Kung fu is about more than kickboxing, a master says
Wearing a long black robe and a stern expression on his face, Jake Ren stood rock still in the center of the stage, unarmed and empty handed.
Four opponents wielding sticks and swords charged at him, slashing and stabbing at his chest, back, stomach and legs.
“Wow!” the audience gasped, some covering their eyes, sure that Ren would suffer bloodshed or fatal injury.
Seemingly shielded by invisible steel armor, Ren fended them off, with even the bat of an eyelash, as the sticks shattered and the swords were twisted and bent.
“Wow, unbelievable!” the audience burst into shouting and cheers. “Bravo!”
For many, Ren’s kung fu demonstration at a large-scale variety show in Hayward, California, was an eye-opener.
Ren, better known as Shi Yanyong shifu, or master, operates the Silicon Valley Shaolin Culture Center in Cupertino, where he teaches youth and adult kung fu classes.
Ren said kung fu was his destiny. “One of the intangible treasures of traditional Chinese culture, kung fu has been playing an integral role in disseminating the artistic essence and Chinese values at home and abroad,” said Ren.
He believes that kung fu can empower an individual physically and mentally, and that kung fu connects people from various backgrounds.
The youngest child in a rural family in Hebei province, Ren has a grandfather and mother who are both locally renowned kung fu experts. When he was 5, Ren naturally chose to inherit the family legacy and started rigorous martial arts drills, which he’s been doing ever since.
He was sent to his grandfather’s martial arts school, which was located at the village’s granary.
“Training was carried out throughout the year, even on the hottest and coldest days,” Ren recalled. “Skipping classes would result in serious consequences — spanking, kneeling and meal deprivation until I pledged to never make the same mistake.”
These “pristine doctrines have taught me to grow from adversity, to face challenges with equanimity, to learn wisdom from hardship,” Ren said, “more importantly, to let failure strengthen your willpower.”
After five years, Ren decided to continue his kung fu training by going to the Shaolin Temple in Henan province, which is regarded to be the cradle of Chinese martial arts and the Mecca of kung fu fans worldwide.
Among the many schools or genres of fighting and defense styles that have developed over centuries in China, kung fu is often classified based on the common traits and categorized into sects. The most well-known probably is Shaolin style, one of the first institutionalized Chinese martial arts, with a history more than 1,500 years old.
An umbrella name for various kinds of quanshu, Shaolin kung fu consists of different sets of skills such as Xiao Hong boxing, Big Hong boxing, Senior Hong boxing, Arhat boxing, Meihuazhuang boxing and Cannon boxing.
“I was 10 years old then, literally learning everything from scratch, at Shaolin,” said Ren. “Over my 10 years stay at the Shaolin Temple, I kept cultivating my character and honing my kung fu skills to be a well-rounded person of persistent spirit with a gentle heart.”
Ren was handpicked by Hebei province to represent the province competing in national and international kung fu tournaments.
“Meanwhile, I gradually, in my own way, integrated traditional Chinese martial arts with modern kick-boxing, kung fu yoga, tai chi and qigong,” he said.
Ren has earned more than 20 championship titles and gold medals at home and abroad and is regarded as a top level referee in martial arts competitions.
He also was invited to be the martial arts designer, director and stunt coordinator for Hong Kong and Chinese mainland blockbusters.
“Fame and fortune are both at my fingertips,” said Ren, “but it makes me uncomfortable.”
In 2006, Ren immigrated to the United States to start teaching Shaolin kung fu to the mixed population of Americans in the Bay Area.
“Western, modern martial arts train an individual to quickly win, but Chinese kung fu strengthens minds and teaches the art of balance and harmony,” said Ren.
“That’s what the essence of kung fu is in my opinion, and what I want to spread.”