My Martial Arts Practice

Excerpt from Wednesday’s Child

Kung Fu was one of my grandfather’s favorite television shows. He wasn’t a fan of the martial arts portrayed, but he loved the flashback segments in the Shaolin Temple, wherein Keye Luke and Philip Ahn would instruct young Caine, guiding him and teaching him lessons from classical Taoist and Buddhist philosophy. I used to love those parts, too. We never missed an episode. And it influenced how I came to view the martial arts later on.

I grew up believing that Taoist and Ch’an philosophy were inextricably linked to the practice of Chinese gongfu. It was only many years later that I learned that this was not entirely true. Still, it did begin my exposure to much of East Asian philosophy that was recognizable to, and could be appreciated by, a Westerner.

Over the years, I spent a lot of time amongst Taoist and Ch’an adepts, and I drew from them a certain philosophical flexibility that helped me to overcome (eventually) a lot of the rigidity of thought that so often attends Western fundamentalist religion.

I am an unlikely martial artist. In fact, I am not even sure if I can even call myself a martial artist. Over the years since college, I have dabbled here and there where I could, but I never began studying in earnest until around 2003. So, I’ve been working steadily at my martial arts for almost twenty years as of this writing.

Oddly enough, I did not become interested in the martial arts when I lived in Taiwan. It was the happiest time of my life, and despite having access to, arguably, some of the best fighters in traditional Chinese martial arts, my preferred form of exercise was the East German powerlifting team’s off-season volume training routine. I was much healthier back then, too. I was at a good fighting weight of 225 lbs, and I walked or biked everywhere. In fact, I lived on the thirteenth floor of my apartment building, and seldom used the elevator.

Though even that is not correct; “steadily” is not really how it’s been going. There has been a certain amount of consistency over the years, but my progress has been painfully slow, if existent at all. You would think that after so many years, I might be a gongfu adept, or a shodan karateka. No. During the day, there has been work demeaning, barely remunerative, soul-destroying work — and depression has played a great role in retarding my progress. I am never going to be a martial arts master. I am, rather, a martial arts Sisyphus, struggling to make the most modest of gains, only to see most of them wiped away when the boulder of depression rolls down on me, like a not-quite-fast-enough Indiana Jones. Oh, well. As the old Chinese proverb goes, “It does not matter how slow your progress, so long as you don’t give up.” All that said, I do still retain an interest in traditional Chinese and Okinawan martial arts systems. It is fun exercise, and it is good to be able to do something useful with my body. It also trains the mind in very specific ways, if you have the right teacher. The moving meditation aspect of my art does in fact help a little with my depression.

I first dabbled in the martial arts when I was at university in America, at Rutgers, New Brunswick. I was studying Chinese, and I was interested in exploring as many facets of Chinese culture as I could. One of the inter-campus bus drivers was a practitioner of some kind of Nanquan. I was not sure if it was Yong Chun, or Hung Gar, or a combination of both. He taught on the Livingston campus, two or three nights a week. I had really gotten into it, and had also joined a once-per-week class on College Avenue, led by a student from Taiwan, and who practiced Northern Shaolin.

I was really enjoying it, and I grabbed what books of gongfu I could find to study. I even began watching Shaw Brothers films on Saturday afternoon television.

However, my enthusiasm for gongfu was cut down, just as my enthusiasm for theater had been cut down in high school; I was told by my Christian “elders” that none of it was “of God,” and so cautioned me to stop. And, alas, so I did.

That was difficult.

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Fangshan district
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