The Wugulun Heritage

Quinming Day in China is the day when the Chinese people remember their ancestors. Usually family members get together and have some kind of ceremony to observe and celebrate the special day.

Master Wu Nanfang invited Panky and me to join his family and the students from the Academy on their visit to the graves of the Wugulun kung fu masters. I had heard bits and pieces about this heritage but really wasn’t that clear about it all. This day put everything into context.

Throughout the ages kung fu was developed by monks at the Shaolin Temple. Although the Temple has been destroyed a number of times, one of the few remaining older halls features a mural extending around three sides showing many kung fu forms. The painting is, in fact, a kind of kung fu ‘manual’ which could be referred to as students studied the skills.

A central figure on the first wall is Wu Gulun, one of the chief monks possessing high skills in the art.

Around 1870, word of a yet another possible attack reached the Abbot of the Temple and he instructed Master Wu Gulun to escape to the mountains to preserve the ancient Shaolin secret arts until such time as it was safe and appropriate to return them to the Temple.

Master Wu Gulun fled to a small village tucked away in an obscure valley where he continued to practice the secret Shaolin arts.

In order to have the right person to pass them on to, he married and had a son, Master Wu Shanlin, who inherited the tradition.

Master Wu Shanlin had two sons. To them, his nephew, Qiao Hei Bao, and a young

orphaned student, Zhang Qing He, he passed on the traditions which today are embodied in his great grandson, Master Wu Nanfang.

The story of the ancestry became clearer with each stop we made on our journey. From Dengfeng our convoy of four ‘people carriers’ passed over to the other side of Song Mountain and then stopped by the side of the new highway — just one more part of China’s current mad attempt to cover its land with concrete.

Panky and I watched silently as the Master conducted a small ceremony in a field, firecrackers playing an important part in the observances. We found out that this first grave was that of a monk who befriended and cared for the small orphan boy who later became Master Zhang Qing He.

The next stop was a simple mound, covered in the traditional white paper streamers,  in another field backed by a huge pile of gravel and surrounded by construction.

This was the grave of Master Zhang Qing He who died in 2004. A more intricate ceremony took place here.

We then embarked on a mind-blowing journey on rough pot-holed roads through a long valley which 10 years ago must have been one of the most beautiful places in China. Remnants remain but most of it has tragically been reduced to one gigantic stone quarry, with men and machines pounding the mountain into rubble to feed the insatiable appetite of the new constructions that form modern China. I can only imagine at the pain the Master and his family must feel at the destruction of their beautiful valley.

After choking for a number of miles on the pervasive rock dust we at last climbed higher on to the side of the mountain where we stopped to visit Master Wu Shanlin’s grave. Here it was green and silent again and we walked up through some wheat fields to a small copse of trees to stand silently around another small mound. Ibo, one of the English-speaking students, explained to us that the Chinese government had removed the headstones placed at each grave. At first this seemed a travesty yet the explanation did sort of make sense. Every metre of cultivated farm land was precious for food and the habit of burying people in the fields was resulting in the destruction of crops.

The trees, though, made a fitting monument and my feeling of ancient mystery deepened as I watch the Master, his family and the students wreathed in the smoke from the firecrackers, standing in an otherwise almost primordial silence.

We continued our journey a few miles further into the mountain passes, until we stopped finally at an exquisite old village. By this time I felt almost as if I was in a movie of ancient China, so strong was the atmosphere of the past.

Ibo explained that this was the village to which Master Wu Gulun had escaped more than a hundred years ago to preserve the Shaolin secrets. The whole Wu family had lived here until recently when Master Wu Nanfang’s  teenage children needed to be in a more accessible place for necessities like high school and college.

This village now has only a few people living in it but it is so well preserved that one can imagine how Chinese mountain life must have been until only a few years ago. I rejoiced at the magical beauty of the place but felt deeply saddened that such a precious tradition was so rapidly being destroyed by the relentless construction of concrete buildings.

At the entrance to the village one monument had been allowed – a tribute to Master Wu Gulun whose grave, protected in a field at the back of the village, we then visited.

I felt I had been privileged to witness a way of life — a pure and simple one — which has now almost gone forever. I felt too that I had a deeper understanding of the Wugulun Kung fu tradition and of how it is much, much more than a sporting exercise. Rather it is a way of life based on the principles of ChanWu Yi —  meditation, kung fu and Shaolin medicine — the understanding and practice of which only a few will ever know.

The tradition is rapidly being lost. Only Master Wu Nanfang is dedicated to preserving the knowledge which is sadly largely uncomprehended by most of those that come his way. Certainly the Shaolin temple as it is today, with its emphasis on material gain, wushu as a popular sport for the masses and complete ignorance of its ancient spiritual heritage, is not a place where the secrets so carefully guarded by the Wu family can be understood, appreciated or embraced.

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