The day was just breaking, and a group of people had gathered in a small street-corner park along Nanlishi Road in West Beijing.
They came to practice will-boxing, one of the traditional Chinese martial arts. Led by a man of moderate build, they now moved around, punching and kicking as though they were shadow boxing, now posed in a fighting stance, breathing deeply as if they were doing qigong.
Their coach is Yao Chengguang, 36, who is deputy head of the Will-Boxing Chapter in Beijing's Wushu Society.
"Here is the most popular place for will-boxing lovers in Beijing, and every Thursday and Sunday my younger brother and I come here to teach," Yao said.
About 10 years ago, Yao's father first used the park to train people in will-boxing, and thousands of people have since learned it as a way of keeping fit.
"I have been practicing it for almost 10 years here in this park," one old man said. "We usually have two groups ¨C elderly people like me practise a stance skill called "standing firm like a stake" while younger people prefer "hand pushing."
"Will-boxing can help body building and prevent disease,"he said. "Whenever I practise will-boxing, I feel warm in my feet. I¡¯m 67 years old now but I feel just as strong as a young man."
"Winter is cold here in Beijing but I never need to wear padded shoes or leather boots to keep my feet warm,"the old man added."Last year I went to Beidaihe beaches for the summer and once took a boat cruise on the sea. We were caught in a windstorm, and many young passengers were made seasick by high waves and confined to their berths. I stood on the bow in a will-boxing stance and was not affected at all."
"I used to be a communications officer with the Beijing armed police force, but from 1973 I was afflicted first with a duodenal ulcer and then with hepatitis. I was retired because of may poor health,"Wang said. "I was hospitalized for eight years, but my condition did not improve much."
"Since 1982, I have been doing will-boxing stance exercises here, about three to four hours a day. After a year of practice, I went to the hospital for a check-up and was surprised to find I had fully recovered."
According to Yao Chengguang, will-boxing is a special king of modern martial art. Different from other kinds of Chinese Wushu, it does not have a series of systematic routines, but to become a master of this unique boxing skill, one needs to go through exercises in six aspects ¨C standing posture, testing strength, foot movement, exerting strength, hand pushing and free sparring.
The stance exercise is the key and most basic part of will-boxing. To practise it, one¡¯s will or imagination has a very important role to play.
"When you try to stand firm, you may imagine you are holding a tree; it moves only if you move, other-wise it stands still as you do," Yao said.
"after a long period of practice, one will acquire a kind of internal strength that can keep one's physical balance despite the movement of one¡¯s surroundings, and finally one feels every part of the body miraculously like a spring with a kind of elastic force," he said.
Will-boxing was first developed by Wang Xiangzhai (1885 to 1963) in his home town in Shenxian County of Hebei Province. It is based upon Form and Will Boxing. These two martial arts are called Form and Will boxing because their techniques imitate the forms of objects or movements of animals as indicated by their names, such as cannon fish, chop palm, golden cock mounting perch, and monkey climbing pole.
In the early 1940s, Wang once beat a well-known Japanese judo master and won much acclaim in Chinese wushu circles. He trained many students and Yao's father, Yao Jingxun, was one of them.
Before the 1980s, Yao Jingxun had taught will-boxing in Zhongshan Park in Beijing but he only passed on its stance skill as a body-building exercise.
In October 1984, Yao Jingxun helped found a will-boxing chapter under the Beijing Wushu Society and he assumed the post as the chairman of the chapter. But he died of a chronic disease a few months later, and his two sons, Yao Chengguang and Yao Chengrong, took over as his successors.
"Will-boxing is also a very useful skill for attack and defence. I often received letters from the armed police forces and frontier soldiers who wanted to learn the skill from me," Yao Chengguang said.
To demonstrate the skill, Yao went to one of his students practicing in the park and challenged him to a contest. They clasped their hands together, pushing and pulling for several rounds. Yao's opponent was pushed several metres away and fell on the ground.
But the loser had practiced will boxing for two years and would not easily accept defeat. He challenged Yao for a second contest. But this time yao's opponent was shoved away more forcefully, having his head bumped against a tree before he fell.
When he struggled up, he gasped out, "Please be easy with your hand, Master Yao."
"If I hadn¡¯t taken it easy, you would have never been able to stand up again,"Yao replied.
Yao now works as a security guard of a trolley bus company in Beijing after working as a conductor for years.
In 1988, Yao and his brother went to Hong Kong for half a year for professional exchanges at the invitation of Huo Zhenhuan, chairman of the Asian Wushu Federation. They held classes to teach will-boxing as a body-building and self-denfence art and took part in many contests with opponents from Canada and the United States. Every time they managed to throw their opponents onto the ground with their powerful hand pushes.
Their trip made a small furor in Hong Kong and Huo presented them with an honourable silk banner inscribed with the words: The Chinese tradition of will-boxing is a national treasure that enjoys a high reputation abroad.