Putting the “Shu” Back In Wushu

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Putting the “Shu” Back In Wushu: The Art in the Sport Martial Art

Written February 28th, 2014

“Modern wushu should be “modern” in a Chinese sense. It should not be “modern” in a western sport sense. Sport elements are necessary to an extent. However, it would be a mistake to get rid of the process of [traditional] kungfu, the patient process of honing skills without some goal of winning at an infeasible time frame.” — Hao Li, Wushu Practitioner and Master’s Thesis Writer on Wushu (Harvard RSEA 2011) 

If someone asked me the direct and rather specific question of whether Wushu was a sport or a martial art, I am ashamed to admit that to this day, I still could not give them a specific answer.  Don’t get me wrong, I know for sure what my answer would be; both.  But if someone approached me with that kind of question, chances are they want an answer that is either one of the choices they give me, not a middle-of-the-road escape of the question.  But when it comes to a clear cut definition between sport and martial art, Wushu is neither here nor there.

The specific reason that I feel this way is because of the way that modern Wushu was developed.  I am of course referring to modern or contemporary Wushu, a standardized way of teaching Chinese martial arts for sport and competitive purposes.  Modern Wushu was derived from the traditional Chinese martial arts styles which are focused on inner development and self-defense, and mistranslated worldwide by the more well-known term of “kung fu” (功夫; gōngfu, literally skill/effort).  As such, modern Wushu has a foot firmly placed in both the martial arts and sport domains respectively.  Personally, I define modern Wushu as an interpretation of traditional Chinese martial arts, and while it clearly isn’t in the same league of martial arts as traditional gongfu, it should always have the depth of its traditional counterpart, in order to distinguish it from other sports with its roots in martial arts.

These roots in martial arts can most plainly be seen in the standardization of the structure, techniques, and theory behind modern Wushu’s forms work.  As a sport, modern Wushu is standardized into two disciplines; taolu (套路; tàolù, forms), the practice of choreographed routines and sequences, and Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), the practice of freestyle sparring and scientific martial applications.  For specific purposes, I will exclusively discuss the event of taolu, which everyone is no doubt already familiar with, and talk about how its current state as a performance sport event should play a role in Wushu’s place as both a sport and legitimate style of martial arts.  In this write-up, I argue that the practice and interpretation of taolu should draw influence from its foundation of traditional Chinese martial arts, which modern Wushu has long been criticized for missing, as this is what distinguishes modern Wushu as both a complete sport and modern martial art.

To establish support for my argument and explain why it’s so important, I will delve into the history of modern Wushu’s development.  In the mid-20th century, and the Cultural Revolution thereafter, the formal standards of modern Wushu and its teaching material were still being formulated by traditional Chinese martial arts masters, and there was just taolu.  This was due to the restriction of any fighting practices by the Communist government at the time (the research and development of Sanshou came years after when the government allowed sparring competitions again, but that is another discussion).  The results were the primary competition styles of Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist), Nanquan (南拳; nánquán, Southern Fist), and Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist), along with the duilian (对练; duìliàn, choreographed fight sets) and jiti (集体; jítǐ , group sets) events, each with their own solo bare hand, long weapon and short weapon events, with all other “traditional” styles and forms being placed under “open hand” or “open weapon” categories.  During their formulation, Changquan was standardized based on the traditional northern styles of Chaquan (查拳; cháquán), Huaquan (華拳; huáquán; Flower Fist), and Hongquan (紅拳; hóngquán; Red Fist), with Nanquan being based off of Hung Ga (洪家; hóngjiā) and Choy Li Fut (蔡李佛; càilǐfó), respectively.  Modern Wushu Taijiquan was in turn based off of 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).

Of all the categories of taolu events that exist in modern Wushu competition, the solo events, which will be my main focus of discussion, were categorized under the three primary competition styles, can be said to be the most well-known, and thus the representative flagship events of Wushu’s sport image, as well as the most difficult to compete in.  As the designation of the category suggests, solo events consist of a single athlete on the carpet, performing either in a compulsory (规定; guīdìng) forms event, or an optional (自选; zìxuǎn, individual) forms event.  Both sides of the competition venue, the judges and the spectators, are watching you.  They are looking and picking apart at all the details of your movements on which to grade your performance.  And on top of that, they are also critiquing your “style” and “flavor”, which is more a matter of opinion than objective standard, like that of the quality of basic movements.

Those of you that are already aware of this aforementioned history may already know where I’m going with this.  Taolu’s place as the beginning of modern Wushu, and its ongoing representation as both a sport and modern martial arts system make it inherently primary to Wushu’s existence; without the existence of taolu, there would essentially be no modern Wushu to talk about.  Forms work and practice, for better or for worse, remains to be the best-known staple of traditional martial arts training.  Ironically, forms work is observed as the most popular market of appeal for the martial arts industry, as opposed to self-defense.  Although there are other skill sets that exist in traditional Chinese martial arts, including combat sensitivity drills (a primary example is push hands in Taiji), long weapon and short weapon fighting, which were not included in modern Wushu’s standardization, there is a prevalent and sometimes unfortunate stereotype that forms training is almost always the first thing that comes to the detached observer’s mind, when it comes to the mere mention of martial arts.  And it’s not untrue, for good reason.  The fact of the matter is that forms distinguish and represent all known traditional and modern sport styles of East Asian martial arts, not the least of which include the more popular Taekwondo and Karate.  Signature techniques or rhythms and “flavors” of a style are judged based on a standard of forms performance, hence the primary market of demonstrations and performances that exists for martial arts businesses.  Modern Wushu is no exception.  Thus, taolu’s past, present, and future direction play not only an integral role in how modern Wushu is represented in the martial arts community, but an ultimately central one.

The 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s decades of Wushu’s sport life are often described by athletes and spectators of the sport as “old school”, and even the “golden era” of Wushu.  Critics of modern Wushu, including both those that grew up and practiced around these respective time periods, reminisce about this period of modern Wushu, also calling it “real Wushu.”  This was because throughout this period, especially in the ’70s, the traditional foundations of Wushu were still predominant and could be seen in the movements and techniques of the primary competition styles.  Even if the techniques were only being performed for aesthetic purposes, and no longer for their original fighting ones, the same intent and vitality still existed in Wushu performance; it could still be justified as a standalone style of performance sport and simultaneously be seen as a martial art (it should be noted that Wushu’s meaning comes directly from the Chinese characters 武; wǔ, literally martial or military, and 术; shù, literally art or method).  Some have even gone so far as to call it the “renaissance” of Wushu.  In a Kung Fu Magazine article “Making the Grade” by Gene Ching that features Bai Wenxiang, coach of Wushu champion and legend Zhao Changjun, Bai recalls the earlier ages of Wushu, and their closeness to traditional Chinese martial arts.  “The traditional styles like huaquan (flower fist), chaquan (seeking fist), paoquan (cannon fist) and shaolinquan could still be seen embedded in changquan.”

However, from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, the focus of taolu began to shift.  In what can be seen as one of many movements to make Wushu Olympic, the CWA (Chinese Wushu Association), followed shortly by the IWuF (International Wushu Federation), implemented competition rules for taolu that strengthened an emphasis towards nandu (难度; nándù, difficulty movements).  To be specific, 2.0 points (out of a maximum performance based score of 10.0) worth of nandu would be focused specifically on the completion of jumps, sweeps, balances, and the connection points in between.  This was to make taolu, a previously subjective and therefore difficult performance event to judge, more quantitative and easier to grade.  This change in format brought about an unprecedented change in the standards of how competitive athletes now practice.  To this day, successful execution of nandu is a top priority.  Whether or not all of the nandu in a form is successfully completed can make or break a winning performance.  Now, the winning factor in a Wushu performance was no longer about the content and flavor of the performance itself, it was about whether or not you could satisfy the requirements of jumps and required movements.  In the place of former champions like Liu Haibo and Jiang Bangjun, we had Zhao Qingjian and Yuan Xiaochao.


To be clear, this write-up is not meant to take anything away from the recent champions of the nandu phase of Wushu.  Given the standards at the time, such athletes like Zhao Qingjian were great in their own right, and had their own strengths and attributes, such as technically clean technique and jumps, with more degrees of rotation, speed and acceleration than any of the previous champions.  However, when we are looking at generations of taolu athletes that are distinguished by different phases in competition training, the 2000s generation was clearly focused on the strength and completion of difficulty movements, as opposed to the hardcore focus of basics and emphasis in contrasting flow of choreography in previous generations.  But this is not necessarily all the fault of the new generation athletes.  Zhao Changjun, a Wushu legend of the ’80s, strong supporter of traditional Chinese martial arts, and a well-known competitive rival to Jet Li in the ’70s, points out that a difference in circumstance is the cause of different generations.  In his own Kung Fu Magazine article “Where Wushu Went Wrong” by Gene Ching and Gigi Oh, Zhao directly addresses these pitfalls of modern Wushu.  Because older generation athletes were closer to traditional Chinese martial arts masters, they had the opportunity to learn and have in-depth understanding of traditional concepts, and translate them on the carpet.  Something that “old school” athletes like Yuan Wenqing and Zhao Changjun himself were able to do was to pay attention to actual martial arts choreography and intention, because they had a need to stand out in their performances.  On the opposite spectrum of more recent times, 2000s athletes were undoubtedly faster and jumped higher, but this is because this is what they, their coaches, and the judges value as important; and in place of strong martial arts movements were either simple clean combos or dancelike poses, because they were in turn secondary to nandu.  The negative correlation of content between nandu and martial arts in Wushu can be seen as a causal relationship.  The further Wushu went down the road of nandu, the further taolu’s general choreography of original martial arts techniques would be replaced with superficial, more often than not self-created movements.  It is at this point in Wushu where a “good” performance no longer equates a “winning” one.

This is where the internally based criticism of the sport of modern Wushu exists.  Because of the prevalent focus on nandu at the expense of all other performance aspects, taolu has been perceived to be going on a downhill streak.  In essence, the “martial art” of Wushu was watered down to a point where it could barely be seen anymore, as a result of the direction and interpretation of the then-new nandu rules.  The previous qualities seen in Wushu forms, such as jingqishen and shenfa, are now missing.  You may have heard of those terms before, especially from a Wushu coach that had grown up and was trained in “old school” Wushu.  For the sake of short summary, jingqishen (精气神; jīngqìshén) refers to the vitality and intention that needs to be seen behind the performance of techniques, especially in martial arts.  This is not a purely modern concept; it is a traditional one.  When performing forms, there needs to be a clear idea and intention behind what specific movement is being expressed.  This can be likened to Bruce Lee’s explanation of martial arts as “the art of expressing the human body [in combative form]”, as he has said in his famous “lost interview” on The Pierre Berton Show, “…when you move, you are determined to move…If I want to punch, I’m gonna do it man…”  Shenfa (身法; shēnfǎ, literally “body method”), on the other hand, refers to the specific body mechanics that are used in executing techniques.  Although the general movement and idea behind each movement may be the same, everybody moves and expresses themselves in their own way, their specific shenfa.  It is these two traits that make up the distinguishing strengths behind a Wushu performance, and as traditional concepts that once supported the unique Chinese martial arts base of modern Wushu, they should not be ignored in practice.

These are the higher level, more in-depth concepts of Wushu that are harder to grasp, and therefore subjective and not easy to measure in a performance.  In the Kung Fu Magazine article “Wu Bin – The Father of Modern Wushu” by Melody Chung, Wu Bin is quoted as saying, “‘It’s a feeling you get.  You can’t explain why you feel impressed by a person’s jingqisheng, but you certainly can feel it.  For instance, back in the ’70s Grandmaster Chen Dao Yun had very good jingqisheng.  That’s why no one could beat her.’”  This is perhaps one of the reasons that a call for something gradable, like nandu, went out in the first place.  Another Kung Fu Magazine article, “The Tradition of Modern Wushu” by Gigi Oh and Gene Ching, shares a very enlightening perspective by Grandmaster Qian Yuanze, who details and justifies the changes and differences between modern and traditional Wushu.  “‘Originally, wushu was a performing art that could not easily be measured, like swimming, weightlifting, or running.  So to make it a competition sport, elements that could be scored were added.  The gymnastics and figure skating scoring system is relevant.’”


Zhao Changjun however, disagrees.  He asserts, “‘If you want to jump high, you can’t compete with gymnastics.  The artistic aspect cannot compete with skating…Modern wushu has lost the meaning of the movements.’”  This is exactly the same as comparing apples and oranges.  Though Wushu taolu can be categorized as a performance sport like gymnastics and skating, at some point, the sport of Wushu needs to be distinguished from the degree of difficulty of gymnastics, something that Wushu’s own nandu provides an obstacle for.  And while the dancelike performance value of arts such as skating are no doubt great in their own right, Wushu needs its own distinctive performance value, and that is its foundation of traditional Chinese martial arts.  Even Grandmaster Qian acknowledges that this current state of Wushu was flawed.  Qian says, “‘I would like to see taolu athletes develop more individual character…Now, you hardly see any athletes with special character.  Nandu is all they can handle…Adding nandu makes the scoring more transparent, but how to balance it also needs more thought.’”

Since the late 2000s, it is clear that some experts have given such thought to this issue.  One of the more recent articles of Kung Fu Magazine by Gene Ching and Gigi Oh, “The Southern Sword of Wushu”, features Wushu professor Wang Peikun, one of the leading architects of modern Wushu and co-creator of the eponymous nandao, who laid out the most recent viewpoint on the sport’s state on paper.  “‘After the last Olympics, Modern Wushu is going back to more traditional.  We are de-emphasizing nandu and looking more at the overall…We’re looking at adding some new regulations.  Routines will be required to have at least two traditional movement sequences.’”  How serendipitous that I did not read this particular piece of information earlier.  Because in 2011, the CWA would incorporate the requirement of compulsory movement combinations (规定动作组合; guīdìngdòngzuòzǔhé) into their national rules of taolu.  Each solo event, including the apparatus events of each of the three main competitive styles, did indeed have their own specific pair of combinations, all of which pertained to actual traditional, “old school” Wushu movements.

Finally, after a long stumble of chasing the Olympic dream with nandu, the emphasis and trend in practice was shifting back towards the original martial arts movements and basics.  This was the kind of change that the “old school” fans and traditionalists had been calling for.  But again, changes are not without their criticism.  The primary and somewhat valid criticism of these implementations is the fact that they are, essentially, whole combinations in an already potentially dense form of nandu and preexisting required movements.  Yet the idea of compulsory movement combinations is not new to Wushu, it’s always existed since the ’70s.  In particular, the late ’90s and early 2000s had particularly daunting compulsory movement combinations with absurd nandu connections, even for the top class Chinese athletes at the time.  However, the notion that even more requirements can consequently bog down an athlete’s creativity in an optional event, historically has not stopped athletes like Liu Haibo and Wu Gang from being innovative, though some would still complain.  So once again, we are faced with another potential problem, this time for the sake of the performers, not simply the performance.

Qian’s earlier statement brings up an interesting question and a unique challenge for us taolu athletes.  How specifically can we achieve “individual character?”  This isn’t as simple as looking up a YouTube video of your favorite athlete and copying the choreography that you like.  Sure, if you really like their movements, by all means imitate them.  Imitation is not at all a bad thing; in fact it’s the first stage in comprehending high-level Wushu.  But if we’re talking about a truly high-level individual performance, an effort at least needs to be made to be creative on our own, and finding what works for you specifically, without breaking the parameters and movements of taolu (we are, after all, still doing a Wushu form).  This means looking back at “old school”, traditional ideas like jingqishen and shenfa, and by extension, looking back towards Wushu’s roots of traditional Chinese martial arts.

In my opinion, it’s good that the general direction of competitive training has finally emphasized martial arts basics and movements again.  Again, I refer to my personal definition that modern Wushu is ultimately an interpretation of Chinese martial arts, and should therefore always go back to its martial arts core in thought and practice.  I say, let’s encourage this process by going back ourselves to revisit the foundation that Wushu was derived from; explore the plethora of traditional techniques and movements, learn the martial applications, intent and ideas behind them, and develop our own understanding and skill of them in detailed study, experimentation, and of course, long and dedicated training.  This can in turn naturally cultivate each and every one of our own jingqishen, shenfa, even personal creativity based on this analysis, and further raise the standard of Wushu performance.

As for the complaints that creativity should be the singular most important thing in the performance sport of Wushu as a “modern martial art”, and would be limited by the sport’s new direction, I would firmly disagree.  In the past, I inherently believed that “art” came before “martial” in “martial art”, which could consequently allow for personal liberty, interpretation, and even bending of a martial art’s concrete concepts whenever it suited the individual’s will.  But as I found out much later, this is not true; I was wrong.  In the universal sense, the term “art” in “martial art” does NOT share the same meaning of “artistic” in other performance and creative arts, though this concept does also exist in Wushu.  Rather, the “art” in “martial art” encompasses the study, practice, and mastering skill of and only of the martial art itself, thus elevating the method and its practices to the level of an “art” (again, the character 术; shù in “wǔshù” literally means a specific method).  However, liberal creativity should not be confused with a refined system of specific method and study.  This is purely in the context of a martial artist, no longer simply that of a performer, and it is this context that many of the old school athletes were raised to perform in turn with as athletes in the sport.  BUT, this does NOT mean that personal creativity should be ignored in the practice of taolu.

If anything, the direction behind these new changes should challenge athletes to be even more creative, but still within the constraints of actual Wushu movements and techniques (already existing examples of this include Chinese athletes Zhang Kai and Wang Fei, both of whom already had choreography rich in “old school” Wushu content even before the implementation of the new compulsory movement combinations).  Obviously, for the sake of optional events, individual freedom and creativity should still exist; there is nothing stopping the average Wushu competitor from doing the standard running slap kicks and pounding/hammer fist combos repetitively if they want, or adding their own really fancy movements to entertain themselves.  But continuing to practice like this lacks the deeper level of practice and thought it takes to really achieve the mastery of Wushu that the champions of old had.  If we want Wushu to regain the abundance of martial content and quality of performance it once had, we need to look not only back towards “old school” Wushu, but also all the way back towards traditional Chinese martial arts itself, and try to bring that liveliness and quality back.

Am I saying we should regress all the way back to the method of the ’70s and ’80s performances?  Certainly not.  If I had to choose my favorite period of Wushu, it would naturally be the ’80s and ’90s.  I’m up there with those that reminisce about old school Wushu; it was undoubtedly a great time to watch Wushu as a spectator sport, if there ever was one.  However, the fact is that Wushu’s practice and standards are ever changing, and if we as Wushu practitioners are going to keep up with those changes, we can’t afford to stick to old standards that are no longer in effect.  In retrospect, it was only natural for taolu’s standards to change, regardless of whether or not an Olympic focus existed.  For example, the textbook version of a bow stance in Wushu today explicitly dictates the requirement of a 90 degree front leg with a flat thigh, something that athletes from the ’70s and ’80s would not always do, as their bow stances sometimes formed an obtuse angle with the front leg.  Another example is the requirement of the kicking legs for virtually all jumps to be at or above shoulder level, a standard that was not explicitly met by all “old school” athletes.  Also, with the frontier of modern sports science and medicine, current generation athletes are now more aware of weight training, cardio and plyometrics, methods that were almost nonexistent and unaware to most Chinese in the “old school” training environment.  Coaches, teams, and athletes in general are now smarter about athletic fitness, which in turn dramatically escalates the standard of athleticism.  Without change, we would still be seeing the same old thing, and it can be argued that there wouldn’t be any good “old school” Wushu to be nostalgic about to begin with.  And even if we wanted to, it’s clear that we can’t go back to the way the sport was thirty years ago.  Not only would that be quixotic, but it would be counterproductive in continuing a necessary process of evolution, for the sake of keeping Wushu updated with the times.  The idea of change has always been the biggest attribute of all existing and alive martial arts style, traditional or modern in nature, in order to adapt and stay relevant in society.  However, the roots and fundamental ideas of Wushu, which are its connection to traditional Chinese martial arts, should always remain intact, no matter what.

To conclude, I restate my perspective that taolu should turn inwards to its connection to traditional Chinese martial arts.  As it is now, Wushu is far from perfect (spoiler alert: nothing ever is).  It has problems as a sport all on its own, and it has indeed been lacking in martial quality for the past decade.  But in terms of performance, there is still a possibility for creativity, albeit with adherence to a clear of idea of what Wushu is, and where its practice comes from.  If we can keep all this in mind, maybe we really can put the art back in the modern martial art, including its state as a competitive sport.  It is important to understand that Wushu, as a style of modern martial arts, walks a fine line between sport and martial art.  And while it can be defined and justified as both, it should be distinguished from all other forms of performance arts and sport martial arts styles with its own traditional foundation, and that is, again, its development from traditional Chinese martial arts.  It’s what made Wushu intriguing and entertaining to watch in the past, and it’s what can continue to make Wushu unique in the present and in the future.