For years I taught class of gongfu in a private and public capacity. The ‘private’ aspect involved my family’s Ch’an Dao School which involved a rented hall and two-hours of gongfu training on a Sunday morning. Initially, this only involved members of the British Born Chinese community in Sutton who were related to us (the Sai Kung Chan Clan), or who were associated through business, warfare or any other historical means. Just being ethnically ‘Chinese’ was not enough to train in our gongfu hall as we are of ‘Hakka’ Chinese ethnicity. This is the old way and very different to how many Westerners mistakenly view traditional Chinese culture. In this context, Chinese people of clans considered ‘enemies’ were termed ‘foreigners’ and excluded from consideration. However, although this was the reality, Master Chan Tin Sang (1924-1993) was of the opinion that we had to find a way of ‘evolving’ beyond this feudalistic attitude.
As more and more Westerners started enquiring about training, when I was promoted to the Head of the Ch’an Dao School, I decided to open our doors to a class of people we did not know and were not related to. This also included other Chinese people we did not know regardless of their surnames. Around this time (the late 1990s), I also started being approached by Mainland Chinese people living in the UK, who explained to me about how ‘New’ China was thoroughly ‘modern’ and how this attitude of openness and inclusiveness was being used in China to teach all foreign visitors about the beauty of Chinese culture and what it has to offer to the contemporary world! As this change in attitude dove-tailed with what Master Chan Tin Sang had in mind, I decided to transform our family style of Hakka gongfu and ‘revolutionise’ the way in which we managed our martial arts lineage!
Although I was brought-up in the old way, I never felt comfortable with its exclusiveness and ethnic clannishness. Although I was accepted as someone of mixed ethnicity – this acceptance only extended to my immediate Hakka clan and Chinese people who knew me. When outside of this group, I was subject to this ‘exclusive’ attitude and marked as a ‘foreigner’ who was not welcome within the inner workings of the Chinese community. When this happened – I would scurry back into my cultural safety zone knowing I had just experienced something very unsavoury! After 1949, Mainland China thoroughly rejected this feudal attitude and embraced ‘Internationalism’ which is designed to open-up the beauty of Chinese culture for anyone who would like to benefit from it! Since the early 2000s, I have defriended many Mainland Chinese people (living and working in the UK and in China via the internet), and have even started various academic projects and translation initiatives. Indeed, our family gongfu has evolved because of these experiences from an insular, feudal entity to a local practice premised upon universal principles!
I was recently asked (by a prominent [British] Muay Thai practitioner) to write a short text about the cultural differences between ‘Western’ Thai Boxers when compared with ethnic ‘Thai’ Muay Thai counter-parts. He was particularly interested in the different cultural patterns of ‘effort’ that are in effect in the Thai Boxing ring in Thailand. He explained to me that he knows full well that many dedicated and very respectful Westerners travel to Thailand to compete in ethnic Thai Boxing competitions (not ‘adjusted’ to the sensitivities of the international community) - and as soon as they step-off the aeroplane suffer the beginnings of a psychological collapse and the development of tremendous feelings of doubt!
Furthermore, despite bravery and stoicism – as soon as the ‘smiling’ Muay Thai Warriors the ring and being the traditional ‘Ram Muay Wai Kru’ - an ancient ritual of respect that praise the Hindu God – Rama – as well as the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – a very strong sense of ‘alienation’ manifests. This sense of ‘cultural’ distinction is made even more pronounced as the Thai practitioner also ‘praises’ his or her family ancestors, parents, teachers and fellow students, etc. Perhaps this is one of its main purposes. This ‘dance’ is in fact a ‘secret’ martial art that only true Muay Thai Masters know how to interpret and use in combat. Muay Thai Masters have told me that it is a Thai manifestation of ‘internal’ martial art similar to the Taijiquan of China – which is often performed nowadays to ‘music’ as is the ‘Ram Muay’ (this is the shortened title my ethnic Thai friends us who live in the Warwick area of the UK).
I have had the privilege to train in the UK with students of Master Sken and Master Toddy over the years – despite never meeting these two experts in person. When some of these practitioners have passed through Sutton (South London) - they have come into our gongfu training hall on Sunday mornings and we have worked together. They have always been respectful, tough and very dedicated. Other than this contact with Muay Thai, my family frequent the Buddhapadipa Temple in Wimbledon, and on occasion, the Forest Hermitage (Wat Santidhamma) in Warwickshire – both of which serve the British ethnic Thai population and the Theravada Buddhism they practice. Years ago, when I lived in Hereford, I sparred full-on with ethnic Thai visitors and I was impressed with their ‘relaxed’ attitude and ‘fierce’ manifestation when fighting! I was inspired by how they live and breathe Buddhism first and foremost – and throw punches and kicks only after they have learned the Buddha’s Teaching fully! This is why I often seek-out special Theravada Bhikkhus living in the Buddhist temples in the UK. Unlike in the Thai villages and forests – this is not a common occurrence in the UK – but occasionally I get lucky!
I have also discovered that the Head Monks are often reticent to discuss this issue in the temple due to many Westerners developing the wrong attitude about Buddhism and Muay Thai. The way this works is that if the Head Monk wanted Westerners to learn Muay Thai – he would make its presence known and organise access. When I have discovered Muay Thai practice in the Buddhist temples – it has always been by mistake. This has also included incidents of special ‘tattooing’ sessions – whereby ‘sacred’ images and spiritually empowered mantras are ‘tapped’ into the skin – using a pointed-bone and coloured ink... These marks are considered ‘sacred’ and ‘divine’ as they grant the carrier with special spiritual powers. Interestingly, when I asked the Head Monk about how a person should begin their practice of Muay Thai? He answered that I should read the Pali Suttas about ‘correct breathing’, and about ‘stilling the mind’ - whilst living in an isolated meditation hut for at least three-years. Without this foundation of ‘Dhamma’ - I was told – I cannot practice ‘genuine’ Muay Thai.
Every genuine martial arts style or system contains a rich mosaic of principles and techniques that at the most brutal assist in the surviving of the combat experience, and at the most sublime provide a psychological and physical pathway of self-development and self-transcendence. The best styles of Okinawan and Japanese karate confirm to his blue-print, and I would say that Wado-Kai, Shukokai and Goju Ryu are prime examples of the best that this genre has to offer. All these styles (two Japanese; Wado-Kai and Shukokai – and one Okinawan; Goju Ryu) have their historical roots within Chinese martial arts which probably are linked to the Fujian province of Southern China. Indeed, Wado-Kai and Shukokai derive from the Okinawan karate of Master Gichin Funakoshi – the Okinawan martial artist accredited with transmitting his style of Chinese martial arts to Mainland Japan. I practiced these styles only as an accident of fate – they happened to be prevalent in the areas I lived in to pursue my education throughout the 1980s. No one at the time (not even my close friends) knew of my Hakka Chinese gongfu background. I saw no reason to explain this, an they saw my familiarity with certain techniques as me just being talented in these areas (I was viciously fast and very good with kicking and moving, as in the traditional Northern martial arts in China, a student perfects kicking first – whilst due to cultural differences in the West – it is punching that is perfected first with kicking usually appearing uncomfortable). On the other hand, as I entered my late teens, Master Chan Tin Sang (1924-1993) directed me to develop my punching to a very high degree. This is where Wado-Kai (correct alignment) and Shukokai (correct hip and shoulder twist) assisted my development tremendously! Goju Ryu, on the other hand, has a special place in my heart. Its all-round body-conditioning reminded me of our own Hakka Chinese gongfu style which developed tremendous power, endurance and strength! The bones certainly hardened, whilst the mind became calm and broadly aware. Master Chan Tin Sang was an extraordinary teacher as he entrusted me to enter the training halls of other styles, dedicate myself to their ways, learn them fully and then integrate these lessons and skills into the Ch’an Dao System. This could happen as each karate style brought out a particular aspect of our own fighting system. I have the utmost respect for all legitimate styles of martial arts training and see no reason why there cannot be a positive cross-training that enhances rather than diminishes. As the US at the time was emphasising Japanese martial culture throughout the West as a means to side-line and obscure Chinese martial culture (due to the Cold War), European cuntries with no historical connection with Japan suddenly found themselves hosting (usually at their own expense) Japanese ‘ambassadors’ of various karate styles and associations. This arrangement all came crashing down when President Carter established full diplomatic relations with Mainland China in 1979, and Westerners started travelling en masse to China to train in gongfu – and Chinese teachers came to the West to teach – although the effects of this change would take around a decade to fully manifest itself. In the meantime, I trained in Japanese karate at the tail-end of this time period and consider it a very interesting and unique experience.
Shifu Adrian Chan-Wyles (b. 1967) - Lineage (Generational) Inheritor of the Ch'an Dao Hakka Gongfu System.