Traditional Wushu and Competition Wushu
by An Tianrong and Aiping Cheng
When one mentions wushu, many Americans may not understand. But, if one mentions kung fu, everyone knows what is meant. The correct name is, indeed, wushu, as I discussed in detail in my article, "Wushu Needs Name Rectification"
In the long golden river of Chinese cultural history, wushu is a feature of great significance. It is broad and deep and so profound that one cannot see its beginning or its end. It is so broad that one cannot see its edges. Over its five-thousand-year history, it has acquired a theoretical framework that embraces many Chinese traditional cultures (classical philosophy, ethics, militia, regimen, Chinese medicine, and aesthetic, etc.). Its association with Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and hundreds of other Chinese philosophical systems cannot be ignored. Chinese wushu is not only treasured for defense, physical exercise, preventing illness, and longevity, it also best illustrates Chinese behavior, morality, philosophy, and aesthetic expression. It mixes in a philosophy of living and an understanding of the human condition. Inheriting all that is excellent in Chinese culture, it is regarded by the Chinese as a cultural treasure.
So-called "traditional wushu" refers to a martial art that has its roots in China. In the Chinese history of martial arts, "traditional wushu" has often combined "military wushu" and "folk wushu" into one. In ancient times, those martial arts practiced by military personnel were called "military wushu." Those outside of "military wushu" were called "folk wushu," practiced by ordinary people. In the early development stage of wushu, its whole content was military wushu. During the Western Chou dynasty, after the collapse of the slavery system, military wushu (which had been controlled by the slave masters) was introduced to the ordinary people. The resulting phenomenon was that military wushu and folk wushu had their own features but were interconnected. They interacted and were influenced by each other, but developed in parallel. In terms of their interactions and sources of influence, folk wushu grew out of military wushu.
Defensive and attacking movements are the essential ingredients. Folk wushu enriched itself by absorbing inputs from military wushu and grew. The people's heroes, Yue Fei (in Southern Sung), Qi Jiguang (Ming) and Yu Dayou (Ming), etc., are the important figures who promoted the interactions of military wushu and folk wushu. From their distinctive roles, military wushu developed killing techniques against large enemy masses. It emphasized the coordination of movements in group fighting and advancing in a battle. Its purpose was to defeat and kill the enemy. The techniques are mainly in weaponry skills with long spears, broad knifes, long bows, etc. Fighting skills by fist or foot were regarded as irrelevant in warfare.
Folk wushu is a combative form for competition on a stage or for catching thieves. The emphasis is on individual combat, and training focuses on the development of technical and physical skills for an individual. Its purpose is to defeat or capture the opponent, or to avoid being hurt by the opponent. The techniques focus primarily on boxing. Typical weapons are single knife, sword, rod, spear, iron chain, two-jointed pike, etc., which are shorter and smaller in size than military weapons but easier to carry. Military wushu developed its technical systems with a mind toward warfare and military conflict. Ultimately, it is a military skill. Historically, after the invention of firearms, military wushu lost its value and was abandoned by the military, only to be integrated into folk wushu. Folk wushu developed out of a need to meet individual combative situations. Broadly absorbing ancient medicine and Daoyin (guides to regimen), etc., it continues to grow deeper and richer.
Folk wushu has a long history; its skills have passed from father to sons and from teacher to students in many cities and towns. It has acquired a system of traditional customs. To be accepted as a wushu student, one must perform various rituals: kneeling and bowing to teachers, reciting the teaching of ancestors, swearing by an oath, and praying to the ancient grandmasters. After a fireworks display, the student then throws a banquet for friends and teachers. Some schools have school masters and rank according to seniority. The student shall respect his/her teacher as he/she respects his/her parents, and the students in a school are close as brothers or sisters in a family. The teaching of folk wushu requires that the developed skills and techniques of the school not be changed. One shall not change developed skills and techniques of an ancient master (founder); otherwise, one may be regarded as a traitor. Only schools that teach traditional skills are regarded as "legitimate." One might infer from this that the teaching of folk wushu is rather conservative. If one is neither a relative nor a favorite student of the teacher, one might not be taught those excellent traditional skills. The master might reserve his best technique for himself. It has been said in the doctrine of boxing: "Keep a skill out of ten skills to prevent students from overwhelming teachers," or "After a student has learnt all the skills, the teacher might starve." Folk wushu teachers have different levels of education. Some might be from wushu families, well-trained by family members, or perhaps learning from famous teachers and friends. Some might not only have excellent wushu skills, their education quality might be high. They could be scholars and educators who have written classical articles and books to guide the art's development for future generations. Some wushuists, having only a few years of education from privately-taught schools, have self-taught themselves to gain a deep understanding of traditional wushu. They may have invented their own excellent wushu skills and are destined to become great masters of their generation. Some have a rather low level of education, perhaps not even being able to read, but by being attentive to teachers and understanding the good skills of a school, they will open their own training centers and pass on his skills to the next generation.
Some of the wushuists earned their living by performing their skills on the streets. Those with really excellent skills might have been invited to lead some central or local governmental wushu centers, or might have become military trainers in armies. Many teachers in folk wushu have martial arts skills, but they might possess other skills as well, e.g., in geomancy, fortune-telling, physiognomy, or divination. Some may specialize in folk medicines. The southern Shaolin style wushu centers may teach the arts of lion and dragon dances. In past times, many boxers were Taoists, Buddhists, or believers in other religions such as the Eight Hexagram Society, the Clear Water Society, or the White Lotus Society, etc. Traditional wushu and religions are as interconnected as flesh and blood in a body. Many folk stories circulate about legendary martial arts events. In past times, many folk wushuists and wushu practitioners defeated foreign boxers and strong men. They won glory for the country, washed away the shame of being the sick man of Asia, and renewed the good spirit of the nation.
Traditional wushu has its theoretical foundation in Chinese classical culture. Its training courses involve bare-handed and weapon defense and attack. It has developed into three training patterns -- mental training, fighting, and set routines. In the early '80s, after several years' investigation in China, a compilation of folk boxing and weapon skills was written. Of thousands of traditional boxing styles, the material selected was the most "well organized, clearly developed, having specialized features, and uniquely established" systems consisting of 129 styles, 480 valuable wushu articles and books, and 400 pieces of weapons. 400 hours of video records were created. It preserves a good number of historical records on some excellent senior wushu artists. Based on the investigation, a 400,000-word book, A RECORD ON CHINESE WUSHU CHUAN AND WEAPONS, was published in China and overseas. Traditional wushu has accumulated the essence of Chinese traditional cultures.
Classical Chinese philosophy originated from the book of "Changes." Its core is the theory of "Tai-chi, yin and yang, the five elements, and the eight hexagram." It has guided the developments of ancient Chinese sciences, technical skills, culture, education, military, engineering, astronomy, geography, medicine, and agriculture. The Chinese have utilized the theory of Tai-chi, yin-yang, the five elements, and eight hexagram to create Tai-chi Chuan, Bagua (eight hexagram) Chuan, Hsing-I Chuan, etc., which are internal martial arts specialized in defeating the opponent based on calmness. Traditional wushu artists have studied human beings and discovered the existence of virtual points (for acupuncture) and invisible circulation paths in a human body. In wushu practice, one shall accumulate "qi" (essence of life, internal energy) into dan-tien (lower abdomen, hypogastrium), use "qi" to promote strength, circulate "qi" in the whole body with the guidance of one's mind. In the performance of Chinese traditional wushu, one shall focus on "jing" (vigour), "qi," and "shen" (good spirit). The harmony of yin and yang, the five elements, and the eight hexagram has become the theoretical core of the Wudang (internal wushu) school.
Based on these, this school is pursuing the principles of "training to turn energy into qi, turn qi into shen, return shen into void, and return void into tao," which may improve one's wisdom. With these, the internal wushu style emphasizes circular movements, training chi and focusing on shen, in favor of softness and calmness, and will neither be in hastiness nor in stillness. The training of an internal wushu artist will focus on the development of internal strength, and the harmony of external and internal power. In fighting, he/she shall stick with and follow his/her opponent, and use soft strength to overcome the external power of his/her opponent. In this way, one may develop internally and externally his/her good spirit and physical strength. The goal is to have good health and develop a sound human character.
Traditional wushu emphasizes "shu" (skill) and not brutal force. It is for this reason that the word "shu" appears in the name of wushu. The method of training is to practice "kung" (work) -- practicing basic physical and mental skills, set routines, and single defense or striking techniques. All of the traditional Chinese schools are training their students in this way. Both external and internal wushu artists are trained in this way from one generation to the next. That is why it is called traditional. When one has achieved the highest level of wushu, one obtains the harmony of external and internal power, good spirit, and healthy physical appearance. Traditional wushu was not only influenced by Chinese traditional cultures but also by the wushuists who have actively incorporated Chinese traditional cultures into the development of boxing skills, and establishing boxing principles. In this way, they have combined education and martial skills into a system which can provide sound theories for wushu practice. For example, from the Chinese traditional culture on the harmony of heaven and a human being - a philosophy on the universe - the wushu artist understands the relation of internal spirit and external appearance. In the theory of traditional wushu, the principle of wushu skills emphasizes the "unification of internal and external" aspects and "the feeling awareness." The wushu teaching principle emphasizes "learning both internal and external" aspects. The wushu training principle emphasizes "the guidance from inside and outside," etc. These enable the forms of movements of traditional wushu to express the attitudes of "harmony in external forms, full of internal motivations, and the presence of both sound physical appearance and spirit."
Influenced by Chinese traditional culture with its opposition to brutal force, and guided by the ideas of softness and hardness, traditional wushu emphasizes the importance - in a combative situation - of turning a little force into a big one and slow speed to fast speed, and profoundly achieving the possibility that "reacting force can reach first", and "deflecting the momentum of a thousand pounds with a trigger force of four ounces."
The Shaolin school style bears the influence of Zen philosophy. It has adopted the practice of Zen into its martial art system, emphasizing "the unification of boxing and Zen into one." Wudang school style emphasizes softness and calmness: one's movement shall be soft, circular and smooth. It relies on calmness to overcome brutal force. From the appearance of its boxing techniques, traditional wushu techniques require the harmony and unification of the four aspects of movement: will, chi, strength, and form. If one part of the body is reacting, the whole body shall react. If one part of the body has reached a target, the whole body should have reached too. This regularity of "internal and external unification" whole-body movement expresses the concept of "unification of heaven and body." When practicing traditional wushu, during the change of one movement to another, one must possess calmness when the body is in action. When in a finishing position, one shall keep ready "to act while in calmness."
In action, one should keep "the balance between yin and yang." In a combative situation, maintain a defensive attitude while attacking the opponent, and maintain an offensive attitude while in a defensive position. One needs not only a detailed understanding of the conflicts between the two parties, but also of the interdependence between the engaged parties, in addition to skills of action and reaction. These are the applications of the ancient Chinese yin-yang principle in traditional wushu skills. Traditional wushu maintains an understanding of defense and offense attitudes at its philosophical foundation. This kind of foundation has been further developed by philosophers. Wushu artists actively absorb the ingredients of Chinese philosophy and have credited them with guiding the development of their boxing techniques. This has promoted the philosophization of traditional wushu theory. Traditional wushu has also adopted philosophical terminology in the naming of their techniques and schools. This "getting assistance" or "borrowing" process has contributed further to the framework of wushu philosophy.
The basic contents of traditional wushu philosophy may include several versions: the doctrine of no limitation, the doctrine of Tai-chi, the doctrine of two poles (heaven and earth), the doctrine of yin and yang, the doctrine of softness and hardness, the doctrine of three powers (heaven, earth and human), the doctrine of four phrases (wind, earth, fire, and wood), the doctrine of innate and acquired abilities, the doctrine of a harmonious whole, the doctrine of natural order, the doctrine of spirit and appearance, and the doctrine of practical use. The development of wushu philosophy promotes the perfection of traditional wushu theory and systematizes the skills of traditional wushu.
Traditional wushu is very rich in content. Many ancestors attempted to classify them. In the earlier Warrior Kingdoms period, in the book "Sima Fa," weapons are classified into long and short. In the Ming dynasty, general Qi Jiguang in his book "Ji Xiao Xin Shu" presents the concepts of long distance and short distance combats. In the early Qing dynasty, Wong He-jee in "Wong Zhengnan Mu Zhi Ming" uses the internal and external boxing classification. In the early period of the Republic of China, the "Chinese Jing Wu Society"'s document has classification based on districts, such as the school of Yellow river district, the school of Yangtze river district, and the Zhu river district. Liu Zee-tong in "Bei Quan Hui Bian" used the classification of northern and southern schools. These historical classifications effectively explain the regional distribution of wushu schools - enabling a clearer understanding of the special characteristics of various wushu skills. For example, in the classification of long and short weapons in the Warrior Kingdoms period, there were combative tactics that explore long weapons for protection and short weapons for defense. In the Ming dynasty, techniques were developed for using long weapons for short distance combat and short weapons for long distance combat. In a period around the late Ming dynasty and the early Qing dynasty, there was one internal wushu school -- a branch passed on by Wang Zhengnan - and an external wushu school that referred to the Shaolin school. But other developments were going on. During the early period of the Republic of China, those skills designed for combat in purpose but also benefiting the building of muscle were broadly called the external school, and those emphasizing calmness in a conflict or combat or those which are based on Daoyin (Chinese style yoga) exercises were broadly classified as the internal school. Traditional wushu has the saying: "The most respected external school shall be Shaolin, and the most respected internal school is Wudang." For the wushu school classification based on regional districts, information is provided on the distribution of traditional wushu. The distinction between southern and northern schools reflects regional geography and weather. Later on, traditional wushu was classified based on special features of skills. For example, the class of long chuan has the feature of attacking from a distance; the class of short fighting has the special feature of combating in close contact with opponents. Southern chuan skills are specialized in using fists, and northern kick skills are specialized in using feet. The class of "circular and soft" schools are identified by their soft and circular movements.
There are schools whose skills mimic certain animal forms. The class of so-called "di-tang chuan" is specialized in tumbling skills for both attack and defense. Other versions of wushu bear the founder's family name. Lately, traditional wushu schools and styles have been classified based on their exercising patterns and special features of skills. In terms of exercising patterns, traditional wushu can be classified into "basic physical and mind exercises," "set routine exercises," and "combating exercises" categories. When classified based on special features of skills, the basic physical and mind exercises category includes internal work, external (hard) work, soft work, light work and others. The set routine exercises category includes boxing skills, and weapons, with individual practice or dual practice. The combative exercises category includes bare-handed, fighting (free hand operations, push-hand, etc.) and fighting with long or short weapons.
All such classifications provide a convenient way for people to gain a broad understanding of various and different kinds of skills of traditional wushu, to explore the common features and regularity of various skills and principles. By classification, one may understand the real substance of traditional wushu from inside and out.
Traditional wushu has historically emphasized the educational aspect of "wu-de" (virtue of martial art). "Wu-de" refers to "shang-wu chong-de" and is commonly viewed as the behavioral standard for all branches, styles, and schools of traditional wushu. A wushu practitioner nurtures his heart and mind with it and develops his social behavior accordingly, and takes it as the standard to make judgment on goodness or evil. "Shang-wu" is to enjoy wushu, participate in the sport of wushu, to develop one's mind and body via wushu, study and practice attack and defense skills in order to be strong and brave, to face conflicts with skills, and to continuously improve oneself. "Chong-de" is to have moral standard, respect social and public morals, share responsibility for the public, perform duties of his/her society, in order to be a person who obeys the laws, respects others, is helpful to others who are in need, and becomes a citizen who possesses perfect morals.
"Wu-de" combines "shang-wu" and "chong-de" into one. First, it appears in the use of moral concepts to regulate wushu skills. With moral concepts melded into wushu skills, one obtains the continuous self-improved martial ability but avoids the attitude of angry men, does not use strength to work against weak persons, and shows his/her great virtue to others. On the one hand, one must punish those who are evil and have done injustice to others, and one must be brave and ready to help the needed. On the other hand, one must innovate skills such as grappling and hitting virtual points in order to quickly dissolve the fighting ability of the opponent, to capture the opponent, but not cause undue damage to the opponent.
A wushu practitioner must not only strive to master the skills to control an opponent, but must also learn the skills of curing. It is inhumane to know how to kill but not to save. Furthermore, one must demonstrate the possession not only of great skills but high morality. For example, one should use his/her skills to protect his/her country and to guard the territory of the country. One must even be ready to sacrifice one's life in order to preserve one's virtue. Use wushu skills to protect citizens, to get rid of evil persons and capture criminals, and be prepared to give up one's life if required to remain righteous.
Furthermore, one must regulate one's daily behavior with moral concepts. For example, in teaching wushu skills, a wushu teacher shall not teach those who lack righteousness, or those who are unkind to others. A wushu teacher may request that students respect teachers and the standard of wushu, to learn and work hard; to treat others with kindness and be humble, honest, and to keep one's promises; to not put much attention on being popular or becoming rich, as one does not need to be famous; to live a simple life; to not be an alcoholic; and avoid engaging in lewd conduct. Traditional wushu has many sayings passed down from older generations which serve to set the wu-de standard. Here are some of them:
"By reading one's writing, one can tell the mind of the author; by observing a wushuist's performance, one shall know his/her moral standard"
"Before one learns an art, one shall learn politeness; before learning wushu, one has to understand morality"
"When a student has possessed great skills, he/she shall not forget the hard work of the teacher"
"One shall not sell his/her skills even if he/she will be paid ten thousand ounces of gold, but one may pass on his/her skills to a dedicated student whom he/she has just met on a crossing street"
"Serious teacher may produce good students; when one respects the way of wushu, one learns the excellent skill"
"A teacher may guide a student to enter the gate of wushu, but the progress will depend on the effort of a student"
"It is easy to learn, but it is hard to practice it"
"Bow one's head, learn arts from a hundred places"
"Learn from one more teacher, one knows one more skill"
"Demonstrate your wushu skill to others and meet friends in that way"
"If one wants to learn a great skill, it is necessary to work extremely hard"
"As incense of plum flower comes in bitter cold weather, one shall not cease without possessing amazing skills"
"Understand the skill but shall not be restricted by the skill, understand the rules but shall not break the rules"
By emphasizing "wu-de", one acquires the spirit of "shangwu chongde," which can be thought of as a miniature of the spirit of the Chinese nation. In sum, since the days of slavery society, through a long development process till the Ming dynasty, Chinese wushu has turned into a martial system different from a military combative one. It has many social benefits: training the functioning of a body, training in attack and defense skills, providing entertainment, etc. It is in the beginning stages of becoming a popular sport.
After the Sino-Japanese war during the Qing dynasty, China equipped its army with automatic weapons, guns and cannons, ending traditional military wushu's role in the military. Even the long-established governmental examination system for selecting military officers was abolished in 1901 in the Qing dynasty. The diminishing presence of military wushu in the Qing dynasty served to enhance the progress and development of folk wushu into traditional wushu sports. After the nationalist revolution, social leaders promoted traditional wushu because wushu can promote health and can fulfill the function of serving one's country. Many wushu centers, societies, and folk wushu organizations such as Shanghai Jingwu Sport Society, Tianjin Chinese Warrior Society, Peking Sport Study Group, etc., have been established in big cities. The nationalist government has established the central government wushu center and its branches in many local districts.
Some influential wushuists have adopted western physical education methods, competition regulations, and disciplines to regulate and teach wushu. Some traditional wushu skills are documented. The first Chinese wushu sport meeting of the whole county took place in Shanghai in 1923. Since then, many sporting events have included wushu competition. Traditional wushu now stands in the modern sport competition arena. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, traditional wushu was suppressed for a long time because the principle agenda of the communist party was the ethics of class struggle. This was the result of a wrong policy. Currently, the policy for traditional wushu adopted by the National Wushu Association and the Chinese Wushu Management Committee has been changed. The current policy emphasizes walking on two feet.
While competition wushu is now established, one should not ignore traditional wushu. Not long ago on October 16, 2004, the first international Chinese wushu festival took place in Zhengzhou. Festival organizers adopted an open-minded attitude and abolished many old-fashioned regulations for traditional wushu competitions. Roughly 2000 athletes from all over the world came to demonstrate their skills in the festival. Its scale has broken many records.
There are hundreds of different schools and styles of wushu. Like competition among beautiful flowers, the atmosphere is magnificent and emotional. People have met friends with different skills, studied each other's skills, and established new friendships and improved on existing ones. One can observe the tremendous magic of traditional wushu, so deeply rooted in the folks over hundreds and thousands years. Culture always benefits when societies interact and accommodate one another. Traditional wushu not only has value for the present but also the future - a future that cannot be measured!
The study of traditional wushu involves many theoretical topics. For example, definitions of traditional wushu concepts, their connotation and denotation, the value system, cultural features, historical connections, styles and schools, ancient and modern weapons, skill principles, teaching and training, practicality, fist and weapon skills and techniques, attack and defense skills and techniques, common knowledge of wushu practicing; its relation to warfare, ethics, regimen, Chinese medicine, aesthetic, breathing techniques (qigong), religions, and other methodologies. These have not yet been mentioned. Because of space limitations, we can only introduce so much here.
Written by An Tianrong and Aiping Cheng for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM