First of all, let me wish all of you a merry Christmas and happy New Year.
Last November, much to my surprise, I received an award from the Taipei City Cultural Bureau. Each year they select four individuals for this honor- educators, artists, musicians, etc. -citizens who they feel deserve recognition for their dedication and contributions to Chinese art and culture. 2006 marked the tenth anniversary of the Culture Awards.
I never expected to be picked for something like that. So when I stepped on stage during the ceremony, one of the first things I told the audience was that I felt like the triple-crowned king of kings among those honored that night.
First of all, the other recipients are young. One is a successful scriptwriter, director, and producer of plays. The second, a professionally trained Chinese opera performer, merges Shakespeare with Beijing Opera. Both of these men have been working at their crafts for the last twenty years and are very famous in Taiwan. The third honoree is a young lady who has molded a "Chinese-flavored" tea ceremony and developed this into a performing art. Me, with my white hair, I was the oldest.
I really feel that this award should recognize the hard work and talent of younger artists. I'm sixty-five this year, legally old, a senior citizen. To award a senior is quite different: It's to recognize his achievements. This was the first of my three crowns.
Though I've worked intensively in traditional wushu all my life, I don't feel as if I' achieved anything. I still consider myself to be a humble student of martial arts. What's there to recognize or celebrate? Thus, the idea of receiving the Culture Award was somehow embarrassing to me.
Nonetheless, when I got up in the morning to wash my face and brush my teeth, I looked in the mirror and saw a happy face. How strange! So I couldn't lie to myself. I was happy. But why?
After some soul-searching, I finally understood: At last, wushu was getting official honor and recognition as a cultural art. Let me explain. In Taiwan, if we want to produce an exhibition or tournament, we might need some government assistance such as funding or perhaps a space in which to hold the event. When we go to the government's Culture Department, they tell us "Oh no, you're a sport." The Sports Bureau tells us "We can't help you, you're a recreation." At the Recreation Department, they say, "No, this is a performing art." Wushu always gets kicked around. We're orphans without parents or foster homes. What's going on?
I have always believed deeply from the bottom of my heart that traditional wushu is a major cultural art. It stands up next to the finest and most profound of Chinese arts. I greatly appreciate and respect the Cultural Bureau for having the guts to step off the safe and narrow pathway and place traditional wushu within this circle. This is something truly to celebrate.
At the ceremony, my feelings were reflected in the overwhelming amount of flowers that had arrived for me. While other recipients were given, at most, three baskets, students and friends from Taiwan, Canada and the U.S. sent more than twelve! I fully understood that this wonderful outpouring of feeling was not because of me, myself, but because finally traditional wushu was getting the respect it deserves.
That night I was the last person to receive the award. I pointed out to the audience that stage plays, Chinese opera and even tea, as a refined ceremony, are well-respected and appreciated performance art forms. Next to these, wushu is the art least recognized and patronized by the public. Within this category generally known as "wushu," the real, traditional wushu is not a performance art. So to be honored that evening was the third crown.
I then said, "I know what you're thinking. You're expecting to see a grand performance, with people flying through the air, twisting, punching, kicking, flashing weapons all around the stage." I told them "I don't do that." Then, "Or maybe you have something else in mind- a huge boulder smashed on someone's stomach; or someone who swallows a sword and exhales a cloud of golden needles to penetrate the clouds. I don't do that." Then I spent some time to explain what I meant.
Wushu in performance, including elements like punching, kicking and Chinese weapons, does contain a certain percentage of traditional wushu mixed with Chinese folk dance. This is why we have forms and this is traditional.
But the communist government in Mainland China has mixed Beijing opera, Western gymnastics and ballet with our eastern martial art. They've been very successful in developing and marketing their program internationally. Presently, more than eighty countries have "modern wushu" organizations. They even qualified to nominate modern wushu for consideration as a new Olympics event, though ultimately the Olympics committee denied their petition.
I've been a critic of modern wushu for many years. All the government officials in Beijing's Wushu Bureau are very familiar with me and with my message. But they always miss the point. I'm not against the modernization of traditional wushu. I am against Westernization.
Every single day, I work intensively on modernizing wushu. It's my dream to legitimately connect this art, which is so completely rooted in the wisdom and practices of ancient China, to the peoples and lifestyle of the 21st century. While I admire the communist government's decision to promote their brand of wushu, I can't at all agree on the content. As the years go by, the percentage of wushu in their performances gets smaller and smaller, while the amount of gymnastics, ballet, and Beijing opera grows.
The other type of performance I mentioned earlier also contains a certain percentage of wushu. However, it is heavily oriented towards acrobatics and the paranormal. Often a direct association is made with supernatural or religious forces. The most successful group representing this type of performance is the Shaolin Temple.
Wushu needs to be promoted and in this world, promotion takes money. I don't have much ability in promotion and therefore I need to rely on others to carry this on. I'm not at all against creating shows that are pleasing to audiences and sell many tickets. But for the sake of wushu, I ask only that these groups keep the wushu in what they do. Right now, I see the same problematic trend in Shaolin performances: the percentage of wushu contained in their shows is shrinking very very quickly, and the amount of acrobatics, magic tricks and Western gymnastics is growing.
The Mainland Chinese government, creator of modern wushu, is also a major force behind the successful promotion of the Shaolin Temple. There's nothing wrong with entertaining people, inspiring audiences with artistic presentation and athletic skills. But calling it "wushu" and associating it in compelling ways with the true art has led everyone- contemporary kung fu practitioners and teachers as well as aficionados -to mistakenly believe this is the right way to do Chinese martial arts. I believe people have the right to reach for and then enjoy their success but they do not have the right to cause such a great deal of damage to traditional wushu.
At this point, the audience was very quiet, surprised at what I had to say. Then, with the help of some of my coaches and assistant coaches, we started our own "performance." I told them that we humans are born with instincts and ability to fight. So first, we showed natural ways that little kids, students in school, guys on the street, even mommies fight: natural punches, kicks, palm strikes. Then we demonstrated the traditional Chinese martial arts way to fight. We wanted people to understand that our purpose is to train ourselves so that the body and mind can work in the most sophisticated, disciplined, efficient manner to deliver an effective blow with great power.
One of the ways power is generated in natural fighting is to use distance- for instance, pulling your fist way back or delivering the punch in a curved, "roundhouse" manner -to generate more force and power, much the same principle a baseball pitcher employs as he winds up to throw his ball. With traditional wushu, as your level of skill grows, you need less and less visible space to gain power. At the highest levels, the body and mind are trained so well that power can be issued from almost no distance. At this point external movement and energy is so skillfully internalized that a power-punch can be delivered with just a sudden twist of the body.
At this level of ability, techniques don't have to base their effectiveness on external factors such as strong muscles, natural ability to move quickly or distance to build up momentum and speed. This level is not gained by practicing many different wushu styles and forms, learning twenty more techniques, imitating the donkey and the snake. This is not the real direction of our training.
Wushu is not a popular art and general audiences have much more misinformation in their minds than real understanding. Educating people and promoting traditional wushu in an honest way remains a big challenge. I will try harder.
In 2008, Beijing will host the next summer Olympics. After 2008, they will have to make some changes. They are organizing a big wushu event in Beijing for that very summer. They will try to gather practitioners from all over the world for "unofficial" performances, competitions and maybe a conference to rethink future of wushu.
I don't think this will be enough to turn the tide. I'd like to see a new, major conference held sometime after the dizzy summer of the Beijing Olympics- not a celebratory, congratulatory type of meeting but serious and sincere. With the Chinese government's dream of elevating their modern wushu to an Olympics event now broken, hopefully they will be willing to seek a new path away from the showy, entertainment business orientation of their current program. Perhaps at that time, they can regain some balance and self-respect, open their hearts and start to listen. Hopefully, they will plant their feet on the earth and adopt an attitude of openness, humanity, cultural depth and well-being that will welcome an international viewpoint and initiate a new and healthy direction.
Once again, I wish a bountiful 2007 to every one of you, my dear friends.