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Kung Fu Faces Uncertain Future

As taekwondo gyms mushroom in the capital city of Beijing, China's millennia-old martial art of kung fu is losing favor among the young. 

The Wushu Association, a student society of Renmin University of China, used to offer workshops in kung fu, sanda (free-style grappling) and taekwondo. However, the association was forced to cancel kung fu lessons in the 2004-05 school year owing to lack of interest, despite strong registrations for the latter two courses.


"The association aims at promoting and popularizing the kung fu spirit, but now it has to be maintained by teaching sanda and taekwondo," said Yi Xin, the association's chairman and a senior majoring in environmental science. "Taekwondo was imported from South Korea, while sanda comprises such elements as boxing and wrestling. Both are very unlike the traditional martial arts."


In their fierce competition for market share, the imported taekwondo, karate and Thai boxing have taken the lead over the traditional kung fu. Taekwondo, which was introduced into China in the 1990s, has become fashionable among young people aged between 15 and 35.


In one trendy downtown shopping area between Dongzhimen and Chaoyangmen, which stretches no more than two kilometers, some four taekwondo gyms are thriving. Despite their high expenses, they are thronged with a constant stream of visitors every day.


"An art of attack and defense, taekwondo has been updated in its uniforms and dan (achievement level) system to meet market demand. However, very few changes have been made to China's martial arts for this purpose," said Dr. Liu Weijun of Beijing Sports University, who was one of China's first athletes to learn taekwondo and has written extensively on the subject.


There are now more than 200 taekwondo gyms in Beijing, and the karate and fencing populations have been steadily expanding. The situation in other big cities like Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou is roughly the same.


Wang Youlin, chairman of Chinese Wushu Association, said on March 19 that both the Education Ministry and the Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China have required kung fu courses be added to elementary and middle school curriculums, as part of the students' patriotic education.


Some universities do offer kung fu courses, but students usually take it either because it is a school requirement or simply because they are seeking more credits.


A sophomore surnamed Wang at Renmin University of China took kung fu as an elective. He complained, "I was so disappointed after learning the 24 basic movements of tai chi. It's like doing radio exercises, no good for self-defense at all."


"College students are losing interest in kung fu," said Professor Xu Weijun of Beijing Sports University. "It was remolded to be fancier without practical use, in the hope of getting into the Olympic Games. Thus it's becoming more and more like gymnastics or diving, losing its own attack-defense purpose."


China is indeed stepping up efforts to get kung fu into the Olympics.


The General Administration of Sports (GAS) has increased the number of kung fu gold medals from 18 to 19 for this year's 10th National Games, following only track and field and swimming.


Japan and South Korea, as previous hosts of the Games, succeeded in getting judo and taekwondo accredited as Olympic sports. "It's a common wish of all Chinese people to watch kung fu competitions at the Beijing Olympic Games," Huang Linghai, vice director of GAS' Wushu Administrative Center, said on March 22.


But International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge has been advocating reductions to the cost and complexity of the Olympics since he took office in 2001. As a result, the IOC has hesitated to vote on the kung fu matter. However, during his Beijing visit last year, Rogge expressed his intention to discuss with China the possibility of putting kung fu on the list of Olympic events.


Beijing's application proposal included three plans, with four, six or eight gold medals for kung fu. "Of course it's our goal to make it a formal game, but we cannot rule out the possibility of listing it as an exhibition event," said Huang.


"The kung fu issue will be voted by the full IOC July 6 in Singapore. If no clear decision is made then, the IOC Executive Board will hold an independent discussion on it to make the final determination," he said.


(China.org.cn by Shao Da, April 11, 2005)

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