At the age of nearly 90, Master Dao Thanh still practices rod techniques such as Five-gate long stick (Ngũ môn phá trận), Great mountain (Thai son); short and long staff techniques. He is also good at double saber and scimitar.
Martial arts Master Dao Thanh
As soon as finishing his words, he performs Four-gate and eight-sign (PaKua) form (Tứ môn bát quái) with a saber in an excitement (see photo). Ending the performance, he keeps on talking enthusiastically about extremely excellent forms of Vietnamese traditional martial arts while sipping tea. Then, he continues to perform forms of Old plum tree (Lão mai), Buddhist monk (Thiền sư) and Jade cup (Ngọc trản) with flexible but strong movements. These are typical forms and patterns of Vietnamese traditional martial arts, said the veteran master.
To big surprise of many people, great veteran Master Dao Thanh appeared at the 3rd International Festival of Vietnam Traditional Martial Arts, which had just been held in Binh Dinh province. They rubbed their eyes at the thought that it was a dream because they believed the 4 key progenitors of Binh Dinh martial arts including him had passed away.
Binh Dinh martial arts in the 20th century has 4 key progenitors, including Huong Kiem Trung, Muoi Dau, Ha Trong Son and Dao Thanh. They are all at the same age. The 3 formers are long dead.
The great veteran Master Dao Thanh is nearly 90 years old now. Nobody has seen him for a long time. That’s the reason why they think he deceased. Master Pham Dinh Phong, Vice chairman of Vietnam Traditional Martial Arts Federation, wept tears of joy to find that the last key person is still alive.
Leading a secluded life
Despite his old age of 87, Master Dao Thanh can make a 40-km bike ride from his home to Quy Nhon city to watch the martial arts performances at the festival. As we suggested visiting his house, the master answered with a smile, “I have no telephone line available. If you come and don’t see me there, please don’t blame me.”
In front of his house at Tan Duc hamlet, Nhon My commune, An Nhon district, was a yard surrounded by old year-round verdant bamboo trees under which the veteran master has had daily martial arts practices and trained generations of martial arts learners for 70 years.
His learners come from various places at home and abroad. They are at different ages and belong to different social groups. They include fighters who have learnt martial arts at many other halls, students of sport training universities and local high-school pupils.
At our pity for the old dilapidated house, the master unaffectedly explained, “I devote my life to teach martial arts without any fame or interest seeking. My learners offer me some tea, milk, sticky rice and green peas in the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday because they esteem me. That’s all.”
“Certain well-to-do learners sometimes send me a small sum of money as reserve in case I fall ill. I am blessed by martial arts predecessors. Martial arts is my profession, my fate. I am poor but satisfied with the cause of martial arts. I often teach my learners what I was taught before,” he added.
Being asked why he has been keeping silent for so many years, Master Dao Thanh humorously replied, “Probably because I am so old but still alive. Younger generations think that I died long time ago and they, thus, forget me. Last year, I rode bike to visit old friends of mine in the martial arts circle. They all departed this life, leaving me alone. I felt sad a few days.” Master Dao Thanh has hanged around martial arts halls along Kon River for decades and rarely goes to the city.
Although he is nearly 90 years old now, his back hasn’t bent down yet. He is still able to move briskly and sturdily, to write bai choi – a folk drama genre and folk game which is typical in Central Vietnam – without wearing glasses.
He can play chess all day without any backache suffering and can sing tuong (Vietnamese classical opera) with his friends overnight. He started to practice martial arts when he was 15 years old. He began the learning at a hall in his village and then made his way to Hao Duc village, Nhon An commune of the same district to learn the traditional martial arts from instructor That Duy, he said.
“My mother was afraid that French colonials forced me to serve them as a coolie. So, she arranged the martial arts learning of mine at the house of the instructor in 1938 but 2 years later, he let me to go home. At that time, I was still young and like to travel here and there. Hearing that instructor Phi Hung at Phan Ri, Binh Thuan province was very good at forms and sword techniques, I made my way there to learn. 3 years later, he also let me home. I had been teaching martial arts at home for a long time before getting fed up with the teaching. I looked for another masters to learn further again. Wherever there were expert masters, I came,” Thanh recalled.
Afraid that the martial arts quintessence might get lost
When Dao Thanh was 17, his parents married him to Nguyen Thi Nghien, who lived at the same village. The wife bore him 10 children – 4 sons and 6 daughters. They all settled down to married life long time ago.
The old couple are now living at their old house. The wife has become weak in the past 10 years and he himself has undertaken daily kitchen chores since then. In the late afternoon, he was busy with lighting a fire in the kitchen at a wing of the house while the wife was throwing rice to feed a herd of chickens. As the chickens finished their eating and settled down in the hencoop, she sat beside him and started to sing bai choi. The scene was so peaceful like in a fairy story.
“In the old days, she fell in love with me because I was handsome and good at martial arts. I lost my heart to her because she was expert at farm work, at sewing conical hats and at singing bai choi. She was famous in the region for her talent of bai choi singing,” happily recalled the veteran master while pouring wine to treat us. He then sung a verse of Tuong, beating time with a pair of chopsticks.
“We are poor but happy,” he explained. “When we were young, we saved all delicious dishes for our children. 12 people of us gathered together at meals. We are old now and lose all of our teeth. We can’t eat delicious food anymore.”
Homegrown vegetables and chicken eggs are available. They often prepare meals with their most favourite food – chopped ripe bananas with Vietnamese fish sauce, and mixed vegetable soup with peppers and salt.
“I am now able to eat 3 full bowls of rice with vegetable soup per meal. For what money I need? I occasionally ride her to market so that she sells the eggs and buy anchovies in return. The stewed fish is very delicious. I can treat guests to wine with the fish,” he told us with a toothless smile.
At the age of 87, he usually rides his bike around the region to teach martial arts. Before, he traveled to Ninh Thuan province, districts of Bong Son, Hoai An in Binh Dinh province and even to Gia Lai province. Now, he mostly teaches martial arts for local high school pupils.
“In the summer, I am very busy. Finishing the teaching in one hall, I have to leave in a hurry for the teaching in another training facility. If I unfortunately pass away before giving them all of my knowledge, it will be a great regret and wastefulness,” said the Master Dao Thanh.
Meeting his old learners at the 3rd International Festival of Vietnam Traditional Martial Arts in Quy Nhon city, he shared his worry about the fact that a lot of traditional martial arts techniques have fallen into oblivion among younger generations.
Devoting his whole life for the martial arts, the old master draws a moral that martial arts practitioners should be patient. In order to get such good moral, they must be modest, respectful and temperate first.
“You should be calm and enduring in mentality, in physicality and in language. That is the teachings of our forefather about the patience. Any person who is expert in martial arts should be more enduring. Lack of the virtue, he is unable to succeed in whatever he does.”
Dao Thanh always talks about one of his old famous learners, Master Pham Dinh Phong - Vice chairman of Vietnam Traditional Martial Arts Federation, with pride. “I devote my whole life for the martial arts teaching and now Phong is a researcher about Vietnam traditional martial arts. It is fortunate that Phong and others are still making effort to keep the quintessence of martial arts.”
When he has free time, he makes bike ride to Nhon Hung commune, An Nhon district to visit the martial arts training hall of his old learner, Master Dang Duc Binh or to remote mountainous Hoai An district to visit the martial arts training hall of Duong Tan Sanh, another old learner of him. Many people find anxious for his more unexpectedly frequent visits to confide or make careful recommendations
So is the old woman Nghien. At the age of 85, she often waits for her husband to come home every late afternoon. Knowing that he has to travel a long distance, she gropes her way in twilight to the village edge to welcome him home.
“I miss them when I don’t have a class. I can’t leave them, you know. If I didn’t teach martial arts, I would probably die of sadness,” he said with the familiar toothless smile.
“I ask many martial arts practitioners, even the participants of the recent festival and find that many of them have no ideas about devilish fine forms (quyền - guan) such as Fighting form and front stance (Đả quyền trực trấn) and Happy horse with golden spear (Lạc mã kim thương). I am afraid that these will be lost in future.”