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The Thing about Nandu

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THE THING ABOUT NANDU: ADDRESSING DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY IN WUSHU

By: Matthew Lee

Written February 25th, 2015

“‘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.’” —Grandmaster Qian Yuanze, Kung Fu Magazine “The Tradition of Modern Wushu”

Abstract: At the time of this writing, the regulations for the 13th World Wushu Championships have recently been released.  Various requirements have been added, including nandu (degree of difficulty) requirements for “long weapon” Taolu (forms) events in modern Wushu competition.  Nandu has always been a controversial topic in modern Wushu Taolu.  In response to these added regulations, this write-up will address the role of nandu, its shortcomings, and its improvements in modern Wushu competition.

The IWuF (International Wushu Federation) has recently released the official regulations for the 13th World Wushu Championships.  If you are a Wushu athlete on a national team, or are looking to compete for a spot on your country’s national team, you should be paying attention to this, because the selection criteria that each national Wushu organization for each country has will ideally be based on the regulations of the World Wushu Championships.  In this context of Wushu, or Chinese martial arts, I am specifically talking about modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport and competition.  Modern Wushu is divided into categorized into two categories for competition; Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms), and Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), also known as Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting).  For this write-up, we will talking about the competition regulations concerning Taolu.

The main additions to the competition requirements are that nandu (难度; nándù, difficulty movements) will now be required for “long weapon” Taolu events.  The World Wushu Championships will also include “traditional” Taolu events for competition; Xingyiquan (形意拳; xíng​yì​quán, literally “shape-will fist”) and dadao (大刀; dàdāo, literally “big saber/broadsword”), or guandao (关刀; Guāndāo, blade of Guan Yu) for males, and Baguazhang (八卦掌; bā​guà​zhǎng, Eight Trigrams Palm) and shuangjian (双剑; shuāngjiàn, double straight sword) for females.  Previously, word of mouth was that the “traditional” apparatus event for males would be shuangdao (双刀; shuāngdāo, double saber/broadsword) but it seems that the IWuF has opted instead for the dadao or guandao.  The idea of these changes were first heard of in 2013, either around or after the time of the previous 12th World Wushu Championships.  But now that they are being implemented, it’s time to pay attention to them now.  These new implementations bring about many opinions with them, including my own.  I have already talked about my feelings on the interpretation of “traditional” styles in modern Wushu competition in “‘Traditional’ In Modern Wushu: Clarifying the Distinction.”  But perhaps the one change that many modern Wushu Taolu athletes are paying attention to are the nandu requirements for long apparatus Taolu events.  In the solo Taolu events of modern Wushu, the three primary competition styles are Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist), Nanquan style (南拳; nánquán, Southern Fist), and Taijiquan (太极拳;tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist).  Within these solo Taolu events, the long apparatus Taolu events are gun (棍;gùn) and qiang (枪; qiāng) under the Changquan style, as well as nangun (南棍; nángùn, southern staff) under the Nanquan style, all of which fall under the “long weapon” or long apparatus category of solo Taolu events.  Before, nandu was only required for the bare hand and short apparatus events, which were dao (刀; dāo, saber/broadsword) and jian (劍; jiàn, sword/straight sword) under the Changquan style, nandao (南刀; nándāo, southern broadsword) under the Nanquan style, as well as Taijijian (太极剑;tàijíjiàn, Taiji straight sword) under the Taijiquan style; as a result, Taiji solo Taolu events remain largely unaffected, due to having no long weapon event, and already having nandu in its bare hand and short weapon events.  Now, it seems that nandu will dominate the format of the three primary competition styles of Changquan, Nanquan, and Taijiquan in modern Wushu Taolu.  While not a necessarily new change, it will definitely bring about a noticeable one, forcing modern Wushu Taolu athletes to concentrate even more on nandu, now more than ever.  This brings back many questions about nandu, and how it impacts modern Wushu Taolu today.  Therefore, this write-up will be done to discuss the role of nandu, what its shortcomings are, as well as its improvements in modern Wushu Taolu competition.

Before I continue, it is important that I be fair to those readers who are new to Wushu, and first define what exactly nandu is.  Those who do not understand modern Wushu Taolu may ask, “What is nandu?”  Nandu means “degree of difficulty”, referring to the set of movements and techniques, namely jumps, sweeps and balances in modern Wushu Taolu that fall under such a category, and is one of the primary aspects of grading modern Wushu Taolu performances competitively today.  The competitive grading of Taolu performances is separated into three judging categories of Panels A, B, and C; Panel A refers to the judging of “Quality of Movements”, which refers to the execution of compulsory or required martial arts basics based on the specific set of rules and standards in modern Wushu Taolu, Panel B refers to the judging of “Overall Performance”, which refers to the actual performance aspects itself and is ultimately subjective, and finally, Panel C refers to “Degree of Difficulty”, which in turn refers to the aforementioned nandu.  To be specific, the competitive grading of nandu is exclusive to the solo events of Taolu, which consist of a single athlete performing a form or routine on the carpet, either in a compulsory (规定; guīdìng) forms event, or an optional (自选; zìxuǎn, individual) forms event.  Of the two kinds of solo Taolu events, nandu is mainly observed in the solo optional Taolu events, will be the main topic of discussion of modern Wushu Taolu here.

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It is a generally held belief that nandu is a fairly recent invention in the development of modern Wushu Taolu as a sport today.  However, it is interesting to note that in the young years of competitive Wushu, the existence of nandu, or at least the movements and techniques that make up nandu, in fact did not exist at first in modern Wushu.  According to the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Big Monk Of Shaolin Temple” by Gene Ching, featuring Yu Hai, former Shandong Wushu Team member, actor playing the mentor role in the Shaolin Temple movie series starring Jet Li, and the inventor of modern Wushu Tanglangquan (螳螂拳; tánglángquán, Praying Mantis Fist), tumbling and aerial techniques were injected into Wushu after the ’60s, when Yu Hai was still young and “New compulsories introduced aerial moves like barrel rolls and twists.”  Yu Hai himself relates that “‘In the beginning, the coaches didn’t know how to train back flips or barrel rolls…’”  It wasn’t until the ’70s, the first of what modern Wushu fans today call the “old school” Wushu generation of Jet Li and Zhao Changjun, when we would first begin to see the acrobatic and tumbling elements of modern Wushu.  These jumping techniques and movements of Wushu would comprise much of what is defined as nandu today.  Following the late ’90s and 2000s, modern Wushu Taolu would begin to shift in format and emphasize more nandu, finally making it a formal grading category for competition.  Today, nandu is a distinguishing trait of modern Wushu that differentiates it from traditional Wushu or gongfu styles.

In my first write-up of Wushu, “A Statement about Wushu”, where I defended modern Wushu against its critics and suggested possible improvements to the sport, I said that one of the main criticisms that critics of modern Wushu, as well as traditional martial arts who criticize modern martial arts such as modern Wushu, dubbed “traditionalists”, say about modern Wushu, is that the emphasis on nandu in modern Wushu makes it more like “tricking” or gymnastics.  As a practitioner of modern Wushu, who has also competed as a Taolu athlete, I will admit that this observation is not necessarily untrue.

But in spite of all the criticism of modern Wushu that is derived from nandu, it is important to analyze nandu objectively and look at both its necessity and shortcomings.  The sole reason for the formal addition of nandu as a category of scoring in modern Wushu Taolu, was to make it more quantitative and gradable as a performance sport, which seemed to be one of various veiled movements to make Wushu Olympic.  In the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Tradition of Modern Wushu” by Gigi Oh and Gene Ching, Grandmaster Qian explained, “‘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.’”  Objectively, nandu does do its job; it definitely adds more of a sport and objectively gradable element to modern Wushu Taolu, making it into more of a sport, in the western sense.  However, it is important to acknowledge the flaws and shortcomings of nandu just as much.

In modern Wushu Taolu, performances are scored out of a maximum of 10.0 points possible.  Of the 10.0 points possible in solo optional Taolu events, Panel C of “Degree of Difficulty” or nandu consists of a minimum 2.0 points, with Panel A of “Quality of Movements” taking up 5.0 points, and Panel B of “Overall Performance” taking up the remaining 3.0 points.  On a numeric basis, it would naturally be intuitive that the martial arts basics and techniques under Panel A of “Quality of Movements”, and actual performance value under Panel B “Overall Performance” would be valued more than Panel C of “Degree of Difficulty” or nandu.  However, the reality of the situation is actually counterintuitive.

On a national and international level, modern Wushu Taolu athletes train nandu extensively.  This is because the scoring of nandu under Panel C of “Degree of Difficulty” is graded based on a “pass/fail” system, where numerical point deductions on failed nandu count a lot against a Taolu performance, even more than deductions under Panel A of “Quality of Movements” and Panel B of “Overall Performance.”  Furthermore, errors in nandu technique which are not counted in the “pass/fail” system under Panel C of “Degree of Difficulty” can be counted in Panel A of “Quality of Movements” and even Panel B of “Overall Performance” among other deductions in those same categories, carrying nandu over into other areas of judging a Taolu performance, making nandu’s influence over the performance score much more pervasive than may be initially believed.  As a result, nandu becomes a top priority for Taolu athletes.  Whether or not there is the successful completion of all nandu in a form can make or break a performance.  Even Grandmaster Qian admits that the current scoring system of nandu is flawed.  “‘When judging nandu, the score is based on “yes, you succeeded” or “no, you failed.”  It does not consider the degree of completion…Gymnastics has a nandu scoring system, too.  However, they also consider the degree of completion.  Why doesn’t wushu’s nandu scoring consider level of completion?  It’s because “this way is simpler to calculate and easier”.  I strongly feel that we should take the level of completion into consideration while scoring.  This is why most of the athletes are spending 70% of their time to practice nandu.’”

The emphasis of nandu essentially threw off the balance of the previously equal performance aspects of modern Wushu Taolu, and the other performance qualities such as jingqishen (精气神; jīngqìshén, vitality and intention behind movements) and shenfa (身法; shēnfǎ, literally “body method”), as well as the other original concepts from traditional Chinese martial arts, were watered down.  This is why fans of “old school” Wushu separate it from the nandu-laden modern Wushu of today.  At this point, it became apparent that an intrinsically “good” modern Wushu Taolu performance was no longer necessarily a “winning” one in modern Wushu competition.  Wushu legend and champion Zhao Changjun, who is also a staunch supporter of traditional Wushu, disagrees with the current format and state of modern Wushu, which seems to stem from nandu.  In the Kung Fu Magazine article “Where Wushu Went Wrong” by Gigi Oh, Zhao states, “‘If you want to jump high, you can’t compete with gymnastics.  The artistic aspect cannot compete with skating…Modern wushu has lost the meaning of the movements.  What are you doing?  You hold this for a second, then turn and land like that?’”

With such a strong emphasis on nandu, there is also inevitability of injuries for modern Wushu Taolu athletes.  Although there is always the risk of injuries when training intensively in any physical discipline, especially at a competitive level, it is important to minimize this risk as much possible, in order to ensure safer practice, and lengthen the competitive lives of athletes.  Most, if not all injuries that modern Wushu Taolu athletes experience today, can be traced back to the extensive training of nandu.  This is another reason as to why modern Wushu Taolu, namely the athletes themselves, can benefit from the deemphasizing of nandu.

There is also the issue of categorizing specific nandu movements and techniques, and restricting the scoring specific styles of modern Wushu Taolu.  For example, the tengkongpantui (腾空盘腿; téngkōngpántuǐ, tornado fall) technique is only scored under Nanquan style events.  This places a restriction on the freedom of jumps and tumbling techniques in modern Wushu Taolu that did not exist before.  Yuan Wenqing, who was a Changquan athlete, performed tengkongpantui in his optional Changquan routine.  Other such athletes who are not Nanquan stylists have performed tengkongpantui, yet it is no longer encouraged in the nandu scoring system today.  This demonstrates how limiting the categorization and scoring of nandu is in modern Wushu solo optional Taolu events.  However, this is not the worst factor underlying the problem of nandu in Wushu.

Of the many changes in development that modern Wushu Taolu has gone through, nandu can be said to be the most radical.  As with most aspects of modern Wushu, the original jumping techniques and movements of modern Wushu were derived from actual jumping techniques and movements from traditional Chinese martial arts.  But the more contemporary development of nandu has changed and various jumping movements and techniques exclusive to nandu, and has even introduced new jumping movements and techniques, such as the new standing tengkongbailian (腾空摆莲; téngkōngbǎilián, lotus kick) which has virtually replaced the original tengkongbailian, a jump derivative of the waibaitui (外摆腿; wàibǎituǐ, outside crescent kick) kicking technique in Wushu, in modern Wushu Taolu competition today.  And with new jumping movements and techniques came a new way of training and practice that replaced the old in modern Wushu Taolu.

Nandu jumping movements and techniques are separated into degrees of A, B, C, each having their own set worth of points, ranging from least to greatest; degree A consists of many of the original jumping techniques of Wushu and 360° degree jumps, degree B includes twists and 540° jumps, and degree C includes 720° jumps.  Because of the current judging and scoring system based around nandu, nandu’s prevalence has superseded the other, arguably more important aspects of modern Wushu Taolu performance, such as choreography and feeling of the actual Wushu itself in Taolu.  According to former Beijing Wushu Team member and World Wushu Champion Wu Di, he said at a workshop at the Wushu school I used to go, that after the 9th All China Games in 2001, the precise technique of jumps changed overall to meet the requirements of increasing degrees of difficulty.  And this was just one of many changes that radically changed the format of modern Wushu Taolu.  Today, modern Wushu Taolu athletes in China are increasingly training in degree C movements and techniques.  An exception to this generalization is the nandu requirements in other national and international modern Wushu Taolu competitions, where nandu is restricted to degree A and degree B.

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There are those who feel that the trend and emphasis on nandu should be strengthened.  Colvin Wang however, who is a four-time US Wushu Team member and multiple times World Wushu Championships medalist, disagrees.  In an interview “Interview with Colvin Wang: A World Wushu Triple-Medalist Reveals His Secrets for Success” with Kung Fu Magazine by Emilio Alpanseque, Colvin states “‘Putting in more High Difficulty movements will retract focus from the actual wushu…In order to be able to consistently hit C level nandu, U.S. athletes would have to spend a whole lot more time on practicing it, and I would expect the quality of movement to suffer.  Essentially, I don’t feel there is a need.  Nor are we at that level yet.’”  For those that are believe that nandu should be the sole, or at least the main aspect of Wushu, tricking or Xtreme martial arts would seem more suitable to such desires.  But my opinion and thesis has and always been, that while modern Wushu as a form of modern martial arts is not on the same level as traditional gongfu, it should at least retain some of the depth of its traditional counterpart, and such a strong emphasis on nandu is separate from these other defining aspects of Wushu.

And this is why the new requirement of nandu in long apparatus Taolu events is so concerning.  Previously in national and international level modern Wushu Taolu competitions, long apparatus events were judged under a “no nandu/non-nandu” system, which as the name suggests, excludes the Panel C of “Degree of Difficulty” in solo Taolu events, and consists only of Panel A of “Quality of Movements” and Panel B of “Overall Performance”, both of which were equally divided between a distribution of 5.0 points out 10.0 total points possible in the final performance score, and which is also the basis of judging other events of Taolu, such as duilian (对练; duìliàn, choreographed fight sets).  While nandu did not theoretically have to be, and was not necessarily absent from such events, the then-current lack of nandu requirements allowed athletes to be unrestricted by nandu, and therefore allowed the other performance aspects of Taolu to balance out the actual performance itself.  This showed that solo optional Taolu events could be performances of actual Wushu without nandu.  And now with the new requirement of nandu in long apparatus Taolu events, this freedom and opportunity will consequently be restricted in the same way as other solo Taolu events.  This goes back to the actual performance value of 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.’”

In recent years, there have been movements to try and address this.  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, the CWA (Chinese Wushu Association) implement their compulsory movement combinations (规定动作组合; guīdìngdòngzuòzǔhé) into their national Taolu regulations.  It is good that there are intentions to try and balance out the nandu aspect of modern Wushu Taolu.  However, nandu itself seems unchanged, and still exists as a glaringly large part of modern Wushu Taolu.

Unfortunately, it will be impossible to completely eradicate the problems that come along with nandu.  As of right now, nandu has become a longstanding aspect of modern Wushu Taolu, and it doesn’t seem to be going away.  So, what can be a good way to directly tackle the issue of nandu itself?

One simple way to balance out nandu would be to lessen the current requirements under Panel C of “Degree of Difficulty.”  This can be done in two ways; either lessen the total required amount of points under Panel C of “Degree of Difficulty”, or increase the numerical value of nandu movements and techniques to more easily meet the current required 2.0 points.  Both of these will essentially have the same effect, which will be to lighten the burden of the nandu requirement and training of athletes.

Another way would be to replace the binary “pass/fail” grading system under Panel C of “Degree of Difficulty” with something more precise, something that considers degree of completion, rather than simply discounting nandu based on existence of failed nandu or mistakes, like what Grandmaster Qian said with gymnastics.  Though this will make the judging methods under Panel C of “Degree of Difficulty” more complicated, it will also make the judging of solo optional Taolu events more inclusive of what the performing athlete successfully did in spite of mistakes.  Yet, another solution may be needed, perhaps in addition to, or at least an alternative, to these previously mentioned suggestions.

I said long ago in one of my first write-ups for Jiayoowushu.com, “Putting the ‘Shu’ Back In Wushu: The Art in the Sport Martial Art”, where I talked about the current state of modern Wushu Taolu and how it can be improved, that in order to revive the distinctive performance quality of modern Wushu Taolu, we need to encourage an emphasis back towards the study and practice of traditional Chinese martial arts foundation that modern Wushu came from.  This includes the previous, original performance aspects of Wushu such as jingqishen and shenfa, and even martial application and intent.  While this kind of ideal will no doubt require a greatly demanding degree of skill from Taolu athletes, this kind of quality can be the saving grace for modern Wushu Taolu.

Many modern Wushu Taolu athletes today may argue that with the priority of the various requirements in competition today, this kind of proposal is too idealistic.  However, examples from old school Wushu prove that this solution is possible, such as performances by Liu Haibo, Wu Gang and Ding Wei during the ’90s, when formidable nandu requirements existed, and was arguably even more difficult than today’s nandu format.  And even in the most recent years of modern Wushu Taolu today, athletes like Zhang Kunrong, Zhang Kai and Wang Fei are proof that a good Wushu performance can exist with the current competition requirements of Taolu.  These are all prime examples within China, and it is good to see that they exist, especially with more and more Taolu athletes in China trying to stand out with impressive Wushu performances; part of this is due to the fact that Chinese Wushu athletes are finally getting accustomed to the nandu requirements today.  However, we other Wushu practitioners in the rest of the world need to catch up, not in terms of nandu, but in terms of Wushu’s other performance aspects.  In the face of the nandu requirements, we need to be able to balance out nandu with these other performance aspects, and fix the problem of nandu in Wushu.

There is no denying that nandu is a big part of modern Wushu Taolu today.  However, it also cannot be denied that many of the problems in modern Wushu Taolu competition today either directly stem from, or are a consequence of nandu’s role.  In order to rectify this, it is important that we try to equalize nandu with the other aspects of Wushu in some way or another.  In the end, these suggestions, as with all my past suggestions, are only theoretical, and they are unlikely to impact any regulation, especially when they come from a 21-year-old Wushu practitioner that nobody’s ever heard of or cares about.  But this does not necessarily mean that what I say is meaningless.  I hope that my words here, along with all my other write-ups will not fall on idle ears.

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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.