So You Think You Know Kung Fu
When I ask my American friends what impressions they have of China, the most common answers I get are Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and kung fu. To be honest, kung fu is such a mysterious thing even for me.
Kung fu stories in China are quite different from Hollywood ones. We call the genre wuxia (wu means “martial” and xia is “hero”), and the stories take place in a world where everyone knows kung fu. The protagonists belong to the jianghu, a community or brotherhood of martial artists, who have magical abilities like flying through the air and freezing people with a single touch.
Since I grew up with many wuxia stories, I was excited to meet with martial arts demonstrator Christopher Pei this summer at the Folklife Festival. He was the first kung fu artist I’ve ever met. I really wanted him to answer all my silly questions, like whether he can fly or make people freeze.
However, before I could ask any of thosequestions, the first thing he told me was that kung fu is a misrepresentation of wushu (shu means “skill” or “discipline”), an exhibition and full-contact sport derived from traditional Chinese martial arts. In other words, the brotherhood of jianghu with seemingly super powers only exists in novels and movies.
I was a little disappointed to learn this fact. Growing up with wuxia stories, I believed that kung fu was something secretly passed down through generations, only within a small, predestined group of people, just like magic in Western culture. In reality, wushu is a sport that anybody can learn in school.
However, after talking with Christopher, I realized wushu is not as simple as I thought. It has a strong connection with the principles of the fictional jianghu, also known as the Code of Xia. The code contains eight common attributes: benevolence, justice, individualism, loyalty, courage, truthfulness, disregard for wealth, and disregard for glory. All wushu practitioners must follow the code like a law, so wushu is not just about gaining great physical skill and strength but about becoming a better person.
I was happy to learn that although the action-packed world of wuxia may be a myth, its ideals exist in the Code of Xia and through the people who practice wushu.
Shiyu Wang is a video intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She grew up in Yunnan Province, China, and now studies film production at American University.