It’s been a while, again, so I will get right to it.
I want to talk about a man named Ren Gang, the Party Secretary of the Sichuan Provincial Wushu Association. As such, he holds sway over all things martial in Sichuan. Wushu performances and training, allocation of belts, degrees and titles, approval of new schools and temples, any martial events – including fights – and, in general, the direction of wushu itself in this province.
The first time I spoke to him, I made a trip out to Dujiangyan by high speed rail specifically to talk to him. He was busy coaching the Sichuan Provincial Wushu Team in a closed door session, and came out for dinner. He was waiting for me by the back gate of the gym, besides his eggshell white BMW. We walked across the street, gauging each other and small-talking about Sichuan food.
Ren Gang holds himself like a martial artist. He stands up straight, swaggers slightly, and has a reserve of energy dozing beneath a pressed white polo shirt and pressed black pants. His hair is thinning, but his eyes are sharp and I felt them analyze my movements, my speech, the way I held myself and, after he demanded a demonstration, the weakness in my horse stance.
Ren speaks his mind without fear, because not only does he sit atop the Sichuan martial arts world, but he is also somewhat of a legend. Most people who know him speak of him with a mixture of envy, reverence, and fear. My own master, Li Quan, was shocked to know that I had dinner with THE Ren Gang, the man whose 1983 film, Little Heroes, influenced an entire generation of martial artists. A member of the very first group of official wushu practitioners to emerge out of the Cultural Revolution with the mandate to re-introduce, re-discover and revive the ancient art.
The MAN in Sichuan, when it comes to wushu, gongfu and sanda.
He ordered for us both, tofu and pickled peppers. It was just us in the restaurant for a while, practice was over, and I had about two hours before the last train back to Dujiangyan. Several little vignettes remain with me beyond the notes I took.
First off, Ren is very cavalier about the future of gongfu and wushu. When I put my standard line to him (What about all those Last Masters) he had this to say:
“Let them play! (in Chinese it is much more flippant: 让他们玩儿呗！) History always moves forward and some things are lost and some things remain. If you are useful, you will remain, if not, you will disappear.”
Later we discussed his plans for the future. I was surprised to hear Ren go off on a company he owns – he is an official after all – that he uses to promote taiji and wushu events. He also told me that he has a group of investors interested in working with him to create a chain of luxury taiji-themed spas in southern China to rival Jet Li’s high-end taiji school, Taiji Zen.
“Forget this small time stuff that people like Liu Sui Bin are up to,” he said. “I gave him his title, gave him land. He was nothing before I allowed him into the taiji world, and what has he done with it? Nothing. He gives classes at companies and travels all over the world teaching. Teaching is for the birds. To really go big you need to grab the ultra rich, the exclusive people, the ones who will pay 20-30,000 yuan for a membership to a taiji club. That’s what I am talking about. Big things. Not this nickel and dime stuff you see in Qingcheng Mountain.”
He talked about the big business of martial arts and how he wasn’t going to be caught on the wrong side of history. My first impression was of a capable man, physically fit and intelligent, with a confidence streak wide and slightly arrogant, and ambitions that, if anything, grew larger as he grew older.
We got to talking about MMA. Ren said that every MMA event in the province was either organized or sponsored by him in some way or another. He got excited about my Chinese skills and tried to sell me on being an announcer, or a competitor.
“You could be famous, a big name in wushu. It could help you meet the people you need to meet in order to write your little book, and you could be the foreign face of Sichuan wushu. Don’t worry about a thing, I am the man who deals out titles and belts. Which title do you want? Master? What belt are you looking for? And don’t worry about performing or fighting. Get out there, do a little bit, and I will take care of the rest.”
“Not interested? How about announcing, I have an event coming up this August in Emei, why don’t you announce there. How many friends can you bring? Any of them practice wushu or sanda? We’ll take care of food, travel, some performances. You should think about it.”
When we parted, he went back to the gym and I got on the high speed rail to Chengdu. I was impressed, but also a bit disheartened. Ren talks a straight game, but he can barely conceal the man he has become. When Shifu talked to me about Ren Gang, he described a wushu master dedicated to the craft, a force propelling wushu forward. The Ren Gang I met that night had those elements about him, but he seemed more like an average businessmen – physically fit and energetic – but still nothing more than a businessman.
That impression would change once I took up his offer to announce at the Emei Wushu Festival last August.
That story coming up next.