The World Wushu Championships. How exciting, and yet scary at the same time. I had been chosen as one of the athletes to represent New Zealand at this event in November of 1999. Finally, I would have the opportunity to put all the training and effort to the test.
We arrived in Hong Kong, tired after the 10 hour flight, to be greeted with wide smiles from members of the Hong Kong Wushu Union, (the organisation running the event). Not a lot feels better than arriving in a new and strange country, than being greeted by friendly people who are there to help you and take care of you. These same people proved to be invaluable in lending assistance to the team the whole time we were in their country.
We arrived in Hong Kong two days prior to the competition start but our coach, Mr Orlando Garcia, made sure we spent that time productively, by ensuring we did our training. Each morning at around 6 a.m., the team met in the foyer of the hotel, walked to Kowloon Park, (around two mins away), and spent about 1.5 hours training. As a beginner at Taiji, it provided me with the opportunity to witness the large numbers of Hong Kong residents who practise Taiji and Qi Gong in the mornings.
On the evening of the second day, there was a welcoming dinner for all the teams who had arrived. This was great, as the Hong Kong Wushu Union also provided us with some entertainment. This included a traditional Irish dancing demonstration by one of our team members, and the male members of the New Zealand team, doing a Haka. What an awesome sight! They topped off the evening.
The third day in Hong Kong, we were able to actually go to the competition venue (Hong Kong Colosseum), to train. Walking into the stadium was incredible. The seating just seemed to go higher and higher and made the place feels incredibly large. That was the first psychological hurdle to get over. The second, was when you saw the other teams training. All of a sudden all that training you did, didn’t quite feel enough. After getting over that initial shock, focus was on what we were there to do. Try out the mats, and get the feel of what it would be like to perform on them. The afternoon was spent back at the Colosseum, watching the other teams training. Watching the China team was absolutely incredible. It is great to watch those whose National sport it is, do it with such ease. It also shows that time spent training and practicing, and the psychological attention that these athletes give to their sports, really does make a huge difference. They provided me with the incentive and motivation to push myself further, and to really strive to achieve something near what they have.
The evening of the third day was the official opening ceremony. It started with all the teams marching in, the official speeches, and the raising of the flags. Then came the amazing part – a display by the Shanghai Wushu Team and Tao Monks from Mount Wu Dang. If ever there was something to dream about achieving, what we saw here, was it! The skills these people showed us left me for one, dumbstruck! Then Andy Lau, (famous Hong Kong film star), sang a song, while the Hong Kong Youth Wushu team, did a display. Again, an inspiration. The time that these children must have put into their training could teach us all a few things.
All days of the competition were spent at the Colosseum, supporting and cheering on our fellow team mates. When we didn’t have any members competing, most of us went to watch the other events and the other teams. You need to watch them, to get a feeling of what really is entailed in this sport, and what it means to the people who are involved in it.
There were several things that I gained from going to these championships. One of these was the realisation that no matter what country you come from, or what languages you speak, we all have the common language that is Wushu. That is how many of us communicated with each other. Other things that I gained included the reinforcement of the importance of both physical and mental training. These go hand in hand, especially when competing at an International level. But if nothing else, the competition left me with an appreciation of just what the human body can achieve.
As a final note, I would like to express my gratitude to our coach, Mr Orlando Garcia. Without his skills, or his time and effort, and the considerable patience that he has with his athletes, I would never have got to go to Hong Kong, to compete in these Championships.
Let’s start from the beginning:
The character Wu pronounced Bu in Japanese or Moo in Korean which we now translate as “martial” actually breaks down to two radicals meaning “don’t use the weapon” or “no violence”. This character is made up of two radicals. The character zhi which means “prohibited” or “not to” and the character ge a weapon for chariot fighting dating back over 3,000 years.
The character gong as in gongfu (also known as kung for kung-fu) is translated as “effort” or “special skill”. It breaks down into the two radicals of gong – work and li – strength. The character fu (the second part of gongfu) indicates a man, but the philosophical explanation shows a person of higher learning or one who transcends the heaven – they have learned to dominate the three levels of Earth, nature and heaven.
It breaks down into da – litirally translated as “big” – the king of nature is a person, tian – “heaven” and the person who transcends heaven is the fu. (This fu is used in the word for priest in Chinese but different from the fu in Shifu or sifu – a Chinese term for teachers.)
These words are related to the origin of martial arts according to the Chinese and the history and development of Chinese martial arts.
These concepts of no violence and effort developed alongside the ethics and morals of the people involved in self-cultivation – what martial arts is about to me.
Take the Samurais, Japanese warriors, the Warang dos, Korean warriors or the Shaolin Monks of China. All of them with something in common beyond high levels of martial arts skills. All of them had a profound code of ethics, morals and conduct – The Martial Virtues (Wude).
Wushu follows these ethics and morals in the same way that Japanese, Korean and other martial arts systems follow theirs. To take a page from a book written by Wu Bin:
Chinese wushu embodies a profound philosophy and a sense of human life and values. (Some people therefore call it philosophic boxing). It emphasises traditions, experience, rational knowledge and wisdom. All of which are clearly reflected in the martial ethics of wushu. That’s why it can display the oriental civilisation via combat skills and become an inexhaustable treasure of the human body culture.
As a form of social ideology, morality differs in different historical periods. It is the summation of the code of conduct of a given society for the adjustment of the relationships between man and man; and between man and the society.
Generally speaking, it evaluates man’s behavior and adjusts each other’s relations with such concepts as good and evil, justice and injustice, fairness and partiality, and honesty and dishonesty.
Wushu for instance is a system of skills and theories the Chinese people have developed through their struggle with nature and in the course of their social life, for combat (protection) and to promote health and improve one’s temperament.
Combat in the usual sense means violence, bloodshed and death. For this very reason, few of the various combative techniques and skills in the world are combined with morals.
On the contrary, Wushu has been influenced ever since its birth by moral principles and has developed a complete code of moral behavior.
Martial ethics WU DE, formed in such a Chinese cultural enviroment, has become a distinct feature of Wushu and is an essential part of the study and understanding of Chinese martial arts.
The main points of Martial Ethics in Wushu are:
- Respect for Human Life;
- Emphasis on Moral Principles;
- Emphasis on Moral Conduct and Manners;
- Respect for the Teacher and Care for Each Other;
- Modesty and Eagerness;
- Freedom form Personal Grudges;
- Persistance and Perseverance.
Chinese Wushu masters insist that a student should learn to know the etiquette before learning martial arts. There are various rules for manners and behaviors before or after the skills. They embody the modesty and manners of the performers, mark a good start of a practice routine to be executed, demostrate the aims of the different schools of boxing, and give an outline of its soul and spirit.
(China Wushu Series – Essentials of Chinese Wushu)
Control and Energy
One of the main ideas which runs through these ethics is control. Freedom from domination by emotion. A martial artist may train in techniques, but the founding principle is that they must be able to dominate their emotions or reactions when choosing how or when to use those techniques.
In addition, wushu is not only ethics and martial skills. It is also about the stimulation and cultivation of internal energy. It is about putting your body, mind and spirit in harmony with Heaven and Earth. For that reason, wushu movements cannot be only fighting techniques. They must also be energetically balanced to get the level of skill we have heard about in stories of past masters, a level that only very few people achieve.
To answer the question …
In the modern world, martial arts is often mis-identified as something solely for self-defence or fighting, and many people started it for that. But after years of practise, those same people will say that they do not continue it for that reason, but rather because of the way of life it shows. So, are all fighting systems martial arts? I think not.
Over the last 15 years there have been many things I have heard about Taiji Quan. They always remind me of the first information I had – it was that Taiji Quan was a kind of meditation in motion and a series of skills to improve internal/external co-ordination for any other Wugong (Wushu/Kung-fu) system.
Broad experience in this area has given me an understanding of concepts about contemporary and traditional Taiji Quan. I still feel like a beginner but with this article I would like to share my views and experience of Taiji Quan as the most incredible base and complement for any other style of martial art, and beyond that, as a way of life.
After learning the 24 movement Beijing form, I found myself impressed enough by this “meditation in motion” to begin ongoing research and practise of different schools of Taiji Quan. From the 24 movement, I went into Chen style which became and remains my specialty, then Yang style, Sun style, Wu style, Woo style and in the past few years I have also collected information on Zhaobao Taiji Quan. I have been fortunate to be part of lectures, workshops and personal visits with some of the greatest masters in all of these systems, some of whom have now passed away. Professor Meng Huifeng and Professor Kan Guixiang, well-known as two of the team which set up the 42 movement competition routine as well as the competition routines for the five main styles of Taiji Quan; Huang Kanghui (my teacher and student of Master Hong Junsheng) and Feng Zhiqiang (Chen style); Yang Zhenduo and Fu Zhongwen (Yang Style); Wu Yinhua and Ma Yueliang (Wu style); Sun Jianyun (Sun style); Xue Naiyin (Woo style); and Wang Haichuan (Zhaobao style).
Through the practise of these different styles, I have experienced different feelings, a great variety of applications, specific and particular health benefits and most importantly for me, an improvement in my understanding of Chen style. Regardless of style, they all share the same basic principles.
- Concepts of stability, balance, roundness, continuity, calmness, awareness, inner peace, focus, intention, concentration – the internal and external aspects;
- The 13 Postures;
- 5 directions – jin (advance) , tui (retreat), gu (left), pan (right) and ding (central equilibrium);
- 8 methods – peng (ward off), lu (roll back), ji (press), an (push), cai (pull down), lie (split), kao (leaning), zhou (elbow).
The result of my exploration and practise of the different interpretations of these principles is a great respect and admiration for all the styles of Taiji Quan.
Teaching Taiji Quan
There have been many reasons why people have wanted to join my Taiji Quan classes:
- To improve health and relaxation;
- To interpret the theoretical concepts of Taiji as a philosophy of life;
- To help their concept of performing arts;
- For competition;
- To do a martial arts system.
All this goes to show that the scope for Taiji Quan is immense. Anyone can receive benefits from it, but more benefits can be received if the student learns about all aspects of it.
Taiji Quan to improve health and for relaxation
Some teachers fulfil student expectations of Taiji Quan solely as a health exercise by only teaching movements and avoiding discussion of the martial aspect.
Other teachers may modify routines or dispense with movements to make it more accessible to the elderly or less mobile people. Also, Taiji Quan teachers do not require their students to practise a certain movement 100 times each class, an activity few people would find relaxing.
Although these actions are controversial, it must be said that as people begin to get more into their Taiji Quan, they often start to ask about some of the other aspects of the system. Equally, changing movements to suit people’s skills and limitations has been going on since martial arts began. This is fine as long as the principles are adhered to. The system of learning, be it repetition of movements 100 times, or not, has always depended on who’s learning and why they are doing it. You can be sure that Taiji Quan masters did not make their students of the Imperial Court train in the same way as their disciples in the village.
Taiji Quan as a philosophy of life
Many people are attracted to the idea of the taiji as a way of life – where everything is made up of two opposites that are mutually complementary. For this reason they seek Taiji Quan as a physical activity which embodies this ideal of elements existing together in harmony. Many teachers will explain how the theory of taiji is manifested in the Taiji Quan forms without the students even understanding that they are having the theory of taiji explained to them. In Taiji Quan a forward movement is complemented by a backward movement, where one leg is described as full, the other is empty, an opening movement is followed by a closing movement and so on. Understand the idea of opposites flowing from one to the other in constant shift and harmony and you understand the basic idea of the taiji. Through the practise of Taiji Quan, the application of the concepts into daily life becomes more obvious.
Whether the teacher explains the philosophy overtly or just teaches the forms, explaining the movements without explaining the ideas behind them, sooner or later a persistent and attentive student will begin to absorb the idea of the taiji into areas outside their training.
Taiji Quan to help performance
The concepts of movement and balance of the body in Taiji Quan have been ideas that always attract dancers (“dance” as an original expression of spirit, mind and body in harmony) and performers who are looking to improve their skills. These students will fit into most “health” Taiji Quan classes and understand the movements primarily by the external expression.
In my experience, these same students will begin to understand the internal aspect of Taiji Quan as they spend longer learning.
Taiji Quan for competition
Taiji Quan is definitely not a discipline that could be judged completely on external actions as it is something that you do by yourself and in which you have your own feeling. Teaching of Taiji Quan for competition will demand you kick higher, creep down lower and show more low level control than you ever will in a “health” class. Also, like competition in any sport, training is intense. This is because Taiji Quan is judged on aspects that an experienced eye can see:
- Quality of movement (the external technical requirements);
- Power and Harmony (including breathing and pace);
- Taiji Quan style content (individual style of expressing Taiji Quan);
- Spirit (including deduction for nervousness and lack of concentration).
Although the focus is mainly external, the internal qualities of concentration, focus on accurate movement and minute detail are all aspects of a successful Taiji Quan exponent, be they competing, practising for health or learning the full martial system. Finally, in Taiji Quan competition, one of the greatest ironies is that you learn to compete against yourself and not to worry about the judging result. These demands of competition take you back to the original requisites of good Taiji Quan practise and complement rather than deviate from these principles. Competition has the added benefit of providing a forum in which a variety of people can come together in a friendly environment to share experiences of their common activity.
Taiji Quan as a martial art
This includes the qigong (breathing exercises), routines, push hands (set-sparring and free-sparring), applications and Taiji Quan Sanshou (Taiji Quan combat).
There are so many aspects to Taiji Quan and different teachers teach in different orders or at different stages. Some ask students to wait years to learn a given aspect, others introduce the basics of different elements from early on. It is important that the teacher can explain any one of these elements and share them with the student. Although different teachers teach at different rates, it would be unwise for a teacher to teach Taiji Quan Sanshou early on, before the student has come to grips with even the basic principles of Taiji Quan. Apart from that, the traditional system, is usually taught in the order listed so as to allow students to grasp and practise the principles and give the student a higher chance of enjoyment, understanding and success in Taiji Quan.
So is any one better than the other?
We agree that there are many motivations for learning Taiji Quan. After years of experience, I do not believe it matters for which of these reasons people begin or continue. If a person is taught according to the principles of Taiji Quan, they gain from the practise. With all that Taiji Quan is – a lifetime of learning, teaching according to the principles of Taiji Quan and fulfilling the needs of the students should be the goal. After all, ultimately what we are looking for is individual cultivation and Taiji Quan is a path, not a destination.