Kung Fu Masters from China

Just before gashuku, here’s a quick dose of kung fu goodness!

While I was at uni the other day, I noticed a poster for “Kung Fu Masters from China!” Now, when I was about ten years old I saw this really amazing ad on TV: Shaolin monks were doing these sweet kicks and amazing displays of internal and external strength where they would use their chests as chopping boards and cut up vegetables and stuff on their skin. I really wanted to see it, but I lacked the authority to make my parents take me and I missed out. When I saw that poster at uni, a little part of me went “Screw it. I’m an adult, and if I want to see some sweet kung fu action, so help me God I’m going to!” I bought two tickets for Beth and I, and I cherish the memory of the demonstration as one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

There were about four schools of kung fu, and they demonstrated so many different forms (as well as some audience-inclusive, heart-pounding lion dancing). Of the kung fu animal forms, there was tiger, mantis, tiger-crane and others. There were many hard styles whose names were complex and I forget (one looked pretty similar to hung gar, but what do I know of these things?). The performers were tremendously fierce, performing xing (kata) several dozen moves long at a rapid pace, moving through complex footwork and flurries of hand techniques in quick succession. I only saw a few techniques whose concepts and applications were instantly apparent to me, but they were beautiful forms which I’m really excited at the prospect of learning! Karate is awesome, but wushu has a special place in my heart (a place no doubt carved by Jackie Chan while I was growing up). Some day I’d really love to learn patterns with the big sweeping arm movements and rapid strikes and deflections in deep stances with complex, fast-paced footwork (a la Shaolin).

Their version of the Tiger Crane form.

We were treated to a demonstration of calligraphy and tea ceremony while a school performed Wu Dang and Chen style taiji. (For my references, Chen style seemed to have explosive movements and stamping, with a single whip that was aimed at 90 to the stance.) In particular there was an incredible performance of taiji fan; the “Crack!” the performer made as she opened the fan was supremely cool, and I’ve already sent them an email asking which school it was (in the hopes of going along to learn).

Speaking of cracks, there were plenty of weapon demonstrations too. There was the straight sword, the broadsword, double broadsword, long staff, spear, halberd, whip (CRACK!), and these two peculiar rope-weapons that I’ve never seen before. The performer twirled them like poi at such speed that they sounded like flags in the wind, or perhaps paper being pushed into the blades of an electric fan. Some of the performers weren’t as skilled as the others and their choreographed fights were stilted as they waited for attacks to land before responding, but the solo demonstrations were magnificent. I’m not a fan of the “wobbly demonstration blades” commonly seen in tournaments, but all in all it was a beautiful sequence of weapons worthy of any Soul Calibur exhibition.

We were also privileged to see some pretty cool demonstrations of qi gong. The practitioners leaned into bamboo spears and bent them quite spectacularly, with one young man bending four spears at once. Part of me wonders how much of it is muscle tension and how much of it is energy flow, and I’m rather tempted to give it a try. Something tells me no one’s going to let me use their spears for practice, though. There were wooden poles which were broken by kicks and across backs, and metal rods which were bent or shattered over heads. Perhaps most impressively of all, a woman lay between two chairs (with her head on one side and her feet on the other, her midsection unsupported) and had two cement slabs put on her stomach. An assistant shattered them with a sledgehammer and she barely moved under the impact of it. It was a humbling demonstration of spirit.

Impressive spear-bending, concrete breaking and metal shattering.

Perhaps what impressed me most of all was not the shattering of cement blocks or the years of honing form; it was the group photo at the end. As someone suggested a group photo was taken, the 30+ performers all tried to line up in a row but the stage wasn’t quite big enough. A few of them started bunching up at the edges, and it looked like it would be a rather messy affair. Then suddenly one of the practitioners, I assume a teacher, started ordering everyone into two rows. Within a few seconds, he had won the leadership of several different schools and several dozen people and organised them into two straight lines. To me, that was one of the most impressive feats of the day.

I have to say though that I recognise that everything we saw was a demonstration. The performers selected xing which would look visually spectacular, and the focus of many of these was to look impressive. Perhaps in all that flashiness there was a level of technique which was exaggerated for training or beauty. Either way, the goal was less about self-defence and more about pleasing the crowd (which they certainly did). It was a very pleasant experience, and quite inspiring. I’m looking forward to future demos and going back to training to practice feng quan 2!

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