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US International Kuo Shu Championship Tournament

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2014 US International Kuo Shu Championship Tournament: A Personal Account

Written July 29th, 2014

“During the ROC (founded in 1911), and even today in Taiwan, it [Chinese martial arts] is called Guoshu (literally, ‘national art’).  They have their own reason for doing so.  My father gave it the name Guoshu…At that time, Chinese painting was called guohua (national painting), language was called guoyu (national language) and Chinese medicine was called guoyi (national medicine).  Naturally, Chinese Wushu was called Guoshu.” — The Late Grandmaster Ma Xianda, Kung Fu Magazine “The Muslim Master of the Old Empire”

This past weekend, the 2014 US International Kuo Shu Championship Tournament (just rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?) was held at the Hunt Valley Inn (formerly known as the Hunt Valley Marriott Hotel) in Baltimore, Maryland, United States of America.  Since 2008, I have attended almost every tournament, where it has continuously been held at the same location.  This year was no different.  I have always made a plan of attending this tournament, not to compete, but to spectate.  It would be the last chance I would get to do something fun in my free time, before I would begin training for the 10th Pan American Wushu Championships, which will be held in Costa Rica from August 31st to September 8th.  Arguably, it’s more fun, at least in my opinion, to spectate than it is to compete at martial arts tournaments.  And for me, this is one of the best places to be.

Before I begin to describe my experience with this tournament, allow me to establish its history, for those that are unfamiliar with it.  According to the program I purchased, which cost $3.00, the US International Kuo Shu Championship Tournament is sponsored and hosted by the USKSF (United States Kuo Shu Federation) and its president Huang Chien-liang, a master of the Tien Shan Pai (天山派; Tiānshānpài, Celestial Mountain School) style.  The tournament has been held for twenty-six consecutive years.  The term “Kuoshu”, also spelled “Guoshu” (国术; guóshù, literally “national art”), was the name used by the democratic Republic of China (Taiwan, not to be confused to with the communist People’s Republic of China of mainland China) to describe Chinese martial arts.  Like “Wushu” (武术; wǔshù, literally “martial art”), the word “guóshù” can also be considered as an umbrella term for Chinese martial arts.  However, due to the history behind these two terms, they are often used separately to refer to specific kinds of practices in Chinese martial arts.  According to the late Grandmaster Ma Xianda, who was featured in the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Muslim Master of the Old Empire”, “During the ROC (founded in 1911), and even today in Taiwan, it [Chinese martial arts] is called Guoshu (literally, ‘national art’).  They have their own reason for doing so.  My father gave it the name Guoshu…At that time, Chinese painting was called guohua (national painting), language was called guoyu (national language) and Chinese medicine was called guoyi (national medicine).  Naturally, Chinese Wushu was called Guoshu.”  “Guóshù” specifically refers to the practice of traditional styles of Chinese martial arts, whereas “wǔshù” mainly refers to modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport.

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For those that are interested in looking at the popular styles of Chinese martial arts, this tournament has everything, from traditional gongfu styles, traditional Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist) forms and push hands(推手; tuī​shǒu), to Wing Chun and chisao (黐手; chīshǒu, sticking hands), to Kenpo (拳法; literally “fist method”, a translation of the original Chinese “quánfǎ”), to modern Wushu Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms), to what almost everybody wants to see at this venue, full-contact lei tai (擂台; lèitái) fighting (which we will get to later).  When I first attended this tournament in 2008 and 2009, I was only concerned with the modern Wushu division, as this was what former friends and classmates of my former Wushu school were competing in.  In 2008, I helped out as an announcer for the modern Wushu table.  In 2009, I was simply a spectator and supporter.  After a brief break from intense competitive Wushu Taolu training in 2010, where I suffered burnout and did not attend the tournament, I decided to return, purely as a spectator, in 2011.

It was at this point that I begin to truly appreciate this event as a celebration of Chinese martial arts.  This may sound corny, but to me, it’s true.  At least in a competitive format, spectators get to see a complete picture of Chinese martial arts and its various practices, from obscure styles, to more well-known ones like Baguazhang (八卦掌; bā​guà​zhǎng, Eight Trigrams Palm) and Xingyiquan (形意拳; xíng​yì​quán, literally “shape-will fist”).  For someone like me, who is into the serious study and practice of Chinese martial arts, this is the place to be.  The rings were mainly setup in two floors of the hotel.  Modern Wushu and traditional Taijiquan was set up on the first floor, where the spectator entrance was.  The lower level, which could be reached by escalator, consisted of the front desk, informal kiosks of martial arts equipment, and more rings, which were concerned with traditional forms and the lei tai (again, we will get to this later).  In 2008 and 2009, I was mainly focused on the modern Wushu divisions, and I had spent little to no time looking at the traditional events.  However, as my experience and knowledge with Wushu grew, my knowledge and awareness of Chinese martial arts grew, and my generally passive attitude towards traditional Chinese martial arts changed to a more serious one.  This was mainly due to the limited research I had done, which was mainly restricted to Kung Fu Magazine (and also the reason why I quote its articles so much) to learn more about Chinese martial arts, as my passion for Wushu grew from a simple hobby to a serious passion.  Such readings included articles that featured Zhao Changjun, my Wushu idol, who stressed that traditional Wushu should be valued as well alongside modern Wushu.  With this, I decided to expose myself more to the, and that meant visiting the tournament again.

In 2011, I went to see the lower level, rings and events located at the lower level of the tournament, and I was extremely interested with what I saw.  In 2012, my attention to the modern Wushu division dissipated, and I was almost exclusively paying attention to the traditional gongfu divisions and the lei tai.  2013 was no different.  For any other person involved in modern Wushu, this event may not hold much interest, as modern Wushu is only restricted to a single division in this tournament, but not for me.  Every year, I arranged for myself to go spectate at this tournament, and I was always satisfied.  But this year, I decided to make it a point of staying the whole day, in order to absorb as much as I could this time.

Unfortunately for me, due to my lack of sense of direction and memory, I arrived late at the tournament, and missed the opening ceremonies.  Upon arriving, I went to the front desk and purchased both a spectator wristband for both the day and night, which amounted to $40.00, as well as a video pass to record anything I wanted, which was $25.00.  The setup of this year’s tournament was slightly different, with the rings slightly oriented differently than last year, though all the competitive divisions and rings remained in their general place.  In the lower level of the tournament, there were all kinds of traditional forms from traditional styles like Tien Shan Pai, Northern Shaolin (北少林; běishàolín), Hung Gar (洪家; hóngjiā), and Choy Li Fut (蔡李佛; càilǐfó).  What astounded me most was that these traditional style practitioners even competed in modern Wushu divisions, which to me was amazing, and only affirmed what I found to be valuable in the practice of all forms of Chinese martial arts, including modern Wushu.

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When visiting the lei tai, I had the opportunity to witness short weapons fighting for the first time.  In Chinese, this practice is referred to as duanbing (短兵; duǎnbīng, literally “short weapon”).  Whether or not these two things were meant to be the same thing, I don’t know.  At first, I thought this might be a good opportunity to see what competitive Chinese martial arts swordplay looked like in action.  However, this competitive division was mainly occupied with Taekwondo stylists and practitioners.  In fact, there was only one competitor that seemed to come from a Chinese martial arts school.  The matches seemed to play out similar to a Kendo competition, where each exchange was stopped quickly and points were awarded, albeit with much less finesse.  It seemed as though the competitors were swinging their foam apparatuses around like they didn’t know how to use them at all, and I quickly lost interest.  Keeping in mind that I am a practitioner of modern Wushu, which does not involve any weapons combat training, it is important to understand that my observations are that of an uneducated spectator.  Maybe there was method in this madness, but as far I could tell, I didn’t see any, and thus did not see what I thought I was going to.

During the break of this year’s tournament, I was approached by a man who I would later know as “Sifu Jonathan Miller.”  Sifu Miller inquired about whether or not I was the same person who was uploading most the tournament’s lei tai fights for the past few years, even partially dropping the username of my YouTube account (uh oh).  He told me that he appreciated the fact that I was essentially helping to share and bring awareness to the event, and even told me to let me know if there was anything I needed, or if I even had any suggestions for the tournament.  He even offered me a wristband that would allow spectatorship for the full weekend, even though I already had one!  I was told by Sifu Miller that he himself was the commentator for the lei tai fights, a voice that I frequently recognized at this tournament (which also had humorous remarks in 2013).  I was also further told that the lei tai fights would in fact begin at 7:00 pm, despite the fact that they were apparently scheduled for 3:00 pm on the USKSF’s Facebook page (yet another example of inconsistent scheduling and organization.  Maybe this isn’t just a Wushu thing.).  So with that, I decided to quickly go out and grab lunch, and then come back.

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And finally, I arrived to the event of the night, the one that almost everyone wanted to see, full-contact lei tai fighting.  The term “lei tai” in Chinese literally means “raised platform” which was historically used between fighters, most notably between Chinese martial artists.  Unlike the conventional boxing ring, the lei tai has no ropes, so fighters are capable of knocking each other off the platform, which changes the nature of the standard stand-up fight.  Today in Guoshu competition, lei tai refers to full-contact fighting similar to boxing and kickboxing.  In quick summarization, Guoshu lei tai rules allow for kicks, punches, elbows, knees and takedowns.  As a sport, modern Wushu is categorized into two disciplines; Taolu, and Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), also known as Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting), although there are a couple differences, which I plan on getting into in another write-up.  But for the general spectator, the appeal might have been much simpler.  What appealed to me most about the lei tai fighting was how similar of a game it was to Sanshou rules.  Whether or not it was to see what “real kung fu fighting” looked like, or if it was just to see how Chinese martial artists duke it out, everyone in the room paid attention to the lei tai fights.  We started with the first thirteen matches, which were elimination matches to determine who would advance to the lei tai finals.  As is characteristic of many full-contact bouts, fighters were very aggressive, and the fights themselves were very fast-paced.

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After all the elimination rounds finished up, we moved ahead with the masters’ demonstrations.  Performances were done by Mattias Yerg demonstrating two-section staff, Sifu Jonathan Miller demonstrating zouxianfeichui (走线飞锤; zǒuxiànfēichuí, flying steel ball) to a background track of Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains The Same”, Sifu Eileen Hancock demonstrating double straight sword, Sifu Señor Pedro Martinez from Venezuela demonstrating Bajiquan (八极拳; bājíquán, Eight Extremes Fist) style’s form Bajilianhuanquan (八极连环拳; bājíliánhuánquán, literally “eight extremes linking fist”), Grandmaster Calvin Chin demonstrating Wu Style Taijijian (太极剑; tàijíjiàn, Taiji straight sword), Master Martin Sewer from Switzerland demonstrating Hung Gar’s “Ten Killing Hands” (十毒手; shídúshǒu, literally “ten poisonous hands”) form and its applications in a skit with two of his students, and finally, Master Raphael Hernandez from Venezuela demonstrating Piguadao (劈挂刀; pīguàdāo).  We then moved forward with the lei tai finals, which consisted of another thirteen matches.  In retrospect, I’ve been told fellow people I’ve trained and sparred with that the Guoshu lei tai circuit is very questionable as a valid form of full-contact, namely because of the rules that are set in place, which are seen as restrictive.  However, I still find this venue to be very enjoyable, as many of its contestants are Chinese martial artists, and I have seen Chinese martial arts techniques from Choy Li Fut and Tanglangquan (螳螂拳; tánglángquán, Praying Mantis Fist) in the past, which makes this competition enjoyable for me to watch, not to mention that it is the only full-contact competition I can find in my area.

The lei tai finals came to a close after 11:00 pm.  After wrapping everything up for the night, I decided it was time to go home.  It was a long day, but for me it was still worth it.  As I said earlier in this write-up, this tournament is truly a celebration of Chinese martial arts.  For those of you that are interested in seeing traditional Chinese martial arts, I implore you to come out and support this event, and I hope you can appreciate and respect its practice as I have come to.

(Just a quick note: For those who intend to attend or spectate: the address of the tournament is listed as 245 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley, MD 21031.  However, this address is very vague, and there are in fact multiple hotels around that area.  The specific Hunt Valley Inn where the tournament is held is in fact located in the Executive Plaza, across the street from Bank of America.)

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