Our stop after Xi’an was one of my most anticipated of the entire trip: Dengfeng, home to the Shaolin Temple. Yes, that Shaolin Temple: the birthplace of kung fu.
Rising at the ungodly-even-to-atheists hour of 6am, we caught a public bus to Dengfeng at 8am. This took six hours and had no toilets, and only one break halfway through. Several people were eyeing the bins by the end of the drive, but we made it without ‘accidents.’
After lunch at the guesthouse, we went to a small local kung fu school, run by a former Shaolin monk: the ‘shifu’ (master). The students here are between the ages of 10 and 18, and train at kung fu for six hours every day. After leaving the school, they join the police or military, or sometimes become stuntmen for films. After seeing what these kids could do, I vowed to behave myself in my time here (and came up with the title of this blog post).
We watched the students perform a kung fu demonstration: somersaults and splits were just the warmup. They showed us practice stances and forms using fists and weapons: swords, halberds and a length of rope with a wicked-looking spike of metal on the end. The synchronisation between them was incredible: each mirrored the others’ moves almost perfectly.
We also saw ’empty hand’ and ‘iron fist’ techniques: handstands on two fingers, breaking brick with an open hand and pressing the metal tip of a spear into the throat until the wooden haft bent. The most impressive was when one boy threw a blunt pin through a sheet of glass – without shattering it.
After the students, the shifu went into his own routine. Although he wasn’t bulky, he was probably the strongest man I’ve ever seen. His specialty is twirling around two 16kg blocks of stone called Chinese Locks: he spins them around his body, throws them into the air and catches them and balances them on his fingers. He also went through a routine with a halberd, like the boys – except the shifu’s was a 48kg rod of solid metal.
We were taken through a series of kung fu stances by an American called Chris (his website, Shaolin With Chris, has videos of everything that we were doing – although not us doing it), who is studying at the school. This was very hard work, and we were all sweating buckets by the end of it, but felt excellent.
We finished the day by having some moon cake with the boys: a Chinese tradition to celebrate the Moon Festival, the time of year when the moon is at its brightest.
Our second and last day in Dengfeng took us to the Shaolin Temple itself. Established by an Indian monk called Dharma 1,500 years ago, the Temple still trains monks in Cha’an Buddhism and kung fu, although its techniques have advanced since then.
Unlike the school we visited the day before, the Temple takes on thousands of students: 30,000 boys were there when we visited. These are organised into six separate schools, only two of which deal with martial arts. The training grounds looked more like an army training camp than a centre of peace and enlightenment: squads of boys were running, lifting weights and practicing with weapons in unison.
We climbed the mountain behind the Temple to Five Dragon Cave, more commonly called the Dharma Cave. This is where Dharma meditated for nine years, and developed the exercises that would become Shaolin kung fu; it is only 7m x 3m. Climbing even higher we reached a statue of Dharma, where we cooled down and practiced our kung fu poses.
Nick has promised to be able to do the splits by the time we get back to Hong Kong. None of us believe him, but watching him practice horse stance in hiking boots is its own reward.
Back at the bottom of the mountain, we visited the Pagoda Forest – a burial ground for highly-ranked monks. Many of the pagodas are old and crumbling, but the new ones show their age in other ways: carvings of aeroplanes, laptops and mobile phones!
The Shaolin Temple itself was incredibly impressive. It is built around several courtyards and contains a mixture of cultures: dragons are everywhere, but the carvings and statues are distinctly Indian. Evidence of kung fu training is also common. Tree trunks are studded with finger-sized holes, where monks have practiced straight punches, and the stone floor of one of the buildings is rippled, from generations of monks stamping into it while practicing the same stances we learned the day before.
Next stop: Beijing!