Cradle of Champions

—The Hsu School in Taiwan Kendo

2019 / September

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by David Mayer

In the Japanese sport of kendo (fencing with bamboo swords), the term ippon refers to a valid strike that scores one point. But it has a deeper meaning, for it also refers to a competitor’s energy, fencing style, and body control. What every fencer seeks is that magic moment—kikentai ichi—when energy, sword, and body are as one, and a perfect strike is executed.

The practice of kendo, “the way of the sword,” got started in Taiwan in the Japanese colonial period, and since then a ragtag band of committed practitioners have blazed a narrow, winding trail of their own. Without making a full-time career of kendo, they’ve nonetheless put Taiwan’s name time and again onto the leader board at international kendo competitions.

Hsu Heng-hsiung used to race through town on a scooter wearing his kendo outfit. He wouldn’t even take the time to take off his protective gear before hustling off to his medical clinic, parking his scooter, and heading in to start seeing patients.

That is just one of the many things that Director Hsu Yen-lang of the Taoyuan Kendo Story House remembers about his brother Hsu Heng-­hsiung (1940‡2014). Besides being a well-known eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist in Tao­yuan, Hsu Heng-­hsiung was even better known for his sideline occupation as a kendo coach. Under his watchful eye, a bunch of energetic kids from Tao­yuan won the kendo event for 23 years running at the Taiwan District Games.

Like father, like son

Hsu Heng-hsiung came from a family of doctors. Of six brothers, five became physicians. Their father, Hsu ­Yin-ko (1909‡1975), established a private hospital in Tao­yuan, and was a member of the group that founded Tai­pei Medical College.

Hsu Yin-ko, who received a Japanese education, took up kendo as a middle-school student in Hsin­chu, and once represented Taiwan at a kendo competition in Japan. To promote kendo in Taiwan, he co-founded the Republic of China Kendo Association. In 1970, he led the ROC national team to the World Kendo Championship, where they took second place in the men’s team event.

Hsu Heng-hsiung inherited his father’s athletic genes. While studying at Taipei Medical College, he founded the school’s kendo club. Later, he returned to Taoyuan to practice medicine, and there he would go on to write a glorious chapter in local kendo history.

The Hsu school is born

In addition to teaching regular kendo classes at several schools in Taoyuan, Hsu often took troubled youths under his wing and taught them kendo. At the time, one could hear the shouts of people practicing kendo during the morning and evening hours in the lanes near his father’s old hospital on Yongle Street. Neighbors at first thought they were hearing people fighting. In reality, it was a bunch of marginalized youths that Hsu was working to steer away from trouble and onto a more productive path.

Hsu Heng-hsiung was more than just a kendo teacher. As a lifelong bachelor, he treated the kids as if they were his own. His clinic was a home for the kids, and he converted the roofs of both his home and the hospital next door into a dojo where kids could practice. Years later, in interviews with the media, his former students all mention how he would use his own ambulance to drive them to competitions, and in the runup to competitions the students would train together and spend the pre-­competition nights in rooms ordinarily intended for patients.

Gone but not forgotten

Hsu Heng-hsiung would travel the length and breadth of Taiwan with his students to take part in competitions, and the results were outstanding. The medals and trophies bolstered the children’s self-confidence, and got them to believe in their possibilities and potential. Indeed, the kendo skills imparted by Hsu enabled many students to gain admission to sports academies. ­Huang Kuang-­jung, dean of academic affairs at Ching-Hsi Junior High School in Tao­yuan, says there is no way he would be working in education today if not for Hsu Heng-­hsiung.

In 2011, Hsu Heng-hsiung was diagnosed with stage-three lung cancer.

Chemotherapy put the tough Mr. Hsu through the wringer, but he still stole away from his hospital room at every opportunity to teach at the kendo clubs at Veterans General Hospital and Taipei Medical University Hospital. In watching a video about Mr. Hsu’s life, I couldn’t help noticing that even during his cancer treatment, once he took the bamboo sword in hand he spoke in a booming voice and moved with lightning quickness. Hsu Yen-lang confirms: “When he got into the dojo, his illness seemed to fall away from him.”

Hsu lost his battle with cancer and passed away in 2014. When the Taoyuan kendo club again took the champion­ship at the Taiwan National Games that year, the fencers stood in a line and held up their trophies toward the heavens in a salute to their beloved coach.

Dojo of memories

After Hsu Heng-hsiung passed away, Hsu Yen-lang went to work on the property where Hsu Heng-­hsiung had lived and worked. Figuring his father and brother deserved a memorial of some sort, Hsu Yen-lang ended up founding the Taoyuan Kendo Story House.

Hsu Yen-lang explains that half the space on the first floor had been occupied by his brother’s clinic, while the other half had been a clubhouse for his kendo students.

Hsu Yen-lang turned the second floor into an audi­torium to be used for musical performances and speeches, and produced a video documentary that visitors can watch to learn about the lives of his father and brother. However, when Hsu Heng-­hsiung’s former students give guided tours of the story house, they always show the visitors to the second floor then beat a retreat themselves. “They don’t like to watch the video, because it makes them cry. They just wait downstairs while the visitors watch it.”

The third floor houses the Kendo Story House’s principal exhibits. From the ceiling hang the bamboo swords used by Hsu’s students, many of whom eventually competed for the national team. The list of his better known students includes ­Huang Kuang-­jung, Yueh Chien-­chung, Chiu Chuei-­hsi, ­Huang Ching-che, and Liu Yu-yuan.

Hsu’s teams represented Taiwan many times at the World Kendo Championship, and took third place in the team event in 1991, 1994, 1997, and 2006. They also won 23 consecutive championships at the Taiwan District Games from 1979 to 2003, an extraordinary record of success.

The Hsu diaspora

At the 17th World Kendo Championship, which was held in Incheon, South Korea in 2018, Taiwan’s men’s team was coached by Hsu-clan acolyte Liu Yu-yuan and took third place in the team event, thus vaulting Taiwan back onto the World Kendo Championship leader board after a 12-year absence.

Liu Yu-yuan was 12 when he first met Hsu Heng-­hsiung. The Liu family operated a wushu club, but young Yu-yuan was always slipping off to practice kendo. The thing about kendo that hooked him, he says, was its emphasis on cultivation of the spirit.

Liu has had many mentors, but Hsu Heng-hsiung was the one who influenced him the most.

A five-time member of the Taiwan national team at the World Kendo Championship, Liu feels his best performance ever was at the 1997 event in Kyoto, where he got into an overtime battle with Fumihiro Miyazaki. The video of that match is still getting views online today, and Liu received the Fighting Spirit Award that year.

Kendo trains both body and mind. It is a competitive sport, to be sure, but winning or losing is just a small part of the pursuit. The most important thing is the fencer’s state of mind, and his or her ability to withstand pressure. Hsu Heng-­hsiung urged his students to forget about the pressure of competition and just seek to score a beautifully executed ippon strike.

Liu Yu-yuan, who continues to practice kendo today, says: “I want to keep alive Coach Hsu’s way of thinking, and his spirit.” In 2000, Liu opened his own dojo.

Using the standard okuri-ashi footwork, the fencers practice striking at the men (a face mask protecting the head and shoulders), the kote (gauntlets protecting the hands and forearms), and the dou (a breastplate protecting the torso). Coach Liu ceaselessly stresses the importance of footwork. He requires students to use all their strength in executing strikes, and to use energy (ki), sword (ken), and body (tai) as one. A kendo strike is lightning fast, but to achieve that sort of speed one must practice making hundreds of strikes every day until the action becomes a matter of muscle memory. Only then will a fencer perform in the same in competition as during practice. But this is far easier to understand than to execute. It is each person’s task to reach that level, and this is the real meaning of the Chinese characters hanging on the dojo wall: “You put in the practice, you reap the reward.”

The sounds of fencers shouting and bamboo swords slapping continue to reverberate in the dojo late into the night, but my attention is especially drawn to a skinny little fencer of elementary school age. Gripping a bamboo sword that’s almost longer than she is tall, she exudes a certain fearlessness as she practices her footwork and straight-on strikes against the face mask. She brings to mind something Coach Liu had said: “The thing we get from kendo that has the biggest impact is ‘authenticity.’ We do lots of things in life that require our most genuine effort.” The truth of many principles that apply in life, it turns out, can be corroborated in the practice of kendo. Indeed, we’ve seen them applied in Taiwan’s kendo community.

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