China Dispatch/Andrew Gramling
Physical and Mental Defense
The nice thing about the second semester at Anhui University was that they offered a free Chinese Culture course in addition to the
normal curriculum. There were several subjects to choose from including: cooking, calligraphy, tai chi, and several others. One of the
teachers at school would teach each of the subjects twice a week. After having a small demonstration of tai chi — or tai ji quan (tai jee
chwen) as they call it — from my friend’s father back in Nanning, I wanted to learn more about it, so that is what I signed up for. Class
would be held on the second floor of Bei Lou, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. When the class began, I noticed that I was the only male
who signed up for it. There were about half a dozen Korean girls who also signed up for the class. There is some stereotype about tai ji
that it is for women and old people, so perhaps some of the other male students were discouraged from joining the class, or they just
weren’t interested. There were almost more people involved in the teaching of it than there were participants. The class was headed by
an older woman named Wang laoshi (one of three in the school), and there were several other younger college-aged instructors
First they would teach us a little about the history of tai ji and some of the culture involved in it. They gave us a slide show with different
images associated with the dual elements yin and yang, and showed us that everything in nature had been put into one of the two
categories; sometimes it was based on static and dynamic forces, hot and cold elements, strong and weak nature, and also masculine
and feminine principles and how they combine to create a balance while forming a whole. There were also movements in tai ji that
corresponded to yin and yang that the teachers taught us the names of and asked us to repeat them out loud. For the second part of
class, the teachers led us into the recreation room, which is the same place where the Mauritians had their going away party when one
of them sprayed a fire extinguisher into the air causing the party to end prematurely. The Korean girls were maybe a bit shy to associate
with me, but they all talked to each other in their language quite fluently. We all stood in a line behind the younger teachers whom we
were supposed to follow the actions of. This was more of the kind of meditative form of tai ji rather than the more combat-oriented form I
learned while I was in Nanning. There were different sets of movements they taught us that individually were not so difficult to learn, but
were much harder to perform when linking them all together continuously. The actions were very slow, much slower than the pace that
one would normally move in their daily life, giving the one who practiced a calm control over his or herself.
I was very happy while studying tai ji. Each day they taught us more actions that they asked us to continue practicing on our own. There
was one day I showed up for class, but they forgot to inform me that class was cancelled, so to express their sincere apologies, they
bought me a white tai ji uniform. Together with my short hair, mustache and goatee, they said I looked like a tai ji master. While
practicing tai ji with my teachers and classmates, I entered a meditative state and began to feel that I was transported back into another
time long ago, before the big overcrowded and polluted cities, and before the darkness and corruption that were now running rampant
throughout the country. I carried as much of that peaceful state of mind back into reality as I could to uplift myself during these dark and
Still I continued with my regular boxing exercises in addition to learning tai ji. Now that my membership at the small and uncomfortable
gym at the university had expired, I would sometimes practice shadow boxing in a small grass area in front of the student dorms inside
of the Foreign Students Campus. One day while I was practicing, a small group of primary school students happened to be crossing
through the Foreign Students Campus and saw me training by myself. They all got very excited and came up to me and put their hands
up as though they wanted to practice with me, so I agreed. At first just one of them approached me while trying to land some shots on
me, but I had quite a height and reach advantage, so he couldn’t get even close to me. Then all of the others in unison attacked me.
After studying tai ji for several weeks, I noticed how it influenced my fighting style. Western style boxing was all about being quick and
explosive, but tai ji was about relaxing and moving with grace. This was the first time I had the chance to use both of them together at
once — a fusion of opposite styles. I was making moves I didn’t even know I knew how to do, and it confused the children in such a
way that they couldn’t even touch me. For them it was like trying to catch a leaf that was blowing in the wind just above their reach.
Many of my schoolmates who were outside stopped what they were doing to watch us and several more opened their dorm windows to
peak outside. It was a great time — teaching the young guys how to fight while simultaneously learning something new about myself.
One of them managed to graze the side of my face in the middle of the sparring match, and he stopped fighting and started cheering
“Yaay! Yaay!” I didn’t want him to get such a big head about it, so I came up and slapped his face gently while continuing to evade the
others, shortening his small moment of triumph. He was the only one who managed to land a shot on me in ten minutes. After the
practice fighting was over, they all lined up in a row in front of me and bowed extremely gratefully and emotionally with some of them
down on one knee to express their thanks. For me, it was like living a scene out of a movie, even though they were just young children.
It seemed like nobody wanted to let me practice in peace these days. Another day I was doing the same thing in the same place, and
one of my schoolmates came up and asked me if he could practice with me. His name was Mark, and he was from Surinam. He was a
man close to 40 years old with a shaven head and a kind of accent I’ve never heard before. It almost sounded like a blend of Jamaican
and Canadian accents fused into one. I had talked to Mark on several occasions before, but didn’t know a whole lot about him. He told
me he was going to use taekwondo during our sparring session. Again many people stopped to watch us practice. I was using my fists,
and Mark was using his feet. He had the advantage from a distance, so I would wait for an opening and rush him while slap-boxing his
face repeatedly. At those times he got a look on his face like he didn’t know what to do and had no defense for it. My old boxing trainer
Paul always told me that taekwondo fighters usually don’t know what to do when you move in close on them. I was terrible at kicking,
so I had no other way to bring it to him. We both got our hits in on each other, and afterward Mark told me he was looking to train
taekwondo at the University of Science and Technology (Ke Da) across from the south gate of Anhui University. I told him I was
interested and would join him whenever he was ready.
Mark asked all of the foreign students to see if anyone else wanted to come, and besides me, Alfonso from Chile, Victor and Ira from
Ukraine, and also Arnaud from Cameroon came. Alfonso had dark and wavy hair, was a little bit quiet, and seemed like he had some
kind of defensive barrier built up around himself. He was a friend of another student in my class from Chile named Camila, and just
transferred in for the second semester. Victor was the wild boy of the Foreign Students Campus. He was about 21, was a little tall and
thin and often made screeching and croaking sounds. He was not annoying, but funny and fun to talk to. He was as free of a spirit as one
could meet. He and two of the Russian girls on our campus were always partying together and having good times.
One time Marina from Russia and he tried to make a toast with beer bottles and she missed his bottle and chipped one of his two front
teeth, but I could understand toasting accidents. One time at a party in Babel Café in Nanning, Frantz from France and I tried to make a
toast with the large beer bottles they have, and the bottom of my bottle shattered and all the beer came out. When something like that
happens, you just have to stop and wonder if that actually just happened.
Victor often went wild at the Chinese nightclubs. He didn’t care about anything, nor did he have any reservations once he got wasted.
There were several stories about him getting black-out drunk and waking up with scars on his fists, probably because he punched
something or someone. One time a Chinese bouncer tried to tame Victor by grabbing him by his neck, and Victor punched him in the
face so hard, the guy had to get reconstructive surgery. Victor was a very nice guy if he was your friend, but if not; it’s hard to know
what he’s going to do. Ira was one of two Ukraine girls in my class. She was a tall redhead with a slightly pronounced nose and
glasses. She had a very easygoing and somewhat adventurous attitude. Arnaud was the DJ among us foreigners. His DJ name was DJ
Kidd. Arnaud had medium length dreadlocks that were a bit thin, and he had a very tranquil personality most of the time. He was always
looking for DJ gigs all over the city.
The six of us met up at the foreign Students Campus one evening and walked over to Ke Da. Somewhere near the center of the
university was a four level building with the taekwondo training center on the third level. There was a class of some 25 Chinese
students and one foreigner besides us. We took our place among them, and the Chinese instructor welcomed us to the class.
Taekwondo kicks might not be the most powerful, but the exercise routine we engaged in was intense and caused severe burning. After
30 minutes or so, the Chinese students and the other foreigner finished up and prepared to leave. Mark was actually part of some
international association of taekwondo based out of South Korea and had been training for 20 years. He normally had an easygoing and
talkative personality, though some intensity was visible in his eyes, but when he practiced taekwondo, he became a totally different
person. He looked very serious while practicing kicks on the kicking bag as he spun around from side to side while doing his kicks.
“Bayaahh! Baaayaahh!!!” He looked like he was ready to kill someone.
Mark led the rest of us foreigners through a kicking routine. We all had a lot of trouble because our skill levels were nowhere near Mark’
s. Arnaud showed a lot of enthusiasm while he was kicking the bag making shouting noises, and the Chinese students that were still
around were quite entertained by him while laughing, nodding their heads, and laughing. We all had quite a workout that day, and after
that, only Alfonso and I came back to meet up with Mark to go train a couple of times a week.
Though Mark had only been in China for about three months, he was already starting to show significant signs of frustration with the
environment. “I have been to Europe, South America, and the United States. People are happy there, but here, nobody is happy! Look
around! You can see people sometimes playing, but they are not happy! Everybody walks in a straight line. It’s that communism!” Mark
was a very passionate guy once he got his emotions involved with something. He was also having trouble at the school because of
finances, and he was getting ready to do some taekwondo moves on some of the teachers. If he was already this frustrated so early, I
didn’t know how he would last for several years to complete a major.
A lot of foreigners eventual go crazy in China after living there for several years because of the games people play about money, and the
fact that you can never be sure if someone is being honest with you or not. It can have the same effect as that annoying neighbor who
always shows up at the wrong time and seems like they are purposely trying to annoy you even though they are all happy and smiley,
except there are many more than just one, and most of them want your money. It can be frustrating when people are so good at
pretending that it is almost impossible to know for sure if they are being sincere or not. But it’s not just that they are trying to pick on
foreigners, though foreigners do make a relatively easy target. My boxing trainer Paul used to say “Nobody hates the Chinese more than
the Chinese do.” From what I’ve observed, it seemed like in Chinese society, order was established through disorder. Since most
things were so changeable, one just had to do whatever they had to do to survive, whatever they felt was the best way to do that, and
eventually patterns of behavior developed to ensure survival, not necessarily based on right or wrong. That’s why if you are not smart
enough to know exactly what the person you are talking to is thinking and doing, you might get duped nearly every time.
The government did their best to crush the people’s belief in God and left many of them without direction, except for the essentials, like
getting money. Sometimes laws are enforced, but you never know when justice will prevail. It truly is a place where one’s faith and
optimism are tested like no other. That’s not to say there are no honest people in China, but with so much cause for suspicion, it’s never
a wise idea to let your guard down too low for anyone. When some of the people themselves say that you cannot trust anyone, it’s not a
bad idea to listen.