Chinese martial arts have undergone tremendous transformation over the last half century. The Cultural Revolution is commonly cited as the most significant turning point. It caused nationwide oppression of all traditional arts throughout China. Refugees of the communist regime fled to Taiwan and Hong Kong and then to the rest of the world, so it was also a motivating factor for kung fu diaspora. However, contrary to popular belief, the Cultural Revolution did not entirely extinguish traditional fighting styles within China. Grandmaster Liang Shou-Yu is one of many traditional masters who survived that nefarious period – forced into combat on many occasions, both in challenge matches for honor and on the streets for his life; and he was nearly killed by the Red Guard.
If it wasn’t for his martial arts, Liang would not be alive today. During the Cultural Revolution, he needed his martial skills more than ever; so despite the prohibition, he never relented in his practice. “China is so big,” Liang reminds us. “So many people practice in hiding – don’t let the government know. No problem. Just like right now, many people (do) drugs, everything. (The) government don’t like it, but they still can do. Many, many dynasties, they stopped people doing martial arts. Still practice. Still pass generation by generation – just hiding practice.”
Today, Grandmaster Liang continues to pass down his martial arts to his descendants, just as his family has done for six generations. Under his tutelage, Liang’s daughter Helen has risen to become one of North America’s leading masters. Helen is part of the post-Cultural Revolution generation. She didn’t face the same kind of hardships that her father did. She fought an internal war. Helen survived a rare form of cancer. This isn’t the typical definition of self defense, but cancer is a foe no less lethal than the Red Guard. Just like her father before her, Helen survived by her martial skills. Without them, she wouldn’t be alive today.
Liang Shou-Yu and Helen Liang embody the opposing sides of the current generation gap. Grandmaster Liang inherited a family tradition. Helen inherited that same tradition, but in the shadow of contemporary wushu. Their martial training, as well as how they’ve applied their skills to survive, stands in sharp contrast. Every martial family faces this same divide, but few have both generations facing death. The Liangs’ journeys reflect the challenges that traditional arts are confronting with the changing times and the value of our martial heritage.
Forged in the Fires of the Revolution
“My grandfather never beat me with a rod, just by hand,” recalls Grandmaster Liang with a wince. “He (was) always on a chair with (a) water pipe smoking – pup-pup-pup-pup. He just watching. If I ever miss, ‘No! Again!’ Crane stance training – ten, fifteen minutes – sometimes I feel sore. POW! ‘Be still! You not good. Something not right!'” Liang was trained under the strict iron hand of Liang Zhixiang, who he respectfully knew as lao yeye (old paternal grandfather). Liang was taught the old-fashion way, three times a day, two hours per lesson, starting at age six. A retired businessman, Liang’s grandfather had plenty of time to scrutinize every moment of his grandson’s training. “He pushed me,” confesses Liang. “That time, (he) just focus me, every day. Go everywhere with me. Watch others teaching. Watch other sifu. Go to the park. What this style, that style, other style? This how good? Some were good. Some not good. This is good – ok, you should learn this. It might be useful to you. Every Sunday we just go outside watch teachers teaching.”
Liang was raised in Chongqing, a major city in Sichuan province. Chongqing was the capital for the nationalists during the ’50s, so it was a city full of turmoil. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek met with Mao Zedong there for U.S.-encouraged peace talks, but negotiations fell through and war soon erupted. Chongqing later became a center for the Cultural Revolution. With all the political tension, there was always fighting on the streets of Liang’s childhood. Accompanied by his grandfather, Liang watched countless street fights as part of his training. Whenever they heard about potential fights, they always stopped to watch. Reality was the best kind of field test, an efficient way to distinguish a good move from a useless one. Liang even participated in a few street brawls himself. “Every time after I fight with somebody, my grandfather would tell me ‘You should do this way,’ ‘You should do that way.’ My mother told him ‘No! You tell him not to fight. He must be know that!’ Yeah, I know that. In that time, I had one sister, younger than me but same size as me. The young children bother us, ‘Oh, you so young, you have girlfriend’ – do some pranks to us. I just fight with them. After every fight, I tell my grandfather.”
Despite Liang’s pugilistic attitude, years of strict martial discipline made him into a very good student. His excellent academic record won him a full scholarship to Southwest National University where he majored in Biology. But he never lost interest in the martial arts. Another Sichuan master, Chen Jian, accompanied Liang to plenty of martial arts competitions just as his grandfather took him to street fights. There, Liang captured title after title. He also tried his hand at Chinese wrestling. Back then, the wrestling champion of Sichuan Province was a mountain man of the Yi minority. He claimed to have killed fifteen mountain lions with his bare hands – and given his prowess, most people believed him. Liang was the first person from the city to try him, and he emerged victorious. “My schoolmates, my teacher were, ‘That’s Shou-Yu?!’ They didn’t believe it because I was good in school work and well-behaved.”
But revolution was in the air. As sparks grew into wildfires, communist campaigns began their rapacious purge of any hint of opposition. Because Liang’s father and grandfather were businessmen with foreign ties, they were sent away to remote labor camps for a decade. Liang was relocated to a remote village near the Three Gorges in Sichuan. “That place,” recalls Liang, “a lot of people there were very into the martial arts. They all have real weapons – iron and steel weapons.” As soon as he arrived, the farmers discovered he was a martial artist and challenged him. First, they used a yoke to press against his chest and stomach, just to test his fortitude. If he could withstand that, they would consider him worthy of some real fights. Again, Liang prevailed. “After that,” Liang says with a grin, “they respect me very much.”
When the Cultural Revolution exploded, Liang was forced to flee. Liang recounts his escape. “One day, my martial arts student comes to me: ‘Teacher, I tell you – they want to criticize you.’ How did they criticize? You stood on a table. Use stone here (points to head). ‘Yeah, you not good. Your father not good. Your mother.’ BANG! On the head, for everybody. My student told me, ‘OK, escape. No problem. Escape.’ I went with three other teachers. Ten students protected us. We climbed the mountain, always walking. (Then) the students felt, ‘No problem.’ They go, ‘OK, bye bye, take care.’ (But) the search people (were) waiting for us, with a machine gun, with flashlights. They try (to) catch us. We fight. I throw down seven, eight people at least, but I escaped. After a few months, I heard about the other three people being captured. They used a chain – broke their ribs, broke their legs. I had many martial arts friends. I go visit somebody. I stayed there a few days.”
As an example of how crazy the Cultural Revolution was, Liang was still on the payroll. “In that time, the government still paid salaries. Teachers and doctors were still paid. They criticized you, but they still paid you. I was a high school teacher at the time.”
A Daughter of the Revolution
There is a special bond between a father and a daughter. Nothing is more precious, nothing more needing of protection, than daddy’s little girl. For every father, no fear is more visceral than that of harm coming to his daughter. Fathers always carry this fear, from when his daughter is a tiny infant to when she is a girl-child into her first blush of womanhood and throughout her adult life. She embodies all of his vulnerabilities, all his hopes and all his fears. So according to family tradition, Liang pushed his two daughters, Helen and Maria, into the martial arts.
What was different between his training and their training? “More laughs, no water pipe,” says Liang as he smiles at his daughter Helen. “Every time she trained some, I just held her and said, ‘It’s ok.'”
Helen elaborates, “He’s also very strict, but there is a lot of love. Like every day, he would make me do wusong dahong (hero hits the tiger) twenty times. Every single time, I had to do it fully. It can’t just be ‘whatever.’ If it’s no good, he’d say ‘Do it again.’ If the movement was happening, he’d give me some chocolate or something (laughs) after twenty times.”
Helen started her training under her father at age four. Her regimen was very serious, but not as rigorous as her father’s. “I had a very different childhood too. I didn’t really play with other kids or did any kid stuff. For me, it was training, school, home, training, school, home. So it wasn’t a normal childhood – not until I started at the University (laughs). I’ve met many martial arts practitioners and various professionals. They all resent it very much, how it affected their childhood – being too strict and too mean. Me, I was a little different. I never felt that resentment.”
By the time Helen was in elementary, there was a modern wushu. It’s a common fallacy that traditional is traditional and modern is modern and never the two shall meet. In fact, a traditional foundation can build outstanding virtuosity. Traditionalists can excel in a modern expression, just like a classically-trained musician can often perform well in jazz and rock music.
“I started with traditional martial arts,” states Helen emphatically. “Then it’s more like a traditional-modern combination. I felt thankful because it makes me different from the rest. I learned a lot more. I had a lot more experience and a different kind of knowledge.” By the time she was eleven, Helen earned a place on the Sichuan Provincial Wushu School.
“When I first started, everything of course was learning the basics, the foundation, the flexibility, all this basic foundation. But for my dad, he really emphasized the applications, the practicality, in martial arts. Even though not expecting me to beat up big guys, that at least I should know the applications. I should know the correct method and whether you’ll really be able to use it or not, that really varies. It depends on so many things.
“But that’s one side of martial arts. The other side is really about making yourself strong and healthy. It’s for self defense, but also to have a strong body yourself. That’s where qigong, tai chi and those things are more like health programs. That’s the part where it saved my life, where it really helped me. That’s where my focus is at this time in my life – using that to help myself and help other people – at the same time, not losing the focus of this being martial arts – still teaching the students the correct applications. But primarily, it is for keeping yourself strong, healthy and to help other people.”
In the early 80’s, Grandmaster Liang traveled to North America to settle in Canada. After a few years, he managed to bring his family over to join him. Helen was just entering her teens when she found herself in the strange new world of Vancouver. Her father had taken a position as a martial arts teacher at the University of British Columbia. Helen continued to study under him in their newfound home. She quickly amassed a collection of tournament victories worthy of any young master.
Helen was all grown up, a college graduate, and gainfully employed as a banker when she was diagnosed with a rare lymphoma. Her prognosis was very poor. The doctors said her only chance was a risky bone marrow transplant that had a success rate lower than five percent. A decision was made to pursue traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for Helen’s recovery. Few trained in the sciences abandon the scientific method easily, but even with his biology degree, Grandmaster Liang had no reservations. “Yea,” chuckles Liang now, “but biology – four years. Qigong was many, many years – many generations.” Dr. Xue-Zhi Wang, a TCM specialist in Seattle, prescribed a bitter regimen of herbal medicine, which was accompanied by a program of tai chi and qigong led by Grandmaster Liang.
“Every day, during that time, I do qigong and tai chi – water style,” reflects Helen. “And all this knowledge that he has taught me that has been built up. Plus my own insight into these human energies, that’s what really helped me – also studying the Buddhist Taoist philosophies and theories, like the Heart Sutra. It’s not just about the physical aspect. It’s really about the philosophy and theories behind that.
“Once, when I had just been sent back from the hospital by the doctors and was very weak, I was suffering a lot. So I was meditating in the backyard, doing what he had taught me everyday. And one day, I was feeling most sick and very weak. And I was just meditating. And all of a sudden, I felt a consciousness. I felt that my body – how do you say? – that I am the universe. I am one with the universe. I start feel that my body was disappearing – arms, hands, body, just disappearing. It’s almost like you’re merging. Your body is disappearing. You just have pure consciousness at that moment. How I really felt was this immense power. It’s almost like I am the universe and you think about how the universe is. There is good and bad, and whatever. The universe is still there. It just exists. And it’s able to tolerate all these good and bad and everything. It’s almost like nothing can really bother me. It’s that emptiness. When you have that kind of feeling, that’s actually you feel the strongest because you’re not attached to anything. You’re not afraid of anything. You’re not anything. You’re just there. So I started to feel very, very powerful. Later on, it disappeared. It’s a very clear kind of feeling. And it’s also what I would call ecstasy – spiritual ecstasy – just really happy. That was the turning day – the turning point – for me. It’s like all of a sudden, there was something that opened me up, and I used that method to meditate.
“Ever since, I’ve used that method. The first time was the strongest. It’s almost like there’s a key, like you open your eye to something. This was all things that had built up by the knowledge he passed to me. So it’s really because of all of these things, together, that really helped me. That’s aside from just the physical martial arts.”
The 20th Anniversary of International Wushu Sanshou Dao Association & the Shou-Yu Liang Wushu Taiji Qigong Institute
Today, Grandmaster Liang Shou-Yu and Helen Liang are thriving as two of North America’s foremost exponents of Chinese martial arts. Grandmaster Liang has authored many distinguished books and instructional videotapes in English. Helen stars in a popular instructional television program titled Tai Chi. This year, they are celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the two organizations that Grandmaster Liang has founded: The International Wushu Sanshou Dao Association (IWSD) & the Shou-Yu Liang Wushu Taiji Qigong Institute. In the Blink of an Eye is the title of their celebration banquet, slated for May 20, 2007 in Vancouver. Additionally, a special exhibition tournament is scheduled for the IWSD at Emei Mountain, in their homeland of Sichuan. That is the concluding portion of the First Emei Mountain Martial Arts Festival from July 4 to July 9, which is also where Kung Fu Tai Chi is holding its 15th Anniversary party.
Despite modern pressures, the Liangs are stalwart in their commitment to traditional martial arts. “Before children go to (the) university, a little bit push,” suggests the Grandmaster. “Push them to learn something. If they have the personality, push them. I have two daughters. I push them when they were young (to) learn some martial arts. Later, (they) should do something. (They) should be humble.”
Helen reiterates her father’s sense of humility. “I was basically near death and I asked him a question: ‘What happens when I die? What will I do?’ He said, ‘You have to go through it because if you don’t go through it, it’ll come back to you. Every life, you’re here for a purpose. Some things you have to go through. And you have to, no matter what, you have to push through. Otherwise, you’re just going to experience the same thing again.’ So that really stuck with me. Whenever there’s something – I want to solve this problem, I want to do this – I want to handle it in the best way I can so it does not come back again. And that means I have to truly get over something. That’s something very important I think. It’s not just about martial arts. It’s about how you deal with all other life things and deal with people – how you treat people and how you be very humble and that you’re always learning. He’s very strict about that – being humble. What the Chinese say, ‘You never make everything too full.’ You have to have humbleness. That will give you growth. When you become too arrogant, too proud, you start to lose that. Be humble. Be honest. Be good to people. These are what helped me in my life, more than the difficult part of it.
“A lot of the qualities that you learn from martial arts: like you get strong, you get over things, you be humble, be generous to people and that you’re willing to help people. Being an instructor, you really have to have the heart to teach your students. It’s not just about economy – pay and get money and let them go. It’s really about passing knowledge to them. And you want to train them well and see them grow, as a person. When I teach, then I really want to train the students well. That’s what he taught me. I want to really pass my knowledge and inspire them so they can grow as a person. These kinds of things are important – that you’re really there to help and really develop them – the individual. These things are very important to pass down to the next generation.