10 Questions with Dr. John Painter [Part 1]

If you were anything like me, you were a big-time reader of Inside Kung fu Magazine.  That is where I was first introduced to the likes of many martial artists whose passion and dedication was to bring the arts of the Far East (particularly) to North America.  People like B.K. Francis, Erle Montaigue, Paulie Zink, and Dr. John Painter (just to name a few).  These Hall of Famers helped to pave the way for many of the instructors teaching today and it is truly an honor to receive Dr. Painter’s 10 Questions.  So detailed and generous his response – I decided to break the interview up into a part one and part two. Enjoy!

When did you get started in the martial arts?

I knew nothing about any martial arts when I began training in post standing (Zhan Zhuang 站 樁) and Breathing Skill (Qigong 氣功) with Shifu Li, Long-dao in East Texas about 1957. The Li family claimed to be from Sichuan province China having lived there for many generations. For reasons unknown to me Li, Long-dao and his father Li, Zhang-Lai moved to Beijing. During the final days of the war according to stories they worked as combat trainers for soldiers fighting for Chiang, Kai-shek 蔣中正 in the Second Sino-Japanese War (July 7, 1937 – September 9, 1945).

The war was a military conflict fought primarily between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan. The Li family seeing that there was little hope of being victorious left the area and within a few years immigrated to the United States first to New York City and then to a small Texas town where they opened a restaurant and found me and two other young boys whom they chose to learn their art. They found their way to Texas after not finding a happy reception in New York’s Chinese community. Li, Long-dao took his family by train headed for San Francisco California.

On the train from New York a strange set of circumstances caused The Li’s to end up in Longview Texas instead of San Francisco quite by accident, providence or fate. When the conductor called out “coming to Looongview” (the name of the town) Shifu Li thought the man was saying dragons view town as the word for dragon (loong 龍) in Chinese is pronounced long.

Thinking this an auspicious sign he ushered his family off the train and set out to make a home in “dragon view village” Texas. He persisted during our association to insist the town of Longview was a place with great wind water energy (Feng Shui 風水) even though it was explained to him that the town was named because of a very high hill near the center of town where the founder in the 1800’s had say, “there is a very long view from here.” One should be wary of trying to change or correct a high level Gong Fu masters opinion!

My studies began around 1957. Shifu Li thinking his family system would become extinct made the decision to teach me and two other neighborhood boys his traditional arts after his son rejected the “old school” teaching in favor of playing Texas football. So you might say this was Shifu’s way of being passive aggressive towards his sons abandonment of their traditions. We trained every day after school and on weekends for at least two hours per session. This lasted through my first years of college. Then in 1969 Li, Long-dao wrote two letters one in Chinese and the other in English naming me his adopted son and the heir to their family system.

In truth I had no thoughts of teaching martial arts in 1969, as I was busy studying psychology and theater at Texas Tech University with plans to be an actor in film and on stage. My boyhood hobby of stage magic and escapes like Houdini became my profession after college. During the early 1970’s I went to work performing in the Dallas night club scene and also at Six Flags Over Texas as a magician and western stunt show gunfighter.

After an episode in a night club where I was able to stop a shooting incident, the intended victim a very wealthy Dallas socialite hired me as her bodyguard and this began another twist in the long and winding road of my career. It seemed as if my martial arts training kept surfacing as part of my life that I could not ignore. Word got around at Six Flags about the occurrence in Dallas and from time to time I was asked by the security department to guard celebrity guests. These included Jerry Lewis, Bill Cosby, Kenny Rogers and Helen Reddy.

In 1972 things had become difficult at Six Flags. I formed a partnership with a stunt man from Six Flags who was into Japanese Jujitsu but also learning the Li family methods from me and we opened the Kung Fu Tao Training Center in Arlington Texas, the first Chinese martial arts studio in Texas. Within the first year my partner and I had a falling out over moral issues and I bought him out taking the school over as head instructor.

Working as a bodyguard continued for a couple of years. I worked for many Dallas elite and two prominent night club owners, both Italian and well connected if you get my inference here! There were many adventures in the USA, Caribbean and Mexico that allowed me to hone my martial skills with hand, knives and guns plus developing a high level of threat awareness.

But finally after being hit in the neck with a pool cue in a waterfront bar in Pensacola, shot in the left hand in Texas, stabbed in the side in Mexico (you should see the other guys) and after the birth of my daughter my wife convinced me that while I was very good at my job protecting some rather dubious characters, taking a bullet for someone else might not be the best choice for a new father. She kept quoting the line from a Dustin Hoffman film “Little Big Man” “You better watch out Mr. Merryweather they are whittling you down, quit before you loose all of your parts.” After some consideration on losing body parts or leaving a fatherless child behind I chose to begin concentrating on teaching the Li, family system full time giving up the life of a bodyguard.

The protective work did help me come to understand the reality of street combat survival which is quite different from what goes on in the sports world or martial sparring ring, and for that knowledge I will be forever grateful. Later this same skill set stood me in good stead when in 2002 some law enforcement friends and I formed the American Rangers Martial Law Enforcement Training Institute (ARMLETI) to train the trainers for law enforcement, corrections officers and private bodyguards in combat shooting and defensive tactics.

Over my years my Gong Fu school has undergone three changes. First it was called the Kung Fu Tao Training Center where we taught traditional Chinese martial arts, Daoist yoga and Qigong along with weapons training, massage and herbal classes. This stayed open from 1972 to 1983 when we needed to move to a better location. We opened the Wholistic Fitness Center in 83 to take advantage of the new age movement which pretty much fizzled out in the South. The 1,400 foot center was state of the art with meditation rooms, library, training hall, student lounge, offices and a photographic development studio (pre-digital).

The center ran from 1983 to 1995 when we moved to our current location The Gompa Center which is the ideal setup. We have a secluded area not in a commercial building with an indoor training hall outdoor Baguazhang training garden, light body training area, Baguazhang nine post and Yin Yang Bapanzhang ten post areas plus a large Taiji deck and a bunk house for our out of town guests. We named it The Gompa, as Gompa is a Tibetan word that loosely means place of quiet study and that is exactly what it is a place for serious internal art students to learn and grow in the Li family arts. www.thegompa.com

What particularly drew you to the art of Baguazhang?

Although in later years it became my favorite internal martial art and health exercise I was not particularly drawn to Baguazhang in the beginning. As a part of my earlier health training I was given the assignment of walking in circles around a big pine tree in the back yard while practicing breathing exercises (Qigong氣 功) to help what Shifu Li called my dark mood (Qingxu情緒) a Chinese word for depression. At 13 I had been diagnosed by western doctors with what for want of a better term they called bio-chemical depression which was contributing to my immune system problems.

So after hearing this and examining my meridian pulses I was given a special diet by Shifu Li and the edict to walk around the big pine tree in a circle every day for one hour. As mentioned in a previous answer this was the dancing dragon breath energy skills (Long Wudao Qigong 龍 舞蹈 氣功). That was the beginning of my introduction to the Li family style of Baguazhang called nine dragon eight diagram palm (Jiulong Baguazhang九龍八卦 ). It was not long after starting Li family Bagua Qigong and then the martial training that I began to see a vast improvement in my health and energy levels from which I attributed to this strange practice of walking in circles.

I believe I began studying Li family combat methods of Jiulong Baguazhang in 1959. The system is unique in that there are no formalized forms to memorize. It is based on practical proven combat principles executed while walking in straight lines and then around a circle. Later the student learns to maneuver around nine circular patterns based on the Yijing magic square design. At the time we were learning these methods I am pretty sure there was nothing written in English on any Chinese martial arts and absolutely nothing on Baguazhang especially not in a small East Texas town.

Unlike some other Bagua styles in Jiulong Baguazhang each of the eight “palms” is not just a hand position but incorporates whole body attitudes of mental energy and movement related to the book of changes (Yijing易經). Palms are studied individually for their ability to express neutralization force and defensive actions including locking, throwing and striking. When each palm is understood then the eight are combined and used interchangeably. This allows them to produce hundreds of defensive and offensive combinations for every type of conceivable attack.

The reader should note that this was and is a method used by protective agents and as such is a truly martial system never meant for aesthetic or tournament display. Although there is a method of what one might call Qigong within the system it is for health and longevity not martial prowess. Within the combat methods (zhandouli Bagua) anything esoteric or mystical was discarded as being too impractical for combat applications. In later years when I became a bodyguard these methods saved my life in more than one altercation dealing with multiple opponents both unarmed and armed.

 

I’d like to know more about the Li family, where they came from and how Taiji came into their family.

I make no claim as to the authenticity or historical accuracy of the stories told to me as a boy by my Shifu. So if there are mistakes it is entirely due to my faulty note keeping. According to the information I was given by my Shifu Li, Long-dao the family lived in Sichuan province for many years. Mr. Li his father Li, Zhang-Lai and grandfather Li, Ren-ma had been highly respected bodyguards / wagon masters (Baobiao 保鏢) in Sichuan Province.

Here is what I was told as to the background of the family and their arts. As to Taijiquan the first incarnation created by Master Li, Ren-ma was based on the founding principles of the Taijiquan Classics as written by the creators of the art. After studying Chen and Yang styles master Li distilled their essence into a single form blending them with concepts already practiced in their family arts into a method containing nine moves. Li, Ren-ma used the following nine moves from classical Taijiquan in his form: Ward Off, Roll Back, Push, Press, Shoulder Stroke, Elbow Stroke, Slant Flying posture, Punch Below Elbow and Dragon Stamping Kick. His form was called Willow Taijiquan (Liushu Taijiquan柳樹太 ).

Master Li, Zhang-Lai introduced a different idea and became famous for his ability to use only the four pearls (Ward-off, Rollback, Press and Push) AKA grasp the birds tail, as his combat methods. These were what he called the four treasures with void standing (Wuji Zhan Zhuang無極站 樁) being the fifth treasure. He called this Five Treasures Grand Ultimate Boxing (Wu-Bao Taijiquan五寶太 極 拳). In this form there are five separate pre-form opening movements to awaken the relaxation energy (song) and prepare for whole body power movements (Zhengti-jin整體) and five core movements repeated on both left and right sides. They are Ward Off, Roll Back, Press and Push.

I learned both the willow and five treasures methods, as a boy but it was the Wu-bao Taijiquan that became my primary focus. As a judge for international Chinese martial arts competitions during the 1980’s I have been obliged to make some study of every know system of Taijiquan although I cannot say I have any deep level expertise. I also briefly studied Chen style from Chen Xiao Wang to examine the Chen method of generating pulsing force (Fa-jin發勁) and Yang style from Yang Zhenduo to understand the pushing force (An-jin按 勁) from that system. These were explorations so as to help me better understand the roots of the Li family concepts derived from both styles. For myself I have come to the conclusion that the Wu-bao Li style is all I need for health and self-defense applications.

As a student, was there anything within the internal martial arts system that posed problems for you or that you had to adapt to?

I suppose it would be the rigors of learning under the tutelage of a stern task master who brooked no back chat. With Shifu Li failure was never an option, in any form. He was a strict disciplinarian. You received few compliments for things done correctly. You heard quite a bit when things were done wrong. Ask a question once, it was answered politely, ask it again a short answer with perhaps a demonstration was given, ask a third time and you possibly would be picking yourself out of the dirt. He seemed to believe that he was preparing us for life or death survival and took the training very seriously. If you look in a Western dictionary under “Tough Love” there would or should be a photo of Li, Long-dao. Although at times he had what Tibetans call a streak of “Crazy Wisdom” in that if things got too intense he could break the tension by doing some pretty strange antics. So I would say that in dealing with him there was a bit of culture shock.

It was all new to us and very foreign even perhaps a bit exotic, but we did not question what we were learning and not so much from fear of the third question rule, but more from awe and respect for our teacher. I feel the reader should also realize that during the 1950’s there was a different mind set than what we see in young people today.

Children were taught to be seen and not heard, there were no computers, video games, cell phones or other distractions. We had books and television for entertainment in those days and these along with our parents, teachers and church instilled in us a sense of etiquette and good manners. Television shows modeled polite children, violence was not graphic.

The adventures of Superman (one of Mr. Li’s favorite shows) with George Reeves taught us about, “Truth justice and the American way!” We had heroes who righted wrongs, protected the weak and innocent, they took care those who could not help themselves. There were no anti-heroes. There was a clear sense of good and bad like Yin and Yang. That was the American or at least Texas way in those days and it fit right into the concepts of the Li family bodyguards’ adherence to martial conduct or martial virtue (Wude武德).

What do you say about Bagua (or any of the “internal styles”) in regards to it’s effectiveness in combat?

This is a difficult if not tricky question to answer. As far as Baguazhang goes in modern times in my view it has become a splintered art divided up into many incarnations. Some versions of the art have become so watered down by modern sport Wushu interpretations designed for tournament form demonstration that they are practically useless for true self defense. This is also true of Taijiquan and Xingyiquan where the demonstration versions and compulsory routines often contain wide stances and movements that biomechanically cannot generate much in the way of true whole body power or kinetic force.

Some of my friends in China tell me that when martial arts was for a short time outlawed during the reign of Chairman Mao there was such a hue and cry a sports ministry was formed to allow a watered down state approved version of martial arts to be used as artistic expressions but not true martial arts. Stances were deepened and changes were made by the then governing body to insure that these arts were aesthetically pleasing but of little real combative use. Over time it proved that many of these alterations were particularly damaging to the knees and especially to Western players as the Caucasian bone structure in the knee is a bit different from that of our Asian brothers and sisters.

Over time much of the original prowess of these arts diminished, traditional masters took to the hills to hide out others fled the country to South America, Canada, Europe and some to the USA others threw in the towel and joined up with the governing body. Over dinner one night I asked my good friend Madam Wong, Ju-rong daughter of the famous Wang, Zi-ping one of the most skilled fighters in all of China, why she was teaching the watered down Wushu methods to Americans, surely she was free to teach what she liked now that she was in the land of the free.

She looked at me for a long time, leaned across the table and whispered, “Because I still have family living in China!” So today the major players in the West of Chinese martial arts are from the contemporary Wushu group and another group only plays for health concerns while the smallest number of Chinese Gong Fu mavens concentrates on the old school methods for health and realistic fighting skills. We are few in number but I think those numbers are growing.

As to Baguazhang, Dong, Hai-Chuan the alleged originator of the art Rotating Palm (Zhuan zhang ) later to be named Eight Diagram Palm (Baguazhang八 卦 掌) was purely interested in combative methods especially during his tenure with the Emperors palace guards and later when he taught outside the walls of the palace. Although some sources say he did not teach the palace guards his Baguazhang reserving that for inner door students on this the historical jury is still out.

As far as fighting efficiency it is said that Dong would only take students who were proficient in other martial disciplines and had experience with combat methods. Each of his students would then be taught to use the palm as a main weapon along with circle walking and rapid turning methods called single and double palm changes. As his students came from different disciplines each was taught to adapt his previous fighting skills to three main concepts. The first was using palms as a main weapon instead of the fist. The second was in applying these methods while circling and turning to make the practitioner a hard target.

This was introduced in the methods called single and double palm changes and the third was in walking around facing inward on a large circle to create very adroit footwork. Even with these similarities the art took on different characteristics as some specialized in throwing (Shuaijiao摔跤) tactics while others focused on locking and holding skills (Qinna擒拿) and still others on specialized striking skill (Da-gong打功) and so on.

For this reason there are many variations or interpretations of Dong’s methods. However originally all interpretations were about realistic combat methods and they involved many levels of training that one might call cross-training today. Early Dong Baguazhang students learned the circle walking and palm changes but there were no long memorized forms. The forms were based on principles and were often a series of martial tactics linked in a certain order then re-linked in another order over and over again until the student could move freely and spontaneously. There was no such thing as a compulsory routine which is not conducive to learning free flowing self defense tactics.

There was also some light body training (Qing-gong輕功), Stone Sphere training (Da shi qiu 大石球) a type of progressive resistance exercise using stone spheres of varying weights and sizes for developing what we call core power today. More advanced level students graduated to the Nine Palace training (Jiu Gongdian九宮殿) where one walked or ran around nine posts set in the earth representing multiple opponents. There were also forms of combat drills with Baguazhang push hands exercises, application drills and eventually some sparring methods were also employed.

Although there are exceptions to everything in my view a majority of today’s modern so called internal martial arts seldom contain much more than some elaborate dance like forms to be memorized, push-hand games, mysterious often unintelligible instructions about the invisible Qi energy and through all this the students are given the erroneous impression that this is enough to defend oneself against a serious physical assault.

The old school training was far more than a long set of dance routines and some push-hands and Qi magic. These old masters were rough and tumble men who used such methods to survive life and death altercations. Today in my opinion there are less than a handful of people who have had these old school methods passed down to them from teachers who were real fighters not tournament jocks, but men who paid their dues on the streets of Beijing, Hong Kong, Canton and other cities in the golden age of Gong Fu in China.

I would like to point out also that these modern day keepers of the “old school” flame are working to preserve the spirit of these arts for future generations. It is from them that anyone who really wants to understand how to use Taijiquan, Baguazhang or Xingyiquan should study. This is because you cannot learn to swim from someone who has never been in the water! Many attempt to teach what they call self-defense with these arts with no more practical experience of real combat than push-hands games or some tournament sparring.

The gap between a controlled environment and a deadly attack on the street is a huge yawning chasm. To try and teach such methods without practical experience is teaching theory based on belief not reality. This is my view is a reckless and dangerous attitude that could possibly cost a student dearly in a real attack.

PART TWO COMING SOON!

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3 Responses to “10 Questions with Dr. John Painter [Part 1]”

  1. I am honored to have been asked to answer these question on this great online group. Thank You

  2. Wow! I learned a lot from reading Dr. Painter’s answers…very deep and profound.

  3. Indeed, all his answers are very deep and profound… I have always admired his teaching ways and there is not one day when I do not wake up to practice my TaijiChuan.

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