The front yard of our farmhouse sometimes became a gathering place of sorts in the evenings. Friends and neighbors would just drop in without notice. Over a teapot with steaming cups of tea, issues were discussed and stories and legends were recounted. Different people with different backgrounds had different stories to tell. Some of my favorites were of kung-fu legends and the heroes were mostly about ordinary folks who beat the odds against oppressors; or of outcasts who managed to gain acceptance by society after they had proven their worth.
A Kungfu master decided to set up a school in a village. This Sifu was rather picky on what kind of students he wanted to teach. Hence, when an uneducated farm laborer called Han wanted to join the class, the Sifu refused to accept him. He said he was too old and he had no education. Actually he thought he looked stupid and seemed too poor to be able to pay his fees, but he did not say it. He didn't want to offend him. So, it was with Han, who was tough and strong, who worked at carrying manure to the rice fields day in day out, could only sit and watch each evening when other youngsters were trained in their moves, punches, kicks, strikes, blocks and sometimes they would spar with one another. They were also trained in sword or stick fighting skills. Each day, Han went about his menial work in the fields and come evening he would just sit at the village square and watched them train.
In the middle of the rice fields stood a line of trees. It was here that Han would stop for a short rest at every trip he made to the manure dump across the fields. Whenever he stopped here, he would swing his stick around like what he saw the kungfu students did and poked at one of the tree trunks pretending he was fighting with an opponent. He did this several times each day without fail, on each and every trip, picking on the trees at random. Where a tree lost its bark, Han would stop poking at it, and picked on another tree. Days, weeks and months went by. The trees did not die off. Instead they grew stouter around the trunks where Han stabbed at them with his stick. And his thrusts became quicker and stronger, and the impact would shake the whole tree.
At the village square, students came and trained and some stayed on but others left after they'd lost interest. But Han stayed and watched and went about his work during the day and vented his frustrations on those trees, but he was never angry at the Sifu for not accepting him as a student. As Han watched intently, he imagined going through each and every move with them. He saw and he knew what each and every step of the drill was for and how it was used. Every now and then the Sifu would look at Han and wondered what the stupid fool was thinking. Finally, he decided he was tired of seeing Han’s face and planned to get rid of him. But Han would not be moved. He just sat and watched.
The Sifu finally gave in and said he would accept him on one condition. He must fight with one of his students. If he won, he would be accepted as a student. If he lost he had to 'get lost'. He would not be allowed to show his face at the training grounds. The Sifu asked him to pick anyone of his students. He even allowed Han to choose his own weapon. He thought to himself, "How can this stupid idiot learn anything by just watching?" But then Han asked to fight with the best student. Everyone laughed. The Sifu was amused but decided to go along with it. He thought again, "No harm to me, if he wants to get a thrashing."
Han went off and came back with his stick, the 'weapon' that went with him into ten thousand imaginary battles. The two exponents then bowed at each other. Han looked steadily at his opponent. He already knew very well how the guy would fight. All the months of watching had taught him about each and every student, and all his "training", stabbing at the trees had prepared him for this moment. He had learned only one simple thing, to strike. And he'd honed it to one swift, powerful and accurate stroke. While his opponent learnt everything but yet to be master of anything, Han was master of that single stroke. Speed, power and accuracy, Han thought, that was all he needed.
The Sifu had been careful not to teach his students everything he knew. He believed in self-preservation. All the time they had been trained only in their movements and they coordinated well in their choreographed sparring. But Han knew better. He only needed one stroke and he had only one chance.
As soon as his opponent moved, Han shoved his stick at him with such speed that even the Sifu did not realized what happened. His opponent gasped, staggered and then collapsed with a look of surprise on his face.