Chinese Characters / Kanji in Martial Arts

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If you’ve spent any time in a martial arts studio / gym of any kind — whether doing Jiu Jitsu, Karate, Judo, Wushu, or any of the others from China or Japan (mostly) — then you’ll have seen many Chinese characters or kanji written about the place.

Known as kanji or hanzi (both of which are 漢字 or 汉字), or in English as “Chinese characters” (as Japanese and Koreans acknowledge their historical Chinese origin) or “kanji”, these are characters that are mostly common to Chinese and Japanese, with some variations.

I see Chinese Characters / kanji on wall posters and on people’s uniforms, and generally find them incredibly distracting, as I can’t help but try to figure out what they mean!

Here I’m going to generally collect the Chinese characters I see and explain them, for the other obsessively curious among you.

Martial arts wall hanging artwork Jiu Jitsu roushu
Martial arts wall hanging artwork — Jiu Jitsu (柔術)

Names of Martial Arts in Chinese Characters / Kanji

Sometimes, you see big block letters of names of various martial arts in wall hangings, logos, and so on. These can be on clothing too, sometimes.

The ones I see most commonly are below. There may be others — Let me know.

Hanzi / KanjiMartial artLiteral meaning of characters
柔道Judo“Gentle path”
柔術Jiu jitsu“Gentle art”
武術Wushu / Martial Arts“War art”
空手Karate“Empty hand”
功夫Kung fuA “Skill”
(Commonly used word to describe ability)
散打SandaMixed martial arts (“scattered strikes”)
截拳道Jeet Kune Do“Intercepting Fist Path”
跆拳道Tae Kwon DoKick (archaic, Hanja) fist path
(See note 1 below)
武道BudoMartial Way
武士道BushidoThe Way of the Warrior
(Note: Shares two characters with “Budo)
Hanzi / Kanji for common martial arts

Of course, there are other martial arts with names in Hanzi / Kanji. But they’re smaller martial arts (hey, Jeet Kune Do is getting popular lately, or is that just on Instagram?), and I see those characters less often emblazoned on uniforms or signs.

Note 1: Tae Kwon Do is Korean. Korean language has many roots in Chinese characters (called Hanja in Korean), but they’re not commonly used in Korea other than for some official purposes or symbolically (see Hanja in modern Korean). So Tae Kwon Do is usually written in modern phonetic Hangeul script as “태권도”.

Elemental / Virtue Characters

In many martial arts schools, I see wall hangings with various random characters on them. These are Chinese characters for elements.

Sometimes the selection fo characters is semi-random, and maybe a mix of traditional and simplified Chinese characters, making me wonder if people know what they mean.

Chinese characters in Martial arts gyms
Chinese characters in Martial arts gyms (Mix of traditional and simplified)
Meaning in EnglishSimplifiedTraditionalPronunciation (Mandarin)Pronunciation (Cantonese)
Promise/Agreement / Integritynuònok6
Accommodation / Lodging宿宿suk1
Occupation / Workjip6
Chinese characters / Kanji in Martial Arts wall hangings.

Various Wall Hangings

There are many wall hangings in gyms / dojos with kanji on them. They may be related to what people do there, or may not!

Often, the kanji are just for the martial art being taught, like Jiu Jitsu (e.g. the image at the top of this page)

The “Jeet Kune Do” (JKD) logo has a Yin / Yang symbol and Chinese characters around it. Even though JKD varies dramatically by the person instructing it, the wall hanging is a popular one, even in gyms that don’t instruct it, I guess because it calls back Bruce Lee.

Jeet Kune Do logo Chinese characters
Jeet Kune Do logo Chinese characters in the logo / wall hanging

The characters in the JKD logo / wall hanging comprise a saying. The characters are 《以無限為有限, 以無法為有法》 (the character “㕥” is an old form of “以”). Together, they can be translated as “Treat the limitless as limited, the lawless as lawful.”

Characters on Uniforms

Jiu Jitsu Black Belt The White Belt That Never Gave Up
The White Belt That Never Gave Up. (“Lit: “No give up white belt”). Kanji + Hiragana

On martial arts uniforms I’ve sometimes seen Chinese characters emblazoned. It’s sometimes a bit tacky.

If you’re shopping for a uniform, avoid these, unless you know what they mean and it’s important to you! (The characters for Judo or Jiu Jitsu are a safe bet.)

Martial arts kimono with Kanji saying on it
As fast as the wind, as slow as the forest (Sun Tzu quote)

Here are the ones I’ve come across. (Got more? Comment below or send me a note).

Chinese characters / Kanji on uniformsMeaning
将軍Shogun (a military officer)
疾如风,徐如林As fast as the wind, as slow as the forest
(Sun Tzu quote)
諦めない白帯“The White Belt that Never Gave Up” (Kanji + Hiragana)
Often seen on Jiu Jitsu black belts.
風林火山Wind – Forest – Fire – Mountain
關羽Guan Yu, a famous and often-quoted general
Chinese characters on Martial Arts uniforms

Sometimes, there are brand-specific characters on uniforms, too. These can also involve katakana if it’s a foreign brand name.

Other thoughts

My unsolicited thoughts: I’m not a huge fan of Chinese characters / kanji in martial arts uniforms. Often, they’re used graphically, and seem sometimes to fetishize Asian culture. Sometimes it seems a bit like wearing a T-shirt that says “I AM A LION”.

Of course, if it just says “Judo” on your Judo kimono in kanji, that’s fine. But go to Japan, and you might see very few that say that.

Coming soon: My line of uniforms with 牛肉麵 emblazoned on the back in huge characters. Stay tuned.

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