The first time Elizabeth Bergen-Bartel's father put on Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai for his daughter to watch, he unknowingly set into motion a series of events that would lead the lively blonde from Arlington, Virginia, all the way to a kendo dojo in Chengdu, China. From this tentative, film-inspired interest in martial arts, Bergen-Bartel began her kendo practice at the age of 14, and through this practice, she met the man she would later marry, a Chengdunese martial-arts practitioner who was studying at the same university as Bergen-Bartel.
In 2003, the couple decided to move to Chengdu and start careers, she, teaching English, and he, refereeing for the Asian Karate Federation (he holds a sixth-degree black belt in karate), work they continue to this day. Two years later, they opened a kendo club where they both teach and train. In the meantime, they also had two sons, who are starting to practice kendo but "mostly are busy with homework," according to their mom.
Against a backdrop of nonstop energetic battle calls and the sounds of students smacking their bamboo swords (shinai) against helmets, Bergen-Bartel sat down and shared her insights on kendo—the "way of the sword."
What is the state of kendo in China and in Chengdu?
Officially, China joined the international federation in 2009, so before that time it was pretty unofficial. It's slowly just going to different cities. There are lots of people practicing in Beijing and Shanghai—those are the major powerhouses for kendo because there are more foreigners there. Right now China doesn't have a lot of high-ranking practitioners; the highest is fifth dan [rank]. Eighth dan is the highest rank you can get. I'm third dan now, and currently my husband is fourth dan, so he's the highest dan in the southwest. They have a lot of high-ranking practitioners in Japan, U.S., France, Korea, and Taiwan.
In the southwest [of China], we are the first official club. In China, I think Beijing has the first club, they were founded in 1998. In Chengdu there are a couple other clubs. There are affiliated clubs and then there are non-affiliated clubs. There's quite a few affiliated clubs, I can't remember how many now. Then there's maybe one unaffiliated club that I know of, close to Sichuan University. We host the Chengdu Open in July, we have people coming from all over China, sometimes we get people from Hong Kong if we're lucky, and there's been a couple of Japanese who live in Beijing.
How do people react to it given its ties to Japan?
Originally people were like God, what's this? But then of course you get anime lovers, Japanese-culture lovers, who are interested. And slowly you just get people who are more interested in the sports, martial-arts interest. I think karate, jujitsu, and judo are definitely more widely practiced in China. But kendo's slowly gaining its place. There's a deeper aspect of spiritualism in kendo, I feel. You do a lot of kata [form work], so in general that's the attraction a lot of people have to kendo, and also you get to use a sword, so that's fun. A lot of people get interested [first] in the swords.
What were your goals and what challenges did you face starting up a kendo school?
For my husband, I think he wanted to be a teacher, he wanted to teach martial arts and he wanted to bring back more purified martial arts to China, to Chengdu because at the time there was only one karate school, and it was not very authentic. So he wanted to bring that kind of culture and let everyone enjoy the physical activity of martial arts.
We had a lot of trouble starting because not many people knew of the martial art, so just promoting kendo was hard, and slowly over the years more and more people were informed about Japanese culture and Japanese martial arts and they came to watch or try out, and that garnered more interest. I think most interest is spread by word of mouth because we don't have a Web site. Occasionally we've done demonstrations at Ito Yokado for Japanese fests, and there were a couple TV programs that we've been on, but we haven't done that much promotion.
How many students do you have, and what kind of people do they tend to be?
We have about 100 who are regular, more than 80 have obtained first-degree black belt or above. A lot of times there are people who are interested in anime who show up but normally they don't stay that long, sadly. There are other people who come and say, "Wow this is so cool, I want to do it," and they normally stay longer, and now there are more people interested in budo culture. [Students who have practiced other martial arts] have been educated on the culture behind martial arts, so they're not as likely to have preconceived ideas. So they're more adapted to this kind of culture in the first place and so they're more likely to succeed.
Most of the students are full-time workers. We don't have many stay-at-home moms or anything. But we do have a lot of girls—the ratio is about 3:7, female to male. Normally there's a lot more guys in kendo so our dojo's pretty lucky in that way. The jujutsu club is mostly guys—I've only seen one or two girls in there before. We try to promote it toward women more and try to make the women feel equally comfortable as the guys in a situation and if they receive a mis-strike or something we make a joke and make sure the guys don't do it again.
Sometimes there are championships where women compete with men, but usually not in China. It's more interesting, I find. Men are a lot more physical with their fighting—they use more power—and women are more technical. They're smaller so they have to use technique to succeed in fights. So it's interesting to see them fight with each other.
Are there martial arts that are more female oriented?
There's a martial art in Japan, naginata, it's with a long spear. That's more female-dominated in Japan—I guess it's the culture; a long time ago the women could defend their homes with long spears and still take care of their kids on their backs and guys would go to the battlefield with swords.
How practical would kendo be in a real-life fight?
Not practical. I should just get a gun [laughs]. No, it's not very practical. In some way I think having the experience fighting people helps because you can confront people with loud screams and maybe scare them, but if I came into a difficult situation, I'd probably just throw my wallet and run.
How often do you practice, and do you practice any other martial arts?
Typically two to three hours a day. On the weekend normally more, six hours or something like that. I do iaido and jodo, iaido's with the real sword, and jodo's with a staff, and I started karate recently but I'm not practicing regularly.
Do you think there's a kendo-Star Wars connection?
I don't think I'm qualified to judge what George Lucas had in mind! But I think the ethics behind the Jedi philosophy is kind of connected to kendo or budo culture in general; I think that's what inspired the Jedi knights, I don't know. I think George Lucas said The Hidden Fortress was one of the films that inspired him to write Episode 4.
Have you participated in major tournaments?
We have five national team members that participated in the last world championships in Italy. My husband and I participated in the previous world championships, the 14th world championships [in Brazil]. So I actually got to play as a [China national] team member—a lot of people were like, "What? There's a blond girl on the Chinese team?" It confuses the hell out of people. People who have practiced in the country and technically started in the country can get permission from the national organization to play for the national team. So since I got my first dan in China, I'm considered like a Chinese practitioner. It's a little strange.
And you've won some too, right?
I've won the women's division national championship twice in China.
Have you received any honors or accolades from the government for your work?
I wish! Not yet. Kendo's very small compared to the other sports in China, and it's not officially recognized as a sport so the government is not that interested in it. But I think slowly as the popularity grows the government will get more involved. Right now they're getting pretty involved through the wushu association. Some tournaments have prize money, but not in China. Here, there are trophies and equipment for prizes.
What's the best way to train?
I think a lot of smart and hard training helps, and understanding that it takes a long time to build up the proper techniques and ability to use your body along with the sword. So just knowing yourself and practicing hard and practicing right will help you. Training right, knowing yourself and having a cause I think is what's going to help.
What does kendo bring to you?
I think kendo's a good way to learn more about yourself, your own spirit—that's a little out there, but that's why I do kendo, to learn more about myself and overcome my weaknesses.
Mugen Ryu Martial Arts Academy offers courses in kendo, jujutsu, iaido, jodo, budo taijutsu, and self-defense for women. Classes are held on weeknights and during the daytime on weekends.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 63 ("people").
Photos by Dan Sandoval.