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The Problem Facing Wushu

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THE PROBLEM FACING WUSHU: THE STRUGGLE OF PERFORMANCE ARTS

By: Matthew Lee

Written January 31st, 2015

“If you want to attract people in a big way you have to be very professional.  If you are professional then even if people do not know that much about [Wushu], they will see something of real value is there.  If you are not professional enough then people will not see it.  I feel the only way to promote is to do demonstrations and shows.  Then people will have a first impression about it.  You have to let them feel what you are doing in some way.  If you touch them then they will think, ‘Oh, I like that, I don’t understand it, but there is something there.’…and if I can let you feel two percent of what I am feeling, I will catch you.” —Master Ma Yue, Qi Magazine “Master Ma Yue – From Tongbei to Taijiquan”

Abstract: This write-up will talk about the problems that Wushu, or Chinese martial arts, faces as a practice in today’s society.  Since its introduction to international communities, Wushu has faced the same problems that many niche disciplines, such as gymnastics and dance, have faced, such as mass awareness and appeal, as well as a large following.  The write-up will talk about these problems, as well as how to deal with them.  While this write-up primarily uses modern Wushu Taolu (forms) as an example here, this argument also obviously applies to other martial arts, performance arts, and other respective art forms as well.

Story time.  On January 26th, 2015, I returned to university after a long winter break, only to be asked by the president (or “captain”, I’m not sure how this school deals with club terminology) of the collegiate Wushu club I was part of, to help perform at an event only two days away.  As coach of the club, it was already my job to make sure all performances by the club were adequately rehearsed and prepared for, based on the conditions I were given.  I found out a bit later that the stage I had was one of, if not the smallest, I had to work with, and that I had few performers to help.  This day, and the day that followed, were full of stressful rehearsing.  Long story short, come Wednesday, my worst fears were realized; of the spectators, if I can even call them such, which were at the venue, more than half weren’t even paying attention to the performances on the stage.  The previous performance was a certain form of dance which I am not familiar with, and people weren’t even paying attention to it.  This was my first sign that things wouldn’t go as I had hoped.  Needless to say, in addition to the fact that the performance itself was not to my personal satisfaction, I wasn’t happy.  First of all, what upset me was the fact that the club had handled the planning and preparation of the performance so poorly.  But what upset me most was the fact that my time and energy had been wasted on what I considered to be a failure of a public performance.  The upsetting incident led me to reflect on what happened this past week.  This led me to further think about the problems that Wushu faced in terms of being “successful” as a specific practice, and how they are and should be handled, which brings me the ruminations of this write-up.

The first and foremost problem that Wushu faces, is that many people, to this day, do not even understand what the term Wushu is.  Ironically, many people however, are familiar with “gongfu” (功夫; gōngfu), better known as by its popular westernized version “kung fu”, which has been mistranslated as the worldwide as the name of Chinese martial arts.  In actuality, “gōngfu” connotes the idea of skill or effort achieved over time, whereas Wushu literally means “martial art” in Chinese, derived from the two Chinese characters of 武; wǔ, literally martial or military, and 术; shù, literally art or method.  Although Wushu is technically an umbrella term for all the various styles of Chinese martial arts, in this case, I am referring to modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport and performance.  Modern, contemporary or sport Wushu, as it’s also called, is standardized 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 Taolu is trained precisely for the goals of performance based on a specific set of standards, most of my statements and arguments will focus specifically in Taolu’s role in the performance sense.  However, these statements can apply to Chinese martial arts in general, as well as any specific discipline of martial art, performance art, or any other respective art form, for that matter.

Again, the general problem that Wushu faces is the lack of general awareness and understanding.  Compared to other martial arts styles, Wushu is not nearly as well-known as the comparatively popular Karate and Taekwondo.  Thus, the general ordeal that Wushu practitioners and enthusiasts alike face as a result, is the trouble of having to spread awareness and generate appeal for their art, and establish a stronger following.  And herein lies another problem added to the struggle of Wushu.  How do you get people to pay attention, be attracted to it, and want to learn it?

Master Ma Yue, son of the late Grandmaster Ma Xianda, said in the interview entitled “Master Ma Yue – From Tongbei to Taijiquan” with Qi Magazine, “If you want to attract people in a big way you have to be very professional.  If you are professional then even if people do not know that much about [Wushu], they will see something of real value is there.  If you are not professional enough then people will not see it.  I feel the only way to promote is to do demonstrations and shows.  Then people will have a first impression about it.  You have to let them feel what you are doing in some way.  If you touch them then they will think, ‘Oh, I like that, I don’t understand it, but there is something there.’…and if I can let you feel two percent of what I am feeling, I will catch you.”

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Indeed, Wushu practitioners, namely Taolu athletes, aside from training performance for competition, have been known to perform in exhibitions and demonstrations.  Undoubtedly, as with all other forms of Chinese martial arts, modern Wushu’s best method of marketing has been through performances and demos.  And, while the collective success in spreading awareness of Wushu through performances has varied, it helps.

At this point, I have a confession to make.  For a long time, I have hated performing.  This is due to my time training at the Wushu school I used to go, where I was part of the performance team there.  During my time there, the standard of preparation and rehearsals was absolutely strict.  It wasn’t at all fun, it was a job.  Most of the time, you would have to be able to pick up something new, even if you didn’t know how to do it and had never done it before, and you were expected to be able to do it, and do it well.  I was almost always held to a high standard that I was held to by my coach, not only as a competitive athlete, but as a performer representing the Wushu school, and not one mistake or subpar execution of a movement could be tolerated.  When I first started out performing, which would be the beginning of my serious training and development in Wushu, I looked forward to performances, and even thought they were fun at first.  But as time went by, and the more performances I did, it was no longer fulfilling.  It was just another job for me.  To this day, I feel a lot of pressure to do well and put on a good show, even if it’s only for a couple seconds, because of the high standard of performance that I was trained with, but that I had ingrained in myself to always attain.  Some of this same stress may stem from the same reason I have had past difficulties with competing, which also goes into my loss and rediscovery of “fun” of competing that I talked about in “Collegiate Wushu in the United States: What It Means for US Wushu”, but I digress.  Despite all this, speaking from personal experience, I hate to admit that what Ma Yue says is right.  Performances are one of, if not the best way, to raise the profile of Wushu.  And, as Ma Yue also states, the important thing, and I CANNOT stress this enough, they have be handled and done in a professional sense in two ways, which I will elaborate upon.  There is a very specific reason why I feel this way.

Regardless of who the audience is, be they competition judges, spectators that “kind of” care, or don’t care at all, they all implicitly task the performers with one simple objective: “Impress me.”  Even if the audience, or worse, the performers themselves, don’t care, this should be the ultimate goal of a performance.  A performance that doesn’t impress does not make a good impression, and is easily forgettable.  Therefore, it is naturally in our best interests as Wushu practitioners and performers to try and put on good performances, and try to be as professional as possible about it.  As Ma Yue stated, through performances, we can subliminally promote the goals of spreading awareness, promote better understanding, and moreover generate appeal and a strong following for Wushu.

To this end, I have found that there are two levels of such performances that achieve most, but not all, of these goals.  There is “impressive”, where observers, myself included, can be taken in by the mere physicality of a performance.  But beyond that, there is nothing else to look at, and consequently nothing much to hold the audience’s attention for very long.  And then there is “emotional”, where the audience can be amazed, touched, or blown away, not simply impressed, by the content behind the performance—the intention and feeling of the performer, which goes beyond the simply physical, “impressive” level.  This is the level that all kinds of serious performers, martial artists, dancers, even actors, strive to achieve.  Ideally, those of us who are passionate about our art and take what we practice seriously, strive to achieve the latter.  In Wushu, this is characterized by jingqishen (精气神; jīngqìshén, vitality and intention behind movements) and shenfa (身法; shēnfǎ, literally “body method”).  And the sad reality is, ninety-five percent of the time, we will FAIL.

The fact of the matter is that the majority of spectators cannot be moved simply by one performance, even an amazing performance that can reach an “emotional” level, even if they would like to.  Why?  Because most of the time, they can’t comprehend it.  They don’t understand what exactly is being done half the time, much less the difficulty that goes into mastering an art.  Only other artists, namely others who practice it, can understand or comprehend it and understand performances at an “emotional” level.  And this is the source of all the problems of such arts as Wushu, gymnastics, and dance.  Therefore, we cannot hope to achieve the goal of better understanding for Wushu simply with performances.

Having spent a lot of time critically looking at Wushu, and looking at other art forms as well, I have come to a blindingly obvious realization.  Martial arts, gymnastics, dancing, and other such art forms, are a niche thing, with a niche appeal and following, and Wushu is no exception.  The saying “Gymnastics is not for everybody” applies to Wushu and these other practices as well.  While this state of circumstances may be sad, it’s simply and plainly, the truth (nobody ever said the truth had to be pleasant); it is the way it is.  Although Wushu cannot be said to be as popular as other mainstream martial arts styles or art forms, it cannot be denied that it has an established and dedicated, albeit limited following, as I have observed.  And perhaps Wushu has already found its place in the world.  Maybe it doesn’t need the mass appeal and following, or the Olympic title.  Maybe it doesn’t need the status and recognition of syndicated sports, like American football or soccer, with so much corporate dominance, and corruption that Wushu already has, and strongly opinionated fans (could you imagine Wushu being a syndicated sport with these added symptoms?  I cringe at the thought).  In all honesty, I personally prefer a smaller, dedicated base rather than a simple massive one.

But there is still the problem, or rather the duty, of keeping the practice of Wushu alive and ongoing, and the potential threat of its erosion.  An example of this is traditional Wushu, or traditional gongfu.  The Kung Fu Magazine article “Where Wushu Went Wrong” by Gene Ching and Gigi Oh states, “Traditional will only be preserved if we, the present generation, successfully hand it down to the next generation.  If we fail, there’s no one to blame but ourselves.”  Although comparatively, modern Wushu is much more well-known and better marketed than traditional gongfu, I would assert that because of its persistent lack of mass awareness and success, it still faces the same threats as a system of practice.  This again brings us back to the problem facing Wushu and other arts, which again goes back to what Ma Yue said.  In order to keep spreading awareness and garnering interest for Wushu, the only thing that we performers can do is carry on and keep performing.

I have already established my observations of the inevitable flaws of performances; that they cannot hope to create better understanding of the art on their own.  While we can’t expect to achieve better understanding, we can, and have, achieved awareness, and to a certain, albeit lesser degree, appeal and interest through performances.  Granted, the success of performances are hard-earned, as already established.  Even if a performance is good, even a tour de force, chances that spectators will only give their attention and care for as long as you are on the stage.  After that, they won’t care.  BUT, what performances can do is possibly capture the interest of a certain few people, which can in turn foster a desire to come forward and learn.  From then, we can teach such prospective students, teach them well, and then we can finally attain the goal of better understanding.  But for now, we need to focus on performing first to spread awareness, and then the other goals of appeal, interest and understanding will follow.

And, in order to maximize this, again, we have to be professional about it in two ways, which I mentioned earlier.  The first is to be professional as performers; to obviously put on a strong performance that strives to at least attain the “impressive” level, and the “emotional” level if possible.  These are what we hope to give a good impression of Wushu, and is the ultimate method of attaining the goals of awareness, appeal and interest.  The second is to be professional about the kinds of opportunities we pursue.  In other words, pursue big events that can reach a large audience, and avoid small ones with little attention, promotion, and organization.  In “No Medal for You: Why (I Feel) Olympic Wushu is No Longer worth It”, I said that in order to better promote Wushu, time and effort needs to be spent on marketing and advertising about performances and competitions, as well as the development of more open Wushu events and programs to the public, but I did not elaborate.  High profile performances that exhibit modern Wushu, while respectable efforts, have only be occasional at best.  Since then, although the situation has only somewhat improved, we have seen noticeable efforts with promise in recent years.

A great example of this is the Nanjing 2014 Sports Lab, an event where various sports, including modern Wushu, was showcased to a public audience in Nanjing, China.  One thing that was unique about this promotional event, unlike many others for Wushu, was that it gave the public a chance to actually try out and learn about the sports featured.  This is a great example of how such events can help to reach the goal of better understanding.

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Another example that I would like to bring up from my personal experience, are martial arts exhibitions that are jointly held together by martial arts clubs, in my case, collegiate martial arts clubs.  Not unlike the Nanjing 2014 Sports Lab, at my university, these events allowed spectators to briefly learn about and try out the featured martial arts styles at the introductory level.  Again, these are another set of great examples that not only tackle the goals of spreading awareness and garnering appeal and interest, but also sharing better understanding.  Unfortunately, due to the lack of proper marketing, advertising, and planning (wow, I think I’m seeing a pattern here), these events as an investment were dropped, along with the collaborative efforts between the recognized martial arts clubs, and with them, what I felt was a great opportunity to not only the collegiate Wushu club, but also Wushu itself, eventually died out.  I would advise others to take my experiences, both the one mentioned at the beginning of this write-up, as well as this one, as cautionary tales.  In order to find the best kinds of performance opportunities open for Wushu, we have to pick our battles, and be professional in this way.

Other recent examples include Wushu Taolu performances at basketball halftime shows.  Although I don’t know if this is happening in other areas, I have found that in the US, many Wushu schools, namely those in the East Coast, are participating in high profile performances as part of halftime shows of professional basketball games.  These are great examples of promotional opportunities for Wushu.  Although they are not the main event, they are reaching and receiving the attention of a big audience.  All of these are examples of great opportunities that are leading Wushu in the right direction, and I hope to see more of them.

This is the ultimate mission, perhaps, of proponents of arts that strive to keep their practice alive.  And given the observations I’ve laid out, it is a world of difficulty to accomplish.  But no one ever said it would be easy.  If we want to promote and nurture the practice of Wushu, and more importantly promote it in better ways, we have to be professional about our efforts with performances.  By striving to maintain this kind of a trajectory, we can see a solid plan to make the practice of Wushu stronger and healthier.

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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, traditional Chen Style Taijiquan and zhanzhuang. He is a four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member, 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.

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  • Hi, Matthew. Great article with some excellent key points covered, especially about professionalism and the “impressive” vs. “emotional.” As a Taiji competitor, the founder/director of my alma mater’s Tae Kwon Do club (where we also teach Taiji), and co-founder of our Taiji school, I can totally relate to what you are saying as we have emphasized performances for the latter two as well as for my individual and group competitions.

    Professionalism is a given with regards to performing in venues of any kind. While preparing students and yourself to perform at peak goes without saying, it is just as important to responsibly choose which demonstrations to attend. From your story, I gather you learned the virtue of “when to fold” as it is better to choose venues with higher probability of reciprocating professionalism (those who run the event and the likely audience). More energy, patience, and passion for the sport by the performers will die out as a result of bad venues than gained from great venues.

    As a Taiji competitor in the most competitive open martial arts circuit (not to mention often the only Chinese stylist), I experienced what you call the “emotional level.” I was able to win over the audience as well as promoters and judges because I moved them by transcending styles, disciplines/art forms, and even languages–all in spite of having to overcome prevailing misconceptions (e.g. Taiji being an exercise for only the elderly). While my performances included “impressive” movements (necessary to dispel the myth about Taiji being exclusively for the physically feeble), I knew that it alone would not be enough to be successful. It was necessary for me and my coach to interweave superior choreography, breathtaking music, and peerless execution with as Bruce Lee said in “Enter the Dragon,” “Emotional content.” When I felt that I met all four, particularly the fourth, I generally have been very successful.

    Therefore, the one part I would content is the point that “…the majority of spectators cannot be moved simply by one performance, even an amazing performance that can reach an “emotional” level, even if they would like to. Why? Because most of the time, they can’t comprehend it.”

    Based upon the kinds of audience members who came to see me after watching me for the first time and what they said, I would assert that reaching a truly “emotional” level should transcend what sport/art they are familiar with or how much of the rules they comprehend. Some of the most emotionally moved audience members of mine were not martial artists but rather dancers, musicians, or even not artists of any kind. They explained that they were enthralled because my choreography “was like watching a story unfold” and my performance “moved their soul.”

    I think that the vast majority of Wushu performances (Bei/Nan-styles, or Taiji) lack “emotional level” no matter how spectacularly “impressive” it is visually for a few key reasons: 1) no “emotional content”; 2) too many technical merits that make performances formulaic; 3) no creative self-expression.

    Without a doubt, music helps to build “emotional content,” and it helps to move both the performer and the audience. However, it simply does not cut it to play some background tunes as a pump-up or the same stodgy “Under the General’s Orders” (or same 1 of 3 songs played in Chen Village). To reach an “emotional level,” the music needs to be first universally emotional, then choreographed together with the movements. Finally, it should have a plot arc rather than simply being divided into section 1,2,3,4. Regardless of music, the lack of “emotional content” by the performer comes from a lack of martial intent, fire in the eyes, or genuine passion in the moment.

    With regards to being too technical, Wushu has too many required movements and nandus that have (at least in practice) taken away from being able to make each individual’s form look really different, especially to the general audience. This is part of why exemplary “Old School” Wushu performances are timeless–many look distinct in flavor and the techniques were more varied.

    Finally, partly as a result of being formulaic (e.g. big opening section with hardest nandus followed by basics and end with low pubu) and partly from the pressure to hit all of the difficult nandus, rarely do we get to see individual creative self-expression in performances. Without this, the performer cannot feel a true sense of ownership of the routine, and therefore, not display the passion required to display “emotional content.”

    Fortunately, since so many performances look so similar, it leaves the window of opportunity for someone to come around and really stand out!

    • Matthew Lee

      Hey Mickey! Thanks for your comment!

      You make very valid points, and I appreciate that you take the time to elaborate on them!

      Actually, I’m glad you proved me wrong haha It gives me hope about the possibilities that can be achieved! The thing about my arguments is, if I’m proven right, it doesn’t change anything, it only serves to strengthen my stance. But if you prove me wrong, I have no problem admitting it, because then that means there’s actually more great knowledge and information that I was ignorant to, and therefore better points to be discussed upon.

      Once again, thanks for your comment(s)! I hope to encourage more discussions like this, and maybe even actualization of the points made with them, with these articles, that’s all I ever really wanted from them! 🙂

      -Matt Lee

      • Glad to share from my experience and find it encouraging. Keep the great articles coming! =)