China's Great Grandmaster Cai Longyun
By Gigi Oh and Gene Ching
November 13th, 1943, the Phillip Coliseum in Shanghai: The first-ever public match between Chinese and Western fighters is packed to the rafters and the arena is going absolutely nuts. Sitting in the front row is a crowd of non-Chinese, mocking the Chinese martial arts. They are eager to see the Chinese humiliated in the ring and taunt their fighters with jeers and catcalls. The Chinese are worried. Can their venerated fighting arts withstand the bullying of these monstrously-huge foreigners?
As the matches begin, a huge 25-year-old internationally-renowned Russian fighter named Marceau Love squares off against a skinny, unknown 14-year-old Chinese boy. The Russian's gargantuan frame makes his white towel look like a napkin. He enters the ring with the carefree attitude of a seasoned fighter, calmly draping his menacing black-gloved meat hooks over the corner ropes. The boy, Cai Yunlong, is far from the picture of a professional. He is dressed in common grey athletic shorts and tiny training kid gloves, and the same white towel looks like a beach towel on him. "Might as well throw it in now, kid," the foreigners laugh hysterically. The Chinese are really worried now. They hate to lose face like this.
At the sound of the bell, the referee waves both fighters to the center of the ring. Despite being on Chinese soil, not one of the referees or judges is Chinese. As they stand toe-to-toe, Cai immediately punches the Russian's left ear. The crowd bursts into laughter. This little boy doesn't even know the rules. It's the opening handshake, not time to start fighting yet.
The embarrassment quickly passes and the fight starts for real. Cai begins defensively, dodging punches and searching for weaknesses. The Russian attacks with an aggressive left straight punch. Cai turns left, and unleashes a left to the Russian's face. The Russian backpedals to avoid more punches, but Cai strikes the Russian's left leg with a right hook kick, and Love falls. Love gets up. Just as he gets his hands up, Cai closes and kicks him on the left side of the chin, flipping Love into the air. Again, Love falls. Again Love gets up. This time Cai delivers a kick to the right side of Love's chin, and again Love flips through the air to the mat. The ref steps in and gives Love time to recover. Love retaliates with a barrage of head punches. Cai retreats, pivots 360 degrees, and surprises Love with a left kick to the right side of his face. Once more, Love falls. Cai claims the first round.
Love is clearly shaken, so he opens with a vicious combination of hooks and punches. He drives Cai into the turnbuckles. Cai can't counterattack. He can only block. The audience is shouting madly. Cai suddenly ducks under Love's right jab and gets behind him. Love tries to turn but is met with a left back fist that sends him reeling into the ropes. Cai opens up on Love, but the ref breaks them up and brings them back to the center of the ring.
Cai feints with a left to the head. Love leans to evade and counters with a right, but Cai sets up a right kick to Love's head. Love drops his head to escape the kick. Cai shifts to a reverse sweep and again Love is lying on the mat.
Again, Love gets up. He attacks with a left to the head. Cai blocks with his left elbow and delivers another right kick to Love's head. Love is in the same trap as before. He anticipates the sweep; he jumps. Cai changes it up with a right front kick to the stomach, catching Love in mid air and sending him hurtling to the canvas once more.
Now, Love is very slow to rise. Cai attacks with a jumping front kick, but Love catches it and throws Cai. Cai uses the Russian's momentum to flip completely over and land on his feet, unharmed. The audience - Chinese and non-Chinese alike - goes wild at this amazing display of skill. Now everyone is cheering for the skinny teenager.
Love enters the ring defeated. His swagger is gone. The best he can do is block. Cai is pumped up, fighting stronger and faster than in the earlier rounds. In the future, spectators will look back on this fight and compare Cai's fists to shooting stars and his kicks to thunder. Cai throws a left kick just under Love's ear. Love tries to evade by leaning left and turns into a powerful right jab, followed by a knock-out punch to his abs. Love goes down for the count. The whole audience leaps and shouts, tossing their hats in the air and applauding young Cai.
Within five minutes, or two-and-a-half rounds, Cai Longyun knocked the Russian kick boxer down thirteen times. Each was a blow of confidence for the Chinese people. Young Cai won the hearts of the Chinese that day, forever earning the nickname "Sheng Quan Da Long" (literally "spirit fist of the big dragon" but commonly translated as "big dragon with the magic fists").
The Dragon who Knocked Out Foreigners
Today, over six decades after that historic fight, Cai Yunlong is a retired professor of the Shanghai Physical College and one of the most renowned living masters of all China. In the living room of his modest apartment, only two small black-and-white fight pictures adorn the wall. "All my other pictures and souvenirs were lost during the Cultural Revolution," reflects Cai wistfully in Mandarin. "You know, in the 1940's, many foreigners looked down on Chinese martial arts. It was labeled as ?flowery fists and embroidered legs.' They didn't think we could take a hit from a western boxer. In general, the Chinese were called ?the sick men of Asia.' The foreign boxers publicly challenged Chinese martial artists. Master Wang Ziping and my father, Cai Guiqing, chose eight of us students to enter the competition."
Those fights were not divided into weight classes. Matches were selected by random drawing. It was three two-minute rounds, with a one-minute break in between. Fighters could use hands and legs to strike above the waist and to the head. Only hooks and sweeps were allowed below the waist; heel kicks and side kicks were prohibited. It was a gloved fight. A landed punch or kick earned one point; a take-down earned three. Fighters had a ten-count to get up or they forfeited the match. "The results of 1943 fight were that Chinese won five bouts, drew one, and lost two," recounts Cai. "We should have won all eight fights but referees were all foreigners and the rules were set by them as well. After they counted the ?points,' we lost two and had the one draw. I knew my only guarantee of winning was to knock out my opponent. My punches are fast, ruthless, heavy and accurate." Of Cai's two remaining photos, the one on the left is from the second fight. "Three years later - 1946 - they set up another fight between me and the world heavyweight champion "Black Lion" Luther. I won both fights by knock outs."
The Birth of a Dragon
Cai Yunlong was born in 1928 in Shanghai, China. His father, Cai Guiqing, was a well-known martial arts master, a philosopher and an educator. His family came from Shandong Jinling where martial arts are woven into the fabric of daily life. Hua Quan, Cha Quan and Hong Quan are popular styles here. Cai began learning from his father at age four. At that time, his dad was teaching in the Shanghai Martial Arts Club and Jing Wu Association. "I started training with kicks, back and waist stretches like bridge bending, pressing leg stretches, stances and so on," recalls Cai. "Later I learned Hua Quan, Shaolin, Xingyi and Taiji." His father was very strict and focused on the basics. "My father would make me stand in horse stance, often holding weights, for at least half an hour before a break. Two hundred to three hundred kicks were the minimum requirement." If Cai didn't perform perfectly, his father would beat him with a stick until it became perfect. "At that time, I couldn't understand my father's approach - it was wang zi cheng long ("to look at a child becoming a dragon"). I even doubted if he was my real father and thought about running away from home many times. I was only stopped by my mother's love." But it was this strict discipline that forged a mighty warrior. His father often inspired him with stories of Chinese revolutionaries like Sun Yatsen who the elder Cai had met and followed to Guangzhou. He also told his son of Qiu Jin who fought with her life for democracy. The walls of their home were covered with portraits of martial heroes like Yue Fei, Qi Jiguang, Shi Kefa, Xue Rengui and others. Cai was taught to be proud of his Chinese heritage and was often guided by the ancient Chinese saying, "shi nian mo yi jian" ("it takes ten years to polish one sword"). It took ten years of training to prepare Cai for his first challenge match against that Russian fighter.
Despite his celebrated victories, Cai's career followed the scholarly path over the martial one. "I did not start as a professional martial artist," confessed Cai. "From 1946 to 1959, I was an educator. I've taught language, mathematics, history and geography in various schools. I started as an elementary school teacher. Gradually I was promoted to director, vice-principal and then principal. After the communists took over China, I worked for labor worker's education. In 1959, I was the principal of Shanghai Fifteenth Labor School in Chang Ling district. It was an extra-curricular school for labor workers. That same year, China had its first National Athletics Tournament. I was chosen to be a judge for the martial art division. In 1960, the Shanghai Physical College established Wushu Water Department (Wushu Shui Shangxi often abbreviated as Wu shui xi). The Wushu division included Chinese martial arts, weight-lifting, boxing, fencing, and Chinese wrestling (shuai jiao). In the water division, swimming was the main subject. I was transferred by the Government to take in charge of the wushu division. This was the beginning of my professional wushu career." Cai served as the Director of Wushu and the co-head of the department.
The Dragon as a Scholar Warrior
Being a professor served Cai well. He epitomized the Chinese way known as neng wen neng wu ("scholar" and "martial" in one). Beginning in 1952, Cai would publish over 100 articles on the martial arts in journals and magazines. His outstanding publications include: Wushu's Origin and it's Development, Research of Wushu's movements, Wushu: My Point of View, Wushu's Internal and External Research, Chinese Balance Beam Exercise: Plum Flower Post, and The Study of Chinese Swords' History. He also published several books including: Wushu Basic Training, Hua Quan, Straight Swords, Shaolin Temple Fist and Staff and others. Westerners are probably most familiar with the Chinese Kung-Fu Series books that Cai authored, since they were some of the earlier translated works from Mainland China. These include The Eighteen Arhat Methods of Shaolin Kungfu, Wu Song Breaks Manacles, and Zuijiuquan: A Drunkard's Boxing. During 1957 and 1958, he was twice borrowed by Chinese National Physical Culture and Sport Commission to help the research and development of modern wushu. Alongside other researchers, he helped to compile some of the most seminal works on the sport, including Long Fist Exercises, Simplified Taiji Sword, Glossary for Wushu Basic Movements, Beginning, intermediate and advanced Zhang Quan, Straight Swordplay, Broadsword-play, Spear-play, Staff-play, Twin Straight Swords, and more. These books became the basic primers for modern wushu; they set the standard. Additionally, he was chief editor of the first edition of Rules and Regulations for Wushu Competition Routines. This was the first real step in the development of an even playing field for modern wushu competition. In order to include the southern arts, Cai and two other researchers traveled to Guangzhou and Wenzhou to meet with different southern style masters and discuss the potential for regulations for nanquan. After working for three straight days without sleep, he established nanquan for competition. Cai became one of the chief architects behind modern wushu, but he never lost sight of the traditional art.
In 1959, he joined four other leading researchers in the martial arts field for a pilgrimage to the Songshan Shaolin Temple. Professor Cai, Li Menghua, Mao Bohao and Wang Zizhang traveled together in hopes of deepening the understanding of traditional Shaolin martial arts. In Zhengzhou, they documented one of Shaolin's most noted martial monks of that generation, Shi Degen. Degen demonstrated Xiaohong Quan and Dahong Quan, two of the mainstays of traditional Shaolin Kung Fu. That research was archived in the Wushu Division of the Chinese National Physical Culture and Sports Commission, but just like Cai's pictures and souvenirs, they were lost during the Cultural Revolution. Shi Degen passed away years ago, so the loss is even more tragic. Soon after the Cultural Revolution, Cai continued to be an instrumental figure in the growth and development of modern wushu. He was the chief editor of the National Physical Wushu Textbook three times. He also was the chief editor and consultant for International Wushu Coach Training Material and International Wushu Referee Training Material.
The Dragon as a Wushu Professor
To many westerners, traditional kung fu and modern wushu are mutually exclusive, so Cai's outstanding work in both fields comes as a bit of a conundrum. But Cai is very aware of the distinction and believes that both have their role. "Usually in martial arts of China, we have two categories," explains Cai. "One is to be a professional who goes to tournaments and exhibitions. Then there are the traditional groups, or ones that train for knowledge. Nowadays, the government puts the entire spotlight on the professionals. But these amateur martial artists need an opportunity and stage to show their skills. These people train at home or in clubs, but don't get the recognition that the professionals get. I think that both should be developed."
On the flip side, Cai remains a staunch supporter of the current standards of wushu that he helped engineer. "If we don't promote competition wushu, then that would be bad too. For instance, there are six main styles of taiji. Without a competition wushu, and a recognized standard taiji, you would be giving out too many awards. You have to realize that we already have to split competitors into divisions based on age, sex, and style. If you add different divisions within each style, it would get too confusing and you would have too many winners. Part of what makes traditional martial arts so special is that there are so many variations and styles. But this can hurt competition wushu and the chance for wushu to become a world sport. With the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing, it was important to standardize wushu to try to get it into the games."
Cai elaborates on how competition has affected the way martial arts are taught today. "Now in the Shanghai Physical College, there are six wushu professors and ten to twenty candidates. It is important for the candidates to study by the technique and the theory. Some people know taolu (form chinese). Some people only know sanda (fighting). Surely, if you know both, it is ideal, but from the competition point of view, you only choose one. Today, Ph.D. classes require more theory, so usually the candidate will only emphasize one area, usually something they have chosen themselves. But from individual preference, you might only choose one too. If someone practices Taijiquan, their purpose might be for better health, and then they don't really ever need to learn how to fight."
Cai demonstrates a fast movement of Taijiquan to make his point. "If someone practices taiji like this, then other people will say it is not good taiji." Cai then demonstrates a more typical slow taiji movement. "When you practice taiji, you have to be slow. If it is not slow, they won't call it Taijiquan. You are practicing jing (power). However, when you want to strike someone, if you move too slowly, you will never hit them. You have to react fast to hit your target. But if you always practice very slowly, how can you suddenly speed it up during a combat situation? If you really want to be an expert at martial arts, you must learn taolu and sanda. If you only want to train for health or only for fighting, then you only need to concentrate in one area."
The Fighting Dragon
The most common criticism of modern wushu taolu is that it cannot be used for fighting. As a fighter and a wushu pioneer, Cai addresses the issue. "The combat applications from taolu are usually too complicated to use in any real-life combat situation. Practical applications should be very fast and direct. My martial arts skills have been passed down through my family. We only had a few kicks: heel kick, inside and outside crescent, front kick, side kick, hook and sweep. The punches were straight punches and hooks - that's all. Today, taolu has so many varieties of punches and kicks like palm strikes, spear palms, spring kicks, jump kicks, reverse arch kicks, high front sweep kicks, high back sweep kicks, and so on."
"The training I received from my father was different. We trained more for reactions. For instance, a cue was given like a left hand signal equals a right punch, and the punch had to be there - very fast. It was the same for any punch or kick. Nowadays, I feel that students' reaction times are slower. They might wait for one, two, or three counts, which is too slow. Also in taolu, the posture requirements for horse stance, bow stance or empty stance are quite high. The position of your body is extremely important. But when you are in real combat, you can't be too worried about getting into a perfect horse stance. For example, when you execute a straight punch in taolu, you must also have a good bow stance. But in combat, you cannot wait to get into a good bow stance and then punch. You must just punch. You have no time to set up perfect footwork. In taolu, you get points deducted when you don't form a perfect palm. A typical palm is made by bending the thumb and tucking it tightly next to the edge of the palm while keeping the other four fingers straight and tightly together. In combat, it is unimportant to have perfect palm."
"It helps to think of it like poetry and regular conversation. Poetry has a meter. It has a rhythm to it, as well as beautiful words. In daily conversation, you don't need any of this to make a point. Taolu is just like a five-word poem and it has its requirements, just like poems. Is that useful? Maybe, but it will never be useful to a combat situation on the street when others are trying to take advantage of you."
Three Pearls of the Dragon
As a final comment and parting shot, Cai reveals his three keys to real fighting. "My father taught me three important fighting tactics. First is bu zhao bu jia (no incursions, no blocks). When your opponent punches at you, don't use your hand or elbow to block because the block will delay your counterattack. If the smallest moment is lost, it will give your opponent time to recover and attack you again. You should move and duck to avoid the punch as you simultaneously counterattack. Second is zhe rou fen qiang (don't duck too early). Duck at the split second when your opponent's fist is almost touching your flesh. In this way, your opponent's punch is fully delivered. He thinks he's got you and has no opportunity to redirect his energy. Third is tie shen kao da (strike by sticking to your opponent's body). Stick close to your opponent's body, eliminating the space between you and your opponent which can jam your opponent's strike. When your opponent moves backward to make room to attack, you seize the opportunity and attack first."
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Written by Gigi Oh and Gene Ching for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM