Making the right moves

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Martial arts enthusiast from the US finds his place in Wudang Mountains, writing a book, building a happy family life and an online following.

Wearing his long hair in a bun, a goatee and a Taoist robe, Jake Pinnick easily stands out among many Chinese kung fu practitioners on the Wudang Mountains, although they are all dressed up pretty much the same.

With his blond hair, blue eyes, high nose and white skin, Pinnick often draws the attention of visitors, especially as he adroitly performs the tai chi moves with precision and a panache.

The 32-year-old from Kewanee, a small city in Illinois, United States, has committed himself to learning Chinese martial arts for 12 years and his efforts resulted in him becoming a disciple of Yuan Shimao, the 15th inheritor of the Wudang Sanfeng Sect, a martial arts academy in the mountains, Central China's Hubei province.

Years of learning and practice have enabled Pinnick to grasp multiple forms of martial arts, such as the Xingyi Boxing that carries out the mind's will and the Baxian (eight immortals) cudgel that combines rigidity and flexibility and enables him to catch rivals off guard.

"The martial arts have brought me great benefits, and the training is actually fun," Pinnick says.

"You can break down the moves, try to understand them, approach them differently, while the training keeps your mind very active and body very healthy," he adds.

Already being an experienced martial arts teacher himself, Pinnick has taken on an additional challenge of playing the Chinese bamboo flute in recent years.

His latest English-language book, introducing the history of the bamboo flute and the skills required to play it, has got raving reviews online.

"I found that many of my online followers were curious about the Chinese instrument after I uploaded my playing, so I thought I should publish an English tutorial so that my fans could learn along with me," Pinnick says.

He looked up a large volume of related Chinese books, extrapolated the key information and integrated his personal experiences.

It took him nearly a year to finish the book, which also covers 108 classic musical works for bamboo flute.

"I hope my book will enable foreigners online to understand the charm of the ancient Chinese traditional instrument," he says.

Journey to the East

Pinnick has been fascinated by Chinese martial arts since he was a kid, when he really enjoyed watching films featuring Chinese kung fu stars, such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.

"In our small town, there were no martial arts schools, and the ones in other cities didn't feel very authentic to me," Pinnick says.

At the beginning of 2009, he chanced upon the website of Yuan's academy, which was offering a five-year program for foreigners.

"I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn kung fu and other disciplines and experience a new challenge," he recalls.

When he announced his plan to his family, they were supportive and felt that the experience would be a beneficial one.

Pinnick then had to save up for his journey, so he started working two jobs. In May 2010, he got his visa and passport, and booked a one-way ticket to Wuhan, Hubei's provincial capital.

The trip was anything but smooth, as he took four flights, lost his luggage and ended up arriving in Wuhan exhausted. He didn't even have time for a break, heading straight from there to the Wudang Mountains via train, bus and taxi.

"It was quite the adventure just getting there, because I didn't speak any Chinese," he says.

His mind, however, was set at ease upon arriving at the academy, where he found other international kung fu students were also training there.

"It was a nice transition, and they taught me Mandarin and showed me where to get groceries," Pinnick says, adding that it made it very easy for him to get used to the local way of life.

A few months later, something happened that reinforced Pinnick's pursuit of kung fu dream in Wudang. It was when he took a break and returned home after the first six months of study.

"I found it hard to leave China, and there was kind of a reverse culture shock when I arrived back in the US," he says.

The Wudang Mountains are famous for their Taoist temples and monasteries, and the area is widely considered to be the birthplace of tai chi. The region's deep history with traditional martial arts has appealed to many kung fu practitioners from home and abroad.

Before the pandemic, about 400,000 international visitors came to the mountains for sightseeing and to appreciate its culture, according to the Wudang Mountains management committee.

More than 8,000 of those visitors have stayed to practice martial arts, but very few of them can become official disciples of the masters.

It is a select few who can gain approval from the masters, and are taken on as new students.

Pinnick's efforts saw him make great strides in martial arts and, as a result, he managed to make the cut.

Cultural confidence

Pinnick finished his training at the academy in 2018 and decided to stay and help teach his own classes there.

He had an advantage in teaching international martial arts students in terms of language and way of thinking.

"I can often put myself in their shoes when it comes to dealing with problems," he says.

Pinnick usually gets up at 5:30 am, and practices tai chi from 6 to 7 am. One-and-a-half hours later, he goes to the academy's Yuxu Temple to give instruction to kung fu students. After a short break, he will go on to teach another session in the afternoon. When the night falls, he will share his understanding of Wudang kung fu and traditional Chinese culture online.

"Life is just cozy here," he says.

Now he has a wife, whom he met in China, and a daughter.

In addition to martial arts, Pinnick has exposed himself to Chinese culture, especially Taoism, and explores the idea of living in harmony with the universe.

He has also taken the time to learn Chinese musical instruments, such as guqin, a seven-stringed plucked instrument, with Yuan's son, who is a guqin specialist.

Then, he got his hands on a bamboo flute afterward, and was instantly taken with it.

"Since much of the music theory of ancient Chinese traditional instruments is similar, I figured I could learn bamboo flute by myself," he says.

"In the process of searching for materials, I found that there were very few teaching books for the bamboo flute in foreign languages, almost none in fact. I had to find Chinese materials and then translate them, before attempting to learn the techniques and methods of playing."

In the beginning, his obsession with the instrument saw him practice almost every day.

Pinnick's wife Cao Lingling says she admires his perseverance.

"He will give 100 percent to whatever he is focused on," Cao says.

"When he was getting over the most difficult phase of learning the bamboo flute, after eating, sleeping and martial arts practice, he spent almost the rest of the time playing the flute," she says.

To Pinnick, the most difficult part of learning the instrument was making it produce sound.

"When I first started playing, I couldn't even get it to make a sound, let alone play a musical scale," he recalls.

Then, he started to understand the importance of details.

"Your mouth has to open in the right place, with the lower lip gently on top of the mouthpiece. It can't be too tight," he says.

"Just imagine a full cup of tea before you, and then try to blow it like you blow away the floating tea leaves with a thin, steady and persistent breath."

As his bamboo flute skills improved, Pinnick came to realize how the instrument also has something in common with the martial arts.

"To ensure the instrument produces a nice sound, it requires constant breath control, which is also important in kung fu practice," he explains.

"I slowly found that the foundation of martial arts has helped me a lot in trying to play the bamboo flute."

Pinnick's sharing of his life in Wudang has attracted nearly 1 million followers on social media platforms, such as Douyin and Xiaohongshu. His online followers have said that it looks like he is living in the world from a martial arts movie.

Speaking about his future plans, Pinnick says there is still a lot of things he wants to do.

He will continue to hone his martial arts and musical skills, while reaching out to a larger audience through training and his books.

"I'd also like to try my hand on the official bamboo flute exams, and hopefully embark on a professional music career," he says.

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