The Revival of Chinese Martial Arts (Part I)

How a pair of Wudang Grandmasters is carrying their teacher’s mission to revive traditional Chinese martial arts.

There is somewhat of a crisis happening in Chinese Martial Arts (CMA). Much of it pertains to the growing popularity of other fighting styles, such as Muay Thai kickboxing, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and pretty much any other martial form that has appeared on televised competition, specifically promotions like the UFC.

Because of this, many would be practitioners of CMA have instead adopted other fighting trades for reasons of trend and perceived effectiveness.

There is, however, still a solid contingency of dedicated martial artists trying to keep the old tradition alive.

Master Chang Wu Na and Dr. Lu Mei-Hui are the head instructors of the International Wudang Internal Martial Arts Academy in Seattle, Washington. Both have spent considerable time in China perfecting their skills in many martial forms, including but not limited to: baguazhang, xingyiquan, taijiquan, qigong, sanda and Wudang sword.

They are also the gatekeepers for the 13th generation of the Wudang Dan Pai, a lineage of the Wudang Chuan that claims direct descendance from the “immortal” Taoist monk, Zhang Sanfeng.

Master Chang Wu Na
Master Chang Wu Na is the 13th Generation gatekeepers of Their Lineage, the Wudang Dan Pai.
Dr. Lu Mei-Hui taijiquan
Dr. Lu Mei-Hui, the 13th Generation Gatekeepers of their Lineage, the Wudang Dan Pai, demonstrating a traditional Wudang taijiquan form with the taijiquan ball given only to the gatekeepers of their lineage.

Where they differ is how each found their way on the martial path.

Dr. Lu comes from a long lineage of family healers and martial artists, and has taught both CMA and traditional Chinese medicine at the university level. Master Chang, on the other hand, attained most of his martial credentials from studying over a dozen styles of martial arts, and getting into informal brawls outside the dojo.

This is not to say that Dr. Lu does not have any actual fighting experience or that Master Chang has no educational background, but it is an explanation to the very yin and yang atmosphere that is created for the students at their academy.

While it might seem a bit peculiar that two masters of their skill-level and esteem are teaching in a place like Washington, the location is also a strategic one.

Part of that strategy has to do with a mission from their late master to revive traditional CMA in an unconventional way. Before discussing that, however, it might first be worthwhile to distinguish a few things.

Master Chang Wu Na Wudang Sword
Master Chang Wu Na demonstrates fighting forms in the Wudang Sword.

“There are two types of martial artists in China right now,” Master Chang starts.

There’s the ‘athlete martial artist’ who goes through a school where they basically train all the time. They get a degree in martial arts, and they compete from the age of 7 or 8 until they age out.

The other type of martial artist is what they call the ‘folk martial artist’. Those are the ones that are holding onto those traditional things. The problem though is that ‘folk martial artists’ do not get a lot of respect.

They’re old guys, who hang out in the park, and they have old forms that don’t look so flashy, they don’t look so pretty. But these are forms that have been passed down from generation to generation for a long time.”

Master Chang Wu Na Sanda training
Master Chang Wu Na instructing students during a Friday night Sanda training session.

Their teacher, Grandmaster Ma Shiye, was one of these ‘folk martial artists’.

It would be possible to spend the entirety of this article detailing his accomplishments, but perhaps what is more important is knowing the type of person he was. Master Chang describes him as “a man out of his time”, one of the folkloric Kung Fu masters that people read about from the Qing Dynasty.

Grandmaster Ma Shiye revive traditional Chinese martial arts
Grandmaster Ma Shiye, the 12th generation gatekeeper of the Wudang Dan Pai, developed an idea to revive traditional Chinese martial arts before his passing.

He had an unorthodox approach to internal martial arts, and was a strong believer in strengthening the body through weight training and the external martial arts, in addition to the cultivation of the internal.

He also gave equal importance to the application and efficacy of a form, rather than just focusing on the form itself.

It’s a perspective found in many of the more popular martial arts mentioned in the beginning of this article, and it’s safe to say that his approach would perhaps be more welcomed in a place like the United States.

According to Master Chang and Dr. Lu, what’s happened with CMA in China over time is a greater focus on the aesthetic, how a form looks versus how it applies, and it’s caused a significant proliferation of the art to other countries. Much of that has to do with a general shift in the culture.

Master Chang Wu Na Chinese Martial Arts
Master Chang Wu Na instructing students during a Friday night Sanda training session

“We’ve met several masters that have techniques that have been passed down in their family for three or four generations, sometimes even more, but their children are more interested in becoming businessmen,” Master Chang says.

It’s the mindset of the people in China at the basic level.

There are many factors contributing to the shift in attitude of the Chinese people, but perhaps a fitting place to start is with the Cultural Revolution. As those familiar with Chinese history will know, the Cultural Revolution included a nationwide campaign to reform the country’s traditional culture, historically known as “The Four Olds”.

Specifically these referenced ‘customs’, ‘culture’, ‘habits’, and ‘ideas’, and included in that categorization were traditional CMA, since many of these principles are embedded into the practice. Therefore, part of eliminating these traditions included imprisoning, beating, and sometimes executing high-level masters of the martial studies.

Master Chang Wu Na Chinese Martial Arts
Master Chang Wu Na demonstrates a traditional form of the Wudang Dan Pai

“During the Cultural Revolution, a lot of martial arts had been destroyed, particularly traditional martial arts. Those masters, a lot of them were persecuted and some of them would not even want to reveal themselves in public, so it kind of faded away,” Lu Laoshi tells me.

Now much of the original tradition is difficult to find, and few are motivated to continue carrying its lineage. For these reasons, traditional CMA is in somewhat of a state of crisis. But Grandmaster Ma Shiye had a plan to remedy all of that.

It would take at least a generation to orchestrate, but if successful, could save the current state of Chinese Martial Arts. How successful that plan might be, however, is another matter to be discussed.

Stay tuned for Part II…

chinese martial arts Master Chang Wu Na
Master Chang Wu Na demonstrates a traditional form of the Wudang Dan Pai
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