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Wushu, MMA, and ACL Tears: An Interview with Jason Liu

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WUSHU, MMA, AND ACL TEARS: AN INTERVIEW WITH JASON LIU

By: Matthew Lee

Written July 4th, 2018

“…too often, when people are talking about Wushu, you basically only mean Taolu.  Right?  And, that’s forms…And I wish that, we kind of knew that Wushu meant everything.  Like when you say ‘Taekwondo’ to somebody, people just know that you don’t only mean forms.  You mean everything.  You know, forms, sparring, et cetera.  And I wish Wushu had that kind of thing going for it as well.” —Quote taken directly from the write-up

Abstract: The following is an interview with American Wushu practitioner and champion, Jason Liu.  It is sad to see that there are very few individuals who practice both the disciplines of Taolu (forms) and Sanshou/Sanda (sparring) under the modern Wushu umbrella.  Jason is one such Wushu practitioner who has gone from Wushu into fighting.  The goal of this interview is to discuss his experience and views in Wushu.

Jason initially started his martial arts training in Taekwondo and transitioned to Wushu in later years under US Wushu Academy.  He is also one of the co-founders of the University Wushu Games, abbreviated as UWG, a local level Wushu competition here in the East Coast of the United States, in College Park, Maryland.  In the span of over ten years of Wushu training as a veteran athlete of the sport, he has become a three-time US Wushu Team member in Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms), and a two-time US Wushu Team member in Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting), also known as Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand).  In Taolu, Jason was a multiple times national champion, getting first place in nandao (南刀; nándāo, southern broadsword) at the 2009 US Wushu Team Trials, a gold medal in Nandu (难度; nándù, difficulty movements) Male Southern Fist (南拳; nánquán) at the 14th Annual Wushu Collegiates in 2010, another gold medal in Advanced Male Nanquan at the 6th Annual University Wushu Games that same year, first place in both the Adult Advanced Male Nanquan Compulsory (规定; guīdìng) and optional (自选; zìxuǎn, individual) divisions as well as in nangun (南棍; nángùn, southern staff) at the 2013 US Wushu Team Trials, and most notably became a silver medalist in Male Compulsory Nanquan at the 12th World Wushu Championships in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia that same year, and Pan American Champion with the very same form in Men’s Nanquan – 3rd Set at the 10th Pan American Wushu Championships in Costa Rica in 2014.  In Sanda, he was a gold medalist at the ICMAC (International Chinese Martial Arts Championship) circuit in 2013, silver medalist at the 2016 US Open Martial Arts Championships in Full-Contact Sanda and went on to represent the US Wushu Team in Sanda at the 14th World Wushu Championships in Kazan, Russia last year.

My first impression of Jason was that of a senior of the Wushu school I used to go to, who was soft-spoken for the most part, except for when he performed his fasheng (发声; fāshēng, literally “release shout”) when doing Nanquan.  He was always open and willing to greet me and was always willing to discuss martial arts at the length, especially about the traditional Chinese martial arts roots of modern Wushu.  It wasn’t until I began going to university, that I would find out just how adept he was at sparring; on Fridays, he would first coach me in sparring with boxing, and was kind enough to give me a ride to then practice with TerpWushu, the collegiate Wushu club of the University of Maryland, College Park, and back to my dormitory on campus.  He would later teach me some basic wrestling and sparring in kickboxing.  Eventually, he would also go out of his way to occasionally physically meet with me and have coaching sessions on my Taolu training for competition, after I had begun to train on my own.  Jason would also return to UMBC Wushu, my collegiate Wushu club, which he has also had history with before I began attending the university, as a regular Sanshou coach, where I had previously coached Sanshou practices to add to make the practice of Wushu at the club a much more complete practice of modern martial arts and would appropriately step back as a student.  Jason has shown himself to be extremely patient with people, willing to listen to others, and someone who will go out of his way to help a friend whenever possible.  It has been my privilege to serve as one of his sparring partners in his training camp for some of his fights and see him succeed in both his Taolu and Sanda endeavors.  After recently seeing Jason fight and win both his matches at the 2017 US Wushu Team trials, my current Wushu coach Ching-Yin “Bee” Lee, said that I should interview Jason.  Of course, I thought this was a good idea, and decided to do it at a time when neither of us were busy training competitively.  After nearly a year, I finally got a chance sit down with Jason on July 3rd, 2018, where I talked with him about his experience and views in Wushu, and its role in his martial arts and fighting career.  For those that have the “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read) reaction, you can just go ahead and watch my video interview here, as it covers the following transcript I have of this interview (though this may be useful both for the hard of hearing, as well as clarifying any words said due to audio issues in the video):

The interview talks about Jason’s experience and views in Wushu, his crossover into sparring and fight training, as well as his experience going through two ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tears and recoveries.  So without further ado, here is the interview!

Interview

Q: So, let’s start with the most basic question.  How did you get started with Wushu?

A: Well, I was doing Taekwondo, and my babysitter’s kids, who were like older role models for my brother and I, they kind of like started talking about Wushu, kind of showed it off, you know, brought us to a class, and my brother and I were just like really hooked.  I think we held onto Taekwondo for a little bit longer, but then we switched pretty soon after.

Q: Cool cool.  So, obviously you’re also very, very accomplished in Sanda as well, not just in Taolu.  What motivated you to get into sparring?

A: Well, I’ve always been into sparring.  I mean, I’ve been real interested in sparring since I was like 6 years old in Taekwondo.  It just feels like, you know, you’re doing all these martial arts movements and forms, and then you wanna try it out, on someone who’s non-compliant, who’s not just doing a form with you, and that’s the only way for me to like kind of safely see whether or not these martial arts techniques work, for me.  Aside from street fighting, which I’ve never done in my life.

Q: Okay, that’s understandable.  So, aside from Sanda, you also train MMA (mixed martial arts).  I believe you’re a blue belt in Brazilian jujutsu under Coach Joshua Peters at Capital Push—oh wait no, sorry!  College Park MMA.  Capital Punishment was the old name.

A: Yeah, the OG name.  (Laughs).

Q: When you first told me [the original name], I was like, “What???  Capital Punishment?  Oh okay…”

A: Yeah, it sounds kinda messed up.

Q: It’s cool though.  But, as someone who has trained in MMA, do you feel that there is any carryover of skills from Wushu to MMA?

A: Definitely.  So, I feel like Wushu has like all these really good movement patterns, conditioning, flexibility training, and just overall like athleticism that really help with MMA.  Particularly the striking.  But it’s also really important to keep the two things separate.  Because like, you know if you Wushu, like you’re fighting, you’re gonna mess up your Wushu.  The patterns aren’t gonna be clean anymore, you know what I mean?  And if you’re fighting, you gotta listen to the coach, right?  You can’t like, take your Wushu into it, like if I were trying to fight, and they’re like, “Get your shoulders up!”  And then you’re like, “Oh, but Wushu, I wanna be like…” (does an impression of a chambered straight punch with an upright body) You know, like that, they’re not gonna mix and match.  So, I feel like they’re useful, and I feel like Wushu helped me, but it’s also very important to separate them.  When you do Wushu, do Wushu, when you do MMA, you do MMA.

Q: Absolutely, absolutely.  So, my next question, as an athlete, you suffered two ACL tears, which is probably one of, if not the most worst athletic injury anyone could ever experience in sport[s].

A: Achilles tendon is worse.  There’s a bunch worse, but yeah, it still sucked.

Q: Okay, well thank goodness.  But, could you explain what your experience was like recovering and getting back into competition, and did you have any advice for Wushu athletes recovering from injuries?

A: I mean, it was just…it was slow, but it was…it was smooth, you know, I feel like my main advice for that is be patient, and make sure you have a very logical progression.  You know, in my recovery, first you gotta get your…fundamentals, basically.  Like you gotta have pain-free range of motion, you know, basic movement patterns, balance…and then, once you’ve kind of got all that, then you can work on conditioning.  And you really wanna make sure your conditioning is really good, and slowly add sport-specific movements.  Like you don’t wanna just jump into nandu again, you know.  So that should be like, the last thing.  And yeah, just kinda keep on building up, and then targeting my weaknesses was key, so I knew which movement patterns I was like weaker at.  For example, if I hip hinge on my right leg, I knew that was like very weak, if I tried to pistol squat on my right leg, that was weak.  So, I knew that was a weakness, I targeted [it], and got that better, and that’s kinda like overcoming a challenge in a way, you know.  So, yeah, that’s the thing with ACL recovery, or any long injury, is that you gotta know what movement patterns you’ve kinda lost, and improve it, because if you don’t, you’re at risk for another injury.

Q: I see, I see.  Aside from martial arts, you also are a physical therapist.  As a physical therapist, what do you feel are some safety practices or safety protocols that we could use to make the practice of Wushu safer?

A: Well, I mean I think it’s just like not doing too much, you know.  In the end, I feel like, the two mains…like kinda things that are…are maybe injury risks in Wushu—well first, it’s the jumps.  Right?  All the acrobatics.  Everyone knows that.  And my recommendation with that is like, you know, make sure you’ve got the proper floor.  Sometimes I went to a gymnastic floor a lot do stuff, I even got hooked up to one of those backflip straps or something, to get my gainer back after the first tear.  Yeah, I mean that’s just like a safer way to get back, and maybe have people with you all the time, who can break down the movements, and help you with where your technique is off, you know…And building it up slowly, you know, like, go for like a 360º, then 540º, et cetera.  Like, kinda build your way up slow.  Another thing that I found really important for me was trying to be more even with my training, cause sport-specific Wushu can be very one-sided, so like, you know, if I were doing like my nandu kicks on the right, I would do them on the left…not always the nandu itself, but all the training, like kick, spin, kick, spin.  And I would try to be as symmetrical as I could.  Cartwheel on the left, cartwheel on the right, you know, and I think that helps really even out your core a lot.

Q: Okay.  So, speaking as a competitor with a lot of experience, you mentioned a while back about defining the difference between a general martial arts practitioner, and a “martial arts athlete.”  Could you define the difference between a “martial arts athlete” and a general martial arts practitioner?

A: Well, I mean I think that just depends on like, your definition of athlete, like if I take athlete to mean someone who’s, you know, participating in a sport, then I would say like a martial art athlete is someone who participates in martial sports.  And that can be really different.  So, like, if you care about martial sports, then…you care about the rules of the sport, right?  Conversely, if you’re just like a general practitioner, you want to do martial arts for your health, maybe for…self-defense or something, then you don’t really care about the rules in particular.  You know what I mean?  So…if I were teaching you, I wouldn’t focus on that too much with you.  And in the end, I think most of us are like both, in some ways, you know, like I feel like, I care about martial sport, but I also care about self-defense, you know, health, and other aspects.  So, you don’t wanna put people in a box too much, but you do kinda like, if you’re teaching, you do kinda have to know what the student is looking for in a way.

Q: So, as someone who is very, very experienced in modern Wushu, you and I both know that modern Wushu has come under fire a lot by a lot of traditionalists, especially traditional Chinese martial artists that say that, because it’s a sport form of Chinese martial arts, that it’s not “real” martial arts.  So, what is your response to the criticism that modern Wushu is not “real kung fu?”

A: Well, sometimes people have like different definitions of “kung fu.”  So, it’s a little hard.  Like, if you say “kung fu” is just strictly traditional Chinese martial arts, then, you know, modern Wushu isn’t.  It’s modern.  It wasn’t created 200 years ago, you know.  The Chinese government had a hand in creating and promoting modern Wushu.  But then, if you just take… “kung fu” to mean like Chinese martial art, I would say it’s definitely [a martial art].  Because, you know, it’s Chinese, and it’s a martial art.  It’s got all the qualities of a martial art, and…you know, and I get where this can be a little hard for people, but…I don’t think we don’t wanna put your own definition on a word too much.  You know, some people have a very narrow form of martial art, when they define it, then yeah, maybe it’s not a martial art.  But, at least for me and how I define martial arts, it definitely is.

Q: Right, right.  Absolutely, because…at the risk of condescending, I actually recently posted an article about wanting to learn martial arts and what your goal is, and it’s titled, “So, You Want to Learn Martial Arts: What Is Your Goal?”  And of course, there were different types that I highlighted.  There were ones for fighting, which included, boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai, of course Sanda, Shuai Jiao (摔角; shuāijiǎo, traditional Chinese folk wrestling), qinna (擒拿; qínná, grappling), Chinese forms [of martial arts] that were specifically meant to manipulate someone else’s body for fighting.  And then you have the ones for health, which, I mean not to insult the internal Chinese martial arts, but it’s pretty clear that their utility—as they’re marketed by a lot of kung fu and Chinese martial arts schools—they’re marketed as things you could do for your health.  For example, Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist), better known as “Tai Chi” in America.  Even other forms that have [health] benefits, like qigong (气功; qìgōng), or like, anything that embodies internal body work.  Of course these extend to Baguazhang (八卦掌; bāguàzhǎng, Eight Trigrams Palm), Xingyiquan (形意拳; xíngyìquán, literally “shape-will fist”), Yiquan (意拳; yìquán, literally “will/intention fist”) as well, also called Dachengquan (大成拳; dàchéngquán, Big/Large/Great Accomplishment/Achievement Fist).  Even after like the whole Xu Xiaodong vs. Wei Lei/“Tai Chi vs. MMA” fiasco, it was pretty clear that Taiji works best as a health exercise.  Not to say that it doesn’t have fighting—

A: But you would still say it’s a martial art, right?

Q: Absolutely.

A: As would I.  And I think that’s kinda the key thing, is that if you make your definition too narrow, it’s like, “Only what I do martial art.”  Which is kinda messed up in a way.  It’s like…I dunno, any style.  If someone’s like, “Oh, I do this style, and it’s got a little big of internal, a little bit of external, a little bit of weapons, and only that’s martial arts.  So, anyone else who does something else, it’s not martial art.  It’s kind of arrogant.

Q: Yeah, yeah.  And again, this is not to put down internal Chinese martial arts styles at all, it’s pretty clear that these styles, Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, they clearly had—

A: Oh yeah, I know you’re a huge fan.

Q: Yeah, yeah!  Absolutely!  Absolutely!  (Laughs).

A: You love that stuff.

Q: Yeah, they clearly have martial roots.  But, again, what are your goals?  Chances are, if you’re training for fighting [using these martial arts styles], you’re probably gonna do mitts, you’re probably gonna hit the bag, you’re probably gonna do drills with another person, you’re probably gonna spar, and honestly the best way to do that, for a lot of Chinese martial artists, they use Sanda as benchmark, ironically.  So, there’s that, and on the sport and entertainment side, of course there’s modern Wushu [Taolu, as well as Xtreme Martial Arts and tricking], so when you take the practice of martial arts as people in general use it, it’s a really broad definition, I don’t think it’s very fair to say that one kind of practice isn’t a martial art, and the other practice is.

A: I agree.  Yeah.

Q: That segways perfectly into my next question, actually.  Modern Wushu as we know it as a sport, has been separated into both Taolu for forms, and Sanda for fighting.  So, what is your response to the criticism that modern Wushu has separate forms and fighting?

A: Well, I mean I feel that’s just a very practical decision.  Because like we talked about, everyone has different goals.  So…you know, when you just get down to it, some people just don’t wanna get punched, they don’t wanna do Sanda.  Some people don’t wanna do forms.  I’ve met many Sanda athletes and, you know, it’s like they just don’t have any interest.  And why force it?  You know what I mean?  So, to me…you could always do both, you know, nothing is ever stopping you…If you wanna do Sanda, and forms at the same time, sure.  If you wanna focus on one, you know, for now, and maybe do another later, you can do that…I mean Wushu has even more divisions, you know.  Then you have like, the traditional divisions.  Go into that one for a while, you know.  Get away from Sanda, do that, come back to Sanda, go back to Taolu, you know, modern Taolu…yeah, so I feel like it’s just a practical choice, because people only have so much time right now, and usually they can’t do everything.  So, they make a choice.  So, when you’re marketing and promoting it, to me that just makes sense.

Q: Absolutely.  So, when it comes to the issue of trying to make modern Wushu more of a complete general martial arts practice as opposed to just like for sport, saying if you’re an athlete, you wanna specialize in one or the other, would practicing forms and fighting be something that you would encourage?

A: At the beginning, yeah.  At the beginning.  I do think like, when you get to the really high level, you probably already have your movement patterns down, your basic flexibility down, you know…at that point, you probably don’t need to be doing a horse stance-bow stance.  You’ve got really specific training to do, that relates to what you’re doing.  I mean, it’s the same thing in Taolu.  You know, like…a lot of the basics for advanced athletes are so specific now, like beginners don’t do any of that stuff.  So yeah, I would say, definitely at the beginning, but then, if your goal is to get more sport-specific, then your training has to go that direction as well.

Q: Absolutely.  So, my next question, if you could change one thing about Wushu, what would it be?

A: Well, we’re kinda talking about it now, is that…I really wish like…you know, when people said “Wushu”, they knew that it meant everything [under Chinese martial arts].  I mean, too often, when people are talking about Wushu, you basically only mean Taolu.  Right?  And, that’s forms.  So really, Wushu…includes everything.  And even if we’re talking modern Wushu, so basically like, kind of under that IWuF (International Wushu Federation), you know CWA (Chinese Wushu Association) umbrella that you and I are part of, where that’s the organization that we most closely associate with…they have traditional, they’ve got a Fanzi curriculum, you know, they’ve got…Chen, Yang Taiji forms for it, there’s Sanda like we talked about, there’s Wushu Taolu, there’s just like a lot of options.  And I wish that, we kind of knew that Wushu meant everything.  Like when you say “Taekwondo” to somebody, people just know that you don’t only mean forms.  You mean everything.  You know, forms, sparring, et cetera.  And I wish Wushu had that kind of thing going for it as well.

Q: Right, right.  To your point, I think it’s worth noting that the CWA has been trying to encompass what Wushu is as a whole, it’s not just Taolu, or forms specifically for performance or competition, although that is what Wushu is most well-known for.  They have released duanwei (段位; duànwèi, formal ranking system) for a lot of traditional styles over the recent years, you know.  Again, the five recognized styles of Taiji, Baji as well, Fanzi of course as you mentioned.  And I think recently, they’ve been trying to bring back other practices recently as well like, for example, push hands.

A: Oh, that’d be awesome.  We’ve talked about like duanbing (短兵;duǎnbīng, literally short weapon), and stuff like that.

Q: Absolutely.

A: All of that, you know…just like, kind of under the umbrella of Wushu, would I think really help the whole martial art.

Q: Yeah, absolutely.  I think 2014 there was an event called the 1st China National [Wushu] Games (第一届全国武术运动大会; dìyījièquánguówǔshùyùndòngdàhuì), and it had all these different divisions.  It had modern Wushu [Taolu], I believe it had Sanda, it had push hands, it also had duanbing as well, which I think was trying to be brought back by Ma Xianda, the late Wushu Grandmaster who taught Jet Li Fanziquan (翻子拳; fānziquán, tumbling or “rotating” fist, literally “turning/flipping fist”), his favorite Wushu style.  So, deep down I do wish that people would look at the word “Wushu” and see it as a complete practice of Chinese martial arts, not just like modern Wushu Taolu, although of course there is that part of it again…we’ll see.  I think a big part of that lies in how we represent our art.  I try to look at great examples, as I’m sure you know, like Zhao Changjun, Jet Li’s competitive rival, who was raised in traditional first before he went to modern Wushu, “If you want be a real Wushu expert (and I’m paraphrasing here maybe), you shall practice both [Taolu and Sanshou]…It is not good if you only [practice] Taolu and [don’t] know anything about the other method, other application or other practice.  That is like walking with one leg, not two legs.”  And of course, other masters like the late Wushu Grandmaster Cai Longyun and Qian Yuanze, they both say if you wanna be a real Wushu expert, you have to train both Taolu and Sanda.  So, I wish that deep down there were more athletes like you…and they would just try and represent Wushu as a complete martial arts [practice], not just in terms of performance, or trying to look good, or to get into the movies or stunts or anything like that.

A: Yeah…and really, I just want everyone to know that that option’s out there for them.  You know, you obviously don’t wanna force people to do something they don’t wanna do.  That’s the whole thing with this, what makes Wushu so great.  It’s like, if you don’t like modern jumps and forms, and twists, there’s something else for you, under the same organization, you know…And you just go on to any teacher, or the website, and you can get a Fanzi form.  So, I think that we wanna promote the idea that you could do everything.  That it’s very complete.  And if you get bored of one thing, there’s something else that you can go to.  But, I don’t really wanna force people, like, kinda almost push them…like they have to do something like that.

Q: I understand.  So, my last question, what’s next for you?  What are your plans for the future?

A: Well, we were just talking about like…you know, like traditional Wushu, Sanda, things like that, and maybe improvements, one thing I really like is to look into more like Shuai Jiao…You know, cause Shuai Jiao’s such a big part of Sanda…every teacher you go to will tell you that it’s kickboxing plus traditional Shuai Jiao.  And I kinda wish the CWA had some more, you know, material on that, to help give us…I guess like a roadmap, you know.  Cause we have, like you said, Fanzi and all that, but not really Shuai Jiao.  But that’s kind of a goal of mine, to look into that one, and just keep on trying to improve my Sanda.  Right now, my focus is on Sanda, so…I don’t like focusing on too many things at a time, that’s why, like, you know, when I really focus on Taolu, I kinda stopped sparring for a bit, and now I’m really focusing on Sanda.  Yeah, just the goal is just to really improve.

Q: Right, right.  Absolutely.  Yeah, I hope that there are more all-around Wushu athletes like you, that train the big picture, just like, you know, Hebei Wushu Team member Li Yanlong, who was a champion in both Taolu and Sanda…Best wishes, and thanks a lot!  Appreciate it!

A: Yeah, no problem.  Thank you very much.

By the time this written account goes public, Jason will have probably already begun moving out of Maryland, into his next permanent residency of Orange County California on July 5th (which is coincidentally my birthday—maybe I’ll get some ice cream cake from Baskin Robbins as I always do, after I’m done training and buy some new weights for weight training).  This was the closest thing to a goodbye gift I could make for him before he moves away.  Jason is really a special breed of Chinese Wushu practitioner, having gone from his Wushu background into full-contact fighting, as well as study the biomechanical and complete martial arts aspects of Wushu as a whole!  He is also someone who has gone out of his way to help me with my own Wushu training and has taught me almost everything I know about sparring.  Special thanks to Jason and his wife Janet Hsu for stopping by and taking time out of their busy schedule to do this!  Thanks to Coach Ching-Yin “Bee” Lee for the idea!  Again, best wishes to Jason and his future endeavors in life! 😊

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.