It began with Bruce Lee. Lee's 1973 "Enter the Dragon" was the first big-budget mainstream movie to highlight kung fu.
"He introduced it to American audiences," John Green said of the Chinese martial art, whose popularity has grown with the movies of modern kung fu masters such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
So well established has the Chinese martial art known for its athletic jumps, kicks and rolls become that most of the Asian-style fighting in movies these days is kung fu, not karate, the Japanese martial art, said Green, a Chinese martial arts expert himself, the winner of four gold medals in tai chi at a world championship.
"Even in the last 'Karate Kid' movie, the hero was doing kung fu, not karate," he said.
On a balmy June evening, Green could be found at US Kuo Shu Academy, a Chinese martial arts studio in Owings Mills. A Columbia resident and software sales manager, Green is a senior instructor at the academy, located in a strip mall at 11000 Owings Mills Boulevard.
In the large, main studio, 20 students, elementary school-age boys and girls, were taking an hour-long kung fu class. An instructor in the classic martial arts outfit of pants and top stood at the front demonstrating the choreographed movements, or forms, that comprise this sport.
In a second, smaller studio, 10 adults practiced the slow, controlled movements of tai chi. Peck Mun Lee, an academy instructor for the past two years, taught the class. "Tai chi is the internal form of kung fu," said Lee, a Cockeysville resident and computer programmer who has been studying it since childhood.
Tien Shan Pai Grandmaster Huang Chien-Liang founded the US Kuo Shu (national sport) Academy in Baltimore County in 1982. Originally located in Towson and since relocated to Timonium, it was subsequently bought by a former student and renamed the US Martial Arts Academy.
On the move
The Owings Mills academy opened in 1999 and is co-owned by the grandmaster and his son, Michael Huang. Last month, the two also opened an academy in Columbia. Huang, a Reisterstown resident, left a corporate job to take over management of the Owings Mills academy six years ago.
"We've grown since then, to almost 200 students," Huang said of Owings Mills. He attributes the increase to the academy's focus on kung fu and tai chi and to the expansion of its youth program.
"We used to be 75 percent adults, 25 percent kids. Now, we're now 50-50 adults and children," Huang said of students, who range in age from 5 to 80.
All students are taught the academy's motto: "virtue, humility and martial arts, " ie., using kung fu skill for self-defense.
At the moment, Green, who also serves as the academy's tournament director, is preparing academy students for the United States International Kuo Shu Championship Tournament. Now in its 27th year, the annual event is traditionally held on the third weekend in July, this year July 24 to 26, in Hunt Valley. It is sponsored by the United States Kuo Shu Federation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting Chinese martial arts.
Academy students are encouraged to participate, and 75 percent of them do. "It's a good experience for them. It helps them focus on their training and they go as a team," said Green, who, judging by previous tournaments, expects up to 600 competitors from the U.S. and abroad, including, in recent years, England, China and Nepal.
Besides being an economic boon to the county, the tournament serves dual purposes in the kung fu community. It is a qualifying event for the World Championships, held every three years. The next one takes place in Argentina in September, said Green, who participated in the 2006 World Championship in Singapore.
It also helps to promote the Chinese martial arts with individual and team competitions in the various forms of kung fu and tai chi, including full contact fighting on a raised platform. State and county officials attend the opening ceremony, which features a Chinese lion dance and an Olympics-style entry of the teams hoisting their banners.
"It's a significant part of the Baltimore County landscape every summer," Green said.
Alison Reznikov, an Owings Mills resident and Beth Tfiloh High School student, has participated in seven tournaments. "I've won a few firsts, along with seconds and thirds," said Alison, the daughter of Irina and Alex Reznikov.
"It's interesting to see other schools and how they teach. You see all different styles of the sport," continued Alison, who has been taking kung fu at the academy since the age of 10 and is now a teacher-in-training there.
Peck Mun Lee, the academy's tai chi instructor, has participated in six tournaments. She has won her share of first- and second-place awards in her specialty. "The tournament is divided into youth, adult and senior categories. There are heats, or eliminations, leading up to the finals. You can compete in more than one category," Lee said.
For example, she continued, tai chi categories include open hand, straight sword, broad sword and other styles. In some categories, there can be up to hundreds of competitors; in others, just a small group.
"It's always very exciting," Lee said.
Steve Hoffman, an instructor at the academy, has participated in 12 tournaments, and he has the trophies and medals to show for it. Judging is based on a participant's skill in the different forms of kung fu and tai chi, he said.
"It's like a dance. You have two minutes' worth of movement - in kung fu, as fast as possible; in tai chi, as slow as possible," said Hoffman, a retired dentist and now massage therapist, a Pikesville resident whose specialty is tai chi.
Judging also takes into account the participant's concentration or, in the jargon, mind intent. "The jumps, the kicks are higher and harder. It's about balance, coordination and speed within the form," he said.
Ayanna Chen and her two sons, Cypress, age 9, and Phoenix, age 7, are all kung fu students at the academy. The family is originally from Taiwan and, said Chen, a psychiatrist and Owings Mills resident, "Chinese martial arts are an important aspect of the culture."
She and her sons have signed up for the tournament, a first for them. Chen likes this aspect of the academy program, feeling that the tournament option helps students focus on the sport.
"We're excited. We're looking forward to it but we're nervous," Chen said. "But then, that's natural."
If you go
The international tournament sponsored by the United States Kuo Shu Federation will be held from Thursday, July 24, to Saturday, July 26, at The Hunt Valley Inn, 245 Shawan Road. The opening ceremony will be held on Saturday, July 25, from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Competitions follow that day beginning at 10:30 a.m. Spectator and banquet tickets and video passes are available via the website http://www.usksf.org.