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.
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.
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.