My name is Cristiano and I’ve been living and working in China for ten years. In my spare time I love writing and outdoor exercise (PM 2.5 permitting).
I met Will Wain-Williams three years ago, and we immediately became friends. Will is a vigorous martial artist, as well as a tea expert. One of our favorite pastime was spending long hours sipping Chinese tea while discussing about travels or, sometimes, bitching about China.
Today, in this first article I publish for SDC, I’ll interview him.
Will, you have been training in kung fu for several years. Is this the main reason for which you moved to China?
Yes it is, I had been learning Wing Chun in the UK for several years, and from a young age had always been fascinated by Chinese culture. In 2007 I signed up for a volunteer program in Xi’an, which is where my China journey started.
You train in a particular style called “Mantis” (Tang Lang Quan, 螳螂拳. Can you tell us more about it?
Mantis is a native style to the eastern peninsula of Shandong. It was born in the rural county of Laiyang, between Yantai and Qingdao during the Ming dynasty. Much of its early history is shrouded in mystery, but it can be said to be a combination of the best strategies and techniques of many indigenous martial arts to the region, which has seen its fair share of war and bloodshed throughout history.
The Mantis style has little to do with actually mimicking an insect, instead it takes the principle of how a mantis catches its prey. It uses lightning speed to strike out, and then latch its claws onto the opponent. So we use the principles of Nian (sticking), Feng (sealing) and Gou (hooking) when defending.
As for attacking, we focus on deception, feinting high to strike low, or using a strike to set up a throw. We can use any part of our body as a weapon, such as the head, knees, elbows, even shoulders and hips. The style trains many weapons, common to all Chinese martial arts, such as sabre, spear and staff. However our specialty is the double handed sword, which requires a high level to utilize.
After a period of wandering through China, three years ago you settled down in Yantai to train with a famous master called Zhou Zhen Dong. How was this experience?
I had trained with many people in China, but the one thing that struck me about Zhou Shifu was the fact he will say “I don’t know”, rather than make up some crap to keep face. This gives much more credit to the things he does know.
Zhou Shifu is the sole inheritor of the Taiji style of Mantis passed down through Master Cui Shou Shan, one of the two fighters of Shandong province in the Kuomintang period. Zhou Shifu trained in secret during the Cultural Revolution, being the only successor to his teacher, Zhang Kai Tang, who was a disciple of both Cui Shou Shan and the Hao family Meihua Mantis.
When I first met him, it took a while to make an impression. We would train twice a day, two hours each time. The first session started at 6am, and the evening session around 8 or 9pm. In the beginning, he gave me two moves, and then I just worked on them over and over, without any encouragement. After a while of training like this, he warmed up to me and started spending more time teaching me.
After a year or so, I dropped the regular classes and started training privately with him in the afternoons. This was very informal, and gave me the chance to soak up everything I could. After training we would often sit and drink tea in his home, while he told me stories of old masters as well as his own experience growing up under the reign of Chairman Mao, and his own training and fights.
I’ve tried kung fu myself for a few months in Fujian, only to discover is not my thing. However some of my best friends are or used to be practitioners, not to mention I’ve met many martial artists here and there during the years. It seems more and more westerners are drawn here for the sole purpose of learning Chinese kung fu. As a martial artist yourself, do you see this as an increasing trend?
Yes, I think it is an increasing trend. Years ago, due to the political situation, people just didn’t come to China, and there were many myths like “kung fu is dead in China”.
Now many people are coming here, due to the popularity of Shaolin and Wudang, as well as the Ip Man movies. There are many schools which cater specially for foreigners all over China. I think for people who don’t speak the language or are new to China or martial arts, these places are great; however after a period of time, people will be seeking a more authentic experience, and will seek our higher level masters.
Beside Shaolin, which is probably the most famous traditional style of kung fu and has become a huge money machine, do you think there is a future for other less known styles?
Yes I think there is a future. People who train styles like Shaolin often find their training is lacking something. They learn some Sanda (kickboxing) and loads of forms (preset routines of movements), but there is no connection between the two. When they realize their training amounts to no more than collecting form after form, and their Sanda stops improving, I feel they will start looking for more authentic styles, which have a very complete syllabus of how to integrate forms to fighting.
The language barrier is surely the biggest drawback of learning kung fu in China. What is your advice to foreigners interested in training kung fu here?
Like I said above, there are many Shaolin schools which are great for beginners or people with no language skills in Chinese. They can be a good starting place to get the fundamentals, as well as begin to learn the language. Alternatively, many well-known masters may have long term western or English speaking students who will usually be more than willing to help out. It’s just a matter of searching around the internet. You can also drop me a line by visiting my website!
During my short experience with kung fu I couldn’t help noticing foreign students who were somewhat more ‘into it’ than the local ones. It seemed my master also had the same feeling, because he once confided his concern about the future of Chinese kung fu to us. Have you had the same experience in Yantai?
Yes, my teacher has said to me on numerous occasions this same thing. Kung fu seemed to be popular among younger people during the 80s and 90s, but as China is developing and modernizing, it has been left behind. No parents want their kids wasting their time on kung fu when they could be doing homework!
I’ve observed an interesting phenomenon among western kung fu enthusiasts. It seems there’s always a bunch of them who take it too seriously. I’m talking about the type you spot performing some bizarre contortions out of the blue, in the most random places such as bus stops, public offices and shopping streets, to the bemusement of the bystanders. In my humble opinion it’s kind of weird. Tell me the truth, are you a kung fu geek?
Haha, well I don’t start doing my forms in the visa office or sit in parks reading Tang dynasty poems out loud if that’s what you mean. But, yes I have seen these kind of people; the ones who dress up in Shaolin monk robes and walk the streets of China barefoot. the ones who completely miss the plot about what kung fu or Chinese culture actually is.
Beside traditional kung fu, your other passion, or better call it an addiction, is Chinese tea. I’ve learned quite a bit about tea from your website. Could you enlighten our readers.
I started drinking Chinese tea originally as a way to practice Chinese. If you go to tea shops, they generally invite you to sit down and try different teas. The girls working in one shop were curious about the white guy, and I wanted to practice my speaking, so I used to visit the local tea shop in Qingdao and over time I started learning about the different teas. This kind of grew into a passion of itself and I started drinking tea on a daily basis, even traveling to different parts of China to see how and where tea is made.
You moved to Seoul a few days ago after seven years in China. I hate to admit I’ll miss you, butt face. Have you started missing China already or is that too early?
At the moment I’m not really missing China. Seven years is a long time, and while I love the culture, the society took its toll on me. All the crap that comes out of the media, everything being about national pride, constantly being stared at… It’s so nice to be away from that. I feel taking a step back has helped me to appreciate all I have learned over this period of time too.
What are the main differences between China and Korea that come first to your mind?
First of all South Korea is a democratic society, and people are free to hold whatever beliefs or political views they like. While on the surface, Korea is also very materialistic, I feel that people care about more than just making money. Culture-wise, Korea does a very good job of presenting and preserving, with many free hands-on activities.
I’ve been to Seoul twice and the only thing I can recall are the hot slender ladies. I’m pretty sure there’s more than that.
Haha. That’s definitely something I like about Seoul! Seriously though, there is a lot to do here, like I said above, a lot of cultural activities. If you go to many of the old palaces, they have performances recreating Choseon Dynasty guard changing ceremonies, along with martial arts and musical performances.
Dongguk University has weekly talks on Buddhism from people from all over the world. Then there’s many options for martial arts, both Korean and foreign. On top of all of that, partying, shopping and food!
What about the food. I’ve heard your stomach hasn’t accustomed yet to the infamous Korean kimchi (hot spicy cabbage).
Nah, it’s fine. Most Korean food isn’t too spicy, and there are a lot of non-spicy options. Basically though, Korean food is pretty much the same as you can get in any Korean restaurant in China. They have some weird toppings on pizza too. But then again, so does China.
Will you ever come back to China?
Probably, but not for a while.
Will, thank you for your time, I wish you all the best for you new life in Korea and your never ending journey into martial arts.
Thank you too!
Photo Credits: Photos by Cristiano Mei