At 5:30 every morning in this gray megalopolis, a kung fu teacher walks to a patch of woods near his studio, to limber up and clear his mind.
Whether the dawn air is frigid, smoggy or stiflingly hot, Zhang Xiaohang sticks to his daily routine.
“You need to have a calm heart to practice,” Zhang said during one of his recent morning workouts. “This composure is very important for practicing traditional Chinese martial arts. If your heart isn’t at peace, you can’t keep doing this work.”
Beijing is a city where supercharged growth conspires to crowd out the past, but Zhang takes pride in being a throwback. He’s the heir of a form of kung fu that stretches back to the Ming dynasty of the 17th century. With a younger generation glued to their smartphones and video games, his challenge is to keep his family’s legacy alive.
“In today’s society, there are many distractions,” he said while working out in the woods. “For example, you see other people living in large houses, driving nice cars, and you start to feel anxious. You think, ‘I need to go make money.’ You can’t practice martial arts with that kind of mentality.”
In the West, kung fu is often equated with the Hong Kong and Hollywood fighting antics of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. At Zhang’s multiple studios, students learn techniques for self-defense and building physical strength. But he also emphasizes the lesser-known side of kung fu – mental fitness, or, as he puts it, “composure.” Kung fu, he said, involves both internal capacity and external capacity, and without both, one cannot claim to know “Zhongguo wushu,” or Chinese martial arts.
In today’s society, there are many distractions. . . . You can’t practice martial arts with that kind of mentality.
Zhang Xiaohang, kung fu teacher
Zhang’s traditional approach has gained him a wide following. He now has three studios in China, two affiliates in Brazil and one in California, he said, with nearly 3,000 students in total. Some of these are youngsters, whose parents hope that self-defense training will make them safer. Others are elders and middle-aged Chinese, such as Han Xiaoyan, who take tai chi classes aimed at improving health.
Han said she chose Zhang’s studio in western Beijing because it had “higher standards,” with a priority of avoiding injuries.
“When I come here, I never hurt my knees or other parts of my body,” she said, before demonstrating a set of stretches, including a deep split on the floor. “Mr. Zhang has a very scientific method.”
Controversial among purists
Among kung fu purists in China, Zhang is controversial, partly because he has chosen to mass-market his art, with a website and videos. He also teaches his kung fu to “outsiders,” including students from the United States, Japan and Brazil.
Asked about the criticism he’s received, Zhang said he was willing to bear it: “The more people I can pass this on to, the more chance this art will endure.”
With his soft face and gentle smile, Zhang does not look like a formidable fighting machine. Nor does he look 41 years old. His body is so limber he can lean over and touch his palms to the floor. His movements are fluid and graceful, whether he is demonstrating a kick or pouring tea.
Early in his career, Zhang worked as a bodyguard for a businessman in Hong Kong, and got in several scrapes. “I was hurt many, many times,” he said. “But it was a time when I could put my kung fu into practice and see how effective it was.”
China state media have run several news articles and TV segments about Zhang. Some of them describe him as the great-grandson of Zhang Changzhen, a legendary kung fu master who served as a bodyguard for the Empress Dowager Cixi, the effective ruler of China until her death in 1908.
Yet as Zhang readily acknowledged, he does not have direct lineage to this kung fu master. He grew up in Anhui, one of China’s poorest provinces, and was adopted at age 12 by the grandson of Zhang Changzhen. It was his adopted father who gave the boy his name of Zhang Xiaohang, and taught him the secrets of “Zhangsan-style” kung fu.
My father told me that if I don’t carry this on, I would be a criminal of history.
According to Zhang, the family’s style of kung fu originated in Sichuan province during the Ming dynasty, developed by a trio of military generals. After Zhang Changzhen adopted it, Zhangsan-style kung fu was passed down to each of his heirs, with high expectations. “My father told me that if I don’t carry this on, I would be a criminal of history,” said Zhang.
The young kung fu practitioner nearly failed in this mission. Returning to Beijing from Hong Kong nearly two decades ago, Zhang worked as a sports instructor, nursing dreams of starting a wushu school. When he finally put his plan into action, he soon realized he had no business acumen. The school nearly went bankrupt.
Zhang said he thought about quitting but decided instead to spend a week at a Buddhist temple in Tianjin for spiritual guidance. He decided to have another go at it. His timing was fortuitous.
From 2010 to 2012, China was jolted by series of knife attacks at schools in various parts of the country. Some 25 people died, and another 115 were wounded. Parents were alarmed. They asked school officials to step up security. Many enrolled their children in self-defense classes.
Filling a need
Sensing opportunity, Zhang developed special kung fu training for kids. It is now a major part of his franchise, along with instructing students from overseas.
Scott Tamas, a Los-Angeles based doctor of acupuncture and oriental medicine, started studying with Zhang in 2006 after taking wushu classes at a university in Beijing.
“I wasn’t happy at all with what they were teaching,” he said of the university. “I wanted something deeper.”
Tamas and a friend, a Brazilian lawyer named Bruno Barros, said they were looking for an instructor who would treat them like family – someone who would teach them the internal and external dynamics of martial arts. They said they found that in Zhang.
“Kung fu is more than simple fighting,” said Barros, 33. “It is about receiving a philosophy, a way of life, and doing your best in what you are doing.”
Tamas, 39, and Barros have gone on to start Zhangsan-style institutes in Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro. There, they are trying to revive interest in traditional kung fu amid a culture obsessed with more modern hybrids, such as mixed martial arts.
In June, the two friends returned to Beijing briefly to spend time with their “shifu,” or master. The visit included training, performances and ceremonial meals, including drinking Chinese rice wine, known as baijiu.
According to legend, Zhang Changzhen was known as the “alcoholic Zhangsan,” for sometimes being inebriated on duty.
While not an alcoholic, his adopted great-grandson admits he is carrying on part of this legacy. “I have always liked drinking,” he said with a laugh, pointing to a wall of his office. It was lined with bottles.
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.