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A Little History of the Martial Arts part 3

Welcome to part 3 of our short skim over the history of martial arts we will continue to look at how the arts were inspired by the spiritual practices of their day and still are. In part 2 we took a short look at Zen, However for this part we will start with Taoism, which is the life force of all the Chinese martial arts.

T o the Taoist everything in life has its opposite, which unites in harmony to become the cosmos. The symbol of these two opposing forces flowing into one another in a continuous state of change is the yin and yang, the positive and negative aspect of the known universe. Neither can exist without the other.


These two inseparable forces (seen in the symbol of a black fish with a white eye and white fish with a black eye on a circular diagram) represent the true roots of all Taoist philosophy. But consider this, the same philosophy is found in western mystery traditions and alchemy where the yang is represented as the sun and the yin the moon the two having an influence on the third force or the earth.

In some alchemical teachings the yang is the male the yin is the female when you work on both within you the two forces equal each other out and a third force is born in you resulting in a new mind or you turn lead into gold, the Chinese also had a long tradition of Alchemy.

The principle again is found in the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Greeks (bear in mind part one of this series and the systems of combat the Greeks where known for) where the caduceus represents the same principles of harmony within the body, (which incidentally is also the symbol of the medicinal profession in some countries?) If we take the same principles from the spiritual to the physical the result is obvious a male and a female human join together and a third force is born which will either be male or female, and in occult teachings on one level, this is the story of Adam and eve in the book of genesis.

This three in one philosophy is found all over the world in most of the major traditions and is also the basis for the triangle symbol with its three points representing the three in one philosophy.


The three in one philosophy
The three in one philosophy

As we can see the same principles can be applied not only on a spiritual level but on a physical level and the same forces come into play when we look at the energy in a physical altercation and the same energies can be felt especially when training in the close range trapping arts of Wing Chun and kali but the same principle is there in every art, some arts focus on the yang aspect such as karate and some hard style Chinese arts like Lau Gar some focusing on the yin aspects of the art like Tai chi and pa kua or Aikido.

These two apparent opposites are not permanent and irreconcilable but constantly change in a ceaseless rhythmic cycle as seen in the symbol of Jeet Kune Do.

the exchange of the yin yang energy
the exchange of the yin yang energy

Note the changes made by Bruce Lee the two arrows signifying the exchange of the yin yang energy is constant, the Chinese translates as ‘No way as way’ and ‘No limitation as limitation’.

Chinese martial arts are all based on either the nature of soft or hard, action and non-action, which is why Taoism and its philosophy played such an important role in their development.

Both Buddhism and Taoism shared similar approaches to medicine, believing that the mind and body should not be viewed as distinct enties, but are inseparable. Taoists believed that certain breathing exercises would aid them in their search for longevity (a ongoing fascination for Chinese alchemists).

The regulation of breath became a preoccupation with the Taoists and it became a strict religious exercise and established the basis for the internal system of Chinese boxing nei chia chuan.

This breathing system cultivates what the Chinese refer to as chi (vital air or energy). They believed that although chi was an intrinsic force inherent in all human beings it had to be cultivated through the Taoist breathing exercises.

The vital chi force was further complemented by the action of the mind, which directs the energy throughout the body. The ancient Chinese called this principle mind force, the harnessing mechanism or agent for mental powers and physical prowess. Chi energy is utilized in Taoist-inspired art of Tai chi chuan (great or grand ultimate fist); the mobilization of the inner strength of mind produces more strength than can be exerted by sheer muscle power alone.

Borrowing some Buddhist doctrines, the Taoists created two great books, which contain sets of deep breathing exercises, philosophical ideas and diet programs. The two volumes are the I-chin Ching (muscle change) and the Pa Tuan Chin (eight-section brocade). These two books were the basis of the internal systems of Chinese boxing.

The history of Chinese medicine records the close ties between the Taoist search for immortality and the development of the martial arts. Chinese medicine, religion, and martial arts developed through interacting with each other.

“As Above, So Below, As Within, So Without, As the Soul, So the Universe.”

Hermes Trismegistus

Join me in part 4 to continue our journey.