August 14th, 2018.
I woke up earlier again today. Like the calligraphy day, we have a lesson peculiar to China – Tai Chi. I’ve enjoyed it in Jet Li movies before, and the funny stories it ignited. When I was in secondary school, there was one about it. Jet Li had escaped from a Shaolin Temple, and was since on the run after revealing Tai Chi secrets in his 1993 release, Tai Chi Master. I did not have to verify.
We will have our breakfast after the lesson. There is a team of trainers that will introduce us to the art. It is one other pride of Songxi. As we ready ourselves, Jessie, one of the organizers, posts a photo in the WeChat group for participants of the 2018 Jinhua Homestay Project. There are three rows of both men and women – mostly old, in all-white traditional Chinese martial arts clothing. In front of them is one other man who is leading their Tai Chi session, Shifu – master of an art or skill. They are ready for us. I grab my made-in-China Bayern Munich pair of trousers, a grey, blue-collared golf shirt and a pair of black sneakers.
It’s seven o’clock. Facing Shao Family’s Ancestral Hall are villagers who have gathered up early to watch the practising Tai Chi masters. On each of the few evenings I’ve passed by the plaza, it’s full of people – young, old, mothers, fathers and grannies. Last night there was a woman beating a drum while her friends just sat, to the left and behind her. The locals are always there every morning too, staring at us and smiling as we walk past, lost in our own world as we experience the thrill of discovering the village’s one thousand years of history. Our interpreter picks up the microphone and repeats after the man introducing the Tai Chi masters. They will go first, all we have to do is stand where we are and stare at their motions – exactly how the villagers will be staring at us in our first attempt at Tai Chi.
The Tai Chi masters are followed by individual performances. The first to perform is a relatively young man whose age I cannot discern. He moves gently in various directions – as slow as an early morning breeze blowing through the vast garden of lotus flowers that welcomes you as you get into the village. He raises his foot, hangs it for some seconds in air, then, like he has spotted a cockroach he wants to crash, releases it to the ground. Huaaa! The synergy from his foot and the concrete floor releases dust through the space around his left sneaker.
The young man’s performance precedes an old man who leaves us in amazement. From the gentleness of his moves, he throws half-kicks into the wind in all directions, at calculated intervals from his regular hand and foot movements. When he is done, he comes in our direction. He has a contemporary to our right where he heads straight to. He removes his Tai Chi shirt in front of the crowd and picks a traditional Chinese shirt from a bag his friend holds.
The man making introductions walks to the stage. He briefs us about the next performer – Jo. He is probably in his teens and has been a martial arts champion in provincial contests. He is donning a black pair of trousers and a black shirt – all traditional martial arts combat pieces. He is the only one whose performance will involve a sword – I had thought Tai Chi was only about the mind and the body. I could be right; I do not know the interpretation of mind and body in connection to the Chinese concept of Qi and the art of Tai Chi. I could be wrong too – which doesn’t matter for now.
Master Jo – or probably a misheard Mr. Jo, Ju – commences his moves. Calm as a breeze that will end this day with the usual blueness coating the sun and the Cockscomb Mountain that surrounds the village, his shoulders and chest tremble every time he changes direction. That’s the Tai Chi I know – the one that had gotten Jet Li on the run. Meanwhile, the Shifu is squatting to our far right, in front of the resting old Tai Chi master. He is firmly holding a phone in his hand, focusing on Jo whose pace now increases every time he lifts his sword and points it to the four directions – reminiscent of endeavours of the rainmaker popular in Malawian legends.
When he is done, he faces the four directions around him again. A closed fist on his right and an open hand on his left meet, forming a vertical cup-and-saucer symbol of respect – Bao Quan. My brother Arthur, now 13 years in the grave, introduced me to the cup-and-saucer in the late 90s when he had said he would teach me kung fu – a dream that faded away even years before his passing.
The man on the microphone returns. Master Jo will take us first. He moves from the open ground to the stage. He picks up the mic and talks to us. After the Bao Quan, he signals to us motions that involve stretching limbs. We roll the arms from inside out and vice versa, and lean on our knees while a tip of the hand touches the foot. It involves both feet, both arms, and both sides. I am sweating. He could as well have asked us to spin on our heads like a coin deciding who kicks the ball first if he had wanted to.
“This was a warm up session. Let’s relax a bit, we start soon”.
We burst into laughter.
After some minutes, the Shifu steps onto stage. It is his turn. As he makes his moves, we follow suit. I catch myself and a South African friend behind me not knowing which leg or arm to throw first. The Shifu’s movements culminate into a slow 360-degree turn. We are left with the back of our heads to watch him, and the moment we turn back, we’re lost in our own moves – far from the Shifu, far from Tai Chi. Our uniformity is impressive in one form only – the slowness, with our off-balanced bodies, one leg up, ready to crush.
Beaton Galafa is a Malawian writer. His works have appeared in Fourth & Sycamore, Stuck in the Library, Love Like Salt anthology, 300K Anthology, Casa/Home, Literary Shanghai, Mistake House Magazine, Eunoia Review, Transcending the Flame, Every Writer’s Resource, Betrayal, The Seasons, Empowerment, The Elements, BNAP 2017 Anthology, BNAP 2018 Anthology, Better Than Starbucks, Africa, UK, and Ireland: Writing Politics and Knowledge Production, The Wagon Magazine, First Writer Magazine, The Bombay Review, Writing Grandmothers, Kalahari Review, The Maynard, Birds Piled Loosely, Atlas and Alice, South 85 Journal, Nthanda Review and elsewhere.