Martial arts instructor explains what makes Wushu a unique sport
By Keith Dinh
Xuanzi Zhuanti 720 (旋子转体七百二十), better known as the 720-degree-rotation Butterfly-twist, is a high level difficulty jump-kick of the martial art sport Wushu (武術). This acrobatic move is used in contemporary floor routines of Wushu and is part of the point-scoring difficulty movements that are considered of professional level. The difficulty movements, or “nandu” (难度), are similar to those of gymnastic movements and ice-skating corkscrews, axels and quads. These nandu highlight the agility of Wushu athletes and show what Wushu has evolved into today, with its gymnastic-like routines merged with traditional martial arts.
Wushu. You’d probably not know it by name, but if you’ve ever watched a Kung Fu movie or Chinese drama, you probably have an idea of what it is. Originating in China’s Shaolin Temple Monastery, Wushu is a martial art that dates back to the 17th century B.C. Nowadays, with the warring era past, China has started to modernize Wushu to preserve the culture. Wushu is seen all over the world, being taught in local academies or schools. Especially in the Bay Area, we see many Wushu and Kung Fu schools that teach this modernized art and its ancient disciplines and morals.
Martial Arts Instructor Sifu Terry Motoko Pan is an expert in Wushu, having practiced it for a little over a decade. A “Sifu” (師傅) in Wushu is a master of the art who can teach and take in disciples (life-long dedicated students). Traditionally, a sifu in China is like a father to the students that dedicate themselves to the art. Sifu Pan shared what she believes makes Wushu such a unique sport and martial art and explained all of the the sport’s health benefits, the culture it carries and why it is a sport worth looking into and practicing. She described her experiences in Wushu as “very uplifting and more changing.”
Sifu Pan explained a little bit of what you would typically see with today’s Wushu: “The sports aspect is much more focused upon, and so you’ll see people doing a lot of high acrobatic moves that probably would not be used in a wartime situation. I don’t think people would actually see those Chinese dramas. That’s a bit taken out of context a little bit, but it still looks really cool,” she said.
“I suppose Wushu is a way of life because what it teaches is the fact that you become one with your body, and you know it better than what you knew before. So your movements, your breathing, how you do something all encompasses in one person, one being, and how they show it,” Sifu Pan said.
Being seen as a way of life to many, there are also many health benefits that come with the sport (if practiced correctly). These benefits include better flexibility, balance, strength, speed, power and accuracy on the physical side, but also perseverance, self-control, confidence, humility and responsibility on the mental side.
“People think that Wushu is a sport; they just think that it’s good exercise, and it is, but the thing is that more than just exercise, it teaches you your body. It teaches you how to move, what your body does, the mechanics of it, how to take care of it … it teaches you to be careful and be aware of how you move and how others around you move as well … I feel that a lot of times, people when they first start, they don’t actually think or acknowledge that part of it because they think that it’s just a sport, but when you really internalize it, then you’re aware of different things,” Sifu Pan said.
Students of a Wushu school in China practice their horse-stance (馬步; mǎ bù), a basic foundation of the sport and almost all other martial arts. SOURCE: Flickr
As the sport is progressing in publicity through time, Sifu Pan believes that the sport is still able to make much more progress in this area. Wushu has been in many films that we see nowadays and has almost made it as an Olympic sport in the past.
Sifu Pan explained why she thinks Wushu is not an Olympic sport and how it is progressing in publicity: “For one thing, it’s not part of the Olympics. Why? Because China would mop the floor with everybody! Publicity wise, I think it is at least known because of films like ‘Kung Fu Panda.’ For example now, for Wushu, I feel like it could be a little more out there, but then again, it could be very difficult to, because a lot of times, it’s not as well-known or at least publicized like Taekwondo, for example, which is in the Olympics,” Sifu Pan said.
According to Sifu Pan, Wushu has potential to become an Olympic sport, but, “The only thing, as I said before, is that if they did add it as an Olympic sport, China would win, hands down, because that’s where all the top athletes are. So I’ve seen some great athletes from over there come here, and there is really no comparison.”
China has trained all of their top Wushu athletes from ages as young as 2 to 3, shaping their bodies to best fit to the sport so that all of the provinces can pit against each other in their Wushu portion of the All China Games. The sport demands high jumps and acrobatic movements in floor routines nowadays, quite similar to gymnastic routines, with moves such as aerials, butterfly-twists, aerial twists, flips, gainers and more. With so many advantages, China is the country that is most likely to win, hands down, if Wushu were added into the Olympic Games.
“So the example is that for some of the schools, let’s say in other nations, they’ll teach a lot of the right-side jump-kicks dominantly, but then you go to China, and they’re completely ambidextrous. They can use either side, no problem, and then it becomes more of a test of skill,” Sifu Pan said.
Wushu is, over all, something that someone can practice to live a better life. You can gain better awareness of your body, mind and spirit. Though the chance is that Chinese athletes would dominate this sport if it were in the Olympic Games, it is still a sport worthwhile to practice.
In Wushu, “They actually teach you how to do it differently so you won’t be exhausted as much, and, also, you will actually know how your body is, and if you know that there is something wrong, you can catch it early enough to be able to treat it right away, and that way, you won’t actually suffer any grievous injuries, especially like say, for example, soccer – you do a kick, you miss, and you wind up on the ground or hit somebody. Well, that’s not being aware of who you are or anyone else around you,” Sifu Pan said.
Besides health being such a big part that sets Wushu aside from other martial arts, it has its similarities and differences from other martial arts. Sifu Pan said, “The things is that a lot of the basic movements are the same. So let’s say you do a block, it protects yourself. Those are practically integrated into every single martial arts because it’s self-defense.”
A junior Wushu team poses after a performance with their weapons, showcasing their flexibility and pride. SOURCE: Flickr
Other than the similarities of basic movements, there are many weapons in the martial world. Wushu has an entire branch of weapons and styles of its own, ranging from the spear (Qiang 槍), to staff (Gun 棍), to straightsword (Jian 劍) or the broadsword (Dao 刀). Alongside the weapons, there are multiple different styles that set Wushu as a unique sport which allows practitioners to adapt to almost any environment if fluent and knowledgeable in the art.
“Now, the thing is, weapons and your different styles, those are actually a little bit different. Because you think about Karate versus Chinese Kung Fu – it’s a little bit different. Karate is a bit stiffer, but by no means is it less effective. But then Chinese Wushu is actually a bit more flexible in terms of there are these things you can do,” Sifu Pan said.
Sifu Pan explained how Wushu allows flexibility, not only of the body, but of the mind and styles as well. In a fight, there will be certain moves a martial artist uses, and, “If something happens and this move doesn’t work, then they can switch right away, so they can switch modes, and you can easily defend yourself using another different variety and throw off your opponent. So in terms of Wushu, they actually use their whole body as a protection mechanism and a defensive mechanism and also for attack. So I feel like in that regard, that’s one of the things that offsets Wushu from other mainstream styles.”
With so much health and uniqueness to the sport, there is one of thing that Sifu Pan said makes this sport stand out: “Any age can practice. I’ve seen people as old as 60 doing it, and they’re doing full jump kicks, splits, so I feel that almost any age can really do it, from young to old. But as you get older, I feel that body-wise, you have to make sure that you still maintain your health, and you’re making sure that you’re still able to do what you really want to do. There are high jump kicks, or splits, etc,” she said.
Wushu, a sport full of rich history of China, is slowly making its way in publicity and into the daily lives of other people. Though not known by its name, it is recognized all over the world by people who love the Chinese dramas and Kung Fu movies. With people such as Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen and Jet Li starring in so many of these films, and the help of martial coaches such as Sifu Terry Motoko Pan, Wushu is becoming more famous and widely known to the rest of the world. Wushu is more than just a martial art; it’s also a way of improving health and a way of life.