From Bagua to Back Flips
A shrill ring wrests me from my sleep. I feel around for the alarm’s reset button as my eyes digest the scene: a sparse dormitory room with two wooden beds, two compact nightstands and a door-sized window filling the room with unwanted early-morning sunlight. It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m wondering if the pounding in my temples is due to sleep deprivation or the merciless July heat. Already, beads of sweat run down my arms and neck.
At 6 a.m., my roommate, Marie, and I stumble out into the courtyard. The 30-odd students of the school have already assembled on the steps outside. Some rub sand out of their eyes. Some stare stoically at the ground. Silence pervades. Suddenly, a whistle pierces the morning air. The formerly inanimate students spring to their feet and form five lines. Confused, I follow the girl in front of me, stand beside her and wait. The five “shifu,” or masters, emerge from the dormitory building and stand facing us. In one movement, the students bow. The masters return the gesture and point at the red-gated entrance. Instantly, the students turn and head toward the pond just outside the school’s perimeter.
“What are we doing?” I whisper to Stephanie, the girl who I’ve been following around like an abandoned puppy.
“It’s time to run,” she says.
“Then, why is everybody walking?”
“Because it’s 6 a.m. And we’re gonna do this three more times today.”
For one month, I have given myself over to a training program at the Qufu Shaolin Kung fu School. The birthplace of Confucius, Qufu is in the southeast of China and the school is located in the greenery of the Shimen Mountain National Park area. While the school aims to teach Shaolin kung fu, the monks are also trained in “wing chun” (a fast-paced southern form of kung fu), “sanda” (Chinese kick-boxing), “bagua” (a martial art featuring palm tricks) and other styles.
A taxi ride takes me through the small but impressive downtown core of Qufu, filled with souvenir hawkers, tourists visiting Confucian sites and blocky department stores. We fly over potholes and cracked roads. Eventually, the noise and traffic of the downtown area give way to a tree-lined, one-lane road and the quiet of rural Qufu. Few cars pass us on this final stretch. A man walks along the side of the road pushing a fully laden wheelbarrow. A young woman rides a scooter just ahead of us until my driver passes her with a swerve to the left and a blaring of the taxi’s deafening horn. I arrive at the school on a humid July evening, exhausted and disheveled, but excited to begin training.
The students at the school come from all different walks of life, with little in common save for an interest in kung fu. Some have trained in martial arts for years before coming to China and hope to open schools in their home countries, while others have never attempted extreme physical activity (Marie jokes that she thought exercise was simply “eating less cake”). There are also several teenagers training for the summer before heading back to high school, and there are a few in their mid-40s, having left their jobs and homes to push themselves to their mental and physical limits in culturally alien lands.
Christophe, a 32-year-old Belgian investment banker, has signed up for the training program to get in better shape. He admits that the main reason he came here is because he wants to “get fit … The kung fu was only secondary.” It becomes apparent he is achieving his goal. He is usually at the head of his group during running sessions and power training, a class focusing on building strength and endurance. He also frequently does pull-ups and planks on his own after the day’s training has ended.
In contrast, his roommate Craig, who intends to stay for at least a year, is primarily interested in the kung fu training. A wholesale foods store manager from Glasgow, Craig developed a passion for kung fu years earlier. He worked several jobs after finishing university to save up for the tuition fee. While training at the school, Craig also studies Mandarin, watches kung fu films zealously and wants to specialize in wing chun. Craig hopes to make it in Hong Kong or China as a martial arts filmmaker. He came to this school because he felt that “no amount of training back home in, shall we say, ‘lesser’ establishments could … offer me the amount of time and the facilities that I would need to become very professional very quickly.”
Training at the school isn’t easy. I speak with Laura, a 23-year-old American from Colorado Springs, after a particularly grueling power-training class. We had spent the first 45 minutes of the class jogging up Shimen Mountain, where we then did a series of exhausting exercises: bear crawls, leap frogs, sprints and push-ups. The high-intensity calisthenics are not overly challenging for Laura, a prospective U.S. Marine Corps commissioned officer. She recalls, however, how frustrated and demoralized she felt during her second week at the school, after she broke her foot. While other students were training hard, Laura was relegated to yoga and stretching — she even contemplated returning home to get medical care for her injury. She did recover in time, but she laments her “up-and-down progress.” Students arriving months after her are now at the same level in their training.
I also experience my own frustrations. After repeatedly struggling to learn a new form from my master, I burst into tears one class. It is completely irrational; I can’t explain why this day is my breaking point. It is likely due to several factors: the unforgiving heat, my physical and mental exhaustion, the fact that other students appear to instantly master the choreography. My master and the translator console me afterward and offer words of praise. This isn’t what I want, though. I want to perform the movements with the liquid grace of my master. I want to be unaffected by fatigue and sore muscles. What I want is unattainable — perfection.
One night, a few of the students organize an informal dance party. To the bemusement of the staff, they connect speakers to a Mac and drag the equipment out onto the courtyard. As an ersatz DJ plays Icona Pop, Kanye West and Far East Movement, two of the masters come out to watch. One looks entertained and the other repulsed at the sight of their normally serious students bouncing, pop-and-locking and pirouetting to foreign club hits.
The friendships at the school may seem superficial. After all, many students are only here for the short-term and most are speaking in their second or third language. At the same time, however, I find that a special bond — one that transcends linguistic and cultural barriers — is formed between two people after they both cause each other excruciating amounts of pain. In one class, we are required to apply pressure to our partners while they do the splits. In another, we punch and kick each other to strengthen our muscles and harden our senses. In a normal scenario, a person who engages in acts of violence on a regular basis would most certainly be dumped by his or her peers. But at the kung fu school, this is something that the students bond over and laugh about later. “I think my absolute favorite part is probably the people here,” Laura says. “Just because, you know, we’re randomly attacking each other all the time.”
We are lined up in front of a row of tattered, off-white mattresses, waiting for our turn during jumps and rolls class. Master Shi Yan Shuai has watched the first few students do cartwheels across the mats; some are near-perfect exemplars of acrobatic finesse. Others are lopsided gymnastic disasters.
Suddenly, the master cuts in front of a student and stares us down.
“Okay,” he shouts. “Like this.”
With that, he takes off down the carpeted runway, does two aerial cartwheels and catapults his body high in the air for a perfect back flip. His feet land firmly on the ground and he looks up at his stunned audience.
“Now you… go!”
The student at the front of the line pauses, then takes off running, but only attempts a one-handed cartwheel. I slink to the back of the line, hoping nobody will notice my cowardly exit. The only way I will be able to do an aerial cartwheel is if someone picks me up and throws me. While jumps and rolls class is my favorite class, there are limits to what a new trainee with back problems and a fear of falling can do.
I am a kung fu student for just a short month. During that time, I train with people from all over the world — Tunisia, Colombia, Norway, Ireland, New Zealand. I sympathize as some of them suffer from food poisoning, heat stroke, injuries and utter physical exhaustion. I hear — and relate to — their expressions of defeat, of frustration at failing the demands of the masters and the intensity of the training.
I also notice students using their free time to help new arrivals with their first forms, patiently demonstrating to them the unfamiliar movements. I see them on the ground, arms shaking and faces pouring with sweat, as they determinedly finish their third set of push-ups in 40 degree Celsius heat. And I hear the words of encouragement, often for me, as the more experienced attempt to boost the morale of the newbies:
“You’re doing really well. It took me almost a month to learn that form.”
“Really? You don’t have any gymnastics training? But you’re so flexible.”
“Don’t worry, the first month is always the hardest…”
Not everyone can drop 5,000 U.S. dollars in tuition fees for a year-long stay at a Shaolin Kung Fu School. And many may not want to pay to spend five to six hours a day actively training, live with forty others in a dorm and possibly break a limb or two. But those who choose to do so find themselves among a rare group of people who are willing to push themselves to their mental and physical limits — all while living in a foreign country, eating unfamiliar food at every meal and perhaps not ever speaking their native language. And once at the school, all are welcomed into a community of determined, independent and passionate martial arts aficionados. They develop their flexibility and strength, and they learn to understand one of the oldest and most respected fighting styles in the world.
One day, despite the many trials, I may go back to the Qufu Shaolin Kung Fu School. And if I do, you won’t ever find me sneaking to the back of the line again to avoid a challenge.
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