Sunday, 15 February 2009

An Encounter With a Taoist Master of Taiji

While wondering around Qingyang temple in Chengdu, I saw a westerner sat with an old monk, who waved me over. As I got closer, I saw a sign in English and Chinese saying Taijiquan school. The westerner had signed up to a month of studying here and not speaking Chinese, it was his first day. The master spoke some basic English, and I spoke to him a little in English, before switching to Chinese, when I told him Id learnt Wing Chun and a little Chen style Taiji. When he heard that, he said Wing Chun is too hard, and that it dispersed your Qi and that internal martial arts take you to a higher level. I felt a little skeptical of him, but was respectful, especially because of people being able to sign up for a months training. But after a while, he took my inside and invited me to push hands with one of his students, a young monk. He was like water, and every time I pushed on him, he flowed round it, and I was only able to unbalance him once, but kept getting unbalanced myself most times I tried. Then the master invited me to try with him, he told me to push him in his stomach, and I felt it go solid, and then he sent me flying, with a little push from his abdomin. It was a strange feeling. I tried to push him several times, and each time he sent me flying off. I was really impressed, and exchanged contact details, so hopefully we can meet again next time I visit Sichuan. He is the head of a large association for Yang style Taiji, and has many students around the world.

Some other minority people I came across on my recent travels

The Zhuang people are native to Guangxi province in southwest China. They are Chinas largest minority and have largely incorporated Han Chinese customs, but still retain a unique language, closely related to Thai. We stayed in a village on top of the Dragons Backbone rice terraces, high up in the mountains and slept with a family there. They were very friendly, and spoke enough Mandarin to be understood. We sat in a wooden house with no chimney and got smoked out by a fire in the middle, which was cooking a hotpot of pigs liver, potatoes and rice and drank home made rice wine.

The Dong people live mostly in northern Guangxi and southern Guizhou and have unique culture and customs. We stayed in Zhaoxing, their largest village for several days for the Chinese New Year and their own Taiguanren festival the days after. Their unique Drum towers and covered bridges are places for the locals to meet and are always full of old men, smoking and drinking. Their language sounds a little like Cantonese, but has 16 tones! Their religion is the worship of different spirit animals and buddhism, but they have no temples or organisation. The Taiguanren festival was held after Chinese New Year, and saw the locals dressing up as animals, ghosts, peasants and royalty, and parading through town singing and throwing fireworks around.

The Miao people can be found all over southern China and Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, where they are known as the Hmong. They have even emigrated in large numbers to America and France. They were traditionally very rebellious to the Han Chinese, which led to their oppression. They have many different sub groups, such as the Flower Miao, Red Miao, Black Miao, Long Horn Miao etc. We stayed in a village called Basha, where the locals cling to ancient traditions, such as wearing traditional clothes, and the men still carry huge daggers or swords and shave their head, leaving just a topknot in the middle. In fact, the people in the village were all crazy, it seemed like the whole village was drunk, children included. They often sang, danced and were really rowdy, all night long. I heard they are some of the biggest drinkers in China!

The Bai people inhabit the foothills and valleys in and around Dali, in northwestern Yunnan province. They were traditionally rebellious and up until the time of Kublai Khan, had their own kingdom. They are believed to descend from the inhabitants from the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but how they came to China, I dont know. They are well known for the artwork on the sides of their building, which are otherwise white washed. Old women in traditional clothes are often found selling hash to tourists in the streets of old Dali, although they dont smoke it themselves, just eat the seeds.

The Famous Dr Ho of Jade Dragon Mountain

While in Lijiang I had the fortune of meeting Dr Ho, a Naxi Doctor made famous by several books and documentaries, including Michael Palins Himalayas. As you walk along the otherwise typical street of the Naxi village of Baisha, just outside Lijiang, you will see a big sign saying "most admired man" and clippings of newspaper articles about this friendly, but slightly eccentric doctor.
So me and my friends walked into his clinic, and he greeted us in perfect English, then led us outside to sit in the sun, drink his home made herbal tea, and read articles about his fame. He lived a hard life and was poor and sick, during the political instability of 1950s and 60s China. So he taught himself herbal medicine, healed himself, and then began healing other villagers for free. He had learnt English from Dr Joseph Rock, a famous botanist, who lived in the area in the 1930s. Dr Ho is in his mid 80s and is in excellent health, and very happy (he says the best medicine is happiness). Despite his fame, he is humble and welcoming, and will give you a check up and prescribe some herbal medicine (which he collects from the mountains himself) for free, although for tourists, he asks a donation of what you think its worth or you can afford.
He told us about how several westerners suffering from cancer and other terminal illnesses had come tohim for treatment, and years later are still alive and stable. He showed us their medical reports, showing they refused kimotherapy to prove it.

the Naxi people of Lijiang

While recently travelling in the southwest of China, I visited the city of Lijiang and its surrounding areas. Although a really touristy place, I really fell in love with the Naxi people and their culture. They are said to have been descended from Tibetans and moved off the plateau in ancient times to settle in the fertile valleys where they live today at around 2,500m above sea level.

The Naxi were traditional a matriarchal people, which means that all inheritance, including family name, riches and land, were passed onto the female of the family. This is still practiced by the Mosuo people, who are closely related and live to the north of Lijiang, around Lugu Lake.
Their indigenous religion is a kind of mixture of animism, shamanism and ancestor worship, which is governed by the Dongba, which are the local shamans. The Dongba were traditionally the only people who could read and write the native language, which is the last remaining heiroglyphic language still in use. The common people would use Chinese. The spoken language sounds a little like Tibetan. Culturally, the Naxi have taken aspects of Tibetan and Han Chinese culture and given them their own flavour.
I found the Naxi people to be very welcoming and hospitable, and to have an interesting culture and history. If you want to read more on them, I would recommend reading "The Forgotten Kingdom: Living With The Nakhi of Likiang" by Peter Gouillart, a Russian who lived in Lijiang during the 1930s.