Let’s start from the beginning:
The character Wu pronounced Bu in Japanese or Moo in Korean which we now translate as “martial” actually breaks down to two radicals meaning “don’t use the weapon” or “no violence”. This character is made up of two radicals. The character zhi which means “prohibited” or “not to” and the character ge a weapon for chariot fighting dating back over 3,000 years.
The character gong as in gongfu (also known as kung for kung-fu) is translated as “effort” or “special skill”. It breaks down into the two radicals of gong – work and li – strength. The character fu (the second part of gongfu) indicates a man, but the philosophical explanation shows a person of higher learning or one who transcends the heaven – they have learned to dominate the three levels of Earth, nature and heaven.
It breaks down into da – litirally translated as “big” – the king of nature is a person, tian – “heaven” and the person who transcends heaven is the fu. (This fu is used in the word for priest in Chinese but different from the fu in Shifu or sifu – a Chinese term for teachers.)
These words are related to the origin of martial arts according to the Chinese and the history and development of Chinese martial arts.
These concepts of no violence and effort developed alongside the ethics and morals of the people involved in self-cultivation – what martial arts is about to me.
Take the Samurais, Japanese warriors, the Warang dos, Korean warriors or the Shaolin Monks of China. All of them with something in common beyond high levels of martial arts skills. All of them had a profound code of ethics, morals and conduct – The Martial Virtues (Wude).
Wushu follows these ethics and morals in the same way that Japanese, Korean and other martial arts systems follow theirs. To take a page from a book written by Wu Bin:
Chinese wushu embodies a profound philosophy and a sense of human life and values. (Some people therefore call it philosophic boxing). It emphasises traditions, experience, rational knowledge and wisdom. All of which are clearly reflected in the martial ethics of wushu. That’s why it can display the oriental civilisation via combat skills and become an inexhaustable treasure of the human body culture.
As a form of social ideology, morality differs in different historical periods. It is the summation of the code of conduct of a given society for the adjustment of the relationships between man and man; and between man and the society.
Generally speaking, it evaluates man’s behavior and adjusts each other’s relations with such concepts as good and evil, justice and injustice, fairness and partiality, and honesty and dishonesty.
Wushu for instance is a system of skills and theories the Chinese people have developed through their struggle with nature and in the course of their social life, for combat (protection) and to promote health and improve one’s temperament.
Combat in the usual sense means violence, bloodshed and death. For this very reason, few of the various combative techniques and skills in the world are combined with morals.
On the contrary, Wushu has been influenced ever since its birth by moral principles and has developed a complete code of moral behavior.
Martial ethics WU DE, formed in such a Chinese cultural enviroment, has become a distinct feature of Wushu and is an essential part of the study and understanding of Chinese martial arts.
The main points of Martial Ethics in Wushu are:
- Respect for Human Life;
- Emphasis on Moral Principles;
- Emphasis on Moral Conduct and Manners;
- Respect for the Teacher and Care for Each Other;
- Modesty and Eagerness;
- Freedom form Personal Grudges;
- Persistance and Perseverance.
Chinese Wushu masters insist that a student should learn to know the etiquette before learning martial arts. There are various rules for manners and behaviors before or after the skills. They embody the modesty and manners of the performers, mark a good start of a practice routine to be executed, demostrate the aims of the different schools of boxing, and give an outline of its soul and spirit.
(China Wushu Series – Essentials of Chinese Wushu)
Control and Energy
One of the main ideas which runs through these ethics is control. Freedom from domination by emotion. A martial artist may train in techniques, but the founding principle is that they must be able to dominate their emotions or reactions when choosing how or when to use those techniques.
In addition, wushu is not only ethics and martial skills. It is also about the stimulation and cultivation of internal energy. It is about putting your body, mind and spirit in harmony with Heaven and Earth. For that reason, wushu movements cannot be only fighting techniques. They must also be energetically balanced to get the level of skill we have heard about in stories of past masters, a level that only very few people achieve.
To answer the question …
In the modern world, martial arts is often mis-identified as something solely for self-defence or fighting, and many people started it for that. But after years of practise, those same people will say that they do not continue it for that reason, but rather because of the way of life it shows. So, are all fighting systems martial arts? I think not.