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