In modern societies, many people study the Chinese martial arts without necessarily having any knowledge of the Daoist philosophy that underpins them. Thus, taijiquan students might go to a weekly class to learn this particular art; they might do so for many years without ever encountering other aspects of Daoism (e.g. medical, alchemical, etc.). Likewise, students of Chinese medicine might study the subject through the medium of a degree or a course. They will consult many textbooks and do many hours of clinic practice, which might give them a solid understanding (both theoretical and practical) of Chinese medicine. But, in the vast majority of cases, they will not be presented with the bigger picture of Daoism—this is certainly true on our side of the planet.

Traditionally, those disciplines were not seen as separate from one another. Thus, a proficient martial artist would always study medicine and a healer would always study martial arts. Martial arts and medicine always went hand in hand as they were considered as two sides of the same coin. It is easy to understand this if we look at how much overlap and interaction there is between the two disciplines. Studying martial arts provides a thorough understanding of how the human body works. On a basic level, external martial arts like Shaolin gongfu allow us to study the natural alignments within our own body. By practising locks, throws and take-down techniques, we learn to manipulate another person’s joints, which in turn makes us familiar with human body mechanics. The internal martial arts take this study of the body to an even more complex level. For instance, taijiquan (yang style, mainly) and xingyiquan put great emphasis on the six harmonies (liuhe) – a key principle that aims at aligning the joints as efficiently as possible within the body.

Qinna (literally ‘seize and control’) is a key technique used within the internal martial arts that focuses on controlling and locking a person’s joints. Another aspect of this method is the striking of specific acupuncture points in order to affect a person’s body and state of mind. A thorough understanding of the meridian system is required if we are to study qinna. Conversely, qinna practice will give us a much more rooted approach to acupuncture points and their function. Last but not least, martial arts help us develop our yi (intent), which is paramount for acupuncture practice. Traditionally, acupuncture requires the practitioner to send their yi down through the needle in order to affect the flow of qi within the meridians or activate certain points. This can only be done effectively if our yi is strong enough—and martial arts were considered to be the most direct way to develop the yi. In the Chinese internal martial arts, the jian sword allows us to refine our yi to a very high degree. A specific practice used in jian training consists in dissolving clouds by sending the yi up through the blade. This degree of refinement can then be transferred to acupuncture needling.

What underlies the Chinese medical and internal martial arts is that thing called ‘qi’—often translated as energy or breath. Classically, the core energetic aspect of those arts was studied through neigong (internal work). For the same reason, neigong was never studied on its own. To an even greater extent than martial arts and medicine, neigong cannot be separated from the Daoist philosophy that underpins it (qigong, on the other hand, can be studied on its own). Without the energetic component, there would be nothing internal about the internal arts. Thus, neigong materialises the energetic aspects that are inherent to both Chinese medicine and the internal martial arts. Together, the martial aspect, the medical aspect and neigong constitute the threefold path of Daoism. This threefold path can be laid out in the form of three concentric circles, whose point of intersection represents dao – dao being, in a few words, that which has no name and cannot be defined. Thus, while there are many possible starting points in Daoism, there is no pre-defined endpoint. This fundamental openness is embodied in the threefold path of self-cultivation, with dao sitting at its exact centre.

The threefold path of Daoism

The threefold path of Daoism

Classically, the martial, medical and alchemical paths were always studied together—although students of the internal arts will often specialise in one of those paths after many years of diligent study. Typically, the ‘warrior path’ was studied first as it develops the physical body, thus providing a strong basis to move on to the more arcane aspects of Daoism. The ‘healer path’ may come second as the ‘alchemical path’ was considered the most arduous one, and so it was often studied last. On a pragmatic level, these interconnected paths help us grasp key aspects of the human mind. The martial path allows us to override our insecurities and embrace the aggressive component that is intrinsic to human experience. The medical path helps us develop the compassionate side to our nature. Finally, the alchemical path gives us a more intuitive access to the core of inherent truth that lies behind the fake reality of the physical world.