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The Long Reach of the Martial Arts
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The recent acceptance of wushu (martial arts) into the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games attests to the sport's international success. To be considered for the Olympics, a sport must be represented in 73 countries and span at least three continents; the International Wushu Federation (IWUF), recognized in 1995 by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), reported members in more than 78 countries and in every (inhabitable) continent.


Indeed, the ancient Chinese martial art has come a long way since the 1970s, when athlete/film actor Bruce Lee introduced it to the world in his popular action movies. Though few people outside China knew anything about the art or the country of its origin, Lee's amazing skill quickly influenced foreign boys and girls to take up the practice.


Yet it seems wushu is fading in popularity in its native land. Attending a wushu class in any of Shanghai's martial arts schools confirms that today's wushu followers are, for the most part, curious expatriates. At Alvin Guo's Longwu Gongfu Center on Shaanxi Nanlu, almost all of the students practicing jumps and crouches are foreigners, usually from Europe and North America.


Guo says he's noticed that Chinese seem more interested in attending the other "Western" martial arts classes offered at his school, such as tae kwon do and yoga. His wushu students, most of whom are 16 to 25, often consider wushu a part of their experience of Chinese culture. Also, they know that wushu coaching in its original country is probably better than what they can get at home.


Indeed, if they are looking for a qualified wushu coach, students at the Longwu school are getting more than their money's worth. Alvin Guo, who teaches both Shaolin Long Fist and Taiji Chuan, began practicing wushu at six years old, in Shanghai's parks.


"At that time -- in the 80s -- wushu was very popular in China," he says. He started taking classes and in 1989 swept a children's competition. He became captain of the Shanghai wushu team from 1991 to 2002, during which time he spent a year and a half touring the US with the famous Barnum and Bailey circus, picking up conversational English on the road.


Guo won the 1996 and 1997 National Championships in sword and long fist events and the 1998 World Championships in spear, sword, and Taiji Chuan. After 2002, when an injury prevented further competitive appearances, Guo took the next logical step: he opened his own wushu school.


His newly purchased studio is in a former theatre on Shaanxi Nanlu. It is spacious and colourfully decorated, both with remnants of theatre backdrops and with wushu related pictures. There are five large mat areas and many mirrors for students to practice in front of while the instructors critique and advise.


Most classes are 90 minutes long. The atmosphere is friendly and supportive, which is necessary to learn often frustrating moves.


Wushu, known in many countries as kungfu, has hazy origins dating back to before Chinese statehood. Before China's Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), warriors already were being trained in wuyi, a practice recognizably related to wushu. One of the most popular wushu styles, Shaolin Style, is credited to Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who came to China teaching Buddhism in the fifth century.


In its roughly 2,000 years of development, wushu has expanded to include more than 100 styles, such as "Shaolin Long Fist" and "Drunken Boxing", and more than 50 types of weapons, varying from the common staff and sword to the more eclectic fan and hammer.


An ancient practice with a faithful following all around the world, wushu may not be the current fad in China but its representation in the 2008 Olympics promises to revive interest and keep the tradition thriving.


(Shanghai Star August 1, 2003)


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