Sunday, April 12, 2020

[Part 6] Yu Suzuki's 1994 China Research Trip: Shaolin Temple | Translation

A continuation of our series on Yu Suzuki's 1994 Research Trip to China. This topic was selected by the Phantom River Stone blog patrons via our monthly poll on Patreon and was available for early access.

In the early 1990s, Yu Suzuki made a seminal trip to China. His objective was to research and gather material for his upcoming Virtua Fighter 2, and this research also influenced his concept for a "Virtua Fighter RPG" which eventually came to be known as Shenmue.

Previous posts in this series of blog posts:
  • In Part One, we translated blog entries about the trip by Kazunari Uchida, the person who accompanied Yu Suzuki.
  • Part Two is a magazine article in which Yu Suzuki gives own comments about his trip, and how his findings would be useful for the development of the Virtua Fighter series.
  • In Part Three, Yu's traveling companion, Kazunari Uchida, talks about how he first met Yu Suzuki and his curiosity to learn about the genius behind the man during the upcoming trip.
  • Part Four is Kazunari Uchida's journal entry for the start of the trip itself: Day One - Beijing.
  • Part Five is Days Two and Three of the trip in which Yu travels to Luoyang, Xi'an and Dengfeng, and arrives at Shaolin Temple.
We now pick up from last time, with Yu having arrived at Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng county.

Yu Suzuki: China Research Trip Journal: Shaolin Temple

Shaolin Temple is where Zen Buddhism was introduced by Bodhidharma, who traveled there from India. It is said that he developed Shaolin Kung Fu to protect himself while training from the wild animals inhabiting the area, as well as to ease the stiffness of his joints from Zen.

The main temple was set in a cool forest, and had a quiet atmosphere. Being a Zen temple, compared to the gaudier primary colors of other temples in China it appeared much calmer and unembellished.

What really brought home to me that we were actually in Shaolin Temple, was when we entered the Hall. The floor of the Hall where the monks practice Kung Fu was laid with paving stones, and all over it were deep grooves. We were told that these were formed from the repeated action of feet striking the ground. When we tried placing a foot onto a groove, indeed it was an exact fit. The floor was like a monument symbolizing the unlimited power of humans.

Drunken Boxing & Inspiration

After coming to the fourth day since we landed in China, we at last got to witness Shaolin Kung Fu, in the form of a tourist performance by young novice monks going through a number of demonstrations.

However, although these were novice monks, they were real Shaolin monks demonstrating famous styles such as Mantis Boxing and Drunken Boxing and it was quite something to see in person. Drunken Boxing in particular was much more distinctive than we had imagined, not to mention powerful. Yu couldn't hide his excitement.

"It's so dynamic - switching from lying down with limbs spread out, to attacking in a flash! At first he was like a piece of seaweed floating limply in the sea, seemingly having a complete lack of interest. Then, the next instant, he suddenly attacks. I love that misdirection. But it'll be tricky to put into a game. It would be over-powered if it were to be reproduced exactly like that..."

Yu's pondering did not allay his concerns; on the contrary it seemed to have the effect of identifying further problems.

Yu wanted to see even more authentic Kung Fu, and asked Ms Zhang if she could arrange it for us. Ms Zhang affirmed that she would arrange something for the next day that would satisfy Yu.

It seemed that Yu was unable to stop thinking about Drunken Boxing, and he remained silent on the way home and even after we were back at the hotel. He was finally back to his usual self that evening, after a number of rounds of Baijiu (a clear Chinese distilled liquor with 50% alcohol).
A glass and bottle of baijiu (Wikipedia).
"People talk about 'inspiration,' don't they. Often it's thought to mean that something hits you out of nowhere, but that's not the case.

"For example, let's say you have a cup into which you add water, one drop at a time. If you keep on doing that, it will eventually full to the top. Then, with one extra drop, it spills over the side... and that extra drop is what 'inspiration' is, to me.

"Thinking of my head as a cup, then thoughts are poured into it, little by little. It would be easy if it became full with a single pour, but just like everyone it has to be filled patiently, drop by drop. It starts from frivolous thoughts that anyone has, and gradually takes shape. I think about the games I'm working on all the time, and eventually my 'cup' becomes full of thoughts. From there, further thought leads to an overflowing 'inspiration.' It means that I've given sufficient thought about something, and it's like a signal that next I should act on it.

"With Virtua Fighter one time, when it was just about finished, I was bothered that the characters of Wolf and Jeffry were too weak. I had been trying to better balance their strength with the rest of the characters. Giving them a special attack would make them suddenly too powerful, but there wouldn't be any point in including them if they were left in such a weak state.

"These two would appear in my dreams, always in their defeated poses. So I was really stumped, just about this problem.

"When we at last arrived at a solution and adjusted the software, I saw them in my dream again, this time giving their victory poses [laughs]. I was so happy".

While he was talking, his glassy-eyed expression became one of liveliness.

"Ah, I've had an idea.

"In Virtua Figher, the Guard button action just blocks punches and kicks, but for Drunken Kung Fu, how about if we had the Guard button perform a dodge action for punches and kicks, like a sway in boxing.

"We can incorporate Drunken Kung Fu by treating evasion in the same way as the attack moves of other martial arts styles. Fighting games these days are just about exchanging blows, so if we include a style that features evasion, I'm sure everyone will be surprised!

"I'll have to think of an actual winning situation for Drunken Kung Fu though. In any case, just being good at evasion isn't enough to win a match, and making it possible to attack while dodging would make it over-powered.

"Looks like I'll have to spend more time pondering on Drunken Kung Fu, for some 'inspiration' to overflow [laughs]."
Yu Suzuki's inspiration for Drunken Kung Fu can be seen in the later characters of Shun Di (introduced in Virtua Fighter 2) and Sun JiuSi (Shenmue III)

In the Presence of Shaolin Kung Fu At Last

When Master De Li began his pre-demonstration warm-up exercises, all chatter stopped and a hush fell over the gymnasium.

The other young monks who had given us a demonstration the previous day certainly made an impression with their authentic moves, but you could see at a glance that this master was on a different level altogether.

The master clasped his hands together beneath his abdomen, palms facing upwards, and slowly raised them while breathing in. It was as if he was inhaling the earth itself, and the sound of his deep, heavy breathing echoed about. I felt the illusion that the air was being sucked out of the gymnasium and it was becoming difficult to breathe

When his hands reached the area above his abdomen, he now turned them over and started lowering them while slowly breathing out. Once, twice, thrice. the master repeated this controlled breathing. His glossy gray robes shimmered in time to this movement, like a breeze blowing over an autumn meadow.

Then a demonstration of the Crane Style began.

As its name suggests, this style was created based on the movements of a crane. The arms, which represent the crane's long neck, are held straight, and its head and sharp beak are mimicked in the shape of the bent wrists through to the fingertips in which power is gathered.

He was standing on tiptoes, and when he stopped moving he was like a tree growing out of the earth, absolutely still. When he resumed movement, it was quiet, delicate and graceful. His movements were just like those of the noble crane, and had a grandeur that made one catch one's breath.

Then came the attacking moves!

While continuing with the same flowing movement paths up until that point, there was a sudden increase in speed. At times, the beak cut through the air in a circle-like arc, at other times a needle-like kick tore through the space. So fast were the movements that they gave an afterimage effect, as if there were a much greater number of arms and legs.

Later, as he watched it again on video, Yu commented quietly, as if to himself: "In Virtua Fighter I thought I portrayed the movements pretty speedily, but the real thing is something else altogether."

Indeed, it was astonishing to actually see it before our eyes, something that almost seemed beyond the capabilities of a mere human.

Another performer, who completed a demonstration of just one minute, ended up breathing heavily with sweat dripping from his brow. The master, by comparison, far from breaking a sweat, was not even breathing unevenly and his face was expressionless.

During his demonstration, the atmosphere in the gymnasium was tense, with not a cough to be heard. 

Once he had completed all the moves, the master again controlled his breathing in the same way as in his warm-up exercises, and his usual mild expression returned to his face.

We were in the gymnasium of the Shaolin Kung Fu School located in the suburbs of Dengfeng county. True to her word from the previous day, our guide Ms Zhang had arranged for us to meet an authentic Chinese martial artist, namely Master De Li.

Master De Li's real name is Wang Zuofeng. He entered the Buddhist priesthood at Shaolin Template at the age of 15, and is now 30 years old. He told us that he carries out this kind of martial arts demonstration all over the world in order to spread Shaolin Kung Fu. When he is at Shaolin Temple, which is part of Dengfeng county, he carries out instruction at this school and is highly esteemed by his students.

With boldness, or perhaps it would be better to say fearlessness, Yu made a request to this Shaolin Temple master: Yu would try to land punches and kicks, so could the Master demonstrate blocking them?

With a smile, the Master invited Yu to attack him from any direction.

Yu didn't hold back and launched a sudden straight punch, followed by a kick, an elbow strike and additionally made an attempt to grab his opponent... all of these were effortlessly brushed aside. Yu's punches and kicks fruitlessly sliced the air, as if he was fighting a ghost.

As the Master dodged, he made compact counterattacks. Of course, these blows stopped just short, with no damage in the least inflicted on Yu's body,

Yu tried in earnest to punch Master De Li, but he evaded the blow as if he was the wind.

Something like the action he took to escape the grab without force, was a movement that was so complicated I couldn't comprehend, even after observing closely, and even when we asked him to take us through it slowly with an explanation.

Even though Yu persistently asked numerous questions, the Master answered them all evenly.

At the end, the Master had one of his students fetch a camera and he put his arms around our shoulders for a photo together.

"If you stay in Dengfeng for two months, I'll teach you the essence of Shaolin Kung Fu".

For a high-level monk who had mastered the essence of Shaolin Kung Fu, he was surprisingly down-to-earth.

Travel Photos: Beijing & Luoyang

In front of Beijing train station. Even Yu Suzuki seems overwhelmed by the chaos and noise.

Inset: Yu Suzuki at Longmen Grottoes, south of Luoyang. The grottoes are caves and niches that have been carved out of rock. A large number of monks once lived and trained here. Outset: current-day image.

In Luoyang: Yu experiencing its 3000-year history directly through his skin.

At a market in the suburbs of Luoyang, a place where China's pure power can be felt the most.

Source: Beep! Megadrive September 1994

--- The trip journal continues in Part 7. ---
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  1. So interesting! Getting into Yu’s head like this and his first thoughts and opinions creating magic pre-Shenmue!

    1. Yes, how fortunate he chose to take a traveling companion with him to capture what he experienced and write it up! Otherwise these details would have been lost to history.