In the land of Shaolin, where’s the Wushu?
Published in Issue 9 of Chengdoo magazine, January 2008 | http://www.chengdoo.com
When foreigners imagine traditionally Chinese “things,” one of the first things likely to jump to mind is the image of a fast-kicking, shirtless man with a penchant for lethal blows and high pitched battle cries.
Chinese kung fu, known here in China as “Wushu,” is a martial art of cult popularity overseas. First popularized by actor Bruce Lee in the 1970s, then revived in the 1990s by successors Jackie Chan and Jet Li, it’s the martial art of choice for many action films. Wushu features dozens of styles, often categorized by their geographical origin or use of weapons, including Changquan (long-range), Nanquan (Southern style) and Jujiebian (Nine-tailed whip).* As an indication of its worldwide popularity, recent Wushu international competitions have featured competitors from 56 countries.**
So why then, here in China, is it so hard to find a Wushu club or gym at which to practice in Chengdu? In talking to locals here, it would appear that few people practice Wushu, preferring more recently introduced sports like ping-pong or basketball. And if they do happen to practice a martial art, more often than not it’s Tae Kwon Do, which isn’t even Chinese, but Korean.
What has led to such paucity of martial arts practice in the historical home of the art? Might it be a symbol of growing rejection of traditional mores in favor of all that is considered modern, affluent and even Western? And is Tae Kwon Do’s relative popularity a testament to the power of South Korea as the region’s pop culture juggernaut, extending its exports beyond fashion styles and soap operas?
The answer, according to several local martial arts teachers, has more to do with the Chinese government’s athletic ambitions and the whims of the market than any dramatic reorientation of cultural allegiances.
“There are three main reasons why martial arts aren’t so popular in China,” explains Zhang Lunwei, a 28-year-old Chengdu native who teaches at the Chengdu Mugen Ryu Martial Arts Academy on Changshun Middle Street.
“Firstly, in China, it’s hard to accept a sport that’s not internationally acknowledged,” Zhang said. “The General Administration of Sports of China must recognize the sport before a national organization can be organized.”
It’s for this reason that kendo, a Japanese martial art involving sword practice simulated with bamboo sticks, does not have a nationally-recognized association. Instead, Chinese kendo enthusiasts have come together to form an unofficial organization under the name of “China Kendo Organizations Union” in hope of gaining recognition by the government.
Recent social change is the second reason Mr. Zhang cites.
“So far, the focus in China has mostly been on economic development. The notion of practicing martial arts as recreation is something many Chinese “are only starting to pay attention to.”
In addition to the newness of common practice of martial arts for recreation in this growingly affluent society, traditional beliefs regarding Wushu practice in particular also limit the art’s popularity.
“Strong bodies, simple minds,” is an idiom some older Chinese still take to heart, referring to the heavy time commitment and singular devotion traditional Kung Fu practice—from which Wushu is derived—would occupy. “‘Kung fu’ means time and effort,” Mr. Zhang noted. Such heavy commitment, in a society as academically competitive as China, might be seen as a sure way of extinguishing one’s career aspirations.
However, Mr. Zhang adds that “parents nowadays recognize the importance of fitness and martial arts and are more willing to send their children to such classes.” However when faced with a decision between martial arts and academics, parents are more likely to choose academic courses over physical fitness courses, under the belief that high academic achievement is better for career aspirations. He cites the low employment rate of martial arts majors in China as evidence.
Wushu study has evolved to become more well-rounded, according to Ji Rui Min, a 22-year-old Wushu major at Chengdu Sports University, who is training to be a Wushu instructor. Ms. Min, a native of Henan province, home of the famous Shaolin temple, whose monks developed perhaps Wushu’s most famous style, acknowledges that some old people may still hold traditional beliefs about its practitioners.
“But nowadays, we not only exercise Wushu but study [a number of] different [areas],” Ms. Min said, citing teaching methods, English for Wushu instruction, and other classes designed specifically for teaching Wushu abroad.
On the subject of Tae Kwon Do’s popularity, the government’s yearning for international success and market re-branding play a far greater role than any sort of widespread rejection of national culture.
“It became popular in 1998, after China won a couple of medals in the World Tae Kwon Do Championship in Ho Chi Minh City and Tae Kwon Do was inducted into the 2000 Olympics,” Mr. Zhang said.
A large state-sponsored promotion of the sport began in China, with an eye toward gold medal success. Tae Kwon Do quickly became rampantly popular, and schools have subsequently sprung up throughout the country.
But Mr. Zhang questions the authenticity of some of these Tae Kwon Do academies.
“Many people who used to study Wushu study Tae Kwon Do for a few months, get a black belt, then start their own Tae Kwon Do school,” he said.
“There are instructors that are highly qualified but many just went through a short training program or are even self-taught.”
Mr. Zhang recommends watching a couple of classes and talking to the instructors before joining, as there are “schools with a bad reputation, poor instruction and [that are] in the industry just to make money.” He suggests that prospective students should always learn the qualifications of the instructor and reputation of the school.
Wang Chang Yong, a 21-year-old Tae Kwon Do instructor at the Olympic Boxing Training Center, views Tae Kwon Do more as a small piece within Wushu than as a separate martial art. His center is one of over one hundred branches in Sichuan province, with over ten in Chengdu alone.
“Tae Kwon Do has a history of two to three hundred years,” Mr. Wang said. “Wushu’s history is two to three thousand years old.”
Additionally, the movements are “very simple,” Mr. Wang says of Tae Kwon Do. It’s subsequently “easier to learn” for young students, making it better suited for common practice. He also cites the “jing li”, or politeness, stressed in Tae Kwon Do as beneficial to younger students.
Mr. Wang, who has studied Tae Kwon Do at the Sports University for four years, stresses that the focus should remain, however, on Chinese Wushu, which is also taught in tandem with Tae Kwon Do during classes. He sees the academy as a breeding ground of sorts for future traditional Wushu practitioners; an art that he believes requires more intensive practice and thus “can only be practiced by [fewer people.]”
With this focus on competitiveness in international sports has also come what some instructors see as a loss of the traditional teachings of Wushu. In their place has come “Performance Wushu,” emphasized by national Wushu administrators, with its crowd-pleasing acrobatics and dramatic routines.
Performance Wushu is used “to promote Chinese culture abroad,” explains Ms. Ji, citing the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games as an example. Following this, she believes focus will return to traditional Wushu, with its emphasis on basic movements applicable to self-defense and combat situations.
But what of other martial arts in China? Can they find a niche within this bureaucrat-driven, still developing market?
“It’s very hard,” admits Eliran Dobzinski, 24, an Israeli studying Chinese at Chengdu University who also runs what he believes to be the only Krav Maga school in China. Mr. Dobzinski, who taught the Israeli martial art to police and army Special Forces students in his home country, remains puzzled as to how to market Krav Maga to a Chinese audience.
“I have only one Chinese student; the rest are foreigners,” he revealed. “She saw my picture in a local newspaper.”
Krav Maga was developed in the 1930s as a self-defense focused martial art. It focuses on effectively escaping real life threats, such as attempted robbery or bar fights, whilst cultivating more of a “street” way of thinking.
“Krav Maga is the only martial art in the world that will give you an answer to 99 per cent of the situations in the street,” Mr. Dobzinski said. “And if we don’t know the answer, we will find it.”
But as Krav Maga continues to struggle to establish itself in East Asian martial art-centered China, others are more hopeful of future growth.
Karate was already recognized as a national sport in China in 2007, and is rumored to become an Olympic Sport by 2016, said Mr. Zhang of the Mugen Ryu Academy, who has a black belt in both Kendo and Karate. He is confident that its popularity will grow, much like the case with Tae Kwon Do.
“Kendo will take a lot longer,” he believes, though the CKOU has registered with the International Kendo Federation, in order to be eligible to compete in international competitions.
But meanwhile, Mr. Zhang is happy to promote the holistic benefits of martial arts in Chengdu, along with his wife Eliza Bergen, 22, whom he met whilst studying Kendo in the United States.
“We came back to China to promote the benefits of martial arts beyond the pure physical aspects,” Mr. Zhang explained, mentioning traits such as self-esteem, discipline and confidence.
“It’s also a good way for foreigners to meet, as a bridging of the cultures of East and West,” the two added.