One Day in Jinan

Excerpt from Butterfly Among the Broken Glass: A Martial Travel Journal of China

The flight into Jinan from Beijing passes without event. Like so many flights, we wait at our assigned gate (which gets changed as we wait) until boarding time. There is a plane outside our gate but instead we get aboard a shuttle bus which takes us to a plane parked outside a gate at the other end of the airport. As we board our plane, I watch a shuttle bus taking passengers from this gate to somewhere else. Am I the only one who finds this amusing?gxtaipei6

We are met by our local guides, Aaron and his trainee Tommy. These are of course only the names given to westerners to keep us from struggling with Chinese pronunciation. Personally, I like to use as much of my limited Chinese as possible. Aaron was my local guide two years ago when I trained in Jinan, but he doesn’t seem to remember me. I drop a few hints about the previous trip but he doesn’t bite so I let it go. As we drive toward Jinan city the road is rough in places. We ride in an older minivan that Aaron is constantly fixing by re-hanging the muffler pipe with coat hanger wire.

“Here we have the largest steel works in China and there is the largest cement company……”

His voice strings out a series of industrial superlatives that fail to inspire my historic interests. My thoughts turn to the prospects of the afternoon practice. I planned to come here to continue my training in Cha chuan with Shifu Wang Bing Wen, whom I met two years ago. Wang ShihFu is a 34 year old master in every sense of the word. His eyes are filled with a joy for life that is evident in his Kung fu forms. I have often watched him fly through a complicated set with his eyes blazing and his smile flashing.To watch him move, you can not help but smile yourself.

“This paint factory produces enough paint to fill the Yellow River……”

To my disappointment, two weeks ago CTS (China Travel Service) informed me that Wang Shifu could not be located so that Nelson (my student traveling with me) and I were to train with another local teacher. To travel in China, one must be flexible as the whell of fate turns strangely at times. Thus we agreed to the new teacher. Low and behold, this morning CTS informed me that Shifu Wang has miraculously been found (I wonder if he knew he was missing) and I smile to myself at the thought of training with him again.

“Jinan is the 3rd worst polluted city in world. We are lucky that it is Sunday because this day the air is best. On Monday all of the worker return to the factories and the air quality…” Beijing was nice, relaxing and always fun. Time to work. Nelson stares out the window at the countryside, so different from the bustle and big city feel of Beijing. For me, I am used to traveling in many areas of China. For Nelson,… We’re not in Kansas any more.

“Shandong province is also famous for many things…” True Shandong is famous but our guide does not speak of Tang Lang Chuan (praying mantis style) or Hua Chuan or Cha Chuan. He does not speak of the “Outlaws of the Marsh” or make any martial arts references at all, despite knowing why we came. Instead we get…

“Shandong is famous for its sea cucumbers, some of the finest in the world…”

At this point my mind snaps out of its peaceful dreaming and twists to attention. Sea cucumbers? Okay, now I’m intrigued. What makes these sea cucumbers so special, I ask. “They are good medicine for the health.” But how are these different than those from other regions along the Chinese coast, I press. “These provide the best health of all.” I know I should just smile and nod but I can’t resist one more try. Okay, but if you go say five miles down the coast from the edge of Shandong province, surely the sea cucumbers are the same. After all, don’t the migrate about somewhat? (Actually, I have traveled enough in China to know better than to offer him no room for retreat, but I had to call him on this one). Without hesitation he replies “No, Shandong sea cucumbers cure cancer.” There you have it, he has pulled out the big guns. On can not argue with a geolatitudinally specific cure for cancer. I am left with but one response… I smile and nod

We change quickly in the hotel, shaking out stiff joints from the plane ride and clearing our heads for practice. I have warned Nelson that the learning pace is often quite fast and one must be able to learn 4 to 5 moves in a sequence from only one or two demonstrations. This pace is quite different than the pace in Mei Guo (America). Wang Shifu has a school on the fourth floor of a hot building in the city. No fancy banners outside, no line of inane trophies, only a small sign at the street. Inside, an office, a large open room with the usual heavy workout carpet and a rack of weapons. On the wall, a small banner in Chinese gives his name. I have described this school to Nelson many times and I anticipate the walk through the puddles in the street, across the sidewalk and up the dusty dark concrete stairway to the room where I last trained with Wang Shifu.

I look out the window of the minibus. Do I recognize the street? No, we are not there yet. Suddenly the bus pulls over and stops at the entrance to a park at the foot of the Hill of Heroes Monument (a series of statues and monuments honoring WWII heroes). I look in all directions but nothing is familiar here, except that smile… About 100 yards away I see Wang shifu’s smile and then his smooth bald head. He is of moderate height by local standards and has a great presence. Up shoots his hand and his smile widens. Ni renshi wo, ma? I ask. Dui, Dui he nods. He remembers me. Turning his left arm out he points to a green carpet rolled out on the concrete park plaza. Nelson looks at the carpet and glances around a little nervously. He looks at me, his eyes saying Here? Out here? It is Sunday and the park is somewhat full of people strolling and speding free time together. I spent 5 months training every morning in Shanghai outside a local stadium. I am used to being trained while people gather and look on, but this was new to Nelson. Perhaps no one would notice us. After all, why would a 6ft 1inch, 45 year old white man with a 5 inch fu Manchu moustache and his 5 ft 11 inch student from the Dominican Republic be noticeable in Jinan city? Despite the odds, people begin to gather.

Attention returns as our formal introductions are performed. Wang Shifu taught me the 4th road of Cha Chuan two years ago, which I subsequently taught to Nelson. I return for correction and refinement of the form as well as further discussions on the applications of the movements. Wang shifu’s excellent knowledge of the usage of Kung fu makes training with him particularly useful. As a surprise, Wang Shifu has brought with him Chen Da, a direct grandson in the Zhang style of Cha chuan. We are to learn the 5th Road of the Zhang Cha Chuan from him. There are 3 styles of Cha Chuan: Yang (practiced by Wang Shifu), Zhang and Li. Chen Shifu is stocky with a firm dark brow. Introductions, exchange of cards, bows and the gesture toward the carpet. “Now?”, Nelson says, “like right now? “Your up dude” I respond.

Step out onto the carpet and show if you remember what you have been shown. We begin. The day is hot and humid and before long chi in not the only thing flowing freely. Change the hand, straighten the palm, turn the foot, whoops add that move. The time passes quickly. We have only scheduled 3 hours today. I stop to wipe my brow and notice we have drawn a small crowd. At first Nelson was distracted by this but soon he has let it go. In fact it can be quite fun as some on-lookers will encourage your successes and laugh at your struggles, others just stare. We came too far to worry about it, smile and nod. Wang Shifu gives us the thumbs up and a bottle of water. Our corrections and numerous repetitions finished, we rest.

Chen Shifu has sat with hands on his knees, waiting. Now he rises, gesturing our return to the carpet. Although my exposure to the Yang and Zhang variations of Cha Chuan is limited, the Zhang style seemed to have more flourishes, but both clearly shared the same mother. We are shown 4 to 5 moves once or twice and then asked to repeat the sequence. In this way the frame of the form is constructed. Detail is left to the constant correction of repetition. The form progresses with the usual building of skills and we reach the 4 step lotus kick (jump spin outside crescent kick). We have done lotus kicks many times before, but the heat, the growing crowd and fatigue cause us to lose momentum here. A nod, a wave of the hand and we are left to work it out. Soon the crack of shoe against hand is alive and well and the on-lookers give nods or comments of approval (they are being polite. At 45, I no longer soar with the eagles in my jump kicks). Chen Shifu and Wang Shifu both flow into and out of this kick with an unbroken rhythm that I must construct from more practice. The teaching continues with movement, correction, application and more correction. I notice as we work that on-lookers are not all that is gathering. A large group of older gentlemen in Kung Fu style pants has begun to gather, each leaning a weapon against the statue near where we practice.

The form is finished. As we rest, we are told that these men are the local teachers representing the various styles in the area. It is Sunday and each has come down to the park to meet us. We are told that they are pleased that Americans (we keep telling everyone that Nelson is an American because nobody seems to know the Chinese for Dominican Republic) are so interested in Kung Fu. They knew that one of us had been here before and came back to learn more. We will practice more (now going into the 4th hour) and then these teachers will give a demonstration in our honor.

Whoa! Stop the train… in our honor? I am no one. I run a small (not for profit) Chang Chuan School in Michigan. I have lived and trained in China several times but I do not even approach mastery. I protest briefly that this honor is beyond our worth but yield quickly. We are excited by the opportunity to meet with and see these masters perform. We repeat our form and refine our understanding. The word is out that there is to be a public demonstration by these teachers. Cell phones are out and soon the carpet is surrounded by approximately 200 people. Our practice formally ends and we are both thankful for another hit off the water bottles. Hot, tired and riding the high that practicing in China can give you, we are about to be treated to the demonstration. The guide says that they have not done this before. Why us? Why now? Why not 2 years ago when I came as part of a delegation of martial artists? We are only two and there are 16 teachers gathered here. Shut up and watch Steve.

We are ushered to one side of the carpet. Nelson grabs his video camera, my battery is dead from the guide taping our training session. One by one each teacher approaches the carpet, bows to us (what a trip!) and begins. The demonstration included Xing Yi, Cha Chuan, Tang Lang, Monks spade, Spear, Double broadsword, Single Dao, Horse cutter knife, Bull whip, two man forms both open hand and weapon on weapon and my favorite, the two handed long sword wielded by Wang Shifu. Throughout the demonstration which lasted about 30 minutes, the crowd continued to grow reaching more than 250 by the end.

The last demonstration was a classic spear vs broadsword set with a weapon exchange and a classy butterfly kick by Chen Shifu to evade a spear thrust. Everyone cheered and we are clapping and bowing our thanks in all directions. Quietly, Wang Shifu walks up behind me and in Chinese he says, Now you…

Joy crashes into anxiety. Perhaps this was only some paranoid demon in my head and I pretend not to hear. He taps my shoulder, smiles broadly with his eyes dancing and gestures to the carpet. Now you… No way out. I can not go out on that carpet. Sixteen local masters have just finished a demonstration and now after a 4 hour practice and 30 minutes of standing around getting stiff he says Now you. I smile and nod. As I walk out toward the carpet he nods encouragingly and adds “4th Road of Cha Chuan.” Now I’m doing requests? Five of these teachers are Cha Chuan masters and one a direct descendant of the line. My mind is completely blank. I look to Nelson for help but his eyes say “you’re up dude.” He grins and points the video camera at me.

Green carpet appears beneath my feet and I give a two hand bow across the crowd. I don’t remember this form! Inhale, exhale, begin. The crowd dissolves to mist, there is no sound, not even my own breath (am I breathing?) I am watching myself doing the form from outside myself. The moves weave together and in my own awkward way they are flowing. Too shallow in that stance, open the chest and extend that move. I watch as if I am not part of it and then it is over. My arms make a broad sweeping brush past my waist and circle to the front to finish in the rounded arm fists classic to the style. A huge smile erupts from me and I almost yell. I again bow and the crowd responds. The teachers all smile and return my bow. Sure it was not anywhere near as good as any of the teachers, it couldn’t be. That was never the point. Something very unique has happened here. Nelson smiles and nods.

Steve Matchett

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