Analyzing Wude: The Martial Ethics behind Wushu

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By: Matthew Lee

Written January 27th, 2015

“‘Shifu taught us “the first thing we learn in class is NOT to use our fists.  The important thing is wude (martial ethics)”.  Shifu taught us to respect each other and prohibited us from fighting.  More and more, I see the power of martial arts and understand why you can’t just take it lightly.  You don’t know how much strength you might have.  People could get hurt.’” —Grandmaster Qian Yuanze, Kung Fu Magazine “The Tradition of Modern Wushu”

Abstract: This write-up will cover Wude (martial ethics).  Whether obvious or not, the idea of morality and ethics is an integral part of martial arts culture.  While morality and ethics is a universal thing across cultures, it is often overlooked in actual application.  This write-up will provide commentary on Wude, and how it can applied in the everyday life of a Wushu martial artist.

If someone asked you the question, “What have you learned from martial arts?” or “What has martial arts taught you?” what would you say?  Your answer will tell a lot about how you comprehend your practice of martial arts.  Responses range from simple benefits like, “It helps me with flexibility”, or the standard, “It taught me to be more confident.”  Oftentimes, this is a very simple question, which holds martial arts in the same context as your standard physical activity.  But for the serious and dedicated practitioner, the real question can be put more like, “What can you take away from martial arts?” or “How can you actually apply martial arts knowledge in your life?”  And this brings me to the topic of this write-up, Wude (武德; wǔdé).

Wude is simply defined as “martial ethics”, or “martial morality” or “martial virtue”, and as its name suggest, is the idea of ethics and morality in the practice of martial arts.  I had first heard of this term in the game Shenmue II (シェンムー II; Shenmū Tsū).  However, as I would later find out in my research and reading about Wushu, Wude is an important part of the culture of Wushu, or Chinese martial arts.  Believe it or not, morality is very important to the practice of martial arts in general, which of course includes Wushu.  And in Wushu, this idea of Wude is so extolled by masters.  From Wushu training, Wude teaches one how to become an upstanding and moral person.  It is the criteria on how students are judged by their masters, and whether or not they are deemed worthy to be taught.  The late Grandmaster Ma Xianda said in the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Muslim Maser of the Old Empire”, “Wude is not just empty, not just a name.  You must have Wude.  Only then can you have wucai (martial ability.)  Only then can you show your martial arts ability.”  Grandmaster Qian Yuanze has also said in the Kung Fu Magazine Article “The Tradition of Modern Wushu”, “Shifu taught us ‘the first thing we learn in class is NOT to use our fists.  The important thing is wude (martial ethics)’.  Shifu taught us to respect each other and prohibited us from fighting.  More and more, I see the power of martial arts and understand why you can’t just take it lightly.  You don’t know how much strength you might have.  People could get hurt.”

It is unfortunate that Wude is often only talked about, but not observed by Wushu communities today.  Most of the time, martial artists and practitioners talk almost exclusively about the techniques and physical aspects of martial arts, but physicality can only take the practice of martial arts so far.  Thus, Wude is often overlooked by many Wushu practitioners, and most sadly don’t even know what Wude is.  That is why I have decided to take it upon myself to share what Wude is to others, and help spread awareness about it.  But unlike others, who have simply stressed the importance ethics and morality for the sake of it, I will attempt to describe the values of Wude in detail, and talk about how they can be interpreted and applied into real life.

Wude is formally divided into two categories; morality of deed, and morality of mind.  Morality of deed is defined as those ethics and morals which are directly applied to real life environments, such as interactions with other people and relationships, and morality of mind is defined by those traits developed inside oneself.  While this is not to say that morality of mind is not as applicable as morality of deed, the clear distinction is that morality of deed is external, applied outward in the environment “out in the real world”, whereas morality of deed is internal, cultivating and developing oneself as a person on the inside.  In my description of Wude, I will list out all ten of the formal values in their respective categories of morality, and explain how each can be interpreted and applied in life.

Morality of Deed

  • 谦虚 (qiānxū; Humility)

Being humble is one of the most distinguishing traits of character that people are judged on.  Unfortunately, this is something I have found to be lacking in the sport and competitive aspects of Wushu, and is something I feel should be encouraged and internalized within the Wushu community.  This was one of the traits I listed in “3 Life Lessons Competitive Wushu Teaches: A Memo to Myself”, lesson two: be humble, because it is unfailingly important to your character.  And like I said then, understanding that you are not the best, that there are others better than you, and that you can always be better, is important to how you train and improve, as well as carry yourself with others.  In other words, put aside your ego and pride.  Do not revel in success or be openly proud of what you have achieved, because these things come and go.  Instead, always try to be modest; always acknowledge that you are not that great, and that you can always be better.  Lower your head and be willing to take criticism and advice, and learn from others, regardless of what position they may have relative to you, and especially if they are better than you; you may be surprised what certain people may have to offer you.  Always remember, acknowledge and thank those who have helped and assisted you, especially in times of needs.  And more importantly, do not look down on others, as that is being egotistic and arrogant; treat others as equals or betters if nothing else, regardless of who they are.  But these are all only actions, which only demonstrate humility, but not prove its authenticity.  Humility is something that must ultimately be internalized, and fully realized by oneself.  When you truly realize that you really are not the best, that others are better than you, when your pride takes a blow, only then do you truly know what humility is.  Don’t be prideful, try to be a down-to-earth kind of person, and reserve your personal judgment of others.

  • 尊敬 (zūnjìng; Respect)

Whereas humility is internalized from the self, respect is something that is externalized towards others.  This applies to the relationships one may have in life, from friends and family, to peers, teachers, bosses, and seniors in any kind of environment.  Technically, respect can both be internalized, in how one may truly feel about someone inwardly, and externalized in actions demonstrating respectfulness.  But of the two kinds of respect, outward respect is crucial, and arguably more important than inward respect, because it is important to understand that outward actions should not be overlooked, as this can be disrespectful to someone you do respect, even if you do not mean to be.  While I am of the opinion that respect is earned, not given, depending on the individual who is deserving of respect, it is still important not to look down on others.  This part of respect goes hand in hand with humility; regardless of how you feel about someone, it is important that you at least give that person some respect, or rather, not explicitly or openly disrespect that person in order to avoid trouble.  To do so, simple actions and efforts can be taken, from the bowing of one’s head towards elders and seniors, shaking hands with others, to a simple addressing of “Sir”/“Ma’am”, “Excuse me”, and “Thank you”, etc.  In the context of the formal learning environment with a martial arts instructor, especially in a Chinese Wushu setting with coaches and masters of high esteem and position, it is important to stand upright, and maintain eye contact with said instructor; this I can attest to from personal experience.  Respect and being respectful should be a given, both in training martial arts and in the real world.  Always remember to carry yourself respectfully towards others, in order to make a good impression and have good relationships.

  • 正義 (zhèngyì; Righteousness)

This term refers to a sense of “right” and “wrong”, or “the right thing to do.”  In Shenmue II, this was denoted by the single character of 義; yì, which by itself means “justice” or “righteousness”, called “YI”: “Do not hesitate to do the right thing” in the game.  While Shenmue II had a very limited interpretation of Wude, I believe that this definition of “zhèngyì” is adequate.  We, as people, not just as martial artists, should not hesitate to do what we feel is right, which includes respect and respectful conduct with others.  If we have thoughts of “I feel like I should do something” in a situation where we can do something, we should not hesitate to come forward and act.  Conversely, it is important to understand that we should not simply rush into action with our emotions; we shouldn’t act or do something just because we want to.  If there is a situation where there is obvious conflict and trouble, we should have the hindsight to be smart and avoid it as much as possible.  We should also take the time to think our actions through, and understand if our actions are reasonable and right in the long run, with minimal, preferably no negative consequences.  But, remember to always distinguish what is the right thing to do, and always aim to achieve it.

  • 信用 (xìnyòng; Trust)

Establishing trust and trustworthiness is key to reliability in the real world.  If you make a promise to someone, or promise to do something for someone, take it seriously; keep it, be good for it.  This makes you reliable in the eyes of others.  In the professional workplace environment, such reliability is essential to building a successful career.  Conversely, one should also be careful who they trust.  Do not share personal information with anybody you do not know well or personally, only be honest with those who you are comfortable with and know you best.  Trust takes a lot of effort to build, and is very easy to lose, and thus should be taken seriously.  Trust also builds respect with others, and also establishes loyalty in certain kinds of relationships.  So take trust as something that works both ways, and do not take it lightly.  Trust is fundamental to building secure relationships with others, and should be valued without fail.

  • 忠诚 (zhōngchéng; Loyalty)

This is a very traditional quality, especially in martial arts, and Wushu is no exception.  In those Wushu communities raised in traditional Chinese culture, masters and coaches demand the utmost loyalty of their students.  This usually means following instructions without question, and not going to another school or teacher, especially without the permission of one’s original teacher.  Speaking from personal experience, I have had trouble with this, which is the main reason I have decided not to go to another Wushu school.  Objectively, this kind of value may be deemed as impractical, especially in the modern world today.  Staying within a certain mindset or environment out of a sense of loyalty can be seen as close-minded, counterproductive, and quixotic.  Blindly following a group or master, without objectively questioning one’s progress in skill, can be stifle one’s progress as a martial artist and individual.  Again, I can attest to this from personal experience.  In this sense, loyalty can be counterproductive, especially in a generation where individuals, namely modern martial artists, learn different things from different teachers to expand upon their knowledge.  This follows the trend and example of Bruce Lee and MMA (mixed martial arts).  Surprisingly, some Wushu and Chinese martial arts teachers and masters today encourage an open-minded attitude, to learn different things from different teachers.  Thus, loyalty, at least in this sense, can be considered antiquated and obsolete.  HOWEVER, loyalty is still a great value, especially among friends and those close to you, including your teachers, and should be valued in the same way as trust.  This brings us back to humility.  Again, regardless where we go, we should always acknowledge and thank those who have helped and assisted us, namely our teachers.  In the context of professional environments, maintaining a long-term relationship with employers also establishes an image of trust and reliability, which only helps.  So, while we should not let loyalty restrict us from opening up and promoting our own growth and improvement, we should still value loyalty in some way.

Morality of Mind

  • 意志 (yìzhì; Will)

This refers to “will” in terms of willpower or determination.  Willpower is exercised by focus of the mind, especially in dedication to a specific task.  This can obviously be applied in terms of long and hard training.  Focus and determination is also vital to the building of willpower, which can also be built and developed in training.  It is important to understand that this refers to a completely mental aspect, and should not be confused with the values that follow.  As Wushu champion and legend Zhao Changjun said in the Kung Fu Magazine article “Where Wushu Went Wrong”, “‘…if you want to continue down the warrior road, you and your teacher must build up your willpower.  Two or three years are not enough.  The road of martial arts is not quick or short.’”

  • (rěnnài; Endurance)

Although not to be confused with “will”, endurance, both in the mental and physical sense, can technically be a byproduct of strong willpower.  Where willpower is a mental trait of one’s focus and determination, endurance can simply be defined as the ability to take hardship, and can be both physical and mental.  Again, like willpower, endurance can be built up and developed most obviously in hard training.  Endurance can be carried over to any hard situation in life, and this ability is vital to being able to last and survive in the real world.

  • 毅力 (yìlì; Perseverance)

Another byproduct of “will”, but not to be confused with either “will”, which is one’s mental focus or determination, or “endurance”, which is the ability to take hardship, perseverance is the willingness to carry on in one’s efforts in the face of hardship.  However, perseverance can be an application of willpower.  The focus and determination of will is manifested in continued energies towards a goal, which is perseverance.  Of all the traits of morality of mind, perseverance is the fundamental cornerstone of “gongfu” (功夫; gōngfu), better known as the westernized name of “kung fu”, the idea of skill or effort achieved over time, where perseverance is the “effort” to achieve the skill over time.  And like the idea of gongfu, perseverance can be applied to anything that takes time and effort to get results.

  • 恒心 (héngxīn; Patience)

Again, not to be confused with “perseverance”, the willingness to continue efforts, or “endurance”, the ability to take hardship, or “will”, one’s focus and determination, but similarly can be seen as a byproduct of “will”, patience is indeed a virtue.  It is the willingness to wait, for an unknown amount of time, for something; results, the right opportunity, all of these can be said to be the ends of patience.  While “endurance”, “perseverance”, and “patience” are all differentiated as separate terms and ideas in this write-up, it is important to note that all three values go hand in hand with each other, as manifestations of “will.”  Understanding that such good things do not come in a short amount of time is vital to patience in this sense, and can be applied to any situation in life.

  • 勇敢 (yǒnggǎn; Courage)

And finally, the list completes itself with courage.  Courage, in the English language, is synonymous with bravery or fearlessness in the face of a daunting task or situation.  HOWEVER, in my opinion, being “fearless”, not claiming to not have fear, or not being afraid, is stupid.  Fear is an innate emotion within all intelligent and living organisms, humans included, and for good reason.  To not be afraid means that one is clearly not aware of risks or dangers to oneself, and this can be very detrimental.  It is important to understand that courage or bravery is NOT trying to negate fear, but rather stepping up to the task in spite of fear.  I will refer back to “3 Life Lessons Competitive Wushu Teaches: A Memo to Myself”, lesson three: don’t be afraid of failure.  To be precise, I said that it is okay to be afraid, but to not let that fear limit oneself from taking action.  This, in my opinion, is the true definition of courage, and is what makes people who try anything and do their best, deserving of respect.  It is this courage that we as both martial artists and as people should have in life.

These are the qualities that make up Wude.  In all frankness, the idea of Wude and these traits that comprise it are nothing new.  My purpose in writing this write-up about Wude is to promote awareness of it.  In Wushu communities and other martial arts groups, it is sad that more often than not, many focus only on the physical level of martial arts practice, which only scratches of the surface of it, and not the deeper levels of practice which is what we can truly take away and apply in our lives.  Wude is an essential part to Wushu and martial arts culture.  In fact, it is part of makes martial arts practice a culture in the first place.  It helps to elevate the practice of Wushu and martial arts in general, to more than just a physical activity, as a culture and a way of a life.  It is for this reason that I want to bring awareness to Wude and morality and ethics.  I am by no means trying to preach to anybody, and I’m no saint myself; I’m definitely not perfect enough to be telling people how they should live their lives.  However, I do feel that is important that Wushu practitioners at least be aware of Wude.  I hope that readers will take something away from this: that understanding Wude will help us to become better not only as martial artists, but more importantly as people as well.


Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda, traditional Chen Style Taijiquan and zhanzhuang. He is a former four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member, former Pan American Champion and multiple times Pan American Championships medalist, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at