11 December 2005

Wang Ziping- Muslim patriot in China


His deep-set eyes were radiant, always shining. In addition, his long silver beard flowed over his chest like a shimmering waterfall. ---Grace Xiaogao, grandaughter.
Whenever the Chinese Emperor passed through Cangzhou, his warriors fell silent, lowered their banners and muffled their marching drums. After all, this was a region of heroes and patriots- those who had shed blood in defense of China. Legends spoke well of Cangzhou, and the warriors paid their respects.

Situated one hundred and eighty kilometers north of the Forbidden City (Beijing), Cangzhou is part of the Hebei province, and is home to the Hui. The Hui are Muslims- descendants of Persians and Arabs who had traveled to and from China during the 10th Century (the Song Dynasty - 960 to 1279 AD), and intermingled with the various Chinese peoples they encountered. Even the earliest Muslims had admired China's greatness. In a well-known hadith (saying), Prophet Muhammad had extolled his companions:
"Seek knowledge, even as far as China."
One of the things the Hui embraced with passion was the Chinese martial arts tradition. The Hui were a hardy and courageous people, surviving long and perilous journeys from Persian and Middle Eastern lands. They quickly took a liking to ancient Chinese Wushu and worked long and hard at excelling in it. Eventually they developed their own unique styles of Wushu.

Before the invention of guns, Wushu was the chief means of combat and self-defense in China. Hui chiefs encouraged their people to study Wushu as a "holy habit" in order to foster discipline and bravery during their struggle for survival in their adopted land. Mosques became not only places of worship and religious education, but also a training ground for Grandmasters to teach eager students the basics of Wushu.

Even today, during the holy days of Lesser Bairam (festival of fast breaking), Korban (feast), and Mawlid an-Nabi (the Prophet's Birthday), the Hui gather in mosques to hold Wushu contests and exhibitions. Cangzhou, in particular was nicknamed Wushu's Nest, for the many Grandmasters who emanated from there.

In the past, many of the Hui joined the Chinese military and had illustrious careers in it, often rising to the rank of General. Also, because of this, the Hui were fanatically loyal to the emperors.

But the relationship between the imperial throne and the Muslim Hui have not always been easy. In the past, the steppes that the Hui lived in were the last and toughest places for Chinese emperors to conquer. The famous Admiral Cheng Ho- who is reputed to have found America centuries before Christopher Columbus- was himself a Hui who had been snatched from his native home and forced to become a eunuch.

Things came to a head in the years following the death of Empress Ci'an in 1881. Many people suspected that poison had been used to displace a woman considered too benevolent for the throne. In the same year that the more assertive Ci'xi ascended the imperial throne, a boy named Ziping was born to the Wang family in Cangzhou.

Like many Hui, Ziping's parents were poor. His father was a formidable pugilist, but was wise enough to know that Wushu would bring no fortune to the young boy. European guns were increasingly making the art obsolete, enticing even the Chinese army into procuring them and training in their use. Elder Wang thus dreamt of the day when his son would leave hardship and work in the Forbidden City as an official.

Ziping was adamant about learning Wushu, however. Wushu was the Hui identity. No Hui worth his salt would dare go through life without the rudiments of the "eighteen fist fighting exercise" and "eight diagram boxing" etched in his mind and body.

Besides Wushu, Hui were also steeped in Sufi teachings. They belonged almost overwhelmingly to the Naqshbandiyya school. Hui life was thus a mixture of pitiless labor, harsh training and deep spirituality. Their astonishing ability in Wushu is hardly an accident.

Amidst traditional lessons in Koran reading, Ziping lifted rocks to build up his strength and dug ditches that got progressively wider as his leaps improved. Fine balance was honed on dangerously narrow stakes that Ziping planted into the ground. Even as he memorized zikir (invocations), his strength and balance increased exponentially. The concentration that Sufism demands became the rock-solid backbone of Wushu's fluid movements.

Cangzhou's climate is mild in the summer and cold in the winter. In winter months, snow is not uncommon. Ziping trained in all the elements, toughening his body. By the time he was fourteen years old, he could already leap more than three meters from a standing position. The precocious boy had all the qualities of a pugilist, but no teacher. His father's stubborn refusal to initiate him must have stung. Searching desperately for companionship, he fell under the sway of a secret society that called themselves "The Righteous and Harmonious Fists". Their stated aim was to overthrow the Ch'ing government and expel all "foreign devils" from China.

Because Ziping lived most of his life in semi-colonialism, he knew firsthand the humiliation that was heaped on the Chinese by Europeans. Austria, France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Japan and Russia all claimed exclusive trading rights to different parts of the China. They "carved up the Chinese melon" into "spheres of influence", claiming that they owned the territory within their spheres.

Empress Ci'xi hated the European presence as much as any member of the secret society did, and plotted to remove them as quickly as possible. She became aware of the "The Righteous and Harmonious Fists", a group that the Europeans casually dismissed as "Boxers" because most of them were Wushu fighters. In a fit of inspiration, she devised a way to use them for her own ends. Through her ministers, she began to woo and finance the Boxers. It wasn't long before a new slogan appeared on the Boxers' banners: "Support the Ch'ing. Destroy the foreigner!"

The Boxers roamed across China, attacking lone European settlements and emptying churches of their congregations and priests. When they closed in on the Forbidden City, where many of the European embassies were located, Empress Ci'xi made a great show of deploying troops, but secretly allowed the Boxers to enter. The Europeans were ready with far more advanced weapons than just 'fists and legs', though. Rifles quickly decimated the invaders. The rebellion collapsed. Empress Ci'xi was forced to outlaw the secret society and imprison all surviving Boxers.

Wang Ziping thus became a fugitive. He fled to South Jinan, where he took refuge in the Large Mosque. As soldiers hunted the remnants of the secret society, Ziping prayed for succor. Events passed him by. In the relative quiet of the mosque's prayer hall, Ziping met a man who was like him, a Boxer on the run. This was Yang Hongxiu, a Grandmaster of Wushu. At last! The one thing his father had refused him was within reach. Excited, Ziping discarded his loyalty to the fallen Boxers and swore allegiance to Yang instead.

Armed with an intense fondness for life outdoors, Ziping traveled all over the countryside, allowing himself to be inspired by the grace and beauty of nature. Sufis are particularly sensitive to the beauty of creation. A verse from the Koran that is particularly beloved by Sufis reads: "Wherever you turn, there is the face of God." They complement this with a well-known hadith of the Prophet: "God is beautiful, and He loves beauty."

Ziping hence studied with great care the movements of the birds and mammals- such as an eagle descending on its prey, a rabbit moving quickly across a prairie, a dog leaping skillfully to put itself out of danger. He absorbed all these characteristics to create a unique style of his own. His strength and reflexes allowed him to be both strong and quick- a deadly combination in Wushu.

A Grandmaster is able to use any implement or tool as a weapon. Improvising is as much an art as it is a necessity in Wushu. Ziping came to be extremely well-versed in all the major weapons. He was particularly adept at qinna, which could lock the joints and muscles of opponents in preparation for a devastating attack; shuaijiao, a bare-handed fighting style incorporating principles of Tai Chi; hard qigong and light body technique.

He was acclaimed as a well-rounded martial artist. At the same time, he was also a specialist in bone trauma. He combined his adept knowledge of qinna with his bone setting skills and invented a system of treatment for sports and Wushu-related injuries in Northern China.

Many stories, some half-true, others mere legend, have been attributed to him, but one that bears repeating is this.

During his medical tenure in Jiaozhou, the Germans were commissioned to build a railroad from there to Jinan. Such expensive projects- to extend and solidify European contol over Chinese land- were the price extracted from Empress Ci'xi after the failed Boxer rebellion.

Ziping's reputation was not unknown to the Germans. Being shrewder than most of their colleagues, they were anxious to put him out of favor. A German military officer arranged for a great mill stone to be placed in front of the railroad station and challenged anyone to raise it. Ziping, who tolerated no humiliation to the Chinese people, was naturally furious. As the Germans expected, Ziping walked right into their trap.
"What happens if I lift it?" he asked.

"Then the stone is yours," the Germans replied in glee.

"What happens if it falls?"

"Then you will pay for it."
Ziping lifted the stone, leaving the Germans aghast. One of those who witnessed the feat was an American who worked as a physical education teacher in a missionary school. He challenged Ziping to a duel. In the handshake that preceded the encounter, the American strongly grasped Ziping's hand and attempted to throw him to the ground. Ziping promptly swept the legs from under him.

I suppose this story appealed to me because of its underdog-triumphs-over-white master theme.

Later in his life, Ziping was appointed the head of the Shaolin Division at the Central Martial Arts Institute. He was also the vice chairman of  the Chinese Wushu Association, the highest Wushu organization in China. He held many other titles and responsibilities, including being an advisor to major hospitals across China. His career is also distinguished by the many duels he fought with foreigners, including Japanese experts in Akido. Always, he wanted to prove the point that the Chinese was not an inferior race.


Ziping as an old man doing a bent press with a lock weight.
Even in his old age, Ziping never lost his great strength and agility. In 1960, when Ziping was the trainer and director of the group of Wushu students that accompanied Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in a visit to Burma, he was told to give a demonstration of his skills. This he did with the heavy Sword of the Black Dragon, with such skill and youthful vigor that nobody thought that he was already 80 years old.

Throughout his life, Ziping exhibited great patriotism and an enthusiasm for martial arts that never waned. His spirit and stamina were indefatigable, and remains a source of inspiration for many Chinese, Muslim and non-Muslim. He died in 1973, after failing, in the end, to defeat a long bout of illness.

8 Comments:

Sadiq M. Alam said...

Beloved Author.

Thanks a lot for the beautiful post. it was nice read. welcome to my space,
http://mysticsaint.blogspot.com

Aloysius Tan said...

WOW! I mean WOW!

speed_demon said...

Awesome post.

But, one question, you said Ziping went to Shaolin later on. But, from what I can remember, Shaolin is a Buddhist temple, were monks trained in both physical and mental abilites for the protection of the Buddhism artifacts. If Ziping is a Muslim, how did he go to Shaolin? Did he forfeit his faith to become a monk?

I'd also like you to take a look at how the current Communist regime has brought oppression upon the religious communities in China. Not only to the Christians, but also Muslims and Buddhism alike.

sheilaX said...

One neither has to be a Buddhist nor be a monk at Shaolin to learn Shaolin martial arts.

Like traditional Islamic education, Wushu cannot be self-taught, but must be transmitted from Master to Student, in extremely stratified steps.

Hope this helps.

dezhen said...

That was a great article - Chinese martial arts are rich and varied - Hui skills are great, especially Cha Quan, which is where the competitive Wushu routines nowadays originally come from. There are also a few other well known, but rare styles such as Baji Quan and Xingyi Liuhe Quan, which are also very famous.

There is another article here, which recounts some stories from his grand-daughter.

There are many skills that originally come from Shaolin temple, but have no direct connection to it, passed down by laymen who trained under monks etc.

Great article on this hidden treasure of the Chinese Muslims! He is known as a national hero, but not many know he is Muslim.

mrj said...

I was fortunate to train, on an individual basis for 6 hours a day 6 days a week for several months, with one of Master Wang Zi-Pings's students. MY teacher, Master Wang Gang, taking 'Wang' from his Master, was Chief Instructor and Vice-President of the Tian Fu Martial Arts Society of Sichuan Province. My Master was very well known for his expertise in numerous weapons, as well as Tai Chi Chuan and Ba Gau Chuan. I had heard several 'stories' about Master Wang Zi-Ping, but not that he was a Muslim or a fugitive, or involved in the 'Boxer Rebellion'. My Master was not Han Chinese, but Manchurian, so I wrongly assumed Master Wang Zi-Ping was Manchurian as well. Thanx for your article. I have a beautiful black and white photograph of Master Wang Zi-Ping and my Master which was taken in the mid 1960's. I cherish my time in China with my Master and the photograph!

Supremep said...

Thanks that was a good post. I live in Wichita and studied under Grace Wu Mr. Wang Ziping's granddaughter. I have heard many great and adireable things. If you know of anymore articles or books. can you direct me towards them thank you.
supremep@excite.com

Anonymous said...

WANG zi ping INCREASED HIS STRENGTH, POWER, and knowledge in wushu AS HIS knowledge in Islam grew ie. quran dhikr and hadith.