Learning Kung Fu in China: The Real Story

Corychinaedit

Since I am now acquainted with so many amazing people that have stories from Japan, China and Asia in general, I wanted to start a “My Asia” guest post/interview series every every other Monday where readers and fellow friends can share their fascinating adventures. 

I would like to start with a story that involves China and the journey of an American man going to discover the path of martial arts.

With a few years of tai-chi practice and teaching under his belt, my good friend Cory was convinced that the final step to mastery would be training on Mt. Wudang in China—the birthplace of Tai-Chi itself.

Cory is not only my childhood friend and fellow lover of cheesy kung fu movies and Asian culture, but he’s also a fantastic writer and quirky character.  His stories of Mt. Wudang and its training could easily become a book or movie (much more than this simple blog post, that’s for sure!), and I’m honored that he was happy to share his story with me.

With absolutely no knowledge of the Chinese language and a passion to train in the art of tai-chi in the homeland, Cory traveled to rural China and braved the unknown: Mt. Wudang in Hubei province.  Here is his story:

How Did You Originally Get Interested in Tai-Chi and Kungfu?  Can you give a very brief history on Tai-chi?

One of the students at Cory’s school

Brief History? Well, Kung Fu styles are either Waigong (external, generally associated with Shaolin) or Neigong (internal, and generally associated with Wudang). They say Taiji was invented by a superhuman Daoist immortal named Zhang Sanfeng, and that he taught it on Mount Wudang in the 900s or something. I found out in China that the legend was a load of horse shit, and that Taiji was probably invented first in Chen village, at the very earliest the 16th century. It was much more brutally martial even up until the 20th century, when the master Yang Chenfu (whose style became the most globally practiced) actually killed his opponents in several boxing matches.

Can you give us a bit of background on what prompted you to go all the way to China?

I was a seeker! I wanted to make something unique of my life, and engage with an authentic spiritual tradition. I wanted to find a real MASTER of something. I did…but he wasn’t very fun.

So what school did you go to, where was it, and what were your first impressions of it?  Why did you choose that school?

Near Cory’s Training Ground

Based on word-of-mouth from another Western student, I went to a small school that mainly taught Wushu type forms to adolescent students and a few adults. It was at a village on Mount Wudang in the middle of nowhere, accessible only by bus, called Huilongguan (Returning Dragon Temple). My first impressions were…my God, I’ve traveled back in time (there were chickens everywhere and coffins stacked outside peoples houses–the original form of life insurance).

The school was built around a central courtyard where the practices happened, and the well was nearby. We had running water for showers, but not for drinking. All the cooking happened on a wood stove in a gigantic wok (in an outdoor space that was roofed). The water heaters broke for about two weeks, twice, in the winter.

Near the bus stop

Tell us more about the day in a life on Mt. Wudang.  What were some difficult times you experienced, and what made you stronger or helped you grow?

A simple map of Mt. Wudang

 

The village near Mt. Wudang

I was a slacker, and got much less out of my experience than I should have, at least physically. Even so, I practiced a lot. We woke up early, ate a thin bowl of zhou (congee) or some mantou (bread buns), and then stretched out our hamstrings by propping our feet up on high bars (similar to what Ballet dancers do before practice). There is an eight syllable expression that goes:  “ten minutes of stretching/add fifty pounds of strength.” We then had kicking drills for about an hour. That is, we kicked in lines, two by two, different types of sweeps and high kicks, until the sun was a little higher. After that, we practiced whatever form we were focusing on. Most of the teenagers there were doing outrageous back flips and acrobatic type Wushu; they were learning weapon forms that included things like the monk’s shovel, which was originally something monks carried to bury bodies.

The worst thing was the isolation. I was the only Westerner and couldn’t speak Mandarin, so my whole experience was filtered through my translator, who was a really awkward guy from Vietnam. He hated literally everybody in the school, and everybody hated him too. And he was my middle man for every single interaction. So you can imagine–I wasn’t too popular either.

Food prepared for a local celebration during Cory’s stay

Feast!

Eating with the Ayis that prepared meals on Mt. Wudang

Was there a move or type of art you had to perform that was particularly difficult?

Taichi on Mt. Wudang

Baguazhang was incredibly physically demanding. For those of you who don’t know, it’s what Air-bending in the Avatar series is based on. It’s an art where you are constantly twisting, ducking, and literally running in circles back and forth to try to get behind the opponent’s back. You have to slide your feet across the ground with almost full contact (I destroyed a pair of shoes completely), and keep your knees together. It’s a martial art that was supposedly developed to fight multiple opponents at once, in a crowded space like a riot.

I was really not advanced enough to learn it, but because I paid so much money (as opposed to the native students) the master just taught me whatever I asked for.

What about your teacher, what was he like?

The Master of Mt. Wudang

He was so eccentric. I went to China seeking somebody like Obi Wan or Yoda. Unfortunately, I found somebody more like Pai Mei from Kill Bill. My teacher was very short–probably only 5.5” and would wake us up by singing bad Hong Kong pop songs from the 80s at top volume at six in the morning.

He never actually hit anybody, or yelled at them, but he was weirdly mischievous and playful. He once broke into a full run, leapt into the air, and did a flying kick into my shoulder–but with only as much force as a light pat on the arm.

Children on the mountain with the Master

I was there in the winter, and especially around Spring Festival, for about a month, nothing happened. No lessons. No practice. I was paying for nothing. I sat around in my room watching whole seasons of 90s sitcoms a day, and practicing a few minutes on my own every once in a while. I’d find Sifu (my master) out on the front porch of the old folks next door, playing Mah Jong and smoking cigarettes, drinking baijiu (Chinese rice wine) at ten in the morning.

Here’s a video of Cory’s master in action, if interested.

Tell me about a random, but fun memory from your time at Wudang.

Students of Mt. Wudang

My roommate had a gambling addiction and was the only person at the school who was there as a sort of punishment. His parents sent him to try to get him out of trouble, but he just spent his entire day in bed on his phone, chain smoking cigarettes out of a cigarette holder and never even getting dressed. He used to say the limited things he knew in English from pop songs to me: “HELLO BABYYYY” and “I LOVE YOU, BABYYY.” So I constantly had this short guy from Guangdong wearing long underwear, jelly sandals, and smoking out of a cigarette holder, shaking his ass and telling me he loved me around thirty times a day.

I remember you telling me about how you became disillusioned with kung-fu during this trip.  Can you go into more detail about this experience and what prompted it?

Cory lived here… very rural indeed.

I saw Wudang as a kind of beacon of a traditional spirituality (before I got there). Once I arrived, I realized that the combination of Chinese nationalism, atheism, and consumerism has destroyed whatever authentic spirituality is there (that I ever found, I’m sure there are real monks somewhere on the mountain). Instead of contemplative mornings where people sat in meditation, or practiced Taiji, our master would blast this horrible soap opera music from an Amp at 6:00 A.M. and make everybody do this very theatrical wushu routine over and over. I got really discouraged with myself (because I realized I really was too old already to get proficient at most of the forms) and resentful of the capitalistic aspects of the school. For example, my teacher was really aggressive in trying to get me to take money out of the bank for my tuition; he even pushed me aside when we were at the ATM and I couldn’t get it to withdraw enough money. That should have been a warning sign, but I didn’t know what else to do.

How do you feel about kung fu today?  Do you still have a bitter taste in your mouth about the art as a whole, or do you view the experience and the impact it had on your life as a positive?

Mt. Wudang in the Winter

My disillusionment with the Daoist spirituality I tried to find in China eventually led me to take refuge in the Buddhist path, which has been the most life-changing and positive experience of my life. So, in a way, I feel like I had to pay my dues. Other people might find better teachers, better opportunities, or have more authentic wishes than I did. I don’t think my experience on Wudang was representative of all Chinese martial arts, or even of the experiences of all the students who went to that school.

If someone wanted to study kung fu on Mt. Wudang, or kung fu in China in general, what suggestions would you have for them?

Laoying, a small village near Cory’s school

Don’t do it until you’ve practiced several years already. Kung Fu isn’t about going to some exotic place and magically absorbing the inspiration there. You’re not going to pick it up in a vacation. Kung Fu is, and you can see it in every film ever made about it, all about daily exertion and effort and discipline. If you think you need a teacher to motivate you, you are confusing a teacher with a coach. Most western students aren’t even ready for a real teacher because they are still learning basics and preparing their bodies in terms of strength and flexibility. I wasn’t ready whatsoever when I arrived.

Practice every day, and don’t be discouraged by people’s comments or misunderstandings of what you’re doing.

No, this is not Cory… ha

Don’t go alone, first of all. Second, try to speak the language. If you can, don’t go with a teacher who owns a school. I’d recommend living in a city like Chengdu or Beijing, and taking lessons from somebody kindly who doesn’t charge you too much, preferably who you find through people you both know (so they are bound by Confucian social obligations to treat you fairly–otherwise you can really get screwed over by predatory teachers).

Cory studied for 3-4 months on Mt. Wudang in 2011.  Previous to that he had studied and taught tai-chi for almost four years.  When I met Cory after his training on Mt. Wudang, I saw him in action and it was literally like watching a kung-fu movie.  He was graceful, elegant, and very powerful.  Cory says that his time there was a waste, but his kung-fu really blew me away when we met after his journey there and he is more than fit to teach in the U.S. (or star in a movie).

Cory is now a Tibetan Buddhist and is studying social work.  He is always trying to help the underprivileged and is truly a kind, creative soul interested in the spiritual.  To view his old blog from Mt. Wudang, find it here.

Interested in doing a guest post?  E-mail me! therubyronin@outlook.com

11 thoughts on “Learning Kung Fu in China: The Real Story

  1. Lani says:

    Great idea Ruby Ronin 😉

    My friend’s b/f came to Thailand to study kung fu and he found this prodigy of sorts who’s father studied under some great master in Tibet. After his father died he took over the lineage at the age of only 18. So, it was kind of like hearing some sort of movie storyline when Dom (my friend) explained what he had to do and the grueling work he and his friend endured.

    There were financial problems with the business and that was difficult. Plus, the kid was only 18 so he wanted to act like a wild child and rebel which added to the school’s lack of students. Overall though, Dom enjoyed his experience.

    Thanks for sharing your story Cory.

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Wow that story is SUPER interesting! I wonder what kind of kung fu it was in Tibet?

      Yeah, having a master of a school at 18 doesn’t seem like a smart idea (when I was 18, I sure wouldn’t be able to do that). Still, amazing story–I’d love to hear more about it!

      • Lani says:

        I’d honestly would have to get a refresher course on the story and of course, it would be interesting to find out what is going on w/ the school and the young teacher now.

  2. R Zhao says:

    Wow, really fascinating. I read a similar story (I don’t now where) about a foreigner who went to study kungfu at Shaolin. I can see how this sort of experience could end up being disappointing. Things in China aren’t what you might expect and sometimes seem a bit inauthentic. As a foreigner, it’s easy to feel like you are being ripped off, especially once you realize what everyone else is paying! But it’s still such a unique experience.

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      I feel bad for China in a way; they have such a rich and amazing culture, but their desire to make a profit can sometimes outdo their drive to teach their passion and art (which, ironically, actually hurts their sales). I imagine Shaolin Temple has probably undergone the same kind ‘consumer tourism’ type transformation, and it’s hard to find a proper school to get authentic training.

      But like you said, still a super unique experience. I would love to go to Shaolin just to see it!

  3. autumnashbough says:

    Fascinating story! I especially enjoyed the miserable parts — the horrible soap opera music as reveille is hilarious to hear, though I am sure it was unpleasant to live through. Yeah, I foresee a US-Hong Kong coproduction of a fish-out-of-water buddy movie. 🙂

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Thank you! Yeah, Cory is the funniest guy I’ve ever met and he has a knack for writing, so if he wanted to he could make some funny yet touching story about it. I wish I could do more than this simple interview.

      Haha yea I’m sure the jelly flop, chain-smoking Hong Kong dude will be a main character in this upcoming feature.

  4. Richard says:

    Wow, this Cory chap sounds like a gem. I’d love to meet him. I’m sorry he had such negative experiences, but sharing the caveats here will definitely help other curious people who want to follow in his same path.

    I think doing this kind of retreat, whether for yoga, meditation, or martial arts, is a great way to discover oneself and reconnect with one’s core. Even Steve Jobs apparently got inspiration for the new Apple after a trip to India.

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Exactly, it goes to show you need to really do your research when doing these kinds of retreats. I’m actually kind of hesitant to do a yoga or meditation retreat because of Cory’s experience… but if there was a chance, I ‘d love to go to Bali to learn Yoga.

  5. Anna zhao says:

    It’s a special experience, and I learn kungfu in China too, I love the life. And I study in Dragon Mountain Martial Arts Academy where I can learn Tai Chi, Qigong, Xing Yi, Wing Chun, Kickboxing, and of course, Shaolin Kung Fu. If anyone want to learn kungfu with me, you can look at the school.
    http://www.learnchinesekungfu.com/

  6. jianhao xu says:

    It’s a special experience, and I learn kungfu in China too, I love the life. And I study in Taizu Mountain Martial Arts Academy where I can learn Tai Chi, Qigong, Xing Yi, Wing Chun, Kickboxing, and of course, Shaolin Kung Fu. If anyone want to learn kungfu with me, you can look at the school.

    http://learn-shaolinkungfu.com

Leave a Reply