On this, the longest day of the year, it seems fitting to read about and perhaps put a few words down on the topic of gender. What? Yes … The longest day of the year means the year with the most Sun, the most 阳气, the most Yang essence, the most masculine of days if you believe the Chinese. In some parts of the world, most notably Europe, this day (the Summer Solstice) is celebrated with massive bonfires. A reveling in the energy of the sun and its tiny cousin fire, both a symbol of potency and bright obvious power.
In China, this day is celebrated often with a bit of water … swimming perhaps … to balance out the Yang energy with a bit of Yin. Yin being the female – soft dark wet – susceptible to the moon and the tides, the hidden power, the power you never see coming.
I spent the day eating lamb, another source of Yang in China (lamb is not only 羊 yang in Chinese, but is also believed, like beef and dog meat and many other foods, to have strong Yang energy). Normally lamb is only eaten in winter, again, to balance out the cold winds and snows of the ultimate Yin season, sunless and dormant and secretly fecund. But I figured I’d revel in the Yang myself, and if a bonfire isn’t feasible, then a little lamb and some beer in the hot Sichuan sun should do the trick.
Before I went out to eat, I read three essays (one, two, three) on gender in the martial arts by (who else?) Ben Judkins and I found myself thinking of the Kungfu Women I have met over the years. Several of them fit Judkins’ descriptions of past Kungfu Women: magical, sexual, “honorary men,” yet still so feminine, no matter how many times she hit the bag or stared down a male rival …
The Master’s Wife
Master Dai Kang, whom I have written about a few times over the years, lived for most of his life on a rise overlooking a tributary of the Dadu River in western Sichuan. The mountains here hide villages unchanged, forgotten mines, old bones. Kungfu legends and tales of Yi Bandits. Today the mountains are as they always were, the towns are swollen with consumables and concrete, and the rise Master Dai Kang (Shiye) lived on is underwater, the result of upriver damming.
I first went to his home and school back in 2003 in the middle of the night, led by Daniel Ratheiser, an incredibly resourceful German and an old friend. He found the school in the twisting, turning lanes that zig zagged up the hillside to some temple, and it was one of the most impressive things I have seen anyone do. It was pitch black. Only the fringes of small lightbulb glow could be seen over the walls, topped with glass shards, and dogs barked at us at every turn from dark shadows or from behind steel doors.
We arrived, Shiye grunted at us, and we sat for a few minutes in his courtyard, exchanging a few pleasantries and looking at the large red characters on his walls. The sandbags like sullen ogres in the corner. One lightbulb reached out over the door to his inner chambers, and sketched out a perfect circle of light at our feet. Shiye was amiable, joking and smiling, teasing us about the dogs.
But then his wife came out, Shitai, and he came to an almost imperceptible attention. Every little part of him shifted a fraction, his laughing eyes and smile, his big solid belly. Awareness. Of what? Of a woman of great power. For me the observer, it was slightly comical to see Shitai’s face, screwed up in (mock?) suspicion as she looked us up and down. Where we here to make a fool of her Kungfu Man? Where we here to pitter patter about and cry at the slightest bit of pain? Could we eat the food and take shits in the outhouse, wake up at 4am and run and train and hit bags and become better men? Or were we little pretenders, wasting everyone’s time?
All that in a short glance, a shift of Shiye’s feet, and a gruff “Hungry?”
In the days and weeks that followed, she fed us huge bowls of noodles drenched in pig fat and chili pepper. When she went to the market, she’d spare a sniff for us, and bark something at Shiye, who responded the way a man in love with a tough ass woman responds: quickly and with respect, but never obsequious.
One night, a few students went out and met some gangsters from town and ate rabbit hot pot (the sign said, “more tender than frog). We drank a ton of Chinese moonshine. I drank a lot more than most, because I was next to the gangsters’ ringer, while the other students had positioned themselves on the other side of the table. I was completely fucked up and remember little. I was walked home, pissed all over the place, and woke up the next morning covered in my own urine and puke. First thing I said was, “What the hell happened to me?” and my friends didn’t have much to say.
While I was pissing all over town and myself, I missed Shitai’s demonstration of her true power. Her mystical connection to past lives, future ones, omens and signs. The two brothers who remained standing at the end of that night had their fortunes told, they saw Shitai’s eyes roll back and heard her chant and gibber. Shiye watched, and didn’t make a move, didn’t say a word. His Kungfu Woman was doing her Kungfu Thing.
Her power went beyond fists and feet, and to disrespect or disregard Shitai would unman you. Ben Judkins wrote of Tang Saier, and I thought of Shitai. Leading a rebellion is utterly within her skill set.
The Honorary Man
I’ve met a few Kungfu Women who were honorary men, and they were all, to a girl, street wise and unruly. Sexual in a nonchalant, slightly aggressive way, like 16 year olds who lost their virginity when they were 14. The first one that comes to mind is Wang Mei. My first thought when I met her was that her parents didn’t care much for her, because her name was so simple. Like it had been tossed out to the secretary putting together the birth certificate between puffs on a cigarette. She was beautiful, in a careless way.
She came with Shifu to my house in Flower Town one day, and stayed for a week training with us. She wore pants and slippers. She could touch the sky with the tip of her foot and forms came easily to her. She was one of the many kids sent to kungfu masters to get disciplined, to get off the street and out of the KTVs. She seemed resigned to her fate, and fearless of what that might hold for her.
The last time I saw her, she was drunk and in a mini skirt. We had just finished a BBQ at my house and she had been there. She was heading out into the darkness, into the countryside around my home, a place I knew held nothing for her save fields, darkness, and rough men. I told her to stay here with us, go to bed. But she wanted the darkness, she wanted the rough men perhaps. She wanted to be in a mini skirt, slightly drunk, and alone. She was afraid of nothing really, and her last words to me before she disappeared down the lane were, “I’m going out. Home. Forgetaboutit.”
The other Kungfu Woman who fits this bill is Zou Fan, who also has some space on this blog, and in an essay I wrote for Roads and Kingdoms. I won’t say too much more about her here, except that she swaggers and spits like a man, punches and takes kicks like a man, and has the respect of every man I met who knows her.
She’s divorced, her husband couldn’t handle her kungfu. And she sobbed when she told me that her son refuses to see her, because he also disapproves, of the kungfu and her wild ideas about Kungfu Eyries.
Ng Moy anyone?
Again, the girl who reminds me most of Yim Wing Chun, or at least my personal idea of what this beautiful, almost accidental Kungfu Woman was like, is Chen Jia. The Chen Taiji disciple with a school in Shanghai.
Chen Jia is a disciplined girl. Loyal to her master and her style. She trains every day, and her expression rarely strays from the composed openness of the martial artist with an ethos. She is also very sexy, which somehow comes with the territory. An unattractive Kungfu Woman? Haven’t met one.
But her sexuality is buried beneath her white robes, her tea ceremonies, her martial art. Boys come second, but she has let me see a glimpse or two of her desire. Not for me, sigh, but for love. She is a woman, and a martial artist. She also teaches her art, runs a school, and manages several other taiji masters, some of which are men.
I have learned that the men “underneath” her are grumpy. One of them in particular, a very confident boy that I met in Henan, may have already left her school, even though to do so would make a few people lose no little face. It doesn’t matter how impressive her kungfu, how solid her dedication, or how accommodating her managerial style – fiery men will always have problems with subtle, powerful women like Chen Jia.
She has to maintain her composure. Give when she can, take little, evade the egos, and move like water around the misogynistic tendencies of the martial arts. But she has chosen Taiji – perhaps because of all the arts, this one sees no difference between Yang and Yin – so not only does she excel, but her so does her school.