In my last piece on the site, I spoke with two Wudang masters about the current state of traditional Chinese martial arts (CMA) in the United States and around the world. For the last couple of decades, participation in CMA has been on somewhat of a decline as other forms of fighting have risen to popularity through televised competition like the UFC.

The topic has become even more pertinent since Beijing-based MMA fighter and trainer Xu Xiaodong challenged and knocked out supposed Taijiquan master Wei Lei on video, which sent the Internet spiraling. The course of events has brought the entirety of CMA into question as well as deeper themes embedded within it. It comes at a time when the entire system has already been on somewhat of a struggle to stay relevant.

MMA Xu Xiaodong vs TaiJi Master Wei Lei

Participation in Chinese Martial Arts

Chinese Martial Arts
Pictured is Dr. Lu Mei-Hui demonstrating a traditional Wudang taijiquan form with the taijiquan ball given only to the gatekeepers of their lineage. Dr. Lu and her instruction partner Master Chang Wu Na are the 13th generation gatekeepers of their lineage, the Wudang Dan Pai.
Nick Wong

Masters Chang Wu Na and Lu Mei-Hui are the current gatekeepers of the Wudang Dan Pai. They have carried the 13 generations of their tradition to Seattle, Washington with the purpose of maintaining the spirit of the traditional art in the midst of a changing world. Their teacher, Grandmaster Ma Jie, had a plan to revive the art that was perceivably dying.

According to his students, the decline of traditional folk martial arts can be attributed to a number of factors, but two in particular. The first is a general misrepresentation of martial arts in the media.

“You know when you watch those Kung Fu movies, and they’re flying in the air. You got like models, pretty girls, and they’re doing pretty movement. Also they got pretty boys and they’re doing pretty movement too. Everyone looks pretty and they’re all doing pretty movements; well that’s what people want to see,” says Master Chang.

“They don’t want to see some kind of thick-looking, maybe dumb guy come out and demonstrate some fighting technique. They wanna see long beautiful hair. Long beautiful robes.”

“Very fancy,” Dr. Lu chimes in. “The entire value, look around, it’s just changed.”

“It’s all about the image,” says Master Chang.

Rise of Admiration for Western Culture in China

Chinese Martial Arts
Master Chang Wu Na instructing students during a Friday night Sanda training session. Their academy, the International Wudang Internal Martial Arts Academy offers lessons in baguazhang, xingyiquan, taijiquan, qigong, sanda and Wudang sword.
Nick Wong

The second is the rise of admiration for western culture in China and its affect on the succeeding generations. “The second Open-Door Policy” in 1978 attribute much of that when president Deng Xiaoping reopened international trade and allowed foreign corporations to set up shop on Chinese land. Naturally, this imported new values, new culture, and new life attitudes – a shift that martial artists certainly took note of.

“Another reason Sifu Ma Jie told me was that because in China there has been a trend – people kind of admire the western world,” says Dr. Lu. “The younger generation they work so hard trying to pursue, welcome and receive those values from the western world.”

What resulted was a proposal to re-import the traditional arts using the very means that had caused its decline. The idea was to export CMA to the West and popularize it enough so that the younger generation of the old country would readopt their traditional values under the guise of imitating western values – a recycling of culture, essentially.

“You have to make such a loud noise that they can hear about it in China,” Master Chang recounts his teacher telling him.

This of course came with a bit of hesitation. After all, the techniques taught in traditional martial arts are meant to harm, or in worst-case scenario, kill an attacker. Putting aside the debates of whether or not those techniques are effective, one can probably agree overall that simply teaching something with those sort of intentions should be taken into serious consideration. Given the direction of how things were going at the time however, keeping the tradition only available to an exclusive few wasn’t exactly a viable alternative either.

Chinese Martial Arts in Western

Chinese Martial Arts
Master Chang Wu Na demonstrates fighting forms in the Wudang Sword. Him and Dr. Lu are also 13th generation gatekeepers of the Wudang sword form.
Nick Wong

“I think for our Sifu, it wasn’t an immediate idea that he had to give to the West. It was in stages,” Chang Laoshi starts. “First of all, I don’t think he wanted to ‘give’ it to them. But some of the younger generation wanted to learn from Lu Laoshi and I. So I think that turned the light on in his brain. He was a very patriotic person. He’s one of those guys that if you can beat up a foreign boxer, that’s something you can be really be proud of.

And yet he also said, ‘Hey, this thing that’s been going for 12 generations. This is going to be it because so many people don’t learn the entire form,’ and so if he didn’t think outside the box, it was going to fall apart. That’s where he came to his conclusion I think.”

This thought pattern was not distinct to the Grandmaster either. You can see similar occurrences in a variety of CMA fighting styles proliferating into the world. The reasoning again was the influx of western culture on the East.

“Traditional martial artists have to go to foreign countries – this is not necessarily a bizarre thing. Hung Gar is a famous southern style and it’s very big in Hong Kong. What they do is they go up to the rooftop and they train on the roof – the ‘rooftop schools’,” Master Chang says.

“But those are basically dying out if they’re not already died out because people in Hong Kong aren’t interested in that anymore. What are they interested in? They’re interested in making money, and being rich and being businessmen. They don’t have time for that stuff anymore.  There are great people in Europe, in Germany and whatnot, that are great in traditional martial arts that have taken the lineage – not stolen it – but received it because no one else does it. It was kind of the same thing with us.”

MMA vs Chinese Martial Arts

Chinese Martial Arts
Master Chang Wu Na instructing students during a Friday night Sanda training session. Their academy, the International Wudang Internal Martial Arts Academy offers lessons in baguazhang, xingyiquan, taijiquan, qigong, sanda and Wudang sword.
Nick Wong

For years the approach found somewhat of a success. Traditional martial arts dojos began sprouting around the world. A more recent practice of foreigners booking training retreats at traditional martial arts academies throughout Asia has taken trend. Things were looking up for the health of CMA.

But then came the infamous video that shook up the martial arts world. According to the MMA advocate Xu, the intention of his challenge was to expose the frauds in the world of martial arts. He wanted to prove the efficacy of the martial styles found in competitive fighting in the fight world. But Xu has also received considerable backlash for his actions and words afterwards, so much that for a while it forced the Beijing trainer into hiding.

Outsiders to the world of martial arts may find the reaction extreme, but what may not be so well understood by the layman is that the fight represented much more than just proving which style was more effective than another. It was symbolic of challenging tradition and the values embedded in that tradition. It was essentially a criticism on culture and a certain way of life.

Furthermore, saying that a particular martial art is ineffective is basically taking away would-be practitioners from starting in said art. When a fighting form stops receiving students, it eventually dies. Master Chang certainly sees the trend, in fighting and in other areas of life.

“So you wanna fight? Man. Don’t do Chinese Martial Arts. Do boxing, MMA or jiu-jitsu. You go in there and you fight. That’s all you have to do,” says the Master. “You want to be healthy? Just take your pills, or go down to the acupuncturist. She’ll put some needles in you. You’ll be fine. You want to do some pretty movements? Do modern wushu.”

Purpose of Chinese Martial Arts

Chinese Martial Arts
Master Chang Wu Na demonstrates fighting forms in the Wudang Sword. Him and Dr. Lu are also 13th generation gatekeepers of the Wudang sword form.
Nick Wong

For those unfamiliar with traditional CMA, it might be worth mentioning that many of those lines within the system have a considerable study based in the internal development of a person’s spirit and character. People don’t solely focus on how hard one can punch, how well one can fall or how efficiently one can immobilize their adversary.

Conceptually, the purpose of many of traditional forms is to create a harmonious union between the external and the internal. Use it as a tool to become a more evolved human being. When looking at it from that perspective, the bout that took place in China carries a bit more depth, and in some ways, more consequences.

“People go with simplicity. They react to aesthetics so they don’t want things to be too complicated because it’s harder for them to understand. That is the way of things, but that shouldn’t be the way of things, because we’re actually going farther away from the core of what we as human beings are,” says Master Chang.

“Luckily as human beings, we have a mind that can think and we have a body that can regenerate itself and through our thinking mind. Through our regenerating body, we can create something. And to give that up is, I feel, to give up something that is basic, something that is so important to our identity as human beings. We’re giving up a piece of ourselves in favor of a fad and that’s a tragedy.”

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