Wushu literally means, in Mandarin, “martial art.” But many practitioners of traditional kung fu do not believe that wushu artists are martial artists. What gives? What do wushu people do that is different from kung fu people? Is there a difference? Keep reading to find out!
This comes from a discussion on Google+ on 2013 March 16, where someone posed the question, “Is wushu the same as kung fu?” My answer, informed by my grandmaster’s writings, was as follows:
Like +TaiChiForest Tiger says, “Wushu” literally means “martial art” and “kung fu” means “effort over time” (in martial arts parlance, according to my sigung, it refers to “cultivation of kung [skill, force, agility, etc.].” If I remember right, “wushu” as referred to nowadays (the demonstration art) is descended mostly (though not entirely) from Northern Shaolin, especially Tantui (the “springing legs” style), Chaquan (the “Muslim” style, developed by a fellow named Cha Mil Er, the Chinese reading of the Arabic name “Jamil”), Taizuquan (“Great Emperor” style, supposedly invented/developed by the first Song dynasty emperor, who was himself a Shaolin secular disciple, according to the stories; also said to be the oldest of the separately named “Long Fist” styles), and Lohanquan (the “archetype” of Shaolin kung fu originally practiced by the monks). If I remember right, there are also “wushu” versions of Baguazhang and a few other arts.
There is also a Nanquan (“Southern Fist”) set in modern Wushu which incorporates various patterns and strategies from various Southern kung fu schools, mostly Hoong Ka (also Romanized as Hung Gar) and Choy Li Fatt (“Cai Li Fo” in Mandarin). Some other Southern styles are incorporated into Nanquan, though I do not know them.
There are also several standardized weapon sets, but I do not know their provenance. All I know is that there are staff (gun) sets, sword (jian) sets, knife/saber sets (dao), and spear (qiang) sets.
The beef that most traditional kung fu schools have with “Wushu” schools is that wushu dudes tend to stress the performance of sets as an end in and of themselves. Wushu guys tend to have amazing acrobatic and athletic abilities, to say nothing of crazy flexibility, but for the most part, they do not stress combat application using their kung fu (most of them spar using boxing and kick-boxing) or force training (like stance training or energy cultivation). The goals of wushu demonstrators tend to be “look freaking awesome doing kung fu forms.” Some wushu performers also make what traditional kung fu practitioners would call “unsafe modifications” to the sets in order to look good, such as performing stances so low that the knees and hips suffer undue stress, or doing things like flips and cartwheels when they’re not called for.
Traditional kung fu practice has sets as a tool towards combat efficiency. Most old-generation kung fu schools start students off with basic force training (stances, flexibility) and may be very conservative with their sets practice (a student might not be taught a classical set like Taming the Tiger or Tantui until several months after they’ve begun, to make sure they have skills like footwork, stances, timing, distance, etc. down). The sets, as seen in traditional kung fu schools, are more of an encyclopaedia that holds tools that the kung fu student can pull out to use their skills. They’re a “crystallization” of skills, a toolbox. A kung fu student generally practices a set to refine his skills, strategies, and fighting movements, rather than to demonstrate to others.
This isn’t to say that one is “better” than the other; you just have to be clear as to what you want to get out of your training. Most wushu schools don’t train combat application, and most kung fu schools don’t look pretty to the general public. Most good wushu guys are amazing athletes in their prime, and most good kung fu schools can generate fighters who are skillful even at the age of eighty.
In case you’d like some more reading material, my sigung (grandmaster) wrote an article a little bit ago about wushu, kung fu, and self defense: http://shaolin.org/answers/sp-issues/kungfu-wushu.html