Usually when we talk about traditional wushu’s relevance to modern times, we concentrate on the question “how can it help us to improve ourselves and our society?” Of course, those of us who love the art easily have a lot to say about that. All we have to do is examine our own experiences. Though details vary from person to person, basically our stories would hit on the same points: It’s a great exercise for health and fitness. It builds strength of character and promotes inner growth. It challenges us to awaken and develop those parts of ourselves in which creative abilities and expanded thought exist. The outcome to our acceptance of this challenge is the next chapter in every person’s story.
As an ethnic art, it provides practitioners a living experience of Eastern philosophy and wisdom. And let’s not forget the obvious: it teaches advanced techniques which can be used for high-level combat. Performed correctly, the movements have a power, flow, and depth that is beautiful to watch and fulfilling to perform. One could accurately say that traditional wushu massages the entire person: body (inside and out), mind, and spirit.
To an outsider, this must seem too good to be true. But, this isn’t the whole story. Practitioners must have the guidance of a true master who transmits the techniques of a pure lineage. For their own part, they must log in many hours of hard work, be willing to face their own errors and limitations, and carry on in the midst of discomfort and uncertainty. They must endure physical, emotional, and mental pain, persevere through frustrations, and struggle with long, boring hours of stance training, basics, and repetitive practice. They must discard many old habits and learn to think, move, act, and react in ways that go against their natural, customary way of doing things.
Traditional wushu is very old, as is the culture in which it was born. It is the culmination of centuries of wisdom, experience, testing, and medical knowledge. In contrast, our lives move at a machine-gun pace, with too many things to do, too much information to contend with, and too many changes which have come too quickly. Today’s technical innovation makes yesterday’s invention obsolete. And events half way around our shrunken globe can affect us with almost the same intensity as if they happened down the block. In this context, a discipline with roots in a strong culture that spans many centuries can be a lifeline of stability, grounding, and peace.
But being old doesn’t automatically make something better in every way. With the passing of each generation, all areas of life–traditions, arts, religions, science, fashion, etc.–are automatically reevaluated in the light of the current situation and tastes. In addition, no matter how ancient, traditional wushu is a living art. Quite naturally it must continue to evolve and grow. In other words, it must be modernized or it will lose its vitality and die.
Modernization has to do with examining something, to judge what should be preserved and what discarded. It brings things up to date, improves, and renews something that was slipping away into an unintended “retirement.” At the same time, modernization can be dangerous. It can kill what it should have revitalized. We’ve seen it happen. An older neighborhood, home to hard-working lower-income families, looks tired, rundown. So it’s “redeveloped” into blocks of expensive condos for busy professionals. How do we keep from crippling or killing the very thing we are trying to preserve?
Before we examine communist China’s experiment, the so-called “modern wushu,” it’s necessary to review some background. As the 19th approached the 20th century, Western industry, commerce, science, politics, and warfare was on the rise, dominating the world and bringing about changes to other cultures. China, an old civilization which for centuries had isolated herself from outside influence, was behind the times. Therefore she suffered greatly at the hands of Western countries and entered this century a cheated, badly beaten, and demoralized nation. China’s response to this sad state of affairs was to catch up through rapid modernization. Major efforts went into learning from the West. Students were sent overseas for their education and, after their return, were given important positions in government and society. Western science, investment, technology, and the democratic political system were studied and adopted. They rushed to build railroads and freeways, and install electricity, plumbing, gas, and modern conveniences to improve their standard of living. They changed their old military style in favor of modern armaments. They instituted the Western educational system and school structure–from elementary school to Ph.D. programs.
And like many other countries, in the midst of this enormous struggle China went astray. Having lost self-respect and confidence, they began not only to enjoy but also to imitate western music, painting, theater, and other arts. Baseball, tennis, western calisthenics, and other activities replaced their own sports and recreation. They made the mistake of believing that Western culture and standards were superior to theirs. They confused modernization with Westernization.
Today Asia is on the rise. But it appears they may have forced too much development too soon. Their focus was too narrow without regard for side effects. Short-term advantage has now revealed long term liability. Among other things, China has experienced devastating acid rains, red tides, shrinking forests, pileups of garbage and toxic waste, water shortages due to contaminated ground water, and heavy air pollution. Their higher standard of living has a sobering price tag: health hazards and potential environmental disaster.
In China’s rush to modernize and compete with the West, traditional wushu, has also become a casualty. To make wushu more acceptable to Westerners and promote it in the international arena, the government created a new performance art for Western-style competition. They poured in an enormous amount of resources and effort into this program: training athletes and coaches, aggressively searching out and recruiting talented children for training, giving high status and special privileges to the athletes, popularizing it within their borders, and promoting it world-wide, with a goal of obtaining acceptance as an Olympics event. They set up a clear scoring system, standardized forms, required techniques, time limitations, and trained judges, referees, timekeepers, and scorekeepers. And though they call it “wushu”, it’s heavily mixed with Western ballet and gymnastics.
The Traditional Wushu Association has no complaint with promoting wushu through competitive sports. Nor do we disrespect the dedication of modern wushu practitioners or their abilities as athletes and performers. However, the culturally hybrid modern wushu itself is a another matter. Modernization must be accomplished without violating or altering the basic principles and philosophy which form the heart of traditional wushu. Communist modern wushu is quite a different animal from the ethnic treasure it is pretending to be. Props such as light-weight “weapons,” colorful Chinese-style costumes, and gestures borrowed from Chinese acrobatics, opera, and traditional forms give it an exotic, Asian look. However these details are superficial, the shiny surface covering an empty shell.
In fact, “modern wushu” has discarded just about every element that gives the ancient art its unique character and makes it so valuable. First of all, the very principles and training procedures involved in ballet and gymnastics are unhealthy for the body and even have the potential to trigger dangerous psychological conditions such as eating disorders. “Modern wushu” requires locked joints, over-stretched bodies, and hyperextended postures. Practitioners carry the qi high, sucking the breath into the chest area. Though the arms and legs are often moving fast and furious, the observer will notice that their torsos are relatively quiet and carried very straight, as they are in classical Western ballet, for balance. Interestingly enough, traditional Chinese Opera actors who specialized in certain female roles were required to undergo a very painful training, wearing special shoes which simulate a woman’s bound feet. The wooden apparatus, in which they stood on their toes, was several inches long at the base. It turned upwards to support the actor’s foot, ankle, and shin and it was bound on with a cloth wrapping. Children in training spent a great deal of time learning how to wear and move around in these special devices. In order to balance they had to keep their upper bodies unnaturally straight. In more recent times, this practice has been discarded by many opera stars, including Mai Lau Fong, the greatest actor specializing in these roles, because it is so damaging to a person’s health.
Like ballet and gymnastics, the performing careers of its practitioners peak and even end at a very early age. These are not activities which can be carried on by people throughout their long lives. Quite obviously, communist China’s wushu is diametrically opposite to the health-building principles and practices of traditional wushu.
The same is true in the area of self-defense. They employ single-point movements which have only one intention. For example, a punch is merely a punch. This is totally against traditional wushu’s basic philosophy that all movements must be multiple-point, with multi-purpose application. As an example, a block is executed in such a way that it is simultaneously a punch which, depending upon the opponent’s reaction, is switchable to a totally different technique in an instant, seamlessly without interruption of movement.
“Modern wushu” throws in spectacular athletic leaps and rapid-fire movements which many people may confuse with high-level wushu technique. But before athletes execute the leaps, they run to build up momentum and wave their arms for balance. In martial arts, preparatory actions and meaningless movements are inconvenient and dangerous. Traditional wushu’s high-level movements must be executed without extraneous help. The practitioner must attack or defend from exactly where he is, maintain balance without relying on the arms, and his movements must be efficient. In a real fight there’s no time to get into a convenient or comfortable position before delivering a technique.
As a result, modern wushu is useless for self-defense. It damages rather than heals the bodies of its practitioners. And because it lacks the depth and essence of the original art, how can it begin to compare as an art to enrich the spirits of performer or spectator?
Modern technology has shrunk our once vast planet. Its many cultures make up an extended community in which all nations, giant or tiny, interact and influence each other. We can communicate almost instantaneously with people around the world merely by pushing a few buttons. It is the responsibility of each country to share its finest and most unique traditions and practices with everyone else and, in turn, be open to receiving the offerings of others. China has opened her arms to Western science and technology. If she offers us modern wushu in return, then we in the West can only feel cheated. What we want and need is China’s finest: her authentic, traditional martial arts.
Westernization is not modernization. How could we modernize Chinese cuisine–another valuable cultural gift enjoyed by millions all over the world? For one thing, serve it differently. Use knives and forks, not chopsticks. But if we change the basic principles and procedures of the cooking itself, we will turn the Lion’s Head (Chinese meatball) into just another hamburger.