Master Gwan

Master Gwan

Written on Friday, 29 January, 2016

By John Lapham

Once upon a time, a young man was apprentice to a great martial arts master and retired ferryman who lived on a small island off the Fukien coast. This master was known as Master Gwan. During his days as a ferryman, he would often stop for extended stays in various harbors, waiting for his clients to complete their business. During these stays he would seek out local fighters and befriend them. Over his lifetime, he too became a great fighter and martial artist.

One day, the young apprentice and Master Gwan were sparring with long, heavy wooden poles, which the young apprentice excelled in most of all over the other weapons and techniques he had learned. Suddenly, and to the young apprentice’s surprise, he broke through the master’s defense, and struck him on the shoulder. The apprentice recoiled with guilt and fear at what the master might do. But Master Gwan laughed heartily, and congratulated his pupil. “You have done well in your training, and especially so with this long pole. For the next stage of your training, I am going to send you off to the mainland, to meet with two great masters of this long pole, and you will spend six months learning from each.”

The next day, the master and the apprentice walked through the thick brush of the island, toward the shore. On the way, they passed a small farm, where the farmer was busy tilling his crop with a hoe. The master stopped and chatted briefly with the farmer and told him of his apprentice and the journey he will be embarking on. They laughed gaily, and finally the master and the apprentice continued on their way to the shore.

When they reached the bank the master pulled a small raft out of the underbrush, and then emerged again with a single, heavy wooden oar. The bank was shrouded in a thick fog, and the only noises were the occasional croak of a toad, or plop of a fish in the distance. The small raft had hardly enough room for the two passengers. They floated toward the mainland, quietly and thoughtfully. The young apprentice was experiencing a rush of thought and emotion. Leaving the comfort of the master, going on to new places, and new people. How should he conduct himself? What would they teach him? What would he do if they did not accept him as a student?

After some hours, which felt like days, the raft arrived on the mainland. The young apprentice thanked his master and went on his way, trying not to look back. He followed his master’s instructions and soon arrived at a small cottage, where a man was working his garden. Seeing no one else around he approached the gardener and introduced himself. “Ah yes, Master Gwan, how is he?” replied the humble gardener. “I am Chang Guang, who your master sent you to meet. I’m sorry, but I do not know how to use the long pole. I can teach you to use the spear.”

Six months passed, and the apprentice thanked master Chang Guang for teaching him the use of the spear, and left for several days travel to meet his next teacher. His directions lead him to a small estate, surrounded by a low wall. The apprentice was ushered to the back of the estate, behind the house, where he was introduced to the General, an old but solid man, who seemed unusually tall and muscular for his age. “I am General Guan Yu. Who are you?” The apprentice timidly introduced himself. “Master Gwan!” The general roared.”Does he still waste his time with that long pole? I will teach you how to use the glaive, which, with its heavy blade, is far superior to the long pole.” The General taught him the use of the glaive, and the apprentice did his best to endure the training.

Finally, the year was coming to a close. The apprentice had spent six months with Chang Guang and learned the use of the spear, and another six months with the General and learned to wield the glaive. Now, as scheduled, he returned to the point on the shore where is master left him the previous year; and out of the fog, came Master Gwan, on his little raft. The apprentice boarded the raft, a little confused, for he had not learned the long pole and did not know what to say to his master. Master Gwan, however, held a wide grin behind his bushy unkempt beard, and pushed off the shore. Master Gwan then asked the apprentice to relate what he had learned.

The apprentice told first of Chang Guang, the gardener. He told his master that Chang Guang was once a footman in the front lines, who fought so well he was recruited to train the new soldiers. Later he retired and learned to garden. However, Chang Guang did not know the use of the long pole, and instead taught the spear – similar to a pole, but lighter, and with a steel tip at one end, which can be thrust into your opponent. “Many of the movements I had already learned from you,” said the apprentice to his master. “The small parries, and the powerful pole thrusts. But Chang Guang also taught me to throw the spear, and taught me the importance of focus and accuracy.” “Where the sword could not cut, he said, the spear could pierce. And the spear had range.”

Then, the apprentice told of the great General Guan Yu, who was now also retired, but was once a great general who fought in many battles. “The General said I was wasting my time learning the long pole,” the apprentice said, “and instead he taught me the grueling art of the glaive – a rather short pole with a large curved blade on one end, and a metal point on the other.” The apprentice continued, “Many of the movements I had already learned from you; the large sweeping movements. But the glaive is so heavy, and I passed most of the six months building the strength needed wield the great weapon with power. And the General would laugh at my pain. The General said that his opponents had large iron shields which deflected both swords and spears, and that one had to be strong and powerful to crush through them, or sweep at their feet.”

Then, the apprentice was struck with a question. “Master, it has just occurred to me, that while the spear and the glaive are similar to the pole, both Chang Guang and General Guan Yu practice a low and wide stance, but your stance is small, your feet close together, with all the weight on your back leg. Why is…” Suddenly, shouting was heard, and the apprentice turned to see a small skiff of pirates heading toward them, only meters away, coming out of the fog. On the bow, one of the pirates lifted a long spear and threw it toward them. There was a violent spray of water as the apprentice saw his master swing the heavy oar with such great power as he had never seen before, and knocked the spear off its course in mid-air. The skiff, meanwhile had approached significantly closer, and another pirate, now standing next to the first, raised a large heavy glaive, waiting to be in range to strike at Master Gwan. But, Gwan thrust his long oar, which was much longer than the great glaive, and contacted the pirate heavily on the sternum, sending him off the craft; and then, with the oar still extended snapped it to the side and knocked the first pirate off with him. A third pirate scrambled to rescue his mates and create distance between their skiff and the tiny raft.

The young apprentice noticed the third pirate glance fearfully at their small raft and looked over to see what the pirate feared. There stood, Master Gwan, his weight back on one leg, with the forward foot held up off the ground, the toes just touching the edge of the tiny raft. He held the oar at an upward angle and remained their, absolutely still, until the pirate skiff disappeared again, into the fog.

Soon they arrived on the bank of the island, and tucked the raft and the oar into the brush. The two, master and apprentice, walked quietly back to the master’s cabin. On the way, they again passed the farmer, who, as before, was tilling his crop with a long hoe. The master said, with a twisted grin, he too prefers a low and wide stance.


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