ZHENGZHOU, China: When top Dominican martial artist Shannah Robin arrived to train at the Shaolin Temple, the cradle of Chinese kungfu, it was on an expenses-paid trip courtesy of Beijing.
His course was part of a lavish government effort to promote the range of fighting disciplines known as “wushu”, the Chinese word for martial arts — or kungfu in the West — and boost the country’s cultural influence.
“The whole aim is to take Shaolin martial arts, or China’s wushu, out into the developing countries around the world,” Robin said on the sidelines of an international Wushu festival held in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou.
“Of course it has been my dream from since I was about eight years old to go to the Shaolin Temple.”
The festival opened with a huge display at the 1,500-year-old Buddhist institution atop Song mountain, where monks once created elaborate fighting systems and worked as mercenaries.
Hundreds of students in red t-shirts lined up to perform elaborate routines in unison, while fighters in gold body paint sparred before spectators.
Over four days of competition, entrants from five continents aged from six to 60 performed intricate acrobatic routines — sometimes involving weapons such as staffs and swords.
“What’s great about wushu is there are so many ways to do one thing,” said Deems Yee, a competitor from Panama.
But he conceded that the discipline has travelled a long way from its martial origins since it was codified by the ruling Communist party in the 1950s.
“It looks more now like a show than a martial art that’s applied like taekwondo or boxing.”
Wushu’s global sporting popularity pales before karate, judo and taekwondo, but state media reported this month that a “Wushu Cultural Industry Investment Fund” worth $7 billion has been set up to run tournaments and promote it at home and abroad.
Shaanxi province sports official Dong Li was cited as saying it was created “as a channel for China to increase its soft power”.
The Chinese government’s development plan for the sport from 2016-2020 says that its aims include “increasing national confidence and boosting national cultural soft power”.
The document, which is replete with political slogans such as “Implement the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s series of important talks,” also vows to secure the sport’s entry into the Olympics.
The Zhengzhou city sports administration’s deputy director Zhang Jiafu told AFP: “The party and government pays great attention to promoting our Shaolin to the world.”
At the festival, many foreign enthusiasts said they encountered the sport through martial arts films featuring wushu experts such as Jet Li.
“First I looked at movies. Of course it was Bruce Lee movies,” said Masoud Jafari, one of some 70 Iranian competitors, who scooped several gold medals between them at the festival.
He trained at Shaolin in the early 1990s and has watched his country emerge as a powerhouse of the sport.
“Now we are second in the world after China,” said Jafari, whose life story is currently being made into the first Iranian-Chinese co-produced film.
But some Chinese practitioners complained that modern wushu, which — unlike traditional kungfu — was designed for sporting competition, has lost its value as a method of self-defence.
“A lot of elements of traditional martial arts are missing from these displays,” said wushu practitioner, Lei Zhongshan.
“The real aim of wushu is fighting,” said the 60-year-old, who specialises in a style known as “Chan Family Fist”.
One discipline invented in the 1980s, known as sanda, retains some elements of combat but the rest are more akin to acrobatic shows.
“Some actions, which are not so fashionable or attractive, have been removed,” said Gong Maofu, a wushu expert at Chengdu Sports University.
“But… there are still some people who want to keep up the old traditions which they were taught by their masters.
“Maybe their masters told them not to change.”