Salute to Wushu
by Herb Borkland
The First Four Thousand Years
Sport Wushu's Journey to the 21st Century Canary-colored silk splattered with jade green monster's blood...Four thousand years ago, China's legendary Yellow Emperor Huang Ti battled a horned monster called Chlih Yu. In honor of his victory, two thousand years later, farmers strapped cow horns on their heads and butted each other, for sport. By then, historically speaking, only one step remained to complete the classic Chinese progression from deepest dreams to the ultimate reality of wushu, "war arts." That step was taken by well-born charioteers, archers and swordsmen living a thousand years before the birth of Christ. These noblemen-warriors of the Chou Dynasty (1122-255 BC) absorbed the farmers' head butting game into their own rough and tumble style of wrestling. They simply left off the horns.
Behold, then, the mighty force of wu, of "Chinese military genius," in action. What started as one generation's playful imitation of a dream-beast had led, over centuries, to their remote descendents' discovery of a dangerous new martial arts technique.
This is how creation happens, again and again, throughout traditional Asian history. Fighting systems have sprung, magically whole, from the dreams of fabled masters, dreams often inspired by their deepest waking contemplation of beasts, birds or insects. In this primal human mystery, we manufacture ourselves out of nothingness, and the history of boxing provides some of this mystery's purest examples. From the very beginning, an otherworldly air has hovered around wushu. But modern sport wushu, a rebel, stands aloof from its own traditions.
End, a Beginning
The wushu epic is vast, from the Yellow Emperor, to the Shaolin Temple monks, across centuries to the Boxer Rebellion, but it ended along with the nineteenth century, in a barrage no religious charm or "golden bell chi" could stop. Inevitably, after the First World War, even the proudest teachers saw their arts nostalgically, as cultural and spiritual treasures, but no longer pertinent to the realities of 20th century warfare.
A linguistic alteration tried to take this change into account. This historic shift from living arts to museum pieces. In 1928, the old familiar term "wushu" was replaced with "kuoshu" (national art), the patriotic term adopted by the central government. A Central Kuoshu Institute was also founded in what was then China's capital city, Nan-Ching, and the first national tournaments were organized as part of this unity drive.
But modern wushu players see their true beginnings eight years later, in the groundbreaking exhibition which a kuoshu team performed at the 1936 Olympics Games. For the first time on a world stage, the traditional Chinese arts were showcased to appeal to international sports fans.
The formalization of boxing on a national scale was halted by the war with the Japanese. After World War II, the rise of the communists drove kuoshu south to Taiwan with Chiang-Ka-shek. A few years later, the People's Republic formally revived the old term, wushu. A circle had been completed, but nothing was the same.
Yellow Emperor, Shaolin priests, boxers. These old, familiar stories are legends today, and nothing more. Modern Chinese people often philosophically turn away from a sense of life which collaborates with the forces that work through dreams, preferring the materialism which scours history of all phantoms.
And when mid-century brought greater public interest in wushu, political troubles began too. To Chairman Mao's cadres, everything about the ways of martial artists seemed subversive of the "modern ethics." Even the traditional master-pupil bond - serious as a death pact - was seen as usurping the state in its citizens' hearts.
A special committee was established to review al the styles of wushu, and to synthesize the essence of each fighting art into a new series of nationally acceptable "compulsory" forms. And here the controversy surrounding modern sport wushu catches fire. Wushu is synthetic, and, in the beginning, largely anonymous, as befitted the workings of an arm of an anti-individualistic government. Rather than stemming from wu-gifted sifu, wushu grows from the wisdom of committees which contemplated, not the mysteries of animal nature, but the traditional war arts themselves, directly.
In 1953, the National Traditional Sports Meet was held, promoting a closer look at wushu. Four years later, the Physical Culture and Sports Commission of China began research to find more martial arts forms, planning to adapt them to the communist party's heritage policies.
The First National Wushu Tournament was held in 1973, in Shandong province; in 1974 America got its initial exposure to this new "kung fu" when a 32-member Mainland Chinese troupe performed on both coasts. By 1975, Anthony Chan of San Francisco became the original competitor to introduce wushu forms to West Coast tournaments.
Three years later, in 1978, Nick Gracenin, a self-described "small town, west Pennsylvania boy," began studying wushu from the first sifu in the United States to teach it, Boston's Bow Sim Mark. Gracenin would go on to compete in four world championships in China, where he won one gold, three silver and four bronze medals, thus becoming America's most awarded wushu athlete.
"Any sport that goes global has to be very structured," Sifu Gracenin points out. "Sixty divisions of traditional arts at the Olympics would simply be unworkable.
"And, beyond that, whose 'tradition' do you choose? Think of the worldwide diversities of Yang-style taiji, yet each school claims to be authentically 'traditional.' Equitable competition becomes impossible."
Master Xioling Lu, coach of the 1993 U.S. Wushu Team, agrees. "Some traditional fighting arts emphasize power, others value flexibility. Between the two, how can you judge?"
Hence the need for a modern, standardized wushu. Primarily compounded from southern Long Fist, it comes by its famous, breath-catching acrobatics honestly, from within the traditional arts themselves. Competition at the 1995 World Wushu Championships in Baltimore, Maryland will be based on the compulsory routines for Changquan, Nanquan, Taijiquan, broadsword, sword, spear and cudgel.
"How does learning a compulsory form threaten traditional styles?" asks Nicj Gracenin. He asks because there are those who are afraid it does. This is one of the three "instant cliches" about wushu.
The first wushu cliche is: "You can't fight with it." But that's like standing in front of a movie poster and then complaining that the story went nowhere, there was no action, and the characters were one-dimensional. You're mistaking the advertisement for the product. (And, if you really want to fight, full-contact sanshou was officially added to wushu competitions in 1979.)
The second instant wushu cliche is, "It's only for the young." Coach Xiaoling Lu demurs, "Different forms are good for different ages."
The third cliche is: "Wushu threatens to replace the traditional Chinese arts." On the contrary, says Nick Gracenin, "wushu was created specifically to generate interest in traditional Chinese arts."
Real combat is not a sport; its participants do not "play" and real combat, in humanity's name, is never a spectator sport. Lacking, then, actual battlefield conditions, any peacetime tournament, no matter how unruly, is two things: what it is, and what it looks like. By that fact, it has entered suddenly and absolutely into the realm of sports. It doesn't matter if your Long Fist style is old as Shaolin; if it is enacted in public, it is sport. The core of the war art, of course, is not compromised in the least. How then can wushu threaten traditional Chinese arts? Wushu is all show, without combat applications - nothing, through and through, but sport. In the past people ran in fear from predators; today people run for pleasure and health. And so it is with the war arts. What is sinister in this?
Serving the Wu
So it seems that the force of wu has been well-served by wushu, after all, despite the sport's unromantic origins in anonymous subcommittees which hammered out the new forms in the 50's. And, indeed, for all the committees and subcommittees and subsubcommittees, there comes a final irony: the drama of modern sport wushu's evolution is the unexpected triumph of the individual over the masses, of the rebels over the rules.
Although it's true that the committee-tradition lives on in the good work done by Men Hui Feng's "42 Taiji Form" group, it's also no secret that most of the newest international competition routines take as their template the outstanding solo performances of individual champions. The Long Fist and the staff routines are the art of Yuan Wen Qing. Southern boxing is Ms. Chen Li Hong. The broadsword echoes 1985 and 1986 all-around title winner Zhao Chang Jun, and straight sword and spear come from Ms. Peng Ying of Szechuan.
So, in the end, the independent nature of martial artists is honored, after all; their fierce singularity cannot be obliterated, even for their own good, not even by committees. Today, watching a top wushu performer in mid-air, burning with athletic incandescence, is to experience a martial poetry which brings ancient wu-dreams flaming to life. Wushu is the sport for the 21st century.
Three USA Champions to Cheer For
Amy Chow: "Ms. Lightning."
Amy Chow could finesse her way to a first place weapons trophy using a tennis racket. The winner of five gold medals at the 1994 Nationals, Chow is a national forms and weapons champion without peer. How does she mentally prepare herself to succeed? The secret of champions: visualization.
"I look at the floor before I step on, and I try to see it (the performance) in my head," Chow explains. "Once I step on, my head goes completely blank."
Her sunny California wholesomeness and brisk intelligence are wrapped around an unremitting desire to win. Chow's always been a competitive, intensely athletic person, but the first form she learned as a girl came out of gymnastics. To little Amy, growing up in San Francisco, the martial arts seemed to be a "guy thing" that belonged to movie stars like Jackie Chan. But this was before she got the opportunity to learn wushu.
"When I graduated from high school, I had a whole four-year plan mapped out," says Chow. "But..." But in wushu, Chow had discovered something beautiful and important enough to change her life, and the four-year plan was put aside, for now.
She's traveled to China to study her art in its natural surroundings. And here at home, her celebrated sifu, Bryant Fong, has helped inspire Chow's uniformly winning efforts.
Wushu is "just something that's so centered in my life; it keeps me sane and happy all the time," says Chow.
Look for Amy Chow at the 1995 World Championships - and look out world!
Woody Wong: "The Master Storyteller"
Watching Woody Wong perform is like listening to a symphony. The 1992 and 1993 US Nationals all-around grand champion soars and inspires like the mightiest music. His own performance style is what musicians call bravura.
"I'm going to make an impression," Woody will tell you frankly. "I'm going to make this move so fast and so wild looking that every eye is going to be on me." He's done it before: The impression he made with his spear at the 1994 Nationals added yet another gold medal to his already-bulging trophy case.
A Brown University graduate with a degree in economics, Woody has spent ten years training in wushu under such exemplary coaches as Liu Yu and Eric Chen. He can be hard on himself and, when the wind is right, on others too, but this is because he is always driven to achieve what nobody can - perfection.
This is also a man who lists among the two proudest accomplishments of his life, "Moving in, being with and taking care of my ill father for the year-and-a-half prior to his passing."
Interested in making movies, Woody and a partner are in the process of developing scripts. Another current project is a series of inspirational children's short stories involving the martial arts. So, like a movie or a symphony, Woody's routines convey a sense of emotional meaning - exactly what he intends. "I'm telling a story when I'm doing my form. And I want to draw everybody in, to watch my story."
And when Woody Wong hits the 1995 World Championships, the plot thickens.
Cung Le: "The Technician"
Cung Le states, "I just go out there with a winning attitude, and I just train so hard that 'losing' doesn't exist in my vocabulary."
When San Jose, California-born Cung Le entered the 1994 Nationals sanshou division, he had been fighting Chinese-style full-contact matches for only one year. But this dynamic competitor had already generated major statistics as a former state champion is college wrestling, two-time winner of the US-Russia Judo nationals in 1988 and 1989, and the southern regional sanshou champion.
And talking about dedication, Cung Le works out for six hours a day, seven days a week.
"If I lose, I know the way I train, I went out there and gave it my best - and if I lose, it'll just push me a notch higher in training," he says.
At the 1994 Nationals, Cung Le went through the 165-176 lbs category like a man-eater in a roomful of pussycats. Not that his opponents weren't tough, capable fighters - we're talking about the likes of Virginian Jerome Holmes in the semi-finals and, for gold, Arkansas' Chris Kitell - but what made the difference for Le is what makes Sanshou fighting itself different. And what makes sanshou different makes it more Chinese.
First of all, sanshou is fast, semi-continuous action, not "pop-and-stop" like karate point fighting, and it doesn't restrict techniques such as punches to the face, which are usually forbidden in tae kwon do. And, unlike kickboxing, the fighters can't waltz with each other for a few moments rest - that only gets you thrown to the mat for a three-point loss in sanshou.
But the biggest difference of all is that sanshou fighters go at it on a lei tai, a 24-foot-square platform built two feet off the ground. Platform fighting is as traditional as the arts themselves. In the old days, if you wanted to announce yourself as a boxer in a new village, you built a lei tai, stood on it, and invited all comers to try and knock you off.
One consequence is that, unlike prize fighters, sanshou competitors can get knocked out of their ropeless ring. For this they forfeit three points - the equivalent of a spinning hook kick to the head, or a perfect foot sweep. So the truly savvy Chinese-style full-contact athlete knows how to take advantage of the lei tai. And that brings us back to Cung Le and the 1994 Nationals.
Cung Le was victorious because he grasps what makes sanshou unique. As sanshou is the thinking man's full-contact sport, it especially rewards fighters like Le who think in terms of martial arts techniques. And one of the best considerations to help select your technique is "How do I throw my opponent off this stage?" In clash after clash, while his opponents seemed satisfied merely to close the gap with a single kick or punch, Le preferred to feed them hard, honed techniques: kick-punch combinations, sweeps, shoots, and throws that knocked them of the lei tai. His opponents, frustrated, kept climbing back up onto the stage, down three more points.
Le can nail you stage-center, too. His foot sweeps are sensationally quick. But one of his best moves is a variation on the classic scissors takedown, when a fighter clamps his legs around the other guy's torso and twists him off his feet. In Le's version, he throws himself a little short, so that his whipping right heel catches his opponent in the ribs. It's as much a knockdown as a takedown, but, whatever it is, it rarely misses.
Even so, Le's ultimate attack came during the gold medal round in 1994. He brought the audience screaming to their feet when, out of nowhere, he grabbed Chris Kittell around the waist and, dropping into a back-bowed body bridge, threw Kittell over his head, slamming him onto the stage.
Techniques like that make Cung Le somebody sure to create an explosion in his weight class at the 1995 Nationals.
Written by Herb Borkland for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM