The making of a martial arts master

BEIRUT: It begins as an ordinary story. An Armenian boy, the grandson of a genocide survivor and the son of a taxi driver, grows up in Lebanon during the Civil War. At age 12, Avedis Seropian enrolls in kung fu classes at a local club, inspired in part by Chinese martial arts (wushu) movies starring Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. At age 16, he also discovers taijiquan (also known as tai chi) and immerses himself in the softer yet equally rigorous practice.

Two years later, he secures a spot in the taijiquan category in the 2001 World Wushu Championships – wushu’s most prestigious competition – and receives the highest score ever of any Lebanese competitor.

In 2011, he emerges among 1,200 practitioners to win three gold medals at the International Wudang Taiji Tournament – taijiquan’s most prestigious competition.

In 2013, competing among 3,400 athletes, he wins two more golds for taijiquan at the World Wushu Championships and is granted the title “master of internal martial arts” by the Beijing University of Physical Education.

His achievements are all the more remarkable because the world champion is self-taught.

“When I go to China, they ask me, ‘Who’s your master?’” Seropian, 32, told The Daily Star.

The question, he said, is followed by, “How do you not have a master?”

“Taijiquan is an art of flowing like water ... You have to feel it and let it run through your meridians and follow it ... knowledge comes from within.”

While Seropian initially took a few classes in Lebanon, he was put off by the teachers, whom he felt flaunted their authority. By the time of his first major competition – the World Wushu Championships organized biannually by the International Wushu Federation (IWUF) – he had decided to break off on his own.

Seropian recalled that “The Art of Meditation” was the first book he bought, and he continued to read extensively about Eastern esoteric traditions. “When we traveled to championships, my teammates used to just have fun with girls, and I used to watch everybody perform and think why they perform this way, talk to others, and try to discover a bridge between what I read and what they practiced.”

YouTube didn’t exist back then, so he would film the performances and study them back home, analyzing them through elimination.

“Whatever is different among these 40 practitioners is either error or style. I do not sculpt something, I just remove the excess until the form I see in my mind is left ... until what feels right remains there ... This is the foundation of how I taught myself.”

The 2001 World Wushu Championships was a “big leap” for him. While Seropian had previously participated in local and national championships for kung fu or taijiquan, he had never even been to a regional game.

“I just did a bare-handed routine. That’s what I could teach myself. We didn’t have swords.” He received a score of 8.93 – the highest ever for a Lebanese competitor at the time.

Despite – or because of – his talent, Seropian felt alone and sought “refuge in a kind of philosophy.”

“Bruce Lee said teaching self-defense is like teaching someone how to swim on dry land ... you have to be in a fight to know how to defend yourself. He talks about [going from] form to without form ... this is the idea I got inspired from to talk about ‘pathlessness.’”

His philosophy is represented by three intersecting circles with a practitioner superimposed on top, encompassed by a fourth larger circle. While the three circles represent ascetic paths, such as that of a monk, the fourth is the path with “respect to all the traditions and yet it embodies all.”

“The man has one foot outside the circle, so it’s part of using the system but is free of the system.”

Taijiquan embodies pathlessness because it involves “harmony between the human being and the universe.”

“We’re trying to use this physical method of moving like the [five] elements,” he elaborated.

While the world champion has received international validation, support in Lebanon remains elusive.

The Sports and Youth Ministry only recognizes the private Lebanese Wushu Kung Fu Federation, not studios or individuals. “The federation is supposed to take care of the clubs [gyms or studios], who in turn are supposed to take care of their members,” Seropian explained.

In Seropian’s case, he is not employed by the gym in Antelias where he teaches. “I pay rent, so I support my students if anything is needed. There is a broken chain – no club supporting us.”

Moreover, the hierarchy means participation in championships is not based on merit, he said.

“The federation selects competitors ... every member of the federation has siblings, sons and daughters ... Any time we have a game, they’re [the family members] the first to travel, and then comes the person who might ... get a medal” – the reasoning being that a medal will attract more ministry funding the following year.

The amount of ministry funding to the federation is opaque, he added. Winners of world championships are supposed to receive some kind of award from the ministry, but all he’s ever gotten is a photo with the minister. This means the reward either was taken by the federation, or no reward was offered at all.

“At the [2014] Asian Games, I was speaking to a guy from Singapore. He told me, you know what we get when we win these championships? 200,000 Singapore dollars ($144,000) ... He was complaining that [winners in] China get much more.” As for Lebanon, it had just covered the costs of Seropian’s trip – and even this was rare.

“When you always encounter corruption and biased selections, you get disappointed, especially when you talk to Singaporeans and other athletes. But then passion takes over,” said Seropian, who exudes a boyish enthusiasm and boundless energy in and out of class.

Beyond the challenges of the system “it’s not easy to live here,” he admitted. “If you come from an environment with a zero head start, it’s hard, especially because my grandfather was already not from this country, he was of the [Armenian] genocide generation. By the time we reach my father, then me, we barely can hold ourselves together.”

“My parents were so surrounded ... [by] their problems that [they] could hardly see my progress ... These things hurt you more because I feel I’m doing this with the intention of helping others and [my parents] are supposed to be the closest to me and I can’t help them.

“This is what drives you to work harder and make more effort, because you want to have your place, your mark in something.”

To provide for his parents, wife and young daughter, Seropian maintains a heavy schedule of taijiquan and other wushu classes, alongside his work as a transpersonal psychotherapist. He often accepts talented but poor students for free. One of his most gifted students works as a grocery store cashier, earning $1.25 per hour. “Because I came from the same environment, I know how hard it is, and if I can help someone, I would.”

While wushu originated in China, Seropian expresses ambivalence toward its modern incarnation.

“It’s a bit upsetting because [China is] trying to normalize taiji so that every country practices. If only Chinese practices, there are not going to be world championships, only national championships.

“It’s moving so fast that people don’t catch up to the ideas.”

Opening one of the regularly updated official handbooks, he said, “These are just pictures. They’re performed by an 18-year-old athlete who’s ... just doing what his coach said.”

Despite his misgivings about the way taijiquan is practiced in China, if it were not for his family he “would have left to China 10 years ago.”

“I don’t feel at home [in Lebanon.] I think it’s another reason why I call [my philosophy] pathlessness. I don’t feel that I belong anywhere, except China.”

Seropian would like to have his own teacher, but he has yet to find the right one, even in China. “When I watched the performances [of the Four Tigers], I know they’re carrying their lineage but I don’t see light in their eyes ... When I don’t see this, there is nothing to learn from this individual. It might sound arrogant but I feel this is fundamental.”

While he continues to compete, he has a bad knee and tired joints after practicing jumps for years without access to proper shock absorption gear. He would love to participate in the 2020 Olympics if IWUF successfully lobbies for taijiquan to be included.

But his focus has shifted more to his students. At the World Traditional Wushu Championships last year his sister won bronze medals for taijiquan and taijijian. Another student also won a bronze in the inaugural World Taichi Championship, a spinoff by IWUF.

“I would like to open a school ... My dream is to have only 10-15 people, fully committed, and teach them for free,” he said.

“You should earn a living, but not through charlatanism. That’s why I love taijiquan. You’re transmitting your knowledge and technique. It’s quite substantial.”

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