Kung Fu, Wushu and the Cultural Revolution

By Gene Ching with Gigi Oh

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Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine - January + February 2017

The Cultural Revolution was one of the darkest chapters in the history of the modern world. From 1966 to 1976, the communists launched a brutal campaign to purge China of her venerated traditions, destroying them for their ties to the imperial subjugation that dominated China for millennia. This had a profound effect on traditional Chinese martial arts. Kung Fu masters were oppressed, humiliated, incarcerated, tortured, and killed. It was a period of intense social upheaval and bloody class struggles, obscured by nationwide propaganda campaigns, making for a complicated period to understand today. Many believe that the Chicoms banned all martial arts, but this is a grievous simplification of what actually happened. In reality, the Red Guard had to fight too. So they had their own style of Kung Fu – Red Guard Fist.

A Child of the Cultural Revolution

Master Zhao Yong (赵勇) was born in 1966, the same year that the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution (无产阶级文化大革命) began. Today, he is also one of the pioneers of Modern Wushu, a decorated champion of Taijiquan, Drunken style, sword and spear. He also had an illustrious career as a coach. Among his students are two world champions, Zou Yunjian (July+August 2013 cover master 鄒雲建) and Yi Ping (易鹏), as well as many other national champions. The official party line is that Modern Wushu began in 1949, but this is actually the date when the People's Republic of China was proclaimed. While some precursors of Modern Wushu precede the Cultural Revolution, it really takes shape in its wake and Master Zhao bore witness to it all from the inside as an active participant.

Zhao was born in a farming community of Tianmin Village in Hubei Province. As a child, he wasn't truly aware of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. That was his world. It was all he knew. All newspapers and radio were tightly controlled by the Communist regime. There was no television and no internet. With the rapacious Red Guard (hong weibing 红卫兵) on the march, Zhao found comfort in a time-honored form of entertainment that captivated Chinese audiences for centuries – Chinese Opera. Chinese Opera wasn't quite like European Opera of the time. While both have a distinct operatic style of classical singing and both are often based on myth and legend, Chinese Opera is full of flamboyant acrobatic martial arts demonstrations. This is the root of Kung Fu films; many of the trailblazers of that genre, like Jackie Chan, Yuen Woo-Ping and Sammo Hung, were trained from childhood in traditional opera. Even Bruce Lee has some traditional opera underpinnings as his parents were both opera stars of such renown that they toured internationally, which is how he came to be born in San Francisco.

But Zhao didn't see traditional opera. Like traditional martial arts, opera was classified as one of the Four Olds (sijiu 四旧): Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. These were considered anti-Proletarian, poisoning the minds of lower classes so they could be exploited dynasty after dynasty. Propagandist "Model Operas" or yangbanxi (样板戏) replaced them. Planned by Chairman Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, these modern Model Operas extolled the struggle of the revolution, glorifying the common people, the People's Liberation Army and Chairman Mao. The propagandist campaign saturated all the available media platforms of the era, not just live stage performances but also movies, records, books and comics. The imagery appeared on everything from household items like teapots and washbasins to all manner of printed media like calendars, posters, and stamps, even on cigarette cartons. The songs were constantly blasted over loudspeakers like muzak is here today. Initially there were eight yangbanxi: five operas, two ballets and one symphony. The eight-hundred million people of China were limited to these eight stories.

The operas were The Legend of the Red Lantern (Hondengjia 红灯记), On the Dock (Haigang 海港), Pebble Family Creek (Shajiabang 沙家浜), Raid on the White Tiger Regiment (Qixi Baihu Tuan 奇袭白虎团) and The Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (Zhiquwei Hushan 智取威虎山). These stories were so pervasive that every Chinese of that generation knows them well, and their impact still echoes today. The Taking of Tiger Mountain by Strategy was based on a historical novel by Qu Bo published in 1957, then refitted to meet the Communist agenda. It was revisited in 2015 by renowned director Tsui Hark in a 3D film (Note that The Legend of the Red Lantern is not connected to Zhang Yimou's award-winning 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern). Despite the purgative attempt, some of the trappings of traditional opera remained. They still sang in a distinct operatic style and they were still grounded in the martial arts.

Like a kid pretending to be Batman, Zhao imitated the heroes he saw in the operas. He joined a school troupe that was doing Model Opera. As part of their training, the teacher took the whole group on an excursion to learn martial arts. There was only one form of martial arts to practice during the Cultural Revolution – Red Guard Fist.

The Fist of the Red Guard

According to Master Zhao, there were three primary empty-hand forms to the combat training for the Red Guard. Hongxiaobingquan (red small soldier fist 红小兵拳) was the introductory form of the system. The second form was Hongweibingquan (Red Guard fist 红卫兵拳). Zhao describes this as the basic form. He remembers it was a long fist method (Changquan 长拳) and that it focused on the foundation methods (jibengong 基本功). He likened it to Wubuquan (five stance fist 五步拳), a fundamental form of Modern Wushu promulgated through many other systems in China like Shaolin and Wudang. The third form was Qingnianquan (young person fist 青年拳‬). He recalls that the style also had the four main weapons: staff, spear, single-edged sword and double-edged sword.

Even the four weapons came under scrutiny, but that was outside of Master Zhao’s experience. Modern tools were deemed more practical on the streets than swords and spears. The Chicoms had new Kung Fu forms composed for the sickle and hammer, the very symbols of the laborer under Communism. Other commonplace objects replaced traditional weapons as an arsenal of new forms were created that cannibalized methods from traditional forms. Staffs became carrying yokes; single-edged swords became butcher knives; shields became pot lids. Sadly, few of these forms survived. When the Cultural Revolution subsided, martial arts competitions were formalized under what evolved to become Modern Wushu. For a very short time, sledgehammer remained in Modern Wushu. It was a popular weapon for duilian (literally "opposition practice" but refers specifically to pre-choreographed routines of two or more persons in combat 对练). The unwieldiness of sledgehammer made for a good comic fight, although the techniques deployed, like choking up on the hammerhead, were viable if it was ever necessary to actually use a sledgehammer on the street.

The Red Guard martial arts training inspired Master Zhao to move from Opera to what became Modern Wushu. Like the alleged total ban on martial arts in China, many believe the Chicoms created Modern Wushu as an inapplicable replacement for real fighting skills. This is another grievous simplification.

From the Ashes of the Cultural Revolution

As the Cultural Revolution wound down, Master Zhao started training in martial arts and competing in tournaments. His early coach was very severe with his training methods, so Zhao got decent scores. It wasn’t long until he made the Jingzhou municipal team and soon found himself competing at the Hubei Province tournament. That was 1978. “I didn’t do very well because I was only twelve,” confesses Zhao in Mandarin. But he did do well enough to catch the eye of the provincial coach and was selected for the Hubei Province Team on a trial basis. In 1980, at age 14, he earned a spot on the team.

During those early years of Modern Wushu, it was all about the All-Around Champion. Jet Li remains the most decorated All-Around National Wushu Champion with a record five wins in a row. Earning that was quite different back then than it is now. “In order to qualify for the All-Around, Wushu required six divisions: empty-hand form, short weapon, long weapon, traditional empty-hand, traditional weapon and duilian,” explains Zhao. “That was around the 1970s to 1980s. I competed in Changquan, staff, double-edged sword, spear, Baguazhang (eight diagram palm 八卦掌), Ditangquan (ground tumbling fist 地趟拳), and Bajiquan (eight extremes fist 八極拳).”

Today, Modern Wushu has been standardized for competition and is separated into three major divisions. The first is Changquan, which is derived from Northern long fist. The other two are Taijiquan (grand ultimate fist – known as Tai Chi to most westerners 太極拳) and Nanquan (southern fist 南拳). Both have swords: the double-edged Taijijian (太極劍) and the single-edged Nandao (南刀). Beyond that there are four general weapons: staff (gun 棍), single-edged sword (dao 刀), spear (qiang 槍) and double-edged sword (jian 劍). It’s rare for Modern Wushu competitors to step too far outside their focus, so Nanquan competitors typically compete with Nandao for their weapon. “Today, they don’t train traditional anymore,” says Zhao with a sigh. “It’s specialized. It’s hard to say at this time if this is good or bad, but given the Olympic push, unless there is a better method, this is the course. We’ll see in time. Wushu is a work in progress.”

From 1985 to 1992, Zhao began to achieve some competitive success. He was always on top of the podium nationally. “I regularly placed in the top six in jian and qiang nationally.” In 1987, he added Taijiquan to his regime and rose to excel the most there. “I started with the traditional Yang style 88 form. There were no set Taiji routines in Modern Wushu back then so I learned traditional. The standardized Taiji 24 and 42 came about a few years later. In the beginning, there was a time frame, but no style restrictions.” During that time, Zhao was often battling it out for the top spot on the podium against one of the most decorated Taiji champions to date, the "Taiji Prince" from the Fujian Province team, Chen Sitan (陈思坦). Zhao remembers their rivalry. “In 1988, I won the National Championship for drunken sword (zuijian 醉劍) over Chen Sitan. In 1990, I won the National Championship again. Chen Sitan won the championship for the Asian Games that year.”

Master Zhao was promoted to Hubei Team Coach in 1992 and led the team to many victories. After just one year, the team placed third at the 7th China Sports Championship. “Zou Yunjian was my first pupil.” says Zhao. “I trained many other national champions. Yi Ping (易鹏) was also a world champ. We were always in the top three places.”

It was a time of many changes for Modern Wushu. Zhao says that the divisions of Changquan, Taijiquan and Nanquan separated around 1993. The Taijiquan team was still mixed with men and women, but the others also separated. “The Hubei male team was very strong,” he recalls.

Modern Wushu and Olympic Taiji

Today, Master Zhao is the vice-chair of the Hubei Wushu Management Center and oversees development for the province. Remarkably, he doesn’t see much difference between traditional and modern. For him, it is still all about that combat underpinning. “Competition Wushu still needs its original core. It needs combat skills. That’s what Wushu is. Today, competition forms are mostly connecting movements, mostly for performance. There’s zishen (self-composed 自身) forms where you just make it up.

Nandu (difficulty movements – acrobatic or gymnastic moves upon which Wushu is judged 难度) is a requirement of the sport. You cannot throw away the martial essence even though athletes must show ability. It’s easier to discriminate with nandu. But there still must be elements of offense and defense. It should still include this essence. The competition shows athletic ability but nandu must harmonize with this martial core. If it’s just nandu, it’s just gymnastics. One-third of any Modern Wushu competition form is nandu now. The trend is moving away from the core. Now Dao is just about speed and height. Traditional is too difficult. The Wushu leaders recognize this trend and are working towards requiring more traditional core movements.”

China is eager to get a sport into the Olympics. It has been struggling with Modern Wushu since its inception, but when it failed to get in for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, many lost hope. Now there is a new push to promote Taijiquan through tournaments. While this is not necessarily an Olympic objective, China’s perspective on it is understandable. Taiji is the most widely practiced martial art in the world and it continues to grow globally. However, the notion of Olympic Taiji will likely be absurd in the eyes of westerners as they pigeonhole it as a meditative practice, not a martial art. Nevertheless, there are now two international-level championships for Taijiquan in China, the biannual World Wushu Championships which contain the Modern Wushu divisions of Taijiquan and Taijijian and a newly organized international championship that is exclusively for Taijiquan. Zhao explains, “The form regulations are the same, more or less. Holding a single Taiji World Championship allows the addition of more content. The different styles of Taiji can be separated. There is only one zishen division that has nandu. The other separate divisions don’t require nandu. They are based upon the compulsory routines within the individual styles like Chen, Yang, and so on.”

The next Olympics will be held in Tokyo in 2020 and Karate has already been approved to be a new Olympic event there. Both Karate and Modern Wushu have been classified as International Federations by the International Olympic Committee for years now; this status is a necessary step to make a bid to be in the running to be a new sport. Zhao reflects on what this means for Chinese martial arts. “We standardized Modern Wushu to get it into the Olympics. Why isn’t Wushu in yet? Well, personally, I’m not emotional about it. I don’t think it’s quite ready yet. The rules and regulations need a little more time to mature. As for Karate, I have no feelings about that either. They did a lot of work. And it helps that Tokyo is the host city. In Chinese martial arts, there are so many different voices. Traditional or modern, we should all have the same goal, not just criticism.”

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine - January + February 2017


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About Gene Ching with Gigi Oh :
Master Zhao Yong is the vice-chair of the Hubei Wushu Management Center, Hubei Wushu Team Coach and Head Coach of Taiji division. Master Zhao can be reached at henpo@yeah.net.

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