Keeping 18 weapons at the ready

Wuchang Kung Fu Team members demonstrate the Wuchang Eighteen Arms.

RESIDENTS of a village in Hangzhou are trying their best to keep a five-century-old martial arts tradition involving a distinctive array of deadly weapons alive. Xu Wenwen meets the dedicated local kung fu master who refuses to lay down his arms.

The Eighteen Arms is a list of the 18 main weapons used in Chinese martial arts, and in Wuchang Village in Yuhang, Hangzhou, many practice them all, as it has been the village's tradition lasting for five centuries.

Practicing martial arts is a custom in Wuchang Village nestled in the well-known scenic area of Xixi Wetland. However, the locals only use their own Wuchang Village's Eighteen Arms displayed in 19 routines.

The Wuchang's version of Eighteen Arms not only involves some ordinary Chinese kung fu arms such as broadsword, spear and axe, but also features weapons
adapted from agriculture tools and daily commodities.

For example, the Wen harrow and Wu harrow are adapted from common harrows which are rake-like tools used for breaking soil, the Ligong crutches are based on
an old person's walking aids, while the Yin shovel and Yang shovel look like ordinary shovels.

And among the 18 there are two specialties - the Jingang umbrella and the hand-shaped pen holder.

The Jingang umbrella is a wooden umbrella-like weapon but cannot open. It is used as a short stick while its two ends can be used to stab. The hand-shaped pen holder features a "hand" holding a pen on a long stick, of which the "fingers" and the sharp end of the pen can be used to stab.

This distinctive version of Eighteen Arms was initiated by Hong Zhong during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Hong from Wuchang was the martial arts teacher for the prince of the then royal family. When he was in his 70s, Hong retired and returned to his hometown and dedicated the rest of his life to training locals martial arts as exercises.

He invented two kinds of 18 weapons, one is made by wood, and the other is made by iron. The wooden one is for practice and the iron one is for real battle. Only men are allowed to use them.

For about 500 years, the martial arts have been handed down by locals, who practice regularly at a square in the village. Although there's no coach, people learn from and practice with each other, forming a local kung fu team.

Hu Qiaoquan, the current leader of the local kung fu team, started to practice the 18 arms when he was 16 and even now, the 55-year-old entrepreneur still practices for half an hour every morning. He only stopped during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976).

The devastating revolution resulted in the damage of kung fu manuals, the ruin of weapons and a long cease in the kung fu practice. "Some movements were forgotten while some were mistaken because we didn't practice for 10 years," says Hu.

Nevertheless, things are getting worse since very few young men practice kung fu nowadays.

"I guess it's the pace of modern life that does not allow young people to spare time on tough martial arts training," says Hu. "About 10 years ago, there were only around 20 members in the team, whose average age was 60."

In fact, seven or eight years ago, many of his teammates gave up because of busy work schedules or their age.

"I couldn't have the tradition handed down from ancestors stop in my generation," says Hu. As the leader he was determined to keep the local culture going.

In 2004, in cooperation with Hu Jiyun, his nephew who is a professional kung fu athlete, he revised the 19 routines and compiled them into books. In June of that year, the duo reestablished Wuchang Kung Fu Team, embracing more than 100 members, whose ages range from six to 93.

Hu Jiyun even quit his job as a kung fu coach to become the team's head coach. His main work is to train the team and adapt the performance of Wuchang Eighteen Arms.

But things didn't run smoothly - at first the duo was antagonized by their new team as they provided a seriously tough level of training that the locals had never had.

"Once on a hot day, I called for training on the square which has no shade at all, while members ignored me by staying under the shade of a tree not far away," Hu recalls. "So I insisted and remained standing in the sunshine until they gathered to train."

But soon the situation took a u-turn when the team made their debut at the Zhejiang International Traditional Wushu Tournament in 2004, and the duo's effort was proved worthwhile as the team won 34 gold medals in the competition. "The initiative was inspired from then," says Hu Jiyun.

Later on, the popularity of Wuchang Kung Fu Team was spread nationwide as it was featured in a documentary, interviewed by media from home and aboard, and invited to the Brazil Carnival in 2008.

In 2010, the martial art was listed as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage, and Hu Qiaoquan was named as the heritor.

Although few young people are willing to practice martial arts, the duo have found a breakthrough with children.

This March, they established a supplementary course of Wuchang Eighteen Arms at Wuchang Elementary School, where Hu Jiyun joined by some wise masters act as
coaches of the squad of more than 50 pupils.

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