3 Levels of Understanding Wushu

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By: Matthew Lee

Written September 11th, 2015

“I like to think of wushu as a being three tiered pyramid of skill.  The base of the pyramid is the physical work and effort.  Without the physical effort and training, you have no foundation.  There is nothing to build on.  So, that is absolutely essential and it is what everyone starts from…The next level is the mental level of wushu.  Understanding technique and analyzing form and function of wushu…But the top level of wushu is the spiritual.” —Mark Moran, “Three Big Wushu Lessons I’ve Learned”

Abstract: This write-up has been written to replace another write-up written previously for, “The Tragedy of a Wushu Practitioner”, as I have personally deemed it inappropriate for such a site as, which is dedicated to the positive promotion of Wushu.  Additionally, because my observations have changed since the writing of this original write-up, I have decided to supplant it with a fittingly new one.  The focus of this write-up is to address different understandings of Wushu, and how they are placed in different levels relative to each other.  The write-up will define three different levels of understanding Wushu.

The following is a write-up written to replace another write-up previously written for, “The Tragedy of a Wushu Practitioner.”  Given that my thoughts have changed since the time of that particular write-up, I decided it would be best to write a brand new write-up in its place.  This write-up is written to convey my new and updated thoughts, and therefore my new perspective of understanding Wushu, and its place in my life.  It is my hope that other athletes and practitioners of Wushu can take something away from this, and maybe even also acquire a new perspective of understanding Wushu, as I have.

It’s time to come clean.  For those of you who have been reading the majority of write-ups on, you may notice that many of our recent write-ups that have been posted are from dates long past, some dating back to last year, approaching a full year since they were first written.  First of all, I would like to issue an apology on my part; this slipup is partially my fault, in that at some point last year, I was essentially not keeping up with’s standard rate of three write-ups posted a month.  I could come up with so many excuses as to why I couldn’t do so, but the fact is I just didn’t maintain my responsibilities, and I was also going through a time where I was trying to sort out my priorities.  Officially speaking, I will also say that the management of has been very busy since that time, thus making it impossible to post regularly, as many of us have busy lives (yes, those things that exist outside the Internet).  However, since I’ve now been given access to as a writer and regular contributor, I am now beginning to gradually rectify this.  Let this be my first official disclaimer that the current output of write-ups will continue to be backdated write-ups, and for the time being, I will be playing catch-up with myself and (feel free to look at the dates written on the write-ups to check).

At the time of this writing, while I was posting the long-awaited write-ups for, I finally came to the next write-up in the queue, “The Tragedy of a Wushu Practitioner.”  For those of you that were wondering what this particular write-up was about, I’ll save you the trouble; it was essentially me whining about my life story and not knowing where Wushu would fit into my life, which I wrote while going through a period of self-reflection and self-pity.  Shortly after, a mentor of sorts (who I have quoted in the opening of my first few write-ups, and who has helped me by editing these same write-ups for decided to contact me after seeing this pathetic drivel as a Facebook note.  We talked over the phone, and he explained different levels of understanding Wushu and how it could be applied in my life, which changed my perception of Wushu, and made me realize my understanding of Wushu was not complete.  Thus, after multiple instances of thinking about this since then, I have decided to relay what I have learned, or at least what I hope I have learned, from that phone conversation.

My new perspective on Wushu is that its understanding, and therefore its place in real life, can be divided into three different levels of understanding, which I will attempt to define and elaborate on.  This will sound like Mark Moran’s “three tiered pyramid of skill”, which he mentioned in his blog post “Three Big Wushu Lessons I’ve Learned” on, formerly, except I will be going in a different direction with this write-up.  Because Mark Moran’s words on this topic are so well put together, I will try to avoid repeating what he said unless deemed necessary, and share my own understanding here.  These are the three different levels of understanding Wushu.

1.     The Physical Level


Yeah.  This one is obviously obvious.  It is so obvious in fact, that there really isn’t much I should have to say about this level, nor is there anything really new that I can say, beyond the obvious (Is my use of the word “obvious” getting annoying?  It’s okay, I’ll stop now).  But let’s do it anyway, so that I can at least try and do a good job of elaborating and clarifying what I set out and defined.  Of course, Wushu, in its most basic level, is physical in nature.  There is no denying it, and in its simplest, clearest sense, there is no way to get elaborately complex or philosophical about this.  At this point, Wushu is simply a system of physical movements and techniques.  It is therefore appropriately the first and foremost level of understanding that athletes and practitioners alike go through.  Consequently, we must acknowledge it as the simplest, and most basic level of understanding Wushu.

It applies to virtually every movement or technique, which in some way or other requires physical exertion.  This level of understanding can be divided into two sublevels; “learning” and “refining.”  Everyone must first initially “learn” the physical movements and techniques, which is the first sublevel.  This is of course one thing, and perhaps the easiest sublevel to attain.  Following this is the second sublevel, the continuous “refining” of technique and execution, which is another thing, and is of course not as easy, nor does it become easier.  It is an ongoing process, and can take the entirety of a practitioner’s life.  Vital to any formula of improvement, is the physical effort and dedication to training, which is still within the physical level.  This is the core concept of “gongfu” (功夫; gōngfu), better known or mistranslated as the more popular term, “kung fu.”  I have stated many times in my previous write-ups that this word has been mistranslated, and thus misinterpreted as the name and label for Chinese martial arts.  Wushu is the more semantically accurate term, (the literal meaning of Wushu in its indigenous context comes from the two Chinese characters武; wǔ, literally martial or military, and 术; shù, literally art or method), whereas “gōngfu” is the idea of skill achieved over a long amount of time and effort.  “Gōngfu” can be in cooking, calligraphy, farming, and virtually any other activity or discipline that requires time and effort to achieve skill in.  But although Wushu is the more accurate term than gongfu, this does not mean that the two terms are mutually exclusive.  The idea of hard work and dedication is something that is very prominent in Wushu, and it is in this first, physical level that it is apparent.  Mark Moran states in his blog post “Three Big Wushu Lessons I’ve Learned”, “I like to think of wushu as being a three tiered pyramid of skill.  The base of the pyramid is the physical and work and effort.  Without the physical effort and training, you have no foundation.  There is nothing to build on.  So, that is absolutely essential and it is what everyone starts from.”

What highlights the importance of this level is its contrast with an intellectual level of understanding, which while still important, is not complete without the physical level.  Knowledge and actual skill are two different things.  Talking about something and actually being able to do it are two different realms, and in the world of martial arts, the former is logically not credible without the latter.  In the case of Wushu, skill is in the physical mastery of the physical art itself.  Thus, while the physical level is the simplest and easiest level of comprehend, it is nonetheless important in its role as the beginning level, giving way to a higher level of understanding of Wushu.

2.     The Mental Level


This is the level where we no longer merely physically practice movements and techniques, but start thinking about what exactly we are practicing.  At this point, Wushu, as with any form of martial arts, stops becoming merely about specific movements and techniques, and starts to become conceptual.  In Mark Moran’s progression of his three tiered pyramid of skill, “The next level is the mental level of wushu.  Understanding technique and analyzing form and function of wushu.”  This can, and ideally should, go hand in hand with the first, physical level of understanding Wushu.

In my opinion, this is what separates an athlete from a martial artist.  The sport of Wushu has historically been filled with athletes to this day.  These people can train to an intensive level, have great athleticism, achieve the highest levels of skill, and become champions, win medals, and even master the first, physical level of understanding Wushu.  But, as the structure of this write-up suggests, this understanding of Wushu is not complete.  Simply practicing something does not equate to truly understanding it at a higher, intellectual level; it is only one level of understanding Wushu.  A martial artist, by my personal definition, should be qualified by having a complete understanding, or at least trying to understand all elements and components of what they practice, including the concepts behind the martial arts, not just the obvious physical aspects.  While the two roles are not necessarily mutual exclusive, especially in today’s world, they cannot necessarily be assumed to one and the same.  A martial artist can be a great athlete, but a great athlete is not necessarily a great martial artist.  A practitioner of Wushu who is solely concerned with competition, performance and physicality and athletics may, in my opinion, be a good athlete, but cannot be called a martial artist, or at least a good martial artist.  In its completeness, Wushu has history, theories and ideas, and cultural relevance that gives it significance and meaning beyond just practicing physical movements and techniques.  These ideas can include martial applications and fighting ideas, and on an even deeper level, philosophical ideas for a more critical level of thinking.  Without this level, Wushu becomes meaningless.  It’s just a bunch of shallow movements that the critics of Wushu make it out to be.

By actually thinking about what we are practicing, why we are practicing the way we are, and how we are practicing, we are able to take what we practice to a higher level, and give it, or rather discover, a deeper meaning that gives it more substance than we initially thought.

Again, from the perspective of a practitioner of Wushu, it is important that this works off and with the first, physical level of understanding Wushu.  The relationship between these two levels works both ways to truly achieve a higher understanding of Wushu.  This contrast can be likened to the Daoist concept of yin-yang (阴阳;yīnyáng).  Many people interpret this concept as the idea of two opposites at its simplest, but this is only part of the whole concept.  Rather, it is the idea of a balance or “harmony”, which is achieved by the coexistence of two opposite elements in a dichotomy.  Just as we’ve established before that theoretical, intellectual knowledge is nothing without the physical skills to back it up, physical techniques and movements are also meaningless without the original knowledge and ideas that form their basis.  Both are needed to achieve a higher understanding of Wushu.

But this is not the deepest level of understanding, nor is it the end of Wushu.  I can humbly say that I am still stuck on these first two levels of understanding Wushu, as many of us probably are.  However, I believe, as I’m sure others probably do, that there is still yet a deeper level of understanding Wushu.

3.     The Spiritual Level


This is where it may start to sound philosophical.  This is not to be confused with the previous, mental level of Wushu, where the understanding of Wushu deepens and becomes more critical, but it is still restricted to specific components and the practice of Wushu not the highest level of understanding Wushu.  This third, final level of understanding Wushu transcends any idea or element specific to Wushu.  This is where it goes beyond the physical, and mental levels of the understanding and practicing of Wushu.

Some of you might be thinking, “Wait a minute.  I’m not looking for a whole philosophical spiel.  I’m just into practicing this thing called Wushu.”  And if that’s you, it’s okay, I get it.  Seriously, I get it.  As Mark Moran said, “You are hard core athletes and you don’t like to think of this hippy dippy stuff when analyzing your sport.”  But as I already established, just the physical aspect of Wushu alone is not enough to justify a higher level of understanding; by just focusing on a physical practice on its own, there is nothing deeper, and therefore nothing serious to consider or contemplate.

At some point, many of you will realize, as I have, that as a standalone discipline, Wushu direct application of Wushu into a stable venue of employment, or any practical use in modern day society.  As a collective system of practice, Wushu has a significant place in Chinese culture, which I have already addressed and cannot be denied.  But in terms of direct utility, it sadly has no relevance in contemporary society, not even in China today, which is depressing.  And on the actual basis of martial arts, whatever martial applications and fighting ideas Wushu had were no longer been deemed valid the moment that guns, modern combat and warfare revolutionized the fighting world today, regardless of whether or not they are still practical or useful today.  Unfortunately, as far as working opportunities for Wushu go, the US, like many other countries outside of China, is very barren.  Although China does offer a Wushu degree at their universities, which is available to students abroad for studying, this kind of academic degree is only applicable within Wushu, and not as widely versatile and applicable in the workforce as other academic degrees.  Unlike other sports, such as basketball, American football and soccer, Wushu has no feasible opportunities or career options as a professional athlete, coach, or judge in (and given the corporate dominance and corruption in the syndication of these sports, I probably wouldn’t want it to) competition.  An exception to this is Brazil, where the government funds and supports Wushu athletes to train and compete.  However, the US does not have any of this.  The only profitable option here, is to open a Wushu school.  To those of you have been able to achieve this, I salute and congratulate you.  Seriously.  You have been able to make a living out of what you like and are good at doing, and have achieved what I have not.  And for that I respect your ability and business skills.  But the rest of us who have practiced Wushu, who either have no opportunities, or have any ambition or to exploit opportunities to make money, open a Wushu school, become an actor or stuntman, we have to ask ourselves a question: how can we take Wushu with us into our lives?

Maybe you could find a way to apply it in philosophical sense, like say Daoism for example, as it and other philosophies have influenced many Wushu styles, to try be as “natural” as possible, and not let little things bother you in your process.  Maybe the influence that Wushu has on your life can help point you into the direction of career path specializing in other areas of Chinese culture.  Maybe you can take the ethical values learned in the practice of Wushu and apply it in your way of life.  Maybe you can take from your experience in Wushu to achieve a better sense of physical and mental health.

Perhaps the closest I’ve ever gotten to this level, or maybe the closest I’ll ever get, is achieving a greater sense of self through my learning experience in Wushu.  This is something that I have reflected on in my previous write-up, “3 Life Lessons Competitive Wushu Teaches: A Memo to Myself”, where I mentioned the three eponymous life lessons that one can take away from Wushu; work hard, be humble, and don’t be afraid of failure.  These are lessons that I take to heart, and will always carry with me in my life.  My experience as both a practitioner and competitor in Wushu has played a pivotal role in who I am, and how I carry myself today, through the lessons and state of mind I have achieved through practicing Wushu.  As Cung Le, retired former Strikeforce MMA (mixed martial arts) Champion and World Wushu Championship Sanda medalist said, the last few moments leading up to his fights, he may feel anxious, but the moment it actually starts, the mentality is blank, it’s simply, “Here we go.”  I will take this state of mind with me to every challenge I face in my life.  If/when I graduate college, I will probably be poor.  I will probably not be “successful” or have the most stable living conditions, and I will probably have a hard time trying to get my life together.  But although my practice of Wushu will not have any direct utility in my personal life, I can honestly say that I would not be the same person today without my Wushu journey, and for that Wushu has played an important role in my life.

This is not to say that the physical, nor the other levels of understanding Wushu, are meaningless, quite the contrary.  They are vital to the progression of understanding Wushu, but ultimately, the goal of the journey is this third and final level of understanding Wushu.  In this sense, Wushu, like any other discipline, becomes a means to an end; achieving this third and final, spiritual level.  I would like to close this point with a little video of a story told by Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming:

And there you have it.  These are the three levels of understanding Wushu: the physical level, the mental level, and finally, the spiritual level.  Again, some of you might find this progression weird or something you’d rather not talk about.  But for those of you who understand what I’m trying to get at, I believe this progression is something that we should all strive to achieve.  I hope this is something all dedicated practitioners of Wushu can achieve in their Wushu journey.


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, traditional Chen Style Taijiquan and zhanzhuang. He is a former four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member, former Pan American Champion and multiple times Pan American Championships medalist, 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