Shéshān to Guăigùn: 91 year old Grandfather Dīng, "Dīng Yéye” and Snake Mountain Pavilion


First glimpse of Dīng Yéye - before LaoMa had met him.

First glimpse of Dīng Yéye - before LaoMa had met him.

Since entering the world of Chinese Martial Art in 1964 I had a strong, constantly reoccurring dream of studying with a venerable, long white bearded Chinese Master of the martial arts, on a mountain, in a Temple somewhere in China. That dream came true in 1985, came true as real as I’m sitting here fingers pounding a tablet keyboard. Came true so close to the dream of it that though unable to believe in miracles, I definitely am convinced that you can have influence on your dreams actually making it through the mental realm into the material world of us mortal beings. This journey actually began a decade earlier.

Three years after President Nixon’s 1972 “opening” to the West of Mao Tse-Tung’s Mainland China’s isolation post-independence, I was invited with 21 other minority Americans to visit China. We were guests of the Cultural Revolutionary Regime and were to visit Chinese Minorities Peoples (54 separate peoples at that time, compared to our 3 major minority groups) across this ancient land. This bookmark in my life was of huge importance to me as I was able for the first time to visit and tour the newly awakened Sleeping Dragon. So, and more important to me, only five years after I began active training in Tàijíquán (太 極 拳) in America I was traveling all over China and able to join ordinary people every morning in public parks, village squares, and larger open spaces, in their daily early morning, communal Martial Art exercises, especially group Tàijí (太 極), a collective ritual we had been viewing on TV since, and long after, Nixon’s visit.

1975 at Mao’s Birthplace

1975 at Mao’s Birthplace

After the impact of these unbelievable experiences, sponsored and made possible by Rick and Betsy Clemmons, my bosses in the Federal Drug Rehabilitation Program, Rubicon Door, where I worked, another quest was born: the dream to return to China, not to tour the country, but to live and work in one place, become part of a community, and train in the Wŭshù (武 術) of Tàijíquán. I could not conceive of how I would get back there, or what I would do for work if I could. But then...

A decade later in a serendipitous conversation with the brother of a Chinese friend I was given information and a referral to reach friends of his in Wŭhān, China , who would be able to help me realize my dream. And that’s how I was able to reach that quest and my “Dream Come True;” the real life altering experience that changed the course of the next 40 years of my life’s sojourn, and one small mosaic in that dream, the one leading directly to Lao Zhang and the Hooked Walking Stick Form.

Practice in front of Snake Mountain Pavilion

Practice in front of Snake Mountain Pavilion

Unbelievably to me, 3 days after arriving in Wŭchāng, one of three cities making up the mega-city of Wŭhān which straddles the Yangtse River, a chance meeting in the street with a young music student, Chen Danbu, I was brought to the martial art playground on Snake Mountain (Shéshān, 蛇 山) and accepted into the school of 91 year old Dīng Hóng Kuaí, Dīng YéYe, “Grandfather Dīng,” (丁 爺 爺) the lineage holder of Táng Pài (唐 派), and a “National Treasure” of the Peoples’ Republic of China, an important fact of his life I was completely unaware of until years later when a student of mine found this important information on him in perusing the internet! He taught in the Snake Mountain Pavilion for 60 years, through war and social upheaval. The Pavilion is part of a memorial, along with a 25-30 ft. obelisk commemorating the 1911 Republican Revolution overthrowing the Qīng Dynasty, a rebellion started nearby in an Imperial Army barracks. Although the large rectangular Snake Mt. Pavilion was the only roofed structure, it was surrounded by scores of cleared areas claimed by different teachers and was a veritable Wŭshù Playground. The most beautiful site to train in martial arts imaginable.

Snake Mountain Pavilion

Snake Mountain Pavilion

Along with the established teachers in these Folk Schools (Peoples’ Schools, not of the more visible Government “Wŭshù” Schools, though all are accountable to the government’s Physical Culture Institute), itinerant teachers would periodically sweep through the folk schools and teach Forms for a period of time before moving on to other playgrounds throughout the tri-cities of Wŭhān. One such teacher who appeared one day was 76 year old Lao Zhang who began teaching this exotic weapon: Guăigùn (枴 棍), the Hooked Walking Stick Form!

GLOSSARY OF Chinese Characters Used in the Text

Tàijíquán (太 極 拳). Great Ultimate Extremes Fist. Refers to Internal Martial Art

Tàijí (太 極). Great Ultimate Extremes. Refers to many endeavors other than Martial Art

Wŭshù (武 術). Chinese Martial Art (In Taiwan, the term used is Kuoshù)

Grandfather Dīng,” (丁 爺 爺)

Táng Pài (唐 派). Táng System of Martial Art, developed by the first Táng Emperor’s third son, Tangbi

Guăigùn (枴 棍). Hooked Walking Cane

Shéshān (蛇 山). Snake Mountain. Shān can refer to different sized mountains. We might not call the one in Wŭchāng a mountain but a hill, but in China they are all “shān”

Guăi (枴). Walking cane with hook

Gùn (棍). Stick or cudgel

Gùn zi (棍 子). Rod or stick

Guăi zhang (枴 杖). Walking stick

Jiàn (劍). Sword

Dāo (刀). Broadsword

Qínná (擒 拿). A twisting, grappling form of defense involving the capture and manipulation of the joints

Qì (氣). Vital energy, breath energy

Gōngbù (弓 步). Bow stance, the #1 stance of Tàijíquán

Máobĭ (毛 筆). Writing brush

Jīnshān (金 山). Gold Mountain (America). Mĕi Guó is the official name for America (“Beautiful Country”). Jīnshān is what many Chinese people call the U.S., perhaps traced to the California Gold Rush and/or building the Trans Continental Rail Road through the Rockies from the West Coast. Both events drew Chinese workers in large numbers to the U.S.

Faces of the World and Travels in China

The World in Faces: Photographer Alexander Khimushin

The World in Faces: Photographer Alexander Khimushin

I had the unique opportunity in 1975 to tour border areas of China, with a delegation of 22 American minority community activists to meet and learn from Chinese National Minorities, from Dongbei (NE), home of the Man People, to Xinjiang (W), Uighur Autonomous Region, Muslim, to the Autonomous Prefecture of Xishuangbanna (SE/SW), Dai Autonomous Prefeture the self governing land of Tibetan and SE Asian Peoples. This tour was requested by the Maoist Chinese government to introduce a nation-wide cross-section of America’s 1/2 dozen minorities to China’s 54 (or a good representation of them). At the time, China’s majority Han People (94% of total population, what we foreigners normally call “Chinese”), still recovering from a century of foreign domination and exploitation, Civil War, WWII, Korean War, and Mao’s own disastrous social campaigns were allotted only one set of ubiquitous clothing, the signature baggy pants, Mao jacket and cap in the 3 recognizable colors of blue (people), green (military), and gray (cadre).*

The World in Faces: Photographer Alexander Khimushin

The World in Faces: Photographer Alexander Khimushin

This preamble of mine to the photos shared of vanishing indigenous people of our world is meant to give some background to the fact that during the excesses of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 1966-76, the National Minority People throughout China, though going thru the same turmoil and upheaval as the rest of the country, were the only Chinese People allowed to keep their own National dress, jewelry (lots of silver) and customs. Many times the only way of distinguishing one minority group from another was from their distinctive dress and bling! Although I took many photos of the people, it was not my focus during this unprecedented opportunity of discovery (and unfortunately many I did take have been lost or destroyed in the years since, in addition I definitely had not the artistic acumen and ability of this photo artist!). But I did get to see many indigenous, tribal people in China, some in urban settings mingling with the monochrome colors and unisex style of the majority people in their multicolored and infinitely varied hats, bags and other accouterments. It was very jarring and otherworldly experience, being mainly in a monochrome culture at the time, and brought to mind a glimpse of what the mingling of Indian tribes, soldiers, cowboys and all the many and diverse people thrown together in our Far West of our mountains and Great Plains in the 19th Century!

* One other unexpected side effect of the singular dress; being in the PLA, work in the fields, department store, office or hospital was no longer looking at these things to assess an individual. You only had the face to examine. It became clearer immediately that the individual was solely judged by facial recognition, no other distractions interfered. The faces would have been a great photo exploration allowed of the China of that time ! Later it reminded me of the Qing Di terra-cotta army buried in Xian where each individual face is immediately recognized in the singular uniform and grey/brown earth color of the clay.

****This post is taken from Facebook and is a preamble to a shared post from Mongolia Live. The text with original post and photos is as follows:

Photographer spends 6 months traveling alone to photograph Siberia’s Mongolic, Turkic and Tungusic peoples. For the past 9 years, photographer Alexander Khimushin has been traveling the world, visiting 84 different countries. Three years ago, inspired by the idea of documenting remote cultures that are slowly disappearing due to globalization, he began his The World in Faces project. Seeking out small, ethnic minority groups around the world, Khimushin shoots incredible portraits that both honor and immortalize their culture. #MongoliaLive

The Facebook post LaoMa is talking about can be found here. There is also a Facebook for the entire project “The World in Faces”:

Spring Festival and Lantern Festival

lantern Festival 1

Some photos, taken by and shared by London taiji shimei Lia, on the Second Annual Lantern Festival held in west London's Chiswick Garden Park.  When I first looked at these beautiful photos I thought they were the size of those I remembered seeing during my three Lantern Festivals in China, that were festooned in mountain park trees, but the silhouettes of people in one photo (the swan below) show the huge size of these London displays!

Spring Festival and Lantern Festival:

Lantern Festival 7
Lantern Festival 3

These festivals are linked together in China in a way a lot of foreigners are unaware of.  I was privileged to experience 3 of these "Holidays" while living in Wuhan, Wuchang, Hubei Province. Of the three Chun Jie  ! or Spring Festival (what we in the West call Chinese New Year) I spent one of these years in Hong Kong when it was still a British Colony, the other two in Wuchang, but I participated in all three Lantern Festivals 元宵節! with friends and Wuchang, Snake Hill Pavilion classmates.

Lantern Festival 4

Lantern Festival cannot be mentioned without considering Spring Festival. The Big One! The Mother of all Chinese holidays! If you take Easter, our Spring Festival, with its new clothes, new spring flowers; New Year with its alcohol celebration and year-changing rituals; Christmas with its family traveling and gift giving; Thanksgiving with its special food dishes and family meal; throw in 4th of July with unlimited fireworks, mix them all together for 2 to 3 weeks of raucous noise and gunpowder scented streets, a replacement of an annual animal totem and---you have a glimpse of Chinese Spring Festival, or Chun Jie!  Our concept of a one night new year out on the town just doesn't quite fit the bill.  But then comes Lantern Festival...!

Lantern Festival 5

The spectacle of Chun Jie, with its weeks long celebration, incessant fireworks, accompanied by bottle rocket and firecracker injuries to adults and, way too many, young children (my one Spring Festival attendance in Hong Kong was quite different from that of the Mainland; personal fireworks were forbidden, and only prescribed to one government display from barges out in the Fragrant Harbour), and stressful travel with millions of travelers filling train and bus stations finally comes to a close.

Lantern Festival 6

Fifteen days after the Lunar New Year, Lantern Festival brings the tumult of the preceding weeks of hectic celebration with a sedate wrap-up of surprising beauty, grace and neighborly interaction.  Families stroll through the streets carrying candle-lit, birdcage sized lanterns held aloft, greeting one another as the processions wind their way toward a neighborhood park, in my case toward Snake Hill where we met in early mornings in the tiered wushu training areas, to hang the lanterns upon tree branches festooning the paths and sinuous ridge of Sheshan 蛇山, in a gentle glow of swaying colored lights.  A quite magical and breath-taking ritual.

Lantern Festival 2
Lantern Festival 8

Ding Hongkui at 91

Yeye and LaoMa

Yeye and LaoMa

Ding Hongkui, 91 years old at this picture and reaching the end of a 60 year career of teaching at this same Snake Hill Pavilion. The foremost authority in China on Tang Pai, an almost 1400 year old Martial Art System. He never allowed himself to be called anything but Ding YeYe... Grandfather Ding... Fortune surely smiled on me to be able to study under this great man, and be called both his first Foreign Student and Closing Student. (Snake Hill Pavilion was--it is now a mah jong parlour--at the very place on Snake Hill where the 1911 Republican Revolution of Sun Yet- Sen began the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty!)