Practicing in isolation due to Shelter in Place orders has me reflecting on the time-honored tales of incarcerated Kung Fu masters. There is a story of when Xingyi Grandmaster Guo Yunshen (1829–1898 郭雲深) was imprisoned for accidentally killing an opponent in a duel. By some accounts, he was shackled in handcuffs and leg irons, limiting his ability to practice. He resolved to focus on a short Xingyi technique that his fetters would allow, a powerful basic attack called Beng Quan or crushing fist (崩拳). He allegedly used a half step to accommodate his leg shackles. After three years, he was sprung from jail, and in that time, he had mastered Beng Quan so consummately that he built his reputation on it. It was said that his “half-step Beng Quan could strike anyone under heaven (ban bu beng quan da yu tian xia 半步崩拳打天下).”
Grandmaster Guo’s tale inspired a Jet Li movie, his 2001 sleeper, The One. This was a Sci-Fi flick about multiple incarnations across multiple dimensions, casting Jet multiple roles setting him up to fight his ultimate opponent – himself. This Hollywood production that was panned by American critics, but for martial artists, The One worked on a deeper level. Jet’s evil incarnation, Gabriel Yulaw, used the linear attacking methods of Xingyi. Jet’s good incarnation, Gabe Law, deploys the circular strategies of Bagua. Xingyi and Bagua are the dominant soft styles of Chinese martial arts other than Tai Chi and they are frequently coupled together as complimentary practices. On May 1st, 2020, California posted an official non-exhaustive list of permitted outdoor recreational activities, including ‘Soft Martial Arts – Tai Chi, Chi Kung (not in groups)’. Xingyi and Bagua are both ‘soft’ too, so we’re good.
The One was choreographed by Corey Yuen, who directed many of Jet’s movies in the 90s and delivered groundbreaking fight scenes with Yes Madam (1985), Hero (1997) and The Transporter (2002). In The One, Yuen was clearly working up to the finale fight of Xingyi versus Bagua but it’s overshadowed by physics-defying special effects. The finale Jet versus Jet fight has its moments. Set in a random industrial factory that spits green fluids and bursts into steam and flame randomly, it ultimately gets lost, showered in sparks and drowned out by dated cheesy heavy-metal guitar riffs.
Nevertheless, the film has several Xingyi and Bagua Easter eggs, all of which fly above the heads of the average audience, including an early scene where one of Li’s multiple dimension characters, Lawless, is incarcerated and practicing Beng Quan with his wrists and ankles manacled. It’s a clear nod to Grandmaster Guo for anyone in the know and the best soft style Easter egg in the film. While The One is often overlooked in Jet’s filmography, it includes this special tribute that only those conversant in Kung Fu understand, an homage to a pivotal Grandmaster who overcame confinement by continuing to strive towards excellence.
Like many legends, the historical basis of this Grandmaster Guo’s tale may well have been embellished in the retellings. Regardless of what may have really happened, this anecdote expresses two core values of Kung Fu. Firstly, no matter what the obstacle, there’s always a way to practice. And secondly, the basic techniques are the most effective if you practice them enough. I dabble in Xingyi and while I’m not about to practice in heavy fetters, Guo’s legend gives me hope for my little lonely Shelter-in-Place workouts.
Xingyi is part of my personal quaranroutine. I learned Xingyi from Masters Tony Chen and Dr. Johnny Jang, back in the mid-2000s. It was a good fit for me because the basic stance, santishi (三體勢), is similar to fencing footwork. When I was in college, I fenced on the NCAA SJSU fencing team and earned my Provost Fencing Master degree under SJSU ROTC (that’s right – fencing remains a military tradition even in the era of firearms). Xingyi is also compact so it fits comfortably within the confines of my living room workout space. I regret that I’ve let go of the bulk of the Xingyi that Masters Chen and Jang taught me, but I retain the basic form and have been reciting that daily since the Shelter-in-place began.
I’m grateful that Sifu Ted Mancuso, headmaster at Academy of Martial and Internal Arts and my elder Kung Fu brother, has provided a strong place to train. And while the Academy is closed, he has also granted me a place here for publishing my writings while on furlough from my regular job. Writing is part of my practice. I’ve written every workday for over two decades now. My sword is balanced by my pen (or more accurately, my keyboard). We all must support our schools through these troubled times, so it’s an honor to be able to publish here. There’s nothing like martial family. We watch out for each other, especially in these uncertain times. Since the school that Ted and I trained at together is long gone, returning to the Academy has been like coming home.
This is the second time that I’ve trained at the Academy of Martial and Internal Arts. The first was in the late 80s when I was a PhD candidate at UCSC. At that time, I was coming down from being in peak physical condition because, as I just mentioned, I was an NCAA athlete as an undergrad. My coach was the legendary Maestro Michael D’Asaro, a world champion in all three weapons of fencing. That’s unheard of, like being a champion pitcher, batter and catcher in baseball all at once. We called D’Asaro ‘Stro’*, short for Maestro (the traditional term for fencing masters), and he was a huge advocate of basic conditioning. We put in a good twenty hours a week training, mostly roadwork and footwork – the basics – but that’s what it takes to be a championship team. Stro had been through Army Boot Camp prior to a short stint as a Pentathlete (Fencing is one of the five elements of Pentathlon – the others are running, swimming, shooting and horse riding – all of the skills needed for a military messenger back in the day), and perhaps it was that experience that made him put us through so much conditioning and drill our basics so damn much. Stro fully understood the importance of basics.
I rejoined Sifu Ted’s Academy a few years ago when Shi Yantuo, the Shaolin Monk that I had been training under near my office at Tiger Claw, left for San Diego. Each time I joined the Academy, I visited Sifu Ted to get his blessing and sort out the details. Both times Sifu Ted was very generous. He said quite modestly that his classes were probably ‘too basic’ for me. Sometimes he still makes this comment when leading class. I think this is a test from my big brother, just to see if my ego remains kept in check. We both know it’s all about the basics. Without solid basics, intermediate level skills are faulty and advanced skills are null and void. There’s an old saying bandied about in martial arts ‘Train your stance when you’re young or you’ll have nothing to grow old on’. The older I get, the more I realize the truth behind this.
Listen to me now and hear me later – if you don’t have your basics, you won’t be able to keep practicing past your prime. Take it from me. I’m long past my prime. Ever since I crossed the half-century mark, my physical ability to do advanced techniques has declined. I can still do flying kicks and low sweeps, but I must warm up for them, warm up a lot. Those basic classes Ted was warning me about are just what the doctor ordered.
For earnest warriors, the Shelter-in-Place order is brimming with opportunities. While it’s tough on the school owners and suppliers because the economy is frozen, for individual practitioners, it’s ample free time to explore, create and expand. It’s fascinating to see how many schools have moved to online classes. Some are even giving belt exams via Zoom. And I’ve been really enjoying the CUCchallenges that been trending across martial social media. In response to #StayAtHomeChallenge, Campus Univers Cascades (CUC), a French school for stuntpeople, edited together a brilliant montage of strikes and reactions into wildly entertaining video. Friends and schools, even lightsaber enthusiasts, have caught on and now I’m seeing fresh ‘Isolation Fights’ regularly. If you haven’t seen one yet, just search the web. It’s an inspiring and creative expression of martial persistence. I’ve been invited to participate in a few, but I’m not sure that I will. Honestly, I’ve been enjoying not doing much of anything while in isolation. I imagine this is what retirement is like.
I confess, apart from the nagging insomniac brain circuses about the pandemic actually being the apocalypse, I’ve been enjoying Sheltering in Place. I’ve been sleeping in and eating well (no fatty restaurant food) so much so that I’ve lost some unwanted weight. I like wearing a mask. It appeals to the ninja in me. And I’ve been working my basics regularly. Almost all the forms in my daily quaranroutine are basic ones. This is due to several reasons, not just their compactness. Grandmaster Guo, Stro, and Sifu Mancuso are all correct – it’s all about good basics, whether fettered or not.
Unlike Grandmaster Guo, I don’t feel the need to train excessively hard and turn this isolation period into something next level. I’ve had plenty of time to write, which I’ve dedicated to these articles and a potential second book, but with all that’s going on right now, it’s extremely difficult to focus. It’s frustrating on one hand because it is such a good opportunity and I feel guilty for not taking full advantage of it. But on the other hand, it’s about self-care. There’s no point in overdoing it or overcompensating for feelings of inadequacy from training all alone. Ultimately, this is all about staying healthy.
America is the ‘Land of the Free’ so as an American, I’m free to be lazy. That’s the problem with freedom of choice. We are free to make the wrong choice. We are free to be idiots, to be selfish, and to be evil. But are we free to encroach on the rights of others? Are we free to spread COVID-19 in the name of liberty? We were the United States, but now we’re divided. Initially the pandemic was dismissed because so few people understood the exponential math behind viral spreading. Now it’s a misunderstanding of American infrastructure. Health care has been a political hot button for years. Now, in the face of this global medical crisis, our national medical argument is poised to dethrone us as the leader of the free world. As America struggles to get back to business, our eagerness to reconnect with what was must be tempered by the reason why we sheltered in place. It’s about not destroying our country’s medical system, although I suppose we’re free to do that too.
From my sheltering place, I take refuge from the world’s woes in my modest quaranroutine practice by going back to the basics. As I mentioned in my first pandemic article here, I do miss training with my classmates at the Academy. I also miss going out to movies and concerts, visiting friends, and the freedom to just go out and buy groceries without being paranoid that my fellow shoppers are contagious. I don’t miss my commute, but I am eager to get back to work. When America reopens, my Beng Quan won’t be able to ‘strike anyone under heaven’ like Grandmaster Guo’s. However, I’ll still be able to strike with it, if need be.
Be well. Stay strong and healthy.
*STRO: The Michael D’Asaro Story is an upcoming documentary on my old fencing coach. For more, visit www.strothemovie.com
Gene Ching is a student at the Academy of Martial and Internal Arts in Santa Cruz. He is also the publisher of Kung Fu Tai Chi and KungFuMagazine.com. Due to the Coronavirus crisis closing his publications as non-essential, he is contributing to ReelingSilk.com.