Several friends who have studied CMA in China have commented on the lack of a spirit of open sharing and exchange in the CMA world, particularly in China. Teachers from separate branches of the same style or even kungfu brothers (shixiong) who studied under the same teacher will openly bad-mouth each other to their students. There is also very little friendly exchange between schools, even of the same style. An all-too common scenario would be for a student to study style A (could be say Chen style taiji or tongbei or anything really) in one city, then to go to another city and try to find a teacher of the same style, only to be told he is doing it completely wrong and have to start from scratch.
Another common story amongst students of CMA, particularly the internals, is of getting into what appear to be friendly push hands / sparring contests which very quickly turn vicious, with the stranger trying at all costs to ‘win’, often by using techniques completely at odds with the stated format (e.g. using elbow strikes or head-butts in a push hands encounter).
The reasoning and thinking behind this mentality was brought home to me by a recent encounter with a teacher in the city where I am living. I have long been interested in Shuai Jiao (Chinese wrestling) and had been looking for a teacher ever since I moved to Shanghai a few years ago. Unfortunately, Shuai Jiao seems to be completely out of fashion in such a westernised city as Shanghai – what little wrestling there is is mostly judo. I had almost given up when I heard from a friend that there was a teacher (let’s call him Teacher N) still teaching Shuai Jiao at a park way out in the south-western suburbs of Shanghai. Intrigued, I made the one-hour plus journey one weekend to see for myself.
Upon arriving at the park, I immediately spotted Teacher N’s practice area located in a quiet corner of the park near a lake and was welcomed by one of his students who I had contacted previously. As that morning had been punctuated by intermittent rainstorms, the group of 6-7 students was practicing under the eaves of one of the pavilions that dotted the park. Teacher N himself was a heavy-set Shanghainese man in his late fifties – most unusually for men of his generation in China, he didn’t smoke. The students were a mix of adults in their late 20s and early 30s who seemed to have been studying for a while and some young boys who were just starting to learn the basics. Despite the group practicing in the park, there was an impressive assortment of supplementary training equipment on the benches besides the pavilion, including makeshift resistance bands, ropes, kettlebells and free weights.
The student who I had contacted (let’s call him Chen) introduced Teacher N as having been a champion wrestler in his youth and also apparently head coach of the Shanghai judo squad in the late 70s, which I was suitably impressed by. In addition to Shuai Jiao, he had also studied taijiquan and xingyiquan with some very reputable teachers. I then introduced myself, saying that I was very interested in learning shuai jiao and asked if it was OK just to watch the first time, to which Teacher N assented.
Over the next hour and a half we watched as his students ran through shuai jiao auxiliary training exercises (single movements designed to mimic various types of throws, footwork drills) as well as some 2-man work, including one which involved one side (Partner A) trying to shove the opponent (Partner B) backwards, while Partner B tried his best to make this difficult for Partner A through sinking of weight and body rotation. I was particularly impressed by two of the teacher’s long-time students, who although not very tall by Western standards exhibited the extremely ‘blocky’ physique which seems to be typical of long-time wrestlers.
During the whole time, I was of course asking some questions of the teacher. Perhaps I had not been respectful enough in my questioning, or Teacher N felt that I was doubting some of his explanations, or perhaps simply from learning that I practiced xingyiquan – for whatever reason, Teacher N must have decided that he needed to ‘teach me a lesson’. So he very politely invited me to ‘push hands’ with two of his more senior students. Having never seen anything beyond the gentle fixed push hands patterns in the parks, I was utterly unprepared for what came next, which was essentially me being roughly thrown from pillar to post around the pavilion at will by his students. My arms still bear the evidence of his students’ tender ministrations several days later. Saying my thanks to Teacher N and his students, I took my leave shortly afterwards.
The point of this story is not really that I got my ass handed to me by a couple of wrestlers – receiving some knocks is part and parcel of learning any martial art, especially something with such a focus on actual practice against resisting opponents as Shuai Jiao. What really opened my eyes to the ‘base state’ of CMA in China was what happened afterwards.
One thing any foreigner needs to realise if they are intending on learning kungfu in China is that the Traditional CMA community is actually very small. It seems like all of the TCMA teachers in a certain city talk to each other, and news travels fast. Within a few days of me visiting Teacher N, I received a phone call from my xingyiquan teacher (who teaches xingyi in a completely different part of Shanghai and as far as I know has no connections to Teacher N). Obviously, he had heard about my encounter with Teacher N from another teacher and was none too happy about it.
Shifu: “What were you thinking, going and challenging Teacher N? You’ve never even practiced push hands or shuai jiao!”
Me: “Shifu, I was not trying to challenge the teacher, I was honestly just there to observe and maybe learn something”
Shifu: “Young Xie [my Chinese name], if you are going to keep living here you need to learn not to be so naïve. That’s not how it appeared to Teacher N – he obviously thought you were a student from another school come to challenge them and do a sneak attack (tou xi). The whole thing with the invitation to push hands was just a set-up to teach you a lesson. In future if anyone asks you to ‘have a friendly exchange’, you must be merciless and not accept unless you are sure that you can win, otherwise it will reflect badly on our school.”
Me: “But [doing my best ‘why can’t we all just get along’ voice], why would he assume that? Why can’t there just be friendly exchanges between people from different schools?”
Shifu: “Young Xie, you still don’t understand. If you get badly injured in a contest with another school, I as your Shifu have to do something about it. This is not about you as an individual, this is about the face of our style!”
It was a real wake-up call for me and explains a lot about the typical behavior you see in Traditional CMA circles here in China: teachers guard the reputations of their schools jealously, and in their minds a single defeat can mean the loss of all of their students. As a result, teachers are very wary of accepting even friendly invitations to ‘cross hands’ or to show applications, and will generally go for the ‘nuclear option’ if there is the slightest suspicion the stranger / visitor has underhand intentions. Several friends who also study TCMA here have concurred with what my teacher said – this kind of thinking appears to be pretty common here in China.