I sit, legs crossed, on stone just outside of the courtyard. Sixty of my brothers and sisters of various ages do the same, forming a loose perimeter around the hard-packed earthen circle in the center. Two of the younger students -a boy and a girl, around the ages of eight or nine- stand and face each other in the center. They slowly bow with hands clasped before them, faces expressionless, and then stand straight again, arms falling loosely at their sides. Silence reigns for a moment, before a shout rings out, echoing in the deafening stillness.
The two children instantly blur into motion. The boy takes a more aggressive approach, sending a fist flying at the girl’s stomach; she easily intercepts and forces his arm to the side, pivoting around him. Undeterred, he half-spins, sweeping a kick to her leg, forcing her to back off. They both stand for a moment, warier of each other, before the girl slides in, snapping a loose fist at the boy’s face. He is forced to dodge back, her reach slightly longer than his, and is left off-balance enough for her to push the offensive, throwing out a flurry of punches and short snap kicks. Finally, a fist catches the boy in the jaw. He staggers, grunting and throwing a wild, off-balance hook that comes nowhere near the girl as she darts in for the kill. In the instant before her knuckles take him in the throat, the master calls “Enough!”, and all movement ceases.
They slowly pull back, bowing to one another again, and retreat to around the perimeter, taking up the two vacant spots. The boy looks resentful to my eyes but makes no great show of it. He knows the loss was his fault. Hopefully the shame of losing his cool in front of the whole group would teach him restraint.
Silence reigns again as Sifu An calmly makes his way to the center, calmly smoothing divots caused by the brief bout as he does so. He points to one of us at random and waits patiently. We all know the routine by now.
One of the more senior students, 13 at least, stands. “Their movements are rough but that is expected for their level of training. Li had the right idea of taking the initiative against an opponent with greater reach and more experience but failed to properly execute his attacks. His fatal mistake was the leg sweep; forcing a better opponent away and giving them time to launch a counterattack seals your fate. Allowing her to take his balance and falling back on wild blows were just compounding failure. Without a brilliant come back, the battle was decided after the first exchange.”
He stops as the master waits expectantly. Once it is clear he has no more to say, the master nods his head. “Incomplete, but accurate.” he says, and points to another student.
The child stands, barely older than the two who had just fought. “Hilde should have countered after she dodged his first hit?” he half-states, half-asks. Sifu nods, seemingly not expecting more. “Yes. Jin was not wrong that the match was decided in the first exchange. But it should have ended there, not dragged on further.” He pauses for a moment and addresses Runa directly. “You are skilled for your age but fight too defensively. Caution is important, but hesitation is a fatal flaw that has killed many practitioners.”
He clasps his hands, waiting for any questions. As usual, there are none. Most of the Sifu do not discourage us from speaking up if there is something important to ask, but this early in the morning and with so many bouts left to go, we are all either too busy stifling yawns or focusing on our upcoming matches to speak up. Expecting this, Sifu An does not wait long before calling on the next pair, and so on down the line. As the morning creeps by, the younger children start to become more restless and excitable, particularly before their own matches. The older students, like myself, are more used to the waiting. Not just in the monthly trials, but in all aspects of life here in Gao Shansi. The first lesson we are taught is that patience is one of the prime virtues, but it can take a while for that to truly sink in, especially among children so young.
As one of the few senior students, I am one of the last to be called. I stare impassively at my opponent, Ran, from twenty feet away. I try my hardest not to crack a smile, but a twitch of my lips betrays the urge. Ran and I fight nearly every month; there are only four students at our level in the temple, so even randomly chosen matches end up with us across the same student much of the time. My rivalry with her is one of the highlights of my time here, and the feeling was mutual. We had pushed each other to greater heights than I believe we would have achieved simply training for ourselves. I had a suspicion the Sifu knew this as well. We fought too consistently even for such a small group for it to be just chance.
The call to begin rings out, and we stare at each other across the way. Ran is the first to make a move, a short leap that carries her the whole distance between is, followed by a lightning fast jab with her left and near-simultaneous strike of the knee toward my midsection. I scramble to block, catching the fist in my right and twisting, using her own momentum to carry her into a hold…and the moment passes. We are still standing across from each other, Ran having barely twitched one of her legs.
Our minds’ eyes flash again, through several dozen scenarios. Some are taken from past bouts, and others new tactics we think of on the fly. A flurry of powerful, precise blows is deflected by Ran and summarily countered. She attempts a grapple, forcing an elbow into my back, but I flip and reverse the hold. An exchange of kicks from Ran sweep out with deceptive speed and reach, shattering one of my ankles, but leaving her open for one of the classic forms of the Snake: a swift jab to the throat that ends with her choking on the ground. On and on it goes, the offense becoming deadlier and the defenses requiring more creative counters until, finally, it ceases.
Ran bows to me from across the square. Barely a handful of seconds have passed.
“You have bested me this time, Xu. I should have expected you’d study up on your pressure point techniques after the way you lost our last match.”
I suppress a smile at the lingering sight of her body stiffening up and becoming locked in place. The Sifu aren’t against levity, exactly, but it was good to set an example for the younger children. Control over yourself was another of the prime virtues, and by far the hardest to master. Even those of us in the most advanced class did not truly hold complete control over our emotions.
“We’ll talk more later, and I’ll show you how to do it, if you haven’t figured it out already.” I offer. She nods politely and retreats to her corner, as do I.
Sifu walks back to the center and is ready to call on the final pair of the day but is interrupted. “I don’t get it!” exclaims one of the newest batch of students. She couldn’t be more than six; any older student would have witnessed at least one trial by now.
If he is annoyed, he doesn’t show it, but gazes calmly at her. “What don’t you understand?” he asks, knowing full well the answer.
“They didn’t do anything! They just stood there!” she cries out indignantly. I suppress another smile as I remember the first trial I had witnessed. I had much the same response, feeling almost like I’d been mocked to my face.
He nods. “Yes, that is what it looks like.” He says, closing his eyes and nodding sagely. He pauses long enough for the child to fume more and begin to open her mouth again before his eyes twinkle slightly and he gives her wide grin to let her know she isn’t being left in the dark, merely teased. The younger ones needed a softer touch, and Sifu An understood this well. The calm most of the Sifu and advanced students radiated could be off-putting to those not used to it, and a deliberate showing of humanity went a long way with them.
”Xu, why don’t you explain to her?”
I nearly blink in surprise as he addresses me. The Sifu almost never ask for a student, even one of the upper class, to teach. But I rally quickly, and step forward, feeling self-conscious at the sudden attention.
“Most of the more advanced techniques can be deadly when performed on someone,” I explain “It takes a true master to use many of them in combat with the precision to harm, but not kill the opponent. As a result, it becomes dangerous for students to practice them and many other techniques; joint locks and throat holds for example can lead to injury or death in the worst cases.”
“At our level sparring used to claim many lives at the school, before Sifu Jacque created the visualization techniques we now use in our last three years of training. We just visualize what our action will be, and send it to our opponent, where they respond in kind. It’s slow going at first, but once you get better at it you can have matches in real time, or even faster if you’ve got a real rapport with your opponent.”
Sifu An steps in and waves me back to my seat. “A good explanation, Xu. I trust that answers all of your questions?” he says. The girl opens her mouth again, but he simply lifts an eyebrow and stares at her. Children of that age always have more questions. These ones, however, are apparently not important enough to risk a Sifu’s ire, as she returns to her seat with a small pout.
After a short pause, Sifu commences the final match, between Thom and Chou, and it is over almost as soon as it begins. Thom clutches his head and glares at Chou. I’m surprised; he has to be truly annoyed if it’s worth breaking composure over. I’ll have to ask him what happened later.
Shortly after, Sifu An dismisses us. Individual reviews will come later, but as-is it’s after lunch and the children are getting antsy. I am too, truth be told. Counter-intuitively, visualization training took as much -if not more- stamina than physical sparring. I’d always wondered why that was, but the Sifu had never deigned to explain it, and most were not as receptive to questions as Sifu An. Maybe it’s because-
I jerk from my thoughts as Ran taps me on the shoulder. “Hey, are you going to eat lunch with us?” she asks, amused. I’d been standing in the doorway long enough for everyone to get their meals. Not that that took long; the eldest students tended to get served close to first, right after the youngest group. “Oh, yes. Of course. I wanted to ask Thom and Chou what happened in their match anyway. Let me get a plate and I’ll join you.”
Thom and Chou had already gotten a spot in the corner, in relative privacy. Another privilege of being the senior students, we tended to get the best seating, and out of the way tables allowed more freedom of expression. Within reason. Ran skipped over to join them as I picked up a plate of today’s meal. It was a simple, but filling meat and vegetable stew of some kind. It looked good and soaked into the rice I added well. Thoughts of conversation flew out of my head for a few minutes as I scarfed down the first few bites. I nodded my head in approval; goat wasn’t my favorite meat, but I was hungrier than I thought, and this really hit the spot. It felt like the trials were running longer every month. I cocked my head and put a fist to my chin. No, they definitely were running longer. We had more students than usual this year, I just hadn’t stopped to think about it since they’d been added so steadily. Many more and we might have to start splitting up the trial groups. That would be unheard of in my-
“-ou listening? Xu?” Ran said, poking me with her fork. I blinked and shook my head slightly to clear it.
“No, I was not.” I said honestly. Honesty was one of the lesser virtues, but one to follow most of the time. Besides, they were used to it.
Ran’s eye twitches. “You were the one who wanted to know what happened in Thom and Chou’s match, right? Is the stew really that good?”
“Oh, right, sorry. So, what did happen?” I ask. Thom immediately looks annoyed.
“She cheated!” he exclaims, though not loud enough he could really be overheard.
“I did no such thing! I just used an advantage of the training method. It’s not my fault your imagination is lacking.”
“Wait, wait, slow down. How did she cheat exactly?” I ask. Chou immediately jumps in “I didn’t cheat, I just- “
“Imagined something impossible!” Thom interjects. “She just sent an image of me being held completely immobile. And it worked! I couldn’t break out of it, no matter how hard I tried. My muscles were all completely locked.”
“It’s not cheating though.” Chou disagrees. “The point of the training is to defeat your opponent. Which I did, by your own admission.”
“No, the point is to show what we’ve learned to the Sifu and help hone our abilities; tricks like that won’t get us anywhere.” Thom argues back.
“I have to agree with Thom here.” I say and Ran nods along. “If the objective were just to win, we could just spar normally. People might die, but there would be a clear winner, right? But the visualization training lets us train ourselves without the danger, which is the point. The training is why we visualize, not the competition.”
“It was a neat trick though.” Ran says “And who knows, maybe it is something you can do. We hear all kinds of stories about the Sifu and what they can accomplish. Maybe you should ask Sifu An, or one of the others?”
Chou looks dejected for a moment, then twists her face in distaste. “Maybe you’re right. But asking questions outside of specific classes is always a pain, even with Sifu An. They’re all so…stiff.” She sighs.
“Fine, I’ll go ask Sifu An. Better to get this over with before afternoon classes start anyway. We’ll talk more at dinner?” she asks Thom, who gives her a nod back. “Yeah, see you then.”
After that we ate quickly; we don’t get much time in our lunch periods. As we shuffled off to our next classes, I couldn’t help but slip into thought again. Why were we getting so many new students? It was troubling, and not just for the class sizes becoming unwieldy. The students here were entirely made up of orphans the Sifu had found. And not just that, ones with exceptional potential for talent in the martial arts.
What is going on out in the world that so many are being brought to Gao Shansi?