Martial Mindfulness and the Chan of Modern Wushu

By Gene Ching and Gigi Oh Photos by Greg Lynch Jr.

Buy this issue now , or download it from Zinio

KUNG FU TAI CHI May + June 2014With their bald heads and saffron robes, differentiating between individual Shaolin monks can be daunting.  Indeed, the very intention behind the shaved pates and uniform robes is to eliminate distinctions.  Such asceticism is part of the vows one takes as a Buddhist monk.  This interchangeable appearance is exacerbated within the Shaolin order because most of the monks have the same lean and muscular body type, the product of years of hard training.  In contrast, with his thick burly body and magnificent beard, Shi Yanzhuang (釋延庄) stands out amongst his monastic brothers.  His physical presence commands gravitas.  He looks like he just walked out of a classic Shaw Brothers Kung Fu movie.  “I’ve had this beard for ten years,” he says modestly in Mandarin.

But it’s not just Yanzhuang’s look that makes him outstanding.  For several years now, Yanzhuang has been the head coach of the wusengtuan (martial monk delegation 武僧團). This honored position is unique among his brotherhood.  It’s one thing to be a Shaolin monk.  To be the head coach of the Shaolin monks takes it to a whole other level.

And yet, surprisingly, Yanzhuang’s roots are not in traditional Shaolin Kung Fu at all.  It’s quite the opposite.  Yanzhuang began his martial training with the sport of modern Wushu.

Traditional Shaolin versus Modern Wushu
Since its introduction to the West, modern Wushu has been a point of contention in the martial world.  What began as an attempt to unify Chinese martial arts ended up polarizing practitioners even more. The umbrella of Chinese martial arts covers so many different styles, making it impossible to create a playing field that is level enough for international competition.  The styles are so dissimilar that the only way to be fair is to create different divisions for each one, but that’s too many for an international sport.  Modern Wushu sought to reduce this diversity, but – ironically – wound up creating even more divisions of its own.  Nowadays, Chinese martial art tournaments held outside of China have to hold divisions especially for modern Wushu in addition to all their original traditional divisions.

Chicom historians will place the birth of modern Wushu in 1949, the same year when the People’s Republic of China was founded.  In truth, times were too tumultuous right then for much attention to be given to sports of any kind.   However, China has always had great national pride over her martial arts (for good reason), so as the PRC grew, the martial community rallied along with it to show their patriotism.  National tournaments were held and the beginnings of formal rules were set.  But when the Cultural Revolution hit, all traditional arts were associated with the old totalitarian ways and oppressed.  Martial artists, like all traditional Chinese artists, were persecuted.  Nevertheless, martial artists are fighters by their very nature, so they were tenacious and resilient throughout this period of hardship, just like they had been for generations of dynastic upheavals prior to the modern era.   When the dust settled on the revolution, the surviving Chinese martial arts community within China rallied again.  They began to really concentrate on developing a modern sport – Wushu. Designed to be spectacular, it exaggerated martial movements for heightened drama, and weapons were lightened for more flash and dazzle.  In essence, modern Wushu became a style of its own, a style that values athleticism, aesthetics and acrobatics above combat practicality, closer in many ways to traditional Chinese opera. By 1974, Wushu athletes, including eleven-year-old modern Wushu champion Jet Li, comprised the second group of emissaries ever sent to the United States from communist China (the first was a ping pong team).  It was highly symbolic, and yet overshadowed for most Americans by the Watergate scandal.

Americans had already been introduced to traditional Kung Fu, begun by the influx of Chinese immigrants.  Kung Fu came over both through the immigrants themselves and the movies they brought with them. Most of the immigrants came from Southern China, Hong Kong and some of the other Southeast Asian nations, many of them fleeing the Communists.  Kung Fu movies from Hong Kong studios like Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest dominated the Chinatown movie houses and enjoyed many late-night TV showcases, right alongside schlocky horror from Hammer studios.  This gave a distinctly southern style to America’s first exposure to Chinese martial arts.  When modern Wushu began to come over, Kung Fu practitioners who had already landed here rejected it.  This was not just because it was too flowery for the street (a criticism now being leveled at all Chinese martial arts ironically with the rise of MMA).  There was an underlying political stigma as well.   Traditionalists felt threatened by modern Wushu and rightly so.  Here was a product of the very same Chicoms who forced their forefathers to leave China.

Countless modern Wushu champions were on the brink of immigration, ready to flood the already-limited market with their aerials and butterfly kicks.  In many ways, modern Wushu was better suited to the American strip mall market.  Gone are the burdensome trappings of a traditional school, cultural baggage like the ancestral altar.  Ancestor worship appears to be religious to some, which puts off many potential practitioners of fundamentalist faiths.  Modern Wushu is also spectacular, so it demonstrates well at community events like street fairs and parades.  There’s nothing like a good show to sell the school.  It’s also very safe for children because the weapons aren’t sharp and there usually isn’t much sparring.  It became about championship records instead of warrior lineage, about form more than fighting, which are other growing criticisms of all Chinese martial arts nowadays.

The matter of traditional Kung Fu versus modern Wushu grew more complicated with the next wave of immigrants. Many of the new fresh-off-the-boat instructors were from Mainland China and only knew modern Wushu.  They weren’t exposed to traditional Kung Fu very much at the sports colleges and were naïve to the scope of Hong Kong cinema as many of those films never played in the PRC.  Americans may have actually seen more of this genre than Mainland Chinese.  They often called their schools Kung Fu schools for marketing.  The term “Kung Fu” is in the American vernacular.  Wushu isn’t there quite yet.  This is a confounding semantic issue.  In China, the literal translation of the words “martial arts” is wushu (武術).  Traditional Kung Fu, as it is known in the states, is called chuantong wushu (传统武術) in China.  Kung Fu (功夫), by definition, means “skill derived through hard work,”  a term that can be applied not only to traditional Chinese martial arts but also to calligraphy, musicianship, or skill at dance.  It could even mean skill at modern Wushu.

What’s more, in an effort to become more Olympic, modern Wushu tailored itself after the other performance-based sports like gymnastics and figure skating.  Difficulty levels, or nandu (难度), were introduced to clarify scoring.  Soon two forms of modern Wushu emerged, the official international competition style with nandu, and the style of the ‘80s, sometime called “classic Wushu,” which was more rooted in traditional arts.

The Shaolin Situation
Within the Shaolin curriculum, the distinction between traditional and modern has become grayer than a disciple’s robe.  Shaolin Temple endured the same recent history as modern Wushu, narrowly escaping the Cultural Revolution to regroup.  It was a movie that brought it back.  The Shaolin Temple (1982 少林寺), starring a then eighteen-year-old Jet Li, was such a blockbuster in Asia that droves of tourists and wannabe monks came to Shaolin, pumping much-needed funds for restoration into the economy.  The movie still shines as a showcase for modern Wushu in action film; it contains luxuriously long fight scenes and complicated choreography, all shot on location.

Shaolin’s precious traditional martial arts had been kept alive by a few surviving monks and disciples, as well as many local folk masters.  Some local families maintain a tradition of Shaolin Kung Fu that goes back ten generations or more.  A core curriculum of traditional Shaolin Kung Fu emerged.  At the same time, the influx of tourists demanded to see martial arts shows.  Modern Wushu is far more entertaining and accessible for public performance.  It’s showy and dramatic.  Local schools, including the local sports college, began competing in modern Wushu too.  Many of these schools were privately run, some by monks, some by former monks and some by local folk masters.  Most were massive live-in institutions for kids, with student bodies numbering in the hundreds and, in some cases, thousands.  The schools had to compete to stay viable.  And the dominant competition sport for martial arts in China is modern Wushu, so it was an intrinsic part of the curriculum.

As for the monks themselves, the first generation that emerged during the mid-‘80s restoration had to do everything.  There was a legend to uphold.  They needed to be rooted in traditional Shaolin Kung Fu of course.  But they also needed to be able to give flamboyant demonstrations to please tourists.  They also needed to know how to fight because Shaolin received a lot of challengers at the gates back then. New forms entered into the Shaolin curriculum that were strictly for demonstration.  Many of these were clearly derived from the movies, forms like drunken staff and toad, which came straight out of The Shaolin Temple film, and Yu Hai’s (于海) mantis form (Yu Hai played the abbot in the movie The Shaolin Temple and created a mantis form that can demonstrate both traditional and modern elements).  It is unlikely that a modern Wushu barrel-roll existed in traditional Shaolin Kung Fu, but almost every young Shaolin monk can execute one.

Adding complications were the performance monks or biaoyenseng (表演僧). Shaolin’s venerable Abbot, Shi Yongxin (釋永信), was inaugurated in 1999.  Prior to that, and for a short period as the new abbot took charge, the worldwide popularity of Shaolin Kung Fu shows was largely unregulated.   These shows would have been more appropriately called Shaolin Wushu shows, but America barely knew the word Shaolin back then.  They still don’t really know the word Wushu.  Only a very little portion of these shows were devoted to traditional Kung Fu because, after all, it was a pop show.  Only traditional martial artists find most traditional Kung Fu performances appealing, and many of them might be hard-pressed to sit through a two-hour show of just traditional.  A few of these shows were genuine, featuring actual monks from the temple.  Some shows were comprised strictly of modern Wushu champions who had taken vows, shaved their heads and robed up, just for the show.  And some were just costumed performers who took no vows at all.  Abbot Yongxin has expended great effort to control the Shaolin name for such performances, but it is a difficult task.  Today, almost every Shaolin monk or disciple teaching outside of China first set foot in this country as part of one of these shows.  They had the opportunity to visit foreign countries first, to make connections and get visas.

Making things even more complicated, some traditional Hong Kong Kung Fu masters have hired former Shaolin graduates to staff their own schools.  With the strong and diverse foundation that can only be forged in Shaolin, it isn’t as hard to get them to pick up a traditional style like Hung Gar or Eagle Claw as it is to get an American-in-house student to devote to being a full-time instructor.  As an added benefit, they also have the Shaolin curriculum to bring to the school.

This presents a major problem at tournaments, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area where there are so many Shaolin graduates teaching locally.  Almost all Shaolin competitors will declare themselves as traditional Kung Fu.  However, many of the students are actually practicing modern Wushu.  And whenever a modern Wushu competitor shows up in a traditional ring, the judges cry “foul” (most traditional Kung Fu judges are descendants of those initial southern style immigrants and have a residual Wushu axe to grind).  This places Shaolin in its own unique category.  But tournaments have already made a separate category for modern Wushu.  Adding another for Shaolin is too much.

Henan Native
As a child, Shi Yanzhuang was little affected by the spread of modern Wushu and Shaolin.  He was born in Henan Province where Shaolin is located, and started learning at home as many local Chinese children do.  He went to school like a normal kid and practiced in his free time at home.  He wasn’t very serious about it until he reached middle school.  Then, like so many of his generation, he was inspired by the movie The Shaolin Temple and began training there that very same year the movie debuted.  “I started at a (private) school outside of the temple,” says Yanzhuang.  “It doesn’t exist anymore.”

There, Yanzhuang studied modern Wushu, specializing in staff and dao (broadsword 刀).   After five years, he made the Henan Province Professional Team.  That’s no small feat.  To make any provincial team, a prospect must beat out thousands of candidates.  And to make the team in Henan, home of both Shaolin Temple and Chen Village (the birthplace of Taiji) is even more impressive.  “I competed for a while and then went home,” he says matter-of-factly.  By the late nineties, he was coaching a local Wushu team and not part of Shaolin.

“I started representing Shaolin in 2001,” says Yanzhuang.  “I was teaching students.  I was successful.  But I personally felt that my martial arts were just okay.  I didn’t feel I really understood, so I went to the source for find out more.”  It was in 2001 when Shi Yanzhuang bowed to Venerable Abbot Shi Yongxin and took his monastic vows.  Many dream of becoming a Shaolin monk, but only a few actually make it.  Yanzhuang’s secret to how he got there is simple: “To become a Shaolin monk, you need yuanfen (fate 緣分).”

Before entering the Shaolin Temple, Yanzhuang had no prior Buddhist tutelage.  “You enter the temple.  You follow the routine.  Rise at 5 AM.  Attend morning and evening classes in chan (zen 禪).  For the first few years, all I did was study chan.”  Yanzhuang taught a little bit but didn’t practice his Wushu.  He felt he had reached his plateau there, so he put it aside to study chan.  “Chan is principle, thought and mind.  Shaolin Kung Fu is action and behavior.  Use chan with principles.  Stillness in movement.  Yin and Yang.  If you only search for martial arts, you will never find peace of mind.”

Today, Shi Yanzhuang is best known for his rouquan (soft fist 柔拳) demonstrations.  Rouquan is considered by many as an advanced traditional Shaolin practice, but it’s a notion that Yanzhuang quickly dismisses.  “The character of rouquan won’t necessarily add to your martial skills.  It’s just something to control.  Every single form is equal.  All are equal.  Use your heart to express it.  There is no easy form or hard form.”

Shaolin Wushu
Given his position, Shi Yanzhuang has a unique perspective on the state of modern Wushu.  Now he sides more with the traditional philosophy, with one game-changing stipulation.  “Modern Wushu only talks about shu (art, same shu as in Wushu 術) and not fa (methods, an abbreviation for quanfa 拳法 or martial methods).  Many Olympic-hopeful athletes end up disabled because they cannot combine soft and hard.  Martial arts depend upon time.  It combines with the era.  If you only do external, you’re not going to go anywhere.  When I was a Wushu coach, I had a feeling something was wrong, so I went back.

“Modern Wushu can also be chan.  It’s about the essence.  The core spirit is the same.  Follow chan and things are the same.  Everything is in the heart.  With chan, you can do any form to present it.  Start from the heart.  Everything happens.  If the heart dies, everything dies.

“In the old days, martial arts were for fighting.  Now, modern Wushu is for combat, competitions and performance.  But you shouldn’t even divide.  If your job is to perform, first you must move yourself.  Then you move the audience.  Then it is chan.

“What is chan?  It’s your mind.  It’s your heart.”

  Discuss this article online
May+June 2014 Shaolin Special

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2014 .

Buy this issue now , or download it from Zinio

About Gene Ching and Gigi Oh Photos by Greg Lynch Jr. :
The cover photo of Shi Yanzhuang was provided by Justin Guariglia. For more information, see Justin’s book Shaolin Temple of Zen.

Print Friendly VersionPrint Friendly Version of This Article