The Birthplace of Kung Fu (Tim's post)
Tim and I decided to take seperate itineraries for two weeks, as he wanted to visit the Shaolin monestary, and I wanted to jet down south towards warmth. The following is Tim's experiance at Shaolin monestary.
Having studied several martial arts in the past, my visit to China would not have been complete without a visit to the Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of Shaolin Kung Fu. In the 6th century, and Indian monk named Bodhidharma is thought to have introduced the temple monks to a system of exercises to improve their health between long periods of meditation. These exercises evolved into different forms and were spread across Asia to become distinct martial arts styles in China and other Asian countries.
While Yarrow was enjoying experiences in rural southern China, I spent three days in Dengfeng, the "Kung Fu City" near Shaolin Temple. Most of the kung fu schools that started in or near Shaolin have relocated to Dengfeng. There are probably a dozen large schools (1000+ students) and many smaller ones. I visited a few schools to see their facilities and get information about training for foreigners. At one school I saw 5 foreigners training and got to talk with two of them about their experience. Most of the Chinese students train outside and it's quite entertaining to watch a thousand kids at one time practicing kung fu forms, acrobatics, weapons and fighting. There are few foreigners here now because it is very cold. They like to train during the warm, wet summer months. I can't blame them!
On Sunday I finally visited the "Shaolin Scenic Area". I was told it was super touristy so I was prepared to be let down, but it was quite fun and I could have spent a lot more time there. The temple itself has been restored recently but still looks old. Aside from its significance as the birthplace of Kung Fu, it doesn't have a lot of memorable sights. It is built on a low angled slope so you climb stairs from one courtyard to the next as you move towards the back of the complex. One hall has paintings of monks in kung fu practice. A side courtyard has terracotta monks in various kung fu training and fighting poses. In my opinion the Lama Temple in Beijing is similar in design but much more interesting to visit as there are so many pilgrims burning incense and honoring the statues.
The scenic area has a training center east of the Shaolin Temple that stages performances for tourists five times a day. I wasn't expecting anything too great, as more than one traveler had spoken negatively about it. However, this was really amazing. I even stayed in the building to see a second performance.
The performance started with a group of monks doing routines with the Shaolin staff doing many turns, jumps, and beating the ground. Next a young boy monk did some amazing flexibility stretches and acrobatics. Notably, he was sitting with his legs in the yoga lotus position before he moved smoothly into a head stand with his legs still interlocked.
Several monks demonstrated kung fu animal boxing forms with a lot of spins, flips and crazy movements. In the 2nd show they pulled a few audience members in to try to imitate the monks, which was quite hilarious and shows how difficult it is to learn.
The most interesting to me was the Shaolin Hard Qi Gong demo. The monks focus their energy with breathing and movements before doing feats of strength. The first monk broke two metal plates over his head. The second boy monk did one finger push ups and two finger handstand push ups. The final monk attempted to throw a small nail through a plate of glass to burst a balloon. He failed on the first try but then succeeded on the second throw. The plate of glass looked like it had been shot through with a small bullet! I was told it takes many years of practice before one can reach these levels of Qi Gong mastery.
The final act was a demonstration of 10 different Shaolin weapons and some choreographed fighting with weapons. Then they broke 3cm thick sticks over a monks arm, outstretched leg and head. Most people would have been broken to pieces by these attacks but the monk was unfazed! Needless to say, I was impressed.
Overall it was a fun time and couldn't resist the urge to buy a photo of me posing with three of the kung fu monks. I didn't get to climb to Bodhidharma's meditation cave, trek into the mountains or look at anything west of the Pagoda Forest. To do those things would likely be more than a full day.
Visiting the Shaolin Temple and Dengfeng got me excited about getting back into martial arts studies when we return to the states. I have decided that I wouldn't want to study Kung Fu in Dengfeng. The schools are much like military boot camps and don't fit with my goals for training and learning. Now in Yangshuo, I started studying Yang style traditional Tai Chi and Yarrow is encouraging me to extend my visa to continue studying Chinese language and Tai Chi for another month or two. I would then meet her again in New Zealand or South America for the last few months of our trip. Even though it would be tough for both of us to be apart so long, I will likely never have so much "free" time to be able to spend a few months in China again so it seems like a good plan.