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“Is Wushu a Dance?”

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“IS WUSHU A DANCE?”: DEFINING WUSHU AS A PRACTICE 

By: Matthew Lee

Written February 14th, 2015

“Wushu has a history of being compared to, or at the very least called dance, often in an unfavorable and derogatory context.  When I was younger, I would always get into arguments with ‘friends’ who would insultingly called Wushu a dance.  But is this really a bad thing?” —Quote taken directly from the write-up

Abstract: This write-up will tackle the question, “Is Wushu a Dance?”  Critics have long compared Wushu to dance in a demeaning and derogatory context.  In order to address these as well as the question of the write-up, the argument of this write-up will compare Wushu to dance and its various styles, as well as address dance as an art form in general.  Ultimately, the write-up will talk about the performance elements of Wushu, and discuss Wushu’s role as a performance art.

Recently, I was at a promotional event of the university I was attending at for my collegiate Wushu club (yes, the same event with that atrocious performance I did mentioned in the previous write-up “The Problem Facing Wushu: The Struggle of Performance Arts”).  Next to us, of all things, was the ballroom dance club.  And as they were promoting their own club, they also called our practice of Wushu, or Chinese martial arts, “also dance”, or rather, “Another kind of dance.”  This brings me to the question of this write-up: “Is Wushu a Dance?”

As a serious practitioner of Wushu, with over fourteen years of experience, training under both professional Wushu coaches and instructors from China, training alongside and under former national US Wushu Team members and champions, as well as being a two-time consecutive US Wushu Team member and having represented USA myself, my personal answer is, “Sure, why not?”  (You thought I was gonna say something else, huh?)  When I say Wushu, I am specifically talking about modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport.  Modern Wushu is divided into two disciplines; Taolu (套路; tàolù), the practice of forms and sequences, and Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), the practice of freestyle sparring and scientific martial applications, also known as Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting).  Because this write-up is concerned with comparisons to dance and performance, this write-up will focus only on Taolu.  However, this argument can also apply to the rest of traditional Chinese martial arts in general.

The reason why my answer to this question is “Sure, why not?” instead of a simple “Yes” or “No”, is because while I had never really considered Wushu a dance, I don’t really see a logical reason to deny it either.  Wushu has a history of being compared to, or at the very least called dance, often in an unfavorable and derogatory context.  When I was younger, I would always get into arguments with “friends” who would insultingly called Wushu a dance.  But is this really a bad thing?  This leads me to pose another question: “Is dance really bad?”

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There are also spectators who have compared modern Wushu Taolu to dance simply on its basis of training as a performance art.  Many modern Wushu Taolu athletes themselves say that modern Wushu Taolu like is a dance.  The head coach of the Wushu school I used to go to, who was also my first coach in Sanshou and traditional Chen Style Taijiquan, called Taolu a “dance” at one of the school’s many performances.  At a workshop of sorts hosted by former Beijing Wushu Team member and champion Wu Di, who also notably dabbled in dancing, where I was still attending my former Wushu school, Wu Di compared modern Wushu Taolu to dance multiple times.  And they’re not wrong.  On a purely artistic level, Taolu, and any other practice of martial arts forms and routines for that matter, can already reach a level of aestheticism as a performance in and of itself.  Modern Wushu Taolu was made and is trained specifically for performance and sport purposes.  In fact, another name for modern Wushu Taolu in Chinese is “jingcai” (精彩; jīngcǎi, embroidered, literally “wonderful”) Wushu Taolu, or “jingsai” (竞赛; jìngsài, competition) Wushu Taolu, which betrays the nature of modern Wushu Taolu’s training for aestheticism and competition.  Inherently, there is nothing good or bad about this; it’s simply the objective truth.  However, many critics of Chinese martial arts, specifically modern Wushu, use the comparison of dance as a basis of most, if not all of its criticisms, which I will attempt to address here.

When comparing Wushu to, or simply calling Wushu a dance, many spectators are alluding that Wushu has no real meaning or purpose to its training, and thus is an empty and meaningless art.  First of all, I will point out, as I have many times before, that this observation is simply not true.  I have said before in previous write-ups that due to its standardization and derivation from traditional Chinese martial arts, modern Wushu has actual martial arts content, including martial applications and fighting ideas.  It is important to note that the literal meaning of Wushu comes from the two Chinese characters of 武; wǔ, literally martial or military, and 术; shù, literally art or method.  It is also important to point out, as I said before in “Putting the “Shu” Back In Wushu: The Art in the Sport Martial Art”, that术; shù in “wǔshù” was originally defined as the specific study, practice, and mastering the skill of the MARTIAL art and ONLY the martial art itself, and NOT the liberal artistic creativity that is associated with the word “art” in the Western sense, though modern Wushu Taolu and dance also has this sense of artistry as well, which I will talk about later in this write-up.  And, my personal statement, as it’s always been, is that even though modern Wushu is not on the same level of martial arts as traditional gongfu, it should still retain at least some depth of its traditional counterpart, in order to be considered a martial art with real martial arts content.  Thus, it is clear that the physical practice of Wushu is not without meaning.  But neither is dance.

On the flip side, many ignorant spectators debase dance in general assuming there is no real skill or mastery in dance, even if they do not explicitly think or say so.  Although I am not a dancer (or rather, not a conventional dancer, as the arbitrary definitions of Wushu and dance of said ignorant spectators may perceive) myself, I know for a fact that this isn’t true.  Sadly, just as I pointed out in the previous write-up “The Problem Facing Wushu: The Struggle of Performance Arts”, many spectators don’t understand what exactly is being performed when they see it before their eyes, much less the difficulty and skill that goes into mastering the art behind such a performance.  However, anyone who even takes the time to observe a dance performance should realize that there is a great degree of difficulty within, and by extension a great degree of skill, which should be respected in the same manner as Wushu.  From a fundamental perspective, this demonstrates that dance is just as much an art in the same sense as martial arts, where the art also lies in the mastery of skill of the art itself, despite the fact that its ultimate goal is simply performance and exhibition, just like modern Wushu Taolu.  It should then be obvious to anyone, as it was to me, that there is an aspect that many styles of dance have in common with Wushu; basics.  Ballet, tap dance, and even breakdancing have their own set of fundamentals to build up and master at the beginner stages, just like Wushu, modern or traditional, denoted as jibengong (基本功;jīběngōng) in Chinese, with the two umbrellas of discipline even having common basic techniques at first appearance.  Based on what I’ve seen, there are many dancers who have been able to pick up modern Wushu Taolu much faster than those with no prior background in physical activity.

Additionally, both Wushu and dance in general requires a great degree of physical strength, including but not limited to flexibility and endurance, to perform at a high level of skill; in this sense, I use the word “strength” as a general term, not simply to mean muscle strength.  Modern forms of dance, such as hip-hop also emphasize acceleration and explosiveness, which modern Wushu today also arguably values the most as a quality of performance among others.  On a competitive level, both modern Wushu Taolu and dance can be seen to be finesse sports, due to the high standard of technical execution of both.

Despite the fact that Wushu clearly has martial arts content, critics that use dance as a comparison to Wushu, or simply call Wushu a dance, suggest that it lacks direct fighting application, and thus is ineffective in actual fighting.  Once again, I would like to defer to what I said in a previous write-up, “Forms vs. Fighting: A Critique on the Dichotomy of Wushu Training”, that forms and fighting are not the same thing.  It is for this reason that in modern Wushu competition, Taolu and Sanshou are separated in competitive training; professional athletes that train competitively in modern Wushu usually only specialize in either Taolu or Sanda, and exclusively.  In other words, skill in forms work and forms training has no correlation to actual fighting or sparring ability.  However, this does not mean that performers or dancers cannot fight.  Ideally, as a complete form of modern martial arts, the practice of modern Wushu by its respective stylists should include both Taolu and Sanshou training, in order to make them well-rounded in their skill sets as martial artists.  Wushu legend and champion Zhao Changjun, who was traditionally trained in Tan Tui (弹腿; tántuǐ, Springing Leg), and Chaquan (查拳; cháquán) and had to defend himself on the street, said in an interview “Master Zhao Changjun: In His Own Words” by Mastering WUSHU, “‘…Sanshou and Taolu are in different sections in Wushu competition, but actually they both are part of Wushu.  If you want to be a real Wushu expert, you shall practice both, that’s the way to be a good Wushu practitioner.  It is not good if you only practice Taolu and do know anything about the other method, other application or other practice.  That is like walking with one leg, not two legs.’”  Many other Wushu grandmasters, whom I have quoted before in previous write-ups, have said the same thing.

And, contrary to popular belief, there do exist dancers and performers who are fighters at the same time.  Aside from the aforementioned Zhao Changjun, examples in modern Wushu include Hebei Wushu Team member Li Yanlong, who was both a Taolu and Sanda champion, and former US Wushu Team member Jason Yee, who won medals in both Taolu and Sanda at the World Wushu Championships.  Other examples include other US Wushu Team members who have trained full-contact sparring and competitive fighting, namely Sanda, as well as modern Wushu athletes and champions in other countries.  Speaking from personal observation, I have seen many Chinese martial artists, including a former US Wushu Team member and Taolu champion, as well as a Tien Shan Pai (天山派; Tiānshānpài, Celestial Mountain School) stylist who I later found out was also a dancer, fight Guoshu (国术; guóshù, traditional Chinese martial arts, literally “national art”) lei tai (擂台; lèitái, traditional Chinese martial arts full-contact fighting, literally “raised platform”), at the US International Kuo Shu Championship Tournament, who have gone on to be champions in their weight division.  A famous example from the world of dance is Michael Flatley, famous tap dancer, as well as director and star of the Lord of the Dance, who was also an amateur boxer.  Thus, while forms or performance or dancing is not the same thing as fighting, this fact does not discount a performer or dancer’s fighting ability.  At the end of the Kung Fu Magazine article “Donnie Yen: The Evolution of an American Martial Artist”, the fifth rule in “Donnie Yen’s Five Rules of Martial Arts Mastery” states, “Train for both combat and beauty of movement.  Contrary to popular belief, a serious practitioner can achieve excellent fighting ability while looking fantastic.  Always remember that top Western boxers are as engaging to watch as contemporary Wushu athletes.  Don’t be scared of one or the other.”

And finally, there is the comparison between Wushu and dance as forms of art and expression.  For the practice of both modern Wushu Taolu and dance, this is perhaps the ultimate goal of performance.  Previously, I said in the preceding write-up “The Problem Facing Wushu: The Struggle of Performance Arts”, that I defined two levels of performance.  The first was “impressive”, which consists of the simple physicality, difficulty and skill of the performance, which, while no doubt enjoyable to watch, does not have much else to it, and as a result contains no lasting memorable quality to it for the audience.  The second is “emotional”, which is distinguished by the intention and feeling of the performer, and, while not simply a physical quality, can still be perceived by the audience.  Ideally, of the two, the latter is what all serious performance artists, not just martial artists and dancers, endeavor to attain.

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It is at this point that as performance arts, modern Wushu Taolu and dance share the common, ultimate goal of all quality performances: to be able to express ourselves through our art, and touch the audience on an emotional level.  Again, the “emotional” level of a performance that achieves this goal is defined by the qualities of the performer, rather than the physical movements on their own.  In Wushu, these qualities are jingqishen (精气神; jīngqìshén) and shenfa (身法; shēnfǎ, literally “body method”).  Jingqishen is the vitality and intention required behind the physical movements, in order to make them meaningful with a specific purpose.  Bruce Lee perhaps described this best in his explanation of the martial arts as “the art of expressing the human body [in combative form]” in his famous interview on the Pierre Berton Show “…when you move, you are determined to move…If I want to punch, I’m gonna do it man…”  Shenfa on the other hand, is the specific body mechanics that lie behind the principles of physical movement and technique.  Unlike jingqishen, which should be a uniform quality in high level Wushu Taolu performances, each individual’s “shenfa” is arguably unique, as every individual’s body is different, thus allowing each person to move and expresses themselves in their own way.  These are the qualities that distinguish a great performance in modern Wushu Taolu, and what elevates a great Taolu performer from the standard athlete on the competition carpet, which was idealized by various athletes of “old school” Wushu.  Examples of champions in old school modern Wushu are Zhao Changjun and Yuan Wenqing, who earned their places of respect in Wushu history because of their unforgettable performances, which were complete with jingqishen and shenfa.  It is interesting to note that jingqishen and shenfa are not simply ideas that exist only within modern Wushu, but exist in traditional Chinese martial arts as well.  This may also be the reason that fans of “old school” Wushu called old school Wushu “real Wushu.”  Today, many enthusiasts of modern Wushu Taolu define the distinctive qualities of a performer as the individual’s “flavor.”  However, “flavor” or “taste” is also used to distinguish the visual and distinct physical feelings and principles of a specific style of practice, of either Wushu or dance.

As an ongoing practitioner of modern Wushu Taolu, I can humbly admit that I have not yet reached this level of performance or skill, much less been able to even comprehend it myself.  I can’t pretend to say that I’ve mastered jingqishen, have a distinctive shenfa, or even have my own “flavor.”  Maybe this is because after all these years of training, I am still trying to master the first level of skill, the physical and technical level of movement, as most of us are in Wushu.  Understandably, many professional Chinese Wushu athletes have been able to reach the “emotional” level of performance, as they have already passed the physical skill and “impressive” level of performance.  One of the idiosyncrasies of modern Wushu Taolu, as with most styles of Chinese martial arts, is that its practice is so specific and detailed in terms of forms, movement and technique, few other disciplines share its exact principles; virtually all classified techniques and movements in Wushu derive strictly from preexisting movements in traditional Chinese martial arts, due to its standardization and derivation from traditional Chinese martial arts.  By contrast, dance, especially modern dance, has a lot more liberal artistic creativity when it comes to specific movements.  While all of the solo optional (自选; zìxuǎn, individual) Taolu events in modern Wushu competition have a certain degree of liberal creativity in the choreography of forms and routines, even resembling dance by some athletes’ interpretations, modern Wushu is still grounded in its foundation of the original Chinese martial arts movements, as established at the beginning of this write-up.  Perhaps this is why dance is arguably more easily able to reach the “emotional” level of performance than Wushu.  However, as already established, modern Wushu Taolu still has this, and ultimately can achieve the same goal as dance.

So, again: “Is Wushu a Dance?”  Well, again, “Sure, why not?”  Wushu and dance are undisputedly two different forms of physical arts.  However, both modern Wushu Taolu and dance also undeniably share many aspects, and ultimately the same goal as performance arts.  Personally, I have a deep respect for dance in its many styles and forms, especially what it achieves when elevated to an art form, not unlike Wushu.  And as a result, I no longer shy away from comparisons to dance; I accept them as they are, and I would encourage other Wushu practitioners to do the same as well.  Being open-minded and understanding of other arts will not only broaden our understanding of such arts, but also encourage better understanding of our own as well.

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Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda and traditional Chen Style Taijiquan. He is a four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member and Pan American Champion, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at matthewlee@jiayoowushu.com.

  • I agree with your overall sentiment. We don’t have to pretend that Wushu Taolu is not a performing art like dance is a performing art. We also don’t have to pretend that Sanshou itself is a self-defense system. While practitioners will be better trained for a street fight than a Taolu practitioner without self-defense training, it is nonetheless a sport with rules and limitations like any combative sport including MMA.

    But back to the issue of dancing, I would add that certain dances used to be martial arts or were hidden as forms of dance, such as Capoeira by Brazilian slaves and Beijing Opera during the Qing Dynasty. For Brazilian slaves, they needed a way to learn and practice martial arts without arising the suspicion of violent rebellion from their slave masters. Thus, they made it into what appears to be a 2-person dance off of kicking and acrobatics. In the latter case, the Beijing Opera was a form of continuing on teaching Shaolin Kung Fu while protesting against the oppressive regime.

    The problem with Wushu today is the lack of jingqishen at the expense of apparent shenfa. It seems that current generation (due to the emphasis on the C-score) is fixated on creating a personal style by hitting a more difficult nandu move, but this alone does not give a given performer distinctive “flavor.” Rather, it is more like “that guy who can do the 1080 tornado” or “that gal who can do the slow sideways vertical kick balance.” After all, without the martial spirit, the performance would be Shu Taolu rather than Wushu Taolu!

    • Matthew Lee

      Hi Mickey! Thanks for your comment!

      The case of Capoeira you brought up is a very good example!

      And yes, your observations regarding Wushu itself also hold validity! Again, thanks for your comment! We encourage a more mature and intelligent discussion about Wushu! 🙂

      -Matt Lee.

      • Happy to share!

        In fairness to Wushu, the same issue I mentioned applies to open martial arts competition’s Extreme (tricking-centered) division, where it has become more about who can do more repetitions/more rotations rather than pushing the bounds of exemplary, original choreography.