” but the notion of competing philosophical schools is a
Western construction, and the whole idea of Chinese “philosophy” is fraught with controversial assumptions
(see, e.g., Csikszentmihalyi and Nylan 2003; Defoort 2001; Tang 2007).
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thereby roamed through the profound and minute and ascended to penetrate the
cloudy heavens. (Major et al. 2010: 11.65–66)
The advanced goal of this breath meditation practice is to become an immortal (xian 仙).
“Immortal” in this context does not mean a soul or self that never dies. Daoist
enlightenment is the culmination of a somatic refinement following a regime of corporeal discipline, usually in seclusion on a mountain (Raz 2012: 45). If one can begin to
vanish into the flow of the world like a fish in a stream, self and death become matters of
indifference. In the words of the Zhuangzi, “You get something when it’s time. You lose
it when it’s passed. If you are content with the time and abide by the passing, there’s no
room for sorrow or joy. This is what the ancients called ‘loosening the bonds’”
(Chapter 6; Kjellberg 2001: 238).
A later chapter describes such a sage, there called a “genuine person” (zhenren 真人).
What is genuine about these people is their knowledge (zhenzhi 真知). Genuine
knowledge cannot be reduced to a speech or formula, and language is not how genuine
knowledge is expressed. Genuine people “gulp down their words and just as soon
vomit them back up” (Chapter 6; Ziporyn 2009: 40). The knowledge is corporeal,
enacted, the ken of a meditatively rehabilitated body. The need consciously to reason
their way to a conclusion is never more than an expedient, “arising only when the
situation made it unavoidable” (Chapter 6; Ziporyn 2009: 42). Genuine knowledge
does not represent but rather folds the body into the becoming of the environment,
which it does by penetrating and neutralizing the obstacles to spontaneity. Such
knowledge makes one unstoppable, unopposable, immovable, not from mass, which
is negligible, but because one is minimally invested in present actuality. With the fewest
hostages to fortune, one offers the fewest targets for obstruction—by anything, whatever happens. Such a sage is never at a loss, never without an effective response to
change. Life becomes nearly indistinguishable from the original becoming (dao 道) of
the environment. As the Zhuangzi says, “Solitary but never rigid . . . empty but never
insubstantial” (Chapter 6; Ziporyn 2009: 41–42). This genuine person is a model for a
later image of the enlightenment to which martial arts aspire.
Amid an extravagant discourse on the genuine person, the Zhuangzi praises their
ability to breathe from their heels. Genuine people “breathe from their heels, while the
mass of men breathe from their throats” (Chapter 6; Ziporyn 2009: 40). Chapter 7 also
says, “the incipient impulse of all that flourishes” comes forth from the heels (Ziporyn
2009: 52). It is a curious image. One way to read it is in the context of the so-called
daoyin (導引) exercises (Kohn 2008). These we know are ancient, found illustrated on
Han tombs at Mawangdui 馬王堆 (where an important early Daodejing was also found).
There is no modern English word to convey what they are. Gentler than calisthenics,
they involve more than mere stretching, not the least of which is training in breathing.
Daoyin means literally “guiding and pulling.” It is explained as the art of making joints
flexible. The comparison to modern taiji 太極 may be suggestive, though taiji is a much
later development. This daoyin is explicitly named in the Zhuangzi, Chapter 15: “To
huff and puff, exhale and inhale, blow out the old and draw in the new, do the ‘bearhang’ and the ‘bird stretch,’ interested only in a long life—such are the tastes of the
practitioners of the daoyin exercises, the nurturers of the body, Peng Zu’s [彭祖] ripeold-agers” (Kjellberg 2001: 265). There may be a second allusion when Chapter 7 of
the Zhuangzi writes, “I level out the impulses of the breath” (Ziporyn 2009: 97).
Daoism and Chinese Martial Arts
According to H. D. Roth, “There is concrete evidence that the author of the Inner Chapters
of the Zhuangzi was aware of—and likely followed—such inner cultivation practices” (Roth
2003: 16). Yet if Zhuangzi belonged to a circle practicing daoyin, sitting in oblivion, or other
proto-Daoist techniques, there was assuredly no connection with martial arts. The Sinews
Transformation Classic (1624) is apparently the earliest evidence of a synthesis between
daoyin and martial arts (Shahar 2008: 149). Nevertheless, the Zhuangzi’s reference to
breathing from the heels is interesting because it corresponds to an important principle of
Chinese martial arts. There is an example in Robert W. Smith’s account of performing taiji’s
pushing hands exercise (tuishou 推手) with Master ZHENG Manqing 鄭曼青. Zheng instructs,
“As you touch the opponent in your attempt to elicit resistance, inhale to the sole of your foot
with your mind. Then as you exhale all your power comes from the sole, rather than the
hands. . . . The ability to transmit qi (氣) from the sole of one’s foot up through the fingers
takes decades” (Smith 1990: 31). This idea recalls words attributed to taiji’s legendary
founder ZHANG Sanfeng 張三豐: “The motion should be rooted in the feet, released through
the legs, controlled by the waist, and manifested through the fingers” (Lo et al. 1979: 21).
Another passage in the Zhuangzi that speaks to martial arts masters relates a
conversation between Butcher Ding 丁 and Lord Wenhui 文惠. The butcher has a way
of carving meat that is beyond technique. He has not had to sharpen his knife in 19 years.
He does not use his eyes, only his spirit. He follows the heavenly patterns (tianli 天理) in
the flesh. The space between bones and ligaments becomes ample and easily negotiated.
Meat falls off his knife like clods from a spade. Zhuangzi’s butcher is an image of
mastery for the Chinese martial arts. The butcher responds to the ox as the martial master
does an opponent. He does not use his eyes but his qi. Then he listens not with the ears or
the mind but with what is vital and living about his body. What then seems fast to others
seems to him slow and clumsy. There is so much time and the adversary’s moves are so
obvious that an effortless evasion easily evolves into a devastating response. Thus the
Qing dynasty Xuanji’s Secret Transmission of Acupuncture Points’ Hand Combat
Formulas (Xuanji mishou xuedao quan jue 玄機秘授穴道拳訣):
The book [Zhuangzi] says: “strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the
big openings.” Why does it say so? Because when Cook Ding cut up oxen “he no
longer saw the whole ox.” I say it is the same with hand combat. Why? Because I
am looking for my opponent’s soft points, acupuncture points, and those forbidden to strike as I engrave them in my mind’s eye. For this reason, the moment I
lift my hand, I am able to target my opponent’s empty points, and strike at his
acupuncture points, “no longer seeing the whole person.” (Shahar 2008: 118)
In a Preface (1784) to the Hand Combat Classic (Quan jing 拳經), another martial arts
author looks to the Zhuangzi for images of his art: “The subtlety of the method’s application
depends entirely on internal strength (neili 內力). It cannot be exhausted by words. Like an
old hunchback who catches cicadas. . . . When one’s resolution is not distracted, when his
spirit is concentrated, he will begin to acquire the agility of ‘mind conceiving, hands
responding.’ At this point there is sure to be no straining of muscles nor exposure of bones”
(Shahar 2008: 126). He alludes to this passage of Chapter 19 of the Zhuangzi:
I settle my body like a rooted tree stump, I hold my arm like the branch of a
withered tree; out of all the vastness of heaven and earth, the multitude of the
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myriad things, it is only of the wings of a cicada that I am aware. I don’t let my
gaze wander or waiver, I would not take all the myriad things in exchange for the
wings of a cicada. How could I help but succeed? (Graham 2001: 138)
Is this the description of an old man catching cicadas, or a martial arts master clearing
the spine, emptying the mind, awaiting the other’s departure so that, leaving second, he
may arrive first?
A series of three texts neatly situate the Zhuangzi between the older art of war military
philosophy and later martial arts thought. A principle of Chinese strategy is that strength is
never without vulnerability. Every attack is also an opening. That is why a wise general
waits for the opponent to make the first move. Since enemies can be expected to offer their
greatest strength in attack, they cannot fail to also expose their weakness, an inevitable
emptiness of the fullness they throw into the attack. It takes mastery of the art of command
to be able to act on such a principle with a response that is highly effective yet seemingly
effortless. Sunzi 孫子 praises the strategic combination of overwhelming force and precise
timing (Sawyer 1993: 165). Overwhelming force does not mean more total men or arms.
It means being overwhelmingly strong where the enemy is unavoidably weak. Victory is
not a matter of strength, not between armies and not in unarmed martial arts combat either.
The challenge—a challenge to art and knowledge—is to make the indirect or circuitous
direct or straight. “In military command what is most difficult is turning the circuitous into
the straight, turning adversity into advantage” (Sunzi 7; Sawyer 1993: 169). Difficult, but
crucial. “The one who first understands the tactics of the circuitous and the direct will be
victorious” (Sunzi 7; Sawyer 1993: 170). Sunzi describes this example: “If you can make
the enemy’s path circuitous and entice them with profit, although you set out after them
you will arrive before them. This results from knowing the tactics of the circuitous and the
direct” (Sunzi 7; Sawyer 1993: 169).
Martial arts practitioners know that as the strategy of the false opening. The author
of Chapter 30 of the Zhuangzi, entitled “The Discourse on Swords” (shuojian 說劍),
also knows the principle, and takes it from the battlefield to individual combat. “The
master swordsman … lays himself wide open, tempts you to take advantage, is behind
in making his move, is ahead in striking home” (Graham 2001: 245). Nearly 2,000 years
later, CHANG Naizhou 萇乃周, an 18th-century internal martial arts master, makes the
idea a principle of his martial arts teaching: “When the opponent’s strike is just about to
land on our body, we take advantage of this to make our move. This leaves the
opponent no opportunity to retreat or to block. There is no more marvelous principle….
This is t …
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