China 2013: Part III

Our first day here in Nanjing has just ended. Before coming here, we went to Luoyang, then Deng Feng and then Luoyang again. Deng Feng was the first real disappointment for me…

Don’t get me wrong – the Shaolin Temple is beautiful and the area around it is filled with Wushu schools, so when I arrived, I felt kind of at home. However, just like so many things here in China, Shaolin (maybe not the temple, but pretty much everything around it) is big business today. Ironically, we met Pavel, a polish guy who now lives in Shanghai, who used the very same phrase… I’m not sure if he’s a tour guide, in any case he was helping a chinese tour guide organize a polish group. Since we had questions regarding the Kung Fu show (more on that later) and my polish is much better than my chinese (although that’s getting better, too), I decided to ask Pavel, who obviously had a plan about what was going on. A small discussion arose from that question and at one point I asked him if he did any Gongfu himself. He replied that he didn’t – and „this place“ (he was referring to the Shaolin compund) was not so much about Gongfu as it was about business anyways. I had a similar feeling from the first moment I saw the situation, but bear with me and I’ll tell you the whole story…

My initial plan was to take a lesson at the [Shaolin Epo Wushu College] in Deng Feng. [This page] lists it as number 2 school in China. Now judging by my previous experiences here in China, just joining a single drop in class might prove to be… a challenge. All those state-sponsored schools are rather geared towards full-time students, you see. That’s no reason for despair, though, as there’s plenty of schools inside the Shaolin compund that will happily take in foreigners for any amount of time.

Before I did deeper into that subject, let me first give you the big picture, though. We were accomodated in the [Kung Fu Hostel], just a couple of meters from the temple entrance. Also, just next to the hostel (20 meters, maybe), there’s a Wushu school that takes in foreigners (more on that later). So, the location was just about perfect. Prices were fair, the food (I believe this was the first time up until now we actually ate at the hostel) was marvellous and cheap. Staff was good and helpful, too. The only negative point was maybe the hygiene… but then that’s a rather typical issue here in China, I guess. Oh, yeah, that and the fact that you have to pay the temple entrance tickets when entering the compound, hence going to Deng Feng and back a couple of times might prove quite costly. Then again, that’s ok, I guess…

In the Hostel, we met Hans-Peter from Germany, along with his half-chinese son Florian, who trained in the above mentioned Wushu school. The two of them told us that they have already been here a year ago and were so satisfied that they decided to come again. According to them, the masters at the school were all kinds of awesome and the training was so beneficial… Now I believe it’s important to note that both Hans-Peter and Florian are perfectly fluent in both written and spoken Chinese. Guess that makes a difference, because my impression was a bit different.

Tagou group practicing Wushu

First, there’s the „rip off“ thing. I told the masters I wanted to train with them, however, due to our time management, I could only do the first two sessions (for a total of 3-4 hours). Florian took the role of a translator, so I’m pretty damn sure they understood the situation. Still, they wanted to charge me 400y. That’s pretty steep, considering the fact that a full day (around 8 hours) of training costs 200y… yeah, right, they wanted to charge me twice the cash for half the time. Neat. When I confronted them with the fact that I already know the correct fees from Florian and Hans-Peter, they went into relativation mode and explained that they can’t teach me anything in two sessions (keep in mind we’re talking about roughly 4 hours here), so I have to take private lessons. Now there was never a word about private lessons before. Naturally, when I explained I didn’t want private lessons, they generously agreed to let me participate in two sessions – for 200y. That’s when I decided the whole thing was a scam. Now I might be wrong, but I really doubt it… You see, any kind of service is extremely cheap in China. When Sabine and I went to the hairdresser, we paid 50y (6,5€) for both of us – now I’m a simple case in that regard, but Sabine had her hair cut and partially colored, so in Vienna, this would have cost around 375y (50€). We’re talking about a ratio of nearly 1 to 8 here. Food is similarly cheap. 48y (6,5€) bought us a full table of food, so much in fact, that despite not eating during the day we couldn’t finish it.

A 6€ meal in Nanjing

Considering this situation, it strikes me as odd that two training sessions should cost as much as 200y (27€). I’m not talking about private lessons here – just plain simple group classes. Now I charge €10 / lesson for drop-in customers. So here, while everything is so much cheaper, classes are around 50% more expensive… that seems strange. At least, to me.

Sabine and I having fun at Shaolin

My decision wasn’t purely based on economical considerations, though. I could easily cough up the 27€ if I had the feeling the training would benefit me. For my [session at The Legend Muay Thai], I paid 270y (250 one-time tuiton + 20y for lending shin pads). It was well worth the money, too. After watching some of the training from the outside, however, I just didn’t feel the session was worth even half of what they charged.

Now I’m pretty sure that the masters at that particular school are good at what they do. However, having been a professional martial arts instructor for over seven years now, I’ve grown a bit more critical when assesing what I see. Also, I’ve become a bit picky – I just don’t want to ruin myself by doing stuff that doesn’t benefit me. What I saw was mostly some form of high-intensity yet low-quality (in terms of movement quality) conditioning work. An excellent example was uphill frog-jumps. Of course, that’s an excellent conditioning exercise for the legs (and lungs, if done for a while), but in my opinion, it should only be done with highly skilled and controlled athletes with excellent biomechanics (especially w.r.t. the leg’s mechanical axis). Even then, caution is advised. Having a group of children and youngsters perform that exercise undifferentianted is a great way of causing 90% of them long-lasting orthopedic problems… of course, the remaining 10% (who survived the methods) will become elite athletes. Despite the training, mind you, not because of it. No, that’s not just me being a soft westerner. Also, I really don’t need a coach to do that kind of training – but I’ll address that a bit later.

Students of Florians Wushu school

Generally, there’s this thing with conditioning work. S&C plays a vital role in preparing a fighter, regardless of the style. However, beginning a session with high-intensity conditioning work isn’t a good idea. Technique practice has to be fresh and focussed – all the top trainers agree on that. Specific S&C work can absolutely be included in a session. For example, [master Zhang] had me perform various strengthening exercises for my hip abductors over the course of the session to aid my sidekick. That’s one thing. General S&C, however, should be moved to a separate session. At least, that’s the route I take with [my school]. During the martial arts lessons, I focus on technique, tactics and concepts. Burning everyone with pushups and crunches would just take valuable teaching time away. General S&C is then taken care of in my Complete Conditioning classes (although the concept is a bit more sophisticated than pushups and crunches). After all, what makes a fighter is not the rope skipping, the strength circuits or anything like that… it’s combat training. Now this might not suit the fitness crowd. Frankly, I couldn’t care less. Also, if you really think that after a proper warmup, shadow sparring, padwork, bagwork and sparring you really need more crunches… you’ve probably been doing something wrong.

Young monk lifting something that heavily resembles a kettlebell. Those two are actual monks… while most Gongfu practioners on the Shaolin compund aren’t

Leaving all of the above said aside, I really took issue with the attitude that two sessions aren’t enough to teach me anything. I mean, that’s ridiculous. If I couldn’t teach someone anything in two sessions, I’d be out of business pretty soon. When I [trained with master Zhang], he quickly assessed my skills, picked the details he found (most) lacking and went on to help me improve in those areas. That’s what a coach does. Given a timeframe, improve your client’s skill as much as possible. If you don’t have time to teach him all techniques, teach him one. When even that would take too much time, look at what he can do and improve that. There’s always room for improvement.

Overall, I got the impression that quite a lot of what was done wasn’t particularly well planned. On the contrary, it all looked a bit like occupational therapy. Maybe that wasn’t even so wrong, after all. When I told one of the hostel’s employees about my experience, he told me that he wasn’t at all fond of the guys in the neighbouring schools. According to him, most of them don’t come here because they want to learn Gongfu – rather, it’s something like one of those bootcamps where parents send their children when they can’t get along. The martial arts teachers can beat up the kids and face no consequences whatsoever… Later, I heard a similar story from an independent source. Hans-Peter told me about a boy at the Wushu school. Apparently, that boy’s (rich) parents don’t have time to take care of the kid. Like so often in rich families, the boy kind of lost it and stopped doing anything useful in his life, hanging around with the wrong crowd instead. So, his father sent him to Shaolin for three years, after which he’ll immediately join the army (heavily sponsored by his father, without any doubt).

Another oddity was the fact that just about everyone, from instructors to athletes, seemed to be smoking and drinking. As in, smoking all the time, even during classes. I have pictures of an instructor smoking while teaching a group of little children. Now smoking is a very individual decision, but sometimes, it’s just totally inappropriate…

Group of young Tagou students. Did you notice the cigarette in the instructor’s hand? Now that’s what I call „leading by example“…

Of course, I have to admit that I didn’t spend a lot of time in Shaolin. Maybe all my impressions were totally wrong and biased. Maybe the training there is great and tourists are not at all ripped off – after all, you can spend a year there with accomodation, boarding and training for just around 6000€, probably even less if you look in the right places. Still, since I don’t claim to preach the universal truth, but rather just give an accound of my experiences and impressions, I can say that I was really disappointed when it comes to training in Shaolin.

Earlier, I mentioned a Gongfu show… Well, suffice to say that it doesn’t hold a candle to what you see in the west when there’s a „Shaolin show“. It was fun, no doubt – but sadly, that’s about it. I actually filmed the whole thing. Since China isn’t on particularly friendly terms with the concept of copyright and intellectual property, I see no reason not to upload that video. I’ll do so when I have access to a faster network. Then you can judge for yourself.

When preparing for the trip to China, I found myself a BJJ school here in Nanjing. Turns out, they don’t offer classes on friday and saturdays. Pity, as that’s the very days we stay in Nanjing… Hence, I did some more research and found [this ad]. Great, since I’m after some Wushu practice anyways, I decided to call there… I have to say I wasn’t even particularly surprised when no number (I found another one in the internet) worked. Finding a Wushu school or martial arts club for just a couple of lessons isn’t so easy here in China… at least, if you don’t speak Chinese. Guess I’ll have to put that on my „lessons learned“ list in case I have a chance to come back to China in the future: establish all contacts in advance and make concrete appointments.

Well, anyhow, tomorrow it’s another day here in Nanjing, then we’re off for Qufu, the birth town of [Confucius].

I’ll keep you posted.

So long,

take care

Sabine at the Longmen Grottoes
Longmen Grottoes

Pagoda at Longmen Grottoes

Sabine and I before the Dharma statue in Deng Feng

Ascend to the Dharma statue in Deng Feng… I just can’t bother and rotate all images at this time

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