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An Interview with Baji King, Master Wu Song Fa

Conducted by Christine Vine

Member of the British Wushu Team, 2002

(Article Published, Combat Magazine, February 2002)

In more recent years it has become ever more difficult to find a master who knows not only the movements of an art but also has the knowledge and ability to apply them to devastating effect. Master Wu Song Fa is one of the few remaining masters who understands these skills and has been through what it takes to learn them. Master Wu Song Fa began his training as a nine-year-old boy with the Chin Woo Athletic Assosiation . After many years of training his high level of proficiency had become well known within the Association. During his early twenties, Master Wu went to Taiwan to challenge his skills by travelling from master to master. This served only to confirm his level of skill but that changed when he came across the legendary Grandmaster Liu Yun Chiao, founder of Wutan, advisor to the Martial Arts Commission of China and Instructor to the Imperial Palace Bodyguards.

Why learn Traditional Wushu?

“My father was killed by the Japanese, so I was very angry. My house was in a bad area and there was always fighting and stealing so I learned Wushu to help protect myself and my family.”

Training under Grandmaster Liu Yun Chiao

“My training days under Grandmaster Liu Yun Chiao were very hard. One day’s training consisted of five to six hours. Morning sessions lasted for two hours followed by two hours training in the afternoon and two more during the evening.”

Whilst attending the Univesity of Taiwan for three years, Master Wu slept in the traing hall at night, waking up at 5am to train.
Master Wu described the arduous training hardships he went through. One year was spent on basics, which often consisted of more time training in horse stance than most people now would even consider attempting. Master Wu first learnt Ba Ji basics from Grandmaster Liu and after that, Xing Yi. Then he stayed on for about four years to teach on behalf of Grandmaster Liu. It was at this time that Master Wu’s visa in Taiwan expired, meaning he would have to return to Malaysia.

The importance of basics for Traditional & Modern Wushu

“Basics are important for both traditional and modern wushu but their requirements are different. In traditional training, basics are the foundation of your power. The power comes from your legs and from the ground, and provides your reaction force. So this is very important!”

Master Wu explains that there are three different types of conditioning in traditional training. Firstly, “you must train your chi so you can calm yourself down and concentrate.” This builds up the strength of the internal organs. The second essential factor in conditioning is described as a mechanical force where the techniques and movements are applied scientifically, in coordination with the natual movements of the body. The final element of conditioning is the application of the skills you have learnt, or “How to protect yourself”.”
Speaking in support of the arduous training Grandmaster Liu expected of his students Master Wu says that this is what has to be done in order to become good! It is immaterial whether the training is “nice or not.”

Will the real Wushu please stand up!

I was curious to find out what in Master Wu’s view were the main differences between traditional and modern Wushu. He describes the main difference as being, “… two kinds of roots – the two ways”.

Most traditional martial art masters tend to have a negative view of modern Wushu. They reject this sport-orientated version of their heritage. Despite being a strongly traditional martial artist and not particularly a great fan of the modernisation of China’s combative arts, Master Wu clearly is still in touch with the need for this new Wushu and its potential to develop awareness of all aspects of Chinese Wushu.

“If you do the movements well in traditional Wushu, they may look very beautiful. Although this is very good it is also okay if the movements do not look quite so nice as long as they develop the power you need! Modern Wushu uses some very nice and dynamic moves but you also need to train in the basics as with the traditional styles. The basics are a little different for modern Wushu because they include such things as learning how to jump and sumerault – the gymnastic skills. This is very hard! Modern Wushu aims at performance in shows for demonstration and entertainment. But the emphasis in the old traditional art is on self-defense. So they are both for different things.”

The Legend of Liu Yun Chiao

Before his death in 1992 Wutan’s founder Grandmaster Liu Yun Chiao was accredited by many Chinese and Japanese martial artists as one of the greatest masters in the world. During the second World War Liu Yun Chiao became well-known when he defeated the famous Japanese swordsman Ota Tokusaburo in the French park of Tientsin City, Hopei Province, China. The Japanese had been insulting the Chinese. Calling them ‘the sick men of Asia’. They killed many Chinese martial artists who sought to avenge this statement but Liu Yun Chiao defeated Ota Tokusaburo’s sword with only a wooden sword!

“Master Liu had nothing to do when he retired from the army, so he taught in an army school in China, training the bodyguards of President Chiang Kai Shek. He wanted to develop Wushu so he built his school, Wutan. He published the Wutan Wushu magazine and in the beginning one of my elder brothers helped him. Then I joined him in about 1970 and my younger brothers also joined to build up the magazine. I promoted Wushu classes as well as the magazine. I was also one of the magazine’s editors. Before 1970 Grandmaster Liu taught only his three inside-door students – not the public. Then he began to teach the public in 1970.”

Seekers of the lost knowledge

“Modern students want to first learn the taolu sequence but don’t want the basics! Basics are very hard and there no longer seems to be enough time to practise. Many teachers don’t want to pass down their knowledge because the students only want the sequence and will not take the effort to practise the basics. So the teachers cannot pass down what they know because some techniques are very hard to earn.

According to my master he learned chi gong from three years old. This is very inhumane because it involves the child wearing a sand-weighted suit to which more weight is steadily added. Often the body cannot grow properly, so how can the teacher teach this?

No one would want to train if that sort of training was enforced! But higher skills cannot be attained without this! You may be able to learn more advanced techniques but you will have no power. The teacher may decide not to teach you other techniques because you may hurt yourself through not having a grasp of the basics.”

When East meets West

“Eastern and western culture are not the same. I have only seen the western side for a very short time so I cannot really say anything about that. But I can say that there are two kinds of teachers in Chinese society. The outside-door teacher is for the general public and the inside-door teacher if for those students to whom the teacher wants to pass the important things. So why do the students want the inside-door training? Because they want to learn more about the style, and the teacher will need to teach them differently. So the indoor students must be responsible to the teacher, and the teacher must be responsible to the students.”

To Sifu or not to Sifu

“In Chinese `Si' means teacher, 'fu' means father. The student calls the teacher `Sifu' but not just anyone can use this title. For example, someone cannot say, "Ahh Wu Sifu!" unless they are my inside-door student. Then it's OK.

`Sifu' means your own teacher, so you cannot use it for someone else's teacher, since he is not your father of training. Mr They is a founder of Wutan UK and Master Wu's first indoor and though I respect him, I cannot call him `Sifu'. I call him simply `Mr. They'. Nowadays many people now use `Laoshi' (meaning' teacher')."

According to Master Wu, the Eastern teacher and student share a mutual respect for each other, and the student who respects the teacher will be respected in return.This relationship is very close, and not at all like that which you find in most Western cultures. Outside-door students are also responsible to and respectful of each other but not to the same extent as the inside-door students.

There is a bond also between students in Chinese culture, “…That means like a real blood-brother relationship. If you have a problem then all your brothers must help you. To be a teacher is to attain a very high level in Chinese culture. Master Liu was referred to ‘Laoshi Sifu’ by Chiang’s bodyguards and this is a very high status.”

The Good, the painful and the basic

I think my students' training is very hard because I expect them to be good. They must perform well because it is through the students that you can see the skill of the teacher. I want my stu­dents to be good so I require them to train every day for five years, and come to my house for one hour every week.They train in mao bu and gong bu (horse stance & bow stance). Later I teach them sequences, but through single movements.

They ask, "Why won't the teacher teach me the sequence?"I know this is what they are thinking when they start but after two or three years they come to know better because by now they have come to understand which elements are important.Sequences are about joining single movements together but the sequence in only as good as the individual techniques, and they come to appreciate this. So I work my students very hard. I now have about 20 inside-door students but not all 20 work hard – just a few do. I explain to them that I teach them the best way I know how because that is my responsibility, but whether they will do well is their responsibility.”

The Well-rounded Master

“I am also a Chinese calligrapher and a singer though now I don’t go out to perform as much. I sang opera in both Taiwan and Italy and once sang opera on TV.”

If I had not succeeded as a Martial Artist

“I would probably have written articles for the Chinese newspapers because I am also a writer. But I do not write anymore. It’s just as my hobby. Maybe I would do this if I were not doing martial art. The British Council in Malaysia recognized me as an artist during 1962 when I was 20 years old. I sang in a choir during my high school days and I was in a church choir in Taiwan. I learned to read music and can compose works. I like culture, so maybe I should get into that.”

Copyright Wutan Plymouth 2006