Kung fu (gong fu or wushu) and tai chi came to the world from China and can be traced back thousands of years.
Methods of fighting were detailed during the Zhou dynasty (1122-221 BC) and Taoist monks are thought to have practiced an art similar to tai chi around 500 BC.
However, to understand the roots of modern kung fu we must move a little forward.
Wushu in Yangshuo Park
Legend has it that an Indian monk by the name of Bodhidharma (known in Chinese as Damo) arrived at Shaolin monastery in the fifth or sixth century with the intention of introducing dhyana Buddhism (chan in China, and zen in Japan and the West).
This efforts were hindered due to the poor physical condition of the monks and so he instituted a series of physical exercises to counter the long hours spent poring over texts and meditating. These exercises then developed into forms of defense in response to attacks on monasteries. Later martial arts came in dramatic form through a fusion with acrobatics and Beijing opera.
However, the Cultural Revolution took its toll and instructors were driven from the country. Salvation came through movies, which were initially only popular within China, but subsequently brought kung fu to the world’s attention in the shape of Bruce Lee, who paved the way for modern martial arts movie stars.
Although there are hundreds of styles, Chinese martial arts can generally be categorized into two broad forms, which tie in with the Taoist concept of yin and yang. There are hard, or external, forms that focus on yang, or male, aspects and involve speed, muscular strength and aggression; and soft, or internal, styles that correspond to the yin (female) and stress the movement of qi (energy) to overcome opponents.
The line between hard and soft is not always clear, something which is evident in the dichotomy within two of the most influential styles: shaolinquan (Shaolin Fist) from the Buddhist monastery in Henan is a hard form, which nevertheless utilizes the soft art of qigong (breath control); while wudangquan (you guessed it, Wudang Fist), a soft style from the Taoist retreats of Hubei, contains elements of external forms and is famous for its sword play.
What is certain is that to attain the true skills of either an internal or external form, incredible physical and mental conditioning is required, whether achieved through painful exercises such as repeatedly striking wood and brick, or by intense meditation and breathing techniques.
Taijiquan (Great Eternal Fist) takes its name from the taiji, the Taoist yinyang symbol, and is the world’s most popular martial art (although its gentle, graceful style runs contrary to many people’s perception of the term “martial art”).
It is an internal form that uses slow, cyclical movements to promote energy flow, circulation and a sense of well being.
Traditionally practiced by older Chinese, tai chi is becoming increasingly popular in theWest. It is probably the easiest martial art to engage in, even on a short trip, as you can see it every morning in almost any park in China.
Tai chi by the Pearl River
You can simply watch, but you’ll frequently find yourself being invited to participate! Even if you don’t manage to master the moves, you’ll have had a truly Chinese experience and had a little exercise at the same time.
Studying Martial Arts
Many foreigners come to China to study martial arts and the most famous center is Shaolin, although the commercialization and plethora of copycat schools at the “home of kung fu” can come as something of a disappointment. Wudang Shan makes for a more low-key, but equally historic alternative, but if you’re serious about study, knowing which style you wish to learn will help you decide where to go.
You can arrange private or group instruction, whether for a few hours or a few months, in many of the places covered in this book. Yangshuo makes for a particularly accessible and attractive place to study. Obviously, having an English-speaking teacher makes learning easier, but, as instruction tends to be quite demonstrative, this isn’t as much of a problem as you might think. For more information about long-term study in China check www.educasian.com and www.shaolins.com.
See also : Martial arts and acrobatics in Beijing
See also : Martial arts in Yangshuo
Acrobatics have a long history in China, strongly tied to both Beijing Opera and martial arts, and even in today’s cyberstruck age they never fail to confound. Students begin training as early as five to be supple, skillful and strong enough to perform the stunts you’ll see and I always leave the show feeling distinctly inflexible!
Shows usually involve a range of acts, including balancers, contortionists, jugglers, formation troupes and magicians, the latter of which tend to be the only weak link. Modern times have also led to modern stunts and you might also find motorcycle walls (and wheels) of death! There are regular tourist shows featuring famous troupes in Beijing and Shanghai.
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