Shaolin Training in China: From Expectation to Reality
by Clemente Liberto
Everything I had two years ago is gone. I have left France to embark on my journey around the world. I wanted to start a new life, pursuing my ideas and philosophy. I had read enough books about amazing adventures; it was time to write mine! I was in Australia with an Aboriginal community when I had the idea to learn kung fu in China. I didn't have any experience in martial arts, but I had dreamed of practicing them since I was seven year old. I was full of motivation, expectations and ready for hard training in very poor conditions. For me, martial arts meant a world of mystic power and wise masters, and I needed to learn from them! I had chosen the Siping Martial Arts Academy in Northern China because their website presents very strict rules. I was thinking to find a monastery with a disciplined and spiritual daily life - a place where I could live and train with others without alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs. My goal was to take one year off the system to focus on my body and mind.
I arrived at the Changchun airport in June 2009. A guy was waiting to drive me to the Academy. I was surprised, because the driver was not a monk and he was very fat. I thought, "Don't worry, he is just the driver." After a crazy three-hour drive with loud music, we arrived at the Academy. The gate was very impressive and made me think that it was a real temple. However, when I started talking to the other students, I began to worry. The atmosphere was not what I was expecting, and nothing like its presentation on the website. There were definitively no monks here and I couldn't feel any deep martial arts spirit. I had paid up front all my tuition fees for one year, thinking that this way I would not run away at the first sign of difficulties! If I were to leave early, the Academy would keep more than 60% of my tuition! What could I do? I didn't know anything about China, nor did I speak a word of Mandarin, so I decided to stay and make the best of it. There must be some reason I ended up here. Who knew, maybe my first impression of the place was wrong. At least I had learned a good lesson: never pay up-front!
My first morning training was memorable. At 5:30 AM I stood outside waiting for the line-up, but nobody came! At 8:00 AM - for the second line up - just a few students and masters showed up. In Siping Academy, I had the choice between four different martial arts: shaolin, baji, taiji and sanda. But most of the time, there were just two or three masters. At the time of my arrival, some students had been waiting seven months to get a taiji master, and there was no sanda master. I started my training in shaolin with a master who was nineteen years old. Though skillful, he was also impatient, nervous and - worst of all - prone to visiting his students in their rooms to drink and smoke with them. Anyway, one month later he was fired for having relations with a foreign female student who was only sixteen years old. So I got a new master. Though only nineteen years old like the former one, he was stricter and made us train harder.
For the serious student, training was intense, seven hours per day, five days a week. But most of the students did not train rigorously. They had come to party and learn a few fancy moves for showing off! Here, martial arts was like a physical activity that you would learn in a youth camp. The training was not organized, and the headmaster and headmistress were just common people. How could such a school be run by two people who had absolutely no clue about martial arts? It was nonsense, and I couldn't believe it! Today, despite the website's high-ranking on Google, fewer and fewer students are coming. But the school does not pay much attention to this fact! I was soon to learn just how narrowminded the administration team was.
Inside the Academy was a shop where students could buy beer and cigarettes. Moreover, one day I found some marijuana drying on the balcony! I was shocked and decided to talk to the headmaster. His answer was simple: "Take it easy, relax. Just train and don't look around. The foreigner students are adults, so I can't do anything." All the lofty notions I'd had about the martial arts before coming to China were falling apart. Once more, the reality was far different from the fictional ideals that so many books and movies had built in my mind. All these students came to China from all over the world expecting to receive traditional Shaolin training, but they couldn't even obey the basic rules! I didn't come to China to be beaten with a wooden stick by my master if I misbehaved. Still, in a Chinese martial arts academy, I expected the Chinese masters to take misbehavior seriously! The foreigners came to experience the life of a Shaolin warrior, but when they realized that nothing would happen to them if they broke the rules, they just lived as they wanted to. It's even worse because everything is cheaper here than in their country (cigarettes, alcohol, prostitutes, drugs, etcetera...). If you want to send your kids to China to learn kung fu, make sure you find the right place with the right master to look after them!
After seven months of intense and painful training in Shaolin, I grew tired of learning forms without any applications. I was doing physical exercises all day long. Unfortunately, jumps and acrobatics had injured my ankle and knee. I was 27 and not a kid any more. I needed to practice more qigong to balance the training between external and internal activities, but my master didn't see it this way! Sometimes I just took the afternoon off. Since it was forbidden to change groups during the day, I had to discretely ask the baji master to teach me some qigong called yijin jing. I was considering moving to the baji group when a taiji master suddenly showed up. I was impressed by his way of moving, and so I trained under him. I enjoyed much of my training with this master, but after one month he left the school. Still, that was enough time for me to develop a keen interest in Chen and Yang taiji. After two weeks of practicing by myself, I got a new master. He was very egocentric, and I didn't like his way of organizing the training. However, he introduced me to some wing chun and a style called gou quan (dog fist), which I really appreciated. But five months later, he also left the school!
It was interesting to train under different masters as they all have different approaches, exercises and specialities. Nevertheless, jumping from master to master made it difficult to focus on my training and become skilled and disciplined! In China, martial arts are taught through a series of movements called taolu (form). Though standards exist, such as the 24 Yang shi tai ji or the wu bu quan (five basic steps) from Shaolin, there were always differences in the way various masters did the movements. The funny part is that each master was convinced that his way of doing the form was best! That is why it's better to find a good master who suits you and follow him for a long time.
After ten months, the atmosphere got worse and worse. Most of the students were staying in their rooms instead of training. Lots of them had conflicts with the administration and wanted to leave the school. I could have done the same, but instead I decided to try to change what was wrong! I offered to assist the administration in applying more respectful rules and creating a better atmosphere. When a few students offered to join me, we formed a student union. The school agreed to let us try this for one month. After one week, we managed - with the help of some masters - to make all the students train again. They had to attend every line-up without exception. From now on, they were not allowed to drink or smoke inside the Academy. It was surprisingly easy: the first few days, I made speeches reminding the students of our goal in coming here to China. Every morning I would get up before the others and knock on their doors to wake them up. I also asked the masters to check the rooms without notice three times per week. If a student disobeyed the rules, he was either beaten by his master with a stick or received other punishment depending on the situation!
As a result of this new discipline, the students who wanted to leave decided to stay. I had proved that when there is a will to change, anything is possible! So the student union and I had plenty of ideas to improve the daily life of the students. But over time, and despite our successful demonstration, the administration failed to adapt our rules. They seemed to want us to do - free of charge - what they couldn't do on their own! The students agreed to respect the rules, after the administration promised to make basic improvements: cleaning the toilets, buying necessary equipment, serving healthier food without so much oil. Our deal also called for them to consult the student union before making new rules or changes. But the administration didn't want to spend any money, nor did they want to share their power with us. By then I understood that the academy was not willing to make deep changes, and though they let us talk, they would always have the final word! It saddened me to see the tremendous potential of this place squandered, but it gave me ideas on how to run such a school. Since the administration had no intention of changing, I knew I couldn't stay there another year. So I took two weeks off to travel about, visiting other Chinese schools. I was certain I could find a school of real kung fu training managed by skillful masters.
After a twenty-hour trip by train, boat and bus, I arrived in Shandong province at the first school: the Kunlun International Martial Arts Academy. There were about ten students and two masters. The first master was teaching Shaolin, and the second one bagua, taiji and mantis. Situated in a beautiful area, the school had new equipment, internet access in every bedroom, and a leisure room with a big television and a fridge. Nevertheless, I didn't like the bottles of beer in this room or the fat headmaster who welcomed me. Puffing on a cigarette as he approached, he asked me to demonstrate a form I had learned. When I did, he laughed, saying, "This it not real kung fu, this is not good!" But who would expect a student to perform as well as a master? So I asked him if he could correct me or give me some advice. He refused, saying that I was just a visitor. I found myself thinking, "Mister mystic powerful headmaster who smokes cigarettes, you can keep your famous secrets for someone else. Me, I am leaving for another school." And I left. For sure he knows more than me, but why did he have to be so pretentious and arrogant? I didn't want to stay another moment in a place with this kind of egocentric Chinese martial artist!
The next day, I arrived at the Kunyu Shan Mountain Shaolin Martial Arts Academy. I entered the school at 6 o'clock in the morning and had the feeling that it might be the place I was looking for. A group of students were training in taiji. One of the translators invited me to practice with them. The master helped me as if I was one of his students! Then, we did some static qigong called zhan zhuang . The qigong master was very fit and skillful. He was the kind of master I was looking for - someone who had really developed his internal power! The training was very well-organized, and some nice people were living and training there. Of course, the school also had its negative points, but I could feel that the general atmosphere was geared toward training. The headmaster of Kunyu Shan Academy used to be a master in Siping Academy, but had left a few years ago to create his own school, saying that he could do better. I really think he has! Kunyu Shan definitively caught my attention. If I chose to stay, I could practice wing chun, taiji and qigong. Nevertheless, I decided to check some more places. This time I wanted to be sure to make the best choice!
My next destination was Qufu Shaolin Kung Fu School. From what I heard, the school had been opened by a master who had worked at Kunyu Shan few years ago. The infrastructure was standard and the masters were good, but I didn't like the atmosphere between the students, and the training concentrated more on Shaolin. I continued onward to Wudang Shan, my last destination, where I met Master Chen Shi Xing, a Taoist monk. The atmosphere of his school was very different from the others, much quieter and simpler. There was no training hall, and most of the time they practiced outside. Wudang kung fu is very fluid and beautiful, but I had the feeling that this place was too internal for me at this moment. However, it left me motivated to come back to it at a later time. As I had finished my visits, I had to make my choice. The Kunyu Shan Academy won, and will become my next home for the upcoming year.
I had at least learned a few things at Siping Academy - to wake myself up at 5:30 every morning, and to train hard. I was a beginner, so it was good for me to pick up the basics. During my year there, I had dramatically improved my fitness and flexibility. My body and mind were stronger, but at the same time I was exhausted, and I had been sick a lot of times. I suspect this was due to the disorganized training, and the fact that I practiced only a superficial part of kung fu. Despite all the problems, this Academy allowed me to discover a real interest in taiji, wing chun and qigong. I hope one day to be able to share this knowledge with others in my own place.
What I just wrote about Siping Academy is very harsh, but it is important for me to tell the truth about it. Someone has to do it. Their website is just a big lie, and just because we're foreigners doesn't give them the right to rip us off! I hope my experience will be useful in helping you to find a better place to train. If you want to come and train in China, forget about the monastery and the spiritual magic monks! Instead, strive to train hard in more humble surroundings. Chinese martial arts are very interesting. You just need to find the proper place with the right master to really gain its benefits.
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About Clemente Liberto:
Clemente Liberto is French. He is a cross-country ski instructor and a mountain leader. At the age of 23, he met a doctor in France who totally changed his life. Since then, he stopped drinking, smoking and became vegetarian. At 25, he decided to leave everything he had to travel around the world and learn more about himself. After spending a year in Australia, he moved to China and now trains in wing chun, qigong, taiji and baji. He doesn't plan to go back to France and would like one day to create his own school of life, where he could share his experiences and the knowledge he has gained through all his travels.
You can contact him at: email@example.com