26 February 2019 would have been the 70th birthday of my beloved teacher, Kang Zhiqiang (RIP), who passed away in 2002. I haven't posted anything here in a long time, so thought it would be a good idea to add something in memory of the great man. I don't post much online about my Tanglang activities, but rest assured I am still training hard, teaching a few good people and passing on his knowledge to this day.
Back in 2017 I had the good fortune of being interviewed about my experiences with Mantis Boxing by Will Wain-Williams of Monkey Steals Peach. The interview can still be found at: monkeystealspeach.com/interviews-of-masters/seven-star-mantis-brendan-tunks/
During the interview process I got carried away with a few answers, which lead to a fair amount of editorial chopping and hacking. Thank god, otherwise you may slipped into a coma reading some of my responses ;) Anyway, I came across the earlier drafts the other day and there were a couple of things of potential interest in there that I thought I'd share, as I don't really blog much, which kind of defeats the purpose of having blog functionality on this site. I thought these excerpts might provide some insight into my teacher's personality and the training environment in Shandong at the time I was initially there studying in the 90s. Feel free to comment, share, drop me a line etc.
Excerpt from original answer to 'How did you end up going to China/what was your experience there?' (addressing the initial introduction to Kang Zhiqiang):
Long story, short – although the two masters told me they were all dead, retired or had left Qingdao, I continued trying to track down Li Zhanyuan’s remaining disciples but had only one lead left. Hua’s ‘uncle’ Chen Suotian, who had originally introduced him to Li Zhanyuan was still working at the Taidong Veteran’s Athletic Association and I finally got in touch on the phone that day. He was a good friend of former Shandong and National Team member and coach Li Qiming, who advised Chen that he knew exactly who to introduce me to. Chen told me to come to the Veteran’s Athletic Association the next day to meet. The deadline had already passed and the University security came to our room looking for us but we had already left early that morning.
I met Chen, Li Qiming and Kang Zhiqiang around midday. It was a very hot day and Kang (at that point I had no idea who he was) sat there silently, smoking and sweating profusely, staring at me like I was some kind of alien and occasionally spitting on the ground in disgust as I explained the situation with the two other masters. Chen explained the circumstances of Li Zhanyuan’s death and the current status of Qixing Tanglang in Qingdao since then. He then drew my attention to Kang and said that he was a senior disciple of Li Zhanyuan who commenced under him in the 1950’s.
I was a little surprised as he didn’t look like the picture I had in my head of a typical master, more like the middle aged pub-going roughnecks from my own country. I could clearly see that he was dangerous though. Although short, he had a bull neck and solid head, with a barrel chest and forearms that looked more like calves. Although trying not to obviously check him out during the meeting I noticed that he was covered in deep scars all over his hands, forearms and head, including a massive 4 inch scar along his hairline which I later found out was from being partially scalped with a broadsword. Kang read the letter of introduction and became visibly emotional. He said that he would do it for his late master and for brother Wang Xiaohua in Australia (who he had not yet met), but first he wanted to examine me to see if it would be possible.
We stepped outside and he pointed to the ground and said ‘go’. I wasn’t exactly sure, so I asked what he wanted to see - to which he replied, ‘everything’. I had no training gear on and was wearing clunky sneakers but I ran through all jiben gong, zhan zhuang, every drill and taolu I had learned. He then simply said ‘all wrong’, though I could already see he wasn’t too impressed from the look on his face the whole time. He then called me over and did some forceful kao da (body conditioning impact drills) with me and then started knocking, slapping and squeezing me all over to check out my physical composition. He then grunted something which I didn’t catch and proceeded to throw a few punches and kicks at me, presumably to see how I would react. I started laughing because he caught me off guard with a low kick and smacked me in the mouth simultaneously with the first punch, but he didn’t really like my reaction so he threw a couple of bombs to show he wasn’t playing. I didn’t throw anything back out of courtesy, and also because I wasn’t really too sure where it was going at that stage, so I just blocked and dodged. Then he stopped throwing punches, shook my hand, gave me a slap and said ‘tomorrow we start again from the beginning’, and that was it.
The first session was 6 hours long and I threw up several times. He was the hardest teacher I ever had and I had never experienced that level of intensity, not to mention the frequent verbal and physical abuse and his obvious joy at demonstrating applications at full power, repeatedly slamming me into the ground, and indulging in the time-honoured Chinese tradition of whacking people in the groin as often as possible. Although it might sound twisted for those that haven’t experienced this kind of training, I had never been happier. To top it off, after the first session he and Li Qiming took me for ‘real training’, consisting of a six hour banquet/drinking marathon, to see what I was really made of. Kang ended up calling the two masters later that evening to let them know that I was now with him and then threatened to kill them for good measure.
To say it was slightly awkward each time I ran into them over the following years would be an understatement. It got even stranger once the first master invited me to his office towards the end of my stay that year to make peace and once again offer to teach me Taiji Tanglang. I ended up dislocating his index finger when he challenged me to grab it as tightly as I could so he could demonstrate how he was impervious to qinna. When it snapped he screamed at me to get out and threatened to have me arrested, again…
Can you share any other funny stories from that period?
There’s too many. Some are funny to me but make other people think I’m a masochist who trained under a sadist. Granted, it was a bit rough from time to time but it was all in context. One seemingly bizarre situation, that actually turned out to be one of the most important lessons for me occurred during my first training session.
That first six months I trained every morning on the dirt and gravel outside of the entrance to the Taidong stadium. I got there at 6.00am and was then instructed to stretch for half an hour. Kang went inside the Veteran’s Athletic Association office and occasionally checked through the window and came out to correct me, set me in various positions and to force me deeper into stretches.
Then he walked out with a wide shallow steel bowl, the type that people in China often use to wash their face and hands, brush their teeth, wash plates or do laundry in. It was half full with water. He then told me to stop stretching and called me over to watch as he stepped into the middle of the training ground (in reality a dirt thoroughfare) and began to sweep the bowl in a wide arc with a flick of his wrist, spinning a fine uniform spray of water out across the dirt. He did this about ten times and covered about a quarter of the area with a light even sprinkling - not too wet, not too dry. He explained this was to prepare the training ground and keep the dust down. I’d never seen anything like it and was really impressed with both the idea and the method. He took me to the tap, told me to refill it to a specific depth and then instructed me to prepare the rest of the area. No worries!
I started flicking the bowl around trying to imitate his action and the water splashed all over the place instantly making mud puddles. He yelled at me to stop and took the bowl off me, then demonstrated the technique again. Just like the first time, flawlessly spinning the water out of the bowl at the perfect angle and finely misting the ground with even coverage. He then made me refill and try again; telling me this would be my job every morning so I better get it right.
I tried again and did almost as bad of a job as the first time and started laughing in the process. That’s when Kang lost his mind and I got my first lesson in Qingdao swearing and also a preview of his bad temper. He ripped the bowl off me and demonstrated one more time and then pretty much threw it back in my face and pointed to the tap with his neck veins bulging in anger. I thought it might be a good idea to stop laughing and had another, more serious attempt – marginally better, but still not up to his standards. By this stage he was virtually on fire and we hadn’t even started training yet.
Although my grasp of Qingdaohua was very limited I understood (between every second ‘f*ck’, ‘c*nt’ and ‘stupid foreigner’) that he had already shown me twice and corrected me once, and if I couldn’t even get this right that I had no chance of learning Tanglang. He stormed back into the office and left me standing there like an idiot in front of a growing crowd of thoroughly entertained locals. I filled the bowl again and carefully spent the next 10-15 minutes attempting to perfect the technique on my own. By the end I had covered the pitch, fairly unevenly but with some minor improvement. I then took my position to begin kicking drills and Kang stepped back out as if nothing had happened and the session began.
It took weeks, if not months for me to master that water sprinkling technique and Kang was continually frustrated and lost patience with me in the process. However, I got it in the end and that first lesson perfectly set the tone for the next few years of training under him.