By Trista di Genova
Originally published in The China Post
“Grand masters are the holders of thousands of forms, or katas in Japanese,” says David Gentile, who at the young age of 26 seems well on the way to becoming a kungfu master. “They are ways to transmit movements. Each form is made up of postures, which are given names in a very poetic way as these stories are told. [Names like] Twin stars join the moon. Wild geese come out as a flock. To move the flower and graft the stem; that is a very subtle movement,” he demonstrated as he spoke, at a recent interview at Radio Banciao.
“You practice these forms in your head, so you’re not only thinking of an application, but you have a narration of this beautiful poem that is forming.”
There’s a good reason why David Gentile gets so animated when talking about everything from meditation to Chinese history, literature and evolution of Taoist-Buddhist philosophy: he’s here in Taiwan to learn all he can about the martial arts – and is confident it’s the best place to do so.
Born in Long Island, David grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and traveled around every state in America by the time he was 18. His father was a martial artist schooled in the Japanese kenpo karate tradition and a big fan of boxing to boot, “so dad would always teach us basic block-punch-kick stuff, and my godfather was very accomplished as well, Joe Garcia. They always seemed to carry themselves in a dignified, but not egotistical way,” noting martial artists “always know people living before them had 10 times the skill.”
He studied Shaolin kungfu (‘young forest’) for eight years at the Chinese Shaolin Center, renowned in the U.S. for its elder masters David and Sharon Sward, whose teachers studied under Shaolin Temple’s Grand Master Sin Kwan The in Henan Province, China.
“Stories my kungfu teachers told inspired me to pick up translations of Chinese literature. All my classes were related to Chinese history and philosophy.î His personal library stacked up: Chinese stories such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West. These really inspired me, gave me an amazing view of Chinese culture and history,” he says.
David came to Taiwan through the University of Colorado after”jumping at the opportunity to study Chinese language and culture with the prestigious CIEE program. Thanks to his supportive parents, who “knew that everything in life was secondary to kungfu for him,” he was able to make it happen, and now studies at Chinese Kungfu Club through National Chengchi University (NCCU) in Mucha.
“The club there doesn’t spar, we just practice forms. We don’t compete, because if you win, you are just beating another loser. You can’t have an ego in martial arts, he stresses. “In Sun Tzu (“Art of War”), the only way to win a battle is to make your position unassailable. So instead of thinking of ways to beat your opponent, you have to constantly evaluate yourself so no one knows your weaknesses like you do.”
Since 2000, his school has visited all the major sites famous for the martial arts in China – Wu Dang Mountain, Omei Mountain, Hua Mountain, Shaolin temples in Fujian and Henan provinces. “I was lucky enough to meet older masters, and to watch them practice. It was like being an art critic, or drinking a glass of wine,” he says of the experience. “To watch them step through forms – to a layman itís not very exciting, but to someone like me, you almost become dizzy watching them.”
Unfortunately, at Wushu schools in China, although there are still some masters, it’s more like combative gymnastics: it’s made to look very pretty, instead of having the thousands of years of technique behind them,” he observed. Today in China, kungfu seems to be devoid of traditional martial arts skills, and more reminiscent of gymnastics … Today, when you go to Shaolin Temple, instead of 80-year-old monks you see a bunch of young kids. With wushu, the mainstream is doing nontraditional forms; they’ve picked mostly flowery types of forms, and turned them into routines almost like theater.”
This “form of theater” he attributed to the fact that original Shaolin masters had to flee China during the Cultural Revolution, when religion among many other things was outlawed, and this also applied to martial arts,”which has Buddhist origins. “Lots of masters fled with Chiang Kai-shek’s armies [at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949], so the traditional martial arts were preserved,” he said. As a result, I got the feeling when I went to China that kungfu, after 60 years of communism, reads more like the story of Davy Crockett. But when I came to Taiwan it’s still alive in their hearts. Concepts such as harnessing the qi [energy], observance of nature and movements of animals [how tigers grasp prey; how cranes are very light; how leopards can jump up trees], the study of Chinese classics – these are still practiced in Taiwan.
When I tell people in China I study kungfu, they say ‘very good,’ ‘but they’re just patronizing me. Here, people say ‘that’s great you study it.’ It’s viewed much more as a cultural gem, and its true spirit is intact. The lessons of Chinese stories seem to have sank into the spirit of Taiwan more than in China. Here I can quote something and the average college student knows what I’m talking about.”
He sees his quest of mastering all aspects of martial arts – taichi chuan, bagua zhang; hsing-yi chuan, meditation (qigong), Chinese medicine – as “knowing something through doing it 10,000 times. It’s a means to better yourself, such a beautiful, amazing way to live life, by making your body and mind strong. Through the discipline kungfu has given me, it’s enhanced my ability to learn new things.”
As for the future, I plan to stay for a long time. Taiwan touched my heart. In all my travels around the world, I’ve never felt such a sense of family and community, and mutual respect for the people around me.”