A conversation with Xu Xiangdong – Buddhistdoor Global


What is the best state that can be achieved by practicing Chinese martial arts?

Stillness: your body is not moving, but you are moving.

Where are you in this state?

You are not standing on the ground; you are in space, like an eagle soaring in the sky.

The above is a small excerpt from my conversation earlier this year with Xu Xiangdong (徐向東), a world famous Chinese martial arts master, at Bamboo Grove Vihara on the outskirts of Beijing. The vihara was recently created by Venerable Master Miaojiang, Abbot of the Monastery of the Great Sages of the Bamboo Grove on Mount Wutai. Having known Ven. Miaojiang for many years, Xu wanted to pay his first visit to vihara when he was not traveling for work. Throughout our speech, Xu emphasized the importance of traditional Chinese thought.

“What we see in martial arts are just branches. The root of Chinese martial arts is Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Can you hit a hanging rope hard? Can you stand still on a trackball? It’s not about your physical strength, but your understanding of the object and the space, ”Xu explained, eyes shining. “The fight is not about what is in the form, but what is in the spirit.”

Xu Xiangdong. Image courtesy of Xu Xiangdong

Born in 1961, Xu began his career in Chinese martial arts with the Hebei Wushu team in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province. At the age of 19, he won the all-around champion title at the Chinese National Wushu Championship. A few years later, Xu was cast as one of the main cast in the 1984 film. The sacred robe of the Shaolin temple (木棉 袈裟) directed by Tsui Siu-Ming. Since then, while keeping his ties to the television and film industries as a martial arts director and actor, Xu has explored the world of martial arts in many directions: he studied at the University of Sports from Beijing, was a judge at the Asian Games, and taught Chinese martial arts in Paris while writing her doctoral thesis with French sinologist Catherine Despeaux. He was also invited to Brunei to teach martial arts to Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.

While the description of martial arts may seem self-explanatory, Xu defines Chinese martial arts as “a systematic search for the human body in traditional Chinese culture.” Essentially, it is about the relationship between the mind and the body. Xu specifies: “Qi is the energy that moves blood through your body, but qi follows what’s on your mind. When you are happy, angry, or when you see someone you like, your body reacts differently. In Chinese martial arts, when you have the sword in your mind, you have it in your hand; when you don’t have it in mind, even if you’re holding a sword, it’s not a sword.

This understanding came to Xu while he was learning martial arts from his first master, who was very accomplished in neigong (內功, internal skills) and often cited the Taoist canon. Part of Xu’s daily exercise at that time consisted of hitting Master’s stomach 100 times. Xu was intrigued that although he felt exhausted himself, his master, who was in his sixties, remained unharmed.

As a martial arts master himself, Xu is best known for his innovation of the Eagle Claw Fist (鷹爪 拳). While Xu trained in all styles when he was a member of the Hebei Wushu team in the 1970s, he wanted to develop his own specialty. The choice of Eagle Claw Fist was inspired by Russian literature, in particular The song of the falcon and The song of the storm petrel by Maxim Gorky, which were popular in China during this period. For months, Xu went to the zoo every week to observe the eagles. What Xu observed was not their form, but their spirit. For Xu, eagles are high and noble, and there are swords in their eyes. While the most powerful tiger can only crawl on the ground, eagles can fly in the sky, adding another dimension to space. Caged eagles did not fly, but Xu could imagine how eagles hovered and how he could fly like an eagle. This is how he invented many flight movements and breathed new life into the traditional style of Chinese martial arts.

Xu Xiangdong lors du tournage de son dernier film <i>Wu dong tian di</i> (2018).  Image courtesy of Xu Xiangdong
Xu Xiangdong during the shooting of his latest film Wu dong tian di (2018). Image courtesy of Xu Xiangdong

Xu’s practice of Chinese martial arts has always been influenced by Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. According to Tao te ching (道德 經), “In the pursuit of learning, something is learned every day. In the pursuit of Tao, every day something falls. Less and less is done until non-action is reached. When nothing is done, nothing is left out. “*

In our conversation, Xu reported that martial arts are also a process of deduction, from technique to lack of technique, from discipline to complete freedom. The light at zhongyong (中庸 Doctrine of Means) advocated by Confucianism, Xu commented that it is only by finding balance that one has the pivot to move in all directions and to respond to external forces. As for Buddhism, Xu likens martial arts to the concept of using the phenomenon to cultivate reality (借 假 修真), where one cultivates the mind by exercising the body. Xu recalled that when he first met Ven. Miaojiang, he was asked, “How do you see further away with your eyes open or closed?” We all tend to believe that the eyes are the only way to see, but maybe that is how our mind is limited by our body.

Almost all of the TV series and movies that Xu has been involved with involve Buddhist and Taoist elements. Although the martial arts are heavily dramatized through special effects in these works, Xu still enjoys performing, which he describes as a space in which he has no self. he just finished filming Wu dong tian di (武 動 天地) with director Zhang Zhiliang in honor of early 20th century practitioners who tried to preserve Chinese martial arts. However, when asked if he had any personal heroes, Xu replied, “My greatest respect is for the ancient Chinese wisdom that has endured for thousands of years. It is not about any particular individual, it is just intelligent people who have elucidated or staged traditional Chinese thought. In the coming years, Xu plans to devote more time to the study of Buddhism and Taoism.

Video compilation of Xu Xiangdong’s first martial arts performances. From youtube.com

* The original text is “為 學 日益 為 道 日 損 損 之 又 損 以至於 無為” from chapter 48, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (1972).


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