Liu Xiaoling mentioned to me during an interview that he and his martial arts brothers practice in Renmin Gongyuan (The People's Park) daily from 6 am to 8 am. I knew a trip to Shanghai would not be complete without at least one good glimpse of Baguazhang in action. The problem was that it was so early in the morning and Shanghai has such an enticing nightlife that it was a real challenge to wake up early.
After several failed attempts, I finally was able to rise early one Sunday morning after a long night of Karaoke and Pijiu (beer). I had high expectations for Sunday, as that is the day that the turnout is the largest and the duration of practice the longest of the week. The previous morning I had made it to Renmin Gongyuan but it had been already too late in the morning, and my friend and I were not sure where in the park to look. I ended up practicing on my own in an area of heavy foot traffic and attracted the obligatory crowds of gawkers and instant marital arts experts (just add foreigner).
Renmin Gongyuan is no longer the immense park it once was as open space has been taken for the construction of skyscrapers. However, it still has many nooks and crannies where more hardcore martial artists hide. Renmin Gongyuan at 6 am is typical of most public parks around China with large numbers of older people practicing all sorts of calisthenics and martial art. These primarily consist of Tai Ji and Qi Gong. Eclectic styles of Qi Gong which involve odd techniques such as seizure-like shaking of the body, flailing of limbs, and hugging of trees were the source of endless entertainment for my Chinese friend and I. Some areas even have signs to designate particular styles such as Chen and Yang styles of Tai Ji. Baguazhang had no such sign, however.
After searching almost every inch of Renmin Gongyuan, we were ready to give up when I finally spotted Liu Xiaoling in a distant corner of the main field. It turns out that they practice in one of the most secluded sections of the park seemingly protected by some kind of force field. It is also one of the few sections with a large flat surface. When I approached the practice area I received a warm welcome by Liu Xiaoling and Yu Hua Long a master of Xinyi Quan and Hua Quan who was the original contact person that had introduced me to Master Liu.
Also on the scene were Liu Xiaoling's two Baguazhang martial arts brothers, a master of Monkey style, women practicing Wudang Fan, young men learning Yang Style Tai Ji, a couple older men learning the Baguazhang 64 form, and a boy practicing Shaolin. Liu and his colleagues were teaching all of these styles. After a formal introduction with the various martial artists, practice resumed and I followed the Yang stylist as I already recognized it as the 24 set. Liu Xiaoling also performed the set and we paled in comparison to his fluid movements and solid stances. Next, the Wudang Fan stylists gave me a demonstration of their set which was extremely complex and much longer than the Baguazhang Fan set I have studied. The young boy performed Shaolin for everybody, and then it was my turn.
I always dread moments like this in which I am asked to perform Baguazhang for masters since I know I have a long way to go. I performed Dingshi Bazhang because I know it very well and I knew they would recognize it. I have performed it many times before so I was quite calm when performing it and I completed the set without incident. Master Liu's martial arts brother Gao Tie Niao, which means Tall Iron Bird, said I was "OK" but it was time for him to show me his stuff - Swimming Dragon Bagua.
Swimming Dragon is an appropriate name for the form as Master Gao indeed was constantly coiling and uncoiling with the fluid ease of a Dragon flying through the clouds. His movements were extremely fast and powerful, while changing direction so many times that he soon became of blur of palms and feet. The form was quite long, yet when it was completed he was hardly winded. A crowd had gathered and clapped with loud approval when he finished his set. Next, some of his advanced students performed the famous 64 set, also a very long and acrobatic set of Baguazhang.
I then became bolder and brought out my newly made Yuan Yang Yue and Master Gao approved of the design except that he said it should be sharper around the edges. I performed the Yuan Yang Yue form for him and he recognized it quite well but added some Shanghai variations to the form that were even more visceral than the Beijing version. Many people in the Bagua class playfully practiced techniques on each other and I could not help but do the same with my friend. There was never a shortage of Gongfu masters standing around to give us advice on moves and countermoves.
Before I knew it, practice was over and the martial artists left, and it was hardly past 8 am! Being a late riser, I was only just starting to wake up and decided to continue practicing with my friend. Soon, we were not alone. as passersby started watching the "Laowai." A teenage boy from the countryside approached me offering to be my friend but soon started to ask for money, I pretended to ignore him while keeping an eagle eye on my things. As audience members started to accumulate, I decided to call it a day. On my way out, I noticed a large group of people practicing push hands and I thought, "Hmmm, perhaps some new push hand partners when I come back to Shanghai."
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