Letter from China: It’s Wu-dang!

Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.

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A continuation of Letter from China: Guangdong and Fujian

Depressed in Shanghai

In early November, I return to China for the last major leg of the trip, a six-week journey—the longest so far—that will take me from Shanghai – Nanjing – Wudang – Xi’an – Shaolin – Weifang – Beijing.

Even though the hallowed Shaolin awaits, I am not looking forward to this trip. I need all my discipline to board that flight from Singapore to Shanghai on Nov 6th.

There are several reasons for this. The first is simply fatigue. After more than four months on the road, having covered more than 15,000km overland, I am just bloody tired. I am tired of searching for cheap hotels and the most cost-efficient overland journey. I am tired of packing my bags every four days and moving to the next place. I am tired of carrying around my voice recorder, camera, GoPro, phone and notebook wherever I go. I am tired of repeating my damn shpeel about Kerala and Shaolin. I am tired of looking at every person on the street as an interview subject. (I want to just look down and walk past you!) And I am tired of watching over my two team-members: as fun and independent as they are, I always worry about them, feeling somewhat responsible for their safety.

That brings us to my next cause for concern—we have a new player in the team. Jeffrey Chu, my dear Shanghai-based Taiwanese friend, who I first met in the US in 2002, has decided to leave me to pursue a separate film project. Jeffrey is a filmmaker by trade; he had initially agreed to join From Kerala to Shaolin as translator because his schedule was open.

But in October a project he has long been eyeing, a lovely story about a Sichuanese chef and his family, suddenly got full funding—and an immediate shoot date. Jeffrey is very apologetic, and I know there’s no point trying to enforce our gentleman’s agreement; his heart is already in the smoky kitchens of Chongqing.

Jeffrey has been incredibly diligent in finding a replacement through his film and media circles. At the end of the last leg, I interview several young Chinese over Skype, before finally settling on Julia Lee from Qingdao. As much as I am looking forward to meeting and working with Julia, it is just another personnel change for me to deal with—new habits, new style, relearning of interview questions, etc.

While there was wonderful continuity on the India leg of the journey—with photographer Kirit Kiran following me throughout—Julia is the third person I will work with on the China leg. In my already irritable mood, I am not altogether pleased about another transition.

And finally there is the weather. I hate the cold. Singapore’s weather is almost perfect for me. Anything below 10 degrees Celsius sends me into a tizzy. Two years in Boston for grad school couldn’t change that. For the first time on this journey, I have had to repack my bag—exit shorts and slippers, enter sweaters and ear-muffs. This feels so depressingly distant from the tropical climate of Kerala in June. I hate the cold.

Thus, on the evening of Nov 6th, when I pull on an extra layer to greet Kirit again and meet Julia for the first time, at the Jinjiang Inn near Hongqiao in Shanghai, I am already looking forward to the end of this trip.

Homecoming

Thankfully, Singapore comes to the rescue—in the form of Vance Yeang, my old army buddy, who has been living in China for the past eight years. The last time I met Vance was on my first and last trip to Shanghai, in 2006, when he was working at a restaurant. This time, he invites Julia, Kirit and I to Yuan Oyster & Cocktail Lounge, which he opened in 2011 in Shanghai’s French Concession.

Aware that it is our first team “meeting”, Vance plays the gracious but unobtrusive host, spending a few minutes describing the bar’s concept: a blend of traditional and modern Chinese elements. This finds expression in everything from the furniture—such as the tiny Chinese wooden chairs that have been raised to serve as bar stools—to the elaborate yet accessible cocktails that combine Chinese ingredients and spirits with Western.

We are surprised to learn that in China’s blistering rush to embrace foreign ideas, there are almost no modern bars with a Chinese theme anywhere in the country. We sample a range of drinks as well as pizza and, much to my delight, laksa, a Malayan noodle dish.

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Shaoxing Chivalry: A twist on a Manhattan. Instead of bourbon, 12-year-old Chivas is infused with red dates; a Shaoxing wine reduction with wolfberries substitutes the vermouth; and then topped with orange bitters.

We leave happy and hammered. Having had a chance to break bread and clink cocktails with Julia, I’m feeling a bit more confident about everything. (I later learn that Julia dislikes drinking, but felt somewhat obliged, it being our first evening together. Oops.)

I am also proud of my friend Vance, who has come a long way from the days of being a storeman in the army and an $800/month chef immediately after. He is on the verge of opening his second place: a Chinese BBQ restaurant that will serve, among other things, sambal stingray, a very Malayan dish. It is always great to see Singaporeans—traditionally risk-averse and somewhat insular—doing well overseas.

Professional success has been matched by personal fulfillment. Stefi, his Shanghainese wife who co-manages the place, stops at our table to say hi (Vance and her pictured). Her parents are babysitting their two kids. Vance, in so many ways, embodies the modern China dream.

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Nanjing

The next morning, we head to the Hongqiao station to catch a train to Nanjing. Although I have been impressed by many of China’s transportation hubs, nothing quite prepares me for Hongqiao. This is a train station more awe-inspiring than most US airports. I am reminded again of the gap between ageing American infrastructure and new Chinese development. Kirit and I lean back, mouths agape, and stare at the colossal structure, while Julia fiddles with her iPhone, oblivious to starstruck Indians.

We spend three nights in Nanjing, again at Jinjiang Inn, a chain that is proving to be a good budget option (US$25 per single room) in many Chinese cities—avoid the breakfast buffet, though, a mix of stale Chinese breads and over-salted pickles.

One of Nanjing’s highlights is “The memorial hall of the victims in Nanjing massacre by Japanese invaders”. My interest in China-Japan relations had been piqued by the numerous Chinese, young and old, who along the way have told me how much they hate Japan. I remember, in particular, an old ceramics dealer in Foshan, Guangzhou, whose cherubic face had warped into a knotted ball of fury when he recounted his childhood under Japanese occupation. It was one of those moments when the world around melts away, as one gets drawn into the intense emotion of a single individual.

sculpture

My dear poor wife!
The devil raped you, killed you…
I’m right after you!
– The helpless struggle of a dying intellectual

Sculpture in The memorial hall of the victims in Nanjing massacre by Japanese invaders

The memorial hall’s grounds are impressive, a mix of modern architecture and wide open spaces. As expected, victimisation and nationalism scream off every exhibit. By the end of it Julia, who went to college in Korea, another country with historical grievances against Japan, is feeling a bit sick. “Why do we have to keep demonising the Japanese?” she says. “These things happened seventy years ago, we should not blame the Japanese of today.”

Her views seem to put her in the minority. Many Chinese and Koreans argue that Japan has never fully admitted, acknowledged and apologised for the atrocities it committed in the late 19th and early 20th century. A common retort from Chinese critics is that since China demands greater historical transparency and accountability from Japan, so it should do the same in regard to its activities in places such as Tibet. The politics of history in East Asia hangs heavy over every conversation.

I have started to think more about the “rape of Nanking” after watching City of Life and Death, a powerful, art-house flick shot in black-and-white. I enjoyed it not only for its cinematic brilliance but for how it balanced the depiction of Chinese suffering with insights into how war and aggression dehumanised the Japanese soldiers.

Incredibly, Julia and I also get to listen to a first-hand account, when we stumble into Cheng Yun (程云, pictured), a 93-year old survivor, as he is making his daily round of the memorial hall. Mr Cheng invites us to his home nearby, a tiny one-room flat. As a former Kuomintang soldier, who first fought off the Japanese in Nanjing and then later fought a losing battle against the communists, Mr Cheng’s story is as much about communist labour camps and contemporary land grabs as it is about the Japanese in Nanjing.1

Chen Yun

Julia is not a journalist by training or trade. She applied for this position partly because she loves to travel and meet people. “I feel like I’m in school again,” she once tells me, after I ask her to help me look for an interview subject. I could never have imagined that her very first interview would be with a 93-year old survivor of the rape of Nanking. As we leave his house under a darkening sky, she seems a bit shaken—but fairly excited. I am happy.

We thoroughly enjoy our time in Nanjing, including the hearty duck’s blood soup (pictured), the local delicacy, and our visit to the impressive mausoleum of Sun Yat Sen, the father of China’s revolution. The seat of many dynasties, Nan-jing literally means “Southern capital”—as opposed to Bei-jing, “Northern capital”. It is a modern metropolis with some 8m people, yet also a place infused with history. A rich history, perhaps, is the only thing it has in common with our next stop, Wudang, a 16-hour train ride away.

duck blood

Wudang

After the hustle and bustle of Shanghai and Nanjing, there is a certain old-worldly charm about Wudang. Perhaps in keeping with their Taoist and Taiji traditions, the pace of life seems slower and many people appear to be floating around ethereally (although it could just be the fact that it’s the smallest Chinese town I’ve visited to date). Only on Day 5 there do I see my first Western logo—an Angry Birds backpack. No Coke, no KFC, no Magnum (the ice-cream), all commonplace in bigger cities. And on Day 6 my first Western car, an Audi.

Like other wayward Singaporean teenagers in the early 1990s, my earliest introduction to Wudang was via the Wu-Tang Clan, today considered one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time. Though the connection between introspective Taoists and hedonistic African-Americans may not be immediately apparent, the US’s music industry has actually long been fascinated by Chinese wushu—“Kung Fu Fighting”, the Carl Douglas song, was released in 1974. The inspiration for the Wu-Tang Clan’s name was Shaolin and Wu Tang, a movie about China’s two most famous martial arts schools. In many ways Wudang has always been assessed in opposition to its erstwhile rival Shaolin.

Although the two are geographically close to each other, they have very different histories. Wudang is named after Wudang shan, a mountain range sacred to Taoists.2 The Shaolin temple is within the Song shan range, one of seven sacred Buddhist mountains; Emei shan, which I visited in Sichuan, is another (see First letter from China: Sichuan).

The Shaolin and Wudang mountains’ different religious roots undoubtedly had an impact on the life and style of wushu that evolved there. A very crude distinction that people like to make is between the “external” nature of Buddhist martial arts and the “internal” nature of Taoist forms. It bears mention that during my time in Wudang, I hear “Wudang wushu”, “Taiji” and “Taiji chuan” being used interchangeably to refer to the native martial art form.

Though my understanding of these two “religions” is still fairly superficial, I will try and highlight what I believe are some important differences. First, Buddhism stresses the importance of the afterlife and reincarnation, whereas Taoism highlights the joy of living a well-balanced life right now. There is a slight future orientation with the former, but a dedicated present-day one with the latter.

“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present,” says Lao Tzu, perhaps the greatest Taoist philosopher—the religion has no deities—who lived in the 6th C BC and is best known as the author of the Tao Te Ching, a classic Chinese text. Its opening lines have been widely popularised and rephrased:

“The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

Second, Buddhism seems to involve a more active struggle to eradicate human desire, in a bid to achieve nirvana; whereas Taoism is a more passive acceptance of the natural order of things. According to this philosophy, there is a natural balance in life and aside from embracing the “three treasures”—compassion, humility and moderation—an individual should not so much fight intrinsic desires as simply detach from them.

“Taoist culture does not emphasise money, but accepts it,” says Chen Shi Xing (陈师行), the twenty-something year old shifu at the China Wudang Kung Fu Academy. This concept of balance has been immortalised through two symbols: the Yin and Yang; and the Bagua (literally “eight symbols”: Heaven, Lake, Fire, Thunder, Wind, Water, Mountain, Earth). Below is a depication of the Yin and Yang within the Bagua (credit: Wikipedia).

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A third simple difference is around origins. Buddhism came from India, while Taoism is the only major religion indigenous to China.3 “We value it because it came from this land,” is something several Taoist followers in Wudang tell me.

Of course, many followers of Taoism are also followers of Buddha. In demographic analyses in Singapore, the two are often lumped together as one and the same: Buddhist/Taoist. I am still learning about their differences, so any additional thoughts from you, dear reader, would be much appreciated.

We visit several wushu schools in Wudang, but for now I will just describe Chen shifu’s academy. It was built only a few years ago a couple of kilometres outside town near a tiny farming village and right by the main railway track. The academy’s setting is spectacular, at the foot of a little hill (pictured), on which a barely discernible hiking/jogging trail has been formed in the earth by a million footsteps.

The circular round-trip hike takes about twenty minutes, but for the easily distracted, like Kirit and I with a bottle of rice wine in our bags, a good hour can be spent here. The top ridge offers magnificent vistas over rolling hills, all the more so in Autumn, when we are surrounded by magical shades of brown, orange, red and yellow. On the walk down, one passes lush orange groves. We pluck one, taste it, then try another from the row below, noting the variation in the sweet/sour profile.

KK Hill

I go to great lengths to describe this hill because it is probably Kirit’s and my favourite nature encounter on the whole trip. We climb the hill a total of four times, including on our very last day in Wudang, when we visit the academy just to climb it.

One eyesore I notice the first time I climb is a brick factory, not far from the academy, bellowing smoke and making an absolute racket. How can one possibly study Taoism or learn Taiji in this environment? “The factory was built after the academy opened,” says Wu Yun, Chen shifu’s instantly-likeable translator. “But we have learned to block out the noise. Development is part of life; the factory must be built somewhere.”

Interesting. Am I closer to understanding “the Tao”?

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The academy from the top of the hill. Students are training on the square. Smoke rises from the brick factory on the right. (Click on picture for bigger view.)

Chen shifu is like the perfect caricature of the Wudang Taoist practitioner: long-haired, wafer-thin and diminutive, he glides along unassumingly, with a tendency to philosophise about the seemingly mundane. “What the heart feels the body will show,” he replies, when I ask how he grew such a long beard (pictured, with student).

Chen

He started learning taiji when he was 11. Like other Wudang shifus I meet, he was drawn to Wudang wushu not by its Taoist philosophical underpinnings, but by the “hair-styles of the martial artists”. By 15 he was training others; by his early twenties, he had opened his own school.

Chen shifu is one of two extremely young shifus I meet here. Perhaps, just as China’s explosive growth has pushed the average CEO age down—as experienced talent dries up—so Wudang’s explosive growth post-Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000), the Ang Lee blockbuster set here, has done the same to the average shifu age.

Chen shifu explains that in the past many people learned Wudang wushu partly as a means of self-defense; but today the main reason, by far, is “health preservation”. While gurus in India and shifus in China have highlighted the health benefits of martial arts, in Wudang the emphasis seems significantly higher. In every school I visit, there are many practitioners there solely to better their health.

This includes two middle-aged Malaysian women from Kuching as well as Jim (pictured), a 73-year old Oregonian who for the past 13 years has been practising taiji, which he credits for his health and energy. Taiji, of course, has been exported around the world; in Wudang, for the first time, I observe not only the more recognisable slow form, but some faster varieties too.

Jim

In recent years, the Wudang schools have made great efforts to broaden their market by attracting international students. Chen shifu’s school has an extensive English-language website as well as Wu Yun, who not only accepts Skype calls from abroad but also helps students and visitors, such as ourselves, get around. The day after we meet her, Wu Yun, who is as comfortable discussing Shakespeare as Aamir Khan, adds us on Facebook and sends us Taoist reading material.

The results of this international marketing are astonishing: when we visit, the student body is a veritable United Nations, with Americans, Brazilians, British, Germans, Malaysians, a Mexican and a sole Singaporean youth, who having spent two months there, exclaims “It’s so nice to hear Singlish again!” when we meet.

On Day 4 we finally ascend Wudang shan, by taking a bus and cable car to the summit. After the opulent grandeur of Emei shan’s summit, I am surprised to see that the temple at the top is a modest construction. As I stand there, observing Taoist charlatans attempting to sell trinkets and tell fortunes, I hear domestic tourist after tourist express their anti-climatic disappointment at the tiny temple. They expect more. Personally, I am really enjoying this Taoist understatement. (Below are pictures of the Wudang shan summit and the Emei shan summit.)

Temple top

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We then spend a good five hours descending to Nanyang, the southern peak, where a stunning temple is built into the rock face. Despite the occasional flashes of Ming dynasty grandeur, minimalism and subtlety seem to be the order of the day on Wudang shan. Numerous temples, big and small, dot the landscape, all apparently designed to be in harmony with the natural surroundings. After a day and half there, I think we have seen only a third of the mountain range.

We end up staying a week in Wudang, about as long as we’ve spent anywhere on this trip. When people ask which place in China I enjoyed the most, Wudang often tops the list. It has, in my opinion, the perfect balance of remoteness and development. Unlike Shaolin, which is already over-commercialised, the Mecca and McDonald’s of the kungfu world, Wudang still retains a small-town feel.

Of course, people who knew what Wudang was ten years ago decry its current development. But that is what also makes it interesting. One can observe the tension between tradition and modernity best in Wudang. It plays out in the development of the mountain range, where natives complain about land grabs and rent hikes by tourist-dollar hungry local officials.

Meanwhile, although inequality appears much lower here than in many other Chinese cities—we pass very few beggars (and see only one Audi)—locals complain that it has gotten worse recently. Finally, the tension also plays out in the competition between wushu schools—some older shifus I meet complain that some of the younger ones are “good at marketing”, but little else. In particular, they have apparently not learned all they should about Taoism and Taiji.

As a writer, therefore, I enjoy Wudang for its simplicity, its solitude, its nascent social tensions and its warm people. Kirit and I are periodically reminded about Wudang’s beauty. Three weeks after we’ve left, we receive a message from Wu Yun. “The oranges are even better now,” she says.

The story continues at Letter from China: Xi’an and the road to Shaolin

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1 You can read more about Cheng Yun (程云) by searching Baidu.com for his name (the Chinese characters). A fair bit has been written about him.

2 Wudang is one of several places in China that lay claim to being the origin of Taoism.

3 Here I am excluding Confucianism, which has even less reason to be classified a “religion”.

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More photos:

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Above two shots from a quaint old part of Nanjing that is slated for redevelopment soon

senget

Near the Sun Yat Sen mausoleum.

bus stand

This is the Wudang bus depot. Yup, small town…

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Above are more shots from on top of our favourite hill

Berries

On the hill, in addition to oranges, I also took to eating these edible berries. Not to be confused with similar looking red berries!

country house

An old house in a farming community

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Above two shots are of Chen shifu’s students training at the Yuan He Temple, first built in the Song dynasty, circa 10th-13th C

roof shot

Above shot is taken at the school of Master Zhong Yunlong, one of the most revered of Wudang’s masters still alive, and the shifu of Chen shifu. Will describe my encounter with him in the book.

mountain range

small temple walk up

Walking down 3

Tree

Above shots taken on Wudang shan.

Taoist fortune

At the summit of Wudang shan, there are Taoist fortune tellers, charlatans apparently. I put this photo here to show what a typical Wudang Taoist hairstyle looks like.

Mao

Middle finger

Above two shots taken at the Purple Heaven Temple on Wudang shan. The first shows a Cultural Revolution-era message singing the praises of Mao Tse Tung. The second is of a figurine from a rather, er, curious angle.

Nanyang

View of Nanyang temple, Wudang shan

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Wudang shan’s environmental messages are some of the quirkiest I’ve seen.

roots

Medicinal roots and herbs sold everywhere

Walking down 4

The walk down Wudang shan was a real killer. You can see a person walking up the stairs at the other end. Click on picture for bigger view.

Walking down 2

Some of the scenes are straight out of an MC Escher work…

Walking down

Horsing around always makes the walk easier

sword

Wudang has a rich swordmaking tradition (like some other wushu centres)

Julia pose

Julia and an old man, whose family later offered us food and cigarettes for the walk down

KK posing

While some people in India worry about visiting China, the Chinese can’t get enough of Indians, and in particular, Kirit Kiran.

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Snails

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Duck’s blood

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Above two are common noodle breakfast dishes, costing less than US$1 each.

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This fried bun stuffed with chives and onions is a great, albeit greasy, on-the-go breakfast

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Pork and tofu

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Seaweed soup, one of our favourites

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Battered long beans

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Claypot rice with pig’s innards

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Fresh Muslim la mian, noodles

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Muslim beef. Many Chinese, including Julia, will eat beef mostly at Muslim restaurants, because there is quality control. Unlike some non-Muslim places, infamous for using fake beef (often pork in disguise).

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Local fish. Tasty but bony. After a while, we stopped ordering fish, because none of us could be bothered picking through the cobweb of bones.

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Mountain vegetables. Delicious, but pricey.

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6 responses

  1. thoroughly enjoyed reading your ‘china its wu-dang adventures! you certainly know how to captivate your audience. reminded me of time and travels through china. still have to read your first book but i look forward to reading from kerala to shoaling. keep it up lah. much respect.

  2. I first travelled to Wudang Shan in 2007, then 2010 and most recently in 2012, your blog brought back many memories.
    Even though it is not immune to modernisation, once you are up in the mountains it is such a wonderful place to practise Tai Ji and Qi Gong. Love the pictures of the food, as a vegetarian I spend a lot of time when in China peering at dishes to see if there is any meat in there!

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