Hip Hop Fist - Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and his Sifu Shaolin Monk Shi Yan Ming
September 1, 1999
Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and his Shifu, Shaolin Monk Shi Yan Ming
by Gene Ching
(C) Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine, reprinted by permission
For every follower of Shaolin kung fu, there is an experience that sets you on the path. It may have been passed on to you by your family. It may have been after you got into your first real fight. For my generation, it was often after we saw our first kung fu movie. When we heard Bruce Lee yell or Master Po chant wisdom, it resonated within our soul. Somehow, some way, we were brought before the temple gates. It didn't matter how we got there. Behind those doors lay a 1500-year-old legacy and the discipline of a lifetime. There was no standing at the threshold. It was time to enter the Shaolin Temple. It was time to train.
Generation X & Y is hearing a different call, one with a hard-core beat. Rap and hip hop music has plundered our old beloved kung fu movies, lifting sound samples to add to their deafening tracks. At the creative center of this Shaolin sampled sound is hip hop's most popular group, the Wu-Tang Clan. You heard that right - they took their name from the Kung Fu movie Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang. Wu-Tang Clan is a crew of nine East Coast MCs - Genius/GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, U-God, Masta Killah, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, and the man nicknamed the abbot of the clan, RZA (pronounced rizza).
As the leader of Wu-Tang Clan, RZA has risen to become one of the most respected and sought-after producers in music today. Beyond engineering Wu's meteoric ascent and multiple solo projects of the individual clan members, he has been requested by U2, Bjork, Beck and Snoop Doggy Dog. Wu-Tang Clan's eagerly awaited second album Wu-Tang Forever quickly went quadruple platinum. RZA has achieved a phenomenal level of success in the cutthroat music industry. How does he keep so sharp? Kung fu, naturally. He is a student of the first Shaolin Temple Monk ever to defect from the People's Republic of China, New York's Shi Yan Ming.
"En Garde! I'll Let You Try My Wu-Tang Style!"
The concept behind Wu-Tang Clan is ingenious. Just like so many of us, RZA and his crew found resonance in those old kung fu movies too. They drew analogies between Shaolin and Wu-Tang with their home in Staten Island, creating their own unique mythology around these timeless classics. The Wu-Tang sword became a metaphor for the MC's tongue - a sharp weapon ready to cut down any challengers. Each member of the clan has adopted a persona that captures his unique rap style. They all attack the mike together like the five deadly venoms, only there are nine of them. Each takes his turn, unleashing his own unique Wu-Tang sword style and adding to the mix.
While many African Americans became swept up in the funky "blaxploitation" wave of kung fu flicks such as Black Belt Jones and Shaolin Dolemite, RZA studied the Tao, Buddhism and the Art of War. Hollywood was exploiting kung fu just like beer companies marketed malt liquor, based upon negative stereotypes. Once you are past the low production values and poor dubbing, kung fu movies contain themes of justice and revenge that consistently resonate with oppressed communities worldwide. It is what has made the genre so enduring. Perhaps African Americans could identify with Shaolin Temple's struggle against the cruel Ching dynasty. At least, this is what Hollywood banked upon.
However, RZA's research postulates a radically different interpretation. According to RZA, "Kung fu movies resonate well with us because of our natural resonance with them. It's been said that Damo was part of the Davidian tribe of Africans who migrated to South India. And the martial art forms that he taught and learned were originally from the continent of Africa. I think our original ideas, dance and culture makes us predisposed to communicate with the martial arts."
Once again in contemporary cinema, Hollywood is marketing martial arts to this community by pairing Chinese martial arts stars with African Americans. Jackie Chan worked with Chris Tucker in Rush Hour. Sammo Hung works with Arsenio Hall in Martial Law. Jet Li's next film is slated to be the $20 million Warner Brothers project Romeo Must Die, where he plays Romeo to hip hop star Aaliyah's Juliet. A long time fan of the old school kung fu movies, RZA views this current wave with guarded skepticism. "I think it's good that martial arts is being exposed on a wide range but I don't think satire is the only way to go," he comments. "I'm a great admirer of Sammo Hung, I mean I'm a big fan and I know a lot about him. But to see them match him up in a comedy pair kind of takes away from the true martial spirit. Jackie too. I mean, of course they're both entertainers and have always done comedy, but people might not know that they're great dramatic actors as well. The portrayal of the martial arts shouldn't always be comical. Are they afraid the next Bruce Lee's going to come out and give it to us for real? Hollywood makes fun of everything."
Wu-Tang Clan is cutting edge in more ways than just music and martial arts. Their heralded double album Wu-Tang Forever, was also an enhanced CD including interactive multi-media content. Placing it into your computer instead of your CD player reveals a whole wide world of secret treasures, special interviews and videos, free AOL software and even an interactive tour of the legendary Wu mansion. While every band markets t-shirts, Wu-Tang Clan took it further and marketed an entire clothing line, Wu-Wear. They have actually opened three Wu stores - one in Atlanta, Georgia, one in Norfolk, Virginia and one back home in Staten Island. There is even a videogame based on Wu-Tang Clan where each MC has special powers and players have to fight their way through multiple chambers. RZA's upcoming venture follows in the footsteps of many other rap stars. It is the logical next step. He is working on making a movie. "We're going into the film business." states RZA "We're going to get some good martial arts movies produced instead of comedy. We live it out every day." It is as if the Buddhist wheel is coming full circle for RZA. Kung fu movies inspired many of us. RZA may soon have the opportunity to pass it on.
"Shaolin Shadow Boxing and the Wu-Tang Sword Style"
Enter 34th generation Shaolin Monk Shi Yan Ming. Shi Yan Ming was the seventh of nine children, born to a poor, uneducated family. Being Buddhists, they committed him to Shaolin Temple when he was only five, right in the middle of China's atrocious Cultural Revolution. During that time, religious practice was outlawed and Shaolin Temple was in ruins. Only a few monks remained and they had to practice in secret. They could not wear robes or shave their heads. When the Red Guard came through, they all had to hide to avoid persecution. They had to act like good comrades, while struggling to preserve their time-honored practice in secret. This is how Shi Yan Ming was raised, training in kung fu and Buddhism while constantly on the run.
Later when the political tides shifted, Shaolin Temple became subsidized as a tourist site by the Chinese government. The temple was restored and the monks were allowed to practice under the watchful eye of the Communist party. It was quite a change for the monks hiding in the mountains. Now they were celebrated, but as a tourist novelty. For Shi Yan Ming, it opened up the world. Shi Yan Ming had heard of Europeans, Americans and Africans, but it wasn't until around 1987, when non-Chinese tourists finally penetrated China deep enough to visit Shaolin Temple, that he ever saw any first-hand. Only five years later, he would find himself penetrating America deeper than any other Shaolin Temple Monk as one of seven emissaries on the first United States tour in 1992. At the conclusion of that historic tour, Shi Yan Ming risked everything by defecting. He would be the first Shaolin Temple Monk ever to do so and opened the door for his Shaolin brothers who followed. He settled in Manhattan, and opened his U.S.A. Shaolin Temple to propagate Shaolin teachings to the West.
A mutual friend introduced RZA and Shi Yan Ming four years ago. They hit it off right away. RZA's years of self-study had given him a firm understanding of Chan Buddhism, which impressed Shi Yan Ming. "He has dozens martial art movies - many tapes - just like a library," says Shi Yan Ming in surprisingly clear English. "(Also) many different religious books. To him, he is just learning the philosophy. Where ever you come from he respects. He respects all: Christian, Buddhist, Taoist - all the different religions." RZA ads his own little koan. "The only thing I rely on is the truth so therefore I rely on nothing."
Shi Yan Ming was also impressed by the hip hop star's humility. Many celebrities have their ego skyrocket along with their fame, but not RZA. "He knows the way to improve himself very much - always be very humble, generous, welcome. He never says, 'I'm famous' to anybody. I believe he watched a lot of Chinese martial arts movies (and learned) movie style." Shi Yan Ming laughs. RZA regards Shi Yan Ming with a meaningful riposte, "I look at him as a brother." After their first meeting, RZA began training under the Shaolin Temple Monk immediately.
Since then, the two have become great friends and fostered the traditional roles of master and student. Before meeting Shi Yan Ming, RZA was self-taught by the streets, the movies and books. "I had no actual martial background besides a lot of reading of the philosophies," he admits. At the helm of the Wu Empire, RZA could command any manner of personal trainer he wished. And yet, RZA remains faithful to his roots, Shaolin kung fu. Shi Yan Ming is pleased with RZA's progress in this venerated art. "He's serious," states the Shaolin Temple Monk. "I started training him three years ago, but this last year, he became serious. Three times - three days a week: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, he sends car (to) pick me up and go to his place. He's very busy. Some days, we go to his place, you see (him on) the phone calling somebody - talking a lot. A lot of work is waiting for him."
Even with his overwhelmingly busy schedule, RZA makes the time to practice. Especially in his position, he heeds teachings of Shaolin Temple faithfully. "(I value most) the harmony that it can bring to your mind and your body. As well as the gracefulness of the movements and the infinite applications once a full understanding is grasped," confides RZA. "My personal favorite Shaolin technique is the five elements."
"Shaolin Kung Fu, To Survive, Must now Be Taught to More Young Men. We Must Expand, Get More Pupils, So that the Knowledge Will Spread."
Music and martial arts. They are parallel art forms. Unlike sculpture or painting, music and martial arts happen in real time. When you hear a rapper perform or see a master demonstrate, the proof is in that moment. A lifetime of extensive, hard training may culminate in the recitation to which you bear witness. Rap style has an even more internal connection to martial arts than most music. It involves strenuous breath control, and of all techniques, it is the most difficult. Shi Yan Ming is very open to this analogy. "I like music," he says enthusiastically. "Many different kinds of music. Just like speak(ing) a different language and also like beautiful art. I think martial arts and music are like different styles or principles of art. (You) have to create another, have to push yourself. (They are) very similar. You have to find a way. It's very important - how to improve yourself." RZA agrees. "Music is harmonious with life. There are many Shaolin sutras that say that '5 tones deafen the ear.' How chi flows, music flows. That's one of the reasons I've been successful in music because of my martial application. It's something that can't be defined, but it can definitely be heard."
Fatefully, RZA has become one of Shaolin's loudest spokesmen. As his record sales will attest, he has the ears of millions of today's youth. Ironically, he has probably profited more on Shaolin than anyone else today. After all, the martial arts industry is small change when compared to the recording industry. He takes this responsibility in stride, careful not to dishonor his master while aware of what keeps his audience listening. "I sort of knew from my peoples in the urban community that I would be a good translator of the martial world. But to see how it's spreading to all the different media beyond just music like movies and television, I take it as a blessing. It doesn't matter who delivers the message as long as it's the right message. To see so many people appreciating martial arts is great because it increases the potential to makes this place a better world." In a way, RZA has become the modern-day storyteller, passing on the fables of Shaolin heroes through his fresh approach. His work encourages his sifu about the prospects of a whole new Shaolin generation. "The people like martial arts and also like Chinese culture, and have the respect and understanding. Training harder! Those things I believe... Shaolin Temple was born a paradox. The fight can make peace, but sometimes this world needs fight. There's no fight - everybody be (at) peace - that would be great! No fight, no war. That's excellent! But sometimes," Shi Yan Ming passes his wisdom like Master Po, "need 'fight' to make peace."
"If What You Say is True, the Shaolin and the Wu-tang Could Be Dangerous"
Some in the martial arts world believe that it is inappropriate for a Shaolin Temple Monk to be associating with a rap star. They view rap music as drenched in violence, obscenity and drugs. This prejudice against hip hop culture reflects that age old generation gap. As the saying goes "If it's too loud..." Whether the youth are turned on to Shaolin from a Shaw Brother's movie or a Wu-Tang track, there is no difference. Another generation is inspired to pursue the discipline and pass it on.
Shi Yan Ming pays little heed to such criticisms. He relishes the Wu-Tang Clan's Shaolin Temple/Staten Island analogy. "I thinks that's great!" he laughs. "Shaolin is everywhere! That's excellent! All respect, that's great!" To him, to be possessive of the teachings of Shaolin is absurd. "The art and the philosophy - there is no country, there is no wall. It is like one country. Everybody can enjoy the philosophy, can enjoy the history, can enjoy the art."
And just like his music echoes those Shaolin Temple monks on the silver screen, RZA's reaction concurs with that of his sifu. "I think all the barriers of discrimination of segregation are dissipated by Chan Buddhism. For anybody that truly understands what Chan is, they know that there are no separations. There is no good, there is no bad. A Shaolin Monk can associate with a rapper singer, murderer, or thief. Even Jesus hung out with thieves and exiles. I think it's beautiful to see a Shaolin Monk in hip hop culture. There's always been a relationship between hip hop and martial arts: take some of the names of the MC's like Grandmaster Flash, or the breakdance moves like the windmill and the one handed spin. It all comes from martial arts. Now we see it not only from movies, but we have a physical representative, that's Sifu Shi Yan Ming!"
Shaolin Temple has always adapted to suit the times. It is an intrinsic part of Shaolin's unique doctrine of Chan Buddhism. Today, martial arts are evolving at a tremendous speed. Consider the impact of the last few decades: magazines, videos, movies, even glowing nunchaku and spandex sports bras are new innovations! All of these things have elicited change in how we define our practice today. Shaolin rap and Wu-Tang hip hop has risen to become one of the most powerful influences. Like the original Kung Fu TV series, it brings Shaolin Temple into pop culture. As we close in on millennium, only the most unimaginative and uneducated mind would expect Shaolin Temple to remain unaffected by such massive global change. Nothing escapes the wheel of time, not even Shaolin Temple, and especially not us. We should not be too attached to romantic images of yesterday. Just as the Shaolin Temple Monks adapted civilian attire to avoid persecution during the Cultural Revolution, Shi Yan Ming should adapt to Wu-wear to reach more students. To do any less would defy the spirit of Chan Buddhism.
RZA sees the big picture. He is eager to support the Shaolin arts. "Remember that martial arts is universal," preaches the abbot of Wu-Tang. "Don't discriminate. The potential to be a master lies within everyone of us and masters of the arts actually ain't someone who can just break bricks, do flip and kicks. It's someone who can master himself."