Warrior Scholars: Brains and Brawn

By Kiki Yang

The samurai of Japan were an interesting lot. This ruling class lived by a strict code called Bushido 武士道, or "the way of the warrior," which emphasized honor until death and military skill. 

What most people don’t realize, though, is that Bushido has its roots in Confucianism.

It’s sort of hard to imagine civilized Confucian gentlemen running around hacking at things with swords, or committing seppuku or hara-kiri. But according to Encyclopaedia Brittanica, “The samurai was equated with the Confucian ‘perfect gentleman’ and was taught that his essential function was to exemplify virtue to the lower classes,” sort of like the chivalrous knights of the West.

Bushido, according to an article on The Art of Manliness blog: “teaches that men should behave according to an absolute moral standard, one that transcends logic. What’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong… and a man should know the difference.”

So being a samurai was not just about the martial spirit. In fact, they were expected to be just as skilled in the literary arts as they were with a sword. In Japan, this balanced state was called “Bun Bu Ryo Do,” or “literary arts, military arts, both ways,” or “The pen and the sword in accord.”

Apparently novice samurai-in-training were told to learn poetry but not to actually like it too much lest they become sissy boys.

“Bun Bu Ryo Do” is actually just the Japanese pronunciation of the kanji, or Chinese, words “Wen Wu Shuang Quan, or 文武雙全.” It’s an ideal I’ve oft admired in others and always aspired to in one way or another for myself. I respect soldiers or athletes who are also intelligent just as I admire scholars who can fight, or are at least aren’t couch potatoes.

As far as I can tell, the samurai leaned a little more towards the militaristic side. Apparently novice samurai-in-training were told to learn poetry but not to actually like it too much lest they become sissy boys. Maybe we could call them "Scholar warriors" with the emphasis being on the "warrior," sort of like "warriors who can read."

Chinese men, on the other hand, generally didn't seem to have too many hangups about their machismo and as a whole, valued scholarship over military prowess. Either their poetry is just too amazing to pass up or they're just secure in their masculinity—no idea. Anyway, traditionally speaking, aristocratic boys were taught archery and things like that but the emphasis was on book learning. We can call them "Warrior scholars" in the sense of "scholars who can fight if pressed."

In Chinese, the word “wen” or 文 refers specifically to the Confucian idea of “culture” or literary arts. In traditional Chinese society, studying the core Confucian classics: the Four Books and Five Classics, was what made you a civilized man. 

The Four Books are:

  • Doctrine of the Mean
  • The Great Learning
  • Mencius
  • The Analects

The Five Classics are:

  • The Book of Odes
  • Book of Documents
  • Book of Changes
  • Book of Rites
  • The Spring and Autumn Annals

These texts are not just about history or philosophy or literature, although they are certainly all of those things. They provide “learning” in the best sense of the word: giving a well-rounded education about the principles of the world, how it ticks, and our place in it.

In Confucianism, when someone conducts himself as a junzi 君子, or a “gentleman,” he is exhibiting a kind of internal harmony, and through the wisdom and kindness he has cultivated in himself, he will be able to maintain harmony in the family. From there, his benevolence extends outwards and allows him to take on roles of leadership and governance for the nation.

Whether junzi or samurai, it was this learning, this moral code that separated the men from the boys, the leaders from the followers.

Anyone Can Do It If You Try

In China, it was mostly the aristocrats who could study the texts with the help of private tutors. But anyone who had the smarts and a willingness to learn could potentially take the civil exams and end up with a respectable position as a local official or even an advisor in the imperial court. It was a kind of meritocracy that didn't exist in most other societies at the time.

My father could be considered a proper Confucian gentleman, I think, along with a number of his peers from that generation. Some of my more scholarly friends who study Chinese History or Literature might qualify.

But I probably don’t make the cut.

The hurdle for me is that the texts are all in the ancient Chinese style going very, very far back, and they are not easy to absorb. So, I haven’t read them all and probably never will.

Some might say the more obvious hurdle is I’m not even the right gender. Ah, details, details. Anything that can inspire humankind to be more virtuous and noble is pretty good for everyone, male or female, don’t you agree?

In any case, what I lack in deep learning of the Chinese classics, I make up for in humility towards, and appreciation for, what I have been exposed to. I also believe that to read something is one thing; to assimilate to it and live by its standards is a whole other story. So, the way I see it, being a junzi also includes being willing to accept being a work-in-progress.

One point of clarification, though. The “Four Books” are not to be confused with “The Four Great Classical Novels,” which are works of fiction. They aren’t the same thing at all, even though most of them have good lessons to teach, too.

The Four Novels are:

  • Dream of the Red Chamber
  • Water Margin (also translated as Outlaws of the Marsh)
  • Journey to the West
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Actually, one reason I became interested in this issue of having both martial skills and book learning is because of a particular scene in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. At one point a kingdom gets attacked, and so the soldiers gallantly fight to protect their king, Liu Bei. Meanwhile, however, the officials of the court—ill equipped to defend themselves let alone anyone else—just fling themselves to the ground and play dead.

The author, thought to be Luo Guanzhong, leaves us in no doubt about his views on wimpy officials who are all brain and no brawn. Honor? Loyalty? All out the window. Those were scholars but not warrior scholars. Luo seems much more interested in detailing the exploits of big, burly warriors like Guan Yu and Zhang Fei and he wrote at great length about their uncommon valor and perseverance.

Nonetheless, even in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, at the end of the day I guess there’s still only so much to say about brute force because Luo eventually gives much more airtime to well-rounded characters like the famous Zhuge Liang, scholar and military strategist extraordinaire.

We don’t doubt that Zhuge was able to wield a sword, even though all he ever carries around is a fan made from the feathers of a white crane. There’s a story behind that fan, but maybe another time.

Liu Bei went to visit Zhuge Liang at his hut three times but had to wait outside each time. Zhuge became moved by Liu's humility and perseverance and agreed to join his team. It was because of Zhuge that Liu eventually became king. One of the best hires in history.

Liu Bei went to visit Zhuge Liang at his hut three times but had to wait outside each time. Zhuge became moved by Liu's humility and perseverance and agreed to join his team. It was because of Zhuge that Liu eventually became king. One of the best hires in history.

Zhuge Liang never needs a weapon because his intellect and understanding of the ways of nature and the universe were so far beyond anyone else’s that he actually was the kingdom’s secret weapon. In fact, he triumphed in the Battle of Red Cliffs simply because he could predict when the winds would change direction that day, almost to the minute.

I say “simply because” of his predictions, but of course it is no simple task to be able to forecast the movement of the wind or the tide or any other natural elements with any precision—all without a single computer. It probably takes divination skills and something that goes well beyond mere mortal smarts. In a way, his wisdom was his superpower.

It’s important to note that Zhuge’s character, too, was impeccable. While he had been a hermit and had been reluctant to become the military advisor to a king, once he took it on, he never shied away from his duties, no matter how seemingly impossible the task. In fact, long after the king had already died, he stayed on to help Liu Bei’s son run the kingdom, just because he had promised to. Never once did he try to usurp the crown.

Turning to the West

An ancient Greece ideal

An ancient Greece ideal

The “Wen Wu Shuang Quan” ideal, combining martial and literary arts in one person, is hardly foreign to the West. In fact, I would say it has found some of its most spectacular manifestations in Europe and later the Americas. The list is endless, but let me just touch upon a few early examples.

The ancient Greeks, of course, were famous for heroes who not only displayed sound minds but most impressive physiques. The wily Odysseus, for instance, was one of the most handsome, powerful warriors of all—real leading man material. No wonder Penelope waited for him for 20 years and never budged. Odysseus was a tough act to beat, if only for his sheer perseverance and survival power. Oh, and he had Athena backing him and making his skin glow and his locks shine at all the opportune moments—that helped.

My guess is this preoccupation with physical prowess and beauty may have stemmed from an ancient Greek aspiration to be “god-like.” The closer you were to the gods, the better you were. If you weren’t born with divine abilities, maybe if you worked out at the gymnasium enough, you could sort of look like Hercules. And as far as I can tell, the residents of Mount Olympus and their many offspring really were quite a stunning bunch.

Painting of Zhuge Liang

Painting of Zhuge Liang

For the most part, though, like the macho thing, this sort of emphasis on physical beauty seems to be absent from Chinese culture. It is still important for ladies to be lovely, but for Chinese heroes, handsomeness and a pleasing exterior, while certainly a plus and sometimes an indicator in the Confucian world of a well-cultivated interior, is generally not much of an issue. Zhuge Liang was by all accounts a funny-looking fellow, but he was the most sought-after intellectual of his time. 

In Chinese society, massive muscles are even sometimes considered a sign of a feeble mind, as in a popular Chinese saying: “Sizi fada, tounou jiandan,” or literally, “four limbs developed, simple mind.” I don’t make these things up; I just write about them. Maybe one translation would be: “Don’t be a meathead.”

Maybe it’s just because the Chinese didn’t have too many occasions where they had to run around in revealing little togas (or even no togas at all) in front of an admiring crowd.

The overall impression is that for the Chinese, the scale tips pretty heavily toward internal qualities over the physical ones. Not really sure why. Maybe it's because it takes a lot of brains to succeed in a complex society. Maybe it’s because the philosophers figured out that human life is impermanent and the physical form is but fleeting. Maybe it’s just because the Chinese didn't have too many occasions where they had to run around in revealing little togas (or even no togas at all...) in front of an admiring crowd.

To be both a warrior as well as a scholar is not only an admirable thing for an individual, it turns out it is valued as a trait because it’s important for society, too. A society that values both sides is balanced and strong. As the military officer and author Sir William Francis Butler once said:

"The State that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools."

Brains, Brawn, and Beyond

Nevertheless, some days, with all this thinking and all this fighting going on, you start to understand why Laozi (Lao Tze), the sage of Taoism, wasn’t impressed by any of it.

The classic history text Shiji written by Sima Qian (145-86BCE) recounts a momentous meeting between two great minds, Laozi and Confucius. Laozi didn't mince words:

The saints of the ancient times you so admire, their bodies and even bones decayed and now leave only dust and empty words... There is a saying, ‘good merchants hide their best goods so the store looks as if empty, and junzi hides his virtue deep within himself and looks as if an idiot. You should get rid of your arrogance, ambition, pretension, and doubt. They do you no good. This is all I have to say to you.

When Confucius' disciples excitedly asked him about the meeting, he replied,

Birds fly, fish swim, and beasts run. Beasts can be trapped by a net, fish can be caught by throwing a fishing line, and birds can be caught with arrows. But a dragon rises to heaven riding clouds and wind. I cannot know the nature of it. I met Laozi today; he was like a dragon. I could not know him.

So, for Laozi, all of Confucius’ pursuits and achievements were merely of this mundane world and not worth much. The truth is, even Bushido became influenced by Shinto and Zen Buddhism. The spirituality tempered the violence of the samurai’s existence by offering wisdom and serenity. Because one who faces the possibility of death on a regular basis must eventually see that for all the physical and intellectual glories of the world, in the end, it is still dust to dust, ashes to ashes in this lifetime.

Laozi with his trusty sidekick, the water buffalo

Laozi with his trusty sidekick, the water buffalo

Sometimes we need to stand up for what’s right; sometimes it’s right to let things go. If we can begin to start listening for the Dao, for the Way, we will know what time it is to do what, for we will have begun to sense the rhythms of the heavens and the earth, almost like Zhuge Liang.

If we do what is needed at any given moment and are in perfect accord with nature and the cosmos, we may find there is no real distinction between the actions of a warrior or a scholar. What remains is just a somewhat more enlightened being who will use whatever skills he has, whenever they are needed. Not too much, not too little—the Doctrine of the Mean. Maybe this is the Way of the Warrior Scholar.

In this state, there is nothing to strive for. Yet it is not passive—there are still things that need to be done. And I believe what we do before our time is over here on earth really does matter.

For in the end, what are we left with? Maybe if we’re lucky, some small traces, or perhaps a memory, of a life well spent. That's all. Maybe some small reassurance that we truly did the best we could this time. Perhaps that will be enough to give us the possibility of peace.