What is Wushu? Technically, from a literal translation, it is two words, "wu" and "shu". Wu translates into "has to do with the military" and shu translates into "an art, a practice, a technique". So, literally, wushu means the martial arts. Now historically, if the term was used at all, it probably pertained to all of gong fu and referred directly to what the Shaolin monks were practicing. But as I've said before, a lot changed after the Cultural Revolution.
After the Revolution ended in 1976 or so, there was damage to the Temple which needed to be repaired. In those times, the monks felt that the best way to raise money to repair the Temple was to take outsiders as students of gong fu. They taught gong fu to those who did not necessarily seek the monk hood. Soon, three other schools opened up in the valley, all with the same idea of making money on wushu instruction. And with private enterprise budding in the martial arts world here in Shaolin came competition. (Remember, there were also other areas in China which taught some form or other of wushu over the past few centuries). But now, in the late 70's and early 80's, wushu was taught not only to pass down the traditional forms and applications, but it was taught in a competitive type style, so one school could compete against another. Thus was born what is considered to be modern wushu. It basically had the same substance, but modern wushu was mainly taught and performed, as an art, not as a fighting skill. The basic and advanced methods of gong fu were all still in there, but the forms were elongated, the kicks made higher and more acrobatic, and certain other acrobatics were added to enhance the visual quality. All, solely for performance and competition reasons.
And this is why there is a certain dilemma. Westerners are exposed to wushu, as the Chinese love to perform it to show off their many varied skills. But the westerners look at this, and don't see it as a true fighting art; they see it more as a performance, like modern dance or ballet. This has a detrimental effect, as many in western society feel that wushu is inadequate as a fighting skill. They are very wrong. They're just not seeing the real gong fu.
It can be boiled down simply into two categories: gong fu and wushu. Consider wushu as gong fu made up to be pretty; exaggerated high kicks, acrobatics, choreographed type performances. But inside it all, is still gong fu. Difficult to master, it is a deadly, precise and quick method of self defense.
Upon further examination of the local schools, I've discovered that they teach both wushu and traditional gong fu, usually teaching gong fu in the mornings, and competition style wushu in the afternoons. Interestingly, the students at these schools do not learn the applications to gong fu, for anywhere from three to five years. That is, they are made to learn the forms precisely as they are taught them. There can be no changes from master to student, and then subsequently, as student becomes master, again from master to student. But the student doesn't truly understand, nor is he taught, how each gong fu maneuver can be used as a self defense technique. In some cases, the maneuver is used in an obvious fashion. But as I've started to learn from my masters, there are many hidden and complicated applications, sometimes five or six in each apparently "simple" gong fu maneuver. Now, a kick is not just a kick. The students just continue on, learning the moves, but sometimes, never eventually fully understanding everything that move is really capable of.
And this is why I've noticed a lot of dissatisfaction with many foreigners who come here to train with either the Shaolin Temple monks, or with other schools. They are taught a basic traditional form, and are never taught the complete applications to it. In China, one has to master the form to perfection, and then, after "proving oneself" as a student, or becoming a disciple, the master then will decide to demonstrate the uses of the form. As in China, students don't "prove themselves" for years; most foreigners, who come for a week, or maybe two, never get the complete opportunity to learn the form's uses. And thus, comes the dissatisfaction. Hidden inside these complicated and "showy" forms are deadly and effective methods. But that knowledge is just not given away.
Hidden deep inside the Shaolin Temple are books which describe the traditional gong fu forms, all passed down, largely unchanged, through the centuries. These books are secret; very few monk masters are able to see them. Shi De Yang is now mostly responsible for their upkeep. They elaborate all of the uses and applications of the traditional fighting forms. But even some of the monks are not allowed to be exposed to this.
There have been some little changes to the Shaolin gong fu over this century, as well as, supposedly, previous centuries. things have always been added, but from what I've been told, a good deal of the traditional forms have been passed down, and kept unchanged. When watching how some of these varied schools teach some of the traditional forms, I've noticed that they are exact in how they want their students to perform them. There is none of this "teacher altering the form because he likes it better his way" kind of stuff. Here, it is done as it was passed down.
But it was the appearance of what we'll call modern wushu that changed it a little. As the gong fu forms were expanded or created to improve their appearances for competition and performance reasons, they altered not only the forms, but they also altered the stances. Traditionally, stances were higher than they are now. Gong bu stance, now supposed to be low, was higher. The monks thought that fighting should be done while standing up. If one watches the really old masters practice something like Xiao Hong Chuan, an old traditional fighting form, one notices that they stand up to do it; none of these lower stances. And it is not that they are not capable of doing low stances. This is how they were taught. When learning traditional forms like Xiao Hong Chuan now, one uses mostly lower stances, because "they look nicer". The substance is the same, but the stances have been altered.