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Why China Losing Might Be A Good Thing

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WHY CHINA LOSING MIGHT BE A GOOD THING

By: Matthew Lee

Written October 24th, 2019

“One of the questions that remains is how exactly China will take this recent string of losses.  This will light a fire under China if they take their own sport seriously.  If not, at the very least we should expect to see other countries take the helm as champions of the sport.” —Quote taken directly from the write-up

Abstract: Recently, China successfully hosted of the 15th World Wushu Championships.  The success of the competition marks a high point in the sport of Wushu, with peak attendance and performances by participating athletes and teams.  Even more astounding are the results of the competition, with China losing multiple times.  The purpose of this write-up is to list and explain what this means for the sport of Wushu.

From October 17th to October 23rd, 2019, the 15th World Wushu Championships were held in Shanghai, China.  It would be twelve years since the last time the World Wushu Championships, affectionately dubbed “Worlds” by the Wushu community, returned to its roots and home country, having previously been held in Beijing, the capital of China, on the eve of the first failed bid for Wushu to become an Olympic sport.  This event would no doubt be a source of national pride for the country, especially in Shanghai, which already has a vast history of Chinese martial arts in the province, being where the famous Chin Woo (精武; jīngwǔ, Jing Wu) Athletic Association was founded by the Mizongquan (迷蹤拳; mízōngquán, Lost Track Fist) master Huo Yuanjia, both of which have been portrayed in numerous popular kung fu movies.  Indeed, the successful hosting of the competition proves to be a historical high point for the sport of Wushu, with seemingly record-breaking attendance from various nations and teams, in contrast to the limited participation where the competition was previously held in Kazan, Russia in 2017.  All that would be left is for China to secure winning positions, securing their place at the top of their national sport.  But alas, this was not the case.

Before I continue, it is important to clarify that when I say Wushu, I am primarily referring to modern/contemporary/sport Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport and competition.  As a sport, modern Wushu is standardized into two competition categories; 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).  As I am writing about the entire sport of modern Wushu, this write-up will cover both categories of Wushu.

At this most recent edition of the World Wushu Championships, Hebei Wushu Team member and Taolu athlete Guo Mengjiao made crucial mistakes that took out of the running for gold in two out of three of her events; she did not stick her mabu (马步; mǎbù, horse stance) landing for her tengkongbailian (騰空摆莲; téngkōngbǎilián, jump outside/stationary lotus kick) 540º in Women’s Jianshu (剑术; jiànshù, straight sword event), even more embarrassingly she lost her balance in her zuopan (坐盘; zuòpán, sitting coil stance) landing for her tengkongfeijiao (腾空飞脚; téngkōngfēijiǎo, jump/flying front kick) in Women’s Qiangshu (枪术; qiāngshù, spear event), and needed to use her left hand for additional support to prevent her from falling over, and although she inevitably secured a gold in the Women’s Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist) event, there was a brief period of time during the Championships where it actually seemed like a possibility that she might not medal or place at all.  Mohsen Mohammadseifi of Iran defeated Li Zhaoyang of China in the semifinals of the Men’s 70kg Sanda competition legitimately and dominantly, even scoring with the shoubie (手别; shǒubié, hand blocking) throwing technique no less, which can be traced directly back to Shuai Jiao (摔跤; shuāijiāo, traditional Chinese folk wrestling), one of the root styles behind the foundation of various Chinese martial arts styles and Sanda itself.  The irony of a non-Chinese fighter beating a Chinese fighter while using their own technique against them is not lost here.

First, it is worth nothing that this is not a new phenomenon, as China’s history of losses in the sport of Wushu at a worldwide level can be traced back as early as twenty years prior.  In 1999, former Strikeforce Middleweight Champion and Sanshou stylist Cung Le famously beat Chinese Sanda athlete Na Shun Gerile in the Art of War: China vs. USA in Honolulu, Hawaii.  At the 10th World Wushu Championships in Toronto, Canada in 2009, former Shanghai Wushu Team member and Taolu athlete Yang Yuhong got 17th place in Changquan.  In the 2nd SportAccord World Combat Games hosted in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2013, hometown Russian Wushu Team member and Taolu champion Daria Tarasova beat former Hebei Wushu Team member Liu Xia in the all-around Women’s Changquan, Jianshu and Qiangshu events, a controversial victory.  Sanda champion and current UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) fighter Muslim Salikhov from Dagestan, Russia, has secured numerous wins over Chinese Sanda fighters in the 80kg finals of the Men’s Sanda competition, most notably against Xu Jiaheng at the 10th World Wushu Championships, and again against Fu Gaofeng in his last fight at the 13th World Wushu Championships in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2015.  At the 6th World Junior Wushu Championships in Bulgar, Bulgaria in 2016, Jason Yengkhom of India completely outmatched Yang Jun of China in the finals of the Boy’s 52kg Sanda competition, also scoring with the shoubie technique near end of the second and final round.  Former Zhejiang Wushu Team member and Taolu champion Zhang Yaowen failed his xuanfengjiao (旋风脚; xuànfēngjiǎo, tornado kick) 720º with split landing in Men’s Jianshu at the previous 14th World Wushu Championships in 2017, although like Guo Mengjiao, he was able to clinch gold in his last event in Men’s Qiangshu.  Similarly, at the first World University Wushu Championship under the FISU (International University Sports Federation) in Macau, China in 2018, Alireza Riki of Iran soundly defeated Xiao Bokun of China.  Within the same month of that year at the Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, Mohsen Mohammadseifi of Iran had previously beat Shi Zhanwei of China in the 70kg finals of Men’s Sanda competition, using the shoubie technique in this fight to score as well.

So, what exactly does this mean?  Well, for one, it will make the sport interesting to watch.  In my old write-up, “No Medal for You: Why (I Feel) Olympic Wushu is No Longer worth It”, one of the main reasons that I listed as to why I eponymously felt Olympic Wushu is no longer worth it, was the politics of winning and losing in the sport; Who wants to watch an event where one specific athlete or team always wins?  A history of repetitive results makes for a boring spectacle and something not worth watching even to an experienced audience with expert knowledge in the sport.  Examples of this is certain boxing matches today, the most relevant and recent example being with Errol Spence Jr., student of Floyd Mayweather Jr., who is expected to win.  Conversely, unpredictably and the excitement of not knowing what’s to come, makes a show, sport or otherwise, worth tuning in to watch, case in point being Andy Ruiz’s recent upset win against Anthony Joshua, making boxing a hot topic and sport to watch again.  It should be the same for Wushu.

One of the questions that remains is how exactly China will take this recent string of losses.  This will light a fire under China if they take their own sport seriously.  If not, at the very least we should expect to see other countries take the helm as champions of the sport.  However, China being the grassroots of the sport, and undeniably still at the top of its development, will always have a fundamental understanding of the essence of its competition formats, and thus figure out more effective and efficient ways to score and play the game.

On the matter of Taolu, while it is still very much a possibility that Chinese athletes can lose to other athletes at the international level, it is not very probable, and thus not something to expect every time.  It is worth noting that when it comes to Taolu regulations and standards, these have always come from the CWA (Chinese Wushu Association), where the rest of the world follows suit and is always behind by a couple years.  As an example, around an average of every ten years, the CWA has constructed and released a new set of compulsory (规定; guīdìng) Taolu, which is a predetermined, fixed set of choreographed movements, as opposed to optional (自选; zìxuǎn, individual) Taolu, which is choreographed at the discretion of an athlete and/or a coach, to be used for competition, since the sport becoming international.  According to the historical article “KNOWING your Wushu Compulsory Routine History” by Emilio Alpanseque, “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 compilation of the 1st Set of International Compulsory Routines for seven events: Changquan, Nanquan, Taijiquan, Daoshu, Jianshu, Qiangshu and Gunshu.”  This process, as well as the process for other competition regulations, has been repeated for every decade since.  With a new decade around the corner, one can only imagine if there will be another set of international compulsory Taolu to be constructed and disseminated, and if so, what this next set of international compulsory routines will bring for modern Wushu Taolu, as I said in “Compulsory vs. Optional Taolu: A Look at the Training of Wushu Forms.”

There is also the issue of politics getting in the way of fair play and legitimate wins.  Former Shanxi Wushu Team member and Taolu champion Yuan Xiaochao won gold Men’s Changquan at the 16th Asian Games in Guangzhou, China in 2010, despite having failed his xuanfengjiao (旋风脚; xuànfēngjiǎo, tornado kick) 360º with split landing.  In a similar vein, at the 13th World Wushu Championships hosted in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2013, former Beijing Wushu Team member and Taolu champion Wang Xi did not have a solid landing for his mabu (马步; mǎbù, horse stance) landing for his tengkongbailian (騰空摆莲; téngkōngbǎilián, jump outside/stationary lotus kick) 540º in Male Optional Changquan, but still got gold.  These are cases where the fact these athletes were representing China may have prevented them from being objectively judged.  But the fact that Chinese athletes are being judged more objectively when they make such mistakes, may mean that the sport has finally progressed past this.

From a purely athletic standpoint, currently, there are professional Taolu athletes in China already capable of 1080º jumps; at this point, 720º is now the baseline standard in China, whereas top athletes at the international level are still trying to land these jumps consistently.  And with a new IWuF (International Wushu Federation) president Gou Zhongwen replacing former president Yu Zaiqing, it will be interesting to see what direction the sport will go.  However, the fact of the matter is still that the Chinese still dominate the top echelons of the sport, both in an organizational and competitive sense.  It is safe to say that China will always maintain organizational control as well as a competitive edge over the rest of the competition in the sport for the foreseeable future.

For Sanda, where the very nature of the competition is to engage in a fight and win, while simultaneously preventing the opponent from winning, it is still very possible for non-Chinese athletes to beat Chinese athletes, as there are many different elements at play; various tactics, speed, as well as individuals’ strengths and weaknesses.  Although this is not to say that there aren’t any politics at play here, especially given China’s notorious history of setting up and rigging fights in such “professional” Chinese combat sports circuits as Wulinfeng, with the controversial second fight between Yi Long and Buakaw in 2016, the fact of Chinese athletes actually losing in the motherland is significant, and may spell some progress towards the integrity and honesty of the sport.  And the idea of stiff competition will lend some semblance of legitimacy and fair play to the sport.  Although I have already made clear my views on Olympic Wushu not being worth it anymore in “No Medal for You: Why (I Feel) Olympic Wushu is No Longer worth It”, getting past this roadblock (albeit one of many) will mean progress towards international recognition, which is ultimately the goal here.

Now, some people may be wondering, “Doesn’t China losing make them look bad?”  Well, yes, if you care about the surface and reputational level (and the Chinese have historically had a problem with this, particularly in the Chinese martial arts community) of the sport.  However, I will once again defer to one of my previous write-ups, “3 Life Lessons Competitive Wushu Teaches: A Memo to Myself”, where lesson three was: “Don’t be afraid of failure.”  Yes, failure sucks.  Yes, losing sucks.  But it is an inevitable and natural part of the process of learning and improving.  In this sense, failure is ultimately a good thing.

It is unfortunate that throughout not just martial arts cultures, but every sports culture imaginable, that there is such a stigma towards losing.  The losing party is almost always shamed by spectators.  And Chinese martial arts culture is no exception.  For example, in the Kung Fu Magazine article “What It Takes To Be A Taiji Master In Chen Village” by Mark Wasson, where Chen Ziqiang, nephew of Chen Style Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist) Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang, stated, “‘Being a Chen family member, I look at it as: if I let myself lose, I would disgrace my family and our ancestors.’”  While I can appreciate Chen Ziqiang’s seriousness in the matter and can objectively understand his relative position as a representative of his family style, an entire martial arts style all its own, I respectfully disagree with this attitude.  When Eddie Bravo defeated Royler Gracie in BJJ (Brazilian jujutsu), did this mean the Gracie family had fallen? When Demian Maia, said to be the best BJJ (Brazilian jujutsu) stylist in the UFC, started losing fights, does this mean that BJJ has completely lost its effectiveness?  When the previously undefeated Kron Gracie, son of the famed Rickson Gracie of Gracie family BJJ, recently lost to Cub Swanson in the UFC, does that mean he has disgraced his family or his ancestors?  Of course not!  No martial artist or fighter with common sense will deny that BJJ has established its effectiveness as a martial arts style, or that the Gracies have established their place in the history of martial arts and fighting, at least in the sport of MMA (mixed martial arts). Although foreigners beating Thai fighters in Muay Thai can and has happened, this does not change the fact that Thailand is still at the top of their own national sport. So this attitude and blanket assumption should not simplistically applied to Wushu, or the Chinese either.

Simply losing is not the be-all and end-all of determining an entire group or martial art’s reputation.  If anything, such losses should serve as historical lessons on analyzing what went wrong and how to improve.  Practitioners of Yiquan (意拳; yìquán, literally “will/intention fist”), also known as Dachengquan (大成拳; dàchéngquán, Big/Large/Great Accomplishment/Achievement Fist), have adapted boxing into their training and sparring methods, having allegedly lost to boxers in fights.  Former Strikeforce Middleweight Champion and Sanshou stylist Cung Le had notably improved after losing to Scott Smith and former Pride FC Middleweight Champion Wanderlei Silva, fighting smarter and more measured after allegedly gassing out in both fights, as well as improving in his boxing somewhat, countering his opponents with solid check hooks, as he did with Patrick Côté.  In more recent examples, Team Lakay, a Filipino MMA Team specializing in training fighters with Wushu backgrounds specializing in Sanda, such as former One FC Lightweight Champion Eduard Folayang, former One FC Bantamweight Champion Kevin Belingon and former One FC Strawweight Champion Joshua Pacio, have recently begun to suffer losses that can be attributed to a lack of wrestling and grappling skills against higher level opponents; Eduard Folayang lost to former UFC Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez via rear naked choke submission, and Danny Kingad lost to former UFC Strawweight Champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson via decision, where the deciding factor was Demetrious dominating the wrestling scrambles.  This should serve as a lesson of observation on how Wushu training lacks the scrambling skills of complete wrestling that freestyle wrestling has, and the grappling of BJJ, and is a reality that we as Wushu practitioners should be aware of (no, no one martial arts system encompasses everything, not even Wushu).  Muslim Salikhov himself lost his first fight to Alex Garcia in the UFC via rear naked choke submission but has made a strong comeback to begin racking up wins via KO (knockout) with punches.  If China is invested in their sport, they will regroup and return stronger than ever.

As we can see, China’s recent losses in Wushu competition can cause a bit of a spectacle within the Wushu community.  By throwing a wrench into the planned image of Chinese Wushu, those that have beaten Chinese athletes make the sport exciting to watch, due to the unpredictability of competition moving forward.  What remains to be seen is how China will take this and move forward.  The next few years will determine if there will be any significant change in the future of the sport.

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 former 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.