A Statement about Wushu

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A Statement about Wushu

“There is a misconception about [Wushu]…” — Coach Pei of the US Wushu Academy.

The above quote has got to be the biggest understatement ever about the debate of what Wushu is today. Wushu, by definition, means “martial art” or “art of war”, derived from the Chinese characters 武 (wǔ; martial, military) and 術 (shù; art, method). Thus, Wushu literally means martial art. In this case, it is the Chinese martial arts, and the term used to describe modern or contemporary Wushu.

On an interesting note, the character of 武 in 武術 contains a component which is another Chinese character itself, 止 (zhǐ) which means “to stop”. This fits more into the ethics and philosophy of Wushu, which encourages the solving of conflicts without anger and revenge, and without physical attacking.

The word “wǔshù” encompasses the whole world of Chinese martial arts, including the term “kungfu” (功夫; gōngfu), which is another major misconception. Gōngfu literally means “skill.” One can have skill in anything, not just martial arts. There’s skill in cooking, calligraphy, farming, and anything else that requires dedication from the heart to master, not just Wushu. Wushu is the more accurate term for Chinese martial arts.

The world of Wushu is separated into two different sides of the same coin. One side is traditional Wushu, which holds value in both in-depth training and martial applications. The other is modern or contemporary Wushu, derived from its traditional counterpart, which is now seen in sport and demonstration, and has been criticized by other martial artists from other disciplines, as well as traditional Wushu practitioners, or “traditionalists”, as an inauthentic form of martial arts, and that it threatens traditional Chinese martial arts.

This is a gross statement about contemporary Wushu. Gross in that it is insulting to artists that dedicate themselves to this art and gross in that there is some truth (and the truth is always ugly) to what these people say. This is because of how contemporary Wushu became what it is.


From the years 1966 to 1976, there was something called the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In it, Mao Zedong and his Gang of Four, with their Maoist revolutionary doctrine, set out to destroy every traditional aspect of Chinese culture, seeing these aspects as obsolete, and a factor that needed to be put down in order to promote their communism. One of these aspects was traditional Wushu. And China’s government, the People’s Republic of China, replaced it with a newer, simplified, sport oriented form. This is the love child of the Cultural Revolution, and traditional Wushu masters that made it was it was today, the contemporary Wushu that you see in sport, demonstration, and movies.  Because of this history of modern Wushu’s inception, many traditionalists claim that Wushu is nothing but a communist tool, with no traditional or cultural value whatsoever.  This is the first misconception about Wushu, because factually, the truth is quite the contrary.  The process of modern Wushu had in fact, begun way before the rise of the communist party, with the guidance of real and willing Chinese martial arts masters, out of a need to standardize and share with the common folk of China, as there were hundreds of styles existing already, too many to comprehend.  But after the Cultural Revolution, the communists allowed the research and development of Wushu to continue, albeit under the conditions of oppressing traditional, fighting practices, with a complete turn towards the forms oriented focus that we see today.  In terms of the image that traditionalists have unfortunately derided modern Wushu with, it was simply at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Many of the traditionalists of Wushu say that this newer form of “flowery fists and embroidered kicks” has lost the original value of what Wushu really is. This is where the real misconception of contemporary Wushu.

Martial arts, as a whole, are meant to encompass practicality, ethics, and beauty of the art itself. Contemporary Wushu is a victim of controversy, because of how it is debated as a martial art. Modern Wushu can be seen as more of a sport form than anything else, because it is both an exhibition art, and full-contact sport. This is because contemporary Wushu is comprised of two disciplines.


The first of these two disciplines is taolu (套路; tàolù), which literally mean “forms”. This is the kind of thing that you see Jet Li doing in the movies. The major divisions of these forms, including both Changquan (長拳; chángquán; Long Fist) and Nanquan (南拳; nánquán, Southern Fist), are derived from traditional Wushu styles, with Changquan taking its movements from traditional styles such as Chaquan (查拳; cháquán), Huaquan (華拳; huáquán, Flower Fist), and Hongquan (紅拳; hóngquán, Red Fist), and Nanquan from Hung Ga (洪家; hóngjiā) and Choy Li Fut (蔡李佛; càilǐfó), respectively. Contemporary also has its own augmented versions of these traditional styles, as part of the standardization of Wushu. The modernization of these traditional Wushu styles are a main factor as to why traditionalists are criticizing contemporary Wushu, saying that “new” Wushu has lost the value of the original techniques, and there is some truth to that. However, this is yet another misconception. If one pays attention to both versions, the conventionality of the forms contrast greatly in smaller, detailed movement. However, the value of the style is not truly lost. If one takes the time to notice, contemporary Wushu styles still maintain the basic shapes and mechanics of their traditional counterparts, carrying on the basic concepts of their respective styles, and exaggerating movements to emphasizing attack and defense, rather than diluting them.


The second of the two disciplines is Sanda/Sanshou (散打/散手; sàndǎ/sǎnshǒu), which literally means “free fighting” or “free hand”. This is what you’ve seen Cung Le or Liu Hailong doing in the fighting ring on broadcasted television. Sanda is very realistic in that it maintains a simple, practical approach to fighting. Its four main components are kicking (踢; tī, kick), punching (打; dǎ, literally punch or hit), throwing (摔; shuāi, throw), and grappling (拿; ná, grab), which is the common breakdown of the fighting aspects in all Chinese martial arts styles. The sport of Sanda was created in order to bring out a realistic fighting approach to Wushu—and not just contemporary Wushu, but also in traditional Wushu as well. This was because taolu of both contemporary and traditional Wushu was universally challenged as ineffective in a real fight. As Bruce Lee said, trying to fight with only just forms would be like trying to “dry land swimming.”  It just can’t be done. This is why Sanda is regarded by Wushu practitioners as the fighting aspect for Wushu. Still, many believe that Sanda is not “real Wushu, just kickboxing in Chinese”, or worse, a copy of Muay Thai with a mix of Judo. This is also another misconception and it is untrue.  The modern Sanda curriculum that is taught in both professional Wushu schools and sports universities in China have specific indigenous techniques, which are derived from the traditional Chinese methods of Shuai Jiao (摔角; shuāijiāo; quick throw), and qinna (擒拿; qínná, grappling). Both Shuai Jiao and qinna are not only styles by themselves, but are the true fighting components behind any Wushu style, as actual applications and techniques within all styles of taolu, both modern and traditional.  This separates Sanda from general kickboxing styles, by making it a branch of Wushu in and of itself. It is employed by many Wushu schools, including most traditional circles for the sake of active sparring and alive fight training.

In the ideal world of contemporary Wushu, these two disciplines are taught alongside each other, exhibiting both art and combat. One can see these two disciplines as being two parts that make up modern Wushu. Taolu is like kindling a fire, bringing out discipline and expression through forms. Sanda is like putting more fuel on that very same fire, bringing out spirit and confidence through fighting.

This is the face of contemporary Wushu. Yet even with the black and white conception between traditional and modern Wushu as two separate parts of Chinese martial arts, the sport of modern Wushu still has divisions within itself, differentiating the sport into “old school” and “new school”.

In the younger years of Wushu, athletes such as Zhao Changjun and Yuan Wenqing lit up the carpet with indomitable flavor, application, and a little something known as shenfa (身法; shēnfǎ; body mechanics). Shenfa is the essence of artful spirit expression in Wushu, as everyone moves and expresses themselves differently regardless of similar movements, and was what separated champions from athletes. This was at least until after 1997.

Circa 2000, the focus of taolu began to shift from martial quality into extensive inclusion of nandu (難度; nándù). Nandu is the term used to describe challenging movements, such as the spectacular jumps and sweeps in taolu. In more recent years, the sport was dominated by athletes like Zhao Qingjian and Yuan Xiaochao. This was because of the height they could reach in their jumps and their extensive training in nandu, rather than the choreography and essence of the whole taolu.

This is another major factor as to why traditionalists look down on modern Wushu. The extension and even the raw use of nandu seemed to give Wushu a bad name, making it look more like “tricking” instead of a modern martial art. But this is another misconception. Modern Wushu athletes like Zhang Kunrong and Wang Fei were able to maintain flavor and application in their choreography, without letting the new rules of nandu take away from their taolu. This is proof of one fact about nandu; it is not the nandu itself that takes away from the taolu. Rather, it is the extensive use of nandu that took away the martial quality of taolu. Nandu gave more sport to modern Wushu, and trained athletes for extensive control over their own bodies, as well as the sheer nerve to perform such feats, and of course, is one of the main factors that separated it from traditional Wushu.

It is not solely the fault of the nandu, nor is it directly the fault of the athletes, that modern Wushu is harder to pass as a legitimate modern martial art. As Zhao Changjun sees it, it is the fault of circumstance. The new rules instituted by the IWuF (International Wushu Federation) forced competitors to add at least 2.0 (out of a maximum performance based score of 10.0) points worth of nandu into their taolu. This took a toll on overall choreography in taolu. What were once movements derived from traditional basics were now replaced by meaningless swinging arms and flashy tricking. As a result, the essence of taolu is taken away, and much of its traditional value is lost, as many traditionalists rightly observe. Also, first generation athletes of Wushu had the chance to learn traditional Wushu as they were still around before the Cultural Revolution, and thus were able to give their forms that martial quality, whereas more modern athletes did not have that same opportunity. Thus, it is circumstance, not nandu, which took away from the sport of modern Wushu.

As for Sanda, format has also drastically changed. When Sanda was first developed as a hybrid sport alongside taolu, it emphasized the real quality of a bout between fighters.  Early Sanda fights were especially aggressive, with quick bursts of pure scrapping and unprecendented ferocity in the history of Chinese martial arts training, making it an understandably exciting event for people to watch. In more modern days, especially at the amateur level, which is the league that most modern Wushu competitions host, takedowns are more heavily focused on, rather than the actual stand-up fighting that Sanda’s style is based upon. This is a double edged blade. The heavy emphasis on takedowns takes away from the exciting, brawling quality of Sanda, but also gives a more realistic approach to fighting, much like MMA (mixed martial arts).

So what’s the point here? Wushu, as a whole, is ever changing, much like any other modern martial art out there. And it needs changing for the better, now more than ever.

Taolu requires less nandu, and more focus on basics. Even though modern taolu is now used for exhibition and performance, people still have to have an idea of what one is doing, and that includes understanding the intention of the original, martial movements. What is a punch? What is a kick? What is a strike? What is a block? Is this a takedown? This emphasizes practicality, and the essence of taolu in successive combination and choreography. As Zhao Changjun says, “What are you really doing? You hold this for a second, then turn and land like that?” This is a really blunt statement. What the hell are you doing? People have to know that. And you have to do it with heart and spirit.

Sanda also requires more emphasis on actual striking, distance and timing, rather than simply chasing for takedowns and throws. One has to know how punch and kick properly, not just how to throw and sweep their opponent to the ground.

Overall, being well rounded in all aspects of training is what brings out the martial quality in a martial artist. It all goes back to tradition. And by extension, back to the traditional Wushu styles.

In order to become a true practitioner of Wushu, one shouldn’t just train in one aspect or discipline of Wushu. One should remain well rounded in all aspects. And not just in modern Wushu. Traditional Wushu also requires such emphasis, in order to truly understand the whole of Chinese martial arts.

Zhao Changjun has such an approach. In the Zhao Changjun Wushu Institute, “all students must study both traditional and modern on the basic and intermediate levels. This takes about three to five years. When that is achieved, the student is evaluated. For the advanced level, the student specializes in sanshou (free sparring) or taolu (forms) and only trains in that. There should be a good relationship between traditional and modern wushu. They should have more interchange. This could lengthen the competitive life of modern wushu. It could increase development and provide more room to grow. You need two legs to walk: one is modern wushu, one is traditional. You cannot give up one of them.”

Ultimately, Wushu is what it is; a martial art. And martial arts are, ultimately, an art. It is a way of expressing yourself through martial movements. Be it through the beauty of choreography in taolu or the heat of fighting in Sanda, one must always find that fire and expression. It’s what defines Wushu as Wushu.