A Season in China to Study Kung Fu

This is a partial account of a trip I took to China leaving Vancouver on September 20, 2016 and returning December 21, 2016 for the primary purpose of studying Chinese martial arts at Kunyu Mountain Shaolin Martial Arts Academy, located roughly between Beijing and Shanghai.

To begin, why did I go?

I went for several reasons: I was inspired by a friend, Slava, who I learned had traveled to this martial arts school in late 2015 to train. It was through him that I was made aware such schools even existed.

Upon reflection, I had many of my own reasons to go:

  1. Recapitulate my study of martial arts, a previous area of interest too long neglected. (I had childhood and university experience in karate and judo, respectively)
  2. Visit the land of my maternal ancestry and explore its vast culture and history. (My mother was born in Shanghai but moved to Canada when she was two years old)
  3. Continue challenging myself to grow.
  4. Experiment and confront my internal fantasy tested in the external laboratory of reality. To discern between excitement about the idea of going to China versus actually going.
  5. And simply because it sounded and felt like a good idea that first elicited a “hell yeah!” emotional response that survived my predisposition towards overanalysis.

What did I learn?

Broadly speaking, I learned many things. Through shaolin kung fu, taiji, and qigong, I developed speed, power, strength, endurance, balance, coordination, flexibility, fortitude, perseverance, concentration, self-awareness, and will.

And most importantly: humility, courage, patience, and what makes a good roundhouse kick. In my experience, any quality one wishes to develop is presented as a series of opportunities in life to practice them (or not).

For example, every Friday morning there was voluntary sparring where volunteers would fight in a ring in front of the entire school body while sitting in an orderly fashion (students were organized by height and we drilled how to put our stools down). Stepping into the ring several times over the course of my time there cultivated the courage to overcome the internal dialogue that was preoccupied with my physical and egoic safety.

Paradoxically, my first experience in the ring provoked less fear and excitement, but each subsequent experience became tougher to psychologically overcome. It was too easy to simply stay quiet and keep my hand down when the masters asked who wanted to spar. Most did. Too easy doesn’t make me grow.

Two things motivated me to return to the ring after my first experience.

First, in a book I was reading at the school around this time, The Art of Learning, there was a concept discussed called “investing in loss” (a chapter was dedicated to this point), which is to say we learn fastest against superior opponents. Few are willing to subject their ego, and body, to being beat up on a regular basis for the purpose of growth.

The second source of motivation was simply reminding myself that I came here to learn kung fu and that my time was limited. My mind has a tendency to think opportunities are unlimited, but quantifying that into how many weeks I had left imparted a sense of urgency.

Even with all of the protective gear provided, I was curious about how well I could stay centered in a three minute round with the mutual directive of kicking each other’s ass. I learned a lot about myself punching and getting punched in the face within the relatively safe container of sparring. To quote Mike Tyson, “Everybody has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” I experienced anger, fear, panic, remorse, shame, humility, exhaustion, relief, and the strange bond that develops between two people that fight.

I also noticed, like all skills in life, the difference between practicing in a low stress environment doing line drills hitting air versus application in the more pragmatic situation of sparring. It wasn’t until my fourth fight that I landed a decent roundhouse leg kick, verified by my opponent some time later with accounts of a hematoma and lingering pain.

While humbling, it was also helpful to receive feedback and learn about my natural reactions that didn’t serve me in a fighting situation and to overcome them through heightened self-awareness. In my opinion, this self-awareness is the jewel that makes combat such a rich source of personal growth.

In a more general sense, simply being at the school taught me the courage to make decisions after extensive (excessive!) deliberation and humility in accepting what the masters had to teach. In particular, being taught by someone almost half my age is nothing if not humbling. The masters of my group were 18 and 24, while I had just turned 33 a few days prior to arriving.

Even more poignant lessons in humility involved being open to feedback from fellow students, a decent number of which were in the 17-20 age range. One of my particular highlights was asking for help during a form class from a 14 year old Chinese boy. Watching him shake his head in exasperation and asking him to repeat a movement several times was pure hilarity. Patience, it would appear, was necessary on both sides of a teaching-learning relationship.

To expand more on patience, simply showing up every day and giving it my best effort was all that I really needed to do. Without fail, I attended the optional morning and afternoon classes, an additional two hours of training outside of the basic curriculum. Internally, I simply decided they weren’t optional. Patience was definitely required in learning forms, as often I would wait all class to be shown a single movement, or perhaps no movement at all. Seeing the progress of older students was perhaps the greatest motivator. I was quite impressed after seeing the performance of students that had been there from as little as four months to a year and more.

Simply showing up every day and giving it my best effort was all that I really needed to do.

Another great teacher of patience was qigong, where I and other students would often sit or stand still for thirty to forty minutes in a particular stance, developing energetic awareness through concentration, stillness, and overcoming discomfort. My previous experience with meditation definitely served me and translated well to qi gong.

One final observation concerns the lessons that injury provides. While I did my best to avoid injury, in some ways it’s easier to handle once I simply accepted that injury is inevitable. It will hurt. Period. This was advice imparted to me by an older student. As I recall, at the start of my second full week, I pulled my right hip flexor while we were doing a drill on a particular technique in Shaolin basics class called “reverse spinning heel hook kicks”. I didn’t think it was that basic.

Over the course of that week and following ones, I learned further lessons in humility, courage and patience: being further humbled after worsening the injury, courage to overcome the implicit peer pressure of wanting to train and not wanting to miss out, and patience to simply allow healing to take place.

Another anecdote of the didactic potential of injury involves my attempt at breaking a brick. While courage was mustered in attempting this feat of classic martial arts lore, after two unsuccessful attempts, a healthy dose of humility was required to back off.

In the moment, adrenaline blocked the immediate sensation of pain. The resulting wrist injury after a misplaced strike required some patience to accept the consequences. In some ways, this injury served as a great teacher and test for the internal healing potential of qi gong. I do recall joking with a fellow student that the slogan of the school could be: “Personal development through injury.”

So there you have it. An account of some of my experiences while training at Kunyu Mountain Shaolin Martial Arts Academy. Patience through injury, courage by combat, and humility through defeat.

If you’ve been considering taking a trip like or unlike this one, I would encourage you to deliberate as little as is feasible, make a decision, and find out for yourself. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “write things worth reading, or do things worth writing.”

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