The Martial Medical Tradition

When we think of martial arts, the combative elements are what generally come to mind. We often place so much emphasis on combatives that we neglect the medical elements of the martial arts. It may even come as surprise to you that a medical tradition even exists within the martial arts. In this article I will share some background history of Eastern Medicine and how it is interwoven with Asian martial arts.

**Disclaimer: The sole intention of this article is to provide historical information on Eastern Medicine as it relates to Asian martial arts. It is in no way an attempt to offer medical advice.**

The relationship between medicine and martial art is a complicated one to say the least. There is some debate as to which came first. Some claim that the relationship was an outgrowth of warfare and martial training. Injuries were common and necessitated simple and effective treatment so that the warrior could return, as quickly as possible, to either battle or training. Others claim that the martial arts evolved from the medical practices themselves. In my opinion, both claims are valid to a certain extent. What is certain is that there is a great deal of overlap between medicine and martial arts. Instead of trying to argue which had more influence over the other, I want to explore the overlap itself. Because this subject is both intricate and vast I have broken it down into categories for ease of understanding.


A central theme in both Asian martial arts and medicine is the concept of balance. Taoist philosophy and yin-yang theory comprise the foundation for this tradition. The taoists viewed the world as an interconnected whole. They were attuned to the balance they observed in nature and strove to emulate that balance in all human activities. Asian martial arts often interpret this concept as a guide to execute effective technique and as a mental or spiritual philosophy. This concept carries over into medicine in that disease is viewed as an imbalance within the person. The aim of medicine is to protect balance and correct imbalance. 


The congruent study of both martial art and medicine is a form of equilibrium. Not only can lessons learned in one field be applied to the other, but it also does much to balance the individual. For example, knowledge of anatomical weaknesses gained from medical study lends itself well to the application of joint-locks in combat. On the other hand, treating patients with severe joint injuries adds direct perspective on the suffering that such techniques are capable of producing; perhaps making the practitioner less likely to engage in violence unless absolutely necessary. This process makes the practitioner deadlier, but at the same time makes him more humane.

Anatomy and Physiology

This should come as no surprise. It is impossible to study martial arts or medicine without also developing a deeper understanding of anatomy and physiology. An understanding of the body's structure and how it moves is just as important in medicine as it is in martial arts. In spite of the often opposing application of the this knowledge, where the medical objective is to heal and the martial objective is to destroy, the overlap is an important one.

Physical Exercise

The first document linking movement to health was the Daoyintu which is dated to 168 BCE. It is a painted scroll depicting the 44 figures engaging in Tao Yin exercises in both sitting and standing positions. Tao Yin combined physical exercises such as movement, stretches, jumping, dancing, and resistance training with breathing exercises. So far, the Daoyintu is the oldest physical exercise chart to ever be discovered. Hua Tao (140-208 CE) advanced the idea of the relationship between physical exercise, preventative medicine, and healthy diet in order to enhance quality of life. It is interesting to note that Hua Tuo is said to have been both a renowned physician and martial artist. The Wuqinxi (Five Animal Play) if not personally developed by Hua Tuo, was at least passed down by him. The Wuqinxi consists of exercises based on the movements of the tiger, deer, bear, monkey, and crane. Another document, the Yi Jin Jing (Sinews Transformation Classic) was most likely written in 1624 CE. It consisted of physical exercises coordinated with breathing to develop the strength and flexibility of the muscles and tendons and to improve overall health. It is considered by some to be an early form of qigong.


All martial arts are based on the movement of the human body. The link between movement and health has been documented in China for several thousand years. While the main focus of martial movements might be for application in combat, repeated training of this kind has many passive health benefits. It is unclear as to whether health-based exercises were the direct predecessors of Asian martial arts. However, it is not difficult to see the common threads that they share with the martial arts themselves. For example, many forms of gong fu are based off of the movements of animals. The Shaolin Temple was a repository for health practices as well as martial arts. There is little doubt that these traditions coexisted and influenced each other within the temple. Over time, the traditions of Shaolin spread and influenced the martial arts of Asia.


The first written record of this practice was the Huangdi Nei Jing (Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic). Dated to the 2nd century BCE, it is China's earliest scientific medical text. The Nei Jing actually consists of two texts. The Suwen (Basic Questions) is the first of the texts and explains the underlying theory of Chinese Medicine. The Lingshu (Spiritual Pivot) covers the details of acupuncture therapy. The meridian theory of acupuncture shares much in common the martial applications of vital point attacks and revival techniques. 


Herbal Medicine

The taoists lived closely with nature. As a result, herbal medicine was one of China's first forms of medicine. Classical Chinese Medicine was codified during the Han Dynasty by Zhang Zhongjing (196-220 CE). In his treatise, the Zhanghan Lun, Zhang established a basis for the diagnosis and treatment of disease by herbal medicine. Since that time, much as been passed down through experiential data documented by many generations of herbalists through the centuries.

The two general classes of herbs are superior herbs and inferior herbs. Superior herbs are those that can be used on a regular basis for improved quality of life and prevention of injury. Many of them are can be eaten as food, but not all. Inferior herbs are those that are used to treat a specific ailment and are only used for a short period of time. The herbs are classified as superior and inferior not because one class is more effective than the other, but because the herbalists placed a higher value on the ability to prevent a disease altogether rather than to treat one that has already manifested. They would have agreed that, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Herbal formulae are classified as being either external or internal depending of the herbs that are used. Some herbs should only be administered externally while others should only be administered internally. Others can be administered either way. Depending on the herb, they can be applied topically, ingested, inhaled, or administered intranasally. There are a variety of ways that the herbs are prepared and applied, such as: decoctions, liniments, poultices, plasters, soaks, pills, capsules, medicinal wine, and burning.

Martial medicinal herbs, formulas, and supplies.

Martial medicinal herbs, formulas, and supplies.

This tradition carries over into the martial world in many ways. First, is the use herbs to protect and enhance one's ability to train. No different than today, illness means less training at best, but worse still it means a handicap in combat. Therefore, tonic herbs were used to keep one healthy and illness-free. In the event that one fell ill, there were formulas used to treat the illness and reduce recovery time. There were also herbal formulas made specifically to enhance the training experience. These formulas ranged from those which helped focus the mind to those which imbued the martial artist with higher energy levels for a short time.

Second is the prevention and treatment of training and combat injuries. Liniments were commonly used in the conditioning of the body's striking surfaces to prevent chronic disease from repeated impact force. When injury did occur, different topical formulas were applied to the injured site to treat the local trauma. Other formulas could be ingested over the course of the treatment period to enhance the body's healing response. There were also herbal formulas used to restore consciousness, which were administered by blowing them into the person's nostrils.


The relationship between the martial arts and medicine has both immense breadth and depth. An exhaustive analysis of this relationship is well beyond the scope of a single article. While I have certainly just scratched the tip of the iceberg, I hope that I have presented a fair and unbiased introduction to the overlap of these two traditions.

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Luke Pecor