Martial arts master Li Liangui, an expert in suogugong, or body shrinking kung fu, takes a deep breath and dislocates the bones in his arm before stretching it in a way that he insists is more painful to watch than it is to do.
There are scores of differing fighting styles that come under the heading of kung fu, but suogugong is one of the most arcane and most challenging. While the popular fighting style wushu is thriving as a hobby among China’s emerging middle class, Li, who has travelled the world to preach the message of kung fu, is worried that many traditional forms of martial arts are in danger of dying out, and he is struggling to find new students.
“The bones need to be flexible and small. This kind of kung fu is passed from generation to generation, but only a very small number of people can become the master of it, because it’s very painful to begin with,” says Li, a fresh-faced 70-year-old with a long wispy beard, as he pours tea in his airy Beijing apartment.
On the floor are weights and pictures of Li in action, holding a bar behind his head with his feet, doing the splits, lifting his leg high over his head as he sits on his mat, not the kind of activities you would normally expect of a retiree. After we speak for a while, we go into another room, where Li bends and picks up four dumbbells and dislocates his shoulder in the process, on purpose, so that it appears that it is the ligament that is holding the weight. It’s impressive, if startling.
“I’m looking for a student, because I’m worried this kind of kung fu will become extinct otherwise. The difficult thing is finding a student who is smart, who has a flexible and supple body, who also has good morals, as they can’t use kung fu to do bad things. So it’s quite hard to find someone who is suitably qualified,” he says.
Kung fu is immensely popular in China, and is seen as the apex of martial arts. Practitioners say other fighting arts, including karate, originated from kung fu. The most popular is Shaolin kung fu, which has more than a million learners around the world and many centres of Shaolin culture globally.
However, suogugong requires a different kind of discipline, and learning it is a painful process and requires the kind of dedication that is more difficult to find these days in an increasingly materialistic society.
“Nowadays it’s difficult for parents to allow their children to follow this kind of path because they all want their children to go to college, and go abroad to study. But in my opinion, people need a skill and to find a perfect student and a perfect teacher, you need a perfect match,” says Li.
Although it looks gentle, suogugong includes strong martial elements, including kicking, wrestling, hitting and throwing. Some is based on contortion. He asks me to grab the skin on his upper chest, and then flexes his muscle, releasing the flesh.
“The person should ideally be younger than 20. It doesn’t matter if they are a man or a woman. Before you turn 20, your bones remain flexible. Many of the students I have taught have moved abroad now, but they haven’t really mastered. I have done videos to teach people, but it’s not the same as teaching a person face-to-face,” says Li.
Hong Kong actors such as Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, and mainland proponents including Jet Li, have done much to popularise kung fu on TV and in movies, but basically that style is the discipline that comes from the Shaolin monastery, found 96km west of Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province in central China.
“They popularised Chinese culture and attracted a lot of people to that kind of Shaolin kung fu,” says Li.
“That Shaolin style is very, very commercial, it’s basically a brand to sell a product. But actual kung fu requires a lot of work and dedication, and years of practice. The relationship between a teacher and the student is like that between a father and son, it’s very close,” he adds.
Even Shaolin kung fu faces problems. Many sign up to do it, attracted by the self-defence aspect, but few stay the course and practitioners bemoan the lack of dedication among young people taking up martial arts.
Li began at the age of seven in Beijing, when he was working in a materials shop for a master from Shandong province, who began to teach him as a way of encouraging better behaviour in the unruly child.
“My most important task is to pass this knowledge on, no matter where or to whom. I’ve done this all over the world, and have looked for a successor everywhere. The person just has to have a kind heart, the right body, because I’m at this age and this is my biggest challenge, to make sure this does not die out with my generation,” says Li.
“That would be a big regret, a great loss.”