Edition No. 22. Spring, 2000. Today is
  Stone Forest Wrestling

By: Simon Hicks
As the massive bull lowered it's horns and charged at me I realised I had made a mistake!Over the last year I have had the pleasure of working in a remote region of China called the Stone Forest. 80 kms south of Kunming in Yunnan province this amazing Karst rock formation, larger than Dartmoor, is China's biggest natural tourist attraction and is visited by one and a half million Chinese each year. It is also home to the indigenous Sani people, one of the numerous and unusual minority nations in this massive country.
On my third visit, and with a few hours to spare, I thought it was time to check out the local sports facilities, having heard rumours of a famous annual wrestling tournament. Arriving at the remote countryside outdoor stadium I was pleased to discover that there were wrestling matches every day neatly sandwiched between the lesser known sports of ram fighting and buffalo fighting! As visions of nearly naked men wrestling enraged horned animals to the ground raced through my mind I climbed the steps into the auditorium. Arranged just like the old Roman gladiatorial arenas with high seats looking down into a pit, a few hundred Chinese sat perched on their seats surrounding the combat area. A huge bang and a fanfare of trumpets announced the entry of the gladiators as men in improbable costumes and some rather too docile looking animals paraded around the arena. It wasn't quite "those who are about to die salute you" but it still looked promising, and I sat ready with camera poised.
First up was ram fighting. Big animals with long horns were dragged into the arena and faced up against each other. I now realized that the animals were expected to take on each other rather than attempt to gore some little Chinaman. Sadly human blood was not on the menu, and even the rams themselves looked distinctly uninterested in each other. But with a bit of goading from their owners they were persuaded to enter battle and as they reared up and came crashing down, horns against horns, the noise reverberated around the stadium. Even without being able to understand the Chinese commentary it was evident that victory is decided when one of the animals turns its back and walks away. The winner stays on and is challenged by another ram. A couple of ram fights later and it was on to the wrestling.
A small compact wrestler was marched around the arena by a ludicrously moustachioed official shouting at the crowd. This turned out to be a challenge to fight and I was surprised when a little wiry Chinaman alongside me jumped to his feet, shouted down at them, threw off his jacket, dived through the railings, and dropped the 12 feet into the arena. Must be a set up I thought, but from the reactions of his friends alongside me, I realized this was the real thing! The two of them faced each other, moustachio called his equivalent of "hajime" and before long little wiry was flying through the air to land on his back, a recipient of "Ippon seoi nage" performed without the use of a jacket. Up he got to have another crack and was rapidly "Uranage'd" into the dirt. That seemed to settle it and little wiry came back to his seat. Another professional entered and we were treated to a very skillful and exciting match, with big throws and powerful pins. A couple of matches later and it was on to the buffalo fighting.
The buffaloes looked more like bulls to me, big lazy and decidedly uninterested in fighting each other. But they were eventually persuaded to clash horns and pushed each other around the arena before a victory parade concluded the show.
The next day I decided it was time to get closer to the action. A severe case of Judoka's knee (you know: "I really wanted to fight, but my knees aren't up to it these days") prevented me from feeling I could accept the wrestler's challenge, but my cameraman's eye demanded I get better pictures, from a low angle. So, while the rams were at it I sneaked past non-existent security (no demands for accreditation here!) and into the arena. Rams and wrestlers were on great form, and the action really does look better from close up.
I was truly impressed with the throwing skills of the small fighters (they were all -60 kgs or -66 kgs) producing strong techniques without jackets to use. The most favoured techniques seem to be single and double leg grabs and supplex style Uranage's. But there were also a variety of strong shoulder throws and O-goshi's on display causing the wrestlers to take hard falls into the rough ground trampled by the animals. On the ground the sole aim was the traditional wrestling pin, both shoulders to the ground for a couple of seconds, and there were no attempts at submissions from joint locks or chokes. The aim of the game seemed to be to score the best of three points, from a throw onto the shoulders or a pin. This is completely different from the Chinese National combat game, San Shou, in which blows can also be used and one of the aims of the game is to throw your opponent off the low podium whilst remaining standing on it yourself! However, I knew I'd got a few good shots and decided to hang on and get a couple of the bulls in action from ground level.
China's Stone Forest Wrestlers in action.I don't know what it was, maybe it was hotter, but the bulls were much more up for it, and, anticipating some exciting pictures, I edged a little closer, finger on the trigger. Suddenly the biggest bull, the day before's winner, turned and looked towards me and began pawing the earth. "He doesn't like the look of that other bull behind me" I thought.
I froze as he snorted and bellowed in my direction. A murmur of anticipation ran around the crowd as they realised that foreign human blood could be spilt today. As the massive bull lowered its horns and charged at me I realised I had made a mistake! For the first time in my life I was too close to the action! As I ran for the exit there was total confusion. The bull came hammering towards me as half a dozen Chinese frantically jumped around trying to distract him. Hooves ringing in my ears and bull breath on my neck I just managed to swerve out of the way and into the exit as he thundered past. Ordered ignominiously back to the seats I climbed, trembling, into the spectator accommodation, to some amused oriental looks. Meanwhile the enraged animal had engaged his opponent so fiercely in battle that injury to the beasts was feared and they were lassoed and eventually dragged apart. The applause at the end of the show was far more enthusiastic than the day before as evidently the crowd felt they had been treated to something a little bit special!
For those of you that believe I am prone to exaggeration I can only assure you that every word is true. For those looking for a truly unusual fight try visiting China and taking on the challenge of the Stone Forest wrestlers.
Simon Hicks


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