Thursday, September 07, 2006
Jee Sim was relaxing in a hammock below deck after a hard day’s cooking, drilling the crew of the Red Junks in Wing Chun, and inciting anti-Qing sentiment amongst the port workers.
The sacking of the Shaolin Temple remained the focus of his thoughts. As it always did, even after so many months.
The heat, the flames of bright orange, the choking smell of the thick smoke that stung the eyes, and the screams of monks dying as they fought against the overwhelming hordes of the Qing.
That and his last glimpse of the face of Ng Mui, whose heart-stopping beauty not even the shapeless nun’s robe and shaven head could conceal. Totally gorgeous, totally untouchable. Five years older than Jee Sim, and more deeply committed to the ways of enlightenment and the Eightfold Path than any of the Temple’s menfolk.
Some of the older monks had grumbled that she spent too much time in the forest and grassland around Mount Sung, observing animals at play, at work, and in conflict, though she spent as much time on menial Temple duties as any of them. That and her many dreams, and the long sessions she spent manipulating the yarrow stalks, consulting the Oracle. But none complained openly, for when she brought the fruits of her observations – new fighting techniques and forms – onto the Killing Floor of the practice hall, none of them could match her.
She had been both unusually attentive, and unusually stern, towards Jee Sim; he had indulged himself with the belief that he was somehow special to her, though he knew the foolishness of it.
The week before the great betrayal and the destruction of the Temple, Ng Mui had been teaching him a new form, one it appeared she was still formulating herself. The section she had taught him was part intricate, serial finger strikes to the vital points, wrists curving and flexing like shafts of green bamboo, and part bludgeoning downward diagonal strikes with the elbow. The soft and pliable with the hard and heavy. Yin and Yang. The Way.
Ng Mui told him it had come to her after she witnessed an encounter between a snake and a crane at her favourite spot near the river. “I call it Bil Jee,” she told him. “Now practise. Two hours at least, every day. Do not falter … the Oracle forecasts dark times ahead. Next week, I will show you the next section.”
Thrilled by both the new techniques, and the attentions of his Elder Sister, Jee Sim practised like a crazy man. But next week brought only the Qing.
Racked with exhaustion and pain from their wounds after many fights with armed Qing mercenaries, and overwhelmed with grief over their many brothers and sisters who had died in the battle, Ng Mui and Jee Sim lay, panting, on a ridge overlooking the firestorm that had been the Shaolin Temple. Their home.
“Sister, are we the only ones to escape?” Jee Sim croaked, before convulsing in a fit of coughing. Both he and Ng Mui had inhaled much smoke.
Ng Mui’s lovely face was streaked with tears, soot, and blood, but her voice was strong. “I don’t know, Jee Sim. But we must hope that we are not.”
“Where shall we go?”
Ng Mui’s panting seemed to slow, dropping in pitch, becoming even more laboured. “I must leave you, Jee Sim. To travel together would mean certain capture and execution.”
“Sister, please, no …”
She shook her head, placed her hand on his arm. “You must go to Guangdong. Seek out the performers of the Red Boat Opera Troupe. They are allies, who oppose the Qing. The nephew of my mother’s childhood friend, a young man named Wong Wa Bo, is among them. By all accounts a brash and foolish youth, but with a rare talent for the Dragon Pole, I am told.”
“And you, Sister?”
“The Oracle told me of a village to the south, where a young woman faces great peril, but with the spirit of a true warrior. It is she that I shall seek.”
They sat until their breathing became deep and regular once more. Then Ng Mui stood. Jee Sim did the same.
“Jee Sim, you were the best of my younger siblings. And also my favourite.” A single sob broke through her composure.
Jee Sim though he would die.
“You must train hard, and meditate, every day. My greatest regret is that I cannot pass the complete Bil Jee form on to you. It contains the ultimate techniques, to turn despair into hope, loss into victory. But, dear Brother, the Bil Jee form is already yours. It is not for a teacher to give, for each student already has its secrets within. So find Bil Jee for yourself. Observe the world and its phenomena closely, and when you find something – you will know when you do – add it to your Bil Jee form.”
She stepped closer to him. “I shall see you again, Jee Sim. If it not in this life, then another.”
She embraced him, her tears warm and wet on his cheek. And then she was gone, into the darkness.
He sensed someone entering the cabin. “What now, Wa Bo? Still more of your questions?” His eyes remained closed.
“How did you know it was me, Master Jee?”
“It’s ALWAYS you. Just once, I’d like a noble’s pretty courtesan to drop by, but no, it’s always Wong Wa Bo and his questions.” Jee Sim swung himself into a sitting position in the hammock, then slid out to stand before Wong Wa Bo.
He scrutinised Wong. “Your face. Screwed up with puzzlement like a squeezed lemon. Bad for your health. Now, what?”
Wong personified glumness. “Forgive me, Master, if I sound ungrateful. But there is so much about your Wing Chun fighting system I do not understand.” He looked at the floor. “You tell others things you do not tell me.”
Not this again, thought Jee Sim. “Like what?”
“Master, Sun Kam told me that he asked you, ‘In Wing Chun, why don’t you kick to the head?’ And you told him, ‘Why don’t you punch to the toe?’”
Jee Sim vaguely recalled a casual conversation with Kam tenuously resembling this, which had occurred several days prior.
“Is it true, Master?” Wong Wa Bo looked as if he were about to fall to his knees and beg.
Jee Sim stared serenely at him for several seconds, allowing Wong Wa Bo’s tension to build still further. Then he started to laugh, a strident, mocking laugh. “I’ve got to get that Sun Kam to rein in his imagination. And you, Wa Bo, must not place so much stock in the words of one who wears his stage makeup every hour of the day.”
“So, it’s not true, Master? Wing Chun kicks to the head?” Wa Bo’s eyes were as wide as serving bowls.
“And we punch to the toe?” Wa Bo’s eyes went wider still and threatened to fall out on the floor.
Jee Sim nodded.
Wong Wa Bo appeared to find this difficult to accept. His face reverted to the same puzzled look it had featured when he arrived.
Jee Sim sighed. “I’ll have to show you, won’t I? All right. Assume your fighting stance.”
Wong Wa Bo put his left foot forward and his hands out in a Wing Chun guard.
“Step and punch. Again. Again. Good. Now, back where you were.”
Wong Wa Bo moved back and Jee Sim took up a guard position in front of him, just out of range. Same again. Step and punch, keep going.”
Wong Wa Bo stepped and punched once, twice. Jee Sim intercepted the second punch with a slap block and a threading arm, then stepped back and dropped suddenly to one knee under Wong’s third punch, dropping his palm heel with full bodyweight behind it onto Wong Wa Bo’s left big toe, just as its foot touched the floor.
“OWOWOWOWOWWWW!” Wong Wa Bo hopped frantically in a circle, clutching his foot.
“Okay, not a punch, a palm heel,” said Jee Sim. “With a punch, you might miss and damage your knuckles on the floor.” He watched Wa Bo’s agitated pogoing, thinking it might make for a good balance exercise for his students. And perhaps there was something there one could use to enter on an opponent’s guard and bridge the gap …
Wa Bo fell over and rocked on his back in place, eyes and teeth clenched, still holding his foot. “W-what about kicking to the head, Master?” he whimpered. His right ear was only inches from Jee Sim’s left foot.
Jee Sim placed the sole of his slipper over Wong Wa Bo’s face.
“It has been a long day in the kitchen, Wa Bo. Do not tempt me.” Jee Sim let him up. “Now, go practice. Leave me alone.”
That worked surprisingly well, thought Jee Sim, back in his hammock. That just might fit into my Bil Jee form.
The Red Boat performers were all ashore, putting on a show. Jee Sim sat out at the far end of a small point, his back to the water, slowly cooking a pot of noodles over a small fire.
The night was clear and still, the waxing moon overhead.
Jee Sim stirred his noodles, fully present, fully content.
Footfalls, coming closer.
Three men in Imperial Qing uniforms were coming towards him, two huge brutes flanking a smaller man wearing the insignia of a Major, their bearded faces wearing expressions of ill intent.
“Can I help you gentlemen?” Jee Sim enquired. “Some noodles, perhaps?”
The Major stopped a few yards away. The two monsters kept coming until they stood one each side of Jee Sim.
“We have reason to believe a traitor, one of the Shaolin Temple escapees, is nearby!”
Jee Sim shrugged, and continued to stir his noodles.
“On your FEET!” snarled the Major, and signalled to his men to haul Jee Sim to a standing position.
Jee Sim leapt up as the men reached down, then bent forward suddenly at the waist as they reached up again. He grabbed the pot with both hands, lifting, hurling the pot and its contents underarm, straight at the Major’s face. He continued to rotate his arms backward striking each of the subordinate thugs in the temple, then down, striking each in the floating ribs. Both fell to the ground, unconscious.
Jee Sim then rushed at the Major, whose freshly acquired noodle headdress made him look like an albino jellyfish had leapt from the water to attack his face. Jee Sim dispatched him quickly with three chain punches.
He was about to run, when he heard more voices on the path. Military honorifics, shouted orders. Keeping his eyes on the three he had just downed, he waded backward into the river and quietly cast himself into a backstroke, heading for deep water.
Later that night, concealed in a secret compartment on one of the Red Boats, comfortable again in dry clothes, Jee Sim reviewed the fight in detail. The manoeuvre with the pot of noodles, and the backstroke, worked very well. That, he thought, can go in my Bil Jee form.
Jee Sim regarded the young man before him.
THIS was Wong Wa Bo, by some accounts the best pole exponent on the Red Boats? This young pup, all youthful overconfidence and eagerness to please, barely old enough to grow a light fuzz on his upper lip?
“All right,” said Jee Sim, “Show me your form.”
Wong selected the longest and heaviest of the boating poles, and stood it on end beside him. Typical youngster, always trying to impress. Wong handled the heavy pole with surprising poise and dexterity, though even the most ignorant observer would have seen at once that it was far too heavy for him.
Jee Sim watched, silent and stone faced.
“Not bad,” He told Wong. “But you need a lighter, more flexible pole.” Jee Sim selected a willow pole about eight feet long; too light,short and flexible for poling the boat, but ideal for fighting. Jee Sim took the pole and tried a sudden jut kwun. The end of the pole whipped satisfyingly. “This is what you need ,” he told Wong Wa Bo.
Wong Wa Bo laughed loudly.
Against his will, Jee Sim was reminded of a braying donkey.
“Master – always with the jokes. That pole, no strength for blocking, no power for hitting.”
Jee Sim sighed. “I’ll have to show you, won’t I? All right. Assume your fighting stance.”
Both men assumed similar stances, weight on the back leg, the tip of each pole pointed at the other man’s face.
Jee Sim darted forward, feinting a head strike. Wong Wa Bo parried with a tan kwun and yelled triumphantly, launching a downward bludgeoning strike with the heavy pole, confident of snapping Jee Sim’s puny stick of willow.
But Jee Sim parried with a bon kwun, his pole flexing enough to dissipate the force of Wong’s blow, the give, and then recoil, unsettling Wong. Jee Sim now swung a horizontal circular strike at Wong’s head, delaying just enough to give Wong time to smile patronisingly as he lifted his own pole to where Jee Sim’s strike should have been stopped, missing Wong’s head by inches.
But inches were not enough. The tip of Jee Sim’s pole whipped around Wong’s parry, striking Wong behind the ear.
“OWWW!” Wong dropped his pole, clutching his head.
Jee Sim had already whipped the willow pole back overhead, stopping its vibrating tip an inch above Wong’s skull.
“How did you hit me, Master?” Wong asked, still tentatively rubbing the new lump on his head.
“The willow pole hit you.” Jee Sim rolled Wong’s heavy pole, on the deck where Wong had dropped it, away from him with his foot. “That one is for the boat. This one is for you,” he told Wong, giving him the willow pole. “No more questions. Practice hard, two days at least, before you come to see me again.”
Two days later, almost to the minute, Wong Wa Bo rushed into the galley, where Jee Sim was busy sharpening the knives and cleavers.
“Master! I thought for many hours about your lesson on the flexible pole, and I have invented a new weapon!” Wong was carrying a bundle of thick bamboo sticks, maybe seven or eight in number. He took two by the ends and pulled them apart; the bamboo sections sprung together to form a queue, neither rigid nor flexible.
Jee Sim could see that the bamboo pieces were joined together by strong leather thongs. “And what is this?” he inquired.
“Wong Wa Bo grinned. “I call it the ‘articulated pole’, Master,” he said proudly.
Why me, wondered Jee Sim. “Looks interesting,” he said. “How do you use it?”
Wong grabbed the first and third sections in each hand and adopted a stance, giving every indication he was about to start swinging the contraption with all his might.
“STOP!” cried Jee Sim, fearing for the galley, and what he and the crew might do to Wong Wa Bo if it were damaged and their meals affected. “Not in here. We’ll go up on deck.”
Wong Wa Bo raced obediently ahead, Jee Sim following at a more measured pace, feeling the familiar sense of unease that accompanied Wa Bo’s “experiments” and “demonstrations”.
Wong had taken up a position in the middle of the deck. Jee Sim took up a position well out of range, and then, once Wong Wa Bo started swinging, twirling and flailing his contraption, a couple more precautionary steps further back.
It was debatable whether Wong or his invention had the upper hand, as both flipped, whipped, and spun for what seemed like a small eternity. Finally Wong stopped, his apparatus wrapping itself around his torso, the far end tapping him on the shin loudly. Wong grimaced for an instant, but hid the pain well. “What do you think, Master?”
You really don’t want to know, thought Jee Sim, moving closer. “Attack me with that weapon,” he said. “Whatever happens, don’t let go.”
Wong Wa Bo took a couple of swings of the weapon around his head to build momentum, then let fly with a wild horizontal swing at Jee Sim’s head.
Jee Sim stepped inside the arc of the attack, grabbing the outermost two sections with a double larp sao. Using his forearms, his wu sao and intertwining his arms in the interlocking, rapid fire bil jee striking formation taught to him by his Elder Sister, Ng Mui, he quickly tied the multiple sections of the outlandish weapon into a tight, complex knot. An instant’s glance at Wong Wa Bo had him still gripping the end of the weapon tightly, as instructed, though the open mouthed expression of incredulity on his face was not in the script.
Jee Sim took a rapid backward step, still holding the knot of bamboo securely. Wong Wa Bo, still holding on tight, pulled back.
Which was what Jee Sim was waiting for. As Wong pulled hard, Jee Sim threw the knot forward, with an underarm motion. Fut sao, he thought.
The knot, moving with the combined force of Wong’s tug on the end of the weapon and Jee Sim’s throwing motion, shot towards Wong at high speed, striking Wong in the solar plexus and knocking him to the floor.
Je Sim rushed in, assuming the now familiar orientation of looking down on Wong Wa Bo while the latter was supine on the deck, groaning in pain.
“I suggest you persist with the willow pole,” advised Jee Sim.
“Yes … urhgh … Master… Thank you.”
Jee Sim returned to the galley, picking up another cleaver and the sharpening stone.
That worked pretty well, the double larp sao, the interweaving finger strikes and the fut sao, he thought. That goes in my form.
Late afternoon, and the Red Boats were running with the strong easterly wind, sliding smooth and fast over the water.
Jee Sim was practicing his balance, stance and footwork at the bow of the Heaven Boat, enjoying the roaring silence of the wind in his ears, and the river-scape unfolding before him.
The boat cut a swathe through a school of fish, Jee Sim occasionally glimpsing a silver flash as a larger fish slipped sideways to avoid the keel. But it was the water itself that captivated him, as it bifurcated smoothly around the sharp end of the bow, twin plumes spouting to either side like blades.
As the boat rolled to port, the starboard plume spouted higher, and as it tilted the other way the plume to port became larger.
Jee Sim took up double weighted stance, hips, knees and ankles light and mobile, using footwork to maintain balance as the deck pitched and rolled, moving his stance to face always the higher side of the boat.
That night, they berthed at Xiansi. Next morning, Jee Sim took Wong Wa Bo into a dense forest, an overgrown track leading up a steep hill.
“Where are we going, Master?” asked Wong.
The locals called the place the Forest of Birds. The creatures were all around, some with plumage of breathtaking colours, others with complex, musical songs, still others with enthralling aerobatic skills, bright flashes of colour careening through the trees threatening, but always avoiding, collisions with their fellows.
“There is a disused temple up here, I am told,” said Jee Sim. “It may be a good place to practice, away from the eyes of strangers.”
Wong followed slowly, staring up into the trees, marvelling at the birds, until they reached a point where the forest rapidly became thicker, the going becoming heavier.
“Come on, Wa Bo.” Jee Sim pushed his way through the branches, long and thin, but so elastic and pliable as to be almost impossible to break. Wong caught up, but still paid more attention to the birds than to where he was going.
Jee Sim pushed hard to bend back a particularly tenacious branch; one he was past, it snapped back hard, the foliage catching Wong Wa Bo fair in the face. “AAH!”
“Look where you’re going!” Jee Sim told him, but only twenty yards further on, the same thing happened. This time, despite a loudly spoken warning from Jee Sim, Wong caught a branch fair in the stomach, and was knocked to the ground. He got to his feet, looking reproachfully at the Master.
Jee Sim sighed. “Right. YOU lead the way. Think you can manage that?”
Wong, face long and eyes downcast, passed Jee Sim and began pushing forward through the trees. Jee Sim caught the first branch with a tan sao; but he found it difficult to judge the best blocks to use, as they continued up the track. The dense foliage on the branches made it difficult to find a single solid contact point. At times it felt as if he were trying to redirect a swarm of insects.
Then he remembered the previous evening on the boat, and the twin plumes of water arcing away from the boat as it tilted and rolled through the water. What if he used two arms to catch the incoming branch? He imagined himself as the keel slicing though the water, one arm high, the other low. He caught the next branch with ease with a combination tan sao and garn sao; the next he had to intercept near the outer leaves and twigs, using a low bon in front with the high hand held in tan behind to prevent the flexible outer fronds whipping around and hitting him in the face, the same misfortune Wong Wa Bo had suffered in his first encounter with Jee Sim’s willow pole.
“Wa Bo,” he cried. “Faster!”
Wong picked up the pace, not an easy undertaking in a dense forest. “Are we being followed, Master?”
“No,” said Jee Sim using his bon and tan to roll away an incoming branch. “This is good endurance training for you. Come on, fast as you can!” The branches came quicker, but Jee Sim found his double arm blocks were easily keeping up.
Finally they made it through to a clearing, Wong heaving and gasping for breath from his exertions, Jee Sim with the excited and thoughtful expression of one who had made a true discovery.
The temple was small, not much bigger than the home of a poor family. A grinning, rotund statue of the Buddha remained intact, surrounded by broken tiles and animal droppings.
While Wong recovered, Jee Sim grabbed a fallen branch with leaves still intact and methodically swept the area around the statue. When he had finished, he bowed to the statue, joining his left fist and right palm before him.
“Wa Bo! Are you ready to train now?”
“But I thought the run up the mountain…” said Wong, until he saw Jee Sim’s expression, all business. “Uh. Yes, Master, I am ready,” he said, though his tone of voice indicated otherwise.
“Practise your kick defences.” Jee Sim kicked at Wong Wa Bo with a wide variety of kicks, low, high, straight, circular and spinning, concentrating on combinations that would cause Wong to be caught with a blocking hand low when it should have been high, or vice versa. Wong, despite his fatigue from the forest-penetrating push up the mountain, did pretty well, but Jee Sim found he was able to tap Wong’s solar plexus, floating ribs, or temple rather more often than he would have liked - and certainly more than Wong would have liked.
“Right. Your turn. Attack me.” Wong, trained from birth for the opera, had retained the natural suppleness and flexibility of childhood, and, despite his fatigue, threw a variety of fast and effortless kicks at Jee Sim. Jee Sim stayed close to Wong, smothering his low kicks with counter kicks of his own, or using his knee or shin to redirect them, and using “soft” arms, catching the middle and high gate attacks with his new two arm blocks. He found that by raising his shin as well when necessary, almost any attack could be nullified.
Finally, Wong threw a fast, mid-level round kick that would have levelled an unskilled fighter. Jee Sim, however, stepped inside the arc and took the blow using breathing and shock absorption, catching the blow on the upper arm of his garn sao, the tan sao of the other arm checking the knee so the shin could not complete its follow through and cause damage. He converted the garn sao into a tan, catching Wong’s leg in the crook of his elbow, and the other arm from the tan sao to a forearm check on Wong’s chest. He then used the circling step that Ng Mui had taught him to open the first form to sweep Wong’s supporting leg from underneath him, lifting him up and then dropping him onto the grass.
“OOF!” grunted Wong. Then, “Master, that technique …”
“Up,” said Jee Sim. “I’ll show you. The first technique, I call the Splitting Block.”
Jee Sim demonstrated, and then drilled Wong Wa Bo in its execution. “The palm of the tan sao should be head high. Good. Now I’ll kick, you defend.”
Once Wong had got the gist, Jee Sim showed him the second technique. “The Rolling Block. Bon sao and tan sao. Keep your elbows and shoulders level.”
Before very long, Jee Sim was satisfied with Wong’s efforts. “Right, Wa Bo, back we go. This time, I’ll go ahead. Use your new techniques to protect yourself from the angry branches of the trees I push out of the way.”
Jee Sim raced through the trees, Wong right behind him. Glad I decided to do this on the way down and not the way up, Jee Sim thought.
Wong was panting, but there were no cries of pain from branches to the face like there were going up. It seemed all too soon that the reached the bottom of the mountain, careering into a clearing, leaving the forest behind.
Both men stopped to catch their breath. Jee Sim looked up. There were birds everywhere, colourful, raising a tuneful cacophony, an inarticulate but raucous audience to their achievements.
“Master, are the birds not beautiful?” Wong asked, after they had stood, rapt, for several minutes.
“Indeed they are, Wa Bo,” Jee Sim said. All the more so, he mused, after such an interesting and productive day. “Come, back to the boat. I’m inspired to cook a special treat for all tonight.”
The next day, once the Boats were out in deep water, well away from prying Qing eyes, Jee Sim asked the Opera performers to come up on deck for a demonstration. He began with the opening movements common to the first two Wing Chun forms, Small Thought and Searching for the Bridge; but then his hands flew in the intricate, curving patterns his Elder Sister had taught him. Fast footwork, crushing elbows, finger strikes flashing in sequence like vipers. Then suddenly, he parried an imaginary blow and dropped to one knee; stood again, split and rolled with his two arm blocks, interweaving a variety of combination kicks; three long, fast backward steps covering the line with fut sao, and then two rapid covering steps forward, followed by rapid fire horizontal finger strikes. A double larp sao, then more vertical jabs with the fingers in interlocking trajectories, and a sudden fold at the waist, the arms leading the torso quickly back to an erect posture, straight into chain punches.
Jee Sim performed the finishing bow. The performers broke into spontaneous cheering.
“This is your new form,” Jee Sim announced to the throng. “It is called Bil Jee. I learned it from my Elder Sister, the Shaolin nun Ng Mui, the finest fighter who ever walked the Earth … a Qing Major … and,” he said, looking over the crowd, “from one of my students.” Once more he bowed.
Early evening. Jee Sim was cleaning the serving bowls.
“Wa Bo. How unexpected.”
“Forgive my ungovernable curiosity … but … which student taught you the Bil Jee form?”
Jee Sim chuckled. “Wa Bo, you would not believe me if I told you.”
Several hundred miles away, Ng Mui sat, unobtrusive and disguised, in a teahouse not far from Yim Yee’s tofu shop. She sorted and cast the yarrow stalks six times, asking the I Ching about the fate of Jee Sim.
Hexagram sixty-three, After Completion. Something had come to an end or a resolution, and all was in harmony. But the lines were all moving lines, sixes and nines.
Great success had been achieved, but each moving line warned of a particular quality that was needed to ensure its continuation.
Attention to detail.
Jee Sim, she knew, would act as required in the days ahead.
The resulting hexagram, incorporating the moving lines, was number sixty-four, Before Completion. A new phase, a new time was already beginning. Their life at the Temple was gone forever; but fresh and exciting challenges, with great rewards, lay ahead.
Never had she experienced so supremely auspicious a reading.
“Jee Sim, my brother, still our spirits rise,” she murmured, smiling.
[Acknowledgement to Kung Fu Online Wing Chun forum member SunKuen for providing certain ideas]
Copyright © Andrew Nerlich
Sydney, November 2005