The Tradition of Modern Wushu
Pioneering Grandmaster Qian Yuanze
by Gigi Oh and Gene Ching
"Some people use 'traditional' wushu and 'non-traditional' or 'modern' wushu to separate wushu into two categories," observes Grandmaster Quan Yuanze in Mandarin. "I don't agree."
Grandmaster Quan is of a generation that walks the razor's edge between what many see as two diametrically opposed positions: modern wushu versus traditional martial arts. Born before the founding of the People's Republic of China, he received his childhood training from traditional masters, then rose to become one of the architects of modern wushu as we know it today. He contributed so much to wushu that the China Physical Culture and Sports Commission awarded him the title of "New Chinese Sports Pioneer" in 1985. While many view traditional styles and modern wushu as dichotomous arts, masters like Qian are living proof that harmony is not only possible, it is advantageous.
"Wushu is traditional stuff," continues Quan. "It has long history. It has constantly changed to fit the current state of society. Others try to use 'competition' wushu to differentiate it from 'traditional' wushu. I don't agree with this either. Competition wushu is a sport trying to get into the Olympics. It added nandu (difficult movements) because a new scoring system was needed. But how are you defining what is traditional wushu? If wushu forms are modified somewhat, can you still call it traditional? In reality, all martial arts forms are constantly changing to meet modern demands. I believe wushu can be divided into 'competition' wushu (jinji wushu) and 'popular' wushu (dazhong wushu) or 'community' wushu (shehui wushu)."
A Son with Five Fathers
Master Qian Yuanze was born in 1944 a few hours' travel from Shaolin Temple, in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. His father was a master of internal martial arts. He was raised in Nanjing, near the Central Guoshu Institute. This gave him exceptional access to many great masters.
Qian began training at the age of eight and credits Feng Shijing as the master who taught him many of his basics, but Feng's taiji was lost on the youth, so Qian was sent on to Jin Shinming. Jin was the son of Jin Jiafu, the head of the Shaolin system at the Jiangsu Province Guoshuguan. At the time, a saying amongst martial artists attributed the best martial arts to the Jin clan, and the best qigong to the Dai clan (jinjia quan, daijia gong). Jin Shinming was the fifth-generation successor to the legendary Qing Dynasty master, Gan Fengchi, who is now considered the founder of Hua Fist and Bei Shaolin, more commonly known in the west by the Cantonese name Bak Sil Lum. "Shifu Jin taught me a unique form that was very difficult," recalls Qian. "It was a specialty of Jin clan kung fu called cun jian mian zhang (inch power continuous palm). The entire form is made of low xubu (empty stance), palm strikes and hook hands. It is practiced on top of an eight-immortal altar table (baxian zuo) and requires three 'flats': head flat, thigh flat and elbow flat. Shifu Jin would put three bowls of water on my head, thigh and elbow to make sure the 'flats' were level. The complete form is about thirty minutes long. Because of its difficulty, few people attempted it." Qian attributes his solid foundation, vigor and energy to this early traditional form.
When Qian reached ten, he returned to taiji and added bagua and xingyi. He studied these under Chen Jisheng, a renowned master from Jinan in Shandong Province, hired to teach in Nanjing due to his outstanding reputation. Chen's bagua lineage traces to the seminal master Cheng Tinghua, also known as "Eyeglass Cheng (Yanjing Cheng)" because of his trade as an eyeglass seller. Chen was very traditional, requiring Qian to become his disciple before beginning his tutelage. He trained Qian in zhouzhuan? walking on free-standing bricks. In this method, the practitioner recites his bagua footwork atop twelve arranged bricks, standing on end. It's a variation of plum-flower pole training, but much harder, according to Qian. "In the beginning, the bricks often fall. Eventually I learned to walk freely without knocking down any bricks. I learned two styles of bagua from Sifu Chen: normal bagua posts (ding shen bagua) and swimming body bagua (youshen bagua)." Swimming body bagua is a free-form method trained after the individual techniques are mastered. Qian finds it more challenging, agile and beautiful.
Qian recalls a lesson he learned from Chen. "One Sunday afternoon, we were in my elder martial brother's home and he asked shifu how to apply jin ji shang jia, sinking movement from xingyi. Shifu said, 'Any martial arts movement can be used as a combat application. It all depends on how deep your understanding and skills are. Come, I will show you how to use it.' As soon as he finished, my 175-plus-pound brother flew away like a balloon and landed in a bed across the room. It happened so fast that I barely saw shifu squat and use his elbow. I was shocked by the power of martial arts. Normally, it's not easy to move 175-plus-pounds. Shifu often said 'The power of kung fu is so deep and high that is it's hard to be measured (gao sheng mou cer). When the energy is released from your entire body, it's like a bomb exploding.' There's a saying, gong dao zhi ren cheng; it means that kung fu cannot be attained by desire alone. It takes a lot of hard work and persistence. If you train diligently, one day the power will come to you."
According to Qian, Chen's traditional foundation was underpinned by a strict moral code. "Shifu taught us 'the first thing we learn in class is NOT to use our fists. The important thing is wude (martial ethics)'. Shifu taught us to respect each other and prohibited us from fighting. More and more, I see the power of martial arts and understand why you can't just take it lightly. You don't know how much strength you might have. People could get hurt."
In 1957, at age thirteen, Qian began competing. He demonstrated bagua palm and spear at the Nanjing Martial Arts Competition. The following year, he placed fourth in the "A" group with his bagua palm and dragon sword. Finishing ahead of him were two of his teachers, Jin Shiming and Shi Peiwen, and a martial uncle, Ma Mingxin. Such talent for bagua at such a young age earned him the nickname, "little bagua (xiao bagua)." That same year, Qian represented Nanjing in the Jiangsu Provincial Competition and later, he made Jiangsu's first professional team. "I was fourteen years old. Nineteen fifty-eight was the year of the 'great leap (da yue jin)', when many professional wushu teams were established. Wushu was still under the Nanjing Physical Exercise College Department (Nanjing tiyuan yong dong xi), which also oversaw track and field, gymnastics, swimming and others." By 1959, Qian rose to capture the silver medal at the historic First National Athletics Games.
When Qian joined the team, he began formal training under his fourth teacher, Shi Peiwen. Shi Peiwen was both a student of renowned xingyi master Ma Yutang, and the martial brother of Chu Guiting. Qian studied xingyi under Shi, as well as his famous dragon sword. Dragon sword combines xingyi and bagua methods. Qian eventually passed this method to one of his own star pupils, Zhang Anji, who used it to capture first place in swordplay in 1979 and 1980.
Qian's fifth teacher was Wang Fenggang, the third-generation successor of Jingwumen (a.k.a. Chin Woo). Wang trained under Zhao Lianhe, a direct student of the legendary Huo Yuanjia. Huo is best known in America from the movies like Bruce Lee's FISTS OF FURY and Jet Li's FEARLESS. Previously, Wang had been the instructor of the Shanghai Jingwu Association. "The Jiansu Wushu Team needed a good Jingwu instructor," says Qian, "so Wang was sent to teach. The original Shaolin Fist that I studied under Shifu Jin Shiming was an old traditional form; it didn't meet modern requirements. Jingwumen had many educated martial artists among their ranks. They modified old forms so they followed a more modern criterion and implemented simple rules and regulations."
Remarkably, Qian found favor with each of his five masters. "I was blessed," he admits. "All my teachers treated me well. They came to my house for private lessons. Perhaps it was my diligence or my body structure. They each helped me at different times and on different levels. And they were all men of high wude ? they carried themselves with integrity and honesty. They are even friends with each other like martial brothers. I was introduced to Chen Jisheng by Feng Shijing. In those days, you couldn't learn from other masters unless you had permission from your original master."
All Star Coach
Qian began his martial career in the right place at the right time. Modern wushu was on the rise, built on the foundations of the traditional disciplines in which he was trained. As his talent and determination shone, he attracted the attention of many other great grandmasters. "After joining the professional team, I had more opportunities to compete across the country," recounts Qian. "I met other famous elder masters such as Zhang Wenguang, Cai Longyun, Li Tianji, He Fusheng, and Sa Guozheng. Some even became close friends, despite the fact they were of an older generation. As the Chinese say, we forgot our age differences (wang nan zhi jiao)." As an example, Qian remembers his friendship with noted authority He Fusheng. Although He was thirty-four years Qian's senior, they kept in close contact until He's death. Qian feels that these bonds were immensely beneficial to him as a practitioner, not only because of the knowledge the grandmasters shared, but also because of their sage advice.
In 1980, a delegation of six of China's top coaches was sent to Japan. The team included He Fusheng, Li Tianji, Pang Litai, Ren Jihua, Sa Guozheng and Qian. Leading the team was Zhang Wenguang, but Qian was elected as coach group leader. Given the Confucian custom of respect for elders, his election was an astonishing honor since Qian was the youngest on the team.
In China, Qian's reputation is greatest as a coach. He first began coaching back in 1970 for the Jiangsu Wushu Team. Qian produced four champions that dominated the tournament circuit for years. Collectively known as 'three Zhangs, one Wang (san zhang yi wang)', this champion quartet was comprised of Zhang Anji, Zhang Chengzhong, Zhang Yuening and Wang Zhengtian. At the 4th National Games, Zhang Anji won for swordplay and Zhang Yuening won for spearplay. In both divisions, three of the top six were Qian's pupils. That was in 1979, when the first-generation of wushu powerhouses ? like Jet Li ? were emerging. Also among Qian's disciples were two other noteworthy competitors, Zhong Qiaozhen, the 1974 National Youth All-Around Champion, and Bai Lijuan. In 1987, Zhang Chengzhong captured the spearplay title at the Asian Games at age thirty.
Qian attributes his coaching success to his emphasis on strong basics. "Basic training is like laying the foundation of the building," explains Qian. "Only with a deep and sturdy foundation can large masonry be erected." This philosophy was manifested by Qian's insistence that his students practice their basic techniques a thousand times at each class. He is fond the saying, "If the plum flower didn't survive the brutal winter, its blossom would not bring such sweet fragrance."
Qian became a major advocate for the spread of wushu internationally, serving as a coach in more than twenty countries outside China. He was the first wushu coach to be sent overseas. "I had to teach everything," reflects Qian, "all the taolu (forms) and sanda (free sparring). Most of the time I was the team coach, but I also was required to perform too." From 1981 to 1983, Qian taught in Mexico. "I started teaching Shaolin forms that I compiled and modified to fit their abilities. After six months, I had them perform at the largest tournament in Mexico. Mexico had never seen wushu before and they were blown away. When I was teaching there, the most students we ever had was four hundred. I went back last year and now there are fourteen schools. I was very happy to see that the seeds I planted were now blossoming." In 1995, Qian was chosen as one of "the Ten Major Wushu Coaches of China" by the Chinese Wushu Association and the Chinese Wushu Administrative Centre.
Qian's role as a coach had even more impact in Thailand. Qian recounts the situation; it was 1998. "It was prior to the 13th Asian Games which were very critical to wushu. The 11th Asian Games were held in Beijing and it was the first time wushu was included. The 12th Asian Games were in Hiroshima, Japan and wushu was still in the program. It was an experimental event, not yet official. If wushu could stay in the 13th Asian Games, it would get official status." Bangkok was the next host city and Thailand was not in favor of wushu. If it failed to make it, all the previous work would be lost. After much negotiation, China agreed to send a coach to train Thailand's national team. The coach needed to know all the basics, rules and regulations for taolu and sanda. China sent Qian. "When I got there, I found that no one spoke Chinese in its association. For two months, I spent hours each and every day each day translating the wushu rules and regulations into Thai. This was on top of training the team." After a year under Qian, Thailand's wushu team won a silver in taolu and a gold in sanda. Wushu remains a major event among the forty official events of the Asian Games. Qian has also coached the national wushu teams of the Philippines (in 2002) and Holland (in 2003).
Wushu in Taolu, Sanda and MMA
"I think change is good," comments Qian. "The results may not be the same, but it aims to improve. Traditional Shaolin is not as easy or efficient to learn as the modern Jingwu standardized forms. In creating standards for competition, it's important to keep the original character after any changes. For example, no matter how much we change taiji, it should still have the character of taiji."
One of the more controversial changes in competitive wushu has been the introduction of nandu. Some feel that these movements are too extreme and have lost the very flavor of the root styles. Qian was one of the discussion leaders for adding nandu to improve judging capability. "Originally, wushu was a performing art that could not be easily measured, like swimming, weightlifting or running. So to make it a competition sport, elements that could be scored were added. The gymnastics and figure skating scoring system is relevant."
"The current scoring system of nandu is very strict. I do not agree with it completely. When judging nandu, the score is based on 'yes, you succeeded' or 'no, you failed.' It does not consider the degree of completion. Take the 540? turn, for example. If a competitor completes a 539? turn, in the current scoring system, there will be a 0.6 point deduction, the same as if you failed completely. But if an athlete only attempts a 360? turn and makes it, the score will be higher than the athlete that achieved 539? turn. Gymnastics has a nandu score system, too. However, they also consider the degree of completion. Why doesn't wushu's nandu scoring consider level of completion? It's because 'this way is simpler to calculate and easier'. In gymnastics, deductions are made according to how much you did not achieve. I strongly feel that we should take the level of completion into consideration while scoring. This is why most of the athletes are spending 70% of their time to practice nandu.
"The past president of the IWuF, Zhang Yaoting, commented about the longevity of wushu athletes in the past. Compared to other sports, past wushu champions such as Yuan Wenqing, Gao Jiamin and Chen Sitan had a much longer competitive life. Should we change this? I do agree with him this kind of results are not good for the sport's development. So, it was suggested to add nandu. In order to keep up with nandu, you need the combination of energy and techniques to win the competition.
"I would like to see taolu athletes develop more individual character. In the past, every top champion has his or her specialty. Now, you hardly see any athletes with unique character. They don't have the time to develop special character. Nandu is all they can handle. Adding nandu makes the scoring transparent, but how to balance it also needs more thought. The new scoring system is heading in the right direction but it's not perfect. There are still many details that need refinement.
"In the past, wushu emphasized the combination of taolu and combat applications. Now these two are separated. For competition and performing, there's taolu and for applications, there's sanda. Taolu contains attack and defense but that's not the main purpose. If you want the combat applications, then go to sanda. After the government allowed sanda competition again, the critics that said taolu athletes had no combat ability have quieted down. There is definitely a connection between taolu and sanda but they are not equivalent. Taolu has its structure and frame and artistic interpretation. Sanda is strictly for applications; it's figuring out how to most efficiently strike a point within a given set of rules.
"To become a good sanda fighter, first, you must have good body conditioning. This is true for any type of sport. Second, you need the basic techniques: punches, kicks and throws. You only need a few effective techniques. You don't have to use too many but you must master a few. You may absorb traditional kung fu training in sanda, but basically, if you choose sanda, then just train all the techniques for sanda. In today's training, sanda and taolu are completely separate. In sanda, there's no time to show what kind of kung fu system you are practicing, except maybe during the bow in. If you have some winning movement, everyone else will learn it very quickly and use it. Sanda is beyond system.
"When it comes to mixed martial arts, sanda's rules state that when you fall, you lose, so there aren't any ground-fighting skills needed. We need to develop more ground-fighting skills to catch up with MMA fights. I estimate it won't take long for China to develop some good ground-fighting skills. There are some clubs in China starting to train MMA, too."
Twin Secrets to Success
"It is said, 'before you learn martial arts, you have to learn how to become a good person (wei xi wu xian xue re). No matter what you do, you have to learn morality (ren ping ren ge).' This is not an empty saying. When I started learning at a very young age, my teachers taught me all they knew. They were not doing it for the money. In fact, their tuition was minimal. Why did they teach me more? Maybe it was because I was very sincere and diligent. I use myself as an example. If the students try their best, I will teach them more. If the students were not practicing very hard, I probably won't teach them, no matter how much they pay me. Another important thing is to learn how to respect others and how to get along with others. You need to develop a good personality. In our society, you can't do everything all by yourself. If you want to be successful, you'll need other people's help. Only if you have a good personality will people teach you and help you.
"The second method is based on the Chinese saying, 'you live one day, you learn one day (huo dao lao, xue dao lao). There is no limit boundary of learning and same as the martial arts (xue wu zhijin, yi wu zhijin).' Even today, I still love to learn new stuff. I learned most of my martial arts from my five teachers, but later, I learned more from Sa Guozhen and He Fusheng. I'm still learning."
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|KUNG FU TAI CHI 2008 March-April|
Written by Gigi Oh and Gene Ching for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM