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 (
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 (
"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 (
"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."
But for those who are willing to make the effort, Taiwan offers better instruction than China, South Korea or Japan, Lin said, because of its well-preserved martial arts structure. "All the roots originated from China, but when the government came to the island in 1949, most of the martial arts masters followed," he explained. "The few who stayed in China later went through the Cultural Revolution. And when it comes to learning a cultural heritage, decades-long gaps (in the tradition) are damaging."
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