TO many people's mind, a wushu master is a rough man with little education, in sharp contrast with a polite scholar in weak constitution. But Sun Lutang (1861-1933) is a notable exception. His life was one of many interesting -- even mysterious -- anecdotes and antidotes, but it might be the unity of these opposites that has made his unique Sun style of taijiquan possible.
Born in a poor family in Wanxian County, Hebei Province, Sun was orphaned and received only one year of schooling. As an apprentice in Baoding, he learned the form-and-will school from Li Kuiyan, who thought that the pupil had surpassed him and recommended him to the famous Master Guo Yunshen for further studies. After the gruelling exercises late at night, Sun would burn a stick of incense and tie the other end to his hand before going to bed. When the glow touched his skin, he would jump out of bed for a morning session. During his stay in Beijing, he had the opportunity to learn baguazhang (eight-diagram palm) from Cheng Tinghua and Li Yuanzhong, disciples of Dong Haichuan. In all these years Sun also applied himself to academic pursuits, thinking that one with great physical but little intellectual power is an incomplete man. He read widely, jotting down every wise saying and pondering over it again and again. He was deeply interested in calligraphy which was a source of joy and inspiration to him. "I wield a brush like a sword and wield a sword like a brush," he philosophized.
But it was not until he was in his fifties that his philosophical ideas reached maturity, resulting in the creation of a new style of taijiquan -- to some extent by accident.
One day he came across a sick man wandering in a street in Beijing. Upon inquiry he came to know that the vagrant, Hao Weizhen, had failed to find out his friend he had turned to for help. Sun took him to his own home and nursed him back to health. In return for his kindness, Hao offered to teach him the Wu-style taijiquan he had inherited from its founder Wu Yuxiang. Unlike the conservative-minded masters prejudiced against other schools, Sun was ready to take up something new and spent two years studying the Wu style, into which he put the best points of the form-and-will and eight-diagram exercises to form the Sun style taijiquan. Needless to say, this would not have been possible without a thorough knowledge of the three, high accomplishments in philosophy and literature, great creativeness and broad vision on the part of the founder.
In the Sun-style exercises one can see dodges, stretches, jumps and holds -- movements hinged on the waist and reminiscent of the eight-diagram palm. At the same time, there are rises, falls, charges and body turns -- movements with an explosive force but no definite forms that are characteristic of the form-and-will exercises. Still it is taijiquan in essence with its circular, graceful, continuous movements, in which mobility is combined with immobility and solidness with voidness in a harmonious way.
Sun was well known for his generosity. When a heavy drought hit his native land in 1922, he returned home with all his savings and lent them to the most needy. Next spring, he called his debtors together and burned all the bills in their presence. According to the Annals of Wanxian County, a woman was going to remarry because her husband had left her for many years and she could no longer support her children on her own. Sun Lutang gave her a huge sum of money, which he said was sent by her husband. It was some time later when her husband came home that the woman came to know that he had never asked anyone to send money home.
Sun often told his disciples and children that a real wushu master had "a virtuous tongue and virtuous hands", which means that he would neither speak evil of others behind their back nor hurt any one except when he is forced to counterattack a malicious person in self defence. In 1923 a Japanese bushido society sent a strongman named Sakagaki to China to challenge Sun. He said arrogantly that he would break Sun's arms and sneered at the sight of his slim figure. But the ruffian was knocked down in the first bout. In 1930, six Japanese challengers came to Sun's home. To show off their physical power, one of them kicked away a stone bench in the backyard. Sun lay down on the ground and asked one of them to hold his head, four to hold his limbs and one just to stand by and count one, two, three. They did as they were told to. At the sound of "three", Sun broke loose and jumped up and all his opponents were thrown to the ground. On both occasions, the challengers owned defeat and invited him to teach martial arts in Japan, offering him a handsome sum of money in advance. But Sun declined and said that he just wanted to teach them a lesson that the Chinese people were not to be insulted.
Sun served as director of the Wudang School Department of the Central Wushu Academy in Nanjing and headmaster of Jiangsu Wushu Academy in Zhenjiang. In the summer of 1933 he told his children that he was homesick, for "all leaves fall to join the roots" as the saying goes. On November 29 that year, he told them at his birthplace that he was going to die next month. They paid little heed to his words, thinking that they were spoken in a daydream. Exactly 30 days later, the father called them together and told them one story after another about the family's history. Then he closed his eyes -- never to open again in his eternal sleep.
He has left behind him a number of works: A Study of Taiji, A Study of Form-and-Will Exercises, A Study of Eight-Diagram Palm Exercises, A Study of Eight-Diagram Swordplay and Essentials of Martial Arts, which are regarded as priceless heritages today.
Like Father, Like Daughter
Among Sun Lutang's outstanding disciples is his daughter Jianyun (1914), who began learning wushu at the age of nine. She practised it every day, even when she was studying traditional Chinese painting at a fine arts school in Beijing. Both she and her father think that martial arts and fine arts are closely related and supplement each other.
When the Suns lived in Zhenjiang, Jianyun was engaged as an instructor of the Jiangsu Wushu Academy, of which her father was the director. In 1959 she acted as a head judge of wushu competitions at the First National Games. In the autumn of 1985 she was invited to Japan by Eiji Goto, President of a wushu society specialized in Sun-style taijiquan. She visited many cities, giving lectures and performances and telling stories about her father who placed morality above technicality as a wushu maestro. When she appeared on the carpet with her light steps and started a routine of swordplay with swift flourishes and movements, one could hardly believe that she was in her seventies. Even when off the arena, she didn't look her age with her all-black hair and a glow of health on her face.
Like her father, Jianyun is a scholar. She has written some books on Sun-style taijiquan, including one on a simplified routine and another on swordplay for the beginners. In spite of her advanced age she is still active as Vice-President of the Sun-Style Taijiquan Society.