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Collegiate Wushu in the United States

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Collegiate Wushu in the United States: What It Means For US Wushu

Written April 23rd, 2014

 “<Insert obligatory quote here>” — Someone with something smart to say

On April 19th, 2014, the 18th Collegiate Wushu Tournament in the United States of America took place at the University of Maryland, College Park (also referred to as UMCP, UMD, College Park, or simply University of Maryland).  As the name of the competition suggests, this specific Wushu tournament, simply dubbed “Collegiates” by the collegiate Wushu community in the US, has been held for eighteen consecutive years by hosting universities with prominent Wushu clubs across the nation.  Although it has gone through various names and generations under the discretion of its numerous hosts, it has carried with it the undying dedication of those participating within the collegiate Wushu community, as well our continued love of the sport of modern Wushu.

I’ve had some time to reflect on my experience at this year’s Collegiates, and I would now like to share my thoughts on that experience in this new write-up, as well as my recently developed feelings for collegiate Wushu.  When I say collegiate Wushu, I am simply referring to the practice of Wushu in the collegiate environment, which is primarily focused on, but not restricted to, modern Wushu and its competitive circuits.  For this write-up, I will talk about the benefits and future prospects of collegiate Wushu, based on my experiences with it, and the kind of impact it can have, or rather already has, for the sport on a national level.

Quick History Lesson

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photo by Jackie Ho

Before I begin to talk about the impact that collegiate Wushu in the US has and can potentially have, I will first give a short account of how collegiate Wushu came to be.  An old online post entitled “Collegiate Wushu History 101” by Raffi Kamalian, which is hosted on his old website beijingwushuteam.com, details an extensive account of this history.  The earliest known collegiate Wushu clubs in the US were started in the West (Pacific) Coast (of the United States), with the oldest known club being the UC Berkeley (University of California, Berkeley) Wushu Club, also known as “Cal Wushu”, which is currently 6-time consecutive Team Champion of Collegiates.  Other clubs eventually accompanied Cal Wushu on the West Coast, such as the University of Oregon Wushu Club, UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) Wushu, UCSD (University of California, San Diego) Wushu, and Stanford (Stanford University) Wushu.  Prominent Wushu clubs on the East Coast (of the United States) include TerpWushu (University of Maryland, College Park), Virginia Wushu Club (University of Virginia), Columbia Wushu (Columbia University), and UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) Wushu (for the sake of being concise, this list has been heavily abridged.  TerpWushu’s website, terpwushu.org contains a much more complete directory of collegiate Wushu clubs in the US).  Generally, while all these clubs are varied in practice, they have all been founded with either one of two common goals, or both; the introduction and promotion of Chinese Wushu into the collegiate environment, and its continued practice and competition at the collegiate level.  As is the universal obstacle for any party trying to promote Wushu, awareness and interest for the activity was very few and far between in the beginning.  However, as the practice of collegiate Wushu gradually sprouted into existence, its competition circuit would soon follow.

Founded by Brandon Sugiyama, a former US Wushu Team member from University of Oregon in 1997, the Collegiates tournament was essentially a way to bring Wushu clubs together and form a community between us all.  Initially, as one would imagine, participation mostly stemmed from West Coast clubs.  However, as the establishment of other collegiate Wushu clubs followed, the competition would gradually widen into what we see today.  As a sport, Wushu is standardized into two events; Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms), and Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), the full-contact and freestyle sparring, also known as Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting).  To this day, Collegiates is only concerned with Taolu competition.  Competition divisions include nandu (难度; nándù, difficulty movements), divisions, non-nandu, open hand and weapons, traditional open hand and weapons divisions, as well as the always popular group sets (集体;jítǐ , group sets).

The other known collegiate-level Wushu competition aside from Collegiates is UWG (University Wushu Games, formerly titled “East Coast Collegiates”), hosted by TerpWushu.  Unlike Collegiates, which is specifically restricted to competitors attending college and alumni, UWG is open to other competitors, such as professional Wushu schools and studios with varying age divisions.

Now that we’ve established the general history of collegiate Wushu in the US, let’s talk about what it can do for US Wushu, in three main ways.

It Introduces the College Demographic To Wushu

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photo by Jackie Ho

This was one was obviously a no-brainer.  But in terms introduction, I am not simply referring to the competitive circuit, but also to the general practice and learning experience of Wushu itself.  In a write-up done last year, “No Medal for You: Why (I Feel) Olympic Wushu is No Longer worth It”, I said that the central obstacle to Wushu’s success is general awareness at the local level, not popularity as a competition item.  The spreading of collegiate Wushu can serve as a solution to this problem, at least for the college demographic.  In particular, the college demographic can be a strong target for Wushu’s promotion, because it can offer something back to Wushu that most other demographics cannot.

Like many professional martial arts schools and studios, the primary target demographic for Wushu schools is children.  Although the availability of Wushu as a general physical activity is well-intentioned, it serves as little more than just another babysitting program for parents to occupy their kids with, and shares very little of the standard of skill in the sport, as well as the depth of its Chinese martial arts roots.  It is for this reason that many people view other martial arts styles like American Karate and Taekwondo as illegitimate martial arts styles.  The difference is that Wushu is not as popular or well-known as the other two styles, and this is because of the way it is promoted and shared to the public, or lack thereof.  It is very rare that you will find a serious child wanting to pursue Wushu, let alone practice it in the long-term.  By contrast, college students can be a mature and serious audience for Wushu’s practice, as opposed to the general market of children and youth.  Unlike children, who are usually “encouraged” by parents and not by their own will to participate in Wushu, the collegiate demographic can provide students who are not only genuinely interested in Wushu, but are serious about its practice as well.  And not only can the college demographic offer opportunities of serious and willing students, but with such students, it can allow people to gain a better understanding of the martial art of Wushu, not just the simple sport.

In “No Medal for You: Why (I Feel) Olympic Wushu is No Longer worth It”, I also said that being able to simply promoting awareness of Wushu, and making the sport successful was not enough.  Better understanding of Wushu was also required to help it survive in the long-term, and that lies in sharing the knowledge that makes Wushu unique as a style of modern martial arts.  I have said numerous times before in previous write-ups that modern Wushu is an interpretation of the traditional Chinese martial arts that it was standardized from, and although it is not on the same level of martial arts as traditional “gongfu”, it should still retain the depth of its traditional counterpart.  This means sharing the in-depth knowledge that comes from Wushu’s connection and similarities to traditional Chinese martial arts, including martial applications and fighting ideas behind Wushu techniques and movements, as well the various philosophies behind Wushu that can add to a deeper and more critical level of practice.

Notice that I am only stressing learning and practicing perspectives at this point.  A competition-oriented attitude should build upon, and come after, a well-established awareness and understanding of Wushu, which is the first step and priority in promoting Wushu.  In “Competition vs. Practice: A Look at Training Wushu Fundamentals”, I said that a learning and practicing experience in Wushu can yield much more knowledge and better understanding about what Wushu’s practice has to offer, than that of a competitive one.  Aside from the main discipline of Taolu, this includes Sanshou, as well as the introduction of traditional styles to encourage more all-around understanding of Chinese martial arts in general.  And again, the collegiate demographic provides an opportunity to achieve that with serious students.

The persistent survival of most of the collegiate Wushu clubs in the US shows that there are people who genuinely care about Wushu, and is proof that the collegiate demographic can grant great returns to the promotion and awareness of Wushu.  While general skill level is a continuing issue, it is not nearly as important as trying to promote general awareness and better understanding Wushu in the first place.  And the college demographic is as good a place to start as any.

It Provides a Strong Community and Network for Wushu in the US

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photo by Jackie Ho

One of the great things that events like Collegiates achieve is bringing together most, if not all the Wushu clubs that comprise collegiate Wushu in the US.  It is at this point that I am now talking about the competitive collegiate Wushu circuit, because one of the great things about Wushu competition is that it brings distant groups together to form a solid community, which is united by a common practice.  From this point on, the observations made will only be of my own opinion, based on personal experience.  As of right now, I have only been to two Collegiate tournaments, one in 2012 hosted by the Virginia Wushu Club, and the other held this year by TerpWushu.  Both times, I was amazed at the level of openness and familiarity between members from different clubs.  Despite the fact that this was a competitive environment on the surface level, it was more than that for the community present.  It was a venue where, put simply, people had the opportunity to pursue what they loved and dedicated themselves to practicing, simply because they cared enough, as well further encourage its practice with others.  And it showed.  I can say with a straight face that Collegiates is a prime example of camaraderie and sportsmanship, something that is unfortunately lacking in many other sports communities, including the “professional” Wushu one.

The “professional” Wushu circuit in the US, officially managed by the USAWKF (United States of America Wushu-Kungfu Federation), is dominated by many high profile professional Wushu schools and studios, all of which have parties out to make a name for themselves, as well as show there “superiority” and dominance over other competitors.  From this abundance of competition, strong competitive rivalries and animosity arise between coaches and students of different schools.  This in turn leads to political biases and connections under the table, which only exacerbates the problem of corruption in the sport.

But here, there were no alienating rivalries between schools or cliques, only warm greetings.  There was no smack or trash talk, only “jiayou”s of encouragement for other competitors.  Competitors were humble, friendly, and open to exchange with each other.  The collegiate Wushu community in the US was virtually free of the animosity, politics, and negativity that restricted the national competitive circuit.  But most amazingly, there was another painfully obvious factor that contributed to the value of this community, which I didn’t see until very recently—the fun.

You may or may not be surprised that I think this, but it wasn’t until this year that I truly understood that such a venture as Collegiates could be fun.  It was only through experiencing this particular competition as an athlete, within this community, that I realized the experience was enjoyable.  And the worst part about it was that I realized it too late.  After I competed at Collegiates, I was asked by one of the former seniors at my Wushu school, “Did you have fun at the competition?”  My answer, while it was a definite “yes”, took a long time to discover.

During my previous competition, I met with a competitor in my division, who was much older and much more experienced than me, that said that this was “all in good fun.”  This kind of attitude was so alien to me, yet at the time I didn’t know what else to do but concede his point.  And this was because for the majority of my competitive career in Wushu, I never fully acknowledged the big “F” factor, until after I had endured the stress and anxiety of all my competition events.  This is not to say I didn’t have fun at the competitions I’ve been to; I did, I’d just forgotten about it during training as well as leading up to my events, and didn’t think much of it.  While I was training for Collegiates, a mentor of sorts (who has been quoted and greatly helped with editing in some of my previous write-ups), said, “Don’t lose the fun.”  While I didn’t “lose” the fun itself per se, I lost sight of it during training and competition day, which is just as bad.

I wasn’t able to admit it at the time, but for a long time, when I was training competitively, I was unhappy.  I was unhappy because the fun and joy of doing what I loved was sapped away by all the stress and negativity of hard training.  Part of this was because of the mentality that I learned for most of my competitive career.  While I was actively training under my coach, practice was absolutely no-nonsense.  You didn’t get to converse with your classmates or training partners during practice, you just practiced.  If you couldn’t pick up something new on the spot, you were stuck on a steep learning curve.  And if you gave anything less than your best, and didn’t train like you wanted to win, your motive to train seriously was questioned.  From a purely competitive standpoint, this kind of training attitude is great; if you want to do well in competition, you have to be pushed, and that means having a serious attitude and focus.  There is something to be said about the Chinese “eating bitter” (吃苦;chīkǔ) philosophy.  Being able to bear and endure hard work offers the strength of focus and discipline that many others may not have.  This is not to say that that kind of mentality is not valuable, it is, and I’m not saying that I didn’t love doing Wushu.  I loved pursuing Wushu more than anything else, I took it seriously and willingly, and was more than willing to eat bitter to get better.  And every time I made the decision to compete again, I never questioned my motivations after; I knew this was what I wanted to do.  To me, practicing and learning martial arts was more than just a matter of “fun”, it is an investment that absolutely must be taken seriously if you want to get good at it, like anything else.  As I’ve said in my previous write-up, “3 Life Lessons Competitive Wushu Teaches: A Memo to Myself”, hard, hard work is necessary.  But if you lose sight of the fun, you’d be hard-pressed to find any happiness or satisfaction in your experience, and I did, which just made my journeys emotionally difficult.  This training mentality that I grew up in and was raised with partly contributed to that, but ultimately it was mostly my own fault for forgetting “how to have fun.”  The pressure and stress that I put myself under was more than what any of my coaches or seniors could ever give me.  Another senior of my Wushu school, and one of my first coaches, who I made the mistake of not listening to, said “Collegiates is kind of a bonding experience for national college wushu practitioners.  It’s fun.  The goal is to have a good time.  And if you come, you should have that kind of mindset.”  This may sound dramatic, but it was true; up until last week, I forgot how to have fun in competition.  I’d forgotten the fun I had in my previous competitions.  And not only does collegiate Wushu also have it, collegiate Wushu was what ultimately reminded me of it.

So when I was asked, “Did you have fun at the competition?” my exact answer was, “Sorry to say, I only started to have fun after my events…”  After I was done with all my events, I had the chance to make new friends and catch up with old ones, which was primarily where the fun was to be found.  These were the same people that were open, friendly, and encouraging to me, despite the fact that they had no association or deep personal connection to me prior to competition.  While I had done this at other competitions, I didn’t really take the time be conscious of the fun I had.  And now that I have only school to deal with, I have just started to recognize, and already miss the joy I just had last week.  To be a part of this community is nothing short of one of the best experiences of my life.  While it is by no means perfect, in my opinion the collegiate Wushu community offers many things I could not find previously in other competition circuits or social groups.  This is one of the few instances where I can say I am one hundred percent happy with where I am in the moment.  Being in this atmosphere, I have no regrets, just contentedness and an unequaled peace of mind.  It is a privilege to be considered a part of this community, and I have nothing but gratification to the people in it.

It Provides a Future for US Wushu

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photo by Jackie Ho

Yes, I am bold enough to say that collegiate Wushu in the US does indeed provide a future for all of US Wushu.  Unfortunately, many older generation Wushu dignitaries, such as old school coaches of professional Wushu schools, look down on this branch of Wushu in the US, especially when it comes to participation from their own students.  Some of these old school coaches feel that collegiate Wushu is not on the same level as professional or national competitive Wushu, and is not worth investing in.  Competition wise, I would have to admit that this is true, but only in terms of skill standard.  But individuals that think this way don’t see the value that collegiate Wushu has to offer.  Collegiate Wushu not only gives the current generation of Wushu practitioners a chance to promote the awareness and practice of the sport with a prominent demographic in the US, as mentioned before, but to also further support the sport’s future.  This is because the individuals that have contributed a great deal to the national competitive circuit in US are also just as involved with collegiate Wushu in the US.

It is interesting to note that those who have founded collegiate Wushu clubs were either highly experienced national athletes, or otherwise trained by professional coaches, or both.  It is also interesting to note that many of the advanced level athletes that have competed in Collegiates, some with national and international level experience, have been previously trained by professional coaches, and have continued to pursue Wushu training though college (At this point, I would like to confess that my personal choices of universities to attend were based primarily on the availability of Wushu clubs).  Already, collegiate Wushu provides an opportunity for practitioners with prior experience to continue their practice and training.  And not only do these kinds of individuals compete and continue their Wushu training through college, they also play other pivotal roles that still contribute to the sport’s management in the collegiate environment.  Many athletes that were only competing a few years ago have stepped up to become coaches and judges themselves in collegiate Wushu.  To this day, Brandon Sugiyama is still actively participating in the competitive Wushu circuit, having made various appearances from CMAT (Chinese Martial Arts Tournament), the largest known Chinese martial arts competition in the nation, hosted and organized by Cal Wushu, all the way to UWG.  There are many other individuals like this who have continued to be involved with Wushu in this way, which consequently preserves the active practice of Wushu in the US.

The involvement in collegiate Wushu is especially important to address, because it brings into consideration the question of who specifically will have the duty of securing the future of US Wushu.  While this may seem like an overly dramatic possibility to consider, it is also a very pragmatic one.  What’s going to happen when we no longer have insourced professional Chinese Wushu coaches and athletes to be instructors?  What about when those in administrative and organizational positions are no longer around to manage or organize US Wushu events or competitions?  When all these individuals are gone, where does the preservation and future of US Wushu go?  It goes to the next generation, and it seems to point towards those of us already involved in collegiate Wushu in the US.

Between the two Collegiates I’ve been to, I’ve had the experience and perspective of both a coach, and a competitor, both of which are roles I take seriously.  At both of the Collegiates I attended, I was impressed by the management and promptness of how each tournament was managed respectively, compared to the ones managed “professionally.”  Aside from the aforementioned enduring existence of collegiate Wushu clubs, collegiate Wushu competitions like Collegiates, UWG, and even CMAT are great examples of how collegiate Wushu plays an already major role in US Wushu, as well as its preservation in the future.  Based on what I’ve seen, I’d say that those actively involved with collegiate Wushu are doing a fine job of preserving Wushu and passing it on to others.  Wushu seems to be in good hands with its collegiate community in the US.

Without a doubt, collegiate Wushu in the United States plays a significant role as a part of US Wushu.  But more importantly, it also carries with it a big impact for US Wushu.  It helps further the promotion and practice of Wushu in the US, it is arguably one of the best martial arts and sports communities to be a part of, and finally, it provides a future for US Wushu.  I hope that those who are unfamiliar with collegiate Wushu, as well as those who are skeptical of collegiate Wushu, can come to appreciate its value, as I have recently begun to.

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