Why Learning Chinese Helps With Wushu

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By: Matthew Lee

Written March 30th, 2015

“‘No to discredit teachers in the US, but to be a good teacher, you need to know how to communicate more than just “practice, practice.”  You need to know the whole story in order to lead students to the next level.  This includes earning Chinese and English.  For example, Chinese wushu uses imagery to describe moves.  Wu long pan da means something specific in Chinese; it has been translated as twisting fists in English, which doesn’t fully describe the move-black dragon twining, writhing hit.  Teachers need to be able to understand the forms and communicate the subtleties to the students.’” —Hasan Rucker, Kung Fu Magazine “A Real Karate Kid: Hasan Rucker”

Abstract: The topic of this write-up will deal with the Chinese language and how it applies to Chinese Wushu.  It is ironic that although Wushu is inherently Chinese, its interpretation across the world internationally does not consider this crucial element to its understanding.  As an indisputable part of Chinese culture, the Chinese language is irreversibly intertwined with the ideas and understanding of Chinese Wushu.  This write-up will delve into the reasons of why learning Chinese can help with the understanding of Wushu.

I have a confession to make.  In the past year of writing articles for, I have made quite a few mistakes (gasp!  I, someone who is not a professional writer, makes mistakes with his writing!  What a shock!).  As an example, one of the first mistakes I made was my miswriting of the Chinese term 精气神 (jīngqìshén; vitality and intention behind movements) with 精气身 (jīngqìshēn; “bodily essence”) in my first write-up for, “Putting the ‘Shu’ Back In Wushu.”  As you may or may not have gathered from this, the third and last character I used was incorrect.  The correct character was 神 (shén; spirit or god), not 身 (shēn; body); thus, the real Chinese for the term jingqishen here is, 精气神.  Anyone that understands this term knows that this was a silly mistake to make, and needless to say I was embarrassed.

Naturally, this was corrected and kindly forgiven.  But why am I making such a big deal about this?  Why does the Chinese even matter in an explanation of Wushu?  This leads me to the statement of this write-up.  As you may have noticed, when I write about Wushu using Chinese terms and ideas, I often include the Chinese characters and Romanization in parenthesis, as well as a rough translation, to be able to condense and clarify an idea to readers for the sake of the specific write-up.  I do this to be able to encourage better understanding of Wushu, via the inclusion of the Chinese language in helping my elucidations of Wushu.  Why?  Because the Chinese language is undeniably intertwined with the ideas and practice of Wushu.  Even the term “wǔshù” itself, is Chinese.  Learning the Chinese language can help with Wushu, for various reasons.

To be clear, when I say the Chinese language, I do not just simply mean Mandarin, which is just one of many classified dialects of the Chinese language, but is the most well-known and popular, and thus mistaken as simply “Chinese”, as is the case with “Indian.”  This is the dialect from which people hear the standard Chinese phrases such as “nǐhǎo” (你好; hello/hi/“How are you?”) or “xièxie” (谢谢; thank you).  There are also many other classified dialects under the Chinese language umbrella, including but not limited to, Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Taiwanese.  However, the most standard and widespread dialect across the world is undisputedly Mandarin.  For Mandarin alone, there are multiple methods to learn Chinese, from the Wade-Giles method (which I find to be a horridly inaccurate transcription of Mandarin), to pinyin (拼音; pīnyīn, literally “phonetic writing”), to zhuyin (注音; zhùyīn, annotated sounds), also known as “bopomofo” (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ, which I cannot begin to comprehend, having not learned it).  From what I understand, pinyin was formulated by mainland China to help standardize the learning of Mandarin, whereas the zhuyin method is used by the Taiwanese.  In my write-ups, I use pinyin to transcribe and Romanize Chinese terms, which I have personally found to be the most accurate phonetically of all three methods, though this may be my bias from personal experience, having only formally learned pinyin.  With these methods come various rules to follow when reading or transcribing Chinese, which I have decided not to go into for length purposes.  The purpose of this write-up is not to be a lecture on the history, development, and/or semantics of the Chinese language, but rather to introduce the Chinese language to the reader, and why you should learn it in terms of Wushu.

But this is not to say that you are required to learn Chinese at all.  Linguistics and martial arts have no direct correlation with each other, and being able to understand Chinese does not speak to your ability in Wushu.  However, that being said, it cannot be denied that learning Chinese will still help with understanding Wushu as well.  This write-up will cover three main reasons why learning Chinese helps with Wushu.

1.     It Builds a Better Relationship with Your Teacher (if they’re Chinese)


This one is obviously very conditional.  There are plenty of Wushu instructors, teachers or coaches that are not Chinese, or don’t speak Chinese, and not every Wushu practitioner has a Chinese teacher or coach.  And even if your teacher or coach is Chinese, they may choose to overtly speak the language of their students, in order to make the effort to better communicate with them.  But this does not mean that learning Chinese is a moot point.

It cannot be denied that Wushu came from China.  Thus, it stands to reason that the sharing of Wushu on an international basis across the world, came directly from the actual Chinese practitioners and masters of Wushu themselves.  Examples of this includes professional Chinese Wushu coaches, athletes and champions who left China and were essentially outsourced to other countries as Wushu instructors, teachers or coaches in those areas.  In many cases, Wushu students will end up having a Wushu instructor, teacher, or coach who is Chinese, and whose first language is Chinese.  And even if your first or primary instructor, teacher or coach is not Chinese, or doesn’t speak Chinese, this does not mean that you will never come across an instructor, teacher or coach who is Chinese, or speaks Chinese.  And who can better understand Wushu, but the actual Chinese Wushu practitioners and masters themselves?  So, if you want to communicate, learn from these people, and be able to absorb their knowledge as much and as best as possible, you know what to do.  Learning Chinese can be the bridge to attaining any of these goals.

As an example, let me explain how I came to learn Chinese.  I first started to formally learn Mandarin in Chinese school as a child.  However, I did not have much interest in this and wanted to leave, and surprisingly, my parents relented to my desire, which is uncharacteristic of most Asian parents.  I decided to take up a Chinese class again in the 7th grade of school, when I was twelve years old.  But since I wasn’t very studious, especially at the time, I did not retain much of the knowledge at the time, and it barely stuck.  However, I still did have the desire to learn Chinese, though I did not take the next required Chinese class.  As it turns out, learning Chinese in school required the consecutive taking of advancing classes, which meant I would have to start all over from square one (oh well).  So, I restarted my journey of learning Chinese two years later when I was fourteen, in the 9th grade, my freshman year of high school.  But I still was having a difficult time academically as a student, and I clearly wasn’t taking my learning seriously.  Then came a real reason for me to start learning.

When I was still attending the Wushu school I used to go to, I was leading a practice, when my Taolu coach, who was Chinese, told me to do “housaotui” (后扫腿;hòusǎotuǐ , backsweep).  Due to my lack of Chinese vocabulary, specifically lack of knowledge of Chinese Wushu vernacular, I did not understand, so when I heard “housaotui”, I just stood there, clueless.  At this point, I was being berated, and one of my seniors on the side simply said, “Learn the language.  You’re gonna need it when you go to China.”  What he said was true.  I was going to China to train at the Beijing Shichahai Sports School, home of the Beijing Wushu Team, during the summer of 2009, and I wasn’t even able to understand what I needed to for training.  If I had any hope of making the most out of my training in China, I needed to be able to learn Chinese, and be able to use it.  Needless to say, my attitude towards my learning Chinese changed from that moment on.

A couple Jet Li movies, as well as some other Chinese movies later, and I learned to be able to speak Mandarin on a conversational basis.  And although I wouldn’t dare say that I am a Chinese linguist on any terms, I am proud to say that being able to speak Chinese is a skill that I have developed, and is one I can use when I want or need it in certain situations, many of them more often than not Wushu-related.

Perhaps the best thing I could say about my experience in learning Chinese, was that I was actually able to put my knowledge of Chinese to the test, and apply myself and what I knew conversationally in dialogue and with others in China.  After all, the best way to be able to see how useful and effective one’s skills and knowledge are, is to put them to the test and apply them in the real world.  When I returned to the Beijing Shichahai Sports School in the summer of 2010, my second, and sadly my last trip there, my fluency and conversational skills in Chinese had greatly improved, as I was more experienced in actually using Chinese this time around.

Unfortunately, although I tried to be able to carry my Chinese over to my Taolu coach at my old Wushu school, I would only be replied to in English from then on, a sadly ironic, yet somewhat funny note.  However, this did not mean that my learning Chinese from this point on would be in vain.  Later in my Wushu journey, and perhaps with quite a bit of luck, I would have the chance to learn with other instructors, teachers and coaches, who were also Chinese and primarily spoke Chinese.  And with these teachers, I conversed in Chinese, which not only allowed me to communicate better with them, but also gave me a chance to build good relationships with them, as well as allow opportunities for them to share more knowledge, and therefore allow me to better understand what I was learning, as well as learn more than other students who could not speak or understand Chinese.

Take my story as an example.  Learning Chinese will allow you to better communicate and understand each other.  And even if it doesn’t necessarily work out, your efforts should not go unnoticed.  A good teacher or coach will recognize this, and should ideally appreciate your efforts at the very least.  On a deeper level, it demonstrates an open-mindedness that is to be admired, and a serious desire to learn, which may be rewarded.

2.     It Helps You Better Understand Wushu Ideas and Concepts


This works off of the first reason somewhat.  If at some point, you are learning and training under a Wushu instructor, teacher or coach who is Chinese, or speaks Chinese, it is a given that you will be learning Wushu ideas and concepts.  After all, I’m talking about learning Chinese for the sake of Wushu.  And Wushu is unmistakably Chinese.  While it may be shared and practiced across the world by many non-Chinese and in many non-Chinese cultures, which is a fact to be celebrated, Wushu is indisputably Chinese in origin and actual practice.  Therefore, it also stands to reason that the Chinese meanings and contexts of Wushu would be the original, and therefore purest and most accurate interpretation of Wushu ideas and practice itself.

One of the biggest obstacles in the sharing of Wushu internationally across the world, was the ability to translate it to other countries, and cultures therein.  This inevitably results in a disconnect of some sort or another, as different languages and cultures, while they may have certain similarities and draw certain parallels with each other, will never truly have an equivalent for indigenous ideas and aspects in other languages and cultures.  As is the case with many foreign materials, including movies, translations and transcriptions, while no doubt helpful in the understanding of Wushu ideas and concepts, will never truly yield the best understanding one can get from learning Wushu.  There may be many different translations, some may not be clear, and can even be confusing when such different translations overlap.  But the original classification and meaning which is rooted in Chinese, will remain the same and cannot be changed or misunderstood.  Therefore, the next best thing, is to learn Chinese.  And what better way to understand the pure, unadulterated meaning of something, than to understand the language that it was classified under?

Hasan Rucker, who learned and trained in traditional Wushu, and also trained at the Zhao Changjun Wushu Academy in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, China, also shares this opinion.  In the Kung Fu Magazine article “A Real Karate Kid: Hasan Rucker” by Michael A. Stone, Hasan state, “‘No to discredit teachers in the US, but to be a good teacher, you need to know how to communicate more than just “practice, practice.”  You need to know the whole story in order to lead students to the next level.  This includes earning Chinese and English.  For example, Chinese wushu uses imagery to describe moves.  Wu long pan da means something specific in Chinese; it has been translated as twisting fists in English, which doesn’t fully describe the move-black dragon twining, writhing hit.  Teachers need to be able to understand the forms and communicate the subtleties to the students.’”  This demonstrates that learning Wushu simply on the basis of a translated interpretation is not enough.  Knowing the original Chinese meanings and ideas are the key to true, complete understanding.  And again, this goes back to actually learning Chinese.

Learning Chinese, and being able to understand the Chinese ideas and meanings within Wushu, allows practitioners to comprehend and understand specific meanings and connotations that are overlooked in translations.  This includes martial applications and fighting ideas within specific techniques and movements, as well as deeper, philosophical ideas and connotations that are further tied into Chinese culture.  As a result, being able to learn and understand Chinese, and further carry that into understanding the Chinese meanings of Wushu, allows a practitioner to better understand the ideas and concepts that make up Wushu, and therefore become much more knowledgeable and educated about what they are practicing, as opposed to a practitioner who does not know Chinese.

3.     It Helps Encourage And Internalize Better Understanding of Wushu and Chinese Culture


Obviously, as is the case with all other languages, part of the process in learning a language is the beginning of understanding the ideas behind its use within the indigenous culture, and what the various contexts are that originate from such cultures.  The Chinese language and Chinese culture is no exception.  Wushu itself can be said to have a culture of its own, or even several subcultures across the various styles, schools, and communities of Chinese martial arts.  However, in some way or another, such a collection of culture will tie back to the Chinese language, and by extension Chinese culture in general, in some way or another.  This shows that the Chinese language, and the understanding of it, is crucial to not only the better understanding of Wushu for oneself, but also the encouragement of better understanding of Wushu overall.  Again, this is the very reason why I include Chinese in my write-ups.

However, it is sad to see that of all forms of martial arts that are indigenously tied to specific ethnic cultures, Wushu seems to embody the internalization of its own cultural background the least.  This is a result of the process in sharing and spreading Wushu across other countries and cultures; when translating Wushu ideas and concepts to the understanding of other languages and cultures, it more often than not used the terminology and perspectives of other languages and cultures, rather than the original Chinese names and meanings themselves.  Consequently, the original meanings and connotations of Chinese Wushu idea and concepts, which were central to their full, accurate understanding and cultural uniqueness, were either mistranslated, or lost in translation.  As a result, Wushu is observed to not have as much depth, either as a culturally significant and relevant Chinese item or as a standalone system of martial arts.

The most prominent example of this is the translation of Wushu ideas and concepts into the English language.  Western classifications of Chinese terms, like “Chinese boxing”, while not necessarily derogatory or harmful, do not encourage and internalize better understanding of Wushu, or the Chinese culture behind it.  Another example is the label of the Chinese Wushu short weapon of the dao (刀; dāo), translated in English as the “broadsword.”  This is a clear misnomer, because the dao bears absolutely no resemblance to a true European broadsword, even though its name is used to designate the dao in Wushu.  Notice that this is not the same case with the more popular and well-known Japanese katana.  Even though there are some uneducated spectators who will refer to the weapon as the “samurai sword”, it is general knowledge that the actual name of the sword is “katana.”  However, this is not the case with Chinese Wushu ideas and names.  Instead, many prefer to use translations rather than the original Chinese itself.  Unfortunately, these kinds of translations have been too disseminated today to be immediately changed.

This perspective is sad compared to other martial arts styles, such as the practice of Japanese and Korean martial arts.  Karate, jujutsu and judo all use Japanese terms to name their movements and techniques.  Taekwondo uses Korean terms to denote various commands and actions in practice.  It is clear that the indigenous languages, and by extension the indigenous cultures of these martial arts styles, are firmly ingrained in their ideas and practice, which gives these martial arts styles depth as well as cultural sophistication, significance and relevance, and is respectable.  Yet Wushu does not share this aspect in its practice, which is a problem.  But this can be rectified, in practice.

We, as Wushu practitioners, can solve this problem in the simplest way; by not just learning Chinese, but applying it in the context of practicing Wushu.  It is up to us to represent our art adequately.  Let us learn from these other examples of martial arts styles and practice, and internalize the Chinese language in the interpretation and practice of Wushu.  Let’s use the word “dao” instead of “broadsword.”  Let’s use the word “jian” (劍; jiàn, sword) instead of “straight sword.”  Let’s use the original Chinese names to denote the ideas, movements and techniques of Wushu.  In doing so, we expose and share the depth and knowledge that Wushu has to offer, and also give what we practice cultural significance and relevance.

And there it is.  These are the reasons why learning Chinese helps with Wushu.  And again, this does not mean you are required to learn Chinese, nor are you any lesser for not learning Chinese.  However, you are by all means encouraged to at least be open and try to learn Chinese, for these very reasons.  By encouraging the learning of the Chinese language, we encourage the better understanding of Wushu.


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