***We remember the martial arts through many mediums. Countless videos can be found on YouTube. Novels, opera and film have sanctified the heroes of the past. Books have archived the wisdom of countless communities. Yet over the last century no medium has come to define our memory of the past to the same extent as photography. Today’s guest post, by Abi Moriya, recalls the life and contributions of one teacher through the rich visual record that he left behind. Readers might think of it as an ethnographic photo-essay, documenting a unique moment in the transmission of the Chinese martial arts. Yet it is also a poignant personal reflection on the complexities of the relationship between teachers and students. All of the photographs in the following essay were either taken by Moriya or have been provided courtesy his private collection. Enjoy!***
Remembering Peng Hanping (彭韩萍): Images of a Teacher
by Abi Moriya
I had many doubts before writing this article. Every black letter on this white background seemed, suddenly, overly important. Eventually, I wrote it based on my own feelings, through my own prism.
When I went to Taiwan on the Chinese New Year, 1987, I didn’t know much about the Chinese internal martial arts. As you may recall, this was prior to the era of internet and globalization. We recorded, with devotion, episodes of the B.B.C’s documentary, “The Way of the Warrior” (1983) from Jordanian TV. Watching this was the first stage of my journey in learning with my teacher Hong Yixiang (洪懿祥 1925-1993), a leading figure of one of the episodes. Thirty years later, I feel my knowledge has expanded, but it is clear to me that the fabric of the Chinese martial arts is so broad and deep, that even a complete lifetime will not be sufficient in comprehending it. But the practitioner should not recoil; on the contrary, he must dive into to a never-ending journey.
Upon my arrival to Taibei, I stayed a walking distance from New Park (now called 228 Peace Memorial Park二二八和平紀念公園). At that time, it was one of the best spots if you wanted to watch public martial arts. The park was a playground for different groups and individuals: practicing on their own, within groups, for the martial aspects, and for health cultivation. Watching this variety, my spirit was elevated. I remembered some of the groups who had appeared in “The Way of the Warrior”, and now, came alive right in front of me. One of the largest groups practiced the “shaking method”, or doufa (抖法), a method of exercises which was related to qigong, but actually looked like a fast form of gymnastics. This was quite popular and attracted a big audience. The instructor would shout the name or number of the exercise with a funny megaphone, and then the whole group would follow.
One of the most impressive figures in the park was Peng Hanping (彭韓萍 1962-1999), known to all as “Xiao Peng”. He was short, athletic, and had a supreme esthetic motion. When he was twenty six years old he started to teach a small group of local students, with both empty hand and weapons. After approaching him, he then became my weaponry teacher during the 80’s. There is not much written material about him, so I now do my best to bring forth as much information as possible.
Xiao Peng began to practice martial arts at the age of fifteen, with some classmates. Already, at this early stage, he showed a true passion and woke up every day at 05:30 in order to practice before school. His first teacher was Liu Yunqiao (劉雲樵 1909-1992), the renowned Bajiquan teacher, from whom Xiao Peng learned and polished his basic skills.
However, after an unknown period with Liu, Peng went on to study with teacher Wei Xiaotang (衛笑堂 1901-1985), from whom he learned “Eight steps praying mantis” (Babu Tanglangquan 步螳螂拳). Teacher Wei left China at the beginning of the communist period, a short time after his wife passed away. In Taiwan he worked as a cook, until he began teaching martial arts. He was known as a skilled martial artist and a short tempered teacher. Xiao Peng learned with him during the years 1980-1985, until teacher Wei passed away. Although he learned “Eight steps praying mantis” only for five years, his result was a deep understanding of the basics and principles of the style. His movement was characterized with supreme dynamic, power and speed. He looked as if he was ready to disengage from the law of gravity. In order to complete his education he also learned Ditangquan, from teacher Han Dexian (韓德鮮).
At the young age of twenty six, Xiao Peng started teaching on a daily basis, in New Park from morning to midday, regardless of the weather. Aside from that, he was teaching a few lessons a week, in a few high schools.
When I met Xiao Peng he had already learned, from teacher Zhang Kezhi (張克治), southern fist and “Eight Drunken Immortals” (Zui Baxianquan 醉八仙拳). Zhang made a name of himself as a martial artist and teacher of “Five animals southern Shaolin” (aka “Taiwanese Hung-Gar”). This style arrived to Taiwan in 1946 with Zhang’s teacher Lin Jiakun (林家坤), who was a commander in the national army. Zhang Kezhi was what we would call a “character”. Since he was at the park every day, he would “take over” the class from Xiao Peng, stroll around in kicking leafs, or spend time in his other hobby – pushing hands with the Taiji teachers in the park, which he always performed well.
In addition, Xiao Peng learned Northern Eagle Claw from the elder teacher Zhong Fusheng (鐘復生), As far as I know, he was the last (and informal) student of this teacher.
However, the daily routine in the park began to change with the arrival of a “storm”, this time not a typhoon. At that point of time, all the martial arts we were exposed to were traditional ones. Far away in Beijing, a young American named Jeff Falcon (b. 1962) went to train with the Beijing wushu team, and afterwards arrived to Taibei. He demonstrated movements we had never seen before, and also taught private classes to foreigners. To our great amazement, he challenged Zhang Kezhi to a duel; fortunately this never happened, but filled us with tremendous excitement for a while. Falcon would appear in a number of martial arts films with his most notable role being in the Six-String Samurai.
Eventually, even though the number of the local students dropped, Xiao Peng’s group in the park grew and ultimately had more foreigners than Taiwanese. He started to make a name out of Taiwan. First, he was invited to perform at the “Masters Demo” in the Wong Tat-Mau international tournament in California. I competed in this event in 1991, and I considered it a great honor. I was told his demonstration of praying mantis and three-sectional staff was well accepted. A few years later he was invited to the Bercy martial arts festival in Paris, where he demonstrated praying mantis, drunken fist, and the chain whip. Both flexible weapons in those demos were taught to Xiao Peng by his teacher, Zhang Yingchun (張迎春).
At the end of the 80’s I went back to Israel. To my great surprise, while watching the Israeli television, which only had one channel, I saw Xiao Peng! What were the odds??? I was still going to Taibei once a year, but somehow felt I could no longer learn with Xiao Peng. I had always viewed him as a symbol of traditional culture, and when he changed I did not feel positive about it. Today, I feel I was just building too many expectations on the shoulders of this young teacher who was, in essence, only human like all of us. Xiao Peng opened a pub in Taibei. One evening in July 1999, while leaving the pub in a hurry for a meeting he had a motorcycle crash which ended his life. He was only thirty seven years old.
Epilogue: Xiao Peng, in his own words, 1990:
“Gongfu for me is an art, a philosophy of life, a struggle against oneself! The means we use, the time and effort we invest are not easy at all. This is very hard work. This tradition, which passed from generation to generation, went through many changes along the years. Nowadays, it is rather easy to learn different traditions such as Shaolin or Wudang, what was impossible before. I can divide gongfu to three layers:
Zhen真. How can we use gongfu for martial or health purposes ?
Shan善.The supreme philosophy: what are the reasons I study and research through my gongfu.
Mei美. Gongfu is an expression of aesthetics and beauty.
Taiwanese society is subject to monstrous transformations. All turn away from old traditions in favor of Western models. Success in school and at work guarantees a high standard of living. The result is a huge pressure on the shoulders of young students. From a very young age one is prepared for this way of life. Progression and development are the guarantee of success. The child has to learn and adapt to life in society. In such a society there is no place for leisure time. The chances of making a living from gongfu are slim. We train every day, we are dirty and sweaty. Social acceptance is however only the clothes with a white collar. It’s really hard to learn gongfu, trying to live from it. Learning professional gongfu means to experience life fully. We are forced to sell our art as a product! I am in the fortunate position that I can make a living through teaching gongfu. I do not earn much, but I am happy! The secret is direct teaching from teacher to student and an open heart without restriction”.
About the Author: Abi Moriya is a professional coach and researcher whose involvement in the martial arts spans four decades. In addition, Abi is a teacher of Qigong and Chinese Traditional Medicine. He is a senior member of the Martial Arts discipline at the Nat Holman School for Coaches and Instructors, Wingate Institute, Israel.