Making the Grade

By Gene Ching

Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine November/December 2010Traditional Chinese martial arts are rooted in family. We're different than most Korean and Japanese styles in that way. We don't have ranking belts. You can't rank family. Many kung fu schools do give out ranking belts and sashes today, but that's adopted from Western martial arts marketing. It's not traditional. Our word for master - shifu - combines the character for "teacher" with the character for "father." Our classmates are our brothers and sisters. Some are elder and some are junior, but that's as hierarchical as you can get with family.

While we tend to think of China as uniform, it's actually very diverse. There are over fifty ethnic minorities currently in China. China's national mascot, the dragon, is actually a fusion of nine ancient tribal totems: horns of a stag, head of a camel, eyes of a rabbit, neck of a snake, belly of a clam, scales of a carp, claws of an eagle, soles of a tiger and ears of a cow. Each tribe contributed a likeness to form the symbolic beast, the emblem of the emperor. Today, China is still an amalgamation of many different types of people and cultures. Accordingly, the Chinese martial arts encompass hundreds of different styles from different families.

Since 1958, the Chinese Wushu Association (CWA) has sought to unify martial artists of the People's Republic of China beneath their single banner. Familial hierarchy fails across so many different families, so the CWA established a grading system. There are nine duan (literally meaning "level") in this system. The first three levels are beginning. Levels four through six are intermediate, earned through certifications given by China's municipal governments. Levels seven through nine are advanced and can only be achieved through the approval of the national government. The number of non-Chinese who have duan certifications is steadily growing, but it is still predominantly a PRC thing. At this writing, only 38 people have ever been certified as ninth duan holders. Three of them have already passed away.

In 2006, the International Wushu Federation (IWuF) asked the CWA to start developing this duan system for specific styles and families. So far, these additions only apply to the first six duan. To achieve a seventh through ninth duan, it still must be approved by the national government. The intention behind this program is to promote traditional styles. With certifications in hand, the IWuF and CWA believe it will be easier to introduce traditional martial arts programs into elementary schools. These days, when a Chinese elementary school offers any martial arts, it is usually modern wushu. A national certification program makes traditional styles more acceptable for educational institutions. The IWuF and CWA also hope this will help to promote Chinese martial arts abroad.

China's New Grading System
The CWA has already produced the examination materials, books and cds for eight systems. It's an intriguing list so far: Chen family taijiquan, Yang family taijiquan, Wu family taijiquan (the surname "wu"), Wu family taijiquan (martial "wu" as in wushu), Sun family taijiquan, He family taijiquan (aka Zhaobao), nunchuku (er jie gun) and wing chun kuen (yongchunquan). The curriculum materials for these systems are already available to the public. Examinations for duan certification are just beginning. These initial selections are quite telling as to the direction of the program.

The five major families of taijiquan plus the sixth up-and-coming Zhaobao style make sense from a marketing perspective. Taiji is the least intimidating of the Chinese martial arts. It doesn't suffer from the baggage of machismo. Given all the seniors that practice taiji, it is arguably the most popular martial art in the world. The five major taiji families have already had some level of standardization. Several families have implemented "short forms" to expand the beginner base. There are also combined forms that fuse the five styles into one form. Initially, there was a form that fused four, but since 2000 there's been growing support for a new form that fuses all five. It'll probably be a while before He taijiquan is added to create a six-form fusion, but it won't be surprising when that happens. Additionally, there are already competition forms of taiji in modern wushu.

Nunchuku and wing chun are evidence of the sleeping dragon wakening to the "Little Dragon." Bruce Lee was born in America - San Francisco, specifically. He was raised in Hong Kong while it was still under British rule. Communist China wasn't privy to the impact Lee had on the rest of the world during the early '70s. They were just coming out of the Cultural Revolution then. But now they've reclaimed Hong Kong and their most famous son. In 2008, a popular TV mini-series ran on Bruce Lee in China, right alongside the Olympics. In the following years, two films based on the fictional life of Lee's real wing chun master, Ip Man, were both box office smashes in China.

Nunchuku raises an eyebrow as it isn't traditionally thought of as a Chinese weapon. There are Chinese versions of nunchaku, but they are not very common. However, since Bruce Lee poached nunchuks from Okinawan kobudo, they have become inseparable from the global perception of Chinese martial arts. Wing chun was Lee's foundation style, so his influence can't be denied there either. Wing chun was exported from Hong Kong and southern China and spread quickly around the world. Until recently, wing chun seemed more popular outside China than within. Now, in the wake of Lee's increased media hype, wing chun is gaining popularity all across China. The inclusion of nunchuku and wing chun as two of the first eight duan systems stands out as unusual, but the underlying logic is understandable.

Grading Traditional Chinese Martial Arts
The CWA is currently working on developing duan ranking systems for fourteen more styles: changquan (long fist), sword (jianshu), baton (duangun), shaolinquan, xingyiquan, baguazhang, tongbeiquan, chuojiao, fanziquan, bajiquan, tanglangquan, wuzuquan, basic skills (wushu gongfa) and self-defense methods (zi wei fang shen shu). This, too, is a very intriguing list as, again, each selection carries underlying intentions. Long fist and sword fall out of modern wushu. Advocates of this program say that this is more like the wushu of the 1970s (more on what that means later). Even though the curriculum materials have not been fully completed, programs for these two have already been launched in Chinese elementary schools.

Baton isn't conventionally considered as a Chinese weapon even though it is practiced by a few select Chinese styles. In this regard, it's just like nunchuku. For most Chinese practitioners, a cudgel refers to something eyebrow-height or taller. Sword takes the place of short weapon practice. Nevertheless, of all the weapons, baton sees the most use worldwide in modern times. Every country uses police batons. Again, the logic behind including it is transparent.

Shaolin presents a unique problem. There's already an independent duan system used by practitioners at Shaolin just for shaolinquan. That Shaolin duan system is under the auspices of local government. It was established over half a decade ago. Shaolin already has standardized compulsory forms extrapolated from their traditional forms. As Shaolin has such a massive practitioner population, these compulsories are used in local competitions to level the playing field. There are also many masters and coaches who are already certified through the Shaolin duan system. Some even hold dual duan certifications, one for Shaolin and another under the auspices of the CWA. Whether Shaolin's standing duan system will integrate with this new CWA duan system remains to be seen.

Xingyi and bagua are the other two major internal systems beyond taiji, so their inclusion is to be expected. Both styles are getting more exposure internationally as interest in taiji has grown. Jet Li's sleeper film, The One (2001), showcased both styles while retelling some of their legends in a thinly-veiled science fiction drama.

Tongbeiquan (through-the-arm fist), chuojiao (stabbing legs), fanziquan (tumbling fist) and baji (eight extremes fist) are all well-known styles in China, but not as well known abroad. Tanglangquan (mantis fist) and wuzuquan (five ancestors fist) are better known worldwide. Like wing chun, both styles were popular in the South and more early immigrants came from that direction. Basic skills and self-defense might be a nod to the general examinations used for the duan system previously - or not. Without seeing the program, that's difficult to tell.

Traditional practitioners are torn about these duan system renovations. It has great potential to promote the traditional styles in venues where previously only modern wushu was taught. At the same time, getting the wing chun diaspora to unify under the CWA is a fool's errand. Wing chun has suffered family feuds since Bruce Lee's time. It's unlikely that it would settle down for the chicoms. Furthermore, wing chun has split into several different lineages. The same is true for many of the other styles mentioned to some degree. Standardization of the style threatens to extinguish variations such as the folk styles. It's a trade off.

Traditional Fanziquan and a Modern Wushu Champion
Grandmaster Bai Wenxiang is one of the architects of the upcoming duan system for fanziquan. Fanziquan was mentioned in Qi Jiguang's seminal treatise, Ji Xiao Xin Shu (New Book Recording Effective Techniques). Published in 1560, Qi's book is one of the earliest extant publications to discuss martial arts forms. Fanziquan is a long-fist style, with intricate flashing arm techniques, and is closely connected with eagle style. Legend may cite other styles as having earlier origins, but the records show that fanziquan was indeed one of the very first recorded styles.

Grandmaster Bai has been an insider within the advancement of modern wushu since its inception. It's a position he holds as a staunch advocate of traditional styles like fanzi. He is one of those unique elder masters who stand firmly with a foot in both the worlds of traditional martial arts and modern wushu. Beyond being a leading master of fanziquan, Bai is known for coaching one of the greatest wushu champions the world has ever seen: Zhao Changjun.

Born in 1947, Bai's own competitive years precede the invention of modern wushu, the CWA and IWuF (established in 1990). Back in Bai's day, everything was traditional since modern wushu hadn't been invented yet. Bai's father was a martial artist who encouraged his son to study at a young age. Bai trained under Master Zhang Tong for three years and developed enough skill to make the Shaanxi Province professional team by age twelve. He was the team's youngest member.

By the '60s, provincial governments were already supporting martial arts teams. Team members were provided with coaches, facilities, living, board and a stipend. There were some preliminary compulsory forms like changquan, but even that had a much more traditional flavor, according to Bai. The traditional styles like huaquan (flower fist), chaquan (seeking fist), paoquan (cannon fist) and shaolinquan could still be seen embedded in changquan. In addition to changquan, competition forms were compiled from traditional styles. Traditional compilations weighed equally with the changquan compulsory for scoring. Bai entered the pro team with three styles already under his belt - liuhequan (six harmony), xingyiquan and baguazhang. While on the team, he trained in fanziquan, bajiquan and piguaquan (hanging chop). Bai trained in these three traditional styles specifically to improve his performance in competition. He remained on the team as a competitor for a decade.

In 1969, martial arts development came to an abrupt halt due to the Cultural Revolution. Nothing happened and Bai found work as a typist. But as soon as that passed, he was coaching and competing again. In 1974, Bai captured 4th place all around and 2nd place in staff at the China National Games. Bai competed throughout the '70s and continued coaching after that. According to Bai, traditional and modern were viewed with equal importance into the '80s. He cites Zhao Changjun, who was traditionally coached and garnered more wins than anyone else during the '80s. In 1987, Bai was the China National Team coach. He later returned to Shaanxi to be head coach of the Shaanxi Provincial team from 1998 to 2005.

The Difficulties of Modern Wushu
Wushu compulsory forms were introduced to standardize competition, but Bai claims that, back then, one could still see the influence of a traditional upbringing in each athlete when they recited changquan. The moves might have been the same, but there would always be an accent, artifacts expressing unique elements of the traditional root. It was a lot like the early days of MMA. When mixed martial arts first began, there was more contrast between fighters. They looked like karate or sumo or muay thai or whatever. But now, as the game has become more standardized and regulated, MMA fighters have adjusted their own style to meet the requirements of the sport. When MMA began, it was a lot more raw, a lot more distinct. Over time, as the sport became more refined, competitors conformed to the rules and to what the other fighters were doing. It has become a unique style unto its own. Wushu evolved in a very similar fashion. As the rules became more standardized, athletes conformed to those rules. Today, modern wushu is scored like gymnastics on "difficult" moves called nandu. Many feel that nandu moves away from the spirit of martial arts.

Bai remembers when Zhao joined the team at the end of the '70s when traditional training was still essential. Zhao already had his basic skills along with good explosive power. However, he wasn't very flexible, so he was assigned to practice the classic traditional kicking form silu tantui (ten road springing legs). Bai smiles wistfully at the memory. No one trains tantui for competitive wushu anymore. Bai feels that the coaches don't care anymore. They want quick results. They don't look to build a strong foundation like what traditional practice provides. To Bai, a stronger foundation means a longer competitive career. He knew Zhao could last over a decade in the competitive circles because of his traditional building blocks. Back then, the judges preferred traditional, so that helped with the scoring too.

But now, with the nandu scoring system, those flavors are lost. Bai feels that it's only about jumping higher now. He longs for the days when the different styles were clearly demonstrated within modern wushu. The professional teams no longer showcase their provincial styles. Basic traditional concepts like jingqishen (essence qi and spirit), shenfa (body method) and bufa (stepping method) are all secondary to nandu. Winning or losing in modern wushu is only about nandu.

Tradition versus Modern in the Next Decade
In recent years, the IWuF and CWA have shown renewed interest in traditional styles. Traditional international tournaments are now held at Shaolin and Wudang. Modern wushu is still on the forefront as a competitive sport, but the tides may be turning back towards traditional practice. Bai has two questions he feels must be answered in order for China's martial arts programs to progress.

First, are the Olympics the only way that modern wushu can be developed? There was a huge push to make modern wushu a medal sport at the Beijing Olympics, but it failed. Wushu is still classified as an International Federation by the International Olympic Committee. This means it is still being considered as a potential medal event alongside sumo, karate, tug of war, and nearly 40 other sports. But it's not in the running for London 2012, and 2016 might be unlikely too. If the Olympics are still the goal, modern wushu needs a long-term plan. If not, modern wushu needs to look at cultivating the international games where it is already accepted like the Asian Games.

Secondly, how can we develop traditional Chinese martial arts more in competition? He doesn't believe that traditional meshes with modern at all anymore. Some styles, like Shaolin, have been holding competitions specific only to their style. The set of tailor-made modern compulsories that Shaolin established for its own duan system have been a key to the success of these competitions. Part of the intention behind these style-specific duan programs is to create a model along these lines. It's one of many reasons why Bai is working so diligently on the duan system for fanziquan.

Bai shrugs and says that work on standardizing fanziquan has been arduous and slow. It's a daunting task to compress more than 450 years of tradition into six duan grades. Over the centuries, many variations of fanziquan have emerged. What do you include? What do you omit? Where do you draw the lines? Bai had been working diligently with two other grandmasters of fanziquan: Chen Yabing and Chen Zhenyao. Sadly, Chen Zhenyao passed away recently.

Will this new duan program be successful? Shaolin's duan system has been. A similar program has been launched by the Chinese Health Qigong Association. CHQA standardized the curriculum for four traditional qigong methods and imposed a parallel nine duan grading system. So far, CHQA's program has been successful too. Their membership has steadily increased and they are planning to expand their curriculum.

The success of the duan program for traditional styles hinges largely upon the families themselves. The duan program for Shaolin has done arguably well for over half a decade already. Chen taijiquan is relatively close as Chen village is fairly small, so they have potential to integrate such a program. Any system with a tight-knit family could adopt such a program easily. However, some of the more dysfunctional families, like wing chun, have serious challenges to face before they could ever adopt it. Just as Shaolin and qigong practitioners have begun to engage these duan gradings, more styles will have the opportunity to standardize. For a practitioner of any of these styles, it's an exciting prospect.

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November/December 2010 issue

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Written by Gene Ching for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM

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