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Learning Kung Fu

Study at the Martial Arts Mecca of China

By Jackie Adams

The Shaolin Temple in Henan, China, known in the martial arts world as the birthplace of kung fu and home to the famed “fighting monks,” now welcomes foreigners to train in its martial arts classes. As a student of kung fu in the U.S., a stay at Shaolin was an opportunity to actively engage with those for whom Shaolin is a way of life.

Shaolin has a complex of about 40 schools: the largest, Tagou, has 10,000 students. Accommodations at Tagou are in the Dharma Hall, which doubles as a hotel and a dorm for Chinese students. The Shaolin Monastery Wushu Institute at Tagou is foreigner-friendly, with an English-speaking office that can help to arrange travel, lodging, and training.

An intense schedule comparable to that of Chinese students is available at some of the smaller schools, although this entails living in Chinese conditions, typically a 6-person-plus dorm room with a board for a bed, shared facilities, and little if any privacy. The wushu (a collective term meaning Chinese martial arts) at Tagou is known to be one of the best, but if you’re looking for a more authentic Chinese experience, one of the lesser-known schools would be a better bet. One month of training at Tagou costs a mere $600, including a private room with TV, air conditioning, and training with a personal coach (short- and long-term stays can be arranged at about $20 per day). Meals can be purchased in the hotel restaurant or any of the many eating places right outside Tagou on the main street. An average meal costs about $1.25.

Formal training for the foreigner at Tagou begins at 8:30 a.m., although one can join the Chinese students at 5 a.m. for their daily run. By 5:30, students by the thousands mass into a sea of green with their identical uniforms, running around the school with the precision of a military drill. Kung fu practice follows and continues until breakfast at 7.

Tagou assigns each trainee his or her own coach, and classes are held in a special training room of the Dharma Hall hotel. Each coach has trained at the Shaolin temple for at least three years and is part of the International Trainees Service Center (ITS). The nature of the training, which continues to 11 a.m., depends on the coach’s specialties and the level of expertise of the practitioner. It can range from kung fu basics to more advanced weapons forms, tai chi, or sparring.

After lunch the entire complex falls asleep—a good chance to rest after a tiresome morning of training. Training begins again at 4 and lasts until 7. After dinner most students remain outside and continue practicing into the night.

The kindness and dedication of the coaches is most remarkable. The only other foreigners at Tagou at the time of my training were four adolescent boys from Taiwan, Japan, and Korea. Each of the coaches exhibited a personal sense of responsibility for our welfare, and seldom left us alone when venturing out beyond the school. Although I had studied kung fu, I was a very slow learner compared to the Chinese. While it would take me an entire day to learn a form, my Chinese classmates needed only to watch once. But my coach would always good-naturedly review with me until I got it.

Of the 400 students of ITS, only nine are girls. Lemon (an English name chosen because she likes sour food), the only female coach in our training hall, said she preferred studying kung fu to attending school, but became slightly embarrassed when I asked about her being one girl among so few.

Many of our coaches put on a daily performance for tourists, and one can often see them preparing in the training room, everything from snapping an iron bar to breaking sticks over their back and arms. Perhaps more notable than these accomplishments are the inevitable failures. One can witness first-hand the grueling training and discipline that go on behind the scenes of the feats and the road getting there—the dull thud of an iron bar that does not break over the head, the countless repeated attempts to break a piece of glass by throwing a pin at it. Persistence is a given and fear of failure is minute if it is there at all.

For the Chinese, training at Shaolin costs RMB5,000 a year—about the same as one month of training for a foreigner. Although they go to school during the day as well, a Shaolin student studies only Chinese and English. When queried about their future, many students have dreams of being a Hong Kong action movie star.

JACKIE ADAMS is a 23-year-old graduate student in anthropology from Abington, MA specializing in Asian culture and philosophy.

Editorial Note: Jackie Adams wrote us an update to her article on Febuary 6th, 2004.

"My article Learning Kung Fu, about my experiences studying in a school associated with the Shaolin Temple in China, was published in the Sept/Oct 2002 edition of Transitions Abroad. I continue to receive emails from people who have read the article online, but have trouble reaching the contacts I listed. The problem is that much of Shaolin village no longer exists. Most of the schools for learning kung fu have been razed, and moved to outlying areas of the nearby town of Dengfeng. The plan is to turn Shaolin into a World Heritage Site" ( Jackie notes that it is "still possible for people to train in this part of China."

Sites such as describe Dengfeng and the Shaolin tradition.

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