Published: 15:49, December 1, 2023 | Updated: 15:49, December 1, 2023
For the love of wushu
By May Zhou in Houston

Chinese form of martial arts has attracted some 120 million practitioners around the world

Wushu players from around the world perform at the closing ceremony of the 16th World Wushu Championships held on Nov 15-20 in Fort Worth, Texas. (MAY ZHOU / CHINA DAILY)

Editor’s note: As the 16th World Wushu Championships concluded last week in Texas, China Daily reviews how this inspirational form of martial arts affects the lives of hundreds of competitors far beyond the arena.

Love was in the air as hundreds of competitors from more than 50 countries and regions gathered in Fort Worth, Texas, to compete in the 16th World Wushu Championships for about a week.

It was the love for wushu shown by athletes at the championships in mid-November.

Fran Kyis, a 22-year-old medical student from Croatia, was training in swimming and other sports when a coach asked him to try sanda (full-contact fighting like boxing) when he was 17.

“I tried and fell in love with it,” said Kyis, who had won second place twice in European championships. “It’s a great exercise to develop the entire body, all the muscle groups. It’s very technical, you must be very intelligent to train and to be good at it.”

Oliver Hassel, coach of the Switzerland team, first learned about wushu on the silver screen.

“I saw martial arts in movies, and I had always wanted to do that,” he said. People who had inspired him on the screen included Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Chuck Norris.

Hassel said he had been fighting since he was 17 and competed in the 1995 championships held in Baltimore.

Twenty-eight years later, he returned to the United States as a coach after retiring in 2015. Over the years, he has fought in various events in Harbin, Xi’an, Chongqing and Beijing.

Sanda (full-contact fighting) champions in the women's 52kg category (from left): Silver medalist Elisa Calanducci from Italy, gold medalist Chen Mengyue from China, bronze medalists Audrey Meeks from the United States and Nga Ngo Thi Phuong from Vietnam. (MAY ZHOU / CHINA DAILY)

The wushu community in Switzerland is composed mostly of native residents, Hassel said.

“Swiss people went to China and brought it back to Switzerland. Tai chi and qigong (a Chinese breathing exercise) community is quite big there,” he said. “For us it’s a hobby, but a beautiful hobby. We love it.”

At the opening ceremony at the Fort Worth Convention Center on Nov 15, Katie Mendez’s eyes were glued to the center stage where about 100 people, all dressed in white, were performing tai chi.

She was focusing on one particular performer — her son Miguel Mendez, a 10th grader from Allen, a small suburban city north of Dallas-Fort Worth.

“My son has been practicing taekwondo since he was five years old. Two months ago, he was recruited to perform tai chi for this occasion,” said Mendez.

Miguel also practiced wing chun, a self-defense-based martial arts from southern China, for about a year and half.

“After he watched those athletes practice, he told me he fell in love with wushu,” Mendez said.

Watching wushu in action was also exactly how Alan Huang, a member of the US team, was attracted to the sport.

Huang said he saw a wushu performance for the first time when he was only four at a Chinese school. “I thought it was very cool, so I decided to join,” said Huang, who is from Long Island, New York, and now a student at Harvard University pursuing a major in government studies.

Roman Reva from Ukraine competes at the 16th World Wushu Championships on Nov 17, 2023. (PHOTO / CHINA NEWS SERVICE)

Huang said wushu has, to a great degree, shaped him into what he is today. His gains are beyond acquiring the perseverance and strength that are necessary for pursuing the sport and excelling in any other field.

“I don’t think I was a great kid in elementary school. I had a little ‘everything revolving around me’ attitude,” he said.

His first transformative experience with wushu came when in fifth grade he went to Beijing to train for a year. The training with Chinese wushu talent opened his eyes.

“Being able to train (in) wushu, keep on grinding, and knowing that there will always be some people better than me, and there will always be something I am striving toward, having that kind of goal in my mind set me out of ‘Oh, I am having fun here. I am better than everyone else’ attitude. It changed me,” Huang said.

Wushu also helped him connect with his own heritage.

“At the elementary school, I could not speak Chinese. The more I was invited to the wushu community, the more I felt at peace with my culture. I got motivated to get in touch with my Chinese roots. Now, I am able to hold a conversation in Chinese,” he said.

Determined to keep wushu in his life to some extent, Huang said he was pleasantly surprised when he found out that there was a wushu club at Harvard for him to join. With a membership of diverse racial backgrounds, Huang said they train about four times a week to maintain their basics.

While wushu brought Huang to his own cultural roots, for Omar Mendez, a competitor in the categories of tai chi and taijijian (tai chi with a double-edged sword) and a member of the Mexican team, wushu has become a way of life.

Performers from Yunnan province showcase wushu moves at the opening ceremony of the 16th World Wushu Championships. (MAY ZHOU / CHINA DAILY)

Mendez, 33, said he started learning martial arts when he was six.

“I was talented, my passion for wushu and about learning more was over the top,” Mendez said. “My coach sent me to train in China as part of the Mexican team.”

At first, he trained in China for two months at a time. However, the more he learned, he realized the more he had yet to learn. He decided to take a deeper plunge.

Mendez spent two years in China to master the language, and then earned a master’s degree at Capital University of Physical Education and Sports in Beijing. In total, he lived in Beijing for seven years.

The experiences enabled him to learn wushu in a profound way, said Mendez. To him, wushu went beyond physical fitness.

“There is also a philosophical aspect and culture in wushu,” Mendez said. “To truly learn wushu well, you have to understand its philosophy and cultural components.”

Since the International Wushu Federation was established in 1990 and the first biennial world championships were held in Beijing in 1991, wushu has come a long way in more than 30 years, as witnessed by Shi Xinghao, one of the 32 generations of Shaolin disciples who runs the Houston Shaolin Kung Fu Academy.

Shi was at the 16th World Wushu Championships as one of the volunteers who were instrumental in organizing the competition. He has taken his students to various competitions and watched how the scene of wushu has changed over the past decades on the world stage.

When he first started going to the competitions in the early 2000s, most of the participants could speak at best a few words of Chinese. However, in later years, he discovered that many wushu athletes had deeper connections with China.

“It seems that wushu, as a platform, has played an important role in spreading Chinese culture,” said Shi.

Oryna Ivanova, from Ukraine. (MAY ZHOU / CHINA DAILY)

He discovered that many wushu athletes, to understand wushu better, had learned Chinese, and, consequently, gotten to know more about China.

One of his students, William Nisbett, is such an example, Shi said. Nisbett trained at his academy for about eight years when he was in primary school.

His love for wushu led him to select Chinese as a foreign language in college. “His Chinese became so good that he won second place in ‘Chinese Bridge’ (competition) in the southern eight states,” Shi said.

Now a marketing professional, Nisbett recently translated a book from Chinese to English.

“The martial arts have a big impact beyond the sport. I feel very gratified,” Shi said.

Zheng Jutian, coach for the Chinese team, said that going back 10 or 20 years, a Chinese team would win most of the gold medals with little doubt, but no longer.

“I can see from this year’s competition that athletes from other nations have been improving steadily over the years, and the best of them can match the best of Chinese players. This reflects that wushu is indeed becoming a world sport, and I am happy to see that.”

Olympics officials said there are more than 120 million practitioners of wushu worldwide, which was created to standardize the practice of traditional Chinese martial arts. Wushu has been recently accepted into the Youth Olympic Games and will make its debut at the Dakar 2026 Youth Olympic Games being hosted by Senegal.

Because of that, Zheng said he expects wushu to become an official sport in the Olympics soon.