Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, May 31, 2021

The Kung Fu Masters of China's Henan Province

Below is an excerpt from the travel column at the South China Morning Post regarding the kung fu masters presently teaching in Henan Province. The whole article  may be read here.

Shaolin Temple. Those two words may conjure up images of Zen-like monks living a reclusive life in the mountains, imitating the movements of animals in the pursuit of enlightenment. Or perhaps you picture those monks doing somersaults, landing to break metal bars over their heads while spears are stuck into their throats. The cinema and savvy publicity by the current abbot have a lot to answer for.
I am visiting Henan province’s Dengfeng county, home to the temple, to track down styles of kung fu that have been practised in the area since the late Ming, early Qing dynasties. 

Television viewers have seen Dengfeng town, its streets teeming with kung fu kids jogging up and down in tracksuits before disappearing into their schools to practise routines. In the flesh, the scale of these institutions is overwhelming. But I am not here to visit these large modern schools.

Shaolin kung fu is misunderstood. TV shows would have us believe a monk named Bodhidharma, from India, taught yogic type exercises to the Buddhist monks to relieve aches and pains brought on by long periods of meditation. It was this, they say, that inspired the monks to create styles of kung fu based on the movements of animals.

The truth, though, is more prosaic. The Shaolin Temple lies in a mountain pass not far from the ancient capital of Luoyang. War, banditry and rebellion have long ravaged the area. The temple was often caught in the middle and so kept its own militia. Over hundreds of years, the fighters absorbed various forms of martial arts from the surrounding areas, the temple becoming a hub for the exchange of ideas and the development of kung fu.
Kung fu students train in Dengfeng.

I base myself at the small school of Hu Zhengsheng, in a village between the Shaolin Temple and Dengfeng town. Master Hu’s school focuses on Xinyiba, the so-called internal art of Shaolin, which takes a mini­malist attitude to training: a few core movements used to develop coordination and the mind-body connection.

Hu is one of the few teachers still in con­tact with the old masters out in the villages. Down to earth, tall and slim, he smiles often and doesn’t fit the stereo­typical kung fu master mould. 

He enjoys having his foreign students hang out and drink tea in his office; a respite, he says, from the stress of dealing with officials and the bureaucracy involved in running a business such as his. Hu sits on the floor and stretches his legs while telling us about his own shifus, principles and theory of the art. He swings around rusty antique weapons as he talks.

My search for the old Shaolin methods leads me first to 90-year-old Mao Yonghan, who, I’ve been told, was a monk in pre-revolution times. Hu phones ahead to tell Mao I am going to visit and, along with one of Hu’s students, I take a taxi to the address I have been given.

The small block of flats in the middle of Dengfeng town is old and run down. Next to it is wasteland littered with bricks, broken glass and rubble that residents have optimi­stically turned into an allotment. A man waiting by the road tells us he is Mao’s son and leads us into a concrete room on the ground floor of the residential block. Other than a small shrine and photos of people in kung fu poses on the wall, the damp, musty room is empty. Mao enters, dressed in full monk regalia, to greet us.

The story goes that in the 1930s, his parents sold him to the temple in exchange for corn and then went off to be beggars. He was raised by the Shaolin monks and train­ed as a wuseng (warrior monk). When he reached adulthood, he left monastic life to marry and start a family, but continued his martial arts. He began teaching only later.

Our meeting feels strained. The son sits us down for tea but will not let us converse with his father.We leave confused, and with­out having found out much about Mao’s fighting style. Fortunately, other masters live in the area.

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