Hidden histories

Once again, I was up early yesterday, and met Master Sun Ru Xian for a 6:30 class. We worked on a couple of the bagua mother palms, using bricks this time to start developing palm and forearm strength. Next, we continued to work on the first three of the 64-palm sequences. I’m enjoying these – which is not to say that I’m remembering them… They’re gradually sinking in, though. Finally, we worked on the Shanxi whipstaff some more. This is getting more interesting – Sun Lao Shi was pointing out that this is a move derived from broadsword sets, this one is derived from a jian action, this one comes from a spear attack, and so on. The whipstaff is a chest-height staff; it’s what you would use as a walking-stick in the hills, etc. It made me think that this in many ways suggests so much of China’s history – a martial arts set using a day-to-day tool, incorporating the knowledge acquired by peasant-soldiers with all kinds of different weapons…

As with the bagua, etc, Sun Lao Shi teaches the staff to be used. His demonstrations of strikes are always precisely targetted at knee joints, etc – it’s not a ‘performance’ style by any means. Has he ever had to use this stuff for real? I don’t intend to ask him – not for a long time, if ever. Master Zhou Yue Wen, when I interviewed him, was really open about his past in the Red Guards,etc, but he was unusual – most people over a certain age in China have bad memories from a couple of decades ago, I guess. Most probably will never talk about them.

On the other hand, there are sides to the martial arts scene in China that I still have much to learn about. Last weekend, Dragoncache and I were chatting about a certain martial arts teacher, and how he is also extremely practical in his applications. Dragoncache said something like “Of course, he was really active in the underground fight scene”, just before the conversation took a different turn. Wait, though, what? China has, or had, an underground fight scene? Given who we were talking about, this must have been at least twenty or thirty years ago, I would have thought – surely not a period when I would have expected that kind of thing to have been tolerated by the authorities! Now I’m really curious. Not sure how to find out more, though.

After class with Sun Lao Shi, I went down to Jiushuitan to pay my rent. It turns out that the apartment complex I’ll be living in was built for long-time Shichihai residents when all of their ancient Siheyuan were demolished. Sure, the apartments are modern, with indoor plumbing etc… but my landlady is still sad at the destruction of her hutong, and all of the beauty, history, and community that went with it…


  1. Too bad about the hutongs – strange how China, in trying to preserve “face” and look good in everyone’s eyes, does all the wrong things (that seem right only to them!), like destroy all the hutongs, arrest all of African race, and censor the Web – something we call 自己滿足 (self satisfaction).

    Shanxi whipstaff – what is this? A Bian (like a blunt sword with a hilt)? Is it a xingyi weapon? Sounds cool…

    As for an underground fight scene… I dunno… It seems to me China was more a group of connections (teacher A meets teacher B, does push hands or has students fight each other?) than a fight club kind of thing…


  2. @Ed: Yes, it’s also known as “bian ganr”. See:


    As for the fight scene… dunno: I actually got the impression it was more of a Fight Club kind of thing! I’ll ask Dragoncache more about it when I see him next.


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