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Kung Fu Training in China:
Part 3

Today we have a guest post by returning Northern Shaolin Kung Fu student, Justin Ford. Passionate and determined, Justin is not just a great student, but an outstanding young man all-around. Meet Justin, through this post, and get a feeling of why we love him and the Kung Fu we do.

This is Part Three in a Three-Part Series, so be sure to check back soon for the upcoming additions!

Oh! And check out his previous post, Training in China – Part 1: The Beginning Thanks, Justin!

Rainy Day Kung Fu Training @ Shaolin Temple, Henan, China
Rainy Day Kung Fu Training @ Shaolin Temple, Henan, China

Waking Dream

There is a saying in Psychology: everything psychological is simultaneously biological.

I lay awake in my hotel room and that definitely felt true. But my mind was keeping my body awake with adrenaline.

The leader of the camp, Philip Sahagun, had explained what the plan for China was while we ate last night. Our itinerary: morning breakfast at the hotel, a drive to the school we would be training at, and then an assessment test.

My mind stayed fixated on the last part. I wondered what we would be asked to do for the assessment and what it would result in. Nerves for the upcoming day woke me up at 4am and kept me up. To burn off excess energy, I did what normal people do when they can’t sleep: I started training. 

Parking for Luo Han Yuan Shaolin Kung Fu Training Hall
Parking for Luo Han Yuan Shaolin Kung Fu Training Hall

For the next two hours, I worked on forms learned from both Kung Fu and Karate. As the morning sun crept into existence, I grew painstakingly aware of each passing minute. Soon it would be time for our assessment.

After finishing up my workout and grabbing some breakfast from the morning buffet at the hotel, I headed downstairs to wait in the lobby with everybody else from the camp. Within minutes, we were on a bus headed to the Kung Fu school we were to train and stay at.

On the road again...

Entrance to Luo Han Yuan Shaolin Kung Fu Training Hall
Entrance to Luo Han Yuan Shaolin Kung Fu Training Hall

The bus ride was filled with stories of working alongside Martial Artists such as Donnie Yen, Jackie Chan, and Larry Tatum. Each conversation fed my ears and brain intriguing stories I was geeking out over.

You could tell we were getting close to the Shaolin Temple. Kung Fu schools crowded the stretch of road we traveled, many with their students training outdoors.

After roughly two hours of traveling, we arrived at the school: Luohan Yuan.

The first thing we noticed was the barbed wire on top of the tall walls. We half-joked that they were probably for attempted escapes from the students.

The school was perfectly nestled between mountains, a gem cradled in the low hanging clouds drifting around. After driving down a short hill, the road opened up to both the parking lot of the school and the gate of the school, guarded by two lion statues.

Stone Lions at Luo Han Yuan Shaolin Kung Fu Training Hall Entrance in China
Stone Lions at Luo Han Yuan Shaolin Kung Fu Training Hall Entrance in China

Luo Han Yuan Shaolin Kung Fu Training Grounds

Enter the gates and you find a beautifully structured space designed for training, a field of gray stones comprising many open training areas and indoor facilities.

After stopping the bus, Philip gave us a tour of the school. We passed various groups of students training various forms and skills such as Iron Palm (something that definitely piqued this Northern Shaolin Kung Fu student’s interest – just think of ancestor Gu Ruzhang!). Each group looked to be about 15-30 people large with various ages, some groups composed of around six years old and some appearing to be college aged.

He gave a wealth of knowledge about each form we watched, each piece of history surrounding the school, and various fighting concepts. 

Rather than focus exclusively about what differences were in the style we would be training at the school, Luohan Quan, he spoke of the similarities and how we could likely connect with the movements we were watching, regardless of our stylistic background.

Luo Han Yuan Shaolin Kung Fu Training Grounds
Luo Han Yuan Shaolin Kung Fu Training Grounds

He spoke with a cool humility backed with the confidence that can only come from truly knowing your subject and being passionate about it.

After the introduction to where we would undergo training, we followed Philip to one of the training areas, an open space with stone benches littered with canvas bags filled with Mung beans.

Standing next to the tough training implements was an equally tough looking Chinese man. His chiseled jawline looked like it was sculpted along with Mount Rushmore, his muscular body looking like it could fight a lion and come out unscathed. Philip stepped into the role of translator. 

This was our head coach. This was also where we were to do our assessment. Speaking of assessments, it was time to do just that!

Let's Get Down to Business!

He primarily wanted to see our level of athletic ability: balance, agility, speed, flexibility, focus, etc. Once he had a grasp of where we stood ability wise, he might split us off to train at our personal level. Philip had us make two lines. The two people at the front of the line were to jog whenever Philip called out. Finished with our warm up jog, the next round was to be a full sprint.
Luo Han Yuan Shaolin Kung Fu Training Grounds
Swords! @ Luo Han Yuan Shaolin Kung Fu Training Grounds

My heart was racing, not from the exercise but from the expectations I kept in my head. Would my performance be good enough? Heck, would any of these foreigners stand out to the head coach?

The next round was focusing on agility. We were to run a few feet forward, quickly switch direction to head back towards the beginning, and switch directions once more to finish the sprint.

There were two people in front of me. I readied myself to give 100% of my effort. Philip called out and the line leaders ran.
One more person to go. I directed my mind to the task at hand. This was the time to show off what we could do. Time to go all out! The person in front of me ran.

I was next.

My breath hastened and my muscles readied.

“Go!” was called.

I sprinted hard and fast to reach the first turnaround point.

Splat! I fell equally hard and fast as I tried to turn too.

Nothing bruised or damaged except my ego, I got back up on my feet and sprinted the rest of the way, albeit a bit more cautiously.

Philip continued to lead us through a series of stretches and exercises. When we finished, the head coach didn’t separate us. Our only instruction were to line up behind a mung bean bag. We were to go through Iron Palm training.

We warmed up by gently smacking our hand into the center of the canvas. We progressed to performing the training routine we had watched earlier; three smacks, each with a different part of your hand. Various tips were spread throughout the training session such as focusing our intention to the hand and absorbing the impact rather than rebounding off with it. 

Stone Lock Training – Luo Han Yuan Shaolin Kung Fu Training Grounds in China
Stone Lock Training – Luo Han Yuan Shaolin Kung Fu Training Grounds in China

By the time we finished, most of our hands (mainly our right one) were shaking and swollen, pulsing with warm blood. 

We bowed out of our session and headed over to their mess hall for lunch.

After finishing the meal, we split into our two groups: those heading to the hotel and those roughing it out in cheaper lodging. I stayed in the cheaper lodging with ten other campers (including the Martial Club Le brothers!)

It was a messy looking inn with three floors, the bottom floor being part restaurant and part small convenience store. After grabbing keys from the inn keeper, we grabbed a roommate and dropped our luggage off to our rooms.

After relaxing and letting our throbbing hands rest, we headed back to the school. The good thing about the inn we were staying at was that we were only about a half mile away from our training location.

So Cool – Luo Han Yuan Shaolin Kung Fu Training Grounds
So Cool – Luo Han Yuan Shaolin Kung Fu Training Grounds

We continued our training with another tough session, this time working with a younger, wiry looking coach, one whom we later learned was only sixteen years old. He taught us the stances of Luohan Quan and the first few moves of a form called Gong Fa.

We drilled these basics until our legs shook and barely functioned properly. We continued our training until dusk settled in, the cloak of the slightly cooler darkness giving some reprieve from the hot China heat.

We didn’t truly feel how fatigued our legs were until we had to walk back to our inn, hiking up an inclined road and dragging our leg up the flights of stairs to get to our rooms.

After treating our muscles to a long stretching routine on the top floor outside our

rooms, we each took showers and headed out to bed.

Day 1 of training complete! Six more to go! 

Day...Er, I Don't Know!

The next few days of training repeated more or less the same structure like something out of the movie Groundhog Day.

We would wake up and first begin training around 5:30am, usually working on qigong with Master Henny Eleonora. From there we would have three more training sessions, breaking only for meals in the mess hall or to get a couple hours of rest after lunch. Each day would finish at sundown.

While most of our training revolved around learning the form Gong Fa, other exercises were sporadically mixed in as well. One day we would hold handstands against a wall and do squat jumps like a frog up stairs and another day we would do fireman carries with a partner and strike repeatedly at Mei Hua Zhuang or Plum Flower Poles (giant wooden poles stuck into the ground). 

After each morning training session, we would meet together and discuss things as a group or receive a lecture on a specific topic. We would talk about philosophy, training tips and pedagogy, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), cultural history, and various experiences we had been through and our perspective on them.

It was a wonderful learning experience!

While each day followed a rather regular schedule, each day also brought something new to look forward to and to learn from.

One day we trained with a heavy two-handed broadsword backed with nine metal rings in it and focused on learning the entire form that goes with it.

Another day we worked on our Yi, or Intent, doing various acting drills lead by some of the Cirque Du Soleil performers there with us.

On yet another day, we squeezed a shopping trip to the nearby stores to look at the various weapons and souvenirs they sold. Naturally, we each bought things, haggling the price down to something more reasonable.

Time to Perform!

During one of our training sessions, our head coach had something to admit: we were actually doing relatively well. Though busy, he had been watching us train hard and continue to improve each time and now wanted to show us off. The Grandmaster of the school, Shi Yong Zhi, wanted to see us.

As far as Philip knew, we very well might have been the first foreigner group to do so.

We focused all of our efforts on perfecting Gong Fa so that we could demonstrate that to him. On the day of our performance, we wore a full kung fu uniform provided by the school. We put on our loose-fitting gray pants and jacket, pulled on our cheap cotton socks and white Feiyue brand shoes, wrapped around our black leg bands, and tied on our yellow sash.

Putting on the kung fu uniform made us feel like we truly belonged to Luohan Yuan, imparting a sense of legitimacy to us.

The Grandmaster lived less than a mile away from the school, his house was hidden away in the forest. Following a dirt pathway, we walked to it in silence, keeping our thoughts on the impending demonstration.

When we finally made it to the house, it was like a scene out of a classic kung fu movie. We crossed over a short bridge to reach the old looking Asian housing, a spacious complex open to the scenic outdoors. We grouped together and marched as one, following Philip into an inner room.

Sitting in a chair in front of us was the man himself, Shi Yong Zhi. In the center of the room was a lowered stage-like floor, a flat space sunken down rather than being raised up. We lined up along the outside of the center as we were introduced. Grouped together in small pairs, we each demonstrated Gong Fa, a form most of us had only learned a few days ago.

By the end of it, he seemed barely impressed.

Our head coach, Philip, and Master Henny were all beaming with pride, however. We showed our respect to the Grandmaster and headed out. Once we were all done, we couldn’t help but be glad. The experience alone was an amazing opportunity!

We actually had another performance planned as well. Not for Shi Yong Zhi however. During the week while we were training, Philip was contacted by the people at the Shaolin Temple and they informed us that we would be visiting while they held a special event, one televised by the popular Chinese TV network called CCTV, and they would love for us to to be a part of it as a group to represent the USA.

One major demonstration down, one more to go. 

A Different Type of Training

After our training at Luohan Yuan, we continued our journey. We took the bus to a hotel near the Shaolin Temple and dropped off our luggage there. Here is where we split again. Philip offered to take anybody who wanted to explore some more to go to another popular Kung Fu school in the area, Tagou

Ta Gou Shaolin Martial Arts School
Ta Gou Shaolin Martial Arts School

Heck Yeah!

Most of us went with him, curious as to what another training school would look like.

When we got there, I’m pretty sure my jaw hit the ground. While I thought Luohan Yuan was big, Tagou was much bigger. Philip explained that between the various locations, Tagou has well over 30,000 students! 

Walking into the school was like walking into a bustling city or a major university. Everywhere you looked, there were various buildings and spaces used by the school for training. We explored the indoor museum they had and saw the numerous historical artifacts they showcased and awards and trophies their students and coaches have won.

Tagou even participated in the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics!

We explored Tagou for the remainder of the day, getting a chance to watch their Sanda and Wushu teams train, and then headed back to the hotel.

Shaolin Adventure

Incense Urn at Shaolin Temple of China
Incense Urn at Shaolin Temple of China

The next two days were spent focused on exploring the Shaolin Temple and getting the full experience of the area. We woke up at 4:30am and joined the monks for their morning prayers.

We entered a dark room with few others people, the only source of light in the pre-dawn morning being the many flickering candles placed around the room. Dozens of Buddha statues were illuminated in the alternating darkness.

A monk in the center of the small space opened his mouth and let out a guttural sound, holding the note for what seemed far longer than possible. An uproar of prayers being chanted was soon mixed in by the other monks. Drums joined in as well, reverberating in your chest and seemingly masquerading as your own heartbeat.

When we finished the ritual, we joined the monks in a silent breakfast and got ready for our next major highlight for the trip: we were scheduled to meet the current abbot of the temple, Shi Yongxin

After following Philip into the abbot’s room, we were introduced and given the chance to talk to him, asking any questions we had. He patiently answered each of our questions on life, the modernization of tradition, and Martial Arts and hard training.

Afterwards, we were invited to watch a performance by the temple’s third tier demonstration team, their top two teams busy traveling around and performing. The demonstration was jam-packed with energy, the performers showcasing many powerful skills from weapon work to animal forms.

Mists @ Shaolin Temple, Henan, China
Mists @ Shaolin Temple, Henan, China

By the end of it, we were stunned.

Or at least I was. I was a little too preoccupied with picking my jaw off of the ground to notice if anybody else was equally stunned. Finished demonstrating, they invited us to show what we knew as well.


Quite the last minute performance, we decided to do a group demonstration of Gong Fa, some tricking moves from the Martial Club brothers and a phenomenal Wushu champion in our group, and fight choreography from the Cirque Du Soleil performers.

Not too shabby, if I say so myself.

After exploring the area and getting an interview and brief training session with a Chan Master from the temple, we headed to the room where the event we had been invited to attend would be held. 

Shaolin Temple in China – Back Road headed to the demo!
Shaolin Temple in China – Back Road headed to the demo!

The event was called the “Shaolin Family Lineage” gala and gathered the various students who studied the arts from Shaolin to celebrate together and perform different talents, not simply of fighting skill. There were groups from Russia, Italy, Germany, India, Africa, and many more places.

They randomly selected various people from our group to perform on stage.

The night was filled with performances of singing, Kung Fu, rap battles, tricking, story telling, funny skits, skits that tried to be funny, and much more.

To say the least, it was entertaining. 

End of the Beginning

The camp finished with a slow burn rather than a grand finale celebration.

Our final day together was spent hiking up to Damo’s Cave, a beautiful yet difficult route steeped with history. Near the top of the mountainous climb is a small cave where the monk credited with carrying Chan Buddhism and leading to the creation of Shaolin Kung Fu is said to have meditated for nine years. 

Regardless of the validity of the legend, you could tell it was a special place to be. We hiked up a bit further to see a giant statue of the famed monk before making our way back down.

After some free time to explore and some of us getting lost, we headed back to the Marriott hotel we all first met up at. Along the way, we dropped off one of our camp classmates at another kung fu school, her having decided to stay in China longer to continue training.

Rainy Day Kung Fu Training @ Shaolin Temple, Henan, China
Rainy Day Kung Fu Training @ Shaolin Temple, Henan, China

Once back at the hotel, everybody in the group decided to eat at the hotel’s buffet again. We all gathered together in the buffet room and chowed down on the delicious food.

Dinner was an excited mix of talking about our favorite moments from the past few days together, exchanging contact info, getting pictures together, and buying traditional Chinese medicine (the father of one of the camp attendees sells TCM and he came by to pick his daughter up).

As I looked around the room, I could truly see a difference within everybody from camp. We didn’t start the camp as perfect people and we weren’t leaving as perfect either. We were however leaving as changed people.

Introverted people with hard social shells had become a part of what felt like a family.

People with limited experiences outside of their Martial Art style had their eyes opened to the wide world of Martial Arts.

People with PTSD seemed to find a sense of peace, kinship, and trust.

I was getting major deja vu, flashing back to the first day I met the group. Things were different now though.

For starters, I knew one thing for sure: I belonged. 

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