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Wushu in Schools: The Beginning of Widespread Wushu?

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WUSHU IN SCHOOLS: THE BEGINNING OF WIDESPREAD WUSHU?

By: Matthew Lee

Written April 20th, 2016

“Coach Chen makes it clear that in order to help promote Wushu, we must start, as Coach Chen himself puts it, at the ‘grassroots level.’  Without awareness at local levels, it ‘doesn’t matter’ if there are more professional athletes in Wushu.” —Quote taken directly from the write-up

Abstract: This write-up will cover a unique case of Wushu being taught in secondary school in the US.  It is interesting to note that Wushu is still having issues with marketing and promotion of awareness.  Part of the problem may be due to lack of public and free access to Wushu, as with other sports in schools, and its privatization for businesses, like other martial arts taught in specialized martial arts schools and/or academies.  The purpose of this write-up is to bring to light an example of how the contrary can help to benefit Wushu in the former sense, and goes into detail about Coach Chen Qingbin’s case and situation.

Yes, you read that right.  No, I’m not talking about Wushu schools or academies that provide “professional” instruction for Wushu.  No, I’m not talking about China, where this is commonplace.  I’m talking about it here in the United States of America, of all places.

To go more into detail, I would like to rewind back to the 11th Annual University Wushu Games, on December 5th, 2015, a Wushu competition hosted by TerpWushu, the collegiate Wushu club of University of Maryland, College Park.  It is important to clarify that when I say Wushu, I am talking about modern, contemporary or sport Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport and competition.  Modern Wushu is standardized into two specific practices; 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).  For this write-up, I will exclusively be talking about Wushu in the context of Taolu.  As I previously said in a write-up last year “What Made Yuan Wenqing So Great?”, I was one of the coaches of my collegiate Wushu club, and certain students and members of which I had trained and coached, were participating in said competition.  But aside from doing my job as a coach for my team of competitors, I was also observing and spectating in my own right when I wasn’t coaching.  And while I was spectating, my eyes caught an interesting sight.

Within the small warm up area of the competition venue, there was a group of youngsters in blue shirts and black loose fit pants.  Their uniforms did not match any of the other professional Wushu schools’ team of junior athletes, so this was a first sight for me to see at this competition.  When I asked some of the club officers of TerpWushu about these kids, I found out that they were from an actual academic school, as opposed to a specific Wushu school or academy.  Upon hearing this, I was amazed; outside of China, I had never heard of this happening, and apparently, it was a thing, right here in the US!  I later found out that their coach was Chen Qingbin, a coach straight from China, an unassuming man who was very polite and modest in speech and manner.

Aside from competing at the 11th Annual University Wushu Games, Coach Chen had also brought his students to the 2016 U.S. Capitol Wushu Championships hosted by NOVA (Northern Virginia) Wushu Academy (which I may have pointed out to Coach Chen, who was actively asking and seeking out competitions to participate in, by directly getting him into contact with the hosting Wushu’s school head coach, Coach Stephon Morton, at the 11th Annual University Wushu Games).  I eventually decided it was time to contact Coach Chen on behalf of Jiayoowushu.com to tell his story.  After a small exchange through email, Coach Chen eventually contact me on Facebook, and invited me to a weekend dinner with his wife, which is when we would talk about the interview questions I had posed to him.  Unfortunately, I had to take a raincheck, as said weekend was the weekend that I would be attending and competing at the 20th Annual Collegiate Wushu Tournament, hosted by Columbia Wushu, the collegiate Wushu club of Columbia University in New York City, New York.  However, afterwards when Coach Chen again contacted me through Facebook, we would set a date at Taipei Café, a Taiwanese restaurant conveniently located in my hometown of Rockville city, Maryland, where we would share a lunch together and talk.  So, without further ado, I present to you my findings from my first ever informal personal (read: informal) interview with a Wushu person!  This is Coach Chen Qingbin’s story.

Background and Start with Wushu

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Coach Chen Qingbin with the late Wushu Grandmaster Cai Longyun.

Coach Chen Qingbin was born in 1986 in Jining city, which is also the also hometown of the late Grandmaster Cai Longyun.  His start with Wushu, as Coach Chen himself says, is a “funny story.”  In his childhood, he would play fight with his older friend, Cao Yalei, whom Coach Chen narrated would win over him.  Coach Chen later found out that Cao Yalei trained in Wushu, which would start the beginning of Coach Chen’s career in Wushu.

Wushu Training and Career

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Much of Coach Chen’s training in Wushu stems from his time at Huadong Ligong Daxue, or the East China University of Science and Technology, in Shanghai province.  He would eventually, as he stated when I first met with him, train with the Shandong Wushu Team, and was of retired Shandong Wushu Team member and champion Lǚ Yongxu’s generation.  His specializations were Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist), dao (刀; dāo, saber/broadsword) and gun (棍; gùn, staff/cudgel), and has also competed in duilian (对练; duìliàn, choreographed fight sets).  Although Coach Chen is very humble about his skill level and training, he has earned 3rd place at a collegiate Wushu competition in China, and more recently at the 2013 International Wushu and Dance Invitational won first places with his dao, gun and Long Fist routines.  Aside from his Wushu training, Coach Chen also voluntarily served in the Chinese military for two years, from 2006 and 2008.  Coach Chen would retire from competition in China in 2003, and later came to the US in 2012.

Beginning Teaching Wushu in School

Currently, Coach Chen teaches Wushu at the DC (District of Columbia) International School, a secondary school located in Washington, D.C., the capital of the US.  To be precise, he works primarily as a PE (physical education) teacher, which constitutes more general physical activities, and teaches Wushu as an afterschool program.  His precise desire and wish for wanting to teach Wushu was to help promote it.  Coach Chen notes the longstanding observation that Taekwondo and Karate are comparatively more popular than Wushu.  Yet Wushu has a vast culture in and of itself that can garner interest and potential to help it promote its awareness; Coach Chen points out that Wushu has many weapons, such as pudao (扑刀; pūdāo, horse cutter) and jiujiebian (九节鞭; jiǔjiēbiān, nine-section whip/chain whip), which give Wushu a marketable, and some would even say exotic appeal as both a spectator sport, as well as a fun and interesting physical activity and art to learn.  Coach Chen also believes in a more open environment for teaching and sharing knowledge, rather than the more traditional, privatized structure of teaching martial arts behind closed doors, in order to help promote and spread awareness of Wushu, which is clearly demonstrated in his opening public access to Wushu practices in school.  This started in 2014, which Coach Chen himself states was “the toughest year” he ever had, filled with difficulties such as getting children to listen, and securing Wushu equipment and apparatus for practice.  Since then, Coach Chen has said that things have been easier and smoother.

Differences/Changes Made When Coaching American Students vs. Chinese Athletes

When talking about his teaching methods, and how he had to adjust his knowledge and experience from China to fit the American culture, Coach Chen observes that the difficulty is simply due to cultural differences.  The cultural concepts of focus and discipline between the two countries of China and the United States, and even across generations, are clearly different.  In China, as with many Asian cultures, corporal punishment on children is very typical for disciplinary action, whereas in the US, hitting kids in any context is considered by many adults today as cruel, since such behavior would be considered child abuse in today’s politically correct culture (although this was not always the case in preceding decades).  In a short anecdote, Coach Chen relates that when his parents took him to his teachers, they directly reinforced and encouraged his teachers to hit him if he misbehaved.  To clarify, Coach Chen does NOT condone this same treatment to his own students; rather, he understands the disciplinary differences in culture, and has found a way to adjust his teachings to fit the American perspective of disciplinary action.  The learning environments between both China and the US are also radically different.  The typical learning and working environment in China is strictly discipline and focused towards the goal, while in the US, individuals are usually driven by incentives and motivations to work.  Coach Chen also relates an image of what his experience of training Wushu in China was like; one would line up with their training group, as is customary with most, if not all, professional Wushu schools, and execute stretch kicks under strict and rigorous standards and demands.  However, as is the case with many other Wushu coaches with professional schools, Coach Chen realizes that this kind of structure will suit the learning environment of today’s generation of kids.  As a result, Coach Chen says that his practice environment is freer, with less discipline, but more motivation and incentive-based teaching.  For example, allowing students to take a break, for completing certain requirements, such as a number of repetitions of a movement, in practice.  He also employs the belt system, as he feels this helps his students to commit and invest their efforts towards practicing Wushu, especially in today’s achievement culture established in the current education system for children in the US.

Goals for Coaching Wushu

Coach Chen makes it clear that in order to help promote Wushu, we must start, as Coach Chen himself puts it, at the “grassroots level.”  Without awareness at local levels, it “doesn’t matter” if there are more professional athletes in Wushu.  Awareness is not created through a few elite individuals, or even through many high level athletes and champions, that are the top of a sport, with little to no active marketing or advertising movements; it is created at the bottom of the sport, through open and public access to garner active and alive participation in it, where more people will at least know of the existence of Wushu, and although this may not produce many champions or professionals, it provides a foundation on which to spread awareness and an easier time to promote it, which is the age-old paramount goal for many of its practitioners.  Coach Chen also suggests that we could help to build and employ a standard belt system as a formal ranking system, as mentioned above, for the practice of Wushu everywhere.  With such a heavily standardized discipline as modern Wushu Taolu, it is perplexing to see that it lacks a formal ranking system, or even uniform standard or set of requirements for ranking, in practice.  The only thing resembling a formal ranking system within Wushu is the newly implemented duanwei system in China (段位; duànwèi, formal ranking system) by the CWA (Chinese Wushu Association) to standardize various Wushu styles, and the previous duan (段; duàn, formal rank or level) ranking system for Wushu before it which employed a set of compulsory (规定; guīdìng) Taolu, however even these are not widespread or well-known among the majority of Wushu practitioners and the Wushu community.  Coach Chen believes that if there is a standard belt system, which would theoretically be the same for every school, and would start from an easy and achievable level for beginners and newcomers to Wushu with little to no martial arts experience, it would be a huge development and step forward for the teaching and practicing of Wushu.

Future Plans for Coaching Wushu

First, Coach Chen seeks to participate more in competitions.  Eventually, he hopes to foster a higher skill level in his students, and even get them to train and exchange with Chinese Wushu athletes.  Currently, the furthest that his students have progressed are forms with the gun.  However, Coach Chen soon aspires to introduce the other Wushu apparatuses, like the dao and jian (劍; jiàn, sword/straight sword).

Message to the Wushu Community

Coach Chen is happy to see so many people practice Wushu, regardless of age, as well as a Wushu community that is open and friendly with each other.  When recalling the 11th Annual University Wushu Games, hearing shouts of “jiayou”s of encouragement from competitors to fellow athletes and competitors, remind of his time competing in China.  Coach Chen also earlier cited Daniel Liang, then-current club officer of TerpWushu, as a great example of someone who encourages such an open and friendly atmosphere for the Wushu community.  Indeed, the Wushu community, particularly the collegiate Wushu community in this example, and the practice of Wushu in the US has grown and improved very much compared to ten years ago, with a clearly established sports and martial arts culture, and although we have a still have a long way to go, Coach Chen’s example is a great step towards this direction.

The existence of Wushu in public schools is an amazing, and until very recently an almost unbelievable yet fulfilling prospect, especially for such a sport martial art as Wushu, which is shamefully still an obscure discipline to this day.  Hopefully, Coach Chen’s example may be the first of many movements towards providing open and public access to Wushu, and promoting and spreading awareness of Wushu throughout the nation into a widespread practice.  Thanks to Coach Chen Qingbin for being so accommodating to me, and treating me to dinner at Taipei Café, sharing his story, and some great thoughts on Wushu with me!  His story deserves to be told and heard!  Next time is my treat! ☺

To see Coach Chen Qingbin in action, check out these videos!

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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 three-time consecutive US Wushu Team member and most recently 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.