Scene: Yanzi’s noodle stall, the US Army PX Center on Zhongshan North Road, 1960.

In those days, Chen Mei-shou was the top player in Taiwan’s judo circles. During the Japanese occupation, he and Hong Yi-xiang studied judo in the same gym. Later, due to his family, Hong Yi-xiang changed his training to Chinese martial arts while Chen Mei-shou chose to remain in the judo world to cultivate and develop, and he was as famous as the well-known judo master Huang Cang-lang. These notables were the soul of Taiwan’s early promotion of judo.

This morning, Chen Mei-shou and Hong Yi-xiang met to have breakfast together at the Yanzi Noodle Stall.

(The following is the monologue of Chen Mei-shou)

“I have taken charge as judo instructor for the US military in Taiwan.

“Three days a week. Every lesson two hours.

“Westerners are pragmatic. You have to beat ‘em to earn their respect.

“Yeah. They are all soldiers fighting the Vietnam War!

“Going to the battlefield to fight to the death, if it’s not practical it’s not suitable!

“Those soldiers are well-nourished and big, of course it’s not easy to teach ‘em. But the tuition fees are quite tasty!

“The Guandu battle, that was a pretty win!

“Many masters and well-known teachers were decked at the hand of that
western boxing champion.

“There is an event coming up, you have to participate.

“It’s specially assigned by the top-brass.

“Definitely go. The top-brass of the Sino-US command have specifically named you.

“There is another special person who wants to meet you.

“It’s not convenient to say, you’ll know at the time.

“There’s gonna be many domestic and foreign reporters attending.

“The Big Guy is afraid of losing face. I have to find a few who can fight, able to hold their own. This kind of face can’t afford to be lost.

“Several old timers are publicly promoting you.

“Unacceptable. You gotta go.

“Because...the event will have all you can eat delicious cheeses and American steaks, ha-ha-ha.”


The “US Army Welfare Center” canteen occupying a large area on Zhongshan North Road was completely cleared and was arranged as a performance space to hold a medium-sized gala. In this instance the performances to be demonstrated one by one on the stage were not ordinary dance recitals, but martial arts routines with swords flashing, rapiers flickering, sticks flying. The martial art groups invited to demonstrate their skills were all elites selected by the National Martial Arts Association under the decree of higher authorities. Almost all well-known martial arts masters and up and coming stars from Taiwan were recruited.

The evening of the event, only the headmasters of the schools sat in the hall while the large number of participants were arranged to wait outside the venue. The content of the program was all-encompassing, including routines, partner training, weapons, grappling, seizing, empty-handed defense against knives, iron head skills, iron throat skills, iron bridges, driving nails with bare hands, and all variety of power breaking. Myriad schools competed for the admiration of the crowd.

Although they had been screened beforehand, however, the quality of the routines was mixed, with weeds stuck among the flowers, and the event was unbearably chaotic. The main reason was that the National Martial Arts Association responsible for screening and inviting could not beg off all the personal pressure exerted on them. No one knew what practical benefits of being invited might be in the end, but they felt that if they were not invited, they would have been eliminated and ignored by others. Consequently, a performance that was originally scheduled to conclude within two hours, had been in full swing for nearly three hours and still didn’t end.

Subjected to those long, tedious, highly repetitive martial arts masters “giving it all they had,” early-on the guests had started to shift restlessly in their seats with bewildered expressions on their faces. It was only due to the friendship between allies China and the United States that a mediation outreach took place on the quiet with the director general of the National Martial Arts Association secretly asked to eliminate as many programs as possible, to end this tedious martial arts performance before nine o’clock.

Immediately after the top US military official attending gave a brief speech, the floor was open to media from various countries to ask questions of the heads of the martial gyms. At that time, although Hong Yi-xiang had already started teaching in Guandu, it was of a charitable nature, and he had not formally registered to set up a martial arts gym. He had been especially directed by higher authorities to participate, but in deference to his elders he sat in an inconspicuous seat in the back row.

“In modern warfare, what is the practical value of traditional martial arts?” a reporter asked.

“During close hand-to-hand combat, you can kill the enemy. You can save your life,” to the first question from a foreign reporter an old master sitting in the center of the front row, who seemed to exude the special quality of a leader, replied with an attitude that only he was up to representing the entire Chinese martial arts tradition of thousands of years.

“Thank you for the master’s answer. So in the event of war, you will still carry these big swords, big war hammers, seven-section steel whips, and meteor hammers to fight with you?” the reporter asked. This barbed question immediately dispelled the originally dull and boring atmosphere, and provoked laughter from the VIPs and reporters.

The venerable oldster was taken by the surprise ambush of this cold spear, and his mind went blank for a while, not knowing how to respond to this plot against him. Those who originally struggled to sit in the first row, rushing to face the media and cameras, only then realized that this front row of seats was basically the execution ground for the firing squad. No one was willing to stand up at this moment to face the tart and impolite questioning of this foreign journalist.

There was a far-off voice from the back corner, but a voice that was loud enough for everyone present to hear clearly, as Hong Yi-xiang responded to this question. “In the training of long weapons, some are intended to increase fundamental strength, and some are for the sake of tradition. It might not all be related to combat. Internal boxing uses the long spear and zhang er long pole to exercise strength of the core and foundation. The principle is the same as Westerners using barbells and dumbbells to increase muscle stamina. These traditional techniques cannot be interpreted through your perspective. What you see and what you call to mind may not be the key. On the other hand, I would like to ask you this, Mister, do you use dumbbells as hand grenades in Vietnam?” The clever, inspired analogy was like the “needle hidden in cotton” of Internal Boxing, easily dissolving this pejorative provocation, following the opponent’s oncoming force and responding with a humorous cheekiness to lob it back to the opponent.

“Apologies. Your question touches on national security and secrets of the United States. I am afraid that only the Secretary of Defense can answer your question.” The experienced reporter used more humor to easily defuse the awkwardness. But after such a response, other reporters were embarrassed to use disrespectful ways to ask questions so as not to humiliate themselves.

“Just now we watched a lot of power-breaking performances, which are wonderful. They look great, but there are many tricks in them. Like your Japanese-style roof tiles, they are piled very high, and they seem to require a lot of force to break. But everyone knows that this kind of tile is dried in a low temperature kiln, and the hardness is not great, plus the curved tiles collapse like a wave. What I see is a technique depending on physics, not real martial arts skill. If power breaking is supposed to show skills, why don’t you choose to use more realistic materials and methods,” A foreign reporter speaking very formal Mandarin exposed this commonly understood problem in the martial arts industry.

“Even if it is a technique depending on physics, it is part of gongfu. Anyway, everything has been smashed up. If you have doubts, we can’t re-do. Anyway, believers will believe, if you don’t believe, it doesn’t matter what I say.” The master who had just done the bare fist breaking spread his hands on the table and explained helplessly.

“That’s not necessarily so. Masters one and all, are you interested in trying this?” It seemed that the interviewing reporters came prepared. No sooner had he spoken than an assistant took out two light yellow bricks and put them on the long table in front of the masters.

“It’s fired bricks.” People in the know could see at a glance the origin of the two large bricks on the table.

“Correct. These are high-density refractory bricks for kiln building. They’re thicker, harder, and have no curvature. Can someone break two refractory bricks without spacers—with one punch? Then we’ll really admire Chinese martial arts.” The reporter looked around at all the masters on the scene with a wry smile, hoping that someone would stand up and give it a try.

“It’s kilned at a high temperature—over a thousand degrees—it’s harder than stone.”

“Restrain yourselves, whatever you do, don’t touch it. You don’t know the characteristics of things you haven’t struck before. Don’t fall into the trap.

”Yes. Restraint. Don’t pay attention to them, in a moment the Chinese Martial Arts Association will come to our rescue.”

“What kind of demonic press conference is this. I’ll never participate in this kind of damned meeting anymore.” The masters at the table whispered to each other reminding and complaining, but no one emerged to stand up at this juncture to challenge these two bricks.

“I am very grateful to this reporter for his diligent preparations. Today’s performance has exceeded the original schedule. The masters here have been preparing for today’s performance for many days, and they should be tired. I suggest we don’t try the matter of this brick today. If there is a chance in the future, our National Martial Arts Association will make another arrangement, okay?” The director-general of the Association came forward to circle up the wagons at the critical moment. “Yes. It’s too late. We have to rush to get the night train back south. Let’s talk about it next time,” the masters on the table responded in unison, regardless of school. And the people in charge of taking interview notes and the people in charge of the photography displayed disdainful smirks when they heard the news from the Association.

I’ll Try It

“Slow down. I’m willing to try it.” Hong Yi-xiang got up from the back row and walked to the front table. He hefted the two heavy fire bricks and carefully evaluated their weight and quality. The atmosphere at the event, which had become sullen like a concert breaking up, suddenly became lively again with this change.

Although the scene was bustling and chaotic for a while, it was also very efficient. In less than ten minutes, dozens of still and movie cameras were in place, glaring like the eyes of covetous tigers viewing prey, and ready to pounce on the headline image of tomorrow morning’s newspapers. Whether it was a shattering of rock surprising Heaven, or the making of a fool in front of everyone, the headline and the manner of the report would entirely be determined at the instant the camera shutters flickered open and closed.

Hong Yi-xiang seized the brief gap in the schedule as the venue was arranged, and after a simple warm-up and breathing on the sidelines, he entered the venue alone to face all the lenses and attention.

At this time, Mr. Wang Cheng- zhang, the chairman of the National Martial Arts Association, took pains to step forward, and briefly introduce Hong Yi-xiang’s martial arts school and background to all the distinguished guests and the media. “Mr. Hong, in order for every photographer to take the best shots, would you please cooperate and wait until we count one, two, and three before hitting it.”

“No countdown. When I raise my hand, you’ll definitely have enough time to press the shutter.”

“You have to break them clean, only then do you get bragging rights. Otherwise...” The end of the derisive statement was too late to be uttered. The flashes and shutters of dozens of cameras at the scene were like hundreds of tracer rounds under a night sky, at the same time, a shattering burst, shocking every heart on the scene.

“Did you take the shot?”

“Took it. But I don’t know if I got it. I have to go back and develop it to know,” All the photographers were concerned about whether they caught the right moment when they pressed the shutter button. Only after that did someone wonder out loud, “Did it break?”

The next morning, at the newsstands by the city bus ticket booths on the front page of all the newspapers, the headlines were different, but the photos published were almost identical—Hong Yi-xiang’s left hand grasping the sides of the two fired bricks, the right fist pressed on top of the brick, and under the fist the scar of an obvious fracture, running down the side of the bricks.

The above is an excerpt from Blurred Boundaries: A Martial Arts Legacy and the Shaping of Taiwan by Hong, Ze-Han and translated by Christopher Bates, Publication Date November 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN 9781594399800.