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Beijing’s Top Kung Fu Collegiate Showdown

Wushu athletes converge for a wild exhibition at Tsinghua University


Wushu (武术, Wǔshù), the Chinese term for martial arts, goes hand-in-hand with any mention of China in the West. In the Middle Kingdom itself, though, wushu is something of a common event, so it is not as present or as popular in modern China as one might think.  But it can still be found in its modern form, which is more of a performance art that mixes gymnastic aerobatics with fighting movements and intensity.  That was what I found on a Sunday in May at the Gymnasium of Tsinghua University  (清华大学体育馆, Qīnghuá Dàxué Tǐyùguǎn ).

Up to this point of my stay in China, I had found it difficult to find any traces of Contemporary Wushu — the English name given to the modern sport version of the Chinese fighting arts — at the collegiate level. That being said, I had heard that many of the universities in Haidian had professional and semi-professional wushu teams, so I was certain there must be some sort of congregation and test of skills.  Low and behold, a friend and fellow wushu practitioner informed me of the 2013 Capital University Wushu Competition (2013年首都高校武术比赛; 2013 nián Shǒudū Gāoxiào Wǔshù Bǐsài) to be held at Tsinghua University on May 26th.  At first, I had thought that the competition would be held at an actual Capital University, but this was not the case, as my friend explained that the competition was held at a different university every year.

Thus, on the morning of May 26th I rose early to take the subway from my university on the East side of Beijing to Haidian district’s Wudaokou Station, from which I walked and arrived at the South Gate of Tsinghua University and found my way to the East Gymnasium.  Walking in I immediately saw a flash of red and silver, a female student in red silk uniform with a straightsword (剑; Jiàn), or “sword” if you go by the Chinese translation, doing some last minute overview of her form before the big moment.  As to where that big moment would take place, my question was answered upon entering the gym, where I saw three large performance mats (two for performance of forms and the third for sparring) lined with college students in silk uniforms of every color, themselves performing or cheering on their classmates, and a copious amount of adults in white frog buttoned suits, judging the events.

Finding my way down from the upper level bleachers to the basketball courts, I was immersed in the color and the action of it all. While this action included the jumps and grace of Long Fist (长拳; Chángquán),and the powerful yells inherent in Southern Fist (南拳, Nánquán) — the two main styles of Contemporary Wushu — but there were oddities I hadn’t seen in any wushu videos or had heard of from any other competitions, such as a guy wrapped in a green toy stuffed snake doing a Snake Fist (蛇拳, Shéquán) form.

As to what the competition was all about, it is quite unique, as the various divisions account for the different schools, teams and varying levels of the student athletes present. The divisions were broken into F, T, G and a “Test” division.  F and G divisions were quite simple, as the former was for students who might not be on a school team but who wished to compete anyway, while G division was for students who were also members of professional wushu teams, like the Beijing Wushu Team.  As for T Division, this was for students who specifically went to school at Beijing Sports University (北京体育大学, Běijīng Tǐyù Dàxué) or the Capital Institute of Physical Education (首都体育学院, Shǒudū Tǐyù Xuéyuàn) who competed at the amateur level.  Finally, there was the “Testing” Division, which was for students who wished to use any awards or points recieved during the competition towards their final grades in school.

As for the styles in the tournament, not only was there the common Long Fist and Southern Fist, but animal styles like Monkey and Praying Mantis, and styles ranging from intense, such as Pīguàquán (劈掛拳; Chop-hanging Fist) and Bājíquán (八极拳, Eight Extremities Fist), and even flowing, like Bāguàzhǎng (八卦掌, Eight Trigram Palm) and Xíngyìquán (形意拳, Form-intention Fist). While the event itself ran from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, I could not tire of the endless amounts of styles, weapons, and awesome kicks, punches, poses and acrobatic feats that never seemed to cease when looking left or right.

The day was a colorful spectrum of shiny uniforms and martial flair, but I nevertheless had a lingering curiousity as to why people would want to compete in such a tournament. One student, a Taiji competitor named Wang Dingmin (汪鼎民), explained that the reason for such a turnout was that it allowed not only for students to test their skill on the green mats, but also for a chance to expose themselves to the wushu world even if it was at a small level, but it was also a chance to meet like-minded athletes and new people.  While I certainly saw Dingmin’s perspective, many of those I interviewed seemed to either give the same response, with some going so far to explain that they were only competing because their school team had asked them to do so. One student stood out from all the rest, though, was a foreign exchange student from Malaysia named Cassandra, who had only just started practicing wushu when she arrived for her study abroad program at Beijing Language and Culture University (北京语言大学,Běijīng Yǔyán Dàxué). When asked why she had wanted to practice wushu and why she was competing, she explained, simply “because its awesome to watch and its fun to practice.” Being there that day, I definitely could agree that witnessing such an event was amazing and provided a chance to see just how awesome wushu really is.

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