Exploring the world of Chinese Martial Arts

The truth about getting a wushu degree in China

An analysis on what it means to get a wushu degree in China, including what you'll learn, where you can go, and some of the pros and cons.

The truth about getting a wushu degree in China

Ever since I first heard that a person could actually get a degree in wushu in China, I had always wondered what that actually entailed.

I mean … can you believe it?  Of all the things to study in a university or college, you can actually major in wushu.  For a wushu geek like me that seemed almost too good to be true.  It was finding out you could get a degree in eating pizza or earn your diploma in napping.

I used to imagine that you would spend hours upon hours training and studying wushu with various masters, learning esoteric styles and learning hidden secrets that only the top athletes or coaches might know.

Or that you would be there, next to other professional wushu athletes who are also training hard and working on their degrees.

Well, my imagination proved to be pretty … well … imaginative. The reality isn’t quite so glamorous.

Mao at BSU
Mao at the front gate of the Beijing Sports University Campus

 

I recently received some questions about what it takes to study wushu at a university or college in China so I thought this might be a good opportunity to shed some light on the process of getting a degree and some of the pro’s and con’s of how that works.

I also want to touch on the difference between professional athletes getting a degree vs. non-pro’s, what people can do with a degree, and why you might (or might not) want to pursue a degree yourself.  Plus, I’ll help you get a list of universities that you can contact to get more information and get you started on the path.

Now, first a disclaimer:  I have never been enrolled in a wushu degree program myself.  I’ve met quite a few folks who have — from bachelors, masters and Ph.D. students of wushu — so I’ve taken what I learned from them for this article.  Just keep in mind that some of my information is based on my own experiences and might not reflect the absolute reality of whatever wushu degree program you are considering.

Okay, with that out the way, let’s tackle the first question …

What do you study?

The first question most people have is “just what do you learn when you major in wushu?”

That is a good question, but the first thing you need to realize is that, as an athlete, you have a specific perspective when you look at the study of wushu that might not be relevant to what a wushu major does.

In fact, most of us see wushu as a sport we train in, not as an academic course of study.

Wushu, of course, is quite a vast subject, and the athletic training side of it is just one part. History, culture, language, politics, administration, coaching, pedagogy, and many other things all play a part.

The reality is, the course of study for most wushu majors is much more heavily on the academic side of things and much less on the physical training side.

Some people are quite surprised to find out that training is not really the focus of wushu majors, but is used as a method by which you are instructed to get a better understanding of traditional elements of wushu.

BSU Wushu Majors learning Mantis
BSU Wushu Majors learning Mantis as part of their curriculum

 

Wushu as a major is primarily academic in nature. For example, at Beijing Sports University, probably the best sports university in China, and therefore probably the best place to get a wushu degree in the world, you only train about 4 times a week for about 90 minutes each time. That is during the first two years of your degree program and after that it goes down in frequency.

And during the class you don’t train in the same way you would if you were going to a sports school or training with a professional wushu team. In fact, your focus is on learning various traditional elements of wushu, or fine-tuning a better understanding of the elements of wushu. You might have a class specifically about learning Preying Mantis. And then the next week you might learn some traditional southern styles.

The purpose isn’t to make you in to an athlete, but to give you a broad-based understanding of wushu so that you have a substantial knowledge of wushu’s history, culture, and tradition.

Think of it like a person who majors in Spanish or Chinese.

You don’t spend 4 years practicing the language.  Actually you have a lot of classes about the history of  Spain or Latin America, or you get in to an examination of traditional Spanish language texts, or you might have classes on cultural aspects of Spanish speaking countries.  The same sort of things applies when you study wushu.

The distinction here is that you are studying wushu, not training in wushu.  One is academic, and the other is not.

If you are interested in the academic side of wushu, then this might be right up your alley. However, if you are not as interested in it, and would rather just focus on training, then a degree in wushu might not be your cup of tea.

Either way though, a degree in wushu is not a walk in the park. You have to do a fair bit of study and your Chinese level needs to be up to snuff.  Plus, you also have to contend with the ultimate question that every college graduate faces:

What can you do with a degree in wushu?

So once you have completed your 4 year program in wushu the question then becomes “what do I do with this piece of paper?”

Well, what would you do with any 4 year diploma from a university? Naturally you would look for a job in that field. In wushu the work can be anything from coaching to administration to policy making to judging to academic research and more.

Wushu Judges
Some of these judges were probably wushu majors

 

Of course, you don’t have to pursue work in whatever degree you receive. A lot of students in China enter university in a degree program, not because they want to study that subject, but because they qualified for it based on their gao kao (Chinese college entrance exam) scores.

It is one of the downsides of the Chinese education system that they do not have much freedom of choice in terms of what subjects they can study.  And usually once they have committed to a particular major they have to see it all the way through, regardless of their interest.

For wushu, this isn’t as much the case, but for other subjects (business, languages, communications, sciences, etc.) you see this quite a bit.

So, with a degree you have several options. Of course, as a non-Chinese with a degree in wushu you will most likely go in to coaching back in your home country. The majority follow this path, although this isn’t the only way you can progress.

Ultimately it is up to you. Before entering a wushu degree program you should already have an idea of what you want to do with it once you exit from the school four years later.

What about professional athletes?

A lot of people want to know what the deal is with professional athletes.

They’ve noticed that a lot of them have degrees from sport universities or that they might be attending classes while they are competing for a team. Or they have noticed that some sports colleges or universities have athletes that compete at Nationals or world games, either as representatives of their provincial team or the university itself.

Liu Xiao Lei - Beijing Sports University (2006)
Liu Xiao Lei, professional wushu athlete, walking on the campus of Beijing Sports University (May 2006)

 

Well, first of all, professional athletes are a special case when it comes to getting a degree at a university. Since their profession is as an athlete, they are considered to have a “specialized” knowledge — sort of a practical experience that allows them certain lee way when it comes to getting a degree and following a course of study.

A lot of them do not have to attend the same number of classes that other students at the university do. They are given a special dispensation since they are working athletes and their training is the priority.

This is because they will often represent the university at collegiate wushu competitions or other various events.  This isn’t to be confused with what they might be doing as a professional athlete on a provincial team, but since they are a student at the school they are also able to represent the school, and that gives them some special allowances.

I suppose you can also liken this to someone in the west who might go back to school after spending many years in the work force. They can possibly earn “life credit” for work in the industry they are studying, which exempts them from taking classes in certain subjects.

Since professional athletes have been developing a lot of “life credit” with wushu, they are also exempt from certain classes.

I remember Wu Di used to have to attend classes at Beijing Sports University when he was getting his degree. But since he was a professional athlete, he only had to go a few times a week, and he was allowed to be absent when he was training with the National Team or had to prepare for a big competition. I suppose that is one of the perks of doing wushu as your job.

Keep in mind that this applies more to athletes who are currently competing while in school.  Athletes who have already retired from competition have to go through more-or-less the same rigors as the rest of the wushu majors including auditioning for placement in the program.

Now, sometimes the athletes who are at a university are more focused on their degree program, but since their level is quite high and they are at a professional level of wushu, they can compete in national competitions. That is not uncommon since there is a lot of grey area between a professional wushu athlete and an athlete who is getting a degree in wushu. It isn’t cut and dry about whether you are one or the other and sometimes you are varying degrees of both.

You may have seen some sports universities fielding athletes at Nationals in China and this is also something I should mention. In fact, this isn’t related to people majoring in wushu. In fact, the athletes who are “representing” the school might not actually be in attendance there.

Mark and Meng Bi Fa
Meng Bi Fa, Shanghai Wushu Team Athlete, represents the Shanghai Sports Institute when he competes

 

For many national competitions (but not all), a specific provincial team is only allowed to bring a specific number of people to represent their team. However, they might have many more athletes that are able to compete. But since universities can also field athletes to compete at Nationals occasionally the athletes on a professional team will “represent” the university as a way of circumventing this limitation on the number of athletes the team can bring.

This isn’t always the case, but it happens sometimes.

Depending on the type and scope of competition, sport colleges and sport universities are able to submit athletes to compete. So, they will sometimes send their top level athletes who are both students at their school or who might also be professional athletes.

So, athlete X might be representing Cheng Du Sports University since they are a student there, but they are actually a professional athlete with the Sichuan Wushu Team.

Or you might have a professional wushu athlete on the Fujian Wushu Team who represents Jimei Sports University in Xiamen since the team already has enough athletes on its roster and the sports school doesn’t have any high level athletes to send.

These are just two examples, but there are a lot of variations on this theme.

So, now that you know a bit more about what is involved in majoring in wushu, you probably want to know if it is right for you.  In other words:

Should you get a degree?

Well, the main questions is, what do you want to do with a degree?

Because if your goal is to come to China to train in wushu so that you can compete, then a degree program is probably not for you.

However, if you want to expand your knowledge of wushu history, culture, application, tradition and pedagogy, then a degree in wushu might just be what you’re looking for.

Ultimately the decision to get a degree is up to you and your goals, but once you have made that decision there are a few specific steps you will need to take in order to fulfill that goal:

Bernhard and Sheila at BSU
Bernhard and Sheila at BSU working on their wushu degree

How can you get a degree?

The first requirement to be accepted to a university in China is to pass the Hanyu Shuiping Kouyu (or HSK, for short). This is the test of standardized Chinese language level. In order to be admitted as a student at a university in China for a non-language intensive course (such as wushu), you need to pass level 4 of the test. (If You want to get a degree in something like Chinese Literature, then you’ll have to pass level 5 or 6, depending on the university you are applying for.)

Most people will come to China for a year of intensive Chinese study and then take the HSK at the end of the year. If they have been diligent and study hard then they will probably be able to pass level 4 and can then apply for admission at a university.

Since you will be a “foreign student” you also don’t have to go through some of the same things that Chinese students do.

For example, all freshman in China are required to do a month of military training when they go to school. (Mainly they do a whole lot of marching.) But you won’t have to do that (unless you really beg them — which I’ve known people who have done that before) since you aren’t a Chinese student.

For a wushu major you also might not have to audition for your major. Many Chinese students have to perform a wushu routine at the beginning of their course so that they are placed in the correct level classes. Or sometimes this is a requirement to be allowed into the major (sort of like a piano audition at Julliard). But many foreign students don’t have to do this as a requirement (although they might have to so that their level can be checked).

Beijing Sports University
Professional athletes Wushu training at Beijing Sports University

 

So, once you have passed level 4 of the HSK and you have been admitted to your university of choice you are now a student in the degree program. Pretty sweet, right?

Well, keep in mind that you have to pay for this thing, so before you attend the school you should be sure to do some thorough research on any scholarships that might be available to you as a foreign student.

The Confucius Institute offers scholarships depending on how well you score on the HSK, so you should check there to see what is available.

Ask the admissions or registrar at your school what programs they have available for foreign students. They are the best people to ask.  (Whether they are responsive or not, is a different matter.)

Where can you get a degree?

I sort of glossed over this part, because picking a school is not really something I can offer specific advice on. A lot of people automatically gravitate towards Beijing Sports University as the place to go, but there are lot of other great sports colleges in China too.

A few of the top ones are Chengdu Sports College, Shanghai University of Sport, Guangzhou Sports College and Wuhan Sports University. In fact, almost every provincial capital has a sports college where you can study wushu, so you shouldn’t just limit yourself to one option.

My recommendation is to check out all the variables that are at play. If you’re going to be spending 4 years at this school, then you want to make sure you really cover all your bases — from climate to food to environment to culture to local dialects and more. Be sure to really investigate things carefully.

Of course, this means you need to have a list of schools to start with. Fortunately I currently have available a list of 50 sports universities from around China that you can download for free when you sign up for my Nanquan Scream newsletter.

Once you have subscribed (it is spam free) you will get your list a few days later. It includes contact information, addresses, e-mails, website addresses, phone numbers and other things you need to  contact these schools about their degree programs.

But what if I don’t want a degree?

Of course, if you don’t want to get a degree, but you still want to train in China, these same universities all have programs for visiting athletes to train at their schools. Most of them have training options for anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple semesters, and they often include room and board as available options.

So, if you just want to come for several months to train and get your wushu level higher, then these schools can help with that too.

So, that is my run-down overview on what is entailed with a wushu degree program in China. Of course, this is just a cursory look, but it should give you a starting point to figure out if this is the right path for you.

If you have any other questions, or if you’ve enrolled in a program yourself and want to add to this discussion, then just put a comment down below and let us know your thoughts.

10 Responses

  1. Wow, interesting topic. Do they offer minors in wushu or graduate programs at any of these schools? I think I would’ve definitely looked into this more in college, not necessarily majored, but at least studied for a year or so.

    1. I don’t know about minors, but for sure there are graduate programs. In fact Liu Xiao Lei from the Beijing Wushu Team not only got her bachelors and masters in Wushu, but she is also working on a Ph.D. Although, I’m not sure it is in wushu, it is most certainly related to wushu. She still teaching at BSU too, by the way, so she flies back and forth between Beijing where she teaches and Hong Kong where she studies. Hectic life! 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for posting this information about getting a Wushu degree! I was actually thinking about getting one too right after I got out of my undergrad but didn’t know what it actually entailed. So good to know it’s not an overload of pure form training, but needing to know how to read and write the language kind of caught me off guard. Now I can make a more informed decision, thanks again!

  3. Sweet, you answered the question I posted on youtube. Personally wasn’t curious in order to do it myself but it just seems such a curious phenomenon to foreigners… Studying wushu at a university. Interesting, thanks.

    I have to say though that it seems like you can quite easily get a masters degree in wushu and not be able to fight your way out of a paper bag. The degree doesn’t seem very worthwhile, neither in the skills it teaches you, the credit it gives you in the job market place nor are the options you have after graduating.

    As for the non professional athletes following this course, how valuable do they feel their studies are?I can totally get a professional athlete who has the skills, also wants the piece of paper confirming their knowledge and academic prowess. But someone who has studied the history of wushu and the ideology behind it, but hasn’t done the thousands of repetitions normally associated with ‘knowing’ wushu however… Not sure if they get much out of it, there are so many pro athletes already.

    1. Yup! This was a reply to your question.

      Well, the purpose of getting a degree in wushu isn’t to be able to use it. As I said, and you mentioned in the third paragraph, it is about the study of wushu vs. training in wushu.

      As for getting a job, I suppose you could say the same things for someone with a degree in Philosophy. There are already a ton of very wise people out there — what advantage does having a degree in philosophy give you over them? Or what kind of job can you get? Everyone has a different path, I guess. And sometimes people study something because they just want to know more about it — not because they feel they can use it in their work or because they want to be a professional level athlete.

      Of course, I have no desire to get a degree in wushu myself, but I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of folks who might be so inclined. Most likely it is an individual decision, so each person is going to have a different perspective on their reasons.

      Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  4. Hey mark, thx for posting this. I was also wondering, for example if you get a bachlor degree, do you also get a duan level? I am personally more interested in getting something like that, and though i would love to do a 4 year wushu study, i just don’t have the time. So i’m more interested in stuff like weeks of training/courses and a certificate of 4-6 duan or something. You know anything about universities providing those

    1. That is a good question. My guess is that you still have to qualify through a duan ranking test regardless of whether you have a degree or not. But perhaps a degree gives you an extra point to your ranking? So instead of a 4 you get a 5? I’m just guessing there, but it seems like they should give you some advantage for those 4 years of study, right? If I find out the answer, I’ll be sure to post an update.

  5. I was at the Wuhan Institute of Physical Education some years ago. I just stayed there for one year, but I had some classmates from Spain, who were doing a bachelor’s degree in Wushu there.
    But honestly, it wasn’t really worth anything, because back in Europe they couldn’t get an accreditation for that (also not as a degree in sports or something like that).
    And NO, they also didn’t automatically get a duan or anything like that (I mean, if you think about, that’s something completely different, organized probably by the Chinese Wushu Association).
    And honestly, I think that many of the Chinese Wushu students, weren’t really skilled in Wushu, and I was wondering, what kind of jobs they wanted to get with their Wushu degree later…

    1. Good point Sebastian! I didn’t even mention the lack of accreditation with that sort of degree. Really, you are getting it for your own sense of accomplishment more than having it lead to something specific.

      Like I mentioned in the article, and you alluded to in your comment, it isn’t so much about being skilled in wushu when you go for a degree — it is about developing an understanding of the history, philosophy and culture of wushu. This is the main distinction that most people miss: It is an academic study of wushu, not a training of wushu itself.

      Thanks for your comment!

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