Although I had at first decided to go to Shaolin as a scrutinizer of…whatever it was I would find there, within a day I had become a scrutinizer of technique as well when I enrolled as a four-day student at Shaolin Wushu Guan with a focus on the art of the Chinese sword, more commonly referred to by its Chinese name of jianshu (剑术 jiànshù). Although the cost of study at a school so closely associated, and right next door to, Shaolin – the place where It (aka kung fu) is said to have all begun – was a bit out of range of my intended budget, I felt that it was well worth learning a new sword form and the basics of straight sword technique. So I went ahead, with all the intention to return as soon as the chance arises – in other words, when I know I’ll have enough money to pay for a return trip and my Chinese courses in Beijing are done for the year, because as great as it is to learn at the place where it all began, it comes with a – for a college student, at least – hefty price tag.
Entrance to the Shaolin Wushu Training Center situated next to the Shaolin Temple
On Friday October 5th, 2012, as soon as I had accompanied Andre and his parents to see the youngster off for a day of training at the Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Center (少林寺武术馆 Shàolínsì Wǔshù Guǎn), along with Tagou (mentioned earlier) one of the two schools that have found a home so close to the Shaolin Monastery. Walking up the steps to the wushu guan, one would probably mistake it for another series of shops or else offices, as gigantic worn metal statues of Chinese martial artists flexing their brawny, topless muscles whilst posing in various offensive and defensive poses sat at the top of the steps as well as on the grass below. Yet another crowd of tourists wandered the campus, taking pictures here and there, trying to look as manly as the statues they posed under. Upon closer inspection, though, one would find the most obvious signs that it was a school of sorts: young boys of varying ages in bright blue uniforms ran to and fro playing, cleaning, and preparing for class by running through forms or playing with a variety of weapons in an enclosed space where the dorms were located, and there were classrooms as well as training halls deeper within the school. Of course, if one looked directly up in front of them whilst walking up the steps to the school, one could notice a big red sign with the name of the school in Chinese across it, which makes things easier if you know how to read a little hanzi (汉子).
Once Andre had run off to class, we tried to see if the headmaster was in so that I could inquire about the cost of training for a few days. Much to our chagrin, he had not arrived yet, which gave us a little time to explore the monastery grounds. Upon our return about twenty minutes later, we were able to find the headmaster and I talked with him about taking courses, the cost, and the styles that were offered. Instinctively, the style I was most interested in was Baihequan (白鹤拳 báihè quán, White Crane Fist). Much like when we had asked at Tagou the night before, he said they did not teach that style, so I asked for my second choice, jianshu, to which I got a yes. After taking a few minutes to make sure I was translating and hearing everything that was spoken in Chinese correctly, I learned that one day of training cost 300 RMB (currently the equivalent of $47.87), which for four days amounted to 1200 RMB ($191.48).
Not wanting to be scammed out of any money, especially hearing from the headmaster that my courses would start the next morning instead of that day, I decided to accompany Andre to his afternoon training session. Arriving there a little bit before 2:00 PM, we helped each other stretch before the coach arrived with the rest of the class to lead us in leg stretching. Following this, we went into the inner part of the school into a training hall. Stepping into the hall reminded me of pictures I had seen of some of the Shaolin monks’ homes up in the mountain behind the monastery: the tan painted concrete walls were cracked and scarred with flaking paint and covered in black marks in some areas from – I presumed – constant use. On the floor there was a maroon red rug with the yellow and blue school symbol in the center that had been split in two to create two training areas as well as an array of mats for jump and other training. Aside from the light from the open door and from an octagon hole in the unused training area on a second floor above, the only light sources were two bulbs on either side of this octagon, both struggling lighten up the room. On one side of the room, young students were practicing falling and jumping, while on the other, an older student was practicing flinging a large porcelain vase into the air and catching it using his fist. Upon walking into the hall and taking everything in, I knew that even though I might not be learning Traditional kung fu, I was learning wushu at the real Shaolin nonetheless. This was wushu without all the fancy uniforms, militaristic discipline, or state of the art training facilities; this was wushu with the walk but without the talk.
Shaolin jianshu instructor performing Damo Sword
Following a few hours of running through kicks, basic combination movements, complex combination movements and finally some strength training (pushups, sit ups, and hand stands), I was dead tired and in need of some food and a good night’s sleep, but there was also excitement, as Saturday was coming soon, when I would finally be able to start my jianshu training. When the morning light shone into my eyes and my belly was filled with food that was hard to get down due to the amount of anticipation I was experiencing, I made my way back to the wushu guan to start stretching and preparing for whatever lay ahead. This time, we were training out on the basketball court behind the students’ and coaches’ living quarters. The coach was about my height and had short, slightly grayed hair, a serious expression on his face, and a quiet personality. After meeting him, he immediately told me to stretch out and we got to training. First he had me go through various basic kicking movements to warm up my legs, and then do a run-through of the wushu guan’s Wubuquan (五步拳 Wǔ bù quán, Five Stance Fist) form. Afterwards, he began to teach me some basic straight sword techniques, such as the four basic thrusting movements and two of the most basic sword twirling movements, all the while correcting my mistakes and showing me how to properly perform each technique when I got lost. Then came the form I would learn during the days there called Damojian (达摩剑 Dá mó jiàn) a sword form named after Bodhidharma, Putidamo (菩提达摩 Pútí dá mó), or simply Damo (达摩 Dá mó), the First Patriarch of Zen Buddhism and the alleged creator of kung fu. Learning the first few movements of the form and going through parts that I got stuck on again and again took place until our session ended at 11:30 AM for lunch, after which I practiced the movements a few more times before running to catch some grub.
The next three days were essentially the same routine: wake up, breakfast of steamed bun and hardboiled egg, then off to the wushu guan for training. Of course, I don’t mean to make it sound boring, because for someone who loves wushu, I’d take training over school any day! Now that I was here and could do just that, I was taking full advantage. Training consisted of stretching out, running, kicking exercises, and then sword techniques and learning the form from 8:30 to 11:30 AM and 2:30 to 5:00 PM. All the while, even though from the vantage point of the basketball court one could see the tourists going to and fro and the performances on the elevated stage happening all the time as a reminder that I was taking part in something that was heavily commercialized, I could not help but also think that I was somewhere that many people before had sought to perfect their skills in the same way I was doing, and who were passionate about the same thing I was passionate about. Also, each day one could look out and see the vast peaks and green-covered cliffs of the Songshan range one minute before looking back the next to find the same place hidden in fog, making the mood and the location seem entirely different than before.
Even though there were a few times I caught myself looking at the scenery, my main focus was on going over the movements of the form and the techniques again and again, my mind in the present but this present often being on the training and the movements at hand. While Damojian does contain a few flashy movements (such as holding a “scale”, or lifting one of the legs so that the body is in a straight line and holding this for three seconds or so before transitioning movements), I loved the various twirls and flicks of the blade that coincided with leaps and bounds from stance to stance with more movements following. In only four days of consistent practice during and following classes, I was able to learn the entire form, and even though it is something one must practice every day to remember and to perfect, it was well worth the time and effort put into learning something new. That being said, upon saying farewell to the wushu guan and Shaolin on Monday, I knew that I had spent a lot of money – more than I had anticipated, for that matter – to not even learn under a monk of the monastery itself a form that I may have been able to learn in the West. Therefore, to lay down a final opinion on training at the Shaolin Monastery, I feel that it’s too expensive, and would recommend looking around for another school beforehand to compare prices. Also, for the person looking to learn traditional wushu, the wushu guan and Tagou are not the place to find such a thing. There were some oddities, such as Frog style and other odd animal forms, but being the Crane enthusiast that I am, I will have to find out if there is a good Crane master at the temple before I fork out the money to make that return trip. On the other hand, the experience of training on the grounds of the Shaolin Monastery, a place that is filled with everything wushu and the spirit of kung fu on a daily basis, it was well worth a journey that I will never forget.