Sunday, February 19, 2012

Etymology and calligraphy for Bu 武 - martial

Modern Japanese: martial, manly, strong, powerful, mighty, brave, power of fighting
Mandarian: fierce, military, valiant, wushu
Cantonese: military, martial, warlike

What is the story and etymology though? What are the composite symbols and how to they interact to form the character bu 武? This was a tricky character to unravel. So many people have put their own theories and etymology on the character that it has become shrouded. Just yesterday I was involved in a debate in the dojo about it.

The character is made of two parts, or radicals.

In modern Japanese the character means: stop, halt, heave to, interrupt, suspend

This has caused a bit of confusion to the modern budo practitioner. The radical is actually a pictograph for a foot. The primitive origins of this character has a feeling of 'to walk' rather than the modern stop.

Primitive Chinese: A long handled non descript instrument - usually a hoe or ax
Mandarian: halberd, spear, lance

How do these radicals dance together to form the concept Bu 武?

The noted budo author Dave Lowry gives a common, but from what my research shows to be an historically inaccurate, etymology of the character.

"It would seem logical that the character for the spear alone would be sufficient to connote military. But, in making up the kanji for bu, the brushstrokes for spear are accompanied by additional strokes that mean "suppressing a revolt. " The whole character for military, then, actually refers to "quelling an uprising by use of the polearm. "

Another common interpretation I see many authors quote, the radical 止 means 'stop'. Thus many people therefore the character BU is interpreted to mean... To stop the spear, an interpretation implying a defensive and peaceful nature. While this is a nice poetic version useful for the modern dojo, it is clear this is not the historic root of the word.

Etymology of the character 'bu'武.

In old Chinese 止 did not mean stop. Originally it meant 'foot'. Added with this - 戈 - Remnant Primitive, A long handled non descript instrument - usually a hoe or ax.

to walk 止 with a weapon 戈 = 武 martial

The Funky Buddha blog reaffirms my research.

Funky Buddha

"Let's look at the kanji bu (武). Bu actually translates to military affairs or martial. The kanji is a compound of two other kanji: hoko (矛) which means halberd and ashi (足) which means foot. The kanji depicts a soldier/foot-soldier carrying a halberd, this in turn depicts military acts or martial. This is the accepted translation of bu."


  1. Excellent article. Thanks. This interpretation of the kanji makes a lot more sense.

  2. * reposted from facebook

    Hehehe... I got quoted in this blog entry... Very rarely happens to me... ;p

    However, if you read my whole entry, though I agree with the original etymology, I tend to lean to the philosophical meaning of the kanji which is to stop the spear

    I had a discussion with a traditional chinese martial arts practitioner and he said that the philosophical meaning of the kanji was first initiated by Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu believes that you need to gain high skill and be able to stop a war or battle before it happens, because war only causes destruction and grief but sometimes inevitable. If a war does happen then a way must be ensured to minimize casualties as much as possible.

    This story also echoes through martial arts practitioner. The point is not to fight but to end the fighting and best to be done without fighting... but in order to do this one must attain the greatest skill. It is not pacifism as many believe, it is a conscious choice between being able to destroy or to keep the peace.

    A good story that we've heard about this is of Choshin Chibana, the founder of Shorin-ryu Karate. At his time and area, he was regarded as the strongest person around, this resulted in him being challenged by some thug. He did not fight back and even got beaten up and bloodied. Eventually the thug gave up and apologized to him. When asked why he let them beat him up, he said that he was never in any danger of death, and even if he just blocked one attack he could break the bones of his attacker.

    Choshin showed the spirit of budo. He attained great skill in killing a man in an instant but refrained from using it at circumstances he deemed insignificant and not deadly, even if it means getting beat up pretty bad. He stopped the spear, even if it means the spear is his own. This I see as an amazing feat, but this is a state not easily attained

    The story of Choshin Chibana could be heard in the last segment of NHK's "Samurai Spirit: Karate"... Somebody has uploaded the full episode in YouTube (44 minutes long)

  3. Awesome commentary. Thanks for all your contributions.

  4. Kaminoda sensei is also well known as a calligrapher, and has a great sense of humor. He pointed out that in the character BU you can also see SEI (TADASHI), which means "correct, proper". SEI is made up of the WALK/STOP character with the cross of the halberd handle making the top line. So practice of BU (martial arts) will make you TADASHII (a stand-up guy).

  5. I'd read an interpretation in the book Tai Chi Chuan Classical Yang Style, by Yang Jwing-Ming (Kindle edition) which I quote:

    "The word 'martial' is constructed by two Chinese words, 'stop' and 'weapons', and when combined means 'to cease the battle.'" [Jwing-Ming, kindle location 706]

    I prefer that interpretation, personally and pragmatically.

    I suppose that as an interpretation - speaking contemporarily - it might not appeal to so many "Warhawk" modes of ideology. Well, some people would have to actually carry and apply the weapons, in a war, in the real world, if a war has broken out. On the behalves of whom and the families of whom, one might prefer for battles to cease before having begun, however - that we would not wind up in a world lost to strife.

    That is therefore the interpretation I prefer to take to heart, in regarding the word, "Bu"


  6. Sean thanks for your contribution. I like all the interpretations. It makes one simple character into an evolving poem. My personal interest is the intention the ancient Chinese had when constructing the idea. So while Jwing-Wing has a nice philosophical bend, speaking as to the characters etymology it appears incorrect. I think as martial arts instructors we can point to the roots of where the character really comes from - a sad human reality, then point to our budo ideals and where we want to take the idea into the future. Another expression of yin yang within a simple character.

  7. On the development of Chinese characters, you might find this interesting if you haven't already seen it: