FYI: There are lots of words in this post.
We hadn’t originally planned on coming to China, but had gotten bored of Australia a bit early and decided why not, since we were headed to Europe and China was on the way, so to speak. I had been bugging Allison about going to kung fu school since FOREVER, so we decided to try that out first. We picked Middle Kingdom Traditional Kung Fu School, based mainly on the fact that they had a comprehensive English website.
Our flight into Shanghai arrived a bit late so we spent our first few hours rushing around instead of marvelling at the fact that we were in China. From the airport we took the Shanghai Metro to the Hongqiao Railway Station, where we were going to catch the high speed train to Tai’an. The metro was surprisingly unbusy (maybe because it was 7AM on a Saturday), but Shanghai is huge, so it still took us about an hour and a half to make it to the railway station. Fortunately there was enough English on the signs in the train station for us to figure out how to get our tickets and find the platform. We grabbed a quick lunch and marvelled at the numbers of people at the railway station before getting on our nice quiet, clean high speed train to Tai’an.
Three and a half hours later, we made it to Tai’an and were greeted by Derham and Lee, the translators for the school. We waited a little bit for another student, James from Scotland, before driving to the school, which is about 45 minutes from Tai’an and near the village of Huangqian. We made it!
In the morning we found a sweet little baby praying mantis in our room. Maybe that is auspicious? We had arrived on the weekend so we had a day to get settled before training started. At breakfast we met a whole bunch of other students who gave us the low-down on how things work at the school. Everyone described the styles they were taking and why they had chosen them; this basically confirmed Allison’s desire to do Shaolin and my plan to do Wing Chun.
The students at the school were a varied and every-changing bunch. Over the course of our month’s stay we met people from the US, Mexico, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Pakistan, South Africa, China, and Australia. There was always quite the mishmash of accents around. People ranged in age from 17 to 60+, and stayed for half a day to years (the guy who stayed for half a day may have been a ghost, he came and vanished so quickly).
There were a lot of interesting characters at the school; Allison’s theory is that people who choose to go to China to train at a full time kung school for fun are probably not your average boring people. We basically encountered everyone we expected to at a place like this: backpackers stopping by while on big trips (i.e. us), students here while on a gap year or summer vacation, hard core martial artists and fitness buffs looking to up their game, barefoot hippies wandering the world, expats in China trying out something new, and reformed druggies and divorcees wanting to escape life for a bit and make lifestyle changes. There were some pretty quirky personalities and cut bodies in the group.
Having got a more proper tour, we also went and checked out the nearby village, which consisted of a variety of small houses made out of a variety of materials. There were several dogs that we made friends with during our stay. Two little puppies lived at a house along our route to the shops, so we’d always look for them. We called one “Gangsta Puppy” because he was very brave for someone so tiny. When we would go to the stores after classes, most people would be out, sitting on little stools and chatting or smoking. At a small park, children would run around and on certain days women would put on music and do some hilarious line dance-type dancing.
There were two stores that we would always go to about a 15 minute walk from the school. One was called the “Snickers Shop” by the students because it sold Snickers bars. We’d go there sometimes daily for a cold drink and maybe (or in Allison’s case, always and sometimes twice) an ice cream or popsicle. It was run by a cute family that we pretty much made best friends with because we visited so often. The other store sold a larger variety of snacks and some beer (although the beer ranged from 0.05% to 3.2% so it was hardly beer). The best day was when we discovered that the cost of a popsicle and a beer was 3 yuan, about 0.60 CAD. Allison was pretty stoked that (unlike in Australia) she could eat popsicles without (monetary) guilt here. There was also a random vending machine that sold sex toys between the two shops. Because why not.
The daily schedule for life at the school was as follows:
At 6:30am every morning everyone would assemble in the main courtyard. If you were late (or late for any assembly) you were supposed to do pushups, but this was variably enforced. Once the masters had determined who was present and where any missing students were, we’d do a quick warm up consisting of some light stretches. Then everyone would break up into different groups to learn/practice Tai Chi. Master Wong taught Chen style Tai Chi but the form was long (and he was a perfectionist) so we quickly learned that his class would be a poor choice for our month. Master He taught Wudang style Tai Chi, but again it was a quite involved and a longer form. So, we decided to join Master Song’s class – the ever popular Yang style short form.
Master Song was interesting; he was on the Shaolin performance team previously and still quite young (early 20s). However, he took Tai Chi very seriously. We’d often start our class by being told to look at the garden and “breathe” or “relax”. Whenever he performed the form he would have a steely far away look in his eyes. Turns out we were actually not terrible at Tai Chi so it wasn’t a bad start to the day, although having to do deep lunges early in the morning wasn’t the best. I think I was actually the top student up until the part where flexibility came into play; James thought it was because I’m the laziest (or most efficient), which works quite well with Tai Chi because the others were constantly being told to go slower and be less “bouncy”.
After an hour of Tai Chi training we’d have breakfast. Breakfast usually consisted of rice, hard boiled eggs, chopped cucumber, and sometimes buns or noodles. After breakfast we had around half an hour to get ready before reassembling at 8:30am. This usually meant we’d laze around a bit and clean our room. The school would occasionally check people’s rooms to make sure they were fairly clean. Also woe to you if you left your fan on in your room – chances are it would be confiscated for 3 days.
When we reassembled at 8:30AM we’d again do a quick light stretching warm up and then go for a short jog along a road that bordered the school and looped back into the back gate. Most newbies would run it pretty hard, but as we progressed throughout our month, I think we ran it a bit slower. James and I (having quickly become training partners since we arrived on the same day) were also told that we were “too lazy” at one point so had to run it twice.
Then there’d be another half hour of stretching. For Shaolin kung fu, there are quite a few high kicks and deep knee bends, so flexibility is essential. Everyone was in charge of their own stretching, but every once in awhile a master would take a special interest in a student, leading to painful results.
Then for the rest of the morning was training. I studied Wing Chun with Master Wong and Allison studied Shaolin with Master He and Master Song.
Master Wong has studied Jeet Kun Do for about 12 years and Wing Chun (Ip Man style) for about 10 years. Jeet Kun Do is the martial art that Bruce Lee devised after studying Wing Chun and combining it with many other styles including Judo and western boxing. Ip (or Yip) Man was a famous Wing Chun master that taught Bruce Lee in Hong Kong and is the most well known Wing Chun practitioner. Several hit movies starring Donnie Yen have been made fictionalizing his life, we may have watched all of these on multiple occasions.
Master Wong didn’t speak a lot of English, but managed to get by with a few choice words and body language. He also seemed to subscribe to a self discovery type approach to learning. Often he would demonstrate a drill and the person he was demoing with would get hit several times until they understood to block the strike. James and I started to dread asking questions a little because the answer would often be painful. A question of “but what if I do this?” usually was easily answered by a sharp strike or painful wrist lock.
Near the end of our stay a second Wing Chun instructor arrived at the school, Master Huang. Master Huang looked like a really unassuming guy, but apparently used to fight gangsters and the like for money/training. Turns out this is how they tell if you’re ready to progress to the next level; no coloured belt system here.
Master Song led the Shaolin morning workout, which was done alongside the Sanda students. Master Song didn’t speak much English, although he was learning from another Chinese-Swedish student who spoke both Mandarin and English. He knew the key phrases, which were basically “look at me”, “lower”, “faster”, and “more power”. Master Song was both very intense and kind of innocent at the same time, I think this is a result of growing up studying kung fu in a monastery. He liked to play loud pop music during training, which was more that alright with Allison. Despite previously being a performer he didn’t seem to like to perform routines for us too much, but when he did it was pretty epic. He showed us a rope dart form and a double broadsword form while we were there.
The Shaolin morning workout consisted of a lot of jumping and kicking, sometimes also including cartwheels and pulling the dreaded tire around. The Shaolin kicks were difficult but fun; Allison was positive that sometimes Master Song gave hard ones to do just so he could watch everyone flail around for a bit and then show off by doing 16 perfect ones in a row.
For Shaolin, the rest of the day was spent working on fist and weapon forms with Master He. Hilariously, due to Allison being Chinese they thought she must have some kind of innate kung fu skill and she was taught at twice the pace of the rest of the students, learning 7 forms in a month when most people only learn about 3. Not sure if that innate skill really manifested, but she got to learn both the staff and broadsword where most people only get to choose one, and was pretty proud of herself.
Master He was nothing if not a character. He looked like a friendly Chinese uncle and was often grinning, humming, and watching funny videos on his phone. However, when he play fought someone, he’d turn into some kind of rabid dog or monkey, making guttural throat noises and hitting them with pretty much everything. Master He didn’t speak any English, so he was usually followed around by a translator, or if not communicated using gestures.
He also was conspicuously practicing hard Qi-gong almost constantly. Hard Qi-gong is a technique for hardening the body. It focuses around breathing, contracting your muscles, and focusing your qi of course, but essentially involves hitting yourself with things. Over time, pain is reduced (because your nerves are deadened) and bone is thickened and strengthened. Master He liked to slap or punch rocks, sit and hit his shin with stones, kick metal poles, bang his head against walls, hit his rear end against trees, etc. There was a small wheel with a thick nail sticking out of it under a bench at the school. Reportedly he used this to perform headstands, being perfectly suspended with no hands on the ground.
James and I took one hard Qi-gong class with Master He and quickly decided that we never needed to do that again. Allison says we probably didn’t “focus our qi” enough, but I’m pretty sure that banging your hand on a bag of rocks hurts no matter where you qi is. There was another student practicing hard Qi-gong successfully with Master He, so apparently it is possible if you get past the initial learning curve.
Lunch time was a 3 hour break from 11:30am to 2:30pm, which generally consisted of eating some chicken, rice, and vegetables, and then taking a nap. Afternoon training went from 2:30pm to 6pm, and was pretty similar to the morning, although the last hour was free training, so a lot of standing around and chatting tended to happen then. Dinner of more chicken, rice, and vegetables (and occasionally delicious buns and bread) was at 6:30pm, and this was usually followed by our nightly cold drink and popsicle walk to the village. As the days progressed Allison became progressively less disciplined and also started buying cookies and candies at the shop.
On the weekends, students would often share a taxi into Tai’an. Tai’an is not a particularly big or well-known city by Chinese standards, but it has a population of about 5 million, which is pretty huge by our Canadian standards.
Here, we could indulge in McDonalds or Pizza Hut, perhaps grab a tension relieving massage (also some students found some massages could have bonus endings added, depending on the venue), and get groceries and snacks. Due to every student learning from other students where to go, it seemed everyone went to a kilometre long stretch in town. There in the centre of the stretch was the flagship student hangout – Caffe Bene. Caffe Bene is one of a chain of upscale coffee shops from South Korea. It’s fancy and pretty expensive compared to local food and drink, but it’s a place you can get a good, real coffee, sit in air conditioning, and perhaps get a toastie, gelato or the famous bingsu. A bingsu is a large (two person) desert they serve, which consists of shaved ice, ice cream, and various toppings like fresh fruit, coffee, green tea, red bean, etc. Allison was addicted and it quickly became our weekend treat.
The other vice of many of the students was TaoBao. TaoBao is a Chinese online shopping website where you can buy pretty much anything for super cheap. Basically our entire school had kung fu shoes from TaoBao. The site is entirely in Chinese so shopping required the help of one of the translators. Fortunately Derham was all over TaoBao; he said he hadn’t bought anything from a real store in 6 years and was constantly trying to convince us to get into the overseas warehouse business and start TaoBao branches in other countries. He may have had ulterior motives but he did help us buy some nice stuff. Derham also occasionally paid us (in yuan, cookies, and soft drinks) to transcribe English audio for him. This may have been for dubious purposes so we didn’t ask what it was for, as Allison really liked the cookies.
The other translator, Lee, was a bit more practical and often drove to the village on his electric scooter and brought us popsicles while training, which was the highlight of any day. Lee also taught Chinese classes in the evening, which we attended a couple times before becoming too lazy.
About halfway through the month the school brought in two more translators, Sarah and Emily, who were both university students studying English. There was initially a bit of a competition for attention amongst some of the male students, before they realized that none of them could compete with Master Song and his high kicks
In general the atmosphere at the school was pretty relaxed, what with all the mountains and trees around. Two exceptions were when a TV crew came to film the school for a spot on local TV, and when a bunch of people from the sports bureau came to look at the school. Then suddenly all the masters were in full kung fu suits and everyone was running and jumping around crazily.
The other bit of excitement came during our third week. There was news of torrential rain causing floods around China, and we awoke one day to find a foot of water all around our chalet and all the ponds at the school flooded.
Ironically the flood meant we had no running water, and we spent a day wading too and from training before the river rose some more, washing away one of the dorm rooms, and they moved us all to a nearby hotel. This was pretty exciting because the hotel had air conditioning and real mattresses (the ones at the school had basically been an inch thick and made of straw or something). On the downside, the hotel parking lot was a less optimal of a training ground, and it was a longer walk to the Snickers shop. But we made it work. We ended up staying out the rest of our month at the hotel, which was alright by us since moving our stuff had become pretty difficult due to all the TaoBao purchases.
The month went by surprisingly quickly once getting past the initial sore muscles, and we left feeling pretty fit!