Chivalry Gets Its Chops

One must first learn civility before he learns the (martial) art,
and one must first know his ethics before he knows his skills.
— Ancient Japanese saying
Do you know what “knight” means? It is an old, old word. It means “servant,” and that is well thought out,
because who would be master must learn his trade by being mastered.”
— John Steinbeck, The Acts of King Arthur

A Code for Martial Honor


Ethics and chivalry in sports is a broad and sometimes confusing topic. On one hand, the principles of sportsmanship can be difficult to define — what’s honorable in water polo or basketball, for example, might be very different from what’s honorable in golf or rock climbing or archery. Yet there are basic principles of good conduct, fairness and respect that transcend all sports.

That being said, however, there is one segment of the sporting world that perhaps deserves a special distinction: martial arts. While many sports may be combative or aggressive, sports that involve physical attacks, from wrestling and karate to Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and Krav Maga, may seem uniquely removed when it comes to claims of “fair play.” How can you claim to be fair or “sportsmanlike” when you’re punching, kicking and trapping another person?

Although that may seem like a contradictory question, it brings to mind the fact that chivalry does, in fact, come from a “martial arts” tradition — the knights who developed and practiced chivalry were trained to fight with deadly state-of-the-art weapons, and to grapple in hand-to-hand combat. Similarly, Bushido, the way of the Japanese samurai, was created by warriors training for battle, and it is often called the “samurai code of chivalry.”

Bushido is still respected by practitioners of Asian martial arts today. The U.S. Martial Arts Federation abides by a code of ethics that is drawn from the tradition of Bushido, and is extremely reminiscent of the knightly virtues of the Code of Chivalry. Martial artists, for the most part, recognize that their unique training and abilities impose greater restraints than those expected of other people, and greater responsibilities to help those in need. The USAMAF code of ethics (reprinted in part below) contains some remarkable echoes of both Bushido and chivalry. It is a fine reminder that self-control, strength and tranquility are not contradictory concepts, and that the greatest warrior is often the one with the gentlest touch.

usamafThe primary objective of practicing Martial Arts is perfection of character. In order to perfect one’s character, one should be grateful for the abundant blessings of nature, as well as for the great love of parents; one should realize his enormous debt to teachers and be ever mindful of his obligations to the general public.

Every practitioner of Martial Arts should realize that honesty is the foundation of all virtues. Kindness is the secret of business prosperity. Amiability is the essence of success. Working pleasantly is the mother of health. Strenuous effort and diligence conquer adverse circumstances. Simplicity, fortitude and diligence are the keys to joy and gladness; and service to humanity is the fountain of mutual existence and common prosperity. Courtesy, respect, modesty, loyalty, generosity and dedication are not only the source, but the reward of the training.

Unlike many other styles of martial arts, Martial Arts continually strives to live up to the seven principles of the Code of Bushido “the way of the warrior.” The Code of Bushido teaches humility, truthfulness, bravery, benevolence, compassion, sincerity, loyalty and devotion to our families, friends and country as well as every aspect of our lives. As Martial Arts practitioners we believe that (the) Code of Bushido serves as our constant reminder to perfect our character.

Looking at it from today’s perspective, ethics in Martial Arts manifests itself mainly in the following ways:

The first is humility. Being humble is not easy for a martial artist. This is especially so for those who have some small accomplishments already. It is easy to look down on others who are less skilled and become unduly vain and arrogant. It is also easy to become short-sighted and narrow-minded, often praising oneself and putting others down. The result is unnecessary prejudices that often exist between different styles of martial arts. The fact is, all styles have their own merit and all have individuals who have attained high levels of accomplishments. Determining which style is better than another is neither possible nor necessary. The study of martial art itself is an unending journey.

All who have great accomplishments also display great humility. This is because, without humility, no one is capable of learning. The more humble a person is, the more willing he is to learn. This is the prerequisite to the attainment of knowledge. “As an empty cup can be readily filled; an open mind is sure to learn.

The second aspect is courage. The willingness to stand up for truth and justice is a traditional virtue in martial arts. The courage spoken of here is a higher kind of courage. It is the courage of self-sacrifice, of standing up for the truth, regardless of what the odds are or what the cost may be. It is not the petty bravery of proving one’s self-worth by engaging in meaningless rivalry, foolish stunts or the intimidation of others. The courage in this sense is an important test of a person’s true worth. In times of danger or crisis, a martial artist must stand up and be counted. The willingness to sacrifice is the hallmark of a true martial artist. No human endeavor can ever be possible without some sacrifice.

The third aspect is integrity. A true martial artist must have a high moral character, be open, forthright and honest. He should never be intimidated by power, corrupted by money, nor weakened by desire. A person must never be vain, but he can never be without pride. The true martial artist must have enough pride not to be used and corrupted by others, or lower oneself to grovel at the feet of the rich and powerful. He will never permit him(self) to be used by evil. The independence and integrity of personal character must be defended at all cost so that we may stand tall under any circumstance. In doing so, one will always have a clear conscience and righteous strength. This is the physical manifestation of Martial Arts spirit through the merging principles of the way and the art.

Last but not least, is respect. Respect and sensitivity toward others has a strong effect on personal relationships, both at work or at school, and with friends and family. Along with the mental connection and respect for others, comes an awareness of others and their needs.

Respect for those who are senior and from whom we learn is essential for learning. Without this basic element, the teacher can not teach and the learner can not learn.

Practitioners should not only show etiquette for the seniority system and honor senior members but show respect for self, other practitioners and all human beings.

We should always honor our families, and give without the expectation of receiving. Striving for family honor is a lifetime responsibility. As a member of a family, one’s first duty is to be filial to parents, to be helpful and harmonious with our consort, and to be affectionate to brothers and sisters, in order that the family may be a sound, successful and harmonious unit of the community.

As a member of a nation one must be grateful for the protection which one derives as a citizen; one must guard against self-interest and foster a spirit of social service.

This principle can be further expanded to include respect for other human beings, respect for society, institutions, other nations, cultures and all aspects of life and nature. Only when there are sufficient numbers of people who share this respect we can hope to change our world of violence and chaos into a world of peace and order.

As the Martial Arts practitioners we should also use ethics as a frame of reference for our daily behavior and activities. We are responsible to demonstrate the “code” in and out of the training area. This example shows that we do not consider our art separately from our everyday life, that (it) is part of everything. This demonstrates the strength of our art and makes us good practitioners and teachers.

One should be discreet in action, yet hold courage in high regard, and strive to cultivate manliness. One should be gentle, modest, polite and resourceful, but striving always to practice moderation in all things. One should also realize that these qualities constitute the secret of the practice of Martial Arts. The ethical principles … inspire all of us (less-than-perfect beings) to continually strive for perfection within ourselves.

© 2006 Scott Farrell & USAMAF

This excerpt is reprinted from the website of the USA Martial Arts Federation. The complete text of the USAMAF Code of Ethics (Link no longer available) includes clauses for coaches, referees and a specific statement regarding self-defense — it is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in modern applications of the Code of Chivalry.