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Martial artist tunes in with flute sword
Posted on Mon, Sep 13, 2010 at 6:08 am
by IDMA Editor

While music and martial arts are viewed as two wildly unrelated genres, for master Trinh Nhu Quan the iron flute is an indispensable element for his martial arts practice making him a unique cultural figure in Viet Nam.

Master Trinh Nhu Quan performs martial arts with a flute.

The martial art is a combination of hand and foot movement in which the flute is used as the weapon and known as a "flute sword". Peasant insurgent leader Hoang Hoa Tham (or De Tham) created the art form between 1883 and 1913 as a form of defence against French colonialism in the Yen The area in Bac Giang Province.

The 60-year-old master is now the only living man in Viet Nam who truly understands this practice that has existed for about 130 years. "It was named Thiet Dich Than Cong (an iron flute with supernatural power) and I renamed it Da Nguyet Phon Xuong (A Moon Night in Phon Xuong) in 1998," said master Quan who owns six flutes that are considered to be the largest in Viet Nam.

Trinh Nhu Quan's flute is not only a weapon but also an instrument. VNS Photos Thanh Ha

During the time of Hoang Hoa Tham, Da Nguyet Phon Xuong was not only used in battle but was also a celebratory practice performed after victories. The art represents both the beauty of the land and aspirations of freedom for its masters.

Tran Minh Hoang, Hanoian martial arts trainee and freelance reporter, confirms Quan's mastery of Da Nguyet Phon Xuong: "I have witnessed Quan performing several times and have seen him manipulate unusually heavy flutes with great ease. Listening to the flute and watching the exercise makes Quan appear far younger than his 60 years. He is able to move swiftly without getting tired."

Art in the forest

Born to a family of martial artists, Quan started training with his father, master Trinh Nhu Hien, at a very early age. As a child, Quan had a strong love for music and could play nearly flawlessly on a variety of flutes by age 10.

In 1990, Quan followed a delegation seeking training for this ancient martial art in Yen The and had the chance to meet with master Trieu Quoc Uy in Phe Forest. Uy was the last to inherit the flute martial art, which was believed to have disappeared shortly after the Hoang Hoa Tham insurgents were defeated in 1913.

Instantly in love with the art form, Quan left his work in the provincial Culture, Sports and Tourism Department to train with master Uy in Phe Forest.

After several years of hard work, Quan understood the magic and the transformative power of the art. Uy allowed Quan to return home, stating that "he is small but learns quickly. I have spent much of my life concerned that I would not find someone to whom I could pass on this art form. Now I have peace of mind".

Uy knows that this art is one of the most difficult martial arts to master. Disciples must have an airy and flexible mind, be proficient in music, and able to perform each technique in harmony with the music and with intense power.

To perform the Da Nguyet Phon Xuong fluently, the master must be a skillful artist; the man and the instrument must become one. The flute is not made of bamboo like most but rather made of iron and extends about 60cm in length. The end of the flute is decorated with a silk band, giving it a charming appearance. The flutist must possess great strength to have the energy to produce a melodious sound from the iron instrument. The power of the iron flute lies in its ability to transform from a beautiful instrument to an intimidating weapon. Da Nguyet Phon Xuong is a rhythmical combination of toughness and flexibility, switching from soft to hard and vice versa. The softness of the music is used to deceive the opponent.

For those familiar with the practice, the inner strength of the flutist is detected through his sound. The music conveys the artist's feeling while also signaling his power over his opponent.

Quan, who was the sole inheritor of the art form due to his ardour, spirit and vigour, is looking for his successor. Other masters have come to Quan with the hope of inheriting the art. Many of them, such as To Van Hong and Nguyen Quy Toan, are well known throughout Viet Nam but have yet to reach Quan's musical requirements.

"Learning the martial art is hard but learning the music is 10 times harder. A love of music is not enough. My inheritor must have a superior feeling and aptitude for it," Quan said. Each performance lasts only 8-10 minutes so artists must strike a rhythmic balance between music and martial art.

Flute collection

Master Quan has raised the standards of his art form by introducing five new flutes that surpass all others in both size and power. After 17 years of devotion, Quan has succeeded in bringing his art to the broader martial arts community in Viet Nam, despite the belief of many that the practice had died long ago.

"I am a master and I have a great knowledge of music. I produced the flutes with my own abilities and with the help of other experts," said Quan of his collection.

The first one is named Giot Mua Thu (Autumn Raindrop) and is 2.8kg in weight and 1m in length. Next are the Coi Thien Thai and the Tieu Tuong, which weigh 3.5kg and extend 1.3m, and weigh 4kg and extend 1.6m, respectively.

Quan went to a famous iron refining village in his province to make the flute bodies. All of them were made of iron burned in a kiln at a scorching 1,000 degrees in order to strengthen them while maintaining their sound. He asked Tran Van Lang, director of Bac Giang Museum, to include images of sculptures and Chinese characters on the flutes. The flute's holes were carved by Nguyen Quoc Ve and include stelae from Ha Noi's Temple of Literature.

"Despite their size, each flute can produce all kinds of music, from traditional to modern styles, or they can all be played together as an orchestra," Quan reported.

His most recent and largest creation is the Thang Long De Nhat (Thang Long's Number One), which weighs 5 kg and is 2.1m long. This flute was created to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of Viet Nam's capital city this October.

Quan has decided to play his flutes throughout all of the cities and provinces in Viet Nam. Wherever he is he will perform songs from that region. Eventually, Quan will travel to orphanages to visit children, to nursing homes to visit the elderly and to sanatoriums to visit disabled war veterans. He will also start holding performances at charity music nights throughout the country. VNS

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