A Visit to Chin Wu Athletic Association Headquarters in Shanghai
by Gregory Brundage
Translations by Miao Hui
The September/October 2006 issue of Kung Fu Tai Chi was the Chin Wu - Huo Yuan Jia Collector's Issue. The cover featured an image of Jet Li's film Fearless, which was one among many classic films based on the life of legendary Chinese martial art hero Huo Yuanjia (January 18, 1868 - August 9, 1910). Huo famously won a series of highly publicized fights against foreign fighters at a time when China was being colonized by a number of foreign powers, after which he co-founded the Chin Wu Physical Training Center (now called the Chin Wu Athletic Association). Huo Yuanjia died at age 42 after allegedly being poisoned. The Chin Wu Association dramatically changed the way martial arts were taught in China. Previously the martial arts were secret fighting arts kept within a clan; afterwards, they were open to the community.
October 6, 2012 - Shanghai
October 1 in China was the beginning of an eight-day holiday of unprecedented largess, the result of celebrations of National Day and the Mid-Autumn Festival. Given that it was starting to get chilly in Beijing, my translator and I packed a couple of bags and headed first to the Mountain of Fruit and Flowers - home of China's legendary magical Monkey King Sun Wukong - and then to Shanghai. Shanghai has many wondrous places to go, things to see, foods to eat, but for me there was only one obvious first stop: the Chin Wu Athletic Association. The spread and transformation of killing martial arts to civil/sport martial arts around Asia has been a long-standing study of mine, and the Chin Wu Association in Shanghai serves as its starting point. Calling a movie about its co-founder Huo Yuanjia "Fearless" is definitely accurate because not only did he challenge foreign fighters to free-for-all bouts, he also had the nerve to teach Chinese martial arts to the public. His openness in teaching the martials arts may have been influenced by the teachings he received from his childhood tutor Chen Seng-ho. But pinning down the specifics on the history of China, especially over the past century, is difficult at best. There were so many wars in the first half of the 20th century that most of the records were destroyed. And human memory is unfortunately quite fallible.
All these considerations aside, I felt more than happy when the taxi driver pointed towards a small street off the main avenue we'd been driving along and announced that we were near the world famous Chin Wu Athletic Association headquarters. We climbed out of the taxi on that early autumn day right in the middle of lunchtime - not the best time to just drop by unannounced, but it was the time we had, so there we were. Birds were singing in the trees and hints of old Shanghai floated through the air when we strolled up the old small winding street towards the legendary Association. (A note to those who might wish to follow in these footsteps: Have a local lead you, or go with someone who can read the Chinese signs showing the way.
Given that it was a national holiday, I wasn't really expecting anyone to be there, especially at lunchtime. But after a thorough examination of the old doorways, we found one that was open and in we marched. Soon an older woman appeared, who graciously informed us that people were at lunch and would arrive soon. Not ten minutes later a gentleman appeared - Mr. Shi Shuanglin, to be exact.
A note here is essential. In Japan and Korea I've noticed that masters are usually called "Master," like "Sensei" in Japanese, or "Quanjannim" in Korean. But in China people and things are often not so clearly labeled. In general, Chinese are usually more informal than their more Eastern neighbors, likely as a byproduct of their philosophies and historical culture. The first sentence of the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) - that simple yet infinitely unknowable book that describes an outline of Daoism - is, "The way that can be spoken of is not the true way." I think that Chinese tend to be quite modest and prefer not to be labeled all the time. Labels are like boxes that define a role exactly and limit a person's totality and thus their freedom to be themselves. The Daodejing also states, "Therefore the sage holds in his embrace the one thing (of humility), and manifests it to the entire world. He is free from self-display, and therefore he shines..." (James Legge translation).
So, Mr. Shi - a master, I am quite sure (though he never said so or suggested anything of the sort) welcomed us and invited us upstairs to the Tai Chi training hall. He said that usually people would be off on vacation, but they were preparing for a competition in Tianjin in a couple of weeks, and thus there'd be a class starting soon. Right he was, as very soon a Mr. Sun showed up, followed by others including a Mr. Wang Zhen. Before long it was a large classical style training hall dramatically alive with numerous masters and students.
I followed Mr. Sun Jiaxiong through one of his forms and did pushing hands exercise with Mr. Shi Shuanglin and Mr. Wang Zhen. There was no "beginning" to class or other signs of formality. People just started training when they were ready and continued as they liked. I felt truly honored and welcomed there, like coming home after a long trip. We were all very close and there was a lot of joking around in a loose friendly family atmosphere - very different from the rigid formalities of Japanese Dojo or Korean Dojang. Different families have different traditions, and this is China.
Back row center: Mr. Shi Shuang Lin - Councilman of Shanghai Chin Wu Physical Education, Wushu and Tai Chi Coach, National Martial Art First Level Judge, Chinese Martial Art Level Six (Duan Liu), National Social Physical Education Guide, Chinese Traditional Medicine Master
With a plane to catch, we had to leave before the "end" of classes (there were four or five running concurrently), and so we said goodbye to all and were off - but with no maudlin formalities. However big or complex China or the world may be, it is one big family, and these days one is never far away.
By the way, for those who see the movie Fearless and feel terribly sad at the end, it may be nice to know that the real Huo Yuanjia didn't kill anyone, nor was his family murdered. In fact, the real Huo Yuanjia was survived by two sons and three daughters. His oldest son followed his family heritage working in farming, and the younger son was a martial artist who taught and gave lectures in Guangzhou, also following the family heritage. The movie starring Jet Li was a morality tale that was powerful in creating emotion and teaching the value of humility - but a real biography it was not.
Chin Wu Athletic Association currently has training centers in at least 22 countries, with multiple training center locations in some of them. For example, Malaysia has 17 or more such centers in different cities. They offer many different kinds of sports for all kinds of people.
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About Gregory Brundage:
Gregory Brundage has contributed to Kung Fu Tai Chi and KungFuMagazine.com before, mostly with his ongoing reports of the reconstruction of the North Shaolin Temple. He is currently a teacher in Beijing.