After the first of the Viet feudal dynasties came to power in the 10th century, martial arts were studied with an ever increasing intensity. With the constant threat of invasion from the north, it was no doubt easy enough to encourage the Viet troops that they had to keep on their toes. Centuries later as the kingdom of Dai Viet splintered into rival factions and with the rise of the Tay Son rebellion in the late 18th century, which started in Binh Dinh province, there was a major impetus to study martial arts. Today Binh Dinh province is considered to be something of a cradle for martial arts in Vietnam. Every student of martial arts in the province will have heard the names of two great masters, Ho Nganh of Thuan Truyen village and Sau Tau of An Thai village, who helped forge their respective village’s reputations for martial arts close to 100 years ago. When I arrive at Ho Nganh’s house in Hoa My hamlet, Binh Thuan, Tay Son, I meet his grandson, Ho Sung, who studied under his grandfather’s tutelage. Nowadays, he is the teacher. All seven of his children have learnt martial arts and his grandchildren are also keen students. At his house it would appear that martial arts are in rude health. Two of his sons, Ho Van Be and Ho Van Sy, have won numerous medals at martial art festivals at home and abroad. But Ho Sung lives a rather secluded life and only teaches his children and grandchildren, no one else, and elsewhere it would seem the study of martial arts is actually on the wane. Ho Sung explains that although locals are proud of the association with the Tay Son brothers and the village’s history of martial arts, times have changed. “Thuan Truyen village has one martial art training school left, which I manage and it only opens during summer holidays when students are not in school,” he says. “It’s sad that today so few people are interested in martial arts. People just want to learn a few tricks in the art of self-defence.” At the village of An Thai I discover the disciples of Master Sau Tau have split his school into sub-divisions with four centers in four different villages. According to Master Lam Ngoc Phu, the head of the one branch in Binh Son village, in the old days An Thai was famous for boxing as well as a martial art that combined Vietnamese and Chinese kung fu techniques. In the mid to late 18th century, it was a local school teacher, Truong Van Hien who arrived in An Thai as a refugee and ended up teaching the three Tay Son brothers, including Nguyen Hue (later renamed as Emperor Quang Trung). The Tay Son brothers absorbed both Nguyen Van Hien and Sau Tau’s teachings and then developed a form of martial arts unique to Tay Son. Alas, while Ho Sung might be bitter about the lack of dedicated students, people need to make a living. Master Lam Ngoc Phu believes that An Thai village’s glory days are gone. “Now martial arts practitioners are so poor their children have to support them!” says Phu. “As I love my father, I still cling to martial arts. But most of my children have either moved away or follow a fulltime trade.” The one kid of his who still pursues martial arts as a full time vocation is “also poor and struggles to survive”. Phu cannot hide his frustration and disappointment. “People learning martial arts lack the inner strength to perfect their art,” adds Phu, who gave up teaching and now only teaches his grandchildren as a hobby. “So they become discouraged and quit.” At a temple dedicated to Bui Thi Xuan, I meet Bui Nghiep Thanh, who is a descendent of the female general, who fought alongside the Tay Son brothers. Bui Thi Xuan was a skilled martial artist and Thanh claims his forefathers upheld the family tradition for generations. Now 90 years old, Thanh’s grandfather Bui Dau is a 10th generation descendent of Bui Thi Xuan. “In our time, all of the general’s descendants were all skilled martial artists,” says Dau. “But now nobody is interested in martial arts. The village will only be well known for what happened in the past. ” Just as traditional craft villages in rural Vietnam struggle to maintain a workforce, martial art schools in Tay Son are losing would-be students, who need to try and establish a career. There is still an interest in martial arts but people will most likely learn for a while, maybe try to win a few medals, then move on. The martial art schools of Binh Dinh province are slipping into oblivion. Soon, perhaps, Tay Son martial arts will only be spoken of in the village where it was born.
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