One of the main promoters of Zhaobao taijiquan in China is Wang Haizhou, the head coach of Zhaobao village.
I have translated an extract of his life story (as told to the journalist Yan Hanxiu in the book ‘Taijiquan: Qi Ren Qi Gong’ [Taijiquan: Extraordinary People and their Methods]) below:
“Zhaobao villagers have historically been a martial people. In the olden days,Zhaobao village was often subject to attacks from Shandong bandits, and was also caught up in wars and peasant rebellions. In order to save themselves and protect their village, the villagers developed a habit of practicing martial arts, eventually producing generation after generation of taiji masters. This habit has persisted even until the present day.
When Wang Haizhou was a child, he practiced Zhaobao taiji along with the other villagers, but this was just ordinary practice with no particular aim in mind. When he was 22, for some unknown reason he developed sciatica. The family tried all kinds of medicines and therapies to cure the pain to no avail. As time went by, the sciatica worsened, confining Wang to bed and almost causing him to lose hope.
Wang had a distant relative called Zhang Hongdao, who was originally from Zhaobao but, fleeing natural disasters in Zhaobao, had moved to Xi’an before liberation. Even after he moved to Xi’an, he would return to Zhaobao village every year to visit his relatives.
Zhang was an eccentric. As a youngster, he was devoted to martial arts. One day, when he was about 7, he was on his way to school when he caught sight of a Taoist putting on a martial arts show at the junction of Jie Fang Rd. Almost in spite of himself, he squirmed his way into the crowd to watch the Taoist performing martial arts routines, qigong and selling medicine. After seeing this, he idolised this Taoist, thinking that his kungfu was out of this world.
After that, every day instead of going to school the young Zhang would accompany the Taoist, helping him with his daily tasks. Zhang would even secretly take clothes from his own house to give to the Taoist. The Taoist, on his part, took a liking to the child and kept him by his side. All the while, his parents thought that Zhang was still dutifully going to school.
When the time came for the Taoist to leave Xi’an and return to the mountains, he returned all the things Zhang had given him to Zhang’s family. At the same time, he said to Zhang’s parents that he was fond of the boy, and wanted to bring Zhang into the mountains to teach him martial arts. It was only at this point that Zhang’s parents caught on and some of Zhang’s behaviour started to make a lot more sense. Zhang’s parents told Zhang’s uncle, Zheng Boying about the Taoist’s request.
Zheng Boying was one of the main disciples of the 3rd generation Zhaobao master He Qingxi who had won many Leitai [free- fighting] contests before liberation. Zheng came to the Taoist and said: “You can take this child with you if you can push me over.” The Taoist was quietly surprised at Zheng’s confidence. As soon as the Taoist tried to push on Zheng’s chest, he was thrown back 3 or 4 metres. And so it was that Zhang stayed in Xi’an and Zheng Boying began to teach him taiji. Because he had received a complete transmission from Zheng and had practiced assiduously (practicing the form almost a hundred times a day [?!]), Zhang quickly mastered the intricacies of Zhaobao taiji. Rumour has it that no-one was able to apply finger locks on him even if he extended his index finger. His nickname amongst martial artists in Xi’an was ‘zhi zhen Xi’an‘ [One finger quells Xi’an].
When Zhang Hongdao heard that Wang Haizhou was ill on one of his trips to Zhaobao village, he came to see him. When Zhang saw Wang’s wretched bedridden state, he sighed and said to Wang: “Try practicing taiji, taiji can strengthen your body.” Wang respected Zhang very much, as he knew that Zhang’s kungfu was of a very high level, but he couldn’t help thinking to himself “I’m seriously ill, can taiji really make it better?” However, despite his doubts, he agreed to give it a try.
Zhang helped Wang get up from his bed and asked him to sit into a horse stance. Wang sat down as far as he could into the horse stance, whereupon Zhang kicked Wang’s knees to test the strength of Wang’s stance. Wang, in his weakened state, fell to the floor in a faint. Zhang Hongdao nodded to himself – it turned out that in doing so he had been testing whether Wang had the right stuff to practice taiji.
Strangely enough, after a month of practicing taiji, Wang saw significant improvement in his sciatica. Half a year later, his sciatica was totally gone. Wang, of course, was delighted. Even though Wang’s sciatica had gone, he continued to practice taiji every day. In his own words “If I stop practicing even for a day or two, I feel uneasy, as if my life is in danger. I can’t not practice taiji, it’s already become part of my life.”
PRACTICING IN THE DARK
Because Wang had received authentic transmission, his kungfu progressed in leaps and bounds. But societal changes and familial pressures at one point caused him to consider giving up martial arts altogether.
During the cultural revolution (1966-1976), the homeland of taiji did not escape unscathed. Wang saw with his own eyes older masters being publicly denounced, at that time taiji was called a ‘counter-revolutionary martial art’. Even in its place of origin, Zhaobao village, people were forbidden to teach or practice taiji – all of which caused Wang to waver in his dedication.
He asked himself, “What should I do? Should I keep on practicing, or should I give up halfway? If I give up, all the sweat and tears that I’ve shed over the years will be for nothing, and my sciatica may come back. If I stick with it, there’s a danger I too will be publicly denounced.” After turning it over repeatedly in his mind, Wang decided that Zhaobao taiji couldn’t be allowed to die out in his generation, he decided to persevere. In order to avoid being found out, Wang decided to only practice taiji at night.
The hours he chose to practice were: 11pm-1am and 4.30am – dawn. In rural villages in China, people usually visit friends and chat in the evening, but Wang went to sleep as soon as the sun went down. He would then get up again at 11pm to practice 2 hours of taiji either in his room or on the empty lot in front of his house, stopping at 1 to catch a few more hours sleep before getting up again at 4.30. As soon as people started appearing on the streets, he would stop practicing. Even after the cultural revolution ended, Wang kept practicing at these times for over 20 years without fail.
His decision to practice at night sometimes impacted on his work and private life, and meant that his family had to make sacrifices. But like a lot of successful people, his losses in his personal life were offset by gains in his taiji. It was his extraordinary willpower and determination that kept him going in the face of personal disasters, like his wife’s chronic illness, which persisted for a decade. In those 10 years, medical bills ate up nearly all of his family’s savings. There’s a Chinese proverb “qiong wen fu wu” [lit. poor literary, rich martial], which means practicing martial arts is a luxury only the rich can afford, because in order to be a martial artist you have to eat well and have a lot of spare time. But poverty could not distract Wang from his course, he still practiced night after night.
It is said that as long as you receive authentic transmission of zhaobao taiji and practice according to the requirements, you will gradually acquire a ‘taiji body’. After practicing for a long time, Wang found that his body had become unusually robust: he could pull a coal cart loaded with 500kg of coal for miles without getting tired, and even carry a 100kg sack of grain. There was not a trace left of the sickly, weak boy that Wang had once been. His neigong and waigong had both reached a certain level, but the other villagers were still unaware that he even knew taiji.
It was an unintended incident that alerted the other villagers to Wang’s gongfu. During the cultural revolution, Wang and a good friend from his production team (sheng chan dui) were responsible for chopping up corn stalks and making them into compost. Because this friend was a big guy (weighing in at around 90kg) and had spent many years in the army, very few people could beat him at wrestling; as a result, the villagers called him ‘da li shi’ (muscleman). That day, the weather was very cold, and there was snow on the ground. At first Wang held the sickle while ‘Muscleman’ held the corn stalks. After a while, ‘Muscleman’s hands started turning blue from the cold, so he suggested to Wang that they swap places (i.e. Wang hold the stalks and he chop them up), to which Wang agreed. In order to protect his hands, Wang wrapped his hands in plastic. Sometimes Wang would grab too big a bundle; ‘Muscleman’, finding himself unable to chop through it, then suggested to Wang that they swap places again. Wang, seeing that ‘Muscleman’ had only been chopping a little while, refused to change. ‘Muscleman’, counting on his strength, twisted Wang’s ear and said, jokingly “You gonna swap or not?”, to which Wang replied “If you don’t let go, I’ll take action.” Seeing that ‘Muscleman’ paid no notice and just kept twisting his ear, Wang applied a wrist-lock and exerted his strength, only to hear the cracking sound of Muscleman’s wrist breaking. Wang was later formally criticised by the leaders of his team for this incident. Wang himself had no idea he was capable of breaking a man’s wrist, and had not intended to do so, all he had wanted to do was make Muscleman let go.
THE ADVICE OF AN OLD TAOIST
Because Wang is a seeker of the ‘true essence’ of the martial arts, whenever he hears of an accomplished master, he always tries his hardest to pay them a visit, hoping in the process to receive some guidance. On one occasion in Xi’an, a friend of Wang’s surnamed Ren mentioned to Wang that in the mountains on the outskirts of Xi’an there was an old Taoist who was skilled in martial arts. Wang immediately dragged that friend with him to go and visit this old Taoist.
After welcoming them into his home, the old Taoist sat on his bed in the lotus position. Wang saw that the Taoist was about 70 years old, with a ruddy complexion and a whispy white beard that reached down to his chest. His appearance engendered a natural feeling of respect. Wang ran through his taiji form for the Taoist, and asked him for his opinion. The Taoist, with his eyes half-open , said unhurriedly: “This taiji that you’re practicing is good stuff, if you keep on practicing you will certainly develop a special self-defense skills. However, at the moment you do have one weakness, which is your hands: you can’t express your jin out through the hands. Only when you’re enraged does it express itself, and then you could easily hurt someone. You’d best practice some finger-strengthening exercises so that you can fajin through your hands whenever you want.”
Upon hearing the Taoist’s diagnosis, Wang was delighted, for the Taoist had put his finger on something that had been troubling Wang for a long time: in push hands, he was often unable to fajin, which meant that although he could avoid being controlled, he was unable to launch people. He humbly asked for the details of the exercise the Taoist had mentioned. The Taoist, seeing his sincerity, explained the details of the exercise to Wang.
Wang, after first checking that the exercise conformed to the taiji theory of ‘moving in circles’ (zou quan), practiced the exercise for a year and found that his finger strength had indeed greatly increased, to the point where he had to be careful not to bruise people when shaking hands! When crossing hands, sometimes all it would take to make his opponent fall over was a light tug. To this day, Wang cherishes the memory of that anonymous Taoist. All Wang knows about the Taoist is that during the Cultural Revolution he was sent back to his mountain hometown.
TWO YEARS AT SHAOLIN TEMPLE
Wang’s passion for wushu inspired him to visit Shaolin temple. And so, in 1984, he made his way to Shaolin, the home of external martial arts (wai jia quan). For centuries, Shaolin had produced generation after generation of martial arts masters. Although Wang had achieved profound insights into the intricacies of taiji, his understanding of the wai jia quan was rudimentary at best. His aim was to reach his goal of ‘nei wai jian xiu‘ (cultivating both the internal and external) by studying shaolin gongfu.
At Shaolin temple, he made friends with some of the wu seng (martial monks) and would often watch them train. In order to gain a deeper understanding of Shaolin gongfu, in the depths of winter he would get up at 1am every day and climb up to sit on the eaves of one of the halls of the temple. Wrapped in his thick winter coat, Wang would sit there watching the monks for hours. In this way, he learnt routines for Da/Xiao Hong Quan (lit. Greater/Lesser Flood Boxing) and Tong Bei Quan (through the back boxing).
While he was at Shaolin, through his interactions with the martial monks, other people came to know of Wang’s skill. As any visitor will attest, the towns around Shaolin are full of martial arts schools all claiming to teach authentic Shaolin gongfu. Some narrow-minded people from these schools, seeing that this outsider Wang had gained the monks’ respect, wanted to see him gone.
One night at about 1am, Wang was on his way back from practicing at Chu Zu An (The Hall of the Originator [i.e. Bodhidharma]). At that time of night, everything was pitch black and there was not a sound. Wang had only walked half of the 5 miles back to his lodgings when 3 people jumped out from the side of the road and blocked his way. He heard one of them say: “Either you leave Shaolin tomorrow, or you die. Your choice.” Wang ignored them and continued on his way. Two of the men then rushed forward and threw punches at Wang, only to land on thin air as Wang evaded. All three then attacked him at once. Seeing the three of them gang up on him, Wang pulled out the 9-section whip that he habitually wore wrapped around his waist. The wooshing noise produced as Wang brandished the whip was enough to scare the 3 would-be attackers off. The 9-section whip had been taught to him by his master Zhang Hongdao, ever since he learnt it he always kept it to hand; it had gotten him out of sticky situations several times over the years.
On another occasion, he was on his way to his midnight practice when he saw a shadow in the darkness, swiftly followed by a staff aimed at his belly. As he jumped to avoid the staff, the staff ended up hitting his toes instead. Wang swiftly unwrapped his 9-section whip and struck his shadowy opponent square on, causing him to turn tail and run away.
Wang’s viewed these kinds of cowardly attacks with a mixture of bemusement and contempt; they certainly did nothing to stop him from talking with and learning from the Shaolin monks. Through investigating Shaolin’s kicking and punching methods, as well as its weapons and combat training, Wang came to a new understanding of Shaolin gongfu. Through encounters [read: crossing hands] with the monks, he became friends with some of them, in particular the senior monks De Chan, Su Xi, Miao Qing and Wan Heng, as well as the head coach of the martial monks, Yong An, and the head of the warrior monks’ team, Sheng Xiang. After some of the monks expressed an interest in learning his taiji, Wang started teaching them Zhaobao taiji.
Wang found that this teaching experience brought him new insights into his own art. In addition, his two years at Shaolin caused him to reflect much on his own life. Finally, he said his goodbyes and moved back to his hometown, Zhaobao village. “