The Chinese word wushu means “martial arts” and is used in China to talk about all of the Chinese martial arts schools, including Taiji Quan. In this article, I would like to explain how Chinese martial arts systems work in terms of content (elements within systems) and system (the different training methods used to practise and develop the skills).
When you start in a school of wushu, you should expect to encounter all these elements:
- Wude – Ethics, Etiquette, Protocols and Morals and specific rules and regulations according to the instructor, system;
- Nei Gong – Breathing and Internal Development Skills;
- Jiben Gong – Basic footwork, hand techniques, kicking, grappling and weapons techniques;
- Taolu – Empty hand and weapons set routines of varying difficulty and complexity of technique;
- Dui Lian - Two-person practice in empty hands and weapons or a combination of both;
- Yongfa - Application;
- Sanshou - Sparring.
The order in which the content is taught will depend on the individual instructor. Maybe they will teach a form then application and then two-person sparring before moving on to the next form, or they may keep the student learning many techniques through their forms and only later explain the application in detail.
Wude – A wushu school typically would start with an introduction to the basic protocols and etiquette, morals and behaviour before, during and after training. This may take the form of a teacher refusing to teach you if they consider your behaviour inappropriate, or waiting to see what kind of person you are before deciding to teach you directly. In a modern context, a teacher may well explain what they expect of you.
One of my teachers in the Temple of the Moon Park in Beijing didn’t teach me anything at all for the first two months. I was left to follow my classmates who I received instruction from. It was only later that I understood that this had been a probationary period in which my teacher was testing my intention and commitment to learning the system.
Equally, when you walk in to a school to be registered for your wushu training, one of the first thing they ask you is your name, contact details and what you do. This is a different way of getting a general idea of what kind of person you are and your intentions of learning. The teacher will then make a decision about whether they want to teach you or not.
Nei Gong – Wushu schools differ from other disciplines in that they develop their internal energy through the stimulation of the qi (vital energy). This is necessary to achieve “gong-fu” skills and inner harmony. Nei Gong skills vary depending on the wushu school and most of them are integrated with the basic techniques or stances. In Taiji Quanthe “standing like a tree” exercise would fall into this category, holding the horse-riding stance (mabu) in Hongjia, holding Santishi in Xingyi quan (Mind and Will boxing), or “walking the circle” practise of Bagua Zhang. Schools which demand extra agility or strength may have additional “light skills” Qing-gong or “iron shirt” Yin-gong skills.
Jiben gong – These are the elementary skills which move from stances, transition stances, stepping techniques, sweeping techniques, grabbing and holding with leg, stamping, grinding, tripping and locking techniques and all the different kicking techniques. These are accompanied by hand and arm skills – punching, thrusting, cutting, grabbing, locking, slapping, pushing, pulling, parrying, blocking, intercepting etc. Some schools will also demand other basics such as break-falling (Ditanquan) and jumping (Shaolinquan).
Taolu – These are the set routines or the combinations of the basic skills and techniques. They are oriented towards helping the students remember and practise the different skills in an efficient way. This also helps to develop the intention and mind training – visualising the opponent. All of the previous exercises are not enough unless you combine them with hard forms training.
Dui Lian – Two-person exercises are part of all the wushu schools in one way or another. The dui lian of the different wushu schools should not be confused with the dui lian for competition. The aim and the focus are different, hence so is the outcome. Dui Lian may be only one or two basic exercises practised in pairs to give the student a feel for application, a solid mass to focus on and an idea of contact, distance, timing and reaction. It is really important for the students to practise their dui lian with different people. This helps them get a feel for having an opponent of different size, shape, strength and technique. Dui lian, like taolu, have varying levels and complexity through which people can progress, also like taolu, there are dui lian exercises for weapons.
Yongfa – The applications of the techniques and skills in the forms and basics. Every technique has application, regardless of how artistic or impractical it appears. If the practitioner knows the system well, they should know the application and/or its meaning (some moves may be a greeting or for the stimulation of breathing). The straight application of the movements from the forms is not necessarily the same way of applying it in a real fight. The techniques in the forms are for the development of your own skills whereas the practise of the dui lian or sanshou is for the exchange of feeling or action and reaction between you and the opponent. It was as a result of research by China’s top martial artists of the day into the applications and techniques of the different schools of wushu that the rules for sanshou competition were developed.
Sanshou – Also known as Sanda or Duida. Traditionally, this only became a part of training in wushu once the student was considered to be highly competent in the other parts of training. Unlike other systems of martial arts, a wushu student was not put in to spar as part of their basic or even intermediate training. This methodology is largely retained in true wushu schools both in and outside China today.
Sanshou is true combat, but sometimes people refer to sanshou talking about sport or competition sanshou which is controlled by rules and regulations. There are records of sparring using protective armour and modified weapons going back to the Tang dynasty (600AD) however, the modern rules of sanshou were set up by wushu masters in China about 20 years ago. This was done in an effort to provide for competition without high levels of injury while remaining true to the application of wushu techniques.
Sanshou is wushu sparring and the application in combat of the different schools of wushu. Take-down, throwing and ground-fighting techniques are from shuaijiao (Chinese wrestling), and traditional schools like Bagua zhang also include a lot these techniques as well. Movements from Changquan or Taiji Quan as well as many other wushu school techniques are also an essential part of the sanshou arsenal.
Unfortunately, many of the fighters or promoters who have moved in to sanshou are not aware of this and that’s why they describe sanshou as a combination of wrestling and kickboxing (to mention one description I have read). But, in saying that, I also understand that sometimes it is the only way for people who do not know Chinese martial arts to get a rough idea of what sanshou is.
It is only when wushu instructors look at how their styles can use the sanshou rules to fight and win that we will see more of what sanshou should be – Wushu in Action.
Summarising the analysis of wushu it is important to mention that the people in China who specialise in sanshou are also required to practice taolu albeit with less frequency. Conversely, the people who specialise in taolu train all the basics of sanshou as a part of their general knowledge. Even in contemporary wushu, the traditional systems apply.
A better way to explain this is through an example of a wushu competition in Beijing I took part in 1993 and the type of competition I will like to see more. It was run by a traditional teacher of wushu following the traditional system of competition. The competitors were required to compete in six different categories:
- Empty hands forms;
- Weapons forms;
- Display of “gong-fu” (special skill such as breaking, bending a lance with the point at your neck etc);
- Overcoming obstacle and tumbling display;
- Dui Lian;
Wushu, then has complete systems for developing different skills, no matter what the school. If you are not covering all these elements, then this will help you to establish where to look for more knowledge in order to gain a complete understanding of your school of wushu.