Where I Am, and What I Am Doing
A Shaolin Diary - Part One
by John Greenhow
In planning to travel around the world, I decided to start at the world famous Shaolin Temple. Having always been a kung fu fan, it seemed a great opportunity to go and learn from the source, pit myself against the best and learn from it. So, several months later, here I am, another kung fu student in a town of over 25,000 kung fu students.
I'd flown into Hong Kong and spent a couple of days there while waiting for a Chinese visa and the next train to Zhengzhou.
Hong Kong is a cool city. While I was there, the SARS panic was setting in and many people were wearing cotton masks. This being Hong Kong, fashions were already developing -- I saw numerous colored and patterned masks. Although I wasn't sure how much good the masks did, I wore one anyway as it vastly cut down on the nervous looks from other people. All the neon lights and all the people in masks gave the city a kind of sci-fi Blade Runner feel. An interesting time and place. The weather was incredibly humid, and lugging round my huge backpack didn't help matters. I imagined I could hear all the locals telling each other to "watch out for the sweaty foreigner!"
The journey from Hong Kong to Zhengzhou took around 21 hours and was largely overnight. I had a bunk in a hard-sleeper, which was pretty comfortable. Train journeys often seem longer because of your confinement, and this was no exception; but I quickly started my Chinese lessons by trying to talk to the people in my cabin. Fortunately, one of them spoke some English, and once I'd taught them a favorite card game of mine and then lost to them, we all got along pretty well. Something that amused me at the time was that they thought my going to Shaolin to study kung fu was as crazy as my friends from home thought it was. It must take a certain kind of lunatic to try this. If so, I could only expect Shaolin to be a very crazy place.
I arrived in Zhengzhou (the capital of Henan province in Central China -- pronounced "JungJow") on April 4th, 2003. Walking out of the train station, blinking in the light and being faced with its expanse of humanity and white tile architecture was one of the few moments in my life where I really wondered what on Earth I was doing here. I put down my backpack, pulled out the wedge of paper containing my contact's details and sat down to wait.
My school had a significant internet presence, and I'd been in email contact with them for several weeks. As requested, I'd emailed my time of arrival and train number to the school I was to join and figured that as the only foreigner in sight I was conspicuous enough that all I had to do was sit there until they found me. I waited and waited. I later found that my mails had been going to a student who was now in France and was therefore unlikely to meet me. I also discovered that I wasn't the only foreign student this had happened to. If you're planning to come to Shaolin to study, it's worth remembering that internet research only goes so far. There's no reason not to just turn up, find a place to sleep and take your time finding a decent school that suits you. In addition to this, be prepared for lots of people to pounce on you offering a place in a kung fu school. Personally I always turn down everyone who approaches me like this. I'm happy to take the risk that I might be missing something good, as I've seen people get fleeced like this far too often.
As a foreigner, the easiest way to attract a crowd in a Chinese city is to stay in one place for more than two minutes, so that's what I did. Once they realized my Chinese was as limited as their English ("hello." "ni hao." "hello." "bugger off") they dispersed and I was left looking at my watch wondering about a Plan B. Plan B turned out to be the long-distance bus station across the road. Unfortunately, there were no more buses to Shaolin today, but I did get a bus to the nearest town, a place my already-battered Lonely Planet guide described as "the peaceful town of Dengfeng" (pronounced DungFung). After a 21-hour train journey from Hong Kong, that sounded appealing.
Arrival in Dengfeng was a hauntingly familiar experience, as once again I was quickly hemmed in by touts and taxi drivers. After some discussion I managed to get to the local CITS (China's biggest travel agency) where a very helpful man quickly installed me in a hotel for the night. This was perhaps the best thing that had happened to me so far, as I met four Americans there. Two had been in Dengfeng for two months, one had just arrived (and had faired worse than me, which is always a good way to get cheered up) and one was the great Gene Ching from Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine. This was a delegation from the "LaoWai club." Laowai is a Chinese word that means "old outside." "Old" is synonymous with "respect," so this is the politest word people here have for foreigners. It's not always used that way though, and after a while you begin to detect irony in its use. At times it feels like a derogatory racist term, but most foreigners here quickly come to use the term to refer to one another.
From these guys I got a quick head start into life near Shaolin and was introduced to the ubiquitous Mr. Wang, a manager at CITS and possibly one of the most connected people in town. The next day Mr. Wang placed me in the Xiao Long Wu Yuan (Little Dragon Institute), and I was suddenly left alone in what I dubbed "The Cave," my home for the next two weeks. I started training the same day and joined a class of 14-year-olds. At first it's very disconcerting trying to practice kung fu when you've got a very close and attentive audience of children, all of whom are already experts as far as I was concerned. Nevertheless I got to know everyone and settled into life at the huge school of 2000 students.
After two weeks at the school, I had (hopefully) my one Shaolin fight, which was all very dramatic. On Friday when the whole school headed outside to the "field" to practice sparring, I sat by the head coach. Once I had exhausted my meager supply of Chinese small talk, he invited me to show the school what I'd learnt. Not a chance old son, not a chance, I told him. Then perhaps I'd like to take part in the sparring?
Sod it, I thought. I'm bound to have a weight (if not strength) advantage, and I'd sparred before, having studied Lau Gar kung fu on and off for around 11 years. I should have taken more notice of the wry grins all round as I accepted and was lead off and given a pair of gloves.
It was around sunset. The students formed a large ring in the dust. As I stepped into the ring, a roar went up from the crowd. When my opponent stepped into the ring, the roar got louder. They'd managed to find a student built like a brick shithouse and three inches taller than me. Joy. It was actually an even fight for a couple of minutes until he bloodied my nose, at which point I lost my temper and tried to knock him out. Unfortunately he only fell over, and when he got up, he was angry. More joy. He was younger, faster, fitter and in all likelihood trained while I slept. Luckily, the head coach stopped it at that point. As we shook hands, I noted with immense satisfaction that there was a large and dusty footprint on my opponent's chest.
I was quickly surrounded by small wushu students staring up at me as I dripped sweat and blood into the dust. My entourage followed as far as the showers where I was pleased to leave them.
I learned an extremely important Shaolin lesson the hard way. Do not underestimate anyone. Oh, and everyone thinks it's funny to watch a laowai take a beating...
Be careful what you wish for!
A few days before, I'd met a Frenchman named Danny who'd already spent around 6 months in Dengfeng. He told me about his school -- a very small place, much cheaper and with a family-like quality to school life. Having already agreed to move, I decided to do so the next day, nursing sore knuckles. At around a fifth of the price of the big school, it would mean I could stay on the road significantly longer.
Now I've been here around two months. I'm comfortable here. My Chinese has improved, I've lost a few kilos and gained a few forms. An average day's training is along the following lines:
- 5:30am - 7:00am: Morning exercise.
- 8:30am - 11:30am: Morning training.
- 3:00pm - 6:00pm: Afternoon training.
- 7:30pm - 8:30pm: Evening training.
Generally, life here is as peaceful as can be expected when you live with 40 teenage kung fu students. Perhaps uneventful is a better word. We get up, we train, we eat, we sleep again. Time passes quickly, except for afternoon training, which seems to have some kind of strange time warp associated with it -- same as afternoons everywhere, I suppose.
Wushu is the proper term for the Chinese martial arts. It covers a whole range of different fighting styles and techniques, each with its own characteristics and history. In the west, Wushu refers to compulsory sport wushu, while in the east it just means martial arts. Training varies from day to day, although it can be split into three distinct categories:
Jibengong -- a set of basic movements that we perform together, like a military drill. This is both physical exercise and practice of movements that we use every day in our forms. It's simple, so it's easy to work hard at, but it can be very monotonous and frustrating if you have an off day and just can't seem to synchronize with the group.
Taolu / Sanda -- the bulk of what actually would be familiar as kung fu. Taolu is the traditional stuff, learning forms. Forms are a series of movements that represent a single style of fighting. They are rather like repositories of techniques. Shaolin kung fu has over 300 forms, covering a vast range of fighting styles from imitation styles (such as monkey or drunken boxing) to sword, whip, chain or stick forms.
Taolu practice sometimes consists of hard practice, repeating your form over and over, every time putting in all the power you can manage, and at other times it's a slower affair, concentrating on perfecting technique. We pass many long afternoons this way, standing in the shade of a tree in the courtyard while taking turns to perform in front of the class. This helps learning because firstly there are many helpful corrections on hand, but also because you can watch other people do other forms, which is good preparation for when you learn it -- or a good reminder if you've already learnt and forgotten it!
Sanda is Chinese kickboxing. It's simple, it's powerful, and many people think it was introduced just to make practicing kung fu a bit safer, as the practitioners use gloves, padding and rules. Besides utilizing full power strikes to the head, body and legs, Sanda students also study take downs, usually involving catching an opponent's kick first.. Many foreigners here deride Sanda as closed-minded and ineffective, comparing Sanda fighters to Muay Thai fighters or Western boxers. Having said this, many of them still come here to study it. Sanda training makes for good exercise when your mind has been numbed by too much learning of forms or practicing one simple technique for a whole day, as there's not much to learn but it requires lots of practice hitting things. This sort of thing isn't unique to Shaolin, so I'm a rare participant.
Acrobatics -- modern Shaolin kung fu is largely about performance, so students are taught and drilled in lots of basic acrobatics such as backflips, no-handed cartwheels and -- my own personal nemesis -- flipping from your back onto your feet. I've found that most of these moves have two things in common: utter fearlessness and an ability to whip your legs underneath you very quickly. Coincidentally, these are the two reasons I'm completely unable to master this particular Shaolin discipline.
We live our lives here by the whistle. That dreaded blast 6 times a day signaling that it's time to get to the training yard and face the pain. It's normally followed by a slow shutting of the eyes and a deep breath as you once again reach for your battered training shoes. As is natural for something that wakes you up at 5:30am daily, the sound of that whistle is deeply ingrained in us all. On more than one occasion we would be walking through town and hear a similar blast -- and every time we all stop what we're doing and experience the mini-dread sensation before looking at each other and realizing that this time it's not us, which is a beautiful experience akin to waking on a Saturday morning with absolutely nothing to do.
SARS: Society under seige
SARS isn't too much of an issue day to day, except that we're supposed to confine ourselves to the school as much as possible, and we only run up the mountain once a week now - changes more designed to show a responsiveness to the SARS problem than for any good reason. However, Dengfeng town gives the impression of slowly grinding to a halt, with the closure of all the internet bars and around half of the convenience stores.
The Chinese revealed their superstitious nature one night, after "news" came from Zhengzhou that a one-year-old child had clearly told his parents that if they drank a certain kind of soup before midnight that day, then SARS would not affect them. We were called from our beds by a whistle blast, and each given a bowl of rapidly-prepared green soup to drink at around half past 10 at night. It tasted kind of musty, but it wasn't too bad. And besides, it seems to have worked...
Danny had come here hoping for the tough and austere life of a warrior monk trainee. He didn't know the Golden Rule: Be careful what you wish for. Once we were unable to visit Dengfeng town during our lunch breaks and evenings, life quickly became monotonous; and even with our comfortable rooms and portable music, we still felt as if we were in prison -- except our toilets are worse.
SARS is also hard to predict. Some days I get news from my girlfriend in the UK that the WHO (not the band) has come to China in force, that travelers are once again free to roam and everything's rosy. Not in Dengfeng however. Here we're still restricted. No morning run up the mountain, and if we go to town, then we scale the walls at night or we sleep rough -- the forbidding steel door is locked at 8:30pm sharp.
One incident saw us coming back to the school around 12 midnight. The night was humid and misty, and the air thick with flying insects. Half-an-hour's stealthy search for a way into the school produced nothing more than scratched elbows and some torn plant life. We decided to return to Dengfeng and try our luck, where we managed to sleep on the floor of a clothes shop owned by a friend.
We woke at first light and opened up shop. We set up a table in the middle of the shop and went across the road to buy some Xiaomifan (little rice -- a sort of rice porridge) and fried dough sticks. We ate our breakfast as early customers browsed the clothes around us and no one seemed to mind a bit.
I'm slowly getting to know Chinese. The language is tricky. The grammar is simple, but the pronunciation is difficult. I've said the same thing six times only to have them tell me the correct word and have it sound identical. I've also recently discovered that some people here don't speak Mandarin very well, if at all, and that the rest of China sees this province as a rural backwater. Essentially, I'm learning Farmer Chinese.
Some things are always the same. If you don't understand, people quickly resort to the international language of "SLOWLY AND LOUDLY" or get some paper and helpfully spell out what they're saying in Chinese letters.
They're also very "curious" about foreigners. I'm now totally accustomed to people staring at me whatever I do. It's actually become something of a game now with passing traffic. Drivers will turn in their seats to look, and I'm praying for the day one of them drives into the river.
We study a lot of "jibengong" here. Jibengong is "the basics," the building blocks upon which the rest of Shaolin kung fu is based. We often spend up to 4 hours a day practicing these drills. I've learnt more about kung fu from this than anything else here. Not having seen a single monk fly or even throw a fireball, I'm forced to conclude that kung fu is not so much a system of ancient and esoteric ways to kick people as much as it is hard work and patience!
Again, another lesson I've learnt the long way around. I should have spoken to Gene Ching first. Here's what he has to say:
"Kung fu strictly defined means skill after hard work. 'Kung' literally means 'work' -- it is the same character as in Gung Ho (work enthusiasm). 'fu' implies it's a divine art with a character that represents a man reaching up to heaven. You can have good kung fu in the way you sing, cook or do martial arts. Any art. So you've grasped the first secret (at least the first one for people who can't read Chinese). And if you can get that back-flip working, the fireball is just a few more years of hard work away."
How long I'll stay also becomes a tough question as training here is so completely involving. When you're really training, everything else goes out the window -- it's just you and the kung fu. This makes determining how long you think you can stick it out pretty hard. Every morning at 5:30 I walk out onto the training yard, look up and see the mountain through bleary eyes. It has a different mood every day. Its mood is infectious and every morning I think I'll stay here for as long as I can. Every evening, as I drag my tired and sorry arse indoors, I decide I'm going home tomorrow. Practicing kung fu so intensely makes it a very emotional experience. Physical lows become emotional lows, and vice versa. Fortunately, it's the same with the highs.
It's not just physical hard work that makes this kung fu. It's the dedication, will power, pure bloody-minded stubbornness and simple pride that drive you to train day after day. You find out exactly what you've got and how deep you can dig for more. I'm not sure if this experience is changing me or if I had it all along.
Oh, bright orange kung fu trousers also help. I'm not sure if it's because they're lighter and cooler in this heat, or if it's a kind of subconscious desire not to let the side down while you're wearing the colors. They also provide the third Shaolin lesson. Wushu is about performance. From snapping your head 'round to glare at imaginary opponents to the final shout to show you could just as easily do it all again, every movement is designed to impress. It's worth remembering this as you practice the forms. Every time, perform it, put everything in. It's just another route to kung fu.
Day-to-day life here is as much about motivation as anything else. Every day you must dig a little deeper to find the willpower to make it through training. This seems to be as important a part of kung fu as the physical side. Being determined and stubborn enough to train properly. Lazy students do not improve.
Personally, I imagine myself looking back on my time here -- one cannot afford regret on a gig as singular as this.
I've heard it said that foreign students in this town are more motivated than many of the Chinese students. Well, given the vast number of Chinese students here, there are bound to be a few slackers; but given the general level of kung fu here, they're certainly a minority.
The fact that most of us here have been through and finished our respective educational systems is also relevant. We've spent a lot of money and have traveled a long way to be able to train here, so we want to make it count. Remember when you were in school the first time? How much effort did you want to put in on a day-to-day basis?
The bottom line here is basically: you measure your kung fu by your worst day's training, not your best. When you're absolutely at rock bottom physically and emotionally and you can still work up a sweat, then you know you've got it cracked.
What I'm learning and what I hope to learn
When I first arrived at this school, I started learning from the beginning, starting with Taolu, then Wubu Quan, Tongbei Quan, Yinshao Gun, etc., as well as Jibengong and basic acrobatics.
Most Chinese students come here in the same way that young people go to college in the West. It's a career move. They put in a minimum of three years and go on to be coaches, P.E. teachers, etc. However, I never think more than a month ahead, and having no similar set goal, I sometimes find it hard to motivate myself to learn, perform and live a form that doesn't particularly inspire me.
I came to Shaolin hoping to learn a few cool forms and a mean backflip. But requests to learn the Drunken Boxing Form or Qigong are brushed away with the reasoning that I should put in more time on the basics first. I can see their point. Who am I that with my inferior kung fu I can expect to jump to the top of the ladder without paying my dues? How far can I and should I push the system in the name of this "kung fu tourism?"
As I said, I never intended to come here for the long haul, but as I write I realize I've never been fitter, that I now acquire new forms much more rapidly, and that with every move and technique that I learn, I gain a little more insight into how all these abstract movements fit together into something more than the sum of their parts. "You can't always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you just might find you get what you need."
Written by John Greenhow for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM