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Wushu 101: legendary Chinese martial arts

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Modern day Wushu has evolved to become a competitive performance sport with both exhibition and contact sport qualities (photo by VOXSPORTS).

What is Wushu?

The term Wushu (武术) is made up of two Chinese characters - wǔ, which means ‘martial’ or ‘combat’, and shù, which means art form. Thus, Wushu literally means ‘martial arts’. Technically, the term can refer to any style of martial art, from the Japanese Karate to Western wrestling.

However, when people talk about Wushu, they are usually speaking of the martial art form which originated in China. This is categorised by a mixture of armed and bare-hand techniques with a unique Chinese identity. 

Back in the days of ancient China, Wushu was used for both self-defence and survival. Today, it has evolved to become a competitive performance sport with both exhibition and contact sport qualities. It involves a specific routine of standardised movements, and competitions are judged on a scale of one to 10 according to a consistent set of rules.

How to do Wushu

Wushu encompasses various stances and moves like kicking, jumping, sweeping, and punching. Beginners usually start with the signature bare-hand technique in Wushu - the Chang Quan (长拳), or literally the ‘long fist’ technique.

Its name come from the fact that it is categorised as a long range technique, with fully extended kicks and strikes. The Chang Quan technique contains a wide range of moves with varying skill levels, from the basic front toe kick to acrobatic kicks like the tornado kick. 

For moves which require the weapons, there are some which are the most common: the sword, the broadsword, and the spear.

The Jian (剑), or sword, is also known as the gentleman of weapons and is a short, straight weapon with a double edge. What makes the sword unique is its tassel, which is usually found at its tip of the sword.

Although it is aesthetically pleasing and is primarily for showmanship purposes during performances, it first came about as way to distract one’s opponents during combat. The sword is good for beginners as there are many lengths to suit learners of various heights, and it’s not too heavy, making it suitable for children to practise with. 

Some foundation skills beginners can try mastering on the sword include Ci Jian (刺剑) , a forward thrust; Dian Jian (点剑), a form of attack using the tip of the sword, and Yun Jian (云剑), which is a overhead parry. 

The Dao (刀), or broadsword, is similar to the sword in that it is short, but unlike the sword it is only one-sided. The blunt flip-side to the broadsword is used as a form of defence, in blocking the opponent’s blows.

The broadsword also has an attachment on its end, a coloured flag called Dao Cai (刀彩). As with the sword, it was used as a form of distraction but has evolved to take on a decorative role in modern Wushu. 

Another weapon commonly used is the spear. This differs from the previous two as it is both long and flexible. However, it too has a tassel attached to it, in addition to having a spearhead. According to history, the tassel was a crucial tool in protecting the fighter as it blurs the opponent’s vision when the spear is quickly moved around.

Thus, the opponent is less likely to be able to grab the spear’s shaft. The spear is a versatile weapon in Wushu and there are a wide range of techniques beginners can master, including blocking, sweeping, piercing, splitting, and circling. 

Why try Wushu?

Learning Wushu comes not only with the benefits of physical exercise, but also with the engagement with a sport that has a rich cultural history. Wushu is a sport with a history dating back centuries, thus by learning Wushu one is not only learning a sport, but also getting know one of the oldest cultures in the world.

Not only does practising Wushu strengthen one’s core and leg muscles, practising with weapon are akin to lifting weights in the gym. In addition to raising one’s overall physical activity levels, it helps increase control of one’s muscles as there are very specific techniques to mastering the weapons in Wushu. Other benefits include increased body coordination and flexibility. 
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