21. Harnessing Chi (extract)

All boys have watched action movie stars like Steven Seagal, Bruce Lee, and Jean-Claude Van Damme single-handedly destroying hordes of bad guys and daydreamed of emulating them. It usually goes no further than kicking your younger brother around, or perhaps a short spell of taekwondo or karate classes before giving up out of frustration at the endless drilling that produces less than spectacular results. For a hardcore minority martial arts become a lifelong passion and a way of life. One of the Hollywood cliches in martial arts movies is to have the hero training under some wizened old oriental master. After some test to show his determination the apprentice learns lethal fighting techniques with a touch of eastern mysticism thrown in and, if he's really lucky, gets the old man's beautiful granddaughter. Real life is often not too far removed from fiction.

American Bruce Frantzis arrived in Taiwan in the summer of 1968 as a confident nineteen-year-old karate champion looking to study under Wang Shujin. Wang had trained under the greats in mainland China before joining the KMT exodus to Taiwan, and was the country's leading exponent of the internal martial arts of hsing-i and ba gua.

Internal martial arts don't rely on physical strength or muscular power, but the opening-up of energy channels through Taoist meditation and breathing techniques. Spiraling and twisting motions are generated deep inside the body -- some too subtle and internal to be seen -- and involve all parts of the body, including the abdominal cavity, the internal organs, even bone marrow and ligaments, as well as muscles. Sorry, it doesn't make much sense to me either but that's the way practitioners explain it. And it gets worse! Ba gua is based on the changes in the eight trigrams and 64 hexagrams of the I Ching. Hsing-i is based on the interactions of the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, water, and wood, which makes about as about much sense as saying a fighting system was based on the hand game of scissors, paper, and stone. Hsing-i is more linear and aggressive than ba gua and is best described as an internal-arts version of karate. The third internal art, tai chi, works on the principle of yin and yang. Although best known as a early morning health routine for oldies, it can also be used as a martial art.

Frantzis learnt that Wang gave classes in a Taichung park at five-thirty in the morning, and was waiting there to meet him. Wang, an old man packing over 250 pounds on to a 5-foot 8-inch frame and dressed in what looked like pajamas, came waddling down the street carrying two bird cages. Frantzis presented Wang with an expensive gift of ginseng and felt insulted when the master reciprocated with disparaging comments about karate being "only fit for fighting old women and children." The two sparred a little -- or rather Wang toyed with the American, able to touch him at will and evade all his blows. Not that Wang needed to worry about getting hit, as he later demonstrated by allowing Frantzis to strike him anywhere on the body. He struck his hardest blows against Wang's exposed body, including vulnerable areas such as his knees, neck, and ribs, but all without effect. Wang had the ability to absorb blows without them causing injury. The master tapped Frantzis lightly on the head and sent him to the ground with the sensation that he had been hit by a lightening bolt.

Before accepting Frantzis as a student there was a little test of resolve. Wang told him to assume the "Wild Goose Leaves the Flock" posture and hold it until told otherwise. Frantzis struck the position -- one leg raised to waist height, arms extended, and the body leaning to one side -- and every time he collapsed he received a cold bucket of water, and the command to resume the posture. After two hours of this Wang announced he would take him on. The humbled karate champion's ordeal was still far from over. Next he got to fight Wang's students who beat the hell out of him. It was a humiliating experience for a nineteen-year-old hotshot to be dealt to by old men and women, and he felt like calling it quits on that first day. He swallowed his pride and accepted the superiority of the "soft" internal arts over "hard" forms like karate.

In the words of another American, Robert W. Smith, "One simply could not practise with Wang and disbelieve in the Ch'i." Smith, who came out to Taiwan in 1959 with the U.S. military, had a similar experience of hitting Wang without effect, and also one of his special moves in which he picked up an opponent and bounced him on and off his huge stomach. Wang could kill with his stomach, and Hung I-Hsiang, one of Taiwan's most renowned martial artists, told Smith he had been knocked unconscious by it. Both Wang Shu Jin, who was still beating the toughest fighters into his eighties, and Hung I-Hsiang possessed incredible power and could send the strongest men flying many feet in any direction with an effortless touch.