Laisheng: China's Living Martial Arts Legend
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
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
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
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?”
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
World War II master Wan trained soldiers in hand-to-hand combat,
and was accorded the rank of general. He also was the bodyguard
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.
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.