Hashtagananza

I learn so much when I start a new book. What other activity would allow me to have, on the same month, a conversation about 1) soul alchemy in daoism, another on 2) thought suppression on the brain’s neocortex, one about 3) antagonist algorithms in artificial intelligence, one on 4) the differences between playing and non-playing characters in Minecraft, one on 5) the different rooms at the White House, one on 6) take down defense in mixed martial arts, one on 7) intersectional feminism, one on 8) the similarities between the i-Ching and the divination systems in Nigeria?

Just think of the hashtags alone: #Wudang #daoism #neuroscience #minecraft #whitehouse #artificialintelligence #mixedmartialarts #taichi #literature #feminism #intersectionalfeminism #iching #yoruba #china

Crazy, but fun!

A dancing mantis

Fighting is a form of expression. Doesn’t surprise me that so many fighters end up incorporating dance on their training. Legend says Bruce Lee did it. Maybe I should too. To bring more yin to my yang, release the beast in a different way. Like this:

This dance reminds me of a story, though.

A long time ago, in China, a mighty praying mantis decided to challenge the king. It heard his horses coming so it stood there, in the middle of the road where the carriage would pass, performing its sharp forms with an intensity never seen.

The effort didn’t come unnoticed, for the king, who had his head out of the window noticed the little master perform. “What an interesting little dancer,” he said.

Then rode his carriage right over the little bug.

#dance #kungfu #femalefighters #martialarts

This video is a repost of Instagram: @yinchi_lee

・・・

不專業螳螂。Relearning mantis and junior long fist

#wushu#kungfu#martialarts#martialartist#culture#determination#form#exercise#fitness#routine#choreography#dance#dancers#kick#kicking#gym#passion

Insurmountable Mount of Balance

From everything, balance is the hardest. Yin, yang. Soft, hard. I know it’s possible and worth it. I’ve seen it in action. But I was born with too much yang. Can train both ways, but when I’m fighting, still have trouble letting go. The beast in me always wins.

#femalefifhter #taichi #mma #yinyang #unitedbyblood

Feat instagram photos by @paigevanzantufc and @taichi_universal

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* This account is fictional.

The flying masters of Wudang

A legend I hear since I was new to the world is that certain enlightened masters could move through the bodies of their opponents and change places without stepping. For some, this was just how it felt to be outmaneuvered by an expert Tai Chi fighter. For others, evidence of their magical powers. Shifu was one of these masters who could do that. When I asked him which one was real, magic or deception, he answered “both” and chuckled.

#taichi #shadowleap #chi #wudang

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Repost from Instagram: @taichi_universal

Taichi has three level to its spiritual development. This are rappresentated by hearth, man and heaven. In the earth stage we learn to relax our body and mind. When the tension are removed then the energy can fill up our body completely and all the movements are directed by along with intentions. In the stage of man the chi is not necessary we only need the intention.

At this stage taichi becomes formless and the mind is infused with the movement inseparably. In heaven stage the intention now merge with the spirit. According to legends practictioners at this level can fly or walk trough walls. These latter stage is impossible to reach in one lifetime unless costant study and practise is mantained troughout each day.

The Lesson of the Drunken Master

drunkchinese

“Where’s that waste of a cunt, rat spilled disgrace for Kung Fu whose honor is worth less than a fuck with a toothless, one legged whore?” The giant threw a table against the wall, the food for the moon festival all spoiled. Drooling, with his unruly beard and barrel waist, the massive monster roared and kept moving in our direction, spitting vulgarities along the way. It wasn’t until he got so close that I could smell his stench of pee that Shifu stood up. Outside, Master Chan – he said, so strong the big man ate the words. From back to back, I moved along, I followed them till the street. There were chickens, noises, cakes being sold so loud. All quieted when they stepped out.

“Where’s my money Master Yang?” – screamed the giant.

“I’ve paid you already, Master Chan” – answered Shifu.

Liar! – he screamed. And attacked. Chan had the shape of furious ox, his steps so heavy the sand would jump at each stomp. Shifu waited, though. Waited. Quiet as if his opponent was just a breeze. It was only when Chan was an inch from his chest that he moved away. Whack! The big man hit a tree. Disgraced, Chan pounced once again. Threw a wide hand Shifu escaped from below. A mortal kick Shifu dodged by an inch. A precise rain of punches, each missed at the last instant. At each of the attacks, Shifu would dodge with no effort, his indigo robes waving like magic, as if he was a spirit from the final hour of the day. Elusive, inexistent. It wasn’t long until the drunk ran out of steam. His ire demeaned, his moves turned sloppy. Shifu lets him get closer, hooks the man’s foot with his and pulls it so gently. The ogre falls like a tree. Yet, in a gesture of love and compassion, my master held him from the fall, protecting the giant head from crashing onto a rock beneath. Gently, he places the foe against a boulder. Water! – he ordered. And gallons manifested at once through the hands of the astonished villagers.

“Master Chang. I paid it already. Perhaps I should have been louder. Your horses had been screaming back then .”

Demeaned and confused, the man embraced Shifu and cried.

Under such impressive deeds, there would have been a story with a learning to be shared. Unnecessary this time, though. I’ve seen what I had to see. A moment that was legendary by itself, one which eventually become their own tale, used to share learnings from other times and places.

Like right now.

It’s morning and George takes his shower after a long night shift at his residency. I got us some dumplings and turn on the tv while I wait, and it goes straight into one of those UFC replays. A black guy in yellow shorts, a Brazilian named Silva who turns out to be quite skilled, has his hands down, stance spread wide, and waves his torso and head escaping the flurry from the opponent as if it was a pro fighting a kid. Or a drunk. Nice to see technique still being used in this world of thugs. Made me think of the encounter between Shifu and Master Chan, but there was more to it.

“Do you like that shit?” – asks the soaked body behind me. He has a towel around his waist and shakes his head fast, on purpose, to spill water everywhere and me. He knows I hate it. I scream, he laughs. I take one more look. Not sure how, but for a man that doesn’t work out, he looks good naked. Pretty good, actually.

Kind of like it, I respond. I enjoy the technical ones. But liked better when there was no weight class, and competitors moved through many fights in a tournament. You could tell who knew their shit by then, although the whole thing seemed a little rigged for the Gi wearing Gracies and their Anaconda style. I want to see which of these guys can still fight when they turn 60 or 70 like Shifu did.

The black man on the screen dodges four more punches in a row and throws a sloppy punch that hits his opponent on the jaw. In China we say tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are. And what he was was a killing machine. The opponent’s chin shoots up and he dismantles at once. George’s face contorts. This is so gross and uncivilized, he says, and I agree. But martial arts need some action, otherwise it’s just dance.

“Like your Tai Chi” – he says.

I am not sure how to reply, so he continues.

“You can practice your technique without falling into the ugliness of violence.”

Violence isn’t all ugly, I push back. It’s beautiful when it’s a dance.

“Like your Tai Chi” – he insists.

No, like a person so in sync with another body that they move as one. “Weren’t you watching what that guy on tv just did?” I want to tell him the story of Shifu and the drunken giant, but he shrugs before I can open my mouth, the classic superiority of a son of Berkeley. Doesn’t deserve it.

“Don’t know, honey.”–he continues–“Maybe it’s the Buddhist in me.”

A Buddhist Doctor. Double cause no harm. Can’t stand it. Can’t even hear the sound of it. “But ok… if you want to watch it, let me know. I’ll go run or something. Hopefully this blood thirst of yours will be quenched fast.”

Fuck you, George. Fuck your intellectual prowess. I want to leave the room myself. Or dodge his arguments, be bigger than his crap. Though the Tigress takes over and I swing back at him. “Ooooh, so medical and philosophical. Did you know Socrates was a soldier, Plato was a wrestler? Have you ever seen Nietzsche’s scar, Mr. Enlightened?”

He stares at me, surprised and I hope he holds what he is thinking. I will punch him if he doesn’t. Thankfully, he does, so I can proceed. “Did you know Shaolin monks are Buddhist too? They kept things from going downhill. How? By learning to fight so they could both think better, and kick some ass when shit was happening. The Samurai? It was them that spreaded Zen and their no attachment mentality. Why? Because they needed to sever their bonds to life so they weren’t afraid to die! How about the ideals of chivalry and honor of the European knights? Ok, those are too chauvinistic. You guys in the east manage to get it wrong even when you get it right.” – Dodge that, prick.

Of course, he says. “Yes, because Asia is so feministic…”

From my side of the room I measure the distance. He’s my boyfriend, but I am going to punch him. Or throw a vase. Instead, I bite my own teeth and dive back into the argument. “What’s wrong with being prepared for violence? Why can’t people… why can’t girls learn Tae Kwon Do or Karate or this animalistic MMA thing as you say… isn’t it good that prey now can take a fucking predator and teach them a lesson?”

On TV, they switch to another old fight. A blond with a cute-face turned-mean. She’s so focused. Ronda, olympian, Judo medalist and shit. The boss at UFC said she is the female Bruce Lee and I am so jealous when I hear that. My finger stretches towards the screen and I feel all he sees is the finger. “See this girl?” I tell him there was a point Asians were bullied for being smaller than whites. Then came Bruce and suddenly we stopped being picked on, because every one of us may know some Kung Fu. Now there is her. So vicious and fierce, even men are afraid of those hands. Do you know what that does? Makes men wonder if the girl across from them is dangerous too. Since her, some rednecks see smaller women and wonder if they are prey or humiliation. It sucks that she lost her last fights cause a little bit longer she would have cause the same effect as Bruce. Maybe I will do that next.

“You mean you want to get into this UFC?! With… Taichi?”

“I told you, I don’t like the sport. But I care about the political act. You are from Berkeley. You should appreciate that shit.”

Breathe, breathe, breathe…

He tells me he gets it. There is a higher meaning behind the idea of violence. But prefers the way I do it. “Your Tai Chi reminds me a bit of Kung Fu.”

“You know Tai Chi is a kind of kung fu, right?”

“I mean the old TV show.”

Fuck George. You know how to infuriate me, sometimes. The racist series that replaced Bruce Lee with a fucking white guy.

“Calm down. Where did all that anger come from, babe? I mean the show with a wise Buddhist monk that taught philosophy and how not to fight. I loved that when I was a kid.”

“Until shit hits the fan.” – I repeat.

He agrees, only when it’s needed. Not blood as a trophy like in these barbaric fights. I counter. You can’t have one without the other, need to be able to fight to impose some fear; it’s called leverage. Like in a fist fight, I feel the excitement of a punch about to land. But he keeps frustrating me, making my arguments miss. A drunk fighting a master. Chan versus Yang. Will he pull my leg too?

“Bullshit” – he says – “this is training to crave blood. You program your body to hurt, so eventually you will need to hurt.”–and he catches me head–“Just because you don’t do it, it doesn’t mean the majority doesn’t.”

I stay quiet and try to hide the fact he has a point.

His phone shows up from somewhere, he types a few keys, shows me a photo of an old Japanese, kneeling, his sword resting aside and says, “see this master? Seating serene beside his weapon? Before that serenity, the fucker was an assassin, who found a way to justify his superiority over the less inclined to violence ones. Why do we need to support that kind of asshole thinking? Isn’t that what creates the predators you’re talking about? This guy is the violent white trash of the east. He pretends better. Nothing glorious about him, or these tv gladiators of yours. Just bullies. Enlightened bullies.”

Should I tap out? I think of Ueshiba, creator of Aikido. An assassin before his peaceful days, people say. Musashi, the wise, also a thug when young. Shifu… he could be nice with his friends but… he could kill too. Although, in his case, it was different.

“Come with me” – he says, still calm and relaxed as he was when he left the shower. He got dressed, somehow. I offer no resistance.

[*]

Inspired by Shifu’s spectacle of skill the day before, I take the first match I can to try the fighting without fighting. Put my hands back, use my footwork to dodge every hit. Shifu squints from a corner. I wait to move when necessary. It’s working! My eyes search for my teacher. Bet he’s proud as stallion. Then I get kicked on the liver.

On the floor, I feel my face twitch, the waist cramp. The ache drags my tongue inside and I can’t breathe. “It’s just pain.” – Shifu says from behind my head. No pride to be seen. He raises me with disdain. “That’s what you get for showing off.”

What? I don’t get it. Why is this any different from when he did it.

“You can’t fake compassion, Tigress. You have to learn that part first.”

[*]

Outside, it looked like any other little house in Berkeley. A porch hidden by trees baldened by fall, a door in the brightest color framed by a construction ordinary like everyone around it. Perfectly unassuming, including the ethnic chain of beads hanging from the door knob. A portrait of intellectual living. George rings the bell and I am struck by the heavy smell of incense. A skinny woman with brown skin and big eyes opens the widest of the smiles and gives him a hug in slow motion. Dr. Metha. Karishma, she insists. An Indian surgeon George met at the hospital. She invites us in.

Inside, her house is is so full of colors I can’t decide where to look. She serves tea. Smells good. Tastes even better. “So, you are Dr. Arlander’s feminist girlfriend. Nice to meet another one of us.”

A grin to disguise my confusion. Grab George’s hand and squeeze it hard. She stands and walks to the bookshelf on the back of the room. I never saw so many books together. Her hands go straight to a small volume she seemed to know quite well. “He asked me to tell you about a woman called Phoolan Devi, have you ever heard about her?”
My head shakes to the sides.

“We call her The Bandit Queen.”– she proceeds–“Because she ran away from her abusive husband, join a group of bandits, and when their gang was defeated by rivals, she was taken as a trophy and gang raped for days.”–the doctor clears her throat n a long, painful pause before she can keep going–“When they finally let her go, she took the remaining members of her old group, killed her rapists, mouled her husband and spent the next years taking money to the poor.”

The book on her lap. She brushes it with the tip of her fingers before her eyes lower. She opens as someone unfolds a holy cloth and searches for a holy image. A woman, multiple arms, each one carrying a different weapon. She rides a tiger. “People said she was a reincarnation of Durga, a warrior goddess who combats demons.” Under the image, a prayer she used her reading glasses to read, although I have a sense her eyes were somewhere else:

Sing of my deeds
Tell of my combats
How I fought the treacherous demons
Forgive my failings
And bestow on me peace

The words burn into my ears in a way I will never forget, then echo through my mouth in the form of a whisper. She reciprocated with a small grin of respect, placed her hair behind the ear and continued. Told me about how, after years running from the authorities, she finally negotiated her surrender in exchange for mild sentences for her people and a piece of land for her father. I wanted to know more, everything I could about her, except it didn’t make much sense. Why did George bring me there to hear this story against everything we had been discussing?

Then, the catch. After years in prison, Phoolan finally converted to Buddhism and put an end to her history of violence. She understood her fight against the patriarchy and the rigidity of the caste system had to continue, but if it ultimately came from the weight of personal expectations, it was only through peace and detachment that those problems could be fixed. As a result, she ran for the parliament and won with the promise of peace and solidarity to the poor.

Then they both went silent. Two tigers enjoying the sight of their defeated prey. Everything upside down.

She gives me the book. Gods of India. A gift. Hope it inspires you, in war and peace. That was the sign. George stands up, thanks her for her hospitality and we walk together to the door. We shake hands, I thank her and she closes the door. Her face, a monument to victory.

Then it occurred to me. A question. So I knocked the door, before George could tell me no. She opened quite fast, for she hadn’t had a chance to go too far yet. “What happened to her? Is she still in the parliament?” The doctor’s big eyes turned to the floor and her light faded a little. She was assassinated two years later, she said.

In respect to her clear signs of pain, even if George more than deserved, I refrain from celebrating with a “yes!” Besides, it would have been obnoxious, and dishonorable to the memory of a hero. My silence got him right on the chin, though.

He knew and that’s what matters.

 

Tao Te Ching

Claudia’s story is an adventure inspired by my two decades learning martial arts in two different countries (plus visits to a few others). For the character, it’s a painful journey towards her unwanted balance. Her avoidance of her true place in the world.
 
For myself, the research revealed a lot of the philosophical knowledge and wisdom I’ve been exposed while I believed to be learning to fight. Interesting, yet not surprising. I knew there was more behind each lesson, just didn’t expect to unpack so much!
 
One of these sources had to be the Tao Te Ching, the famous Daoist book of virtue. I looked at a lot of different translations, some pure, some with commentary. For obvious reasons, it was a version by a martial artist, revised by a Chinese poet, the one I immediately loved, although I didn’t know that until after I already had picked it as my favorite. So if you are interested, the aikidoka Stefan Stenudd does a great job of keeping some of the hermetic meaning of the other translations (which is probably right for a text intended to make you reflect), but does that with a much more natural flair, which keeps you focused on the meaning and the ideas, rather than the wording.
 
Then came the surprise that made me leap from my writing chair. His version of the Old Master’s tenth chapter felt like my entire story had been lifted from it:

Can you make yourself embrace The One and not lose it?
Can you gather your vital breath and yet be tender like a newborn?
Can you clean your inner reflection and keep it spotless?
Can you care for the people and rule the country, and not be cunning?
Can you open and close the gate of heaven and act like a woman?
Can you comprehend everything in the four directions and still do nothing?
To give birth to them and nourish them, carry them without taking possession of them, care for them without subduing them, raise them without steering them.
That is the greatest virtue.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 10.
Translation by Stefan Stenudd

For now, that’s it. A different kind of peek behind the curtain of Claudia Yang’s story. Stay tuned for more. And for those interested, here’s a link to Stenudd’s book:

The butterfly and the black eye

butterfly

A long time ago, in the province of Meng, in China, there was an honorable philosopher called Zhuang Zhou. He once wrote about his dream of being a butterfly. As such, he flew through the woods, enjoyed the perfume of the flowers and the sound of the rivers. All was wonderful with his colorful flying-self, as he knew nothing about his times and desires of men, only the wants of the most beautiful of the insects. In his ignorance, he didn’t miss human life. Happy as he has ever been, he glided among the trees.

Suddenly, he wakes up. His pale skin and pointy fingers are horrendous. His shadow has no wings. Desperate, Master Zhuang runs to the lake to check his reflection. Who is that creature devoid of colors? So confused he became, for a while he couldn’t tell if he was a butterfly dreaming of being a man or a man taken from a dream of butterfly. Zhuangzi was a wise man though, and through dedicated meditation, he finally understood.

“I am both!”

Yes, he was. The man and the butterfly. “But I shouldn’t have been awaken that abruptly, for the walls between the dreams and life should have no windows to peek.”

I hear the story, wondering why Sifu chose that particular one among so many others. After a full day training of intense Tai Chi forms, the connection wasn’t the clearest. Then he calls me to spar.

My legs can barely hold; my arms are heavy as if they had carried a pig for a mile. “Be light like a butterfly” – I think. That’s what he meant! He’s always scolding me for my hard moves, after all.

We fight. Soft and gentle, I watch myself floating around him. As if I had wings made of rice paper, painted with colors of all kinds. My Tai Chi shines. So precise, so beautiful. I enjoy in pride, until I get hit. A punch, right on the kidney, makes my chi leak, rapid. Inside, a coiling pain slithers up my body and hooks onto one of my eyes, the one on the opposite side of the blow. It twitches, rolls into my head then gets dragged towards the injured organ below the ribs. I fold. One knee first, then another. My hand touches the floor, hoping for a landing more gripping than sand. I feel everything. See everything. I think, what is going on? Is this what the allegory was about? Do I need suffering to… transform? To wake up? Is this the only path to enlightenment? I turn to Sifu, begging for relief and an answer.

Behind a chuckle, he gives one: “The wall. Never lose the wall.”

Is that the best he can do?!

He extends a hand to help me stand. The problem with kidney shots is they don’t cause the sharp pain of a broken bone or the dizzying effect of a head hit. It’s so deep it makes you feel dark in the chest, praying the world leaves you alone. That is me. I hold the hand.

Leg limps. Chest refuses to open. Guts are loose, like watery noodles soup. In a protective Tai Chi stance, I wait for his move. He launches, faster than a man his age should. And his fist is inside my stomach. Not a full punch though. Just strong enough to knock me down.

Despite the agony, I can still think. What I can’t is breathe. He seats me up, hits me three times with an empty palm on the heights of my back. Clock, clock, clock. Darkness fades.

“The wall”—he repeats, with a grin. Sifu knows my beast. So I hold it. Not allowing him the pleasure of a double lesson. Instead, I wait, quiet, until he says whatever he wants to say. Hurts less this way.

“Life and death; forms and fight; man and butterfly. The different sides of life must not recognize the other. Or they will never be full on what they ought to be.”

Master twists his beard and raises to a beautiful Tai Chi pose. Head tall, weight on a single limb, arms pointing forward and back. From below, his indigo robe, deeper than the indigo flower itself, looks like an armor of dusk. He presses with a hand as the opposite leg takes a gentle step backwards. “Repulse the Monkey”—I say,  the name of the position. Perhaps it can unravel the mystery he taunts at me. Nothing. Damn, he is so light when he does Tai Chi! Maybe that’s it? He is telling I’ll never be weightless?

He says: “forms.” Then shakes into another pose. Elbows down, legs rooted like a tree, chin tucked, face hiding behind the fists. He jabs, crosses, hooks, dodges, kicks, leaps. “Fight”—he finishes. “They must not know of each other.”

After hours training forms and a devastating sparring session, that’s something really fucked up to say.

Took me a lot to let the anger pass, even more to comprehend. Not just time, new ideas and methods too. I mentioned I love Bruce Lee, right? How I even moved to Oakland because of him? Influenced by his writings, I started to cross-train. A sponge, absorbing everything I touch. That helped.

One day, I am in a judo class, learning to unbalance people by breaking their steps mid-move. Oh, and throwing them on the floor too. Next, Muay Thai, BJJ, Eskrima… Fighting styles for the entire world. My Boxing instructor adjusts my stance: sideways, right arm horizontal and low, covering the entire waist; shoulder forward, a glove to protect the chin. “Philly Shell”, he explains. The punches come from all angles, and I try to stay calm, but I’m getting close to the wall. His flurry continues: up, down, side. My elbow covers a kidney shot without too much effort. The shell is an interesting guard indeed! I have a vision: Sifu and his Repulse the Monkey. Not the full move, more like a flash, and do a Boxing version of it. Leg back, spinning the body, connecting to a cross from the other side. It shoots fast, sharp, precise onto my instructor’s face. I touch the wall behind me, give him a black eye.

Intriguing, the wall thing. The butterfly one. You teach your body to operate with flowery forms, hold them on the other side while you fight. Then one day, a flash of a form crosses time and space and possesses your swing. All of a sudden, your instructor learns he can’t mess too much with you.

Why I fight

Dragon-and-a-Phoenix

The other kid. Older, stronger, more skilled than me. Yet, Sifu insists on the bout. No rules, no stoppage until one quits. I am ready to drop, but he won’t let me. “What’s the point?” – I ask. He answers: “Obedience.” I know it’s not. He does care about my discipline, but would never taunt me like that. Too vulgar for an enlightened man.

I peek at my hands, they rattle. My liver is frozen and I am almost leaking. Beneath the shadow of the giant kid, my muscles coiled and my ears went numb. I am ready to eat so much embarrassment, so much suffering, I may never have to feed again.

“Go” – says Sifu. We go.

The first round was a feast of pain. And this girl ate it all. So many blows, I can feel the heart pounding around every inch of bone. The spirit is worse though: bleeds humiliation.

They stop us, briefly. “For water and air,” they say. Then send us back.

That’s when the boy scowled, victoriously. A piercing disdain that aches more than his fists and feet. So I return, dark blood surging through the pores. The knees no longer shake. Neither do the hands. They are fury. Sifu smiles and commands us to start. I go straight to his head. A powerful haymaker, every joint perfectly connected and synched, all the way to the floor. Pure leverage. I can knock him out, as long I don’t miss.

I did. Fench, the name of the big guy, drops  then bounces back up quick, once my arm had passed, and pushes my body with his. A broad trunk grows in my direction. Fast. My eyes are sealed and jaw clinched, bracing for the impact. I hit the tree with a dry thump, the thick bark printing its veins through my exposed skin. But pain, none.

Fighting numbness. Good news, at last. I rebound, that and many times more. In every turn, he blocks, dodges, and evades my attempts; then pushes, kicks and punches. The smirk still there, yanking me back, angrier and angrier. Until he hits my chin and the sand finally carved the side of my face.

It’s been one hour since we started. There is dirt in my mouth. My cheek burns. The world swings like drifting boat. Suddenly, there are people around me. I close my eyes, using the chaos to breathe. With my tongue, I check the teeth. All there. They wonder if I am alive. “Enjoy the break” – I think.

A few gasps and I am ready. The most I’ll be, at least. So I command my carcass to move. It doesn’t. My arms, nothing. Fuck, I am really out. Focus on breathing, Yinyin. Feel your bones, your muscles, your skin. Rebuild your chi. Time goes slow when you struggle with your own body. As movement starts to come back, I seat up. Dizzy and confused. Behind the ring in my ear, someone calls out the bout.

Next day, Fench was back. Same confidence, same taunting smile, asking who else from my school wanted to fight. I stare him down, pointlessly, raise my hand.

He gives me another epic, unobstructed beat. The kind a twelve-year-old should not be taking. But I stayed there until one of us couldn’t do it anymore. Myself, of course.

Later that day, Sifu brings me tea. He speaks soft now, like a… father, maybe. “Did you learn something?”

Too much pain to come up with snark. “Sometimes you can’t win?”

“You learned that today or yesterday?” – he insisted.

“Yesterday. Today I just wanted to show the bastard I wasn’t scared of him.”

Master seats next to me. A long gust of air, and he tells me a tale of a time past. When the first leaves began to fall in the magic forest, and a hand-tall bird challenged the magnificent dragon for a fight. Frail but brave, she huffed her feathers and lifted her wings as if she was a big white crane. The fire breather laughed. So loud, he was heard on the other side of the world, for each of his scales were bigger than the puny fowl. So hard, the mere air bursting out of its mouth threw the bird against a rock and she passed out. Next autumn, the senseless tiny one was back. A bit fuller, but still diminutive compared to her foe. Another defeat. The same the following year, and the next, then the next and each year, until a day when the challenger was as big as the dragon. “Here I am again.” – said the bird, as she posed a stance. They battled, and people say it was the most wonderful fight ever fought in this or any other land. Through clouds, hills, flames and waves, the dragon attacked. His best moves. But the bird, who had already seen them all, avoided each blow. Even managed to hit the mighty opponent a couple of times too. The battle remained for eight consecutive autumns, until the dragon, old and wise enough to understand the state of things, paused. “Perhaps we should call it a draw.”

Stunned, she bowed. “Thank you, Master Dragon. For only your kindness allowed me to get better each year.”

He nodded. “How about you? Were you never afraid?”

“Every single time.” – the bird answered.

The dragon twisted its ancient beard. “Interesting. What’s your name, master bird? So people can tell your noble story through the ages?”– And she said, “Phoenix.”

From that day forward, they became inseparable. The most dynamic of all harmonies.

I glare at Sifu, struggling to grasp what he is trying to say. Is he telling me to marry the brute? The tea comes rushing back from my stomach but I hold it. Desperate, I try something instead. “OK, I’ll face him again, tomorrow.”

He pats my shoulder. “No need, Tigress. You defeated the enemy already.”

The Monkey, the elder and the shadow

wow monkey

For generations, my clan has been related to an obscure creature I’ve never heard outside our own stories. Shadow Monkey, according to Sifu, used to be an ordinary Monkey that was always hungry. One day, from the top of a tree where he looked for food to grab or steal, he saw in the distance a bright red dancing glow. Curious, he followed the light and found an old man sitting next to the cracking radiance, watching it dance. But it wasn’t the light that the enchanted the simian, it was the other body the light gave the man. It was dark and flat, started on the floor, right from where the elder sat, and stretched for miles, crossing trees, rocks and all things and beings on its way.

Mesmerized, the Monkey asked: “What is that dark body you grew on your tail, Master?”

The master grinned. “It’s a shadow, little friend. It comes from the fire that feeds me.”

Monkey sat next to him, for the ancient man was talking about everything that mattered to the Monkey. But the man said nothing else. No instructions or teachings. So he reached his furry arm to grab a piece of the fire to see how it tasted.

“Ouch!”, shouted the ape. “This fire just bit my hand!”

The ancient smiled, said nothing. So the Monkey sat and observed. He thought and thought about how that stingy hot thing could feed the man, but couldn’t understand. Then he thought more until there were no more thoughts to be had. And since he had not understood, there he stayed, watching the fire dance for his empty thoughts, waiting for an idea to happen. He remained there for days before he realized his wrinkled bald friend was no longer there. He checked his sides, up and down. And there wasn’t. Till he looked back, and there it was: his own second body, stretching for miles. The form the master called shadow.

So glad he got, the ape wished all creatures in the world had their shadows too, and so the fire listened.

That’s when Monkey heard his stomach rumble. It’d been days he was nourishing only on light. Maybe it was time he had real food again. But the flame kept dancing, so beautiful in front of him, he chose to stay a little more. He emptied his head of questions and thoughts and stayed there, feeding from the brightness the fire offered.

So pleased was the fire with the dedication of the Monkey, it decided to transform him into the diaphane and flat shape of himself he loved so much. That’s how he became the Shadow Monkey, the only creature who could move through things without touching them. A mystery my family holds for generations.

That story Sifu used to tell me every morning after a fight. “Loose or win, the next day you will meet yourself to eat the same hot congee and meditate on the meaning of your latest fight and the tale of the Shadow Monkey.”

So I did, so I do. Last night’s loss made me appreciate the ritual even more. With the ache in my jaw, eating anything else would have hurt too much. Quite a practical piece of wisdom hiding in plain sight!

I take a few spoons, let the fire warm me inside and attempt to clear my mind. Flashes from previous battles invade my vision. I let them play and dissolve into nothing. Those fights are all me. What I was, what I am becoming. Sifu told me I should have an abundance of fights until I turned thirty and my body could heal fast. A little less leading to forty, then focus on the spiritual side and prepare to pass my skills and allow the immortals to confide to me the secrets of the Shadow Monkey. The Enlightenment.

I travel back to China, years before. It’s night and I am seating around the bonfire with my Kung Fu brothers. Young and arrogant, we talk about the fable of Shadow Monkey. Some say that’s an allegory for a very simple technique he hadn’t taught us yet. Others believe the real magic of chi was hiding under our noses, we were just too obtuse to see it. One way or another, the same way Sifu was right on the congee we take after every bout, he aches to be right on this fighting regime and the meditation, etc. too.

New recollection: me and him, sparring. I am furious. No matter how fast I am, I can never touch him. He waves his blue clothes in front of my eyes and all of a sudden he hits me on the back. I fall flat, scratching the side of my face on the dirt. The blood burns its way through my skin. He giggles. Next to my head, his hands in front of the candles mock me with a shadow in the shape of a little monkey.

Back to my congee, I wonder: If he can turn his body into shadow and move right across me, why shouldn’t the world be able to witness such feat of skill? Isn’t it time fighters from all paths are allowed to learn and build from that point forward? Just like the Shadow Monkey gave everyone their own shadow, it may be my duty to share our method with the world. But I have to understand it first.

That’s why the rush. Can’t wait one full life to unravel the secret. If once I crack it, I’m no longer abe to use it in a fight because I’m in the spiritual phase of my training, there is no progress beyond my body. “That, ancestors, you got wrong.”

I apologize to the Dao.

I moved to America, and I tried a University because of that quest. But through science, the Dao gave me riddles instead of answers. I had no sense of how close I was. Until those two scientists presented themselves after a loss. Was it the path answering my call? The money was welcome too, although for that, Master would say I was cheating, fixing reality to feed my curiosity as opposed to the noble way of letting the Dao play.

But he is also the one who told me if I thought playing ping pong would make my Kung Fu better, ping pong I should learn well.

The choice was mine. So I answered the path.