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Author Guest Blog: “The Link” by Sifu Phillip Starr

March 5, 2010

Master Phillip Starr demonstrating Nanquan

The young Chinese college student bowed to the famous instructor who stood before him, sporting a rather disinterested look on his round face.  “So, you want to learn from me?” the teacher asked.  The young man nodded enthusiastically.  “Yes, sir.  My friend, Kam Wing, brought me here.  I will do whatever you ask of me.  I will be a very dedicated student.”

The teacher scowled.  He’d heard this same line many times before and most of the time, the words were just so much warm air.  He glanced up at his students who were stretching and warming up in the public park where he conducted his class every morning.  “We’ll see,” he said.  Barking at one of his students, he turned back to the young man with the gleaming eyes.  “For now, you go with Lu.  He will show you how to start.”

One of the seniors in the class, Lu approached the young man and touched his shoulder.  “Come.  First, you must learn how to stand…”  And so his first class began.  And it ended the same way.  The young man was left standing in a static santishih posture for the entire practice period.  Of course, the teacher didn’t really expect him to remain the the posture for the entire three-hour class.  He knew the young man’s legs and shoulders couldn’t take it.  The pain would be excruciating but he wanted to see if the youngster would stand up or if he’d push himself to remain in the posture until he collapsed.  If he stood up it would be an indication that his spirit was weak and he probably wouldn’t be staying around very long.  On the other hand, if he collapsed due to pain or fatigue it would indicate that although his body was weak, his spirit was strong.  A weak body can be fixed.

The college boy stayed in the posture, trying to remember everything that Lu had told him.  His knees and elbows had to be held just so.  Hips down here.  Back straight but not stiff.  It was so much to remember…especially with the searing pain starting to burn through his thighs and shoulders!  But he wanted to learn.  Kam had said that this teacher was one of the best in all of China; a true hero who had engaged in many fights and always emerged victorious.  Gritting his teeth, he resolved to pass out rather than stand up and show everyone that he was weak.  He would succeed, no matter how much pain he had to endure.  He would succeed…

The next thing he knew, his legs simply folded under him and he fell to the ground.  The pain was almost unbearable.  Climbing to his feet, he once again took the posture of santishih and started anew.  He hoped that he wouldn’t vomit…

The powerfully-built teacher who scowled at the young man was Zhang Zhaodong (Chang Chao-tung), my martial arts grandfather.  The young college kid who spent part of that morning cleaning vomit off his trousers was my teacher and martial arts father, W. C. Chen.

Zhang was large for a Chinese, and very powerful.  Also known as Zhang Zhangui and called by the nickname, “Shan Dian Shou” (Lightning Fist), he was introduced to the famous Xingyiquan teacher, Liu Qilan (also known as Li Nengran) by his friend, Li Cunyi (Li was a student of Liu’s at the time).  Zhang became one of Liu’s top disciples and worked frequently as a bodyguard, bounty hunter, and sometimes as a convoy escort.  He developed quite a reputation and is not known to have ever been defeated.   Zhang eventually trained in Baguazhang under Cheng Tinghua, who was one of the foremost pupils of the founder of the art, Dong Haiquan.  Some people say that Zhang trained directly under Dong but that is incorrect.  Zhang met Dong a few times but Dong was very old and could not really teach him.  Zhang asked Cheng to teach him but for reasons unknown to me, Cheng initially refused.  Later, Zhang went to court to help Cheng acquire a certain parcel of land and to return the favor, Cheng agreed to teach him the style of Baguazhang.  Zhang, along with his old friend, Li Cunyi, and several other Xingyi stylists lived together with Cheng in Tienjin (Tientsin) for some time and exchanged ideas and techniques.  Cheng had a great deal of respect for Zhang’s skill and never referred to him as a “student.”

Zhang’s Bagua is clearly influenced by his Xingyi, which is rather stark and emphasizes large movements (remember, he was a big, powerful man).  He was a stickler for basics and insisted that students first learn to stand and practice correct body alignments before learning any applications of basic technique.

Obviously, I never met Zhang.  He passed away in 1938, eleven years before I was born.  But he is my martial arts grandfather and through him, I know my martial arts great-grandfather, and so on.  My teacher was the product of this colorful man who spent most of his adult life practicing and actually using his martial skills.  My Sifu continued to practice Zhang’s art for the rest of his life.  He felt that Zhang’s attempt at combining Xingyi and Bagua had never really come to full fruition and he continued to work at it, based on what Zhang had taught him.

When I practice at home  on the back patio, I often reflect on the foundation that my teacher and his teacher laid down for me; a foundation built upon their knowledge and experience.  I understand that who I am has a great deal to do with where I came from and that conveys a sense of gratitude as well as obligation not only for those who have gone before, but for those who will come after me.

Nowadays, people (especially young people) often seem to have little appreciation for what has gone before.  Many high school students aren’t really sure who the Allies were in WWII or when the American Civil War occurred.  They often feel that what’s past is past, as if they came into being without any sort of precedent.  How tragic!  They ignore the fact that their existence makes them a part of who and what came before them and that whether they acknowledge it or not, they will have some influence over what happens long after they’re gone.

I feel as though I’m the product of two families; one Chinese and one American.  Their histories, although they are interesting to me, are not necessarily interesting to anyone else.  But they’re important to me because I realize that they have had, and will continue to have, a huge influence on me and my understanding of who I am and where I came from.  They are my foundation and they have sustained me through some very difficult times.

When I practice Zhang’s Bagua sets or the Xingyi “linking form” that he practiced, I am sometimes reminded that I am part of something that goes a long way back; something more than just dry words written on brittle paper.  It is a past, a foundation that is/was composed of flesh and blood and built by people just like me.  They left a legacy for me to follow.  It’s a chain of sorts and I am but one of the links in that chain.

Nowadays, many people spend some time in this art and then learn a bit of that art and a smattering of this art over here, and they develop their own “arts” or “styles.”  And some of these hybrids may actually be effective as forms of self-defense…but they have no root.  No tradition.  No past that can sustain them.  And their future will probably come to naught.  They’re like bubbles in a stream.  They appear quickly and then vanish into nothingness.

So the next time you bow into the training hall or at the beginning of class, you might want to think about how you fit into this “chain”, about those who forged the links before you and about those who will come after you and perhaps those who will forge their links because of you.

Phillip Starr has authored three books on martial arts with Blue Snake Books, sharing his wisdom from over 50 years as a practitioner and teacher of martial arts. For more information or to purchase Starr’s books, click on the thumbnails below.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 5, 2010 6:06 pm

    I love and admire your idea. I am jealous too (in a nice way). Opportunities like yours are outliers. Many of us must forge our spirit by ourselves, with no help but from the ground and sky. And the American marketing machine does great injustice to such vital arts.

    I like the vision of testing the spirit by falling down. It flies in the face of the conventional concept that we may hurt our chances at qi development if we go that far.

    The old ways were tough. I admire that.

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