From Flying Dragons to Breeding Turtles

[29.08.2009 – Pictures now added]

“What the… who’s that?? And how did he DO that?” It was my first session in Wu Wei Si monastery learning Kung Fu, and I’d just witnessed a teenage boy fly – yes fly – gracefully through the air.

Xinming, my 21-year-old teacher looked up languidly. “Oh him. He Long Fei. Means Flying Dragon. Don’t worry, three years he train…”

Let’s face it, being called “Flying Dragon” is pretty cool; but if you can live up to the name at the age of 18 – now that really is ice cold. As the Dragon flew through the air with consummate ease, kicking his legs out in a mid-air splits, I wondered momentarily if learning Kung Fu at the age of 37 was a jump-kick too far…

Doing things the Wu Wei

I had heard about the Wu Wei monastery – where you can learn Kung Fu while staying with the monks – from a glamorous French girl crossing the India/Nepal border. Nestled in the beautiful Cangshan mountains above the town of Dali, the monastery is mercifully still off the radar of the guide book writers. As a result, it is wonderfully quiet, no electricity, and few visitors.

“Wu Wei” is a Taoist concept, literally meaning “without effort”; the core of the philosophy is achieving action in inaction, i.e. reaping the benefits of doing very little. It’s fair to say that it’s light years away from the western way of doing things.

Although there’s been a monastery on the site for 1200 years, the current monastery dates back only 20 years – destroyed in the heady days of the Cultural Revolution, it was rebuilt by the current Shifu (Master) from scratch in 1988. He is a remarkable man, with a clear passion for the benefits of Tai Chi and Kung Fu. Days at the monastery start (at 5.30 am) and end with Buddhist chanting, but revolve around five hours of training in these ancient martial arts. There are only 4 permanent monks (and half a dozen other Kung Fu trainees), augmented in the summer up to 20 children come for a summer camp, with a smattering of 5 -8 Westerners passing through at any given time.

From the first morning it became clear that the Chinese kids had mastered the “Wu Wei“ concept, the five hours practice each day being peppered with periods of extended nothingness in the open air stone yard where we practised. The nothingness suited me fine – after a few months of little to no exercise, I needed the breaks to recover from the two hours of contortionist stretching that kicked off each day’s training.

The 18-year-old Flying Dragon’s athleticism had emphasised that Kung Fu is a young man’s game, not really designed to be picked up after years of bodily abuse in London. So with firm guidance from Xinming, I decided to study Tai Chi for the first week, cajoling the boys to help me at least get the form of basic Martial Arts movements right.

The rhythm of the days quickly became an enjoyable routine – woken by the 5.30 chants, jog to the river at 6.30, pick up a rock and walk back to the monastery, breakfast at 8.00, training at 9.00 for three hours, lunch at 12.00, training for a further two hours at 4.00, dinner at 6.00. Free time was filled with reading, writing, and… doing nothing.

Kung Fu Commitment

By the end of the first week, my muscles and tendons were starting to respond to a daily diet of three hours of stretching and 2 hours of martial arts. The actual diet was helping too – considering everything was cooked without electricity, the vegan feasts we consumed daily were remarkable for their variety. I could feel the health returning after the excesses of Hong Kong.

By week two, I was eager to change discipline, and moved over to Kung Fu.

Why Westerners ever think they can pick up Kung Fu in a week when it takes people years to master is a mystery. Still, it was an enjoyable challenge to try, in vain, to imitate the violent movements of teenagers who had studied for 3 years or more, and certainly gave the children something to giggle at. I can confirm, one and for all, that I will never be able to do the splits, let alone in mid-air.

The contrast with the gentle push of Yoga was stark – stretching Kung Fu style involves bouncing, pushing, pulling, and generally forcing the issue. Watching Xinming encourage 5 kids to jump on his back may have been painful to watch – but it also made for an excellent spectator sport.

By the end of a week of Kung Fu, I was starting to get the hang of things – but it was time to leave. I’d got a huge amount from the Tai Chi, but without serious commitment, you can’t hope to get anywhere close to understanding Kung Fu properly, let alone practicing it. Maybe in the next life.

But I left the monastery yesterday revived, refreshed, relaxed – and having met some great people. I also have a new appreciation of the “Wu Wei” way.

A great end to my time in China.

By train to the Turtles

Yes, I did say Turtles.

I am now heading to Malaysia to help a WWF programme to protect Green Turtles laying eggs on an East Coast Malaysian beach and then track the hatchlings using satellite technology. I stumbled across the programme on the internet, and it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

The next week therefore is travel-heavy – overland through Laos and Thailand by bus and train with a few brief stops on the way.

I’ll be updating before I head to the Turtles.

Toodle pip!


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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, China '09

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