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What Is Wushu?

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“What is Wushu?”: A Personal Reflection on the Place and Practice of Wushu

“On Thursday [January 24th, 2013], Wu Bin and I were sitting down to dinner.  We were trying to come up with a definition for Wushu.  We eventually agreed that we cannot come up with one…” — Coach Christopher Pei of the US Wushu Academy.

It’s Chinese New Year again, which means it’s also demo and performance season for many organized Chinese arts that market and present themselves under the banner of “representing Chinese culture.”  One of these more obscure, yet always entertaining efforts is the promotion of Wushu.  Recently, in the backdrop of this time period, one of the projects being pursued by certain organizational bodies is the introduction of Wushu to the public audience, once again under the idea of “representing Chinese culture.”  In the process of this mission, the first, and always most arduous step is being able to answer the prompted question, “What is Wushu?”  Unfortunately, the stage answer and a more realistic, explanatory answer don’t always go hand in hand.  To answer this question, I will open with my thesis: “Wushu is a reflection of the many facets of Chinese culture.”

Right after reading that statement, you, reader, are most likely labeling said statement as another bullshit answer, put out there just for the sake of answering the question.  I don’t blame you.  It’s a broad answer for an appropriately broad question.  However, this write up is not being written for the sake of entertaining some college thesis or another writing project.  I’m actually attempting to work out and reason an actual answer to the question here.  In order to do so, I have to first explain where I am coming from, and where exactly I’m going with this.  This is not a formal essay at all, it’s a personal one.  I’m trying to explain myself freely, yet as clearly and satisfactorily as I can, and not in a sandwiched prompt designed for some English class.

However, this is still a writing piece, so in order to achieve what I want, the first step will be to come up with a consistent definition for the sake of writing, on what exactly I mean by Wushu and culture.  As such, my own personal definition of Wushu is meant to be utilized as I feel it should be; an umbrella term for all forms and styles of Chinese martial arts (武; wǔ, martial, military, and 術; shù, art, method).  This will include, but not be limited to, modern or contemporary Wushu, meaning that while I will go into the sport form’s state and place in Chinese culture, I will focus more on the role Chinese martial arts as a whole in Chinese society.  As for culture, I’ll settle with the Oxford English Dictionary version; the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.  In modern sociological and psychological disciplines, culture is more defined as a malleable system of attitudes and beliefs that, rather than center on certain aspects of cultures like the various arts, can revolve around and be expressed through them in everyday life.  So, in order to elaborate on my presented answer, I will divide my support into three simplified, yet clear aspects of culture that Wushu covers today; literary/scholarly, martial/combat, and sport/entertainment.

To better set my point in, I will first touch on Wushu’s role in the literary and scholarly areas.  By literary and scholarly, I’m referring to the Chinese culture of literature, as well as the different levels and philosophical thinking behind it.  From a purely Western perspective, many people would not think to connect martial arts with literature.  In traditional Chinese culture, the class of the warrior and the class of the scholar have always been core opposites.  However, just as two opposites are two extremes, they also come together to make up a unified balance.  This is the well-known and overly marketed idea of yin-yang (阴阳;yīnyáng), but with good reason; it is ultimately the idea of balanced coexistence in everyday life; two extremes on an opposite end being radically different, yet in order for existence to be complete, one cannot be without the other to make harmony.  Specifically, this particular dichotomy is termed “wénwǔ”, (文武), which literally translates into “civil and military” (文; wén, language, literature, writing, and武;wǔ, martial, military), and is better known by its Cantonese variant, “Man Mo.”

In Chinese literature, many figures, both historical and mythological, were in fact martial artists.  The most famous example is that of Yue Fei.  As well as being a real military general in Chinese history, Yue Fei was practically elevated by the Chinese to the status short of a deity, and is also referred as the progenitor of most, if not all styles of existing Chinese martial arts today.  Just as with Homer and his Iliad and The Odyssey, the presence of warrior heroes and the arts they represented of their respective cultures was undeniable.  Greco-Roman warrior figures, both historical and mythological, though exaggerated through the fabric of storytelling (as the mechanic always dictates), were very much proponents of real arts; these included the early forms of wrestling, boxing, poetry, and of course the advent of arena fighting before their respective European standardizations into more contemporary times.  With China’s respective literary world and its indigenous martial arts, the principle presence of martial heroes is no different.  This genre of Chinese literature is known as Wuxia (武侠; wǔxiá).  The only shortcoming and central characteristic of this presentation of Chinese martial arts is solely that it is, and always has been, exaggerated beyond perceived reality.  In these fantastical stories, warriors learned secrets that enabled them to defeat whole armies, and allowed them to even “fly.”  This is the same for martial arts movies made then and now, unlike the realism critics want from the action and storytelling, which is the trend nowadays.  However, the significance of Chinese martial arts in Chinese literature is undeniable, and its presence has frequently worked in conjunction with the scholarly processes that helped to express these ideas.

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Conversely, the principles of these traditional philosophies and systems of Eastern thought, were injected into the theories and ideas behind martial arts systems like that of the Three Great Internal Styles (三大内家拳;sāndànèijiāquán); Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, and Baguazhang.  The term Taiji itself comes from the Daoist philosophy, where Taiji is the idea of supreme, or grand ultimate existence (太极;Tàijí, grand ultimate), its core opposite being the extremity of emptiness, or Wuji (无极;wújí, extreme emptiness, also the name of a form of internal martial arts).  Bagua itself directly derives from the Book of Eight Trigrams (八卦;bāguà, Eight Trigrams), and its ideas form exactly how the martial art is structured the way it is.

Arguably, the clearer placement of Wushu is its relevance in martial or combat situations.  In the face of modern military and law enforcement methods, many people render traditional martial arts as obsolete.  Chinese martial arts are the greatest and most misunderstood examples of this generalization.  Modern military training programs, namely that of the US army incorporates basic boxing, wrestling, and BJJ (Brazilian jujutsu) in their hand-to-hand and close quarter combat.  This can also be seen in the sport MMA (mixed martial arts).  However, contrary to popular belief, Chinese martial arts training and practice for modern combat is very much alive today.  In the last hundred years, efforts for standardization of a full-contact sparring program for Chinese martial arts resulted in modern Sanshou.  This adapted program of free fighting has disseminated both into the sport Wushu form, but also into the Chinese military.  In parallel to the respected military programs like that of the Russians, which uses its modern Sambo, the People’s Republic of China uses its Sanshou as both a representation of national martial arts culture, as well as in practical combat situations.  In the Republic of China, Taiwanese police learn a standard curriculum of qinna (擒拿; qínná, grappling) to be used in apprehending close threats and crowd control.  These officers acknowledge that the use of these modernized methods contains roots in such traditional Chinese martial arts as Taijiquan and Xingyiquan, and therefore in the history of Chinese warfare.

Finally, the most well known, yet overlooked aspect in analyzing the place of Chinese martial arts in its indigenous culture, is its representation in sport and entertainment.  This form of Chinese martial arts is best known as modern or contemporary Wushu.  In an effort to standardize a method of performing and teaching Chinese martial arts to the masses, traditional Chinese martial arts master were assigned by the government of the Republic of China to formulate the modern Wushu we see today.  As a sport, modern Wushu is divided into two disciplines; taolu (套路; tàolù, forms), and Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting).  Many traditional martial artists criticize this form of Chinese martial arts as being not only too commercialized as a competition and performance item, but separating the practice of skill sets, and thus incomplete in representing the whole spectrum of Chinese martial arts.  In some ways, they are both right and wrong.

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Modern Wushu was created out of traditional Chinese martial arts as both a performance and competition facet.  In this sense, it does its job very well; bringing both promotion and exposure of Chinese martial arts through the competition events and performances we see today.  As the years have progressed, more and more people are growing more aware of Wushu.  Much of this success can be attributed specifically to the advent of modern Wushu.  However, as an accurate and complete representation of Chinese martial arts, it is quite clear that modern Wushu, as it has been disseminated and taught today, falls short.  Modern Wushu is completely sport and performance oriented to a fault, and while there are some exceptional proponents of the contemporary form, as a whole the sport never truly contains the depth of its traditional counterpart.  Athletes today only care about how spectacular their performances can be purely for performance sake, and nothing else.  This is what separates competitive modern athletes from the more traditional, real martial artist.  There has to be something deeper, both physically and philosophically, in the ideas of movements and training.  This is where the true value in traditional Chinese martial arts lies, and thus where Wushu’s place in both Chinese culture and history is.  If we are to do a good job of representing Chinese martial arts truly and completely, then that traditional knowledge needs to be shown, either explicitly or implicitly.  We need to promote an all-around understanding of Chinese martial arts, sharing more traditional knowledge for a better martial arts foundation that all people can benefit from, not just simply promoting the simple competitive and performance goals.  As a system of martial arts, Wushu cannot be complete without this depth, and thus cannot be represented as such.

With this need for completeness in mind, I will now close with a quick summarization of Wushu’s cultural role.  It exists in many forms, and thus exists in everyday life, at least for the traditional Chinese, as it always has.  Collectively, it is very complete, and it must be comprehended in that way to truly be appreciated.  I will close with my thesis, as I began with it; “Wushu is a reflection of the many facets of Chinese culture.”

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  • Denise Aviña

    Wushu is love!!