Visit of the Shaolin temple is definitely worth it. But the less you know, the more you will like it. Otherwise, you would not see the amazing kung fu shows on every corner, monks crossing your path in the temple or the dedication of the number of schools around. You would probably see hundreds and thousands of Chinese children, in dirty cloth of the same red color, doing the same movements. Occasionally, you would see a coach, with not a very fit figure, holding his student on a ground in some painful stretching pose, meanwhile checking his phone. You would also see many kids with very poor basics, such as rising their heels when they are not supposed to, and no one corrects them. They will spend years in the school, maybe without winning any competition and therefore a place in some performing team, or a job among coaches. Only a fraction of them will, and that is enough here.
In Shaolin, or rather in Deng Feng (the town nearby) I was going to visit three schools. All of them said they are traditional wushu schools. It turned out I was not so much welcomed in one of them, because “the kung fu students are not friendly to visitors” and “they are now busy training for a movie cast”. It is not necessary to note that I was not very unhappy that I have to skip this one.
My path then lead to a school called The Shaolin Wugulun Kung Fu Academy, a school focusing on the Xin Yi Ba style. The taxi failed to find the school, so they had to come down to a main road to pick me up. Basically there is no road going there, it is a small dusty path going up to the hills. Then you arrive to the small number of buildings with a big gate; nothing else around. Hills on one side, mountains on the other. And it’s freezing.
They introduced me to a student I came for, who was Canadian, not European, how it turned out. Anyway, I decided to stay for a few days to explore this school. I was given a uniform; nothing like a sport tracksuit as in the schools down there in Deng Feng. Grey trousers and shirts with buttons, too short for my legs and too big for the top. 5.40 wake up, 5.50 clean up, 7.10 breakfast. Training in the morning and afternoon. Lights out at 9pm. Except for the one foreigner, there are only kids now. This is striking to my eyes, no adults. The coaches themselves are very young. The kids have additional hours of reading, prayers and classrooms. They live here and study, study kung fu and Zen (Chan).
The discipline is very strict. Before every specific time, the gong sounds. For the meals, everyone que up in lines, waiting up to 10 minutes outside before the coach in the front let you inside. No talking during the meal.
The food is awesome! Mainly vegetarian, but I definitely did not suffer from hunger. During the eating it was especially interesting for me to watch. Since it is not allowed to talk and the kids have to present their empty bowls to the coach, before they can go wash it, there is still a lot of communication going around. One boy knocks on the table in front of the other one sitting in front of him. He picks up something with his chopsticks, the other boy nods his head and takes it from him. They exchange food they don’t like, or even share soup, tissues, water. Without talking. After my initial suffering from mushrooms I also learned how to use this international language and got rid of them. Also, the tables need to stay clean. After the boys (and one girl) finish their meal, they carefully examine their spot and wipe away and drop of soup they would left.
Tissues are the main business commodity. The little guys (some as little as 7 years) use them for cleaning the tables and every time they have to rise up their hand during the training. “I need to go to the toilet!” they announce (or I suppose). They would go around and ask who is this time having some tissues in their pockets. After few days I understand fully. The room is cold and the shower is either, so I got cold and need lots of tissues for my running nose. The last day I found one more package of them, and that was the happiest moment of the day.
The practice is nothing you would imagine. The pace is very slow, like in tai ji. We spent literally dozens of minutes up to hours only standing in different stances. Or going slowly to an bow stance, focusing on every join and centimeter of the spine. Each of the trainings begins with a simple standing, focusing on the breath. “Breath, relax. Focus on spirit,” writes the coach into his phone translater to show me. Few of them speak English, surprisingly good one, and are ready to explain anything. Most of the time you would however find yourself in a solitude, cleaning the floor, standing in pose similar to the Zhan Zhuang Qi Gong, or reading. Because since the prayers and reading with kids are all in Chinese, there is a lot of free time beside the training.
It is not physically difficult, not in the terms you would feel exhausted. No stretch kicks, no running. But you would feel tired from the close examination of your body every time you try to move slowly. And the whole place may be challenging for somebody, not far away from my imaginations of a simple monk’s life.
When I arrived, master Wu Nanfang explained to me that they practice Zen kung fu. Where other schools focus only on the wushu aspects and already lost any Zen included in it, here they put it on the first place. And they use kung fu as the way for doing it. “But it is not like you would practice on a specific place during specific time. It is about practicing the whole time, it is the way of life. How you stand, how you walk, how you breathe.” Master cannot speak English; his eyes are sparkling while his student and coach translates. “So, it may look slow or not so beautiful, what we do here.” Interestingly, they would use the term “zen” instead of “chan”.
In the morning, it is still dark and boys slowly and covered in layers walk to the bathroom. It is a one room for everyone, without hot water. It is very cold. After they brush their teeth, they start to sweep the ground, or wash the floor. The smaller guys sweep the leaves and dust from the backyard, since it is easier for them then lift a bucket of water. Still, some of them are fighting with the broom, almost bigger than themselves.
Even when the practice is slow and sometimes boring (“it is very boring, I know”, said one of the teacher with smile) the kids don’t stop. The coaches serve as educators at the same time, taking care of them the whole day. They are not beaten; I saw only few punishments as jumping frogs up to stairs.
During one of the breaks I tear off a piece of grass and whistle on it. After a while, a dozen of kids are making a horrible noise, too. They are laughing so hard, and after every next funny sound they explode in laughter again. I think, the coaches did not like very much that moment…
One of them agrees to introduce the style on a camera, and you can see it in the coming video. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I saw Jet Li and the Shaolin temple on TV. It was all fast! Running and jumping, so fancy. So when I came here ten years ago, I was so surprised when master told me to just stand there, like a tree.” They also do some fighting, but only sometimes and among the older students, coaches, who are trained directly by the shifu. They don’t use protective gears. Students do some jumps, conditionings and short runs, too, but is very different to the approach of the other schools. “We are not wushu school.”
I was little bit disappointed I did not see any adult practitioners, because that is a good way how to judge the quality of the school and proof its lineage. However I saw only the kids staying there and their very young coaches. Hopefully, some adults who practice are in the village nearby.
Still in Dengfeng, I checked out the second school: The Xin Yi Ba Research Society. These two are supposed to practice the same style, however their approach is different. When you arrive you already see the kids wearing sport tracksuits and doing lots of stretch kicks and basics, very similar to every school around. One student there, a foreigner, told me that the parents expect the school to teach like this. They need this “wushu basics” and the depth of knowledge these kids get is not very deep. But there are always some “other”students, like himself, or adults I met, coming from China. They come to study directly with the shifu and are treated differently, what I heard.
After I watched the kids, I moved outside the walls of the school, to watch these students training. The master injured his neck recently, so he could not really perform during the practice. They were discussing some mechanical principles and power transition, which was very clearly different way of teaching than of those students inside the school. These adults then independently worked on their techniques, such as one movement, principle, meanwhile the kids on the other side of the wall kept going through their forms and jumping kicks.
Still, it was very cold. The European student told me, that during the winter it was -10˚C, and they kept practicing outside. That time, the school was closed but he was staying with the master and his family. While I was taking pictures, shifu walked through the children’s crowd to find his adult students, and he stopped by this European. He was practicing his own things, next to the kids. Shifu corrected his technique and showed him the usage, discussed something and watched him going through the corrections. After that, he continued on his way out the school. Meanwhile the kids followed their coaches, young energetic males in their 20s.
“This is my first experience with kung fu” the European said. “And it’s crazy. The kids here are using some simplified movements, but if you really want to understand, you have to spend three years only on the basics. And then, commit the whole life to it.”
After a cold week in Deng Feng I was looking forward to move back to south. I changed my plans and instead of going to Yangshuo, where I was in contact with one tai ji school, I went to Foshan. There I stayed with a friend who moved there from Europe, to live and practice. During my stay I also did my most crazy interview, on a taxi from Guangzhou to Foshan at 3am. Another thing I was looking forward was the fact that people would stop using the term “Shaolin temple” as a magic formula, especially when talking about the school’s history, but rather with skepticism. And so, I went to Foshan.