Where Wushu Went Wrong
Wushu's Leading Champion, Zhao Changjun, Extols Traditional
by Gene Ching and Gigi Oh
For America, the division between traditional kung fu and modern wushu is black and white as a yin yang. Wushu is wushu and traditional is traditional and never the twain shall meet. American traditionalists view wushu with a McCarthy-esque disdain. This communist ploy to emasculate the martial arts is attributed to the Cultural Revolution, but few truly understand what the Cultural Revolution was really about. Such critics see wushu players as having no fighting skills and believe all "real" kung fu is extinct throughout mainland China. That's an extraordinary accusation to make against the country with the largest population of martial artists. When wushu began its bid to become part of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, traditionalists cringed. Did Olympic wushu really pose a greater threat than the Red Guard? Now, we may never know. At this writing, wushu failed to even garner demonstration-sport status at the next Olympic Games. A historic opportunity - to stand in the spotlight on the world stage - slipped through our grasp.
But back to the division between traditional kung fu and modern wushu, the argument that a wushu player can't be traditional is absurd. Clearly, some practitioners fall solely into one camp or the other. But plenty of masters are very accomplished in both methods. Master Zhao Changjun is a classic example of the meeting of traditional and modern. Zhao is one of the most decorated wushu champions ever. Only one other martial artist has challenged his winning record: Jet Li. In wushu circles, it is said that the '70s belonged to Jet, but the '80s belonged to Zhao. Even throughout the 70's, Zhao was always pressuring Jet. "The reason Jet Li was always a little higher was because he was from the Beijing wushu team," remarks Zhao in mandarin, "and the internationals were always the Beijing wushu team. Many feel that I was better, but because Jet did movies, there was more focus on him." That's no idle boast. From the late '70s to the late '80s, Zhao captured ten individual all-around titles in national and international events. He has earned 54 gold medals and has demonstrated in five continents for over thirty countries. Zhao is undeniably one of the greatest wushu masters of all time. And yet, despite his glorious wushu record, he's a staunch proponent of traditional martial arts. "There's more life in the traditional martial arts," states Zhao matter-of-factly. That's where he began his warrior journey and that's where he is now.
The Only Son of a Muslim Laborer
Zhao was born in 1960 in Xian, in Shaanxi Province, home of the Terracotta Warriors. He was the only son among five children and not very healthy as a young boy. He grew up in the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution, when China was in turmoil and there were frequent riots. His father was a common laborer who had a great respect for the martial arts, but never had the opportunity to study them personally; so he enrolled his son Zhao in the martial arts, not only in hopes of improving his health, but also for self defense. In those troubled times, Zhao could use such skills, not only to defend himself but to protect the women in his family.
Zhao's family was Hui. The Hui are China's Muslim minority, the largest of China's sixty ethnic minorities at nearly 10 million strong. Zhao's father sent him to study under a Muslim folk master named Yuan Run in the traditional Hui fighting arts of tan tui (springing legs) and cha quan. "From Nanjing to Beijing, the best tan tui is from Islam," quotes Zhao reverently. Zhao's father dutifully took his son to lessons every morning before work and every evening after, shuttling the six-year-old across Xian on his bicycle. He never dreamt that his son would become China's greatest champion. He only wanted his boy to be able to fight if need be. Zhao studied under Master Yuan until the Cultural Revolution broke out in '67. Due to that madness, Zhao's father had to find another teacher. He found Master Zhang Junde , under which Zhao studied Shaanxi hong quan and drunken style, along with some other traditional forms.
By 1970, the Chinese martial arts were back on track again. Zhao secured a position on the Shaanxi Province Wushu Team at the tender age of 10, which put him under coaches Yu Baiwen and Ma Zhenbang . Two years later, Zhao entered his first major tournament, the National Martial Arts Competition, and won the "outstanding prize" for his staff form. That was the modest beginning of one of the most stellar wushu careers ever.
Two years later, recognized as one of China's brightest young wushu stars, Zhao Changjun was considered for the historic White House tour. The year was 1974, and wushu athletes would serve as the second group of ambassadors from the People's Republic of China to ever set foot in the United States. History labeled it "ping pong diplomacy," since the first emissaries had been ping pong players. Unfortunately for Zhao, he was kicked off the team at the last moment. Many great masters failed to pass the communists' rigorous background checks, so outstanding masters like Yu Shaowen , Ma Xianda and Pan Qingfu were cut from the tour, regardless of their skills. Their families weren't workers or they were related to landowners or they had a higher education; any such smudge on their communist record would result in rejection. But Zhao's family met the requirements. He was rejected for something entirely different. Zhao's specialty was monkey and drunken style. At the last moment, the government decided that neither form was appropriate for such a momentous demonstration. "They asked me, 'How can you represent Chinese like monkeys or drunk all the time?'" recalls Zhao. "So I was pulled. Because of that rejection, Pan Qingfu told me to change my style. Based on drunken style, we built ditang quan (falling style). Ditang had existed before, but it was lost. We hadn't seen it." This was the origin of modern ditang quan, which is what all ditang is based on today - a politically-motivated permutation developed by Pan and Zhao. The original traditional ditang quan remains hidden or lost.
Despite newly invented forms and wushu command performances that followed the Cultural Revolution, martial artists like Zhao always kept their fighting skills. The years surrounding the Revolution were very violent times. Few Chinese owned guns, so Zhao had many opportunities to test himself on the street. He remembers an incident about four years after the White House tour. Zhao and some classmates went to see a movie, the only form of entertainment at that time. One of his martial brothers sat next to him, but because he was small, he had to sit on the edge of the chair. This upset another patron, but instead of asking him to sit down politely, he just flipped the chair and knocked him over. An argument ensued, and the other patron wound up storming off so they all thought it was over. Little did they know that he went to get help. Zhao and his classmates were ambushed as they left the theater. "The training I had from teacher Yan was very traditional," reflects Zhao. "You had to know the attack and defense method within every movement. If I didn't know, I'd get spanked so hard. Also, my father reinforced this. I was trained on the professional team, so I was in good shape, and just 17 or 18 years old. So it didn't take me too long. There were seven or eight people and I just beat them up."
Athleticism is essential. Zhao credits his training, as well as the rigorous training of the professional team, as contributing heavily to his victory in that street fight. "When screening for a professional team, they really watch you," notes Zhao. "You have to have the speed, the determination, everything. If you can get on a pro team, your body has to meet rigorous standards. My father encouraged me to take the professional route, but my grandfather was a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine and did not want me to go this way. All of the wushu competitors, especially the pros, they already have a good body. They have to have what it takes. Otherwise, you just can't compete nowadays."
Did Modern Wushu Fail?
Zhao is one of several living masters today that were direct eyewitnesses to the origin of wushu as it evolved from its traditional roots. Now, with the Olympic dream shattered, he ponders the effects of the last three decades of modern wushu on Chinese martial arts. "I feel really sad. For my generation, we were lucky. We had a chance to learn traditional martial arts. Some younger people don't have the chance to know traditional Chinese martial arts at all." Those are the wushu players that traditionalists vilify, but Zhao sees them as the victims of circumstance. Today, he is working to promote traditional martial arts instruction to the next generation.
Ironically, wushu isn't even that popular now in China, at least as a spectator sport. Zhao says, "Actually, for competitive wushu, there are no spectators. No one goes to watch. They are all doing the same thing, so it's not interesting. It's because they had to go the sports way to bid for the Olympics. They needed a lot of regulations and rules. Everything had to be very clearly demonstrated and simplified. We've argued for a long time, but we believe tae kwon do doesn't have the depth or variety of Chinese martial arts. However, they got into the Olympics much earlier. Wushu wanted to get in, but it had to be changed, had to be simplified. They took out the fighting applications so they could jump higher and show more.
"If you want to jump high, you can't compete with gymnastics. The artistic aspect cannot compete with skating. For competitive wushu, you need to nail the landing, so now the beginning posture must be slow, and then turn, and then land solid. Traditional Chinese martial arts don't have this requirement. You just go out and do it quickly. Modern wushu has lost the meaning of the movements. What are you really doing? You hold this for a second, then turn and land like that?
"Why did tae kwon do get into the Olympics? All the leg fighting methods are in there, so it's complete. Boxing is everything with the fists. To get wushu into the Olympics is really a difficult test. What can represent Chinese martial arts? For example, look at taiji. There are many different forms and they are very different. You can't have that many medals. The Olympics is cutting down on medals. So without that, they combined everything to things like 24 forms and they don't look like anything. It's the job of all Chinese martial arts practitioners to represent Chinese martial arts, but I'm very pessimistic. If we can't get into 2008, it'll take another twenty or thirty years at least to sort it out."
Although many wushu promoters still cling to the dream of Olympic gold, at this writing, the best the International Wushu Federation has come up with is to hold a world wushu competition in Beijing simultaneous with the Olympics, but not officially part of it.
"I'm inclined to say modern wushu is a failure," confesses Zhao after a long pause. "It's because when wushu tried to go Olympic, somehow they lost the character of what wushu really is. And that's where the failure is."
Cage Fights and Mixed Martial Arts in China
In contrast to the yin of wushu is the yang of mixed martial arts, or cage matches, which have been growing steadily in popularity in America. These are the two extreme ends of the competitive spectrum: wushu is acrobatic shadowboxing; mixed martial arts are no-holds-barred fights. Both can pose a threat in the minds of many traditionalists. Many mixed martial arts enthusiasts decry traditional arts as obsolete because you just don't see traditional techniques used in the cage.
Zhao is a firm supporter of mixed martial arts. "I think mixed martial arts are good competitions," he declares. He fervidly encourages more exchange between different styles, different groups and different methods and sees mixed martial arts as one of many platforms for such intermingling. "Now since we're global, everything is mixing. In the past, China didn't allow knees and elbows like Thai boxing and Thai fighters didn't allow throws. I remember in Europe, they didn't allow throws ten years ago. Now everyone gets together to study and explain. We're finding a common ground and we can build from there. Just look at sanshou. It's our hope that more people can accept this. That's the growing part. I would love to see a martial arts competition run like an athletics competition, but instead of swimming and running divisions, the wide spectrum of martial arts could be seen."
Zhao was already mixing it up over two decades ago, long before the Ultimate Fighting Championship hit America. In 1985, he stepped into the ring with one of the world's most famous boxers, Muhammad Ali. Zhao remembers it fondly. It wasn't an official match, just a friendly exchange of skills. Zhao is much smaller than Ali, but he had an advantage. Boxers don't typically train their legs to take kicks. Zhao is a master of tan tui, a traditional style renowned for its kicks. After Zhao threw a few kicks, Ali quickly relented. As an international wushu ambassador, Zhao has had many opportunities to share skills in informal, friendly atmospheres like this all around the world. Those experiences, added to his mastery of wushu and traditional, have given him an open mind about all modern fighting methods; and this helps explain why he embraces the rise of mixed martial arts.
No-holds-barred matches actually have a longstanding history in traditional Chinese martial arts circles, only they weren't fought in cages. According to Zhao, "In the old days, we fought lei tai (literally 'elevated platform' referring to the dueling grounds for open challenges). There were no age or style limitations. They are still trying to do similar stuff. Any kind of style can get together. But it's still in the testing stage. By testing, perhaps we can have better rules. Maybe that will be a step up. That way, we can improve." The mixed martial arts scene is just beginning in China. Now it's very small. Zhao knows why. "In China, mixed martial arts are not organized by the government."
Will Traditional go Extinct?
"Competitive martial arts can never represent the whole picture of Chinese martial arts," insists Zhao. "I hope traditional Chinese martial arts becomes like sumo in Japan. Sumo isn't trying to push to be Olympic. There is a special respect for sumo. Traditional Chinese martial arts still have so much to offer.
"In the olden days, before the gun, traditional Chinese martial arts were much more practical, especially on the battlefield. But today, we still have a lot of practical reasons to practice. In Japan, a lot of people enjoy taiji to counteract the pressures of everyday life there. There are plenty of healthy pastime alternatives, like tennis. But for tennis, people need a court. Taiji needs nothing, just a little space. You can do it for 10 minutes at work, relax, and then go back to work to face another pressure.
"There are others who want to be movie stars. Their goal is to be the next Jackie Chan or Jet Li. There are others who want to win medals. But modern wushu is limited. If you're too young, you can't get it. If you're too old, your body can't do it anymore. These are disadvantages. Most competitive wushu only has the shape. They have the movement, but no gong (literally 'skill' but in Chinese martial arts, this refers to essential fundamentals derived from extensive practice). You must practice fajing (explosive power) by hitting sandbags 1000 times a day.
"At my school, 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."
How to Follow the Warrior's Road
The real culprit threatening traditional Chinese martial arts is not modern wushu or mixed martial arts. It's attrition. Kung fu, by definition, is a skill that takes time and work - a lot of time and work - and most people just don't dedicate enough time and work to perpetuate the art anymore. The road of the warrior is full of hardships, but the responsibility lies within each of us. The only people who can kill traditional kung fu are the traditionalists themselves. Tradition will only be preserved if we, the present generation, successfully hand it down to the next generation. If we fail, there's no one to blame but ourselves.
As a seasoned veteran, Zhao offers advice. "Few people can keep up with martial arts on the higher levels. Modern-day people want something that's effective immediately. With tae kwon do and karate, you can progress much faster. But Chinese martial arts are slow. You need more time. Many don't have the willpower. They don't have the body to continue training."
Zhao hopes that one day martial arts will be offered in the public schools all around the world, just like it is in parts of China. Zhao urges more grassroots education for the general public so more people can enjoy the benefits of martial arts. "The Chinese martial arts are a completely balanced regimen. It requires jumping, agility, explosive power, all sorts of skills. If you learn the basics of Chinese martial arts for two or three years, you'll have a decent foundation for anything. You could switch to basketball or football or any physical activity and see benefits. If you insist on martial arts, you can attain some level of skill. If you don't, it's a good basic to go elsewhere. However, if you want to continue down the warrior road, you and your teacher must build up your willpower. Two or three years are not enough. The road of martial arts is not quick or short."
Zhao Changjun is the Dean of the Zhao Changjun Wushu Institute in Xian, Shaanxi Province where Sammo Hung serves as the Art Superintendent. The Institute is located at Shuichang Road, Southern Suburb, Xian, Shaanxi Province, People's Republic of China. See www.zhaocj-wushu.com for more information.
Written by Gene Ching and Gigi Oh for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM