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.
The office director is a monk, named Chen, who I found hard to trust. He wanted me and my master, Shifu Li Cuan, to compete with Zhang Shifu on the carpet. When we refused he gave a high-pitched giggle and asked me rhetorically if I remember any of my kung fu.
All agree that the monk’s master was the last of Emei’s true martial arts masters. He studied the 12 pillars attributed to the old Emei Mountain Style and was also an ardent Buddhist. In his last years, he refused to teach anyone kung fu, proclaiming Buddhism as the true path to Zen.
The monk Chen referred repeatedly to the movie Kung Fu Panda, “inner peace” he said again and again, “kung fu’s highest attainment is inner peace … but Buddhism expressly seeks that peace through meditation. Why go through all of the combat and physical strife, when your goal can be reached as a monk?”
Chen is in charge of helping the alliance (between Emei’s Buddhists and remaining kung fu practitioners) promote Emei Style abroad. But he himself never practiced kung fu and his loyalties are with his own tribe, the Buddhist monks that were nowhere to be seen in the new temple.
Master Zhang confided in me that the Emei style is at the brink of extinction. Only a few masters still practice anything resembling the original style, and they have no students. Many of them practice on their own and not one of them has a complete knowledge of the 12 pillars. An older temple, Hong Yan Temple, held all of the written records of the style, dating back to the Warring States period. The 12 pillars were there for all to see and many masters were available who knew some of the pillars completely. But that temple was burned down during the Cultural Revolution, along with all of the other temples in China.
When Zhang’s Master died two years ago, the last remaining link to the old lineage was broken. Zhang knows a lot, and his kung fu is both real and alive, but he knows a tiny fraction of the Emei Style. He told me that the first Dying Off happened during the rise of the Qing. Back then the authorities feared Ming rebels and counted Taoist and Buddhist martial artists as Ming sympathizers. (This was in the late 17th century). Thousands of masters were killed; dozens of styles were extinguished; hundreds of styles lost their connection to the past and to written records.
“A hundred different masters representing a hundred different styles came ot mountains like Emei and became monks,” he told me. “They then secretly taught a few students their secrets, only orally, and only at night or early in the morning.”
“That was the first great scattering of the styles.”
The scenario repeated itself 200 years later, when Red Guards persecuted and slew kung fu masters in the name of ideological purity and Mao Zedong Thought. Today, the Last Masters are in their 40s and 50s.
The Emei Wushu Alliance is run by bureaucrats and Buddhists who would use wu shu and the illusion of real kung fu to gain wealth (tourism) or power (government support for Buddhism). Just like when the original Zen masters took Bodhidarma as their patron saint, so now the Buddhists of Emei Mountain form an alliance with Emei Kung Fu. Both hope to gain from the alliance.
What I saw were two desperate masters, an opportunistic monk, some tourists, but not a single student.