Shifu David King, head instructor at Moore’s Martial Arts in Turlock, isn’t just a third degree black belt in Shou Shu. He’s a master of three animal-based styles of combat, able to invoke the force of the bear, tiger, or mongoose to defeat his opponents.
But there’s always more to learn – like the styles of the crane, mantis, cobra, and the mysterious dragon form reserved only for grandmasters. And running a martial arts school – as King has for the past seven years – is a seven day a week grind that leaves little time for training.
“I don’t get much of a chance to get out and broaden my horizons,” King said.
So King, 31, having trained in Turlock for 12 years, decided to take a “vacation” to train. And where better to go than the birthplace of most martial arts – China?
Of course, he’d never been to China. He doesn’t speak a word of Chinese.
But he was following in the footsteps of the art’s founder, Al Moore, Sr., who did much of his original training in China immediately following World War II. On the whirlwind, three week journey, King met with between 12 and 15 grandmasters of various martial arts. He, along with a fellow Shifu from a North Dakota-based Shou Shu school, trained for six or seven hours a day, every day – save for brief trips to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.
From Beijing to Langfang in Northern China, King was surprised to see echoes of Shou Shu reflected in the various arts. A punch here, a kick there, moves almost identical to those of Shou Shu appeared in every art.
That's not to say there was nothing new to learn in the new arts, of course. But what sticks out most in King's mind about his time in China was not a particular move, but rather the way things were taught.
Learning was, of course, a bit complicated for King, especially since many masters didn’t speak English. More surprising, though, was that the masters seldom spoke Chinese. Or at all, for that matter.
The masters would demonstrate a move, offer little or no verbal instruction, and say, simply, “Do it like this, and do it for the rest of your life,” King said.
King agreed that students need to spend long hours practicing to become good, but finds they need a bit more guidance.
“If you practice incorrectly, you never become skilled,” King said.
King found, though, that for many Chinese martial artists, becoming physically skilled at the art was a secondary goal.
The lesson was learned through Tai Chi, a martial art turned daily ritual for hundreds of thousands of people. The art offers little in the way of self-defense, employing slow, exaggerated motions as hands trace blocks in the air at a pace which could seldom stop a sloth.
That's not really the point, though, as King soon found.
Tai Chi is, first and foremost, intended to calm the body and mind. The art is almost like meditation or yoga crossed with kung fu, focused on providing health benefits and increasing mental energy.
King said he found Tai Chi physically challenging and mentally involving – and to be a big change from how martial arts are taught in the States.
“We’re taught to go slow, and we’re taught to practice, but it’s all primarily based on self-defense,” King said.
Here in America, King says most students come to martial arts for the obvious reasons – confidence, self-respect, health and wellness, and the mystique – but all students expect to learn how to fight. American students expect to learn self-defense, first and foremost.
In China, many martial art systems don’t even have belt-based ranking systems, King said. At heart they’re not about learning the physical moves to disarm a knife-wielding maniac, or to crush a person's windpipe. They're about bringing the body and mind into balance, helping students to grow as individuals.
The experience – King's first of treating at martial arts as anything other than self-defense based – was eye-opening.
King says that after a year of Shou Shu, a student is plenty skilled at defending him or herself. After two years, few threats remain.
“You only need so big a gun before it becomes pointless,” King said.
And therein lies a question that many students ask once reaching a certain level: why keep training?
“There, in China, it’s about a sense of oneness,” King said.
It’s a further goal, he says. While no physical threats remain, the connection between mind and body can always be improved.
After his time in China, King still believes a self-defense-first method of training is best for American sensibilities. But he's planning to incorporate a bit more of the mental aspect of martial arts into his curriculum, not to mention a few new moves.
That's what martial arts is all about, King said, a never-ending pursuit to improve both yourself and, as a teacher, your students.
“You learn it, you practice it, you teach it,” King said.
King still has a long time to go before he will master the dragon form of Shou Shu. It will be at least 20 years before Shifu King becomes a grandmaster of Shou Shu.
Despite the long road ahead of him, King's ready to walk it, knowing there will always be more to learn.
“I expect to do this for the rest of my life, and that’s one of the reasons that sent me to China,” King said.
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.