Classifying Wushu

Daishimen KungfuHappy Holidays Everyone, I have been away for a few weeks, so this is not just the first post of 2013, but for me a long-overdue return to writing about kungfu in China.

A lot of things have happened in the past few weeks: a meeting with the Sichuan Wushu Association Party Secretary, a car ride with a flamboyantly dressed Liu Sui Bin and his wife, and messages with a female bare-knuckle kungfu warrior living in the hills of Chongqing are the highlights. I will go through them one by one. But first a response to a friend’s request:

A good friend recently asked me to classify wushu into a clear and easily digested system for the layman. Each time I tried to explain how difficult that was, he launched into another monologue on how such a system would help to promote Chinese martial arts and attract students. Eventually, I ended up nodding my head and promising to provide an essay on the classification of Chinese martial arts.

It has been tried by many a more knowledgable scholar than I and not one of them can claim to have succeeded. When I put the question to Professor Ben Judkins, author of Kungfutea, he replied:

“I am not sure that I would be brave enough to answer the question.”

I wrote a little bit about the wide scope of wushu in a separate post, “Globalizing KungFu Part 2: Wushu and the Olympics,” describing how wushu and kungfu mean so much more than just physical exercise, and actually incorporate all facets of traditional Chinese culture. So for anyone to come out and say, “I have the system,” is brave indeed.

But Prof. Judkins still has a method, and he describes it below:

“In my work and writing I generally use a three part classification system. First, I use time period (Bronze Age – Han; Han – Yuan; Ming – early Ching; 1850-1938; 1945-present). Then I use region (N, S, E, W – or sometimes province)  then I use intent (professional guard/soldier, medicine, theater etc). Lastly, if necessary, I specify if this is an art practiced by an ethnic minority.”

Most classifications I came across in my readings take into account region and intent, but few use epoch. And that is an interesting distinction I will get into later below.

But first let’s take a look at some basic ways to distinguish one style from another:

Modern Wushu Classifications

A Wushu performance in Beijing

A Wushu performance in Beijing

Since wushu became guoshu or “national art” in the Republican period, some modern practitioners have moved away from the esoteric classifications involving yin and yang. Instead of involving philosophy, religion and The Force, modern wushu – the sport that one day may be included in the Olympics – tries to classify itself as:

1) Physical Exercise – basically stripped down martial arts training. Think “hot yoga” or yoga-influenced aerobics.

2) Self-Defense – combat-based training such as Sanda or Sanshou.

3) Olympic Wushu – an as yet poorly defined sport involving acrobatics, swordsmanship, some combat, and some form of combat influenced-dance

I can not accept the above at all. It just has no relation at all to the wushu I have seen, practiced, and heard about. But. My inability to accept this as real does by no means discredit the above method of classification.

In fact,  physical exercise is how many Taiqi practitioners refer to their art. The phrase 养生 – cultivate health – is common in taiqi circles not just because it is true (taiqi is credited with improving one’s health), but also because 养生 appeals to the thousands of modern day taiqi practitioners. It is a form of branding, in a way.

Self-defense is a very apt term for external-heavy martial arts used in sport (Sanda) or for protection. The many bodyguard schools popping up across China employ martial arts instructors, who teach a simplified form of their art (devoid of internal practices, for example).

And there are many in China and abroad who would love to see Olympic Wushu accepted as a sport. So this method of classification, although not nearly as romantic as external and internal, is still very useful.

External and Internal

A map of the major points of Qi, or chakras, in the body

A map of the major points of Qi, or chakras, in the body

I have never met a master that trained in only external or only internal styles. Several masters I have met went from external to internal, and never really went back, but every single Chinese practitioner I have spoken to says you cannot have one without the other.

External styles, simply put, are combat-based and involve physical movements and exercises that were once used in combat and still could be.

Every school that practices wushu practices some form of external kungfu. Kicks, punches, stretches, standing in the horse stance for hours – these are all parts of external wushu.

Internal wushu, on the other hand, revolves around principles in Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, specifically, the idea of “Qi” and the ability to manipulate and cultivate qi energy. Taiqi Quan, Bagua and Xingyi movements and qigong are the major forms of internal kungfu. Slow, methodical movements, breathing exercises, meditation – all are methods through which cultivates qi energy. According to theory, Qi stems from the abdomen and flows through the entire body. A person with well-cultivated qi can harness that energy to amplify strikes or solidify stances to point of “superhuman” capabilities.

Immediately, we see this simple classification come up against complexities. Every major style has both – in fact, any style of martial arts in China that does not incorporate both external and internal martial arts can barely be considered a style – and the combination of external and internal martial arts leads down a road that includes feats of strength and prowess that belong as much in the movies as in real life.

A man I met in Emei told me that his master could use his qi energy to raise up the waters in a deep well in order to snatch a coin up from the bottom. He believed it.

Taoism is steeped in qi energy, which leads even deeper down the philosophical road toward the concepts of Yin and Yang. Where does one stop?


Most practitioners I have met and spoken to in China use region as the main classifier. This makes sense because Chinese are in general very closely tied to their hometowns. People who have lived in one city for generations will still refer to the “hometown” of their ancestors, even if that hometown is a century removed.

Chinese break down a host of categories by region: cuisine, dialect, looks, habits … and definitely kungfu. An interesting article in Kung Fu Magazine, “Who’s Got the Real Shaolin Kungfu,” touches on a lot of interesting topics, but the one relevant to this discussion is the tale of Ku Yu Cheong, one of the top ten martial artists to compete in the seminal national examination held by the Central Guoshu Insititute In October of 1928.

Ku was trained in Shaolin – Northern Style – Kungfu, but fled to Guangdong in southern China during the turbulent post-war persecutions of martial artists by the victorious Communists. The styles he taught in the south were known as Northern Style kungfu, but still used the Cantonese dialect, and undoubtedly influenced existing Southern Style Kungfu.

Similar complications arise in Sichuan. Ren Gang, the Party Secretary of the Sichuan Wushu Association – itself a regional offshoot of the Central Guoshu Institute in Nanjing and a product of political simplification of Chinese wushu – said that few if any of the styles currently practiced in Sichuan actually originated here.

Emei Kungfu, for example, has been through so much turmoil and chaos that few are sure what Emei Shaolin Kungfu truly is and who is practicing it. There are permutations of Shaolin Kungfu and Taiqi Quan in every region, province, city, and county. Yet the distinctions “We are from Shanxi; our kungfu is from Shanxi” still hold power among practitioners here.

The problem with regional classifications is that, although widespread, the history behind most regional schools is fragmented at best and outright fallacious at worst. Trying to make sense of a thousands or more tiny schools and styles and organizing them according to regional origin – or even the region in which they are currently being practiced in – is a task for a team of scholars working over years.

Yet if you ask any martial artist in China, he will be sure to mention his region in the same breath as his style ie Sichuan Southern Fist.


The Yellow Emperor is credited with many innovations, including qigong and other elements of Chinese martial arts

And that brings us to Prof. Judkins primary classification: time period. And this is really one of the most interesting classifications because the more one learns about the “true” history of martial arts in China, the more one realizes how misleading the narrative of an unbroken line of martial artists reaching back to the legendary Yellow Emperor really is.

Chinese history has been hijacked by the current government (which is also not new) and there are many narratives in modern China’s view of history that are politically motivated. Narratives meant to instill patriotism, hatred, claim control over territory, encourage feelings of anger, resentment, pride. Narratives that call up a vision of a glorious past broken by menacing foreigners. Almost all of it has to be questioned.

Were martial artists an integral part of military forces during the Bronze Age? What styles did they practice? Do those styles have anything in common with what we see and practice today?

When did the 养生 aspect of internal martial arts come to prominence and what were those old masters practicing? Have Taoists been doing Taiqi forms for centuries, or is it a new phenomenon?

For my project, ostensibly an account of Chinese kungfu masters in the modern era, history plays a huge role. At first I thought that I could follow masters around and talk to them about their experiences in today’s and that would be enough to tell the tale.

But every single master speaks of historical context, legitimacy, and lineage. History has been shattered for many masters and the corruption of historical research by the Communist Party is just as detrimental to martial arts as the simplification of forms or the menace of a modern society un-interested in difficult kungfu training.

By breaking down styles into eras, and how each style has changed and developed over time, we re-build the DNA of Chinese martial arts and learn that times like these are not new under the sun. Ming Dynasty mystics promoted internal martial arts to the affluent class and brutal gladitorial cage matches like the UFC took place during the Han and Qin Dynasties as well. Temples have been burned down, re-built, and destroyed again countless times over. Martial Arts were “lost” and “found” many times in the centuries since the first grappler came up with a system of moves.


I suppose my answer to my friend‘s question, “Is there a system?” would be: “Yes, there are many and all of them are valid and useful tools for understanding wushu.”

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Published on: January 7, 2013

Filled Under: Kung Fu History, Modern Kung Fu

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4 Responses to Classifying Wushu

  1. I don’t know if you caught it but Kai Filipiak, a German Chinese martial historian, wrote a really quick review article titled ” “Academic Research into Chinese Martial Arts: Problems and Perspectives.” which was published in “Asian Martial Arts: Constructive thoughts & practical applications.” Its worth taking a look at. I reviewed it over at Kung Fu Tea. Just search for his name. Some of what he said talked on the issue of era and how we conceptualize (or fail to conceptualize) the Chinese martial arts. Here is the key quote:

    “we need a more precise definition [for] what the martial arts really are. The term was originally applied to forms for fighting in East Asia, and it describes a modern phenomenon of cultural significance. Late the impression was given that this art of fighting has a long history with origins we can trace back to the Neolithic period. But there is a large gap between throwing stones and attacking the head with your leg. Actually, we have no idea when Chinese martial arts began, and this problem is also related to terminology. Most people talking about Chinese martial arts have in mind popular styles such as Shaolin, Taiji, Bagua and others. They do not keep in mind that these complex systems are the products of the very late period of Chinese history.” (Filipiak p. 25).

    So I guess the real question is, how should we talk about era? What are the appropriate eras to focus on when looking at “chinese martial arts” and at what point does it just become an archaic system of fighting that may or may not have anything to do with the martial arts?

  2. Eli Sweet says:

    I think you did a good job of explaining why any classification system is fraught.

    It may take heroic nuance to construct a valid classification system, but I think it is important to recognize that classification cannot be avoid, because its organically emerges (accurately or erroneously) as the internet (writ macro, or the human mind, writ micro) attempts to build a framework for popular knowledge.

    Wikipedia must make a decision on how to delineate the meanings of kungfu to separate it into different pages. It is incumbent upon those who are educated on a topic (such as yourself) to take a stab at classification, otherwise less accurate assessments will ossify into fact.

    Looking at the wikipedia classifications of kungfu, you interestingly point out not only the way that they frame (and perhaps distort) the perception of what Kungfu is to the layman, but also how they reflect historical and political realities that have shaped kungfu’s current incarnation. I would be interested to hear even more on this angle.

    • Sascha says:

      Both of you point out what I think may become a central theme of this project – and I have to keep focused on this project and not get lost in all of the possibilities.

      specifically, focusing on the emergence of wushu as we know it today through

      1) political pressures (Qing, Nationalist, and Communist attempts to, basically, co-opt hand-to-hand combat) that created wushu as a sport, sanda as a simplified combat form, and even the way students are taught (hundreds of students doing forms in an open space)

      2) social pressures such as the trend, which may have began during the Ming, of educated, most likely affluent people taking to taiji and other martial arts forms in order to maintain health, cultivate qi, and achieve an “esoteric” high

      3) and commercial pressures that fuse the above two together into “flowery wushu” and simplified taiji for the masses etc.

      because my real goal is to talk about the current state of Chinese martial arts in as informed a manner as possible, so talking about how classifications were created is very useful to show why things are the way they are.

      I will leave actual classifications to real scholars 😉

  3. […] brings me, again, to my vocal buddy Eli who once asked for a Compendium of the Martial Arts and most recently loudly argued that BJJ has little or nothing to do with Japan and even less to do […]

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