Overview‎ > ‎


China, with thousands of years of history, has developed three main schools of thought: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The martial arts, as manifestations of Chinese culture, contain elements from each of those philosophies. In theory, the three philosophies seek to provide guidance for living, but, in practice, individuals must ultimately find their own path. Depending on their temperament and experience, individuals who keep an open mind will gain important insights into the complex realities of life from each of these great philosophies. Each person must find their own answers based on the wisdom and teachings of the past.. 

 1.  Confucianism
 2.  Taoism
 3.  Buddhism
 4.  Comparisons
 5.  Contribution


Confucian tradition (Chinese: 儒家; pinyin: Rújiā)) can be traced back to 550 B. C., when the Analects of Confucius (論語) was first published. In this book, Confucius (Chinese: 孔子; pinyin: Kǒng zǐ; Wade-Giles: K'ung-tzu, or Chinese: 孔夫子; pinyin: Kǒng Fūzǐ; Wade-Giles: K'ung-fu-tzu), lit. "Master Kong” (traditionally September 28, 551 – 479 B.C.E.) wanted to provide a guide for social harmony through the understanding of appropriate social and ethical behavior.

This philosophy focuses on the concepts of the external action of li (禮, ritual / convention / tradition) and the internal attitude of jen (仁,humanity / benevolence / goodness) and yi (義, righteousness). He advocated a simple moral and political teaching: to love others; to honor one's parents; to do what is right instead of what is advantageous; to practice "reciprocity," i.e. "to not do to others what you would not want done to you"; to rule by moral example instead of by force and violence. Self-control became a key virtue promoted by his followers.

Some of the greatest philosophers followed the Confucian tradition. Mencius (Chinese: 孟子; Zhuyin˙; pinyin: Mèng Zǐ; Wade-Giles: Meng Tzu), most accepted dates: 372 – 289 BCE; other possible dates: 385 – 303/302 BCE) stressed the inherent goodness of man. Cheng Yi (simplified Chinese: 程颐; traditional Chinese: 程頤; pinyin: Chéng Yí; Wade-Giles: Ch'eng I, 1033–1107) and his brother Cheng Hao (程顥, 1032-1085) explored the metaphysics of this system. Zhu Xi or Chu Hsi (朱熹, October 18, 1130, Yuxi, Fujian province, China – April 23, 1200, China) and Wang Yangming (王陽明, 1472–1529) are some of the other great teachers of this school. Their influence can be found throughout Chinese society and in the Far East (Japan, Korea and Vietnam). . 

(Confucius, 551 - 479 BCE)

(Mencius, 372 - 289 BCE)


Taoist (or Daoist) philosophy (道家) as exemplified by The Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing , simplified Chinese: 道德经; traditional Chinese: 道德經; pinyin: Dàodéjīng) can also be traced back to 518 BC. The author, Lao Tse (Laozi, Chinese: 老子; pinyin: Lǎozǐ; Wade-Giles: Laosi; also Lao Tse, 4th century BCE), was searching for an end to the constant feudal warfare and other conflicts that disrupted society during his lifetime. The result of his struggles was an alternative system of moral truths and social conduct that contradicts the prevailing thinking of the times. The major guiding principle for Taoism is to "take no action that is contrary to nature".

The other important Taoist philosophers include Chuang-tzu (Zhuangzi, simplified Chinese: 庄子; traditional Chinese: 莊子; pinyin: Zhuāng Zǐ; Wade-Giles: Chuang Tzŭ, 4th Century BCE) who advocated the pursuit of emptiness or hsü (虚) - a timeless state free of worries or selfish desires. This is accomplished by knowing the capacity and limitations of one's own nature, nourishing it, and adapting it through a "universal" Tao. In this process, selfishness of all description is abandoned. The student is free from the cravings for fame and wealth, as well as from biases and even subjectivity. As a result, the practitioner should be open to new ideas, but transcend all individual material objects. These ideas have had a profound influence on later Buddhist thoughts.

There are many different facets to Taoist thought. For example, Yang Zhu (Chinese: 楊朱/杨朱; pinyin: Yáng Zhū; Wade-Giles: Yang Chu; 370-319 BCE) promoted the idea of inaction rather than detachment as the goal in the practice of the Tao. He suggested that

"Men of great antiquity knew that life meant to be temporary present and death meant to be temporarily away. There they acted as they pleased and did not turn away from what they naturally desired."

Other views are more moderate. The neo-Taoists represented by Guo Xiang (Chinese: 郭象; pinyin: Guō Xiàng; Wade-Giles: Kuo Hsiang; d. 312 C.E.) and Wang Bi (王弼, 226-249) advocated that the sage must rise above all distinctions and contradictions. As a result, the practitioner can remain in the midst of human affairs although he accomplishes his tasks by acting naturally (自然).

(Lao Tse, 4th century BCE)

(Chuang-Tzu, Dreaming he was a butterfly, 4th century BCE)


Buddhism was first introduced into China in 2 BC through its birth place, India via the Silk Road. It went through many changes as it was mixed with popular religious beliefs, local customs and practices but still followed the Indian. By 200, schools of Buddhism in China were essentially Chinese and were no longer related to the Indian perspective. The Chinese posed relevant questions and sought answers only through an interpretation of the Indian scriptures but the answers are essentially based on Chinese thoughts and philosophies.Buddhists are concerned with personal salvation rather than the affairs of society. Through constant practice, Buddhists seek to break the cycle of suffering by eliminating desire.

Chinese Buddhism (simplified Chinese: 汉传佛教; traditional Chinese: 漢傳佛教; Pinyin: fójiào) reached its zenith in popularly and influence by 460 with the founding of the Chan (Zen, 禅/禪) school of sudden enlightenment by Bodhidharma (菩提達摩, 460-534) at the Shaolin Temple. Chan is a school of Mahāyāna Buddhism which emphasizes experiential techniques such as mediation and Dharma practice to reach enlightenment. The Chan School was later divided into the Northern and Southern School. This division is not based on geography but on basic issues concerning the way to enlightenment. The Southern School emphasized sudden enlightenment while the Northern School suggests a systematic but gradual approaches. This difference is captured in the expression “nan-tun pei-chien (南頓北漸)” – which can be translated as “suddenness of south, gradualness of north”. Over time, the Southern School became the dominant voice.

From China, Chan Buddhism spread to Vietnam (580 CE), Korea (9th Century), Japan (12th Century) and eventually the world (1900’s).


(image of the Buddha)

(Bodhidharma by Yoshitoshi, 1887)


The three philosophies can be compared and contrasted in their approach to solving various problems of life. Their similarities and differences can best be illustrated through passages from its source.

"What is humanity?"

"Filial piety and brotherly respect are the root of humanity (Jen)?"

 Lao Tzu
"When the great Tao declined, the doctrines of humanity (jen) and righteousness (i) arose."

"… in regard to dharmas no thought is attached to anything, that is freedom."

"What is Virtue?"

"whether in counseling others I have not been loyal: whether in intercourse with my friends I have not been faithful; and whether I have not repeated again and again and practiced the instructions of my teacher."

Lao Tzu
"Can you understand all and penetrate all within taking any action? To produce things and to rear them, To produce but not to take possession of them, to act but not to rely on one's own ability, To lead them but not to master them."

"our nature is originally pure. All dharmas lie in this self-nature. If we think of all kinds of evil deeds, we will practice evil. If we think of all kinds of good deeds, we will do good. Thus we know that all dharmas lie in one's self-nature. Self-nature is always pure." "

"What is the Tao?"

"A superior man in dealing with the world is not for anything or against anything. He follows righteousness as the standard."

Lao Tzu
"The best (man) is like water, water is good; it benefits all things and does not compete with them … it is because he does not compete that he is without reproach."

 "All one has to do is to do nothing … The stupid will laugh at him, but the wise one will understand … One who makes effort externally is a fool." .


Contribution to the Martial Arts

The contributions of each philosophy to the martial arts can be compared. There are some kung fu styles that are based on a particular philosophy.


  • Respect for you teacher
  • Focus on education
  • Be righteous and protect the country (盡忠報國,尽忠报国, Jen Chung Boa Kuo)
  • The foundation of Chinese education and custom


  • Do not react with force
  • Be natural
  • Importance of change
  • Strong influence on Taichi, Bagua and other Wudang styles


  • Life is sacred
  • Discipline of the mind
  • Meditation
  • Source of Shaolin kung fu and most other Buddhist styles
Chinese philosophy represents a source of strength and inspiration for the martial arts. It provides a firm foundation for building a philosophical and spiritual component in the study of kung fu.


(Traditional image of a Confucian Scholar Warrior)

(Wudang swordsman)