The Mysterious Martial Mountain
Revealing the Secrets of O-Mei Kungfu with Chen Jian and Tony Chen

By Gene Ching, with assistance by Dr. Johnny Jang

There are three mystic mountains in China famous for martial arts. The first is Songshan (lofty mountain) in Henan Province, home of the legendary cradle of all martial arts and Zen Buddhism, Shaolin Temple. The second mountain is Wudangshan (martial deserving mountain) in Hubei province. Also written as Wu-Tang San, this mountain is considered by many to be the birthplace of Taijiquan. But what of the third martial mountain? Although she is cherished in China, this mountain is not nearly as famous in the West as the others are yet, but her reputation is rising. The third martial mountain of China is O-Mei.

O-Mei Mountain (also written as Emei) is situated in Sichuan, the largest province of China with a population of almost 100 million. Sichuan is more commonly known by its old spelling, Szechwan, famous for its spicy hot cuisine. Her capital city is Chengdu (successful metropolis), also known as Jincheng (brocade city) from its eminence in the silk brocade trade. Chengdu alone has a population of 3 million, with another 6 million in the surrounding suburbs. But only an hour drive away from this monstrous city is one of China's most sacred mountains, O-Mei.

The O of O-Mei means "high." Mei means "eyebrow" as in Bai Mei, the infamous "white eyebrow" betrayer of Shaolin Temple. Since "high eyebrows" are considered very beautiful to the Chinese, O-Mei can refer to a beautiful woman. It is also used to describe the crescent-shape of the moon. O-Mei is considered one of China's famous Four Buddhist Mountains, but is also heavily influenced by Taoism. Rising to an altitude of 10,200 ft., this majestic natural wonder evokes the days of yore with its inspirational vistas and time-honored temples. It is said that a traveler can experience all four seasons while hiking from foothill to summit up the mighty O-Mei and that in certain areas, the rainbows will follow your shadow. From this timeless peak arose some of China's most powerful kungfu.

The Kungfu of O-Mei Mountain
Situated in the western mountainous regions of China, China's sovereignty over Sichuan was often disputed throughout past dynasties. This elicited a long-standing history of war over the province, which developed an extensive tradition of kungfu. During these difficult times, many individuals retreated to the mountains, either to repent from past killing or to avoid going to war completely. Many brought with them an assortment of different styles of kungfu from all across China.

The scenic beauty of O-Mei Mountain made it home for many temples. By the 14th century, there were as many as 100 temples and thousands of monks residing on the pristine mountain. It was the ideal refuge for many warriors weary of the world. Due to O-Mei's heavy Taoist influence, several indigenous longevity practices and qigong methods already existed within the monastic establishments. With the constant influence of kungfu refugees, combat skills merged with Taoist Qigong and philosophy to form the roots of O-Mei's style.

The other two martial mountains, Songshan and Wudangshan, are associated with external and internal kungfu respectively. Although Shaolin kungfu has internal practices, it is more renown for its external kungfu because it focuses on conditioning the body, developing physical power and expressing an outward manifestation of strength. Likewise Wudangshan kungfu has some external methods, but its reputation stands as the home of many internal or soft styles of kungfu and qigong. O-Mei emphasizes both internal and external methods equally. Unlike Shaolin and Wudangshan, O-Mei does not have a single dominant philosophy. She is not centrally organized, so its martial arts have naturally grown to be more diverse. O-Mei kungfu is reminiscent of Wudang philosophy melded with Shaolin techniques, although some consider it to be a little closer to Wudang due to the heavy Taoist influence.

O-Mei kungfu is composed of over 200 different styles of kungfu, collected over the last 2000 years. And it is still growing. She still absorbs styles from all over China. Following the 1937 Sino-Japanese war, many northern Chinese grandmasters ended up in Sichuan. They brought with them an assortment of different fighting styles, expanding the breadth of O-Mei kungfu within this century. More recently, noted master Wang Su-Tan of Hebei province brought Bajiquan (eight extremes fist) to Sichuan. Now Bajiquan is part of the curriculum of some of O-Mei's top masters. Furthermore, all the local Sichuan folk kungfu styles are incorporated as part of the O-Mei tradition. Sichuan has many indigenous styles, such as a famous twelve-stance Zhong Qigong and Ziran Men. Ziran Men (nature gate) was created by a Sichuan master, a dwarf named Xu, who taught renowned master Du Xinwu of Hunan province.

It is said that O-Mei kungfu can be divided into five pai and eight men. Pai means school or system; Men literally means gate, but in kungfu it refers to a specific school or lineage, often the result of reformations in a method by a revolutionary master. One Pai may include several Men, but not the other way around. The five Pai are Huangling Pai (emperor's clothes), Dianyi Pai (point), Qingchen Pai (named after a place), Tiefo Pai (Iron Buddha) and Qingniu Pai (black cow.) The eight Men are mostly named after family surnames; they are Zhen Men (monk), Yue Men (after famous Song General Yue Fei), Zhao Men, Du Men, Hong Men (red), Hua Men, Zi Men, and Hui Men. O-Mei is also famous for its sword method, as well as Sun-clan fist, Du-clan fist, Huolong (fire dragon) and its monkey and eagle imitative boxing.

Mystic mountain monasteries tend to guard their secrets jealously. For generations, many of O-Mei's kungfu styles were taught in secret. But today, perhaps as a result of China's Open Door Policy, the secrets are getting out. All around O-Mei, kungfu schools are sharing the mountain's treasured arts. Several noted O-Mei masters have already immigrated to the West, including Wushu Champion Lu Xiaoling and Eagle Style Master Luo Li. Now, two generations of O-Mei masters have immigrated together, a father and son duo, Grandmaster Chen Jian and his son, Tony Chen.

An O-Mei Grandmaster -- Chen Jian
One of the most prominent figures of the O-Mei system of our time is Grandmaster Chen Jian. Born in Chongqing, the largest city of Sichuan, Grandmaster Chen began his kungfu studies at age eight and always aspired to be a professional martial artist. He had the good fortune to study under two of O-Mei's most renowned kungfu experts, Wang Gee-Yan and Fung Bao-Sum. His skills were quickly recognized, earning him a post as the chief martial arts instructor for the Police Officer Academy in Chengdu and a martial arts professor in the Chengdu Institute of Physical Education.

In the tradition of many great kungfu masters, Chen also studied the art of Dieda. Dieda literally means "fall, hit" but is conventionally translated as bone-setting. Many people know this term from kungfu bruise liniments called Diedajiao (or Dit Da Jow in Cantonese). Dieda is a particular method of therapy for injuries caused by falling down or being struck. It is a field of healing in which kungfu masters often specialize. Grandmaster Chen was trained by a famous Diedazhang (bone-setting "doctor") Master "Strong Hands" Cheng Wai-Gin.

Today, Grand Master Chen is the 23rd-generation headmaster of the O-Mei Qigong and Sword School. What is immediately striking about Grandmaster Chen is his vitality. As man in his sixties, he appears as one in his forties, and an exemplary one at that. Grandmaster Chen Jian has more power and grace than most athletes many years his junior. He still has the strength to shatter stones and bricks, yet exhibits the flexibility of a young gymnast. He attributes his longevity to O-Mei kung fu's great diversity of techniques and its emphasis on balance between external and internal powers.

As the holder of many national titles in China, Grandmaster Chen has already amassed a considerable legacy. Among his students are numerous national and international champions, such as Wang Ping, Pang Ying, Lee Dong-Fong, and Hong Cheng-Gray. Furthermore, many of his students have left China to spread O-Mei kungfu around the world. To name a few, his students include Lu Xiaoling in the United States, Hsu Ho in Italy, Gao Ban in England, and Dan An-Gin in Japan. But his favorite student has got to be the child of his own seed, his son Tony.

An O-Mei Champion - Son Tony Chen
Tony Chen was born three decades ago in Yibin, Sichuan. He began training under his father at the young age of six, and from then on, spent his childhood living and training at kungfu schools. From 1976 to 1992, Chen junior trained his kungfu for six hours a day, seven days a week. His only "holiday" was Chinese New Year, when he was permitted to go home. Early aptitude earned him government sponsorship, so he was groomed for the Sichuan provincial team. Martial artists from all across Sichuan's massive population compete for this position, having to pass level upon level of cuts, until tens of thousands of hopefuls are narrowed down to only six members for Sichuan's A team.

In China, kungfu is far more organized than anywhere else in the world today. To be a professional, you must be trained and certified. Certified people are chosen from only the best and most talented. As Chen remembers, "too fat, too tall, not fast enough - you will be kicked out." Chen studied in Chengdu's Tixiao (physical education school) from age 6 to 16, then made the professional team for two years. He followed this with four more years of study at the Tiyuan (physical education college) to earn his teaching credential. In China, there are two recognized systems, the professional Wushu Teams and the Tiyuan programs. The Wushu Team competes for the honor of the province and the country. After a few fierce years of competing on such a high level, many members will retire from the martial arts. Just like top level athletes in any competitive sport, the prime competitive years are glorious but often short lived. Only the really famous, like the all-around national champions Jet Li or Yuan Wenqing, may teach without a degree within China. But for the rest of Chinese masters today, only a degree from a recognized Tiyuan grants permission to teach professionally.

This extensive training has earned Master Tony Chen great competitive success within China and beyond. In China, he won numerous national championships in the traditional division and was even awarded the coveted title of "Wu Yin," or Martial Hero, in 1991. In 1996, he earned a 4th-degree black belt in wushu sanshou dao and captured both the U.S.A. Kickboxing Champion and International Kung Fu Champion titles in 1997. But Tony's kungfu was not limited to tournament games. Like his father, he taught police combat fighting in China.

Master Tony Chen was the combat instructor for the Police Academy in Shenzhen, Canton, a province known for its traditional kungfu. He remembers the challenge this presented to a traditional O-Mei master. Training was very tough and concentrated on fighting alone. Physical conditioning was taught elsewhere. He could only teach the police cadets the simplest of kungfu forms, ones that were focused exclusively on the fighting techniques, and street fighting applications. The focus was not on punching and kicking, but instead on grappling, wrestling and Chin Na methods to subdue, but not to kill. Chen had to design a new program specifically for street cop scenarios, like how to use a baton over a gun, how to capture a fleeing suspect or how two cops could cooperate to capture a suspect. Chen compares it to "training for fighting in Lei Tai - fighting very clear and short." Even now, he still teaches some enforcement in the USA. Recently, a correctional facility worker/student managed to restrain a violent 200+ lb. prisoner and attributed his success to Master Tony Chen's three-week training program.

Father and Son Bring O-Mei Mountain to America.
In 1998, the Chens established the U.S.A. O-Mei Kung Fu Academy in Oakland, California. Their school offers complete programs that cover all aspects of Chinese martial arts, from Northern and Southern styles to self-defense classes to kickboxing lessons. Joining their staff is Master He Tao, a kungfu brother of Tony Chen, and Master Han Minnan, past coach of the Jilin Wushu Team of China. It also has a tai chi program headed by Master Johnny Jang, the U.S. National Tai Chi Champion from 1987 to 1991. They even offer classes in Chinese.

Teaching in the USA presents its challenges too. Master Tony Chen remembers when he was growing up, everyone on his demo team could do a standing split and touch their lips to their toes. They had all fought long and hard to be part of that demo team, so each member had a deep desire to train harder and be the best. In China, those students were chosen for their potential, but in the USA, you cannot choose your students. They have to choose you. According to young master Chen, "In the USA, you can't use Chinese-style to teach kids. In China, if you're lazy and don't practice hard, Sifu will beat you. Here, you can't. (You) have to make them interested. But we still use traditional Chinese-style to teach kids kungfu." Master Chen enforces strict discipline with a stern code of behavior. To him, it is important to teach philosophy with kungfu. "'Yes sir! No Sir!" Make mistakes - have to do push-ups. Never say 'Can't.' Listen to teachers and parents. (This is) said after each practice. In China, all the kids practice by themselves. Sifu just watches and pushes. But here, (we) have to really keep our eyes on the kids. (It takes) a lot of patience."

But that diligence is paying off. All of their students began with nothing except the training from their O-Mei school. Many are showing results after only one or two years of training. After less than five years of operation, the school's kungfu team has already won numerous state and national championships. Three of their kids have already captured grand champion titles, one at the recent U.C. Berkeley tournament and two at the last Lily Lau Eagle Cup. And each of those kids has had less than two years of training. They also have very strong lion dance and dragon dance troupes, which are a large part of the O-Mei tradition.

In the caring hands of Chen senior and junior, the precious treasure of O-Mei kungfu has finally come westward. Before only those who really knew their kungfu culture had heard of O-Mei. But now, this is changing. Despite O-Mei's relative obscurity in the American martial world, Master Tony Chen has had little problem spreading the teachings. "After the people just watch, they see," reports young master Chen with aplomb. "A lot of people say 'Oh, you guys are great!' In a tournament, we win." It is a step by step journey to bring the pride of his culture out of an ancient mystic mountain and into the world. And the Chen's Oakland O-Mei Academy is just the beginning. Soon, Chen hopes to open another school in the San Francisco Bay Area. But his vision is even greater. Young Chen confides that he wants to build an Emei Temple here in the United States. In the Silicon Valley where rent is astronomical, such a venture is against the odds. But Chen is confident about securing a space soon. "Not too long, I don't think so. When you push yourself very hard, it won't take too long."

Baji Quan Applications with Chen Jian and Tony Chen
Grand Master Chen Jian and Master Tony Chen were very fortunate to have learned Baji Quan from Master Wong Su-Tan at the Cheng Du Institute of Physical Education. Baji Quan, or Eight Extremities Fist, is one of the most popular traditional kung fu systems in northern China. It is believed to have originated more than 500 years ago in the city of Chong Chow. The first historical account of the Baji system dates back to the Ming Dynasty, but it was not until the Ching Dynasty that detailed documentation of the system was found. No one knows who the founder of Baji Quan is, but the earliest known records have indicated the usage of the system by a traveling monk in Meng Village located in the Hebei Province.

Based on the movements of the bear and tiger, Baji Quan is most famous for its powerful, yet simple, combat techniques. The three basic elements of the Baji system are the grounding, crossing, and coiling techniques. The grounding technique emphasizes rotation for balance. One exercise of this technique is the bear posture; by keeping the center of gravity low, one is most stable in terms of defense. The crossing technique sets the body to expand; it emphasizes the use of deflection to gain strength and power. The coiling technique is most effective for deceptive attacks against opponents of all sizes; it allows the practitioner to use the assailant's power to his/her advantage. The power from this technique is derived from reeling movements similar to those of tai chi.

Baji Quan is extremely effective in close-range combat. It contains a lot of elbow and fist strikes, and its movements are quick and explosive. Since the Baji system is strictly for combat, it has been practiced by bodyguards in many parts of China. Historically, it was incorporated into the Ching Dynasty's imperial bodyguard training and used in Chairman Mao Ze-Dong's secret service. Currently, it is implemented in Taiwan's military police training.

The counterpart of Baji Quan is the Piqua Zhang, or Splitting and Deflecting Palm. While the movements of Baji Quan are short and linear, the movements of Piqua Zhang are circular and far reaching. Thus, the Piqua system is most effective for reaching out to opponents. Derived from the movements of the snake and eagle, Piqua Zhang is a relatively soft system compared to the hardness found in Baji Quan. Even though Baji and Piqua are two independent styles, it is best to practice both because they can complement each other by enhancing the yin and yang within each style.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2000 .

Written by Gene Ching, with assistance by Dr. Johnny Jang for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM

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