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  • Tianyi Kung Fu

My Time with Master Sha Huaien



Master Sha Huaien’s spear had been famous in the Cha Quan circles for over 60 years. To teach us, he borrowed a spear from a neighbour in the village. When he remarked that it had no “kung fu” I assumed he meant the spear was too light. Afterall, the Chinese word “kung fu”, in addition to martial arts, also means putting in hard work. Later on, when we started to handle the two spears I understood what he really meant. The weight was the same. But Master Sha’s spear was glossy as glass. The other one was still rough. The tens of thousands of times that the spear went through Master Sha’s hands long ago turned the roughness of the wooden surface into the callouses on his hands.


Master Sha was a legendary kung fu master who caught the end of what many people consider the golden age of Chinese marital arts. His life spanned the country’s transition from emperors to the Nationalists to the Communists. He witnessed wars, famines, the Cultural Revolution and the reform and prosperity after that. In his younger days, he worked as a horse caravan driver. As a literate Muslim, he served as the academic administrator of 7 mosques in Daming prefecture. To learn secretive kung fu training techniques, he saved money to buy the longevity timber (wood used for making coffins which people prepare before death) for his teacher. Countless students have passed through his classes. In the family of Cha Quan practitioners, his spear was renowned in his generation. I had the great honor to get to know him and train with him over a few years. This is an experience I will treasure and carry with me for life.



I first met Master Sha in April 2013 when I accompanied Master Liu Hongchi to Daming to visits the old master. Master Sha was 88 years old at the time. The whole process of visiting old masters can be a hit and miss. We didn’t know his state of health, whether he was still training or if he was willing to teach. We were only told by another old master that it would be worthwhile paying him a visit. Master Sha lived in the Muslim quarters of Nanguan, a small village about a 7 hour drive from Beijing. His house did not have a number, we had to ask several people to find our way. The spear tied on a tricycle parked in the yard gave away the owner of the house. In our extreme fortune, Master Sha was extremely happy to see us. He immediately insisted that we stay with him in his house. He went out to buy two chickens, 3 pounds of beef pancakes and opened a bottle of Chinese wine to show his hospitality.



In Master Sha’s later years, very few people sought out to train with him. Other than some birthdays and activities at the mosque, Master Sha’s life revolved around the courtyard and the ducks and chickens he kept with his wife. Our visits made Master Sha very happy. The first night there, he told us that he would not have any reservations about teaching us. At the time, he still trained every day at 4 am. Our routine was 3:30 am wakeup and by 11 am, we would have already completed 3 sessions and breakfast. Whenever spear-on-spear drills took place in the morning, we were all afraid to go too fast because it was impossible to see clearly in the moonlight. But master Sha’s sense of spacing didn’t need light. The spear was an extension of this body and his footwork took him where he needed to be at will. He had lost the strength to go low on his stances but his upper body was just as nimble, and his mobility was still first rate. This almost 90 year-old man would teach and demonstrate from darkness of morning to high noon nonstop. We kept on saying that he should sit and just tell us what to do. But he could not keep himself from grabbing the spear and demonstrating himself. It was like an old maestro who has been playing by himself for years and all of a sudden he had a couple students who can jam with him. He had to jump in.

During the dinners, Master Sha liked to share stories from the past. Especially his days driving the horse caravan. It was a time when the reaches of the law were limited. Survival depended an equal portion of street smarts and fighting skills. He talked about “walking in the yin and not in the yang”. It means that one should walk on the shaded side of the street. It would be easier to conceal oneself from others. “Make big turns and not small turns” means that when turning the corner in an alley, swing wide so that you can have space to react to what’s coming around the corner. He also showed us the process to testing someone’s skills via lighting a cigarette. It was basically small joint grappling with the fingers. It reminded me of the scene from “The Grandmasters” where Zhao Benshan’s character lit a cigarette for Ip Man.




Master Sha’s grandmaster is Gao Jianzhong, people called him Si Ye which means fourth master. He had four notable disciples: Yang Zhenxing, Dan Chongyuan (Ershu or second uncle), Shan Runsheng and Yang Tianzhang. Yang Zhenxing was Master Sha’s first teacher. Sha also learned a lot from Dan Chongyuan. Dan Chongyuan’s nickname was Erlu (second donkey). He once challenged an out of town Hong quan master to a fight. After he made a name for himself, people started calling him Erye (second master). Master Sha chased after him for a long time so he would teach him the 72 Eagle Claw training technique. It is one of the ways to train the golden bell and iron shirt. Only after the eager Sha bought him his longevity timber did Erye teach Master Sha. Erye sold porridge near the west gate of Daming. He carried a bamboo pole across his shoulders with the bowls in the front and the pot in the back. He liked to train by scaling the city wall. For a time, people in the city started losing things so people told him to stop training on the wall to avoid being suspected. Dan Chongyuan died of starvation during the famine of 1943. He was in his 70s.


Yang Tianzhang (nickname Jiazeng) also trained in Golden Bell and Iron Shirt technique. Master Sha saw him flip a 65 kg stone rod on his arms. He could push 180 kg rods while in a horse stance. The story goes that Yang trained day and night when he was 15 – 18 years old to a point where his penis disappeared. He told his master and only after releasing his qi did the penis come back down. Master Sha also train it. Although he doesn’t boast a golden bell or iron shirt, his entire body was still solid as a rock. When working on grappling with him, you quickly realize that even without achieving the perfect angle or timing, a normal person would never escape his grip. Mrs. Sha had a lot to say about this whole business of training qi. Probably master Sha had to do a lot of reassuring before his wife let him do it. Everyone can be happy to know that the couple had 3 sons and 3 daughters and plenty of grand and great grandchildren.


I was lucky to trace through the 72 eagle claws with Master Sha. Going through the external movements was quite straightforward, but the internal workings were all over the place. Master Sha said that it takes 100 reps before you can start striking your body and over 1000 before you have some kung fu. That afternoon, I was soaked in sweat after doing it once. Master Sha said that knowing how to train is step one but growing it to be part of your body is a long journey.


Other than Gao Jianzhong’s disciples, there were other characters in the Daming area who left tales to be told years later. There was the story of two commanders of the Red Sand Society. They would drink a potion and become impermeable to attack. However, it didn’t work in Nanguan (the Muslim quarters) because Islam countered their spell. Another man was called 神枪李五点, literally Five-point Spear Li. He was able to precisely pierce his opponents at five lethal points on the body. Once, someone went to pay him a visit (euphemism for a challenge match). He lost and then committed suicide.



One afternoon Master Sha went through the Liuhe Broad Sword drill with us. It is a set of six broad sword drills practiced between partners. He borrowed a double sword from a friend. Before we started training, he tied a golden sash as a tassel. It was a simple class, no performance, no audience. He just wanted to make it look right.











Once as we were leaving, Master Liu wanted to take a photo with Master Sha. Master Sha suggested to do a spear versus broad sword and wooden guai combination. At first, I thought it was just going to be a pose. But the two old men became quite excited. One said to jab low and the other said to do a spear spin, a sword chop, blocking of spear and then started to improvise. After the jam session was done, we were really getting ready to leave. Master Sha said “I will do another spear routine.” In the Cha Quan circles, Master Sha’s spear was already famous decades ago. Nowadays, he had lost the strength in his base. But his footwork, coordination, strength of his upper half and speed were still so amazing. While he was going through that spear routine, in the whole yard the only sound you could hear was the shuffling of his footwork and the rattling of his spear.

























In all our talks and lessons with Master Sha, there was always his wife sitting on the side, giving a nod from time to time. She must have seen thousands of students come through over the years and I often wonder what she really thought of us.


Master Sha’s hearing was weak. We had to speak loudly into his ear for him to hear us. But he seems to understand everything Mrs. Sha said to him even in a low voice. One night, the men were already sleeping in the big room. She quietly came into the dark to put something in the drawer beside Master Sha. She whispered “buy them breakfast tomorrow morning, I was afraid you won’t be able to find it.”



Mrs. Sha was four years her husband’s senior. She experienced changing of governments, the sweeps of the Japanese soldiers during the resistance, the famine of 1943, the years of famine in the early 1960s. She gave birth to 6 children. In her youth, she could eat an entire chicken plus two ounces of bread in one meal. In her latter years, she still had great style. Before every photo, she needed to straighten out her hair and strike a pose. She could thread a needle without glasses and take care of all her daily chores. Once we took Master Sha out to dinner. She also wanted to go but the old man said she needed to stay home. It was already dark when we got back but she was still sitting at the entrance waiting for him to come home. Before recording a video, Master Sha wanted to change into something more formal. He asked Mrs. Sha where was the suit he wore for his 80th birthday. When she brought it out, he complained that the suit was dirty and that she gave him garbage to wear. Two people living together for a lifetime. Understand what the other is saying without hearing the sound. When you are looking for something, she knows where it is. When you are out, she waits for you to come home.


Master Sha lived in the Muslim quarters of Nanguan village, just outside of the Daming Prefecture in Handan city of Hebei province. There was a barbershop where you can get a straight blade shave, a sheep butcher who did house calls, a blacksmith using a hand-pushed furnace and there were Master and Mrs. Sha raising chickens and ducks. If you didn’t pay too much attention, it almost felt like time had forgotten about this little village. How wonderful that would be! Unfortunately, behind the old shops, old houses and old streets are demolitions, highways and a newly constructed old city wall of Daming. Yes, to recreate the historic town, the first thing done was to take down the old houses and move out the old residents. Master Sha hated the idea of moving and he never did make that move.


































Bad news from Daming came in April. Not long after Chinese New Year of 2016, Mrs. Sha passed away suddenly. Three days later Master Sha followed. In the end, he couldn’t let her go by herself.


Every time we said goodbye to Master and Mrs. Sha, after we get in the car, there would be a collectively sigh. Every visit, we take a whole set of cameras and phones. But it would always feel like our hands were too small and cracks to big to catch the unstoppable flow of richness. Traditional kung fu is an outdated hobby. Yes, it needs to be modernized. Yes, it is too closed off. Yes, the training needs to be more practical. Through Master Sha, you see that the solution to the future of martial arts is not abandonment. The solution is more passionate people learning and training it. In Master Sha, the lessons of simplicity, humility, passion, diligence, perseverance are ones I will keep and carry on forever.



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