If you see Xia Chongyi teaching tai chi or kung fu or maybe taking his rescue dog, Leon, for a walk, your eye might be drawn to his hairstyle — a thick top knot divided into two sections to resemble a bull’s nostrils. A pin placed through the knot is like a ring through a bull’s nose, Chongyi said, and it represents that “you’re being guided by heaven.”
That tradition is just one of the many facets of Chinese culture and Daoist philosophy that Chongyi, a former movie stunt person who grew up in Pennsylvania, is happy to explain and share, along with martial-arts classes at the Wudang Swordsmen Academy he recently established on South Washington Street in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
Now before you get excited about the idea of working with swords, please note you have to start with the basics to make sure you’re ready.
And for those who might shy away from the idea of a sharp blade, Chongyi can teach you to use a non-violent weapon called a horse whisk. Crafted from the hairs of a horse’s tail, in skilled hands it can be used to disarm someone who might be threatening you with a sword.
While his high-energy kung-fu classes have been attracting mostly people in the 15-to-35 age range, Chongyi believes he has something for everyone, including senior citizens. A “tai chi for health” class, for example, is a gentle, flowing style of exercise that can help older people with their balance.
“If they’re in a wheelchair, we have stretching exercises for them,” he said. “If there are people in nursing homes that could use arm stretches and breathing exercises, we could send someone in.”
When elementary and middle schools let out for the summer, Chongyi hopes parents will sign up interested children in youth classes at Wudang Swordsmen Academy. He doesn’t have a strict minimum age, “as long as they can stay focused and really want to do it.”
“I just want people to come in and try it out,” said the instructor, who welcomes visitors to participate in a sample class or even just to watch if they prefer. “If there’s something they like, we can help them develop their skills.”
During a recent kung-fu class, the mostly twentysomething students were working hard to do just that, beginning with stretching exercises and proceeding into a series of high kicks that Chongyi demonstrated with lightning speed and breath-taking flexibility.
“I enjoy the peace you can get from this,” student Michael Avery, 19, of Wilkes-Barre said later, during a break. “It’s something I can do for my health all my life. It won’t hurt my knees.”
“I like the culture and the use of weapons,” said Hanade Abualburak, 22, of Wilkes-Barre, manager of the academy as well as a student.
“I found the place at dojolocater.com,” said Matt Madison, 23, who is from the Mountain Top area. “It has everything I like,” he said, citing not only the health and fitness benefits but a respect for the traditions.
Chongyi began to study Chinese martial arts when he was 14 and wholeheartedly embraced it.
Later, he studied Religions of China at Penn State University and became a practicing Daoist.
There are many ways to practice Daoism, he explained. In keeping with his own practice, he won’t kill an insect — “I don’t want to hurt anything,” he said — and he won’t cook meat, though he will eat it if someone else prepared a meal that includes it.
While he’s not trying to change anyone’s religion, he recommends that people learn a little about the many different arts developed in China over thousands of years. “Then you can pick what you like and ignore the rest.”
Avenues of study range from swordsmanship to herbalism to dietary practices to reading the constellations to tai-chi exercises the instructor believes have relieved his own allergy symptoms as well as the pain from various injuries.
“I fell in love with this,” said Chongyi, who was given that name in 2010 when he and his training brother Mei Chongzheng became the first non-Chinese people inducted into the Wudang Dragongate lineage. He traces the lineage, through his instructor Zhou Zuanyun and back through 16 teacher-to-student generations, to the historic Wudang Mountains of China.
He has visited those mountains with his teacher and describes it as a lengthy journey that begins with a flight into a major city, followed by an extensive train ride, additional miles by bus and, lastly, a 12-hour walk.
“That was part of my pilgrimage,” said Chongyi, who described his destination as a tranquil place filled with temples where monks greet the morning by chanting.
The temples that are not open to tourists are peaceful, Chongyi said, and can take on a surreal quality. “You can turn around and look behind you at a staircase you just climbed and see a row of clouds covering the bottom steps.”