Gu Ru Zhang, Iron Palm Master (1893 – 1952)
Gu Ru Zhang was born in Kiangsu, a province of China, into a martial family.
Gu Ru Zhang as a young man
His father, Gu Li Zhi, was an expert in the Tan Tui (Spring Leg) style as well as leaping and throwing projectile weapons. With these skills Gu’s father worked as a security guard to protect people’s money and valuables. The young Gu loved martial arts and learned them from his father.
At 12 Gu learned the 10 Road Tan Tui, a very famous form. But two years later, Gu’s father died. Li Zhi told Gu, before his death, to continue with school then to delve into martial training. He then gave Gu the name Yan Yun Qi in Shandong. Gu found it impossible to wait and with two years was on the road to Shantung. He was accompanied by his cousin Ba Jing Xiang. They reached the Yan family village located in Feicheng, Shantung province and tried to locate “Great Spear Yin.
When they introduced himself, and Gu announced who he was, Yan was touched. Gu’s father had saved his life in their mutual protection profession and he felt a strong attachment to Gu. Yin determined to teach the young man without holding anything back.
For six months he made Gu relearn the ten roads of Tan Tui. After seeing the determination in Gu he forged ahead with eleven more years of instuction with particular emphasis on Iron Palm and Iron Body. In that time the skills passed on to him included:
Ten Road Tan Tui
The Ten Core Sets of Shaolin
24 Skill Spear
Plum Blossom Double Sabers
The Small Golden Bell Chi Kung
The Iron Palm of Shaolin
Cha Boxing 3, 4 & 5
At one point, on receiving word of his mother’s death, Gu had to leave Yin village. Back in Nanking Gu lived with cousin Ba. They would practice together and Gu slowly gained a reputation and became known as “Spear God Gu.”
Master Gu supporting "1000 pound" press
1925 saw Gu employed in Guangzhou as a clerk by the Finance Minister. It was during this time that Gu became famous. The telling incident, witnessed by many including one Wang Xian Sheng, was this:
A Russian circus was in town and had posed an open challenge that if anyone could take its “fighting horse” kicking three times there would be a $1000 purse – an enormous amount for the time. Many tied and were humiliated and injured. This was just another spirit busting example that the Chinese people were being subjected to at the time. Guo came forward and took the challenge with one stricture. He didn’t want the money, he said, he wanted to take the three kicks then be allowed to slap the horse. The circus agreed to the terms. Guo went to the arena and allowed the horse to kick him once. Unbeliveably he took the strike. Then again. Then again, his Golden Bell training preserving him. Next he took a short break, gathered his energy and re-entered the area. It was his turn and he struck the horse on the flank so hard it staggered and crumpled. The crowd went wild. A postmortem was performed one the horse attended, with others, by the famous Eagle Claw master Lao Fa Meng (father of Lily and Jeannie Lau). No external wound was found on the horse but the internal organs were badly damaged.
From this public demonstration Gu earned two more nick names: “The Hero of San Shiang” and “Iron Palm Gu.”
Next he was hired as head drill instructor for the Central Guo Shu government military institute. This was a very prestigious organization trying to bring the spirit of marital arts into the twentieth century and strengthen China’s self image. Here Gu met General Li Jing Lin, the greatest sword expert in China, and learned his famous Wu Dang sword along with the Yang Tai Chi Sword through Yang Bian Hou. Guo also met Sun Lu Tang who taught him Xing Yi and Sun style Tai Chi.
In their efforts to strengthen and modernize Kung Fu the government held a tournament at Nanking in October of 1928. This ended up being one of the most important events in Kung Fu history for its time. Gu entered the tournament and placed in the top fifteen, important in itself since this was not a “safe” tornament but a dangerous competition. From this tournament the government decided to pick five representatives for deceminating Northern Kung Fu into Southern China. These five special teachers were: Gu Ru Zhang, Wan Lai Sheng, Fu Zhen Song, Wang Shao Chou and Li Xian Wu. These were the “Five Northern Tigers traveling South.”
Two military academies were set up known as the Liang Guang Province Academies. Wan Lai Sheng was chosen as the chairman of both and Gu was make head instructor. Wan and Gu became friends and this allowed Gu to learn some of the Six Harmony and Zi Ran (Natural) styles. He also met Chen Chan Sheng and learned the essence of the Cha (Muslim) Kung Fu. However the turns of politics closed the school. After much consideration a new direction was chosen and a public school called the Guangzhou Martial Arts School was formed. Gu was chosen as head instructor.
Near this school was another teaching Choy Lai Fut ( a famous and powerful Southern style). The teacher there was Tan San. Both men became friends, a amazing turn of events considering the issues of pride between Southern and Northern stylists. They even exchanged advanced students and to this day there is a branch of Choy Lai Fut which teaches some Northern Shaolin forms.
When the Japanese invaded in the early ’30’s, Gu went north to fight. The school was maintained by Long Zi Xiang.
Just before dropping the Iron Palm...
The Iron Palm drops!
In 1931 Gu repeated his now famous Iron Palm skill. An award of $200.00 was posted for anyone who could get near a horse owned by Russians. Gu approached the horse, slapped it “lightly”. The horse halted, dazed. The next day it was dead. Once again an autopsy revealed ruptured organs. This proved Gu’s fame as one of the greatest Iron Palm experts.
In 1932 Ho Qian, the Chairman of Hopei, hired Gu as head instructor of the Hopei Province Academy. He also learned Tai Chi and Dragon Shape sword directly from Guo. While there Liu Sen Yim, a famous swordsman, challenged Gu but Ho Qian disallowed the duel saying martial arts was better served by other uses. This was also the year in which Gu opened a clinic for trauma treatment.
1934 and Gu returned to Guandong hired by Chen Chi Tang as the principle Wu Shu instructor for the Eight Army. Teaching Ho Qian’s son and giving private lessons took so much time that Guo had Yan Xiang Wu take over his teaching duties.
In the 1940’s Guo decided he was tired of teaching martial arts and retired. He was never publically seen again. He died in 1952.
He had lived a life of passionate love of the martial arts. Unusual for his time, he had established friendships where normally there was enmity. He left many students behind but most of the present generations derived through Yan Xiang Wu, as do those associated with this site.