Monday, August 15, 2011

Bagua Wedding May 2011

In early May of this year, I was fortunate enough to be invited to my first Bagua wedding. I refer to it as such because it was the wedding of the grandson of one of Master's Sui's Bagua shidi (younger brother) and all of the Bagua brothers and their disciples were invited. I jumped at the chance because I knew it would be an extremely rare opportunity to see many of the Bagua masters together for the first time. I knew there would be many adventures and tales to tell from this day.

It turns out that we were invited to the reception held after the wedding ceremony. So I did not see the actual wedding, but the reception was definitely more than enough. The reception was held in a rural northwest corner of Beijing called Xibeiwang. As it was quite far, we had to get up early in the morning to meet at Master Sui’s place in Xizhimen where we were all whisked away by sedans specifically sent for us. I remember riding with Master Sui, his wife, and my Italian Bagua brothers Giuseppe and Ricardo. Even though this area is considered part of Beijing, it took us over an hour to get there. The city limits of Beijing extend in a vast swath in all directions covering over 6,000 square miles, and it’s always amazing to me how some faraway places such as this are still considered part of the city.

The venue itself resembled a giant greenhouse that was rented out for the event. Nearby was a vast orchard of fruit trees and much to my delight I quickly found a large, flat dirt square that had been excavated as a practice area for Bagua practitioners. Next to the square, deeply implanted in the ground, were nine large wooden posts arranged in the mythical Nine Palace Bagua pattern. I had read about this in many Bagua books and videos, the movie “Pride’s Deadly Fury”, and even saw a Chinese-African American man do an intricate Nine Palace Bagua form around cones in San Francisco Chinatown. After all these years, this was the first time to see the real deal in person!

I made sure to take several pictures, and then I saw him - the spitting image of Wang Shujin, the famous, fat Bagua Master in Taiwan that the late Robert Smith wrote about. This man was at least equally rotund if not more so, with a huge layer of blubber that surrounded his whole waist that made his head and extremities seem comically disproportionate. I first spotted him deftly weaving his way through the Nine Palaces, faking to the East with his arms as his belly went to the West. My Bagua brother Riccardo spotted him about the same time I did. We both quickly agreed that he was the quintessential, iconic Bagua hero that he and I want be when we grow up or maybe be adopted by. What I mean by this is that he has obviously trained for many years, and despite what many people in the west would consider to be a grossly overweight physique, he is in a fact very likely to be in an excellent state of health by Chinese medicinal standards and a very formidable martial artist. All of this thanks to the highly advanced, esoteric art that Bagua is.

There was also a middle-aged Chinese gentleman who was easy to spot because out of hundreds of guests, he was the only person wearing a white, silk Tai Chi uniform. He was practicing the Bagua Rooster Knives and had some other weapons lying on the ground next to him. He said he had made the knives and the broadsword by hand and let me try the Bagua broadsword out and take some pictures with it. He gave a couple pointers on the sword and otherwise seemed like a nice guy. Little did we know that he would transform into the “Drunken Bagua Master” after the alcohol started flowing!

Looking out over the practice area was a veranda with some tables where nearly a dozen of Grandmaster Li Ziming’s most famous disciples were sitting, now all famous masters in their own rights. Master Sui was drinking tea with them, and he invited me to join them as he introduced me along with my Bagua brothers to the group. In particular, he re-introduced me to Master Li Gongcheng who I hadn’t since I participated in the initiation ceremony to become Master Sui’s disciple in 1995. Master Sui told Master Li that I taught Chinese at Tsing Hua University and upon hearing this Master Li’s his eyes opened wide as did everyone else as he exclaimed, “Wah a foreigner teaching Chinese at the famous Tsing Hua University, incredible!” Master Sui meant to say I taught English, but I just let it slide since it sounded more impressive.

I noticed that a lot of men were starting to gather towards the practice square again and I quickly realized why. There was a nubile, young woman striking Bagua poses with various weapons that everyone was ogling. I had to take several shots to convince the guys out there in Facebookland to come to China. Master Wongtong along with the fat Bagua master gave her pointers as the instant paparazzi formed around her feverishly taking photos. There was a humorous moment when the “Bagua Beauty” was trying a fancy pose with one leg sticking out in the air behind her and the fat Bagua master stepped in to do the pose himself. It’s a very graceful and feminine pose akin to something from women’s figure skating, so to see such a big man holding the pose perfectly was hilarious!

As the media circus was underway around the Bagua Beauty wielding a spear, Meihuazhuang brother Giuseppe grabbed another spear and started doing a super explosive version of the La Na Zha (the spear equivalent of block, parry, and thrust) that also caught a lot of attention. Soon Master Sui jumped into the scene sporting a white jacket over his famous wifebeater, black pants, and patent leather shoes. His moves as usual were the most crisp, clean and explosive of anyone that day.

Word spread that a big procession was coming our way including the new bride and groom so we headed to the main entrance. As the caravan neared, large floral shell fireworks were shot in the air at strategic locations along the route. A dozen or so men wearing yellow silk Kung Fu uniforms with yellow scarves started to play cymbals and drums as four northern style lions started to dance. The northern style lions were much hairier than their southern counterparts and were lead by an acrobat with a ball who they chased around as they performed various tricks and poses. One of the more notable tricks involved the young man playing the head sitting on his partner playing the tail’s shoulders, and the acrobat hanging by his armpits on the head’s feet as they all spun around in a circle. After the lions finished with their final pose, they let Giuseppe and I play with the Lion heads, taking photos and even starting a mock Lion fight.

The masters and disciples posed for a giant group photo and the signal was given, I knew what was next - more firecrackers than I've ever seen in my life! There was row after row of firecrackers lined up in front of the main entrance, which had a giant inflatable rubber arch with the Chinese characters for double happiness flanked by a Phoenix on the left and a Dragon on the right. We all ran to take cover from the onslaught of firecrackers. My recent encounter with the deafening fireworks that went off for weeks in Beijing during the Chinese new year taught me that they pack a lot more TNT into the fireworks in China now than the US. The smoke barely cleared as the parade made it’s way through the arch with the Lions and cymbal players leading the way. The bride and groom’s vehicle was now visible and it turned out to be a gigantic, stretch hummer! This stretch hummer seemed like twice the length of the biggest ones I’d seen in Vegas! The vehicle was mobbed by people as it made its way to the parking lot. When the bride and groom exited the hummer, plumes of colorful streamers flew in from all directions in the air.

Once we walked into the giant greenhouse where they had the reception the first thing I noticed was an enormous, heavily airbrushed photo of the bride and groom. They were dressed in conventional western attire, the bride wearing a long white dress and the groom a dark suit with his hair quaffed with the popular Asian boy band look. The greenhouse was full of what seemed like hundreds of tables in dozens in different sections with a large stage at one end and a Mongolian yurt at another. As we passed the giant portrait of the couple, to our right was a huge table with talented artists creating paintings for the couple such as scenes of peony flowers, plum blossoms, and an incredibly oblong painting of a bamboo forest possibly ten feet or longer. Soon my Russian Bagua brother, Denis, started to create a painting as well using the traditional Chinese brush and ink, but employed his own unique brushing technique. Before we knew it, Denis had created a fantastically intricate painting of a Russian angel all within the time it took for him to smoke just one cigarette!

At this point the bride and groom were on the main stage and I realized that a famous Chinese comedian had been hired to be the MC. I have seen his face on Chinese TV a lot, so he must not be cheap. Right off the bat he asked the maiden of honor if she is single or not. It turned out to his disappointment that she was already married. He continued to tell a lot of jokes, but I was out of range and had trouble understanding the humor anyway. We sat in our assigned section with the rest of my Bagua brothers and there were three people that were guests of another master. They included a British man who trained in Chuojiao (a northern style of Kung Fu) and Wushu, a female Chinese Wushu coach hailing from South Africa, and a Canadian policeman from Novia Scotia who also trained in Chuojiao.

Each table was fully stocked mountains of free beer, wine, baijiu (a Chinese liquor), and cigarettes. Countless courses of wonderful dishes were served, most of which I now forget but two that stand out are the giant goose meat drumsticks and ginormous, XXXL, mondo, jumbo shrimp! The shrimp was bigger than my hand and it took me half an hour to eat the thing! As is the Chinese custom at weddings, the groom must toast every single table of guests. This was a monumental task in this case and I was impressed that the groom was still able to stand by the time he reached our table. Masters and disciples circulated the tables and we all said “ganbei” to each other many times. “Ganbei” literally means to empty your cup, and we did so many times out of respect. Early on, I made the decision to just focus on wine and not baijiu, which is a super strong liquor than has a smell and taste similar to turpentine.

Once everyone was fully inebriated the British Chujiao expert happily gave a quick demo of a Chuojiao form and the Canadian cop was coaxed into doing a pretty impressive display of powerful flying kicks. Master Sui also demonstrated some Titui (kicking techniques) that were very similar to the Chuojiao moves. The cop said he used his Chujiao against bad guys on a regular basis because he was quite short and apparently served in a really rough area with a lot of violent, non-compliant criminals.

From this point on my memory is a little hazy as we were all pretty sloshed, but I remember the gentleman in the white uniform who I had seen earlier suddenly appear wildly flailing his arms at our youngest and newest Bagua brother, Sasha. He was attacking him - it was a drunken Bagua fight! You knew you couldn’t get an army of Bagua people together, load them full of liquor and not expect at least one fight. For the rest of the day, this seesaw battle would rage on. Sasha would think he was in the clear and then the white uniformed Bagua master would appear ready for more, and resume his attack. Each time Sasha would use his highly relaxed state due to the alcohol to calmly dodge, block, and otherwise shrug off each attack. At one point the man in white was aggressively trying to wrestle with Sasha, so he simply made a small sidestepping motion and the drunken master went flying to the turf. Later everyone noticed that the he was bleeding from the elbow, which his must have injured when trying to break his fall. It was a minor injury, more of a scrape than anything else, but it was enough to generate a good amount of blood that splattered onto his white uniform.

At one point the organizers of the event asked us to give some kind of performance to represent our school, so my Russian Bagua comrades chose to sing the famous Russian song “Moscow Nights”. These many weeks later, it is still ringing in my ears now. After the stage performance was over, Master Sui busted out his favorite Hulusi, an instrument that consists of a gourd with a slender mouthpiece on the top and three pipes coming out the bottom. Russian brothers Volodia and a different Sasha then started jamming on their guitars with him. With the continued flow of alcohol, things started to get silly. Instead of putting a lampshade on his head, Volodia used a clam shell as a guitar pick resulting in bits of unfinished clam flying everywhere. Yeah, there was a lot of free booze!

This time the drunken Bagua master was back with a vengeance and he wanted to challenge Sasha to a duel. Master Sui said Sasha was our youngest and newest disciple and that it would be much more of a challenge to take on our top fighter Giuseppe outside. He did not respond to acknowledge this offer, but rather resumed his assault on the hapless Sasha. This was not a problem though because Sasha proved to be more than capable of defending himself. In so doing, he gave us all face because if the newest and youngest apprentice in our school could fend off a Bagua, albeit drunken, master, imagine how tough our seasoned veterans must be!

As the party started to wind down, my Bagua brothers and I made sure to get the opportunity to take photos with as many of Master Sui’s Bagua brothers as possible. Many of these masters are very famous in China around the world with many excellent students as well as books and videos to their credit. I was able to exchange greetings and/or take photos with Li Gongcheng, Wangtong, Zhao Dayuan, and Di Guoyong to name a few. Everyone seemed to be genuinely happy and content. I could not help but think about what the masters that are Master’s Sui’s age had been through over their lifetimes and how much better life in China is now that it was during the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.

Just when we thought the coast was clear and we were about to get in the car, the next thing I know Sasha is getting attacked by the drunken master in white again! This time he was hurling multiple horizontal chopping palms. Sasha just rolled with the punches easily evading each blow. Eventually, the two were separated and we were chauffeured back to Xizhimen.

I later found out that a week after the Bagua wedding, the drunken Bagua master, his master, and several other members of their school came personally to Master Sui’s house to apologize profusely for his disrespectful, inappropriate behavior. Master Sui responded, “There was no harm done and there are no ill feelings between the two groups.” Anyway, I think it was a good hazing initiation ritual for the newest member of our Bagua clan. On Sasha’s last day of practice in China, I spontaneously decided to spar with him too, and I found this his skill had noticeably improved possibly in part due to the drunken Bagua training.