Hobbies and Interests: Tai Chi, Taoïste Culture
Favourite Books: Dao De Jing
Most Influenced by: Master Min Zhiting, the former president of Taoist Association of China
This interview was conducted with the aid of an interpreter and this edited transcript has been adjusted for translation. You can listen to the full interview, above.
Adrian Bye: Today I’m here in Wudang with Master Shi who is one of the more long-term Masters here in Wudang. Thank you Master Shi for joining us.
Master Shi: My pleasure.
Adrian Bye: Master Shi, tell us a little bit about your story of how you came to Wudang.
Master Shi: First of all, my father was a Daoist. He did a lot of religious and Daoist rites in our village. Secondly, I love martial arts. When I was very young I watched a lot of TV series and read a lot of books about it.
Adrian Bye: So would you say that your first master was your father?
Master Shi: Not really. My father wasn’t my first master because I wasn’t interested in any religion. I was very young and was only interested in martial arts. I didn’t know anything about Daoist religion.
Adrian Bye: Yes, young boys all over the world like fighting. What was the martial art that was most interesting?
Master Shi: Of course I find the Wudang martial arts the most interesting. When I was young I thought martial arts means I can fly in the sky. Later I began to learn martial arts and found Wudang Internal Martial Arts is the best one.
Adrian Bye: So did you first start in Wudang or did you start in Shaolin?
Master Shi: At the beginning I came to Wudang Shan but I found it’s really hard to enter the system. They had a very serious system to examine disciples and I failed. I went to the Shaolin Temple. But the martial arts of Shaolin were not very proper to me. It was not very interesting. I came back to Wudang Shan and my master there was moved by my behaviour. So I became a real Daoist in Wudang Shan.
Adrian Bye: I think you started in Wudang in 1984. Is that right?
Master Shi: Yes, 1984.
Adrian Bye: Something I have heard is that back in those times sometimes it was very necessary to learn martial arts to defend your family, to protect your family. Was this the case for you at all?
Master Shi: The first step of martial arts is to protect ourselves. The second step is to keep our body healthy; that means our personal health is the most important thing.
Adrian Bye: How does a boy in 1984 come to Wudang, with no money? How far is your hometown away? How did you get here? How does that work?
Master Shi: The first time I came here I didn’t know where Wudang Shan was. I held a map in my hand and I just climbed on the train without buying a ticket.
Adrian Bye: From where did you come? Where is your hometown?
Master Shi: My hometown is in the Shaanxi Province. It’s not very far; it took five to six hours by train. At that time the train was really slow. The train stopped a lot; twenty or thirty minutes a stop. When I want to go to my hometown now it only takes three hours by train.
Adrian Bye: Talking about life in the past in Wudang, how many people lived here studying Daoism and what was the life like in Wudang in 1984 and 1985?
Master Shi: At that time it was really a mysterious thing to learn martial arts. We could see no advertisement in the street. To learn martial arts you had to be enrolled in a temple. Only masters in temples taught martial arts.
Adrian Bye: I think there were only a hundred people in Wudang back then doing this?
Master Shi: At that time the government only gave our Daoist Association two temples back. So in total there were only a hundred people.
Adrian Bye: Just on a historical note for listeners, it’s important to know that 1984 was only eight years after Chairman Mao died. One of the big tenets of the Cultural Revolution was to put a stop to a lot of the practices of Daoism. Master Shi came here in the early stages when Daoism was coming back. He is one of the people to help keep this alive in China as it starts to grow again.
Master Shi: I put all of my energy into practising martial arts.
Adrian Bye: What were you practicing back then? Was it Tai Chi for fourteen hours a day? What was a day’s training like?
Master Shi: I practiced only in the morning and in the evening with my brothers in the temple. My masters were there only in the morning and in the evening.
Adrian Bye: What were you practicing? Was it Tai Chi or Daoist meditation? What things specifically were you learning? Were you doing martial arts? Were you doing actual fighting in martial arts? Or was it more just practicing?
Master Shi: When I was young I practiced martial arts for fighting.
Adrian Bye: Were you doing actual combat sparring, actual fighting, or was it more practicing?
Master Shi: I did real combat, and my master also did combat. So I practiced together with my brothers.
Adrian Bye: Can you tell us a little bit about the masters that you had? I think you had two or three very high level masters in Chinese Daoism today. Can you tell us a little bit about who your masters were back then?
Master Shi: My first master was an old Daoist with a high level in Wudang Chan. In the 1980s, my master had a high reputation all over the country. He was a real master of martial arts. And he was the most famous and oldest one in Wudang Chan.
Adrian Bye: From our talks before I guess two of your masters have gone on to be presidents of the Chinese Daoist Association, which works directly with the government in Beijing.
Master Shi: I have another master. He was the sixth president of the Daoist Association in China. He knows everything about martial arts, Daoist religions and painting, calligraphy, and all about traditional Chinese cultures.
Adrian Bye: In your opinion, what are the important things that a person who is interested in China and Daoism should be studying? Should they be studying Tai Chi, Dao Te Jing, calligraphy, nutrition and cooking? What are the things that are most important? What would you suggest a disciple should study?
Master Shi: To be a Daoist disciple you should learn a lot of things. First of all, you must have a good attitude of your character and your spirit. And then you must read all of our Daoist classical books. We have a lot of classics like the Dao Te Jing. We should exercise the things inside our body, like our spirit and our character and our soul. And then we should do some good things for the society, for our people.
Adrian Bye: So what are the things that have helped you the most in terms of your study? Has it been the philosophy, has it been doing Tai Chi? Which has been the most important thing personally?
Master Shi: My second master gave me the most important thing. I am very grateful to him, because he knows the most and he taught me a lot. No matter whether it’s martial arts or Daoist philosophy, they are not Daoism. They are only a part of Daoism. Both of them are important.
Adrian Bye: What was the biggest lesson that you learned from your second master?
Master Shi: The biggest lesson that Master Min gave me was the wisdom of life and the Daoist culture. Before I met him I only knew about Chinese martial arts. Thanks to Master Min I began to learn a lot of things about Daoist culture and I began to like it. He taught me how to be human. He is also a master of martial arts. He taught me the athletic martial arts and some practices for health preserving.
Adrian Bye: This sounds like a very big change. Your master got you to change from just martial arts to Daoist culture and Daoist philosophy. Why did you not look at the philosophy before? Were people not studying the philosophy back then so much?
Master Shi: Before I went to Beijing to study at the Bái Yún Gùan I learned some things about Daoist philosophy. But just a little. Some of my teachers taught me, but only a few. At that time I didn’t know a lot. Then I went to Beijing, the Bái Yún Gùan School, and Master Min taught there. So I learned a lot more about Daoist philosophy.
Adrian Bye: I think that’s the most famous place in China for some of these studies. How long did you study there for?
Master Shi: I studied there for four years, and the temple is very famous. It’s a very important temple in China; it’s an important temple of the Daoist School.
Adrian Bye: So for a student that wants to come and learn at the academy, what is a day like? What’s a typical training day? How many hours a day do you train? What do you do? What is it like?
Master Shi: Before we trained eight hours per day, and now the training depends on the age of my students. Most of the time, young students practice basic exercises, running and physical training. Older people focus on quiet exercises like meditation and Qi Gong.
Adrian Bye: So for a young person the schedule is maybe eight hours a day. What time in the morning do you start and until what time in the evening? How do breaks work?
Master Shi: A Daoist thinks they have to get up between five and seven in the morning and we must fall asleep between eleven and one o’clock at night. Normally every day we get up at five o’clock in the morning and we practice until seven o’clock. Then we have breakfast. We start training at eight thirty until eleven thirty. Our schedule changes according to the four seasons. For example we get up a little earlier in summer, but a little later in winter.
Adrian Bye: What kind of food do you eat?
Master Shi: We eat vegetables, and we don’t eat meat. We eat all the vegetables with a lot of nutrients. And sometimes we eat wild vegetables.
Adrian Bye: And you have taken me to do this sometimes: to pick some grass, some leaves out of the grass, and cook them up as dinner. And they are good.
Master Shi: We eat all the things that are good for our health.
Adrian Bye: In the west that’s important. People are trying to eat organic now. And this is very much organic. What would you recommend a person looking for a master should look for? How do they know who is a good master, who is a bad master? There are many masters that are not good masters. How do you recommend a student find a good master?
Master Shi: First of all we must know who is a real master. In Wudang Shan there are a lot of real masters and fake masters. And sometimes the fake masters are more famous than the real ones. So if you want to find a master you should find a real one. Then you could learn real traditional Wudang martial arts. If you want to choose a master you can get information from our Daoist Association. They will give you some suggestions. This master is a real one. Only people who live more than three years in a temple can be called a Daoist master. Not one who just puts on a Daoist costume.
Adrian Bye: We talked about a lot of things. Are there any topics that you would like to talk about before we finish?
Master Shi: I feel very sorry and very sad that in Wudang Shan there are a lot of so-called masters that misguide people. They teach some martial arts, but they are not real ones. I am very worried about that. So now I’m trying to build my own temple, which could be a platform where I can teach real Wudang martial arts. That can be a platform for real Wudang Daoist culture and Wudang Daoist martial arts to spread all over the world.
Adrian Bye: To understand why Master Shi talks about this: China is a developing country and we are here in Central China. It’s poor. They have some incredibly valuable things here: valuable culture, valuable philosophical ideas, the martial arts, and everything else. It becomes a way to lift yourself from being in absolute poverty into some level of what we consider in the west a middle-class lifestyle. And because of that when you mix it with money it brings up problems. So it becomes important to choose and work with the right people. It’s something that you have to test for yourself as to who you get along with, who you work with. It’s a difficult thing to solve because the gaps between cultures and between east and west are so broad that things just work out here differently to how we were used to. Coming out here is to come in with your eyes open.
Master Shi: I’m very moved that you come here as a foreigner and we hope that next time we can discuss things further.
Adrian Bye: Thank you very much for doing the interview.
Master Shi: We can communicate anytime.
Adrian Bye: Thank you.