The Han character 武 that is used in many East Asian languages means:
- martial, warlike.
It is an ideogrammic compound of two characters 止 and 戈. The character 止 means “to stop.” The character戈 means “spear” and refers to weapons in general; thus, “武” is often thought to denote “to stop arms” or “to stop war” (止戈为武). This literal interpretation of the meaning of the character 武 originates in the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC) and first mentioned in the Chinese history book Zuo Zhuan (also known as Zuo’s Spring and Autumn Annals, written no later than 389 BCE).
During the Spring and Autumn period, the four most powerful states—Qin, Jin, Qi and Chu—struggled for supremacy. These multi-city states often used the pretext of aid and protection to intervene and gain suzerainty over the smaller states. Interstate relations alternated between low-level warfare and complex diplomacy. Out of the total recorded 148 states, 128 of which were absorbed by these four largest states by the end of this period.
This definition of “武” as “military power means cease-fire” reflects people’s attitude towards war in one of the most conflict-ridden period in Chinese history. The sense that a powerful state (person) should know when to stop force rather than waging wars at will has significantly influenced Chinese political thoughts since. On an individual level, the influence is also manifest. Chinese martial arts (武术) is often thought by the practitioners and portrayed in the popular cultures as created for the sole purpose of ending violence, not starting a fight. This perspective on “武” also implies a secondary meaning that the practice of martial arts at its essence is the pursuit of one’s inner self rather than the superficial outer strength and the reliance on arms. As illustrated in one of the most popular classic Chinese novels, “The Return of the Condor Heroes“, of which the central character encounters the tomb of a swordsman who has attains the level of “swordsmanship without a sword”, the tomb reads:
Dugu Qiubai (literally translated as “The Loner Who Seeks Defeat”) has become the invincible and unchallenged swordsman under Heaven, hence he buried his swords here. The heroes of the realm bow before me. Now, my Long Sword is of no use anymore. The agony!
My first sword was so sharp, strong and fierce that none could withstand it. With it in hand, I strive for mastery by challenging all the heroes of the Northern Plains in my teenage years.
My second sword was violet in hue and flexible in motion. I used it in my 20s. With it, I have mistakenly wounded men of righteousness. It turned out to be a weapon of doom that caused me to feel remorseful endlessly. I cast it into a deep canyon.
My third sword was heavy and blunt. The uttermost cunning is based on simplicity. With it, I roamed all lands under Heaven unopposed in my 30s.
After the age of 40, I was no longer hampered by any weapon. Grass, trees, bamboos and rocks can all be my swords. Since then, I have developed my skills further, such that gradually I can win battles without reaching for weapons.
The embodiment of this sense of “武” is the essence of t’ai chi ch’uan. T’ai chi ch’uan (also known as Tai Chi) was developed based on Lao Tzu’s philosophy, who wrote in his Tao Te Ching, “The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and strong.” “The philosophy of t’ai chi ch’uan is that, if one uses hardness to resist violent force, then both sides are certain to be injured at least to some degree… Instead, students are taught not to directly fight or resist an incoming force, but to meet it in softness and follow its motion while remaining in physical contact until the incoming force of attack exhausts itself or can be safely redirected.” (Wikipedia) The complete focus on re-directing the incoming force, rather than starting one’s own to fight, is the key. It implies that this very effective form of martial arts defense is reactive instead of being proactive in aggression. The fact that t’ai chi ch’uan is suitable for people of any age for its health benefits is also telling – its use and benefits are not limited to only the strong and powerful, but are also available to the weak.
PART TWO: The Campaign – Why, What, How