“Kung fu is a meditation”: American martial artist searches for his origins in China, Lifestyle News

Practicing kung fu four hours a day, the former New Yorker and international lawyer turned filmmaker Laurence Brahm is well known in the Beijing wushu community. He studied with masters from various Chinese martial arts schools, including Liu Hongchi, 81, head of the Beijing Wushu Association.

He sees kung fu as a form of moving meditation, says Brahm. And it has helped the global activist, political economist, and author develop lasting life skills.

“Kung fu trains your mind to think about opening up to opportunities, protecting yourself, avoiding conflict and beatings, and creating situations where you can get to where you want to be,” he says.

The 60-year-old proudly rolls down the list of martial arts he practices, starting with a nod to his beloved teacher.

“Liu is highly respected by all martial artists [in China]. During the ROC period, Liu trained under the guidance of very old masters of the Qing Dynasty. He teaches me Zhang family kung fu, an esoteric style of Beijing kung fu that dates back to the Ming dynasty, and the five traditional animal styles of Shaolin kung fu – the dragon, the snake, the tiger, leopard and crane.

Brahm also practices qigong, wing chun, and jeet kune do. He holds a fourth degree black belt in karate and is a disciple of the great karate master Kenneth Funakoshi.

Not content with just learning kung fu, he immersed himself in its history. He has just completed the documentary Searching for Kung Fu, sponsored by the English-language daily China Daily belonging to the Chinese Communist Party, in which he traces his travels across China in search of the origins of kung fu.

The film follows Brahm’s pilgrimage to places such as Chenjiagou (Chen village) in Henan province, where tai chi is believed to have originated; the Shaolin temple, also in the province of Henan, cradle of Chinese kung fu; and Jingwu Town in Tianjin, the birthplace of Chinese kung fu legend Huo Yuanjia.

“At the Shaolin temple, I was received by the monk Shi Deyang who is the 31st Grand Master of Shaolin. We discussed martial arts and did meditation together, ”says Brahm.

“It was like coming home to me. I first visited Shaolin Temple in 1981.

“There was hardly anyone there at the time. Most of the buildings were set on fire in 1928 by warlords. There was only the main hall, the main gate and a statue of Bodhidharma. But it was a very important event for me because [I saw myself] go to the root of all martial arts.


Brahm first visited China in 1981, when he studied Mandarin at Nankai University in Tianjin. A law graduate from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and an LLM from the University of Hong Kong, he later served as a lawyer and adviser to the Chinese government on monetary policy and public enterprise reform.

He stopped commercial work in 2002 and began directing documentaries. His first documentary, Searching for Shangri-La, was released in 2004, recording his hitchhiking quest across Tibet, Qinghai and Yunnan in western China to find the meaning of life.

His other documentaries explore the Yunnan Tea Caravan Trail, Himalayan culture, and the Shambhala Sutra, a manuscript written over 200 years ago (Shambhala in Tibetan Buddhism is a spiritual realm).

Eating and drinking too much at company dinners and poor sleep took physical and mental toll, leaving him exhausted, exhausted and frustrated, Brahm says. This prompted him to seek healing through Eastern philosophies.

“For Asian traditions, whether Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian, they are all about yin and yang (the idea that opposing or opposing forces can in fact be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent). It’s all about harmony, trying to find balance and achieve unity, ”he says.

He eats a healthy diet – lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and fish. Yet Brahm says it was his practice of kung fu that cured him of many ailments, including arthritis.

“From 2010 to 2013, I had very bad legs and difficulty walking. I was even disabled at one point. It got a lot worse when I filmed at really high altitude. But I was able to fully recover by practicing martial arts.

Kung fu is a kind of preventative medicine, he adds. “Many martial arts teachers are also Chinese medicine teachers and are very aware of the condition of their bodies. Chinese medicine and kung fu share one key thing, which is the importance of keeping your body fit and your mind clear to avoid disease.


Brahm notes that the Beijing Wushu Association is working with the Chinese government to include daily tai chi every morning for government staff.

“If we could get everyone in Congress to do tai chi every morning, they would have made much better decisions than they are doing now,” he says.

While wushu, the Chinese name for kung fu, is translated as “martial arts” in English with the word “martial” meaning military, Brahm says that wushu is in fact an art of non-violence.

“There are multiple values ​​inherent in martial arts, including loyalty, respect, and the Chinese concept of ren or endurance. The Chinese character ren is made up of a knife on a heart with a mark over [on the knife] meaning blood.

“What it really means is that you put your heart under tremendous strain, but you are still able to endure. It is a constant persistence over time, which is a character of Chinese culture.

He learned the value of “grounding” through Chinese kung fu, he says. “One of the key elements of all martial arts is your stance or your footwork. These are not upper body movements. The most important thing is your grounding. Culturally too, we must be anchored and understand our identity. “

Brahm’s goal is to film kung fu dramas that explore his underlying philosophy.

“Many feature films on kung fu today are about combat. It’s very artificial… I hope that my dramatic feature films can reveal the philosophies of kung fu and reach a wider audience than a documentary.

This article first appeared in South China Morning Post.

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