2. Wu De
Having said all of that… “wu de.” I could, I suppose, translate it in to English – maybe as ‘martial ethics’ (so I guess I just have!)… but I’m not a fanatic. I’m not after removing all traces of Chinese culture from wushu. That’d be ridiculous. Like a lot of people, I really like that Chinese connection – I just want to find my natural expression of the art, and not have it dismissed just because some humbug with less skill but more time spent in China feels put out when I don’t fall at his size twenty feet and agree with every stupid thing he says.
The French philosopher Jacques Derrida said that we’re culturally hard wired to take sides – we love to ‘resolve’ ourselves one way or the other. And I’ve found that the more you argue with someone, the deeper they’ll entrench themselves in their ‘side’. And of course, me in my side too!
You can see it when times get tougher – sides get taken, people become more militant in their stance, us and them divisions begin to form on ever harder lines. The art of moderately recognising grey areas, and not taking things overly seriously when they don’t warrant it, gets trampled. Like Pink Floyd said, who really wants their (whoever they may be) standard issue (whatever it may be) kicking in your door? And as someone else said to me once, wisely, no one’s ever going to listen to you when you’re kicking them in the teeth. Why would they? So I’m not on a ‘standard issue’ rant – I just want to find wise insights in to training that genuinely help.
So I’m not fanatically dropping the phrase ‘wu de’. I like it. It has a ring to it. What I want to drop is everything associated with the idea that has no use.
Not so long back a martial arts instructor I know contacted me in a rage, accusing me of a most terrible breech of wu de. What I’d done was mentioned on a forum that trying to make taiji ‘work’ by artificially searching for countless applications to the specific movements in the forms was way off the track, because, for one, that’s like trying to make random fight reality conform to some specific, fixed, ancient form, and for two, taiji is a movement quality art – whether it really achieves anything or not, the entire point of learning taiji as a martial art, as opposed to krav maga or JKD, is to train in and develop the movement quality and practically useable whole body connectedness/power via ‘mo jin’ – relaxed isometric resistance. In theory, if you can get that then the actual techniques and application are almost secondary – in theory – because you can release explosive force, or manipulate and throw/lock/attack your opponent in any direction, in any contingency. In theory. If what you want is useful, useable techniques that are quick and functional to learn/hard to forget, krav or JKD are specifically designed to get you up to scratch defending yourself in a far shorter time, and far more accessibly.
In actual fact, I hadn’t mentioned this person by name – I wasn’t even referring to them as such, just generally speaking of all the people who are mistaken, in my view, in that way – and they were one of them. But what was interesting was that they perceived, and ruthlessly used, ‘wu de’ as a means to protect themselves – like it elevated them above not only criticism, but even above having their views/methods questioned.
That was another ‘catalyst’ moment. This person wasn’t, in fact, a taiji expert. What they were was someone who enjoyed the status and kudos of ‘taiji expert’ very much, so they inveigled themselves in to that position, and once there, used wushu’s own rules of wu de to prevent themselves from being picked out of the wound. And it is a wound – because every low level practitioner who claims to be an expert ‘cuts’ a little wound in the reputation of Quan – obviously. And people like that really are like ‘ticks’, sucking out the life blood, because for them, what they care about is what Quan bequeaths to them – status, titles, ego boosting student worship. And they couldn’t give a damn if their low level reduced the over all public perception of Quan. Alas - talk about martial ethic…
But you know, that ‘protection’ from criticism only works so long as we accept their interpretation of ‘wu de’. Naturally, those people twist everything to suit their agenda, and to keep themselves in their comfortable position. To them, wu de is like a pointing finger – a wagging, judgmental, pointing finger – THEIRS - shaking itself at other people’s ethics, morals and actions. It’s just a tool, or a weapon, to let their ego sit in judgement on others – mostly to say ‘how dare you question or criticise me – that’s bad wu de!’ But you know what, I don’t think you can get to the real Quan that way – you have to first look at yourself, not others. In fact, I’ve found in many things in life, sitting in moralistic judgement on others is like a deliberate barrier we set up to avoid taking an honest look at our selves.
What that person gave me was a sudden realisation that a rule that says ‘honesty is bad’ isn’t just the death of reason, it’s the death of Quan itself. And as Mandy Rice-Davies said (paraphrased) ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’ Yes they would. But why should we listen?
See, those people aren’t real experts of Quan, so you know what – what they think, and say, is irrelevant. And I don’t care anyway. Their wu de is the evil twin of what I would consider real wu de. To me, wu de means, primarily, three things – honesty, courage and commitment. I wanted to put ‘integrity’ but fact is, integrity is a consequence of the other three, and is a personal thing.
Now here’s the difference – my three principles aren’t directed at other people. They aren’t tools for sitting in judgment on others. I can’t say to others ‘you’ve broken wu de because you’ve not been honest!’ It’s nothing to do with me, beyond commenting on it for practical purposes, what those other people do. My three principles aren’t moral principles at all – they’re training principles. They’re how I believe training should be approached – with honesty, courage and commitment. And I believe if you approach your training like that, everything else flows naturally. Now that’s a very different interpretation to wu de than the usual… but I now see – and you can believe or not – that most of the generally accepted interpretations of martial arts ideas come from people like the person I mentioned – people who ‘would say that, wouldn’t they’… and if you want to get the real meanings of old ideas, most times all you need to do is reverse what ‘they’ ‘would’ say.
A friend mentioned to me once how many people disliked me. I know. I know it – and I knew it. I have a lot of flaws. But then he said, ‘the reason is, you’re too honest.’
And it’s true – I don’t guard what I say very much. Doesn’t mean that what I say is true. I’m honest as in, I say what I think – but that in no way means that what I say is necessarily right!
Even my humour is based on saying things that others might think, but wouldn’t say. And then my friend added, ‘but what does that say about them, if they don’t like you because you’re too honest?’
Seems like, sometimes, the greatest, most unforgivable crime is honesty. Like my martial arts instructor associate, that person couldn’t care less whether open, honest debate of ideas might lead us to better insights, or deeper truths – they only cared that they, personally were losing out, because what they said was being questioned, so their status was under threat.
Does wu de mean ‘don’t question’? Not to me. How can you approach your training with honesty if you’re not asking honest questions?
After that, there’s obviously mini, personal wu de’s – personal rules – something we don’t really need a word for, because they are our own, natural integrities and rules - such as, I don’t ever criticise teachers that I’ve trained under, as it was my choice to train with them, and as Carlos Castaneda’s don Juan said, if you’re a true warrior, you both take full responsibility for everything in your life, and also, you only ever have fine words for people who were once special to you… anything else would be petty, ignoble. I’d make an exception if a teacher turned out to be outrageously corrupt or evil.
Which brings me to looking at ‘is it bad wu de to criticise’?
Personally, I don’t like titles, like ‘Sifu’ – they’re ok in cultural context, but I find it ridiculous when Westerners take these titles to themselves. I wouldn’t mind a real title – like being knighted by Her Majesty (when I get some long over due recognition!) But getting other people to call you by titles seems to me to be a sign of a lack of self esteem. So I make a point of calling people by that title, when they appoint it to themselves. A bit of reverse psychology – people are easier to deal with, by far, when you feed them what they’re hungry for. But it’s not ‘bad’ or wrong to criticise bad or wrong things. Each person has their own ‘secondary’ list of wu de – the other things, like, do you criticise, or do you keep silent, etc. There’s too much of people saying ‘follow my way’ and not enough of people saying sorry, I don’t have any way for you to follow, go and make your own mistakes. But I do know these two useful pointers: 1, exposing frauds and/or despicable people isn’t ‘against’ wu de – it’s almost a moral duty. And 2, if we don’t start being openly critical of bad and ignorant practice, each inveigled tick will suck and suck until they’re bloated to the limit with titles, money, students, false kudos, 9th degree black belts in things they know little about… while consequently, Quan will be just a bloodless, desiccated corpse. Which, if you have commitment to it, is not acceptable, because real commitment means also love – you love it, and so you want to speak out about the things that hurt those things that you love.
So after promising not to, I’ve ranted anyway. Well, I don’t care really. That part of my wu de ‘commitment’ comes from seeing that to really get to the heart of Quan, you don’t need discipline (I hate that word, actually – it comes from ‘disciple’ and really just means following someone else around like a lamb) - you need passion.
There’s something that irks me about seeing martial arts teachers advertising their classes with phrase-types of ‘learn self discipline, self respect, integrity, honour…etc.’ On the one hand, many martial arts instructors have actively bought in to – and are actively recruiting YOU in to – a pyramid system, where you’ll wear a uniform and bow to him/her, and call them by a special title… that’s not a person who’s going to teach you self respect, it’s a person with a chronic lack of self respect, to need such things, and they’re about to use you to try and fill that hole. On the other hand, it’s a kind of insult – to say that you need to go to a martial arts class to learn self discipline (the LAST thing you’ll learn, because self discipline means being your own disciple – remind yourself of that as you sit at your master’s knee, or tell lies for/about him – which I’ll blog about at another point) and/or respect, integrity, honour etc. It’s like saying that you lack those things. And it’s like saying that martial arts attracts people who lack those things. Hmm… maybe it does – maybe that’s why martial arts classes so often end up like little personality cults, with a desperate-for-attention middle aged man at the other end of the class getting a bunch of people with low self respect bowing their heads to him. D’oh!
Having ranted all that… grey areas again – sometimes martial arts really do give people a boost in confidence – especially children – and some times a written set of rules, and/or a personal code of ethics and honour can have a powerfully positive effect on people. And some people really do, justly deserve respect for their level, integrity and achievements. I know that. I’m not a fanatic one way or the other… what it is, everything in martial arts seems to have those two versions – a wholesome, right, honest, honourable, powerful version, and a corrupt evil twin. How do you tell the difference? For me, I follow my wu de.
Just to add my 2˘ worth as well as inform those who may be unfamiliar with the term wu-de. In my C/E dictionary, it translates wu-de [武德] as "soldierly virtues" which is rather simplistic at best. Realize that sometimes when two words in Chinese are brought together, it transforms their separate meanings (e.g. water & hand become 'sailor' [水+手=水手], not water & man or boat & man, as you might expect). Not so in this particular case.
The words wu & de on their own don't mean anything tremendously different than when each is used separately, but perhaps it would further enlighten to list ALL the various meanings of each word:
WU (pronounced 'woo' while dropping then rising the inflection or tone)
1. force; military; warlike
2. a footprint
3. the length of half a pace
4. string of an ancient hat
5. a Chinese family name
DE (pronounced more like 'duh' than 'day' with a rising inflection)
1. morality; decency; virtues
2. favors; appreciation of such; to repay kindness
3. behavior; conduct
4. Germany; German
The last (fourth) definition is more clear if you note that the Chinese typically use the language of origin when naming a country and apply the most noble word from their lexicon with a similar sound. For example, YING [英 - brave] is used for England and MEI (美 - beauty) is used for USA (America). So Deutchland relies on DE (德 - virtue).
Hopefully, this knowledge provides more insight as the various meanings of DE (德) should provide a fuller interpretation of wu-de than just the 'stock' translation. I know it did for me.
Last edited by unknown-KJN; 08-Jul-2009 at 09:19 PM.
Awesome! I enjoyed the read thoroughly, thanks.
On a side note: Wu De in Cantonese is also Mou De, obviously same character however.
Comparison like Wushu is Mouseut.
Just to put that out there.
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