The Chinese whole man concept and mastering six arts

Ancient Chinese men were required to master six skills to be considered an accomplished person. Photo: The Temple of Confucious (public)

WASHINGTON, October 29, 2013 — In ancient China, during the Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BC), young aristocrats were required to master six skills as prerequisites to be considered as an accomplished person. These six skills, also known as the six arts, were Rituals, Music, Archery, Charioteer, Books and Numbers. The goal was to train a corps of leaders to help the king govern the nation. Men who excelled in these six arts were thought to have reached the state of perfection, an ideal gentleman.

Training for the art of rituals required learning about law, ethics and the proper conduct of various ceremonial rites befitting specific occasions. Its purpose was to produce individuals able to govern the people and lead them in sacrificial offerings to the gods.


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The art of music consisted of learning about singing, poetry, dancing and performance of musical instruments. It was aimed at developing a sophisticated mind to think beyond the requirements of daily mundane issues. At the advanced stage, dancing lessons entailed performance with shields and swords, thus becoming a form of exercise and instrument for the development of a warrior.

The art of archery was a ritualistic martial skill that demanded the archer to shoot arrows with power and rapidity; multiple arrows shot in succession, and each arrow must hit the mark. It also specified a ritual ceding of advantage to the king when shooting in the company of the ruler.

The art of charioteer involved more than the mere driving of a horse drawn chariot. It was also the command post of a military leader. The steering of a chariot symbolized acquisition of leadership skills necessary to lead an army into battle. Individuals needed to learn the intricacies of military tactics and the deployment of troops into various combat formations.

The art of books entailed the study of history, philosophy, literature and calligraphy. Chinese believed that a person’s character could be revealed through his hand writing. Training to be a good calligrapher served to develop and refine one’s inner soul. It also helped to learn from the examples of the forefathers.


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The art of numbers included mathematics, astronomy, astrology and forecasting. It also involved planning of strategy and tactics for use in social, political and military arenas.

At the age of twenty, a young man was evaluated for his training in the six arts. He was then awarded the right to wear a hair clasp as a symbol of entering the ranks of the gentlemen.

Initially, the extensive time, financial resources and able teachers required for training in the six arts relegated it to the realm of aristocrats. In time, the requirements for the six arts were pared down to center around books. During the Era of the Spring and Autumn (770 – 476 BC) and the ensuing Era of the Warring States (476 – 221 BC), well learned scholars from all walks of life were able to enter the ranks of courtiers.

Kings and rulers demanded talented men to serve in their courts. At the same time, able courtiers sought enlightened rulers for opportunities to demonstrate their capabilities. One well known example was Sun Tzu, who convinced King Helu of the Wu kingdom to hire Sun Tzu as the commander of the Wu army, and went on to defeat the more powerful Chu kingdom. His legacy was The Art of War, the earliest and most studied treatise on the conduct of warfare.


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The well recognized Chinese desire for education and learning as a means to achievement can trace its origin to the six arts.


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Tang Long

William Tang is a research analyst. Born in Taiwan, he is fluent in three dialects of Chinese and Spanish, plus survival level German and Japanese. He is a graduate of the Officers Advance Course at the General Political Warfare College, Taipei, Taiwan.

He lectures on Chinese history and culture and has two books in publication: “Tales of the Dragon – The Book of Lore,” an anthology of Chinese legends, fables, and historical anecdotes; and “Pets Only,” which recounts a pets operated eating establishment in northern Virginia. He lives with Shadow (Lab), Taz (Boxer) and Foxy Lady (Japanese Shiba Inu) in Fredericksburg, VA. He writes under the penname of TANG Long.

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