Fri, Jun 23, 2006 - Page 15 News List

East meets West: Learning martial arts in Taiwan

Taiwan is a mecca for martial arts students as they can learn ancient practices that other countries have failed to preserve


It's 7:50pm, at the Taoyuan branch of the Chang Hong Wushu (長洪武術) martial arts school. James Struthers is working up a sweat as he leads a class in basic martial arts drills, including squatting, kicking and jumping. Struthers is one of a growing number of foreign students who are staying in Taiwan to hone their martial arts skills.

James Lin (林俊吉), who owns and teaches at the school, said he has seen a significant rise in the number of both local and foreign students studying martial arts in Taiwan.

According to Lin, this growth in student numbers, both foreigners and locals, owes much to the fame of martial arts stars such as Jackie Chan (成龍) and Jet Lee (李連杰). At a recent special martial arts sparring program run by Chang Hong Wushu in Taipei, which drew students from its branches nationwide, six of the 50 students attending were foreigners.

"I originally followed a friend to Taiwan, seeing in pictures how much fun he had teaching English and learning at the same time," explains Struthers, 30, who moved to Taiwan from South Africa in 2000. "Unlike some others who come to Asia with the distinct intention of learning some style of martial arts, I kind of accidentally fell into changchuan. (The style in which Chang Hong Wushu specializes.) And it has been a three-year love affair ever since."

Struthers said that foreign students like him had to work especially hard and needed to overcome many challenges not directly related to martial arts, the most important and difficult being language. He said that because of this, foreign students are often more dedicated, and of the six foreign students at the Chang Hong sparing program, most had studied for five or six years. Paula Lyons, a student from Chicago, said she put her travels round the world on hold to pursue her study of martial arts. She had been with the school for one-and-a-half years.

Struthers, who plans to open a martial arts academy when he returns to South Africa, said he had tried various styles of martial arts and schools when he first arrived, by it wasn't until he began practicing changchuan that he found the experience incredibly enriching. "Many of the superficial myths of learning martial arts were dispelled," he said.

Shih Meng-chieh (施孟杰), a classmate of Struthers, said he started martial arts because it seemed "cool," and that he and his friends liked kungfu movies. He now trains diligently two or three evenings each week because he enjoys the added confidence that comes from immersing himself in the art. "It's about finding a school that fits you, and for me this approach really emphasizes practical applications. I simply want to learn more," he said.

"It's mainly an idea first. How to relax, to be in touch with your body movements. How strong or how well-built you are has nothing to do with your performance. It takes years and is difficult to grasp without an understanding of the culture and the language," said Lin.

Lin said that media stereotypes lead many foreign students to start off on the wrong foot. "When practicing, they think that simply perfecting certain moves will improve their skills," he explained. "It's more about unlearning and understanding a new mentality."

Most foreigners don't last long, Lin said. "It's frustrating and they're often surprised that being strong or having muscles actually gets in the way. Those who do stay are really those who have made a commitment to learn the language and embrace a new culture."

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