Street Fighting Man

By Gene Ching

Nowadays, Master He Tao is often clad in the latest JC Collection apparel. That's JC as in Jackie Chan. Unbeknownst to most Americans, Jackie Chan is a fashion designer with a signature line of men's wear that's very popular in Asia. Lately, Master He has been promoting Jackie's lesser known talents in America, like singing and clothing. Last year, He hosted the American audition for Jackie Chan's Disciple, a reality competition where Jackie chose Jack Tu as his disciple. And last June, He helped Jackie, Jack and the six other disciple finalists promote a free concert in Los Angeles. As a thank you, Jackie filled He's closet with the entire JC Collection. Nevertheless, Master He might be cajoled to strip off his JC finery to show off his tattoos. But he'll only do so around other men because his biggest tat requires dropping his trousers.

Master He Tao (何濤 - his last name is written He in pinyin, but pronounced like 'huh') has two tattoos, both of which cover battle scars. He has a sun-moon symbol near his armpit and a woman riding a black tiger on his buttock. The black tiger is quite large and hides a ten-stitch wound. "They had to use black to cover it," says He with a grimace. He has a few more scars behind his knee and on his arm that remain uncovered.

Those scars came from a knife fight He survived when he was a sanshou coach in Dongguan City, China. At that time, Dongguan was at the forefront of foreign exchange for China, making it the richest city in the Guangdong province. Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Dongguan hoping to cash in on its newfound affluence. The money drew darker elements, and the crime level rose too. Master He was taking a bus to class, carrying a duffle bag of sparring equipment. Suddenly, an old woman on the bus shouted, "My wallet was stolen!" As she grabbed the perp, He saw him covertly pass something to an accomplice. He nabbed the accomplice; unfortunately, there were four thieves in cahoots. He learned that the hard way. The other two jumped He, attacking him from behind. He broke free and retreated to the front of the bus, yelling at the driver to go to the Public Security Bureau immediately. The thieves drew knives and attacked. He used his gear bag to block the blades, but the tight aisles of a moving bus presented a considerable obstacle. He was stabbed several times. His gear was cut to shreds. When the thieves saw an opening, they jumped off the bus and fled.

The bus driver took He to a first aid station to get stitched up. That night, not wanting to upset his wife, he hid his bloodstained clothes and slept in the far corner of their bed. He made sure not to show any signs of pain. The next day, Master He had to supervise a prestigious inauguration ceremony for a new city square. Hundreds of lions from every precinct of the city would be there. As a martial arts master, he couldn't bow out of the ceremony without losing face, especially due to a knife fight. It was not a time for He to show weakness. "It was not the ideal place for a fight to happen on a bus," reflected He. "The space was too cramped. Even a hero is useless in this kind of situation. Among the 36 Strategies, running away is often the best one."

The Time is Right for a Palace Revolution
Getting knifed was just part of growing up for Master He, who endured many street fights. He's childhood was during an extremely lawless period in China's recent history, the wake of the Cultural Revolution. His hometown was Yunyang, a remote municipality of Chongqing city ( formerly written in English as Chungking) in Sichuan Province. Located near the Three Gorges Dam, much of Yunyang is submerged now. Yunyang was a poor mountainous region, a backwater of China, and most of it populace has since been relocated.

He's father was a military man. During the social upheaval, his dad was transferred to Yunyang to man a post at the Yunyang Physical Culture and Sports Commission. Unfortunately, He's father found himself on the wrong side of the Cultural Revolution on several occasions. Master He remembers wetting his pants as a young boy while watching in horror as his father was dragged through the street for a public humiliation. At age five, He also remembers having to flee Yunyang with his family disguised as lowly peasants. Dressed in rags, they escaped on bare feet, to go into hiding in the dense metropolis of Chongqing.

Those traumatic childhood experiences made He want to learn how to fight at a very early age. He wanted to study martial arts. As fate would have it, an old friend of his father's was banished to an isolated middle school in Gaoyang, a tiny farming village in Yunyang. That friend was one of the leading masters of the time, Grandmaster Liang Shouyu. Every day, He would accompany Liang's daughter Helen, walking her several miles to the Yunyang Normal School playground to practice. He remembers those years as bittersweet. "We were in small town. The people were pretty mean - not nice to each other - fight lots of time. That's why I practice martial arts, so I can defend myself and protect my family. My whole family almost died. A lot of people died. If you (are) weak, people just take you down. That's why Shouyu Liang taught me a lot of techniques: grappling, punch newspapers, kick tree - a lot of stuff." Eventually, He dedicated his life to his master's teachings by bowing down to become Grandmaster Liang's disciple.

The discipline paid off. In his teen years, He won second place at his first tournament, the 1978 Sichuan Province Wushu Competition. The win was for broadsword in the junior's class, and for He, it validated all the hard training under Liang's meticulous tutelage. The early victory also sealed He's passion for the martial arts. He began to compete regularly in a constant effort to improve his results and his skills.

The streets kept his edge sharp too. He remembers getting in a fight just before the Provincial Wushu Games. When he was seventeen, He snuck out to grab a late night snack at a local hot pot shop where he encountered three older drunk men harassing the waitress. He stood up for her. In hopes of intimidating them, He told them he was training for the wushu competition. But the plan backfired. The troublemakers said they wanted to beat anyone doing wushu. By then, modern wushu was well on its way to dominance in China. As a competitive sport, it is spectacular, but any street fighter could tell that it lacked combat effectiveness. China was no exception.

A fight broke out. One rushed him but He kicked him into a table, almost spilling the hot pot of oil on him. His buddy broke a beer bottle and came at He while the third guy ran into the kitchen to get a knife. He picked up a tall stool and struck the guy with the bottle on the head, knocking him out. Immediately, He worried that he might have killed him and that he would go to jail for murder. The knife-wielding attacker came at him, but He swung the chair violently to cover his escape until the police arrived. He snuck back home.

The next day, the police chief paid a visit to Liang's training session. He thought he was done for and stepped forward to receive his punishment. Instead, the police chief praised his actions and commended him for doing what was right.

What Can a Poor Boy Do?
He trained directly under Liang for over a decade. His competition success earned him acceptance as a student of the wushu department of the Chengdu Physical Culture Institute. There He began studying under two noted masters, Professor Xi Yuntai and Grandmaster Chen Jian. Although he was being groomed for wushu taolu (forms套路), Xi and Chen were both "old school" kung fu masters. Beyond the modern sport, their curriculum encompassed internal and external, as well as traditional northern and southern routines. He's foundation in Grandmaster Liang's traditional kung fu proved worthwhile. He quickly earned the position of wushu team captain and was soon winning first place at national level competitions.

In 1988, the Institute launched a sanshou program in response to the growing interest in the new sport. Sanshou had been officially established as a national sport a decade before, and although still in its infancy, it was being developed steadily in martial arts schools across the nation. After the Cultural Revolution, fight sports were discouraged. "For many years, the government didn't want the people to do sparring, only do the forms," states He. "They wanted it to be at peace... They just put martial arts like sports - you can do the form, but no fight. Tai chi push hands, you do wushu or kung fu, [but] no sparring, no fight." But no martial artist goes unchallenged forever. According to He, when China became more open in the early '80s, foreign fighters came knocking. China, with one of the world's longest and most glorious martial legacies, now had to answer to fighters from Korea, Japan and Thailand. "They go different city [and say] 'I want beat all Chinese professional team.' They go to Hunan, go to Beijing, went to Shanghai. Each team just knock out everybody. Only one team's good - it's army. The army had a team too. The army had some people from Shaolin area - bring some people to join the army to fight." China had fallen way behind in combative sports, and sanshou was their shot at redemption. The first official national competition was held in 1989, and it's now part of the World Wushu Games.

Eager to fight and much to the dismay of his taolu coaches, He tried out for the sanshou team. His traditional foundation helped him land a position quickly. As fate would have it, Professor Xi Yuntai was one of the pioneers of modern sanshou. Xi analyzed fighting tactics in boxing, karate, muay thai and tae kwon do, comparing them to the many diverse folk styles of traditional kung fu. The complex fist techniques of kung fu weren't working with padded gloves, but takedowns were still viable as a safe way to exhibit sparring skills. This led to sanshou's emphasis on takedowns.

The Chengdu team also benefitted from military influences. "Some people from the army to join the Chengdu sports team - champions in China - very good, not a sport. The army had a lot fight techniques." Despite the drift towards wushu as a performance sport, the military and police kept their fighting skills well honed. In China, many law enforcement branches did not have ready access to firearms like in America, so martial arts skills were crucial. He said his years with military fighters were absolutely brutal. "Sometimes, roundhouse kick, kick 500 times. I couldn't walk. They choose ten people, each one, fight with one minute. Each one! Round turn. Tired? Can't move? You get hurt. They still fight you. Training your stamina. That's why, in that time, Chengdu Sports College, their sanshou is top in China."

Under Xi's tutelage, He graduated with a thesis titled "Practical Sanshou Quick Throw Methods." He claims there are more than a hundred takedown methods in traditional Chinese kung fu. In his research, he deleted many of the more impractical techniques and distilled what remained into three fundamental methods which he felt were the most efficient. The first two were reactions to either a high or low attack. These were "quick throws against fist strikes or weapons" and "quick throws against kicks." The third method was "quick throws for sanshou." He presented the paper in 1989 and it earned the Physical Culture Institute National Outstanding Thesis award. It was reprinted in Wulin, China's largest martial arts magazine (with arguably the most readers in the world given China's massive martial population). It drew an overwhelming response.

The Time is Right for Fighting in the Street
Today in America, we seldom hear of challenges any more. For hardcore fighters, there are ample condoned arenas to test skills, from point sparring to MMA. But most strip mall schools are more like daycare centers now. With the influx of mainland Chinese immigrants, modern wushu has spread like wildfire, especially since it's easy to teach to young children. In fact, once practitioners get past their thirties, it's extremely difficult to learn modern wushu.

Within traditional kung fu circles, there is a prevailing belief that modern wushu emasculated kung fu throughout China and that there's no real kung fu left there. But He begs to differ. He says martial masters of his generation were often harassed in China, forcing them to keep their fighting edge sharp.

"In our hometown, people see, 'Oh! You're teaching kung fu?' Lots of people, they will challenge you. They just challenge you. They say, 'Oh, you are kung fu?' They say, 'My sifu is good. Ok. Do you want to fight with my sifu? Or somebody who's good?' Every week. Even [when] I was a kid, I practiced martial arts, practice kung fu, wushu, cars they stop. We have [to] walk a few miles, just one or two miles, walk to home. People say, 'Oh, you carry the martial arts weapons?' They are going to challenge you, you see. 'Hello! Ah! You learn martial arts? Come on! Fight!' They really like this [laughs] - sparring and fight!"

Despite that, He admits there are plenty of wushu champions who can't fight at all. "They'd get challenged and say, 'I don't know how to fight. Sorry.' They'd just say, 'Okay.' I don't know. A lot of people, of course, they don't know, even champions in China. Some people would say, 'But you're a champion.' And they'd say, 'Sorry, I only do forms. I don't know how to fight.'"

Today, when not working with Jackie Chan's group, He runs a modest suburban kung fu school. "Here, in my school, I teach them the form for training, to get more strong, more power. Also I teach techniques. That's why some students come and say, 'I tried wushu school. They say 'relax' and be beautiful. I want my son to learn some real kung fu, at least have a strong punch and strong kick.' If martial arts is kung fu, I think it should be more traditional. Each must have real techniques. They grow up with techniques. They put it together. They just make a form. Most traditional forms are like that. If you practice more traditional forms, from Master Liang or different traditional form, you can see there are techniques inside the form. Most techniques, you really can see. But the wushu form, it's fine. Some people really like it, just like art. That's no problem."

"Sometimes I joke with my students. Next to my school is a Chinese performance dance school. I tell them you can go to the dance school to learn dance. [laughs] That's why all the kids, even their punch, have to flex a lot [so] each punch have power. That's why I training instructor first, training techniques. Each other week, we open sparring - one week, training more form, other week, sparring - for everybody. Adults really like it. Some people are very bad. How can they do wushu forms? They just want to learn a little real kung fu. Real kung fu. Real techniques."

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November/December 2009 issue

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2009 .

About Gene Ching :
Master He Tao can be contacted at his school, the USA Wu Chi Kungfu Academy, 40924 Fremont Blvd, Fremont, CA (see Grandmaster Liang Shouyu was featured on the cover of our October 2000 issue. His daughter, Helen Liang, was the cover master on our July/August 2003 issue, and they were featured on the cover together on our May/June 2007 issue. Grandmaster Chen Jian was featured on the cover of our September 2000 issue.

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