Shiver me timbers! How boat boxing foiled pirates and became heritage
Captain Jack Sparrow may be the swashbuckler of the Caribbean, but he would have met some formidable opposition centuries ago had he steered into the ancient watertown of Zhujiajiao in what is today Shanghai's suburban Qingpu District.
The unchallenged champions of pirate adventure back then were masters of a form of Chinese martial arts called chuanquan (船拳), or boat boxing.
This somewhat unusual combat technique has origins dating back more than 300 years. It is a branch of the southern school of Shaolin-style boxing.
Zhujiajiao has a history much longer than boat boxing. In existence for about 1,700 years ago, the town was once an economic powerhouse on the Grand Canal of China and in the Yangtze River Delta region. Its lucrative main commerce was in the clothing and rice trades.
The riches of the town attracted pirates who plundered ships and caused local mayhem. To fight the intruders, local sailors practiced martial arts and created boat boxing, based on Shaolin-style kung fu, one of the oldest and most famous of Chinese martial arts.
If you have ever been to Zhujiajiao, or other watertowns south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, you may have seen the wooden boats on the waterways. It's hard to imagine them engaging in battle in such confined spaces.
"Steady, light and fast are the characteristics of boat boxing," said Jiang Chunmin, an inheritor of the boat boxing tradition. "All the movements should be executed within the space of a baxian table."
The baxian table, or eight immortals table, is a type of traditional Chinese furniture. It's a 90-centimeter square and can seat up to eight people.
Jiang, 74, his head of hair still black, his skin tanned and his body still muscular, learned Chinese martial arts from his father, beginning in childhood.
"When I was in kindergarten, my father woke me at five every morning and had me practice handstands," said Jiang. "After training, my father would reward me with 2 fen (less than 1 US cent) to buy fried dough sticks."
Jiang's father Jiang Zhixiao left his hometown in what is now the Fengxian District when he was only 13 years old and followed a seller of "dogskin plaster" ― a kind of external use of traditional Chinese medicine ― to learn Chinese martial arts. However, that ended with China's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45).
Returning to his hometown, Jiang's father met a boxing coach named Lu Jiashan and became his boat-boxing apprentice. After a three-year apprenticeship, he fell in love with a circus acrobat, and the couple settled in the Fengxi area of the Qingpu District.
"My mother was an awesome tightrope walker," said Jiang. "She was able to do a backbend when she was only 3 years old."
Jiang began learning Chinese martial arts at the age of 9 and never looked back.
"Even now, I practice the basics every day," said Jiang. "They are a vital part of the training. Kung fu means hard work over a long period."
According to Jiang, the basic skills include pressing, pulling and kicking legs, stance training and tumbling. The flexibility of the joints, the strength of the muscles and breathing control are all essential parts, he added.
Jiang stood up and showed me several Chinese martial arts moves to demonstrate the flexibility of his body, followed by some ballet-style moves.
"Because of my basic skills in Chinese martial arts, I joined the army arts troupe when I was conscripted in 1971," said Jiang.
Traveling around China, Jiang and his comrades-in-arms presented performances for soldiers in often remote areas of the country, including Tibet.
"I didn't get much altitude sickness there because regular Chinese martial arts training made me strong," said Jiang.
After the end of his service in 1976, Jiang returned to Qingpu and continued his Chinese martial arts career by teaching amateurs boat boxing in a local park. It was not until 2016 that this unique style of Chinese martial arts was listed by Shanghai as an intangible cultural heritage.
Of course, the historical reason for boat boxing is long gone. Nowadays, the tradition is for show rather than combat. But that doesn't lessen its appeal for those who want to keep their bodies toned or those who cherish local heritage.