by Nathaniel Cooke

Phew – for some time there, it looked like my epic Kung Fu pilgrimage was looking like  turning in to the most extravagant wild goose chase in human history. Ok, apart from the search for the Holy Grail. And Noah’s Ark. Oh, and there was the Ark of the Covenent for a while there, and something about a golden fleece for the Greeks? Oh no they got that in the end, didn’t they.

OK fine it’s not the most extravagant wild goose chase in history, but grant me a little dramatic invention with a splash of poetic license and things will go much easier for the both of us in the long run, I promise.

Anyway, where was I?  Ah yes.  After a week of searching, I was beginning to worry having not seen an ounce of Kung Fu, anywhere – and this was only confirmed by a student in one of my first classes who took no small pleasure in telling me that the nearest place that specialised in Wing Chun was halfway across China, and nobody really did Kung Fu in Sichuan Province. Having travelled several thousand miles specifically for this sole purpose, this came as something of a disappointment. It turns out that I have managed to pick the only province in China where nobody really gives a monkeys’ about Kung Fu – not even Kung Fu with monkeys in it (yes, for those uninitiated in Kung Fu lore, there is such a thing) or Kung Fu done by magical ghost monkeys (I can back this one up too – put ‘Monkey King’ in to You Tube for the most random five minutes of your life). There is, in fact, a distinct lack of Kung Fu, or monkeys, or any combination thereof, in this province. I hope I am clear.

Indeed it was all beginning to look rather bleak, until the wife of a fellow English teacher at the university mentioned a group of older women that do Tai Chi every morning, right outside my flat. Now I have to admit that two weeks ago this news would not have filled me with joy, but by this stage I was beginning to panic that my best laid plans were rapidly laying to waste, so I decided to check it out.

Which is why, at 6:45am on a Sunday morning I was roaming the streets of the campus in a pair of tracksuit trousers and a t-shirt in rain that, were it any heavier, would have required a pair of armbands instead of an umbrella. After about twenty minutes of soggy wandering the nearby streets I began to wonder if they came out in the rain after all, and was set to turn home when I espied an open door to a hall, with music drifting out of it and in the gloom, an elderly gentleman inside, wearing duck-egg blue silks and moving slowly, ethereally, slipping through the air as if he were floating on top of it. I had found my Tai Chi.

Cautiously I sidled up to the door, lingering awkwardly in the foyer like only a Brit can. Taking pity on me, the old man smiled and motioned toward a chair, indicating it was OK to watch. I tried to explain that no, I wanted to learn, and we soon discovered common ground in that I spoke not a word of his language, and he not a word of mine. This led to an awkward five minutes of miming and pointing from me and much awkward, albeit patient, grinning from him until realisation dawned and my brand new Sifu invited me to follow him. Two things immediately sprang to mind. One, that in China Tai Chi is not so soft and slow as it is in the west (the martial form is punctuated with snaps of speed and power that I was not expecting) and two, that although it is slow (or because it is slow) Tai Chi is actually one heck of a workout. After the first hour I was sweating; movements that I would have used kinetic energy to achieve in the past (kicks, stretches etc) now had to be achieved through strength and suppleness alone.

I am put in mind of a swan floating on a lake; the beauty visible above the surface of the water belies the churning effort of the legs to create all that graceful floating. And disguises an incredible power – the swan also, as the saying goes, has the power to break a man’s arm. I ended my first two hour class exhausted and excited. Tai Chi Quan is not the Kung Fu I came here seeking, but it may well be what I find.

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