Published: 10:20, November 10, 2023 | Updated: 11:09, November 10, 2023
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Mind your body, lift your soul
By Gary Chiu

Practicing Chinese martial arts is not just about learning to fight. It offers a philosophy and a way of life that improves mental and physical health, and enables practitioners to enhance personal virtues and discover a sense of inner peace. Gary Chiu reports from Hong Kong.

Chinese martial arts have a long history, with thousands of styles having evolved over the centuries. Each style has its own distinct features — in its approach to defense and combat, and in its philosophy. It may seem paradoxical, but practicing Chinese martial arts is, for many, a way to achieve inner peace.

For Ian Fok Chun-wan, president of the Hong Kong, China Wushu Union, fighting scenes protrayed in popular culture only scratch the surface in depicting the nature of Chinese martial arts.

“Nowadays, people learn martial arts to enhance their health and build a good habit,” says Fok, an experienced practitioner of Chinese martial arts.

The longer you learn, the more you’ll integrate the martial arts philosophy into your life. The emptiness and calmness you feel inside will refine not only your gestures, but also your state of mind and the aura you radiate.

Ian Fok Chun-wan, president of the Hong Kong, China Wushu Union

“People learn Chinese martial arts regardless of their age. As they progress, they will discover more than they had expected, and it’ll become a lifelong pursuit.”

Renowned for being a successful business heavyweight, Fok learnt taijiquan (tai chi) when he was young and in the 1970s learnt yiquan from grandmaster Han Xingyuan.

“In the past, Western sports were not common. People practiced Chinese martial arts for physical and mental well-being. Some would even learn dit da (bone-setting) before starting to practice martial arts,” he tells China Daily.

Fok, who’s also president of the Wushu Federation of Asia and vice-president of the International Wushu Federation, says practicing martial arts changes a person’s habits, enabling them to use body parts to facilitate flexibility and coordination.

“We take our hands and arms for granted as an energy source to perform daily tasks. Practicing martial arts helps us change what we’re used to by requiring us to exert force through our waist and crotch,” he explains.

Ian Fok Chun-wan, president of Hong Kong, China Wushu Union, poses for a photo during an interview with China Daily on Aug 15, 2023. (REBEKAH ZHANG / CHINA DAILY)

Chinese martial arts also place a strong emphasis on spiritual and psychological development. People who take them up soon start to experience the spiritual and life philosophy gems that reveal themselves when practicing martial arts.

“The longer you learn, the more you’ll integrate the martial arts philosophy into your life. The emptiness and calmness you feel inside will refine not only your gestures, but also your state of mind and the aura you radiate.”

Ian Fok Chun-wan, president of Hong Kong, China Wushu Union, poses for a photo during an interview with China Daily on Aug 15, 2023. (REBEKAH ZHANG / CHINA DAILY)

At higher levels, people learn to unleash untapped instincts. “Wild animals do not have to consciously practice coordinating their body parts to swoop on prey. It’s innate. Practicing martial arts is one way to explore hidden instincts.”

To promote the benefits of Chinese martial arts in Hong Kong, Fok’s union has launched various projects, one of which is to teach the elderly in hospitals a simplified version of taijiquan.

Taijiquan is suitable for people of all ages as it includes some elements of confrontation, but can be very gentle,” says Fok. Influenced by movies, WingTsun — a concept-based martial art — has also become popular in Hong Kong. “It’s relatively easy to promote WingTsun as people can practice it in limited spaces.”

Ian Fok Chun-wan, president of Hong Kong, China Wushu Union, poses for a photo during an interview with China Daily on Aug 15, 2023. (REBEKAH ZHANG / CHINA DAILY)

Fok initially learnt Chinese martial arts out of interest, and is striving to promote their legacy in Hong Kong. “We’re looking to negotiate with the government for a venue where masters and students can gather and exchange ideas to make the inheritance of Chinese martial arts sustainable,” he reveals.

ALSO READ: Fighting to promote a martial art

The union has been leveraging the nation’s advantages to nurture new Chinese martial arts talent. “The Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area Wushu Alliance was founded in 2022. We hope to work with Guangdong province, which has been striving to promote martial arts in schools, to boost cultural exchanges among youngsters in the region,” says Fok. “My broader goal to promote the nation’s soft power as a legacy of Chinese martial arts has long been appreciated worldwide.” 

Founder of Wudang Academy Taoist Priest Xuanyi demonstrates taijiquan gestures during an interview with China Daily in Hong Kong on July 29, 2023. (GARY CHIU / CHINA DAILY)

Taijiquan: Mind-body discipline

Of all the types of Chinese martial arts, taijiquan is one of the most practiced forms in Hong Kong, but there are many misconceptions about it. “We always see elderly people perform gentle movements in parks. But taijiquan is more than moving your arms and legs,” says Taoist priest Xuanyi, who founded the Wudang Academy.

Wearing a Taoist outfit and serving Chinese tea in his temple-like academy, he appears, at first glance, to be in his late 40s.

The only equipment in taijiquan is your body. Each movement synchronizes with slow, deep and long breathing so that we can perform with different body parts in a fluid manner.

Taoist priest Xuanyi, founder of the Wudang Academy

Before establishing the academy in 2003, Xuanyi — who is in fact 60 — had studied Taoist philosophy and practiced taijiquan in the Wudang Mountains, Hubei province. The mountain range is famous for Taoist temples and the practice of taijiquan. “The only equipment in taijiquan is your body. Each movement synchronizes with slow, deep and long breathing so that we can perform with different body parts in a fluid manner,” he explains with a demonstration.

ALSO READ: Fitting ancient wisdom into a modern lifestyle

The Taoist priest, an accredited inheritor of Wudang-style taijiquan, says people need not go deep into taijiquan’s roots in ancient philosophy to boost vitality. “In essence, as a form of qigong, or work of internal energy, taijiquan helps us mobilize our internal energy to flow through our body and restore our health.”

At the Wudang Academy, students also practice meditation to clear their minds, as many of them struggle to feel at ease with the fast pace of urban life.

“Meditation is like a fly whisk to help us remove the dirt from our mind and achieve inner peace,” says Xuanyi. “As a part of neidan, or internal alchemy, practicing both meditation and taijiquan helps us minimize wear and tear to our mind and body.”

Founder of Wudang Academy Taoist Priest Xuanyi teaches taijiquan to his Brazilian student Fernanda on July 29, 2023. (GARY CHIU / CHINA DAILY)

When the COVID-19 pandemic was posing a threat to people’s well-being, the academy held free workshops to spread positive energy and recruit health-conscious students.

Having participated in a workshop in 2022, Ken Ng, 32, says he believes that taijiquan can also cater to young people’s needs. “Each movement prompts me to reflect on my posture and breathing habits. I used to think taijiquan was very easy, but now I realize it’s not just a form of exercise for the elderly,” he says.

ALSO READ: Tai Chi and Wangchuan granted UNESCO status

After months of meditation, he realized he could stay focused more easily and felt more energetic than he previously could. “Taoist priest Xuanyi always reminds us to enjoy each breath and gesture. Living stressful lives, we truly need a way to relax our physical body and calm our mind.”

Taoist Priest Xuanyi (center back), the founder of Wudang Academy, and his students practice meditation in Hong Kong on July 29, 2023. (GARY CHIU / CHINA DAILY)

Registered chiropractor Benjamin Yip, 69, who has been a disciple of Xuanyi for nearly 20 years, says taijiquan is beneficial to people’s spines, as the movements and gestures involve turning it.

Taijiquan, a form of dynamic practice, requires our spine to be straight, balanced and relaxed. Our waist becomes the source of energy to perform various gestures,” Yip explains. After years of practice, he says he believes taijiquan goes beyond practicing physical gestures. “The strength hidden in some gestures can be used for fighting, but we instead show mercy and transform it into internal energy for our health.”

Xuanyi says the practice of taijiquan and meditation facilitates the cultivation of the practitioner’s personality and ethical values. “Taijiquan is also a way to enhance personal virtues as it incorporates wisdom passed down over many generations,” he says.

WingTsun master Leung Ting demonstrates gestures of Siu Nim Tao (“little idea”) during an interview with China Daily at the headquarters of the International WingTsun Association in Yau Ma Tei on July 6, 2023. (GARY CHIU / CHINA DAILY)

WingTsun: Stay focused, swift

Several WingTsun schools have been operating for decades on Nathan Road in Kowloon, with signboards highlighting their presence.

Master Leung Ting, at his school near Gascoigne Road, speaks to China Daily about his exchanges with grandmaster Ip Man, whose students included late martial arts legend Bruce Lee. “The film stories, in which Ip can be seen beating 10 opponents were dramatized,” says the founder of the International WingTsun Association and one of Ip’s disciples.

Not even a moment’s hesitation is acceptable. But, nowadays, most people struggle to stay focused. Siu Nim Tao (little idea) is the first and most important form in WingTsun, as it trains us to concentrate on and perfect performing basic gestures

Leung, 76, started practicing WingTsun when he was 13. He began as a student of Leung Sheung — one of Ip’s disciples — and later had the chance to practice with the grandmaster. “Ip used to be reluctant to promote WingTsun and engage with other practitioners,” he says, recounting an event which became a watershed in the popularity of WingTsun in Hong Kong.

As a student at Hong Kong Baptist College (now Hong Kong Baptist University) in 1967, Leung organized a contest and invited practitioners of different martial arts styles to participate. But, after noticing that Leung had become friends with his opponents, Ip changed his mind.

ALSO READ: Keep calm and ace your moves

“He told me, ‘the best way to eliminate opponents is to become friends with them’,” Leung said, mimicking Ip’s Foshanese, a vernacular spoken in Guangdong province.

WingTsun master Leung Ting (front center) poses for a group photo with his students at the headquarters of the International WingTsun Association in Yau Ma Tei on July 6, 2023. (GARY CHIU / CHINA DAILY)

Without Ip, there would be no WingTsun in Hong Kong, says Leung, who has promoted the art worldwide and taught celebrities like Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen. “Anyone can practice WingTsun. Even Ip was not tall and muscular, compared with Donnie Yen.”

WingTsun involves the application of mechanics to unleash our power and defend ourselves at close quarters. “Our body parts will be like a spring. Upon releasing a compressed spring, energy will stretch out over a distance, not within several seconds, but a second,” Leung explains.

When practicing martial arts, we acquire our master’s life philosophy. Otherwise, martial arts would only be a fighting skill.

Leung Ting, the founder of the International WingTsun Association

Not even a moment’s hesitation is acceptable. But, nowadays, most people struggle to stay focused. Siu Nim Tao (little idea) is the first and most important form in WingTsun, as it trains us to concentrate on and perfect performing basic gestures. “If we overthink everything, we’ll be defeated,” warns Leung.

His students also paired up to practice Chi Sao (sticking hands), an exercise where their hands and arms are in contact to train their close-range responses. “Over a short distance, our decisiveness is necessary. Through Chi Sao, you can predict, intercept and deflect opponents’ moves,” says Leung.

ALSO READ: Kung fu master wings his way to success

Leung’s association teamed up with the YMCA in Hong Kong to promote WingTsun to youngsters, but when COVID-19 struck, all classes had to be suspended and some schools were forced to shut.

Senior WingTsun instructor Jon Lau Ping-shueng (front left) joins another senior instructor to lead a group of students to practice Siu Nim Tao (little idea) at the headquarters of the International WingTsun Association in Yau Ma Tei on July 6, 2023. (GARY CHIU / CHINA DAILY)

Fortunately, since the seeds were initially sown at Hong Kong Baptist College, new talent has emerged. “I was persuaded by my eldest brother to join a WingTsun class at the HKBU when he studied there in 1995,” says Jon Lau Ping-shueng, an instructor at Leung’s school. “Each gesture carries wisdom. Even a weak force can overcome a strong opponent.”

Recounting his initial experience in Siu Nim Tao, Lau recalls that Leung always told him to relax. “The relaxation goes beyond the physical sense. Facing opponents, we need to take their attacks in our stride. It’s the same as with in-form athletes, who can achieve peace of mind to deliver a slick performance.”

Echoing Lau, Leung says practicing martial arts enhances the sense of physical and spiritual well-being.

“When practicing martial arts, we acquire our master’s life philosophy. Otherwise, martial arts would only be a fighting skill.”


Contact the writer at garychiu@chinadailyhk.com