Every night in a studio in downtown Shanghai you can see a couple of kung fu practitioners doing Wing Chun with a Westerner, something that isn’t very common given the origin of Chinese kung fu. The half Italian, half French master is Kleber Battaglia who is also sometimes nicknamed by his students as “Bai Shifu (Master Bai)”. How he became interested in martial arts is an interesting story.
Laowai‘s (outsider) kung fu dream
Kleber Battaglia was just nine years old when he fell in love with Chinese kung fu and has since then been practicing it for 31 years.
“When I was a kid, there were a lot of kung fu movies, especially Bruce Lee ones. This guy was really amazing. I really wanted to become like this guy,” he told the Global Times.
After making up his mind to be the “Italian Bruce Lee,” he trained in Japanese jujitsu and boxing for many years, and moved to Hong Kong where he lived and practiced for four years, training in kung fu intensively five hours a day, every single day before moving to Shanghai to open his own school in 2013.
As a foreigner who teaches kung fu, he has to overcome many challenges, doubts and stereotypes.
“When I came here, many Chinese people doubted my skill and my knowledge. So, I always have to prove myself every single time to let them understand that I truly know what Chinese kung fu means,” he said.
To his knowledge, Chinese kung fu is not just about beating up people or watching Bruce Lee films. There is a lot of philosophy that goes with the self-defense aspect, which is something that is much deeper.
“Of course you need to be effective in self-defense and there is a more philosophical aspect in Chinese kung fu. It follows Taoist philosophy and the yin-yang. It exercises your body and your mind,” he said.
Rising popularity around the world
While spending a lot of time between China, Europe and America, he observed people’s growing passion for learning kung fu over the past few years and how they apply kung fu principles to their lifestyles and mind-sets.
“When you start to practice kung fu, the first thing that they tell you is to have a correct posture, to breathe properly, and how to focus your mind,” he said.
From his perspective, this is exactly what modern people need when they get so stressed out from everyday life.
“Sometimes people cannot function in their job because they don’t know how to breathe properly, and they don’t know how to focus their mind. And those things are interrelated,” he added.
Currently, he is spreading this idea by organizing seminars about how to use martial arts’ principles and apply them to everyday life around the world and people are more interested in that thanks to the rising soft power of China, he said. “China is becoming stronger and stronger with investments everywhere in Europe and in Africa, and Chinese culture is also spreading out in a way that has never been seen before.”
Defender of kung fu
As he sees a seed of revival of kung fu in many Western countries, it also saddens him that it is losing its popularity among Chinese people to other foreign self-defense training, such as boxing and karate.
“Any time I go to Europe or America, I found that there are more foreigners who are interested in kung fu than Chinese people. I see a revival of kung fu outside of China, but I still don’t see it here in China,”
It worries him that a lot of the so called “masters” who just promote the martial art and self-defense aspect of it, want to make quick money while losing the philosophical aspect of it.
“The older generation dedicated their whole life to becoming a kung fu teacher. But they are all dying off and there are very few teachers from my generation dedicated to teaching kung fu. More people are just interested in making quick money. If we can’t find somebody to pass it down, kung fu is gone. That would be a real shame because it is a real Chinese tradition,” he said.
To help revive kung fu, he now runs a school in Shanghai, teaching people Wing Chun. The students come from all walks of life: college students, IT staff, and white collar workers. In his class he tries to make it fun and engaging for people.
“People ask why do you care so much. I care so much because I do love Chinese culture so much. That is what I have loved since I was nine years old. Some of them will say, ‘Why does there have to be a foreigner to spread this. I can do it. I’m a Chinese person. I can understand better than him,'” he said.
He hopes that more Chinese people will join him in taking on the challenge of reviving kung fu.
Students practice kung fu at Kleber Battaglia’s workshop. Photo: Qi Xijia/GT
Kleber Battaglia teaches a student how to practice kung fu. Photo: Qi Xijia/GT
Kleber Battaglia practices Wing Chun. Photo: Lu Ting/GT