Jarek: And so it came to the end of my first year in China (1991) and the summer holidays. I intended to take full advantage of the summer holidays to go around China and do some research into MA and Daoist meditation traditions in various places. The first stop on my trip was Wudang Shan, the mountain range which is attributed as one of the homes of Daoism and internal kungfu in legends.
Jon: How did you get to Wudang? What was Wudang like at that time?
Jarek: Actually my main impetus for going to Wudang was to try to find a Daoist meditation or Neidan – internal alchemy – teacher there, not to research the martial arts. I took the train from Beijing to Laoying, which is the closest town to Wudang shan – actually I think the stop has now been renamed Wudang Shan. In fact the train wasn’t scheduled to stop at Laoying town at all, it stopped there for a short while and I just persuaded the conductor to let me off there. I walked into town, took the bus up the mountain to Black Crow Cliff and found an OK dormitory for 25 yuan a night. The toilet in the dormitory was totally blocked up, overflowing with sh*t and stank to high heaven, which did not bother me much – although I was certainly glad to climb Wudang peaks the next day!
At that time Wudang had not been designated as a ‘scenic area’ or tourist site, so you could just walk up the mountain, with no need to buy an entrance ticket. My first stop once I got onto the mountain was Zixiao Gong (Purple Cloud Palace), where I met an old nun who had actually been featured in Wudang magazine.
Her specialty was jian shen qiu (steel health balls) – these were spherical balls about 15cm in diameter which she could roll around her body and throw in the air with ease. Her ‘party trick’ was catching one of the balls single-handed behind her back! She was a short, sturdy woman – it was hard to see how muscly she was because of the Daoist robes she was wearing. When I asked her whether there were any teachers still teaching Daoist meditation on the mountain, she brought me to an old monk in his 80s who lived on one side of the temple, who was her meditation teacher. It turned out he did not practice any martial arts, just meditation.
One of the people I had originally hoped to meet on that trip was Guo Gaoyi (郭高一), who was both a Daoist monk and also the head martial arts coach of the Wudang Daoist Association.
However, by the time I went to Wudang, Guo had already moved to Shen Nong Jia – another scenic range of mountains in Hubei, a few hours’ drive from Wudang. My impression was that Wudang was more of a gathering hub than an actual center for Daoist practice – it seemed like the monks went to one of the other nearby mountains to actually practice. This is probably linked to Wudang’s position as an imperial temple back in feudal times. I didn’t see much martial arts being practiced there – it was much less developed than Shaolin, but you could see the start of the same trends, setting up of commercial schools, etc.
Later on in the same year (1991) I met and became good friends with a Daoist monk from Shaanxi called Shi Fei. Shi’s sister practiced Chang Quan, and introduced me to him at a Wushu competition in Beijing which both she and I participated in. He was a very straightforward guy, and once said frankly that historically Wudang Shan was not famous for martial arts – like a lot of holy mountains in China the monks on the mountain ‘collected’ routines from various teachers. All of the famous teachers on Wudang had studied MA from teachers outside the mountains.
My understanding of the situation on Wudang Shan is this: if you are talking about an unbroken tradition of martial arts traceable back to named persons and which is reflected in written records, then this does not exist for Wudang Shan. What actually happened – a good source for this is Tan Dajiang’s (谭大江) book Research of Wudang Wushu – is that during the Cultural Revolution all the monks on the mountain were sent back to their hometowns and forced to huan su , i.e. return to secular life. After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, monks and nuns started returning to the mountain, and the local Wudang Daoist Association as well as Hubei province Wushu Association encouraged MA teachers from all over China to ‘return the arts’ to Wudang mountain. So many teachers who practiced Wudang martial arts, such as Guo Gaoyi, Zhu Chengde, Lu Zijian and Zhao Jianying, returned to Wudang. It’s important to realise that none of these people had actually learned their martial arts they practiced at Wudang Shan per se – in each case they had learnt an art from a certain Daoist master, who had told them that their art came from Wudang.
Jon: So there is no single unbroken martial tradition which can be proven to have originated and existed at Wudang Shan? What about Taiyi Wuxing Quan?
Jarek: That’s right – if you want to be able to point to a written historical record of a certain martial art at Wudang Shan, there isn’t one. Taiyi Wuxing Quan is probably the art which demonstrably has the closest provable tie to Wudang Shan, as the lineage traces back to Xu Benshan, the abbot of Zixiao Gong during the 1920s. The story goes that Jin Zitao – who also claimed to be a descendant of the Manchu family that ruled China during the Qing dynasty – went to Wudang Shan in late 1920s and learnt Taiyi Wuxing Quan from one Li Helin (李合林), a student of Xu. Then, during this renaissance period in the 1980s, Jin was asked to bring Taiyi Wuxing Quan back to Wudang and taught several people there, who in turn taught many of the current generation of Wudang teachers, such as Zhong Yunlong, You Xuande, etc.
To be honest a lot of the association of arts with Wudang is a case of ren zu ting – acknowledging the founding source – where the historical legends of certain arts such as baguazhang or Zhaobao taiji say they are Wudang arts, simply because of Wudang’s ties to Zhang Sanfeng and its status and position as one of the cradles of Daoism in China.
Since my visit in the 1990s many more schools have sprouted up on Wudang mountain, all purporting to teach ‘Wudang’ versions of taiji, bagua and xingyi – arts which from a historical perspective did not originate on Wudang. It is sad to see the commercialisation and the invention of forms just to keep students occupied, but I guess it is an inevitable side effect of turning CMA into a business.
My second stop during the summer of 1991 was Shaolin temple. We took a coach from Luoyang (a city in Henan about an hour’s drive away). The hit film Shaolin Temple starring Jet Li had only come out 9 years earlier, but by that point Shaolin had already become a kind of theme park or Chinese Disneyland. It was complete chaos: there was a big carousel in front of the main gate of the temple, wax statues of celebrities off to one side, and an actual airplane which Chairman Mao had allegedly once sat in, all surrounded by hordes of tourists! It did not feel like the quiet monastery of my imagination at all.
I actually got a better feeling for Shaolin on another trip, in Sep / Oct 1992, when I went to the International Shaolin Festival with a group of Hong Zhitian (Chuojiao teacher)’s students. There were two fellow students from BLCU – one Polish, one Bulgarian – who studied with Hong and were planning to go to Shaolin, so they invited me along on the trip. When we got there, we saw some Shaolin monks (wuseng) giving performances not in a stadium, but just in an open space outside the temple. As far as I can tell they were demonstrating some forms and hard qigong, iron shirt (tie bu shan), etc. My Polish friend and I had great fun ‘testing out’ the iron shirt guy – when he invited members of the audience out to test his iron shirt, I don’t think he was expecting to be punched full force in the stomach by two 6-foot Polish guys (laughter). It was at that point that I realised so-called iron shirt is not that special, most demonstrations of iron shirt are just a combination of timed breathing and muscle contraction, similar to what I had practiced in my early karate years.
On the same visit we managed to visit Shi Suxi (释素喜), who was one of the few of the old generation of monks who returned to the temple after the Cultural Revolution and helped to preserve and revive a lot of the knowledge of Shaolin. Although he was wheelchair-bound at that time, when Hong Zhitian mentioned Hong Quan, Suxi got excited, got up from his wheelchair and demonstrated some Xin Yi Ba for us. On a later visit in 1995 I also managed to meet another of the old monks, Shi Suyun (释素云), who also demonstrated Xin Yi Ba.
Xin Yi Ba is a very interesting art, with some possible links to Xinyi Liuhe Quan. On the same trip we visited a local Shaolin Boxing expert in Dengfeng called Liang Yiquan; he had his students demonstrate for us – including Xinyiba. The footwork was unique – very low, with the thighs parallel to the floor, but he could move very fast and kick upwards from that low crouch without standing up!
My impression at the time, which has strengthened over the last 20 years, is that ‘Shaolin’ nowadays is not like an art like, for example, Liuhe Quan, which is an interlinked whole – the forms (taolu) feed directly into the applications, which feeds into the two man work, to eventual sparring, with the separate elements of the system being consistent with each other. ‘Modern’ Shaolin, certainly as it is taught at the commercial schools around Shaolin temple, is not like this – students learn lots of taolu, such as Xiao Hong Quan, Da Hong Quan, Qi Xing Quan, etc. Then they learn the Sanda separately.
I think the perspective on Shaolin changed a little after a famous documentary series which was aired in China in the late 90s / early 2000s featuring little-known arts such as Kezi Gun (staff) and Yin Ba spear. The series also featured Shi Dejian – and I think the episode with Shi Dejian made people realise there is more to the Shaolin tradition than the flashy stuff which was shown by the Shaolin monk troupes that toured the world. I actually met Shi Dejian back in the early 90s on one of my visits to Shaolin. I had been asking about Xinyi Ba, and one young monk said he knew a master who was practicing that. However, when I saw Dejian I was not impressed. What he demonstrated looked like monkey boxing, and looked tense and stiff he was like an actor. What was more revealing was the segment at the end, where he met an old friend from his hometown in Dongbei who was a decent boxer. It seemed to me that the boxer very much had the upper hand when sparring Dejian, and could have hit him whenever he wanted.