While you can’t believe everything you read, and certainly not everything you find on the Internet, I was intrigued by a story that’s been doing the rounds on Chinese martial arts forums for some time: the legend of Liang Zhenpu（梁振蒲）.
Liang was a second generation Baguazhang (八卦掌Bāguà zhǎng) Master, who was practicing at the turn of the 20th century. The legend says that in 1900, Master Liang single-handedly defeated 200 ruffians, killing 20 and severely injuring a further 50 at Majiapu (马家堡) Wharf in Beijing.
Last weekend, I was lucky enough to be granted an audience with fourth generation Baguazhang Master Sui Yunjiang (隋云江), and took the opportunity to ask how much truth there is in the tale about Liang.
“Sometimes legends are not really true. The story about Master Liang at Majiapu does contain elements of truth, but the rumors on the Internet do not describe what really happened.
“The truth is that Master Liang did indeed guard the Majiapu Wharf at that time, and he protected passengers from marauding gangsters. However, his presence was not enough to deter the hoodlum Zhao and his son, who cast covetous eyes on the wharf, as they saw in it the opportunity to extort money from hapless travelers.
“Zhao assembled more than 20 local thugs armed to the teeth and attempted to seize control of the wharf, but Master Liang defended the position using his Qijiebian (七节鞭, a weapon with seven segments connected by an iron chain), and with one swing shattered Zhao’s skull. The blow along with a quick series of strikes to several more henchman was sufficient to scare away Zhao’s crew, who immediately fled.
“The Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912 A.D.) legal system in place at the time demanded that murderers should be executed (杀人者偿命 Shā rén zhě cháng mìng). Hence Master Liang was arrested and imprisoned; his ankles were fastened with wooden fetters, which in turn were connected to dozens of other murderers in order to prevent escapes. One night Liang discovered a red strip of cloth, used to indicate which prisoner was next in line for execution, had been tied around one of his ankles.
“Master Liang sighed heavily, thinking his time had come before he had found suitable successors to pass on his knowledge of Baguazhang. He was also puzzled. He did not understand why he had to die so young, particularly as he had lived a righteous life and had often aided the weak (行侠仗义 xíng xiá zhàng yì). Early the next morning, the warden called another man’s name to go outside—Liang’s cellmates had played a cruel trick on him, and he lived to fight another day.
“Shortly afterwards, the Eight-Nation Alliance captured Beijing as part of its efforts to relieve foreign diplomats under siege from the Boxer peasant rebellion. The prison guards fled, allowing the prisoners to escape from the jail. Liang swiftly returned to his hometown in Hebei Province’s Ji County, and immediately began to recruit new students.
“Li Ziming (李子鸣), who later became a famous third generation Baguazhang master, was one of the students who joined him. Yet Li was not exceptional when he started, he just wanted to keep fit as he had not been very healthy while he was young. His story can be summed up by an old Chinese saying: “Sometimes you want to grow flowers but the flowers don’t blossom; sometimes you don’t plan to plant a willow, but the willow grows very well anyway”(有心栽花花不开，无心栽柳柳成荫。Yǒuxīn zāi huā huā bu kāi, wúxīn zāi liǔ liǔ chéng yīn).
“Master Li had great enterprise. He once wrote letters to Mao Zedong, in which he stressed that Chinese martial arts embody the quintessence of Chinese culture and as such should be promoted and receive support. At that time kung fu masters were forbidden to open martial arts centers, and many masters consequently had to change their professions. But some masters had no skills except kung fu, and so found themselves jobless.
“In response to Li’s entreaties, Chairman Mao commanded the Ministry of Education to arrange jobs for Han Qichang (韩其昌) a famous Meihuazhuang (梅花桩 méihuā zhuāng) Master, and Guo Gumin (郭古民) a senior fellow apprentice (师兄) of Li. Through Li’s efforts, Han and Guo were placed as PE teachers at Peking University and Renmin University respectively.”
It was clear to me from Master Sui’s words that he has a great deal of respect for Li, who he followed from the instant the two first met at a show at the Beijing Exhibition Center (北京展览馆). Sui was so talented and diligent that Li treated him like his own son, and personally handwrote a manuscript with a calligraphy brush specifically for Master Sui entitled The Essentials of Baguazhang《八卦转掌拳术纲要》, which included a personal message declaring him an outstanding fourth generation student (see photo).
These two manuscripts have historical value, as in 1975, when Li wrote the manuscript, China was still under the shadow of Cultural Revolution and as such he was forbidden to use the phrase “apprentice (徒弟 túdì),”as it was considered a relic from China’s feudal past.
Instead, Li used the word “comrade” and included quotes from the Analects of Mao (毛泽东语录) before the table of contents. In the 1980s, Li asked Sui, “Do you remember that manuscript that I wrote for you? Bring it back and I’ll write you a new one.” In the second version, Li was finally able to use the phrase “apprentice.”
When foreigners think about kung fu in China, many have romantic notions largely based on the Shaw Brothers style of action movies released in the 1970s. Yet this image has been somewhat tarnished by stories regarding the commercialization of the Shaolin Temple itself; the perception of Chinese martial arts has lost some of its shine.
But Master Sui is a true wuchi (武痴), or one who has dedicated himself entirely to kung fu, practicing all-year round, whatever the weather, and choosing to forego the opportunities to seek fame and wealth or attending business conferences. According to his wife, he devotes all his time to learning, researching and teaching kung fu.
This he still does, every day in a shady grove nearby the Xizhimen Subway stop, where he practices martial arts and teaches students. For many years now, Master Sui has mentored and trained students from both China and overseas, including professional athletes and martial arts enthusiasts from the US, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, Switzerland, Belgium, Sweden, France, Germany, Singapore, Italian, Greece and Brazil.
Italian student Daniele Averna trains with Master Sui, who makes clear that techniques must be learned correctly from the outset, as bad habits are tough to correct.
Master Sui and Keoni (from the USA) practicing a technique from a two man sparring set.
Master Sui regards martial arts as knowledge, not just simple fighting techniques. He said if you observe and study Chinese martial arts, you will find it contains the knowledge of structural mechanics, dynamics, logic, psychology and traditional Chinese medicine.
“For the people who want to learn Chinese gongfu but haven’t started yet, what do you want to tell them?” I asked.
Master Sui said when you are doing something, if you think it’s boring or you are reluctant to do it, it will be boring. But if you are really interested in something, even if you aren’t very good at it to begin with, and insist on persevering with happiness, eventually you will succeed.
Master Sui teaches Wednesdays through Sundays from 3pm to 6pm in the Xizhimen area. For more information, contact Keoni Everington.