In cen­tral China, mar­tial arts tourism is all the rage, Si­mon Rowe dis­cov­ers as he opts for a crash course

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.


Pic­ture: Si­mon Rowe

Kick off: Pave­ment tu­ition at the Shi de Cheng school of mar­tial arts in Dengfeng

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