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Are Wushu “Weapons” Real Weapons?

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“Are Wushu ‘Weapons’ Real Weapons?”: The Role of Apparatus in Modern Wushu

Written May 7th, 2014

“Sword practice always cased fatalities, so this slowed its development.  Not many people practiced it.  How can we improve upon short weapon practice so people are not injured, yet still can show their technique?  This is the direction we should go.  Today Wushu is still cultivated for health, so this is our first priority.” — The Late Grandmaster Ma Xianda, Kung Fu Magazine “The Muslim Master of the Old Empire.” 

Last Wednesday, I was rehearsing for a Wushu performance to be prepared by the collegiate Wushu club at my university.  To be specific, I was performing broadsword (刀; dāo, which shouldn’t even be translated as “broadsword”, as it bears absolutely no resemblance to the true European broadsword.  The western saber or falchion would be a more accurate comparison.  Unfortunately, this translation has been too disseminated to be changed, but I digress…) and double broadsword routines for my individual part.  Since our club’s general practice area is mainly restricted to an indoor gym basketball court, which is shared with others, virtually all our activities and practices are quite public and open to anybody who passes by and chooses to watch.  Two of these bystanders decided to walk up to me after I was done practicing my sets; one of them asked, “Excuse me, I just wanted to know, are those swords plastic?”  After about a second of looking at her, I gave her a curt but truthful, “No.” (At which point her male friend said, “See?  I told you!”).  After I was given time to think about this short instance, I decided that I would write about it.  But more importantly, I decided that I would write about and address the frequently posed question to Wushu and Chinese martial arts practitioners alike by ignorant spectators: “Are Wushu ‘Weapons’ Real Weapons?”

Right now, I’m not going to waste any time beating around the bush, and answer the question directly, as well as any other related questions.  “No, Wushu ‘weapons’ are NOT real.”  “No, I don’t carry these around like a 12th century samurai, and I certainly wouldn’t carry myself like one.”  “No, I don’t cut down people as I wish (even if I could, I would most likely already get arrested for even publicly carrying a perceived weapon, let alone wrongfully harming another person without reason).”  And, “No, I am not a ninja (I don’t believe a ninja would flourish his or her weapons in public).”

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BUT: “No, Wushu ‘weapons’ are NOT toys.”  “No, Wushu ‘weapons’ are not plastic.”  “Yes, you can still get cut and sustain injuries that require medical attention from these ‘weapons.’”  And, “No, Wushu ‘weapons’ are NOT (always) tools for a meaningless, flowery, and shallow martial arts forms performance.”

Before I begin to delve into the topic of the use and practice of Wushu “weapons”, allow me to be honest about their misconceptions first.  You may have noticed that I put the term “weapons” in quotation marks every time these apparatuses were referred to in the modern Wushu context.  This is because, as you may have already gleaned from my prior responses to the main question of the write-up, I am primarily of the observation that NO, Wushu “weapons” are NOT real weapons.  The formal definition of the term “weapon” is “any instrument or device for use in attack or defense in combat” (taken from Dictionary.com), and the fact of the matter is that Wushu “weapons” are not trained or used as such.  Instead, I will refer to Wushu “weapons” as apparatuses hereafter, as it is a more accurate term to encompass these tools as a specific kind of equipment under the practice of modern Wushu.  The practice of modern Wushu is a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport and competitive purposes, and is divided into two disciplines; 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), which is only restricted to hand-to-hand combat.  In the context of modern Wushu, the use and practice of apparatuses are only exclusive to the Taolu discipline, which involves limited, choreographed and controlled contact as a whole, and will be my main area, but not the only area, of the discussion here.

In general, Chinese martial arts weapons have been distinguished by a certain degree of flexibility, namely in the various sword blades.  Modern Wushu apparatuses are the sole source of this perception—real swords are not flimsy and do not bend upon a stab or thrust.  The metal that comprises Wushu blades—dubbed “Wushu steel” or “Wushu metal”, and likened to “cheap tin foil”—are specifically flexible and audible upon movement for dramatic effect, which serves the sport’s simplistic aim of aestheticism and performance.  An exception to this is the straight sword (劍; jiàn, sword) used in the solo Taijijian (太极剑;tàijíjiàn, Taiji straight sword) event that pertains to the Taijiquan (太极拳;tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist) style, which not as flexible as the standard straight sword.  Long apparatuses, namely the main Wushu competition apparatuses of the staff (棍;gùn) and spear (枪; qiāng), were traditionally made of white wax wood, which is commonly mistaken for the stereotypical bamboo, yet is much more flexible and serves modern Wushu Taolu’s practice needs quite well.  Unlike Karate bō (棒; literally stick or cudgel) staffs, which are made of graphite for Karate competition, and practiced with virtually no contact the ground, the practice of the Wushu staffs and spears involve an abundance of contact with the ground; examples include commonly practiced techniques such as the shuai (摔; shuāi, slam on ground) and diangun (点棍; diǎngùn, tapping staff on ground) techniques, which are very audible and also elevate the theatricality of modern Wushu Taolu long apparatus performances to dramatic effect as well.  In duilian (对练; duìliàn, choreographed fight sets), the design of apparatuses are distinctly different from the previously mentioned apparatuses, which are used in both solo and jiti (集体; jítǐ , group sets) events.  For example, duilian spears and broadswords are notably shorter, perhaps for better control.  All duilian apparatuses are designed specifically for hard and forceful contact with each other, and therefore are not as flexible as a result.

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As the years have gone by, both short and long apparatuses have become notoriously lighter and thinner with more audible noise, which correlates to the performance speed of more recent athletes maneuvering their apparatuses even faster.  This change has also seen a correlation in the rising frequency of Wushu apparatuses being broken, which only adds to the perception that Wushu apparatuses are cheap and “fake.”  An exception to this is the competition year of 1997 in China, where the standard Wushu blades used at the time were notoriously thick, closer to traditional swords in build, and made little to no sound.  More recently, the inception of a newly made staff material has come into existence in the modern Wushu Taolu competition scene today, consisting of a polycarbonate substance.  A strange observation that has been made is that the standard northern staff, which utilizes the Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist) style of swinging movements, has been made heavier, whereas the nangun (南棍; nángùn, southern staff), which consists of the Nanquan (南拳; nánquán, Southern Fist) style of more compact striking techniques, has been made lighter.  These new staffs have already been disseminated throughout China for use by competing athletes, but whether or not these newly implemented staffs will replace the active use of the traditional white wax wood staff worldwide remains to be seen.  Because of these attributes, modern Wushu apparatuses have been viewed as nothing more than toys when compared to the equipment of other martial arts styles and weapon-based disciplines.  Speaking from personal experience, this is simply not true.

It is important to understand that even though modern Wushu apparatuses are not trained in the actual fighting sense, they should not in any way be equated to the same level as child’s playthings.  Especially at the advanced level, Wushu apparatuses involve traditionally derived techniques, all of which have original martial intentions, and are trained at dangerously high speeds and accelerations.  Again, although Taolu does not involve intentional contact in the sparring and fighting sense (this is reserved for the practice of Sanshou), there is still a great degree of physical risk, which greatly stems from, and is escalated by, the practice and proximity of Wushu apparatuses.  People have been sent to the emergency room for immediate medical attention and also have sustained stitches for serious cuts from Wushu swords.  Put simply, Wushu apparatuses are not toys.  They are not used in the context of actual weapons, but they should not be treated lightly.

While these various apparatuses are specifically designed for modern Wushu, they are also used in traditional Chinese martial arts practice as well, which also include heavier, as well wooden, more recreational versions of traditional Chinese weaponry.  Ultimately, in terms of forms work and practice as a whole, Wushu apparatuses in general are not actively used as weapons in the traditional sense.  Even in the duilian event of Taolu, any movements or points of contact involving apparatuses are predetermined and practiced by routine, and not for actual or intentional harm of the “opponent”, or rather, partner in performance.  BUT, this is not to say that the practice of Wushu apparatus routines is empty in the context of weapon and fighting purposes.  Just because modern Wushu athletes do not train to actively fight or spar with weapons, does not mean that the apparatus routines of modern Wushu are without their martial and weapon roots.

One of the main criticisms of modern Wushu and its perceived lack of martial content stems from the observation that “real weapons” are not used in practice, and that weapons sparring is trained at all.  This has only further convoluted the perception that Chinese martial arts is solely based on forms work, and pretty forms at that.  However, there is yet another class of “weapons” practice in Chinese martial arts which actively involves contact and sparring.

In traditional Chinese martial arts, the practice of long weapon and short weapon sparring is referred to as changbing (长兵;chángbīng, literally long weapon) and duanbing (短兵;duǎnbīng, literally short weapon), respectively.  The traditional events of changbing and duanbing allow for a more realistic interpretation of Wushu weapon techniques.  If anything, the perception of weapon-based forms being performed for aesthetic purposes should only be restricted to modern Wushu.  But even then, there is still a misconception between forms and fighting, which also includes weapon forms.  In a previous write-up, “Forms vs. Fighting: A Critique on the Dichotomy of Wushu Training”, I stated that the first and foremost misconception about the practice of martial arts forms is that forms and fighting are not the same thing, much less the same skill set, as modern Wushu exemplifies.  However, this does not necessarily mean that there isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a relationship between forms work and fighting.  Rather, forms are training tools for various techniques that should be extracted and connected to fighting with sparring, which, again, does exist in Chinese martial arts.

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However, many people still insist that because Wushu apparatuses are not real weapons, they are therefore irrelevant in practice.  Well, to be fair, neither are other “weapons” in modern weapon-based sports and disciplines.  Changbing and duanbing, which also do not utilize real weapons in practice, also draw some comparisons to the more well-known weapon disciplines of western fencing and Japanese Kendo, which also do not utilize real weapons.  The foil, sabre, and épée in fencing are not the equivalent of European dueling swords, yet they are treated as such in the sport’s practice.  Kendo shinai (竹刀; bamboo sword) and bokken (木剑; wooden sword) are not the same as real Japanese swords, yet they still represent the same utilization of Japanese sword techniques in practice.  Wushu apparatuses and their practice are no different.  Again, the absence of real weapons in martial arts today does not mean the practices are without weapon contexts and uses, and this observation includes modern Wushu as well.

The truth is that basing the validity of a discipline that includes weapon use on the reality of actual weapons is pointless, because real weapons are no longer used in modern practical society.  The practical use of cold weapons such as swords, staffs and spears have been long considered obsolete with the arrival and evolution of firearms and guns today.  Therefore, the argument of whether or not we are actually fighting with weapons is a moot one.  In place of real weapons, representations are now used for recreational practice, which is ultimately how all practice martial arts and other weapon-based disciplines.  On Wushu’s general development in terms of weapons, the late Grandmaster Ma Xianda, who at one point trained both Wushu legends Jet Li and Zhao Changjun, says in the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Muslim Master of The Old Empire”, “Sword practice always cased fatalities, so this slowed its development.  Not many people practiced it.  How can we improve upon short weapon practice so people are not injured, yet still can show their technique?  This is the direction we should go.  Today Wushu is still cultivated for health, so this is our first priority.”  Whether practiced recreationally or competitively, disciplines that include weapons use, although containing some sort of traditional fighting context in one way or another, are no longer treated as actual killing arts.  We are not actually trying to kill, cut or bludgeon others.  We are not gladiators.  Martial content does exist in these practices, although not to the same extent that it was originally and actively trained for.

But this is not to say that these original fighting contexts should be forgotten.  After all, they are still part of the core practice in all weapon-based arts, including ones that do not include active weapons sparring.  For modern Wushu Taolu, though the routines are not practiced in the same way as traditional Chinese martial arts, the core techniques and movements are still there.  As I have said countless times in previous write ups, although modern Wushu is not on the same level of martial arts and practice as traditional gongfu, it should still contain some of that depth of practice.  I am also of the opinion that Wushu is just as valid a style of martial arts as any other modern sport martial arts style today.  Many people, including some who are Wushu athletes themselves, and view the practice of modern Wushu as having no need to consider martial content in the practice of Taolu, may disagree with me.  But traditional Wushu masters who have seen, taken part in, and have also been a critic of modern Wushu’s development throughout the decades, do not.  Ma Xianda for example, has also said, “‘…never forget, the central core [of Wushu] is ji (strike.)’”.  In its most basic sense, the original meaning of Wushu comes from the Chinese characters 武; wǔ, literally martial or military, and 术; shù, literally art or method.  Without this meaning in practice, Wushu is nothing more than just a shallow art form that many critics see it to be.

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For the weapons context of Wushu apparatuses, the design of apparatuses and practice of their techniques and movements come directly from the shapes of traditional Chinese martial arts weapons and their techniques, respectively.  The primary competition apparatuses of Wushu, the staff, spear, nangun, broadsword, straight sword, Taiji straight sword, and nandao (南刀; nándāo, southern broadsword) all contain their own versions of shared basics, all of which contain attack and defense applications at the most basic level, and some of which are required compulsory movements in specific events at national and international level competitions.  As mentioned previously, the staff consists of swinging movements.  The spear, while seen as one of the most beautiful events alongside the straight sword due to its flourishes in modern Wushu Taolu, contains a fundamental lannazha (拦拿扎; lánnázhā, block up, down, and thrust) basic that perfectly sums up its primary use in theoretical combat.  The broadsword’s design comes specifically from the liuyedao (柳叶刀; liǔyèdāo, willow leaf broadsword); it is a type of sword traditionally used for cleaving and chopping, and its fundamental chantouguonao (缠头裹脑; chántóuguǒnǎo, twining and wrapping around the body) basic contains blocks and cuts that distinguishes it from other weapon techniques.  The use of the straight sword can be compared to standard fencing, especially in duanbing practice, but also contains distinctive uses that disarm the wrist of the opponent’s own sword arm, which separates it from other more popular sword practices.  The nangun and nandao, which isn’t even a traditional Chinese weapon, but rather an invention specifically made for modern Wushu, have their own version of basic techniques that pertain to the Nanquan style of strikes and blocks.  Whether or not any of these techniques are practical in weapons combat is irrelevant.  Modern Wushu, while no longer trained for actual weapon combat, still has plenty of weapon content.

So, to finish up: “No, Wushu apparatuses are not real weapons, but they are not toys either.”  “No, I don’t train to fight with these ‘weapons’, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous in active hands.”  “No, I have never stepped on the battlefield with real weapons, but I can share the theoretical martial applications behind Wushu weapon routines.”  “Yes, modern Wushu Taolu is practiced for performance and aesthetic value, but it is not completely devoid martial content.”  Modern Wushu practitioners may not use real swords or staffs or spears, but that doesn’t mean that martial and weapon content doesn’t exist in Wushu.  Modern Wushu is still a form of martial arts, and has plenty of martial content from its traditional roots.  It is important that we make this distinction to establish that our Wushu apparatus practice is not any lesser than other weapon-based practices.

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