General Qi Jiguang’s Jixiao Xinshu and Reflections on Claims of Martial Virtue


Some light reading, and the comparisons between martial cultures they evoke, lead to some self-reflection.

Illustrious Founders

Recently, The Secrets of Ittō-ryū (Vol 1) by Sasamori Junzo was published in English translation by Mark Hague, a senior practitioner of Ono-ha Ittō-ryū. The history of this remarkable martial tradition is described within, in great detail. One topic of note includes the claims that the founder, Itō Ittōsai, defeated famous swordsmen Kamiizumi Ise no Kami and Tsukahara Bokuden in duels, and that his successor, Ono Tadaaki, defeated Yagyu Munenori upon meeting him, thus securing his post as instructor to the shōgun.

There are some English translation and summaries of chapters of the famous Honcho Bugei Shoden available with free access at, where several famous ryūha and swordsman are described. Those duels from The Secrets of Ittō-ryū are not mentioned in this neutral, non Ittō-ryū source. I find them, therefore, somewhat suspect. I would like to cross-reference Sasamori's statements against the history of fencing written by Yamada Jirokichi, but this will have to wait for that work to be translated.

I think there is a small lesson here, that each style will have its own internal stories about its founders and past practitioners, and those might serve an internal almost mythical function, indicating the quality of martial virtue or skill its adherents still aspire to. In addition, each art is itself also a political entity, and not immune to viewing itself in comparison to other approaches. We see this even in the Ono-ha Ittō-ryū, one of the most illustrious styles of Japanese fencing. So, one way to gloss the official Ittō-ryū history is that the art views Kamiizumi, Bokuden, and Yagyu Munenori as having been excellent swordsman, worthy of mention, worthy to measure oneself against.

Classical Manuscripts: Japan to China and Back Again

JSTOR also has an article entitled:

Initiation to the art of war: A preliminary text of the takenouchi school by Szabo, B. in Acta Oreintalia Academia Scientarim Hung. Vol 66 (1) 95-107 (2013). DOI: 10.1556/AOrient.66.2013.1.6]

The author analyses a Takenouchi-ryū initiation scroll titled Takenouchi-ryū Bugei no jo from 1844. There are several sections to the scroll. One quotes different military classics, and in addition to the almost obligatory Sun Tzu, there is a passage from Qi Jiguang’s famous Jixiao Xinshu or “New Treatise on Military Efficiency: Introduction to Martial Arts," from the section Toryū tai or “Essence of the Style.” I am familiar with this work from my Chinese martial arts studies, and it is interesting to encounter it quoted in a Japanese late medieval-period text.

Chinese General Qi Jiguang is said to have studied a variant of Kage-ryū (the link here connects to a descendent, Hikitakage-ryū) practiced by wakō pirates, taught within coastal Chinese territory occupied and raided by Japan during the 16th century. He later used those methods, especially, it is believed, the odachi (long saber) called miao dao in Mandarin, to revitalize Chinese sword methods and teachings. This revitalization, as well as his principles of formation and combined-arms warfare (described in the same work), and his emphasis on using body conditioning exercises from extant pugilistic and grappling arts for basic training for soldiers, are said to have enabled Qi Jiguang to eventually succeed in driving out the wakō.

Pictures from Qi Jiguan’s book were later used by some martial arts styles in China as a basis for their practice. There are sets of images of postures designed to be preparatory practices for fit soldiers. It should be understood that Qi did not feel they are appropriate for actual battlefield use - and that passage is related, according to Szabo, in the Takenouchi-ryū text.

It is interesting to me to see Qi's treatise providing inspiration in Edo-period Japan, and it provoked some further thoughts I would like to share.

In modern budō or bujutsu circles, we often hear about Japanese koryū being battlefield arts, although large scale warfare ended in Japan with the sieges of Osaka castle in 1614-1615 (and a final, rather inglorious, postscript in the 1638 Shimabara rebellion). We also read in Japan-centric martial arts writings the view that most Chinese combative systems are "civilian" martial arts. While it is true that China regulated the use of arms by civilians in its populace under the Mongol's Yuan Dynasty, (well before the banning of the wearing of swords in Japan at the end of the Edo period), I think a finer distinction should be made in comparing arts and practices between the two countries. For example, commoners might not have had access to high quality weapons in parts of China, but the military did. This was similar to Japanese samurai having access to field weapons and long swords, while commoners, generally speaking, did not.

In fact, instead of weapons-centric system dying out writ large in China, several merged with existing traditions of pugilism. One example is the famous Liuhe (Six Harmony) spear tradition, which merged into traditions of Bajiquan (Eight Extremes Boxing), which maintains a fierce spear practice to this day. Other examples abound as a counterpoint to the tendency for standardization and performance (e.g., state developed forms, form competitions, etc.) in modern day.

Military Caste vs. Military Tactics

It is important to draw a distinction between "military inspired" arts, practiced by a military class focused on unarmored dueling, versus military arts practiced by a professional class that drilled and maneuvered in formation, on exercises or expeditions.

Many extant koryū can be traced to founders and practitioners who were of the bushi caste, whether rural goshi such as in Nen-ryū and Katori Shintō-ryū or urban hatamoto such as in Ittō-ryū or Yagyu Shinkage-ryū. In many ways, therefore, it is correct to say that these arts were practiced by a military or knightly caste. However, it is an overgeneralization to say also that all of those practices were inherently military in nature, in the modern sense of the word. Much of Edo period martial arts practice had to do with maintaining a sense of identity among their practitioners, associated to their role in society. It should also be noted that, in this wise, all such practices changed during the Edo period, to greater or lesser extents, in keeping with the changing times.

A clear example of this is the strong focus on developing skill in swordsmanship with the tachi (and later, the katana) when neither were primary field weapons. The sword was, however, a symbol of the samurai caste. In addition, the focus on narrative around the cultivation of a personal philosophy or style, and the emphasis, in such texts as Secrets of Ittō-ryū and the Honcho Bugei Shoden, on the musha shugyō (warrior's pilgrimage), conducted by the founders of late Muromachi and early Edo ryūha. It seems to be the case that well before modern times, there was a strong focus on self-development and self-cultivation within Japanese martial arts.

There are several strong exceptions, ferocious arts that attempt to keep a spirit of imagined battlefield application alive, but one wonders if those too might become caricatures over time, albeit without redeeming philosophical qualities. I put my own practice, at times, in this category, as kiai in Jikishinkage-ryū can be taken to unhealthy extremes.

The emphasis in the late Edo and early Meiji era on competition amongst sword schools, using implements such as the fukuro-shinai of Shinkage-ryū, originally designed so that practitioners within a single ryūha could train harder without as much fear of injury. The use of relatively safe training implements in such competition, as well as inter-school grappling competitions (which led to the formulation of kendō and judō respectively), may not have been aberrations brought about by the sharp introduction of "modern" ideas from the West, but rather a continuation of natural tendencies already present during much of the Edo period.

Seeing Ourselves in Others

Much of the appeal of Japanese martial arts to the West may in fact stem from or be due to earlier influences of Western gymnastics, physical culture, and naturalism on Japan, introduced into Japanese educational systems around the time more homogenized modern martial arts were developing (e.g., All Japan martial arts federations). The western practitioners who later encountered these arts may very well have seen themselves reflected in the arts they chose to practice, because the arts in themselves already reflected parts of Western physical culture (see William Bodiford's article "Zen and Japanese Swordsmanship Reconsidered” in Budo Perspectives, Volume 1).

Seeing Others in Ourselves

Just as a military caste in Japan preserved methods derived from battlefield knowledge, members of the Chinese military and paramilitary classes, including bodyguards to royalty, members of the military such as Banner Brigades, caravan guards, and tax collectors all practiced with weapons of various kinds, for practical reasons, in addition to methods of pugilism and grappling. It would be mistake to overlook or discount those traditions outright, as they were often high quality expressions of martial virtue practiced by people whose lives and livelihoods depended on it.

Zen Buddhism vs. Confucian Andragogy

In the case of the Chinese weapons practices I have encountered, looking at practices derived from Qi Jiguan's early Kage-ryū influence, in contrast to surviving Japanese variants of Shinkage-ryū, I have found that both are quite sophisticated and profound.

In the Chinese internal schools of martial arts, the practices are more directly aligned with Taoist philosophy, and I have come to the conclusion that they may, in fact, more easily lead to higher levels of skill if practiced seriously, in comparison with andragogical methods that were influenced over time by the Zen idea of satori (sudden realization). In the latter case, students may be left to unlock a hidden idea in a practice, and if they cannot, then their practice stalls. Worse, the teacher may wind up believing it is appropriate that the student has ceased to make progress (e.g., consider such phrases as, "They did not steal the technique").

The Chinese andragogical methods I have been exposed to can be as harsh as those of traditional Japanese arts (both being Confucian in nature), but more often a pause in level of development is associated to knowing what one should do and not having developed the skill to do so, rather than not knowing what the skill or application of a skill is. I think a study of the level of success of transmission of traditions from one generation to the next may be of interest across cultures, as there is also an idea, mentioned several times in the Japanese sources I list above, that the innermost essence of a tradition should only be taught to a single person (inheritor) per generation.

How often is it the case that a tradition is in fact a richly layered structure on top of an empty core?

Most practitioners today, regardless of their view of themselves, are likely not that one person fate has selected to receive the full teachings of their chosen art. That kind of approach might explain why, at the end of each generation, a style might splinter into competing factions, each saying they knew the "true" art.

As a specific example, although there are probably many to choose from, when I look at the contortions many Daito-ryū students go through in order to chase one such essence (aiki), the point seems to make itself. Fanciful ukemi becomes a perverse rite of passage for many practitioners hoping to learn what "aiki" is. Or are the Daito-ryū groups who mostly practice a more fundamental jujutsu-oriented practice, thereby sparing junior students the chase of aiki from the onset, actually much better off than their sister organizations?

[ I practiced one such art for a long time, and it was mired in deceit, but the fundamental jujutsu worked. We knew, because most of us came from bad parts of town. There was no "aiki" to be found there, but it wasn't really needed. When I exited the group I at first thought I might try to learn "aiki" to complete my practice, and now I am glad I never walked down that particular path. ]

I recommend Hidden In Plain Sight by Ellis Amdur for the best written analyses I have encountered, for those who are interested in Aikido and its antecedents, into what aiki might actually be. Even without contorted ukemi, Daito-ryū is far from alone from having a powerful founder, a wide cadre of students, and ultimately mixed results. Could the myths surrounding our founders sometimes be too powerful, leading us down ridiculous paths instead of the paths they themselves followed?

Despite, at times, a decadence no different in nature fundamentally than gymnastic wushu competitions or no-touch qi masters sometimes found in China, there can and often is profundity in Japanese martial arts, just as there is in China. All hope is not lost. I do feel at times any beauty associated with my own practice of Japanese swordsmanship can be found not in a single movement in isolation, but instead something to be discovered within the layers of meaning contained in the sequence of kata one learns, and how those layers of meaning unlock or reimagine the earlier practices. When this works well, it works very well, leading to a rich practice with many overlapping textures that inform one another, like a flower blossoming.

Martial arts practitioners can become fixated on learning the "next" kata (pattern-drill), instead of fully understanding what they think they already know. However, not all people practice kata with the same dedication or intensity. It is hard to know if one has the correct understanding, even within a very regimented and dedicated practice. Unfortunately, too many people give up on practices they have spent years on, due to some issue associated either with their own frustrations at their success or failure at learning, or interpersonal issues between either self-and-teacher, or within the group. They leave, failing to grasp the core of what was placed in front of them when they first began training. What initially drew them to the art is sadly lost in their own memory of their youth. Despite all the pitfalls and failing of the "steal my technique" philosophy to martial education, and reliance on satori-like inspiration, is a teacher wrong to not show more kata to a senior student who has become jaded and already exploring other paths, instead of fighting to bring their current study to its conclusion?

We can talk about the limitations of our teachers, particularly as many people are teaching (myself, in the case of Jikishinkage-ryū), without full transmission of an art. I try to bring my knowledge of baguazhang, xingyiquan, and taijiquan into my practice--that might not be the favorite flavor of tea for some. I also try to bring in free practice and the breaking of kata, called kuzushi, onto the mat. That is something that requires courage as it involves failure, often in front of one's students. Also, the small opportunities I have had to test my skill against other kenshi in unscripted matches with fukuro shinai have been extremely valuable, and a threshold many people who practice koryū refuse to cross, for a variety of reasons.

If Ittōsai had never crossed swords with another person, what kind of founder would he have been?

Regression To The Mean

Among the barriers to achieving mastery of an art are language, culture, and the amount of individual attention a person might receive training at a distance from a senior instructor. There are many benefits to the older, smaller, model of instruction: personalized and direct. Martial arts that have become very popular at various times, in various cultures, likely spread because their core practitioners were of very high quality; otherwise they would not have made a name for themselves and caused others to want to learn them. As arts grow, however, the number of people who attain a high level of mastery does not seem to scale at the same rate. This is probably due to the successors of the art being people who are not as skilled at either the art itself or teaching. I count myself among their number, and do my best while recognizing that fact.

Enough -- maybe we need to end this with a poem, and give Zen its due, even if we might normally pay homage to other approaches to following the way:

Many paths, one mountain, an abundance of peril.


  1. Deep thanks to Ellis Amdur for his interest in this post and valuable feedback. Many of his martial arts writings can be found at KogenBudo.
  2. The discussion above concerns general trends in contemporary martial arts and culture, and are not meant to be reflective of a specific individual or school, other than in the examples explicitly cited during the narrative above (e.g., contrasting variants of Daito-ryu).