Wushu Club president Byron Chang delicately steps forward with his left foot while extending his arm toward the ceiling. Instantly his right leg rips through the air as the oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules part with a whoosh. With a clap, his foot slaps against his palm, and in the blink of an eye, he has returned to a calm, composed position with two feet on the ground. He repeats with the left leg as the Wushu Club follows suit for the length of the room. “Wushu is not like standard martial arts in America where you see a lot of karate,” Chang says. “It’s more pleasing to the eye.”
The modern sport of wushu was adapted from traditional Chinese martial arts used in times of war. As a combat-based exercise, wushu trained a soldier’s body and mind emphasizing posture, composure, spirit and self-control. The artistic aspects of wushu that were once utilized to intimidate the opposition are now the basis for modern competitions. Wushu consists of taulo (forms), which involve martial arts maneuvers like stances, kicks, punches and jumps. It is the national sport of China – where martial arts actor Jet Li established his career as a wushu competitor – but its popularity is international. Non-Asians encompass 80 percent of people practicing wushu, and this fusion of diverse individuals is plainly apparent at the University of Oregon’s Wushu Club.
With a rotating cast of more than 20 regulars, the UO’s Wushu Club is a microcosm of students from various cultures across the globe. Students, male and female, hail from places as far away as Tokyo or the Netherlands while others are of Chinese, Vietnamese, American, Malaysian, Singaporean, Taiwanese, Cambodian and Polish descent. Three to five times a week, these students of various cultural and ethnic backgrounds come together for wushu practice at the university’s Student Recreation Center. Vietnamese team member Khoa Quach attests that members probably would have never met each other, nor had the opportunity to create friendships, were it not for the Wushu Club.
The UO club is one of the larger wushu groups in the Northwest and has been growing since its start in 1994, when now-famous Hong Kong movie star Daniel Wu created the group as a university student. Most students are fairly new to wushu. Only a few have practiced the sport for more than three years, but each school year an influx of newcomers boosts the club’s membership. Demonstrations are the main way of recruiting people, says Chang, who began wushu his freshman year after seeing a demonstration. Freshmen Nathan Andrus-Hughes and Colin Cook, both native Oregonians, came because they wanted to try something new. “People come because it’s a unique sport,” Chang says, and they stay because of the environment at practice. “We’re all pretty open and friendly. It’s easy to meet people here,” adds Chang, one of only a few Chinese members on the team. Maarten van de Meent, an exchange student from Amsterdam, showed up at practice after seeing the club’s website and decided to stay because he enjoyed the genial environment of practices.
More experienced club members never hesitate to lend advice or demonstrate proper wushu form to the newer participants. “We try to correct each other at practice with constructive criticism, and we grow close through that,” Malaysian-born third year member Sue Ann Ooi says.
Wushu consists of linear, the most basic, forms, and compulsory or more advanced forms. Some members of the UO Wushu Club specialize in weapons (shu), including the broad sword (dao shu), staff (gung shu) and the chain whip, and they pass this knowledge onto new members. There are no formal coaches at wushu practice, says Chang, just a group of students helping one another. “Everyone teaches everyone what they know.”
Wushu is mainly a sport of individual performance, but while each person practices a routine, Taiwanese and Chinese club member Nelson Leung’s shouts of encouragement and coaching resound throughout the room. “C’mon, hold, hold… almost there Nathan. Finish it off. Good!” Leung exclaims as Andrus-Hughes completes his final pose and bows before exiting the practice stage.
Several members take turns leading warm-ups, exercises, conditioning or practice in general. Quach describes the atmosphere as more serious when he’s in charge, about “80 percent business, 20 percent goofing off.” Chang, on the other hand, claims he runs a more relaxed practice. A few people are seen spinning the staff while others rapidly whip their limbs in a flurry of arms and legs. Suddenly, they stop and stare at their motionless reflections in the mirrored walls.
“Wushu competitions are a lot like gymnastics,” explains Ooi. An individual performs his or her timed routine for five judges, who look for components like speed, power, agility and flexibility. Beginners are judged on basic form elements like proper stance, posture and punches, while power and speed are important factors for more advanced participants. “Wushu competitions are really friendly,” Ooi says, and provide a chance to meet new people from around the country and “see the range of talent.” In February, several club members traveled to Maryland to compete in the Collegiate Wushu Tournament. They returned with seven medals, five at the intermediate level and two from beginners, including a gold medal from both levels. “The actual performance,” says Ooi “is more of a competition against yourself.”
Their collective sense of community fosters individual growth. They are not simply a wushu club. “We treat each other a lot like family and tend to help each other outside of practice” physically, socially, emotionally and academically, Ooi says. As resident assistant in the dorms, she has recruited five new club members. She stirs intrigue by showing residents wushu videos, and some decide to give it a try. Ooi thinks many students stick around because they become attached to the group socially. “We train together,” Ooi says. “Then we eat together. And on the weekends we do homework together.”
The group regularly eats out with Chang always insisting on Red Robin when he gets to choose. Ooi says, “We grow really close, not just during practice, but after,” where they discover common interests that fuel their relationships. During the evenings, club members meet to play pool, study or watch TV at The Break in the UO’s Erb Memorial Union, and on weekends they retreat to somebody’s house to play board games and PlayStation or compete in online gaming. Many wushu members who have graduated visit regularly, and on these occasions, the team throws parties with everyone staying over for a big sleepover. Their gatherings are usually spontaneous, like a Sunday afternoon picnic on the lawn behind the library. Yet word spreads quickly and a group rapidly forms to enjoy the first rays of sunshine after many months of rain.
Back at Monday’s practice, Quach takes three meticulously choreographed steps, dips his chest parallel to the ground and grunts while thrusting his legs into the air. His body fluidly follows an imaginary 180-degree path drawn in the air as his legs kick apart in a V with his head closest to the ground. And again in a flash, he lands softly on his feet atop the shiny hardwood floor as the team’s cheers of congratulation for his immaculate routine echo off the high ceilings. “People call it the wushu bug,” Quach says. “Once you start, you get hooked on it.”