This is me, age 14, on Judo Award Night. Notice that my brothers have already advanced to a yellow belt. I remain in white: the lowest possible level in judo. It seems to me that I got hurt a lot. I didn’t like throwing myself onto the mat. The award in my hand was probably for surviving my first and only martial arts competition.
Martial arts are sort of in our family’s blood. There were the movies we watched every weekend in Chinatown. My brothers and I hated the love stories. We wanted to see sword fights. Blood on the ceiling, floor too slick to run, rivulets streaming down the screen. Just the kind of entertainment a kid wants after a big Chinese dinner.
Back at home, we would re-create these fight scenes using whatever came to hand. In Taipei, in our grandfather’s house, we decided to get serious. We closed the paper screen doors that separated the kids’ bedroom from our parents. We collected all the kitchen knives and spent the afternoon hurling them through the door. It was the highlight of our visit.
But in a pinch, we would settle for any kind of martial arts. We faithfully watched David Carradine in Kung Fu every week, completely unaware of the yellow face being paraded before our eyes. No matter. Come, little Grasshopper.
When I grew up, I calmed down. I rarely threw knives anymore. But I did have a lot of excess energy that needed a constructive outlet. Kickboxing seemed like a good idea at the time. One friend wanted me to join his brand-new karate dojo. Another friend recommended kendo, a Japanese martial art that uses bamboo swords. Luckily, it never got farther than a lot of talk.
Martial arts, of course, come in all shapes and sizes. And, as counter-intuitive as it felt back then, what I needed to do was slow down rather than get aggressive.
tai chi chuan
I’ve been practicing tai chi chuan (in pinyin: tàijíquán 太极拳) for three years now. It’s often called an internal or “soft” martial art. That is to say, tai chi is for defense rather than offense. Most people practice for the health benefits. As martial arts go, tai chi is low on the martial and high on the art.
It might also be China’s greatest cultural export (after the food, of course). See lesson 17 from my putonghua textbook. How to buy Chinese-style clothes!
My parents live in a gated community in Southern California. It’s set on a pretty steep hill with the swimming pool at the top and the houses descending from there. Every day, a group of elderly Chinese sets out for their morning walk. As they walk, they slap their arms and raise their hands to perform the Taoist exercises that are part and parcel of tai chi chuan. You can take tai chi classes at pretty much every YMCA and retirement community in California.
In Shanghai, you can choose, too. Go to the boardwalk on the Bund to find ballroom dancing. Or to People’s Park for the sword fighters and fan dancers. And don’t ignore the parking lots. One night, on our way to dinner, we passed the Hongqiao football stadium. Below us in the car park were hundreds of middle-aged women (and a few men) line-dancing.
What I love about tai chi is its circularity. You are, at all times, moving: your hands, your feet or simply motivated by the intent to do so. Yin follows yang follows yin. I feel powerful and calm at the same time. It looks pretty cool, too.
Like Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi, two of my favorite Chinese actors in The Grandmaster. Leung plays Ip Man, a legendary teacher of Wing Chun, a form of martial arts particularly suited for close range combat. In real life, Ip’s most famous student was Bruce Lee.
The Grandmaster concentrates on the competition between two schools of martial arts: north versus south. The opening scene shows Tony Leung in pouring rain, surrounded by dozens of assailants. He raises his hand to wipe the brim of his hat. The raindrops come away in slow motion and then the fight bursts into action.
Zhang Ziyi is Leung’s enemy. And of course, she’s as deadly as she is beautiful. At home in Manchuria preparing for her fight to the death, she’s stands in the snow performing bagua hands. Her hands circle overhead and behind her back while she bends backward, almost dusting her hair with snow.
We do the same exercise in class, only not so well. My father tells me you need 40 years of practice to learn tai chi properly. I still have time.