One of the many terms that every practitioner of the Chinese martial arts should know is ‘wǔlín.’ Wǔlín (武林) literally means ‘martial forest’. Wǔ is the same character as in wǔshù (武術). In the western world, we tend to characterize wǔshù as the modern sportified version of the Chinese martial arts, the flamboyant and acrobatic style that Jet Li championed. But in China, wǔshù literally means ‘martial arts.’ Traditional Chinese martial arts, what we label ‘kung fu,’ are designated as chuán tǒng wǔshù (传统武術); chuán tǒng means ‘traditional’ or ‘conventional.’ In Japanese, wǔ become bu, as in bushidō (武士道), the ‘way of the warrior.’ Lín is the same character as in Shàolín (少林), which is a name that literally means ‘young forest.’

However, you’ll get in a lot of trouble if you try to translate Chinese into English literally, which is why ‘martial forest’ is a weak translation. Chinese is a highly idiomatic language, and the combination of characters, as well as the context, can radically shift the meanings of the component characters into something completely different. Wǔlín describes the martial arts social circles. It is our community of practitioners, and we have our own unique rules of etiquette and behavior. When we say we are part of the wǔlín, we are including ourselves as participants in the martial arts world.

The wǔlín extends way beyond your school. It encompasses all schools, representing the martial arts community at large. It even can include martial artists outside those of Chinese origin, depending upon your point of view. Consequently, how you behave with others in the wǔlín can be delicate. If you can imagine the days of old, when various factions vied for power and prestige, the relationships between certain schools were quite contentious. Accordingly, the rituals of etiquette were social constructs that prevented members of the wǔlín from offending one another.

Today, the wǔlín is far more civil. While there still might be the occasional feud, most schools just look to keep their business running smoothly and challenge matches are bad for business. Nevertheless, the rules of wǔlín etiquette stand and must be observed by any practitioner who claims to be traditional. In order to be an active participant, it is crucial to practice good martial manners.

Wǔlín Etiquette

The most blatant example of wǔlín etiquette is the salute. Where Japanese and Korean styles will use a simple bow, Chinese styles have a specific gesture of salutation. This salute is commonly expressed with the left hand covering the right fist. The covered fist salute dates to the Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BCE) and was used by civilians outside of the wǔlín. The civilian version is more deferential; the wrists are pressed together in a limp-wristed, subservient gesture. The wǔlín salute is more powerful with the wrists aligned with the hands so they are prepared to strike with a fist or a chop. There are variations in the salute from different styles of Chinese martial arts, so much so that a well-versed practitioner can tell what style the saluting person might practice - Shàolín, Wǔdāng, and other styles all have their own unique way of saluting, variations on the covered fist.

Wǔlín etiquette is more significantly observed when the level of the salute comes into play. When saluting an equal in the wǔlín, your fists are placed at the level of your chest. However, when saluting someone senior, like a grandmaster or any person to whom you wish to show more respect, the saluting hands are held higher, above your eyes. To salute below your chest is to say that you are superior. No one does this outside of the privacy of their own schools. To do this to the greater wǔlín at large would be insulting and grounds for a challenge fight. Within a school, the headmaster might salute this way to their class, or a senior student to his or her juniors, but it’s generally avoided. Even though it rightfully reinforces the established hierarchy within the school, one of the tenets of traditional Chinese martial arts is to espouse humility and seniors must always serve as a humble example to their juniors.

The International Wǔshù Federation has standardized a salute for competition. It is considered of the utmost importance, so much so that it is the first point of Protocol of Wǔshù Tàolù Competition section. It reads “Fist-Palm Salute - In a standing position with feet together, place the right fist against the upright left palm, with the former’s knuckles at the root of the latter’s fingers, in front of and 20-30cm away from the chest.”

There are many other points of wǔlín etiquette regarding where to sit at a dining table, positioning for a group portrait, how to pour tea, how to set up meetings and give offerings, and much, much more. There are so many details of martial decorum, far more than can be shared in this short article.

Where to Find the Wǔlín

Nowadays the most obvious place to find the wǔlín outside your school is at open tournaments. Tournaments comprise the largest concentrated gatherings of the Chinese martial arts community. They are wonderful places to meet, share and compete. Competition is an important component for keeping our practice real. At its best, competition is far from contentious. To quote Proverbs 27:17, “Iron sharpeneth iron; So a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” With that spirit, competition can be a healthy source of growth and progress.

Another great place to meet fellow wǔlín members is public gatherings, particularly those that celebrate the Asian heritage such as Chinese New Year festivals or various Asian culture fairs. Having martial arts schools demonstrate their skills at such gatherings is a tradition that dates back for centuries. However, in days of old, rival schools had very specific rituals of etiquette to keep the peace and show each other respect on the streets. Today, when different schools meet at such public gatherings, things are far more social and friendly. Nevertheless, traditional Chinese lion dance (a.k.a. wǔshī 舞獅), which are commonplace at such events, still upholds the strict traditions of bowing to each other whenever lions from two different schools might meet. These were to placate lion dancers from rival schools, lest a fight ensue. Nowadays, it’s more about upholding tradition, and the art of Chinese lion dance is heavily invested in upholding tradition.

Seminars and workshops are also great meeting places, although these tend to be within your own school. Sometimes outsiders might attend, but for the most part, the educational gatherings are within the followers of the master who is teaching. Nonetheless, there still is the opportunity to meet others within your lineage, wǔlín members that don’t regularly train where you train.

Once you are deep enough in the wǔlín, you can spot other members wherever you might be. There are telltale signs such as the logos on our clothes and gear or the brand of shoes we might wear. On a subtler level, there are physical tells like the calloused knuckles, the unique forearm musculature of a swordsman or swordswoman, the centered posture and body attitude, and others that are more subtle. I met my current iaido teacher at the dog park. Our dogs were play fighting, and as we watched bemused, we both sussed out each other as swordsmen. On the highest level, some masters will hide these tells like good poker players.

I remember sitting in on a discussion where Wu Bin (Jet Li’s coach, nicknamed ‘the father of modern wǔshù’) described how he soften his muscles so as not to look so martial. Being part of the wǔlín is like membership in a secret society. Sometimes it can get thick, full of intrigue and romance, like being in a Kung Fu movie. Other times, it can be a wonderful social network, full of meaningful connections and resourceful contacts. The wǔlín is a proud and ancient legacy, one that must be protected and cherished. It is a supplementary treasure where we can express ourselves freely and thrive.

If you want to stay in the wǔlín, just remember to salute respectfully.

The above is an original article by Gene Ching, Staff Writer for YMAA Publication Center.