The search for balance in his life takes Wong Wai Hoong to Maling Mountain, China to learn the martial arts
“FASTER! Harder!” shouts Master Xu, a former Shaolin monk, as we repeat the same movements many times until many of us break down with exhaustion. Always armed with either a stick or bamboo, the 19-year-old kung fu master doesn’t hesitate to confront and beat us if we are lazy.
Xu is one of the martial arts trainers in Malingshan Shaolin Kungfu Academy in Xinyi, China, where I’m learning Chinese martial arts. He is a tough master. Having spent his youth undergoing rigorous training at Shaolin Temple, he is a strict and temperamental instructor. Always demanding, impatient and serious during training, he applies the same training methods to all his students. Whether you are a foreigner or a local Chinese, you quickly learn not to give any excuses or complain.
Acrobatics was a class I struggled with at first and I always got my share of beatings in this class for “wrong footing” and “not turning fast enough”. The master’s voice shouting “totally wrong!” still rings in my ear. And the fear I might land on my neck or twist my spine caused me much anxiety.
The class is normally conducted outdoors with only mats and plenty of sun. This is the nice thing about it. But the classes always make me feel so frustrated. During one training session, I drank three cups of black coffee with the hope of getting the “extra kick”. It didn’t really work. And whenever it was my turn to perform difficult acrobatic movements, I would shout “Baka!” or “Wo lai laaaa!” which means “I’m coming!”. Surprisingly, doing this worked.
Funnily, another student, Cory, did the haka dance (the war dance of the Maori of New Zealand) to break his mental barrier in performing the front flips. It worked!
The academy students come from the US, Australia, Europe and Asia. There’s a mix of males and females. Each and every one of us is of different built, fitness levels, skills and experiences and is at the academy with different goals. Some are eager to learn authentic Chinese martial arts, some want to lose weight, kick a bad habit, and some, like I, are searching for something deeper. But all are aware of one common element — this is certainly not a place for a relaxing vacation.
THE RIGHT ACADEMY
Martial arts has always been an important element in my life. It’s more than just winning tournaments. It’s about personal development. The more I learn various disciplines of martial arts, the more I discover the need to be well-rounded.
To be a complete martial art exponent, one must harmonise the mental, physical and spiritual aspects of oneself. Only when one is balanced, can one effectively apply oneself well in one’s daily activities and occupation.
Before joining the academy, I was searching for something that could give me this “balance”. My initial quest was to pursue monk training in Thailand. I was close to going ahead until I visited Shanghai in China. My Thai roommate Ming suggested that I try Chinese martial arts instead. At that very moment, everything just clicked!
When I returned from Shanghai, I did research. Searching for a suitable Chinese martial arts academy was like searching for a needle in the haystack. Not knowing the country well was one thing, but to look for an academy that suited my needs was another altogether. With so many academies around, some more commercial than others, I was hoping to find one with the right location, authentic training methods, affordable fees and with Shaolin masters who taught in simple and basic living facilities. I finally decided on Malingshan Shaolin Kungfu Academy. I took care of my responsibilities at home, wrote my will, paid a kind soul to take care of my dog and said goodbye.
MAKING THE JOURNEY
I take a midnight flight to Shanghai from Kuala Lumpur International Airport and arrive the next morning at Shanghai International Airport. Transport in Shanghai is easy and getting around is a breeze, especially on the MRT. At Shanghai Hongqiao Station, I buy a bullet train ticket that will take me straight to Xuzhou in three hours. I was told earlier that someone from the academy would meet me at Xuzhou station.
There, a lean man of medium height and with shaven head approaches and asks for my identity. I thought he is an illegal taxi driver until he shows me a photocopy of my Malingshan Shaolin Kungfu Academy registration form. He turns out to be Master Bao KangJian, the headmaster of the academy. I apologise quickly in Mandarin and just to break the ice, I mention that our jackets look the same. The master just nods and leads me to his car.
The drive to the academy takes two hours and we strike up a good conversation about training, business, China, cultures, food and how the master spent his youth almost entirely at the Shaolin Temple.
The academy was established a few years ago by Bao, who belonged to the 32nd generation of Shaolin warrior monks. I look at him with much admiration as he goes on to talk about Xinyi. His academy is situated in the suburb of Xinyi at northern Jiangsu province that’s sandwiched between Beijing and Shanghai. Although remote, Xinyi has a population of close to one million and is a fast developing city. It has inter-city bus and trains stations from which thousands of people go in and out of Xinyi. I am thinking that if the academy life doesn’t suit me, I can easily sneak out at night and take a train out of there.
As if he can read my mind, Bao tells me there’s no way for anyone to run away from the hard training at the academy because its location is so remote. “They’ll get lost instead,” he says with a straight face.
As we approach the road to the academy, I can see that the area is surrounded by rice fields and tea plantations. The greenery is soothing. But nearer the academy, I notice pockets of huge barren lands and leafless trees that remind me of Tim Burton’s movie Sweeney Todd. At that moment, I feel almost depressed to be in the middle of nowhere.
To make it worse, the weather is cold. The temperature hovers at 10°C and lower. I am not used to such cold weather and this depresses me further.
The only building within sight from the academy is the house of a Chinese medicine woman. Located less than 1km away from the academy, her house later becomes a place I frequent during my stay. It’s where I get treatment for colds and exhaustion.
I hate the cold. I have to put on triple layers of clothing just to keep warm. It rains occasionally and the days are often dull and grey.
However, there’s an interesting aspect of the academy’s location. It’s within the Maling Mountain Scenic Zone, ranked one of the 4-AAAA tourist attractions in China. (There are five Tourist Attraction Rating Categories in China, ranging from 1-A, the lowest, to 5-AAAAA, the highest).
The beauty of the Maling Mountain area is legendary. It was honoured as the First Scenery by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty. Unearthed archaeological evidences confirmed that the land was once a habitat for early human beings, dating back to the Paleolithic period of some 100,000 years ago. The ancient people made tools and hunted. Later, it became a historical battlefield, where enemies fought to seize control of the land. Eventually, history and legends blended together to give the place its own unique allure.
Setting foot on the grounds of the academy, I receive a warm welcomed by Lisa, Bao’s wife and academy’s translator. She shows me to my bedroom which I share with David, a former British marine. The room is humble, with very basic furniture. Each of us has a bed but we have to share a cupboard and a writing table.
Three meals per day are provided. Bao’s parents are the cooks and we eat almost the same food every day during the three months of our stay. Breakfast is a bowl of oatmeal, a bun and an egg. Lunch and dinner consist of vegetable dishes with very little meat and rice, and some tea, which tastes very nice. Sometimes, we get fried rice or dumplings. It’s important not to be late for meals as there’s always a possibility that there won’t be much food left.
Life here is simple. I get to appreciate the little things in life... watching the sunrise and sunset, sleeping on the grass, enjoying the natural views, swimming in the lake and just letting myself “go”. I needn’t have to impress anyone. However, the place does have Internet facility, so it’s not that bad — we can still get connected to the outside world.
The daily routine is set. We wake up at 7am for breakfast. The few of us who choose to do tai qi wake up earlier, at 6am. Kung fu training doesn’t start till 8.30am. From then on, it’s “train, eat, rest, train, eat, rest”. It’s lights out at 9.30pm. We repeat this routine five days a week.
We get the weekend off and we spend the time mainly on grocery shopping or going to the nearby cities for Dico’s (China’s fast food equivalent of KFC). How we long for something different to eat. Chinese la mien (pulled noodles), dumplings, fried rice and skewered barbecue meat are also the common favourites on such outings.
Repetition is the key and one can get a good workout without having to buy any expensive gadgets at all. I lost 3kg in two months.
The training consists of traditional kung fu forms, sanda kickboxing, acrobatics, conditioning, qigong, tai qi and stretching exercises. There isn’t really an easy training session. Even in stretching classes, we get sat on and are “pulled” in different directions till our bodies contort weirdly. However, it’s not as bad as it sounds. The instructors are friendly and this makes the hard training fun and tolerable.
We understand that our kung fu teachers are not looking for perfection. They simply demand the warrior spirit of conquering and pushing ourselves.
When we have completed 24 tai qi forms, we are told there are another 48 to learn. On top of that, there are different forms which require the use of weapons. It seems that one can never complete the lessons here.
Each master has his own ways and methods of teaching. Some who have been teaching mainly local Chinese are more militant and unforgiving compared to those who teach both local and international students. However, all of them share the same principle: “To push yourself until you can’t push anymore and then some.”
It doesn’t matter if one is slow, out of shape or uncoordinated. Every newcomer starts from the basics and progresses at his or her own pace. The master teaches the trade, while the perfection of skills depends entirely on the student. Then there are other “unexpected” lessons like brushing teeth and breathing the correct way.
I learn that martial arts is not only a form of exercise. It is a way of life. Every day, we should invest some time in ourselves and develop the habit of exercising. The form of exercise does not matter. Our body is our tool. My experiences over the years have taught me not to take our bodies for granted. It’s our responsibility to take care of our body.
OUTSIDE TRAINING HOURS
Aside from training, there’s little else to do. There’s hardly any entertainment. Most of us will just watch downloaded films, go online, listen to music or read. Some, like David and I, take up photography. Quite often, a few of my fellow trainees get bored and play Dungeon & Dragons while listening to elves’ music. They can’t do this for long though as Bao will come around and stop them from playing beyond sleeping time.
Outside of training, Bao comes across as shy and gentlemanly. But it’d be unwise to be fooled by this demeanour. I had a shock during one training session when he switched to Nazi-like mode. We were asked to do high kicks repeatedly non-stop for over five minutes and I seriously thought my legs and back were going to break at any time. That class was one of the toughest.
Bao started learning traditional Chinese martial arts when he was 7. He is now 27. At 12, he went to Shaolin Temple and stayed there until 19. He had the great honour of being a disciple of Shaolin Master Shi De Qian, who was both nationally and internationally renowned and highly praised by the fraternity. From Master Shi, Bao learnt not only traditional Shaolin martial arts and different styles of qiqong, but also traditional Chinese medicine. Due to his excellent performance, he was invited to live with Shi’s family.
As head of the academy, Bao helps to address our concerns and makes sure we enjoy our stay despite the tough training.
On my last day at the academy, I reflect on my journey here and how much it has impacted my life. Have I found the “balance” I was looking for? To a large extent, yes, for I have found a greater inner peace and satisfaction but I know I have a lot more of the Shaolin principles to learn. Most of all, my experience at the academy has left me with many good memories... the people I met, the arduous training, the lessons I learnt, our trips to the original Shaolin Temple, night outings and just getting around China have made this journey a highly interesting one and educational as well. I will return for I hold strongly to the saying: “It’s never too old, never too late to learn”.
How to get there
Malingshan Shaolin Kungfu Academy is in Xinyi, 2,021km from Beijing and 1,416km from Shanghai. Details at www.shaolin-kungfu.com, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call +86-516-887 307 77.
1. Train 1502/1503 departs Beijing West Station at 9.43am and arrives at Xinyi Train Station about 12½ hours later. Ticket cost: Hard seat ticket costs 106 yuan (RM51) for hard seat and 208 yuan for a hard sleeper.
2. Train K8356/K8357 departs Shanghai Train Station at 6.57pm and arrives at Xinyi Train Station about 13 hours later on the next day. Ticket: 191 yuan (hard sleeper), 275 yuan (soft sleeper).
1. Air China CA1849 departs Beijing International Airport at 6.25pm and arrives at Xuzhou Guanyin Airport at 7.50pm. The fare is 690 yuan.
2. Shanghai Airlines FM9241 departs Shanghai Hongqiao Airport at 8.25am and arrives at Xuzhou Guanyin Airport at 9.30am. The fare is 600 yuan.
Fares are subject to change.