• Jason Tsang

The difference between traditional Chinese martial art and Wushu


Years ago, if you were into martial arts, you'd be watching VHS video tapes of famous films and various material on the known martial arts styles. The internet has definitely made the word a smaller place. There is now a lot more material out there and we've learned of styles we've never heard of before. At the same time, China hosts many martial arts competitions. These are colourful and dazzling to watch. This is Wushu, China's modern martial arts movement. So what is what? There are two camps out there, those who are with traditional Chinese martial arts and those who like wushu. There are a lot of arguments out there, often very extreme and rarely is there a sensible perspective. So in this article, I'd like to clarify where things sit.


Traditional Chinese martial arts is as it says on the tin. The art that has been passed down for generations, either as a style in it's own or developed from other styles. We often see the style that we practice as something special and some might say that theirs is unique for whatever reasons. Others will say that theirs has been around for generations. In reality traditions and lineages might have been around for generations. However, martial arts change with the times, with techniques which fulfil a certain need. So what is the norm in the time of Confucius might not be practical now. What people now see is one on one combat. However, the formation fighting in armies is less common. This is actually making a comeback, with Chinese historical reenactment communities. Shaolin kung fu has changed over the centuries. And finally, Taiji which in its popular form, developed from Chen style to Yang, Wu and Sun etc.


Wushu was a movement that was promoted by the Chinese government back in 1949. The motive was to standardise the practice of Chinese martial arts. Like dialects of the Chinese language, martial arts was just as varied. So what does Wushu mean? The word wushu comprises of two characters Wu + Shu ("Wu" 武 = martial, "Shu" 術 = art). There are two branches in wushu, taolu, forms (套路) and sanda, also known as Chinese kickboxing (散打)


Wushu forms were created for athletic and aesthetic appeal, with less emphasis on combat. Various styles were standardised, from Shaolin based styles, Taiji, Bagua, Xingyi and Nanquan (Southern fist). There were also elements from gymnastics, such as arching backs, acrobatic jumps and landings. None of this were characteristics of traditional martial arts and some moves are considered to be unsafe in the eyes of practitioners of traditional styles. Furthermore, the use of whippy swords and sabres actually come from wushu. The aim was for dramatic effects. Whilst wushu was developed from traditional martial arts, wushu is promoted as a sport and demonstration art.


A lot of people misunderstand what wushu means and it aims to do. Wushu is simply a modern interpretation of Chinese martial arts. Whilst wushu is backed by the Chinese government, there are still plenty of people who practice traditional Chinese martial arts and the two are complementary, if one was to be honest. We can call it a new root and martial arts should evolve. There are many things that traditional arts do well and we should keep these traditions alive. But there wushu practitioners have worked hard to gain the fitness and skill they possess. Looking at taiji taolu forms, yes there are many things that are not part of traditional taiji, but there are many skills that are very interesting and entertaining to watch. I can't say I agree with everything about wushu, but there is much I do appreciate. A lot of Chinese actors like Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Vincent Zhao, Wu Jing and Max Zhang actually have a background in wushu. Whether or not they can fight, I don't know, but life is not just about fighting.


These days the word wushu can be applied to any misunderstood Chinese martial art. Just because one doesn't understand an art, we shouldn't call it wushu to belittle what some people do. The word wushu means martial art, so that makes it an umbrella term for all martial arts. That also includes traditional Chinese martial art styles. Some people call wushu, "modern wushu", which I think is a more appropriate term.


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