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There is some difference between older, traditional forms and the contemporary sport of Wushu, and there has been a great deal of evolution of the modern sport since the mid 20th century.

  • What are the main differences between contemporary competition Wushu and traditional Wushu?

Interested in the characteristics of each, and also rationale behind the evolution to the contemporary sport.

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Contemporary wushu focuses on performance.

Traditional wushu focuses on self-defense theory and application (or at least it should).

So in contemporary wushu, every movement is "flashy" to improve its appearance and level of difficulty. While the techniques themselves are taken from traditional wushu, the emphasis is on getting more air, more rotations, more extension, more distance, etc. That's because more points are awarded to more difficult motions. The actual form may have no real martial content. It ceases to be a collection of techniques that are put together in a very deliberate sequence for some self-defense scenario. Instead, it's a collection of techniques to maximize competition point count.

As I hinted at, traditional wushu forms are put together in a specific sequence in order to deal with some kind of self-defense situation. There may be 1 to 3 techniques in a form that, when strung together in that order, make a single self-defense scenario. Contemporary wushu will extract one of those techniques and puts it in a new form with any number of non-related techniques. In doing so, it loses that original self-defense purpose.

What makes contemporary wushu look like contemporary wushu is just a matter of evolution over time. The art has been evolving and will continue to evolve. What looks cool and is in fashion today may change in several years. The rules and the standardization of the point system and techniques have caused it to look the way it does. The IWUF has a series of videos on its web site that every judge must see. It shows what a butterfly-twist, for example, should look like, as well as how many points to award or deduct for different ways it is performed. It's all standardized.

Whereas, there is nothing analogous for traditional wushu. Each traditional style of kung-fu will have its own criteria for what constitutes good or bad form. For example, it's considered bad form to lean forward if you're doing a traditional northern style, but it's considered good form if you're doing a traditional southern style. Within traditional styles, though, there is room for flashiness, but that's not the focus.

Traditional wushu often has with it a breakdown of the self-defense techniques within the forms as well as a separate study of sparring and chin-na. There may also be chi-kung added as well. And there may be bag work and strength training. These don't tend to be taught in contemporary wushu. Stance training is also emphasized in traditional wushu to a much higher degree, because it's thought to be the foundation of self-defense skill, which is not the focus of contemporary wushu.

That's all I really wanted to say. As for the specific ways contemporary wushu has evolved over the years, that's a much broader topic. I think that deserves its own question, and maybe someone with a much better understanding of its history can answer that.

Hope that helps.

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  • I'm going to hold off on accepting, just to see if anything else pops up, but this is an excellent & comprehensive answer, consistent with my own understanding. (Do you have any thoughts on the integration of gymnastics over recent decades, and the function of standardization and compulsory forms to facilitate judging in competition? My sense is part of the motive of the contemporary style is hope of one day becoming an Olympic sport.)
    – DukeZhou
    Nov 6 '20 at 1:51
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    @DukeZhou Gymnastics training goes hand in hand with contemporary wushu training. Wushu teachers are not very good at teaching things like aerials and flip-flops. For that, you need the best, and that's a proper gymnastics coach. The best wushu competitors also train in gymnastics. But it must eventually be "expressed" with a martial accent. And that's fine. That is what contemporary wushu is moving towards: Being able to push the boundaries of human performance. All good! Nov 6 '20 at 1:59
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Practitioners of traditional wushu, as a modern person would interpret this term, probably do not call what they practice traditional wushu but something more specific. Traditional wushu is basically a catch-all category for Chinese martial arts that are not contemporary wushu.

Traditional

Traditional martial arts were suppressed in Communist China during the Cultural Revolution for years. It became illegal to teach martial arts, and many people were shipped off to the countryside to do manual labor. Due to this environment and its lasting effects, the best places to study traditional Chinese martial arts can counterintuitively be outside mainland China, in places where continuous practice and instruction was available.

Traditional Chinese martial arts are decentralized. Each instructor can basically graduate whomever they choose, and graduates can do the same for any of their own students. There are no form standards or rules to follow beyond your teacher's instruction. Combine this decentralization with times when transportation was difficult, literacy rates were relatively low, and video was not available, and you can get a high diversity of styles of varying quality. There is often no sport format for traditional Chinese martial arts.

Contemporary wushu

Contemporary wushu is the result of a Chinese government initiative to revive martial arts and is highly centralized. There are national training programs, and you can study wushu at university.

The simplest way to understand contemporary wushu is as martially-inspired gymnastics. There is a regulation-sized floor area where competitors perform routines (forms). There are judges who score these routines with skills rated by difficulty and execution. There is an outsized emphasis on adding combinations and more degrees of rotation to jumping moves. There are different events such as long fist (changquan), southern fist (nanquan), staff, straight sword, taiji, xingyi, etc. Although the events may match the names and general appearance of traditional styles, the goal of wushu is to have good-looking forms, not to have forms that teach you to fight.

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  • Good answer. Contemporary Wushu is designed with the aspiration of one day becoming an Olympic sport. (Interesting that rhythmic gymnastics is, but wushu so far is not.) My sense is the primary driver of the evolution of contemporary Wushu is to facilitate judging, and resemble other Olympic sports that involve judging a performance (such as ice skating and gymnastics.)
    – DukeZhou
    Nov 7 '20 at 0:00
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The differences are due to reforms made during and after the Cultural Revolution in China. During this period militant efforts to purge "traditional Chinese" culture to reinforce Maoism, which led to the destruction of a lot of martial arts manuals, documents, and treatises. Three million people were subject to be killed specifically because they were well known teachers of traditional Chinese culture, and this included well known martial art practitioners. That's not mentioning its anti-Buddhist purges that targeted many Buddhists (and martial practitioners).

By the 70s, interest in martial arts from movies made in Hong Kong by Ip Man and Bruce Lee rekindled interest in kung fu/Wushu practices. In the 80s, kung fu movies took off successfully in the US home video market. And new actors Jet Li and Jackie Chan also help rekindled interest in kung fu/wushu as a practice. Monks would travel the world.

Nevertheless it's a shell of its former self. Masters struggled to exploit new teaching tools and rediscover what they knew. The Chinese government used martial arts as a tourist draw, to market their teaching styles, and prospective students are being lured away by the draw of mixed martial arts (MMA), a combat sport that is exploding in popularity and requires no standard technique to implement. As a result, few fighters think of kung fu as a legitimate martial art any longer. Today, kung fu is a blend of martial technique and various isometric exercise, stretching, and elaborate gymnastics.

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    That's the No True Scotsman fallacy applied to kung-fu. Yes, the Chinese government cracked down on traditional kung-fu. No, it didn't get wiped out. It stayed alive and well in China. And it also spread to other countries outside of China's influence. The reason why traditional wushu is getting beat by MMA is that MMA is better than traditional wushu ever was at teaching people how to fight. That's because traditional wushu always had the wrong focus and wrong theories about how to train properly for fighting. There was never a "golden age" of traditional wushu, better than MMA. Nov 5 '20 at 23:54
  • @SteveWeigand That's a very good point. Books may have been destroyed, but the lineages persisted, and thrived in many forms. (Lazy mentions Li & Chan, but it must be noted that there is a direct lineage from Wong Fei-Hung to Lau Kar-Leung, and that's just one of many examples. The lack of Chinese competitors in MMA likely reflects the less perilous economic avenues competition Wushu and film work. And, as my own Sifu made sure to reinforce, you can't learn Gong Fu from a book.
    – DukeZhou
    Nov 6 '20 at 1:45
  • @DukeZhou No, it's not that MMA is less lucrative. It's that traditional wushu ("real", classical, old style kung-fu) got it wrong. They never figured out that learning to fight means you need to get as close as possible to a fight, without injuring each other. And keep doing that day after day. That will end up looking like MMA if it's done right. Instead, traditional wushu went off on things like forms, chi-kung, stance training, iron shirt / golden bell / and iron palm, etc. It simply doesn't work. Better than nothing, but it fails when put to the test. Nov 6 '20 at 1:55
  • @SteveWeigand If we take boxing historically, it was traditionally a career path for people coming from poverty, without other economic opportunities. ("Punch Drunk" was how we described it before we knew about traumatic brain injury.) My sense is that San Shou was de-emphasized in Chinese competition, potentially because it's unhealthy. Chinese Kungfu films go back to the 1920's, and have always been a career path for practitioners. (Most prizefighters don't make much money, and champions are few. It's a pretty high price to pay, and look at the toll it took on Muhammad Ali.)
    – DukeZhou
    Nov 6 '20 at 2:01
  • @SteveWeigand With MMA we're talking about a very specific sport, with rules and prohibitions, not real world combat. And the idea about avoiding close fighting breaks down in regard to Wudang systems (Tai Chi, Pakau, HsingYi, which are all entirely about very close fighting and body to body contact, just with an emphasis on breaks, and strikes to soft tissue such as the throat and eyes and groin. Many HsingYi forms heavily utilize stomps. WuDang sword relies on allowing the opponent's blade to get within a few inches of the body, & was explicated by the last generation of sword fighters.)
    – DukeZhou
    Nov 6 '20 at 2:02
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There are some very good answers and I want to supplement with some historical perspective.

After Communism, there was a goal of creating a national sport by standardizing Chinese martial arts in the form of Wushu. This did indeed result in oppression of traditional schools, but it's also important to note that the group who created the first generation of standardized form all came from traditional lineages. (The 67 combined Tai Chi form is a good example of integrating core techniques from most of the major styles of Tai Chi.)

The original standardized forms were still focused on martial application, as opposed to "flash".

It's also important to recognize that Chinese martial arts were never separate from performing arts, as "medicine shows", where practitioners would perform in the streets for coins, were common. Thus flashy, crowd-pleasing tricks have a long history that predates modern Wushu, and it's doubtful that serious practitioner didn't recognize the difference between these and practical techniques.

After the initial period in the 1950's, contemporary Wushu evolved further, with the goal of becoming an Olympic sport. My understanding that this is the main driver of what mattm astutely described as "martially-inspired gymnastics". And it's not that those practitioners are not strong, just that the contemporary art is not combat-optimized, but optimized for judging in routine-based competition, like ice skating and gymnastics. (Even the early standardization facilitated judging by introducing compulsory forms.)

Tai Chi is an instructive a good example in that, at a certain point, competitors were required to make their back straight, which is antithetical to the martial practice of tai chi, to facilitate judging—specifically determining that the weight is definitively on the proper foot. (This was the point when my own teacher, a top competitor in their own right stopped having students participate in competition.) High-level Hsing-yi often involves concealing where the weight is, and this obviously presents problems from a judging standpoint.

Also notable that KungFu movies goes back to at least the 1920's. The original stuntpeople came out of traditional schools, and later the Chinese studio system set up its own schools to train actors. During the Jet Li era, the Beijing Wushu team became a feeder into the Chinese action-film industry. (The original Shaolin Temple features the best competitors and teachers from that era, and led to Li becoming an international star.)

  • Most contemporary Wushu is entirely within the performing arts tradition of Chinese Martial arts, which have a long history in Chinese Opera and "sword dances", even prior to action cinema.

But it's also important to recognize: top contemporary wushu competitors, like gymnasts, have exceptional core strength, are incredibly fast such that it’s unlikely that they can be engaged if they choose not to engage, are exceptionally flexible and train in a range of movements which allow them of get out of locks, and, if thrown, are arguably the most likely to land on their feet, which also has application in getting out of some locks.

  • While contemporary Wushu (routines) are not combat oriented, it’s still a form of martial arts in that it can work well for self defense when young.

The exception is Sanshou/Sanda, and you do seem some Chinese Sanshou champions in MMA. But my sense is it's not as emphasized because there is not the national goal of Sanda becoming an Olympic sport.

And, again, Chinese practitioners, both performers and fighters, have an historical pathway into stuntwork and film, which is typically less punishing than prizefighting. (Jackie Chan, trained in an opera school, is famous partly for having broken most of the bones in his body, but avoided traumatic brain injury. Chan has had a significantly longer career than any modern prizefighter, and remains one of the wealthiest martial artists in history.)

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