In central China, martial arts tourism is all the rage, Simon Rowe discovers as he opts for a crash course
BETTER to sweat in practice than to bleed in battle. So goes an old kung-fu saying. And at the Shi de Cheng School of Shaolin Kung Fu, a modest-looking martial arts academy at the foot of Mt Song in central China’s Henan province, sweat is guaranteed.
For 10 days, I rise at 5am to a reveille of opera music croaking from an old Tannoy system and join a torrent of sleepy-eyed teenagers as they pour from warm dorm beds into the chilly streets for the ritual race up Mt Song. This is the day’s first task for the 40 Chinese and six foreign students who have committed themselves to an unwavering routine of eating, sleeping and doing kung-fu for as long as they can take it.
No one slacks off or drops out. And all through the long, hot day of gruelling calisthenics, basic fighting stances and kicking techniques, nobody complains. Doing so would not be showing the true spirit of kungfu, or gong-fu, which means perfection through hard work.
Former Shaolin monk and master Shi de Cheng encourages any students who show signs of wilting by telling them to go slower. Even those of reasonable fitness, such as me, find the learning process a slow and painful one. Always jovial, and usually attired in the loose pants and slippers of a temple monk, Shi de Cheng knows well the limits of human pain tolerance. He has studied wushu, or Chinese martial arts, since the age of six and at 16 entered Shaolin Temple, where he immersed himself in a curriculum of Buddhist scripture study and meditation, vegetarianism and rigorous kung-fu training.
Shi de Cheng’s school sits on a quiet treelined street in Dengfeng, a rural service town 8km from Shaolin Temple, the oft-lauded birthplace of kung-fu. One of the world’s oldest fighting arts, Shaolin kung-fu is said to comprise more than 3000 techniques, but Shi de Cheng doesn’t overload his newcomers. He starts them on 18 basic stances that form the basis of the Songyang gong-fu, or long-fist style kung-fu, which he teaches.
One might ask why, in a country brimming with exotic locations, sumptuous food and comfortable hotels, would anyone choose a holiday of hardship?
‘‘ This is a chance to learn an ancient fighting art at the source, which in this case is a former Shaolin monk. He’s the real deal,’’ says American Jesse Pasely, a Japan-based English instructor who visits Shi de Cheng’s school to train each year and enjoys the cultural exchange with local students. For the Chinese students, the reasons are more ambitious: many aspire to working as stuntmen in the burgeoning Chinese and Hong Kong action film industries, or as professional performers or bodyguards.
It is pure curiosity that leads me to travel the 14 hours by overnight train from Shanghai to sign up for this 10-day taste of authentic kung-fu lifestyle. On arrival, I am given a set of loose training pants and T-shirts, toiletries and slippers, and shown to my quarters in a rustic former hotel.
Rooms are spartan, shower facilities basic, and everywhere there are signs that its youthful residents eat, sleep, and breathe nothing but kung-fu; the lobby wall is pockmarked by throwing needles, improvised barbells litter the passageways, and the 2m-high rubber shoe prints on the walls are evidence of what students do on rainy days.
The daily pre-dawn race up Mount Song is not compulsory for foreign students (my French roommate has trouble raising an eyelid before 7am), but making the early morning line-up impresses Shi de Cheng’s committed young instructors. Stretching and strength-building exercises follow the uphill jog but after doing a handstand against a wall, which turns my face the colour of a tomato, I decide my stamina (and sanity) might already be ready to pack their bags for the journey back to Shanghai.
And this is just the warm-up. After a brief but fortifying breakfast, we begin the twohour morning class. Each day I discover a new muscle as we execute high kicks, turkey-walk, bunny-hop, cartwheel down the street and take a partner to do wheelbarrow-style pushes and pulls up and down the footpath.
To the bemusement of many foreign students, training takes place not in a hall or gymnasium but on the street outside the hotel and office. A row of plane trees provides precious shade and outdoors training cer- tainly has its benefits: the dry winds blowing from the Gobi desert offer cool respite from the heat and the delicious aromas of the dumpling shop and passing watermelon vendors are a welcome diversion from our exhausting drills.
These melon sellers — along with chainsmoking grandfathers, mothers pushing babies and buses filled with commuters — take great interest in the foreigners attempting tornado kicks and emulating a praying mantis up and down their footpaths. I feel like passing a hat around for the free spectacle I am providing.
The afternoon training session follows a similar pattern to the morning routine and finishes at about 6pm, when dinner is served.
One aspect of Shi de Cheng’s school that receives few complaints is the food. A small kitchen behind the office creates delicious and highly nutritious daily menus of vegetables, river fish or chicken, rice and tofu dishes.
Evenings are given over to joining local students for tai chi, wooden staff and nunchaku practice on the street, or taking a stroll downtown for an ice-cream or a game at one of the dozens of open-air pool halls lining Dengfeng’s streets.
Because of its proximity to Shaolin Temple, and in some degree as a result of the success of movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and KungFuHustle, martial arts has become big business in Dengfeng, attracting movie-star hopefuls and entrepreneurs alike. An estimated 50 or so schools offer tuition in kung-fu, Chinese boxing and taekwondo, and many of them accept foreign students for about $US40 ($45) a day, including meals, lodgings and instruction. Training gear is supplied and rubber-soled kung-fu shoes can be bought cheaply at Dengfeng’s martial arts stores. (Liniments, supporters, extra socks and isotonic drinks are a good idea.)
A conservative estimate puts the number of students in Dengfeng at about 60,000, which means that Sunday, the official holiday for most schools, is the most hectic day of the week in downtown Dengfeng. Pool parlours and basketball courts are clogged, supermarkets get jammed and the post office overflows with youngsters drawing on remittances sent by their parents.
Yet what do these kids, who spend their entire week kicking the sky, want to do on their only day off? Play kung-fu computer games at one of the city’s ubiquitous internet cafes, of course.
Dengfeng is 63km southwest of Zhengzhou city in Henan province. Overnight trains from Shanghai to Zhengzhou city (14 hours) are $71.60 for comfortable sleeper class. Trains also run daily from Beijing (12 hours). Buses to Dengfeng depart several times daily from Zhengzhou from the longdistance bus terminal opposite the station.
Kick off: Pavement tuition at the Shi de Cheng school of martial arts in Dengfeng