Death of a Kungfu generation: Gao YenTao has left this world

Gao Yentao was a great Kungfu master in Yangshuo who embellished his family style BuDiZhen. He performed in the Guangxi opera for many years as the monkey king (the most honorable performance) and met his future wife there. Together they got 4 boys: The twins George and Peter, LaoSan en Laosi (in Chinese you name each other brother 1,2,3 and so on, so I don’t know the real names of George and Peter’s brothers). Due to poverty, George and Peter couldn’t go to school from when they were 9 years old. Gao Yentao (papa, as he was named by all his students) taught them kungfu as he saw was the only good future he could give to his 2 oldest sons. Papa was taught kungfu by his father and grandfather and he perfected the style in many ways.

George went to both Shaolin and Wudang in his late teens to learn more kungfu. The brothers’ childhood was very difficult, because of the Chinese situation (under Mao a lot of kungfu practicioners were sued and killed) and they were very poor. So, George and Peter learned their skills the hard way: they even did some underground fighting to get some money.
First, when George and Peter were adults, they were only teaching Chinese people, but after an incident where 1 of their students killed someone in the bar, they started to teach mainly foreigners. They were amongst the first ones to get a certificate to teach abroad. George and Peter were teaching in Australia for almost 5 years until Peter became very ill and had to get a kidney removed and they got problems with their visa. So, they went back to China to teach in Yangshuo again.

In 2007, I first met George and papa when I was travelling through China and stayed in Yangshuo for 2 days. Their school was in an old run-down building near XiJie. Papa was living upstairs in a small spartan room. The room had no bathroom (he had to share it with the rest of the building) and had only a bed and some cupboards. I immediately fell in love with their family style and with papa’s personality. He was a short man of 81 years old, but still very strong and he was the most gentle, honest, open man I ever met. He immediately wanted to show us a lot of things and wanted to talk a lot about the style and his life. After this experience, I wanted to go back to Yangshuo as soon as possible. The next year, april 2008, I went back for 1 month to train with George and papa as much as possible. I didn’t see much of Yangshuo and the surroundings as I was training up to 6 hours or more a day. Papa was teaching me the Panlong Guin (dragon staff), his favorite. The traditional form consists of 2 parts, but he added 2 more parts. It’s basically a form where you have a long staff to do the movements. The form has a lot of ‘flowers’ as he called it: beautiful (very difficult) movements with the staff, such as swirling the staff around your head or body or above you with 1 hand; throwing the staff up and trying to catch it behind your back,… To be able to do 1 flower it takes a lot of practice. I will never forget how he encouraged me: aaahhh, hao (good) at first, then: aaahhh, hen hao (very good). And every time: way to go! One more time. Everything was one more time for hours and hours. It seemed like he never grew tired. If I would come into the training studio at 8am he would already be there training. If George was teaching me he would stretch with 20kg weights on his legs or encourage me from the side. He even taught me the handstand against the wall (I could never really do a handstand, but when I saw papa doing a handstand, a man of 81 years old, I thought that a girl of 28 years old definitely has to do it). It took me a while to do it and all the time papa was beside me to help and encourage (aaaahhh, hao, one more time: which actually means: you still need to practice, girl).

After that month in Yangshuo, I could only think of 1 thing: how to go back to Yangshuo for a longer period and learn more about the BuDiZhen style??? December 2008 was the date: I went back to think of not returning back to Belgium for a long time. Yangshuo was my home, with my new Chinese kungfu family. Again, I started to practice kungfu for more than 6 hours a day. Every form I learned, I became more excited. Papa was telling me a lot of stories of his life, but unfortunately, I didn’t understand him. I became very close with the Gao family: they invited me to family dinners and were always generous even though they didn’t have a lot of money…
I trained with them for 2 years until life caught up with me: after those first initial months I started to work as an English teacher, so I could only train part-time. And after 2 years in Yangshuo I decided to have my own business, so I could train less frequently. Papa moved to a better place at the outskirts of town, which was much better for him, but which meant that I didn’t see him every day in the training studio. After that I met Ping, who started teaching me Chen TaiChi, I didn’t practice the BuDiZhen style anymore.
I still went to George from time to time to ask how papa was doing, but our relationship was not that close anymore, until 3 days ago.
Sunday morning George called me in tears that papa had a heart attack the morning before, Saturday 15 June. I couldn’t believe it!! Such a strong man! For me and for many other students as well, papa was beyond normal. He had a supernatural strength. An example: a student at the funeral told me: he had a friend living upstairs from papa 2 years ago and every morning around 6 or 7am, the whole building would shake like there was some kind of construction going on. One day he saw that it was papa outside practicing, banging his hand against a tree. The whole building shaked because of it. Papa was still practicing Qi Gong, TaiChi and Panlong Guin until the day he died. This, for me, is the true art of Kungfu  and the proof that it helps to enhance your body. Papa could do things in his 80s that many people can’t even do in their 20s…

Sunday afternoon, I went to pay my respect to papa and the Gao family. A funeral in China is 3 days, so it was already the 2nd day (a funeral starts as soon as the person dies, I guess it has something to do with the heat here). The coffin was inside the building with a picture of papa in front of it. Before the coffin you had some chicken and other food to sacrifice to the deceased. In front of the food you had a big pot with candles burning and a lot of incense, before that some straw and a sheet on it. Every person that comes, has to take 9 incense sticks, light them, kneel down and pray. Then, put the incense in the pot. Then take some paper that represents money and burn it, so the deceased has money in the afterlife. There are some people playing instruments (sorry, can’t say it’s music, it’s just loud noise) and firecrackers are cracking almost all the time. They gave us dinner in the evening at a nearby restaurant, but the family can’t join, they have to stay with the coffin. The whole night, the family has to stay awake near the coffin.
At 7am the next day, I went back, because they would take the coffin out of town up the hill to bury. The family is dressed in a white cloth and has a long white cloth on their head. You have several decorations in shiny colorful paper that goes first, Ping had to carry one of these. Then you have a car that throws out fake money and firecrackers. 2 people are firing the firecrackers the whole way. Then you have the family walking backwards holding some bamboo sticks. Close friends of the family support the family, because every minute they have to kneel down. I had to support George’s wife. Then you have 2 lions performing a dance and then you have the coffin. Over the coffin you have a colorful construction with on top a white crane (butterfly for women) and after that the rest of the people following the coffin. We went like that till the main road. Then they loaded the coffin in a van and drove off with the male members of the family. The women can’t join the procession up the hill (very women-unfriendly I think). We went back to the starting point. There were 2 buckets of hot water with a certain plant in it. We had to wash our hands and face and take a branch of the plant and hit with it on our clothes to purify ourselves.

That’s how his life ended, but I am sure that he will live on in the memory of all his students. BuDiZhen, papa’s legacy has to live on!

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5 thoughts on “Death of a Kungfu generation: Gao YenTao has left this world

  1. I only just found this blog post. Great to see a little of the history of the incredible Gao family recorded here. Nice post kathy.

  2. Ow. Can’t say it was unexpected – he must have been pushing ninety – but sad to hear. First met Papa around 1995 and trained with him irregularly whenever I was back in Yangshuo, last time in 2008. Final memory is of him grinning outside the studio after a hard few hours’ training and wishing me a speedy return. A lovely man and a great martial artist. Many thanks for writing such a good memorial to him.

  3. Amazing. Do you know how to get in touch with George? He stayed with us during the period he was in australia and i would love to get in contact with him..

  4. I met this man in the 1990’s and he trained me for a time. He was the most amazing man I have ever met. He was extraordinarily generous with his time and understanding. I had left tai chi for a long time but now I am back filled with memories of this great man. The man came to life in your writings.thank you for that.

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