Friday, 22 February 2013 06:58


Usually when we talk about traditional wushu’s relevance to modern times, we concentrate on the question “how can it help us to improve ourselves and our society?” Of course, those of us who love the art easily have a lot to say about that. All we have to do is examine our own experiences. Though details vary from person to person, basically our stories would hit on the same points: It’s a great exercise for health and fitness. It builds strength of character and promotes inner growth. It challenges us to awaken and develop those parts of ourselves in which creative abilities and expanded thought exist. The outcome to our acceptance of this challenge is the next chapter in every person’s story.

As an ethnic art, it provides practitioners a living experience of Eastern philosophy and wisdom. And let’s not forget the obvious: it teaches advanced techniques which can be used for high-level combat. Performed correctly, the movements have a power, flow, and depth that is beautiful to watch and fulfilling to perform. One could accurately say that traditional wushu massages the entire person: body (inside and out), mind, and spirit.

To an outsider, this must seem too good to be true. But, this isn’t the whole story. Practitioners must have the guidance of a true master who transmits the techniques of a pure lineage. For their own part, they must log in many hours of hard work, be willing to face their own errors and limitations, and carry on in the midst of discomfort and uncertainty. They must endure physical, emotional, and mental pain, persevere through frustrations, and struggle with long, boring hours of stance training, basics, and repetitive practice. They must discard many old habits and learn to think, move, act, and react in ways that go against their natural, customary way of doing things.

Traditional wushu is very old, as is the culture in which it was born. It is the culmination of centuries of wisdom, experience, testing, and medical knowledge. In contrast, our lives move at a machine-gun pace, with too many things to do, too much information to contend with, and too many changes which have come too quickly. Today’s technical innovation makes yesterday’s invention obsolete. And events half way around our shrunken globe can affect us with almost the same intensity as if they happened down the block. In this context, a discipline with roots in a strong culture that spans many centuries can be a lifeline of stability, grounding, and peace. But being old doesn’t automatically make something better in every way. With the passing of each generation, all areas of life—traditions, arts, religions, science, fashion, etc.—are automatically reevaluated in the light of the current situation and tastes. In addition, no matter how ancient, traditional wushu is a living art. Quite naturally it must continue to evolve and grow. In other words, it must be modernized or it will lose its vitality and die. Modernization has to do with examining something, to judge what should be preserved and what discarded. It brings things up to date, improves, and renews something that was slipping away into an unintended “retirement.” At the same time, modernization can be dangerous. It can kill what it should have revitalized. We’ve seen it happen. An older neighborhood, home to hard-working lower-income families, looks tired, rundown. So it’s “redeveloped” into blocks of expensive condos for busy professionals. How do we keep from crippling or killing the very thing we are trying to preserve?

Before we examine communist China’s experiment, the so-called “modern wushu,” it’s necessary to review some background. As the 19th approached the 20th century, Western industry, commerce, science, politics, and warfare was on the rise, dominating the world and bringing about changes to other cultures. China, an old civilization which for centuries had isolated herself from outside influence, was behind the times. Therefore she suffered greatly at the hands of Western countries and entered this century a cheated, badly beaten, and demoralized nation. China’s response to this sad state of affairs was to catch up through rapid modernization. Major efforts went into learning from the West. Students were sent overseas for their education and, after their return, were given important positions in government and society. Western science, investment, technology, and the democratic political system were studied and adopted. They rushed to build railroads and freeways, and install electricity, plumbing, gas, and modern conveniences to improve their standard of living. They changed their old military style in favor of modern armaments. They instituted the Western educational system and school structure—from elementary school to Ph.D. programs.

And like many other countries, in the midst of this enormous struggle China went astray. Having lost self-respect and confidence, they began not only to enjoy but also to imitate western music, painting, theater, and other arts. Baseball, tennis, western calisthenics, and other activities replaced their own sports and recreation. They made the mistake of believing that Western culture and standards were superior to theirs. They confused modernization with Westernization.