It’s just after dawn on the outskirts of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, and Li Quan is kicking a bag of sand. Water is boiling on his stove, audible above the roar of buses headed into the city. After practice, Li checks his phone for messages and pours himself a cup of tea. A few foreigners are on their way today to train with the kung fu master.
Across China, the number of martial artists like Li—people in their late 30s and 40s who hold the flame of an ancient tradition—is shrinking fast. A lucky few operate martial arts schools full of students, but the majority have day jobs as security guards, physical education teachers, truck drivers, and bodyguards. In the movies, a kung fu master’s day job is a cover for nighttime heroics. In reality, it’s a means for survival.
Traditional Chinese kung fu is a gutted hulk of its former self
Today, after repeated purges by the central government and decades of commercial exploitation, traditional Chinese kung fu is a gutted hulk of its former self. While masters struggle to market their increasingly diluted styles, prospective students are being lured away by mixed martial arts (MMA), a combat sport that is exploding in popularity across the world. As a result, few fighters think of kung fu as a legitimate martial art.
Kung fu—an umbrella term that includes a number of Chinese martial arts, developed over centuries—has in recent years been broken down into its component parts, each vying for market share: performance wushu, which has been trying in vain to become an Olympic sport for years; sanda, a striking and takedown style specifically designed for combat sports; and tai chi, an “internal martial art” that focuses on harnessing the body’s energy—or qi—for self-defense.