A Life in Kung Fu

The author with Coach Cheng and other coaches outside Cheng’s new school

Kung fu training began at 6 in the morning and continued throughout each day for another six hours, broken up only by meals and a post-lunch siesta. Ten thousand of us did the same thing every day at the same times. We ran the mountains. We stretched. We practiced our kicks and punches. We hardened our bodies. We learned how to spin our weapons. It was like being wrapped in a cocoon of common purpose. The key was to stay healthy. As long as I was practicing, everything was good. It was only when I was I hurt and unable to practice that Shaolin felt like I was living on the opposite end of the earth.

And, of course, I cannot practice now, because I’ve injured myself in the most non-bad-mofo way possible: I was engaging in my first ever Men’s Health six weeks to perfect abs program so that the first thing my master, Coach Cheng, said to me when I saw him was not, “Matt, you have gotten fat.” (The Chinese are extraordinarily polite about most everything except physical appearance. “Old fatty” is considered an affectionate nickname.) And I managed to pull something in the back of my knee on the treadmill. Or at least I think that is what happened. I half-suspect that it is psychosomatic: My subconscious knew my ego would try and prove I still had it, so it took out my knee to prevent a more serious injury.

Whatever the cause, the first thing my master says to me is, “Matt, you have gotten fat.”

“Yes, master, you know you told me I was too thin before. Not enough power in my attacks.”

“I said gain some weight, not get fat. I almost didn’t recognize you. Are you still practicing?”

“Some, not enough.”

“Obviously. To practice kung fu you must not fear to eat bitter. You look like you love to eat sweet.”

God, I missed him.

He still has the same sorry excuse for a moustache, still walks with the same hunched shoulders, and still has the same ham hocks for hands that dropped so many of his opponents back when he was a national kickboxing champion.

A brand new kung fu school in the faux European style

Coach Cheng shows me Big Wang’s school, the Special Shaolin Wushu College, where he works. It is one of the five massive kung fu schools that have been built on the highway leading to Shaolin. They each have thousands of young boys studying kung fu and have been built in a phony European style complete with domes and pillars. It is the Las Vegas aesthetic, faux-coco.

But it is a dramatic improvement. I mentally apologize to the city of Deng Feng, which a decade ago I considered to be the irredeemable armpit of China, quiet desperation made manifest, a justification for mass suicide. It was so awful Doc Russell, a good friend of mine who runs the most comprehensive Shaolin Web site in America, nicknamed it Darn Fun. But all the kung fu schools moved from Shaolin to Deng Feng, and the government declared the city a special tourism and economic zone, and just like that it has been completely transformed.

Lunch is a banquet to celebrate the prodigal son’s return. And being a banquet, there is a great deal of toasting and playing of hua quan, a fantastic drinking game that is a little like Rock, Paper, Scissors. As the baijiou—the evil Chinese rice alcohol that tastes like a mixture of sake, moonshine, and Liquid Drano—takes hold, Coach Cheng softens. We start reminiscing about the time he knocked out the Japanese challenger with one kick; and the time I knocked out the Tago instructor with several kicks; and the time he slipped, his opponent punched him on the ass, and his girlfriend at the time freaked out; and then there was the time I passed out while a friend of mine was having his finger sewn up by a dirty needle in a dirty Deng Feng hospital. We even throw in a few stories involving Big Wang, so he won’t feel like he is not the most important man at the table.

Deng Feng’s completely new skyline

That afternoon there is a traditional forms competition. In Shaolin schools, they teach traditional forms (kung fu), modern wushu (which is like the martial arts meets figure skating), and sanda (Chinese style kickboxing). The competitors are mostly the young students, but there is a seniors category, which in the kung fu world is anyone over the age of 40. Most of the seniors are kung fu instructors from the various schools who are all very skilled and heartily cheered by their students. The man who impresses me the most, however, is a peasant in his 70s, his gray hair peppered with a few black strands. He does not wear the flowing silk garb of kung fu forms competitions. He wears what he wears to work everyday: thick blue cotton jacket, gray cotton pants, and traditional black kung fu shoes. His weapon is the pudao, a large staff with a thick blade at one end and a spear point at the other. It is not a light performance pudao, which is made out of hollow wood with a tin blade for increased ease of movement; it is the traditional version with thick wood and a rusted steel blade, the kind of heirloom handed down from father to son.

His technique is not great—clearly he will not win one of the top three prizes—but he moves with a certain grace. As he slowly moves the pudao around his body, pacing up and down the mat, his back bent, it occurs to me that he has been practicing this form for at least the last 60 years, which means he was practicing it during the Japanese invasion, during the Civil War, during the ban on kung fu, during the Cultural Revolution, and during this capitalist explosion in wealth. From the roughness of his hands and the deep wrinkled tan of his face, he has been either a farmer or a manual laborer his entire life, a tough, dusk-to-dawn, back-breaking life. But somehow he has found the time to keep at this form.

All this rolls over me in a wave of unexpected emotion. And as I take his picture, I find myself having to keep the camera against my face to hide the flow of tears, which, loosed by the baijiou and mixed with the emotion of seeing my master again, won’t stop. When I was 21 what I admired most was the tremendous skill of the monks. I wanted to be that good at something, anything. But as I watch this old man, what I am most impressed with is the devotion. It is what has allowed this culture to survive (and now thrive) despite the traumas. As he finishes his form, what I want is to love something, anything as much as he so obviously loves Shaolin kung fu.