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March 23, 2010

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Sharing wealth of martial arts and making learning fun

CHINA has around 2,000 kinds of traditional martial arts and many have practitioners in Shanghai, but another tradition calls for guarding the skills jealously. Zhang Qian talks to masters who share the wealth.

Dozens of men are standing in the ma bu - horse position, feet planted on the land firmly and wide apart, as if astride a horse. They throw out punches as their teacher shouts commands, adjusting the stance and punch for each person.

This is a familiar scene in many kung fu movies and the exercise hall is usually called wu guan, meaning a martial arts hall.

Early last century many wu guan operated in big cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. But wu guan gradually disappeared as cities modernized and there was less interest in traditional martial arts for personal health and self-cultivation.

In the past 10 years wu guan have reopened, and they don't just appeal to kids or teenagers who want to enter competition and imagine themselves Bruce Lee. There is a wide age range.

An online search for wu guan and Shanghai turns up at least 20 wu guan, such as Shanghai Longwu International Kung Fu Center, Songshan Shaoling Wu Guan and Zhabei Wu Guan, offering many kinds of martial arts courses.

Shi Feng, a 33-year-old Yongchun Quan (a martial arts form) coach started his Shangwu Yongchun Guan in 2009. His youngest student is five years old; the oldest is over 40.

Xu Yu, a 32-year-old interior designer, started learning martial arts about a year ago, when he met Shi practicing Yongchun in a park.

"I have been a fan of Chinese martial arts since I was only a kid and have always dreamed of become a kung fu master like those in movies," says Xu.

But finding the right master can be difficult, says Xu. Most fitness centers only provide courses like tae kwon do, karate and judo. It was not until recently that traditional wu guan began to appear.

Xu practices in Shi's wu guan about twice a week and practices at home for at least an hour every day after work.

"Shanghai used to be full of kung fu masters in the early 20th century," says Ma Xingbing, a 37-year-old traditional martial arts practitioner, who won the all-round championship of the 2009 International Marital Art Championships.

The Chi Woo Athletic Association, more widely known as "Jing Wu Men," founded by Huo Yuanjia in 1909, was instrumental in attracting masters from throughout the country.

Today there are around 2,000 kinds of traditional martial arts in China, and many have some practitioners in Shanghai, says Ma.

Many practitioners did not carry on the spirit of "Jing Wu Men" - promoting and publicizing martial arts, says Ma. They still keep the credo of not teaching kung fu to strangers. They either pass it on to their younger relatives or to a very few apprentices who are recommended by friends.

Chinese traditional martial arts have been the province of a very limited field of experts for a long time - leaving the field wide open to tae kwon do and karate, says 32-yer-old Alvin Guo, the previous leader of the Shanghai Martial Arts Team.

For a long time martial arts amateurs couldn't find proper gym space to practice, let alone to work with a master.

"It is sad that most young Chinese today have wide access to tae kwon do, yet few can practice traditional martial art, the treasure of their own culture," says Guo.

To fill the void, in 1999 Guo started Longwu International Kung Fu Center, one of the earliest wu guan in modern Shanghai. It has taught more than 20,000 students.

To promote martial arts to more ordinary people, most wu guan today adjust some traditional training methods.

"Tae kwon do is popular for a reason," says Shi. "There are few requirements for the beginning and relatively interesting training methods - and traditional martial arts can learn from these approaches."

Shi gives each student a few free trial sessions. This gives both student and coach opportunities to observe and evaluate each other.

As long as the student is not violent or fiercely competitive, the coach will accept him or her as a student, dispensing with the ancient complicated ceremony to honor the master.

Shi says the age of 10 is about right to begin because younger children may not understand instructions.

Likewise, Guo says his martial arts hall is welcome to anyone who is interested. He describes the relationship between student and teacher more like that between brothers or friends.

To make learning easier and more satisfying, modern teachers set reasonable goals for students depending on their levels. Sometimes boring practice is replaced by practicing in pairs or game-like competition.

Though new martial art halls mushroomed all over the city in the recent years, not all are properly qualified, most lacking qualified teachers, say some martial arts experts. Frequent closure and reopening is common.

Unlike the movie versions, martial arts do not only involve striking beautiful positions and punching with full strength, says Shi.

"It is based on how the Chinese understand the universe and themselves. A good punch involves steady ma bu like strong roots to the earth, proper breathing that takes in full yang energy and expels yin energy while punching," he says. "And there must be a proper angle of attack as well as self-defense. That is what a qualified kung fu teachers should teach his or her students."

Shi that if a teacher is unable to explain a position in detail, then it's time to find another teacher.

"Martial arts are not only about defeating the enemy or strengthening your body," says Shi, "you are practicing and controlling your soul as well."

Traditional martial arts are rooted in Chinese philosophy that advocates he, meaning peace or harmony. They should help the practitioner strengthen himself/herself and protect himself/herself - but attack is not the goal.

"At the beginning, most people want to see whether they can defeat others," says Ma. "But as they keep practicing the right way, they will find themselves more moderate as they have reached a higher level in martial arts."


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