A Reflection on the International Competition at Zhengzhou, China, 2014

by Dr Khoo Cheng Choo

When I started learning Tai Chi a few years ago, I  was solely motivated by a great love and  respect for the art and aspirations for better fitness  and health. Competition was never on my Tai Chi agenda.  It never occurred to me that it was possible. Therefore, to be a part of any Tai Chi competition, much less an international one like the 10th Zhengzhou Shaolin Wushu Competition and Festival in China, was utterly  unanticipated and quite unbelievable! And it was wholly attributed  to the encouragement of my Tai Chi instructor.  

An initial reason that had prompted me to go to Zhengzhou was my  curiosity. Once the idea was mooted by Dr Larissa, I became curious about what people did in such competitions, how they were organised, how events were executed and managed,  what routines and duration and what rules were followed. It just seemed so very complex and I just couldn’t fathom what the experience was going to be like. 

Actually, what clinched it for me  was  the prospect of visiting the renowned Shaolin Temple where the Opening Ceremony had been scheduled. I am a huge Shaolin movie fan so how could I pass up the opportunity to visit such hallowed grounds and walk through the authentic, ancient Shaolin Temple?  This clearly was an opportunity not to be missed.

I guess what also helped was that I just wanted a holistic experience of the entire event.  I enjoy Tai Chi practice and did not expect much else, so  there was no great  pressure except to try to remember the routines for my two events – Tai Chi Short Form and Tai Chi  Fan. 

I was excited and appreciative of the fact that even seniors like me could still be part of such  a remarkable event. Tai Chi seems to be one of the very rare  sports  that allows seniors to participate as an athlete. Now I’m grateful as it has added yet another dimension to my life.

So now  I have been to the 10th Zhengzhou China International Shaolin Wushu Festival  and survived my first international Tai Chi competition! Amazing!

Initially, on arrival in Zhengzhou,  there were plenty of hiccups and frustration. There was a marked absence of schedules, competition and training venues and nobody seemed really certain about what was happening, where to go and what to do. 

Interestingly, University language students were used as volunteer interpreters and assigned to each international team. Armed with only their classroom language skills and scarce details about schedules and other related information, they had to field all manner of questions by us, the new arrivals. Being bombarded with copious and incessant questions must have been very daunting for these young volunteers. Yet they stuck it out and looked after us every day.

Our interpreter was a pretty young lady who called herself “Harry”. She was studying English Language at Henan University. She and her fellow interpreters took us to practice venues on time and tried their utmost to assist in whatever they could. Communication was difficult at first but it eased as we and our hosts became less anxious when things began to fall into place.

Yet despite the initial chaos, it was interesting to observe how, out of the seeming confusion, there emerged a strange  and yet very streamlined event management system on the second day onwards.

To cater to, accommodate, feed, bus and ensure the prompt delivery of over 1800  participants/competitors to the competition and opening and closing ceremony venues  is a gargantuan task, yet we were delivered to the right hotels, fed three solid meals every day, bussed to Shaolin Temple for the Opening Ceremony, the city theatre for the Closing Ceremony and the competition venue for training, practice and competition with almost  clockwork precision. Although our Henanese hosts were very hospitable, they had an unusual administrative and management culture and style that seemed  different to ours.

Within the apparent chaos there was order. The volunteers and team leaders seemed to have continuous meetings with the organisers, holed up in hotel rooms. Glued to their mobile phones, they received what seemed to be endless ever changing last minute instructions.

The Opening Ceremony at Shaolin Temple

Over 1800 people were bussed to Dengfeng on 17 October for the Opening Ceremony. It was a dismal, rainy, hazy day and as we entered Dengfeng  we suddenly heard synchronised shouts and there they were  – the Wushu school students lining both sides of the street and performing Wushu routines, lion and dragon dances, even boxing  for us in the rain! 

Their raw energy, enthusiasm and utter commitment were  stellar. It was indeed an honour to be welcomed to the Shaolin Temple Opening Ceremony in an almost mini Olympic fashion. Again it was totally unexpected and almost unreal  as hundreds of Wushu students ranging from tiny tots to muscled and toned youths welcomed us with their practice routines.

Little boys did their martial arts stances, some performed Monkey routines  – complete with somersaults, monkey grimaces and  scratching gestures. Indeed it was amazing to watch and I was inspired by their absolute dedication to the art!

The Opening Ceremony was  complete with a drone hovering above the Square and monitoring the event. Local Chinese  VIPs gave their standard speeches and received the mandatory applause.  Fortunately prior to the speeches, the Shaolin monks entertained the crowds on two stages. They spun, somersaulted, bridged, climbed, leaped  and pyramided.  Their Wushu skills mesmerised a gasping crowd who had a field day snapping shots.

The highlight was when we were released from the Square to wander around the huge Shaolin  complex. As we hurried towards the main Temple complex,  we were further entertained by  thousands of the students performing everywhere – on the steps, the parks, meditating under the trees, shouting in synchronicity as they hit their hands on sand bags or their poles on the ground. Then finally, amidst  the hordes of people milling about,  I saw the Temple – ancient, unadorned and not grand like its reputation.  Yet, it emanated a powerful but very tranquil ambience.  Young and old monks in grey robes stood around in attendance. However, as time was limited we quickly returned to re-join the team at the bus depot.

The Shaolin Zen Music Ritual  Show near the Shaolin Temple

A truly mystical treat. This Academy Award winning show is a collaborative effort of Chinese and international show experts and the Abbot of the Shaolin Temple. 

Staged in the open against the backdrop of the stunning Songshan Mountain, the show is a magical melding of ancient Buddhist meditation, Shaolin Kung Fu practices, melodic traditional music and astounding modern digital technology. Juxtaposed with this festive performance of sight and sound is the stillness of inimitable and tranquil presence of five monks, deep in meditation and motionless throughout the whole performance.

The glorious music composed by Tan Dun was in five movements depicting the Chinese five elements (Water, Wood, Light, Wind, Stone) beautifully performed by the National Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonic. At times soft and meditative and at other times strong and powerful it was always haunting.  It was indeed a fitting close to a spectacular Opening Ceremony.

Finally – the Competition

It was a huge competition. The cavernous gymnasium was decked in colourful international flags. Competitors, observers, officials, volunteers ebbed and flowed in the huge hall. Competitors and supporters from different countries (Asia, Europe, USA, South America, Canada, Middle East, India, Russia) and  local members sat in the mezzanine level and cheered their teams. 

Sometimes I found the whoops and shouts from Wushu exponents mingled with cheers and chants from their supporters rather disconcerting but  they electrified the hall and  heightened our sense of participation. Surprisingly too, once the competition started, the events flowed smoothly and on schedule.  Marshals, ushers, interpreters were at hand to ensure that we queued up in the right place for the right event and at the exact right time. Panels of judges faced the four huge carpeted arenas where events were simultaneously running. 

Getting onto the arena (carpeted area) for warming-up was a rather intimidating and unsettling experience. Every one was claiming a bit of “real estate” and I was totally distracted and mesmerised by sword and cudgel wielding competitors slashing, thrusting and piercing the air all around me. Then other Wushu exponents dived and swooped on the floor as they practised their unusual routines. I was transfixed by so much sight, sound and energy swirling around me that I just stood still to watch. It took a while to start my own warming-up. 

Costumes from both female and

male competitors were fabulous. Sequinned and embroidered silks, satins  in myriad gorgeous colours and designs flashed and swirled beautifully as the competitors twirled  their weapons. Lovely Tai Chi competitors flowed and swayed languidly and elegantly to soothing Tai Chi music. Despite the cacophony of shouts, whistles, the music emanated a surreal sense of calm.

Events were performed in front of a panel of about 10 judges and  lasted 2-6 minutes with whistle blows indicating the termination of each event . The results were immediately tabulated and flashed quickly on the computerised score boards. Less than twenty minutes after the release of results, winners were awarded their medals and certificates in an outdoor award presentation ceremony. As far as we could tell there were no technical or logistical hitches at all.

During warming-up in the arena, swords, cudgels, hands and feet were  flying, kicking, boxing, slithering everywhere. It was hard not to be intimidated!  Then suddenly the  warm-up ended and marshals herded everyone off the arena as the competition began. 

The  waiting period was rather nerve wrecking but a necessary evil. Although I was quite relaxed while we were warming-up, I suddenly found my knees quivering and my heart palpitating while waiting to enter the arena. Tension  was high during the wait but once we started, the tension dissipated. Although there were other competitors on the arena,  I felt a sense of isolation and as quickly as it started the whistle blew and the event was over. It was a strange and almost euphoric experience.

Daily Training for Duan Wei Grading

On arrival for training at the competition venue, our instructors from different colleges informed us that the new standardised  Duan Wei routines for Levels 1-5  Duan Wei grading had been just released and we had to learn them in order to be graded because the Chinese Wushu Association had replaced the old Duan Wei routines with the new ones for all the levels. So everyone undergoing the grading had to learn the new routines within 4-5 days. In addition, it was mandatory to sit through a lecture and a written examination.

Amazingly, everyone happily complied and set about learning the new “Taolu” (routines) – both single and dual forms from the two assigned Masters. It was gruelling as we had to be transported out every day, for  five days at 7.30am, return to hotel for lunch and rush back again at 2pm to continue training till almost 6pm. It was challenging and so rewarding and the instructors were truly generous and dedicated. They had limitless patience and willingness to help us  to review difficult movements.

However, the Grading authorities were very strict and even after the exam and performance, not everyone was  qualified for the level they applied for.  It was fortunate that  Barbara and Khoo were qualified for Duan Wei  Level Two.

Impromptu Performance
at the Henan City Centre Public Park

Our Tai Chi group together with the best performers at the Festival were hand-picked by the Organising Committee and the Secretary General of the Henan Wushu Association to meet the Zhengzhou public in the City Centre Park. Our team performed Yang Style Tai Chi Traditional Routine  and 32 Forms Straight Tai Chi Sword which the Zhengzhou public enjoyed and complimented. The event was attended by the city administration and the International Wushu Federation (IWUF) authorities and was televised that very evening.

The Overall Experience

In retrospect, the experience was definitely inspiring, valuable and educational.  There were plenty of glitches initially, but these were outweighed by what I had learnt from participating in the 10th Zhengzhou  Shaolin Competition and Festival. I had interacted with wonderful local Henanese people and benefited from their generosity and hospitality, I had visited  the revered  Shaolin Temple, I had seen the transcendent Shaolin Zen Music Ritual, authentic  Shaolin monks and Wushu students performing their incredible Shaolin Kung Fu and, best of all,  I had stepped onto the carpeted arena and participated as a competitor and, briefly, only briefly, I was part of the international Wushu and Tai Chi community! And for that I am thankful…

Shaolin-2014-10-19 14.56.58

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