WU-DE: the Code

Tai Chi discussion sites on the internet can be depressing. I've participated on many but usually they become toxic as personality clashes develop and one lineage or another strives to assert its superiority. When this happens and the slagging starts, a central factor is an absence of wu-de, the martial arts code.

Ideally, Tai Chi is a philosophy. The word 'philosophy' refers to the love of wisdom. The essence of wisdom, as the ancient Greek philosophers put it, is knowledge of oneself. Wu-de, the behaviour code of the martial arts, is based upon the philosophy taught by an ancient sage – ‘Confucius’ (to Westerners) or Kong-tse, 'Master Kong'.

“The Master”, as he is known to countless East-Asians, lived in the troubled later years of the Zhou dynasty (1046 - 256 BCE), a time of warring kingdoms, environmental degradation, famine, genocide, corruption, and a lack of either public or private morality.

Seeing the chaos into which the land had descended, he taught a system of morality based upon the principles of natural order as he saw them outlined in the I Jing (Book of Changes).

To reform society, The Master proposed to start small – with the individual. If the individual cultivated morality within himself, then he could influence his family. In turn, a cultivated family might have a reforming influence upon their neighbourhood, which in turn might, by example, reform the community. Then other communities might be reformed, next the province, then finally the state. Thus, a great responsibility rested upon individual initiative. Personal morality was a matter of social and cultural responsibility.

The Master’s objective was to encourage the development of cultivated individuals whose minds and emotional make-ups had been refined through education. This sort of education he saw as a moral duty, having as its outcome both individual fulfillment and the moral enhancement of all those groups of which the individual constituted a part.

This is the root of the Martial Arts Code.

Confucianism was patriarchal and is now outmoded in terms of many of its assumptions. But, if cleansed of its assumptions about gender and authority, it can have much to teach us.

The Confucian virtues are:

1. Humanity - which can be understood as involving respect, magnanimity, truthfulness, acuity and generosity. It is the foundation of social order and is based on the love of people. This can be interpreted as the selfless desire to be of benefit to others.

2. Justice - which means duty, principle and motivation. It does not involve unquestioning obedience to authority, but rather an unswerving devotion to moral principles. A further principle of justice is that it should be available to all equally, regardless as to social class. Emperor and peasant should be considered as equally answerable for their actions.

3. Propriety or Etiquette - is based on a sense of due deference and is indicated by courtesy and respect manifested toward others. It relies on an essential sincerity, rather than just the observance of outward forms.

4. Education or Knowledge - is a moral imperative. It can be defined as mental development dedicated to the cultivation of Humanity, Justice and Propriety. Education allows us to understand others and their needs. Self-improvement and education is something we owe to ourselves and others.

5. Sincerity or Trustworthiness - consists of faithfulness to the ideals of Humanity, Justice, Propriety and Education. It is seen in a character which is well-informed, reliable and non-dissimulating.

These virtues work together. Thus -- Education may externally result in the acquisition of Knowledge and an ability to marshal facts but, if informed by the other virtues, can result in Wisdom. Similarly, the virtues, when cultivated in an informed way, result in the “Superior Individual” - a person possessing sincerity and deep character who can be of great service to society and able to further the goal of its eventual enlightenment.

This is our model for a martial artist.


Within the classical Asian martial arts, the Martial Code of Wu De (martial etiquette) governs relations between students, and between students and Master.

Sometimes a club's Code strives only to promote loyalty to the club and its power-structure, a commitment to a specific lineage and teacher. This kind of code is morally compromised and can easily lead to the toxic exchanges we see on many internet forums. But a code grounded in moral values, such as Master Kong's 'Five Pillars', can provide an elevated standard to live by.

Here is one example of such a Code:

The students…

1....shall regard other martial arts and martial artists with respect and shall avoid making negative comments about them.

2....shall attempt to regularly attend class, be punctual, and strive every day to advance in skill.

3....shall be respectful of the Teacher and his or her Assistants and shall behave so as not to detract from their teaching.

4....shall undertake to practise every day so as to consistently improve in skills and knowledge.

5....shall not demonstrate combative techniques outside the club without the express consent of the Teacher.

6....shall in everyday life strive to avoid fights and conflicts, refraining from any aggressive behaviour, whether inside or outside the club, and shall employ the martial aspects of the art only in self-defence and only under very extraordinary circumstances.

7.…shall be considerate, in all interactions with others, of their personal safety needs.

8....shall accept corrections from an Instructor in a positive light, in a spirit of self-improvement, and shall seek confirmation from a higher authority only when he or she does not understand the correction.

9....shall teach what is learned through the club only as authorized by the Chief Instructor.

10....shall assist other students as requested by them or as authorized by the Instructor.

11....shall try to pay dues punctually; exception to this rule can be made by special arrangement with the Chief Instructor

12....shall treat others with respect and shall not interfere with the studies of other Students or with the Instructors in the performance of their duties.

13.... shall engage in constructive questioning and criticism with instructors and fellow students and shall avoid negative comments about others;

14.…shall try to apply the lessons and principles of Taijiquan in daily life and shall cultivate attitudes of respect, sincerity and caring toward others.

In addition to the above, instructors and senior students……

15.…shall try to be sensitive to the needs of students.

16.…shall try to be aware of threats to the student’s safety, whether deriving from the environment or from the student’s own practice, and shall endeavour to remove or eliminate them.

17.… shall be supportive of the efforts of other instructors and teachers and shall be careful not to impede or criticize their teachings in any way.

18.…shall render assistance cheerfully, when called upon to do so, and refrain from any action which detracts from the harmony of the club.

19.…shall be very careful not to pretend to knowledge they do not have, but refer the student to senior authority when necessary.

20.…shall refrain from any display of impatience or bad humour.

21.…shall be respectful of the student’s intimacy and personal space, and avoid any action which might be perceived as improper.

22.…shall, when confronting any situation which is destructive to the equanimity of the club or its members, not hesitate to bring the issue to the attention of the Chief Instructor.

23.…shall bring to the attention of the Chief Instructor any ideas which might contribute to the harmony and effectiveness of the club.

24.…shall promote the ideals and objectives of the club so as to contribute to the development of a caring and enlightened society.

This is an extraordinary photograph - a portrait of the Yang family's Tai Chi Community taken probably sometime around 1930. In the very centre we see, sitting side by side, the grand-masters of four great Tai Chi traditions. It is a portrait of generations: the elders, the middle-aged, the young people, and all of those little kids seated cross-legged in the front!

We can see them as a community united by the principles of the Martial Code. As a group they bear witness to the past and face the future.

In our own time many people are fearful and yearn for values which seem threatened. We yearn for self-respect, security, a sense of accomplishment, stability in the midst of rapid change... perhaps a sense of harmony. We also sense a need for community, for connection with others. The purpose of the martial arts code is to help us realize these values, to improve ourselves and to benefit society as a whole.

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