China Wushu in Olympics


China sent a wushu demonstration team to the 1936 Olympics, making it one of the earliest instances the national art. But China did not win a single medal at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Chinese still often brought up that year’s games – especially when discussing wushu to become an official Olympic sport.

In addition to the 69 athletes competing in sanctioned events, China also sent a nine-person wushu demonstration team. China made it the one of the earliest instances of the country’s martial arts featuring on a global stage.

Historian Andrew D. Morris writes that the demonstrations were one of the “few bright spots” for China during the games. The government had wanted to promote wushu as a “national art”. This was an ideal opportunity to “share the wonders of China’s ‘ancient sport’ and Chinese culture in general with the modern sporting fans of Europe and the world.”

Chu Minyi

Chu Minyi was the coach of the wushu demonstration team that went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

These demonstrations were also held outside of the Olympics, with performances at various Southeast Asian locales with significant Chinese populations en route to Germany. Before the games began, the team performed at several events in Hamburg and Berlin at a military camp. For the Olympic Sport and Physical Education Film Contest, they produced a German language film featuring national team coach Chu Minyi demonstrating Taiji techniques as well as “Taiji calisthenics”. It is a hybrid form he invented that is easier to learn and practice.

On August 9, 1936, the squad delivered a one-hour demonstration at the Olympic stadium in front of about 30,000 spectators. Morris writes that the opening three-minute Taiji calisthenics routine by Chu set the tone in showing that “Chinese culture could be modified, modernized, and fitted into the 20th century world.” The performance featured other modernized and synthesized martial arts sets.

Chu had been working with the government to promote such a notion for the past decade. He wrote the following passage in a 1928 issue of The Educational Review:

“Our goals in working to promote [wushu] are to gather together all those who excel in martial arts and all of the finest points of martial arts. Then we can give this organized, systematized, scholarly, and methodological guoshu to all the people of the world…spreading Chinese [wushu] to the entire world will mean glad tidings for humanity.”

Wushu in Olympics Again

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Whether the crowd grasped the idea or not, the spectacle was impressive enough that the fans “applause reverberated up to the heavens,” Morris writes. Two Finnish and English boxers challenged the team members after watching the performance and the team quickly defeated them

After the games, the demonstration team toured several other European countries before returning home. However, much of the post-games discussion in the media focused on the team finishing with zero medals. Despite the warm reception, wushu did not appear in the Olympics again until 2008 as yet again a demonstration sport.

“The world understood this only real triumph of the of the whole [1936] games as an impressive but ultimately meaningless demonstration,” Morris writes.

Wushu Competitions

Daria Tarasova wushu

Many of the team members went on to become notable figures in wushu. Zhang Wenguang, who showcased Chinese Muslim boxing techniques and wowed the audience by stopping a spear with his bare hands, taught martial arts at Beijing Sport University.

Zhang founded China’s first college-level martial arts program, organized and presided over numerous wushu competitions. He also authored China’s first standard rules for wushu competition as well as numerous books on various martial arts styles. He lived to witness the second time they featured wushu in the Olympics in 2008. At the age of 93 he continued to voice his support to include wushu in the Olympics.

Fu Shuyun finished her studies at Nanjing’s Central Martial Arts Academy and worked as a nurse during the Sino-Japanese war. After World War II, she became a highly regarded wushu teacher in Taiwan and starred in several films, including the 1975 movie Sunset in the Forbidden City.

Chu was not so lucky. After the fall of Shanghai to the Japanese in 1936, he became a high-ranking official in his brother-in-law Wang Jingwei’s Nanjing-based collaborationist government. After World War II, the Chinese Nationalist Party executed him for being a traitor to the Chinese people.

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