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Ma Xianda: Wushu Masters You Should Know

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MA XIANDA: WUSHU MASTERS YOU SHOULD KNOW

By: Matthew Lee

Written June 12th, 2016

“The Wushu that Qi Jiguang wants to promote is real ability and combat fighting.  Surely this is the central core of Wushu.  But it is not complete Wushu.  Wushu still needs longevity, health and mind cultivation to make it complete.  But never forget, the central core is ji (strike.)  You must have real combat fighting ability, definitely not a ‘flowery blooming, only for watching’ Wushu.” —The Late Grandmaster Ma Xianda, Kung Fu Magazine “The Muslim Master of the Old Empire”

Abstract: This is the second edition of a segment of write-ups entitled “Wushu Masters You Should Know.”  This series is dedicated to the recognition of great Wushu masters who have made great contributions to Chinese Wushu.  Sections of each edition will be divided into the individual’s background history, perspectives on Wushu, and why they are worthy of recognition.  These Wushu masters are not to be confused with modern Wushu coaches, athletes and champions.  This specific edition will recognize Ma Xianda.

On June 17th, 2013, Wushu Grandmaster Ma Xianda passed away.  According to publicly released information, he had passed away at 3:00am.  This year will mark the third anniversary of his death.  To me, Ma Xianda was a real Wushu master, who truly deserved the title of “Wushu Grandmaster.”  In my first in-person conversation with Emilio Alpanseque, aka Mastering WUSHU, at the 2013 US Wushu Team Trials, Emilio commented that a relative of the Ma family had then-recently passed away.  It was a sad day when I later found it was Ma Xianda himself who passed away, which was truly disheartening to me.  This is why his passing is so unfortunate for myself, and the Wushu community.  If you don’t know who this man is, you should.  And this is why I have decided to write about him, to help spread recognition of this great master on the anniversary of his passing.

In an effort to recognize such Wushu masters, I have decided to start a segment I’d like to call, “Wushu Masters You Should Know.”  In this context, the use of the term “Wushu master” does not refer simply to coaches, athletes and champions of modern Wushu, who have only represented Wushu in the sport, performance and competitive sense, and will instead only be reserved for those who have actually earned the title in a complete traditional martial arts sense, as I have found in my personal research of Wushu.  I was originally planning on starting this segment with Ma Xianda himself, however the passing of another Wushu Grandmaster, Cai Longyun, who had passed away in December of last year, it provided a great opportunity to kick off this segment.  Now, with the anniversary of Grandmaster Ma Xianda’s death approaching, it would be remiss of me to not take this opportunity to write about him, as I planned.  This is the second edition of “Wushu Masters You Should Know.”  This is Ma Xianda.

Background History

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Ma Xianda was born in 1932 in Hebei province, China, and was a Grandmaster of the traditional Wushu system of Ma Style Tongbei (马氏通备; Mǎshìtōngbèi, not to be confused with the traditional Wushu style 通背拳; tōngbèiquán, literally “through-the-back” fist).  He was the second son of Ma Fengtu in a prominent family of Chinese martial artists.  At the age of five, he trained under his father Ma Fengtu and Fengtu’s famous brother and war veteran, his uncle Ma Yingtu, inheriting the aforementioned Ma Style Tongbei, which combined the training methods and forms of traditional Chinese martial arts styles including, but not limited to, Bajiquan (八极拳; bājíquán, Eight Extremes Fist), Piguazhang (劈挂掌; pīguàzhǎng, literally “chop-hanging palm”), Tan Tui (弹腿; tántuǐ, Springing Leg), Chuo Jiao (戳脚; chuōjiǎo, literally “poking feet”) and Fanziquan (翻子拳; fānziquán, tumbling or “rotating” fist, literally “turning/flipping fist”).  Ma Xianda is also one of the few holders of 9th duan (段; duàn, formal rank or level), the highest rank in the duan ranking system for Wushu in China, which is similar to the formal dan ranking systems of Japanese and Korean martial arts system, and was one of the first, and the youngest at the time, to be awarded the rank when the duan ranking system was first established in 1998, to this day.

In his youth, Ma Xianda was famous for various accomplishments throughout his professional martial arts career.  Firstly, according to Grandmaster Ma himself, he was a champion in Guoshu (国术; guóshù, traditional Chinese martial arts, literally “national art”) lei tai (擂台; lèitái, traditional Chinese martial arts full-contact fighting, literally “raised platform”), the Chinese cultural progenitor of what would be called Sanshou, also known as Sanda, in modern Wushu competition.  But what is most well-known is his accomplishment as a champion in the old competition event of duanbing (短兵;duǎnbīng, literally short weapon), which is the practice of short weapon sparring, similar in format and structure to Western fencing, and in recent years is being standardized and regulated into practice and competition again by the CWA (Chinese Wushu Association).  Outside of Chinese martial arts, Ma Xianda has also studied Western boxing, wrestling, and fencing.  To martial arts enthusiasts, this man sounds like he has everything you could want from a Wushu master; a combination of authentic and legitimate knowledge of Chinese martial arts, with the scientific expertise of Western sports like boxing, wrestling, and fencing.  It is this knowledge and expertise that makes Ma Xianda an extraordinary master of Wushu.

Perspectives on Wushu

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As a master raised with a strong traditional Wushu background and coming from a family of traditional Chinese martial artists, Ma Xianda was highly critical of modern Wushu.  He is quoted as saying in his interview in the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Muslim Master of the Old Empire” by Gigi Oh and Gene Ching, “The government…pressed down Wushu, especially the old, traditional, good part of Wushu…Also they were trying to promote modern Wushu, not the old traditional good stuff.”  Following this impression, it would appear that Grandmaster Ma falls in the same vein of traditional martial artists, including traditional Wushu practitioners, dubbed “traditionalists”, who detest such modern and sport martial arts as Wushu for not being the same as traditional martial arts.  However, this is not the case.

People who have done their research would know that Ma Xianda had openly interacted and worked with various proponents of modern Wushu, and in fact even made various contributions to modern Wushu.  First, according to his aforementioned interview, he contributed to the training of the group for the 1974 Beijing Wushu Team White House Tour, as well as the writing of the literature and terminology, though like Wushu legend and champion Zhao Changjun, he was cut from the tour.  But perhaps most prominent, is his creation of the standardized Fanziquan form in modern Wushu Taolu, which combines the two traditional Ma Style Tongbei Fanziquan forms of Zhanzhuangfan (站桩翻; zhànzhuāngfān, Standing Post Tumbles/Rotations) and Cuibafan (脆八翻; cuìbāfān, Crisp Eight Tumbles/Rotations), Zhanzhuangfan comprising the first section, and Cuibafan comprising the second and final section.  Most popularly, Ma Xianda has taught Jet Li said Fanziquan form, which is Jet’s alleged favorite style of Wushu.  More extensively, he has trained Zhao Changjun and Zhao’s coach Bai Wenxiang in Ma Style Tongbei, allowing his traditional Wushu to influence modern Wushu through their great examples.  He was also one of the choreographers for Jet Li’s debut film The Shaolin Temple (少林寺; Shàolínsì), and wrote the film Dadao Wang Wu (大刀王五; Dàdāo Wáng Wǔ, Great Broadsword Wang Wu), which stars Zhao Changjun.  As we can see, Grandmaster Ma Xianda was open-minded enough to work with modern Wushu and its greatest exponents.  That being said, Ma Xianda was still not afraid of being objective and pointing out criticisms of modern Wushu even to the modern day.  On modern Wushu’s futile quest to become Olympic and the consequence on Chinese martial arts as a whole, he said, “Even if Wushu Taolu went into the Olympics, it is not necessarily a given that people will want to watch it.  Not every category of the Olympics has an audience.  If Wushu does not go into the Olympics, then all kinds of Chinese martial arts will bloom at the same time.  But if it gets into the Olympics, and the government only pushes those little categories, other categories will die down.  They will only feed that small group of professionals to represent the entire Chinese culture, over 1.2 billion people.  This is the general feeling of Wushu societies.”  In fact, he cited other sports that were successful without the Olympic label.  “Thai boxing cannot get into the Olympics, but people still watch it.  Olympic boxing and basketball does not have as big a following as pro boxing and pro basketball.”  On the other hand, as is the case with most traditional Chinese martial artists who look at modern Wushu, he viewed Sanda much more favorably.  “The Gang of Four corrupted everything, then Deng Xiaoping came up and the Open Door Policy.  A lot of frames were opened.  Wushu was suddenly alive again.  Sanda came up.  Now we can talk about da.  Also, the folk martial artists came out and ordinary people could practice Wushu.  This is good.”  However, he still was very objective and criticized Sanshou for its lack of Chinese martial arts content.

Ma Xianda’s observations also provide insight into the practice and representation of Wushu, its strengths and benefits, as well as its flaws and limitations, and how it can be improved.  First, he stressed the need to put Wushu in a scientific light, and do away with all the mystical, mythical and exaggerated, fictional portrayals of it, in order to promote it in a serious, realistic and respectable manner.  “The modern wuxia (literally, ‘martial knight’, a genre of martial fiction) books with flying and such are not real Wushu.  Those movies are actually preventing the Wushu healthy development because they are so exaggerated.  You cannot put Wushu into a fairytale.  You must bring the scientific side out.  It must be based on science.”  As previously mentioned, although he was even critical of Sanda, he was still objective in what he saw and liked it, and even suggested improvements to the practice on the lack of Chinese martial arts content in the practice.  “In the future for sanda, we should put more Chinese martial arts in it.  Actually over the last 100 years, Chinese martial arts were only talked about on paper because you couldn’t physically fight.  Now we can fight again.  That is good.”  Finally, he insists on the need to bring out more of the martial content in Wushu, in order to balance out its completeness in terms of actual martial arts, citing the historical General Qi Jiguang, who was known for fighting off and defeating Japanese pirates and wrote about the effectiveness of various Chinese martial arts styles in his time.  “The Wushu that Qi Jiguang wants to promote is real ability and combat fighting.  Surely this is the central core of Wushu.  But it is not complete Wushu.  Wushu still needs longevity, health and mind cultivation to make it complete.  But never forget, the central core is ji (strike.)  You must have real combat fighting ability, definitely not a ‘flowery blooming, only for watching’ Wushu.”

Why This Person Matters

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So why does this person matter?  First and foremost, is his objectivity and criticism of Wushu, and his views on how to make Chinese martial arts, as a whole, better.  His knowledge and opinions force us as Wushu practitioners to look at what we practice objectively as well and see its flaws, and those of us who are smart will heed his advice to critically analyze what we practice in order to improve ourselves not only as martial artists, but what we practice as martial arts.  As previously established, he has even made various contributions to Wushu.  His place in Chinese Wushu’s history is irrefutable, and is something we should acknowledge, recognize and respect.  Aside from his experience within traditional Wushu, he has also gone outside of Wushu and studied boxing, wrestling and fencing, as previously mentioned.  In this way, he is like the Bruce Lee of Wushu, studying Western methods and integrating it with traditional Chinese martial arts to make them modern and relevant, and practicing a system that combines styles to make a new, evolved system of practice.  He was also not afraid to separate the wheat from the chaff, and even criticized Chinese martial arts, and China as a nation for failing to preserve its traditional culture like the Japanese and Koreans.  The only difference is that Ma Xianda came before Bruce Lee, and his system of Ma Style Tongbei came first before Jeet Kune Do (on an interesting aside, one of Ma Xianda’s brothers, Ma Mingda, is the head of the Bruce Lee Research Association in Guangdong, China).  Even after retiring, he dedicated his life to making Wushu better as a practice.  As such, he has earned a place of respect not only in Wushu, but all of Chinese martial arts.  And his understanding of Wushu in every aspect should help add to our own.  He is perhaps the one Wushu master I have quoted the most out of all the various Wushu masters I have quoted in my write-ups about Wushu, and this alone should already attest to how knowledgeable and experienced he was.

I am ashamed to admit that when I first read his interview and his quotes, my initial thoughts were along the lines of, “Who is this person to criticize Wushu?”  Due to my reaction, I also didn’t think that Ma Xianda was that big of a deal, despite the fact that his various achievements objectively earned him recognition in Wushu.  This is because at the time, I was a butthurt Wushu practitioner, who thought that Wushu was the greatest thing ever, and didn’t want to listen to any opinions or criticisms of Wushu, even if those opinions or criticisms were objective and came from Chinese martial artists and Wushu practitioners themselves.  However, over the last few years, after gaining more experience not only in modern Wushu, but also in traditional Chinese martial arts as well, I have come to agree with almost everything he has said.  Especially today, I appreciate the fact that he was completely truthful (and the truth is not pretty).  He was unfiltered, uncensored and honest in his opinions, and not afraid to criticize the Chinese, their communist government, and their practices.  Ma Xianda was real.  Now, I have nothing but respect for Grandmaster Ma Xianda.  According to a phone conversation I had with Master Narcyz Latecki, head instructor of Chinese Martial Arts Division of Athletic Balance, LLC, there are stories of Ma Xianda being very strict when teaching and being quite temperamental, which is corroborated in his interview, where he admitted to spanking his eldest son Ma Yue while training Ma Yue as a child.  However, Master Latecki maintains that Ma Xianda was very nice to him when teaching and having dinner with him (perhaps this is because he understands the differences in cultures and generations today).

Thus, Ma Xianda is a martial artist worthy of representing Wushu in a complete sense physically, martially and intellectually, not just in the sport and competition sense.  Again, this goes back to the misuse of the word “master” to refer to coaches, athletes and champions of modern Wushu.  However, most of these so-called Wushu “masters” are more often than not modern Wushu athletes, who could only represent Wushu in the sport and competition sense; while this is not to put down the ability, skill and experience of modern Wushu athletes, their expertise is more often than not only restricted to this one aspect of Wushu, and not complete in terms of actual martial arts foundation, fighting ability, and intellectual understanding.  There are very few modern Wushu athletes that I believe could adequately represent Wushu in a complete sense, and they are not the Wushu champions and athletes that people normally would think of today, such as the previously mentioned Zhao Changjun.  However, there are plenty of Wushu masters that could more than represent Wushu in all of these aspects, and Ma Xianda is at the top of that list for me.

It is clear that Ma Xianda is a real Wushu master in every sense.  His passing is truly a loss to the Wushu community, and his memory and influence should be acknowledged, recognized and respected by us all.  In the spirit of sharing great knowledge and information, I have decided to include educational and relevant links at the end of this write-up, for those who are interested in learning more about this great master.

Kung Fu Magazine article “The Muslim Master of the Old Empire”: http://www.kungfumagazine.com/magazine/article.php?article=336

Blitz Martial Arts Magazine article “Grandmaster Ma Xianda: 1932-2013 – A Tribute”:

http://www.blitzmag.net/people/kungfu-taichi-qigong/602-grandmaster-ma-xianda-1932-2013-a-tribute

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Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda and traditional Chen Style Taijiquan. He is a three-time consecutive US Wushu Team member and most recently Pan American Champion, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at matthewlee@jiayoowushu.com.