This Ain't No Flower Boxing: Traditional kung fu in flower town
In the hills of Sansheng Xiang "Flower Town," the morning fog is showing no signs of lifting. It's hot and humid, but kung fu master Li Quan is putting his class of young students through their daily movements at the Kung Fu Family martial arts school.
Throughout the sweltering summer months, the students live at the school, and, for the most part, they take care of themselves, doing the washing and cleaning after their physical training each morning. "We look at them as adults. Here, they're not children," remarks Li, an unmistakable hint of pride in his voice.
Indeed, the Kung Fu Family lives up to its name, welcoming everybody who wants to practice, including a number of foreign students Li has trained over the years in the hopes of spreading and preserving the kung fu practice and traditions. Masters and students alike wear T-shirts emblazoned with the Kung Fu Family logo and plain shorts; there are no fancy uniforms here.
But that's not to say expectations are low. The remoteness of the school—a 20-minute uphill walk from the main road, which is already a nearly hour-long bus ride from the city—underscores the dedication kung fu demands. "If you're not willing to come out here, then you're not serious about kung fu," Li says, making clear his disdain for the unserious, the kung fu wannabes of the world.
The dozen or so students, all boys mostly in their pre-teens, bow and greet each of us as we walk in, and then quietly take leave while Li demonstrates the pieces of equipment lying around. To the uninitiated, much of it looks like it could be leftovers from a construction site: Smoothed-down wooden sticks, huge chunks of stone, bamboo poles. "Do you know what this is? This is for grinding douhua," Li explains as he picks up a pole attached to a large round stone base. He wraps his leg around it and flings it a few feet away. "Here, you try it!" he says earnestly. After a dramatic countdown, the 15 kg contraption lands about an inch away from where it started.
Li, a Heilongjiang native, practiced and taught in his native province and in Hebei before moving to Sichuan about 15 years ago. Not at all the crotchety old master depicted in movies, the 36-year-old speaks English (he has a degree in English from Sichuan University), and has done time working in demanding security jobs, including a stint at the Beijing Olympics. But these days he's mostly concerned with the fact that the art he's devoted a lifetime to is disappearing. Hence the school, where he hopes that out of dozens of students he can find one with the dedication and desire to keep the torch burning.
Governmental discouragement, aging masters, and lack of interest among the youth are the main reasons he cites for kung fu's decline. "Before, there would be people everywhere who would practice kung fu," says Li. During the Cultural Revolution, however, the practice was banned and mostly eliminated. Nowadays, says Li, "the most traditional Chinese kung fu is in Hong Kong, America, and other places overseas. Actually in Chinese history there have been many times the practice of martial arts has been stopped. But it would always come back. You couldn't stop everyone."
"But these days, kungfu is more rare. There are fewer people practicing. The old masters are dying, and the young people don't want to spend the time to master it. Before, masters would organize tournaments for their students," said Li. But the matches were all but wiped out decades ago. "Without the matches, the students don't know how they're doing or what they're studying for. So who can we teach? Nobody even wants to learn. So it's slowly dying on its own. It's really a shame."
Li is a fifth-generation master of a school of kung fu that he describes as a folk style in the southern tradition with roots reaching back several hundred years to the Qing Dynasty and the Shaolin Temple, landing in Sichuan only when its creator fled from Hebei province to Zigong to escape persecution.
Centuries later, the practice was passed on to Li, who, after following Bruce Lee's Way of Intercepting the Fist, or Jeet Kune Do (截拳道), decided he needed to study traditional kung fu methods. "So I went to Emei Shan," recalls Li. "My master said he knew a friend who studied these traditional ways. I sent him a letter—at that time I didn't even have a phone." This friend was Dai Kang, a grandmaster who hoped Li would take over the tradition.
Because the southern Chinese tend to be short in stature, the southern schools of kung fu are characterized by their closed-in, fight-ready positions and quick movements in contrast to the "flower boxing" (花拳) associated with the Shaolin Temple. "It's very different from our style, and we rather looked down on their forms," said Li, recalling his three-day visit to the famed kung fu stronghold in his early 20s. "It's very nice to watch, but our master would always yell at us, 'Don't study that! Don't waste your time! Fight! Struggle!'"
The Kung Fu Family School (武道之家) is located in the Hetang Yuese (荷塘月色) region of Sansheng Xiang. For more information, check their sina blog (Chinese only). Those interested in studying with Master Li Quan can also e-mail him at enter8256 [AT] gmail [DOT] com (English and Chinese).