By: Daniel Otero
Nanjing University of Finance and Economics
Nanjing, China – What made me come to China and inspire me to learn Kung-fu in my middle age? Well, it was certainly those great movies when I was a kid! Kicks and slaps, and Bruce Lee screaming a, “Haiya!” There came a moment to learn how to use those ‘nunchucks’, and so I did learn how to swing them! It was also a unique source of inspiration to learn the mysteries of this ancient society. Furthermore, I wanted to learn a new fighting style.
But, it may have well begun with two great actors and martial artists that brought Kung-fu into mainstream society: Bruce Lee and David Carradine. The former remembered in Western society for the last three films of his life, especially in the scene of “Way of the Dragon” (1972), where Bruce was fighting Chuck Norris in the Coliseum in Rome. The latter, Carradine did a famous series called “Kung-Fu” (1972-1975). These two men were solely responsible for the proliferation of the art across Western culture. Before, the only way to learn Martial Arts, which is the original meaning for Kung-fu, was to join the military or come to China… Roughly one-hundred years before. However, this particular Martial Art was only for Chinese or those that secretly learned it while in China. Bruce made it accessible to all! He made the art for anybody who wanted to learn it and he did something radical in the States… He imparted JKD (Jeet Kune Do) not only to Chinese; but black, white, Asian and Latino. Going against all Chinese traditions and elders; Bruce made Kung-fu more accessible and commercial for ‘us’ to enjoy. Thanks to his teachings and spreading the message, he took it from Hong Kong to the United States and it grew. If it wasn’t for Master Lee, the art would have become like the language of Latin, it would have stayed and died out in China!
I wanted to learn Kung-fu, but back ‘in the day’ my neighbourhood didn’t have many schools and the only other place to learn this fighting style was Chinatown. And still, foreigners were not welcome in Chinatown during the 1970s, unless it was to ‘eat and get out!’ Back in China there was much closure to the United States, although Chinese are the fourth largest immigrant population in the States. I had to ‘suck it up’ and learn Jujitsu, a Japanese art. And it wasn’t all that bad! It was meant to be and I loved what I was learning, and the dream in the back of my mind was to learn Kung-fu. When I joined the military and went through my training I further dabbled into Martial Arts: learning more Aikido, Aiki-jutsu (combat Aikido) and Iado (the art of sword fighting).
Other arts were always more commercialized and accessible to people ‘back home’, like Hapkido or Taekwondo from South Korea. But Kung-fu was still limited. Only by the mid-1980s did Chinese Kung-fu really started opening-up to the West. Before, what we got back in America was an inbreeding of styles, but not the traditional form. It wasn’t much of a secret anymore after China opened-up! Schools began to sprout along the venues in popular local areas. But my dream remained to learn traditional Chinese Kung-fu.
When I finally got my opportunity to come to China, I thought, “Hey, my dream is going to come true!” And yes, there are traditional schools on Mainland China, but Kung-fu is limited to certain areas and the art is easily getting lost here with the ‘Y’ generation (young people born after 1981). There is more exposure to Kung-fu back in America than here in China, sadly. I’m really surprised and afraid Chinese are displacing their ancient arts for consumerism and ‘Western stupidity in coolness’. What will happen to these traditions?
Today, as far as I know, there is only one school of Wushu (Shaolin Kung-fu) in the whole of Nanjing and it’s inaccessible to me! The only Kung-fu I’m learning these days is as static as those from old DVDs, Bruce Lee books and from the ancient history of the Shaolin Monks. I mean, it’s ridiculous when my students are actually asking me to teach them Kung-fu, a martial art or any type of self-defense for that matter. Chinese asking me, incredible! I’m confused and angry about how these ancient arts like Beijing Opera and Kung-fu are getting lost by people who just don’t care! And, they are presently lived through the older generation and of course by those who practice Tai-chi in the parks.
Kung-fu was made for self-defense and I’m a dreamer… Believing it will make a ‘revival’ in China. With the changing economy in China, and better living, there are also other facts of life arising, the rise in crime. Chinese will eventually have to go back to their roots to learn how to defend themselves and their country, and not become victims!
For now, Kung-fu’s history and what can happen…
This nearly abandoned art [here in China] began back in the Qin Dynasty, over 2,200 years ago. Others date it as far back as 4,000 years ago, with the monk Bhuddhadarma who came originally from India and established his own style of fighting here in China. Used later by the military, but it first became most popular amongst monks. It was a way to become a guardian for peace! The techniques evolved by watching animals in hunting styles and fights. Kung-fu possibly began around the province of Henan. Monks would watch from a distance how animals fought and survived in daily conflict. With this concept came the basic fighting styles in Kung-fu: Tiger, crane, snake, monkey, sparrow and not “Kung-fu Panda”. It was converted ‘later’ from a spiritual, or in the way of Dao, to a martial art! It focused on creating a “Lethal Weapon”, while strengthening the head, elbows, knees, fists and legs.
If only Chinese could go back to basics and stop practicing other people’s arts or imitating cultures abroad and start with perfecting their own. There is a great potential for Kung-fu here in China; to honor the past, revive it into the present and make it a constant for future generations. Then, you’ll have a complete and whole culture. Isn’t this what martial arts are all about? Perfecting body, mind and soul for all!