Thursday, May 5, 2011

“Sounds of Thunder from Tigers and Leopards”.

Narrated by Li Zhong-xuan
Recorded by Xu Hao-feng
Translated by Tomabey

What is a better way to start my translation “career” than to present you with the best of the best in Chinese martial art writing? I have picked this one out of the Li Zhong-xuan series because it vividly illustrates how martial art culture, tradition, training and secrets are interwoven together.

The Chinese martial art world was visibly shaken two years ago when an 85-year-old Mr. Li Zhong-xuan came out from nowhere and introduced himself as one of Master Shang Yun-xiang’s disciples. Published in the Chinese Wuhun Magazines, his articles have since caught the fantasies of thousands of martial art practitioners.

Ancient Xingyi poems suggest one can increase his power by producing certain sounds, this method is called, “Sounds of Thunder from Tigers and Leopards”. Mr. Li Zhong-xuan became a disciple of the Xingyi master Shang Yun-xiang when Shang was in his advanced age whereas Li was only 19-year-old. Since the huge age difference, Shang commanded Li not to have any disciples in the future, in order to avoid seniority confusion in the Shang’s school of Xingyi. After Master Shang passed away, Li continued his personal development alone, away from the martial arts circles. He is now 86 years old. At this age, he becomes even more attached to his memories of Master Shang. Thus he wishes to record the stories of his martial art study in an effort to enrich the martial art legacy.

This story is about the “Sounds of Thunder from Tigers and Leopards”.

Before Li Zhong-xuan became a disciple of Shang Yun-xiang, he had studied with Shang’s younger martial art brother Tang Wei-lu at Ning River. He had inherited the complete system from Master Tang: the martial arts, medicine, and Taoism (As a neijia system, Xingyi is found on the principles of Taoism, which includes medicine and neigong - the internal training) and had became Tang’s principle disciple. Once, when Tang verbally taught him the ancient Xingyi poems, he came across the phrase “Sounds of Thunder from Tigers and Leopards”, but did not go into it in detail. Li took it as shouting out load in combat in order to unsettle the enemy’s nerves, so he didn’t follow up on it.

He was ignoring it, because Master Tang forbad his students to make any kind of sound during practice. Once Li finished his practice in a high spirit, he proceeded to sing some Beijing Opera before he was verbally trashed by his teacher. “To practice martial arts is to work on your Qi; once you open your mouth you waste anything away!” Tang said dangerously, “More over, since all your Jing-Qi-Shen is contained in your breathing, if you don’t work on absorbing them internally, but rather singing them away with your big mouth, you are putting your life on the line.” Because of this “no talking while practicing” rule, Li was biased against making any sounds, so he did not continue to investigate.

Li had taken Tang’s rule to his heart, because he could draw from his own experience. After a Xingyi training session, he could feel his energy steaming within him. If he started to talk casually he would indeed sense this steam “leaking out”. Now to dissolve this breath of energy, as Tang instructed, you should not sit down right away after the training, instead, walk slowly. After strolling around the surroundings a few times you may feel as if you have taken a steamy shower, your mind and energy is crispy clear. As the days go on, your intelligence will improve. Hence martial arts training is the production and digestion of energies: the beginning of a movement is just as important as the closing, the time you spend wondering around after the exercises may even be longer than your actual practice.

The way Tang taught old Xingyi poems was to recite the whole thing out, have Li memorizing them, then explained them section by section later on. Because martial art training requires actual practice, only after you have reached a particular level you may not have the corresponding comprehension for that level. Sometimes Tang’s explanations were very clear, other times they were difficult for Li to follow - it seemed even Tang had trouble searching for the right words. Once they got to the section on “Sounds of Thunder from Tigers and Leopards”, Li asked, “Is it for driving fear into the opponents?” “No, no,” Tang quickly corrected him, “it means using the sound to increase your Kung Fu.” – that goes against Tang’s rule of “no talking while practicing”, so Li had to know why. Tang explained that his teacher Li Cun-yi’s had once said, “To push your Kung Fu to a new level, take ‘Sounds of Thunder from Tigers and Leopards’ with your travel.” Tang pointed out, “The only catch is that your Kung Fu has to reach a certain level before it will work magically.” Li wasn’t about to let go of his teacher’s last words, he asked, “So it isn’t about crying out load, but a training method! Could Sifu elaborate more?”

Tang was stuck. After thinking it over for a while, he led Li to a temple by the town of Ning River. Making sure that no one else was nearby, he lightly knocked on a large bell hanging inside the temple. The bell gave a resonating sound. Tang asked Li to put his hand on the bell. “That’s it,” Tang said. Seeing Li was still confused, Tang commented, “Back then Sifu Li Cun-yi taught me the secret of ‘Sounds of Thunder from Tigers and Leopards’ exactly this way, I didn’t hide anything from you. Only you didn’t get it.” So the matter was put aside.

In order for his disciple to reach a new height, Tang later have Li transfering to Shang’s school, so Li moved from Ning River to Beijing. Li’s family had relatives in Bejing, but Beijing was then in turmoil, a lot of people headed south bound, leaving behind a lot of vacant houses. Rent was unprecedented cheap. Li spent a few days in a relative’s home, then rent his own room and settled down in Beijing to study martial arts fulltime.

Since Li was used to Ning River’s countryside large-family-style living complex, and now he was living in a hutong - narrow alleys in the old Beijing city, he was intrigued by everything new. Back then Mr. Yan, an accountant who was very good at using abacus was living in the same hutong. When he had some spare time, he often taught the neighborhood kids how to use abacus. And that was how Li got started. Little did he realize then that he would become an accountant. Whenever he contemplated on how a game from years ago would eventually turned into a skill set for making a living, he couldn’t help but to marvel the karma and the coincidences in one’s fate.

One time Mr. Li asked Li while he was teaching Li abacus, “I used to think your martial artists must have thick fingers and rough hands full of calluses, you wouldn’t be any good with abacus. I didn’t realize your fingers are finer than a woman’s.” Li replied, “Neijia people don’t have to hit others with hard fists.” It just happened Tang had come from Ning River to visit his disciple. He was resting in Li’s room when he heard Mr. Yan speaking with Li outside, so out he came with a grin. He stuck his palms out and said, “Mr. Yan, my palms also don’t have any callus.”

Mr. Yan was even more surprised, because Tang was farming in a village near the town of Ning River, yet not only his palms didn’t have any callus, they were also small and without any mark of physical labor. Tang remarked, “But my hands are powerful.” He reached out with his hand, yanked out a nail which was tied to a string women used for drying their clothing out of the wall, then aimed the nail not at the original hole but a bit off to the side. With one twist of his hand the nail was back into the brick. Mr. Yan was dumbfounded at the sight.
One day a friend of Shang Yun-xang came for a visit when Li was in Shang’s house. This gentleman didn’t feel too good, feeling dizzy and suffering from tightness in the chest. He heard that reading Buddhist scripts might cure his illness so he heartily got a copy and started reading everyday. But the scripts were hard to understand; the more he had struggled with it mentally, the tighter his chest became. So he wanted to know out how he could get better.

Shang answered, “It takes even more mental work to study martial arts. I think you are only weak. Finding a good doctor to adjust your system gradually with medicine is your best bet.” After that friend had left, Shang continued chatting with Li. After a while, they started talking about this friend. Shang remarked, “Actually there is one way to cure illnesses: it’s reading. You have to be like a kid going to elementary school: don’t pay attention to what you are reading. Rather, swallow it down and just go on reading, so as long as the text is easy to read, it will benefit your mind and body. But adults don’t have as much energy as children. Reading aloud may hurt our chi in the liver. Instead, sound out only the tones and don’t be troubled with pronouncing every word clearly. As long as you get the ups and downs of the phrases you are fine.”

Li asked, “Why is that?” Shang explained, “Nothing in particular. I saw how charged up kids were once they started school, so I made it up.” Li followed, “So how come you didn’t teach your friend this trick?” Shang said, “He was troubled by life problems and was down in spirit, which was why he felt sick. It is better for him not to think about anything and not to use his mind too much, so I didn’t want to trouble him with this method.”

And so this topic was over. A few days later, Li suddenly had a thought inspired by that reading method: perhaps the “Sounds of Thunder from Tigers and Leopards” has some intricacy with voice? So he presented the question to his teacher. Shang took one look at him mischievously, “The Sounds of Thunder from Tigers and Leopards is not something you should practice. If you want to use it to frighten your enemy, go right ahead and practice. But too much practice will only hurt your brain and may drive you crazy.” Li insisted, “But opera singers do project their voice out load in practice.” Shang said, “Hey, but they don’t practice martial arts.”

From then on Li no longer dared to ask about the “Sounds of Thunder”. After they became acquainted with one anther, Shang began to teach Li. Since his teaching was very different from Tang Wei-lu’s, Li was puzzled, at times even visibly. Shang sensed his puzzlement, and laugh, “What Tang Wei-lu had taught you was exactly the same system as the one our teacher Li Cun-yi had taught us; what I am teaching is my own system.” Li was quick to jump onto this topic and told Shang how Tang taught him the “Sounds of Thunder” by knocking on a bell. Shang agreed, “Yes. My teacher Li taught me in the same way.” Li asked, “If that was how Master Li Cun-yi explained it; how do you teach it yourself?”

Shang was cracking up, he said, “My dear disciple really knows how to dig around. Okay, I will explain it to you when a thunder comes around next time.” Li figured Shang was joking in order to get him off the subject, nevertheless, for a while he was hoping for rain every day. Yet days went by without rain and Shang never brought up the subject again. Li had no choice but to focus on his training and dropped the idea.

Just then Shang’s neighbor had a group of kittens, one of them still didn’t pop up her two ears a month after birth, her ears were dangling loose like a doggy. Shang liked that kitty very much, even though he hadn’t adopted her, he often brought her back home and hugging her around. One day Li went over to visit Shang and found him sitting in the courtyard playing with this kitty with a short clothing strip, so Li sat aside. Noticed Li was waiting, Shang stopped after a few more games. He hug the kitty in his chest, closed his eyes, nd run his hands on the cat’s hair. He seemed to have spaced out. After a while, suddenly he said, “You have never seen a tiger or a leopard, me neither. But certainly you have seen a cat before, haven’t you? Actually, once a smart person has heard the phrase, “Sounds of Thunder from Tigers and Leopards”, he will have figured out what is going on.”

“Cats are like Tigers or Leopards, they make this “um” sounds all the time,” Shang declared. Li took the cat from Shang and listened. Yes, he heard this “um” sound coming from inside the cat, and even sensed a vibration on his two hands holding the cat. Shang further explained: once you reach a certain stage in your training, your bones, muscles, and tendons will be toughened up. At that point your trainings should aim inwards, which means you should work on improving your internal organs. But it is a difficult step, so you have to use certain sounds as bridges. The sounds originated from inside propagate outwards, your forces starting from outside move inwards. As a result, your inside will be connected with outside, and your Kung Fu will reach a new level.

Shang summarized, “The so-called ‘Sounds of Thunder’ is not the thunder from lightning, they are rather the humming noise from the sky right before the rain. You may hear them clearly, or you may not. But they are always very low in frequency.” Afterwards, Shang demonstrated the two “um” and “su” sounds.

It has been some sixty years since Shang Yun-xiang passed down the secret of “Sounds of Thunder from Tiger and Leopard”. As Li Zhong-xuan was bringing back his memories from the distance past, he remarked jokingly, “If it wasn’t for the kitty with sloppy ears, I might not have heard the Sounds of Thunder from Tigers and Leopards.”

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