The Olympic Martial Arts of Asia

By Gene Ching and Gigi Oh

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Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine - May + June 2016 This August, the XXXI Olympiad Games will be held in Rio, Brazil.  Ever since its inception, Modern Wushu has dreamed of becoming an Olympic event.  But it didn't make the cut in Beijing eight years ago, nor did it this year for Rio, nor will it next time when the Games are held in Tokyo.  It is extremely difficult to garner Olympic acceptance, especially with a sport that is dominated by the applying nation.  And yet, despite China’s Olympic triumphs, the P.R.C. has only participated in eight Olympics so far.  As the Rio Games approach, a quick review of China's Olympic journey puts Modern Wushu into perspective.

The P.R.C. entered strong for their first Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984.  In the world’s eye view, it’s all about the overall medal count; China garnered 32 medals at those Games, tying with Italy for the fourth country with the most overall medals.  The U.S. was first with the “home court” advantage, followed by Romania and West Germany, but Russia was out because they led a 14-country boycott that year.  So when that Eastern Block returned for the Seoul 1988 Olympics, China's position in the medal count fell to eleventh place, the lowest so far.  Seoul was also significant because the second Asian Olympic martial sport, Taekwondo, was introduced as a demonstration sport – a status that no longer exists.  This followed Judo's lead, having been introduced in the 1964 Tokyo Games.  South Korea and Japan were the only two Asian nations to ever host the Olympics at that time.  At the 1992 Barcelona Games, China climbed back up to the fourth spot, with the Unified Team (former USSR countries) taking first, the U.S. second and Germany third.  China remained there until the 2000 Sydney Games when they stepped up to third behind the U.S. and Russia.  It was also in Sydney where Taekwondo became an official Olympic medal sport.  At the 2004 Athens Games, China moved up to second behind the U.S.  And at the 2008 Beijing Games, with “home court” advantage, China won the most gold medals of any nation, but was still behind the U.S. for the most overall medals.  A Wushu event was held in the Olympic compound, dubbed the Wushu Tournament Beijing.  Notably, this was the first time the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ever allowed for such a superfluous event, a clear concession to China's face.  But with demonstration sports being a thing of the past, it had no real meaning in the big picture of the Games and was completely overlooked by global media.  The only people who remember it are Wushu enthusiasts.  At the last Olympics in London, the U.S. recaptured the number one slot for both gold medals and overall medals, with China a clear second.

How China engineered her rapid Olympic rise is part of the back story of China’s push for Olympic Wushu.  From the world’s-eye view, China burst into the Olympic Games with tremendous success as one of the top champion-producing nations.  But that success was built upon countless unsung Chinese athletes who served as the experimental subjects as China’s Olympic program was developed.  And many of them were Wushu athletes.

Subscribe to Kung Fu Tai Chi magazineFrom Outlaws of the Marsh to Judo

Master Xu Dezheng (徐德正) immigrated to the United States in 2004, the year the Olympics returned to Athens.  Today he oversees his own school, Pure Shaolin Kung Fu, in the modest suburb of Belmont, about twenty miles south of San Francisco on the peninsula.  He teaches a curriculum of traditional Shaolin Kung Fu, Tai Chi and Qigong, but any observer seasoned in the martial arts will detect elements of Judo, Taekwondo and Modern Wushu sprinkled into his teachings.  This is because beyond being a former touring member of the Shaolin performance troupe, Master Xu was also a Chinese Judo champ, a nationally-certified Taekwondo judge and a former Wushu coach for the Wuhan Sports University.  He was among that first generation of athletes that China groomed for the Olympics, so China's Olympic aspirations directly affected the course of his training.

Xu was born in Shandong Province, a region renowned for its martial arts.  It was the setting of China's epic martial novel, Outlaws of the Marsh, as well as the birthplace of the Praying Mantis style of Kung Fu.  His father suffered during the Cultural Revolution because he was a landlord, and being an only child, he grew up very protective of his mom.  He started learning some folk Kung Fu at home from a cousin, but like so many martial artists of his generation, he was inspired to go deeper by the movie Shaolin Temple (1982).  Xu enrolled in the Shandong Province Dongping County Sports School (山东省东平县体育运动学校), which offered a curriculum that combined academics and martial arts.  This was a public school, but specialized like a charter school, and students had to meet some rigorous criteria before getting accepted.  The headmaster was Xu Mingquan (徐明泉), the son of the Vice President of the Shandong Martial Arts Association, Xu Yingdi (徐英第).  Headmaster Xu produced a lot of martial champions such as Ding Baoyu (丁宝玉), who became the Dean of the Wushu Department at the illustrious Tianjin University of Sports (天津体育学院), Ding Bo (丁波), who became a noted combat coach at the Foshan Police College (佛山警察学校教官), and Zhao Qingjian (赵庆建), the Shaolin monk who made the highly-decorated Beijing Wushu Team.  Zhao was an underclassman of Xu Dezheng's at both the Dongping school, Shaolin Temple, and Wuhan University (but that is getting ahead of our story).  He was also on the cover of the January+February 2011 issue of Kung Fu Tai Chi.

That school set Master Xu on an academic path through China's sports education system, and all the sports schools were beginning to feed into China’s fledgling Olympic program.  In 1988, he was pulled into Judo.  That year was the Seoul Olympics, the P.R.C.'s second Olympic attempt, and produced their worst results.  Sports schools across the nation were mobilized into developing stronger Olympic feeder programs.  Master Xu was also tapped to train in target rifle shooting and weight lifting, but he had the most success in Judo.  Wushu athletes were recruited for Judo because that seemed the closest, and fortunately, Master Xu also competed in the Chinese throwing sport of Shuai Jiao (摔跤).  Note that this preceded the free-sparring sport of Wushu Sanda (武术散打), which was still in its early formative stages at this time.  Some exhibition Sanda matches had been held, the first major one being at the 1st World Wushu Championship in 1991 in Beijing, and it became an official event at the 2nd World Wushu Championship in Malaysia in 1993.  But back in the late ‘80s, few Chinese Sports schools offered Sanda programs.  While Shuai Jiao precedes Sanda, it still isn't an official sport of Modern Wushu nor is it part of any major international sporting events outside of its own martial circles.  So for Master Xu's generation, there wasn't that many opportunities to compete in recognized fight sports within China.  Judo was Olympic, so the sports schools promoted it.  “Judo helped me a lot,” say master Xu in Mandarin, “It was my best sport.”  Master Xu went on to capture the 60K provincial championship in Judo.

However, Xu was quite literally ahead of the game.  He was one of China’s early Judo champions while the sport was still in its formative years there.  China won her first three Judo medals in 1992 after Xu left the sport.  Now China is a rising power in Judo.  Despite the fact that the United States has competed in Judo since its inclusion in 1964 (two decades prior to China’s entrance into the Olympics), the P.R.C. holds more Judo medals.  To date, China has earned 20 Olympic medals in Judo; remarkably, all of them have been won by women.  The U.S. only holds 12.  Master Xu still holds great respect for Judo and continues to teach some Judo principles to his students.  “In Judo, there are no forms, no memorization of patterns,” says Xu, “You just do it.”

From Shaolin Monk to Collegiate Taekwondo

Being a native of Shandong exposed Master Xu to many unique folk styles.  Beyond Dongping, he studied under folk masters in Huicheng and Liangshan (the setting of Outlaws of the Marsh where practitioners still practice Kung Fu styles descended from that historical novel).  However, his master, Xu Mingquan, told him, “To be really good in Kung Fu, you must concentrate on one special system.”  So in 1992, Master Xu followed that Shaolin dream inspired by the movie he had seen a decade earlier and went right to the Shaolin Temple.  He went to the Shaolin Wushuguan and became a member of the Shaolin Temple Wusengtuan (少林寺武僧团), the martial monks.  This isn’t something anyone can do.  All applicants need a recommendation from a noted master, and then must submit to rigorous examination.  Xu became a 32nd-generation disciple of Shi Deren (释德忍) and took the Shaolin name Shi Xingsheng (释行聖).

But again, Xu was ahead of the game.  Shaolin Temple experienced two growth booms after the Cultural Revolution.  The first was in the wake of the movie Shaolin Temple in the early ‘80s.  The second was two years after Xu had moved on, when the 1500th Anniversary of Shaolin Temple was celebrated in 1995.  Xu left the temple because monastic life wasn’t personally sustainable for him.  However, he returned several times, donning robes again for travelling Shaolin performances.  In the wake of the 1500th Anniversary, many tours of martial monks circled the globe.  Xu was bestowed the title of Honorary Chairman of the China Shaolin Temple Disciples’ Association, and from 1996 to 2002 he toured the world as a representative of the Shaolin Temple, performing in Australia, Canada, Europe, Indonesia and the United States.  This was under the auspices of Shaolin Temple, along with his new allegiance, the Wuhan Sports University (武汉体育学院).

The Wuhan Sports University was where Xu went after Shaolin in 1993.  Several other martial monks followed him, including Zhao Qingjian, and it was through Wuhan that Coach Wu Bin first spotted Zhao and recruited him for the Beijing Wushu Team.  Xu graduated with honors in 1997.  After that, he remained there for seven more years as a teacher and coach.  Wuhan was a leading school for Sanda.  Among its alumni are Sanda Champion Zhou Guojun (周国俊) and Zeng Yujiu (曾于久), who was the National Sanda coach and became the University principal.  Principle Zeng was an avid promoter of Sanda and Taekwondo.

During Xu’s junior year, Wuhan University launched a Taekwondo program.  They enlisted Wushu athletes like Xu, as well as boxers, thinking it would be the best match.  “Taekwondo training in China was totally different back then than it is now,” recalls Xu.  “There was no structure.  We just jumped into competition.  We used the rules for sparring to teach.”

But the program grew over time.  Experts were brought in to train the budding coaches.  Xu went to the Chinese Taekwondo headquarters in Beijing for more training.  He never competed in Taekwondo, but was certified as a coach and was one of only six people to be ranked as a National 1st Grade Taekwondo judge.  He also published a few research papers on Taekwondo including “An Exploration of Taekwondo Competition Distance Difference and Time Difference” and “Technology Based on the Principles and Methods of Taekwondo Techniques.”

“For a long time, China’s Taekwondo system was weak,” says Xu.  “In the beginning, there was no time to produce a black belt.  International competition required black belts.  But Taekwondo still wanted China to compete so they waived the requirements.”  China captured one of the very first Olympic gold medals for Taekwondo in Sydney.  Chen Zhong won it in the Heavyweight (+67 kg) division.  He won a second Gold in Athens at the following Olympics.  Today, three nations are tied for the second most Olympic Taekwondo medals – China, Taipei and the U.S.  each have eight.  South Korea has the most with fourteen, and that’s with some special restrictions that limit the number of medals South Korea can win in Taekwondo.

“I still teach a lot of Taekwondo basics at my school, especially the footwork and weight shifting,” says Xu.  “I respect that Taekwondo starts with sparring.  I think I understand Chinese leg techniques better from studying Taekwondo.  Some Chinese say, ‘A good kick is never higher than the knee,’ but Taekwondo kicks are always higher and very powerful.”

Should Wushu Become Olympic?

The greatest blunder surrounding the Wushu’s Olympic bid is that most Kung Fu proponents were misguided about the history and process of attaining Olympic status.  When the Beijing Olympics happened, many Wushu proponents assumed that Wushu would be automatically included because Japan got Judo in and Korea got Taekwondo in, but that was far from a given.  Additionally, many mistakenly believed that the host country had the right to insert their own sport into the Games, but that, like demonstration sports, was a thing of the past.  The IOC has been reducing the number of events to keep the games from getting too bloated, so now it’s a very complicated process to get approved.  Karate might be accepted for the next Tokyo Games in 2020.  It is on the short list with five other sports: Baseball-Softball, Skateboarding, Sport Climbing and Surfing (Wushu was cut in the prior elimination round).  The IOC will announce which is accepted in August, just prior to the Rio Games.

However, for many martial artists, there are deeper issues with Wushu as an Olympic sport.  As International sports go, Wushu is still underdeveloped.  Just compare the International Rulebooks of Wushu to any other International Sport and Wushu’s rulebook looks more like a pamphlet.  While Master Xu supports the notion of Olympic Wushu, he has his reservations too.  “The Chinese government has pushed Wushu, but in the process it has lost its martial character.  Now, Wushu lacks the etiquette and formality of Taekwondo.  Taekwondo spars.  Chinese martial arts are mostly forms.  Even duilian (multiple person forms 对练) is still a pre-choreographed routine.  If you want a martial art to go Olympic and there’s no fighting, it just looks like dancing or gymnastics.  Westerners think martial arts is just fighting from the movies.  It’s a different perspective.  They don’t understand forms.”  The world’s pop culture image of Chinese martial arts is very different from the actual practice.  Current trends in China indicate that future Olympic Wushu bids may focus more upon Taijiquan.  This may prove disastrous as the world’s pop culture image of Taijiquan is even more misunderstood, so much so that the notion of Taijiquan Olympic competition could easily become an international laughing stock, one even greater than when Competitive Ballroom Dancing made its Olympic bid (DanceSport was recognized by the IOC in 1997 just prior to the Atlanta Games and is currently still recognized by the IOC as an International Federation along with 34 other sports including Karate, Wushu and, surprisingly, Sumo).

“Wushu doesn’t need to be Olympic.  It’s not necessary for Wushu.” For better promotion, Master Xu envisions a complete overhaul on Chinese martial arts competitions.  He’d like to see forms competition stay traditional, an opinion voiced by many traditionalists.  He’d also like to see more emphasis on duilian fighting sets, as those demonstrate greater coordination with a partner and are always crowd pleasing.  But on a more revolutionary level, Xu thinks better measurement criteria would be a big improvement.  How heavy of a weapon can the competitor wield?  How accurately can a competitor hit a target with a spear or a rope dart?  Some special competitions in China have unique events like these already.  “We should find better ways to measure gongli (power achievement 功力).”  Most of all, Xu feels Chinese martial arts needs to increase sparring.  This is not only for one-on-one hand-to-hand sparring like Judo, Taekwondo and Karate.  Xu would like to see weapon sparring developed, or one-versus-many sparring, or even team sparring with multiple players like in Football or Basketball.  These aren’t Olympic proposals.  They aren’t necessarily even competition-worthy ideas at this stage of the game.  They are more fundamental ideas that address the way Chinese martial arts are trained today.

Some might dismiss the Olympics as just a commercial sports event, but keen observers know that it is a reflection on the state of the world.  And now, the United States and China are battling it out on many fronts to be the greatest nation on earth.  Olympic years are also election years for the United States, and so far the 2016 Presidential race has been one of the most dramatic campaigns the U.S. has ever experienced.  China has been one of many important and divisive issues.  As our great nation wrestles with its national identity, the issue of China adding its own indigenous sport to the Olympics seems trivial.  But on that Olympic world stage, Wushu might be the tipping point someday.

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine May + June 2016

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About Gene Ching and Gigi Oh :
Master Xu Dezheng currently teaches at Pure Shaolin Kung Fu in Belmont, CA (650) 637-1688<.a>. To see Master Xu demonstrate Tongbeiquan (通背拳) and Shaolin Pudao (少林朴刀), visit’s YouTube channel in May.

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