My childhood TV choices were dominated by my older brother, which meant that by the end of my teenage years I’d seen more kung fu movies than most. Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee were my idols, and for a brief spell, I took some basic martial arts lessons.
Then my interests wandered—boys, shoes, bags and travel—and I almost forgot about my former interest in kung fu . . . until I found myself in the Henan Province of China.
High in the mountains, where there is the rare opportunity to breathe fresh air, sits Shaolin Temple, a place where Buddhist monks train in the art of kung fu. It is also the temple that inspired the movie of the same name, featuring Bruce Lee.
Eager to follow in the footsteps of these legends, I went along to the temple and signed up for kung fu school. I thought I’d re-learn the art I’d briefly tried during my younger years.
Here are six Shaolin Kung Fu principles I was supposed to learn and the lessons they actually taught me:
1) A young tree bends in the wind, then snaps back with force
Meanwhile, older people don’t bend, they just snap.
“Warm up!” the teacher commanded and I started to stretch obediently.
“No!” he corrected me as he dropped into the splits, delivering my first lesson: doing the splits isn’t a maneuver to be performed only by children.
Grown adults at kung fu school are expected to drop to the floor, toes pointing in different directions, regardless of age or associated flexibility. I tried my best, squealed and buckled in pain realizing that my legs no longer bend that way.
2) Maintain self-integrity, never compromising self to any other
And that includes compromising my commitment to practice.
Morality, self-discipline and motivation are essential elements in Kung Fu.
I excel in breaking the promises I make to myself—eat less cake, go to bed early, read more classic literature—and regularly re-confirm my long-held suspicion that I possess no self-discipline whatsoever.
So, when I’m faced with the choice of practicing to perfection my kung fu moves or taking a break in the sunshine, the undisciplined part of me usually wins out every time, self-integrity compromised.
3) Natural movement holds all key
And I’m lacking in any form of natural grace.
Anyone who has seen a kung fu master split a block of bricks in half with the chop of a hand will know that strength is vital in kung fu, but the performance of the art is more than that.
It is a combination of moves that need to be performed with precision, gracefully morphing from one position to another in an almost dance-like way.
Even if building strength were easy (I would say it’s not), acquiring grace can take several lifetimes, especially if, like me, you are starting with two left feet.
4) Seek not to harm others, but only to protect self from violation by others
Except the regular use of sharp objects terrifies me.
The purpose of Kung Fu is not to fight, but to end confrontation. One should only use means necessary to achieve this goal but these means can involve weapons.
Spear-like objects and razor-sharp swords all look well and good as they are swishing around heads and torsos in the movies, but when it comes down to it, present me with anything sharper than a paring knife and I go a little weak at the knees.
Attending a kung fu performance to witness the highly trained monks at work was enough to have me half squinting at the show through parted fingers even when I was sitting 10 rows back.
Put a sharp object in my hand and ask me to flail it around, even if only in self-defense, and I’d probably pass out with fear of hurting someone . . . that someone probably being me.
5) The chi follows the mind in harmony with the breath
Yet my mind is that of an easily distracted goldfish, lacking in any harmony.
The channeling of chi (life energy) is key to the practice of Kung Fu, although I’m not sure my chi even reached my mind.
All I was trying to memorize were 14 moves, one blending seamlessly into another as I tried to concoct a mantra for remembering the sequence.
Move one: low squat; two: hands held high; three: spin then lunge left; four: when’s lunch?; five: that man’s back flip was amazing; six: has the teacher noticed I’m making this up now; seven: copy someone else; eight: watch teacher roll his eyes at me; nine: give up.
6) It is said, be like water, and like wind, and flame, and earth and stone
And a glutton who prefers kung pao to kung fu.
My biggest problem in China was the food. How much of it there was, and how often I wanted to eat it.
Big steaming bowls of rice or noodles and myriad sauces tantalizing me at every turn were enough to preoccupy my thoughts for the entire three-hour morning lesson with notions of wind, flame, earth and stone replaced with longing for carbs and salty sauces.
The classes were hard but the lessons were valuable. At least now I know for sure that I’ll never be Bruce Lee.
Have you tried kung fu or been to the Shaolin Temple? Let me know in the comments below.
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Images are author’s own.