Kung Fu Dreams

We have written a few times about Kung Fu in Chengdu on this site and the word has spread slowly that a school exists here that teaches the “real” gong fu that kids all over the world dream of. Just recently, one of those kids showed up at Master Li Cuan’s door via KnowledgeMust’s placing service, a 20 year old French kid named Hugo Boue from a tiny town in the Provence. Hugo is one of those special students that has the determination to go with his dreams. A lot of us would love to train with a master, but how many of us would hunt down a school, save the cash for a plane ticket and the tuition, fly out there and then, upon arrival, train hard every day?

The truth is, more and more of us.

Kung Fu

Li Cuan and Hugo practicing "sticky hands"

Martial arts training is exploding across the Western world and not just in the traditional arts of karate, taikwondo or gong fu, but in all the world’s styles, from Brazilian Jiujitsu to Thai Boxing to Burmese Bando and other styles and combinations of styles. There is no one reason for the spike in interest in martial arts fighting, but a confluence of reasons, really. MMA blew up in the US with the UFC and the Gracie Brothers, so the whole idea of training different styles and combining them to create a powerful martial art hit the brainstems of millions of young people through televised UFC fights. Movies like Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon brought martial arts to us in a whole new way.

But there is also something much more difficult to describe at foot. Western culture in general is tense and prone to outbursts of violence, much more so than Chinese culture in my opinion. The media plays a role in this, but not the only role … the true nature of violence in the West and its nature vis a vis other cultures is a topic for another time. For now, let’s get back to Hugo, the special student.

Gong Fu in the Family

For Hugo, the first taste of gong fu came from his mother, who taught him Mei Hua Cuan forms when he was just a little guy. After that he took karate and taekwondo classes like so many other little boys and girls and learned how to get beat up by his older brother, who was also studying martial arts.

“I trained a lot with my brother,” Hugo told me while taking a rest at Master Li Cuan’s school. “Nothing too intense, just playing around, trying to do good movements. It didn’t matter if we punched hard or not … I was beaten many times by him, I think I received more than 30 stitches from my brother. Many kicks to my head and body.”

What older brother’s always fail to understand is that each lopsided beating dealt out in youth will come back tenfold in humiliation when the younger brother rises up and throws down his oppressor. Happened to Hugo’s brother; happened to me too. But Hugo looks back on those beatings as the first in a series of tests that would lead him to embrace martial arts completely by the age of 18.

Kung Fu

Listening as the Master teaches

The next test was weed and women. We all know how tough that one is. For four or five years Hugo struggled against these mighty enemies, before finally reaching an armistice that allowed him to continue on his gong fu path. By the time Hugo left high school, it had become clear to him that business school, a job in the suburbs, and puffing joints at night watching a sitcom while wifey cooks up some cordon bleu was not for him.

For Hugo it would be the Path of the Warrior.

Pain and Suffering

After a brief stint at the Dojo du Grenelle in Paris, Hugo decided to train at the source. So he checked online for Shaolin schools and found the International Academy of Shaolin (Kunyu Shan), near Yantai, in Shandong Province. The fee was roughly 400Euros a month, with small discounts for longer stays. Hugo planned on staying for six months, from January  to June 2011. He got his visa, paid the tuition, boarded the flight and headed to Yantai for some serious gong fu training.

“The training there was very hard. When I first arrived, I thought it looked like a jail. We woke up at 5am and ran all morning, did power stretching, forms and then punched and kicked trees for hours.”

For those of you who are just kinda reading along and sipping tea/coffee, let me remind you that Yantai sits on the northern coast of the Yellow Sea, which is in the far north of China. This particular part of the story takes place in January and February of 2011. So imagine punching very hard stuff every day for hours in the blistering cold.

Done? Ok let’s continue.

“I broke my foot and most of my knuckles. Had bandages on my hands all the time and I couldn’t really move for the first month.”

The school has had foreign students for several years and this particular class had 40 students, including 10 girls (and one Brazilian Goddess) who trained hard for three months before disaster struck. On April 11, 2011 the Fukushima Earthquake devastated Japan and destroyed a nuclear reactor, sending clouds of radiation across northern Asia. In Yantai, the closest city to Japan, the effects were extreme.

“On that day about 20 student got headaches, people had nose bleeds, some were vomiting. A couple fainted. They told us not to go outside if it rains.”

We’ll leave aside the news blackout that China placed over such events during the aftermath of the earthquake. The point is that Hugo’s gong fu training was cut short just as he was getting into the groove of hitting trees, stretching till something went Pop! and eating rice like Uma Thurman did after the “cruel tutelage of Pai Mei”.

A few months wasn’t enough, so Hugo returned to France and went back to the Internet, searching for another school where he could continue his training.

Finding a Master

The Shaolin school in Yantai was a great experience for Hugo, but there were a few things missing. A lot of the deeper theory behind the movements and the training was lost in translation because most of the masters there spoke little to no English and Hugo spoke no Chinese. So while he searched for another school, Hugo also began taking Chinese lessons so he could communicate with the masters and learn a bit more about what it is he is actually studying.

Eventually, Hugo found Knowledge Must and read the articles Daniel and I wrote about Master Li Cuan in Chengdu. The fact that Master Li speaks good English and focuses as much on theory as on practice was appealing and Knowledge Must also offered a homestay with a Chinese family. So Hugo once again did the visa run, saved up some cash and boarded a plane – this time to Chengdu.

“Knowledge Must organized a homestay with a family in Wuhouci and that was really nice,” Hugo told me. “They spoke good English, but the home was in center of Chengdu and it was difficult to get to Shifu’s (Master Li) place in San Sheng Xiang, so I left that home and moved out here to stay with Shifu.”

Although the training at Yantai Shaolin was much harder, Hugo found that Shifu’s style of training helped him improve greatly in a short period of time.

Kung Fu

Sticky hands in the countryside

“Shifu showed me how to train myself; he is not going to be behind me all the time. I like to train just myself, not be ordered around and beaten and here I learned how to improve my gong li, which is important, because I know the movements but not the gong li.”

Gong li is the art of utilizing your entire body with each strike, providing maximum power and precision. Without gong li, a punch can be stiff and slow, or weak and ineffectual. With gong li, the movement is relaxed, quick and extremely effective.

“Here I also learned further movements of Yong Chun Chuan (Wing Chung), stick movements and Shifu also told me the details of the movements, the little simple things that really help everything. I was able to learn the deep theory of Yong Chun Chuan here, turning on the center, stuff like that. It really helps that Shifu speaks english, the Shaolin masters at Yantai just said 1,2,3 while we did pushups.”

Hugo only stayed a month, but both he and Shifu both feel that he improved greatly. Hugo left for France on Thursday, but now he is already planning a return trip. For young gong fu students like Hugo, it’s often about studying under as many masters as possibe and soaking up the theory and wisdom of an entire system. Shifu Li Cuan himself spent years wandering China training with various masters before he found Master Dai in Hanyuan. Hugo will most likely have a similar experience.

“Now I am going to train what he taught me, simple things. Push ups on the walls with my fingers … using practice and theory to learn the depth of a movement and the core of Yong Chun Cuan and how each movement comes to be.”

“I’ll be back in July for two months with a friend . I told him about Master Li and he wants to come and learn as well.”

And that’s pretty much how it works for most gong fu schools. A student shows up and learns a lot, gains respect for and from the master and then tells his friends about the school. They come. They learn. And then they tell their friends …

Kung Fu

Learning the theory of Wing Chung (Yong Chun Quan)

For a look at the Next Generation in Gong Fu Awesomeness, go here

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About Sascha

Sascha Matuszak is a writer and commentator on domestic and international culture and politics. He's lived in Chengdu on and off for twelve years and currently makes his home in the South of Chengdu.

12 Responses to “Kung Fu Dreams”

  1. Not to put a dampener on things, but he more than likely could have found decent Wing Chun in his own country.

    It’s everywhere. It doesn’t come from that region either. So the teacher in question probably got it somewhere closer to the source in the south.

    A minor correction: the Burmese style is called ‘Bando’, not ‘Bondo’. I know I’m being pedantic, but I generally am when it comes to this kind of subject. Sorry ba

    • Yeah i would have to disagree there with the Wing Chung. That style does originate in and around Guangdong, but it’s now a part of Southern Fist and most good masters practice it. Also Master Li Cuan has a strong interest in Bruce Lee and the Jeet Kun Do style he put together from a combination of styles, including Wing Chung, so he went out of his way to learn Wing Chung.

      As far as Hugo is concerned, his gong fu (and Wing Chung) improved dramatically while he stayed here. And I have heard similar comments from other students. It’s not really that the masters in France or elsewhere are any better or worse, but they all have different styles of teaching and for Hugo, Master Li’s style of teaching helped him improve a lot.

      Bondo fixed to Bando thank you ;)

      • ‘Southern fist/Nan chuan. This term/style only came about some time after the nationalists banned the practice of gong fu and then made their own useless Wushu; around 70% of which was more or less from the chang chuan style (long arm movements, low stances, pretty looking but more or less useless).

        After some general complaints the nationalists chucked in some southern style techniques. But very few. And Wing chun certainly wasn’t one of them.

        It’s only in very recent years the Chinese government has sought to ‘jazz it up a bit’, but adding stuff ‘willy nilly’.

        Wing chun is a style within it’s own right and to teach it you should have a decent acknowledged lineage… that’s not my belief by the way, that’s Chinese opinion.

        If he is an er mei master with lineage, then that is all he should be teaching (traditionally speaking).

        JKD is not a style Sascha. Never has been. It’s a concept. JKD concepts are taught, not a style. JKD as a style is something of an oxymoron. To teach JKD concepts you still must have a direct line to old Brucie himself. Although I will admit, many Chinese teachers here seem to think that throwing a load of stuff together is the same. It is not.

        Wing chun is the most common form of gong fu outside of China, you can’t even swing a cat in the Martial arts community in almost any country in the world without finding a Wing chun man beside you. It is a great style, of that there is no doubt.

        Anyway, just seems strange to go all the way to China to learn bits of Wing chun thrown together is all if you ask me (which you didn’t, but ‘hey’).

        • You are referring to the “official” gong fu system and all that is true. Basically gong fu got ransacked this last century and the remnants either fled abroad (ie Bruce and the Wing Chung guys) or hid out in mountains.

          Master Li Cuan found the traditional southern gong fu styles when he found Master Dai in Hanyuan, western Sichuan. The history there is, the Taiping’s fought one of their last battles there and were wiped out by the Qing on the Dadu River. The survivors remained in the area and passed their gong fu on, so the gong fu that Master Li teaches is actually a mixture of the original Guangdong based styles and Emei Mountain style along with JKD concepts.

          The key here is that during the last 80 years of cultural genocide, masters in Hanyuan kept the gong fu alive. That is a very interesting story indeed … masters starving to death, being imprisoned, sent to the mines etc. So what Master Li represents, for me, are the remnants of the traditional styles that survived the last 80 years intact.

          you should come and visit sometime. I would love to sit and listen to you and Master Li talk Gong FU. Do you train as well? Where are you?

  2. Nice story. Glad Hugo found what he was looking for here in China.

    I am opening a similar school soon. In addition to breaking my student’s knuckles and feet on trees (in order to build up their bodies) I also place a garden rake between their legs fork side up. Then I step on it repeatedly, whipsmacking them in their teeth and nutbags until their Qi is centered.

  3. Thanks a lot Sascha for this article.
    About finding decent Wing Chun Shifu’s in France, yes they are few but the training in China is harder, deeper and you get improve faster especially with Master Li Cuan. You’re not in the same vibrations there :)

  4. I wanna learn five point palm exploding heart technique

  5. Hi there
    I would love to learn ;)
    I am from Mexico and I am moving to Gorgeous China soon, so is there any email in which I can contact you for further details.

    Cheers,

  6. Really nice post Sascha. There is a certain school of thought that claims that Wing Chun is actually from the south west to begin with. Leung Ting promotes that theory. I personally disagree with it, but its out there.

    I am very glad that your friend found what he was looking for. It seems that in life the journey is often just as important as the answer.

    While my background is in Hong Kong Wing Chun (Ip Ching) I would love to drop by Chengdu at some point and see what Master Li has discovered within the system and how he expresses it. Its always a little different for everyone, and thats the beauty of these arts. They are a unique expression of a shared experience.

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