My Wife and I arrived in Beijing in April. We had spent the last year and a half living in England and now I was going to meet my Chaiyi’s parents for the first time and to practise Chinese wrestling in her home town for just over a month. I didn’t really sleep on the flight from the UK. When we got out of the plane the first thing I noticed was the grey polluted sky. Chaiyi and I took a bus to the domestic airport and got on another flight to Shanxi province.
When we arrived in Tai Yuan capital city I was struck yet again by how grey the sky was and how dusty and dry everything was. Even the trees where dusty. Chaiyi’s father came and picked us up. I was getting ready to launch into a warm huge with the father in law, but he evaded my attempt and shepherded me along taking my luggage troll and saying in Mandarin “come”.
So introductions over his friend Sar drove us from the airport to Chaiyi’s home town Xin Zhuo.
It was a strange trip. Dark grey skies and large construction machinery all along the sides of the new motorway. Thick bare power cables jutting out of the street where lamps were or will be, and very worryingly a lack of man whole covers. Chaiyi told me many of her friends had fallen down these pot holes ‘’people steal them for the metal which supports the concrete cover’’ she explained.
Big digger trucks going down the motorway with grizzly looking workers standing in the front digger scoop smoking foot long cigarettes rolled with thick paper. As we drove Sar told me a bit about Shanxi style wrestling or as it’s called here ‘’Shuai jiao’’.
‘’ Everyone learns Shuai jiao here; it’s like football in your country. Shanxi Shuai jiao is famous for its leg grabbing techniques, whereas the Mongolian wrestlers are very strong and use so much strength, you should be careful you can get hurt when you play Shuai jiao’’ Sar said.
I was worried; the only thing I had done which is close to shuai jiao is Tai chi push hands. I had spent almost a year and a half in Guangxi province learning Chen Tai chi. In push hands you are not allowed to grab the legs or the neck and you gain points if you push your opponent out of the arena or throw them on the ground. Although in theory you are meant to use as little physical strength as possible it usually turns into a forceful competition. The same as Judo, ‘’the gentle way’’ which if you have ever practised Judo you will know that unless you’re a master it’s anything but gentle.
Before coming back to China this time I could not find any videos and very little information about Shanxi Shuai jiao. The main thing I had found out was that Shanxi style Shuai jiao focuses on leg techniques, but Sar had already told me that. Any videos I looked at on YouTube where either of judo or Olympic wrestling. I was still unsure about what Shanxi Shuai jiao actually involved.
We arrived in Xin Zhuo town, driving down the four lane road towards Chaiyi’s parents apartment block ‘’when I was a child this road and all around it was just forest and farm land, we used to play here when I was young’’ Chaiyi said.
I greeted Sarah’s Mother and received very much the same response as her father gave me. I was determined to get a hug in but I met her as we were going up the stairs to their apartment and she swiftly snatched my bags and ushered me into the apartment hastily as if we were very late, the moment was lost.
There were some family friends around and we all proceeded to get quickly and heavily drunk on very strong Chinese bie jue, a white grain spirit at 56%. Let me just say that I was very jet lagged and it was not the first thing that I wanted to do on my arrival but eating and drinking are a very big part of Chinese culture so I did my best and wobbled off to bed after I had been stuffed and pickled.
We spent the next 3 days or so getting over the jet lag. Getting up ridiculously early and getting very tired early on. Sarah’s parents treated me extremely well. Not letting me pay for anything. Buying me new cloths, mending my old ones, washing my shoes paying for taxis, cooking the most amazing food and generally making my stay a living heaven.
After a good rest we went to meet my new coach of Shuio Jiao. Sarah explained to me that her Father knew the principle of the sports university so we were going to take him out with his friends and the coach as well to talk about my training.
We went to eat at a large two story hot pot restaurant. Chaiyi and her Mother and Father stayed close to me as we entered the building. I wondered if they were worried that I might run off or hurt myself. Our guests where a group of 10 people. The principle of the sports university, several government officials, some wrestlers and my future Coach and I think a few of their friends who had come along for a free meal.
They were all conservatively dressed in Black, grey or dark purple trousers and jackets. I could tell the wrestlers from the rest. They were thick set and all had cauliflower ears. I shook lots of hands did endless toasts of bie jiu and then ate a little bit of food and did some more toasts. When the time came came for me to toast my new coach I got up red faced and drunk and walked slowly and very carefully around to the other side of the table trying to remember what Chaiyi had told me to say in Mandarin and also trying not to look too drunk. I approached Coach Ma and brought my glass below his glass as a sign of respect and clinked them. As a sign of modesty he also tried to lower his glass but of course as a younger person and as a student to a teacher it was expected of me to lower mine even more. ‘’Ma Jiao lien, wo jing ni yi bei’’ I said in mandarin. It’s roughly translated as
‘’ Coach Ma I toast you’’
We drank the bie jiu and everyone murmured in agreement. We showed each other our empty glasses and I walked back to my seat. After that the drinking slowed down and they talked for a while and it was settled that Coach Ma would train me. As we left the restaurant Coach Ma and I held hands and I had a limited chat with him due to my poor mandarin skills. Coach Ma is a small man with slightly sloped shoulders, his hands are meaty and his fingers are curled up, his arms are slightly bent. It’s almost like he has wrestled for so long that his body naturally wants to hunch over and his hands want to latch onto something.
The next day I got up at 5 in the morning and I put on my sports cloths and shoes and Chaiyi’s Father walked me to the university. The streets where surprisingly busy for such an early hour, middle school students in their white and blue shell suit uniforms sleepily rode their bikes to school and on street corners or under trees elderly men and women practised Tai chi and group exercises. Many of them wearing the shapeless Mao suits and hats, in blue and green. Street cleaners with long straw brooms threw up clouds of dust by the road side as we passed. There where all wearing face masks and high visibility jackets and gloves.
I felt like a child on his first day at school with Chaiyi’s father taking me. ‘’you must call us Mum and Dad’’ they had said during our first meal together. I feel privileged to now I have another set of parents.
When we arrived at the sports university I was introduced to the class of stocky well-tanned wrestlers they gave me a warm clap and they chatted amongst themselves excitedly as they stared at me. We began our morning run around the dusty track next to the dormitories. There where so many students all studying different sports. Groups of sprinters and marathon runners easily over took us and we in our turn easily over took the heavy set weight lifters as they plodded round the tracks. The sun was rising and by the time we had finished a dozen laps of the track the sky was a pale blue, the sun a deep red on the horizon.
We all gathered on a large smooth area in the park paved with slabs, people playing badminton without nets, clapping their hands at different angles and performing slow martial arts forms all around us. There was no privacy and soon a large crowd of spectators had formed around our group of wrestlers and they watched with amusement as Coach Ma took me through a difficult set of basic movements. Many Chinese martial arts have a strong base of leg strengthening exercises, ranging from holding squats in the hoarse stance for extended periods of time to performing strikes in low stances. Shuai jiao it seems is no exception.
We spent 30 minutes going through a set of leg exercises. Squats, squats with various kicks in between, sweeping drills and some exercises which I am afraid my skills as a writer fail to describe. Some of them looked so abstract and I could not imagine what application they would have but Coach Ma would show me the application for each of the exercises and instantly they became understandable.
After only a few minutes of these exercises my legs became weak and began to shake, I watched as my fellow students effortlessly performed them again and again. The mind was willing but the body was not. At the end of the mornings training Coach Ma asked me to show them all some Tai chi. All the students plus the crowd that had stuck around all morning looked extra interested. It was too sudden for me to become nerves and I performed a section of the Chen style fast form. Everyone clapped politely and Coach Ma smiled widely showing gold and silver fillings and teeth.
Dad took me home after the training, now the streets where crowded and noisy, cars and bikes and busses beeping and honking, cutting dangerously in front of each other, breaks slammed on as people frequently walked out into the road.
I had a break until 2:30 in the afternoon and because I was such a big boy I walked to school all on my own, Almost everyone staring at me or shouting ‘’Helloo’’ as I walked. Packs of scruffy dogs snuffled and explored the mounds of rubbish on the pavement. Small shops selling noodles wafted delicious smells.
When I arrived at the university one of the Shuai jiao students was waiting for me outside the dormitory’s gates. As I approached he pointed towards a building opposite the rooms and I followed him there. We entered and I found myself in a large matted gym. A few ancient looking weights scattered around the edges and metal radiators with sharp edges made me wonder if anyone had ever gone crashing into them by mistake and hurt themselves.
I wiped my shoes on a damp grubby mob which I suspect only made my shoes dirtier and then I walked onto the mat. Everyone was looking at me, these muscle young men some sitting in groups others lightly wrestling but all staring at me. Thankfully the training session began and we ran around the matted area and began to perform dive rolls, break falls, bunny hops, cartwheels and a few things involving forward flips onto your head which I didn’t even try. I felt dizzy after each roll I did and staggered a little afterwards ‘’don’t worry it only takes a few months for you to get used to it’’ one of the students said to me in Mandarin.
After we warmed up I got my first taste of Shanxi Shuai jiao. I was much heavier than the man I was paired up against and much taller, I thought that my Tai chi push hands training would come in handy as from what I had seen tai chi push hands and Shuio Jiao wrestling where similar. BANG! I was on the mat; I didn’t really know what had happened so I got up. I rooted my front leg into the ground and relaxed my shoulders keeping my body upright. I noticed that my opponent was hunched over with his back bent and his arms out stretched and then I saw what he must have done before, he just reached down and grabbed my heal and lifted it up BANG! Again. Right! I am not going to let that happen again, of course it did happen again. He grabbed my feet my knees my neck, my fingers. Everything I was not taught to do in Tai chi push hands.
It was very interesting, such a different game. Although my opponent was trying his level best to throw me on the ground and on a few occasions he sent me sailing over his hip and the fall made me see stars at no time did I feel any fear. All the other wrestlers had formed a circle around us and watched, laughing and clapping whenever someone was thrown (I was the only one thrown).
I felt no malice or negative ego at all. I saw that because Shuai jiao involves so much time actually wrestling it’s very clear to everyone who is the best is and there isn’t much time to get coxy as you are constantly getting tested. It was clear that my opponent was way above my ability and because it was known there was a pressure relieved. Compared to some traditional martial arts which I have practised before where sparring is a rarity and tension builts up without any release, controlled exercises can serve to frustrate and can become petty competitions and some people have swollen heads even when they have not proven their worth.
It is not the same with Shuai jiao. There appears to be a simple purity to it. You can launch your entire strength at someone and throw them without hurting them. You know you have won because your opponent is on the floor, you know you have been beaten because you are picking yourself up and it doesn’t matter because you can always try again. Before I came to study Shuai jiao many people had told me that wrestlers are generally some of the nicest people in the martial arts world. From my brief experience so far I am inclined to agree.
After a couple more little wrestles I went home. I had bruises under my fingernails, behind my knees from them grabbing all the time and a swollen knee cap from a bad fall and scratches all over my arms and chest.
Over the next two weeks my fitness level rose quickly and I became proficient with a few of the leg grabbing techniques. This time was the hardest as I had to break my lazy body back into shape. My basic leg exercises are becoming easier and I can almost keep up with the rest of the students in the morning training. During wrestling practise in the afternoon I have begun to be able to throw some of the students and can defend myself much better. Shuai jiao is an intense martial art which requires dedication to get good at but at the same time it is incredibly natural. Wrestling is natural, that is why most of the oldest martial arts are wrestling forms. It is in our dna to wrestle, in the same way it is in cats or dogs to play fight.
Next week there is a Shuai jiao competition in Tai Yuan capital city. Wrestlers from Mongolia and other Northern provinces are attending. Coach Ma asked if I wanted to come. ‘’I would love to come but I don’t think I am ready to compete’’ I said jokingly. ‘’we will see’’ he said with a grin. I was slightly unnerved; I have never been able to understand Chinese humour and didn’t know if he was actually joking or if he was just smiling while he talked.