The Muslim Master of the Old Empire
An interview with Grandmaster Ma Xianda

By Gigi Oh, with Gene Ching

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Author's note:
This is the complete interview. The article that appeared in the magazine was a shortened version, but it included the Chinese characters and additional informational sidebars.

Ma Xianda "In an effort to standardize Chinese martial arts, the People's Republic of China (PRC) established a national ranking system for masters, the Duan system. Officially commencing in 1997, there are nine levels of Duan. Currently, only four living masters have been recognized as the highest level, Ninth Duan. The youngest of which is Grandmaster Ma Xianda of Xian, China's old capital.

The most recent testimony of Ma's expertise that Americans might recognize is his student, Gao Xian, who played a major supporting role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But Master Gao is only one of Grandmaster Ma's remarkable legacy. More than twenty of Ma's close students have earned the coveted title of Wu Yin or "martial hero," a title conferred on athletes who have repeatedly placed in the top three positions in national competition.) Ma's own sons, Ma Yue and Ma Lun, are national champions and noted masters as well. Ma Xianda comments that Ma Yue got a lot of spankings when he started at age five, but actually he was "pretty good." At age 11, Ma Yue won the Xian city and Shaanxi province all round championships and beat renowned International Wushu champ Zhao Changjun. In 1983, he won a four "gold award", placing first in fanzi, pigua, short weapon and straight sword. Ma Lun captured the National Sanda (free sparring) Championship when he was 17. Now he is a respect coach and international certified referee of Sanda. And of the six Sanda Wang (free sparring kings) that now reign in China, two trained under Ma Lun. Beyond his kin, Ma also coached the aforementioned champion Zhao Changjun for a while and even taught Jet Li what would become one of Jet's favorite forms, Fanziquan.

Ma was born in 1932 to a Muslim family who trace their martial arts roots back six generations. Since 9/11, Muslims have been so profiled, but it's easy to forget that there are many types of Muslims today. Chinese Muslims, or Hui, represent the largest minority of the largest population in the world and have as much connection with. Bin Laden as Christians have with Hitler. Originally from Hebei, Ma learned from his father Ma Fengtu and uncle Ma Yintu, both noted masters in their own right. Ma Fengtu was a general under famed warlord Feng Yuxiang. Ma Yingtu also produced Zhang Wenguang, another ninth Duan holder. Ma Xianda learned many traditional Wushu forms including Tongbei Pigua, Kaimen Baji, Ba Shan Fen, and Cuo Jiao and also studied western boxing, wrestling and fencing. In fact, Ma was one of the very first Chinese to study western martial sports.

In 1952, the first martial arts championship was held after the founding of the PRC in 1949. Ma captured the Lei Tai championship, a free fighting event where fighters knock each other off an elevated platform, defeating Tongbi master Deng Hongzhao and Cuo Jiao master Li Xuewen. He also took the Short Weapon Fighting Champion and the Wushu Performance Grand Champion. He won all this at the young of 19. The following year, Ma won the Huabei Short Weapon Tournament. This included competitors from Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia. Ma won every single bout.

Ma went on to dedicate his life to the martial arts. After graduating from Hebei Teachers? College, he took a position at the Xian Physical Education College to teach Wushu, Boxing and fencing. He became a full professor there and taught for 30 years. Ma estimates that he has taught nearly 10,000 students, both Chinese and non-Chinese over his expansive career, including many national coaches and champions. Ma authored many books and papers on Wushu, including editing the Zhongguo Wushu Da Cidian (Chinese Wushu Encyclopedia) and earned many illustrious titles over his long career. Probably the most illustrious came in 1995 when he was recognized as one of China's Top Ten Professors of Chinese Martial Arts.

In 1998, Ma was recognized as a Ninth Duan holder. In May of 2002, Ma celebrated his 70th birthday and Kungfu Qigong Publisher Gigi Oh caught up with him for an exclusive interview. As an outspoken authority on Chinese martial arts, we are pleased to be able to bring you the first interview with Ma Xianda in English.

On the Development of Chinese Martial Arts
If we use Chinese communist jargon "I am a lao bing (old soldier.)" My whole life has been devoted to the martial arts. I am a professional martial artist. Wushu has been developing since 1949. Indeed, our government has devoted itself to making many improvements but some of those improvements have a degree of flaw. Just like our Chinese old saying "Even if you have a good heart, you don't get best reward" we don't see a good effect. I can even go so far to say that there is a certain degree of damage to our ancient cultural inheritance. This is due to some misguidance of government policy. For instance, in 1949 we had a policy of wa shang ding (literally translates as "a three-legged wine cup from the Shang Dynasty" but it was used as a catch phrase meaning "dig out the ancient treasures.") That was good until 1955, when the whole policy changed 180 degrees. The government revoked what they were doing and pressed down Wushu, especially the old, traditional, good part of Wushu. That was for a long time. Also they were trying to promote modern Wushu, not the old traditional good stuff."

For example, take China's historic hero, General Qi Jiguang. Historically, his position should be higher than the legendary Yue Fei. Yue Fei fought against the people of the Jin minority. Qi Jiguang fought against the Japanese pirates. He led his troop of 7000 soldiers to defend the Zhejiang coast for 10 years and he totally destroyed the Japanese pirates there. Even many Japanese respect him because they know he was a great general. He was also a promoter and teacher of Chinese Wushu. In his famous 14 chapter book, Ji Shou Ching Hua, he devoted 4 chapters to Wushu. Chi Jiguang was very opposed to flowery Wushu, only pretty or elegant for show for an audience. It's like a beautiful mansion that is empty inside. The Wushu that Qi Jiguang wants to promote is real ability and combat fighting. Surely this is the central core of Wushu. But it is not complete Wushu. Wushu still needs longevity, health and mind cultivation to make it complete. But never forget, the central core is ji (strike.) You must have real combat fighting ability, definitely not a "flowery blooming, only for watching" Wushu.

Following 1949, we have been following in the path of flowery type of Wushu and that caused a lot of damage to Wushu. If you strike or kick, they call you weiji (only want to fight.) Not long ago, Zhongguo Wushu magazine interviewed me and I revealed two hats -one is weiji, the other is fugu (recover ancient.) I think the general public misunderstood me. I am definitely not weiji. I objectively look at Wushu as a whole. Even Taijiquan has an aspect of ji. As soon as you start, you have the "hands holding a ball" posture and that can be used to strike. They all have ji.?

After 1949, the government invested a lot of money to promote Wushu. The communists actually put in more money than the Republic of China (ROC.) Chiang Kai Shek set up the Zhong Yang Guoshuguan (Central Guoshu Institute) and appointed General Zhang Zijiang as the director. The Board of Directors included noted martial leaders such as Lin Sen, Chiang Kai Shek, Sun Ke (a relative of Sun Yat Sen,) Dai Chuan Xian and others. They placed it under Department of Education and also established the Guoli Guoshu Tiyu Zhuanke Xuexiao (Guoshu Physical Education Academy.) Every province established its own guoshuguan (martial arts training hall) under the direction of the governor of that province. The Vice Director was actually the administrator and did all the work. This frame is huge. Big hats, no money. Titles without pay. A lot of good stuff was done during the General Zhang Zijiang, because they tried to combine Wushu with western physical education. Wushu can?t be stuck in the nan bing qi (cold weapon) period, that?s too obsolete, so you have to combine it with physical education. The special character of Wushu is still gong (offense,) fang (defense) and jinen (combat ability.) Wushu and physical education has the same quality. That is culture. We can use Wushu's three special characters combined with western-developed system. That is a very good thing that General Zhang Zijiang did. He also got rid of some of the weeds of Chinese Wushu. Wuhua was not all good. It still had some bad parts.

When the Cultural Revolution hit, it got even worse. They pulled out the essence ? the fighting combat. They only left the empty frame. And they still say they are promoting San Shou, Short Weapon and Long Weapon. If you say Wushu has ji, then you are the guilty party and you will be pi pan (publicly humiliated). I cannot say I?m a warrior fighter, but all along I insist on the core part of Wushu. That is the base of Chinese Wushu.?

The Gang of Four corrupted everything, then Deng Xiaopeng came up and the Open Door Policy. A lot of frames were opened. Wushu was suddenly alive again. Sanda came up. Now we can talk about da. Also, the folk martial artists came out and ordinary people could practice Wushu. This is good. However, the policy of the governing body is not quite right. This is why we didn't get our expected result.

In the early 70's, I was training the first Wushu group going to the United States, but because I was not a communist and my background was not very good, I couldn't go. Nonetheless, I did all the ground work and wrote all the explanations. I wrote all the literature and terminology. I couldn't explain Wushu so I just translated it phonetically. After the U.S.A. trip, many American magazines described Wushu as traditional Chinese ballet - very pretty like a butterfly. But this was because they could only see the outside. They could not see the offence and defense capability.

On Kungfu, Guoshu and Guoshu
Ma_Xianda During the ROC (founded 1911,) and even today in Taiwan, it's called Guoshu (literally "national art.") They have their own reason for doing so. My father gave it the name Guoshu. He was the martial brother of Zhang Zijiang. At that time, Chinese painting was called guohua (national painting,) language was called guoyu (national language) and Chinese medicine was called guoyi (national medicine.) Naturally, Chinese Wushu was called Guoshu. And at that time, in Shandong, Hebei and Henan, the folk people called it bashiye (respect.) During the Qing (1644-1911) and Ming (1368-1644) Dynasties called it wuyi (martial skill.) The Qin (221-206 BCE) and Han (206 BCE-220 CE) Dynasties called it shoubo (hand fighting.) The Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) called it bian (whip.) Mabian (literally "bridal reign") were the bodyguards. The bian was also a weapon used to hit people. After 1949, they called it Wushu to distinguish it from the ROC term. Overseas people called it Kungfu, but I don't think this is correct because drinking tea has Kungfu. Kungfu is the degree of your achievement. Kungfu contains time and degree or level. If you use modern language, you can say it is your level of achievement.

On Olympic Wushu
In China, Sanda Wang is very hot because of media attention and the commercial packaging. On the contrary, taolu (forms competition) is standardized. It is more like dancing, so even the higher level national tournaments, there are not many spectators. Nobody likes to see 100 people doing the same thing. Even if Wushu Taolu went into the Olympics, it is not necessary a given that people will want to watch it. Not every category of the Olympics has an audience. If Wushu does not go into the Olympics, then all kinds of Chinese martial arts will bloom at the same time. But if it gets into the Olympics, and the government only pushes those little categories, other categories will die down. They will only feed that small group of professionals to represent the entire Chinese culture, over 1.2 billion people. This is the general feeling of Wushu societies.

It's all the result of some officials. They want to show that they accomplished something. They want to leave some legacy. If Wushu turns into a sport, then it will not really be an ancient Chinese treasure anymore. Thai boxing cannot get into the Olympics, but people still watch it. Olympic boxing and basketball does not have as big a following as pro boxing and pro basketball. Soccer has a big audience but it still not Olympic.

On Sanda
The modern wuxia (literally "martial knight", a genre of martial fiction) books with flying and such are not real Wushu. Those movies are actually preventing the Wushu healthy development because they are so exaggerated. You cannot put Wushu into a fairytale. You must bring their scientific side out. It must be based on science. Critics shouldn't press down Wushu with comments like Chinese sanda can not fight against Thai fighters. Wushu is something you can train and practice, but it also has combat. If we cannot compete against Thai boxing, it is because the method was not right. Nowadays, those Wushu professionals learn for four years in college. That's too short to learn Wushu in depth.

For example, in 1999, there was a fight in Hawaii (China vs. U.S.A. Art of War) where my son was a referee. It was not so good. I criticized our sanda in front of the top leaders. Our sanda looked like yin yang ren (yin and yang mixed up in one body) because the sanda technique there did not contain Wushu. It only had some western boxing, and even the boxing was not that good. I was one of the first Chinese to train boxing under a western expert and I was a world champion. The kicks didn't look like Chinese kicks. Chinese martial arts have beautiful kicks but nobody there could do them. It's just like wearing traditional Chinese attire with a western mustache. You look "in between." You can't tell the difference between a sanda strike, Korean, Thai, or Japanese.

I was the first sanda champion in 1952. I was only 19. They only had three divisions - lightweight 54 kilos, middleweight 54- 80 kilos, heavyweight 80+ kilos. I was a middleweight. In that time, Shaolin, Wudang, Xingyi, Bagua, everyone came out to fight. But you could tell which system they belong too. Now in sanda, you cannot tell. No character. Even in boxing, you can tell the different styles, British from American. Now no one takes the time to learn basic Wushu. The problem is that basic Wushu training is too weak. Nobody bothers to study what is Chinese sanda or what is Wushu.

In the future for sanda, we should put more Chinese martial arts in it. Actually over the last 100 years, Chinese martial arts were only talked about on paper because you couldn't physically fight. Now we can fight again. That is good. However recently, some Chinese media have exaggerated saying Wushu is so good that they beat up Russian fighters. But the Russian was not a boxer, he was a weight lifter. Chinese people like to boast because we have this national pride. The reason for this is that we were so weak for the last 50 years. The British and Japanese came in and took our land away. Our spirit was weak and our countries physical might was weak. So we exaggerate the result of any little something because we want to overcompensate. Now we really should use the scientific method on our Wushu. If you say you have some extreme secret technique, you should examine it scientifically and find out how it works. You cannot just have it in the mouth or on the paper. That's not going to the real. What is the experimental lab of Wushu? That is the tournament or the battlefield.

On Taiji
I like to joke about Taiji players. You guys said Chen Taiji founder Chen Wanting dreamed that he was learning Taiji from the mythical Taoist warrior Zhen Wu and with it, one person killed 100 enemies. You use this legend and you believe this. That's also a joke. This is the non-scientific side of Wushu. This, plus the long period of time when we could not fight, weakens our Wushu. So now, Wushu has to be scientifically proven. It is a culture. It is knowledge. That knowledge has to be tested. If it can not be tested, it's not real Wushu.

In the 60's, people brought Taiji to Japan and now you see Taiji associations all over in Japan. In 1985, I did a seminar in Osaka and I told them it shouldn't be called a Taiji association, it should be a Wushu Taiji association. It's a mother and son-like relationship. Back then, they even put Shaolin in Taiji. But now Japanese have changed. They call it a Wushu Taiji association.

On Short Weapons Sparring
The history of short weapons in China has been up and down many times. In 1949, it had good momentum for development. Then it was bad during the Cultural Revolution (1967.) It opened up for a couple years after, but then it folded again. I fully believe that we have to train the basics first, including fist fighting. If you don't do that, it's just like sanshou ? no training and you just go to fight. We should know what the roots are. Sanshou should be a category of Wushu. Short weapon, Taiji, they are all only single categories of Wushu. Wushu is big umbrella. Nowadays people who say sanshou is sanshou and Wushu is Wushu, that's wrong.

After the common folk started competing (in short weapon sparring,) the Beijing governing body decided to regulate it. They figured that common folk were going to do it anyway, so the government should promote this event. So I have been assisting in the development short weapon sparring. The rules have been established. The details of this method are being developed. Now there is standard protective gear designed just for short weapon sparring. Everything is now regulated. I am designing a weapon to be trademarked. It's around 400 grams and between 1 to 1.1 meters long, depending on whether the user is male or female.

The history of jian (straight sword) goes back to the Spring Autumn (770-476 CE) and Warring States (476-221 CE.) The historic warrior Zhou Wen Wang killed 300 people by sword. Sword practice always cased fatalities, so this slowed down its development. Not as many practiced it. How can we improve upon short weapon practice so people are not injured, yet still can show their technique? This is the direction we should go. Today Wushu is still cultivated for health, so this is our first priority.

In 1928, we had the Zhong Yang Guoshuguan headed by General Zhang Zijiang. Under him, my father and my uncle tried to develop short and long weapon. That time also he established guoshu tiyu zhuanke xuexiao (physical institute). The student's standard of quality was very high. They combined Chinese martial arts and sports together, producing many influential students. That influenced practice all the way to Indonesia and Singapore. Even today, the people in the Philippines still call it guoshu not Wushu. They also started long weapon, short weapon and sanshou.

In the United States, there is no real short weapon competition as of yet, only two-man sets. In China, we have already started a short weapon competition and the long weapon is coming up soon. I have heard that in Canada and Japan, long weapon fighting already exists at tournaments.

On the Wushu Culture of China
Americans are very strong because their science and weapons are very strong. China was very strong in the past. Emperor Qin Shihuangdi built the Great Wall. We also have a living great wall, and that is Wushu. If we didn't have this cold weapon of Wushu essence, we would have been conquered long ago. But China keeps coming back. In 1930, my father (also my teacher) wrote a paper titled Wuhua wei wenhua zimu (martial culture is the mother of Chinese culture.) After 1949, Mao Zedong asked "Do we have wuhua or wenhua first? Martial culture or scholar culture?" My father was about the same period as Mao, just five years older. I never tried to discuss this paper because Mao is a leader saint and my father was just a common person. A common person cannot have the same opinion as a saint. But those two old men had their own reasons. That is they both agree. If you don't have wu culture, how can you have wen culture? Of course, they both have a little degree of error. In the ancient times, the human fights with a tiger or leopard for survival, either to protect themselves or get food. This is their survival skill. You cannot call that wu culture. Common people survive by cultivating the land. This is really not wu culture either because they are just trying to survive. Later when they add weapons, wuge (dagger axe) and wuji ("methodical" strike) then you kill the tiger with real productive technique. That contains a part of human culture. That is wuhua.

Chinese Wushu is the essence of Chinese culture. Why is this important part disappearing? In Song dynasty, they established lixue (everything is reason) and zhong wen, qing wu (heavy wen, light wu - author's note, Ma includes science in wu.) If you know how to write baguwen (an eight-level formal paper format) you will pass the test and be a lower officer. That's why our science is backward too. You don't need to think. You just follow the mold ? the frame. Even though we boast about ourselves, recalling that Chinese discovered paper, gunpowder, and the compass, but we haven't done anything in between. What's so good about it? Our gunpowder couldn't even fight off the British. We threw our science away. How could we defend against the Japanese and British people? Wushu also has the same problem. During this whole period, we started to disappear, to shrink. Our Chinese spirit is dying because Wushu is a part of our spirit. Even though we have 5000 years culture and we used to be magnificent, not any more. This is because of the Song dynasty.

Chinese Wushu should have Chinese flavor from the outside package. In the old days, we know the general all wear flags on their back. Thai boxers have a Thai prayer and dance when they come out to fight. Everyone respects that. Even in the old days, when the folk people came out to do marital arts, they bowed first. Then they would say "jian shou" ("laugh at me" - a humble gesture to say "my skill not good, don't laugh.") But under Mao, we threw these old traditions way. He even humiliated Confucius. We should recover all those old traditions. Thailand, Korea, Japan and a lot other Asian cultures were all influenced by Chinese culture. Those little brothers try very hard to save what part they have. But this big brother just threw out whatever we had. After 1949, we did have a lot of improvements in some areas. But in other areas, we destroyed a lot of traditional Chinese culture. They wanted only one theory - Mao's theory. Is Mao's theory good? Indeed, he has some good parts. I enjoy reading Mao, especially his battlefield tactics. But you cannot squeeze others out and only promote one. Mao promoted baihua qifang ("100 flowers blossom simultaneously" used as a catch phrase meaning "support all the systems.") Treat the country folks fairly from the bottom of your heart. In that way, you can save all those traditional martial arts. If China is trying to return to its former glory, then we must have the right direction. Without this we will not reach the goal. We are improving, since few people are starving anymore.

On Integrity
Just recently I went to the 90th birthday celebration for a master. In my speech, I congratulated him for teaching successfully since his students respect him deeply and gave him such a big birthday party. He must have told them how to respect the elderly and zunn shi zhong dao (respect teachers and philosophy.) Nowadays the society's ethics are corrupt. All Chinese society, including Taiwan, has this problem. The old common laborer doesn't have high social class but he has good students. And his students have a lot of de (integrity.) They learned martial arts from their teacher and are now successful, so they gave their teacher such a big birthday party. That's proof that the teacher is successful.


Jiang Zemin said you have to use de as policy to guide the country. Chiang Kai Shek also promoted de. At the time we had siwei bagang (4 virtues, 8 guidelines) li (courtesy,) yi(civility,) lien(honesty,) chi(ethics,) followed by chong (patriotism,) xiao (filial piety,) ren (benevolence,) ai (compassion,) xin (trustworthiness,) yi(grace,) ho (righteousness) and pin (harmony.) That is de. We Chinese all saw those posters all of the time, but now we don't even know what is li and what is yi, so how can we talk about de? The first thing we need to learn is xiao, then chong. We have to respect our parents first. Nowadays, a lot of people don't even know how to respect their own parents, so how can you show you have de? De is what we really have to emphasize. De includes include wude (martial ethics.) Wude is not just empty, not just a name. You must have wude. Only then you can have wucai (martial ability.) Only then you can show your martial arts ability.

In the Three Kingdoms period (220-265,) we all know Lord Guan, Zhang Fei and Liu Bei. All three heroes together could not defeat Lu Bu. You can find temples to Guan, Zhang and Liu but none to Lu Bu - why? Lu Bu was the better warrior. It's because Lu Bu does not have any de. He killed his stepfather for a woman. He had three step fathers and he killed them all. That's why Luo Guanzhong wrote the novel Three Kingdoms - the first person he disgraced was Lu Bu. So de and cai must be combined.

For all Martial Society, including American Martial Society, the question is: How do we establish a higher standard of wude? How are we going to cultivate and promote this? If wude is strong and everyone follows up on it, the whole society can be strong bringing everything to a higher level. I hope that your magazine can bear that. Show all the lovers of martial arts what is wude."

Grandmaster Ma's new book on Chinese Short Weapons is just about to be published. He plans to follow it with books on Baji, Ma Jia Fanzi, Ma Jia Pigua and Chinese Long Weapons.

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Written by Gigi Oh, with Gene Ching for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM

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