Kung Fu in Pop Culture part 2: Avatar the Last Airbender & Legend of Korra

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“While it is always best to believe in one’s self, a little help from others can be a great blessing.” -Iroh, Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008)

Avatar is the story of a world in which some people can ‘bend’ the elements of earth, water, fire, and air, which is a sort of magical martial arts, yet only the Avatar can bend all four elements and must maintain balance in the world over successive reincarnations. This two-part Nickelodeon series has some of the best fantasy depictions of traditional Chinese martial arts, in any medium or format. With styles and techniques copied straight from the real-world martial arts of Shaolin Long-Fist, Tai Chi Ch’uan, Baguazhang, and Hung Gar. Here’s a quick intro:

As you can see in the above compilation video on the four styles of martial arts that are depicted in the initial series, the arts of West Gate Kung Fu School are actually well represented in this show. Study with us to learn waterbending, firebending, and airbending….you may have to travel elsewhere to get the Hung Gar-earthbending though and complete your avatar training 😉 Any new student to our Baguazhang class will quickly become acquainted with Aang’s spiral power of light, agile mobility through a new kind of stepping. Learn the depth of soft motion by studying our Wu-style Tai Chi Ch’uan, and you will see how the ultimate softness of water can become the ultimate power of Korra and Katara’s chi. Or come on into our mainstay class, Mizhong Lohan Kung Fu, a style of Northern Shaolin Long-Fist, and you will begin firebending in your first class, by beginning to learn Say Fone Say Bay, the first form, you’ll find yourself firebending just the same as Zuko and Mako.

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But why would you want to do so? Here’s where it gets good. The main theme of this series is of balance rather than good vs evil. It’s not so much that the show features Game of Thrones style multi-dimensional characters who all transcend such a dualism, but rather that the series approaches the topic of good and evil from a more fundamentally Taoist/Buddhist/Confucian perspective of natural order where no ‘thing’ possesses inherent ‘good’ or ‘evil’, which are human mental constructions. Restoration of the natural balance to be achieved in accord with the harmony of the elements across the world is the thematic focus of Avatar: The Last Airbender, while achieving balance between the physical and spiritual planes is a heavy driver of Avatar: The Legend of Korra’s plot.

The Legend of Korra tells the story of how the spirit world can come to abide peacefully within our material realm, albeit with some birthing pains, such as we are seeing played out on a larger scale of holistic reimagining taking place across the Earth today that goes hand in hand with the story of our martial arts. All paths through the martial arts are journeys of transformation, in every sense, and this show depicts the protagonist Korra, the Avatar, in her formative years of personal development as the protector/harmonizer of her world.

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All in all, this series is worthy of the considerable critical acclaim is has generated. Fans of the series engage in robust discussion and argument on internet forums (See http://www.reddit.com/r/TheLastAirbender/ for example). Whether it is for the excellent story and cool fight scenes, or the memorable, well-developed characters within an engaging martial arts setting, this is an absolutely must-see for any martial arts student, or lover of the wuxia genre. The Legend of Korra has been renewed for 2 additional seasons, so it appears this show will be sticking around. Check it out, or just come on into one of our classes to get a more personal preview of the show’s dynamic arts!

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Kung Fu in Pop Culture part 1: Kung Fu Panda

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Following Bruce Lee’s arrival on the American silver screen after making his beginning in Hong Kong film, the United States has boomed with kung fu mania. Sometime in the early seventies, all of a sudden, everybody was kung fu fighting, yet Lee’s legacy didn’t just create martial arts schools in most American cities. He also changed American pop culture forever. Since the time of his death in 1973, kung fu, and martial arts more broadly, has permeated every corner of film, television, music, theatre, video games, and sports. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a cultural medium that has not, at some time, depicted a fighting monk, an orientalized master with esoteric powers, or a femme fatale who has turned on her past training to only serve herself now.

But what exactly are these images? What do they actually depict? What are the actual cultural, social, and folk stories behind what Hollywood has delivered to us? Perhaps these questions are better left answered by you, good reader! Perhaps some of the better wuxia kung fu films of yesteryear, or some fancy Hollywood spectacles of today depict the martial arts in a decent light. For my own part, allow me to highlight Kung Fu Panda as a good example that seems to have really saturated our culture recently.

“One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.” –Master Oogway, Kung Fu Panda (2008)

This franchise that was born in 2008, is one of the best animated representations of the culture of Chinese martial arts and is regarded by Chinese as one of the best American contributions to the wuxia (Chinese martial arts drama/fantasy) genre. The five characters supporting Po, the panda protagonist, are Tigress, Crane, Snake, Monkey, and Praying Mantis, signifying the five traditional styles of Chinese kung fu. Featuring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Randall Duk Kim, James Hong, and Ian McShane, Kung Fu Panda mixes comedy and action animation for kids of all ages and contains strikingly powerful lessons and morals for any interested viewer. This Dreamworks franchise has staying power as well, with Kung Fu Panda 3 set to debut in early 2016. The films and tv show become more accurate to Chinese culture over time as the production team becomes progressively more acquainted with Chinese history and geography, but the martial philosophy that gives structure to the plot and themes is surprisingly on point! I especially enjoy Kung Fu Panda 2 for Po’s quest for inner peace, a very important part of training in the martial arts.

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Stay tuned for a follow up post to this blog discussing the martial arts of Avatar: The Last Airbender

In the meantime…we love the Marvel superhero films and can’t wait for Age of Ultron!

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Why The Modern World Is Bad For Your Brain And What Shaolin Monks Do About It

Sifu Yan Lei making some amazing points as always!

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yellow mt3-00085 Most of us love our smart phones. I use mine all the time to keep in touch with my family in China. But the constant multi-tasking of texting, emailing, social media and apps is over stimulating our brain and increasing the production of the stress hormone cortisol according to Neuroscientist, Daniel J Levitin, who has written a new book about his findings. So does this mean we have to throw away our smart phones? At The Shaolin Temple we tread the middle way, using Zen techniques to keep us tranquil and focused while still being a part of the modern world. Here I share with you seven Shaolin tips to help you stay calm in a crazy world IMG_0815

  1. Take Small Regular Vacations  Turn your mobile phone to aeroplane mode or switch it off completely two hours before you go to sleep. The same goes for when you workout…

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Why We Are Here

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One of the most often overlooked questions about martial arts is why these schools offering instruction in fighting techniques even exist. Why does our school exist? Why are we here in Boulder?

Looking historically at the martial arts (that is, ‘Arts of Mars’ the War God of Latin dominion), they obviously derive from humanity’s long history of warfare and our need for defense, but they have also played various roles in various places over time…

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Self-Defense: “It is difficult to associate these horrors with the proud civilizations that created them: Sparta, Rome, The Knights of Europe, the Samurai… They worshipped strength, because it is strength that makes all other values possible. Nothing survives without it.” –Mr. Han, Enter the Dragon (1973)

We do not need to deeply analyze history to know that our story is often one of defense, protection, and security. It’s easy to shy away from this thinking because violence is difficult for us to examine in our history. Whether we consider the warrior or soldierly training of today or long ago, such as with the story of Arjuna preparing for battle in the Mahabarata, it is obviously with the highest aims of defense that combat training should be undertaken, rather than the small emotions of aggression. There is a wide spectrum across which we can discuss ethics, but let it be known that we bring our students at West Gate into right relationship with violence, aggression, force, and fear, one in which our art transcends any need to fight or do harm. Like the Sun Tzu, and like the samurai of old, the highest esteemed of that ruling warrior class earned their position through conquering turmoil and danger without ever needing to act with violence or engage in a fight to begin with.

As the Tai Chi Classics teach us: A force of 1,000 pounds can be deflected with a force of 4 ounces.

Psychological/Spiritual Development: This side of the arts is not necessarily separate from the physical discipline. The Chinese kung fu itself can be interpreted as the ‘hard work of cultivation’ or a specific kind of method that cultivates one’s spiritual/true self through hard, practical work. In this way, Bodhidarma established Shaolin as the central temple of Zen Buddhism, and the Shaolin students of antiquity, up until (and debatably through) China’s Cultural Revolution have always existed as warrior monks. Similar yet different to the Taoist adepts of Wudangshan and the religious ascetics of Japan: the Yamabushi and Sohei, as well as those of Europe: the Templars and Teutonic Knights. At West Gate we instruct students with a light-hearted secular approach towards the deep lessons concealed within the practice of our arts.

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Competition: While we don’t emphasize tournament participation in our school’s training, we certainly encourage our eager students to take part in local and regional kung fu tournaments (and mind you, they have always participated with great success). The history of martial arts has always been filled with tests of ability with varying degrees of high or low stakes at hand. Most fights in the modern era are civilized affairs that are quite removed from the intensity and quality of bygone eras. While we aren’t likely to know what the early Olympic wrestling matches of Greece 3 millenia ago were really like, it must be acknowledged that while great fighters continue to pop up as the years go on, much of the great powers of the martial arts have been eroded over time and so instead what we have today is…

Entertainment: Yes, sport fighting, such as what you see in MMA and UFC, Professional Boxing, or ….dare I say….Professional Wrestling….isn’t quite martial arts. While we all enjoy checking out a decent match from Vegas via Pay Per View, (or perhaps a bloodier brawl like those of the Roman Coliseum are more to some of your liking?) martial arts do, in fact, possess a greater degree of artistic, aesthetic understanding than the sport fighting of popular culture. That said….we do have a good time at our school, poking fun at each other and all the daily comedy of this practice. And have you seen our demo team?!?!

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Community: Whether it is Sifu Adam’s expert instruction, finally getting your form correct thanks to Noel’s help, or just knowing that there is a person struggling through horse-stance next to you, community is why most of us show up. You might think community can’t be that big a part of what happens in a kung fu school, but you’d be wrong. Our community, including all of you reading this, is really one of the best there is.

Health/Fitness: This is the most important point for many of us, and it’s true, these arts can do wonders for both one’s sense of health and well-being as well as one’s genuine physical fitness, endurance and physique. Historically, the martial arts have been taught widespread across the world as a way to improve the health of the people. In bringing this same spirit to Boulder, we tailor the individual instruction and experience in each class towards each student’s personal needs on this front, mindful to first, do no harm. We endeavor to achieve an optimum harmony between training students’ strength, speed, balance, precision, technique, flexibility, footwork and agility.

Want to see what I mean?

We have a spacious studio and shiny sabres…come on in for a class!

You won’t regret it.

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A Brief Story of Mizhong Lohan

Here at West Gate, we offer three martial arts for study. These are Kung Fu, Tai Chi Chuan, and Baguazhang. Before we get into any perspectives on Tai Chi or Bagua, we’d like to tell you a little bit about the Mizhong Lohan Kung Fu we practice.

The history of Chinese martial arts is long and often confusing, so in sticking to the most main points, we must begin by discussing the roots of these arts in traditions of spiritual cultivation. Obviously, fighting and defense techniques have their origin in real-world applications in combat, battle, and survival of all sorts. In historic China, self-defense techniques began to be compiled with dynamic, gymnastic stretching, and subtler techniques for energetic cultivation within the body in order to form genuine artistic systems. In blending practice with a larger body of spiritual cultivation, two great sites emerged in China as centers for martial arts that focused their monastic training upon realizing the enlightened mind within the expression of the human body. These were The Wudang Mountain (Wudangshan) of the ancient Taoists and the Shaolin Temple of Zen Buddhism.

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Depending on how much you credit the old stories about Shaolin and the legendary Bodhidharma, that wild monk from India who traveled east into China to spread the original teaching, you may be more or less inclined to believe what we know of the past. We do relatively certainly know that in arriving at the Shaolin monastery, Bodhidharma (or Da Mo as he is called in China) found the monks able to receive his spiritual/mental teachings, but ill equipped to practice his rigorous form of meditation and so devised a few sets of exercises to condition their physical bodies, which most people today tend to credit as the origins of modern kung fu. It is relatively certain though, that martial arts, as we tend to think of them, did exist prior to this event in the mid 7th Century C.E.

From the Taoists of Wu-dang and the Zen monks of Shaolin, the Chinese martial arts spread throughout Asia, splintered, reformed, mutated, and underwent numerous reconstitutions throughout the generations of transmission, and a plentitude of styles were born. These styles had a range of names that identified as belonging to a family tradition, the behaviors of an animal, another element of nature, philosophical or cosmological concepts and a whole slew of cultural ideas. In America today we have likely grown up hearing of Tiger Style, Praying Mantis, or Buddha Palm through pop culture references. What has been transmitted to us here in Boulder through Sifu Adam by way of Grandmaster Johnny Lee is a style called Mizhong Lohan.

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Mizhong Lohan is a reconstitution of two arts, Mizhongyi and Lohanquan, which roughly translate to Lost-Track Boxing and Lohan/Arhat(Monk) Fist respectively. Together, they form Lost-Track Arhat Boxing. This style is a subschool of the more broad Northern Long-Fist style that was likely brought to China by Manchus after the Song Dynasty. This roughly coincided with the beginning of an era of decline in Chinese power at the hands of foreign invaders, particularly culminating in a later collapse of the state in the face of Western imperial and Japanese powers. It was during this time that the most famous practitioner of Mizhongyi lived.

Born in 1868, Chinese cultural hero, Huo Yuanjia (Wenjia) is a legend for his martial exploits. A loosely informed story of his life can be seen in the 2006 film Fearless, starring Jet Li as Huo. After the Boxer Rebellion, Chinese morale was at a low point. At a time when Chinese were being challenged and defeated in public fights by Europeans in China, they came to be referred to as the ‘sick men of Asia’ for their accused weakness. Huo, who was a sickly asthmatic as a child and could only watch his father practicing Mizhongyi from a closet, was also the first challenger who was able to defeat these aggressors in fair combat, with some of them even fleeing the country prior to arranged matches out of fear of Huo’s growing, peerless reputation. The true nature of his death is even a mystery shrouded in varying reports surrounding a certain conflict with the Japanese Judo Association and a bit of poison from a doctor. Of course, any medicine is poison in the incorrect amount, but for a more complete report check out Jeremiah Jenne’s profile of Huo at Jottings from the Granite Studio.

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Before his death though, Huo’s great accomplishment, fulfilled by his brother and sons who survived him, was the 1910 establishment of the Jingwu (Pure Martial) Athletic Society in Shanghai and its spread of influence. Bruce Lee even grew to fame portraying Chen Zhen, a fictional student of Huo at Jingwu in the 1972 film Fists of Fury. Jingwu existed as a center point for martial arts in the early 20th century, where numerous styles were collected, synthesized, and taught to large numbers of students in an easily managed organizational system. Chinese martial arts began to flourish again as China entered its democratic period and as Jingwu gained backing by young millionaires and the respect of politicians like Sun Yat Sen, the Jingwu system spread across the country like wildfire. Jingwu affiliates wrote highly intelligent articles in scholarly journals and the society changed the face of martial arts, giving the arts a launching point into the west as a system following WWII.

Mizhong Lohan lives on in the US today at West Gate Kung Fu having been transmitted to southern Grandmaster Lee from northern Grandmaster Yip Yu Ting, the former Chief Instructor of the Beijing Military Police, Chief Instructor of the Manchurian Army, and Head Instructor of the Shaolin class at the South China Athletic Association (the Hong Kong Jingwu) starting in 1931.

Grandmaster Yip’s Mizhong Lohan is notable for its signature nimble flexibility and confusing footwork within the long-range attacking and jumping of Long-Fist. It uses an off-beath rhythm and multiple-angle strikes to improve a fighter’s position, depending on deceptive capability. The style can be confusing to combat for its unpredictability made possible by combining hard style combat efficacy with soft style internal relaxation and power generation that has the potential to generate fa jin (discharging power). Mizhong Lohan uses an immense number of empty handed and weapon forms in addition to regular training in basic techniques and sparring. Agility and flexibility are paramount in daily training.

Here at West Gate, we endeavor to practice with the highest intention and honesty to Grandmaster Yip’s and Grandmaster Lee’s teachings in a warm, dedicated, social, and receptive atmosphere, true to the early Jingwu and White Leopard Kung Fu spirit. Come check out the wondrous power of this style sometime if you’re in the Boulder, Colorado area. We’d love to meet you!

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