A few thoughts on Emei Mountain Kung Fu

Emei Kungfu

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.

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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.

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Published on: November 20, 2012

Filled Under: Kung Fu History, Kung Fu People, Kung Fu Places, Modern Kung Fu

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21 Responses to A few thoughts on Emei Mountain Kung Fu

  1. Great report. Depressing stuff, but its nice to hear what is going on. I have a couple of more detailed questions for you, but I am slammed with work right now .

  2. […] As we have seen in previous posts, the economic and social changes that accompany any era of globalization always creates patterns of winners and losers.  In the North America and Europe the traditional Asian fighting arts have been big winners.  They have found a generally receptive and dedicated audience.  Over half a century they rose from obscurity to the point where one simply expects to find a couple of martial arts school in any medium sized town in Germany, Canada or America.  The quality of practice and the dedication of the students has also improved immensely.  Be careful when evaluating the often heard claim that everything was better in the “good old days” (which in the US means the 1970s and 1980s).  The truth is that what we have today is about the best environment for studying the Asian martial arts that has ever existed.  Nor is there anything inevitable about this.  Globalization has not been nearly so kind to the traditional martial arts in China.  There we see many traditional schools struggling just to survive. […]

  3. Sascha says:

    No worries, I am flooded with stuff as well. GOt my hands on a new book and will go to Emei again this weekend. Feel free to send your questions any time and I will try and answer them all in next week’s post. Maybe I’ll have something for tonight/tomorrow as well …

  4. […] Mainland China, or being replaced with performance arts and competitive boxing. We know that many styles have been lost and many masters face a future without students, but how many Shen Jianzhong’s are there in China? How many “crouching tigers” […]

  5. […] first I heard of Zhou Fan was from Master Zhang, in Emei, when he mentioned a “female bare-knuckle Sanda champ from Chongqing” – […]

  6. Carlos says:

    What are some schools in Emei

  7. Sascha says:

    Emei has one large school, and dozens of smaller ones scattered about. The larger school is attached to a Buddhist Monastery – slightly functional – at the base of the mountain. If you are interested, let me know some dates and I will try and get you in touch with some guys.

  8. niko says:

    yes, same here in wudang. i have been researching the area since almost 4 years now here, and its depressing what has become of a holy mountain and its gongfu….
    better stay and train with people from beijings parks

  9. Jason Wang says:

    Hello, and sorry for the long post:

    I realize this is two years after you wrote your article, but have you ever urged Zhang Shifu to work with the other practitioners to write about the old style? (Even just him is fine as I imagine of hundreds of masters he could only practice with a few.) I cannot travel to China to study what I can from the Emei Shifus as I am studying in college and not traveling abroad anytime soon, but I would love to read about the forms. history, anecdotes, and applications of forms; despite what was lost I think written records would do well to preserve an art with no students left.

    I was very interested in learning about Emei and think it could have been a more appealing destination for learning about China than Shaolin had it not been for the Cultural Revolution. But I figure that should the style die, inerested folks in the future could read about and maybe revive the art.

    PS does the school on Emei teach the original style to any degree? I know that Wudang and Shaolin train more for Wushu than the traditional since neither remain in their unadulterated forms there, but I hope people like Zhang give input.

  10. Jason Wang says:

    Also, is there any chance that Zhang Shifu and the other Master hace been able to teach what they know of the traditional style as if late? I think we can take some comfort in Emei’s legacy if so.

    • Sascha says:

      Hi Jason,
      Sorry for the late reply. Yes I am working on it. There is a lot that is being done actually, not necessarily to dig up what was lost as much as to preserve what still lives. I will try and put a post together as soon as I can, but it may take some time, so i will try and talk a little bit about it here.

      Most of the Emei style was lost, at least in the form of masters who knew it in and out, but there are still a ton of smaller schools across Sichuan that practice derivatives of the Emei style, mixed with Shaolin stuff, and local martial arts as well.

      The Sichuan Wushu association is based out of Emei for the most part, and all of the major officials either come from Emei, or studied there. It is still the heart of Sichuan Wushu, and as such there are temples, masters, videos, books, and administrators that are preserving the style.

      What exactly is being preserved and why, is the real question. And I will try and answer that in a post as soon as I can.

      • Ben says:

        I for one am very much looking forward to hearing your thoughts on that topic, as well as the related question of what sort of “Emei Kung Fu” existed to be preserved prior to 1965. I am aware of mentions of local martial arts traditions in that area going back to the Ming, but have never been able to build a really clear picture in my mind of what was going on more recently, say in the 19th century.

        • Jason Wang says:

          Thought I left a reply but I guess not.

          Thats good news! I too am looking forward to hearing what has happened. Hopefully they are able to reconstruct what they remember from the pillars. It may not add up to all the pillars but it is better than losing all of it. That, and the applications of their forms as well. But I’ll take what we can get, so long as it’s genuine 🙂

        • Sascha says:

          I am meeting Ren Gang again for Part III of our marathon interview sessions. It’s been a long time now with him, but we are now up to 1974 🙂 after beginning just after Liberation in 1949 – all conversations are about Wushu and Kungfu in Chongqing and Chengdu. Hours long. Bear with me …

  11. Dmitriy says:

    Strangely, I was trying to find some info on Emei Baguazhang style and accidentally came across this post. I must say that it is disheartening to see the martial arts of Emei being now largely perished and extinct.
    Those few remaining masters should pass whatever knowledge is left along to others before all is irreversibly lost.
    To draw a parallel, this is something that has almost happened to a very rare and almost extinct Karate style – Kojo Ryu from Koshiro family that came from China to Okinawa in 1300’s. Of the three masters that are left, two are not teaching. The remaining one of the three is not teaching to any outsiders but to a very select few individuals.
    The only way to preserve the art is to ask these masters to pass it on.

  12. Alex says:

    Hello!
    I would just like to know if the xie quan (crab boxing) is still present in Sichuan, and if this is a system (school) or just one single form of emei kung fu. Is it traditional or modern kung fu? What is its history, forms, etc. Many thanks for your reply. Alex

    • Sascha says:

      I can’t say I know anything about Crab Boxing at all, sorry. But I will check a book I have and if anything pops I’ll post about it

      • Brian says:

        Hi Sascha, thanks so much for your posts. They help me understand how some styles of kung-fu have died out with the last masters in Emei. I learn a rare style of taijiquan here in Australia with the last master of that style and I’m helping him document his knowledge before it is also lost. He is in his mid 50s which fits in with your timeline. Were there any styles if taijiquan/neijia from My Emei? Cheers Brian

  13. Suren says:

    A discovery, indeed and thanks for the article. I would like to get in touch with Master Zhang Shi Zhong
    Shall be grateful for details to my email.
    Thanks a million
    Regards
    Suren

  14. Markus says:

    Hi

    Very nice to read ypur finding. I was 20 years ago. I went to one of the martial art temple. I agreed w u, we are in rhe degeneration time.

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