Published on 2023.03.28

Martial Arts Thoughts of Confucius

Did Confucius (孔丘, 551 BC – 479 BC) know about martial arts? What’s the relationship between Confucianism and martial arts?  These two seemingly irrelevant problems have a connection. It can be said that Confucius was the earliest founder of Chinese martial arts (中國武士道).1 And the so-called martial virtue (武德) is the moral cultivation (道德修養)  which source from the conception of "Harmony between Confucianism and Material Arts" (以儒入武)

Proficient in the six arts (六藝), Confucius was well qualified to teach them. The six arts include Rites (禮), Music (樂), Archery (射),   Charioteering (御),  Calligraphy (書) and  Mathematics (數). Archery and   Charioteering  are the sign of martial arts. Archery is about shooting arrows.   Charioteering teaches the way of driving a chariot. These were the fundamental skills for pupils in Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period.  For Confucius, which ability did he get a better grasp?

It’s recorded in The Analects: Zi Han (《論語·子罕》) that  A man of the village of Da Xiang said, "Great indeed is the philosopher Kong! His learning is extensive, and yet he does not render his name famous by any particular thing." The Master heard the observation, and said to his disciples, "What shall I practice? Shall I practice charioteering, or shall I practice archery? I will practice charioteering." (「達巷黨人曰:『大哉孔子!博學而無所成名。』子聞之,謂門弟子曰:『吾何執?執御乎,執射乎?吾執御也。』」)Confucius chose the latter to show his strength between Archery and  Charioteering. Thus, it can be seen that he was better at Charioteering.



It’s recorded in The Book of Rites: Archery (《禮記·射義》) that (Once), when Confucius was conducting an archery meeting in a vegetable garden at Kio-hsiang, the lookers-on surrounded it like a wall. (「孔子射於矍相之圃,蓋觀者如堵牆。」)Tellingly, his excellent archery skills were widely known. Confucius also imparted his Archery and  Charioteering to his pupils. In Records of the Historian: The  Hereditary House of Confucius (《史記·孔子世家》), Under the guidance of Ran You, the Ji’s troop defeated that of State Qi in Lang. Ji Kangzi asked, "Are your military skills learned or born with?" Ran replied, "I learned from Confucius." (「冉有為季氏將師,與齊戰於郎,克之。季康子曰:『子之於軍旅,學之乎?性之乎?』冉有曰:『學之於孔子。』」)

According to the historical records, Confucius’ father Shu Lianghe (叔梁紇,662 BC – 548 BC) was a powerful warrior in State Lu (魯國). State Lu participated in the attack of State Jin (晉國) on Biyang (偪陽城).  The Biyang people opened the gate to lure the enemy to make a trap then to kill all the attackers. Shu Lianghe rushed forward and lifted the closed gate to rescue the trapped soldiers. Confucius have the powerful force like his father. As recorded in Huai Nan Zi (《淮南子》), Confucius was full of valour and vigour which better than the ancient warrior Meng Ben (孟賁,? - ? ), jump as agilely as a rabbit, and so powerful as being able to pluck a gate lock.2 In addition to Ran You (冉由,552 BC - ? ), his pupil Zi Lu (子路,542 BC – 480 BC) was also a capable fighter.

Confucius had a great many talented pupils. Besides being The Greatest Sage and Teacher (至聖先師), he was also The Greatest Martial Arts Master (武聖先師), and can be called as folk hero of Confucianism (孔門大俠).

In fact,  except his remarkable  martial arts, in his pedagogy, he integrated martial arts into the Principles of truth and right (「道」)3.

Way refers to morality.

Take archery for an example.

In his way of archery teaching, Confucius oriented to rites. He proposed that  " In archery it is not going through the leather which is the principal thing - because people's strength is not equal. This was the old way. " (「射不主皮,為力不同科,古之道也。」)4. This means archery is not aimed at penetrating the bullseye, for the force in shooting arrows varies in level as an ancient rule. Thereby he illustrated that during arrow shooting, we are expected to remind ourselves the roles we play according to the shooting force, to achieve moral construction by introspection. So, the proposal fits his point of perfect virtue (「仁」),  which means mind our  manners by restraining ourselves.3

In this way, Confucius integrated Archery into perfect virtue. Through archery, he admonished his pupils to have  perfect virtueand rites awareness. That’s Archery and Rites culture.


Over the  years, the  conception of ""Harmony between Confucianism and Material Arts" has become the rule and moral practice of martial persons, as evidenced by martial arts rites: hand salute (徒手禮) (hold fist salute and salute with eyes), weapon salute (持械禮) (the salute when armed with weapon, include broadsword, sword, stick, lance) , salute of hand over (遞械禮) (when people hand over his weapon to others), salute of take over (接械禮) (when people take over the weapon from others).4


Thus,  "Rites and Morality are the basic of Martial Art" (「未曾學藝先學禮,未曾習武先習德。」)

Righteousness is valued in Confucianism. Mencius said, " Benevolence is the tranquil habitation of man, and righteousness is his straight path." (「仁,人之安宅也;義,人之正路也。」)people can sacrifice their life for the righteousness.  Military forces are to be used only for the maintenance of peace and order which is the another form of righteousness. Martial artists attach importance to the righteousness which include loyalty (忠義), chivalrous (俠義), and justice (正義). They always use the righteousness as the criteria to judge the people. If it conforms to righteousness, a combat is a must even if it may take your life; If there is a discrepancy with righteousness, you should avoid the combat. The combat techniques of traditional martial art accord with the conception of righteousness.5

Bold (「勇」) is indispensable for martial arts learners. Confucius said, “ "Bold, he is free from fear." (「勇者不懼。」)Only with bold  people can support the vulnerable, punish criminals and promote justice.

The inborn superhuman strength of Confucius was source from the gene of his father in all probability. Yet the martial theory of  "Harmony Between Confucianism and Material Arts" was created by himself and inherited till now. If the martial artists believe in violence and spurn the perfect virtue and rites, the ethos of the martial arts circles will be destroyed. What a pity!

Much remains to be discussed on the topic, including evidence and real cases in martial arts. Let’s call it a day and expect the further illustration next time.







Dr. Wong Chung Ming

Doctor of Philosophy, experienced newspaper professional.
Professor of Journalism and Communication, Hong Kong Shue Yan University.
He is the author of "A History of Saam Kap Dai Literary Styles in Hong Kong"《香港三及第文體流變史》and "A Reader's Censorship Report"《一個讀者的審查報告》, and the editor of "Hong Kong Literature, 1919-1949, Popular Literature Volume"《香港文學大系1919-1949通俗文學卷》, and "1950s Volume" and so on.

All articles/videos are prohibited from reproducing without the permission of the copyright holder.

Welcome to leave a message:
Please Sign In/Sign Up as a member and leave a message