Meeting Master Wu: The Lost Art of Kung-Fu

6 Nov

To the Chinese, meeting Kung-fu masters is as common as eating bread and butter for breakfast or wonton noodles for the matter. Meeting Master Wu with his mobile phone in his pocket and driving a red convertible, he certainly didn’t fit the image of old white long bearded sifus we see in martial arts movies. I was very fortunate to interview him over Szechuan hotpot complete with beef penis, fish heads and some kind of brain (I say some kind of because I wasn’t sure. Taste like tofu though). Yummy. :P

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Master Wu is a retired civil engineer who now teaches kung-fu in his spare time. Ask him any question on this, he launches into a long tirade of stories, legends and techniques that clearly shows his passion for this mysterious and powerful art that he dedicated 40 years of his life practicing.

Acting as his translator, his daughter, Grace told me that her father practices a combination of 5 kung-fu styles –the Chen style, the Yang style, the Sun style and the Wu style and the other Wu style.

Chen and Yang

Once upon a time there was a man named Chen and he taught the Chen style to his family. This is the most popular martial arts we associate with the Chinese. The one we see Jackie Chan and Jet Li dukin’ it out with the bad guys. But Chen was very huffy and protective about this style. No outsiders from his blood kin were allowed to learn this kung-fu in ancient China. Snobby Chen.

Enter a man named Yang. Yang was just this scrawny kid who wanted to really learn the Chen style kung-fu and beat up the bullies. If he saw the Karate Kid, he would’ve wanted to train in the beach too and have his own bonsai tree. Anyway, he realized he wasn’t related by blood to Chen (they didn’t have blood transfusion at that time) so he swallowed his pride, said “What the hell —” and became a servant in the Chen family.

He got to learn it and so happy was he that he decided to share the wealth and taught it to the other Chinese. But they complained it was too hard. The movements were too fast and complicated. Yang went back to the drawingboard and came up with his own style (I guess you know the name by now). It was a modified version of the Chen style. Easier, slower with simple moves. The Chinese ate it up and loved it because it was great exercise and good for their physical health. It is still being practiced today and is the most popular form of kung-fu in China

This is known as tai chi.

Sifus and catching a mosquito with your chopsticks

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Master Wu learned kung-fu from his father who was a great painter and a traditional doctor. He started learning at age 5 with his father rousing him up from sleep at 5 am to practice. While his pops demonstrated the wind swishing moves, he’d bow down his head and catch up on some sleep.

Pops wasn’t very impressed with his son and he got a lot of whacks for this.

One must always get a sifu to teach you. Master Wu sought other teachers to improve his martial arts. From all of them only one stood out in his memory.

This sifu was born sickly. Because of a disease, didn’t have any his bones on the right side of his body (I’m not making this up. Maybe something got lost in translation). He couldn’t walk properly and his body was bent. But like Yang, he was determined and learned every kind of kung-fu he could get from as many teachers and combined them to make his own. So powerful was his style of kung-fu that he was able to overcome his disease, stand tall and proud and be cured.

He chose Master Wu as his student and taught him privately in his own house. Even back then, sifus were choosy. You can’t just show up on one’s backdoor and say, “Yeah, like can I be like, your student? Cuz it’ll be totally hot.” He’d probably give you the 1,000 power kick.

Another story he told me was of another master who had one of the most powerful martial arts during the Cultural Revolution. Due to his skills, the government feared him and carted him off to be a prison ward. He would just use his bare hands and never needed any chains to hold the prisoners. He was that strong. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any students to pass his heritage and learning on. And because of lack of proper food and medicine, he languished in the prison and died.

I asked Master Wu if his sifus made him sit under a waterfall or catch a mosquito using chopsticks. He told me this method (definitely not the mosquito one) was used to train Shaolin monks in Henan province. They have their own style of kung-fu in which they imitated the movements of animals. He did make his own three daughters stand on their heads for hours when they were young and trained them in some basic kung-fu. Grace shrugged as if doing this was a regular thing in one’s childhood.

Most great sifus now are in hiding. They rarely seek out students, fearing they might spoil the old ways of kung-fu.

1,000 kilos vs 400 grams

The way of self-defense is to use your own opponent’s power against him. This concept is taught in judo. Master Wu taught us that if your enemy uses 1,000 kilos of power you can defeat him by merely adding 400 kilos to that power to overthrow it. For example, if he comes rushing at you in full speed aiming at your stomach, you can stop him by deflecting the blow with one sharp swipe and use his own force to throw him towards the wall.

Believe me, we got some light bruises to show it. :D

He used this method when he was out shopping for groceries and four young men assaulted him trying to steal his mobile phone. They thought he was just a weak defenseless old man. Let’s just say the thieves didn’t know what they were getting into. Not even once letting go of his shopping bags and with two men holding onto his legs, he sent one guy literally flying several feet from him. After seeing this incredible feat of skill from an “old geezer”, the others ran for their life. The unfortunate one felt heaven and earth had moved from him and it took him several moments to regain consciousness again. When he did, he found himself behind bars.

We asked him what he’d do if someone just came up to him and ask him for his money without putting up any form of attack. “I’d just give it to him,” he said, surprising us. “Such an opponent is not worthy to fight.”

Improving your chi

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Chi is this powerful force within us. The air in our bodies –the yin and yang. After learning I’d have to train ten years to be adequate at kung-fu, I decided I’d rather learn how to enhance and use my chi. What Master Wu recommended seemed pretty simple yet hard to do.

You are to imagine your body like a bamboo tube and imagine the air slowly coming in and out of your body –from the nose and down to your spine. “Man, man –slow, slow,” he said, demonstrating it by inhaling deeply, his stomach rising and then exhaling, his iron hard tummy lying flat. He said doing this for thirty minutes everyday would be just fine.

Before any major battle with a real kung-fu fighter, he makes sure to power up his chi (like those Dragonball Z episodes) and suck in and circulate all the air in his body.

Tai Chi and Kung-fu today

Tai chi isn’t for wimps you know. It’s not merely old people swinging around. There is a second style of tai chi that people usually don’t know about. This is the real, more powerful side of this supposedly wimpy art. Bruce Li espoused this way of fighting.

“Now Bruce Lee, he was the real thing. That was real martial arts—raw, brutal,” he said. “He really knows how to fight.” He demonstrated a couple of moves to us that sure looked pretty ugly but would totally disarm an opponent in a nanosecond no matter which angle he’s attacking.

According to Master Wu, the martial arts that we see in movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and Hidden Kingdom are not real martial arts. They’re more on acrobatics and more choreographed. They’ve been beautified. They just look pretty and agile but the fighters wouldn’t last in single combat especially against those who are real kung-fu masters.

Because of the overwhelming popularity of this kind of kung-fu, many people want to learn this or the Yang style. The real art of kung-fu is gradually getting lost. It probably started disappearing during the Cultural Revolution and the introduction of guns.

But with teachers like Master Wu teaching a few select students this rapidly endangered art, hope is not lost. It would continue to thrive and flourish as long as sifus like him come out of hiding.

We bowed down to each other, happy and sated at the wealth of information and the cool moves we learned to kick some ass. Master Wu happily went back to eating what’s left of his hotpot. As for me, I discreetly threw what’s left of those brains away. :D

In case you’re wondering, those photos were not from flickr. They’re the real deal pics of Master Wu.

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    2 Responses to “Meeting Master Wu: The Lost Art of Kung-Fu”

    1. June Saville November 7, 2008 at 5:38 am #

      Hi again Kate
      I love Mr Wu
      What a privilege to speak to him – and take his pictures. Did you speak to him in those gardens?
      No wonder you’re still wandering, with experiences like this under your belt.
      June in Oz

      • Kate November 7, 2008 at 10:07 am #

        Hey June! I hope to get more experiences like this. It’s great to be living!
        This is what I love about life. There’s something new everyday.

        I didn’t get to speak to him in those gardens. They were given to me by
        Master Wu himself. We had the interview and short kung-fu sessions in a
        hotpot restaurant. I did get to see him in action in our college.

        One thing I forgot to add that didn’t make its way to the post was how the
        tough Master Wu is such a softie when it comes his daughters. I find it
        incredible that he didn’t resent not having sons as having girls is
        considered extremely unlucky in Chinese culture. When his daughter, Grace
        burnt her finger while cooking he quickly fussed over her and kissed it.
        Awwww… ^ — ^

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