The exodus of Kung Fu's Grand Masters

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The goal of this article is to explain and document the answer to a question often asked by students of various Kung Fu academies: 'Why is Kung Fu, a Chinese Martial Art, taught by the Vietnamese?'

  • This question, apparently harmlessly simple, finds its' answer rooted in the multifaceted history of China:
  • The philosophical concepts found at the core of its' society,
  • Its' societal structure,
  • The authoritarian nature of its' dynasties,
  • The nature of the relationships between Buddhism, Power and the Population.

Each of these aspects contributes to a well-versed and balanced view of Chinese society. Through each of these aspects, we will explore the broad canvas of Chinas' history to set the stage and better understand this modern phenomenon.

- Philosophical Concepts

Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism serve as the 3 pillars of asian societies. Ideas commonly borrowed from these 3 ideologies are then merged and evolved into a cosmological vision of the link between Man, society and the Universe, where society must necessarily reflect the natural order.

Confucianism teaches that Man may only fully realize himself within the boundaries of Family, itself within the bounds of a well organized societal hierarchy. A set of relations of subordination, constituted by bilateral duties and obligations, marks the relationship between each caste, with each order having their own specific rites and observations. The Emperor is the son of the Heavens and he must govern with loyalty to bring peace, prosperity, order and justice, without which, he must lose his celestial mandate. We find this relationship of power at every level in ancient Chinese society: Lord/Vassal, Husband/Wife, Father/Son, General/Soldier, Artistocrats/Commoners, etc. Obediance and loyalty are fundamental values of this system.

From Taoism, we will retain that life follows the application of natural laws and the necessary equilibrium of opposites (Yin/Yang) in harmony with nature and Universal energy. It is an individualistic philosophy that preaches non-interventionism in the search for immortality. Society must lean towards equilibrium else tensions arise and threaten social order.

On the other hand, Buddhists must intervene in society to alleviate suffering, and bring peace and justice. Grand Masters having attained a greater degree of compassion consider themselves servants of the people.

- Societal Structure

In regards to societal structure, the Ming dynasty created an obligatory census originally as a mean of leveraging taxes. As a byproduct, this also formalized the structure ancient Chinese society. With the exception of state servants and religious bodies, every citizen had to register within the 4 following categories: Farmer, Intellectual, Artisan and finally Merchant. These were hereditary categories that had a secondary goal of establishing stability throughout Chinese society. These rather broad categories contained vast multitudes of occupations. The literate, despite representing only 3% of the population, formed an elite that was admired by the population and had access to many privileges; the vast majority of the population were peasants belonging to the farmer category. The base of society remained the patriarchal household where lineage was paramount. Daughters were married off by their father as they saw fit in order to better the position of their clan and create strategic alliances.

- Totalitarian dynasties

Whether under the reign of the Mongols, Huns or the Manchurians, the recourse to violence remains the staple of these authoritarian dynasties in order to consolidate their power base and maintain order throughout the Empire. Incidentally, in a territory as vast as China (13M square kilometers at the height of the Qing dynasty), maintaining order was as difficult as preventing outside aggression. The power of local tyrants, the abuse of the population by the nobility, power struggles, feuds between groups with divergent interests, corruption, smuggling, piracy and banditry were all equal dangers to social order. The separatist tendencies of certain rich and autonomous regions were also an important preoccupation for imperial authorities.

During the Mongol conquest (Yuan Dynasty, 1269-1368), thousands were mercilessly butchered. Chinas' population fell by 40%. 'In 1125 China boasted 20.8M families, compared to 13.2M in 1290.' The population was reduced to slavery.

After the rise to power of the Huns (Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644) there occured a never-before-seen centralization of power of the Emperor, who instilled a climate of suspicion in his subordinates, even going as far as creating a secret police (the brocart guard) to spy on their activities. This Emperor preferred military power (wen) over civilian governemnt (wu). Under his reign, many purged and beheadments of high state officials took place. In fact, it is believed over 100 000 people perished as the family of those convicted suffered the same fate.

Lastly, the Mandchus (Qing dynasty, 1644-1912) showed great cruelty from the very start. They didn't hesitate to seek and massacre the Ming resistance for many days to mark their ascencion to power and discourage any though of rebellion. Many bloody repressions took place during their first 30 years in power, such as the 3 feudals (1675-1683), and the white lotus (1796-1804), leaving at least 20M deceased.

Absolute censorship, control of information and indoctrination reached unequaled heights under this dynasty, where any form of opposition was strictly forbidden. During this period, the teaching and practice of kung fu was under a strict prohibition. Many Grand Masters paid with their lives because they had carried on their teaching despite the royal decrees to the contrary!

It was then a total autocracy over the literate and state officials, where any deviation to imperial doctrine was severely punished. As an example: Wang Xihou was executed and 21 members of his family reduced to slavery because he had published a work where he criticized the Kangxi dictionnary. At the time, China devoted a state-sponsored cult to Confucius, and his teachings proliferated at speeds unheard of at the time - understandably, seeing as they served as propaganda of imperial order, and was an integral part of Chinese society to begin with.

Of course, the Empire also knew stability and prosperity under the Ming and the Qing (without which they would not have endured for all these years). The increase in population under these two dynasties vouches for the economic health of the empire during their rule.

- The relationship between Buddhism and the Population

During the construction of the first Shaolin temple around the year 495, the popularity of Buddhism was reaching its paroxism. There were then over 13,000 temples and 100,000 monks. Over the centuries, because of their interventionnist philosophy aiming to alleviate the suffering of the common folk, a powerful bond was created between Enperors, Monks and the Population. Temples were appreciated by villagers. When famine or disease struck, monks would come to the aid of the villages. When outlaws were causing problems, people often turned to the monks for aid. It is important here to note that only large cities had organized militia, a form of police, to help maintain order. Thousands of small villages were subject to the ruling of their local lord and often had no recourse when the latter chose to exercise their power at their expense. Monks often had to intervene then in order to restore balance and banish those at fault.

The Ming dynasty saw its rise under a sweeping sentiment a Chinese nationalism that awoke around the year 1350. Oppression notwithstanding, multiple floodings of the yellow river cause death and famine which fueled discontent amongst the general populace. Secret societies played an active role in the organization of resistance in a manner which saw workers, sailors, miners and even pirates join forces in the uprising of the Chinese people. An orphan educated by buddhist monks, Zhu Yuanzhang, leader of the red turbans (a secret society), distinguished himself by his ability in combat and his refusal to allow his troops to plunder the population. He was able to exercise leadership during this rebellion which lasted roughly two decades. After his victory over the Mongols, he was able to proclaim himself Emperor Hongwu (1368-1398) and moved the capital to Nanquin.

Buddhists were greatly involved in important spheres of society. Many generals and officials had received their eduction from buddhist monks hailing from the various Shaolin temples. Another worthwhile consideration was the favorable bias of the Huns towards buddhism. To this day, the Huns language buddhism is the most widely spread with over 5,000 temples and over 40,000 monks and nuns. In fact, Huns account for over 94% of the Chinese population and occupy 40% of the territory.

Now that the stage is set, let us explore the exodus of the Grand Masters of Kung fu.

- The decline and fall of the Ming dynasty

When a new dynasty seizes power, it cannot control the entire territory immediately because of it's vastness and the resistance it meets. The conquest is progressive and filled with skirmishes and massacres of varying intensity before the ultimate establishment of the power of the new Emperor. Consequently, when a dynasty ends, its decline is not instantaneous and its power not immediately supplanted. It is the culmination of tensions and crisis that the established power cannot suppress over time.

In 1421, to better protect the border of the Empire, Hongwus' successor Yongle (1402-1424) moved the capital back to Peking and there built the forbidden city. Protecting the Empire from invasions and long protracted wars with the Mongols and the Japanese considerably weakened the Ming dynasty. The reconstruction of the great wall over 5,000 km contributed greatly to the ruin of public finances. It also availed to be of no military use against invaders.

Having moved away from the more densely populated regions, the seat of power became slowly disconnected from its citizens. The successors of Yongle were weak emperors, often at the mercy of concubines and eunuchs who outrageously abused their position of power through the corruption of state officials and bloody purges. Constant tensions and power struggles between the intellectual elite, eunuchs and imperial magistrates marked the rule of this dynasty.

As time went by, the fabric of society began to dissolve. In fact, many sought to escape from the hereditary caste system that was in place. Rampant corruption withing state officials and the nobility forced lesser landlords and the poor to become dependant on their mercy, with its lot of implied abuses, injustice and inequity. The system of taxation conceived and implanted was remarkably ineffectual as it failed to generate more than 5% of the revenues of the Empire.

The authoritarian regime created a climate of mistrust, breeding sense of insecurity amongst the nobility and oppression amongst the poor. An abusive taxation of maritime commerce led to a considerable increase in piracy and smuggling, which forced the mobilization and ruin of the imperial navy.

In the middle of the 16th century, chaos gripped the Empire. By 1627, the northern landlords and disenfranchised intellectuals rebelled, spreading terror across the land. They murdered state officials and rich families before taking Peking in 1644. We take the time to note at this point that in 1618, the Manchurians who were once nomad tribes of the northern frontier, had united under the army of the eight banners. They had entered into open rebellion against the Emperor with a list of revendications henceforth known as 'The Seven Grievances'. Before the inability of the Emperor to stop the Northern insurgence, local military leaders sought to use the might of the Manchurians. Little did they know, after the retaking of Peking, the Manchurians would seize the opportunity and chased the Mings to install their own dynasty! The southern elite had preferred allying themselves to the Manchurians to letting the rebel wins. It was the end of the Ming dynasty.

- The Qing, new masters of China

The Huns were the last chinese dynasty in power. The were chased by the Manchurians who were the last dynasty to take power in China. The name Qing was chosen as a clean break from its predecessors; as Ming referred to fire, Qing referred to water - water to quell the fire!

Being a frontier people, the Manchurians were familiar with the customs of the Chinese people. Vastly outnumbered, the chose to integrate the existing elite into the daily running of the Empire. In 1648, the army of the 8 banners had already integrated a number of Huns, such that the imperial army was composed of 75% chinese, 16% manchurians and 8% mongols. Having kept the management structure of its predecessors and integrating the chinese in the public function, they managed to garner the support of the majority of the population.

However, any real, meaningful power remained in the hands of the Emperor and a number of officials who received brifiengs in the Manchurian language which was not accessible to the majority of the civilian governemnt. The economy and the 8 banners army were part of this unofficial structure. The army in remote regions were more akin to a militia and lacked any real defense capabilities.

- The destruction of the Shaolin temple and the Ming loyalists

Having remained to the Ming themselved, the temples and Kung Fu schools secretly supported and organized the resistance. However, every attempt at revolt failed before the Qing who hunted the Ming forces tirelessly. Qianlong destroyed the Shaoling temple (approx. 1735), marking the end for loyalists who then had to retreat into clandestine lives. Following the customs of the time, every rebel and three generations of their families had to be put to the sword - thus they sought to end the bloodline and ensure that no retaliation would come.

Before the might of the imperial army and the approbation of the population, the situation grew dire for those who opposed the Qing. They had no other choice but to flee the confines of the Empire to save their lives and carry on their resistance. Ports and highways were under such scrutiny that only less travelled mountainous paths afforded any real chance of escape for the fleeing rebels.

It is thus that Viet Nam became a land of refuge for these migrants. The settled in Cholon and applied with success the principles developed by their ancestors who had fled during the fall of the Shang kings during the 11th century: escape, subterfuge, invisibility, solidarity and discretion. Owing to their business sense and vast connections, they rapidly became central to the economy of Viet Nam. Thus, at the time of the fall of Saigon to the communists (1975), they controlled almost 100% of wholesale trade, and 50% of retail trade. Over 80% of the vietnamese economy was under their control and 70% of external trade!

From its inception, Cholon (the Chinatown at Ho Chi Minh city), was the cradle for many traditional schools of kung fu. It earned the nickname 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' as a result of this proliferation. In an older part of the district, the secret Ching Woo (The Quintessence of Martial Arts) academy was charged with keeping and transmitting the secrets of masters of Kung Fu to continue the struggle agains the Qings. That is why all disciples had to solemnly swear to keep secret the identity of their master before they could be accepted!

Very few Vietnamese were accepted into this highly selective academy. Those who were chosen, which numbered Grand Master Nam Anh, completed their training under the iron fist of competent Grand Masters, themselves the direct continuation of the Shaolin tradition and of the Wutang system. Many styles were taught at the academy, for it was home to masters of all the different schools that had survived the onslaught of the Qings.

To this day, there is yet an old sign, yellowed by time, placed next to a temple whose entrance was used as grounds for training and demonstrations. It is of course none other than the Ching Woo academy, which housed many treasures left behind by the great warriors and masters of China, such as Huo Yan Ji, the founder of the academy. It is this selfsame Grand Master that was personnified by Jet Li in the 2006 movie 'Fearless'.

- The fall of the Qing, Warlords and the victory of communism

In China, around the middle of the 19th century, arose many problems interior to China. Economic stagnation, combined with food shortage caused by the ever increasing population, triggered a succession of revolts. The opium wars, the boxer rebellion, the loss of Hong Kong and a number of inequal treaties forced upon them by occidentals greatly undermined the credibility of the Qing empire which finally crumbled in 1912.

Chaos ensued: bloody power struggles between nationalists, communists and warlords finally culminated in the victory of Mao Zedongs' communist forces and the creation of the Peoples' Republic of China in 1949.

Cholon knew then a new wave of Chinese migrants looking to settle within its relative safety and masters of kung fu, the practice of which had been abandonned by the communists.

Then, in 1975 Ho Chi Mins' troops routed the Americans from Viet Nam and installed a communist regime, which led once more to an exodus (these new migrants were often referred to as 'the Boat People'). Thousands of Vietnamese, a number of which were martial arts experts, expatriated themselves across the planet. Data from a 2009 census showed that 2.5M vietnamese had spread to over 80 countries. They were called 'Viêt Kieu'. Almost 1M vietnamese settled down in California and the region surrounding Washington. Orange County in California, nicknamed 'Little Saigon', is home to over 200,000 vietnamese. France houses 250,000. Australia another 180,000, the U.K. 30,000, Germany 100,000, and Thailand 100,000. Canada counts approximately 150,000 people of vietnamese origin, of which 42,500 reside in Québec.

In conclusion,

For over three centuries the vietnamese have had a privileged access to the teachings of martial arts. It is then no surprise that a great number of contemporary experts are of vietnamese descent. Compounded by historical and political context that gave a great number of high caliber martial artists the need to expatriate themselves, it is then only natural that they would seek to build schools in their new found homes across the ocean in order to continue their millenial tradition. It is thus that we in Occident came to know this ancient art that is kung fu.

Num Trung
(Malcolm St-Pierre)

Nam Ngu
(Pierre François Flores)
Red belt 4th Dan

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