The train weaved through the landscape. Buildings turned into farmlands, then into hills, then finally, after a twenty-hour journey from Beijing, I arrived at Wudang Mountain Train Station in Hubei, China. My summer begins here.
Taoists believe that everything in the universe belongs to one of five elements: Fire, Water, Wood, Earth, and Metal. Mt. Wudang is of the Fire element, perhaps owed to the fact that its many peaks lean towards the tallest, giving it the appearance of a flame. Or perhaps it is because Wudang burned at thirty-eight degrees Celsius in the summer months, a feature I’d soon learn to appreciate.
Mt. Wudang is tucked away in an eastern landlocked corner of China. It is not a particularly convenient location. It is not near any major cities or landmarks. It is not very tall, sitting at about sixteen hundred metres in height. But Mt. Wudang is remarkable for a reason: it is one of the centres of origin of Taoism, which, along with Buddhism and Confucianism, form the de facto official religion of China. Out of Taoism came the theory of Ying-Yang, Chinese medicine, and Taichi. In fact, it was in these very mountains that the Taoist monk Zhang San Feng attained enlightenment and created the Wudang martial arts some six hundred years ago. “All Taichi originates from Wudang,” goes a familiar Chinese saying.
Taoist Wuji Kungfu Academy, run by Master Chen Li Sheng, fifteenth-generation disciple of the Xuanwu clan of the Wudang sect, sits quietly at the waist of the leviathan. There are only a few rules to become a student: You must be disciplined. (That’s fine.) You do not have to be a Taoist. (Good.) You must not hold cultish beliefs. (That one sounds a bit odd…)
Despite my slight apprehension, at three o’clock that day I arrived at the school and introduced myself.
Side-note: there are over a hundred martial arts teachers in Mt. Wudang, and not all are created equal.
I heard of a guy, a foreigner, who also trained here.
“Sifu,” he said one day, for that is what we call our Master in Chinese. “Out of everything in the world, what do you wish for most?”
His Sifu thought about this question. He lowered his eyes and furrowed his wizened brow. His disciples gathered around him. A minute later, he raised his head. His disciples tightened.
“A Porsche,” he said finally.
The guy quit the next day.
I hope the story wasn’t true.
Round, was my first thought when I met Master Chen.
He had a round face, complete with round eyes and a round nose, on top of which sat a
black square hat. He had a round belly, giving him the appearance of a walking cauldron wrapped in white kungfu attire. His full, round lips clasped into a smile as he greeted me.
“This is Wu,” he said, motioning to a lad of about fifteen. “He’ll take you to your room.”
Wu was a lanky teenager with slit-like eyes that made you think he was constantly on the verge of a dirty joke. He and Wen were two of Master Chen’s official disciples. “There’s Wen,” Wu pointed to a short, chubby, bespectacled fifteen-year-old who looked about twelve. Wen wore an expression that made you think he’d just heard a dirty joke and was bursting at the seams.
“Wu means warrior in Chinese. Wen means culture. Here’s your room.”
I was surprised by its cleanliness. Besides a few leaky pipes, everything resembled an honest attempt at creating a hotel atmosphere. I changed into my newly acquired kungfu garbs. I looked into the mirror; a thin, young man in white looked back. “Here we go,” I said to myself.
The Tao in Movement
Bagua, Xingyi, Taichi. These form the pillars of Chinese internal martial arts. They differ from external martial arts, such as Shaolin, in that they emphasize utilizing strength from within to channel to without. Bagua, also known as Eight-Trigrams, uses circular footwork and deceptive movements to confuse the enemy. Xingyi is the most aggressive of the three and was favoured by Yue Fei, a renowned warrior-general from the Song dynasty. Taichi is perhaps the most well-known in the West. Its name consists of two characers: Tai, which means “too much”, and Ji (Anglicized into Chi, not to be confused with Qi), which means “extreme.”
“Most people think of Taichi as a gentle exercise, practiced by the elderly in parks on Saturday mornings,” said Master Chen. “But they forget that it is primarily a martial art and can be used for combat.”
“Taichi moves look gentle. But it hides strength under frailty, toughness under softness. It is like water,” he said, and pushed.
A surging force landed on the Red Beast’s shoulder and uprooted his body. He flew out a few metres and landed on his feet. The crowd clapped enthusiastically. Earlier that evening, a frigate of a man, a tourist, challenged Master Chen. He was tall, a head taller than Sifu, very muscular, and wore a red shirt, hence my appellation. A crowd had gathered during their duel.
“Try to move me,” said Sifu, taking a stance.
The Red Beast heaved. He lifted. He pulled then pushed. Master Chen would not budge.
“In Taichi, the body exerts force in all directions at once. No matter which direction an attack comes from, the aggressor faces an opposition of equal magnitude.”
“When it comes to attacking, a strike is not just an isolated strike. The hand is connected to the arm, which is connected to the back, which is connected to the legs. The opponent feels the force of your entire body,” he said, then pushed again.
The Beast, presently over-invested in trying to tug Sifu from equanimity, immediately lost his balance and fell backwards into the crowd, which immediately parted like the Red Sea, leaving the Beast on its and his bottom, his face flushed into the colour of his shirt.
“Good skill, good skill,” he said, getting up and clasping his hands into a kungfu sign of respect.
“Cool,” I said.
“We start with the basics,” said Master Chen. “The stance.”
The Wuji Stance (literally meaning “no extremes”), also known as Standing Position or Circular Stance, is sometimes called Standing Meditation. I find this a misnomer. We stand in a quarter-squat with arms in front, as though the entire body is hugging a ball. Within this ball, the head, hips and extremities expand outwards, to be resisted by the tendons and bones. The body is a metal balloon, a series of opposing parts making one consistent whole.
My first time holding this position was neither relaxing nor meditative. Five minutes into it, my arms and knees began to ache. Swearing can help one withstand pain, so I began patiently listing expletives in alphabetical order, only to realize how top-heavy the lexicon of rude words is. I got up to “F” before stopping. Ten minutes, I noted pathetically. The other students could stand for an hour.
Over the month, my days would begin at five in the morning. There would be seven to eight hours of practice a day, four of which were spent in the Wuji Stance. The rest were invested in various forms, meditation, and basic training in the thirty-eight degree weather. I would return home sore and worn out. But by the end of it, I would have a beginner’s grasp of the Wuji Stance, and would be able to hold it, albeit imperfectly, for an hour.
The Tao that Cannot be Said
Every morning I wake up groggy, stumble into my uniform, and walk out as though in a trance. There are two paths leading out from the motel. Going down, I will reach a plaza that tourists pass by on the way to the cable cars that carry them to the top. We sometimes practice here to promote the school. But most mornings I go up. I reach a secluded spot, surrounded by mountain-scape. We train facing a monolith imprinted with large red letters: “Di Yi Shan,” First Mountain.
The sun is barely visible at this hour. But soon a bright, red hole sneaks up from the distant hills. It glows from ember-red to golden-yellow in a matter of minutes. At this point, the faraway peaks and valleys become a sea of green and grey that die into a flat line along the horizon. It is a picture of silence. Except it is not. The air is suffused with the sound of bird and bugs. There is incessant chatter, amongst which a single voice rises: the cry of some species of bird that echoes throughout the land.
The day after I arrived, a fog rolled in and ushered us into a classroom. Here, Master Chen, who held what is equivalent to a graduate degree in Taoism, taught us Taoist philosophy.
“Divorced from religion,” he emphasized.
Taoism in China is like Christianity in the West, in that many vaguely believe in it but most do not know what it is about. While practicing the Wuji Stance at the plaza, I sampled the various opinions about Taoism from tourists:
“What are they doing?” said one.
“I think it’s Falun Gong,” said another, referring to an illegal cult that espoused familial sacrifice.
“That’s why Taoism is fading so fast,” said the first.
Taoism holds three works as canonical: The Tao Te Ching by Laozi, the I Ching, and Zhuangzi. The Tao Te Ching is a dense volume of eighty-one passages, each no more than a paragraph long, but its official commentary contains over forty volumes.
“The Tao that can be said is not the Tao. The Word that can be said is not the Word,” runs chapter one, based on my very unofficial translation. In eighty-one cryptic paragraphs, the Tao Te Ching presents the great Tao, or pattern, of the universe. Its central dogma is that everything begins in a state of Wuji (“no extreme”), then enters into a state of Taiji (“too much extreme”), from which the nature of duality, the concept of Yin and Yang, emerges.
The day is Yang and the night is Yin. Front is Yang and back is Yin. Male is Yang and female is Yin. Yin taken to the extreme becomes Yang, and Yang to the extreme becomes Yin. The purpose of life is to return to a state of Wuji, to return to a state of childlikeness.
“Taichi is an embodiment of these principles. The Tao manifests itself in the movements.”
Side-note: If a deal seems too good to be true in a tourist spot, it probably is.
I made a Canadian friend while on the mountain. One day, while taking a trip at the touristy part of the mountains, we came across an herbal store that sold a particular herb at a killer price of five yuan per “ke.” My friend, who spoke some Chinese and studied Chinese medicine, asked for some. He held out his hand in the symbol of five. The shopkeeper nodded. He began heaping handfuls of the herb into a bag, then crushed it into powder. We looked at each other incredulously. Five yuan for this much?
It turned out that every one of us was thinking of something different.
I had a brain-freeze and confused “ke,” which means gram, with “jing,” equivalent to five hundred grams. I thought my friend was asking for five five-hundred-grams.
My friend thought he was asking for five grams.
The shopkeeper thought my friend’s open hand meant keep the goods coming or I’ll slap you silly.
In the farce that followed, I played linguistic and cultural mediator to two increasingly amused foreigners and an increasingly exasperated shopkeeper. We ended up paying a hundred yuan for a bag that cost several thousand.
Taoism as a religion is mired in political and social influences. Chinese religion, if it can be said to exist, is Neo-Confucianism, a hodgepodge mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Its gods serve social purposes: Some, such as Huang Di and Yan Di, are credited as Chinese ancestors. Others are deified by emperors to promote particular social values. Thus Guan Yu, the general from the Warring States period known for his fierce loyalty, became the god Guan Gong, protector of households.
“Do Taoists believe in fate?” I asked.
“Chinese folk religion believes that a person’s palm patterns and facial features can be used to predict their future. This was adapted from Taoism,” said Master Chen. “True Taoists believe that one’s physical features reflect one’s health and how others would treat them, which, in a way, seems fatalistic. But they also believe that a person can change their disposition, so in that sense people have control over their own fates.”
Taoism is a humanistic religion. Its emphasis on the individual, self-enlightenment, and mastery over one’s own body makes me wonder why Chinese culture is so communal. In my unqualified view, this is due to the overwhelming influence of Confucianism. The latter’s emphasis on social responsibility and accountability must have been auspicious for political figures who would use these to solidify power, and despite Mao’s vilification of Confucius during his reign, large pieces of Confucianism have remained and taken hold on the Chinese soul.
The Tao in Medicine
I am a cultural chimera. Growing up in a Chinese household, I am familiar with concepts such as the body having “too much Fire” or “too little Yin” or “not enough Qi.” Yet, as an aspiring scientist, I identify with the empirical frame of mind. My two worlds have never met. But on this trip, my cognitive dissonance manifested itself in a physical presence.
Jake was a fellow Canadian and student in his mid-thirties. He obtained his high school diploma before going into construction. One day, he “looked at the stars and thought they looked like the meridians in the body” (Meridians are energy channels in Chinese medicine) and enrolled in a Chinese medicine school in Canada. On our first meeting, he annoyed me intensely by suggesting that Western medical doctors were worldly, ineffective, timid money-munchers. Upon further probing, I discovered that his complaint was against the healthcare system, which he lumped together with complaints about the science itself.
I tried to remain objective despite my personal distaste. After all, traditional medicine can be divisive. To the enthusiast, it is a panacea, able to cure anything from the hiccups to cancer. To the dissident, it is a fallacy which, along with homeopathy and ancient Greek theory of the humors, ought to be canned into the past.
Like with most matters, I find myself somewhere in the middle. The theory behind traditional medicine is fundamentally not scientific, by which I mean it is not empirical or mechanistic. As far as I know, no one has measured Qi or observed meridian channels. Nor is there any way to manipulate Qi in a controlled experimental setting and observe its effects. This means there is no objective standard to refute or support parts of the theory. We have in our hands a theory that cannot possibly evolve. Witness this exchange between two fellow students:
“I’ve been trying to open my third and fourth energy gates,” said one.
“I thought there were three energy gates,” said the other.
“No, there are four,” said the first.
“That’s according to Buddhists. Taoists say…”
“Who cares if it’s Buddhists or Taoists? If there are three, there are three,” said the first student flatly.
Furthermore, due to the lack of statistically rigorous study, traditional medical miracles is susceptible to biases. The most obvious is the survivorship bias. Take one doctor with a thousand patients. If half heal just by chance after treatment, they return to the doctor. If half of that half is treated again and heals, again by chance, we are left with a quarter of the original. Five treatment sessions later, we have thirty patients who believe that their doctor has miraculously cured them at a hundred percent success rate. To further complicate matters, many diseases that traditional medicine (and indeed any medicine) purports to cure are self-limiting, meaning that they heal on their own anyway. The doctor would do just as well to tell the patient to eat, rest, and drink plenty of fluids.
That said, one cannot help but admit the effectiveness of certain traditional remedies. I have met people who have been cured of allergies and hormonal problems within weeks of treatment. In 1892, the Anglo-Canadian-American physician Sir William Osler, Father of Modern Medicine and co-founder of Johns Hopkins Medical School, testified to acupuncture’s “extraordinary and prompt efficacy.” The first edition of his essential textbook, the Principles and Practices of Medicine, recommended “needling” as treatment for nerve injury and lower back pain. We now have studies that suggest that acupuncture has beneficial effects on certain types of pain.
As for herbal medicine, in 2015, Tu Youyou became the first Chinese Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine for effectively isolating artemisinin, an antimalarial compound. She was inspired to isolate the substance in low-temperature conditions after reading a traditional Taoist medical text on preparing it.
I conclude that although the theoretical foundation of traditional medicine is not scientific, its apparent effectiveness in particular clinical cases leads to interesting questions that may be brought into the scientific frame of inquiry.
We now shift from the scientific to the social perspective of medicine in China.
Chinese people are suspicious of Western medical doctors, an opinion that I generalize, admittedly, based on only a handful of independent opinions. The healthcare system in China ties physician remuneration with drug sales. Pediatricians earn considerably less than other specialties, since drug dosages are lower for children. Under this system, is there any wonder why physicians lose patient trust?
At the same time, much of the Chinese populace seem to hold a slightly mystical view of Western medicine. During my stay, I discovered that one of my fellow students took ampicillin from time to time “to get rid of inflammation.” He had no idea what inflammation was and what antibiotics did, especially if taken discontinuously. His doctor had no incentive to inform him, and apparently his educational background failed to do so either.
Given these issues, many turn to traditional therapies. But traditional medicine in China faces its own problems, the main one that I see being the lack of consistency from doctor to doctor. This is perhaps the greatest obstacle to the adoption of Traditional Chinese Medicine in North America. In a legalistic environment like Canada and the United States, what constitutes a standard of care in traditional medicine? Maybe the interim solution is a technological one. If opinions on individual doctors is crowdsourced, we might have a platform for indicating standard in an intrinsically heterogeneous field.
Personally, all this boils down to one question: would I support Traditional Chinese Medicine as a future physician?
It depends. On the patient, on the disease.
For so-called idiopathic functional disorders, such as irritable bowel disease, for which if I believe Western medicine offer no curative potential, traditional therapies might be tested. For peripheral nerve injuries, acupuncture may be helpful. For more serious afflictions like cancer, conventional treatment is probably wise, at least to avert immediate consequences.
As yet, I am ill-equipped to fully justify my answers. Knowledge, experience, and time will teach me what I need to know.
“You know, it’s all false,” said my French roommate, an osteopathic doctor and one of the few Caucasians in the area.
He knew a bit of English. I knew a very little bit of French. Our conversations were usually brief and cavemen-like:
“No frog tonight.”
“Yes. Oui. No frog.”
“Maybe rest day.”
“Yes, maybe. We rest too.”
But today his face curled into a serious frown.
“It’s all false, Charlie.”
“What’s all false?”
“Allopathic medicine, osteopathic medicine, Chinese medicine. It’s all false.”
I considered this bit of intellectual nihilism.
“I’ve had fifteen thousand patients. I work with each one with my own hands. They tell me their stories, their troubles. I listen. They speak, I listen. When they speak, I feel change under my hands. The body heals itself. I do nothing. Nothing. The body heals itself. It’s amazing.”
“You go medical school. You learn. It’s good. But remember, you learn a point of view. It’s important to have a point of view, to know that it is false. It’s all false.”
A month passes. Before I realize it, I am once again on a train weaving across the landscape. The mountains flatten into farmlands, then rise back up as buildings. Master Chen set aside seven disciples whom he had given martial art names. Besides Wen and Wu, there were Dao (principle), De (character), Long (dragon), Hu (tiger), and Yun (cloud). Each name was prepended with the character Wei, which means “profound.” He also reserved me a name: Feng, meaning “wind.”
Of course I had to hold in a joke about flatulence.
Next stop: Singapore, again!
For information about the Wuji Kungfu School, I’ve made an English website: www.daoistgongfu.com