I have been training every day this week, learning new throws and little tricks that I am not supposed to tell anyone. I just tell them that I have forgotten it already which Coach Ma seems to like. I believe the reason for secrecy is to gain an advantage when competing. If you know a throw or a trick that your opponents do not, you will have an advantage.
I have trained with the heavy wrestlers who are going to compete in the Tai Zhou international competition on Thursday which meant I was doing a lot of falling over. Although most of the time it’s just a satisfying bump on landing, there are a few throws, mainly the ones where you are flung in an arch over your opponents back ,that can leave you feeling battered, especially when it’s being done frequently and by someone who is very strong and tall.
There is an agitated energy in the air. The students who are not competing are left to train on their own while the competitors have serious talks and one on one training with the other coaches. They work on techniques at half speed trying to improve their form, trying to conserve their energy for later. Coach Ma is also going to take part in the competition.
While I take a rest panting and sweating on the matted gym I watch him through the glinting dust hanging in the air. Coach Ma is taking all his students on, one after another. His best student, a short muscular teenager walks onto the mat as his class mate picks himself up after being thrown. The student has half a smile; he is excited and nervous about wrestling with his coach. The students build is similar to Coach Ma and as they square off I get a sense of lineage. The youth learning from the teacher. It could almost be Coach Ma wrestling against a younger version of himself.
The rest of the students gather round and watch. The student darts in and out, snatching with lightning speed at coach Ma’s leg. He gets a hold and like a demented koala starts to shimmy his hands up Coach Ma’s leg while trying to lock his head onto coach Ma’s hip. His teacher smiles and forces his arm under the student’s face wrenching his caught leg back while pushing the student’s head away. The student stumbles back, sweeps his hair out of his eyes and shakes his arms before returning to a hunched ready position. He begins to dart in and out again and grabs at a leg. Coach Ma reaches out and latches onto the student’s waistcoat; yanking him down to the floor with a neck- whipping speed that almost topples the young man. He quickly swivels a 180 degree turn on the balls of his feet and with his back to the youth hurls him gracefully over his shoulders. The student almost bounces and laughs as he gets up and walks to the edge of the mat. Coach Ma floors a few more students before pulling out his cigarettes and lights up in the middle of the gym, tapping the ash off at the edge of the mat every so often.
On Thursday, Coach Ma drove myself and 3 competitors to the nearby city of Tai Zhou. We arrived at a hotel where wrestlers from all over China are meeting to register. They stand around in large, menacing groups, eyeing other competitors as they come in. The biggest and meanest looking ones were the people from the Inner Mongolia Province [not to be confused with the country Mongolia.] Most of them were over 6 feet tall ranging from very muscular to very muscular with a thick layer of winter fat.
Coach Ma walked around the foyer chatting with wrestlers and people he must have known for a long time. Many times when I was introduced to people they would look me up and down and after shaking my hand they would not let go, instead they kept a hold of me and with their free hand they would pinch and massage my arms and shoulders and slap my thighs. ‘’Ji rou’’ they would sometimes say with a laugh. Apparently I have chicken muscles. They were sizing me up as a competitor. As I became used to this molestation I too got into the habit of feeling my newly introduced. They certainly didn’t have chicken muscles, their forearms where like granite, their shoulders likewise.
Coach Ma took the 3 other wrestler from the Xinzhuo sports university to sign in and I was left alone to survey the warriors. There were some distinct groups. Noticeably the group of wrestlers from Taiwan. They looked more like normal university students, in matching new shell suits ,brand new and stylish black and green wrestling shoes and each with spiky hair in the strangely popular ‘’birds nest’’ haircut. They looked a bit out of place compared with the other wrestlers who seemed to have turned up in their everyday clothes.
Also, to my surprise, I spotted a small group of Westerners. After 3 weeks back in China these were the first non-Chinese I had seen in a long time. There were 2 men from France and one man from Italy, all belonging to the European Shuai Jiao Union. They seemed to be friendly with the Inner Mongolian coach.
After registering, Coach Ma, myself and one other wrestler went to our hotel room. There was a brief argument because there were only two beds and three of us. We all fought to be the one to sleep on the floor. I executed a nifty little manoeuvre, feigned defeat and lay on one of the beds, Coach Ma on the other. When the other wrestler went to the loo , I hopped off and lay on the floor pretending to be asleep. Back in the UK the whole thing may have been reversed with people fighting to have their own bed instead of sleeping on the floor, but in China being polite or showing your respect for others is something to fight about.
One of the most valuable lessons I have learnt in China is never to take ‘ no’ as an answer. ‘’No’’ doesn’t mean ‘no’, it actually means ‘yes ‘but Chinese people won’t admit that they want something so they say ‘no.’ It is up to you to still give them what they want without making them lose face.
For instance, if you’re at a dinner table and you ask someone if they want to try a particular dish they will almost always say ‘’no’’. This is your cue to pick up some of the dish and put it into their bowl, with protestation from them of course; some just skip the whole asking process and put food straight into your bowl .
As a thank you for accepting me as a student I had tried to give Coach Ma 3 gifts, all wrapped in shiny red bags. I offered them to him and he pushed them back refusing so I took them back home. ‘’He said he didn’t want them’’ I told Chaiyi and her Mum as I came in through the door. They both looked horrified and snatching the presents Mum ran down stairs, me following. Coach Ma was just pulling away in his car and Mum went up and began trying to force the presents in through the crack in the car window. Coach Ma protested and Mum raised her voice shouting angrily, Coach Ma tried to escape by reversing but Mum ran after the car and opened the back door and threw the presents in as the car pulled away. Maybe it is to do with the Confucian idea that it is weakness to show your emotions and your thoughts and by saying yes you are showing that you want something. I have found it hard to understand at times.
After our nap we got up and drove to a nearby stadium where the competition was being held. The stadium floor was the size of a basketball court with two matted arenas. Coach Ma and I took our seats near the front and watched as the various Shuai jiao teams lined up behind their flag- bearer, beautiful girls in white and blue uniforms holding plaques with the provinces names on them.
The ceremony began, loud music blaring from speakers and we all stood and watched as the Chinese flag was raised to the national anthem. Many officials took turns giving lengthy speeches at a podium in the middle of the court. I don’t know why they bothered as both the arriving spectators and the wrestlers on the ground were chatting amongst themselves, oblivious to the ear- splitting speeches booming out of the loud speakers. I was lucky enough to be given a very good seat at the front and so I was able see the action up close.
Very soon Coach Ma left his seat; he gripped thin air and twisted his hand as an explanation of where he was going. Some of his friends helped him put on the thick waistcoat used in this competition and he walked out onto the matted area. His name was mentioned over the loud speaker and an excited murmur ran through the crown in the stadium. Coach Ma is in his 40s, a heavy smoker and from what I have seen a heavy drinker as well. Most of the other competitors were half his age.
I needn’t have worried because he dispatched his first opponent so quickly that the crown started laughing and he was sitting back next to me without a drop of sweat only a minute later. Throughout the day as the competition wore on Coach Ma was called back again and again onto the mat to keep working his way up to the finals.
The team from Taiwan were quickly dispatched, losing every match. One of the French wrestlers came onto the mat and an excited murmur rose in the stadium. He began to perform an arm and leg flailing dance around his opponent, similar to the Mongolian Eagle Dance. A burst of laughter went up from the crowd and it seemed that the Shanxi people don’t think much of dancing. The young French man was also beaten easily. He was thrown to the mat quickly and lay there for a minute scratching his head angrily before getting up again. He was thrown again and again before his opponent had scored enough and it was called off. Then the Italian man entered. He was bigger and more muscular than the French man but he lost in a similar fashion. I heard later that the Europeans had only just arrived in China and I can imagine that the jet lag and being in such a new place would be overwhelming.
I saw some very crisp throws from Coach Ma while he was fighting one of the much younger and stronger- looking Mongolians. He was trying to jerk, push and pull Coach Ma around but like a seasoned warrior Coach Ma was weathering it. If the Mongolian grabbed his waistcoat Coach Ma would brace himself against the Mongolians chest and rip his clothes away in a sharp jerk which let out a load painful sounding snap as the Mongolians fingers were ripped away from the thick wrestling jacket. I winced whenever this happened as I remembered how even a small yank had left bruises under my fingernails and jarred my fingers.
Coach Ma then did a couple of throws which made the audience rise to their feet and roar. He did another 3 matches that day which he won in much the same fashion: using either the single leg take down or applying his clamp like grip on his opponent’s waist jacket and sending them flying over his hip or back. I could definitely see the difference between the Inner Mongolians and the Shanxi people’s style.
Much of the time the Mongolians would destroy their opponents by just forcefully slamming them on the floor while the Shanxi wrestlers would swoop low, grab legs and then, lifting their opponents into the air would crash them into the mat. I also noticed a trade mark move from the Hubei Province wrestlers. They would grab their opponent’s wrist and then, stepping back suddenly they would yank down and force the hand to the floor. If any part of the body apart from the feet touches the mat it’s a point scored. Often this move was performed with such good timing that their adversary would be brought to their knees.
That evening, all the teams, coaches and judges and a very over- awed me, ate in one big dining room in the hotel. I sat with a slightly battered looking Coach Ma and some coaches from different provinces. We drank horrible- tasting , cheap, strong wine ,while dish after dish of amazing food was placed in front of us, so much in fact that the dishes were placed on top of each other as there wasn’t enough space on the big table. Even when we were full the dishes still came. This has happened at every meal since I have been back in China. Chaiyi says it’s what they do in the North. I can imagine why: famine is still within living memory and Chaiyi’s father often tells us about how he spent most of his youth feeling hungry, even trying to eat the leaves off the trees sometimes.
I tried to be polite by proposing the odd toast and also placing food on Coach Ma’s small plate. When the meal was coming to an end Coach Ma gave me the room key and told me to go to bed. I was very full and drunk and I waddled to our room heavily and unsteadily, politely refusing a ‘’sexy massage’’ from an attractive woman in the hallway. When I entered the room I passed out on the floor. Yet again I had won; I was sleeping on the floor again.