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Contemporary Vs. Traditional Kung Fu Practice

Posted on: May 4th, 2013 by Paula Lazarz

Anybody who practices Kung Fu is very familiar with the “traditional” vs. “contemporary” debate.
In the United States, traditional kung fu players tend to call their art “kung fu” and contemporary players call their art “wushu”.  For simplicity, and to comply with our American cultural norms, I will do the same.

I fall into the “traditional” camp.  I started Kung Fu as an adult in my early 30s with a desire for self-defense.  I must admit though, falling into Kung Fu was just dumb luck on my part. I just wanted martial arts.  I wouldn’t have known traditional kung fu from wushu if my life depended on it –  or taekwondo from karate for that matter.
Over the years, I have had opportunities to study Wushu, but stuck to traditional kung fu for two reasons: 1) I felt I was too old to develop wushu to its highest level and 2) my main reason to study kung fu was for self-defense.  As far as I was concerned, there is a lifetime of practice just in the self-defense aspects by themselves.   Add forms training and we are looking at quite a commitment – add the flying kicks into a side split and the other athleticism that wushu involves and well….you know…..whew!
That was my personal decision for my own practice and my own life conditions.  I wouldn’t say this decision would be best for every person who has an interest in Kung Fu.  I do know a few people who developed their Wushu, traditional forms and self-defense/fighting abilities. They are far and few between and tend to be Kung Fu savants.
The debate about traditional kung fu and wushu usually sounds like this:
What constitutes a traditional form?  Should contemporary form practice be considered a martial art or gymnastics? Do the movements in contemporary practice reflect real self-defense techniques?  How do practitioners from either genre compete with each other, share camaraderie with each other or even respect each other?
We could talk about each of these questions in detail, but that is not the purpose of this post.  These kind of discussions have been done-to-death.  I am wondering if Wushu offers the same development in an individual as traditional Kung Fu does.
As a teacher, I develop my students “traditionally”.   To me this means traditional forms training, practical self-defense, traditional weapons and sparring. They also work on all the fundamental practices that goes into studying these aspects.  I am fortunate that I teach many different age groups and they all follow the traditional approach.
I also have young adult and teen Black Sashes who started as 3-5 year olds.
I like this group to practice and develop wushu.  They already have a solid foundation, great flexibility and good stamina.  Wushu pushes them to their utmost physically at a time in their life when they should be going for that.  It is exciting and fun for a young person to do and it opens opportunities for young people to be seen.  Wushu gives them the chance to compete in major events nationally and internationally.  More colleges are adding wushu to their sport curriculums and offering scholarship opportunities.

I am a firm believer in encouraging young people to shine as bright as they possibly can at a time in their lives when they are so completely wired for it.  I truly believe wushu is a good vehicle for that.
I remember what it was like when China was still relatively closed and fewer people were practicing wushu in the U.S.  I have watched as more Chinese wushu coaches have come to the U. S. and more athletes are pursuing it. Because of my own young wushu hotshots and rock stars, I have had a chance to get a little more immersed in the culture of this aspect of Chinese martial arts.
When I reflect on my years as a traditional Shaolin Kung Fu practitioner and when I ponder what qualities I want to develop in my students and how best to do that,  I feel the main difference between the two is what kind of martial integrity they develop in the student.

There is a lack of Wu De (martial ethics) in Wushu practice.  Wu De consists of five qualities: Respect, Humility, Trust, Virtue, and Honor.
I believe that Wushu lacks the ability to develop Wu De, not because of the how it is practiced, but because of the very thing its proponents don’t do….FIGHT! 
I am saying FIGHT as opposed to the politically correct “sparring” to make a point.  FIGHT is a more in-your-face word and more closely evokes the kind of emotion a martial arts practitioner has to pass through and evolve beyond when they practice their sparring and have the courage to put themselves to the test.
There is also a certain discipline that needs to maintained in a Kung Fu school where students make contact.  The discipline is for everyone’s safety. This discipline lays the foundation for development of Wu De. Wushu schools tend to have a more relaxed atmosphere.
Fighting develops Respect by teaching us there are powers greater then our own limited self.   There are individuals with developed skills better then ours.  In this case, it is not just an intellectual exercise, but is literally felt in the body, processed in the mind and experienced with the emotions.
Humility grows when we realize no matter how good we are, we are limited human beings that are always vulnerable to injury or demise.
Trust grows over time as we put our well-being in each other’s hands.  We trust each other when we practice contact to be prepared for defense.
Virtue is evident when one has to reign in her physicality against a weaker opponent or when he accepts a blow to encourage a Kung Fu brother’s confidence.  Virtue is also knowing the difference between the two.
Honor is tricky, because if one does develop Respect, Humility, Trust and Virtue, Honor results as a happy byproduct.
I feel that Wushu might actually encourage the opposite because of its emphasis on performance, entertainment, flashiness and star power.
If one of the main reasons we practice martial arts is for the development of Wu  De, do you believe Wushu can be considered a martial art?