The tai chi athletes who speak with their hands
The Jianggan District Deaf Mute Wushu Team practices tai chi fan at Hangzhou's Qingchun Square every Friday evening.
WEARING the familiar white gowns and displaying standard tai chi movements, the group who practice tai chi fist, tai chi sword and tai chi fan at Hangzhou's Qingchun Square every Friday evening look like any other tai chi team. It is only after practice, when they communicate using sign language that outsiders realize they are deaf mutes.
The Jianggan District Deaf Mute Wushu Team, a competitive squad comprised of deaf mutes in Hangzhou, has won lots of international and national awards and is the first and only deaf mutes' wushu (Chinese martial arts) team in Zhejiang Province.
Currently, it has 16 young members (who participate in competitions) and several old members (who only practice).
The team was set up by the Jianggan District Disabled Person's Federation in 2008, when China held the Beijing Olympics and the National Fitness Program was prevalent. The federation covers most of the team's costs, which include clothing, as well as accommodation and transportation for attending games.
Though young, the squad has done such a great job that "nearly every member of the team boasts a couple of medals," says team coach Xu Peizhen.
Unlike the deaf mutes' Latin dance team (story published on Shanghai Daily on February 17) whose teacher is also hard of hearing, the 58-year-old coach of the tai chi group has no hearing problems, but she uses standard Chinese sign language.
Xu, who is retired from the Hangzhou Civil Affairs Bureau, initially learned sign language because it was required in her job. Nearly 20 years ago, the woman who has had a long interest in kung fu took a local master as her teacher and began to learn Shaolin kung fu and tai chi.
After retiring seven years ago, she could have led an idle life, but chose to "devote my remaining years to the service of people," Xu says. "Wushu and sign language are two of my specialties and I can use them to contribute to society."
As a result, she continues to practice kung fu and five years ago, she immersed herself in further sign language study.
Her chance "to serve people" arrived in 2008, when the Jianggan District Disabled Person's Federation was looking for a tai chi coach capable of sign language. Xu was surely the best candidate.
Although she receives no salary, Xu doesn't take a casual approach to the job. "She is the strictest!" her students relay using sign language.
"She uses a pointer to tap us to correct our wrong movements," "we practice no matter how severe the weather is," "the intensive training for competition is so tough that we repeated one movement thousands of times," they recall and a sign language reader translates.
But do they want to quit?
"No, no, no," they wave their hands hard.
Team captain Yuan Hongmei explains: "I used to suffer from neurosis for more than 10 years, but since I joined the team, gradually I have been cured."
Lu Hongzhen who works as a needlewoman says her work in a factory is boring and pressuring, and she uses tai chi to relax herself.
Comparatively, 30-year-old Qiu Jiangson, vice captain of the team, is more ambitious. "I want to be the 'Bruce Lee' among deaf mutes!"
Because of Qiu's ambition, at the beginning of 2008, the coach introduced her teacher, the local kung fu master Feng Gengkang, to Qiu, and Qiu then started to learn Shaolin kung fu.
Qiu hasn't let them down. Last March, the young man won two gold medals at the Hong Kong International Wushu Competition. One is for Baji fist and the other is for south fist.
Witnessing the performance of the team, Xu is very satisfied.
"Among them, as I know, some used to be thieves, drug users or dealers. However, today they are all good people. I think it is because they find a place to express their energy and show their success in another way.
"I remember how excited they were when they had their debut in a competition," Xu recalls. "When we stepped into the arena, the anchor announced it was a team of deaf mutes, the audiences applauded them. Although they couldn't hear, they saw everything. As handicapped people, they suffer from other's contempt and pity through their life, but on the stage, they are honored and respected as athletes."
However, these athletes seldom receive financial rewards, medals and certificates are the only material accolades for them. Consequently, the team will not be able to compete in the Taiwan Mazu Cup International Wushu Competition in October, as the budget is too large to be allowed by the local federation.