Compulsory vs. Optional Taolu

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Compulsory vs. Optional Taolu: A Look at the Training of Wushu Forms

Written March 21st, 2015

“In 1989, Wushu was truly developing as an international competitive sport.  The Chinese Wushu Association (CWA) was busy founding the International Wushu Federation (IWUF) as well as developing a new set of rules to be used at international level.  The scope of the project included the compilation of the 1st Set of International Compulsory Routines for seven events: Changquan, Nanquan, Taijiquan, Daoshu, Jianshu, Qiangshu and Gunshu.” — Emilio Alpanseque, aka Mastering WUSHU, “KNOWING your Wushu Compulsory Routine History”

Abstract: This write-up will discuss two kinds of practices in modern Wushu Taolu (forms), namely the solo Taolu events of compulsory (standard) and optional (individual) Taolu.  The existence and developed perception of compulsory Taolu has always been debated.  The write-up will cover the history, role, and necessity of compulsory Taolu in modern Wushu.  It will also compare and contrast compulsory and optional Taolu, as well as the benefits and shortcomings of both.

When you see martial arts forms, what do you see?  More importantly, do you know and understand what you are seeing?  Even if you don’t understand it, if you take the time look, you should be able to get an idea of the visual traits of a form, or what kinds of physical attributes are emphasized.  As I pointed out in my first write-up for, “Putting the ‘Shu’ Back In Wushu: The Art in the Sport Martial Art”, forms have become a mainstay for traditional martial arts styles, namely East Asian martial arts; this includes the popular Taekwondo and Karate, and Wushu, or Chinese martial arts, also mistranslated as gongfu or “kung fu.”  It is interesting to note that forms practice is seen as the most popular and well-known market of appeal within the martial arts industry, as opposed to other areas of martial arts practice such as sparring, or self-defense.  Yet forms have their established place in martial arts, for good reason; whatever style you are looking at, each has their own defining characteristics, which undisputedly comes from forms work, and Wushu is no exception.  But again, what do you see when you look at forms, especially “Wushu” forms?

In this case, when I say “Wushu”, I am talking about modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport.  As a sport, modern Wushu is standardized into two categories of competition; Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms) and Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), also known as Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting).  Because the practice of forms in Wushu is classified as Taolu, this write-up will focus exclusively on Taolu.  Within modern Wushu Taolu, the most well-known, and thus the most representative and flagship events of Taolu, are the solo Taolu events, which will be my sole focus of discussion.  As the name suggests, solo Taolu events consist of a single athlete or practitioner performing a form.  Solo Taolu is divided into two main categories of compulsory (规定; guīdìng) forms, which is a predetermined, fixed set of choreographed movements, or optional (自选; zìxuǎn, individual) forms, which is choreographed at the discretion of an athlete and/or a coach.  At the advanced level, especially at the competitive level, athletes and practitioners have debated which kind of solo Taolu should be trained, compulsory or optional.  This write-up will compare and contrast both compulsory and optional Taolu, the benefits and shortcomings of both, as well explain the necessity of both, with an emphasis on compulsory Taolu; compulsory Taolu, as with many predetermined and choreographed forms in other existing martial arts styles, represent the characteristic traits, ongoing emphases and development of modern Wushu.


Before I begin, I will first delve into the history and development of compulsory Taolu.  Many people are under the impression that compulsory Taolu in modern Wushu was a fairly recent invention in the late 20th century.  However, the use of compulsory Taolu alongside optional Taolu, has long been a requirement in modern Wushu competition.  Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the then-current required compulsory Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist) forms during the ’70s, the age of Jet Li and Zhao Changjun, and the first of what modern Wushu fans today call “old school” Wushu.  Although this was still modern Wushu, and considered separate from traditional Wushu or gongfu, Grandmaster Bai Wenxiang, coach of Wushu champion and legend Zhao Changjun, related in the Kung Fu Magazine article “Making the Grade” by Gene Ching, “The traditional styles like huaquan (flower fist), chaquan (seeking fist), paoquan (cannon fist) and shaolinquan could still be seen embedded in changquan.”  This reflects my longstanding thesis that although modern Wushu is not on the same level as traditional gongfu, it is still derived from such traditional Chinese martial arts styles, and thus should still retain the depth of its traditional counterpart.

It wasn’t until 1989, that the 1st Set of International Compulsory Routines, also known as the “old compulsories”, were formulated for modern Wushu as a sport on an international level.  This set of compulsory routines encompassed the modern Wushu events of Changquan, Nanquan (南拳; nánquán, Southern Fist), Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist), (刀术; dāoshù, broadsword event), jianshu (剑术; jiànshù, straight sword event), gunshu (棍术; gùnshù, staff event), qiangshu (枪术; qiāngshù, spear event), and Taijijian (太极剑;tàijíjiàn, Taiji straight sword).  In general, the choreography of these forms could be seen to be the physical embodiment of old school Wushu, with the combination of fluidity and abundance of actual Wushu movements and techniques, derived from the traditional Chinese martial arts styles that each event was in turn standardized from.  This is because this set of international compulsory routines were themselves derived from the optional routines of Wushu champions of that era, with the exception of Taijiquan; Wushu legend and champion Yuan Wenqing’s optional Changquan and gunshu forms served as the basis for the compulsory Changquan and gunshu respectively, as was the case for Zhao Changjun for daoshu, Chen Lihong for Nanquan, and Peng Ying for jianshu and qiangshu.  This is also why old school Wushu fans call old school Wushu, “real Wushu.”  Many of these forms would also be labeled as the “6th Duan” forms for the previous duan (段; duàn, formal rank or level) ranking system for Wushu, which serves as a parallel to the formal dan ranking systems of Japanese and Korean martial arts systems.

Ten years later in 1999, the 2nd Set of International Compulsory Routines, also known as the “new compulsories”, were introduced.  This set of international compulsories would see the creation of new official compulsory forms for Changquan, daoshu, jianshu, gunshu, and qiangshu, as well as compulsory forms for the then-newly created nandao (南刀; nándāo, southern broadsword), and nangun (南棍; nángùn, southern staff) events, though strangely no new forms were formulated for Nanquan, Taijiquan or Taijijian.  These new compulsory forms would also replace the 1st Set of International Compulsory Routines at international competitions, until international competitions would finally allow optional Taolu.  In comparison to the 1st Set of International Compulsory Routines, this next set of international compulsory routines did not have as many abundant Wushu movements and techniques in general, and had more of an emphasis on difficult movements, techniques and requirements.

The implementation of junior level international competitions would also see the use of compulsory Taolu for competition, which would be divided by Groups A, B, and C, ranked by youth age divisions of oldest to youngest respectively.  Group A would use the most current set of international compulsory routines, with Group B using the 2nd Set of International Compulsory Routines.  Group C Compulsory Taolu, 3rd Duan Changquan Taolu for the Changquan event, and the 4th Duan Taolu for daoshu, jianshu, gunshu and qiangshu events, with the noticeable absence of Nanquan, nandao and nangun, as well as Taijiquan and Taijijian.

In 2012, the 3rd Set of International Compulsory Routines emerged with new forms for all existing modern Wushu solo Taolu events.  This set of international compulsory routines would eventually replace the 2nd Set of International Compulsory Routines for the Group A division at junior level competitions, and be used at both national and international level competitions.  The majority of these forms have been observed to be the most basic, and therefore least fluid of all the sets of international compulsory routines.  There is also the noticeable emphasis on nandu (难度; nándù, difficulty movements) movements and techniques in these compulsory forms, which also reflects the current abundance of nandu in modern Wushu Taolu today, and is viewed as controversial by many fans and critics of Wushu alike.  Conversely, this set of international compulsory routines also contains an abundance of old school Wushu movements, as well as movements and techniques that are derived directly from traditional Chinese martial arts which each event is standardized from; this has resulted in a long-desired, albeit flawed, return of abundant actual Wushu content, which is what many critics and old school Wushu fans have been calling for in modern Wushu.  One can only imagine what the next set of international compulsory routines will bring for modern Wushu Taolu.

With the implementation of the 3rd Set of International Compulsory Routines, there have been efforts made to put these compulsory forms into actual practice.  As pointed out before, this set of international compulsory routines has replaced for the Group A division at junior level competitions.  International competitions have also made the Changquan, Nanquan, and Taijiquan forms from this set of international compulsory routines, into medal events.  And with these developments of compulsory forms, there come the conflicting opinions about how well-received compulsory forms are in comparison to optional forms, or even if compulsory forms are necessary at all in modern Wushu Taolu today.


There is the typical opinion among the majority of modern Wushu Taolu practitioners today, that optional Taolu is much more preferable to compulsory Taolu.  This is because optional Taolu are less restricted than compulsory Taolu, and allow an athlete or practitioner to be creative and liberal with the choreography and interpretation of the form.  On this basis, these opinions seem to value personal and liberal creativity over the actual practice of the methods, movements and techniques that make up Wushu.  However, this kind of opinion can be detrimental to modern Wushu as a modern martial arts system, and I personally disagree with it.

As I have pointed out in “Putting the ‘Shu’ Back In Wushu: The Art in the Sport Martial Art”, it is my opinion that mastery of the jibengong (基本功;jīběngōng, basic skills) should come before liberal and artistic creativity, and that the Chinese character of 术; shù that makes up the second half of the term “wǔshù” was originally defined as the specific study, practice, and mastering the skill of the actual martial art and ONLY the martial art itself, NOT the liberal artistic creativity that is usually associated with the word “art” in the artistic sense, though this does exist in Wushu.  In the words of Ching-Yin “Bee” Lee in his “Beewushu’s Blog” post, “Guangxi Express”, “…how can you hope to…create some sort of jazz music (Zixuan) if you don’t even know your scales and can’t play on key?”  As with any art, practice and mastery of the basics and fundamentals are key a higher level of skill in Wushu.  And compulsory Taolu serve as appropriate tools for that.  This is why many Wushu schools use standard Wushu forms, including compulsory Taolu, in their standard teaching curriculums.

Additionally, I have already established that compulsory Taolu reflects the characteristic traits, ongoing emphases and development of modern Wushu.  The prevalence of basic movements and combinations in compulsory Taolu have a clear emphasis on traditional Wushu movements, and thus clearly show the traditional Chinese martial arts roots of modern Wushu.  The three primary competition styles of Changquan, Nanquan, and Taijiquan in modern Wushu, were standardized from actual traditional Chinese martial arts styles.  Changquan was standardized from the northern Chinese martial arts styles of Chaquan (查拳; cháquán), Huaquan (華拳; huáquán; Flower Fist), and Hongquan (紅拳; hóngquán; Red Fist).  Nanquan was standardized from the southern Chinese martial arts styles of Hung Gar (洪家; hóngjiā) Choy Gar (蔡家; Càijiā, Cai Family), Lei Gar (李家; Lǐjiā, Li Family), Lau Gar (刘家; Liújiā, Liu Family), and Mok Gar (莫家; Mòjiā, Mo Family) and Choy Li Fut (蔡李佛; càilǐfó).  Modern Wushu Taijiquan was standardized from the five recognized traditional Taiji styles of Chen (陈; Chén), Yang (杨; Yáng), Sun (孙; Sūn), Wu (吳; Wú), and Hao (郝; Hǎo, also known as 武; Wǔ).  All of these influences can be seen in compulsory Taolu.   Compulsory Changquan Taolu has obvious movements from Chaquan and Huaquan, and compulsory Nanquan Taolu clearly has movements derived from Hung Gar.  Modern Wushu compulsory Taijiquan Taolu contains clear Chen and Yang Style Taijiquan movements.  Being derived from actual movements and techniques from actual traditional Chinese martial arts styles, the movements in modern Wushu compulsory Taolu have specific meaning behind them, including martial applications and fighting ideas, which reflect the depth of traditional Wushu within modern Wushu.  These are clear examples of actual Wushu content in the compulsory Taolu of modern Wushu, which may not be necessarily present in optional Taolu.  As such, it can be argued that compulsory Taolu can better represent modern Wushu overall, whereas optional Taolu can only represent a specific individual’s expression at best, rather than all of modern Wushu.

However, this is not to say that optional Taolu is unnecessary.  Aside from allowing the opportunity for personal creativity and more free choreography, optional Taolu can also be tailored to maximize the strengths and hide the weaknesses of an athlete or practitioner, something that the uniform standard of compulsory Taolu cannot do.  Optional Taolu events can also theoretically have more variety than compulsory Taolu, as virtually no two optional forms are exactly the same, and can potentially be more exciting and dynamic to watch, and thus give an edge of spectatorship to modern Wushu Taolu as a performance sport that compulsory Taolu cannot.

In an interview entitled “Master Ma Yue – From Tongbei to Taijiquan” with Qi Magazine, Master Ma Yue, son of the late Grandmaster Ma Xianda, and inheritor of the traditional Ma Style Tongbei (马氏通备; Mǎshìtōngbèi, not to be confused with the traditional Wushu style 通背拳; tōngbèiquán, literally “through-the-back” fist) Wushu system, said, “Now I do not like modern wushu because after a few years I think it is so boring!  Everybody does the same form, the same way of jumping, kicking, punching and even the forms are the same.  Can you imagine thirty teams coming for a championships and watching twenty people do the same movements, then the next people doing the same thing all the time for two to four hours.  Can you imagine watching one hundred people doing the Yang Twenty-four step one after another?  That is how wushu competitions are, but when you get to the free style then things get interesting because you can make up your own form.  When you come to this subject, you get a lot of people watching them.”

However, Professor Ma Mingda, brother of the late Grandmaster Ma Xianda and uncle of the aforementioned Ma Yue, disagrees.  In his paper “Bajiquan (Eight Cardinal Boxing) and Liuhe daqiang (Six Harmony Spear)” published in the Journal of Chinese Martial Studies, Ma Mingda states, “The misfortune of contemporary Chinese martial arts lies in the fact that the official body openly promotes ‘self-selected sets’, and determines the standard of such superficial creations of purely performative value on the basis of ‘regulations’, even giving additional scores to sets which are deemed to be ‘good’.  In this way Chinese martial arts have become a jigsaw puzzle that can be assembled and dissembled according to one’s wishes, or a pliable pile of mud which can be freely manipulated in any shape.  With the help of an anachronistic name and a cover of mysticism, any garbled creations may be elevated to the pedestal of ‘traditional martial arts’.  At present, although there is a revival in interest in traditional martial arts, their future is besieged by a host of problems, and they are yet to be rescued from the on-going crisis.  From my personal point of view, to protect and pass on our true martial arts heritage, the first thing we need to do is address this problem, by imposing restrictive measures to prevent counterfeits from posing as ‘authentic’ historical martial arts, and raising the relevant department’s ability to verify the genuine articles, which in addition should be cautioned to proceed with care.”

Although Professor Ma Mingda’s observations are a bit extreme, there is sound logic to his opinion.  Without a specific standard of actual Wushu jibengong, movements and techniques, the combination of superficial, dancelike movements and poses together with the emphasis of nandu in optional Taolu today, runs the risk of misrepresenting modern Wushu, and by extension all of Chinese martial arts, which modern Wushu is commonly mistaken as by ignorant spectators.  In modern Wushu optional Taolu events, judging and grading of performances is divided into three categories of Panels A, B, and C, with Panel A referring to “Quality of Movements”, which in turn refers to the execution of compulsory or required martial arts basics of Wushu according to each style, based on a specific set of rules and standards.  There has also been the introduction of compulsory movement combinations (规定动作组合; guīdìngdòngzuòzǔhé) in 2011 by the CWA (Chinese Wushu Association) into optional Taolu events for their national competitions, with two event-specific combinations for each event.  However, among all these requirements, compulsory Taolu have been a longstanding requirement that serve as a foil to the more free and liberal structure of optional Taolu.

A good example of this is the requirement of both compulsory Taolu and optional to qualify for a specific event.  In the US, the USAWKF imposed the requirement of needing to qualify for both the 3rd Set of International Compulsory Routines and optional Taolu events for Changquan, Nanquan and Taijiquan events, at the 2013 US Wushu Team Trials.  While such a requirement is demanding, it is not impossible.  This has been done before in the ’70s within China, and even at the 9th All China Games in 2001, when the 2nd Set of International Compulsory Routines were newly implemented.  This kind of requirement shows the necessity of the current dichotomy between compulsory Taolu and optional Taolu within modern Wushu; they give an opportunity to judge and grade specific standards of jibengong of athletes and practitioners in compulsory Taolu, and also allow athletes and practitioners to show their individual style in competition.  And it is here that the necessary roles of both compulsory Taolu and optional Taolu emerge.

To close up, on the debate of compulsory Taolu versus optional Taolu, I would like to remind modern Wushu Taolu practitioners of the necessity of both in modern Wushu competition.  Both have their flaws and benefits due to their distinct design.  Thus, it is clear that while both compulsory Taolu and optional Taolu have neither are perfect (what a surprise), they each serve a purpose in their coexistence.  Let us as modern Wushu athletes and practitioners recognize the necessity of both compulsory Taolu and optional Taolu in representing not only modern Wushu as a modern sport martial art.