Du Xinwu: A Legendary Wushu Hero
Du Xinwu (1869-1955), a wushu master of nationwide renown, is said to have once served as a bodyguard to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, leader of the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Many stories, either true or fictitious, have been told about his superhuman abilities and chivalrous exploits. Here is one narrated by Wan Tianshi, a close friend of Du's. Although here and there tinged with exaggeration and mysticism, as is characteristic of all legends about popular historical figures, it brings out the image of a noble-minded wushu maestro in old China.

To the northwest of Cili County in the northwestern corner of Human Province, the high mountains rise one above another, with sheer cliffs and deep ravines here, there and everywhere. In one of the ravines lies Yanbantian Village. It was here that the renowned wushu master Du Xinwu was born in 1869, the eighth year of the reign of Emperor Tong Zhi in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Close to Guizhou and Sichuan provinces to its west, Cili County was where several minority nationalities lived. What with the corrupt and incompetent rule of the Qing government and the exploitation of the landlords, the people there could barely eke out a living. What was worse was that the place and its surrounding areas were infested with brigands. To protect themselves, the villagers took up wushu, which became so popular that both the old, and the young could wield the sword, spear or other weapons with great skill and dexterity.

It was in these circumstances that Du Xinwu grew up. His father died soon after his birth, and so his mother had to shoulder all the household burdens. His bitter experience in life during his early years made him a precocious boy with a strong personality.

Teachers of Supernatural Skills
Du Xinwu started learning wushu after school at the age of six and had picked up some of the fundamentals by nine. One day when he was walking hurriedly to school along a narrow ridge in the paddy fields, he saw an old man in front of him. Since only one man could pass at a time, he called out: "Grand Uncle, can't you walk faster? I'm in a hurry."
"If you want to get ahead, hold my braid tight. And remember, don't relax your grip." The old man said this without even turning his head. No sooner said than done, the old man lifted Du Xinwu with his braid and, with a slight jerk of his head, landed the boy on the ridge in front of himself. Impressed by the old man's feat, Du stood there transfixed with amazement. "Why don't you move on" the old man asked, "You were in such a hurry just a minute ago." "I want to learn wushu from you," the boy pleaded. "Please take me on as your pupil." With that he knelt down before the old man, but because the ridge was too narrow, he fell into the paddy field instead. Moved by the boy's sincerity, the old man quickly helped him up and consented to teach him.

The old man was called Yan Ke. He was well versed in the Chinese classics as well as in wushu, and his braid served him as a weapon with the force of a bludgeon. For all his learning and abilities, he chose to live in obscurity rather than seek a high official post in the corrupt government. As he lived not too far away, Du Xinwu went every day to the old master's house to learn the classics and wushu from him. Within a year Du had made remarkable progress, and no one of his age in the village could match his prowess physically or intellectually.

As Yan Ke was advanced in years, his health gradually failed. So on the occasion of the Double Ninth Festival (9th day of the 9th month by the lunar calendar) that year, the traditional day on which young people in China go climbing mountains, he told Du to follow the other kids to the nearby Mt. Gaizi which, he said, was an "interesting and mysterious place."

The mountain was not famous, but its scenery was quite beautiful, with tall and straight pines and cypresses growing among boulders of different shapes and camphor trees and red maples lining the winding paths and on the fringes of the cascades. The kids were romping on the mountainside when they came in sight of a building surrounded by a high wall covered with moss. Filled with curiosity, they walked around it but could not find a gate. They were greatly puzzled, but few cared to fathom the reason fo5r it. Soon they dispersed in different directions in quest of new adventures. But Du remained behind, remembering his master's words about an "interesting and mysterious place." Then he saw a person jump out from the other side of the wall and land in front of him. The stranger was a Taoist priest in a long robe, with his hair coiled on the top of his head. Du walked up deferentially and tugged at his long sleeve.
"Are you a celestial?" he asked. Startled at being so addressed, the priest answered haltingly, "I...I'm just a mortal, a vegetarian, if that means anything to you." But the little boy was not to be so easily dismissed. He pressed on. "If you are not an immortal, how could you leap over that high wall?" "Well kid, I've acquired the skill after long years of training," the priest replied with a smile. "It's not difficult if you keep practising. Practise makes perfect, you know." "Can I do it?" Sizing him up, the priest answered: "Where there is a will, there is a way." Beside himself with joy, Du went down on his knees and kowtowed, saying "Please accept me as your pupil." "You are Du Xinwu from Yanbantian Village, aren't you?" "Yes, but how do you know my name?" "Your teacher Yan Ke told me." Seeing that the boy was eager to learn, the priest willingly accepted him. Looking at the high wall, Du asked how he could get in.
"It's easy," the priest said. "Just call me when you come, and I'll carry you in and out over the wall. You'll be able to jump over it yourself later on." "But my home is so far away," Du said, "can't I live here?"

Patting him on the shoulder, the priest pointed at the green mountains and said: "Do you know the proverb that a thousand-li journey starts with the first step? Get up early in the morning and trot all the way here every day. And, remember, don't eat anything. I have spring water and wild fruits here for you. Later you'll understand the importance of taking the first step."

A Bloody Nose
The old priest was an exceptionally skilled wushu master. Among other things, he could sail effortlessly over high obstacles as if his body were as light as a swallow. He had two spiral cones of iron, each weighing 20kg. Wherever he went, he would take them along, one in each hand, rubbing and pressing them with his fingers incessantly. As time went by, the shape of these objects changed beyond recognition and his hands and fingers were roughened into iron claws.

One day, while Du was practising wushu behind the wall, a stranger, speaking in a northern dialect, suddenly jumped into the enclose and, speaking in a northern dialect, asked for the priest. Du went into the building to report the arrival of the guest. Annoyed by someone interrupting his period of meditation, the priest walked slowly to the courtyard and saw a tough fellow in his 40s. Judging by his attire and bellicose look, the host figured that he was most probably an outlaw who had come with malicious intent. He politely greeted the stranger but was peremptorily cut short. "Your castrated priest," the intruder said haughtily, "I've come to challenge you to a trial of strength." Unperturbed the priest said patiently: "I'm a monk and cherish benevolence. I'm sorry if I've in any way offended you." "Bullshit!" the man shouted. Without saying another word, he struck at the priest's head in the manner of a "tier washing its face." The priest dodged with a "sparrow hawk's sidespin." Discerning the ruffian's superb wushu techniques of the Shaolin school, he cautioned himself to be on the alert. "We bear no grudge against each other," the priest said in a controlled voice, "why should we fight?" "I hear you have supernatural skills," bellowed the stranger, "and no one can match you. Now I'd like to see what stuff you are really made of." With this he hit out another classic trick called "grabbing the sun with both fists." Enraged by his big talk and aggressiveness, the priest decided to teach the man a lesson. Dodging the unexpected onslaught, he feinted with the posture of "scooping up the moon from the bottom of the sea." Mistaking this to be an attack, the stranger immediately sprang up so as to "press down with the weight of Mt. Taishan." With lightning speed the priest turned round and reached out his right hand in a gesture of "dispelling the clouds to pluck the star." Instantaneously blood gushed out from the man's face. With a shrill cry, he fell over himself and rolled on the ground with pain as he covered his face with one hand. Then he sprang up and jumped over the wall as the old priest looked on nonchalantly, without even bothering to go after him. Then he threw something to the ground contemptuously. It was the stranger's bloody nose! All the while Du Xinwu had been watching with deep admiration at his master's valour. But the old priest felt sorry that he had been forced to inflict injury on someone. "I've broken my vow not to hurt others," he said to the boy. "It'd have been better just to help him realize his mistakes and mend his ways than to hurt him. He must be a brigand who wants to occupy this hill. I'm not afraid of him and his gang, but they might hurt you if I remain here. So I'll leave here tomorrow on a tour of the country. You must keep on practising every day. Please say goodbye for me to your teacher Yan Ke." The old master left the next day and was never seen again.

A few days later, the man who had lost his nose came at night with a number of bandits to take revenge. When they could not find the old priest, set fire to the building to give vent to their anger.

In Search of a Tutor
After his master Yan Ke died of illness, Du Xinwu kept on practising wushu by himself and when he was 13, he could not find his match for miles around. Eager to further improve his skills, he put up posters at market places with the following message: "Du Xinwu, 13, Yanbantian Village, will recognize anyone who can beat him in a bout of wushu as his master."

The first one to come for a trial was a master of the low stance style of tuquan boxing. However, the boy told him bluntly that he had no chance whatsoever. "Don't brag, kid. Look at these," he said, brandishing his two fists the size of two big bowls. "Big enough to pommel you to smithereens, you see!" Taking a step forward, the tuquan master flung his fists at his young opponent. Diminutive as his build was, the boy held his ground, quickly bent his left leg a bit and swept his right leg sideways, sending the tuquan master sprawling on the ground. The boy helped him to his feet, gave him some traveling expenses and sent him away. After that, several others came to measure their strength with the boy, but all proved to be no match for him.

Then one day a certain person named Wang came to the village. He had learnt wushu in the famous Shaolin Temple in Songshan, Henan Province, and had a good command of the art. When he was told about Du Xinwu's exploits, he decided to look the boy up, confident that he could by all means beat this "teeny brat." Seeing that the newcomer was no ordinary wushu master, the boy said politely: "I'm just learning wushu. I put up the posters because I'm anxious to find a teacher. Would you please show me some of your skills?" Wang agreed and performed a set of wuzhanquan (Five-Bout Boxing). After giving the demonstration, he in turn asked Du Xinwu to give a performance of what he had learnt. The boy complied and executed some basic routines. Wang praised him but pointed out that some of his movements still needed to be improved. "He must be good. I should ask him to be my teacher," Du said to himself and knelt down before the newcomer. "Get up, kid," said Wang after a short pause. "I can't stay here, but I have a man in mind for you -- an eccentric short fellow but a suitable teacher for you. Be sure to treat him nicely when he comes." Half a year later, the said eccentric came with a letter from Wang. His surname was Xu. There was nothing particular about him except that he was rather short. "Can such a dwarf be my teacher?" Du wondered. Xu came from Guizhou Province. Since no one knew what his real name was, he was just called Shorty Xu by others. It was only out of respect for Wang that the boy invited Xu to stay in his house. Several days passed, but Xu didn't make any move. The boy couldn't help asking: "Won't you teach me something?" "I'm just an ordinary man, what can I teach?" Xu snapped back. Remembering Wang's instruction that he must not offend the newcomer, the boy dared not press further. Then another fortnight passed and still nothing happened. Getting impatient, the boy approached Xu again. "I'm not a street performer," Xu said angrily, "and I don't have anything to show you. If you won't let me stay here, I'll leave right away." Afraid that he really meant it, Du quickly offered his apologies. The boy practised every day by himself while Xu sat on the threshold, looking on absently without saying a word.

Half a year passed in this way and still nothing happened. His patience exhausted, the boy knelt down before Xu and pleaded: "Great master, forgive me if I have offended you. Please teach me wushu. I'll never forget you if I can make any improvement." This time Xu didn't get mad, but motioned the boy to get up. "All right," he said as he tapped his small-bowled long-stemmed tobacco pipe. "Let's start with the inner-circle walk of ziranmen. Du was first taught to walk in circles on level ground, with his pace increasing gradually. Then he was taught to walk on stakes fixed on the ground in the shape of a plum flower, with a 5kg sandbag tied to each leg. "Ziranmen calls for the exercise of qi (vital energy), Xu told him. "To practise it you must always remain relaxed as you walk on the stakes. While you breathe, let your qi sink into your abdomen."

Three months later, the sandbags' weight was doubled, and Du made remarkable progress. He could now guide the circulation of qi with his mind and exert strength with its help. The training, however, was very tedious and he was fed up with the endless repetitions of circle-walking. So he asked Xu to teach him something new. His master reproved him for his impatience and said: "The exercise is very important. It coordinates the body movements and footwork with the mind and qi, thus laying a foundation for further training. You should master it first before proceeding to acquire greater skills." Du stared at his master, somewhat unconvinced. Reading his pupil's mind, Xu said: "If you don't believe me, you may tray a bout with me." "How?" Du asked, beaming with joy. He had long wished to see how good his master was. Now that Xu had suggested a bout, he was only too glad to do his bidding. "Try to hit me."
Du cupped his hands and made a traditional courtesy before darting forward to strike Xu on the head as fiercely as a tiger rushing down a mountainside. For all his speed and force, Du's fists slipped off as soon as they touched Xu's body. Then using the inner-circle footwork, he dealt Xu more blows, only to find them going wide of the mark. Charging at Xu for all he was worth, Du still failed to hit his elusive master. Sweating all over, Du made a mess of his footwork and was at a loss for better methods of attack. "Your fists are too small," Xu teased the boy smilingly. "Go and get a weapon to hit me with." Wiping off the sweat on his face, the panting pupil took out two sharp swords and asked his master to choose one. "I don't need any," said Xu. "This pipe of mine is more than enough for me." Looking at Xu's pipe, which was less than a foot long, Du said apprehensively: "Master... what if anything happens?"
"Don't worry. Neither swords nor spears can do me any harm. Just try your best to cut me," Xu said in an assuring tone.

After taking a a steady stance, Du let out a cry and made straight for his master's head. The steel blade flashed in the sunlight and fell on the square table where Xu had been sitting, splitting it at the middle. When Du turned his head, he saw his master squatting on a stool nearby, puffing at his pipe as if nothing had happened. Xinwu swept his sword sideways several times, only to find his master still on the stool unmoved. Then he charged without ceremony, wielding his sword high and low, right and left. When he stopped to have a look, he was surprised to see Xu still perched on the stool, lighting a second bowl of his tobacco pipe. Throwing the sword on the ground, Du went down on his knees before his master, kowtowed three times and said, "Now I understand it is qinggong (light-body technique) that has enabled you to dodge my sword." Xu nodded approvingly.

From that day on, Du paid more attention to the fundamentals of wushu and practised "inner-circles walking" with a single mind. Then he proceeded to practise qinggong. Xu first gave a demonstration. With sandbags heavier than his own weight tied to his four limbs, Xu leaped lightly on to the top of three tables piled one upon the other, walked along the edges of the top table and then jumped down to the ground without a sound. Under Xu's watchful eye, Du trained all the year round without a letup. In this way his movements and skills improved remarkably with time.

A Dangerous Mischief
It was in the year 1885 when Du was already 16. Thinking that his pupil had grown relatively mature in the martial arts and needed to see more of the world, Master Xu decided to take him on a tour of the adjacent Guizhou and Sichuan provinces. At that time there were no highways leading to these parts of the country and one had to travel on foot over the rugged land. The master had no difficulty trekking on the tortuous trails and he always had to wait for the boy to catch up with him. One day they came to a deep ravine spanned by an iron-chain suspension bridge. The boy was picking his steps cautiously behind his master when an idea suddenly occurred to him. "Nobody can approach my master in the front," he thought in a playful mood. "Let me see how he'll react if I feint an attack from behind," So he stole up and made ready to give a kick on his master's buttocks. But so sooner had he raised his leg than Xu swung around and caught it. "You naughty boy!" the master shouted, letting go his grip. "This is no place for you to fool around. You'll dash to pieces if you fall down the ravine from the slippery planks!" When they reached the opposite bank and sat down for a rest, Du told his master what he had in mind. "Never do such a stupid thing again," Master Xu admonished him in a stern yet kindly voice. "A real wushu master never attacks others on the sly." The boy nodded in embarrassment, almost on the verge of tears. After a short silence, he waxed inquisitive and raised the question. "But how did you know when I gave the faint attack? You haven't got eyes on the back of your head!" "It's the combination of yi (mind_ and qi, obtained after long years of practice, that did it," said the master. "Among other things, it fosters a quick reflex, which makes you highly sensitive and enables you to react with speed to anything that happens around you. This is what you lack. You must train hard to acquire it."

Powerful Legs
Du Xinwu benefited greatly from his sightseeing trips in the company of Master Xu and from his visits to renowned wushu masters. His knowledge was enriched and his horizon broadened. Then one day his master decided to part with Du and leave for North China to visit his old friends.

"You have made great progress in your wushu techniques and I think you can hold your own against adversaries," said Xu to his pupil. "But don't think what I have taught you is the acme of wushu skills. You still need to learn from the strong points of others. And always remain modest, for complacency will get you nowhere. Be honest and fair, and always think twice before you do anything."

Du was left alone in a strange land, with no one to turn to for help or guidance. As he began to run short of money, he decided to find a job at one of the armed escort service centres. At that time, robbers were rampant, and the travellers and merchants' caravans needed armed escorts to protect them when they travelled across the mountainous regions. As Sichuan was an important commercial centre and a gateway to the vast southwestern parts of China, the escort service centres did brisk business in the area.

Du now had a rustic and skinny look resulting from a rough outdoor life during his travels with his master. So when he applied for a post at one of the escort service centres, the boss there didn't take him seriously. "Excuse me, can't we have a trial of strength?" Du plucked up courage to make the suggestion. Piqued by the boy's challenge, the boss who was a tough guy led Du to a training ground and asked him to show what he had up his sleeves. After making a courteous gesture, Du bent downward and with a powerful sweep of his leg sent the boss reeling to the ground. Hardly had the boss struggled to his feet when Du brought him down again with another sweeping movement of his leg. Du's powerful and swift movements quite amazed the boss. Knowing that he would be relentlessly knocked down again if he tried to get up, the boss just sat on the ground and said: "Oh my, you have exceptionally powerful legs!"

Du helped him up and apologized. "It's all right," the boss said. "As the saying goes, people get to know each other after a fight. I wouldn't know how good you are if you hadn't demonstrated your skills." "Can I get a job?" asked Du. "Of course." So Du Xinwu became the youngest yet strongest guard at that escort service centre.

The First Mission
Du's first assignment was to escort several merchants with ten pack mules carrying goods from Sichuan to Yunnan Province. That was in the year1887 when he was 18. All the way he was very cautious not only because this was his first mission but also because his service centre would be held responsible if there were any mishaps. When they came to the mountainous area on the borders between Guizhou and Yunnan, he sometimes rode in the rear to protect the caravan and sometimes moved up to the front to open the way. One day they came to a cliff with pines overhanging the deep gully below. As the going was getting pretty tough, they stopped for a rest. But when Du leaned forward to look at the path down below, a robber jumped out from behind a rock and rushed towards him with a dagger in his hand. With his back to the sheer cliff, there was no retreat for him. Taking a deep breath, he quickly dodged the blow and ran his head into the robber's crotch. Then he straightened up and with a jerk of his shoulders hurled the robber headlong down the abyss. It all happened in the twinkling of an eye. The rumbling of the falling rocks along with the boy scared away the other robbers hiding behind the nearby rocks. The merchants reached their destination safe and sound. Du's successful fulfillment of his first assignment enhanced his prestige and the clients hired him again on their return trip.

One evening, the caravan stopped at a village and the merchants put up in an inn near a hill facing a river. The innkeeper's wife, a gaudily dressed middle-aged woman, was rather coquettish and the attendants, too, were a bit sly and queer in their behaviour. This aroused Du's suspicion. As it was already dark, there was no choice but to stay for the night. When the others had gone to sleep, Du put out the light in his room and, instead of going to bed, sat on a chair, prepared for any contingency. He was dozing off in the small hours when he heard someone prying open the window and saw the flash of a sword in the dim moonlight. Then the housebreaker crossed the windowsill and tiptoed down into the room. Before he had collected himself, Du sprang forward and gave him a powerful kick. Pinning him down on the floor and grabbing the sword from his hand, Du kept a stranglehold on his throat and roared: "Who are you? Who sent you here?" His loud voice woke up the whole inn. When the innkeeper came he put on an innocent and angry look and slapped the intruder on the face, cursing: "You rascal! How dare you do such a thing!" Then he apologized for the unpleasant incident.
The inn was in fact a robbers' den and the boss was their ringleader. He had sent one of his thugs to kill the escort. If he should succeed, they would kill all the merchants and seize their money and goods. If he failed, the boss would intervene and stave off complete exposure with a few casual remarks. Now that the boss had apologized, Du didn't want to aggravate the situation and was content to drop the matter as long as they would not give further trouble. When Du released his grip, the thug had already fainted away. He dropped to the ground, with his face turned pale and saliva oozing out of his mouth.

Outwitting the Bandits
Du Xinwu's reputation as a super wushu master soon spread throughout southwest China. The robbers fought shy of the caravans when they knew he was escorting them. One day he was travelling alone on his way back to Sichuan after fulfilling an assignment, when he saw a small newly-built thatched house on a hillside. He walked up to have a closer look and found that it was a new inn run by a notorious robber by the name of Li Laoda. On learning that the guest was no other than Du Xinwu, Li rose to greet him and invite him to his own room. The bandit was aware that if he could overcome this peerless wushu master, no one could challenge his dominant position in that region.

"Would you like to see something?" He asked Du suddenly. Wondering what the robber really meant, Du said casually: "I don't mind." Rising from his seat, Li seized one end of the bed with a single hand and moved it away effortlessly to reveal a wooden lid underneath. Struck by his unusual physical strength, Du judged that he must be a real master of qigong. When the bandit tilted over the lid with his foot, the stench of blood assailed Du's nostrils. Simulating indifference, Su asked what was inside. He was told that there was a dungeon below and that stupid swine who refused to comply were thrown in there to rot. Replacing the lid, Li clapped his hands and several young women filed into the room. Dressed differently, they all looked sad and depressed, telltale signs that they had been abducted by the bandits. Pointing at the girls, Li asked Du to choose anyone he liked. "If any of you should dare to disobey my orders," he said to the women, "I'll throw her into the dungeon to feed the poisonous snakes." Du could hardly restrain his anger, but when he saw that there were several big and strong guys in the inn, he decided to outwit them and wait for the opportune moment to act. So he pointed at one of the women at random. Li quickly pushed the woman into Du's arms, which drew a roar of laughter from the thugs standing in the doorway. Du led the woman to his room and, having made sure that there was no one eaves-dropping outside, he whispered to her to keep calm. Full of gratitude, the frightened woman fell to her knees, but he told her to go to sleep while he sat up all night, full ready for any eventuality.

The next morning, Du thanked Li for his hospitality and expressed his wish to be Li's sworn brother. Li was only too happy to agree to this proposal. Du threw a party that evening to celebrate the occasion. During the feast, which was attended by all the bandits in the inn, Du toasted the health of his "sworn brother" again and again until he and his thugs became dead drunk. He then went back to his room to fetch an ancient sword and pretended to show it to Li Being in his cups, Li mistook it for something nice to eat. As he craned his neck to have a taste, Du lifted the sward and slit his throat. The notorious robber fell down dead on the floor without even uttering a cry. Then Du turned to give the other eight drunk bandits a knock on the head to made sure that they would not come to for sometime He took a bunch of keys from Li's pocket, opened the room in which six women were locked, and told them to find some ropes to tie the bandits' hands. After locking up the bandits in a room, Du searched the inn, found all the money and jewelry which the bandits had plundered, and distributed them to the women to cover their travelling expenses back home.

Having escorted the women to a town from where they would each go their own way, Du went to the county magistrate to report the death of Li Laoda and the capture of eight bandits. His story seemed to be too good to be true for the county officials had for years failed to capture Li's gang. The magistrate wanted to reward Du for ridding the area of a scandalous outlaw, but Du declined and set off for Sichuan Province. During the years when he served as an escort, Du Xinwu had encountered many distasteful phenomena, which changed his outlook: the corrupt officialdom, the deceit of the merchants, the illegal drug traffic, and the rivalry among the escorts themselves.... While his exploits overawed the robbers, his honesty and success alienated him from some of his colleagues. Embittered by all this, he gave up his post as an escort and returned to his home village in Hunan Province.
From Martial Arts of China presents Grandmasters , Page 30

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