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The History of Modern Wushu Taolu Development

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THE HISTORY OF MODERN WUSHU TAOLU DEVELOPMENT

By: Matthew Lee

Written November 12th, 2018

“…for this write-up, I will try to discuss the development of modern Wushu Taolu practice, and break it down historically by decade, from the ‘old school’ to the ‘new school’, then highlight and analyze the general differences between the two, as well the strengths and weaknesses of both.” —Quote taken directly from the write-up

Abstract: The sport of modern Wushu Taolu (forms) has gone through various changes in the past few decades.  Today, many of these changes are viewed unfavorably by critics and old practitioners alike.  Often, today’s modern Wushu Taolu is compared with what is called “old school Wushu”, calling it “real Wushu.”  While some of these observations have merit, some criticisms lack an objective eye to have an informed opinion on the practice of modern Wushu Taolu.  This write-up will attempt to detail each distinctive era of modern Wushu Taolu by decade, and then compare strengths and weaknesses as objectively as possible.

If you’re a Wushu practitioner or athlete that’s spent any semblance of time looking at what Wushu looked like years before, you will inevitably come across comments that refer to it as “old school Wushu.”  Comments such as “When Wushu was Wushu”, or, “…not like today’s Wushu, which [insert derogatory comment here]” can be seen almost all the time when coming across this topic.  It is important to state that when I say Wushu, I am specifically referring to modern, contemporary or sport Wushu, which is a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport.  Modern Wushu today has been standardized into 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).  Given the eponymous topic of this write-up, the focus here exclusively be on Taolu.

Back to the topic of “old school” Wushu, critics and practitioners of modern Wushu alike, specifically those that grew up and practiced around that time period, frequently reminisce about this era of modern Wushu, calling it “real Wushu.”  This is because throughout this period of modern Wushu, especially the ’60s and the ’70s, the traditional foundations of various popular Chinese martial arts styles within China from which modern Wushu was standardized from at the time, still had clear and prominent influence on the movements and techniques of modern Wushu’s primary competition styles.  There is also of course the opposing view of some current generation athletes, who argue that today’s Wushu is “cleaner.”  Objectively, both opposing viewpoints have some merit and good arguments to their side, but there have been no real attempts to reconcile the two.  This write-up will attempt to do exactly that.  In my first write-up for Jiayoowushu.com, “Putting the ‘Shu’ Back In Wushu: The Art in the Sport Martial Art”, I discussed the then-current state of modern Wushu Taolu and made some suggestions as to how to improve its practice, and briefly summarized a history of how modern Wushu Taolu developed from “old school” to “new school”, but I did not go into specifics between the two.  I also wrote about the history of compulsory Taolu, which is a predetermined, fixed set of choreographed movements, in “Compulsory vs. Optional Taolu: A Look at the Training of Wushu Forms”, and how its development reflects the characteristic traits, ongoing emphases and development of modern Wushu as a whole, which I will briefly summarize again here as well.  Specifically, for this write-up, I will try to discuss the development of modern Wushu Taolu practice, and break it down historically by decade, from the “old school” to the “new school”, then highlight and analyze the general differences between the two, as well the strengths and weaknesses of both.

I am also aware that the term “old school” is relative.  Some Wushu practitioners, including seniors of the Wushu school I used to go to, would say that ’90s are not “old school”; part of this may be since they themselves have started Wushu in the ’90s, so from their relative perspective, this decade of Wushu was obviously not new.  By contrast, I started Wushu in the year 2000.  So, from my own perspective, what is considered “new” or “new school” comes after that year.  Thus, I will denote what I consider “old school” to everything prior to 2000, and everything “new school” to come after.

1960s

            From what little documentation (and by documentation, I mean the few bits of black-and-white video footage that has been publicly shared online), the above statement on the traditional influences of modern Wushu are most clear in this area of modern Wushu.  Most of the movements and techniques are grounded for the most part, making up what is known as the jibengong (基本功; jīběngōng, basic skills) of modern Wushu.  The Kung Fu Magazine article “Making the Grade” by Gene Ching, features Bai Wenxiang, a prominent athlete of this decade and coach of Wushu legend and champion Zhao Changjun, speaks on this age of modern Wushu, and its closeness to the traditional Chinese martial arts.  “The traditional styles like huaquan (flower fist), chaquan (seeking fist), paoquan (cannon fist) and shaolinquan could still be seen embedded in changquan.”  The jumping techniques were all purely derivative of preexisting techniques from traditional Chinese martial arts, and worked off of the kicking techniques of modern Wushu, specifically the tengkongfeijiao (腾空飞脚; téngkōngfēijiǎo, jump/flying front kick), xuanfengjiao (旋风脚; xuànfēngjiǎo, tornado kick), tengkongbailian (腾空摆莲; téngkōngbǎilián, lotus kick) and xuanzi (旋子; xuànzi, butterfly).  Well-known athletes of this era include Shandong Wushu Team members Yu Hai and Yu Chenghui, who played roles in the Shaolin Temple movie series starring Jet Li, and would invent modern Wushu Tanglangquan (螳螂拳; tánglángquán, Praying Mantis Fist) and shuangshoujian (双手劍; shuāngshǒujiàn, two-handed sword/straight sword), respectively.

1970s

The first of what fans of modern Wushu would know as “old school” Wushu, as it is much more well-documented in comparison to the ’60s, having much more recorded footage that has been shared publicly, and is the era of young Jet Li and Zhao Changjun.  As such, it is in this decade that we would begin to see the basis of what modern Wushu would most familiarly look like today.  This era of modern Wushu can be said to be the most balletic, with athletes performing long combinations of movements in one continuous, graceful flow.  According to Yu Hai in the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Big Monk Of Shaolin Temple” by Gene Ching, tumbling and aerial techniques would be added into Wushu around this time, and “New compulsories introduced aerial moves like barrel rolls and twists.”  Yu Hai states that “‘In the beginning, the coaches didn’t know how to train back flips or barrel rolls…’”  Indeed, we would begin to see more acrobatics and gymnastics-like jumps, such as the cekongfan (侧空翻; cèkōngfān, aerial) and twists.

1980s

            Arguably the most well-known era of old school Wushu to Wushu fans.  The formal standardization and introduction of Nanquan (南拳; nánquán, Southern Fist) as a style and event of modern Wushu would also occur in the ’80s.  Many performers had routines that had many stops and pauses, which provides a contrast to long continuous flow of the previous decade.  As a result, movements and combinations could be said to be compact with numerous techniques that constantly transitioned to the next technique within a given combination.  Perhaps this is what allowed athletes to emphasize more “power” or at least the illusion of power in performances, yet another noticeable difference from the ’60s.  A prime example of this would be Zhao Changjun, who would see his rise and peak as a reigning champion in this decade, and have many punching combinations chained together with transitioning kicks in his Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist) routines as an example.  In the Kung Fu Magazine article “Where Wushu Went Wrong” where Zhao Changjun himself is featured, “In wushu circles, it is said that the ’70s belonged to Jet, but the ’80s belonged to Zhao.”  An exception to this observation would be Yuan Wenqing, whose choreography emphasized long and continuous transitions with very few pauses, which would make him stand out as a champion in his own right in the late ’80s.  As time transitioned from the late ’80s to the ’90s, Wushu would begin to become an international sport, and introduce standardized and officially recognized compulsory (规定; guīdìng) Taolu to be used for international competition.  The online article “KNOWING your Wushu Compulsory Routine History” by Emilio Alpanseque details a brief history on the development of international compulsory Taolu.  “In 1989, Wushu was truly developing as an international competitive sport.  The Chinese Wushu Association (CWA) was busy founding the International Wushu Federation (IWUF) as well as developing a new set of rules to be used at international level.  The scope of the project included the 1st Set of International Compulsory Routines for seven events: Changquan, Nanquan, Taijiquan, Daoshu, Jianshu, Qiangshu and Gunshu.”  These compulsory Taolu would reflect the then-current trend of structure and choreography for modern Wushu Taolu at the time.  The choreography of these forms could be said to be the embodiment of old school Wushu at the time, with the combination of fluidity and abundance of actual Wushu movements and techniques, derived from the traditional Chinese martial arts styles that each event and style was in turn standardized from.

1990s

The last of (what I consider) to be “old school” Wushu, for reasons we will get into here.  This era of modern Wushu is observed to be the most explosive, with athletes having noticeably higher jumps and athleticism.  Routines began to look comparatively “simpler” in choreography, with fewer combinations and movements.  It would also see the beginnings of the emphasis of towards nandu (难度; nándù, difficulty movements).  This would signal the beginning of the shift from “old school” to “new school”, due to the added element of nandu affecting the previously established practice of Taolu.  In the online article “My China Trip” by Eric Yeh, the author details his experience training in both Taolu and Sanda in Beijing the summer of 1995 and includes a transmission of then-current Beijing Wushu Team members’ views on their own sport.  “What is interesting is that a lot of the traditional Wushu people here like to deride contemporary Wushu athletes as being nothing more than Communist brainwashed gymnastic dancers.  Yet some of the top Wushu athletes in China say that knowledge of the application is essential.  They even complained about the direction Contemporary Wushu was going, that the new movements being created by the institute were based more in some gymnastics coach’s mind than what is considered as wushu.  Ironic, considering that this is what many traditionalists in the U.S. are saying about Contemporary Wushu.”  The late ’90s would have daunting compulsory movement combinations (规定动作组合; guīdìngdòngzuòzǔhé) with absurd nandu connections, even for the top-class Chinese athletes at the time.  The year of 1997 would also see the first known performances of the xuanfengjiao 720º with split landing, performed by Yuan Wenqing who came out of retirement to compete that year, along with his fellow Shanxi Wushu teammate and cousin Yuan Xindong.  In 1999, the 2nd Set of International Compulsory Routines, also known as the “new compulsories”, were introduced.  Compared to the 1st Set of International Compulsory Routines, this next set of international compulsory routines did not have as many abundant Wushu movements and techniques in general, and had more of an emphasis on difficult movements, techniques and requirements, which very much reflected the emphases and developments of modern Wushu Taolu in this decade.  Well-known athletes of this generation include Beijing Wushu Team members and champions Liu Qinghua, He Jingde and Wu Jing who would follow in Jet Li’s path of being an actor, and Henan Wushu Team member and champion Liu Haibo.

2000s

This decade would see the last of (again, what I consider) “old school” Wushu, and transition into the basis of what “new school” Wushu looks like today, with perhaps the most radical changes in the history of the sport.  Starting in the early 2000s, nandu would become a formal category of scoring for modern Wushu Taolu, specifically 2.0 points (out of a maximum performance-based score of 10.0) would be focused specifically on the completion of jumps, sweeps, balances, and the connection points in between.  In the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Tradition of Modern Wushu” by Gigi Oh and Gene Ching, Grandmaster Qian Yuanze spoke on why nandu was introduced, and the role it was designed to play in regulating the sport’s competitions.  “‘Originally, wushu was a performing art that could not easily be measured, like swimming, weightlifting, or running.  So to make it a competition sport, elements that could be scored were added.  The gymnastics and figure skating scoring system is relevant…This is why most of the time athletes are spending 70% of their time to practice nandu.’”  This seemed to be one of various movements to make Wushu more of a sport in the Western sense, in order to make it Olympic.  As a result, the hierarchical point values of nandu going up with the increasing difficulty meant an abundance of 720º and 540° jumps, at least at the national level in China.  This resulted in a change of precise kicking and jumping technique for almost all jumps to meet the competition requirements of increasing degree of difficulty.  There was also the introduction of new jumping movements and techniques to be scored under this new category, most notably the new standing tengkongbailian which has virtually replaced the original tengkongbailian.  This increased emphasis on nandu has resulted in the watering down of martial arts content and unique performance qualities, making it more like “tricking” or gymnastics, and has been criticized by both traditionalists and modern Wushu practitioners alike, as previously alluded in Eric Yeh’s article.  In place of interpretations of original martial arts movements, were cleaner and more consistent, albeit simpler combos and dancelike poses and movements to supplement nandu in the structure of Taolu.  As a result, there appeared to be a negative correlation of content between nandu and martial arts in Wushu.  The further Wushu went down the road of nandu, the further general choreography of Taolu would replace original martial arts techniques with superficial, often self-created movements.  It is at this point in Wushu where a “good” performance no longer equated to a “winning” one.  On this radical shift in emphases on modern Wushu Taolu, Grandmaster Qian Yuanze said, “‘I would like to see taolu athletes develop more individual character…Now, you hardly see any athletes with special character.  Nandu is all they can handle…Adding nandu makes the scoring more transparent, but how to balance it also needs more thought.’”

There is also the noticeable gradual change in the structure (and manufacturing quality) of the apparatuses used in modern Wushu.  Over the decades, both short and long apparatuses have become notoriously lighter and thinner with more audible noise, which correlates to the performance speed of more recent athletes maneuvering their apparatuses even faster.  This change has also seen a correlation in the rising frequency of Wushu apparatuses being broken, which adds to the perception that Wushu apparatuses are cheap and “fake.”  As an example, the short apparatuses of dao (刀; dāo, saber/broadsword) and jian (劍; jiàn, sword) have continued to have progressively thinner and flimsier blades, which tear and break off after extensive use.  The changes in structure also correlated with the change in basics and movements emphasized.  For example, previously, the gun (棍;gùn, staff/cudgel) was generally thicker and longer in relation to the height of an athlete, and emphasized many swinging movements that distinguished its use.  Today, the gun is on average shorter, thinner and lighter, and allows the increased emphasis of the diangun (点棍; diǎngùn, tapping staff on ground) technique, and making swings have more the quality of a whip.  The dao and jian being lighter and thinner allow for more emphasis of the jianwanhua (剪腕花; jiǎnwànhuā, cutting wrist flower) technique, also simply called “wanhua (腕花; wànhuā, wrist flower)” and officially called “beihuadao” (背花刀; bèihuādāo, back flower with saber/broadsword) for daoshu (刀术; dāoshù, broadsword event), due to the lack of restriction in wrist mobility.  In particular, the dao previously had more weight which contributed to the emphasis of its fundamental chantouguonao (缠头裹脑; chántóuguǒnǎo, twining and wrapping around the body) basic, which contained blocks and cuts that were traditionally the signature emphasis of dao practice, and is now minimally emphasized.  An exception to this was in 1997, where the standard Wushu blades used at the time were notoriously thick, and closer to traditional swords in build, making little to no sound, as well as the jian used in solo Taijijian (太极剑;tàijíjiàn, Taiji straight sword) event that pertains to the Taijiquan (太极拳;tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist) style, which is not as flexible as the standard jian.  As Wushu transitioned into the 2000s, the design of apparatuses for duilian (对练; duìliàn, choreographed fight sets) events became distinctly different from the previously mentioned apparatuses, with duilian qiang and dao becoming noticeably shorter, with the addition of metal qiang particularly for duilian events.

In 2005, blue carpets with padding underneath would be introduced in China to replace the simple green carpets for competition, which were the original kinds of carpets that modern Wushu Taolu were practiced on and were simple rugs with no additional padding or support.  The following years would recognize these blue carpets as professional level carpets for Wushu competitions.  Popular athletes from this decade include Beijing Wushu Team member and champion Zhao Qingjian, and former Henan Wushu Team member and champion Zhang Kunrong, who like his coach Liu Haibo, would influence the choreography and flavor of daoshu and gunshu (棍术; gùnshù, staff event) forms in the following years to come.

2010s

For the most part, this decade would essentially have the same general cosmetic structure as the previous decade, but with a few new regulations to distinguish it.  In the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Southern Sword of Wushu” by Gene Ching and Gigi Oh, Wushu professor Wang Peikun said, “‘After the last Olympics, Modern Wushu is going back to more traditional.  We are de-emphasizing nandu and looking more at the overall…We’re looking at adding some new regulations.  Routines will be required to have at least two traditional movement sequences.’”  Indeed, in 2011, the CWA (Chinese Wushu Association) would incorporate the requirement of compulsory movement combinations into their national rules of Taolu.  Each solo event, including the apparatus events of each of the three main competitive styles, did indeed have their own specific pair of combinations, all of which pertained to actual traditional, “old school” Wushu movements.  In 2012, the 3rd Set of International Compulsory Routines were introduced, with new forms for all existing modern Wushu solo Taolu events.  These forms would replace the 2nd Set of International Compulsory Routines for the Group A division at junior level competitions and be used at both national and international level competitions.  Of all the compulsory Taolu in modern Wushu, this 3rd Set has been observed to be the most basic, and therefore least fluid of all the sets of international compulsory routines; conversely, is also the noticeable emphasis on nandu movements and techniques in these compulsory forms, which also reflects the current abundance of nandu in modern Wushu Taolu today.  Like the previous set of compulsory Taolu, these new changes would reflect a current trend of content in modern Wushu Taolu today.  In my latest write-up that discussed the current state of modern Wushu as a sport, “The Sport of Wushu: Where We’re At & What’s to Come”, I stated that the pendulum has begun to swing back towards interpretations of traditional, “old school” movements, making performances more memorable.  As early as 2012, carbon fiber long apparatuses would be introduced.  Although they would not completely replace the traditional white wax wood long apparatuses, they would service that is being more frequently seen as the years have progressed.  Perhaps the one noticeable thing out of this past decade of Wushu an increased emphasis of having distinct popping and explosive movements in quick succession.  A good analogy for this would be that of music, where this current trend of flavor in Wushu could be defined as “staccato” rhythm, where each sound or note is sharply detached or separated from each other, whereas previous generations of Taolu performances can be likened more to orchestral performances, which, while still having explosive and distinctly sharp movements that stood out, have long flows that integrate many notes together into one smooth rhythm, which is not as emphasized today.  Popular Wushu athletes of these past few years are Shandong Wushu Team member and champion Sun Peiyuan, who himself has influenced daoshu and gunshu routines today with his choreography and applied explosiveness in his performances, which very much reflects the current increased emphasis on athleticism.

Now that we have established the detailed changes from decade to decade, let’s observe the overarching changes and trends that appeared throughout the history of modern Wushu Taolu development.  First, I will analyze the change in emphases for both position and movement.  For this analysis, when I say “position”, I am specifically referring to static poses and stationary postures that purposefully held for more than one second, and “movements” to mean any and all transitioning techniques in-between positions.  In general, I will state that “old school” generation athletes have stronger emphases on movements, and that “new school” generation athletes have stronger emphases on positions.  For example, if you were to watch and either pause or have slow playback of, videos of athletes from either “old school” or “new school” generations, you may notice a difference in the postures of athletes from different generations performing the same given movement.  Old school athletes generally had “better”, more upright body posture and committed extension into movements, whereas “new school” athletes by comparison, favoring pure speed and explosiveness.  These differences may go into the decreased emphases of jibengong and the increased trend of athleticism.  Conversely, “new school” generation athletes generally have cleaner, tighter transitions into their positions, with consistently deeper stances.  This can be attributed to the way modern Wushu Taolu is judged today, where there are more tangible deductions for specific stances and positions, as well as certain techniques, that enforce such a high standard on how postures should be consistently held.  The difference can even be observed in the past ten years.  As an example, I will compare fellow former Beijing Wushu Team members and champions Zhao Qingjian, who reigned in the 2000s, and Wang Xi, who succeeded him as the Beijing Wushu Team’s star athlete and reigned in the early 2010s.  In terms of fluidity and movement, Zhao Qingjian was able to chain techniques together that flowed almost in one breath and made Wang Xi look like a robot in comparison.  Wang Xi on the other hand, arguably had more resounding pop at the end of his movements, which made him look sharper, especially during his pauses.

The observation can go even further back.  Jet Li himself stated on his own old website (which is now defunct and has been replaced with a new one that has virtually nothing to do with him), that the then-current (2000s era) Taolu performances seemed much more robotic, making Taolu seem more like a race, and that the then-current Beijing Wushu Team also suffered from this problem.  This goes into the more in-depth and unique performance qualities of modern Wushu Taolu, specifically jingqishen (精气神; jīngqìshén) and shenfa (身法; shēnfǎ, literally “body method”).  The first concept, jingqishen, is the vitality and intention behind the physical movements, which is required to make the movements meaningful and purposeful.  Bruce Lee himself said it 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…”  My own Wushu seniors, specifically two-time consecutive US Wushu Team member and Pan American Wushu Games double medalist Ching-Yin “Bee” Lee, and a former senior of the Wushu school I used to go to, have discussed the matter of if one were “to stand in front of [insert athlete’s name here]’s [insert Wushu movement here]”, whether or not they would “be hurt.”  In my opinion, I have altered this description to be a matter of whether or not one would “be moved, psychologically or emotionally, by Wushu movements in a Wushu performance”, because it is important to understand that modern Wushu Taolu is ultimately designed for aesthetic performance, which does not take into account the actual martial application behind the movements.  Thus, ideas of power or whether or not one would be “hurt” from standing in front of a modern Wushu athlete’s movement are moot.  Modern Wushu Taolu performances are only graded on what is externally seen on the surface level, so what truly matters in competition is what it looks like, not if it is actually powerful or not.  Regardless, what makes the effect of a jingqishen behind Wushu movements is the intention behind them.  It is intention that gives way to movement in a performance, and what matters is if this is visually transferrable to the audience, which determines jingqishen.  This goes into the second level of what I defined as two levels of performance, where the first was “impressive”, which consists of the simple physicality, difficulty and skill of the performance, and is obvious in modern Wushu, which is undoubtedly enjoyable to watch, but does not have much else to it, and as a result contains no lasting memorable quality to it for the audience, and the second is “emotional”, which is distinguished by the intention and the feeling of the performer, which is not simply a physical quality yet is still perceived by the audience.  Wu Bin, coach of Jet Li and the Beijing Wushu Team, explained jingqishen in the Kung Fu Magazine article “Wu Bin – The Father of Modern Wushu” by Melody Chung, “‘It’s a feeling you get.  You can’t explain why you feel impressed by a person’s jingqisheng, but you certainly can feel it.  For instance, back in the ’70s Grandmaster Chen Dao Yun had very good jingqisheng.  That’s why no one could beat her.’”  In his “Beewushu’s Blog” post, “Yang Shi Wen: A Cure to Insomnia?”, Ching-Yin “Bee” Lee, describes explosiveness as “a type of dynamic quality that makes you get taken aback like ‘Woah!’”  This is the feeling an audience gets when watching a performance, that jingqishen achieves, and again, though it is not simply a physical quality, it is expressed, which is done through the explosiveness applied in movements within the performance.

The second concept, shenfa, can be defined as the specific body mechanics behind the physical movements and techniques.  Where jingqishen is a uniform quality, shenfa is a much more broad concept, which varies from style to style, movement to movement or technique to technique, and even individual to individual, because even though the general execution and idea behind common techniques and movements may be the same, everybody moves differently, and thus physically expresses themselves in their own way, making it their own unique shenfa.  These kinds of performance qualities are what make modern Wushu Taolu performances distinguishable, and arguably what defined different performers of Wushu, making old school Wushu enjoyable to watch.  In his critique of more recent modern Wushu Taolu performances, Jet compared the machinelike speed of the more current athletic Wushu, to the Wushu of his day, where one could tell the stylistic differences between provincial teams in China, just by the way movements were interpreted and performed, which illustrates the expression of shenfa quite well in old school Wushu.  It can be said that such qualities are missing, due the more specific standards, regulations and deductions for movements and techniques, which, while making Taolu more consistent and clear-cut as a competition event, also takes away from the unique interpretations that once made performances so interesting to watch.

In terms of actual practice, there is also the proportion of training jibengong in relation to jumps.  Grandmaster Qian Yuanze’s quote about athletes spending 70% of their time practicing nandu seems to be an indicator of decreased proportions of training jibengong in modern Wushu Taolu today.  In one of my older write-ups “Chinese Wushu (Martial Arts) Champion America Tour: A Personal Account”, where I related my experience watching a live Chinese Wushu Team performance in 2014, I observed that the execution of jibengong by the current Chinese Wushu athletes didn’t arguably look as sharp or as explosive as the previous generations of Chinese Wushu athletes.  Even the Beijing Wushu Team 2005 Tour, which I also had the privilege of watching live when I was younger, featured athletes that I felt were much more faster and explosive.  A former senior of the Wushu school I used to go, who also watched the same show, said that nothing tops the explosiveness of the Beijing Wushu Team in 1997, which is corroborated by the observation that the ’90s was arguably the era with the most explosiveness in jibengong.  In the “Beewushu’s Blog” post, “Have Tornado Kicks Lost Their ‘Pop’?!”, Ching-Yin “Bee” Lee opens with the statement, “…the moment when [athletes’] foot makes contact with their hand they do not always slap their hand with power.  This is a function of having good kicking basics (mainly a good inside kick) and also having a ‘martial’ mentality when performing Modern Wushu.”  A callback to the previous statement of the emphasis on nandu changing precise kicking and jumping technique is worth noting.  On nandu’s influence on kicking and jumping technique, Bee states, “A lot of athletes these days are focused on rotation and sticking nandu, however, they’re forgetting the ‘core’ basics…The way I see it, anyone can train their kicks to have pop, but if athletes or coaches are not paying attention to these details then it points Modern Wushu more and more towards being ONLY a sport and not a martial art as well.  I think these characteristics of Modern Wushu need to be preserved in order to not keep this art as a ‘martial art’, but also to preserve some of the richness of the art.  After a time, people will completely forget what the root of Modern Wushu was, and if that happens then there is not much foundation nor future if you forget about its history and root.”

Next, there is the trend of increasing athleticism.  There is the observation that athletes in modern Wushu are on average faster and stronger.  Indeed, as modern Wushu has developed as a sport over the last few decades, especially as a sport in the Western sense, modern sports science and medicine would eventually spread its influence on Wushu as well.  Current generation athletes are now more aware of weight training, cardio and plyometrics, methods that were not as prevalent or well-researched in to most Chinese in the “old school” training environment.  Additionally, coaches, teams and athletes in general are now smarter about athletic fitness, which in turn dramatically escalated the standard of athleticism.  On the surface, this would easily explain how modern Wushu athletes today are generally stronger and faster than previous generations.

However, this observation alone does not consider other, external factors that affect performances as well.  In David Epstein’s TEDTalk “Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?”, David argues the contrary of increasing athleticism with time.  David uses track as an example, citing the changes in equipment as variables that help to increase athletic performances.  The point of change in equipment is applicable to Wushu, given the change in apparatuses and carpets.  The progressiveness of Wushu apparatuses becoming thinner and lighter undoubtedly contributes to the illusion of increasing speed in athletes today.

But this is also not to say that all the recent developments of modern Wushu make it completely inferior to old school Wushu.  In “Putting the ‘Shu’ Back In Wushu: The Art in the Sport Martial Art”, I stated that although “old school” Wushu should be remembered fondly, it is also important to accept the reality Wushu’s practice and standards will always change, and if we want to keep up, we cannot be stuck in old standards that are no longer in effect.  For example, the regulations for a textbook version of a gongbu (弓步; gōngbù, bow/front stance) in Wushu today explicitly dictates the requirement of a 90° front leg with a flat thigh, something that athletes from the ’70s and ’80s would not always do, as their gongbu sometimes formed an obtuse angle with the front leg.  Another example is the requirement of virtually all kicks to be at or above shoulder level, a standard that was not explicitly met by all “old school” athletes.  Without change, we would be seeing the same old thing, and it can be argued that there wouldn’t be any good “old school” Wushu to be nostalgic about to begin with.  And even if we wanted to, it’s clear that we can’t go back to the way the sport was thirty years ago.  Not only would that be quixotic, but it would be counterproductive in continuing a necessary process of evolution, for the sake of keeping Wushu relevant and updated with the times.

Whether these developments of modern Wushu Taolu’s history are positive or negative, they are not the fault of the new generation athletes.  Zhao Changjun states in the Kung Fu Magazine “Where Wushu Went Wrong” by Gene Ching and Gigi Oh, point out that it is the fault of different circumstances, that result in the differences between generations.  With “old school” Wushu, older generation athletes were closer to the traditional Chinese martial arts styles that modern Wushu was standardized from, which influenced the content of their practice, and the performances that came out of that practice.  Conversely, the later emphasis of more athletic qualities, most prominently the emphasis of nandu, also resulted in athletes’ practicing making all other qualities second to nandu.  This points to a causal relationship between how Wushu organizations dictate the practice of modern Wushu, and the athletes who perform to follow these standards and regulations.  In “Putting the ‘Shu’ Back In Wushu: The Art in the Sport Martial Art”, I said that a solution to the watering down of traditional martial arts content in modern Wushu, could be done by reemphasizing modern Wushu’s connection of martial arts movements and ideas that can be shared through its derivation of traditional Chinese martial arts.  A vital part of this means going back to the traditional Chinese martial arts roots of modern Wushu, looking at traditional Wushu ourselves as modern Wushu practitioners, exploring the plethora of traditional techniques and movements, learning the martial applications, intent and ideas behind them, and develop our own understanding and skill of them through detailed study, experimentation, and of course, long and dedicated training.  However, with no specific rules or regulations to dictate such a broad idea, the next best thing is encouragement and opportunity, where organizations and judges can dictate the direction and standards of performances desired by positively rewarding performances with all the qualities and content previously established, in favor of other performances that simply meet the standards.  This will give more incentive for athletes to follow another trend of performances, perhaps closer to an interpretation of traditional Chinese martial arts, as it was originally meant to be.  But ultimately, it is in the hands of the Wushu organizations who govern and dictate the regulations.  We, as athletes, and by extension our practice, are products of the organizations’ regulations and how they are enforced and are at the whim of playing the game.  One can only imagine what the next decade will bring for modern Wushu Taolu.

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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 former Pan American Champion and multiple times Pan American Championships medalist, 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.