Women of Wushu

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By: Matthew Lee

Written March 2nd, 2017

“…equality is not a concept.  It’s not something we should be striving for.  It’s a necessity.  Equality is like gravity.  We need it to stand on this earth as men and women.  And the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition.  It is life out of balance and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who is confronted with it.” —Joss Whedon, Director

Abstract: In commemoration of International Women’s Day, this write-up will focus on the topic of women in the sport of Wushu.  The write-up will focus specifically on the role of women in Wushu’s history, specifically the regulations that highlight the female gender in comparison to the male gender, and how Wushu can help women in modern day society.  It is time for me to acknowledge the give credit to the presence of women in this sport that I love so much.  This is being done for the sake of equality and giving respect where respect is due.

It’s been a while since I’ve written.  I don’t know if there’s anybody out there that’s missed me, but on the off-chance that somebody out there is still looking out for original and consistent content from the website, I apologize.  Since my last official write-up in July last year, I quietly decided to put writing on the side to focus on training for the 11th Pan-American Wushu Championships, and since then, I have also been busy coaching Wushu for my college’s Wushu club, as well as dealing with my personal life after graduation.  But now I’m back; a long time ago, I was asked to write about women of Wushu, and with the timing of International Women’s Day, it’s a good as topic as any to start writing again.

Initially, I was asked to write about things along the lines of the difficulty of nandu (难度; nándù, difficulty movements) for women compared to men, the general observation of female Wushu athletes developing more technique to compensate for the comparative lack of explosiveness and athleticism in relation to men, and why they always love Nanquan (南拳; nánquán, Southern Fist) guys (I got nothing for this one).  Unfortunately, due to my general lack of sports knowledge and access to sports data about these topics (if there even is any in the sport of Wushu), I can humbly say I am not qualified to talk about this, nor will I even try to.  So where do I start with this?  Instead, I will focus on the role and significance of women along the history of Wushu’s development as a sport, first focusing on the regulations that highlight the female gender in comparison to the male gender, and how Wushu can help women today in modern society.  At this point, I should make it clear that when I say Wushu, I am referring to modern, contemporary or sport Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport and competition.  Today, modern Wushu is standardized into two competition categories; 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).  This write-up will cover both categories of Wushu as they were developed with women’s participation in the history of Wushu’s development.


So, again, where do I start with this?  I could talk about all the great female Wushu athletes in the history of Wushu, like former Beijing Wushu Team member and Taolu champion Liu Qinghua, who had a strong memorable quality to her performances and had become a model athlete for Wushu throughout her illustrious athletic career, or even Elaina Maxwell from USA who won the first gold medal in her weight category at the then-newly introduced women’s Sanda events at the 7th World Wushu Championships at Macau, China, in 2003 (which I guess I just did).  But rather than simply highlight the achievements of individuals, I would also like to focus on the presence of women as a whole in Wushu.

First of all, various Wushu coaches that I had, who helped me to get my basic foundation (or whatever I have that passes for basics) when I was younger, were women.  So for me, the significance of women in Wushu cannot be denied.  Women undoubtedly make a significant impact in Wushu, and they arguably have as much validity in their achievements as men in the sport.  However, the separation between both genders in Wushu are highlighted in the different athletic requirements for both.

Throughout the history of modern Wushu, requirements for both male and female divisions in competition highlight the differences in standards and judging between male and female athletes in the sport.  As an example, the then-current required compulsory (规定; guīdìng) jiazu (甲组; jiǎzǔ, first level/superior) Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist) forms during the ’70s, the days of Jet Li and Zhao Changjun, and the first of what modern Wushu fans today call “old school” Wushu, was mostly a form with a predetermined, fixed set of choreographed movements, as is the nature of compulsory forms in Wushu, but with a few key differences.  Some of the combinations of movements in the form were different for male and female divisions.  The combinations for men seemed to emphasize more difficult and athletic jumps, whereas the combinations for female athletes seemed to emphasize and favor flexibility.  Such an example of differences in requirements suggests a theme of how male and female athletes are viewed differently in Wushu.

During the implementation of the previous Group A Compulsory Changquan Taolu (from the 2nd Set of International Compulsory Routines), also then known as “New Compulsory” Changquan, “2000 Compulsory” or “2nd International Compulsory” Changquan during the time of its implementation, in international competitions (before being replaced by the introduction and implementation of the 3rd Set of International Compulsory Routines), male athletes were only allowed a minimum of two steps leading up to the xuanfengjiaopicha (旋风脚劈叉; xuànfēngjiǎopǐchà, tornado kick with split landing) movement of the routine, whereas female athletes were allowed a minimum of four steps for the same movement.  The fact that female athletes were allotted more steps leading up to the jump, which therefore makes it easier to control and complete, suggests that female athletes need a handicap to complete the movement.  However, this is clearly not the case, as there are female athletes that can clearly complete the jump with only two steps.  These kinds of inconsistencies and differences in standards between male and female athletes is jarring, and to suggest that women need such handicaps is not only insulting, but also condescending towards how female athletes are viewed in comparison to male athletes.  Today in optional (自选; zìxuǎn, individual) form divisions, where forms are choreographed at the discretion of an athlete and/or their coach, there are no distinct differences in regulations between male and female divisions, and all movements are judged by common and universal standards across all divisions, regardless of gender, giving the sport some semblance of consistency.


In 2003, female divisions for Sanda were finally implemented at the 7th World Wushu Championships at Macau, China.  It is interesting to note that since the beginning of modern Wushu’s development as a sport, where there was only Taolu at the time, there were already male and female divisions established, whereas with the inception of Sanda into Wushu in the ’80s, it would take a startling twenty years to finally allow women to compete in full-contact sparring for Wushu in China.  From a purely speculative standpoint, the reason for this may be due to conservative views within the Wushu community and governing bodies, in allowing women to participate in what could easily be perceived to be a brutal, and therefore risky event.  Conversely, the fact that women are even able to compete in Sanda, shows that over the years of the sport’s development, Wushu is getting more and more progressive, which in my opinion is a good thing.

Most recently, in the 8th Sanda World Cup held in Xi’an, China last year in 2016, male divisions removed the requirement of protective headgear and chest protector customary in amateur Sanda, making their competition events closer in format to professional Sanda which does not have protective headgear or chest protector, while the female divisions were still required to wear full protective gear for competition.  To my knowledge, there is no official reasoning for this.  Again, from a purely speculative standpoint, this may be due to views from the organizational bodies that women may need more protection compared to men, which implies a handicap for women.  If this is the case, it does not reflect positively on how Wushu organizations regulate the sport for female athletes.  First of all, for professional Sanda, female athletes also do not have protective headgear or chest protector, which consistent with the male divisions, and other combat sports such as boxing, Muay Thai and MMA (mixed martial arts) also have uniform regulations and protection for both male and female fighters.  So why is there an inconsistency in this particular case of the 8th Sanda World Cup?  The implication of special treatment of women further implies an inequality between both genders, which further implies archaic and outdated views that hamper the progress of Wushu’s development as a sport.

I am not asking for harder requirements for women, nor am I asking for special treatment for men.  What I am looking for however, is consistency and universality in requirements for both genders in the sport.  Such glaring differences in requirements for both genders suggest that there is a gap of either skill level or physicality, sometimes unfavorably, for women.  Making the requirements the same would help to make the sport more consistent and easier to understand across uniform standard, and ultimately, more fair.

However, on the more positive side, Wushu can and has helped women in modern day societies.  Today, Wushu has served as a vehicle for women to empower themselves, and fight against gender bias.  To be specific, this statement can be centralized more towards countries and societies with comparatively conservative and dare I say misogynistic views when compared to more Western and generally progressive first world countries, where the struggle for gender equality is not as underdeveloped as in the former countries.  For women in these countries, Wushu is an invaluable tool that contributes to the movement of gender equality.


A good example of this is in India, where the recent documentary “India’s Wushu Warrior Girl” directed by Jayisha Patel for Al Jazeera, showcases Muslim schoolgirls in India learning Wushu.  In a bold move, the school decided to have Wushu taught to said schoolgirls in response to concerns of violence against women in India.  This choice of action is particularly interesting, because many people associate Wushu with the image of Taolu, the event in modern Wushu that concerns the training of forms for exhibition and competition, and not explicitly one of direct fighting and self-defense; however, it is important to note, as established in the documentary, that modern Wushu encompasses both Taolu and Sanda, the fighting and full-contact sparring component of modern Wushu, as it is taught in the school.  The documentary followed 14-year-old Fareeha Tafim, one such schoolgirl who like her classmates, trained in both Taolu and Sanda, but competed in Sanda.  This kind of practice not only serves to make modern Wushu more complete as a modern form of martial arts, but also gives these girls an opportunity to strengthen themselves.

Perhaps most recently and most popularly, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Seema Azimi founded a Wushu club, simply titled “Shaolin” for women to help stand up for themselves and fight the stereotypes of women in their country.  According to her interview with China Xinhua News, Seema stated, “In the beginning when I opened my private club two years ago to teach wushu, no girl dared to come.  But gradually the number increased and at present 20 girls joined the club to exercise the self-defense art.”  These kinds of situations essentially kill two birds with one stone.  First, women can empower themselves, and second, it also helps to further promote the practice of Wushu as something positive, and even relevant in societies today (Everybody wins!).

So why am I writing about this?  Because in my opinion, equality between all kinds of people, regardless of things like gender, should be a necessity all over the world, yet unfortunately, as we have seen in some places in the world, it is not.  In the words of popular director Joss Whedon, “…equality is not a concept.  It’s not something we should be striving for.  It’s a necessity.  Equality is like gravity.  We need it to stand on this earth as men and women.  And the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition.  It is life out of balance and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who is confronted with it.”  Maybe one day we will reach a time when things like gender and ethnicity will not affect how an individual is judged, but unfortunately, for many girls and women in the aforementioned examples, that day is not today.  So, until then, I believe that we must do what we can to help promote gender equality.  I hope that what I have written, with what little it can do, can contribute to the movement of gender equality, especially from 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