Changes in Wushu: The Good, The Bad and the Beautiful
There is a discussion on jiayo.com right now about the development of wushu over time. Specifically, about how the competition rules have changed wushu and that the emphasis today is different (i.e. “better”/”worse”) than it was back in the day. I thought it was something that was blog-worthy as something to write about.
The Big Picture?
Now, I’m basically a big-picture-first sort of person. I like to step back and see what the overall issue is before throwing in my two cents.
And in a situation like this I think it is important to divorce your opinion from the facts. Because it is very easy to qualify a change or a situation with a subjective interpretation, when in truth a thing isn’t necessarily “bad” or “good” on its own. it is “bad” or “good” because that is the value which we, as individuals, have placed on it.
That having been said, I think we can also look at certain aspects of competitive wushu as being beneficial or non-beneficial to the longevity and development of the sport, as well as being helpful or a detriment to the preservation of the culture and history of wushu.
It seems that often, those actions taken in order to benefit the future of a sport is widely regarded as something that is taking away from its culture or historical roots. I suppose this is the nature of the culture of change — how best to preserve the best of the old with the best of the new?
In wushu, you can look at the change in rules with both a positive and negative lens.
The Bad News
On the negative side, the requirements that have been initiated in the last 10 years or so have put a larger focus on difficulty movements (
nan du), which means a greater risk of injury, and a departure from the roots of wushu which don’t actually have those elements as a part of their history. They promote a set of different priorities for athletes which bring about a lack of focus on certain fundamental techniques and shift it towards those that will give you a better score. As a sport, the focus is on winning the event. And in order to do that you have to follow the rules and utilize them to your best advantage.
Some have said that this means that the fault for these negative things are in changing the rules; that to make the sport “good” again (subjective interpretation) you have to change the rules to emphasize the aspects that are being overlooked. That is a legitimate suggestion and obviously there should be some sort of change in the format and requirements given to athletes and coaches if you want the sport itself to change in any positive direction.
The Good News
Now, on the positive side of things, the changes in wushu have brought about a greater physical ability in many of the athletes. They are able to do movements with ease that were almost inconceivable a decade ago. The scientific training principals of what athletes do today are much more advanced than they were back in the day and they have been able to strip away a lot of what might have been “unnecessary” in training to promote those things that develop the athlete at a quicker pace than before. Younger and younger athletes are reaching a higher
physical ability quicker than in previous generations.
But of course, even though their
physical ability may have improved, it doesn’t mean their
wushu ability has. In fact, the main argument for most people is that the wushu ability for most athletes is worse than it was a generation or two back. They may be able to do more physically, but their wushu is actually worse, many say.
Again, the feeling is that, in order to compensate for this lack of focus on
“real” wushu is to change the rules to promote it in competition. To include requirements for basic stances again, or to have the fundamental techniques become compulsory in routines. A valid point, I think. If something is lacking, doesn’t it make sense to require it to be included?
From my understanding (which, keep in mind, is not necessarily accurate), the change in wushu competition requirements came about because the level of the athletes were such that judges found it very difficult to determine who’s wushu was better than who’s. The playing field had levelled out to some degree. So they initiated
nan du so that athletes would be more susceptible to deductions and it would become easier to judge the “good” athletes from the “bad” ones.
Of course, there are a couple problems with this approach.
First, when you are having a hard time accurately judging wushu athletes from one another, it isn’t the athlete’s fault. It is the fault of the system. But by initiating
nan du requirements you are essentially punishing the athletes for that system. Instead, it might have been better to realize that they needed to increase the awareness and understanding of judges to be able to look for those aspects of wushu which separates those with true
gong fu from those without it. I always think that education is the key, not changing the rules around. When everyone knows what to look for, then you don’t need to change the rules to make it harder on the athletes. And then athletes will focus on those things that promote good
gong fu and not those which promote knee surgery and bad technique.
The second issue with the rule-changing approach is that, in the long run, you aren’t making it any easier on judges than you were before. Eventually the athletes will be able to do the
nan du that they once couldn’t with ease (which is turning out to be the case these days) and now they are right back where they started from: athletes with very similar skill sets and abilities that can all do the same difficulty requirements. Are they going to change the rules again to circumvent their increasing inability to judge good wushu? The more they change it, the harder it will be for them to recognize what wushu is, and with each generation of judges and rules you get farther and farther away from the core fundamentals of the sport.
And third, when you add something new to the game, you inevitably have to take something old out. They ended up taking out a lot of the requirements for athletes in their forms. Back in the day you had to include EVERY technique in a form. Back sweep. Front sweep. Side kick. Horse-bow transition. All the stances. You name it. It was all part of everyone’s routines, which meant that everyone had to be really good at all aspects of wushu. But in taking a lot of those out, you also took out the need for people to be good at all aspects of wushu. There are whole swaths of techniques that have been erased from most school’s training format because no one does them anymore. Every once in a while some old-school person will throw those techniques in a class and everyone flips out because they have no idea what is going on. (
xin bu anyone?)
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if wushu had gone in the other direction. If, instead of changing the rules and adding
nan du they had actually increased the types of wushu or the level of
gong fu you had to display to get a good score. Instead of requiring a 720 XFJ ma-bu, they made athletes perform a sequence of traditional cha-quan in their form. Or instead of shortening or eliminating the sections, they actually increased it so that everyone had to do 6 sections in 2 minutes, requiring greater stamina and endurance instead of faster runs and higher jumps.
Obviously there would be all sorts of other problems that are associated with that as well, but it is fun to imagine how things might have gone. Probably one of the reasons I’m such a fan of alternative reality science fiction …
Anyway, back to the issue at hand. What to do about modern wushu?
Well, I think for each of us the answer is relatively easy. We each do not mingle in the world of those who make the decisions on these sorts of things, and until those in power actually ask us for our opinion and take stock of the situation, we are stuck making the best of whatever situation we are handed.
If you are an athlete who is training for international competition, then you have to play by the rules you are given. But to me that doesn’t mean you have to short-change your wushu. Just because the rules state you don’t need to do a perfect bow-stance LLJ with spear, doens’t mean you don’t have to have it in your form. The forms I personally find the most appealling are those that are able to cope with the new rules, but still maintain the flavor and technique of more “traditional” wushu forms, or even the forms from the early 90’s or 80’s.
I think it is up to the athletes to take the best of the old and combine it with the best of the new. And we’re seeing it to some degree in competitions where those with choregraphy that harkens back to a by-gone wushu era are getting some good appeal from both spectators and even judges. It is one of the things I like about Justin Ho’s choreography. He throws some nice old-school stuff in there. And I think it shows that he has a level of skill that is a bit deeper than a lot of the kids whirling around in 720’s with their horrendously bent-legs and open finger palms.
The Answer For Me
And if you are someone like me who just does wushu for the fun of it and not so much with an eye for competition, you have to recognize that, if you aren’t required to do it, then you are doing it for your own benefit. If you enjoy doing
nan du, then that is fine. But if not, that is fine too.
I can’t do any due to my knees and physical condition, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy wushu. Because for me, the breadth and scope of wushu is far beyond the breadth and scope of
nan du. In fact,
nan du for me is just some sprinkles on the cup cake, and wushu is all about the meat of the meal. When you are training for longevity and enjoyment, you recognize that wushu is actually not so much about competition, and it is much more about fulfillment.
Wushu becomes less about the competition, and more about the practice; less about the destination and more about the journey; less about the impressive moves, and much more about being moved by really good wushu technique.
Because when you get up around my age, you don’t care about all that other stuff anymore. Sure, I used to dream of the day I’d get those crazy jumps and aerial techniques. But I stopped caring about those a long time ago.
I started realizing that, at least for me and my own subjective reality (which undoubtedly bears no resemblance to yours), what matters most to me in wushu isn’t what it can do for me or what I can get out of it.
What matters most to me in wushu is that it is a reflection of my own condition. A creative expression of my inner state of being. And at the highest level, wushu becomes not a sport, but an art form through which I can bring myself closer to that which is common to all of us as people.
It is a way to connect with the human condition. It is a way to connect with my inner spiritual essence. And it is a way to connect with that which created us all.
So, yeah. I kinda got spiritual on your ass there. But if you want to know what I think about wushu, then that is where it ends up going.
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