July 22, 2024

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Obedience and the Martial Arts

Obedience and the Martial Arts

Obedience has gotten a bad rep over the last few decades. It seems to be an antiquated term that connotes compliance to strict orders and edicts, whether they make sense or not, or oppressive subservience. Many parents have given up on expecting their children to “obey” for fear of squelching their budding self-esteem. Why then, does obedience seem to figure so strongly in the martial arts, the practice of which is becoming increasingly popular everywhere you look?

Martial Arts: Skills of War

The insistence on obedience appears more natural when you consider the origins of martial arts. According to The Oxford Dictionary, the word “martial” means “of or appropriate to warfare,” and indeed, the martial arts are fighting sports formerly used on the battlefield. These skills we now learn and practice for recreation, sport, or fitness were ancient skills of war.

In our modern-day military, the cornerstone concept new recruits learn is obedience. Soldiers obey the orders of their superior, not because they always want to, or think it’s the best thing to do, or they agree with it, but because they have learned the importance of obedience. They HAVE to.

In times of war, obedience can mean the difference between victory and defeat, and between life and death. In battle, there is often no time to stop and think about whether an order is a “good idea” or if you agree with it in principle or practice. You must obey without question. NOW.

The strict hierarchy of the military structure makes the process of obedience simple and unambiguous. Individuals of lower ranks take and carry out the orders of those in higher ranks. It’s an orderly system, meant to facilitate both everyday operations as well as those in times of war. And, for the most part, it serves its purpose very well.

Obedience in the Studio

Understanding the roots of obedience in the military helps in appreciating the role of obedience in the martial arts today. The fundamental principles stated by so many training centers and martial arts schools include discipline that develops self-control, orderly conduct, obedience, and respect. In fact, isn’t it interesting that the martial arts themselves are frequently referred to as a “discipline?”

And, similar to the ways in which the military has organized itself around ways to facilitate obedience, so, too has the present-day practice of martial arts instruction.

For example, the hierarchical structure within a training studio is taken directly from the Confucian regard toward relationships. Obedience to the master is a sign of respect for his or her position and achievements, of recognizing that he or she knows more, has more experience and is in a position of authority over the student. The instructors in the highest positions are there because they have the most wisdom and experience to responsibly train their pupils. In return, the pupils are to give them respect and obedience without question. Without this respect, the ability of the master to teach and of the student to learn, are significantly diminished. And, in actuality, the entire environment of the studio suffers when even one student fails to show obedience to the master or to respect his fellow students.

Obedience is for Everyone

The effect of a lack of respect and obedience is not restricted to the martial arts training studio. Without obedience, we would have chaos and anarchy. We all have to be obedient at various and regular times in our lives, — to our parents, to teachers, to supervisors and bosses, to police and government officials, to other persons in authority over us.

At times we may not agree with an order and other times we won’t like to be obedient, whether out of principle or ego. But obedience to that directive may be essential to our immediate or long-term welfare. Sometimes the direction we are supposed to follow may not make sense, but we are expected to comply because of the recognition of the authority of the person or the position making the order. In order to survive and thrive, society must operate in an orderly fashion; respect for and obedience to authority are critical components in maintaining that order.


While most of us today won’t be in a life-or-death situation requiring blind obedience to authority, there are plenty of common situations in which deference to another’s directive will be required. The lessons of obedience that are taught in the martial arts studios around the world are an excellent resource for children and adults alike. So, the next time you bow to your master, think about this obvious sign of respect, its origins, the underlying principle of obedience, and what it could and should mean in our modern world.