Andy Best: China, kung fu & rock 'n' roll

Travel | by Rebekah Pothaar
Posted: March 13th, 2009 | Updated: May 6th, 2013 | Comments
Andy Best in Shanghai Best known for his passionate support of China's rock scene, we wanted to know more about Andy's other passion. Kick out the jams, caonima!
For more of Andy Best on kung fu, check out For his take on Shanghai's live music scene, catch him at Andy Best. Andy lives in Shanghai where he's working with Master Kai Uwe Pel on their book Seven Star Praying Mantis Fist: A Deadly Game of Strategy. CTn: What's your favorite style of kung fu? Andy Best: Seven Star Praying Mantis. Because I can do it and am familiar with it. After that I would go with Hong Jia (Hung Gar) because it’s the style used in all the Shaw Brothers’ movies. A close third would be Eagle Claw because it’s close to our style and from the same Northern Shaolin family. If we were visiting China and had one week for a life-changing kung fu experience where, if anywhere, would you recommend that we go? Shaolin is famous for kung fu, and so is Wudang Shan, for example. Do you have any strong opinions one way or the other on studying in either of these places or any other famed kung fu destination? I would love to help you but unfortunately there’s nothing to be learned or experienced in kung fu in just one week. Out of those two places I’d go to Wudang Shan, for the mountain views. Our style, Praying Mantis, flourished historically in Laoshan. I went there and it’s beautiful and inspiring, not to mention a convenient bus ride outside of Qingdao which is also nice. I do have strong opinions about where to study kung fu but they are a little controversial. Basically, overseas Chinese communities have a strong sense of preserving traditional culture and were unaffected by the revolutions. Our teacher is always going on about how some of the best teachers in the world are in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Not to mention places like New York City where you can find Leung Shum the world’s leading master of Eagle Claw kung fu. These people have unbroken traditions from the pre-war period. Shaolin today is not the Shaolin of old and there’s a certain amount of … err …. marketing going on there too. In his writings, Jet Li remembered going to Shaolin to film the movie in 1980 and finding that it was completely abandoned with only one hall partially standing. Pre-war history has it as defunct as early as 1914. Now they claim they’ve been there all along but it’s common knowledge that the site was only re-opened and developed after the success of the movie.   Sometimes it appears to us as casual outside observers that kung fu in China has become so commercialized and commodified that it's got to be in danger of losing something essential. Do you think that's true, and are travelers who come to China with romantic dreams of learning kung fu from the masters kidding themselves? It is true and it goes back to the early days of the Mao government. Kung fu was confined to small groups historically and flourished in famed secret societies like the Heaven and Earth (Shanghai, intended as a national public academy for kung fu. But all of this was broken up during the protracted ’37-’49 period of war. Then the new government decided to re-invent kung fu as a gymnastic non-contact sport known as ‘Zhonghua Wushu,’ or just ‘wushu’ these days. The process of rediscovering traditional arts has since come about during the naked capitalism of the re-opening, which explains your question. You can still come here and track down a reasonable traditional teacher. It’s hard, mind you, which sometimes makes it all the more romantic. Is the practice of kung fu in China today spiritual in any significant way, or is it all about physical and mental elements? Well, what does kung fu actually mean? People get into all kinds of arguments about it. There were fighting arts all over the world at all times of record history. When we say kung fu (a slang blanket term) we are talking about martial arts that came out of the Shaolin tradition in China around 500 A.D. onwards. There was a meeting of fighting arts, Indian yogic techniques and Buddhist philosophy that created the complete package. There are so many branches of it now but they all carry the same basic ideas. People certainly like to talk up the spiritual and philosophical side, a lot more than they like to train. That’s global. Do you see any link between your passions for kung fu and Chinese live rock music? Not really. I must say though, if you have alternative or radical viewpoints and don’t mind expressing them then it also helps to be able to defend yourself. Saying that, I haven’t had any offended right-wing ex-pats track me down at Yuyintang yet. I doubt they even care who I am. We dig your playlist over at layabozi (it's rare to find straight-up praise of Iron Maiden in these days of relentless snark and hipster irony!). So here's another music-related question: When practicing kung fu, is silence necessary, or can you crank some tunes to get your blood pumping? If so (or even if not), what would your top five kung fu tunes (Carl Douglas's "Kung Fu Fighting" excluded, please). Well, real kung fu training is about developing concentration and focus so training to music doesn’t really help. However, I love to get ready and motivated to train by first watching a movie or listening to music before I start. Anything heavy and aggressive seems to help, especially when you’ve got 50 squat kicks and a bunch of finger push-ups in your near future. Avoid Kylie Minogue or Celine Dion. Andy Best A lot of funny movies have been made about kung fu. Being a martial art, this might be somewhat unexpected, but few of us can likely think of kung fu without thinking of Jackie Chan's stunt-driven slapstick. Do you have a favorite kung fu comedy? The best kung fu comedy ever also happens to be the high point of Shaolin Temple and learn how to cook Sorrowful Rice. It’s basically a satire of kung fu films. It’s so funny I was crying throughout most of the film. It helps if you can understand some Cantonese slang though, to really get some of the outrageous creative cursing. And speaking of kung fu comedy: Kung Fu Panda. Thumbs up or thumbs down? Thumbs down. One big long sentimental stereotype. Just like what Disney does to traditional world stories. Disneyland should be carpet bombed with the worst kind of banned weapons mankind has to offer. Then we have to find Walt’s cryogenically frozen head and thaw it. Which animal doesn't have a kung fu style named after it but should? Funny. I think we need more insects to back up Mantis Style. Stick Insect Style could be the Chinese Ninjitsu. The art of stealth and all that. What's it like these days for women who want to train and practice kung fu? Is it a bit of a boys' club, or are women given the same respect as men? I think there’s still a lot of inherent prejudice but most people these days know enough to rein themselves in a bit. Actually, there’s no reason why women can’t succeed in kung fu the same as in any sport or physical art. Look at female Olympic athletes. Look at Monica Ali. When it comes to being kicked in the knees or punched in the throat, gender is irrelevant. The pain is all the same. Women can really master kung fu too. My teacher said the best performance he ever saw of our style’s principle skill set was by our Da Shi Gong’s daughter. And that is when she was over 50 too. A lot of people are still stuck with Victorian mentalities. They see the cream of professional sports where men have a few seconds over women and think that means ‘ALL men are inherently better than ALL women.’ It’s illogical. For every one Cathy Freeman in the world there’s a million men who could never dream of reaching her speed and fitness. It’s all relative. It seems to us that temples and monasteries almost always have great vegetarian restaurants next door. Is that kind of "Buddhist" diet typical of proper kung fu training, or is it okay to hit KFC now and then? Is there anything like a kung fu cuisine in China? Not everyone who trained Shaolin arts was a full-time monk so the diet thing is a bit exaggerated. Actually, my teacher constantly berates me for not eating enough beef and for not drinking beer, “For power.” A good amount of mainland Chinese teachers smoke too. Kung fu is exercise though, and you should eat a clean diet. If my teacher reads this interview he will laugh and then remind me that I’m not strong enough to be a real killer. He is strong and flexible like an Olympic gymnast though, so I have no grounds to contest. I don’t drink, smoke or eat most meat, but that’s coincidental. My teacher also says the best way to cultivate ‘Qi’ (energy) is to sleep. Baseball season is on the horizon in the US and everyone's in a tizzy about steroid abuse among athletes. Please tell us that steroids and weight training supplements haven't cracked the kung fu world! If people just train in the class and do body resistance exercise then of course, there’s none of that. It’s definitely a different culture and if you join a regular kung fu class you won’t meet it. But, a lot of serious fighters like to compete in comps like Sanda or MMA or what have you. Where there’s serious weight training, there’s supplements, legal and illegal. I know of people who entered certain famous circuits for try outs and they say it’s awash with drugs of all kinds. As soon as the gym is involved it’s all there to choose or not. I’m not a gym person and have never come into direct contact with any of that. If you train with Cha Quan master Pu Rujie in Zhongshan Park, for example, he’s not going to offer you steroids. We used to follow you on Shanghaiist as a contributor, and we catch you often in the comments section, where you fearlessly take trolls to task. It really seems that you have a signature comment box kung fu style—you jab, you parry, you use your opponents' strength and weaknesses against them, often leaving them looking pretty foolish. As something of a Shanghai blogosphere personality, has your kung fu practice taught you anything about putting yourself out there online (and often defending the proverbial village from the evil warlord?) Well, comment kung fu is a different thing. In kung fu someone confronts you and you want to brutally beat them down. In discourse you just want to put out a nice clear point of view and then hopefully push the trolls into trying to explain their own rather, than just insulting you. With debates or comments you have to remember that it’s not just you and the detractors, it’s the hundreds of people reading but not getting involved. If the thread ends up with me making an on-topic clear opinion followed by a bunch of ‘you suck’s then the impartial observer just sees me.  This sounds a bit too serious to me though, because I don’t really think about it so deeply at the time. I just see article on topics that interest me and feel excited to get involved. Actually, diverting the subject or attacking the speaker personally is a widely accepted part of mainstream debate at all levels. We live in an age of unlightenment. In all my time hanging out at Shanghaiist I think there was only once when me and another commenter pushed an outright troll into explaining his own point of view on the topic itself. He started off by bizarrely trying to quote Ayn Rand and then collapsed totally, unable to form his own opinion on the matter. And yet he was happy to tell me I was full of it. Half these people haven’t really thought much about the issues at all. Once you try to put it down in clear writing, you soon find out how full of holes your pop-opinions are. I recommend Justin Podur’s online course Statistics and Logic for the People. It’s a good starting point. And here’s the parallel with kung fu. If you really want to improve your skills you have to just get out there and practice practice practice. To read more of Andy Best's stories, poems and musings, visit his blog, Kungfuology. Top photo: Kung fu training by Andy Best Second image: Kung Fu Panda from thecia. Third photo: Andy Best training by West Lake in Hangzhou. Fourth image: The God of Cookery from filmcatcher. Fifth image: Kung fu moves by Andy Best.
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