Published: 09:59, June 3, 2021 | Updated: 09:59, June 3, 2021
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Celebrated form of boxing packs new punch
By Zhu Lixin in Hefei

Family hands down ancestors' treasured cultural traditions

Niu-style boxing has become a regular activity for children in the village. (RUAN XUEFENG / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Three years ago, when Niu Yilin was 8, she and some friends joined a free course of instruction in a traditional martial art in her home village in Anhui province.

Since then, most of her friends have quit the course, but Niu said she decided to continue it, not just for the physical but, more important, the psychological benefits it offers.

It is my responsibility to pass on this heritage. We elderly men are virtually the only people who have acquired Niu-style boxing skills. If we don’t do anything, the heritage will soon be lost

Niu Hefa, 76-year-old major inheritor of Niu-style boxing

As she performs flips, twists and tumbles, beads of sweat dot her forehead, and she is always ready to follow guidance from her instructor.

Niu, who comes from Xinger village in Feidong county of Hefei, the provincial capital, is considered a left-behind child, as her parents work in the city and only return home for weekends. However, she is luckier than most of her friends, whose parents work in cities far from home.

Niu and a dozen other students from local primary and middle schools practice wushu, or martial arts, in and outside a rented brick-and-tile, one-story house in the village, which has a population of about 3,000.

As the students are instructed, a group of villagers, most of them elderly, gather outside the house and peer through a dirty window.

One elderly woman places a baby boy on the window ledge and tells him, "When you are older, I will let you join these practice sessions."

Niu Shouzhu, one of the instructors, who is in his 60s, said, "The course welcomes all local children and is free."

More than a century ago, Niu Yilin's ancestors developed hongquan, or Hong boxing, a renowned martial art form, mainly using their own styles.

Niu Hehou, 77, a major inheritor of Niu-style boxing, said, "It was developed late in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when local people thought they needed to protect themselves from gangsters."

Niu Hehou, 77, instructs village children in the art of Niu-style boxing, which has been handed down for several generations. (RUAN XUEFENG / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Request for help

Located on the north shore of Chaohu Lake, the fifth-largest freshwater lake in China, Changlinhe township, which governs Xinger, used to be an important business center visited by numerous ships sailing the Yangtze River.

Niu Hehou said, "Local businesses, which were often threatened by pirates and gangsters in the early 20th century, often asked for help from Niu Hongchuan, the second-generation master of Niu-style boxing, who popularized the skills among local villagers."

Learning these skills from an uncle during childhood, Niu Hehou said he continued to pursue this form of boxing as a hobby when he taught Chinese grammar at a local middle school before retiring in 2005.

After his retirement, he went to live with his son in Hunan province.

"I returned home to Xinger in 2012, when I decided to do something to pass on cultural heritage," said Niu Hehou, who founded and headed the Feidong Niu-style Hong Boxing Association in 2015.

Three years earlier, at Xinger Primary School, he started to raise awareness of cultural heritage, with support from Zhang Jie, the school's principal at the time.

"We started to teach Niu-style boxing during the school's compulsory physical education classes," said Niu Hehou, adding that such an arrangement was a totally new experience for the school.

"After the foundation of New China, martial arts seemed to disappear from primary and middle schools for quite a while, as some people thought the practitioners would become aggressive and cause trouble," he said.

Niu Hefa, 76, a major inheritor of Niu-style boxing, teaches skills to children. (RUAN XUEFENG / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Government support

Niu Hehou's initiative to popularize his ancestors' heritage coincided with policy changes introduced by the central authorities.

In August, 2010, the Ministry of Education and the General Administration of Sport jointly released a guideline to popularize martial arts education in primary and middle schools, starting in the fall semester that year.

The guideline stated that martial arts were a treasured part of traditional Chinese culture and would play an active role in improving the physical and psychological health of young students.

At a news conference in 2012, the General Administration of Sport said implementation of the guideline had been successful, Xinhua News Agency reported. The administration and the ministry would further promote martial arts education in rural schools, the report said.

Xinhua quoted Gao Xiaojun, former president of the Chinese Wushu Association, as saying that martial arts education in school is irreplaceable, as it serves both physical exercise and cultural education purposes.

In May, 2012, Niu Hehou succeeded in getting Niu-style Hong boxing listed as county-level and municipal-level intangible cultural heritage. In 2017, it was listed at provincial level.

Children practice Niu-style boxing in Xinger village, Feidong county, Hefei, capital of Anhui province. (RUAN XUEFENG / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Practice sessions

The Feidong Niu-style Hong Boxing Association, whose members are mostly from the Niu family, introduced the sport to Xinger Primary School's physical education classes in 2012.

The students enjoyed it immensely, but as they needed to be taught a wide range of sports during PE classes, they had little time to practice, Niu Hehou said.

In 2013, he led a group of instructors in teaching Niu-style Hong boxing to children in the village after school.

Wang Nana, the mother of Niu Yilin, who has attended practice sessions three times a week for the past three years, said: "Rural students hardly have any choices to pursue extracurricular interests, unlike their urban counterparts. The instructors not only offer such an opportunity, but provide it for free, so their efforts are really appreciated."

Yang Haiyan, from Xinger, who lives in Hefei with her husband and 8-year-old son, said: "Even in the city, we have struggled to find a place for our boy to learn traditional martial arts." Yang added that she sends him back to the village to attend the course during weekends.

Courses for taekwondo, the martial arts form that originated in Korea, have become popular in Chinese cities, but such instruction is often expensive, Yang said.

Watching her son practicing his boxing, she said she was glad that he had insisted for 18 months on learning the skills.

Niu Shouzhu, former assistant to Niu Hehou and current president of the Feidong Niu-style Hong Boxing Association, said, "With two or three instructors, we teach about a dozen students during school semesters and more than 20 during vacations."

The students not only learn to perform martial arts with their fists, but also with implements such as wooden swords and knives. The users' names are written or carved on the implements, which have been passed on several times over the years and are made by Niu Hefa, 76, one of the instructors, who has carpentry skills and enjoys teaching the children.

"It is my responsibility to pass on this heritage. We elderly men are virtually the only people who have acquired Niu-style boxing skills. If we don't do anything, the heritage will soon be lost," said Niu Hefa, who is single.

Niu Shouzhu said, "As many of the villagers had moved to the city, some houses were left vacant, so we rented our first one as a practice venue in 2013 and moved to the second last year."

In 2011, the Children's Palace was established at Central Primary School in Changlinhe township as a venue offering more choices for students to develop their extracurricular arts and sports interests. There is no such venue at Xinger Primary School.

In 2015, when the association was founded, Zhang Jie transferred to Changlinhe Primary School and Niu-style boxing was launched at the Children's Palace. Students are offered classes twice a week.

To date, some 500 students from the school have benefited from the classes, said Zhang, now the school principal, adding that about one-seventh of the school's students are considered left-behind children.

Niu Hehou said some of the students' parents and grandparents think that learning martial arts can be beneficial in helping the children defend themselves in dangerous situations.

Niu Hefa, 76, a major inheritor of Niu-style boxing, teaches skills to children. (RUAN XUEFENG / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Skills difficulty

After quitting as president of the association last year, Niu Hehou has focused on campus promotional work, while Niu Shouzhu and Niu Hefa have continued to organize instruction sessions.

"Starting from the third grade, most of the students take instruction for just three years," Niu Hehou said.

After leaving local primary schools, students mostly go to the county town to attend middle schools, as their parents think these institutions offer a better education.

"So it is difficult for the students to pass on all the skills locally," said Niu Hehou, adding that such efforts are still worth pursuing.

He said he is now not so worried about the students' safety, as all the instruction sessions are held indoors and on campus, rather than in the village.

Niu Shouzhu said he ensures the students who visit him for instruction are safe. "We need to be very careful about this, even though the kids are mostly accompanied by adult family members," he said.

Other villagers want to send their children to him, but it could be difficult for elderly family members to collect them after practice sessions, Niu Shouzhu said.

Niu Hefa, who lives alone more than 1 kilometer from the practice venue, is concerned about his own safety. As he teaches boxing in the evening, he is reluctant to ride a bicycle or electric motorbike in the dark.

"I would struggle if I had a fall these days," he said, adding that he provides his services for free.

Niu Shouzhu said, "As we teach for free, all expenses should be covered by the association."

The association's funding mostly comes from a limited number of donations from kind-hearted villagers, he said. In addition, it received about 10,000 yuan (US$1,560) annually from the government as a reward for its efforts in promoting intangible cultural heritage.

Waving a 20-kilogram performance weapon at his home, Niu Hehou said, "As long as we live, we will continue our efforts to benefit the children and maintain our ancestors' traditions."

Fang Wenting, Peng Mengqi and Wen Jining contributed to this story.