What is wushu? Chinese martial arts contested as South-East Asian Games sport

The sport, which is featuring at the 31st SEA Games in Hanoi, Vietnam, features various forms of Chinese martial arts including taijiquan (tai chi). Find out what is wushu here.

By ZK Goh
Picture by 2019 Getty Images

Did you know tai chi (taijiquan) is being contested as a sport at this month’s South-East Asian Games (SEA Games) in Hanoi, Vietnam?

Specifically, it is one of the events under the umbrella sport of wushu, a collection of Chinese martial arts. Wushu is also sometimes called kung fu, and both are names generally referring to the Chinese martial arts.

Indeed, there are 21 different wushu events being held in Hanoi, ranging from artistic displays to fighting-style bouts.

But what is wushu? What does “wushu” mean? What type of sport is wushu? What is the history of wushu? Read on to find out.

A wushu sanda (combat) bout in the men's 56kg category during the 2019 SEA Games in Manila
Picture by 2019 Getty Images

History and styles of wushu

Wushu, written 武术 in Chinese, literally means “martial technique”.

It has a history dating back thousands of years to the Qin Dynasty, while the International Wushu Federation was formed in 1990 to govern the many distinct types of martial art under the “wushu” banner.

In the modern day, there are two main disciplines of wushu: taolu, or choreographed routines, and sanda, full-contact combat.

Taolu is further split into categories based on different stances, movements, routines, and even weapons – including the bare-handed taijiquan and taijijian, which is tai chi with a Chinese straight sword.

Meanwhile, sanda features combat using wushu and kung fu techniques, and is split into weight categories similar to other Asian martial arts such as judo and taekwondo, effectively making it the fighting form of wushu.

The first World Championships were held in Beijing in 1991 and held every two years since; it first appeared on the Asian Games programme the year prior and has been contested at every Asian Games since.

It was first added to the SEA Games in 1991, and aside from exclusions in 1995 and 1999 has not been left off the programme since.

An athlete performs a wushu taolu changquan routine during the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore
Picture by 2015 Getty Images

Wushu sports events at SEA Games and equipment

There are 21 events taking place in Hanoi: 13 in taolu and eight in sanda.

The eight sanda events are split into four women’s weight categories and four men’s weight categories, while the taolu events are:

  • Men’s and women’s changquan
  • Men’s and women’s daoshu + gunshu
  • Men’s nandao
  • Men’s nangun
  • Men’s nanquan
  • Men’s and women’s taijijian
  • Men’s and women’s taijiquan
  • Women’s jianshu
  • Women’s qiangshu

The changquan, nanquan, and taijiquan events are bare-handed, while the others all use weapons.

Meanwhile, the daoshu uses a broadsword, nandao uses a Southern Chinese variation of the broadsword, gunshu and nangun use a staff, the taijijian and jianshu are performed with a straight sword, and qiangshu with a spear.

Taolu events are judged with a difficulty and execution score, while sanda is direct head-to-head combat.

Turkey's Elif Akyuz performs a wushu taolu jianshu routine using a Chinese straight sword at the 2013 Islamic Solidarity Games
Picture by 2013 Getty Images

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