The Southern Sword of Wushu

By Gene Ching and Gigi Oh

Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine March/April 2013

A few years ago, the exhibition hall of the Chinese Martial Arts Museum at the Shanghai Sports University put a unique sword on display. It was labeled nandao (南刀) or "Southern Sword," a recognizable weapon to anyone who follows the sport of Modern Wushu. Nandao is one of the standard compulsory competition forms. "A person who is not familiar might think it is one of the many traditional swords," comments Professor Wang Peikun (王培锟) in Mandarin. Wang is a leading authority on Chinese martial arts. "They might think it is akin to a Goose Feather Sword (yanlingdao 雁翎刀), a Willow Leaf Sword (liuyeadao 柳叶刀) or a Nine-ring Sword (jiuhuandao 九环刀) with some deviation. It might also catch the attention of the southern style martial artists because it looks so similar to the Butterfly Swords (hudiedao 蝴蝶刀). But compared to nandao, the Butterfly Swords are smaller and are usually used in pairs, one in each hand. The nandao has a wider, longer blade and is used in one hand."

The truth is that the nandao was created only a few years ago. While there are some similar swords within China's medieval arsenal of cold arms, there are no true archeological examples of a nandao. What the world knows as a nandao today is a thoroughly modern invention, just for Modern Wushu. As a martial arts expert, Professor Wang knows this for certain. He helped invent it.

An Esteemed Martial Professor
Professor Wang Peikun is one of the world's leading scholars of the Chinese martial arts as well as an outstanding grandmaster of traditional Kung Fu and one of the founders of Modern Wushu. Wang holds the highest martial art rank awarded by the Chinese government, the coveted 9th duan (段 level). In person, Wang has a big commanding voice, the sort that has delivered countless lectures and arbitrated over endless disputes at international competitions. When seated, he adopts a relaxed posture, confident yet unaggressive. But at a moment's notice he'll leap up to demonstrate some Kung Fu moves with the agility and grace of a man a third his age. Wang is one of the foremost researchers of the Chinese martial arts with dozens of books and articles published under his name. His publications range from treatises on traditional Kung Fu such as Zixuan Staff (紫宣棍), Ditangquan (地躺拳), Fujian Groundfighting Techniques (福建地术) and Shaolin 13 Grabs (少林十三抓), to numerous works on Modern Wushu, covering both Taolu (套路 forms)and Sanda (散打 free sparring), as well as textbooks on coach and referee training, and competition rulebooks. He was a chief editor of the landmark volume, Chinese Wushu Encyclopedia ( 中国武术百 科全书). His contributions to the field are so extensive that in 1996 the Chinese government recognized him as one of China's Top Ten Most Famous Professors.

Wang was born in July 1942 in Fuzhou in Fujian Province. He was raised in Baming, reputed to be the location of an ancient Southern Shaolin Temple. "It's similar to Chen village," claims Wang proudly. "Everyone there practices martial arts." From childhood, he trained in folk styles of Southern Shaolin, which he describes as "unsystematic" and "very simple," just basics, partner drills and sparring.

When he came of age, Wang pursued martial arts to a level unavailable outside of China: college. In 1960, he was accepted to the Professional Martial Arts Department of Shanghai Institute of Physical Education (SIPE) which is now known as the Shanghai University of Sports. Recently showcased in the latest James Bond film SKYFALL, Shanghai has a long history as one of the world's leading metropolises. Hence, the academic programs of Shanghai are outstanding. SIPE has been a global leader in legitimizing martial arts as a scholarly pursuit. In 1996, SIPE created the first Martial Arts Doctoral Program to be approved by China's Ministry of Education. The success of this program was largely a result of the work of Professor Wang. But even back in the sixties when Wang was an undergrad, SIPE was a major hub for the martial world. Professor Wang's list of teachers reads like a Who's Who of grandmasters of the day.

At that time, the director of SIPE's Martial Arts Department was Zhou Shibing (周士彬) who was nicknamed the "Southern Fist King (nanquanwang 南拳王)." Zhou was Jingwu instructor renowned for his boxing and Shuaijiao (摔跤 throwing arts) skills. Jingwu (also known as the Chin Woo Athletic Association 精武体育会) was the inspiration for many films, like Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury (1972) and Jet Li's FEARLESS (2006). This international association was founded in Shanghai in 1909 and is still thriving today. Among his many accolades, Professor Wang is also a head coach at the Shanghai Jingwu.

Beyond Grandmaster Zhou, many of the rest of the faculty at SIPE were martial luminaries. Wang studied Huaquan (华拳) under Cai Longyun (蔡龙云), Chaquan (查拳) under Madam Wang Jurong (王菊蓉), and Shuaijiao, boxing and fencing under "Northern Fist King" Zhang Lide ('北拳王'张立德). Also on staff were Hu Weiyu (胡维予) and "Bar King" Wu Yukun ('杠王' 吴玉昆). Shanghai attracted other masters too, giving Wang even more opportunities, such as the chance to study Taiji under Fu Zhongwen (傅仲文). After graduating in 1964, Professor Wang remained as a teacher. He led the SIPE Wushu Taolu and Sanda teams (he founded SIPE's Sanda department in 1984) and served as chief coach for the Shanghai Municipal Wushu Team.

But only a few years after he graduated, the Cultural Revolution erupted. Everything stopped, especially academics, but the martial community still trained by themselves.

Traditional Kung Fu versus Modern Wushu
Many party-line accounts of the birth of Modern Wushu will patriotically date it to the founding of the People's Republic of China. In contrast, most non-Chicom historians claim that Modern Wushu was the result of the Cultural Revolution. Some believe that Modern Wushu was part of a Communist conspiracy to render the Chinese martial arts impotent and thereby squelching the possibility of a rebellion emerging from the martial community. While it is true that the martial arts were categorized amongst the traditions of the old oppressors by the Communists and consequently banned, in the wake of the Cultural Revolution the government worked to document and preserve the martial arts. Communism also treasures the people, ergo the name "People's Republic." The martial arts are also considered to be "folk" arts that exemplify the ideals that communism propounds.

In 1979, the National Sports Commission (NSC Guojia Tiwei 国家体委) set up a martial arts research group to survey China's rich martial arts heritage. Professor Wang was one of the leaders of the research team. Their mission was to scour the country and seek out hidden folk styles of martial arts, and then document and categorize them. This was the first major post-Cultural Revolution project authorized by the Chinese government for martial arts revival. For the purpose of the initial survey, China was divided into different regions. Only thirteen of China's thirty-three provinces were selected to be surveyed. The outer provinces, like Xinjiang, were not included. During the Cultural Revolution, many practitioners lost their art because they were too afraid to practice. Through this survey project, the government hoped to recover some of what was lost, preserve what survived and restore the people's confidence.

The survey was very successful, unearthing many obscure treasures of folk martial arts and documenting them for future generations. A second survey was launched, the scope of which was expanded to include the whole nation. Every province established its own research team. They all attempted to preserve what remained and spotlight the surviving masters, many of whom were the last generation of a proud, yet fading, tradition. As a result, all the provinces began promoting their unique martial heritages. Even today, each province keeps an archive of masters and styles local to their province.

For his efforts, Professor Wang was officially recognized with honors by the NSC for his contributions to the national survey, but the experience gave him much more than another certificate. Through this survey, he had the unique opportunity to meet folk masters from all across China and learn of their time-honored legacies. Professor Wang is currently working on a book to share his experiences and the material he discovered through the survey.

As another government promotion of the martial arts, exhibitions and competitions were staged. The survey documented such variation between styles that the focus needed to be narrowed. With the vast diversity of Chinese martial arts, it was impossible to hold everyone to each other's standards, so a new mutually-agreed-upon system of standard compulsories for competitions had to be developed. Modern Wushu emerged as a construct so the Chinese martial arts could compete on a level playing field. The foundation of Modern Wushu came predominantly from the northern styles like Chaquan, Huaquan and Fanziquan (翻子拳). Elements of these styles can be seen within the fundamental Modern Wushu empty-hand form changquan (长拳). This was all fine and good for northern style practitioners, but what about the other half of China? What about the southern styles?

As Modern Wushu began to take shape, Wang found himself well-positioned to be a formidable influence on the burgeoning international sport. "My International Judge's number is 008," he says with a grin. "The first judges were all the eldest masters and were grandfathered in. I was in the second group." With his roots buried deep in the soils of Southern Shaolin, Wang's influence on the development of the Modern Wushu's southern forms was profound.

Nandao - the Sword that Never Was
Over the past few years, forms have been unfairly berated by mixed martial arts advocates who view their practice as inefficient for combat training. The fancy dance-like moves, especially those within Modern Wushu, seldom seem to strike home within the cage. However, if the martial arts are to be truly considered as an "art," the discipline must aim for more than just knock-out skills. Forms are an integral part of almost all traditional martial arts. The Japanese call them kata (形), which literally means "form" or "shape." Koreans call them poomsae (品勢); upon examination of the root Chinese characters, these two can be translated as "product" and "force" or "power." The Chinese term is taolu which means "set" and "road." Each tradition gives their forms such a distinct character that even a novice can distinguish the source after witnessing only a few moves. Forms embody aesthetic expression and extraordinary significance. Denouncing forms as useless is tantamount to discarding drawing and painting in the wake of photography. Within Chinese taolu, there are properties of health, folk culture and meditation, along with the elusive notion of qigong, all of which might impede the rapid progress of a cage fighter but cannot be counted out with regards to the development of a human being.

Where forms really shine is outside the cage, especially with regard to weapons. Weapons are illegal in mixed martial arts and swords are impractical to carry for modern-day self-defense, but as an art form, swordsmanship retains a profound station. The tradition of swordsmanship is as old as metallurgy and chock-full of meaning. History glorifies the sword as a symbol of power and masculinity, even of God. In Asia, it is the soul of a warrior and an icon of discrimination, cutting away delusions. With such a rich history, it seems strange that anyone would attempt to create a new sword in modern times, but that is exactly what happened with nandao.

The northern influence upon Modern Wushu had already spilled over into the four basic weapons: staff (gun 棍), spear (qiang 槍) and the two swords, the single-edged dao (刀) and the double-edged jian (劍). The internal style of Taijiquan (太極拳) was traditionally limited to one weapon, Taijijian (太極劍). After southern fist (nanquan 南拳) had been established as an empty-hand routine, the question of southern weapons arose. Professor Wang was part of the compiling team to develop these new compulsory southern weapon forms.

"Since the long weapon used for southern fist was obviously to be the staff (nangun 南棍), the compiling team decided that it should use dao," recalls Wang. "This was to contrast the dao which had been already selected as the short weapon for Changquan." Unlike the northern dao, which is fairly standard and ubiquitous, the southern styles had an assortment of different types of swords, none of which could be said to be that common across the region. Among the candidates was the Nine-ring Sword, the Butterfly Swords, the Big Sword (dadao 大刀) or the Ghost-head Sword (guitoudao 鬼頭刀). The Nine-ring was limited due to its structure. The Butterfly Swords were usually used as pairs and that wasn't desirable. The Big Sword and Ghost-head was rather rare. After many long discussions, the compiling team reached a consensus. They would create something new. Professor Wang recalls the process.

"We decided that it should retain the blade shape of the Butterfly Sword. The blade length and width would be larger than a Butterfly Sword, but smaller than a Nine-Ring or Big Sword. We chose an S-shaped hand guard and a handle length that could accommodate a single-handed or double-handed grip. Perhaps that was easy to say. But it was hard to implement.

"Because the team was busy compiling the nangun routine, we had to postpone our discussion of nandao. But I was very anxious about it. If we didn't have a weapon, how could we compile a routine? I talked to the head coach of the Guanxi Wushu Team, Zhou Susheng (周树生). He proposed that he would draw a sketch of it first, and then he would be responsible to produce a weapon accordingly. Zhou is my good old friend. I trust his professionalism. He took over the matter and appeared to have answers, so I was very pleased.

"The next evening after dinner, I visited his room after he told me that the sketches had been made. He rolled out some white paper detailing the sword, blade, handle, blade length, blade thickness and the S-shaped guard with all the sizes noted. We pondered every detail late into the night.

"After meeting with our team again, the leaders agreed to a trial. Zhou found a sword-maker in Hebei that forged some custom nandao samples. At the time when the nangun routine was in the last stage of finalization, the first nandao sample arrived and was approved by the team. Then the more difficult task lay ahead - how to compose a routine consistent with the characteristics of southern styles with this newborn nandao.

"As there was no history for this new weapon, all that was left was innovation. I discussed it with Zhou and the other compiling team leaders, Beijing Wushu Team Coach Xue Yi (薛毅) and Hubei Wushu Team Coach Yuan Linlin (袁林林). We decided to assign Beijing Wushu Team members Xu Yi (嶭毅) and Ka Li (卡力) to draft the first routine. A few days later, we watched Ka Li's demonstration and the Compiling Team approved it for the basic layout. It was a true example of cooperation between the coaches and athletes. After that, the compiling team made a few revisions to the structure of the action, the content of the combinations and the overall display to firm up the routine. Most important was the southern style masters to teach the techniques to the athletes. After many special training sessions, the characteristics of southern style could be fully demonstrated, and an instructional video was filmed. The martial artists who created the nandao competition routines were not conservative. They had the courage to innovate."

In 1992, the International Wushu Federation approved both the nangun and nandao compulsory forms for international competition. "When it was all completed, that very first nandao was left to me as a memento. It was shelved in my home for nearly twenty years until the Shanghai Sports University established the Chinese Martial Arts Museum." While Professor Wang knows that contributing that nandao to the museum was the right thing to do, he has fond memories of having it in his possession. "Only a few people know that the original nandao could cut steel nails into bits."

The Future of Modern Wushu and the Chinese Martial Arts
While anyone can make up a new form, few can make up a new weapon and fewer still can pass it along. Ultimately, the success of form lies in how many practitioners perpetuate it. Today, the nandao is manufactured on a grand scale. Countless enthusiasts have taken it up, so many that the number of nandao practitioners now might well eclipse the number of people who play Nine-ring Swords, Big Swords and Ghost-head Swords combined. Butterfly Swords are used by the most dominant southern styles like Wing Chun (詠春) and Hung Ga (洪家). Both of these styles were among the early traditional styles to emerge outside of China and have become globally widespread. Tiger Claw, America's largest distributor of Chinese weapons, has seen a steady rise in the sale of nandao over the past few years. Tiger Claw once carried three different models of Butterfly Swords, but they have scaled back to only one type. Today, the sales of nandao and Butterfly Swords are just about equal.

Many martial arts devotees see innovations like Modern Wushu in direct opposition with time-honored traditional disciplines. Some old-fashioned advocates even find the invention of nandao offensive, but Professor Wang shows that both can exist harmoniously. "You have to change with the times. You keep the essential techniques, but most adapt to stay vital. It's not about the forms, the revisions or whatever. It all depends on how you practice. If you're good, you're good. Practice! Not all traditional is good."

As for the future of Modern Wushu, there was a big push just prior to the Beijing Olympics. Modeling itself after one of the most popular Olympic events, Artistic Gymnastics, Modern Wushu adopted nandu (difficulty degrees 难度) as a critical part of scoring. However, in the wake of the London Olympics where Modern Wushu wasn't even in consideration as an event, the trend is returning to traditional. "In general, Wushu has a bright future," says Wang optimistically, "however, if you only limit it to the Olympics, that's too narrow. The Olympics is a good goal, but the Olympics are shrinking the number of events. For the future, we need to promote Chinese martial arts at the grassroots level. Whether Wushu gets in or not, the Olympics is not the key point. The Olympics emphasize "Faster, Higher, Stronger," but when compared to grassroots martial arts, most can't compete. The Olympic image is great, but martial arts are not just about image. It is culture and lifestyle. Competitions need to start adding back the traditional roots.

"When they tried to add nandu, they did that based on getting into the Olympics. The grassroots martial people felt it was too deviant, too limited. After the last Olympics, Modern Wushu is going back to more traditional. We are de-emphasizing nandu and looking more at the overall. On the international level, the importance of nandu will be reduced. It will be scored less and required less. We're looking at adding some new regulations. Routines will be required to have at least two traditional movement sequences. And within China, we are looking at requiring athletes to compete in traditional events in order to qualify to compete in modern ones."

Professor Wang is happy to see Modern Wushu trending back toward traditional. He jokes about how it guarantees him some job security. "Now I have to continue being a referee," he quips. "Not so many of these kids today know traditional."

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine March/April 2013

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