Wushu (武术) is a form of contemporary Chinese martial arts that blends elements of performance and martial application. Wushu training emphasizes quickness, explosive power, and natural, relaxed movement. The wushu practitioner must combine flexibility with strength, speed with flawless technique, fierce intent with effortless execution.
STYLES OF WUSHU
Modern wushu encompasses a wide variety of Chinese martial arts styles, which can be categorized in several ways. Along one axis, wushu is divided into barehand and weapon-play styles, where the various wushu weapons are grouped into long-range, short-range, flexible, and double weapons. Along another axis, wushu styles are categorized by the martial arts system which created them. For example, the southern martial arts system includes barehand, broadsword, and staff styles. Staff styles, on the other hand, have been created by the northern, southern, and even drunken fighting systems.
As beginners, students of wushu receive introductory training in most of the core styles, but as they gain experience, they begin to concentrate on a small number of styles. Typically, a student will specialize in one style each of barehand, short weapon, and long weapon. It is important that maturing students undertake specializations which match their abilities and personality — often, the choice is handed down by the instructor, whose judgement is guided by long experience, rather than the student, whose judgement may be colored by “what looks cool.”
LONG FIST (长拳)
As the name might imply, longfist is characterized by attack at the extreme end of one’s reach. In order to conduct these long-range strikes, the longfist boxer must remain relaxed and extended in motion and posture. Longfist movement is quick, agile, and rhythmic, punctuated by explosive and spectacular jumping techniques. Power is clearly displayed in each movement, but tempered with grace and fluidity.
SOUTHERN FIST (南拳)
Southern fist is characterized by powerful hand strikes built upon firm stancework. The Southern boxer fights with ferocious intent, at times using a yell to generate additional power and raise the spirit. Footwork is low, fast, and tight, creating a stable foundation for weathering or delivering attacks. Little distinction is made between offense and defense in Southern fist. Many blocking techniques are delivered with such force that they double as attacks, and peculiar to Southern fist is a technique known as a “bridge,” in which the fist is thrown with the forearm held diagonally, simultaneously blocking and striking.
In Chinese martial arts, the staff is known as the “Father of all Weapons,” so named because many of the techniques employed in other weapons styles are derived from staff techniques. The staff is constructed with a slight taper, the butt end being thicker than the point, and stands as tall as the practitioner. The wood of the staff is semi-flexible, which allows the staff to be smashed forcefully against the ground without breaking. The flexibility of the wood also allows power to be clearly displayed in vibration at the staff’s tip. Most staff techniques are sweeping or whirling, allowing the practitioner to cover a large area with a single strike. Major staff techniques include chopping, uppercutting, figure-8 circling, pointing, and enveloping.
The broadsword, or saber, is known as the “Marshal of all Weapons,” as it was the standard armament of foot soldiers in medieval China. The broadsword is wielded in one hand, with the free hand forming a palm. It has a wide, curved blade with a single sharp edge, and when held at the side the tip of the blade extends to the practitioner’s ear. A silk flag is sometimes attached to the pommel of the sword. While the width and weight of the blade make it more appropriate for slicing and hacking attacks than thrusting attacks, both are used. Because the back edge of the sword is dull, the blade can be supported against the free hand or body in various movements. The major broadsword techniques include hacking, coiling around the head, uppercutting, parrying, and stabbing. Broadsword-play is characterized by swift, explosive movements and abandoned ferocity; an apt wushu saying states that “Broadsword-play resembles an enraged tiger.”
The straight sword, or simply sword, is known as the “Gentleman of all Weapons.” Like the broadsword, the straight sword is a single-handed weapon, and the free hand is held in a “sword fingers” position: thumb and outer two fingers curved to meet each other and inner two fingers extended together. The sword has a thin, straight blade with two sharp edges and a centerline ridge that supports the blade, and the tip of the blade extends to the ear when the sword is held at the side. A woven tassel is sometimes attached to the pommel of the sword for counterbalance. Due to its light construction, the straight sword cannot be used to deliver raw power; sword players must instead rely on technique and finesse. A wushu saying states that “Sword-play resembles a flying phoenix,” meaning that the practitioner must be quick but controlled, choosing the time and place of every attack, like a phoenix which darts in to strike at openings and slips gracefully away when threatened. The major sword techniques include circular parrying, hacking, tilting, pointing, and stabbing.
The spear is known as “the King of all Weapons,” because its length far outranges the other weapons while its sharp blade gives it killing power. The spear is the longest of the weapons, extending from the floor to the fingertips of the practitioner’s upraised arm. Like a staff, the spear’s shaft is tapered and constructed from semi-flexible wood. The spear head is a diamond shaped metal blade affixed to the narrow end of the shaft; a tassel of horsehair attached is usually attached just below the blade. Because the shaft is flexible, the spear player can attack from odd angles by bending the spear in a whipping motion. In addition, the spear can be smashed against the ground like a staff. To complement the flexibility of the spear, spear-play makes use of supple body work and fluid motions; the saying goes that “Spear-play resembles an undulating dragon.” Major spear techniques include parrying inward, parrying outward, stabbing, downward striking, tilting, enveloping, and figure-8 circling.
SOUTHERN BROAD-SWORD-PLAY (南刀术)
The Southern broadsword is a wide, single-edged blade which extends from hand to ear when held at the side. The Southern broadsword is easily distinguished from the Northern version by its uncurved blade, S-shaped guard, and longer handle, which ends in a ring at the pommel. This lengthened handle allows the sword to be wielded with both hands at times, and in certain techniques the sword is even wielded with an inverted grip. Southern broadsword-play combines the fast, aggressive footwork of Southern Fist with barrages of slashing and thrusting strikes. Emphasis is placed on short, direct attacks and fierce blocks interchanged in quick succession and delivered with unmistakable power. The major elements of Southern broadsword-play are slashing, chopping, stabbing, pushing, and uppercutting.
SOUTHERN SWORD PLAY (南剑术)
Like the Northern staff, the Southern staff is a tapered shaft of semi-flexible wood which stands at the staff-player’s height. The Southern staff, however, measures significantly thicker than its Northern counterpart, allowing it to withstand the direct blocks and smashing strikes of Southern staff-play. There is a marked de-emphasis on flashy, decorative movements in Southern staff-play; rather, the practitioner concentrates on projecting sheer power through straightforward but devastating techniques. If performed properly, the result can be both dazzling and daunting. Southern staff-play uses both ends of the staff for offense, and strikes from alternating ends of the staff are often delivered rapid-fire. The major techniques of Southern staff-play are horizontal chopping, downward smashing, thrusting, and circular parrying.