Full Circle

This project began as a search into the “last masters” of traditional kungfu. That has always been the core during this process. Every time I went to visit someone, read something, wrote something, or attended an event of some kind, I had the “last masters” in mind.

I went off on a tangent. I became embroiled in MMA, and left behind the evolution – or sundering as I am calling it - of Chinese traditional martial arts from its fundamentals, known by most as traditional kungfu (see this post for more on the malleable terms in wushu), into its component parts: Combat Sports, Wushu Performances, Taiji Health Practices, and Medicine.

To that end, I wrote a series of stories starting with this one in the Economist a while back, “Ain’t that a Kick in the Head,” and continuing with the more recent “Hard Knock Life of a Foreign Fighter in China,” and “The Shady Business of Promoting MMA in China” for Fightland.com, a part of Vice.

I was worried that I may have gone completely off course. I was worried that I may have built a site and proclaimed it part of a “project” that I would never end up completing. But even as these fears became more and more part of the process, I believed that I was following the right path. Because I was following the truth, in a way. I was following what was happening. From all of the interviews and such that I have done, it seemed that the rise of MMA was such an integral and exciting part of the evolution of CMA that I had to pursue it.

Other fears cropped up. Although I prepared a Kickstarter page for this project, I never launched it because I knew I wasn’t ready. There was too much missing, too much that I did not know, and there was also a limit to what I could produce. How was I supposed to film all of this, take photos of all of this, write about all of this … all at the same time without sacrificing one or more of those mediums to the stronger one. In my case, writing is my strong point (harharhar) and so any video I may have taken would be weak, and not really worthy of a kickstarter campaign. I never felt confident enough to ask people for money.

Now I can say that I am coming full circle.

It happened in Henan, outside of Zhengzhou, inside the grounds of the Shaolin Temple, while watching Sanda fighters clumsily try and pin each other down with barely learned Brazilian Jiu Jitsu techniques. Classically degenerate Sanda coaches followed a Canadian MMA fighter around the gym, soaking up his BJJ knowledge, puffing on cigarettes and dreaming of riches. Teenage country boys from the hills of Hubei leglocked each other and got up sweating and bright eyed, thrilled to be able to defeat an opponent in a whole new way. Two Highland videographers roamed the edges of the scene, capturing it all.

My story on foreign fighters for Fightland had led me here. But it was my quest for the last masters that started all of this to begin with. I always had a feeling that the “last masters” were in reality the “new masters” but I wasn’t really sure who in fact either of those masters really were. Zou Fan the retired bare knuckle queen? Liu Sui Bin or Ren Gang, the martial artists slash hustlers who were at the forefront of an evolution they themselves were not completely in control of? Chen Jia the innocent taiji princess? Or Vaughn Anderson, the gruff cauliflower eared MMA fighter neck deep in the muck of the Chinese fight scene, sleeping in cold rooms and drinking green tea with goji berries to prepare for a Bellator fight?

It took me a few days watching kids march up and down the cobblestone roads of the Tagou Wushu Academy beside the Shaolin Temple to realize there never were any last or new masters, just a martial tradition. A love for fighting, physicality, glory, and respect that brought Zhao Yafei out of a village and into the Shanghai spotlight for RUFF 12.

He started out doing forms, moved quickly to kicking bags right were the liver should be, and now he’s armbarring the unprepared. He has a peasant mohawk, the physique of a porn star, and the potential to be a master. Didn’t jiu jitsu evolve out of standing locks found in old Chinese martial manuals, wrapped in Taoist and Buddhist lore, themselves adapted from the sermons of Indian monks?

I think I’m coming full circle, I think I can actually see this project. And if I can convince these two Highland guys to jump on board and form like Voltron, we may yet see a Last Masters Kickstarter before the peach blossoms fall.

Update: Here is the story I wrote about the trip to Henan to see Vaughn and the Shaolin Temple, Planting the Seeds of MMA in China

Ultimate Fighter: China

I am getting a late start on the Ultimate Fighter China. I just watched episodes 1-2 and will watch 3 & 4 after I write this post. The best information source I found so far, is the TUF: China Wikipedia page, which has a bit of background and a good summary of each episode. If you haven’t seen any of the episodes, stay away from the Wiki page though, spoilers.

The UFC.com page for TUF: China is a bit sparse, but there is a good initial story on the cast, the carrier – Liaoning Satellite TV – and some info regarding scheduling, peppered with quotes.

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Some thoughts from Professor Ben Judkins of Kung Fu Tea

Prof. Judkins is a scholar of traditional Chinese martial arts, and runs the extremely well-informed and well-written blog, Kung Fu Tea. There is a wealth of information on the blog, and I take the time to read it weekly. Below are a few questions I had for Prof. Judkins, just a little back and forth to get the juices going again … 

“People are saying that “kung fu is dying”? What is your response to that? You have mentioned before in your blog that kung fu has “died before” and been reinvented, what do you mean by that? Can you give some examples?”

Po_and_dying_Shifu

I am not really sure that “dying” is the right metaphor for what is going on right now.  I think that I would prefer to say that Kung Fu is “evolving” in an almost Darwinian sense, with everything that this implies regarding competitive selection, differentiation, the development of new forms and the consolidation (or “extinction”) of some old ones.  I think that this would be a more accurate assessment of what we are dealing with right now …

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Bodyguards and Gangsters

Just a quick note while I have this on my mind.

My master Li Quan (who has a new site btw, Kung Fu Family) told me many stories about his kung fu brothers in Hanyuan, where their master Dai Kang lives and teaches. Many of the stories revolved around the ideas of “well water” and “river water”, “black and white”, good and evil …

It’s common, in many media, to see martial artists struggle to remain “in the Light” – every kung fu movie has variations of the master who went bad, the student who went bad, the school that becomes corrupt … Star Wars, for those of you who take info in easier when it is relatable to daily life, has Sith and Jedi, which are nothing more than sci-fi depictions of Shifu’s well water and river water …

Anyway. For men and women who study wushu, attain a certain physical capability, and require funds to eat and pay rent, there are often only a few options that can keep them training and within the “Light side” of the martial arts world: Cop, guard, bodyguard, wushu teacher …

Almost all of these can quickly lead to corruption, violence, gangsterism, and intimidation of some kind or another.

Li Quan has been all of these at one time or another Including truck driver and coal miner. As a bodyguard in HK, he often had to deal with gangster ass situations and gangster ass Asians. One night, Dai Kang’s wife had a dream and woke up in the middle of the night and demanded that Li Quan return to Hanyuan, and leave the lucrative bodyguard-for-businessman business behind. Or die. Li Quan obeyed and we will never know if it was the fear of a surrogate mother, or the premonition of a woman in touch. The masters, of course, believe the latter completely and see no reason to dissect what is real.

Last time I sat with Ren Gang, he was having a meeting with two men who wanted to start a bodyguard business. They talked in depth about what these bodyguards need to know, how to train them and so on … but i realized mid way thru that the conversation was turning to professionalism because I was there, and Ren Gang was eager to give me a certain image of how things are done. He was honest to a fault, on one hand speaking directly to me bout how business and especially martial arts business is often rife with corruption, gangsterism and violence, and then switching up immediately, telling me that within this environment, the only thing to do is remain professional, and do things the right way.

Train your men, stay away from gangsters, meet international standards, fighting is a small percentage of bodyguard duty … professionalism professionalism professionalism ….

Then, as the baijiu kept flowing and I proved myself up to that task, the table warmed up and the two businessmen started talking about Mu Ge, a notorious gangster in the middle of a Godfather III transformation into respectability, and how he is an example of how to move from the river to the well, so to speak. To shed the Sith darkness and step into the light.

How to rehabilitate young thugs with a modicum of martial arts skills, and put them to use doing good business, protecting semi-respectable businessmen who will pay top dollar for a good team.

Interesting stuff, seeing as I was involved with a lot of this during the 2008 Olympics. My master Li Quan has done a lot of this, both on his own and during the Olympics. Many of Dai Kang’s students have died moving through these circles, and some of made it through. Kung Fu, although declining in terms of enrollment and reach, is still hugely respected amongst non-fighters. The only people I have ever heard disrespect kung fu as a combat skill are the MMA guys, but that is of course a different story.

Here is a story that came out recently, talking about this whole bodyguard thing: “Bodyguards, Chinese Style” 

Just putting thoughts down here, not really going after that cohesive article, so forgive me if I went astray, or left stuff out, or whatever.

MMA in China: Emei Style

Kungfu China

Ren Gang, left, and the Emei Wushu Part Secretary ringside

As I wrote in the previous post, my first impression of Ren Gang was depressing. He seemed like any other Chinese businessman in this era of smash and grab style money worship. Although I could tell that he was still in shape and disciplined about his diet and how he carried himself, his plans for Wushu, MMA and KungFu basically involved maximizing profits and discarding “baggage.”

What really annoyed me were the constant invites to perform or announce at his upcoming event in Emei, his plastic attempts to dangle the “most famous foreign wushu guy” carrot in front of me, and, I must admit, the cream BMW.

There was too little wushu and too much business about the whole first meeting. Not what I had hoped the head of Wushu in Sichuan would be like. Yet first impressions are not always accurate, as I was to learn. Now I believe those awkward attempts to get me to work with him or announce at an event was just him trying to communicate: an old school Chinese dude trying to talk to an American and making the wrong moves.

I wasn’t impressed with the wrong moves, but I also didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to see an MMA event in China, so after that dinner in June, in Dujiangyan, I agreed to be the English-language ring announcer for the Emei Wushu and MMA event scheduled for Aug 10. I tried to get some friends to go with me, but my own scepticism leaked through my Chengdu Living Forum post and that’s all anyone needed as an excuse to stay at home.

One guy, Nico from South Africa, turned up and came with me. Great guy.

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The Man in Charge of Sichuan Wushu

It’s been a while, again, so I will get right to it.

I want to talk about a man named Ren Gang, the Party Secretary of the Sichuan Provincial Wushu Association. As such, he holds sway over all things martial in Sichuan. Wushu performances and training, allocation of belts, degrees and titles, approval of new schools and temples, any martial events – including fights – and, in general, the direction of wushu itself in this province.

The first time I spoke to him, I made a trip out to Dujiangyan by high speed rail specifically to talk to him. He was busy coaching the Sichuan Provincial Wushu Team in a closed door session, and came out for dinner. He was waiting for me by the back gate of the gym, besides his eggshell white BMW. We walked across the street, gauging each other and small-talking about Sichuan food.

Ren Gang holds himself like a martial artist. He stands up straight, swaggers slightly, and has a reserve of energy dozing beneath a pressed white polo shirt and pressed black pants. His hair is thinning, but his eyes are sharp and I felt them analyze my movements, my speech, the way I held myself and, after he demanded a demonstration, the weakness in my horse stance.

Ren speaks his mind without fear, because not only does he sit atop the Sichuan martial arts world, but he is also somewhat of a legend. Most people who know him speak of him with a mixture of envy, reverence, and fear. My own master, Li Quan, was shocked to know that I had dinner with THE Ren Gang, the man whose 1983 film, Little Heroes, influenced an entire generation of martial artists. A member of the very first group of official wushu practitioners to emerge out of the Cultural Revolution with the mandate to re-introduce, re-discover and revive the ancient art.

The MAN in Sichuan, when it comes to wushu, gongfu and sanda.

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Zou Fan: Kungfu Queen

The first I heard of Zou Fan was from Master Zhang, in Emei, when he mentioned a “female bare-knuckle Sanda champ from Chongqing” – naturally, I was intrigued. Then Liu Sui Bin told me they had studied under the same master for a while, and he gave me her number. After a bit of back and forthing, I finally took a trip out to visit her in the mountains of Chongqing.

I took my oldest boy Dorian along and he was a trooper on the seven-hour long trip from our home in Chengdu on subways, high-speed rail, elevated subways, cars, buses, and motorcycles all the way to Luolai Mountain, deep in the folds of Chongqing’s lushly forested hills.

We passed over muddy rivers and through swaying bamboo forests, to the county seat of Jiang Jin and on to the satellite town of Xi Hu, where kids gathered around us and giggled. The motorcycle ride took us past decrepit Revolution-era smokestacks and through the sagging, struggling town of Yellow Mud, where the very old watched the very young. We headed up the mountain and the air grew cooler. An old man tending his vegetables wreathed in pipe smoke. Red stone lanes leading into the mist, past immaculately kept mud homes. Some bends were cold, foggy, and covered in corn. Others were drowning in sunlight and rice paddy mud.

We kept going higher, deeper into the hills, back into time, further away from civilization.

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