Shaolin, China: Mad for martial law

By Simon Rowe

Better to sweat in practice than to bleed in battle", goes an old kung fu saying. 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 in the chilly streets for the ritual race up the mountain.

This is the day's first task for the 40 Chinese and six foreign students who commit themselves to an unwavering routine of eating, sleeping and doing kung fu, for as long as they can take it.

No one slacks off. No one drops out. And all through the long, hot day of gruelling calisthenics, basic fighting stances and kicking techniques which follows, nobody complains. Doing so would not be showing the true spirit of kung fu, or gong fu, which literally means "perfection through hard work".

"Mama lai, mama lai! Slowly, slowly!" former Shaolin monk and kung fu master Shi De Cheng urges any of his students who show signs of wilting. Even those of reasonable fitness, like me, find the learning process a slow and exhausting one.

Always jovial and always 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 6, immersing 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 tree-lined street in Dengfeng, a rural service town 13km from Shaolin Temple, the oft-lauded birthplace of kung fu, where he studied. One of the world's oldest fighting arts, Shaolin kung fu is said to comprise more than 3000 individual techniques, but Shi De Cheng doesn't overload his newcomers. instead, he starts them on just 18 basic stances which form the basis of the songyang gong fu, or long fist-style kung fu, which he teaches.

But why, in a country brimming with exotic locations, sumptuous food and comfortable hotels, would anyone choose a holiday of hardship?

For foreigners like American Jesse Pasley, a Japan-based english instructor: "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."

Pasley, who visits Shi De Cheng's school to train each year, also enjoys the cultural exchange with local students.

For the Chinese students, the reasons are more pragmatic: many aspire to work as stuntmen and women in the burgeoning Chinese and Hong Kong action film industry, or as professional performers, even bodyguards.

It is simple curiosity that compels me to travel the 14 hours martial law by overnight train from Shanghai to sign up for a 10-day taste of authentic kung fu lifestyle.

On arrival, I'm given a set of loose training pants and T-shirts, toiletries and slippers, and shown to my quarters in a spartan former hotel. Everywhere there are signs that its youthful residents eat, sleep, and breathe kung fu: the lobby wall is pockmarked by throwing needles, improvised barbells litter the passageways and there are rubber shoe prints two metres up the walls.

The daily pre-dawn race up Mt Song is not compulsory for foreign students, but making the early-morning lineup impresses Shi De Cheng's committed instructors. Stretching and strength-building exercises follow the run.

And this is just the warm-up. After a brief but fortifying breakfast, we begin the two-hour morning class - during which I discover a new muscle daily - executing high kicks, turkey-walking, bunny-hopping, cartwheeling down the street and being pushed and pulled wheelbarrow-style along the footpath by my panting partner.

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 during hot afternoons most students are reluctant to step outside this cool zone. Training outside certainly has its benefits: the dry winds blowing off the Gobi desert offer respite from the shiftless heat and the delicious aromas of the neighbourhood dumpling shop and jingling bell of the watermelon vendor are welcome diversions from our exhausting drills.

However, the same melon vendor plus assorted cigarette-puffing granddads, mothers pushing prams and buses filled with commuters take such an interest in the foreigners attempting kicks on their footpaths that I feel like passing a hat around.

One aspect of Shi De Cheng's school that receives few complaints is the food. A small kitchen creates delicious and nutritious daily menus of home-cooked vegetables, river fish or chicken, rice, and tofu dishes, served on an all-you-can-eat basis.

The afternoon training session follows a similar pattern to the morning and finishes around 6pm, when dinner is served.

Evenings are given over to joining the local students for tai chi, wooden staff and nun-chuka practice on the street, or taking a stroll downtown for an icecream or a game of open-air pool.

Due to its proximity to Shaolin Temple, and in some degree to the success of movies like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, martial arts have become big business in Dengfeng, attracting movie-star hopefuls and entrepreneurs alike.

Fifty or so schools now offer tuition in kung fu, Chinese boxing and taekwondo, and many accept foreign students for up to $50 per day with meals, lodging and instruction included.

CHECKLIST

GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand flies daily to Shanghai. See www.airnz.co.nz.

GETTING AROUND
Dengfeng is 63km southwest of Zhengzhou city in Henan Province. Flights from Shanghai to Zhengzhou cost around $350 and overnight trains are roughly half that. Buses from Zhengzhou to Dengfeng run several times daily, take one hour and cost $2.50.

SHAOLIN
Shaolin Temple, open from 8am to 7pm, is a 20-minute minibus ride from Dengfeng. Shi De Cheng's school is located at Songshan Shaolin Shi De Cheng Wushu building, Henan Province, China. See www.sdcshaolin-kungfu.com/. The school charges about $50 per day inclusive of meals, accommodation, and tuition.

- NZ Herald

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