Sunday, January 30, 2011


Certainly I am not the only one who has come to Shaolin Temple because of the American TV series, Kung Fu. Others have heard the call of the temple's reputation and have written books about it. Before arriving at the temple, I met a Swiss martial arts student. He was studying at one of the innumerable kung fu schools in the area. Kung fu at Shaolin, he said, was "show kung fu." But I dismissed this as being boastful of his own school. I was, in all likelihood, wrong.

I made a mistake in signing up for two weeks. I should have paid for only a few hours a day, which is possible. Then my body would not have been so sore, and the afternoons would have been free for exploring the region. One week would have been enough for me.

The training is hardly rigorous. I hardly broke a sweat. Jogging ten laps around the pagoda may be a warm-up exercise, but that is all. Only once did the kids do push-ups. Only once did they stand on their hands (with a partner holding their legs.) Otherwise no strength training.

I had to snicker to myself when I first saw the kids perform. I hesitate in calling it a complete joke because I do not have a comparison, never having had martial arts training before. 
Master Li hardly does a thing. Occasionally he barks out a few commands or personally showed me how to place my body. Once he even delivered what seemed like a light hearted lecture to the group. But mostly I would characterize him as being absent. Not only when he was physically elsewhere, but even when he was there. If he had any continuous function it was to instill a sense of fear and discipline in the group. Otherwise, the pupils would just goof off.

Think long and hard about how long you want to train and pay for the shortest period possible. Do even one hour to see how it goes. Visit a master’s class to see what it is like before you shell out a sum you may regret.

The Kung Fu Show

The Kung Fu Show
Nine daily kung fu shows, all the same, are performed for the public. I saw one on the day I left Shaolin. If you have a ticket for 100 rmb, this show is included. If not, it is 20 rmb. Public announcements state that photography is prohibited, but this is not enforced. Much of the audience is flashing and snapping and videoing.

The show was a disappointment. Almost all of the show is with a solo performer on stage. I would much rather have seen mock combat between two fighters. Only a few moments was the stage occupied by several performers.

So what did the show consist of exactly? One young boy doing flex poses, putting both legs behind his head, for example. Another boy leaned his chest into two spears (what were the handles made of?) until the handles bent.

Most impressive was the feat one boy performed: he threw a needle through a pane of plastic, at least an eighth of an inch thick, popping a balloon on the other side, the needle remaining embedded in the plastic!

Day 9 - A Nod of Approval

An English boy, maybe 17 years old, was practicing when I arrived. I got there a bit later than usual because Hachik had said there was no training. I did my routine a few times. 
Later Master had me perform it. I did it flawlessly, at least as far as Master had no criticism. He smiled his reserved smile and nodded approval. 
I skipped the afternoon session because at 2 pm a rehearsal of the next day’s ceremony or such was to take place. I was there and saw it, but due to the police baracade and many people, I could not see much. But I dont think there was much to see. No flying acrobatics at least.

Day 8 - Cancelled

Today I spent all day negotiating my hotel registration form, needed to extend my visa. In China, without this form you cannot process your visa extension. But my hotel was not playing ball.
First, I had a meeting at 10 am. With the director of the hotel. That did not go well. He said that because I was not studying at his school, he could not issue me a registration form. Total bullshit.

So I went to the Shaolin police station, about 30 minute walk towards Dengfeng. I took a cab.

I was at the station about three hours, before one policewoman in uniform decided she could write English. Before that, the police man in charge brought as a translator the young man from the hotel who hates me. I refused to deal with him. I called the emergency number 110 dozens of times, but no one was able to help me. Incredible. Imagine if you have a real emergency! I saw a piece of paper on the desk in the office with my telephone number and hotel room number on it. My initial calls from the hotel went to that office. 
In any case, once the policewoman started writing English things began to move. She got on the phone and talked with the hotel, who exactly I don’t know. But the first deal was I could get a refund and move out the same day. But I wanted to stay until Sunday. Then the hotel said I could have a registration form. (Just like I said, total bullshit). I told the police officer I wanted to leave on Sunday and get a refund. 
And that is what happened. But for the time I lost, I won. You really never know what direction things will move in until you try.

Day 7 - Rain and Horseplay

A light rain fell in Shaolin. All of us kung fu students were present and punctual. But Master was a no-show. So a couple older boys practiced a bit with their spears, while the rest of us goofed off under the roofed area. I did a few repetitions of Shao Hang Chuan, sometimes barking „zoa!“ with other boys joining in. 
We took a few photos, many of the boys posing with me. Then it was time for a round of piggy-back jousting. By that time it was 10:30 and everyone called it quits for the morning session.

Day 6 - The Joys of Youth

We began the morning as always, 10 laps around the pagoda. I arrived late, just as the others had finished, so completed the rounds alone. Then I joined in the line of kicking drills, and continued with them when the others turned to jumping or set handsprings on the concrete pavilion.

While the bigger boys learned their huge spear? Routine, we six lower lifers did my routine. 30 times, was Master’s wish. But he let us off easy after about 20. I was able to keep up, mostly, except for the last five moves or so. One boy calls out the cadence and we all react. He even liked to fool us, watching us do the next step although he had not told us to with „zo!“ I don’t speak Chinese, but I guess what he said was, „I did not tell you to go ahead with the next step!“

The afternoon session began once again with laps. I ran with the boys and soon found a couple in need of tying their shoes – on the backside of the pagoda, out of view of the Master. Ah, the joys of youth – and middle age. I soon joined them to show solidarity, tying one of the boy’s laces for him. Thank you, he replied.
Now that I had demonstrated my ability to perform the routine, what did Master have planned for me? He barked at me, held his hands up: five ten. 50 repetitions. No way, Jose. I managed at most a scant dozen.

Now that I had demonstrated my ability to perform the routine, what did Master have planned for me? He barked at me, held his hands up: five ten. 50 repetitions. No way, Jose. I managed at most a scant dozen.
Tourists come and mill around. Many like to photograph us performing our routines. This bothers me. I feel singled out not because I am practicing kung fu, but because I am a foreigner practicing kung fu. China is even more notorious than Japan in its desire to photograph the foreigner. I usually accept when someone wants to be in a photo with me. But – as was the case the other day in the cafeteria – when I am eating lunch and someone wants to photograph the monkey using chopsticks, I balk. Thank Buddha that a monk intervened before the woman could release the shutter. And so today, as on a few previous occasions, I interrupted my routine to avoid the tourists‘ prying camera.

When the others departed, I gathered my bag and jacket, but Master pointed me back to my place on the pavillion. Two, his fingers read. Not sure what that meant, I did two more repetitions, waited until the coast was clear and left the arena.

Day 5 - Master loco?

This morning Dao-yi taught me a few more steps. My body is doing good, almost back to normal. I join in the kicking drills. But I skip the standing long jump and jumping while bringing the knees to the chest. Later, Master tells me to join in the routine with the younger boys. But I am not up to speed, and have to bow out before we are finished. 
I did not realize I was almost finished with the routine. This afternoon only one older boy was present and he taught me the rest of the routine. We were not clear about the final step, so Master showed us, but he changed it from what the boy was doing. So the boy gave me the sign that the Master was loco en la cabeza, twirling his finger near his head. 
Other boys came, but the Master had gone. I practiced a few more times, videoed myself so as not to forget overnight, and after the other boys left at 4 pm, so did I.