It had been 365 days and 12 hours until we had last seen Master Lin Zaipei. We had said goodbye at the Foreign Trade Centre Hotel on Wu Yi Lu in Fuzhou, capital of Fujian province, China. For the last two weeks we had been furthering our knowledge of Dishu Quan, the Fujian Boxing system specializing in groundwork and binding techniques, and were heading back to the UK with happy hearts and achey legs. That was a year ago and since then we had spent a year both training and refining the techniques that Master Lin had been passing onto us for the last 4 years. For those of us who had spent time sweating it out in China, we saw his visit to the UK as a test of our ability and efforts of the last 52 weeks’ training; and those who were yet to meet Master Lin waited excitedly with baited breath.
Saturday the 19th of February. Master Lin had landed in the UK the day before and was eager to see what we had been up to for the past year. It was only the second trip outside of China for the 68 year old, student of famed Dishu Quan master Chen Yijiu. Master Lin’s first trip outside of China was in the 1980’s, where he was asked to go to Japan to teach and demonstrate some of the Dishu Quan binding techniques. Master Lin had a suitably English welcome; it was overcast, raining and a little cold. The British weather aside, our spirits were left un-dampened as the 13 of us arrived for the first class bright eyed and bushy tailed.
It was good to see Master Lin again who had bravely left his home and flown halfway around the world to a country whose language he couldn’t speak (with some exceptions!) to teach 13 students, most of whom he had never met. We would be training for the next 9 days and rack up 52 hours of training. As we readied ourselves for class, Yuqing arrived who would be our translator for the first two days as well as the following weekend. With someone to converse with Master Lin looked visibly relaxed before class. It was certainly odd to think that (after a lot of work of White Crane Fighting Arts Chief Instructor Neil Johnson) Master Lin was standing in our hall in Burgess Hill. The word surreal doesn’t cut it.
Quickly going through formalities, all the new students were introduced to Master Lin who also unveiled two pieces of calligraphy; one was a very kind present to the club which read “He Xiang Jiu Tian”. It translates as ‘white cranes soaring to the highest level in the sky’. It was a message for us to continue to push the arts we teach at the club.
Second was a gift to Neil; roughly translated the meaning of the work was a message from Master Lin. It said he is a gifted student of Dishu Quan and should strive to improve his skill to even higher levels.
Formalities completed, training commenced. As Master Lin had only previously met 5 of the 13 Dishu students he clearly wanted to see the ability of the class. His method for seeing this was simple – basic foundation training along with stretches. We stretched, we leg lifted, performed stance work and for those who knew it, the Dishu Quan San Zhan – the first pattern in the system of Dishu Quan. Leg lifting back and forth I could clearly see that some students were thinking “what have I let myself in for?!” It is with very good reason that Dishu Quan practitioners often lament “The hardships of Dog Boxing”. Training continued.
Obviously as we were stretching, Master Lin would let us know what was expected – when we were pushing our bodies’ to the limits of flexibility, the 68 year old would calmly drop into full splits next to you as a sign of encouragement; all this done with the ever present smile. He later showed us up by standing on one leg and, with the other leg dead straight, lifting his foot above his head. Master Lin’s abilities in stretching are no party trick either; having such a high level of flexibility means that he is far better equipped to withstand the binding techniques of Dishu Quan.
After 4 hours, some sweat, and a fair deal of pain, we had completed our first lesson. Despite the effort involved everyone left with smiles on their faces. We had begun what would be a rewarding week in continuing the study of Dishu Quan.
Master Lin had agreed to teach us for four hours each morning for 9 days. I turned up to Neil’s house on the evening of the first day for a little recap on the day’s training. This was an informal session with only a few students each day. Jet lagged and without a translator Master Lin could have happily slept until the following morning; however, a true gentleman and lover of his art he came down to assist in our training in Neil’s kungfu den at the bottom of his garden. We continued to work on the new points we had picked up from the day’s efforts with Master Lin explaining movements in Chinese and Neil and I doing our best efforts to translate. We finished training at half 9 and were ready for dinner. After some of Neil’s fantastic home cooking I left for the drive home a happy boy.
Day 2. A new day, in a new hall but still with the same legs as yesterday. Class began, as ever, with Dishu stretching – a series of stretching and strengthening exercises specifically tailored to the training and application of the Fujian Dog Boxing system. Unsurprisingly, as we had pushed ourselves the day before, we were all certainly higher in our front splits with some well practiced grimacing had by all. Mike “the gentleman” Bray performed his Ultimate Lotus stretch much to all of our dismays. Ken and I were tasked with lifting ourselves up on our knuckles for as long as possible while in the lotus position. Try as we might, we could not match Lin Zhenquan’s (Master Lin Zaipei’s eldest son) skill in this. Two years previously he had been awarded a gold medal for his finger skill in a competition in Fuzhou. There was certainly a great deal of catching up to do.
Much of the lesson was spent practicing San Zhan, with Matt Cotterill, Mark “Hong Mu” Heeler and Oskar being taught the next set of moves in the pattern they would spend the following 7 days training.
The evening was similar to the last. More training, more pidgin Chinese, Master Lin’s expert tuition and the now world famous Neil Johnson cuisine. Lamb stew tastes best once you’ve earned it. That evening, Master Lin also unveiled a TV program shown in Fujian. It was a documentary on Master Lin’s Dishu Quan and featured members of the White Crane Fighting Arts China team.
Monday the 21st of February. Time flies apparently, and our visit from Master Lin was no exception. This was the third day of training and the first day we began to learn our new patterns for those who already knew San Zhan and beyond. Before this though, we continued to drill the basics. I don’t think there is anything cooler (though I am a kungfu geek) than a room full of Dog Boxers performing San Zhan together in perfect time. The sound of 13 people in synchronised shouts is a happy memory I shall keep with me for a long time.
As we split up into our respective groups to learn the next pattern Master Lin would teach us, there was an air of anticipation and excitement about the room. We were split into three groups – the San Zhan boys who had begun their pattern the day before, the gang of 6 who would be learning the Qi Xing Dui Di and team San Shi Liu. The Qi Xing gang was by far the largest, though neither of the other two groups would let their shouts be drowned out. We each went through the new moves, sometimes in groups or one by one, ingraining the techniques and postures into our minds. Those who had already been studying Qi Xing Dui Di and San Zhan would help out, with Neil spending some time with the 3 San Zhan boys before joining back with Mike, Dave and myself to continue to learning San Shi Liu; the 4th pattern in the Dishu Quan system specialising in more advanced hand movements.
That evening Master Lin had agreed to come to the hall where we train every week in Lewes. I arrived at 6 and there was a real buzz in the air. It was the kid’s class first so the room was packed wall to wall with students, parents and children alike. Master Lin ran through some stretching techniques then asked Neil to teach some of the foundation groundwork in the style. None of it was easy and the kids made a fantastic effort to take it on board. To finish the class Neil and I performed a 2 person Dishu Quan routine, followed by Mike “the gentleman”, myself, and Neil each performing a different pattern in the Dishu Quan system. The rest of the evening was great with Master Lin even applying a few binding techniques to unsuspecting students – some contort the opponent, some don’t look too bad, but all of them (and I speak from first hand experience here) are definitely painful and effective.
Tuesday morning and the 4th lesson with Master Lin. By now everyone definitely knows where their legs are. The ‘John Wayne’ walk, infamous with students who have been to China, begins to appear. Aches asides we crack on with training; after foundation training and continuing to work our San Zhan together (it’s sounding really cool by this stage) we split off into our respective groups to drill the new patterns.
That day Neil took Master Lin to Brighton. Chatting whilst walking through the Laines, that afternoon they visited the Pavilion and were even given a free tour of the Brighton Theater. Master Lin took great interest in both attractions – his first big day out since landing in the UK. This was a prequel to his trip to London the following Monday where Neil would take him to the British Museum, various galleries and the London Eye.
In the evening we did much the same as we had been previously. A good session helps to ingrain the day’s work as well as the stretching helping to ease off the aches of the day. After training I was chatting with Master Lin as well as my Chinese would allow and found out interesting information about the lineage of the style as well as the raft of counterfeit practitioners pretending to know the rare system; falsely claiming their lineage back to Chen Yijiu or even without any lineage at all.
Needless to say, the evening’s food was incredible with Neil pulling out two full racks of pork ribs from the oven. Marinaded and slow roasted to perfection, the room fell silent as we finally got down to the serious business of eating dinner.
The rest of the week continued much the same though the time it took to stretch out the previous day’s aches seemed to take a little longer. Everyone was really getting into the meat of their patterns as well as a few nicknames coming out – Mike was known as the gentleman, Ken was a Shaolin Monk, Ali became Xiao Bian Fu or Little Bat due to her flexibility in the double bats posture and Bryan became Nan Quan or Southern Fist as Master Lin likened him to a stereotypical image of many strong and powerful Southern Shaolin Monks.
Nina from the Lewes club came to watch on the Friday – I had a quick chat with her at the side of the hall whilst grabbing a drink. As I looked back into the hall it looked like a battalion of hardied war veterans, in need of just a little more sleep, stretching in silence, but ready to face the day’s challenges. Obviously it wasn’t all bleak, once we had got our bodies moving again we were back to being invincible as usual. What had previously seemed a challenge to some was now part of the everyday routine, each repetition increasing in fluidity and comprehension.
Come the final morning it seemed that the week had gone so quick. We were well and truly Dishu practitioners by this stage, with many people having a few bruises to show for all that ground work. We each filmed our pattern for austerity as well as the final 12 strong San Zhan – mighty shouts and all (unfortunately Ali could make the last day so we all had to shout that little bit louder)! That evening we all went for a meal with Master Lin turning up in an extremely fine 3 piece suit. We ate, we chatted, some drank – it was a very welcome chance to relax after 9 days totaling 52 hours training in all. We saw Master Lin off after exchanging sentiments and our thanks. A few even suggested they might be part of our delegation to China next year (watch this space!).
Of all the memories and lessons of the past week I will never forget an image of Master Lin in Neil’s training room holding a decommissioned bren gun grinning to high heavens. Throughout his time in England, Master Lin often mentioned the secretive nature of the rare style and of pretenders claiming knowledge. We had all been let into the door of Dishu, and, as Master Lin completed that final lesson of the week, we prepared to spend the rest of our lives perfecting this little known style.
by Matt Brooks