What You Should Know About the Martial Art of Wushu

WUSHU-Orense-Junio 2008/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

What is wushu? Well, that depends on your vantage. Some might call it a martial sport in the modern world. However, a literal translation of the Chinese word indicates that "wu" means military and "shu" means art. In that sense, wushu is a term that describes the Chinese martial arts, similar to kung fu. In fact, both kung fu and wushu were once considered to be the same thing. However, these days wushu is more considered to be more of an exhibition and full contact sport.

Here's why.

Wushu History

If one goes with the more literal translation of wushu as a term describing the Chinese martial arts, then the history is vast and somewhat clouded in mystery. Generally, the martial arts in China go back thousands of years and were formulated for the same reasons they were nearly everywhere — to aid in hunting and protect against enemies. One of the early formalizations of the arts seems to have occurred under Emperor Huangdi, who took the throne in 2698 B.C. Specifically, a type of wrestling was taught to troops at that time involving the use of horned helmets. This was called Horn Butting or Jiao Di. From there, the basics of Chinese martial arts history can be found in a history and style guide of kung fu.

These days, the term wushu is mostly used to describe an exhibition and combat sport, which is how it will be viewed for the rest of this article.

As was indicated earlier, the history of the Chinese martial arts are somewhat clouded in mystery. This is in part due to the length of time we're talking here- no history is very specific after thousands of years have gone by. However, it is also in part due to efforts made under Mao Zedong and Communist rule to destroy almost everything traditional in China. Literature at the Shaolin Temple was destroyed at this time, and kung fu masters fled the country, all of which left the native arts somewhat fractured.

Given this and more, in the mid-1900s the Chinese government attempted to nationalize and standardize the practice of martial arts in China. In essence, this turned aspects of it into a sport. In 1958, the All-China Wushu Association came to be via an appointment from the government. Along with this, the sport became known as wushu.

Along the way, the Chinese State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports compelled and moved forward the creation of standardized forms for most of the major Chinese arts, which led to a national wushu system with standards for forms, teaching, and instructor grading. Around the same time, wushu teachings were blended into curriculums at the high school and university level.

In 1986, the Chinese National Research Institute of Wushu was established as the central authority for the research and administration of Wushu activities in the People's Republic of China.

Wushu Competitions

Wushu competitions are generally divided into two disciplines — taolu (forms) and sanda (sparring). Taolu or forms are preordained movements designed to defend against imaginary attackers. The forms part of wushu competitions are of course judged according to specific criteria. However, in essence the forms that are used are derived in many ways from the traditional Chinese martial arts. More recently, wushu competitions have become known for highly flying acrobatics (high level spinning and jumping kicks, etc), than perhaps previously.

The sparring side of competitions — sanda, which is sometimes called sanshou — is all about standing or striking combat. That said, there is a level of grappling used in these competitions, derived from Shuai Jiao and/or Chin Na.

Generally speaking, there are main events in wushu competitions which are compulsory, as well as more individualized/other events. The compulsory events are:

  • Barehanded
  • Changquan (Long Fist) Nanquan (Southern Fist)
  • Taijiquan (or Tai chi chuan) (Taiji Fist)
  • Short Weapons
  • Dao (knife)
  • Jian (double-edged sword)
  • Nandao (Southern single-edged sword)
  • Taijijian (Taiji double-edged sword)
  • Long Weapons
  • Gun (Staff)
  • Qiang (Spear)
  • Nangun (Southern cudgel)

Famous Wushu Practitioners

  • Jet Li: Li is one of the most famous martial arts movie actors of all-time. He also participated on the Beijing Wushu Team at the All China Games. Mostly under the tutelage of Wu Bin — a world-renowned wushu coach — Li claimed 15 gold medals and one silver at Chinese wushu championships.
  • Yuan Wen Qing: Qing has taken home multiple gold medals at Chinese, World, and Asian Championships. He was formerly a part of the Shanxi wushu team athlete trained by the coaches Pang Lin Tai and Zhang Ling Mei.