As a traditional art, wushu is a cultural heritage of the Chinese people which has been enriched down through the ages. With its graceful movements and salubrious effects on health, it has a strong appeal to a vast multitude of people.
The origin of wushu may be traced back to prehistoric times when our ancestors used stone tools and wooden clubs in hunting, both for subsistence and self-defense against wild beasts and poisonous snakes. In tribal strife they used their tools of production as weapons of war. Experience in battles told them that, in order to overwhelm their enemies, they must not only have good weapons, but should always keep fit and improve their skills of fighting through intensive training in times of peace.
During the Zhou dynasty (c. 11th century - 256 BC) a kind of wrestling called jiaoli was listed as a military sport alongside archery and chariot racing.
The Warring States Period (403 - 221 BC) produced many strategists who stressed the importance of wushu to the building of a strong army. As pointed out in Sunzi, China's earliest extant book on the art of war, "Wrestling and thrusting exercises strengthen the warriors' physique." Among the distinguished masters of swordplay at that time not a few were women. One of them, Yuenu by name, was invited by Emperor Goujian to expound her theories of swordsmanship, which were highly evaluated then as well as in later generations.
The Qin (221 - 206 BC) and Han (206 BC - AD 220) dynasties witnessed the growth of such fighting arts as shoubo (wresling) and jiaodi in which the contestants charged at each other with cattle horns on their heads. Besides, there were drama dances in which a variety of weapons including broadswords and halberds were used in perform pre-arranged patterns of movements as in present-day wushu routines.
In the Jin (265 - 439) and Southern and Northern (420 - 581) dynasties wushu came under the influence of Buddhism and Taoism. Ge Hong (284 - 364), a famous phyisician and Taoist philosopher, integrated wushu with qigong (breathing exercises), an important branch of traditional Chinese medicine. His theories of "external and internal work" in wushu are still universally accepted today.
The court examination system initiated in the Tang dynasty (618 - 907) gave an impetus to the development of wushu. All officers and soldiers must pass some tests in the martial art before they could be promoted. Honorary titles, such as "Warrior of Courage" and "Warrior of Agility", were conferred on outstanding masters of wushu.
The Song dynasty (960 - 1279) saw the appearance of numerous wushu societies. During this period many skillful performers demonstrated stunts in the streets, their repertoires including "sword versus shield," "spear versus shield" and exercises with other weapons. According to a chronicle about the capital city of Kaifeng, these street shows "attracted large crowds every day, summer or winter, rain or shine."
In the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644) wushu prospered as never before. Qi Jiguang, a well-known general, compiled a book dealing with 16 different styles of bare hand exercises and another 40 of spear- and cudgel-play, each with detailed explanations and illustrations. He also evolved whole sets of theories and training methods, thus making great contributions to the cause of wushu.
During the Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911), despite the imperial orders forbidding the common folk to practice wushu, secret groups and societies sprang up one after another to spread the sport. It was in this period that the taiji, pigua and "eight-diagram" schools were born.
As a centuries-old sport wushu is extremely rich in content and varied in form. There are scores of schools and hundreds and thousands of routines, each composed of movements for offensive and defensive purposes - kicks and punches, crouches and dodges, leaps and turns - that are arranged in set patterns. Regular practice produces beneficial effects not only on muscles and bones, but also on the nervous, respiratory and cardio-vascular systems.