Zao, from Peter
The Sun Rose Early
The sun rose earlier in Portsmouth Square from 1965 to 1983 than it did over the rest of San Francisco. That was the precious 18 or so years when Master Kuo Lien Ying taught Chinese martial arts out of his storefront studio at 11 Brenham Place, later renamed Walter U. Lum Place.
The routine was unvarying. At 5 A.M. or earlier, often before the first rays of light began to streak the sky above the highrise buildings to the East, the door latch flung back with a sharp report. A loud, metallic click echoed through the pre-dawn darkness. Then the door opened with a slight rattle of the Venetian blinds behind its paned glass panel. There, framed in the lighted doorway, stood a diminutive, compact man about five feet, five inches tall who radiated powerhouse life and energy.
His face was ageless, its skin smooth and supple as a babe’s, though its owner had passed the seventh decade of life. It had the subtle rosy glow one sees in the brightening sky with the first flush of dawn. His eyes twinkled with good humor and perennial optimism. A slight smile, lit and magnified by a gold-crowned front tooth, played about the corners of his mouth. Expectant and solicitous, Master Kuo peered out across the alley and into the square beyond to take visual roll call of his serious, early arriving students.
That face, all the more remarkable because of his shaved, perfectly formed head, had an underlying bone structure that transformed it to a monument. The strength of an unknown continent was there underneath the shifting mantle of the skin. He had high, proud cheekbones that made his eyes seem as if they danced above the serenity of mountain peaks. He had a long flaring nose with nostrils open wide to take in the breath of life. It was a strong bridge of a nose, sturdy enough, it seemed, to transport the viewer over tumbling mountain rivers. That nose hung perfectly poised over the deep drop of his long jaw. This last section of Kuo’s facial symmetry was a vessel filled with reserve power, reminiscent in profile of a horse, a stallion.
Here, mysteriously, in the body of a man was China, strange unknown China, the ancient wise Middle Kingdom, come calling on Young America’s doorstep. In dark windbreaker, white sweatpants, and black cloth rubber soled shoes, Old China had come to rest on the California Shores. Old China had arrived timely, fortuitously, at the precise moment of a junior country’s spiritual awakening. In the man---living, breathing and moving amongst us---were embodied centuries of earth wisdom. You immediately sensed that he knew---this young/old man talking in slurred, Inner Mongolian Mandarin and walking in an old man’s shuffling, energy conserving gait.
That walk was deceptive. Watch out! Instantly, if need be, it could change. At will, Master Kuo could shape shift into someone half his age, his kung-fu forms fairly crackling with energy and elegant, deadly precision. Master Kuo, from childhood, had learned from Old China’s very best. He was a walking storehouse of esoteric martial arts knowledge.
Those fortunate enough to shake his hand felt something extraordinary. The seamless polish of tooled and buffed jadestone. But it was jade come warmly life. Jade coupled with the radiating warmth of a dozing cat’s underbelly. A hand completely free of tension. An offered teacup of acceptance.
But Master Kuo’s most amazing physical asset was neither readily visible nor obvious. You had to look beneath his trademark black nylon windbreaker to find it. Many casual students knew of it not at all on account of the loose comfortable clothing he preferred. But it was there all right, protruding in splendid roundness from the center of his lithe frame. A belly of old. One for the ages. A compact, round Buddha belly not by any means flabby but rather taut as a trampoline---one that Julius Irving or Michael Jordan could have easily borrowed for an exquisite flying dunk. It was Master Kuo’s own private source, his ocean, of the life force energy the Chinese call qi. It was a belly having a physical boundary, yes, but also able to issue energy and force that at times seemed boundless.
From the mysterious inner center of that roundness, known as dan tien, a sudden exhuberant shout often could erupt. Again, watch out! It could happen anytime and anywhere. And not just in the murky pre-dawn dusk of Portsmouth Square. It could happen for example---and often did---at the annual martial arts school banquet to celebrate Master Kuo’s birthday. The yell. The patented shout brimming with qi. The “Yeeeeeeeeeeeee!”
Once was enough. It was the show-stopper drowning out the noisy chorus of student well-wishing: “Shifu, wan sui! Shifu, wan sui!” (“Master, may you live a thousand years!”---the traditional Chinese toast.)
“Yeeeeeeeeee!” It was inevitable. It erupted. There was no stopping it. The rice wine consumed, number of glasses, was irrelevant. So was the raw garlic clove eaten as a wine chaser. Master Kuo simply had so much life force energy that some of it had to explode as excess---like steam rattling the cap valve of a pressure cooker.
“Yeeeeeeeee!” It was his own form of vulcanism. A force of nature.
It was from Master Kuo’s dan tien, his developed martial arts center of centers, that the sound erupted. Call it, if you like, the body’s moving center, following the formulation of Gurjieff. But in this case, in Kuo’s case, it was special. It was more than a truly felt and experienced center of gravity. It was an intersect of awakened consciousness spanning two worlds: that of the gross visible physical body and the inner invisible energy body supported by the unseen sea of Timeless Existence.
It was from there, from Kuo’s dan tien, that the Sun rose early, before the dawn actual , each morning in San Francisco’s Porstmouth Square.
Hangover? Whose hangover? Perhaps yours and mine but certainly not his. Master Kuo, among his many skills and secrets, had an uncanny ability to transmute the effects of banquet dining, rice wine and raw garlic. No matter how wild the revelry, how extravagant the toasts and boasts of the night before, at precisely 5 A.M.---when the door to his studio opened---Master Kuo seemed totally unchanged from the previous morning. He always showed up, alert, eyes twinkling, instantly present and ready to teach.
“Shifu, zao!” (“Master, good morning.”) That was the customary greeting, our greeting, dictated by tradition and respect, as Master Kuo stepped aside to let the first students enter. Yes, it was early, but already there was important work to be done. There was an array of traditional Chinese weapons to be collected within the studio and transported to the park bench outside, where Master Kuo then propped and displayed them in the square’s paved practice area. He had a way of lining them up to accentuate, for each, their uniqueness and high metal luster. Banfa.. There was always banfa, or method, in even the smallest details of Master’s Kuo’s teaching style.
“Zao, zao zao…” came his response, the reply, as the first students entered the studio. He intoned it softly, warmly, almost cluckingly. Like a contented rooster. Often the “zao” was followed by a resonant, crowed “Bea-u-t-i-full!!!!” delivered in English.
To Master Kuo, there was nothing more beautiful than his serious, early arriving students in those years from 1965 to 1983. For those who hung out, who made the journey, building daily early morning practice upon practice, we---under his watchful eyesbecame beautiful. Ugly ducklings had a strange way of transforming over time in the early morning ambiance of Portsmouth Square. Awkwardness, lack of self-confidence, non-directed thought and action all morphed and changed to concerted purpose, energy coupled with elegance and power in motion. Master Kuo pushed his students to grow and embody skills, martial and otherwise, beyond even their own imaginings. Decades ahead of the turn of the American culture, he was a life coach before the invention of the term.
But it all came back to zao, short in Peking Mandarin dialect for zaoshang. In literal translation, zaoshang means “early on the mountain.” It describes the high vantage point from where the first light can be seen. And, to the benefit of the early riser, the place from where the special energy of celestial union can be captured and harnassed.
You had to be there. Early. In Portsmouth Square, in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown, with its flat paved aggregate concrete open spaces and walkways, under the metal poled streetlights and bonzai trees. You had to arrive early, threading your way beneath the brooding highrises to the open space where loomed the real mountain, the unseen mountain personal. But no one realized that at first. We came by word-of-mouth, having heard of “this incredible Chinese Master who teaches from 5 to 7 A.M. in the morning.” We came just “wanting to learn some kung-fu”.
We ended up learning much, much more.
Many were Kuo’s students. Many and varied were their cultural and racial backgrounds. The common denominator was the hidden potential and talent in each that Master Kuo nurtured and brought forward, fashioning dynamic group energy that constantly fed and built upon itself.
Truly individualized and original, Master Kuo was one of a long line of traditional martial arts masters with lineage dating back to the Shaolin Temple. He believed and taught in practical terms that qi, or life force energy, rises from the ground in special abundance in the mystic time just before dawn. Martial arts banfa, or method, was the way to capture it. And for nearly two decades under the master’s loving but demanding tutelage, a group of very lucky students experienced just that. Alchemy---both group and personal---became our byword.