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Why I Teach Martial Applications

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WHY I TEACH MARTIAL APPLICATIONS: THE MARTIAL CONTENT IN THE SPORT MARTIAL ART

By: Matthew Lee

Written November 21st, 2014

“…I have always said that I feel that while modern Wushu is not on the same level of traditional gongfu, it should at least retain some of the depth of its traditional counterpart, and that includes the emphasis of martial applications.” —Quote taken directly from the write-up

Abstract: This write-up is written to support the teaching of martial applications in Taolu (forms) discipline of modern Wushu, which are trained for performance and competition.  Many critics of traditional martial arts, namely forms-based martial arts, especially modern Wushu Taolu, claim that forms have no real use or purpose in fighting.  While forms are not necessarily the same as fighting, there do exist basic attack and defense applications and ideas within the movements and techniques of forms, even in Wushu forms.  Martial applications are essential to the understanding of forms as part of a complete system of martial arts, Wushu or otherwise.  The write-up lists and explains three central reasons to the benefits and need of teaching martial applications in Wushu Taolu. 

If you’re a teacher, you’ve probably wondered at some point, “How do I transmit the knowledge I’m supposed to teach over to my students?”  If you’re a teacher who takes what they teach seriously (which, if you don’t, I seriously recommend you reconsider your teaching position), you’ve also probably thought at some point “How do I keep my students engaged?” and “How do I get them to take what they are learning seriously?”  These kind of questions apply to teachers in every sense, not just the academic ones.  In the case of martial arts, teaching is a very serious subject, at least to those who are serious about studying, training, or even just learning it, not just to those who teach it.  As a coach or instructor of martial arts, you have a certain obligation and duty to adequately represent what you teach as a legitimate practice of martial arts, whether you believe so or not.  And Wushu should be no exception.

As the coach of a collegiate Wushu club, I have put myself into this mentality for teaching Wushu, and have developed my teaching methods based on this mentality over the years, which include teaching martial applications.  When I say Wushu, I am mainly talking about modern Wushu, a standardization of traditional Chinese martial arts for competitive purposes.  Modern Wushu is standardized into two specific practices; Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms), the practice of choreographed routines 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).  However, the focus of this write-up can obviously apply to traditional Chinese martial arts as well.  Because the topic of this write-up is on the teaching of martial applications from forms, this write-up will mainly concern Taolu.  And as a coach, I believe, as many traditional martial artists do, that the martial applications of forms in form-based martial arts are essential to the practice and knowledge of martial arts, regardless of style.  I realize that there may be contemporaries, athlete and coach alike, who might be baffled and even surprised by this, and may and have questioned my teaching methods.  To this end, I have put together three different, but not mutually exclusive, reasons for why I teach martial applications when I teach Wushu Taolu for this write-up.  Before I begin, I would like to make the disclaimer that I am no way a professional level coach, nor am I certified instructor or professor of Wushu of any kind, although my experience does go back to training at and teaching for a professional Wushu school in the US.  This is ultimately my own opinion, based on my own experience of studying and teaching Wushu.

  1. Because they help improve the coordination and execution of certain techniques

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I’ve said this before in “Competition vs. Practice: A Look at the Training and Practice of Wushu Fundamentals.”  A senior of the Wushu school I used to go to, who is a two-time consecutive US Wushu Team member as well as Pan-American Wushu Champion, and was a fellow coach to the collegiate Wushu club I am a part of, has said to me that “the physical movements should come before theory and application.”  However, I have found that in some cases, sharing the knowledge of martial applications actually helps a student’s understanding and learning of a specific technique’s physical movement.

As an example, I’ve decided to choose and break down the gongbuchongquan (弓步冲拳; gōngbùchōngquán, bow stance punch) basic to support my argument.  While this is a very obvious basic with martial overtones, it serves as a perfect example of what I am talking about.  As the name suggests, this basic is comprised of two subset basic components; gongbu (弓步; gōngbù, bow/front stance), and chongquan (冲拳; chōngquán, straight punch).  First, let’s look at the actual stance work.  Despite its name, ‘bow stance punch’, a snapping and powerful transition of horse stance (stepping forward) to bow stance (punching) is emphasized from the hip, knee and heel of the back (punching) side, which generates the forward power of the punch.  This is where the power of striking in Wushu comes from.  The same concept of snapping with power can be used in Sanda.

Then there’s the punching mechanic, which consists of chambering the non-punching fist at the side of the body; the basic chambering mechanic is also shared with Karate and Taekwondo.  In modern Wushu (Beijing Style), the chamber position is usually held at the ribs.  The punch is turned over at the last ten inches of extension or so.  In the Long Fist style of Wushu, where the theory of motion is full extension, the shoulder is stretched forward to get all the energy and power forward.  An interesting application is that the straight punch can also be aimed at throat level, not just at shoulder level.  Additionally, there is a pushing and pulling mechanic behind chambering, where the chambering side pulls and the punching side “pushes” forward, that is often overlooked when analyzing martial applications in forms; it is important to emphasize the pullback of the chambering side just as much as the forward motion of the punching side.  The pushing and pulling mechanic not only adds to the power of a strike, especially when applied at close range in a self-defense situation where one is being grabbed by an opponent, but can also be applied in wrestling and grappling ranges as well.

While it is clear that forms is not necessarily the same as fighting, especially in modern Wushu Taolu, the knowledge of the martial applications actually can and do help a student better grasp the execution of a movement or technique.  Learning the application, which in theory requires the correct use of the whole body to execute the specific technique, can fix simple coordination problems.  Such an idea is able to completely address aspects like “Which side is in the front/back?”, and “Where is the focus of the movement/technique?”  Additionally, keeping the martial application in mind can also add to the jingqishen (精气神; jīngqìshén), or the vitality and intention that should be inherent behind a movement or technique.  Aside from the specific applications behind a movement, the basic attack and/or defense intent of a technique adds speed and power, which consequently adds to the basics training and performance aspects of modern Wushu.  It is in cases like these where learning the martial application can actually help with the learning and practicing of the physical movement of Wushu Taolu techniques.

  1. Because it appeals to a deeper level of interest for people who want to study a martial art 

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The biggest problems that Wushu faces with an audience or student group is general awareness and better understanding.  However, of the two, promoting better understanding is what is needed when capturing and maintaining a student base.  As I said before in “No Medal for You: Why (I Feel) Olympic Wushu is No Longer worth It”, part of the solution to this problem is the sharing of martial applications.  Because Wushu Taolu is usually only taught with an exclusive focus on the physical movements executed to a specific standard, and nothing else, students that want to learn something more than just the superficial material lose interest, and eventually quit learning Wushu altogether.  But if students take an interest in something, and are given more knowledge that can possibly encourage them to take their interest more seriously, they will want to learn more.

Such knowledge includes martial applications, which if shared, can encourage more serious interest in Wushu, by showing that there is indeed more than just the surface material to those that seek more in-depth knowledge of Wushu.  In the past few years, I have had some success in achieving this goal of appealing to a deeper level of interest for those who want to learn Wushu.  The fact that this is real, serious knowledge shows that it can be aimed at a more advanced perspective of learning and studying martial arts.  In this case, where I am teaching in the collegiate environment, I am appealing to a growing, more mature demographic that seems to think more critically now; these people can and do question the purpose of what this technique, or what is the idea behind that movement.

This kind of effect can obviously apply to other demographics of serious students of Wushu.  And when these kinds of serious students are fed more knowledge that responds to these demands, they have more incentive to stay and learn.  This can establish respect and serious interest in Wushu and show that it is indeed a modern martial arts system, not just a simple sport.  By sharing martial applications, we can appeal to a deeper level of understanding of forms work, movements and techniques within the practice of Wushu Taolu.  This ties into my final, and arguably most important, reason.

  1. Because I secretly want to put the “Wu” back in “Wushu” 

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It is astounding to see that the idea of martial applications existing within modern Wushu Taolu seems to be such an alien concept to grasp, especially by Taolu practitioners themselves.  There are two main reasons why the emphasis of martial applications are not prominent in Wushu Taolu.  The first is because modern Wushu Taolu is trained specifically for performance to a specific set of rules and standards for competition, which consequently ignores and the training of its fighting purposes.  Instead, the specific training of martial applications, fighting and sparring is emphasized in Sanshou, at least in theory.  By contrast, masters of traditional gongfu styles characteristically stress the emphasis of martial applications in teaching and training; it is essential, even vital to the understanding of the traditional Chinese martial arts system, and without it, the martial component, and by extension the martial art itself, ceases to be relevant.  The second is that the majority of coaches and instructors of modern Wushu Taolu simply don’t know what the applications are; they might act like they know all there is to know about what they teach, but if someone asks what a movement or technique is used for, they will simply avoid and ignore the question.  I don’t know which one is worse, as both only exacerbate the fact that modern Wushu Taolu lacks martial content, which is perhaps its biggest flaw.  It is because of this that critics of modern Wushu, namely Chinese traditionalists, call it, “huaquanxiutui” (花拳绣腿; huāquánxiùtuǐ, literally “flowery fists and embroidered legs”), which translates from Chinese to the idea of “style and no substance.”

However, despite the fact that modern Wushu Taolu does not emphasize the training of martial content, this does not necessarily mean that it doesn’t exist.  I adamantly do not believe that modern Wushu is huaquanxiutui.  But there has been the longstanding shortcoming of the lack of emphasis on martial content in Wushu, especially in more modern times, and this only helps to further the misconception that Wushu has no martial content, which by extension confirms the belief that Wushu is huaquanxiutui.  In my opinion, too little of actual martial arts knowledge in Wushu is ever shared, if at all, which I want to try to rectify in my own way.

By teaching martial applications, I am attempting to show that even though modern Wushu Taolu is not trained for fighting like traditional gongfu, the fighting ideas are still there.  I am trying to show that Wushu at its core actually is a martial art, and I am trying to show that there are martial arts elements in Wushu.  Also, the applications I share are not made up.  I didn’t pull them out of thin air.  I have been told before, and that the applications I teach don’t make sense.  This is real knowledge that has in fact been shared and passed down by practitioners of traditional Chinese martial arts.  And given that modern Wushu was developed from traditional Chinese martial arts, this knowledge of martial applications and fighting ideas can extend to modern Wushu.  Whether or not these applications are deemed truly practical in the fighting sense is irrelevant in this write-up.  The fact of the matter is that they exist, and they are essential to the reason movements and techniques are done the way they are.

There are those that don’t agree with me, including those who practice Wushu, and believe that the martial aspects of Wushu are irrelevant.  Instead, the majority of practitioners of modern Wushu Taolu exclusively focus only on how good their performances are the sake of performance, and nothing else.  Many defenders of Wushu justify that there is no need for martial content, or even martial intent at the very least, by emphasizing that Wushu is a martial ART in the “artistic” sense.  While this interpretation is not necessarily incorrect, it should be noted that Wushu’s literally meaning comes from the two Chinese characters of 武; wǔ, literally martial or military, and 术; shù, literally art or method.  Furthermore, it should also be noted that, as I pointed out in “Putting the ‘Shu’ Back In Wushu: The Art in the Sport Martial Art”, that术; shù in “wǔshù” was originally defined as the specific study, practice, and mastering of the MARTIAL art, and NOT the liberal artistic creativity often associated with the word “art” in the Western contemporary sense.  If nothing else, I feel that Wushu at least preserve its meaning in a fundamental sense.  In the words of the late Grandmaster Ma Xianda in the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Muslim Master of the Old Empire”, “‘…never forget, the central core [of Wushu] is ji (strike.)’”

But maybe I’m wrong in trying to teach martial applications.  Maybe I’m just “old fashioned”, and I’m just pursuing a pointless crusade that will yield no end for me.  Maybe everything I’ve been teaching is made up, and doesn’t contribute to anything my students are learning.  Maybe all those masters and professors of Wushu, and the coaches that have taught me Wushu, all of whom can be said to have the highest level of understanding of Wushu today and spout this knowledge, are wrong.  Maybe all the critics of Wushu are right, and those that practice Wushu themselves that don’t believe in the martial aspects of Wushu, are right, and Wushu really is huaquanxiutui.  I don’t know.  I can only continue to think and act based on my own personal experience and knowledge, and stay my course, unless all these “maybes” have become verified truths in my eyes.

So, these are the reasons why I teach martial applications in Wushu Taolu.  Again, it is important to note that I am not a professional Wushu coach or instructor; I’m just a young, amateur 21-year-old kid who happens to have some experience with Wushu.  But in my opinion, I have always said that I feel that while modern Wushu is not on the same level of traditional gongfu, it should at least retain some of the depth of its traditional counterpart, and that includes the emphasis of martial applications.  I believe we can add and show more depth to our Taolu practice, and open up new (or rather, reopen) doors for Wushu by teaching martial applications in Wushu Taolu.  I fully encourage other coaches and instructors to openly teach and share martial applications within Wushu Taolu.  I feel that they are an important aspect of martial arts that should never be forgotten, and that bringing them out more will garner respect and interest for the martial quality in the martial art, and not just the sport.

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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.

  • Auch Lim

    Hey! I am glad to have read this article because I really do agree with you on so many levels. In my POV, what differs wushu from other popular martial arts like TKD, karate, MMA even are the martial elements.
    I’ve spoken to a couple of people who doesn’t do wushu, and they just feel like wushu is a form of art – like a dance with a variety of weapons. If we can impart wushu with more of the application content, not just it is easier for the students to understand, it will also let people realize that wushu is not a “useless” martial arts.
    Afterall, I’m sure there are enough kungfu movies to back us up. Wushu ought to receive their deserved respect. Let’s all work together and keep this application portion going man!

    • Matthew Lee

      Thanks for your comment! I completely agree with you, and really appreciate it! 🙂

      -Matt Lee.

  • Robert W.E. Tee

    I learned both wushu and other arts like Taekwondo and judo, including Taichi and internal energy practices for health too. I hope those who master the skill and technique of wushu will get better and better in their regular practices like Win Chung fists and Shaolin fists, as most wushu need regular practices and sharpening of skills in reality.Never be disappointed when you are facing difficulty in any practices with pains and tireness, as you need to be patient and in consistency to improve over time, not in short period in real wushu training and practice indeed!