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November 12, 2010

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Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Shadow boxing just for the ladies

ONE of China's newest martial arts, Mulan Boxing, is an elegant mix of tai chi, qigong and slow-motion dance with fans and swords. It's ideal for women, Xu Wei reports.

Every morning in public parks and open places around the city, dozens of middle-aged and elderly women gently stretch, breathe, wave their fans and circle their swords.

To the graceful melodies of traditional Chinese music, they are practicing Mulan Boxing, a new exercise and sport that combines the essence of martial arts with modern aerobics, dance and gymnastics.

Although Mulan Boxing is named after Hua Mulan, a legendary heroine from folklore who joined an all-male army in place of her father, it is definitely not an age-old sport.

About 30 years ago, Ying Meifeng, a local enthusiastic for gymnastics and Chinese martial arts, created Mulan Boxing when she was suffering from a severe cardiovascular and lung condition. The exercise inspired by and derived from tai chi and qigong incorporates flowing poise and balance with the use of the fan and sword.

Because of its elegance and feminine postures, it is particularly appropriate for women.

"After weeks of practice at Jing'an Park, I felt I was recovering well from my chronic condition," recalls 60-something. "My pale face began to turn pink and my hands and feet were no longer cold in winter."

At that time there were not many safe and accessible sports for women. Due to the elegance and health benefits of Mulan Boxing, hundreds of people were attracted to the exercise. Ying then founded the Shanghai Mulan Boxing Association in the late 1980s.

Today there are more than 300 Mulan Boxing training centers in the city. Because physical requirements for participation are low, the exercise has been included in the physical education curriculums of many local universities and middle schools.

It has been promoted to around 20 countries and international competitions are staged, most recently in Shanghai in May.

Mulan Boxing usually uses quan (fist), shuang huan (double ring), the fan and sword in exercises requiring poise and balance.

"It can be practiced by women from 4 to 80 years old," Ying says. "It can help women improve muscle tone, strength, coordination and blood circulation."

Almost all movements require core body strength, so it develops core muscles and benefits internal organs. As with all martial arts, it contains a spiritual element enhanced by classical music.

Many women say they have recovered from heart conditions and skeletal problems after long-term exercise. It also helps treat insomnia.

Zhang Liqin, a 71-year-old retired worker, has practiced Mulan Boxing daily for 20 years. She said she was a virtual invalid but today is completely healthy, as shown by a recent physical exam.

"The 700 or so movements have changed my body and I am grateful to Ying for contributing to the health of elderly people."

Ying, of course, says she doesn't deserve so much credit.

"I don't think I'm the inventor of Mulan Boxing," she says. "This exercise is strongly rooted in Chinese culture and philosophy and emerges naturally."

Practicing Mulan Boxing is a process of conquering the unyielding with the yielding, and controlling movement with silence and stillness, she says. Many movements are gentle, slow and soft but have an inherent strength and vigor. Thus, it represents an essential concept of Oriental philosophy that stresses moderation and balance.

Ying says it's possible to master the basic movements in a month or so, but as with all martial arts, time and effort are required to absorb its essence.

"Students should learn more about profound and diverse Chinese culture and philosophy," she says. "Generally speaking, Southeast Asians who have similar cultural traditions and values learn more quickly. Westerners accustomed to speed-strength sports should try to keep their movements soft and slow."

Tang Man-kit, an American Chinese who has practiced Mulan Boxing since 1996, says she had practiced tai chi in Hong Kong but was drawn to the beauty of Mulan Boxing and came to Shanghai to study.

"After practice, I have hardly caught cold over the past 14 years," Tang says. "Now I teach 70 students this magical exercise in the United States."

Mulan Boxing is expected to become a popular mass sport in China. The recent international competition organized by the Shanghai association attracted 75 teams from China and overseas.

Ying takes satisfaction in her work over the decades, especially when she saw thousands of people practicing Mulan Boxing together on the Bund and the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall during the contest.

"We didn't make any profit from the contest. Instead, we spent a lot of money hosting it," Ying says. "But it was all worthwhile if the public can become more aware of the health benefits of this sport."

Other Chinese martial arts

In addition to Mulan Boxing, tai chi and Wing Chun (associated with Bruce Lee) martial arts are also popular for fitness and deeply rooted in Chinese culture.

Tai Chi

It is said that tai chi was created by Taoist Master Zhang Sanfeng after witnessing a fight between a snake and a crane.

The name tai chi comes from the ancient cosmological concept of the interplay between two opposite yet complementary forces (yin and yang) as the foundation of creation.

Based on the principle of the soft overcoming the hard, all tai chi movements are performed slowly, with one posture flowing into the next without interruption.

After long-term practice, it is believed to foster the circulation of qi (life force) within the body, benefit the vascular and nervous systems and boost immunity.

Wing Chun

There are many tales about the origins of Wing Chun, a form of self-defense utilizing both striking and grappling while specializing in close-range combat.

One legend involves a young woman Yim Wing Chun (Wing Chun literally means forever springtime) who rebuffed a warlord's offer of marriage - he agrees but only if she can defeat him in martial arts. She then asks a Buddhist nun to teach her boxing - of course, she is victorious.

Martial arts master Yip Man (1893-1972) played an important role in promoting Wing Chun around China.

At the age of 13 Bruce Lee studied martial arts, including Wing Chun, from Yip Man, then went on to develop his own style.

Unlike other martial arts that emphasize attack, Wing Chun deprives the opponent of initiative and provokes him to make mistakes.

Both tai chi and Wing Chun are popular among expats who are interested in kung fu, said Alvin Guo, executive director and chief instructor of Long Wu Kung Fu Center.

"Many of them develop a good grasp of these martial arts and benefit physically," he said.


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