The Emperor of the Chinese Qing dynasty had a special guard squad that could execute any order. These guards were not banal killers.
First, they took exams in painting, poetry, music, calligraphy, history, science and mathematics, medicine, and statecraft. Then there came fighting with swords, horse riding, archery, and martial arts. Those who passed the tests were conferred the title “A True Talent in Sciences and Martial Arts” by the Emperor himself.
In the daytime, these men were elegant and polite courtiers. At night they turned into ruthless and invincible warriors. They excelled in silk painting, sonnet writing, and cittern playing. And they had no equal when it came to fighting. The films do not lie – their mastership was next to magic.
I believe being an accomplished martial artist means being a “scholar warrior”. While regular physical and mental training is important, the knowledge of other disciplines matters too. Embodied knowledge needs to go hand in hand with conceptual one.
In an ethnographic study of a boxing gym in Chicago, sociologist Loïc Wacquant observed that training internalizes a set of dispositions that are inseparably physical and mental:
The mutual imbrication of corporeal dispositions and mental dispositions reaches such a degree that even willpower, morale, determination, concentration, and the control of one’s emotions change into so many reflexes inscribed within the organism.
It is necessary to learn to listen to the music that withstood the test of time, understand poetry and philosophy, acquire the foundations of history and psychology. A serious practice of martial arts aims at the physical, mental and moral perfection of man, rather than making a ‘fighter’ out of him.
I believe bridges can be erected between the traditions of moral philosophy and martial arts insofar as the latter raises questions about ethics and embodiment that have been peripheral in the Western thought for too long.