What is Wushu?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The Chinese word wushu translates as military or martial arts. It is both an umbrella term for martial arts and a specific discipline of full-contact sport. Since 1991, the International Wushu Federation (IWF) has held a world championship every two years, in recent competitions drawing more than 1,000 elite competitors.

Wushu is a martial art.
Wushu is a martial art.

Over 2,500 years ago, the style was developed both as a means of promoting healthy exercise and as a survival fighting method throughout frequent periods of warfare in China. For thousands of years, it evolved as a fighting style meant to be pragmatic and functional while retaining an aesthetic beauty. Modern wushu is divided into many different disciplines, including taijiquan and kung fu.

Commonly used weapons in wushu include double-edged swords.
Commonly used weapons in wushu include double-edged swords.

In competition, two types of forms are used. In taolu, routines that demonstrate the skills and abilities of the athletes are performed solo, by pairs, and even in large groups. Competitions are not fights, but rather choreographed routines that show correct offensive and defensive positions and tactics. In some ways, taolu forms are more closely related to gymnastics than to martial arts matches. Competitors are judged according to their adherence to correct form and the difficulty of the maneuvers they perform. As the competition sport is still fairly new, the level of difficulty continues to rise as more talented athletes join the discipline.

Sanda wushu involves actual fighting matches, similar to wrestling and boxing. The matches are fought barehanded, and allow punches, kicks, and some wrestling-style holds. Sanda and taolu exhibitions are often held simultaneously, giving the spectators a variety of different styles to watch at once.

The sport is designed for flexibility in use. Wushu forms exist that are done barehanded, with short weapons, and with long weapons. Commonly used weapons include staffs, single or double-edged swords, and spears. Each weapon dictates the movements of its own form, leading to highly specialized maneuvers. Many principles of the style are used in kung fu movies, to create elaborate martial arts fighting scenes.

Barehanded forms are widely seen, and can be fascinating to watch. Changquan style is perhaps the most spectacular, involving gymnastic elements such as flips and aerial spins and fighting movements like kicks and punches. Changquan performers are usually extremely flexible, and must train for many years to achieve competence. In the 21st century, a slower form of barehanded wushu has found incredibly popularity around the world. Taijiquan, or tai chi, involves patterns of slow, fluid movements to increase flexibility and meditative abilities.

The most exciting thing about modern wushu is that the form is constantly expanding as it grows in popularity. Since the first world championship in 1991, competitions have become popular across the globe, leading to later world competitions held in Canada, Armenia, the United States, and Italy.

Modern wushu is divided into many different disciplines, including taijiquan and kung fu.
Modern wushu is divided into many different disciplines, including taijiquan and kung fu.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


Wushu can be fought either bare-handed or gloved, but the real artists don't use gloves!


Sanda wushu is not fought barehanded! It's not a barbaric sport, they fight with boxing gloves.


Literally, Wushu is "Martial Arts" and literally, Kung Fu is "Acquired Skill". So Wushu is the actual base of, or anything within the Martial Arts, and Kung Fu is the skill level achieved.

Both terms have taken somewhat different meaning in modern times. Wushu these days is Martial Arts with the history and culture of China behind it. Kung Fu, mostly through the exposure in films, acquired a meaning of "Chinese Martial Arts."


Wushu, as it is accepted in modern American English terminology, refers to performance wushu, or what is called Xin Wushu in Mandarin. Xin Wushu translates as "new martial arts" and was introduced post 1949, after the communist takeover in China. While the term "wu shu" actually does mean "martial art" in Mandarin and thus refers to *all* Chinese Martial Arts (at least in China and Taiwan), the more popular term to use in America would be "Kung Fu" to refer to the traditional Chinese martial arts that have their origins over 2500 years ago. What is referred to in America as "Wushu" originated just over 50 years ago.

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