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