Baiting Tigers and Poking Dragons – A Kungfu Perspective on China and Taiwan

“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

-Sun Tzu, The Art of War, circa 5th century B.C.

Nancy Pelosi’s recent saber-rattling jaunt to Taiwan has put the Fear into a lot of sensible people, and with good reason. Sometimes I wonder if people like her secretly want to die in a nuclear holocaust, or if being a shill for the arms industry simply requires epic stupidity. I suspect it’s both.

It’s clear that her visit was orchestrated to fill a certain type of American with jingoistic fervor. Over the years, the western imperial world has gotten a lot of mileage out of selling the Yellow Peril. Yet the military budget of the United States dwarfs that of China. Pelosi and her ilk are pumping fear over threats that don’t really exist.

Communist China regards Taiwan as a renegade province. Some say China has a legitimate claim, and maybe that’s true. As far as I’m concerned, the claim of any state has about as much moral weight as the claim John Wayne Gacy had to the children he raped and murdered. The Right of Might has inspired many imperial powers to occupy Taiwan, from the Dutch to the Japanese. I get it that there are strategic reasons why China won’t consider Taiwanese independence—particularly considering how cozy Taiwan’s government has always been with the U.S.—but strategy is not the same as morality. Regardless, my basic feeling on the China vs. Taiwan matter is that it’s none of my business. Then again, I’m not the CIA.

The inherently racist character of America views China as simultaneously weak, dangerous, and sexy. I’ve heard plenty of talk in my life about the “deviousness” of the Chinese, yet in popular American culture they’re consistently feminized, and just about every other pasty techbro I come across in San Francisco is either dating or fantasizing about dating a Chinese woman. How could a body politic like this possibly be clear-headed about any potential conflict with China? In addition, in America anti-communist sentiment is damn near instinctual; for all practical purposes, leftism here is dead, murdered by cointelpro and capitalist brainwashing.

Americans are dumb and they specialize in bluster. The U.S. is a relatively new country, and its citizens have no sense of their own history, let alone that of other countries. China, meanwhile, is the world’s oldest continuous civilization. You don’t reach that point by falling into every sucker’s trap that comes along. It’s no secret that the U.S. government’s big strategy is to provoke Russia and China into resource-depleting wars. It obviously worked on Iron Fist Puto, but I doubt Chinese leaders will be so easily hoodwinked.

However, that doesn’t mean they’ll roll over if seriously threatened. I doubt that a sinister and disingenuous idiot like Pelosi understands China well enough to realize the dragon she’s poking can and will defend itself. If that happens, either China will win—in the sense that Vietnam won, i.e. by preventing defeat… or all of us will lose.

Personal experience can be a powerful vaccination against bigotry. For example, during the Bush II regime America was saturated with propaganda about psychotic Muslim terrorists, but I was impervious to that bullshit partly because I went to grade school with people from several different Islamic cultures—specifically Iranians, Pakistanis, and Afghanis. As a kid I may not have known (or cared) about their cultural particularities, but I also knew they weren’t a bunch of alien zealots.

My interest in the history, culture, and politics of China began when I was in my early twenties. It was a direct outgrowth of my interest in kungfu, which I began studying in 1999 while attending UCLA. The on-campus recreation center offered a wide variety of martial arts classes, and I signed up for as many as I could fit into my schedule. I soon found myself immersed in the “kungfu underground,” known in China as the Jianghu—literally, “Rivers & Lakes,” a reference to the fringe habitats of kungfu practitioners both historical and folkloric.

The Los Angeles area has long had a thriving martial arts culture, partly due to the film industry; many martial artists have come to Hollywood to be stuntmen and fight choreographers. While I was living in L.A. I met a number of skilled kungfu masters, many of whom taught in parks to a small handful of students. I encountered some great people, along with plenty of frauds and freaks. I spent a lot of time at Chinese tea shops and restaurants. I learned Mandarin. And for the record, no, I didn’t date any Chinese women—despite recommendations from a number of middle-aged Chinese hostesses.

There are a couple of teachers I met who were quite famous in their milieu; they have since passed away. This included Hawkins Cheung, a former kungfu-brother of Bruce Lee, both of them having been students of the now-famous master Ip Man. I also met Dr. Jiang Haoquan, who was a master of several kungfu styles, a champion gymnast and diver, and a heavyweight boxing champion; in 1985—at the age of 68—he had an exhibition match with Muhammad Ali. When I met Dr. Jiang he was in his 80s, still powerful and agile, and married to much younger woman.

Dr. Jiang had been a kungfu-brother of Chang Dongsheng, one of the most famous and highly skilled masters of the twentieth century. Chang was a devout Muslim from the Hui ethnic group in northern China. At twelve years old he began studying the art of Shuai Jiao—usually called “Chinese wrestling” in English, it’s actually a throwing art; the Chinese never developed ground-based competition bondage arts like Greco-Roman wrestling or Brazilian Jujitsu.

According to reputation, Chang fought in hundreds of competitions and challenge matches, both friendly and not-so-friendly, and was never defeated.

Chang also taught Shuai Jiao at the Nanjing Central Guoshu Academy, created by Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) in 1928. The Chinese state has long cast a wary eye upon martial artists, with their secret societies and their tendency to rebel against state control; the Boxer Rebellion is merely the most well-known example of kungfu trouble-making. Unregulated civilian martial arts practice inherently undermines the state monopoly on violence. The KMT dealt with this by following Japan’s example and organizing martial arts under the purview of the state. Thus was born the world’s first kungfu university.

Chang Dongsheng later became an instructor for the Red Wall paratroopers, an elite KMT military unit that fought both the Japanese and the Communists. He fled with the defeated KMT to Taiwan, where he was appointed senior instructor for the Central Police University. He also taught a number of KMT dignitaries, bodyguards, and other state-sponsored miscreants. According to one story I heard, when Chang retired from active service, Chiang Kai-Shek summoned him into the dictator-for-life office and offered him whatever he wanted. As a man whose service came from a powerful sense of honor and loyalty, Chang declined. Chiang Kai-Shek took the Taiwanese flag off the wall, folded it up, and gave it to Chang. Until he died of cancer in his 70s, Chang continued to conduct Shuai Jiao demonstrations with his uniform jacket open, signaling that he remained willing to accept any and all challengers.

The Communists had a different approach to dealing with the potential subversiveness of kungfu practitioners: they worked them to death in labor camps or murdered them outright. When the Cultural Revolution arrived, it destroyed much of what remained of kungfu’s legacy. For decades the practice was outlawed; masters had to teach in secret. The People’s Republic eventually engineered a facsimile version of kungfu, the acrobatic sport known as Modern Wushu. Their first major propaganda effort for promoting this new sport was the 1982 film Shaolin Temple, starring a young prodigy named Jet Li, now an internationally famous action star. The temple itself is now a popular tourist attraction, and China is adamantly pursuing the inclusion of Modern Wushu in the Olympics.

Chiang Kai-Shek and the KMT were a glorified cabal of villainous gangsters. But then again, civilization itself has never been anything but a protection racket enforced by a glorified cabal of villainous gangsters. In that sense, the KMT is fairly old-fashioned. The Chinese Communist state, on the other hand, is thoroughly modern—a mechanical beast engineered by totalitarian ideology. It may have lifted an unprecedented number of its citizens out of poverty, but it has done so with a terrifying trail of atrocities and environmental holocaust. A combination of the Qing dynasty’s corruption and predation by European imperial powers set the stage for Mao and his cult.

Due to the influence of film and television, most Americans have a somewhat romanticized view of kungfu, and of Asian martial arts in general. Much of the history of these arts and their practitioners is far uglier than the average middle-class mom dropping her kid off at the local dojo would care to imagine. Even the beloved fighting monks of the Shaolin Temple™, mythical origin place of many kungfu styles, in reality were essentially a private militia; Buddhist temples were some of the largest landholders in dynastic China. Like all private armies, the Shaolin monks committed their share of atrocities.

Through much of China’s history, martial arts were largely a working-class trade skill; the career options of a “kungfu professional” were mostly limited to military service, private security for merchants and trade caravans, entertainment, banditry, and organized crime. To an extent, this is still true; two of the first Chinese masters to teach kungfu publicly in America, Lau Bun and T.Y. Wong, both served as Tong enforcers. They mediated disputes, kept drunks in line, collected gambling debts, and trained the Tong muscle.

For that matter, many of my fellow thugs-for-hire at the security company I work for, all Black men, are kungfu practitioners—several are former students of one of our supervisors, who used to have a kungfu school in East Oakland. When I’m sitting in my car all night keeping an eye out for bandits, I like to think of myself as part of a proud, international working-class tradition.

In conclusion, a story from my days as a kungfu student:

It was sometime around the year 2000, in the city of Alhambra, California. Having assisted in moving furniture to clear a practice space, I was standing off to the side in the meticulously decorated living room of my kungfu teacher, watching as a visiting master prepared to give a demonstration of his grappling skill. His competitor in this friendly match was another student, a gym-built American who was a former collegiate wrestling champion, and had spent several post-grad years expanding his fighting repertoire with Judo and Jujitsu. The student out-weighed the visiting master by a good twenty pounds of solid muscle.

The master, who was in his 50s, invited the student to give his best try at taking him down. What happened next was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed, before or since: not only did the student fail to take the master down, but he was so thoroughly out-classed that he could only laugh at his own failure. The master foiled all attempts at being controlled; every clash ended with him sitting on top of the student, striking poses and giggling. It was amazing, and it was hilarious. I was hooked; I wanted that skill, and so I became a student of that master. I’ll never make it to his level, but I’ll say this: I’m not an easy person to put into a “compliance hold.”

Now riddle me this: just what do you think the American response would be if its precious military forces went on the warpath against China and were likewise defeated and humiliated? Remember, these are the same forces that failed to subdue a bunch of poorly armed Afghani militants.

Let me put it another way: do you like mushroom clouds?

I’m not afraid of China. I’m afraid of Americans.

Malik Diamond is a hip hop artist, cartoonist, author, educator, and martial arts instructor. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is the descendant of kidnapped Africans, conquered Natives, and rural laborers of the Scots-Irish, Swiss, and German varieties. He currently lives in Oakland, California, with two brown humans and a white cat. E-mail: malikdiamond (at) hotmail (dot) com