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Looking At Duilian: What It Is and What It Can Do For Wushu

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LOOKING AT DUILIAN: WHAT IT IS AND WHAT IT CAN DO FOR WUSHU

By: Matthew Lee

Written April 6th, 2015

“The idea and practice of choreographed fight sets has always been a part of traditional East Asian martial arts styles, including Chinese martial arts, and serves many utilities and purposes, aside from the simple performance goals.” —Quote taken directly from the write-up

Abstract: The practice of duilian (choreographed fight sets) has always been an interesting part of Wushu Taolu (forms).  It is ironic that duilian is not as recognized as solo Taolu events, given the appeal and opportunities it can offer for Wushu.  The idea and practice of duilian has an integral place in the practice of Chinese martial arts.  This write-up will cover the various roles of duilian, as well as the opportunities it can provide for Wushu.

If you’ve been paying attention to any popular Wushu-related material on the Internet, you’ve probably seen this video (for the sake of giving proper credit, I have decided to share the original video, as opposed to other videos, which are copies of the original video and do not give proper credit, and give credit to the original uploader, YouTube username wushuboi):
In the past few months, this clip has gone viral, and even some of my friends on Facebook have been sharing this clip.  It is interesting to note that this clip is getting attention now, when this clip in fact took place at the 10th World Wushu Championships in 2009 at Toronto, Canada.  However, some promotion and awareness for Wushu is better than none at all.  And why wouldn’t people be paying attention to this clip?  It’s about two Chinese women, one with a spear, and the other with just her bare hands, going crazy and “fighting” it out.  Cat fight level: Asian (okay, I couldn’t resist.  I’ll try to avoid making Asian jokes from here on out).  To be specific, this particular practice in Wushu is known as duilian (对练; duìliàn, choreographed fight sets).  But with viral awareness and attention comes a majority of uneducated observations.  And as I’ve said before, awareness for Wushu is just the first step, and is not enough; better understanding should be the long-term goal for the promotion of Wushu.  This write-up will attempt to provide education about duilian, its place and purpose in Wushu, as well as the opportunities it can offer for Wushu.

When I say “Wushu”, I am talking about modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport.  However, Wushu is the more accurate umbrella term for all of Chinese martial arts, as opposed to “kung fu” or “gongfu” (功夫; gōngfu), which is the idea of skill or effort achieved over a long amount of time, but has been mistranslated as the name for Chinese martial arts in general.  Today, modern Wushu is standardized 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).  Because duilian falls into the category of Taolu, this write-up focus mostly on duilian in the context of Taolu and forms work.  However, this write-up will also cover the idea and practice of duilian in Chinese martial arts in general.

Unlike solo Taolu events, which consists of a single athlete or performer performing a form, duilian, as the name suggests, consists of a choreographed “fight” between two to three people in an event.  Duilian is just one category of events of Taolu aside from solo Taolu events, the other being jiti (集体; jítǐ , group sets).  Also, unlike solo Taolu events, where the single athlete or performer only focuses on themselves, the athletes involved must be aware of each other’s speed, power, restraint, and perhaps most important of all, timing.  Duilian events in modern Wushu Taolu competition include but are not limited to, sanrenduiquan (三人对拳; sānrénduìquán, 3-man fight set), kongshoujinqiang (空手进枪; kōngshǒujìnqiāng, empty hand versus spear), and duicijian (对刺剑; duìcìjiàn, sword/straight sword versus sword/straight sword).  Solo Taolu events will last at least a minute and twenty seconds, with the exception of Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist) and Taijijian (太极剑; tàijíjiàn, Taiji straight sword) events, which will last can last over five minutes.  It is also interesting to note that the solo Taolu “open hand” and “open weapon” events that do not fall into the three main competition styles of Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist), Nanquan (南拳; nánquán, Southern Fist) and Taijiquan, also last about a minute.  The short duration of time in these Wushu Taolu events exposes the anaerobic and fast-paced nature of the sport.

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As demonstrated by the aforementioned clip, duilian has obvious spectator appeal, and can create many opportunities for Wushu.  In fact, duilian has more potential and spectator appeal than solo Taolu events, which are the most well-known, and therefore representative flagship events of modern Wushu; the action is between multiple people, continuous and simulates a “fight”, which has much more interest than solo Taolu events, where the focus is on a single individual performing a routine by themselves, and has limited spectator appeal.  The inclusion of more duilian in Wushu competitions can generate much more spectator appeal in a sport where there is little to no spectators anymore.  Outside of Wushu, duilian training and athletes specializing in duilian can offer many opportunities into the stunt work and filming industries.  Also, it is ironic to note that of the opportunities provided for Wushu, the majority of these have been for champions of solo Taolu events, such as Jet Li or Yuan Xiaochao, as opposed to duilian athletes, which would be much more intuitive, given the previously listed values of duilian training.  Based on these opportunities that duilian can provide for Wushu, it is therefore a wonder why Wushu organizations and competitions do not emphasize duilian today.

However, this only covers one level, the surface/performance level of Wushu.  Although duilian has obvious spectator appeal and performance value, it’s purpose and utilities do not appear to have much value beyond that.  It would seem, as many critics of modern Wushu observe, that duilian, like the rest of modern Wushu Taolu, only serves competition and performance purposes.  However, the practice and idea of duilian extends beyond the simple scope of modern Wushu.  The idea and practice of choreographed fight sets has always been a part of traditional East Asian martial arts styles, including Chinese martial arts, and serves many utilities and purposes, aside from the simple performance goals.

Many ignorant spectators discount the practice of duilian simply on the basis that it is choreographed “fighting”, and therefore not actual fighting.  Duilian has also been mistranslated as “sparring” in Wushu, which is semantically inaccurate.  As established at the beginning of this write-up, duilian falls into the category of Taolu, and therefore is not the same as actual fight training or sparring.  We also established at the beginning of the write-up that the practice of active fight and sparring training is reserved for the Sanshou category of Wushu.  And, as I’ve said in “Forms vs. Fighting: A Critique on the Dichotomy of Wushu Training”, forms and fighting are not the same thing.  However, this is not to say that there isn’t, and should not be, a relationship between the two.  Even though forms and choreographed fight sets are not the same as real fighting, this does not necessarily mean that they completely devoid of martial content.

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As an example, I would like to cite my own learning experience.  Although I have no formal training experience in duilian as a modern Wushu practitioner, nor do I specialize in duilian, I have had the opportunity to learn traditional Wushu.  In particular, I will be focusing on one traditional choreographed fight set I have learned, for this example.  This two-man choreographed fight set is denoted as Bajiduijie (八极对接; bājíduìjiē , Baji two-man choreographed fight set) from the traditional Wushu style of Bajiquan (八极拳; bājíquán, Eight Extremes Fist).  In this form, all the martial applications, attack and defense meanings, and fighting ideas from the solo Taolu of the most well-known Bajiquan dajia (大架; dàjià, literally “big/large frame”) form, which I have also previously learned, become apparent, but still within the context of forms work.

On a larger scale, the newly implemented duanwei (段位; duànwèi, formal ranking system) system by the CWA (Chinese Wushu Association) to standardize traditional Wushu styles, parallel to the dan ranking system of formal Japanese and Korean martial arts systems, also has the idea and practice of duilian in its standardized material.  These choreographed fight sets are labeled as “duidataolu” (对打套路; duìdǎtàolù, “sparring/fight” forms) within the duanwei material.  Just like the example of Bajiduijie, these duidataolu work off the solo Taolu, termed “danliantaolu” (单练套路; dānliàntàolù, single training forms) in the duanwei material, and makes clear the martial applications, attack and defense meanings, and fighting ideas of each movement and technique within the curriculum.  Thus, while duilian is still choreographed, it still plays an integral role in the sharing and transmission of martial content in Chinese martial arts.

This same martial content should carry over to modern Wushu, including duilian, as well.  My thesis for most of these write-ups has always been that even though modern Wushu is not on the same level as traditional gongfu, it should still retain the depth of its traditional counterpart.  Modern Wushu duilian has obviously been modified to be much more theatrical, dramatic, and fast-paced, for the obvious reasons of competition, performance and aesthetic purposes.  In the past few years, the development of modern Wushu has seen the addition of high flying acrobatics and tumbling jumps.  These developments have changed the appearance to look more along the lines of Beijing opera (京剧; jīngjù) or circus performances.  However, despite these changes for performance and aesthetic reasons and purposes, the core concept of duilian as choreographed “fights” should by principle maintain the original, and most traditional utility of actual martial and fighting content in Wushu.

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In terms of fighting techniques, all real Chinese martial arts techniques and movements are divided into four general categories of fighting ranges and skillsets: kicking (踢; tī), punching (打; dǎ), takedowns (摔; shuāi), and grappling (拿; ná).  The striking aspects with the hands and the legs/feet are the most obvious in traditional East Asian martial arts, including Chinese martial arts.  Obvious kicking techniques and movements within modern Wushu duilian include tantui (弹腿; tántuǐ, snap kick), cechuaitui (侧揣腿; cèchuāituǐ, sidekick), dengtui (蹬腿; dēngtuǐ, heel kick), and even round kicks and hook kicks, termed biantui (鞭腿; biāntuǐ, literally “whip kick”) and baitui (摆腿; bǎituǐ, not to be confused with 外摆腿; wàibǎituǐ, outside crescent kick, or 后摆腿; hòubǎituǐ, back crescent kick) in Chinese, respectively (yes, Wushu has round kicks and hook kicks.  If other Asian martial arts styles can come up with and develop round kicks and hook kicks, it should come as no surprise that Chinese martial arts has these kicks as well).  A notable aspect of modern Wushu duilian, especially during what is referred to as the “old school” time period of Wushu, was that it also included throws, which represented the throwing, takedown and wrestling techniques, movements and aspects of Wushu, parallel to jujutsu, judo, and BJJ (Brazilian jujutsu).  The “grappling” aspect of Chinese martial arts styles encompasses the category of joint locks and techniques, again, like jujutsu, judo, and BJJ (Brazilian jujutsu).  This is embodied in the classic qinna (擒拿; qínná, grappling) duilian, which, despite being exaggerated for performance like all other duilian in modern Wushu, still contains clearly martial movements and techniques in the various joint locks within, and serves as a prime example of the martial content within modern Wushu.  Most recently, some duilian routines have even included techniques such as double leg takedowns, and even arm bars and knee bars, which are more modern fighting techniques prevalent in jujutsu, judo, BJJ and MMA (mixed martial arts).  The inclusion of these techniques demonstrate that modern Wushu is capable of adapting, absorbing and interpreting other elements of other modern martial arts styles, while still remaining distinctly Wushu.  Furthermore, these observations more than demonstrate the abundance of actual martial and fighting content in modern Wushu duilian, which cannot be denied.

If duilian’s full potential and role in modern Wushu is to be actualized, how it is represented, and thus interpreted and practiced, must be legitimized.  Modern Wushu duilian is clearly not real fighting, for one simple reason: it was never meant to be real fighting.  It was never designed to be real fighting, and should instead be taken for what it actually is in reality, not for what it is pretended to be.  But, as we have established in this write-up, this does not mean that real martial and fighting content does not exist in duilian, nor should it be deemphasized.  Personally, I would like to see an increase on the emphasis on such martial and fighting content, as well as the return of real martial movements fighting, such as throws and qinna.  This kind of emphasis can help to validate the martial and fighting content within Wushu, and give duilian a prominent place alongside solo Taolu, if not greater, in the complete practice of Wushu.

It is clear that the idea and practice of duilian holds a unique and special place in Wushu.  Duilian not only has a lot of potential to create opportunities for Wushu, but it offers more depth, as well as martial and fighting content in modern Wushu, which the practice of solo Taolu cannot achieve on its own.  All of these observations validate the significance and emphasis on the idea and practice of duilian, which needs to be realized.  Let us celebrate and recognize the role and purpose of duilian.

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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 matthewlee@jiayoowushu.com.