New Kung Fu

Photos by Christopher Cherry, with an introduction by Sascha Matuszak


Ed: This post is from the folks behind the forthcoming martial arts documentary The New Masters – check out and donate to their Kickstarter, and follow their progress on Facebook


Tenzin met me in my old apartment in Chengdu and told me to put on a shirt and come with him. Gonna meet a kung fu master, he said. We walked out into the streets, where working girls, taffy hawkers and pedal-bike rickshaws ruled, crossed a stagnant creek and went into a mouldy building.

There was cracking paint on the walls and garbage bags waiting on each floor, leaving sweat stains on the concrete. Up on the sixth floor, rap rap rap on the door. Who is it? It's me, said Tenzin. The door opened and I was reminded of the opening scene of Star Wars, with young men lining the hall into the apartment. A short man with a wide forehead, skin spots, and stiff raised hair walked up with a smile, extended a gnarled hand, and said “hello”. It sounded genuine, without the rising "o" at the end. Welcome. Have some tea.

The tea was simple and green, the cups were Dixie, and everyone wore the same dusty garb, like we all did in back-city China in 2003. No white beards, no robes and beads. Just a man and his disciples, in jeans. Li Quan spoke halting English, but confidently, and with a self-deprecating laugh. Later, when his master, the grandmaster Dai Kang, came to visit, I made the first of countless gaffs. Dai Kang is short, pudgy and has the face of a trickster grandfather. This is the grandmaster, someone said. Oh yeah, I asked, and aimed a chop at his chest. He didn't move, just grunted a laugh. Everyone gasped, as if I had reached for the beard of Christ.

Over the years I spent many days with Li Quan in Chengdu, and with Dai Kang in the mountains of western Sichuan, where he had his home and school. I broke my hands on wooden poles, beat my elbows purple on the iron circle, and kicked bags of rocks. The boys at the school were harder than the bags. I kicked with a shoe on and the pain went up to my ear; they kicked barefoot. Over and over. With enough strength to take a man's face off. After one student, Wang Xiaoqing, impressed everyone in a Sanda martial arts competition, the local police department hired him to help with their gangster problem.

Years later, I went to a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) superfight in Hohhot. There I saw the same confident yet humble demeanor, but these were fledgling cage fighters, doing rear naked chokes and brutal kicks, not kung fu kids in a Sichuan courtyard. When I asked them how they felt about kung fu, they scoffed. There was no intersection point, they told me. Kung fu is for show, and has no place in the cage. MMA is just fighting, it has no soul or purpose, retort the old masters. I thought their separation from one another was a tragedy.

And so began my Quixotic quest to find the elusive thread that links the old kung fu masters with the new MMA masters. I  wasn't alone – filmmakers Christopher Cherry and David Dempsey were on the same path, which led us to the Shaolin Temple, and to fighters from a Canadian MMA veteran to kung fu masters up in the mountains. They have been our Virgil into a world of sages, thugs, hustlers, cage fighters and businessmen. We’re still finding out how deep the rabbit hole goes. Here are some images from inside.

Ji Xian, who trains in Beijing, is believed to be the best pound-for-pound MMA fighter in the country

Three boys practice a kungfu performance in a gym at the Shaolin Temple complex

A kungfu master smashing bricks with two fingers as part of a recent MMA event filmed on CCTV5

Canadian MMA veteran Vaughn 'Blud' Anderson, the first foreigner to teach MMA at Shaolin Temple

Vaughn 'Blud' Anderson atop one of the many peaks of Song Shan, where kungfu is said to originate

A student of traditional Shaolin style kung fu, who came to Beijing to prove the old techniques still work

Practicing kungfu forms with a wooden staff in The Temple of Heaven park, Beijing

The Ultimate Fighter China (TUF) TV show winner, Zhang Lipeng, training outside in Beijing

Zhang Lipeng carrying his best friend, Ning Guangyou, as part of his training regime

A female former bare-knuckled fighter, now retired to the mountains of Sichuan

Also on the Anthill, check out Sascha Matuszak's story from a Sichuan village, Flower Town, and Christopher Cherry's photo essay Beijing in Your Pocket