By Michael Ruiz
In nearly 100 degree heat on a smoggy morning, student martial artists in silk gowns fought through their routines in front of a cheering audience. They leaped through the air swinging broad swords and long sticks.
This Kung Fu festival, held recently at Hebei University, was to honor graduating seniors. Participants had practiced for months leading up to the annual exhibition. Each worked through choreographed moves worthy of a Hollywood performance — on the first take — while their heavy, long-sleeved taiji fu outfits stuck to the sweat on their backs.
The audience sat in a square around the outdoor stage, with no barrier between them and the performers. On one occasion, a sword slipped from one girl’s hand, whirling only a few feet away from onlookers. On another, a quarterstaff snapped in half, sending splinters halfway across the stage.
The Hebei University Wu Shu Xiehui Association, known as Wu Shu Club for short, is popular and renowned throughout the surrounding province. Founded in 1984 by Wu Shu Qing, a revered local martial artist, the club has since grown to be the largest and most respected student organization on campus.
The participants began their Kung Fu training in freshman year. Students showed off their prowess in three of the five major divisions of Kung Fu – Tai Chi, Pi Gua, and Baji.
Members train for 3-5 hours a day, except during testing weeks, but that does not distract them from homework. Yang Lin Feng, a sophomore, called the club a “warm family” that helps its members focus on their studies.
Shen Wei Peng, the club president, believes that Wu Shu members benefit in their studies because they are committed to discipline that builds good habits, good health and, most importantly, camaraderie. Members, he said, are part of a “brotherhood for life.”
Before the exhibition began, alumni addressed the gathered crowd to loud cheers, sharing the year of their graduation and their current careers.
Most Chinese college students, according to Shen, are late risers. The Wu Shu Club holds its morning practice every day at 6:30 a.m. Excepting students who have classes that conflict with the schedule, the club meets again at 4:30 p.m. Later, members practice on their own for an hour before bed.
Captains are often sophomores, rather than juniors and seniors, because the upperclassmen have too much work for the added responsibility.
Wu Yue Zhen, who constantly pushed her glasses back up her sunburned nose, assumed the role and workload of captain in her senior year. She believed that the added responsibility would better hone her skills as she prepared to enter the workforce, which she said in English, after waving off the interpreter, was “Very good.”
Zhen’s discipline, Tai Chi Chuan, translates to “Supreme Ultimate Force.” In spite of the name, this discipline is not a mode of combat, like the other Kung Fu forms. Tai Chi is a slow-moving dance meant to harness one’s inner energy, or Qi, to build a strong and healthy body. To achieve an advanced level in Tai Chi, Zhen focused exclusively on the grace of her movements.
A petite woman wearing a baggy taiji fu, she moved through a routine of 48 meticulous movements while the lenses of her white-rimmed glasses magnified the concentration in her eyes. When she was done, she scuttled off into the audience and chugged a bottle of water.
Her friend came to her side, holding up an umbrella to ward off the sun. She had aced her performance, and finally, she could rest.