“Knowledge challenges what the others ignore.
Friendship ignores what the others challenge”
One more journey to China, reached its end after three full weeks, for the trainer of Kerameikos Athletic Club, Dimitris Doukas and his student and trainer of North Eagle Athletic Club, Giorgos Divanis. This time, Ioanna Toumpakari, assistant trainer of Kerameikos Athletic Club, joined them, on her first trip to China. They left on the 25th of October for Beijing.
There, they met again with Master Niu Seng Shian, in order to continue the learning and training of the internal Kung Fu styles – Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua.
Hengshan – 5th World Traditional Wushu Championship
Up to the Cultural Revolution the martial arts in China were strongly linked to the Chinese tradition. Along with philosophy, music, painting and medicine, they were one of the five basic arts that one should know in order to be considered cultivated. In New China though, the changes are continuous, rapid and significant in all levels. Consequently, Kung Fu changes as well.
One sign of this change was obvious during the 5th World Traditional Wushu Championship that took place this year in Huangshan city of Anhui Province.
Even though the participation was massive as always, with delegations from almost all over the world (2800 athletes from 45 countries) one had the feeling that the styles performed were limited and that, in many categories, the same forms were repeated. The forms were naturally impressive, interspersed with acrobatic movements of high accuracy and speed, but one could rarely see the substantial martial art through the simplicity of the move.
Especially at the categories of older ages, where during the previous years one could really watch traditional Kung Fu that gave emphasis to the techniques, the difference was more than obvious. One could see the tendency to include under the title “traditional” forms that originate from the older standardized routines that were taught at the Universities of Physical Education. These routines were related to the respective traditional styles, mainly at the level of the external form of the movements, and slightly at the level of the special kinesiology and the combative application.
The new ways of Kung Fu teaching and dissemination – also affected by the massiveness and the homogenization of our era, expressed in extreme degree in modern China – have as a final result the extinction of the diversity of Kung Fu.
In addition, the transformation of the art into a sport and its dissemination through competitions and championships, as well as the need for a standard and accurate marking, result to the promotion of standard ways of presentation and performance. “New” or “modern” Kung Fu is steadily transformed into a standardized sport for performance and competition and is gradually diverging from its combative philosophy and the special social relationships through which it was developed and taught.
The participation in fights and championships is always a valuable chance to meet teacher and athletes, to see their level and to “display” one’s Kung Fu to public view – a very fertile procedure for the development of anybody who is seriously training. Apart from that, the trip to China is also an effort to discover new and hidden aspects of the cultural wealth of Kung Fu and the Chinese tradition.
The learning of new elements enriches and updates the material we train and teach and contributes to the further understanding and evolution of what we already know…
…the social interaction with important teachers and students also constitutes an inspiration for more training, as well as a motive to meditate on the effect of training on our everyday personal life.
The party for the 75th birthday of Master Niu Seng Shian was a very special moment of the journey. For us, it was a special moment as during the same period last year we also celebrated the birthday of Master Niu at some stage of his visit in Athens.
This time, he welcomed us in his house and it was touching to see all his students, representing three generations, gathered together – even the ones who could not come had sent their own students – in order to honor the celebration and their teacher’s offer throughout all these years.
What impressed us most was that almost all the students of teacher who had taken part in National (China) or local (Beijing) competitions of phusing hands, were all getting them in the first positions.
Even though all his students have already been individually acknowledged for their art, they all communicated a sense of humility, as if their kung fu is still alive through their teacher.
They all called each other “uncle” or “brother” and the atmosphere was indeed familial.
We even felt intimacy and warmth even with the ones we met for the first time, which is indeed staggering.
The abundance of the strong Baijiu (rice liquor) inevitably relaxed the mood and allowed everybody to share with us personal stories and experiences from fights, as well as the “challenges” that each one had faced during his life...
...the same familiar feeling we had when we visited Master Jiabao Shou, in the city Jie Xiu, an industrial city full of factories producing charcoal, bursting with huge chimneys and a black dust that was everywhere.
Master Jia has a long friendship with Master Niu, a relationship that started off as a competitive one – when they were both young and wanted to confirm their strength and supremacy – but quickly developed to mutual appraisal and respect. Thus, the reception they reserved for us at the deserted railway station, in a cold dawn, was revealing, even though we were meeting for the first time. They shared with us their knowledge generously, without reservations.
Namely, they taught us the famous traditional Xingyi form for two people, An Shen Pao. The name of the form means “I protect the Body” and it is a basic form for Xingyi.
It allows the trainee to practice the flow and sensitivity, by performing pervasive combinations of the five elements and the 12 animals, in combination with respective repulsions and stepping. The combative form “protect the body” is the most complex and complete form for two people of Xingyi. If practiced frequently, it can train the coordination between the hands, the eyes, the body and the feet, as well as the reflexes. I can also help the training and understanding of the defensive ability.
Our visit to Jie Shio fulfilled one of our basic targets, as a trip to Shanxi is indispensable for anyone who trains Xingyi, because, according to the tradition, Xingyi was born there. Their style is slightly different to that of the Hebei province, as it is softer, with more flow.
There are also differences in the way one performs Santishi, the basic Xingyi stance that constitutes the womb of all the other movements.
The Shanxi Xingyi is also famous for its various forms with weapons, the more characteristic being the one with the short stick. To our surprise, the maid that was opening up the training room of the hotel and looked after us, bringing us tea and water, was also an advanced student of Master Jia herself. She did not ask for much encouragement in order to perform the five elements and all the animal forms for us, offering us the chance to see the particularities of this style…
For all these people, Kung Fu training is not limited to forms and techniques. It is not reflected only on medals and distinctions. It is not a special and separated activity, like a hobby, but it is transformed through time, to love and caring relationships and a sociability that penetrates and defines all aspects of everyday life. Kung Fu is their life and the teachers and students are indeed members of a real family.
Accordingly, an invitation to visit the house of the teacher has a special symbolism and is a great honor. When he shares with you photographs and heirloom, as well as when he is posing for pictures with you, he marks a common path of trust, indispensable for the transfer of any knowledge.
However, there is always a “challenge”! Thus after every good feast (we were impressed indeed by the fact that the food was very good everywhere we ate, as well as by the characteristic of the local gastronomy that the food was accompanied by delicious dumplings instead of rice) with students and teachers, a demonstration followed.
In the house of the Master in Jie Shio, the challenge was a 20 kilo Quan Dao, a spear, 6 meters long and a dao of 8 kilo, heavy and inflexible. These are the weapons they use, totally different than the aluminum ones we usually see in championships and demonstrations. The personal student of Master Jia, a doctor in profession, made a demonstration with a big spear, while his other student, with the characteristic nickname “Old Tiger” (Lao Hu) showed his capacity in Bagua.
The next day they had arranged for us a visit to their school at the suburbs of the city. The Kung Fu schools in China are not as we imagine them to be. They are boarding schools, where the students eat and sleep, do their normal classes and during what we would call “free time” they train hard in Kung Fu. Main characteristic of the schools we have visited in the past, is the discipline and the very hard training. Apart from the above, the living conditions are also harsh.
This time we visited a school that is specialized in Xingyi. The students start training in internal styles as well as Sanda, but after a point, they emphasize at Xingyi.
Even from the early ages, one can notice a level of synchronization and spirit, which is hard to attain and is achieved through tough practice. While the ages increase, the children demonstrate acrobatic skills, speed and explosive power. Truth is that the schools are only preparatory courses. Only the ones that will distinguish their selves will have the chance to learn from the Masters and to elaborate their art.
The students, lined in two groups, had prepared a short demonstration, one group performing forms and the other Sanda. In order to honor us, their trainer also demonstrated a very beautiful form of Xingyi Dao (sword). From our part, Jo A Bo* demonstrated an Eagle Claw form, Ji Ben Wu* a Xingyi form and our friend and translator Liu Gai Fang, a form that combines the 8 palm of Bagua.
Everybody watched the demonstration with great interest...
...every journey also contains some moments of relaxation.
A special moment was the day we visited, along with Master Niu, the Taoist Monastery “White Cloud” (Bai Yun Guan). This monastery is located in South-Western Beijing and is one of the biggest monasteries. It is a center for the Taoist genealogy of the Long Men Pai.
These monasteries function in reality more as centers for worship rather than places of Taoist training. Nonetheless, flooded with the white smoke of the offerings that burn constantly, they still inspire a magical feeling, especially due to their peculiar architecture (based on the principles of Feng Shui) with continuous but distinct yards and gardens.
As Master Niu is a 13th generation teacher of this Taoist genealogy, his stories about the deities were very interesting. Wandering around China, one often meets people with blue dresses and long hair wrapped on the top of their head, claiming that they are Taoist monks.
Unfortunately though, the Taoist meditation is a practical exercise that few know in depth anymore. It is a heritage that Master Niu himself faces with special respect, being careful to transmit it only to students that he feels that they will honor it...
...another special moment
was our excursion at the famous yellow mountain (an UNESCO World Heritage Site) that sealed our trip in Huang Shan, bringing us close to the Chinese nature, as opposed to the chaotic modern Beijing. As one begins to ascend the stairs, the landscape is flooded with huge bamboos, birds that manifest their presence and monkeys that unfortunately kept hidden. Gradually, while we continued climbing up, the body sweats and the cold air hits the face. Form time to time, we walked past workers that carry supplies on the top, leaning on a bamboo stick, and we were transferred back in time. The visitor makes stops to get some rest and to admire the landscape, but “the immortal shows the way” reminding us how strongly connected is Kung Fu with the Chinese daily life.
The time passes, the vegetation grows sparse and the ancient pine trees of the mountain appear. While we reach the first pick we could see the pines that stand there for thousands of years, with their special shape that has inspired Chinese poems and songs. Even though the sun is up, the morning snow is still resting on the pine needles. One can go from one pick to the other, walking up and down endless stairs, usually along with many tourists. The landscape changes frequently, the composition of the rocks differs, while one can see rocks with special shapes, like menhirs. Climbed on a rock one can look down, watch the clouds and the void. Up there, the body freezes and the mind wanders. It is a magical place. One promises to go back.
The visit to the Hangzhou city, on the way to the train in Beijing, allowed us to visit the tomb of the famous General Yue Fei. For us who train Eagle Claw and Xingyi it was an important moment, as – according to the legend – the General was the founder of both styles. In parallel, we had time to walk along the famous for its serene beauty Western Lake and to taste the famous green tea Longjing.
Hard training in Kung Fu, warm human relationships with honest people, excursions in nature and magic monasteries, new special and delicious tastes, traffic jams in chaotic Beijing, endless treats, demonstrations at the most inappropriate moments, twenty-hour train trips, talking about life and friendships – we are leaving behind one more journey in the always exotic China...
...we are now anticipating the next time that the Masters will visit us in Greece: Master Niu, as well as the maitre of Chinese wrestling, Da Guang, with whom we trained since 2008, and who accepted our invitation for his first visit to our country….
*George and Ioanna's Chinese names!