Shaolin, The Kingdom of Kung Fu
"Let's see your Tiger-Crane style match my Eagle's Claw!"
Ah, the immortal words of dueling Shaolin warriors. Though dialog like this is mainly the stuff of low-budget Hong Kong movies, there is in fact a place where such challenges are still uttered. Not to the death, of course, but between students at Shaolin Si, China's most famous Kung Fu temple.
Located atop the western peak of the sacred Song Shan Mountain in northern Henan province, 800 year-old Shaolin Si has been destroyed and rebuilt time and again, weathering attacks by emperors, warlords, cultural revolutions, and now its most reoccurring invaders - the modern tour group.
In fact, not until the advent of the 1970s Kung Fu movie craze and the popular 1982 film "Shaolin Temple," did annual tourism perform a CGI-like leap from 200,000 to 2 million, prompting the Chinese government to list the temple as a protected heritage site.
But while the venerable temple gates see an almost endless stream of tourists wishing to get a glimpse of a real-life Shaolin monk and take in a demonstration performance, a more permanent residence of Kung Fu enthusiasts exists in the outlying hillsides.
These are the sons and daughters of Shaolin, young students who have given up secular life for a strict regimen and forsaken conventional curriculum for physical conditioning. At Shaolin Si, the sword is truly mightier than the pen.
Kung Fu (Gungfu in Mandarin) was originally a Chan Buddhist practice with the dual purpose of purifying the soul and building strength through Zen spiritual doctrine and martial arts.
Shaolin priests complimented their monastic ways by harnessing their life force with meditation and releasing this energy, or Qi, through practical offense and defense maneuvers, something traditionalists complain has been diluted over the centuries for the thrill of competition and the vanity of exhibition.
Opening up the temple to outsiders began in the mid-16th century, whence military officers of the Ming Dynasty court attended Shaolin to study the monks' unique fighting techniques. Resultingly, today's Kung Fu schools have become big business.
The oldest and perhaps most visible school, the Wushu Institute at Tagou, is at the front entrance of Shaolin Si itself. One mountain may have no space for two tigers, says the old Chinese proverb, but the privately-run Tagou boasts over ten thousand! The courtyard is at any given moment a killer-bee swarm of students of all ages deftly demonstrating the fluid movement of forms, gravity-defying aerial assaults, an arsenal of weapons techniques and the brute force of striking and grappling.
As it does not seem likely that the People's Republic will have future need to employ martial monks to defend the country from Wokou raiders as it did in the old days, Kung Fu students of the new millennium will eventually end up common businessmen (with a hell of a roundhouse), some will become police officers, and the bottom percentile relegated to rent-a-cop.
But in all their fearless eyes is that youthfully high hope; the desire to become the next Jet Li, China's "national treasure" who attended a Kung Fu training school from age 8 and went on to become a five-time Wushu champion and silver screen sensation.
But is real life at a Kung Fu school as glamorous as its on-screen personification?
A few kilometers away from Shaolin Si against the placid waters of Song Shan reservoir, the 11 year-old Shuiku Martial Arts School, with only 200 students, may be dwarfed in both size and reputation by its estimable red-suited rival, but the daily drill is virtually the same.
Whilst the rest of the working world operates on a 9-5 schedule, life at Shaolin Shuiku is literally backwards, from 5am to 9pm. In the blue light of dawn, barking instructors rouse their respective teams for a run in the brisk morning mountain air as Chinese patriot songs echo into the surrounding mountain range.
Stretching, sprinting, fist pushups and other exertive exercises to forge their young bodies into steel take place beneath the rising sun, the packed-earth schoolyard a veritable army of green-uniformed students lined up in formation. A quick cafeteria breakfast is followed by two hours of requisite textbook classes including Chinese, Math and perfunctory English.
Before lunch and then into the evening is the fun stuff - basics, forms, applications and weapons - components of the external (Shaolin) and Wudang, or internal, styles of Kung Fu training. Most can be rudimentarily learned in a matter of years, but take a lifetime to perfect.
Forms, which are actual fighting techniques with the appearance of a choreographed dance, are the most elegant. The animal styles, for example, involve strength, speed and psychology; the Tiger for external force and a strong attack, the softer Crane style for patience and concentration, and so on down the animal kingdom.
For the less graceful student, competitive Sanda sparring more resembles street fighting than poise, whereby the biggest and bravest don protective gear and launch into each other with fists of fury under the corrective eye of their shifu.
Led not by a wizened Master Po, a cruel Pei Mei or any such mythical elder with long white eyebrows, today's Shaolin shifu (master) are young, burly and surly, some fresh out of Kung Fu school and quick to take a bamboo cane to the backsides of their junior trainees.
In the dark chill of night, the spent students finally retire to their dorm rooms for a semi-normal albeit brief adolescent life - reading comics, watching movies, or, most precious, sleep. The boys share up to ten bunks per room, which look, and smell, accordingly.
Conversely, there are only 7 girls at Shuiku, though none admit feeling uncomfortable around the pubescent testosterone of so many "brothers." With narrow eyes and long, silky black hair, Feng Jing Jing of Shanxi has been a Shaolin student for one year and plans at least another four.
Despite her quiet demeanor, the 17 year-old novice shares a tempered conceit with the rest of her male and female classmates, disdaining an ordinary teenage life of classrooms and tests. "Kung Fu is much easier than English," Feng Jing Jing asserts while slashing a broadsword in the air with lethal precision.
And what of the parents who are paying for these classes? For them, Kung Fu is an alternative investment into their child's future. And the earlier they begin, the larger the payoff - they hope.
Cao Xu, 7, who likes doing cartwheels instead of walking, doesn't seem to mind being away from his mother and father back in Shanghai. Nevertheless, their adult ambitions have obviously been instilled in this little grasshopper's mind: "I want to be a hero...and earn lots of money!"
Demonstrated by its box-office strength in the western world, the Shaolin lifestyle isn't only popular with Chinese. 20 year-old Felix Klemisch studied martial arts in his native Germany for four years before hopping on a China-bound plane to pursue his affinity for Kung Fu.
And towering over every other student and trainer at Shuiku is the 190cm Stephan Beck, the school's foreign veteran with a combined 9 months between two Shaolin schools (he quit the first school after making him stare into the sun for ten minutes a day "to build up [his] Qi"). Also 20 and from Germany, Stephan defies height, gravity and conventions, often training alone while the Chinese students are in group formation.
The two young Europeans confide that communication is a bigger obstacle than the physical ones, and were practically forced to learn rudimentary Chinese to understand their trainers. "We had no choice," says blonde Felix in heavily accented English. "It was either grasp basic Mandarin or get left behind."
Neither is sure of what they want to do when they go home and admit the possibility of drifting their way back to Shaolin. In the meantime, shaved-headed Stephan is looking forward to getting away from Song Shan for an upcoming respite in Beijing.
So which will he do first, a climb on the Great Wall? Shopping at Silk Market? "Find a Chinese girlfriend," he decrees with Shaolin bombast. "I've been on top of this mountain too long!"
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Tom Carter of San Francisco is an internationally published freelance photographer and travel writer specializing in the People's Republic of China. Tom has traveled extensively throughout all 33 Chinese provinces and autonomous regions and currently resides in Beijing.
This article originally appeared in an April 2007 edition of Escape magazine.
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Shuttle busses to Shaolin Si depart hourly from Zhengzhou City in Henan, 2 hours, 10RMB. You might have to change busses in Dengfeng City depending on the route. Entrance tickets into the temple cost 40 RMB, including a half-hour Kung Fu stage performance.
There are over 100 privately run Kung Fu schools of varying standards and prices in the county. Tuition at Shuiku Martial Arts School, including training, room and board, costs 2000 RMB per year for Chinese nationals or 2000 RMB (approximately US$250) per month for foreigners. www.slkf.net (website currently in Chinese only) , email@example.com, +86 (0) 371-6287-8171.
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Published on 5/6/07