09 December 2022

Beating Swords into Ploughshares: Pondering Peace and Martial Arts

Beating Swords into Ploughshares:  Pondering Peace and Martial Arts
By Dr. Sanko Lewis

Presentation given at the 5th African Martial Arts Conference (“Solidarity in Action: Beyond Martial Arts Partnership”) on 25 October 2022, in Chungju, South Korea. (Organized by UNESCO-ICM.)

  • “A military is a tool of misfortune, all things detest it … when one is compelled to use it, it is best to do so without relish, for there is no glory in victory … When people have many sharp weapons, the country becomes more chaotic” – Laozi (Daodejing, Chptrs 31 & 57)
  • “There are men who say ‘I am skilful at marshalling troops, I am skilful at conducting a battle!’ They are great criminals” – Mencius (Jin Xin II, 50)
  • “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword” – Jesus (Matthew 26)

Many great spiritual teachers have warned against martial activities. The very idea that we can use martial arts (or ‘skills of war’) for peace promotion is illogical. Yet it is something many martial artists propose. It was this paradox that was the main topic of my PhD dissertation entitled: “Preaching Peace, Practising War: Mohism’s Resolution of the Paradoxical Ethics of War and Self-Defence in East Asian Martial Arts”.

For this conference, I was asked to talk to you about using martial arts for peace, and this I will do, but with some hesitation, for I don’t think we should romanticize the martial arts, lest we forget that just as swords are forged for war, so too were the martial arts. Nevertheless, I’ll suggest that the martial arts can be used to promote peace in two broad ways—or rather, at two levels: first, at a governmental diplomatic level in the form of soft diplomacy; and second, at an personal or intra-personal level.

Martial arts have been used with a relative degree of success for soft power in the form of cultural- and sports diplomacy. “Soft power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction and persuasion rather than coercion or payment” (Nye, 2019). For example, let’s see how South Korea used martial arts as soft diplomacy. Before South Korea’s export of K-Pop and K-Drama, its main cultural export was martial arts: taekwondo and hapkido. From as early as the 1950s, South Korean martial arts instructors were sent abroad as soft power emissaries. Such instructors were often working closely with the local South Korean embassies and to this day continue to do so with other Korean organizations such as KOICA (Korea International Cooperation Agency), which falls under South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Through such cultural dissemination, South Korea created positive sentiment in millions of Korean martial arts practitioners around the world—and now possibly billions of K-Pop and K-Drama fans.

Taekwon-Do demonstration team members from North Korean and South Korea,
after performing together under the slogan: "Peace is more precious than triumph".

Taekwondo has also been used specifically for diplomacy between North Korean and South Korea. “The most prominent of these occurred in 2018 and 2019 when a series of joint performances with ROK and DPRK taekwondo demonstration teams were held across the ROK. These demonstrations led to other joint performances at a pre-opening ceremony of the 2019 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in the ROK and at taekwondo facilities in the DPRK. These performances initiated a renewed interest in dialogue between the DPRK and ROK as well as the DPRK and the US. A series of summits followed between the leaders of these three adversaries stuck in a 70-year long stalemate.” (Johnson & Lewis, 2020). Of course, there are limits to the success of these endeavours. Figuratively speaking, taekwondo was able to kick open the doors for peace talks, but the political leaders were not able to maintain the momentum of these peace negotiations. Unfortunately, taekwondo could not kick through the complicated obstacles of geopolitics. 

The Olympic Games provides an opportunity for athletes, sometimes even from antagonistic nations, to come together in a spirit of sportsmanship. Similarly, there are martial arts sporting events that do the same. The Asian Games, which after the Olympic Games is the biggest global sporting event, contains several combative sports beyond those that are in the Olympic Games. While the Olympic Games includes archery, boxing, fencing, judo, and taekwondo, the Asian Games also includes jujitsu, karate, and wushu. Other events like the International Martial Art Games and the numerous world championships of the many martial arts organizations around the world create liminal spaces for people to come together in a spirit of comradery. There are few other scenarios other than at such sporting events where people from antagonistic countries can come together, mingle and even become friends—all because of their shared love for their sport and martial arts.  

Russian and Ukrainian Taekwon-Do practitioners
sitting side-by-side at a Taekwon-Do Championship.
(Photo source unknown.)

For this reason, I was personally disappointed when I heard that World Taekwondo has moved to ban Russian athletes from international competitions, and I heard similar calls from the ITF Taekwon-Do community to ban Russian Taekwon-Do athletes from participating at international ITF Taekwon-Do events because of the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine. My disappointment is not because I support Russia’s action—I do not support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, rather than use Taekwon-Do to drive people further apart, I think Taekwon-Do should be used to bring ‘opponents’ together. “What we need to see is Ukrainian and Russian Taekwon-Do practitioners standing side by side and competing alongside each other as part of one global Taekwon-Do family. This is how, I believe, [martial arts] organizations should affect positive change towards peace. [Martial arts] organizations should create opportunities for Ukrainian and Russian [martial art] practitioners to shake hands with each other in friendship, to bow to each other in respect, and maybe even to hug each other in [martial arts] fraternity. Getting Russians and Ukrainians (and the rest of the world) to see each other’s common humanity should be the goal. Sharing photos of such moments of friendship and mutual respect between supposed enemies should be the publicity [martial arts] organizations ought to strive for—not virtue signalling through calls of bans, othering, and separation” (Lewis, 2022).

There are also other ways—more personal or ‘intrapersonal’ ways—that the martial arts may contribute to peace, by forging less violent, more peaceful people. This is effectively summarized by Janet O’Shea, in her book Risk, Failure, Play: What Dance Reveals About Martial Arts Training:

“A relationship between vulnerability and accountability explains the central paradox of martial arts training: that knowing how to fight can make you less likely to fight. Part of this paradox lies in confidence: those who know how to fight are less likely to be targeted, and thus are less likely to need their fight skills. Those who fight recreationally or competitively don’t need to put themselves into violent situations to test their knowledge; they have ample opportunity to experiment in consensual circumstances. In addition, however, fight training forms a powerful reminder of vulnerability. Fight sports teach us that anyone can lose a fight and anyone can win one, they show us that strikes hurt regardless of who they come from; and they signal that fundamental limitations unite us more than differences of shape, size, gender, and age separate us.” (Jane O’Shea, 2019:71.)

There is a curious phenomenon we notice with martial artists; they seem to be more affectionate to each other after a fight. This is strange because one would expect opponents to be more antagonistic, yet the opposite seems to be the case. Usually, after the fight, the behaviours of the opponents are those of friends rather than enemies. Think how often you have seen fighters—such as boxers, wrestlers, and MMA-fighters—hug each other after a fight. In an article recently published by UNESCO-ICM, Caio Amaral Gabriel explores the science behind this phenomenon. He points to a study by Rassovsky et al. from 2019 that shows that sparring increases oxytocin, the hormone associated with social bonding and cooperative behaviour. While more research is needed to determine how we can use this phenomenon for creating more peace-loving people, it does hint at something observed in several Korean studies that training in Taekwondo tend to reduce aggression and violence in individuals (Song, 1999; Han & Son, 2003; Yang, 2003; Lee 2009). There is also lots of anecdotal evidence that people who take up martial arts become calmer and more self-controlled.

A possible explanation for martial arts’ ability to cause people to become less aggressive and more self-controlled is the way in which it nurtures resilience. Good studies show that sport, and especially traditional martial arts, develops resilience. “Resilience […] refers to an individual’s capacity for adapting to changes and stressful events in a healthy way” (Catalano, et al. 2004). Essentially, resilience is the ability to endure stress. At the most basic level, in martial arts one learns to take a hit, whether it be a punch, kick, or throw—and one learns to do so without becoming emotional. There is a sense in which one becomes somewhat desensitised to the blows—and possibly by extension also to the blows thrown at you by life.

In martial arts training, practitioners are constantly confronted with hindrances: confronted with their own limitations which they must push pass or accept and confronted with opponents. Martial artists learn to reinterpret such confrontations not as unsurmountable obstacles or as dangerous enemies. In martial arts training your present limitations are opportunities for growth and your opponent is not an enemy but a training partner, and even failure has the potential to become a teacher.

Furthermore, in the martial arts gym we learn responsibility and self-control. As Janet O’Shea explains:
“When we spar, we expose ourselves to harm at the hands of our sparring partners. We are continually reminded that what could (theoretically) happen isn’t, in a respectful gym, happening: my training partner could break my arm when he gets me in an arm bar; instead he releases his grip. I could knock her out when I land a punch but instead I control its impact” (O’Shea, 2019:99).

As such, under the guidance of a good instructor and with the right mindset, martial art practise may be a microcosm in which to learn how to negotiate conflict, and hopefully thereby foster more peaceful people.

In the United Nations Art Collection stands a sculpture titled “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares.” The sculpture was inspired by a phrase from the Book of Isaiah, in which the prophet had a vision of the future in which he saw people “beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks”; a future of peace between nations when people will not learn war anymore (Isaiah 2:4). 

I started this talk by saying that I don’t want us to romanticise the martial arts, for ultimately martial arts are the means of war. But, maybe, just maybe we can turn our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks and repurpose the martial arts to be means of peace. 



Catalano, R. F., Berglund, M. L., Ryan, J. A., Lonczak, H. S., & Hawkins, J. D. (2004). “Positive youth development in the United States: Research findings on evaluations of positive youth development programs.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591, 98–124.
Gabriel, C. A. (2022). “[Voices of Youth] Fighting for Peace: Grappling and Striking as Potential to Peacebuilding”. UNESCO-ICM.
Han G.G., Sohn S.D. (2003). “Comparison analysis of aggression and attack and sacrifice factors according to Taekwondo training.” Korean Journal of Physical Education, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 905–922 [in Korean.]
Johnson, A. J. & Lewis, S. (2020). “From Individual Heroes to National Performers: The Shift in Taekwondo’s Peace Promotion Activities.” Physical Activity Review, vol. 8(2), pp. 64-71.
Lee K.H. (2009). “Comparative analysis on aggression according to the degree of Taekwondo training for children.” Korean Journal of Physical Education, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 833–842 [in Korean].
Lewis, S. (1996). “Promoting Peace, Practising War: Mohism’s Resolution of the Paradoxical Ethics of War and Self-Defence in East Asian Martial Arts” [unpublished doctoral thesis], Yongin, Korea, Kyunghee University.
Lewis, S. (2022). “Taekwon-Do vis-à-vis the Russian Invasion of Ukraine.” Soo Shim Kwan-blog. https://sooshimkwan.blogspot.com/2022/03/taekwon-do-vis-vis-russian-invasion-of.html
Lewis, S. & Johnson, A. J. (TBD). “Dissonance Issues Incurred with the Use of Taekwondo for Promoting Peace.” Ido Movement for Culture: Journal of Martial Arts Anthropology. (Accepted for publication in 2024, vol. 23.)
Nye, Jr., Joseph S. (2019). “Soft Power and the Public Diplomacy Revisited.” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 14 (April 2019): 1-14.
O’Shea, J. (2019). Risk, Failure, Play: What Dance Reveals About Martial Arts Training. Oxford University Press.
Song C. S. (1999). “The Effects of Taekwondo Exercise on School Violence of Middle School Students”, [unpublished master's thesis], Seoul, Korea, Sogang University Graduate School [in Korean].
Yang K. S. (2003). “Taekwondo Training for Primary School Students, Its Degree and Its Relationship with Aggression” [unpublished master's thesis], Daegu, Korea Keimyung University [in Korean].


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