The year is 1840 in central China, which is near the end of the Qing Dynasty. We are north of Chengdu in the city of Fuxian (Fu County, now known as Mianyang). It is a sub-tropical, semi-mountainous region.
There are several kung fu schools in Fuxian, the largest being San Chuan (literally “Three Fists”) at 150 students, which is run by Master Shifu, one of the three original masters that founded the school. He is elderly and kind, but firm. This school teaches a variety of styles and is fairly progressive in its outlook, mixing wrestling, forms, weapons along with sparring, acrobatics and iron body training.
Smaller but no less influential is the Black Lotus school, a very regimented group of 50 students who are less kind to styles other than theirs, and also any outsiders. Black Lotus is headed up by Coiled Snake, a master of the Shaolin snake style, along with his son Spitting Snake. Here the training is focused on endurance drills such as horse stance and practicing forms with heavy rings on students’ arms. Anything less than perfect in technique and skill is not tolerated.
We meet two students of the San Chuan kung fu school: one named Zizou Ming (literally “Smart Ass”), an 18 year old of average height and build who has been studying at the school for a couple of years. His family sold his sister to be able to afford training with the venerable Master Shifu. Zizou has been training in wrestling, forms, and specializes in the rope dart weapon.
Tiaowu Jiu (literally “Dancing Wine”) is a mountain of a man at 6′ 2″, towering over his other countrymen. He started out as a dishwasher and janitor at the school several years ago, and now at age 20 has finally been accepted at the school after proving himself. He is often still treated as the janitor, however. Also he is addicted to rice wine, and hides clay pots full of it around the school for when he has a hankering to drink. He swears that drinking helps his fighting ability. His specialty is in brawling, and very few challenge him in this regard except for the higher level students.
Lung Po (literally “Broken Dragon”), 17 years old, began training at the Black Lotus school last year after finally being accepted. He has been hanging around there since he was a young boy, always waiting for his chance to become a student, but was never allowed to train because of his low standing. After showing his martial prowess and his acrobatic ability which he uses to bounce around obstacles with ease, the teachers finally let him begin training. His weapon specialty is brass knuckles with claws, and thrown knives.
It is mid-summer and very hot, and the students at both schools are training hard. At San Chuan School, Zizou and Tiaowu practice their forms and then transition to wrestling. Tiaowu is winded after a few wrestling matches with the large SiHing nicknamed Big Nose (his real name is unpronounceable), and sneaks away for a nip of wine. No one notices him. Zizou is paired with Mei Mei, the daughter of Master Shifu, who is notoriously arrogant and proud. After beating Zizou soundly in the first round, he comes back and throws her. Her face is red with anger at the humiliation, and stalks off.
At the Black Lotus school, Lung Po has spent the whole morning in strength drills and forms, and is now practicing staff forms. He does not like staff at all, preferring smaller and more agile weapons, and is not doing well. However even worse for wear is his friend Fei Wan (“Flying Over”), the only person at his social level at the school. Fei comes from a rich family, but is so terrible at martial arts that the other students shun him. Fei tries hard on the staff but trips and accidentally breaks it in half. Lung helps him up and finds him another staff, but one of the SiHings, a temperamental man named Barking Wolf, yells at him and beats him. Fei gets up to try again and breaks a second staff. Barking Wolf grabs him by the nape of the neck and drags him into the building, fuming.
Lung Po uses his acrobatic ability to sneak away from the other students training and bounds to the second floor, looking down at Barking Wolf and Fei Wan, and sees Barking Wolf begin to beat his friend senseless. He gives him several body blows and then superman-punches his face into the floor, knocking him out and dislodging several teeth. Without even thinking, Lung loosens his belt as it’s his only weapon, then jumps onto Barking Wolf’s back, choking him out. Before Barking Wolf can fight back, Lung strikes him in the side of the head and knocks him unconscious. He drags the limp SiHing into a closet, and notices a small scroll sticking out of his robe. He snatches it and then tends to Fei Wan, taking him gingerly to the barracks and binding his wounds. He is still mostly knocked out but cries in pain. Lung goes back to the training floor and resumes staff work, hoping that no one saw him leave.
At San Chuan school, it’s lunch time and as Zizou gets his bowl of soup and goes to sit down, Mei Mei pushes past him and sits down in the chair instead. Zizou squeezes next to her and asks her what her problem is. She says that he must have cheated in order to win, since she is a much better fighter than him. He denies it and says that he meant no disrespect, but she is having none of it and walks off in a huff.
Near the end of lunchtime, Master Shifu comes out and says that their school has been asked to participate in a city-wide kung fu tournament tomorrow morning, and he wants the kwoon spotless before they leave. All students will spend the remainder of the day cleaning, and tomorrow morning they will leave for the tournament. He is planning on asking several students to perform their special techniques they have been training for. All are dismissed and go to begin the cleaning work.
Zizou gets a bucket of water for cleaning and again runs into Mei Mei, who is also carrying a bucket. He apologizes again for upsetting her and says that perhaps he just got lucky. She thinks it over and finally agrees, saying that maybe that’s what happened and perhaps if he was lucky today, that he would be unlucky another time. She “accidentally” spills some of the bucket’s contents on his shoes, which did not contain water but mud, and walks off with a smirk. Zizou is glad that she did not douse him entirely, and thinks that he is making progress with her. Nearby, SiHing Big Nose asks Zizou how he got Mei Mei to notice him — Big Nose has been trying for years.
Back at Black Lotus School, at lunchtime Lung Po sees some of the teachers discussing something in the hallway where he fought Barking Wolf. He comes forward to inquire what they are looking at, and one of the SiHings says that they found blood on the floor, but they are not sure what it was from. He suddenly realizes who he’s talking to and orders Lung Po to move along, and he complies. Nothing more is said about it, and Barking Wolf does not reappear.
Later in the afternoon, Lung Po and the other students practice horse stance with a candle or sharpened stick underneath them, and heavy rings are placed on their arms. Lung Po has placed the stolen scroll in his pants, hoping that no one finds it. Spitting Snake, the Shifu’s son, comes around with a small heated cauldron that he places between students’ arms to hold up as well. Lung Po’s arms burn, but he makes it through the trial. After this, everyone is told to prepare for evening meal and lights out. Fei Wan is still in his bunk, whimpering with pain, but seems to be recovering. After lights out, Lung carefully reads the contents of the scroll. The letter is from Shifu Coiled Snake, and apparently Barking Wolf was being thrown out of the school for misconduct. He was to leave by the end of the day, which explains why he was so hard on Fei Wan. Lung quickly hides the scroll in another student’s bunk and goes to sleep.
The next morning at breakfast, Shifu Coiled Snake announces that they will be leaving for a tournament shortly, and everyone will be ready to go right after the meal. Everyone runs to comply. The school leaves, and Lung Po and Fei Wan, the lowest standing among the students, take up the rear.
At San Chuan School, Zizou is chosen to take one of the school banners to the tournament. As he is walking, he notices Mei Mei next to him with a larger banner. She does not acknowledge him, but he sees that he still has her attention. Tiaowu grabs a nip of wine before leaving and hurries to catch up with the group.
At the tournament, five schools are participating. San Chuan, Black Lotus, the Crane School (nothern longhand and shaolin techniques), the Five Element School, and Lo Han School (a mix of kung fu and tai chi students). Vendors have brought their carts selling street food and wine, and townspeople are crowding around to watch. The day begins with demonstrations, and Master Shifu does not disappoint with a mesmerizing spear form. At one point he shoves the spear into the ground and appears to defy gravity as he balances on it with one hand. Shifu Coiled Snake follows this with a spinning form that leaves the audience dizzy, and breaks wood and bricks as he spins.
After this the students begin to perform, with demonstrations of acrobatics and iron body displays. Big Nose shows his iron head technique, with students breaking pieces of wood over his head. Next is forms. San Chuan starts out. Zizou is chosen to demonstrate the rope dart and provides a flawless presentation of the form. Next is SiHing Lozu then Mei Mei. She has difficulty with her rhythm, though, and Zizou sees this. He encourages her by pantomiming the form and showing the rhythm, and she improves. She has a slight smile as she finishes and everyone applauds. Zizou and Tiaowu also perform to good responses.
Sparring and wrestling starts next, and Tiaowu is paired with Big Nose. The fight goes on for several minutes with Big Nose using his iron head against the big man. They continue to trade blows until Tiaowu advances with a ridiculous combination, striking Big Nose in the leg, body and finally the head. He lifts the SiHing above his head and hurls him into a vendor’s cart. Wontons go flying and everyone cheers. The man who owns the cart curses Tiaowu out, but he is grinning from ear to ear. After this, when others are fighting, Tiaowu goes to a wine vendor and gets a free bottle of wine, which he downs immediately.
Zizou fights Mei Mei and it’s a draw. Zizou respectfully looses his next fight but then beats the next oppent.Zizou then fights Lung Po and loses once, then wins twice. The two warriors are respectful to one another. Zizou continues on and defeats 2 more opponents.
Lung Po fights ??? and wins?
Tiaowu fights Spitting Snake in an incredibly long battle. Spitting Snake throws dirt in his eye.
Tiaowu fights a Lo Han student, and loses?
The inter-school matches conclude, and after observation by the Shifus, the final contenders for the day are chosen. The first match is a student from Five Elements against a Lo Han student, and Five Elements wins. The second match will be Zizou against Lung Po, and the third match will be SiHing Lozu versus Spitting Snake. After this the winners are to fight.
As Zizou and Lung Po are getting ready to fight, a commotion is heard in the crowd. Men with robes and hoods are coming through the crowd with swords, scaring the townspeople and slashing at anyone who gets in their way. Master Shifu barks at them to stop what they are doing immediately, but they still advance. He tells his students to get ready to repel the fighters. Coiled Snake tells his students to snap to attention as well.
The first four men go down easily, with the students from both schools working together. Master Shifu takes one out with precise strikes to several nerve points, paralyzing him. Mei Mei stuns one of them, and Zizou grabs his rope dart and slashes one of them across the back with a spinning move, whips it around his leg and then out to strike the second man in the face, taking him out. Tiaowu and Lung Po join the battle and the other man is taken out.
This leaves just one, who takes his mask off and reveals himself to be Barking Wolf. He addresses Shifu Coiled Snake and says that he will pay for shaming him, and even if he dies that his revenge will be complete. He lunges at Coiled Snake, ignoring all the other attackers, but Tiaowu tries to grab him. He slashes Tiaowu savagely and the big man falls down, unconscious. Mei Mei and Zizou both attack, but are unable to bring him down. Mei Mei slips while kicking and twists her ankle, falling to the ground. Lung Po leaps at Barking Wolf from behind and slashes him with his brass knuckle claws, and Barking Wolf falls, bleeding out.
Barking Wolf continues to crawl toward Shifu Coiled Snake, but passes out short of him and expires. Coiled Snake looks up at Lung Po and nods, which is the most attention and respect he’s ever paid the boy. He then turns sharply and walks away, motioning his students to follow him.