American Wushu Pioneer Master Bryant Fong Speaks Out
by Gene Ching
© 2006 Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine, reprinted by permission
Published in the November/December 2006 issue
Modern wushu is at a crossroads. For several years, wushu has worked towards becoming an Olympic sport, but that bid appears to have failed. Now, wushu supporters are left to pick up the pieces. “One of the reasons that the International Olympics Committee (IOC) gave for not accepting wushu was they didn’t want to award any more medals,” states Master Bryant Fong, a leading proponent of wushu in America. “They didn’t want to introduce any new sports. More close to the truth, they didn’t think we were really prepared to do this.”
When Beijing was announced as a host city, many thought that Olympic wushu was a sure thing. But as Fong reveals, that was far from the truth. “China brought its own team to perform for the IOC. They didn’t get to see any of the other teams from the rest of the world. We know some people on the U.S. Olympic committee and they hadn’t even heard of wushu. They didn’t even know it was a sport in this country.”
“Part of the problem is that while many countries have wushu, the base is very small. You’re not even big enough to make any headlines in your own country, so it’s very hard for the IOC to take you seriously. Think about the U.S. Do we have regional competitions? Not really. Do we have local competitions? Not really. Do we have a unified set of rules? Do we have unified judges? Do we have unified coaching? No, we don’t. These are all the things we need to have in place for an Olympic sport. It’s not enough for China to show that they can do this. China and Asia can certainly say, ‘We’re sort of ready.’ But the rest of the world can’t say that. Just look at the United States. We definitely cannot say that.”
The History of Wushu in America
Master Bryant Fong has been one of America’s leading wushu pioneers from when wushu first set foot in our country. A longtime San Francisco resident, Fong actually began his martial journey studying traditional Tibetan White Crane, Shaolin, Xingyi and Praying Mantis before immersing himself in the wushu world. Today, he’s most prominent as the tournament chair for the U.C. Berkeley Chinese Martial Arts Tournament, a decade-and-a-half old national event. But Fong was also there when America got its first taste of wushu, and of Red China. He was part of the reception committee for the historic 1974 White House wushu tour, when an eleven-year-old Jet Li performed for Nixon and Kissinger. Fong became an instructor under “father of American wushu” Master Anthony Chan. Chan opened the door for wushu in America. He first brought the Beijing Wushu Team here way back in 1980. Chan also hosted four members of the team, Yu Shaowen, Li Xia, Dong Honglin, and Zhou Jingping, to teach in San Francisco in 1984. Masters like Cynthia Rothrock and Ernie Reyes Sr. came to study under them. Later, even Jet Li came out to teach with Chan for a while. Together with Bo Sim Mark in Boston and Roger Tung in Los Angeles, Chan formed the National Chinese Wushu Association, the first of its kind in America. They held the first American national wushu tournament in L.A in 1985.
Under Chan, Fong became dedicated to the promotion of wushu, and in ’86 and ’87 he took part in the first two wushu coach training sessions organized by wushu’s most esteemed coach, Wu Bin. In 1986, Fong also went to Tianjin to represent American wushu. “We brought back 22 medals,” remembers Fong. “We were the second best team compared to China. In 1991, I took the first U.S. wushu team to compete in the worlds. We took 14 medals and were still among the top ten in the world. (Today) the rest of the world has passed us by. We don’t have the facilities or the coaches. Asia has developed the most rapidly because they’re there all the time, learning the new routines, new techniques. Hong Kong, Macao and Japan are all in the top ten. America is in the bottom ten. Our athletes are good, but other countries have better training. The closer you are to China, the better you are. The Russian team is very good, but it’s fairly close to China. Many of these teams are sponsored by the government…”
Fong continues, “Take a look at the world teams that competed on that last World Wushu Games. Many of them have ex-China athletes. Of course, they’ll do very well. China won ten medals. No other country was close. Other countries won three or four at most. America didn’t win any at all. By raising the bar this high, they’ve excluded the rest of the world. Doing it this way, China looks good, but the rest of the world can’t catch up.”
Nandu means Difficulties
The major change in modern wushu is the introduction of nandu (difficult degree). Competitors are now scored on special “difficult” techniques, akin to gymnastics or figure skating. These rules were recently introduced to international wushu competitions to make wushu more Olympic friendly. Fong reveals the underlying motivations. “This is from one of the coaches I talked to in Shandong. They decided that if it’s going to become a sport, the average guy who drinks beer on the street has got to be able to tell who wins and who loses. If you just base it on martial arts technique, most people have no idea who’s better. So they introduced nandu.”
Nandu has radically changed how the game is played, and many athletes are scrambling to catch up. But according to Fong, this wasn’t surprising at all. “Nandu has been around for a long time. In the late ’80s, China came to the same crossroads. Do we make it a sport completely or do we continue its tradition of the martial arts? Modern wushu came out of traditional kung fu. The movement, the technique, the spirit, comes from a traditional basis. The emphasis is different.”
“Take a jump front kick. For a traditional jump front kick, all I want to do is kick you in the head, so it doesn’t matter what leg I land on. If I land on the left leg, right leg, both feet, it doesn’t matter. For the sport, however, we make you land on the right leg. It has no meaning for you if you’re fighting. As soon as you land, you do your next technique. That’s all that matters. Certain things in wushu were changed in order to make it athletically more difficult, so you could test the student’s athletic ability, yet not completely remove it from its traditional base. It’s still a jump front kick. A punch is still a punch. Your stances still need to be stances. If you reflect on the way it’s going, (now) there are no stances. The deduction for (missed) stances is very high so you put a squat stance. Those are not stances.”
“We can make it more athletic by adding gymnastics routines: the front gainer, the aerial twist, a 720-degree twist. Many of these techniques they are doing now already existed before. But China decided that this was taking us away from our traditional base, so many of these things were shelved. They continued doing wushu the way it was done in the seventies. In the mid-’90s, however, a big change occurred. A lot of the guys who used to run the wushu association in China retired, and a whole new group of young people came in. They decided, ‘We want to get into the Olympics.’ But for the Olympics, there’s no short cut. You have to do a lot of preparation. China was interested in getting into it by 2000. They decided they had to make the sport more exciting and more difficult.
“The whole period of the ’90s to 2000, they were experimenting in the nandu technique inside China. A few people who went to study in China got a glimpse of it. Several things they did not consider. One: the techniques they introduced did not have anything to do with martial arts. Many are gymnastic, ice skating techniques, not that useful. They have no martial art value. Two: They are extremely difficult to do. In China, they have a special floor that allows you to do these techniques. Most of us in the United States, or any countries outside China, cannot afford a floor like that. It’s basically similar to a gymnastics floor. It’s a suspended floor, 6″ above the ground, with a special rug on top to absorb the jump.”
The Cost of Difficulties
Like many wushu masters around the world, nandu has put Fong in a difficult position. “One of the coaches was telling me, ‘The problem is that the coaches and the students, we don’t want to do nandu, but we have no choice because that’s the game.’ So if you want to play the game, that’s what you got to do.”
China has positioned itself to dominate the sport, and the rest of the world has no choice but to follow.
“Wushu becomes an elite sport, not available to the rest of the world,” adds Fong. “My biggest peeve is taiji. Taiji is supposed to be smooth, continuous, slow, working on your internal art. You see none of that now. It’s become slow long fist. Where in taiji do you stop, jump from a standstill to do a twist in the air to do a kick?” And Fong isn’t alone in his complaints. “China has already been told by Japan and some other Asian countries that taiji nandu we don’t want to do because that’s not taiji. We don’t want to promote that. China just told them, ‘Well it’s our sport; tough luck.'”
Fong pauses to reflect. “I was talking to a Hong Kong coach, and he felt part of the problem is that most of the representatives to the International Wushu Federation (IWuF) are ex-china athletes, so when China says, ‘Let’s do nandu,’ they say ‘Yeah, we can do it!’ But they don’t really know what the level of their country’s wushu is.”
The real victims are the athletes. Nandu has casualties. Fong elucidates: “Most of the athletes – and this is true for most of the teams I’ve seen this year (Macao, Hong Kong, Russia, Japan and the Beijing A, B, and C team) – they all have to wear back braces, ankle braces, knee braces, almost everything you need a brace for. Because if you miss it by a little bit, the chance of injury is great. More than 60% of the athletes have injuries. So that tells you something is wrong. Think about traditional kung fu. You practice it for your health, and for combat, but you never hurt yourself doing it. It was designed to improve health and designed to be useful. The techniques they are introducing don’t have any of those aspects.”
Wushu has always been a game for the young, but with nandu, longevity is completely out of the question. Fong estimates that the mean age of Beijing Wushu Team members is around fifteen now. Ten years ago, it was closer to eighteen or nineteen. “Even the top athletes in China get hurt,” continues Fong. “So imagine an athlete in the U.S. trying to do it. You’re probably going to hurt yourself really badly.”
Difficulties and American Tournaments
While American athletes struggle to keep up, American coaches and tournament promoters are also challenged by difficulties. As a coach and promoter, Fong offers his insights. “The rules are very convoluted. Even the people in China have problems. Without the rule book next to them, they can’t tell how the rules work. It’s very complicated. Many of the techniques need to be put together in a certain order, linked with certain moves, and counting for a certain amount of points. You can’t just throw moves together. Americans, from the small experience we’ve had throwing nandu competitions, do not understand the rules and do not know how to put together their forms. If your coach doesn’t understand, for sure the students don’t understand.”
“You need ten judges, plus you need an arbitration committee. That means you need anywhere from ten to twenty people just to run one ring. As a promoter, I can tell you that’s impossible (laughs). We run eight to ten rings at Berkeley. Can you imagine getting a hundred or more judges just to judge that event? Impossible. Plus you need to train all the judges. Right now in the United States, we don’t have too many people that are actually trained to understand the rules. In order for a sport to grow, you have to have professional judging. You can’t just go, ‘You in the stands! Can you come judge?'”
At the same time, wushu is making some headway outside of the wushu rings in extreme open forms and mixed events. Chinese martial arts aren’t the only styles that wrestle with modern showboating. “Look at NASKA (North American Sport Karate Association). A lot of guys have wushu moves in their form. They do tae kwon do, backflips, the whole works… I don’t think China has ever even seen any of that stuff. Someone should take a NASKA team to China and give an exhibition to give them an idea how martial arts is developing in the rest of the world.”
“In the U.S., NASKA is way bigger. In wushu, you have 500 to 600 competitors. In NASKA, you have thousands of people, and prize money, scholarship money. It’s much more intensive. They reach a lot of people. You can promote wushu in wushu arena, but it’s limited. NASKA has tournaments all over the 50 states. How many wushu tournaments do we have? Pretty small in comparison.”
What Will Happen in Beijing in 2008?
There are many still clinging to Olympic wushu, and certainly, it’s not over ’til it’s over. But don’t buy your ticket to Beijing in expectation yet. Fong had just returned from Beijing the week of this interview, and his news of Beijing’s wushu plan for the summer of 2008 is disappointing. “As far I understand, we will have no official connection to the games. The Beijing Wushu Association will sponsor a world competition during the Olympics, but it has no official sanctioning by the Olympic committee. The Olympic committee says, ‘You can have the event, that’s fine.’ The medals that will be awarded are from the Beijing Olympic committee, but they’re not official Olympic medals.
“Now it doesn’t make sense to do this. For one thing, you already had the worlds in ’07 so what is this thing in ’08? I don’t know what it is. Many of the athletes are going, ‘Why do we go if there no Olympic medal?’ Who’s going to go see it? It’s not an Olympic event. People are going to watch the Olympics, not this. This is not even IWuF. Even the format that has been proposed is very strange. Men can’t do taiji but women can. Men can’t do straight sword but they can do broadsword.”
“I’m hoping somewhere people will consider where nandu is going to take wushu. I think that question needs to be asked. Hopefully, since we’re not furiously trying to prepare for the Olympics, people will give it some thought. The road that we’re traveling on is one of an elite sport. If you want to promote and you want people to do it, you got to do something else. Competition and promotion of wushu have to be different. What is the face of the sport that you’re trying to promote? At Berkeley, we had two kinds of competition, nandu and what I would call ‘traditional’ wushu (laughs). That’s hard to say. But Beijing team coaches are saying the same thing.
“In some ways, it’s good that wushu isn’t in the Olympics because we’re not ready. It means wushu will have to step back and look at itself.”