Posted on 4 Comments

Drinking – Chinese Style

I was so used to seeing Master Li quietly practicing his beautiful Taiji form in the park next to us as we practiced our Mantis. But today he was spilling Qingdao beer all over the food at a banquet as he was toasting people across the table and rambling in incoherent Yantai dialect. My head was already spinning and I felt sick; after all it was only 1pm and we’d been drinking for two hours already.

drinkingThis is a typical scene at a Kung Fu banquet in northern China. Anybody who has read Outlaws of the Marsh will know, that martial heroes in China are supposed to hold their drink, in order to prove their masculinity to their peers. In Shandong especially, this is a tiring and repetitive affair. It usually goes like this: your teacher gets a phone call, Master X, Master Y and Master Z will have a meeting about bla bla, and they will invite some government officials as well as members of the Chinese Martial Arts Association, and your teacher has been invited and told to bring the Laowai along for face. So there you are in a room full of cigarette smoke waiting to be told your appropriate seat. Where you sit is very important in these affairs; the host usually sits facing the door, with the guest of honour to his right. The host will have some kind of assistant who will sit close to the door, so they can talk to the waitress, pay the bill etc. Then other important people sit to the sides, so now you have people sat at the four compass points. Then the other people sort of fill in the gaps where they are told to sit.

Cold dishes arrive first. These are generally my favourite: often some kind of cold meat, Chinese style salad with strong vinegar and lots of raw garlic, and usually jellyfish. At this point things are still civilised, and people may take food for each other and chat quietly and politely. Once the luke-warm Tsingtao beer arrives, glasses are filled to the brim and the toasting starts. Typically the host must make three toasts, after which the entire glass of disgustingly room temperature weak beer is downed, and people fill up each others glasses, raising them slightly as beer is poured for them. This is where things start to spiral downwards as more beer is consumed and the hellish Baijiu comes out. If you don’t know what Baijiu is let me explain. It is hell in a bottle. It’s basically distilled grain alcohol which starts around 50% and goes up from there. It tastes like paint stripper. This is when all the etiquette goes out the window and the babbling while leaning on your shoulder begins. The point when the most important government officials in the city are suddenly your best friends and won’t leave you alone. It’s also a good time to witness brawls, as lineage rivalries surface, somebody can say the wrong thing, and before you know it student of Master X is aiming a flying elbow at the head of student of Master Y.  This will all be forgotten the next day, as hospital bills are usually negotiated quite fairly and there’s no hard feelings.

These dinners are kind of fun in hindsight. I’ve been to more than enough, and don’t make a plan of attending any more if I can help it. But at the same it’s all part of the experience of China, you will experience them if you are here long enough. Not only in Kung Fu circles, but at weddings, business meetings and any other social event. As the modern world creeps in though, for better or for worse, they are in decline, and where I live in Shanghai now I don’t really encounter them. Western style dining is taking over, and going for a coffee or quiet beer is becoming more and more trendy.

Posted on 4 Comments

What Are The Qualities of a Good Kung Fu Master

The next topic I feel I need to breach is “what are the qualities of a good kung fu master“. Of course this is highly subjective, but I’ve met a few in my time and I’ll try to find some commonalities in the ones I respect the most.

Flare

qualities of a good kung fu masterThe first thing I have seen, is that they have some kind of natural flare, big personalities which come across in the passion they have when teaching or when performing. When a good master does a form, you can see their personality come through in their performance. Likewise, when they are teaching applications you can see a kind of excitement as they throw you around, punch you, grab your hair and generally beat you up! I have found that the best masters are always kind of rough around the edges, not the monk-like characters stereotyped. They often smoke and drink, and most definitely fought a lot when they were young. At the same time, the master should be a kind person, who looks after his students. In Chinese culture the master-disciple relationship is a very strong bond, just like father-son. While Chinese culture emphasises filial piety, and respect to elders, there is a mutual relationship where the master will often take care of the disciple; taking an interest in and providing support in daily life. Putting themselves on a pedestal and demanding blind obedience are not qualities of a good kung fu master.

Experience

Now they may have spent their whole life only practicing one style, or they may have trained under qualities of a good kung fu mastermany great teachers in different styles, but regardless they should have experience. What do I mean by that? I mean that your body needs time to be “moulded into a martial arts body”, in Chinese this can be refered to as Shou (cooked/ripened). Just like a fine wine (or Pu Er Tea!), it takes time for the qualities of a style to become embedded in someone. The unique power or energy of someone who has trained for a lifetime is hard to describe in words. But once you have felt it, you know what I’m talking about. I’ve seen people teaching a certain style they only learnt a couple of years, but getting away with it because they are good as Sanda or something else. Well if you are going to learn their Sanda, then great, but if you want to learn that certain style, you aren’t gonna get the Real McCoy.

Experience here can also mean combat experience. This doesn’ve have to mean competitive experience, a lot of the elder generation grew up in an environment where street fighting was very common and problems were solved through violence. And don’t believe a teacher who told you they have never lost. If that is the case, they didn’t fight anyone worthy! My teacher has told me about his losses as proudly as his wins and so I suppose we could also say that humility and honesty are also important qualities of a good kung fu master.

Openness

Unfortunately there is a culture of secrecy in China, which I suppose is a remnant of the old society where martial arts was actually a weapon and people guarded certain techniques or skills in the way modern militaries guard certain technologies. However, times have changed, and peoples attitudes should change too. Now I’m not trying to say that you should be able to turn up at a teacher’s door and expect to teach you the most advanced part of their system from day one! Of course the right thing should be learnt at the right time, and a student does need to be checked out to make sure they are suitable to keep. What I am trying to say by openness is that a teacher should not be pulling the wool over your eyes. I’ve encountered people who are willing to take students money, or willing to keep students under them, but they try to give away as little material as they can, and deliberately withhold important information so the student will never really progress. A teacher who is like this tends to be the one who makes a lot of promises to you early on, and constantly tells you how lucky you are to learn from them and the like. Just because a teacher is good himself, doesn’t mean you will also get good under him.

These are just a few qualities I can think of, but at the end of the day, different teachers will suit different people. The important thing is finding somebody you can really click with. It’s often said the teacher is more important than the style. So get out there, visit different masters, try to get a feel for the similarities and differences, and hopefully you will be form your own ideas about what are the qualities of a good kung fu master.

Posted on 2 Comments

The Miao and Their Buffalo Fights by David Leffman

The Miao (Hmong) ethnic group of Qiandongnan – southeastern Guizhou province – are hill-dwelling farmers, best known in China for their embroidered jackets and complicated silver assemblages that women wear during the many festivals dotting the Miao calendar.

Buffaloes – aside from their obvious agricultural uses – crop up everywhere in Miao life (not to mention the fifty or more places in Qiandongnan called Niuchang, “Buffalo Market”). They appear in mythological poems and as decoarative motifs on men’s jackets, they get sacrificed as ancestral offerings at various times of the year, and are paired up to fight each other at most – perhaps all – Miao festivals.

These buffalo fights aren’t as cruel as they might sound. Like many farming peoples in China, the Miao look on their buffaloes as workmates in the fields and often treat them with real affection, taking care to groom and look after them and even decorating them in red ribbons for public events. True, injuries do happen at fights, but bulls are usually separated if things get too serious; animals rarely kill each other.

In fact there’s usually more danger for the spectators than the buffaloes at these events. The first two I went to – one at a traditional funeral in the highlands of Sulawesi, Indonesia, the other at the annual Sisters Meal festival at Taijiang, in Guizhou – were held out in the open, with no protective barriers for the audience to hide behind if things got rough.

As a guest of honour I was pushed to the front on both occasions. The two animals launched themselves at each other, collided with a titanic crash, locked horns and began wrestling head-to-head, foaming, snorting and scrabbling for footholds in the dirt. After a few moments the weaker bull turned tail and ran, chased by the victor, scattering spectators like confetti. I was lucky that they always seemed to run away from me.

About the Author: David Leffman is a travel writer and photographer. He was one of the original writers for the Rough Guide series, and has been visiting China since the 1980s, writing and photgraphing, including accompanying George Michael on his historic visit. His latest project has been researching Victorian era adventurer William Mesny and his excellent book, The Mercenary Mandarin, is available on Amazon. More information about him can be found on his website: www.davidleffman.com

Posted on 3 Comments

How is Kung Fu Actually Trained in China

So, how is Kung Fu actually trained in China? Is it like a typical class we might go to on a Friday night at the local community centre? Not really. In this article I explain a few typical scenarios that I have come across.

Public Parks

The most common setup is for people to train in the park. For the vast majority of urban Chinese, they live in apartment blocks and don’t have any kind of private garden, so most of their outdoor life takes place in public parks. These parks can be a wonderful place to wander, there is so much life to observe, from old ladies group dancing, to people practicing Taiji, to people playing cards or Mahjong. Occasionally though, in a quiet corner, you may spot somebody, or even a small group, engaged in serious martial arts training. Some even go so far as to make DIY gyms, wrapping carpets around trees to punch, or ingenious wooden dummy type devices. What I will say though is this, the quality of what these people are practicing can vary greatly, and its very probable they will reserve some more “secretive” training for behind closed doors. So its likely you will only get to observe part of what they practice.

For these groups, training is usually informal. You turn up and leave when you like, you warmup however you feel works best for you, and then you work on whatever you feel you need to. You can train as hard as you like, or as lazily as you like, but this will affect how the teacher teaches you. Sometimes the groups may practice for free, sometimes the teacher will collect a small fee or receive gifts from the students. In my opinion it is better to pay, as nothing in this world is free, and you don’t want to be in the palm of someone’s hand in China.

In Private

Some teachers are incredibly conservative, and they may only teach in private. Others may run a public gathering in the park, and invite the students they like to train more seriously with them. This kind of training is usually very specialised. Teachers I’ve met who teach in this way don’t have you do a whole workout with you, rather they expect you to do your training alone, and they may spend an entire session just going over one detail, or explaining a bunch of applications.

Shaolin Temple Schools

There are hundreds of schools around Shaolin Temple, and also in other parts of China now. These schools usually take in extremely poor kids from rural families who can’t look after them. The training is brutal and probably does them a lot of long term damage. They will train most of the day, six days a week, beginning with a run up the mountain, and maybe other grueling physical conditioning. They also spend a lot of time stretching, often being forced into full splits and other positions. The kids will spend most of their time learning and practicing forms, repeating, repeating, repeating, and will get damn good at them. However, there doesn’t seem to be much of an emphasis on understanding what they are doing, more a case of learning a vast array of forms, both traditional and modern, from a wide range of systems. They may specialise in Sanda too, which will be more conditioning, padwork and sparring. Generally speaking, if these kids can stand out in their school, they have the chance to join a performance team, or go on to be an athlete, bodyguard or coach. A really good insight into what it is like training at Shaolin can be got from American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China.

These categories definitely aren’t the be all and end all, but from what I have seen in China, these are the common ways for people to practice Kung Fu in China, and I have had a taste of all three. If you are looking to make great progress in a short time, and have a full on experience, I think the last method is a good choice, but long term it is too damaging to your body. You may also find my article on Training Kung Fu in China useful if you are considering your options.

Posted on 2 Comments

Taekkyon Training

When arriving at the Taekkyon training for the first time, I was impressed. It was hidden down a small street in Insadong; the tourist/culture district of Seoul. The floor was all matted and the schools decor was very traditional. That lesson there happened to be visiting a group of Australian students on a martial arts tour of Korea. I just watched as I didn’t have the proper clothes. The class started with a kind of dance to the Korean folk song Arirang. During the dance, students stepped in rhythm, occasionally striking, kicking or patting their bodies. A couple of good reads for some background on Taekkyon and Korean martial arts are Taekyon: The Korean Martial Art and 5,000 Years of Korean Martial Arts: The Heritage of the Hermit Kingdom Warriors.

The master, Do Ki Hyun, was full of energy and gave me a very positive feeling. I saw him demonstrate sometechniques on one of the students and the crispness and power impressed me. At the end of the class everybody sat down and learnt a basic meditation set. Breathing along with some basic hand motions.
taekkyon trainingAfter that I was impressed and decided to sign up the next class. The first thing I had to learn was how to correctly wear the traditional clothing, tieing the knots the right way etc. After a bad attempt at following the warmup, an elder student taught me the first basic, which was shifting the weight from side to side by bending the knee. The difficult thing was not to swing the shoulders while moving. I was left to practice in the mirror for about half an hour. The movement looks simple, but my legs were killing, and then my neck and shoulders became tense. The feeling took me back to my days practicing Qigong; standing on the spot trying to relax, shoulders and neck killing!

Finally relief came, and I was taught how to step. The stepping pattern was like a triangle, bending the knees in a rhythm of three beats. The master explained that Korean music is all based on three beats, and so is Taekkyon. This step, called Pumbalkki, is the beginning and end of Taekkyon training. Just like Ba Gua has circle walking and Xingyi has San Ti Shi, Taekkyon training has Pumbalkki. All techniques, strikes, kicks, blocks or throws, come out of this step, and it dictates the rhythm for the fight.

At the end of class, I went up to the office to talk to Master Do. He had a beautiful collection of antique swords and many relics and paintings on the wall. He seemed very caring about his students, and took an interest in my martial arts training in China, asking what it was like to train there. He explained the traditional Korean way was very informal, and that the movements were comfortable and natural, as opposed to the technicality of Chinese martial arts or the strict nature of Japanese ones.
For the third class, I learnt some basic hand techniques, and did some slaps and palms on the pads. Master Do started to explain some concepts of Taekkyon training to me. He explained that in the beginning, you do the movements very light and naturally, not moving the shoulders. In order to learn to use your whole body power and Ki, you have to first learn to relax and be natural. In Taekkyon, he said, you must conserve power, only use it where its needed. He asked me to hit him and push him and showed me some techniques. His power was amazing… it made me think of a very skilled Taiji or internal practitioner. Soft, but overwhelming. He stated to make fun of Japanese martial arts being very hard and aggressive, saying that is a waste of power. He then added that it’s not that other styles are bad, its just that according to Taekkyon, they go against the Taekkyon theory. He said that of course, other styles would say Taekkyon is wrong. As I am here to learn Taekkyon, he wants me to understand and practice the principles of it, and to be immersed in it. And so that is why he is explaining this to me.
The difficult thing for me is relearning movements in a new way. Although Taekkyon is very different to Chinese martial arts, there are of course similar movements; but the difference is in the details. One thing for starters is learning to be much softer and natural than the aggressive, hard movements of Praying Mantis Kung Fu. I’m slowly making my way through the basics and getting to see the art of Taekkyon, which is a deep and complex martial art. Below is a clip from Chris Crudelli’s series “Mind, Body and Kickass Moves” which shows my Taekkyon teacher in action.