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Mark Moran
Dubbing Artist , Photographer , Web / Multimedia Designer
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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?

The History

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?

The Answer?

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.

about 11 years ago 0 likes  14 comments  0 shares
Photo 47367
Tennis has competitions where one has to excel on different types of courts. The same can be done with wushu where certain techniques are emphasized at one competition while other techniques are emphasized at another. Hopefully everything will be covered by doing these competitions.
about 11 years ago
Me 6
I like what you saying. I think Wushu is not so much about Wushu anymore, but Nandu yes the athletes might be able to jump and spin twist etc ,but not enough focus on Wushu, the 80s and 90s were the golden age of wushu for me.
about 11 years ago
Photo 28042
My ignorance could fill volumes but reading this made me think of two things. I don`t know if they do this anymore but I had a friend who participated in competitive figure skating. They used to have a compulsory round where they had to do all the old school stuff - tracing figure 8s for example - which graded the technique and precision. Then they competed in the freestyle round which is all the sexy stuff and tricks you see on TV. It was equally graded and as important. That unfortunately doesn`t eliminate the need for judges capable of grading the compulsories which seems like the original problem you mentioned Wushu confronted. The other thing I thought was how much Wushu emulates gymnastics and how that comparison may be sexy and stimulate interest but it just feels.....I don`t know....fraudulent. They used to say the best athletes stayed in figure skating and the lesser ones went to ice dancing (both in the Olympics so I`m not trying to diminish one sport from in the face of the other which is more art). But these Wushu athletes are amazing athletes. Is traditional Wushu something which cannot be `sold`? Could people like me...completely unschooled....watch a traditional competition and be able to discern the best practitioner? Ya gotta get the butts in the seats if it is going to become universal. I wonder how that`s working out?
about 11 years ago
Mark moran in spokane 920x920
@Flagday: They tried compulsories for many years, and they still use them for certain competitions (youth worlds, for example) but you are right, it still doesn't address the original problem, which is the lack of education in discerning good gong fu from bad gong fu (using "gong fu" in terms of a high level skill, not "kung fu" martial arts). And yes, I think part of the reason they changed the rules is to make it more accessible and exciting to the public, especially while working on making it appealing for the Olympics bid back a few years ago. But I think that if you stay pure to the sport you will be able to get people excited about wushu, regardless of whether or not crazy jumps are required. When something is a high level art form it can move people emotionally and spiritually, regardless of whether or not they might understand the subtle nuances of it. Like music, for example. We can be moved by a Liszt Concerto, even if we don't know how to play or write one ourselves. Thanks!
about 11 years ago
Photo 105033
Superb! I can't agree with you more....and in the same breath feel the conflict of what you've experienced. I personally do prefer the traditional wushu - purely for its longevity and usefulness in all walks of life. Modern wushu has become very competitive and athletic - (surely this body will not be able to do those arial routines either.) But boy is it beautiful to behold! On the other hand I've seen how people just practice one routine for 2 years - that's all they do - and then win medals for it! If you ask them to do the basics...uhm - it looks awful. There is method in the old traditional way of teaching.....let it never die!
about 11 years ago
Photo 41949
great. really enjoyed reading it.
about 11 years ago
Rottendoubt a4 patrick
for a "judged" sport like wushu, gymnastics and figure skating are the most obvious sports to model yourself after. for both of those, as far as i understand, athletes can choose what moves to put in, with higher difficulty moves worth more points. so they can either play it safe and have a lower maximum score (but not mess up), or try for the higher score with some tough moves but potentially may mess up and get deductions. from what i've seen in figure skating and gymnastics, the top difficulty moves are tough enough that a very high percentage of the athletes mess up. i suppose with wushu they can create higher and higher difficulty nandu that achieves the same effect. one other "balancer" that figure skating has (i don't remember if gymnastics has it) is that they have a separate score for the artistry (don't remember if this is the right term). wushu could do something similar where there is a score given based on the quality of the wushu technique and overall "flow" of the set. where, for instance, a set that just puts in high difficulty nandu moves over and over with little else might get a low "artistry" score.
about 11 years ago
Mark moran in spokane 920x920
@rottendoubt: yeah, good points. Unfortunately now-a-days, all the athletes in China can nail all the nandu 99% of the time, so it mitigates the whole reason for having them. Originally, 5-10 years ago, it wasn't the case, but now even kids can do 720 inside horses, because that is pretty much all they train for. They do have a score for both technique and artistic interpretation. It is part of the judging criteria. There are 10 judges, each responsible for judging various aspects of the form. Some judges are responsible for judging artistry and technique. Again, the issue is that they are not able to discern the difference very well, because the only people who can really tell which of the practically perfect techniques are better are the people who can do those techniques (i.e., not judges). Also, the amount of points given for technique are almost always the full amount. I guess my feeling is that If there is more focus on education of the judges to allow them to understand the difference between good and bad wushu, I think that the overall scores will be a better reflection of the athlete's abilities, rather than just whether or not they can do nandu, or for some other non-wushu-related reason. But again, it isn't really something that you or I have control over. It is too bad that athletes aren't able to be represented in the process by which these decisions are made. Nandu is sure impressive to watch though. But I'm kinda glad I don't practice that stuff myself ...
about 11 years ago
Mark moran in spokane 920x920
The other thing I was thinking of was the difference in how athletes train between now and before. Back when we were doing wushu in the 90's, even if you went to visit the professionals in China and participate in their class, I would say that 50% of their class was basics and 50% forms (on average). And from that, probably just 20% of less of the basics were focused on jumps and much more on wushu fundamental techniques. Now-a-days, you can have a whole class that is 70% jumping/nandu training. Or you can have a class that doesn't do any stance-work at all. It's just a result of the importance nandu plays in competition these days, so its sort of a natural evoultion, but its really so different than it used to be. I kinda miss the old days of more basics-focused training, but I suppose there are cycles, and hopefully it will come around again in the future.
about 11 years ago
Photo 28042
I guess there is hope Mark My figure skating friend? She judges now. Hopefuly former athletes will become judges and the rules committee members down the road. So maybe ultimately people like Bryant and philosophically-related folks will exercise more control.
about 11 years ago
Rottendoubt a4 patrick
ya, my point was ... if 99% of the athletes can do the top difficulty moves, then they aren't difficult enough. look at gymnastics (floor routine) or figure skating. people are falling ALL THE TIME! so, one solution is to keep upping the difficulty to the point where the top difficulty moves are hard enough that maybe only 30% of the people can pull them off regularly. then the other 70% of the people can choose to try to put them in or opt for lower-score-but-safer moves. also, i think it might not hurt to pull the artistry score out and keep it as a separate score altogether. in that case, if everyone keeps getting 10/10 for that score, they will need to come up with more regulations/deductions to give more variance in that score.
about 11 years ago
Mark moran in spokane 920x920
yeah .. good point. I remember them changing out the nandu every year before but now that i think about it, they have been pretty much the same movements for the past several years. might be time to try something else instead of the same old 720's. After all, a lot of athletes can do 900's now ... it's like the quadruple lux of wushu. hehehe. i guess i just miss the old school stuff. but maybe thats just because i'm old. lol.
about 11 years ago
Rottendoubt a4 patrick
well, i think a separate artistry score can help with that too. for that score, they can emphasize good wushu technique and flow (ie. old school stuff). so the highest score stuff would need to flow well, have good technique, and top difficulty nandu. best of all worlds.
about 11 years ago
Mark moran in spokane 920x920
about 11 years ago


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Languages Spoken
english, cantonese, mandarin, japanese
Location (City, Country)
Xian, China
Member Since
September 1, 2005