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Masters of Kung Fu

The old, tanned face is inscrutable, as the tall, stooped figure steps from between the ranks of waiting students. He sucks in the cold mountain air and calmly adjusts the silk shirt, stitched for him by his wife and which clashes incongruously with his old pair of trainers. Oblivious to both this and the crowd, he calmly stubs out a cigarette and launches himself into the Calling Crane.

At rest a seemingly frail figure, the 67-year-old is magically transformed. Leaping, then jumping, kicking, pushing and spinning, in a flurry of fluid forms, his body twists through a series of stylised martial patterns. Uttering a sudden "whoop" or hissing breath which comes from deep within his diaphragm, the old man becomes one with his pattern and the animal it represents; the Crane. One minute he is the Calling Crane; then the Jumping Crane, Flying Crane, Crying Crane and so on. Each form represents dozens of possible martial techniques, and has been honed over hundreds of years into this one style.

The other masters watch inscrutably, each waiting his own turn, as the old man's hands move in a blur of attacks, mimicking the bird's wing, beak and claws. Experienced eyes will not follow the techniques or even the forms themselves - and in practise such stylised movements would rarely be used (although they embody highly practical principles) - instead the other masters focus on balance, how the feet are placed, breathing control, what the Chinese call "fire" (the ability to suddenly turn on raw "energy"), and how far their fellow practitioner is able to become "one" with his pattern. They focus on the "essence" behind the movements. Even to my untrained eye, the master moves with a grace, nimbleness and strength which should be impossible for a man of his age and build. The crowd of youngsters breaks into spontaneous applause, and the atmosphere is such that the cold mountain air is forgotten for a moment.

The above demonstration took place in a "Wu Shu" (Chinese for "martial arts") school called West Hill, wedged in between the mountains of the coastal Fujian Province of south-eastern China. West Hill is a series of squat, whitewashed concrete barracks, built around a set of training grounds made from hard-packed earth. Painted on the walls near the entrance are pictures of shaven-headed Buddhist monks, all in martial postures. Cloud-topped mountains tower above the visitor, and a sense of awe and trepidation is hard to conceal when you first enter. Hundreds of tracksuit-wearing students form twin columns on either side of the little road leading to the temple-like entrance. They clap and cheer, and we clap back (protocol) as we walk down the aisle that they form.

Children are sent here from across the country, and dedicate themselves to the study of Wu Shu/martial arts - they can start from the age of three upwards! Indeed, I witnessed children of no more than five performing a demonstration together (though they had a brief argument among themselves when one forgot to bow to us, which caused a certain amount of amusement) and saw a six year old practising an acrobatic staff pattern all by himself. Later, their instructors, young men in their twenties and thirties, performed hard-style, acrobatic patterns, often with weapons, reminiscent of northern China and the famous Peking Opera. One instructor's joints made audible cracking sounds as he executed each move (!), and almost to a man, each would start chain-smoking cigarettes when he had finished. When the western students with me perform, the crowd goes wild, particularly when the most senior, Tim, twirls his broadsword through a complex and exacting routine. The air is literally charged with energy, infusing each and every performer.

However, the most fascinating demonstrations were, without a doubt, from the old Fujian White Crane masters. Each performed his or her stylised "pattern", dressed in a traditional Chinese silk suit. Patterns are a series of movements which every Wu Shu student learns and which form the basis of an individual style. The more a student practises his or her patterns, the more they will "become" that pattern when they demonstrate it. Masters will judge a person more by how they perform a pattern than how they could execute a thousand individual techniques. As a westerner, watching a master is a rare occurrence - rarer still when almost extinct styles such as the fantastically named Golden Lion (characterised by claw-like forms and deep, hissing breath) and the exotic Lo Han (Monk's Fist) are performed.

The West Hill academy is run by a 29-year-old former Shaolin monk, part of the legendary group of Buddhists who were permitted to learn (and subsequently became experts in) martial arts by the ancient Chinese emperors. Today there is only one Shaolin temple still open, in the central Hunan Province, as others were razed to the ground during various wars or as they fell out of favour with the rulers of the day. But Fujian housed three different Shaolin temples in its time and these gave birth to the famous White Crane "kung fu" (a westernised term the Chinese don't use, as it simply means "hard work")/Wu Shu styles, or "southern styles" as they are sometimes called. The seventies hit TV series 'Kung Fu' dwelt on a monk, played by actor David Carradine, who performed White Crane. Even Bruce Lee practised a popular Cantonese form of Wu Shu called Win Chun, which traces its ancestry to White Crane.

Such arts were learned by the emperor's bodyguards and developed over a thousand years ago, after Buddhism came to China from India. They developed into five main forms, called the Five Ancestors (Da Mo - a series of meditational exercises; Lo Han - Monk's Fist; Tai Choh - Tiger style; Dog style; and Crane) and today almost all Chinese styles wish to trace their lineage to one of the Shaolin temples. I visited the site of the earliest southern temple a few hours outside the small Fujian port of Quanzhou, famous for its Muslim merchants. The temple's ruins nestle in the foothills of a mountain, overlooking a small village and its rice fields. The main road to the village turns into a mud track, and when even that is too narrow, you have to descend and walk through orange groves and waterlogged fields, past tethered goats, over ancient temple stones now used as a bridge, before you arrive at the site. It is built on two levels, in which stand trees surrounding the ancient training grounds. Though it is now no more than a set of archaeological earthworks, it is still a moving experience to stand on this site and breath in the history and tremendous scenery around you. According to a government representative travelling with us, a new temple is planned next to the site in the near future.

The White Crane styles from Fujian were originally born from this temple, and emphasise both "hard" (often direct) and "soft" (often circular) techniques, encompassing strikes, kicks, locks, throws, grappling, punches, etc. They also use various ancient weapons, from the self-explanatory broadsword and spear, to trident, tiger catcher and even the fan. But behind the techniques the true master will emphasise principles, which can be applied to many different situations. Power is often generated by spring-like whipping motions, using the actions of shoulder, wrist and waist, and an attack will often incorporate defence and vice-versa. More linear Japanese systems such as karate are often derided by the Chinese as being stunted and incomplete (and they claim they taught the Japanese much of their martial knowledge anyway - indeed the coastal Fujian Province was the site of mass emigration throughout its history, and masters probably ended up in other Asian countries such as Japan and Korea hundreds of years ago). Interestingly, over the last few years small groups of masters from Okinawa, the island off Japan where karate developed, have been travelling to the Fujian region in order to improve their martial knowledge.

White Crane styles also focus on a comprehensive knowledge of the body and its pressure points. These are used both to injure, maim or kill, and to help heal. Rather than grappleor trade punches endlessly with an opponent, a practitioner of a White Crane style will aim straight for a vital area - making fights short and often devastating. However, medicine, massage, meditation and healing are all integral to these traditional styles, and almost all masters will have some medical knowledge. Traditionally they must also strive to master poetry, calligraphy and painting. Great importance is placed on energy, "chi", to relax and heal and also on food - the western maxim that you are what you eat is upheld in Chinese notions of Yin and Yang (sort of balancing "negative" and "positive" energies, or like two sides of a coin). According to the Chinese, you must achieve a balance in what you eat, so that you are neither too strong or too weak to perform martial arts. White Crane students also learn when meditating to start "refining" their energy. The Chinese way of thinking is that this energy gets returned back into yourself and strengthens your whole body.

In ancient times, many masters would also be highly educated, and thus held prominent positions within society. They would take years, even decades, to teach one or two individual students the killing techniques which are called "dim mak". As my translator informed me when I talked to a government Wu Shu researcher, "first and foremost, before anything else, a Wu Shu student must be a good man, otherwise they would not be entrusted with the knowledge to harm others."

The Wu Shu styles are now undergoing something of an international renaissance, as western martial artists search for something more 'complete' than the more modern forms they have learnt before. In these styles, students often excel in techniques but lack knowledge of principles. In some styles, for example, a practitioner can become a black belt after three or four years practice, if they are talented. In traditional Wu Shu, a student will often not call themself a master for decades and traditional Chinese systems do not have grades.

In China too, after years of Communist repression when such traditional practices as Wu Shu were frowned upon (being the old ways and thus linked with conservatism), traditional martial arts are undergoing a resurgence. There is even a Wu Shu government committee now, chronicling all the different Chinese martial arts. We travelled with a researcher from this committee, who has spent the past 25 years studying the different forms of Fujian Wu Shu - and that is only one province!

Although it is still rare to see the arts performed in their ancient forms, and many young Chinese want to focus on business rather than the ancient way, the styles are undergoing a revival and forging greater links with the west. Previously, many had thought the best Wu Shu students had fled China at the time of the Communist takeover, and set up in places like Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore. However, what really happened was that those who could afford to leave did. The others, poorer, stayed behind and often practised in secret. Many were also traditional Chinese doctors, and so hid behind their professional cover.

For one master or his student to demonstrate his pattern to an outsider is almost unheard of, but I spent two weeks travelling in the province with a London-based Wu Shu master, Dennis Ngo, who has spent the past five years developing ties with the Fujian masters. Ngo, 46, is a youthful-looking Singaporean whose parents came from the Fujian region when the Communists rose to power in 1949. He has been training in Chinese Wu Shu since he was six years old and is chief instructor (he refuses to call himself a master) for the twin arts of Yong Chun Pei Her (White Crane) and a soft style called Suang Yang. The latter is very similar to the Taoist-inspired Tai Chi, but was originally practised by Buddhist monks and has now been forgotten in mainland China. His school at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London now has branches in the US and Sweden, and students across the globe.

For Ngo, forging ties with his spiritual homeland is extremely important, as is the respect he gains from the masters there - who have now accepted him as one of their own. He has already been taken as a student to a 91-year-old master, to learn bone setting. When he performs his Suang Yang pattern in front of the other masters and students at West Hill, his eyes focus to the middle distance and he effortlessly moves through the slow, martial paces. He will suddenly hold a posture for a second or so, before moving on through the 66-movement routine. His "essence" moves through his body as he performs a pattern, and this is how you know you are watching a master.

Meeting a master is actually an event laced with etiquette and (on my part) a certain amount of trepidation. Sometimes you will demonstrate patterns to each other straight away. Other times you may have a meal, or, if they are particularly wicked, they may get you drunk before asking you to perform! Even eating is laced with etiquette - don't play with your chop sticks; don't eat before the master; if serving tea, serve the master first, and so on. If the master then performs his pattern, your master must perform (or lose face - terribly important for the Chinese). If one of his student performs, then one of your students performs instead. Often the first meeting between masters can be a charged affair. If you perform a pattern in such a way which says to others present, "I am better than you", you had better be ready for a fight.

When our party rolled into the religiously-divided city of Quanzhou, with its typically Chinese industrial fumes and sprawling concrete bustle (though in the 13th century Marco Polo had called it "one of the two ports in the world with the biggest flow of merchandise"), we found a Tai Choh - Tiger style - master waiting for us in our hotel lobby. A squat, beefy businessman, he had brought three students with him, including two junior sparring champions. He stood square, in a challenging posture. As protocol demanded, we had to perform our patterns there and then in the lobby of a four-star hotel, with no warning, surrounded by incredulous Chinese businessmen staring at us goggle-eyed (God knows what the bell boy thought!). However, as soon as some of our students had performed, the master deemed himself satisfied that we were brother styles and proceeded to hand out a multitude of business cards - in between chatting on his mobile phone to business clients! Another time the owner of an upmarket restaurant in the bustling capital of Fujian Province, Fuzhou, insisted we show him a pattern straight after a 17-course meal! However, he lost face in the incident, as he smiled (never done) during his pattern. His staff just appeared amused by the whole event - after all, this is an area where few westerners are ever seen, let alone performing martial arts!

Fuzhou seems an unlikely setting - at first - for the international revival of Chinese martial arts (yet even the police there learn traditional martial styles, for "crowd control"). The city is a huge concrete building site, full of the sounds of 24-hour construction, mobile phones, shops selling western goods, markets selling copied or stolen computer equipment, restaurants cooking dog, jellyfish, turtle and snake (most of which I sampled), and slightly suspect karaoke bars, where young girls will 'sing' for businessmen. However, it has a real vibrancy to it, as business booms thanks to mainly Taiwanese investment. A busy port since the 3rd century AD, when it was known as a major tea exporter, it is also the home to many of the masters of Fujian White Crane, including the old man I watched at West Hill academy.

Ruan Dong is eastern China's top "patterns" expert. Despite the fact he lost most of teeth two years ago and consequently finds it difficult to eat, he beats youngsters a third his age in pattern competitions, and has even been to the USA to teach. In China, martial arts masters such as Dong are humble men, who give little outward impression of their skills. Many are poor by our material standards, maybe they only own one suit and often smoke like the proverbial chimney, but they are relaxed individuals who believe in the concept of lifelong "health", as opposed to the western idea of "fitness". These are people who have made a lifetime's study of their art. Whilst many in the west are familiar with images of old men and women practising the soft style of "tai chi" in parks, in south-eastern China Wu Shu masters continue practising daily until they literally drop dead! The oldest White Crane master has just turned 105.

Any Western-style question to a master about his art is often met with a coy response. As with their martial art, a circular reply to a direct question/attack is often used to deflect. If they reply at all, it is likely to be a statement to the effect they have a "little knowledge" of martial arts - even if they have studied a style for 50 years or more! Speaking to one master, I was told simply that I didn't understand Chinese ways; and that was at the beginning of an interview (the presumption being that if I did understand them, I wouldn't bother doing an interview at all)!

One of the most fascinating periods of my trip was a visit to a master in Yong Chun, birthplace of many modern White Crane styles. Yong Chun is an unnoticeable small town perched near Quanzhou, surrounded by flat valleys and bisected by long highways.

Mast Su is a traditional Chinese doctor, a thin man with long hairs sprouting from a mole on his neck, which is deemed a sign of blessing. Anatomical charts and various herbs, poultices and jars surround the walls of his practice, which sees much of the town's senior generation through its doors.

Su can trace the lineage of his Yong Chun Pei Her style back over 10 generations of his family, right back to the times of the Fujian Shaolin temple. The meeting with him has taken five years to set up. He takes us up to his flat above his shop in a concrete-style tower block and, very humbly, serves us tiny cups of rich, black tea. We sit quietly as the two masters confer. Su's students also serve us at dinner and are very respectful both to us and their master - one has travelled over eight hours to be with us, and has to perform his patterns straight away, without a rest! Next to a river bank, surrounded by the hasty construction of a new tower block, Su's daughter demonstrates a secret woman's pattern unknown in the west. Others show staff, twin butterfly knives, tiger catcher (a kind of hunting-style spear), flails and various other weapons. They move with grace and energy, and as the sun begins to set, it is easy to imagine we are seeing the original monks perform their patterns a thousand years ago.

The whole demonstration is about pride in the style, keeping face, and respect to us as martial brothers. When our students perform, it is with the essence of tiger and crane contained within Yong Chun Pei Her, and powerful "chi kung" breath control, which rises from the diaphragm and up out of the throat in a kind of "cough" sound. Feet grip the ground like a tiger, and the throat is held rigid, whilst shoulders, wrist and waist whip behind each movement. Garbor, a huge Hungarian who's father was a heavyweight boxing champion, gracefully twirls a huge spear-like weapon called the Guang To. Lee, of Cantonese descent and a UK patterns champion, whirls through his form, building energy into his grappling and striking forms. It is with sadness that we have to leave in our minibus, after just a few hours, and return to our western-style hotel.

Leaving China is difficult, especially after witnessing such genuine hospitality and genuine humility from the Wu Shu masters. Returning to the UK is even more difficult, with its rat race mentality and desire for instant solutions to life. Perhaps it would do well to think on Dennis Ngo's final words to me, the words of a master, as I leave for the airport: "With Wu Shu, you accept growing older and learn more maturity in dealing with problems. You have to be calm to be effective in Wu Shu, so you accept things about yourself and about the world...Things will come and what's the point in worrying unduly about them?"

This article originally appeared in The Scotsman Weekend © Jan 98

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