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Shanghai's Diverse Martial Arts Scene
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Shanghai's Diverse Martial Arts Scene

Picture of Will Wain-Williams
Updated: 18 October 2016
When most people think of martial arts, they imagine secluded temples in the mountains, such as Shaolin or Wudang. However, urban metropolis Shanghai has a surprisingly large concentration of martial arts, check out the best for getting involved in the city’s fascinating martial arts scene.
Tai Chi On The Bund, Shanghai | Wikimedia Commons
Tai Chi On The Bund, Shanghai | Wikimedia Commons

During the early 20th century, Shanghai was largely made up of foreign concessions to European and American countries, and their high living standards attracted many people from poorer inland regions. Historically, meanwhile, martial arts proliferated in provinces such as Hebei, Henan, Shandong, and Shanxi, and it is also from these places that many people immigrated into prosperous cities like Shanghai to avoid political turmoil and famines.

With all these martial artists in one place, it was natural that they would exchange knowledge and skills and develop their arts further, leading to the wide range of styles practiced by different Masters that we introduce here.

Taiji Quan 太极拳

Taiji Quan (commonly known as Tai Chi in the West) is practiced in almost every park throughout the world as a gentle exercise for promoting health and well-being. However, in reality it is a martial art which uses leverage and redirection to overcome an opponent using very little obvious force. The purpose of the commonly seen slow movements is to align all parts of the body so that full-body coordination is achieved and muscular tension is reduced. Partner exercises, such as push hands, are practiced in order to develop sensitivity to an opponent’s movements and to control their center of gravity.

The Wu style is probably the best represented in Shanghai, as Ma Yue Liang, a man widely considered a national treasure of China, developed and passed on the style in the city.The Wu style uses much smaller movements with higher stances, and so is regarded as a ‘small frame’ style, compared to other styles of Taiji, which are more physically demanding. It has a particular focus on takedown and manipulation techniques which show a strong influence of Shuai Jiao (Chinese wrestling).

© Copyright Master Shen Tie Gen
© Copyright Master Shen Tie Gen

Xingyi Quan 形意拳

Xingyi Quan is a very direct, no-nonsense martial art which was developed from ancient Chinese military spear fighting principles, and which focusses on developing short-range power and crashing straight into the opponent, thus overwhelming them. Training typically begins by standing in the San Ti Shi (standing) posture for extended periods of time to encourage the body to correctly align and reduce muscular tension while at the same time building up strength.

After mastering this standing posture, the ‘five fists’ are then practiced, which are very simple strikes repeated over and over as the practitioner moves in a straight line forward. The five fists correspond to the five elements of Taoist cosmology and hence are regarded in Chinese medicine as benefiting the five major internal organs (liver, spleen, stomach, lungs, and heart). After mastering the five fists and having a sufficient amount of power, the practitioner will learn the twelve animals: bear, eagle, snake, tiger, dragon, chicken, horse, swallow, hawk, monkey, crane, and crocodile.

© Copyright Master Chu Yu Cheng
© Copyright Master Chu Yu Cheng

Xinyi Liuhe Quan 心意六合拳

Xinyi Liuhe Quan is a ‘cousin style’ of Xingyi Quan, and is often considered the older of the two styles. Xinyi Liuhe is usually practiced by Chinese Muslims, or Hui people, and comes from Henan province, from parts not too far from Shaolin Temple.

Xinyi Liuhe is quite different in some ways to its more popular cousin, in that rather than standing in the San Ti Shi posture, new students will learn to walk up and down in the ‘treading chicken step’. Xinyi Liuhe also has ‘ten famous fists’ instead of the five element fists, and ten animals instead of twelve. Xinyi Liuhe has only been taught outside the Muslim community, and is still regarded as somewhat mysterious with its practitioners highly respected as formidable fighters.

© Copyright Mamoru Kashikura
© Copyright Mamoru Kashikura

MMA, BJJ, and Muay Thai

Apart from traditional Chinese martial arts, Shanghai is also home to a growing modern martial arts scene, particularly among the expat community. Champions of MMA (mixed martial arts), BJJ (Brazilian Jiujitsu) and Muay Thai have all come to Shanghai to open gyms and drag China’s traditionally conservative martial arts scene into the modern world.

MMA is the new craze in the martial arts world. Starting in the USA with competitions such as UFC (Ultimate Fighting Champion), MMA is not exactly a style, rather a concept, where fighters take what they feel to be the best of different systems. Most typically it will involve aspects of Muay Thai, Judo, BJJ and, lately, fighters are beginning to return to traditional styles in order to up their game with unpredictable and unorthodox techniques.

BJJ is a modern style developed out of the Japanese art of Jiujitsu, which was practiced by Samurai for use on the battlefield if they lost their weapon. As people were heavily armored, strikes were useless, so it focused on locking and throwing. The art was later developed into BJJ in Brazil as a very technical and effective form of ground fighting, which is especially popular in UFC and other competition formats. BJJ makes excellent use of the principles of leverage and tends to rely on technique over brute force.

Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand, and is also known as Thai Kickboxing, or the Science of Eight Limbs. Muay Thai differs from other kickboxing in its usage of elbows and knees, as well as strikes and kicks. Muay Thai is a physically demanding martial art which puts great importance on fitness. Rawee Muay Thai is a well-known gym in Shanghai that is run by a champion from Thailand, and includes other coaches who have all trained and taught in Thailand.