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Clash of Modernity

Repeatedly challenged, China’s millennia-old fighting arts are grappling their way into the modern era, with their sights now set on the Olympics.

By Yi Ziyi Updated Sept.10

Chinese martial artists, like the monks of Shaolin Temple, are adored around the world, as much as a part of popular culture as unparalleled fighters, cloaked in a mantle of myth. However, their ancient fighting tradition is threatened by the new.  

The trouncing of a self-proclaimed tai chi master by an MMA fighter (Mixed Martial Arts, a more modern discipline that blends various combat styles) has brought traditional martial arts back into the spotlight. Competing for territory in the harsh jungle with Brazilian jiujitsu, muay thai, MMA and submission wrestling, Chinese martial arts have been criticized for losing their combative edge in the modern era.  

Every ancient tradition has to face the problems of modernity. The Chinese martial arts, also known collectively as wushu or referred to as kungfu, focus on the patient process of honing skills and cultivating virtue without necessarily having the goal of winning. Yet this values system has been increasingly challenged by the fast, effective, ultra competitive modern martial arts culture worldwide.  

In a clash of tradition and modernity, and during a process of government-led standardization and commercialization, the ancient fighting arts are still finding their way.  

To Fight or Not to Fight 
Martial arts in China were born of the same necessity as in other cultures: to defeat opponents and defend against threats in hunting, fighting and war.

China’s martial arts have their origins in the Shang and Zhou Dynasties (1600 to 256BC). During the following Qin (221 - 207BC) and Han (202BC - 220AD) Dynasties, wrestling, swordplay and spear skills became highly developed and were popular among civilians and troops. In the Song Dynasty (960-1279AD), various schools, boxing styles, movement sets and weapon skills flourished.

Chinese combative arts have been heavily influenced by Chinese culture and philosophy, especially by Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. The key Taoist concepts of Yin and Yang (the universal opposites) and the Bagua (Eight Trigrams) were adopted to create the “hard and soft” and “swift and slow” techniques and strategies.  

As a highly varied martial arts system, Chinese wushu has over 400 sub-styles. The northern styles, such as Shaolin kungfu, focus more on kicks and adopting wide stances, while the southern styles put more emphasis on using the hands and narrower stances.  

Most fighting styles that are practiced as traditional Chinese martial arts today enjoyed widespread popularity in the 20th century, including the gloriously named Bagua Palm, Drunken Boxing, Eagle Claw, Five Animals, Xinyi Fist, Monkey Fist, Northern Praying Mantis, Wing Chun and many more. 

Originally, martial arts were an elite art practiced by the few. In the transition period between the fall of the Qing Dynasty in the early 1900s as well as the turmoil of the Japanese invasion and Chinese Civil War from the 1920s to 1940s, martial arts experts were encouraged to open their doors and teach the general public in an effort to expel foreign invaders. Martial arts were deemed a means to promote national pride.  

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, wushu has undergone fundamental changes. In 1958, the government established the All-China Wushu Association to regulate martial arts training. The Chinese State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports took the lead in creating standardized forms for most of the major arts. Wushu has been transformed into a standardized modern competition sport, which consists of taolu forms and sanda sparring.  

Taolu forms involve martial arts patterns and maneuvers for which competitors are judged and assigned points according to specific rules. It’s an impressive combination of gymnastics, agility and body mastery.  

Sanda, which was developed in the 1980s, is a modern fighting method and sport derived from traditional Chinese boxing (sanshou), wrestling (shuai jiao) and grappling techniques (qinna). It appears much like kickboxing or muay thai, but contains more grappling techniques.  

Perhaps the most-discussed controversy in modern Chinese martial arts is whether they can be used in real fights.  

A number of modern schools have substituted practical defense or attack skills with flashy movements that are more esthetically pleasing, thereby gaining favor during demonstrations and competitions. Some schools have even mixed wushu with moves from ballet and other disciplines, leaving it out of touch with its origins. Many traditional Chinese martial artists have been critical of attempts to move the art beyond the practicalities of combat.  

“Fighting skills are the essence of traditional Chinese martial arts. From the perspective of etymology, the character wu, in early oracle bones inscriptions [the earliest examples of Chinese writing], consists of the pattern of a spear and a blade; shu means crafts and techniques. Thus, the word wushu initially means the crafts of fighting. If wushu loses its fighting techniques, it will be reduced to wudao, literally ‘dancing’,” said Wu Shijun, 72, the successor of the eleventh generation of Chen-style tai chi, and postgraduate tutor at the Martial Arts Department of the Beijing Humanities University.  

As Wu indicated, the combative aspect of martial arts was discouraged after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. In 1952, Chairman Mao Zedong put forward the slogan “promote physical culture and sports; build up the people’s health.” To answer the call, the government started to transform traditional martial arts into a sport, emphasizing its purpose of exercise and physical wellbeing.  

“Take tai chi for an example,” said Wu, “In 1956, the Chinese Sports Committee brought together four tai chi masters to create a simplified form of tai chi, ‘24-form tai chi quan’, as exercise for the public. Since then, tai chi has gradually become a way of maintaining fitness, especially welcomed by the middle-aged and elderly. Thus, the image of tai chi as a sport for the elderly has become rooted in people’s minds.  

“To a certain extent, the government’s promotion has diverted martial arts away from its own course. The overemphasis on the element of exercise means this part has suppressed the fighting value, and real kungfu is being forgotten,” Wu told NewsChina.  

Winning is Not the Only Aim of the Game 
There is truth to the fact that traditional Chinese martial arts are being pushed aside when it comes to modern martial sports contests. Fans of MMA often rubbish the idea of ancient techniques being used in the modern arena. Today, wushu is often been ridiculed as “a useless flashy form.”  

Wang Gang, professor of the Martial Arts Department of Wuhan Sports University and also a renowned scholar of martial arts culture, is strongly opposed to the idea of placing Chinese martial arts in a contest arena against modern fighting techniques.  

“Chinese martial arts can be applied for daily self-defense, but not in a contest. Seeing it only as a combative martial sport is to devalue our tradition,” Wang stressed.  

As Wang pointed out, cinema shapes many people’s impression of Chinese kungfu, which also leads to misunderstandings.  

“Movies starring Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li have familiarized audiences home and abroad with Shaolin, tai chi, and wing chun. They have done a huge amount in promoting Chinese kungfu internationally. But as an art form, film has its own way of conveying its narratives, which makes it unable to represent martial arts as they really are,” Wang told NewsChina.  

Many kungfu movies juxtapose Chinese martial arts with other disciplines of fighting techniques in a contest arena and overdramatize the effect of the former. Such portrayals, Wang said, have left audiences with the misconception that Chinese wushu is about winning or losing, and should be tested by contest.  

In Wang’s opinion, Chinese martial arts, essentially speaking, are an inward, process-oriented discipline that focus on “self cultivation” through lifelong learning and practices; Western fighting techniques, conversely, follow an outward and results-oriented sporting culture that emphasizes the pursuit of excellence via contests with opponents.  

“Chinese martial arts have a long, complicated history that involves a highly codified structure of rules, rituals and practices. For martial artists, one primary reason to practice the combative techniques is so one never has to actually use it. The philosophy of traditional martial arts is rooted in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War [Sun Tzu was a distinguished general, military strategist and philosopher in the Spring and Autumn period, 771-476 BC]: ‘Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the opponent’s resistance without fighting.’ Such value definitely collides with the win-at-all-costs mentality inherent in MMA,” Wang said.  

From Wang’s perspective, martial morality, known as wude, is paramount to the martial arts philosophy. For traditional practitioners, wushu is not merely a set of combat techniques, but, more importantly, a form of art that focuses on inner virtues and the cultivation of character.  

“The goal of Chinese martial arts is to attain self-illumination through decades of hard practice. If you think winning is the whole game, you lose. It’s never about winning or losing, but a lifelong commitment to mental and physical discipline,” Wang said.  

Apart from the philosophical side, many experts point out, technically speaking, it is pointless to compare traditional martial arts with modern martial sports such as sanda (Chinese kickboxing) and MMA in real combat.  

“Take the bout between the MMA fighter and the tai chi practitioner as an example,” Wu Shijun told our reporter, “Tai chi and MMA belong to different levels and categories. Kickboxing athletes are only supposed to concentrate on several movements and practice them to the extreme, while tai chi practitioners have to practice more than a hundred movements, which means they cannot put as much effort and intensity in one single movement as sanda athletes do. Thus, it’s meaningless and unfair to place these two disciplines in a combat ring.”  

“There used to be a proverb ‘He who has an art has everywhere a part.’ MMA is like that. If one spends all one’s time just practicing and sharpening a particular technique, it’s highly possible that he will take down all opponents just with that stunt. But that is not the logic of traditional Chinese martial arts,” Wu said. 

Olympic Ambition 
The old-school way of cultivation and lifelong practice has been challenged in the ever-changing modern era, which puts more value on efficiency, competition and results.   

Under the 13th Five-Year Plan that runs 2016 through 2020, authorities plan to develop traditional martial arts into a large, profitable industry worth 1 trillion yuan (US$149 billion). 3,000 martial arts schools are scheduled to be built around the country by the end of the decade.  

“One big problem we’ve faced is that the younger generation think martial arts are ‘out of fashion’ and ‘not cool’,” Qiu Yuling, 32, told NewsChina.  

Qiu is a martial arts researcher and instructor at the Department of Martial Arts and Performance at the Capital University of Physical Education and Sports. Qiu has practiced wushu for 23 years and now she is engaged in martial arts education and promotion among teenagers and college students.  

“Many students like wushu in films, but don’t like wushu classes in reality. One possible reason is that wushu training is strenuous but the progress is not as quick and tangible as other disciplines,” Qiu said.   

Compared to wushu, Qiu pointed out, taekwondo, which was introduced to China in 1986, now enjoys widespread popularity among young Chinese. In her opinion, a clear evaluation system plays an important role in making taekwondo a popular martial sport among the young. A taekwondo practitioner’s level of competence can be clearly marked with different colored belts.  

“From the perspective of educational psychology, each step of progress is visible and tangible, and that gives students a strong sense of honor and fulfillment every time they achieve a belt. Taekwondo’s clear evaluation system and incentive mechanism are something we should learn about,” Qiu told our reporter.  

As a highly varied martial arts system, Chinese wushu has not established a clear and universally acknowledged evaluation standard, which hinders its ambitious journey to the Olympic Games.  

For years, officials have labored to get wushu added to the Olympics’ list of sports. Rival martial arts such as judo, taekwondo and karate have all been included.  

In June 2015, wushu was shortlisted as part of eight sports proposed for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. However, it failed to reach the final shortlist. In collaboration with the International Wushu Association, the Chinese Wushu Association is making efforts to register wushu as an Olympic sport for 2024.  

Wu Shijun told NewsChina that many officials at the decision-making level have not realized the importance of establishing a quantified standard to help wushu enter the Olympics.  

“Olympic sports are competitive. The easier to perform and judge, the better. A clear and accurate set of standards is indispensable. Events like diving and gymnastics can be scored, since their evaluation can be quantified. If wushu’s assessment cannot be quantified, we’ll never see the day that it becomes a staple in the Olympic schedule,” Wu said.  

As Wu explained, the Wushu Duanwei grading system is the one attempt that the authorities have made to provide an agreed set of standards for assessing practitioners’ level of proficiency. In many ways it can be compared to the Japanese martial arts’ Dan System.  

The skill of competitors can be graded from low to high as follows: primary dan (or duan in Chinese) for levels 1-3, middle dan for levels 4-6 and advanced dan for 7-9. To achieve each level, practitioners have to perform designated movements in tests.  

“The level-system examination is barely out of the starting blocks. Designated movements are still redundant, and need to be further simplified,” Wu told NewsChina. As a member of the Chinese Wushu Association, Wu is a chief judge in national Duanwei tests and is also in charge of editing the official textbook series for the system.  

Nevertheless, many martial artists criticize this standardized examination as making it too easy for practitioners to attain an advanced level. “In the past few years, I’ve noticed that more and more amateur martial arts lovers attain the 7th Duan just by practicing a few designated forms and moves. Such a phenomenon has been questioned by almost every part of the martial arts community,” Wu said. As a 72-year-old Yang-style tai chi master who has practiced martial arts for over 60 years, Wu himself is an 8th Duan holder.  

Wu also pointed out that, in order to help wushu be accepted into the Olympics, a larger-scale of simplification and standardization work should be done. “Chinese martial arts are too profound and diverse to be valued by a universal standard. They still have a long way to go before being embraced by the Olympics ,” Wu added.