The name Sun Lu-T'ang rings familiar to almost anyone who has studied one or more of the major "internal" styles of Chinese martial arts. Because Sun was highly skilled in Hsing-I Ch'uan, T'ai Chi Ch'uan, and Pa Kua Chang, wrote five different books on these subjects, and synthesized the three arts to invent Sun style T'ai Chi Ch'uan, his name has become well known where ever Chinese martial arts are practiced. Like many of the Chinese martial arts heroes, as Sun's fame grew he became legendary and fantastic tales of his martial arts abilities spread like wildfire. Sun's daughter, Sun Jian-Yun, who is now 80 years old, shakes her head when she hears many of the stories that are commonly told about her father. She states that although her father was a very highly skilled martial artist, he was not super-human. In a long interview conducted in Sun Jian-Yun's home in Beijing, China, on 14 October 92, Sun Jian-Yun discussed her father's background in detail and gave me the version of Sun Lu-T'ang's biography which she helped write and endorses as being true. The information in this article is primarily based on this book and the interview with Sun Jian-Yun.
Sun Lu-Tang, also known as Sun Fu-Ch'uan, was born in 1861 in Wen County, near the City of Pao Ting, in Hebei Province. At that time in China's history the Ch'ing government was very corrupt and as a result the Chinese common people were suffering. In Chu Li, Wen County, Sun Lu-T'ang's father had a small farm. He worked very hard but, because of the heavy taxes imposed by the Ch'ing, he could barely scrape out a living as a farmer. He was middle aged and still unmarried when one of his friends, who knew that he was very honest and hard working, acted as a matchmaker and introduced Sun's father to a young woman and soon thereafter the two were married. A year after their marriage, in 1861, they had a son who they named Fu-Ch'uan. This name was chosen because its meaning conveys that the baby would bring good fortune to their family.
From a young age Sun Fu-Ch'uan was very intelligent. Recognizing the boy's intellectual abilities, his father sent him to study with a local scholar when he was seven years old. Because Sun's father did not have a lot of money, he gave the scholar food from his field in exchange for teaching his son. Sun Fu-Ch'uan was an exceptionally bright student. By the time he was nine he had already read and memorized many of the classical text such as the Three Character Classic (San Tzu Ching) and various Confucian works. Memorization of these classics through repetitive speaking and writing was the main curriculum of study for students of the time. Sun's memory was exceptional and by the time he was nine he had already memorized many of the texts and was also proficient at the basic calligraphy strokes.
The year Sun turned nine his father did not have a good harvest and therefore he could not afford to pay the very high taxes which the Ch'ing government imposed
An early photo (pre-1911) of Sun Lu-T'ang (1861-1933) taken at the home of Hsu Shih-Ch'ang where Sun gave instruction.
on the people. Because of the poor harvest, Sun's father could not afford to pay his tutor, so Sun did not continue with his formal education. The situation became so desperate that in order to avoid going to jail, Sun's father sold everything he owned, including his land, to pay his taxes. Shortly after he sold his land, the elder Sun became ill and died. Consequently, Sun and his mother were left with no land and no income. They could not even afford a casket to bury his father in and so his father's body lay
in the house for three days before Sun begged enough money for a casket.
With no land to farm and no other means of support, Sun's mother did not feel as though she could raise her son so she went to a rich and powerful local landowner and asked if he would take her son as a servant. He reluctantly agreed saying that he would let Sun live at his home and he would feed him, but he would not give him any money because Sun was so small and frail looking. He did not think the boy could do enough work to earn a salary on top of room and board. Sun's new employer had a son, who was two years older than him, who took pleasure in bullying Sun. In addition, Sun's employer took any opportunity he could to beat him. Sun wanted to fight back, but he knew that if he lost his job he would not be able to take care of himself and his mother would be upset. He worked as hard as he could and silently endured the beatings when they came.
One day Sun was out in a field tending to sheep when he heard people yelling. He climbed up on a nearby hill and saw a group practicing martial arts. The teacher was a man about 70 years old with an average build. He had a lot of spirit in his eyes and when he demonstrated his art his movements were quick, crisp, and clear. Sun had never seen martial arts before and was fascinated with what he saw. He decided that the next day he would find this teacher and ask to be taught martial arts.
The next day Sun found the teacher's house and knelt before him to ask permission to become a student. At first the teacher thought that Sun was kidding. He asked where Sun was from and Sun told the teacher the story about how his father had died and that he worked for a man who beat him. The teacher was moved by Sun's honesty and sincerity. He asked why Sun wanted to study martial arts. Sun replied that he wanted to fight back when his employer and employer's son beat on him. The old man said, "Martial arts are not only for fighting, these principles are very deep." Sun was adamant about studying. The teacher asked if he could stand the hardship of it and Sun replied that he could stand any kind of suffering as long as he could study martial arts. The teacher, whose surname was Wu, agreed to accept Sun as a student.
Sun was ten years old when he began studying with his first martial arts instructor. Every day after work he would go and study until the middle of the night. His teacher had also had a very hard life as a youngster and sympathized with Sun's situation. After becoming skilled in martial arts, Wu was very righteous and helped oppressed people. On one occasion he came to someone's aid who was being beaten and subsequently killed the attacker. The government wanted to execute him for this crime and so he fled his home. To make a living he performed his martial arts in the streets and begged for money. Later he joined the T'ai P'ing Rebellion (1850-1864) and fought against the Ch'ing soldiers. After the T'ai P'ing dispersed, he went back to performing martial arts in the streets for money. He was an expert at Shaolin and Pa Chi as well as the eighteen weapons. He was also skilled at shooting iron balls from a sling shot and had ch'ing kung, or lightness skill.
Sun Lu-T'ang was an exceptional student. After the first year of practice he had become proficient at the basic skills and began studying Hung Ch'uan. Wu recognized Sun's natural skill and intelligence and therefore taught him at a rapid pace. After two years of study, Sun was the best boxer of his age in the area. So that Sun would not become too cocky, his teacher reminded him that although he was progressing quickly, he had still only touched the surface of real martial arts and therefore he should not become overly proud of what he had achieved. His teacher told him a story of when he himself was young and had attained a good level of skill for his age. He thought he was very good and went to someone's aid who was getting beat up. The opponent who he fought was a highly skilled martial artist and injured him badly. Wu said that his opponent would have killed him had not a Shaolin monk been there witnessing the fight and intervened in order to save him before it was too late. The monk took Wu back to the Shaolin temple and he stayed there for two years studying. At the temple he studied tan tuei, the 64 hands free fighting, the 72 chin na and ch'ing kung.
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