Seeking the Sword in Jinmen (津門尋劍
Translation by Kerry O'Meara
Qiu, Jianping of Henan Province loves books since he was young, but he loves Chinese martial arts even more. At the age of 12 he ran away from home to Shaolin Monastery in the Song Mountains and dreamed of being accepted as a disciple to learn the art. This dream ended with a kind-hearted monk taking him home and a good beating from his parents. His caring mother caught a glimpse of his ambition in his stubborn eyes, took him aside and lovingly said, “Ping, you need to focus on your schooling right now. If you like martial arts, I am not opposed to you learning it at home. I will kindly ask our neighbor Shifu Su to teach you. He is a famous martial artist.” Just like this, the 12 years old little Jianping had his neighbor as his shifu and started training in Shaolin gongfu.
Ping turned out to be a fast learner when it comes to martial arts. Everyday after finishing his homework he ran over to shifu’s house. Whatever the exercise was, his shifu never had to worry. He was so focused like a little grownup, and shifu often stood on the side nodding in approval while stroking his white beard. Three months later Ping became more flexible in the leg and waist, so Shifu Su began teaching Ping beginner broad sword, hand techniques and staff all at the same time. Shifu Su had never put in that much effort in any previous disciple. Perhaps he was moved by Ping’s sincerity, perhaps he was feeling a bit lonely in his old age, but whatever the reason, his heaven-sent little disciple made him very happy. And because of this, Shifu Su started teaching his little disciple in a very systematic manner. Whatever he had he didn’t hold back, and within a year he had taught Ping intermediate quan, Da Hong Quan, Xiao Hong Quan, Jia Ji Gun, Yi Ji Gun, Luo Han Quan, Luo Jia Qiang, Fu Long Gun, Di Tang Dao…etc. This little guy ate fast, digested fast, and did not show any weakness when it came to punching, staff, broad sword and spears. He never idled and the non-stop practicing made his shifu nodded and shook his head at the same time. The nodding was for approval, but the shaking was because sifu was worried that he would run out of things to teach in two years. Time flew and in three years time little Ping improved at an amazing speed mastering all the basic Shaolin techniques whether it be kicking, locking, flexing, jumping, or clean landing. Especially his whirlwind foot, his foot never drags and lands an outer spin lightly with a crisp snapping sounds. His fists move through the air fast with intent and spirit, and the change of technique is always clear. There is an old saying “a fist without spirit has no soul.” Under Shifu Su’s careful teaching, pretty soon folks around town were looking at Ping differently and peers would cast envious looks his way. Surprisingly Ping’s grades at school were improving at the same time as well. This delighted his worrying parents, and they would brag to everyone they see how their son’s martial arts training improved school learning. The teachers at school also liked Ping and made him the PE representative of class. Little Ping was the star student of his class earning medals at every school competition. Jian Ping maintained good grades in high school and scored well in college entrance exam to be accepted into Zheng Zhou University. He got in his department of choice - Industrial Management. Four years of college added flying wings to Jian Ping. He earned scholarships for two years and graduated with honor.
The college years did not diminish Jian Ping’s love for martial arts but changed it fundamentally. He was mesmerized by Wudang martial arts, how it has Daoism as its guiding principle combined with traditional Chinese philosophies. Perhaps he was more cultured, or maybe the founding father Zhang San-Feng’s combined characteristic of Wudang and Shaolin influenced him, he could not turn away from Wudang martial arts. He spent all his spare time collecting books related to Wudang martial arts, subscribed to the “Wudang” magazine, contemplating ancient theories and modern master’s interpretations. He was able to apprehend quite a bit during the four years of his college life. During that time, he came across an article regarding Wudang Sword in the Wudang Magazine. It was written by Master Ma Jie of Tian Jin that stunned the martial arts society. From Master Ma’s use of language, explanations, diagrams and comparison of historical artifacts, Jian Ping caught a glimpse of something he wanted. Something that is the genuine essence of traditional Chinese culture. It was at that time he established this unexplainable connection with Master Ma Jie and the series of “Dan Pai Wudang Sword” articles that he was publishing. Later Jian Ping was very excited to find out through related reports that Master Ma had published a book regarding Wudang Sword and got himself a copy in no time. He added the book to the rest of his collections of Master Ma’s works and started learning Wudang Sword from the book. It was as if he had a premonition, or had a goal to attain, or better yet, was preparing himself for some future accomplishment. Five years later, Jian Ping, who was a manager in a corporation, boarded a train bound for Tian Jin during a business trip. While riding the train, he looked through all his collections of Master Ma and was feeling nervous at the same time about meeting this Master whom he had established such a deep intellectual bond with. After all, he learned all the moves of Wudang Sword by copying the pictures from the book. Doubts were forming in Jian Ping’s mind. “Would he receive me when I show up so abruptly?” “Would he recognize my Wudang Sword?” Through different sources he learned that Master Ma was from Tianjin. He graduated from Tianjin University of Sports before the establishment of New China. When he was young he learned Wudang Nei Gong Quan from a Daoist monk. Later he had the famous Han, Mu Xia as his shifu and learned Xingyi, Bagua, Taiji. He was Han, Mu Xia’s close door disciple, and at age 18 he was already the vice-chairman and eventual chairman of a large martial art school in Tianjin. Even though the martial arts circle in Tianjin is diverse and complicated, but Master Ma always upheld himself with strict martial code of conduct. After the establishment of new China, Master Ma became the disciple of Wudang Sword’s sole lineage carrier - Meng, Xiao Feng and started learning Dan Pai Wudang Sword. Qui, Jian Ping felt that Master Ma was a person deeply rooted in culture with high standard of moral character and would not have reject him outside the door. Tianjin is a city that was booming with new constructions everyday, even long time residents couldn’t pinpoint the exact location of Master Ma’s building, just the general area. Jian Ping searched for five straight hours in the hot summer sun. He took drinks of bottled water and rested when needed, and finally at 3:30 pm he arrived at the location of the address with the help of a senior university employee. He knocked on Master Ma’s door excitedly and from the other side came a deep friendly male voice. Jian Ping recalled the voice was a calling with anticipation, like a mother calling her playing son to come home for dinner. At that exact moment all the worries went away. The door opened, and an elderly man stood at the doorway with a smile. The young man outside the door was startled, then he knelt on the ground and bowed to the master. Master Ma gave him a hand up right away and asked, “Young man, what is this for?” Jian Ping answered “Laoshi, I have been learning your Wudang Sword from a book for five years now.” Master Ma seemed to have understood everything just from this reply and politely invited Jian Ping to his living room. Jian Ping sat down nervously and then stood up. Master Ma sensed his unease and kindly offered him a cup of tea then consoled him by saying “Don’t be nervous, have some tea and take your time to talk.” Jian Ping calmed down after a few minutes and began in a jumbled sequence telling the story of his journey of the past five years from Shaolin to Wudang, and how he came across this particular sword form in the Wudang magazine. He kept emphasizing how this sword form has a well documented origin and lineage, and on top of that he felt a connection with Master Ma through this sword form. The connection he felt was not random but a fusion of the mind of two generations through his own cultural exploration and contemplation.
After narrating for half an hour, Jian Ping was finally able to express his feelings and all that he wanted to say. Master Ma listened intently the entire time with a smile on his face while nodding constantly. It also wasn’t hard to see that he had some doubt at times. After all, they had never met before nor had communicated through the mail or phone. Most other martial artists would have been impassive in this situation, but not Master Ma on that day. After hearing Jian Ping’s story he smacked the coffee table and declared, “Good, good, good! I believe you and recognize you as my student even though we’ve never met before today. This is quite something son, you and I are somehow connected by fate, but you and Wudang sword are even more fatefully connected!” Jian Ping’s narration was genuine and heartfelt. It moved the 80 years old Master Ma who had been through so much for over half a century. When Jian Ping heard the word “recognize” from Master Ma, tears of joy ran down. Immediately he sat Master Ma down and respectfully bowed his head to the ground three times. Master Ma also gladly accepted this honest gesture. The arrival of Jian Ping that day brought a twinkle in Master Ma’s eyes and from the bottom of his heart he said, “The heaven and people have at last been working in sync. Those who recognize the sword are sophisticated in character and taste. Those who seek the sword possess talents and ambitions beyond the ones who came in the past years. Wudang sword is indeed otherworldly and the time for it to shine has come. I finally have not failed the ancestors of this sword form and have not failed this rare wonder of the martial arts world.” Wudang Sword is a national treasure. It is the Wudang culture that Master Ma used his whole life’s worth to spread and pass down. Especially the Dan Pai Sword form, the great swordsman Song, Wei-Yi passed it down only to Li, Jing-Ling, and Li, Jing-Ling only passed it down to Meng, Xiao-Feng. Meng, Xiao-Feng left the military and laid low within the walls of Tianjin practicing the sword only at night. After the establishment of New China, he was invited to teach at the Center for Retired Officers. He only taught the first and second sections. He never showed the rest of the four sections until Ma, Jie came along. He continued the tradition of passing the sword form down to a single disciple and named Ma, Jie as the head of the 12th generation of Dan Pai Wudang Sword. Master Ma diligently practiced every day after inheriting this sword form and wrote a tremendous amount of notes to ensure the form will be passed down correctly. He used eight years to acquire, cross check and organize historical materials of the three masters that came before him. He left the original sword manuscript unchanged out of respect but added lots of commentaries and extra notes. For the sake of the history of Dan Pai Wudang Sword, he also recorded the biographies of the 9th generation lineage carrier, Song, Wei-Yi, 10th generation lineage carrier, Li, Jing-Ling and 11th generation lineage carrier, Meng, Xiao-Feng. The official Dan Pai Wudang Sword lineage record was thus updated, and this earned the affirmation of his martial arts peers both in and outside of China. Master Ma displayed an attitude that showed responsibility toward Wudang Sword, an all-encompassing attitude that showed respect to history, reverence to past teachers, practicality for the present day and consideration for the future. It is also an attitude that showed the calling of this rare Wudang gem in history. We are thankful to our past teachers, and at the same time we are thankful to Master Ma for updating the lineage record, filling in the blanks for the current generation of Dan Pai Wudang Sword, and forsaking past tradition regarding Wudang Sword for the sake of its continuation in the future. This was an important historical contribution to our culture. Master Ma showed this national treasure, Wudang Sword, to the world with the intention of propagating and making it well known. The timing was perfect when this new student of his showed up at the door. Somehow in the five years of making each other’s acquaintance through the mind and books, an emotional connection was formed. It was part reverence, part yearning, part longing, perhaps it was a mixture of all sort of feelings. That night Jian-Ping took Master Ma and his wife out to dinner. Feeling relaxed after a few drinks, Jian Ping once more expressed his sincere desire and gratitude. Jian Ping’s politeness and gracious attitude only deepened Master Ma’s fondness of him. At 5’11” tall, Jian Ping has a pair of bright elongated eyes beneath sword like brows. His masculine features exudes a sense of gentle strength. Feeling elated after dinner, Master Ma took Jian Ping to a green belt in the city that looked like where Master Ma usually teaches his students. After Jian Ping finished performing confidently his self-taught Wudang Sword, Master Ma’s expression went from sunny to overcast. He did not comment on the correctness of the technique or form nor showed any approval. He simply called Jian Ping to him and kindly said, “Son, you have strong will power, and I applaud your spirit. However, after seeing you perform this set of sword form, there is a sense of familiarity yet everything is disfigured. Directions are wrong, the embodied Xingyi force, Bagua steps, Taiji core, and Wudang spirit are all lacking. Although you have a good foundation in external martial arts, but you have no strength that comes with internal martial arts. The profoundness incorporated within this sword form cannot be seen anymore. At best this is simply internal style sword form performed using external style. Don’t be discouraged son, let’s start everything over. Base on your wit and will power plus your foundation, I’m certain you can accomplish it in three years. I will be there for you all the way. As long as you have faith and persistence you will succeed!” Jianping wavered a bit after considering the fact that six sections of Wudang Sword has 132 movements with hundreds of singular moves plus the combined requirements of Xingyi, Bagua and Taiji, but he quickly recomposed himself. The arrow does not turn back once it leaves the bow. The past five years learning on his own was like walking in the dark. If he could make it through that, then there is nothing to fear now that a master is pointing the way even if it takes another three or ten years. Just like that, Jianping’s visit to Tianjin that summer of 1990 turned into the first of 10 journeys to Tianjin to seek the master and the sword. If work was busy, then he would only stay for a day learning one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. When time permits, he would stay for a week commuting daily from the hotel to Master Ma’s place learning at least 7 or 8 movements sometimes even up to 20. Master Ma has a system of teaching. First Jianping has to memorize the name and important points about a movement before learning the movement itself. Slowly comprehending through practice the profoundness of each movement made it much easier to learn. While teaching the sword, Master Ma would use any opportunity to fill Jianping in regarding Xingyi, Bagua and Taiji. He strived to clarify and made sure Jianping understood fully during each lesson. Three years later Jianping’s martial arts presence had a complete transformation after 10 trips to Tianjin combined with hard work and natural talent. He manipulated the sword like a dragon soaring through the clouds and a fish swimming in the water. The first year was difficult transitioning from external style to internal style, then came the second year which was a period of receiving and digesting. By the summer of the third year Jianping had completed learning the entire sword form. During this time, Jianping also made the acquaintance of Master Ma’s other top disciples, in particular a Chinese immigrant from the U.S., Mei-Hui, and another young martial artists from the U.S., Wu-Na. They exchanged ideas and insights, complementing each other’s strengths and shortcomings. Their kindred spirits and friendship brought comfort to Master Ma’s heart.
The eight year journey seeking the sword and a master with the 10 trips to Tianjin had matured Jianping in all aspect of his martial arts training. Not only was this an accomplishment on a personal scale, but on a much grander scope of cultural inheritance as well. We have to admit the traditional swordsmanship is a difficult and unpopular art amongst today’s mainstream of commercial goods and booming economy, but there are still those out there standing tall like proud evergreen trees in the cold wind and snow. They each use their own particular will and way to carry on and pass along this treasure of our country. They are the strong ones. They are the heroes of the sword flowing amidst the stream of tradition and culture.
This article is dedicated to those who gave themselves for the furtherance of Wudang Sword.