Wan Laisheng: China's Living Martial Arts Legend
The year was 1930, China was in a period of transition. With the founding of the Republic, China, formerly dominated by foreign rule, was abruptly thrown into the 20th century. Amid this backdrop of a society with 5,000 years of cultural traditions, the influences of the modern world gradually became apparent. The influences of the old and the new were everywhere, often merging, often contradictory.

In Hebei province, a young master named Wan Laisheng had been invited to teach at the Hebei Province school of wushu. His young age and allegedly high level of skill made him very controversial and many opponents came to challenge him. One day in the main practice hall several students were training as a solitary figure dressed in monk’s garb appeared. “I am looking for Wan Laisheng,” said the monk, “the young master who wrote this book of wushu.” The monk was impressive. He stood well over six feet, taller than most Chinese, and he carried traditional chanzhang or “monk’s spade.” Even at this time there were few such remaining individuals, anachronisms from a past in a quickly changing world. “Tell him I have traveled a long way from Hunan to meet him. I have read his book and I am interested in discussing martial arts with him.”

As he spoke he cast his changzhang, which weighed well over 100 pounds, into the floor of the practice hall. The blade easily penetrated and the changzhang stood upright. The students became uneasy, knowing that the monk, despite his polite language, was dead serious to fight.

Master Wan Laisheng appeared. He was tall, thin, and rather young in appearance. He looked more like a student than a master. The monk smiled and said, “Brother Wan, you appear even younger than I thought. I have come all the way from Henan after reading your book. It is hard for me to believe that one so young as yourself possesses so great a reputation. I would like to taste your so-called ‘natural style.”

Master Wan recognized the challenge. “What would you care to use, empty hands or weapons?” The monk answered, “I have my weapon as you can see,” as he pointed to his changzhang. “And what weapon will you use, brother Wan?”

“I won’t use a weapon as I think you can get more of a taste of my natural style without it.”

“Very well,” said the monk as he smiled and pulled his changzhang from the floor of the practice hall.

Master Wan stood about nine feet away and the monk thought he would use one of his favorite techniques, “steel ox plowing the earth.” In this technique the flat blade of the changzhang is scooped from the ground with the intent of striking the legs of the opponent. If the opponent jumps he is struck in the air as the weapon is raised higher.

Before the monk could get off his attack, master Wan had already jumped into the air and kicked him in the acupoint between the eyes. The monk lost consciousness and fell to the ground. Several moments later he awoke somewhat dazed and saw master Wan standing over him. “Are you alright?” asked master Wan as he helped him to his feet. “I think so, Master Wan, thank you for showing me your skill. I recognize you could have easily killed me and you did not even use all of your power. I have fought many individuals and have never lost. You are indeed a formidable boxer.”

This is one famous story about my first teacher, master Wan Laisheng. Master Wan Laisheng has become a legend in his own name. Alive today at 88 years, he remains an impressive example of the Daoist martial arts tradition. Master Wan was born in Hebei province and presently resides in Fuzhou City, Fujien Province, South China, where he has lived for over 50 years. He is the third-generation master of “ziranmen” or Daoist “natural style.”

From its inception there have been only four generations. Until master Wan the system was passed from one master to a single student. All of the fourth-generation practitioners are students of master Wan. Because of its singular lineage, few people know much about his system, but if you mention my master’s name in China he is well-known to many martial arts teachers and students.

The First Master
The first master of ziranmen system was master Xu. Because he was very short he was called “Xu Ai Zhai” or “short person” Xu. Little is known of him other than he came from the Daoist martial arts tradition. The second-generation master was Du Xing Wu. He, on the contrary, is well-known in China as he was a bodyguard of Sun Yatsen, the first president of the Chinese Republic. In China he was often called “Nan Bei Da Xia,” which may be translated as “Great Hero of the North and South.” Master Du was known to be a formidable fighter and practitioner of qi gong, capable of almost miraculous feats. Although he was famous, his only student was master Wan Laisheng.

Master Wan began his martial arts career at the age of 17 while a student at the Beijing Agricultural University. As this was the “New China,” master Wan’s family wanted him to pursue a more modern education and he was sent to Beijing to the university. Master Wan was an intelligent boy and a good student but he was also exceedingly strong. He had become interested in martial arts at a young age but his academic pursuits prevented him from devoting any time to study.

With the founding of the Chinese Republic, many Western concepts were applied to education and a department of physical education had been established at the university where martial arts training was offered. Master Wan began training under master Zhao, a practitioner of the liuhumen or “six harmonies gait style” of the Shaolin system. Master Zhao was also the director of “Qien Ei Wei,” the National Security Police in Beijing. Master Zhao was impressed with the boy, who was intelligent and learned quickly.

Meeting Master Du
As master Wan was both flexible and strong, he rapidly progressed in his training. Master Zhao took a liking to master Wan and often discussed Chinese martial arts with him. Although master Du did not take students, master Zhao felt that it would be in the boy’s interest to meet him. Master Wan was subsequently instructed to go to master Du’s home and introduce himself as a student of master Zhao. By this time master Wan knew of master Du’s fame and upon meeting him begged him to teach him. Master Du smiled and replied that he must be mistaken. He did not know anything about martial arts and master Wan must find someone else.
Master Wan was perplexed. He returned to master Zhao and explained to him what had happened. Master Zhao smiled, “He is a great master but he was just testing you. A superior master often professes to knowing nothing. It is a sign of his humility. Until now I know he has never had a student, but if you can study with him you will be very lucky. Try to meet him again.”

Master Wan was persistent and returned to visit master Du many times. Perhaps because master Du recognized master Wan’s potential and his sincerity, he agreed to accept him as a student. As he put it, “I was my master’s only student and you will be the first and last of my students.” Master Wan studied with master Du for seven years. After completing his training master Wan won the first All-China full-contact tournament in Nanjing. Not only was he the first winner but he remains one of the few living participants. The tournament was discontinued in the mid-1930s since there were many deaths. No equipment was worn and the rules were very loose.

The Natural Style
What master Wan learned from master Du is called the ziranmen or natural style. The ziranmen is a complete internal system in the Daoist tradition with both open hand and weapons training. The key is training internal power.

By training internal power, external power will become strong. The legs are trained by walking the circle using lower and lower stances. The walking is similar to bagua (paqua) zhang training, however the stepping and weighting is different. This type of leg training gives the student a stronger rooting. Master Wan could do many of his forms below the height of a table top as his legs were strong and his stance low. The arm and hands are trained by wearing heavy metal rings on each arm while performing a series of hand technique drills. There are no forms in the ziranmen system but there are many techniques, as well as a comprehensive system of qi gong. The emphasis in the system is on softness and speed. A one’s root becomes lower, one’s strength and qi become greater. The impact of a blow to an opponent is somewhat like a steel rid or spring. Many physical changes also begin to occur with several years of practice. The skin becomes smoother and the muscles softer. The joints become more flexible and the eyes appear peaceful except during a fight when they become fierce and penetrating.

In 1928 master Wan wrote the book, Wushu Hue Zung, which may be translated as, The Essential Focus of Chinese Martial Arts. This book is regarded as one of the most important modern texts devoted to Chinese martial arts, and remains in print today. In this book he wrote about the difference between internal and external systems, the training techniques of ziranmen and its relationship to Daoism. He also explained how various systems of wushu developed different kinds of energy and strategies in combat. He often quoted master Du. “The natural style is always moving and never stops. You cannot find a beginning or an end. There are an infinite number of changes a negative and positive causing the boxer to become at one with the Dao.”

The Five Tigers
Although Master Wan’s most famous teacher was master Du Xing Wu, master Wan studied wushu, qi gong and traditional Chinese medicine with more than ten other Daoist masters. Thanks to his championship, his book and subsequent triumphs over many challengers, master Wan became well-known in martial arts circles throughout China. He was invited to head a new academy of wushu in Guanzhou province. Since Guanzhou has a long tradition of martial arts, this was considered an affront by many of the local masters; master Wan was an outsider from the north. With master Wan’s arrival in Guanzhou the construction of the school had halted because of many threats by martial arts practitioners. Master Wan issued an open challenge to any and all who cared to dispute whether the school should open. For two months challengers came on almost a daily basis. All were defeated and when no one else stepped forward, the construction of the school was completed. Master Wan later became known as one of the “Five Tigers,” a name given to five northern masters who came to teach in the south in the 1930s.

During World War II master Wan trained soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, and was accorded the rank of general. He also was the bodyguard of Fujien’s governor. And as one trained in Chinese medicine, he helped many regain their health. Although he took money from those who could afford it, he always gave it away to those who needed it. For this reason he was greatly loved by the common people.

Because of his fame and good reputation among the people, master Wan weathered the Communist Revolution and became the chief judge of the first All-China Wushu Competition on 1952. He remained a professor of wushu at Fujien Agricultural University until his retirement before the Cultural Revolution. Like many other traditionally trained masters, he was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. Although he was already in his mid-60s, his strength and vitality helped him survive imprisonment and torture.

After his release he returned to Fuzhou City where I became an indoor student. Recently master Wan was the subject of the cover article in Wushu Jianshen magazine, the most well-known martial arts magazine in China. Even at 88, he continues to be regarded as one of China’s most important national treasures.

About the authors: Nan Lu began his study of martial arts at the age of seven. His first master was Wan Laisheng. He lives in New York and teaches Daoist qi gong and internal martial arts. Bob Feldman is an orthopedic surgeon who has been involved in the study of Chinese martial arts for the past 20 years. Featured in Inside Kung-Fu, Page 67, July 1991.


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