Last month I went to Chen Jia Gou, just outside of Zhengzhou, Henan, to visit the birthplace of Chen Style Taiji Quan. I went with Chen Jia, a young lady who studies under the style’s current, most famous master, Chen Xiao Wang. She also opened her own school in Shanghai.
Every year in March, Chen Xiao Wang takes time out from his travels around the globe to return home and pay respects to the temple, school, and village where he was born and raised. Students from around the country – and the world – come to Henan during the last week in March to join him, participate in seminars, and train with other taiji enthusiasts.
My primary interest in traveling out here was to learn more about Chen Jia, more about her master Chen Xiao Wang, and to take a good look at a “birthplace” of a style. I know Chen Jia, and consider her to be a very sincere and talented martial artist, and in conversations we had we often spoken of the level of “realness” in martial arts these days. We talked of the rise of Wushu – the competition style Wushu – and the decline in students of what we both understood to be real kungfu.
It’s easy to agree on a definition when you agree with the person you speak to. So much can be left unsaid. Hence the trip: I wanted to see what was real in Zhengzhou and what Chen Jia considered to be real kungfu.
I was, in all, pleasantly surprised.
After the trip to Hohhot, I pitched a story on the rise of MMA and corresponding decline (discussions of decline?) of kungfu to the Economist. They took the pitch and the result is this 400 word blurb on what happened.
There is really too much to write about this topic, and the story in the Economist, for me, is just a note of what was seen and spoken during that weekend in Inner Mongolia. I personally think that kungfu will inevitably demonstrate its usefulness in the ring, and that will be a big day for kungfu’s revival. Apropos usefulness, many people don’t realize that jiujitsu’s origins are in Mainland China and traditional Chinese martial arts … locks and submissions are a big part of the kungfu arsenal and it would be interesting to trace jiujitsu back and see what remains of the “mother styles” here in China.
I am in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia this weekend to watch the RUFF Superfight. RUFF is the number one mixed martial arts organization in China and this is their big bang: five champions will emerge out of tomorrow’s fights, the first belts given out by RUFF in their two year-history in China.
It’s a big deal for MMA in China and a big deal period. No other MMA organization has national champions and no other organization is so firmly entrenched in one country the way RUFF is in China. You could say that the only way MMA could thrive in China is by awarding national championship belts, but RUFF is by all accounts a serious MMA outfit with excellent quality control when it comes to fighters, safety, judging, and venues. So it doesn’t really matter whether or not RUFF’s deal with the Wushu Association (and by extension the government) stipulated national champs: tomorrows winners are bona fide MMA champs.
And that is the first step toward a bona fide MMA following in China, where martial arts has a long and storied tradition.
For me, the chance to watch an MMA fight live is great; I also have an inside track to the fighters, promoters and other people involved, and in terms of The Last Masters project … the rise of MMA and its relationship with Wushu and Kungfu is part of the story. Being here and talking with people and soaking up the atmosphere may help me get closer to answering questions like: What is the future of Chinese Martial Arts? What will survive and what will not?
What is the CMA scene like now? Where is it headed? How will MMA, Wushu and Kungfu develop (together? apart? or in competition with each other?) … Can a belief system co-exist with a sport? Are they mutually incompatible? Will we ever see kungfu as part of an MMA fighter’s repertoire? Is Sanda Kungfu?
I’ll keep you posted with what I see and hear, but it would be great if some readers posted a few questions or thoughts concerning the relationship between Mixed Martial Arts and Traditional Martial Arts …
Happy Holidays Everyone, I have been away for a few weeks, so this is not just the first post of 2013, but for me a long-overdue return to writing about kungfu in China.
A lot of things have happened in the past few weeks: a meeting with the Sichuan Wushu Association Party Secretary, a car ride with a flamboyantly dressed Liu Sui Bin and his wife, and messages with a female bare-knuckle kungfu warrior living in the hills of Chongqing are the highlights. I will go through them one by one. But first a response to a friend’s request:
A good friend recently asked me to classify wushu into a clear and easily digested system for the layman. Each time I tried to explain how difficult that was, he launched into another monologue on how such a system would help to promote Chinese martial arts and attract students. Eventually, I ended up nodding my head and promising to provide an essay on the classification of Chinese martial arts.
It has been tried by many a more knowledgable scholar than I and not one of them can claim to have succeeded. When I put the question to Professor Ben Judkins, author of Kungfutea, he replied:
“I am not sure that I would be brave enough to answer the question.”
I recently traveled to Emei, again, and to Shanghai to meet with a disciple of Chen-style Taijiquan, Chen Jia. There were some highlights that I will try and talk about below, but what these trips also did for me was help crystallize the framework for this story I am writing.
One thing that has come clear to me over the past few weeks (and years actually) is that 武术 is so deep and so broad that I have literally no hope of understanding a large portion of it unless I dedicated myself to a life of scholarly research – and I actually just imagined finding Ming Dynasty contemporary accounts of the training that mountain-bound monks did in preparation for battle with rebels, and I literally teared up. What a beautiful thing, an old text illuminated again … but I digress.
The Tao of Jeet Kun Do
Last Wednesday two men, father and son, defended their home from bandits trying to break the door down and force-evict their family. All we saw in the video that went viral over the weekend were several men lying in the foyer of a concrete shell – your typical Chinese home in the countryside – and some thugs outside of the home making calls to their boss. The person with the camera, most likely the man’s wife, also added text to the video letting viewers know the situation and calling for help.
Later the Telegraph interviewed the man, Shen Jianzhong, who told a familiar story for Chinese in this era of relentless urbanization:
“They called it a remodelling project, to turn our village into a town,” he said. ”They wanted to tear down the whole street, and promised we would get a new house of the same size in two years, as well as rent to cover the interim. But I heard of people in a neighbouring village getting a much better deal, so we refused to sign.”
“This mob of thugs would block the street most days. They would pick on the women, threatening to kill their kids. Then people started tossing bricks through windows and letting off fireworks at night. Some people got beaten on the street.”
On October 29, as Mr Shen went to work and his wife popped out for a packet of instant noodles, a mob of “30 to 50 men” materialised at their front door.
“My wife tried to close the door, but they pushed it back and she tripped over. That is how the fight started,” said Mr Shen.
Shen then took off for Beijing with his family, only to have his son arrested by the same authorities that couldn’t protect him when thugs tried to force him and his family to leave their home. The Telegraph story ends with a cliffhanger: a supposedly sympathetic official contacting Shen and telling him to wait to get picked up by a car.
I am busy transcribing interviews and translating them for a deeper post on Emei Mountain, but I thought I would lay down a few surface thoughts before they escaped into the ether, enjoy:
I went to Emei Mountain last weekend and visited with some kung fu masters there. Two to be exact. One has been a high school gym coach for the past 25 years and the other teaches wu shu performance classes to small children.
I met them at the Grand Buddha Temple, a massive, beautiful new temple built by the Emei Buddhist association to promote tourism and the Buddha. The Emei Wu Shu Alliance has a small office in the corner of the temple. Pictures of the officials responsible for the creation of the alliance line a large carpeted room where Zhang Shifu performed some tao lu for us. That was without question the first time anyone practiced any martial arts in that office.
One way to globalize an art is to simplify it, give it rules that anyone can understand, and then submit it for an international review to the association most likely to be interested in the art. For martial arts, this process is known as sportification: Making the art of warfare and spiritual enlightenment into a game that anyone can play.
Sportification naturally divides the practitioners of any martial art into two opposing camps: purists who believe that simplification ruins and eventually mutates the art into something else; and pragmatists (for lack of a better word), who believe that without simplification and marketing, martial arts will die a slow, but inevitable death.
Both Judo and Taekwondo have gone through the process and were awarded with spots in the Summer Olympics, the former in 1968 at the Tokyo Games and the latter in 1988 at the Seoul Games. Given that the 2008 Summer Olympics were in Beijing, it would have stood to reason that the heavy lobbying by the Chinese government and the International Wushu Federation would have had a similar result. But wushu was denied. As consolation, the IWUF was allowed to stage a parallell event in Beijing, and continue fostering hopes that wushu will become an official Olympic Sport in 2020 at the Macao Games.
But the odds are slim. Seven sports are competing for one open spot in the 2020 Games, and wushu is competing against some tough customers, including the “united sport” of baseball and softball, squash, karate, and roller sports.
The 21st century’s Bruce Lee
Asian martial arts started entering the Western consciousness a little more than 100 years ago when Chinese, Japanese and Korean immigrants started arriving in the West. Those first immigrants brought their arts – Judo, Taekwondo, Kungfu – with them; Asian masters helped form communities around the traditional arts and, eventually, met eager, devoted foreign students.
After WWII and the Korean War, American GIs returned from Asia with a newfound respect for martial arts and many of them either stayed on and learned, or invited their masters to come to America. During the Vietnam War, Korean Taekwondo masters were paired with American battalions and taught their art to certain soldiers, who then undoubtedly passed it on to others.
After that war ended, soldiers and their teachers returned and initiated another wave of interaction between Asian masters and foreign students.
The other day I met Liu Sui Bin at a teahouse in west Chengdu, The Green Well, opposite the Shiren Park main gate. The district around Shiren Park looks like the rest of Chengdu looked 10 years ago: fly in the wall eateries sandwiched between crimson lit barber shops and lotto dispensaries; families wandering around chewing on sunflower seeds; men in dirty clothes and badly combed hair sitting on motorbikes eyeing the girls and smoking Baisha brand smokes.
It’s not the district I would imagine to find Liu Sui Bin in. And the Green Well is just a mahjong parlor above an old style KTV/brothel joint, not the venue I would expect to be discussing Taoist philosophy in either.