Striking Quickly and Having Patience 武術 and 书法: Chinese Martial Arts and Calligraphy

Written by Sarah Godek, (Student Correspondent) University of Michigan
CET Intensive Chinese Language in Beijing, Summer 2015

Never before had I felt such contrast in my life than when I had a Wushu class (Chinese martial arts) and a Shufa class (Chinese calligraphy) back to back this past week.

Part of my teacher’s more eloquent calligraphy work, left; my own first attempt, right.

Part of my teacher’s more eloquent calligraphy work, left; my own first attempt, right.

If you remember some of the great actors that popularized this type of martial art such as Bruce Lee (李小龍), Jet Li (李连杰), or Jackie Chan (成龙), then you might know what I’m talking about when I talk about Wushu. However, what many of these films fail to capture is how difficult this practice is to learn, and how strong you must be to do it. It’s been four days now since I first started Wushu, and my legs have just now began to heal from the immense amount of pressure put on them from squatting to jumping to balancing and everything in between. I was thrilled when I saw we got to use the long sticks you see in Kung Fu – a rough transliteration of 功夫 – movies, which I now know is called a “gun” (棍, or staff; pronounced like “goon”). Each movement facing an opponent has an equal and opposite movement, balancing power between the two sides. After class, I searched for information about Wushu and I found that not only does it involve hitting things with sticks, but it also is concerned with deeper principles of morality of both deed and mind, focusing on the concepts of humility, virtue, respect, morality, and trust with respect to deed, and focusing on courage, patience, endurance, perseverance, and will with respect to mind.

As I departed from my Shufa class the following day, I certainly thought – albeit begrudgingly – of the virtues of courage, patience, endurance, perseverance, and will: courage to pick up a brush loaded with ink when I haven’t taken an art class in over 5 years, patience when I messed up a stroke of the brush for the 20th time, endurance to make it through an hour of patiently trying to correctly pen “Beijing (北京)” without throwing my brush at the wall, and will to make myself return to the class in order to keep on trying to gain basic skills in what I consider to be one of China’s most elegant arts. This class was 完全不一样 (wholly different) from my Wushu class. Whereas in Wushu I was quick to copy my teacher, change my position, and strike my opponent, all the while moving my limbs in gestures of grandeur until achieving the perfect balance or form as I strove to be the next Jet Li (an actual 5-time Wushu sport champion), I sometimes took a full minute to get through a single stroke in my Shufa class, moving my hand ever so delicately to get the stroke juuuuuust right and… I messed up again.

Leaving my Shufa class, my face slightly red from frustration but with encouragement from my teacher still ringing in my ear (“不错!” “Not bad!”), I reflected on the additional principle of balance. Balance is very prevalent in both these arts as well as Chinese language: phrases in Chinese often appear in twos and fours, and I recalled one of my Chinese professors at University of Michigan often saying “Your words aren’t wrong but better to say this; more balance.” In speaking and studying Chinese everyday, not only must I know when to strike quickly as in Wushu, rapidly recalling my growing but still limited vocabulary, but I must also know when to have patience as in Shufa as I copy a character for the fortieth time in hopes I’ll finally remember.