Initiated by Jackie Chan, The Disciple show gathers martial arts lovers from across the world. File photos
"You can't change anyone with fists," Jerry Liau says, quoting the consummate kungfu star Bruce Lee. "Martial arts are about respect, not attack."
Born and raised in New York, the 20-year-old Chinese-American made his first trip to China last September as a contestant on The Disciple, a TV show backed by Jackie Chan to find young kungfu hopefuls and promote Chinese martial arts to the world.
Liau is one of the nearly 100,000 candidates attracted to kungfu stardom and a possible role in one of Chan's upcoming movies, according to Beijing TV Station (BTV), one of the organizers.
"I love performing. It would be great (starring in Chan's movies)," Liau says, "but it's also exciting to see real Chinese growing and living in the motherland."
There was culture shock, at first, when he was offered animals he doesn't normally eat at the dinner table.
"But my sifu (master) told me never fear to try," he says.
Shi Yanjie, one of the contestants, plays the guzheng at the talent show session.
Liau knew little about Chinese culture until, aged 10, he started to learn kungfu from his master, Henry Moy, to whom he was introduced by a friend. After two years, Liau became one of Moy's 60 disciples.
When he was 16, Liau's parents separated. The relationship with his master, he says, was like that of a father and son.
"There is a period in every boy's life when he is tempted to do something wrong, but my sifu kept me on the right path and taught me what it takes to be a real person."
Liau says his greatest influences are his parents, siblings and master. "You get support from them and you give back your support."
At kungfu school they looked up to Guangong, an ancient Chinese general. Moy also told him that martial arts are not about the strong beating the weak, but respect and patience.
"Kungfu also means time in Chinese. You have to train a lot before you gain," Liau says.
Another believer in "no pain no gain" is Jack Tu, a 23-year-old champion of many martial arts competitions, including the San Diego Grand National and Santa Clara Ultimate.
Raised in a family respecting the traditions of martial arts, Tu grew up on an island near Grouse Mountain in Richmond, Canada. As a young boy he exercised in the mountains every day. His father, also a kungfu master, told him not to harm living things, even grass, because martial arts should be used to protect the weak.
At home Tu was forced to speak Chinese, or his parents would yell at him. He learned calligraphy, ink painting and guqin, or Chinese piano. At first he was bored, but when he discovered the common things between music, calligraphy and martial arts, he started to enjoy it.
"Martial and arts cannot be separated. In Chinese culture they are connected. For example, playing Chinese piano needs a lot of concentration, but the rhythm should not stop. This is also the case with calligraphy."
Tu took part in The Disciple to interact with Chinese people, after practicing so long on his own in mountains and forests. "Friends call me monkey," he jokes.
The Disciple presents a visual feast of Chinese martial arts.
Three years ago, Tu broke his leg in a competition. He did not know whether he would be able to practice kungfu again. Instead of giving up, however, he tied chains on his upper body and ran with them. When he felt pain he tightened the chains.
"When I felt the pain, I felt how those beaten by me felt. I found what I thought before was stupid and childish," he says.
When he eventually recovered, he re-entered the competition and won five gold medals. He said he was not proud of beating others, but was proud instead of overcoming himself.
Shi Yanjie, 28, was a senior disciple in the Shaolin Kungfu Troupe. When he was 4, the mischievous boy made a broadsword out of iron sheeting and hit his brother, hurting his neck.
His parents sent him to the Shaolin temple in the hope that it would keep him well-behaved and give him life skills.
Each morning Shi would "rush the mountain" by running and crawling over it, whatever the weather. After a year his parents visited and he burst into tears when they were 30 m away.
"Shaolin temple is such an important place in my life. The masters not only make you exercise all the time, they will help you surpass yourself," Shi says.
Shi says his principles are: Don't attack others, even if they attack you; try to bear hardship; lead a simple life; remember there will always be someone stronger.
At 19, Shi left the troupe because he wanted to make more money to support his family. He set up his own group, does occasional TV shows and has created various signature kungfu moves.
The Disciple will give him more opportunity with big projects, he says.
Shi, Liau and Tu are good friends now. Naturally, most of the contestants competing to appear in the 36-person final are martial arts lovers. In the show's training camp, they exercise together and talk about their kungfu experiences.
"Maybe there will be another Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee or Jet Li among us - as Chan is hoping," Shi says. "But the important thing is, we are sharing what we've learned from martial arts spirit with more people."
(China Daily January 23, 2008)