Photo by Thao LEE on Unsplash

One observation I have on ‘internal’ martial arts is that there there is often very little focus on the ‘internal’ qualities to a human being. Or if they do address them then it is, not directly and often in passing.

I’m not talking about things to do with forces, or the body, like Qi, Xin and Jin. Yes, the Yi (intent or mind) is mentioned all the time in the Tai Chi Classics, but it’s always in relation to fighting, or releasing and accepting forces on the body. “Quelle surprise”, you might say, since Tai Chi is a marital art, but if I contrast ‘internal’ martial arts with ‘external’ martial arts for a moment, the discussion there is often on the internal qualities of a human that internal martial arts, ironically, neglect.

I’m talking about things like self-control (temperance), endurance and patience.

The goal of improving these internal qualities has been the goal of practical philosophers since man first decided to ponder his/her existence. I could quote from LaoTzu here, but I find it more explicitly written by the Greek philosophers, particularity the Stoics.

In Chapter 10 of the Greek classic of Stoicism, The Enchiridion, we find:

“On the occasion of every accident (event) that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use. If you see a fair man or a fair woman, you will find that the power to resist is temperance (continence). If labour (pain) be presented to you, you will find that it is endurance. If it be abusive words, you will find it to be patience. And if you have been thus formed to the (proper) habit, the appearances will not carry you along with them.”

Epictetus, The Enchiridion

Sure, these internal qualities can certainly be learnt from any martial art, however I find it is the external martial arts that really emphasise them. Many Taekwondo schools use the goal of improving your inner qualities as the main sell in their marketing approach. For example, I just did a Google search for Taekwondo clubs in the local area, clicked on Tiger martial arts, and what do I find written on their website, in all caps, so you can’t miss it?


This is followed up with “We give students the focus and confidence to achieve in all areas of their lives.  Yes, you can learn to take care of yourself in dangerous situations, but really it’s about learning to use your mind and body like a martial artist – learn how to control your body and your mind, and you will be set up for life.”

It’s the same with Karate. I did another random search on Karate clubs and found Bristol Karate Academy whose motto is “virtue in industry” from “Virtute et industria” — or by virtue and industry — from the city of Bristol, which dates back to at least 1569. They explain how that relates to the values of their club on their About us page:

“So what does that mean for us?

Virtue (美徳): We have integrity, in our commitment to traditional, effective Karate and integrity in the way that we treat others. We are respectful, fair and aim for high moral standards. We build character, strive for excellence and show courage in the face of challenges.

Industry (勉励): We work hard to reach our goals. We’re diligent and determined to get better at every single training session. We are rigorous in our approach to improvement and dedicated to our own and each other’s development.

Through hard, honest training we become our best possible selves”

Again, while I’m sure they can kick-ass with their karate, the emphasis in their motto is on the internal qualities of a human being. It’s about becoming your best possible self.

I know what you’re thinking – “perhaps it’s about teaching children?” Things like Karate and Taekwondo can be very orientated towards teaching children, and you obviously don’t want to be raising a hoard of little ninjas who have no idea about the moral implications of using their marital arts. However, it’s not just non-Chinese marital arts that have a heavy emphasis on building moral character. Similar ‘external’ Chinese martial arts do too, and those tend to have as much emphasis on adults as children. Also the moral aspects were there right from the beginning in the Southern arts.

Photo by Nikita Belokhonov:

For the history of Southern Chinese martial arts I’d recommend Ben Judkin’s excellent book “The Creation of Wing Chun”. Its tag line is “A social history of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts” because it covers all of them, not just Wing Chun, and particularly Choy Li Fut. When the first professional Choy Li Fut school opened in 1836 a moral education was seen as part of the ethos of the school. The school had 10 rules that had to be followed at all times:

Ten Points
1 Seek the approval of your master in all things relative to the school.
2 Practice hard daily.
3 Fight to win (but do not fight by choice).
4 Be moderate in sexual behavior.
5 Eat healthily.
6 Develop strength through endurance (to build a foundation and the ability to jump).
7 Never back down from an enemy.
8 Practice breathing exercises.
9 Make the sounds (“Yik” for punches, “Wah” for tiger claws, “Tik” for kicks).
10 Through practice you cannot be bullied.

Wing Chun also initially had a similar set of rules. I’ve written before about Choy Li Fut’s 10 rules and Wing Chun’s 9.

While some of the rules are to do with body use, like making sounds on punches, others are more moral, like being moderate in sexual behaviour. And also eating healthy is a rule! Can you imagine going to a Tai Chi class or a Xing Yi class today and being told that healthy eating is now a rule, and if you don’t follow it, you’re out? In fact, I’d go as far to say that many internal martial arts teachers were renowned for hard drinking and over eating!

(It should be noted that Bak Mei tended to not have this moral emphasis. Reasons for this are explored in the book.)

Moving forward in time and changing locations to Brazil… Carlos Gracie also created a set of rules called the 12 Commandments when he started Brazilian Jiujitsu as an offshoot of Judo.

1 Be so strong that nothing can disturb the peace of your mind.
2 Talk to all people about happiness, health, and prosperity.
3 Give to all your friends the feeling of being valued.
4 Look at things by the enlightened point of view and update your optimism on reality.
5 Think only about the best, work only for the best, and always expect the best.
6 Be as just and enthusiastic about others victories as you are with yours.
7 Forget about past mistakes and focus your energy on the victories of tomorrow.
8 Always make those around you happy and keep a smile to all people who talk to you.
9 Apply the largest amount of your time on self-improvement and no time in criticizing others.
10 Be big enough so you can feel unsatisfied, be noble enough so you can feel anger, be strong enough so you can feel fear, and be happy enough so you can feel frustrations.
11 Hold a good opinion about your self and communicate that to the world, but not through dissonant words but through good works.
12 Believe strongly that the world is in your side, as long as you stay loyal to the best of yourself.

Carlos Gracie

These are mainly forgotten about these days and I’ve noted before that a lot of them were borrowed from somewhere else but they are almost exclusively about internal qualities of a human being.

If you contrast these sorts of rules to what you find in “internal” marital arts schools, well first of all, there are usually no set rules like this at all! Secondly, we tend to look to the classics for our ancient sayings, and finding moral instruction in them is like finding a needle in a haystack. Instead you find simile – for example, “be still like a mountain and move like a great river” from the Tai Chi classics, or philosophy from the Xing Yi classics like The 10 Theses of Yue Fei:

“From the beginning, that which is discrete must have its unification.
The divided must be combined. 
Therefore, between heaven and earth, all that is disordered has its abode, all the thousand branches and the confusion of then thousand endings, all have their origin.
This is because one root divides into ten thousand branches, and ten thousand branches all belong to one root.
These events are natural“.

– The Thesis of Integrity

Or you find descriptions of body use and strategy.

The jin should be
rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
expressed through the fingers. 

The Tai Chi Classic.

What you don’t find a lot of is moral instruction or a reflection on the internal qualities of a martial artist that you find emphasised right up front in external schools.

So, why is this? Good question. One possible answer could be that ‘external’ arts historically coming from the Shaolin Temple (in the usual origin myth, at least) always had a Buddhist religious and therefore moral aspect to them. The internal arts in contrast tended to evolve out of the (violent and bloody) countryside, or they evolved from a Taoist approach to life, which was less prescriptive.

I don’t know – what do you think? What explains the internal/external difference? Let me know in the comments.

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