Two more cities done: Qufu and Shanghai. Now we’re in Hangzhou. This is what I experienced in the last couple days…
Qufu was… disappointing. In fact, besides the three main tourist sights (which are all Confuzius-related), there’s just not so much to see and do in Qufu. True, there’s the [Qufu Shaolin School], but I didn’t go there for a couple of reasons.
First, when inquring prices before going to China, I got a reply stating that a single lesson cost 1000y. That’s rather odd, considering a whole month doesn’t run that much. Then again, the folks there specialize in long-term students (which they stated in the mail, too), so they just didn’t have any standard fees for one time students. Ok, fair enough.
Still, I’m not particularly fond of Shaolin Kung Fu. If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you might have noticed that I’m not exactly a fan of patterns. Shaolin practice is mostly that – [taolu], for several hours a day. As a matter of fact, I met some people at the hostel who trained and lived at the Qufu school. They told me a thing or two about the school.
First, there was a fellow from England (whose name I won’t mention), didn’t make a perfect first impression, to say the least. Most of the time when I saw him, he was pretty drunk. Not what I expect from someone who represents a Shaolin school. In the evening when we arrived, he told me a whole lot of stuff, amongst others how he trained in [Shaolin],[Bagua],[Wing Tsun] and [Wudang]. That’s four distinct styles – now Kyle has only been to the school for four months. Come to think about it, it actually makes some sense… Now at the school, they train for six hours a day. That’s only counting the mandatory time, people can choose to do more. Considering an average class time of 1.5 hours, that’s around four classes a day or 24 classes a week (considering one free day every week). Now most western students (in my school, anyways) take two to four classes a week. Let’s consider the average case of three classes a week. That means that it’d take them eight weeks to cover the time spent by the guys here in just one week. Hence, to train as much as the guys here do in a month, it’d take the typical student in Austria around 36 weeks – that’s almost three quarters of a year, if I did the math correctly. After that time you don’t master anything… but you can acquire a rather solid base. Considering the fact that all the above mentioned styles offer a certain degree of carry-over (i.e., especially in the beginning, you get better in all of them by practicing any single one), I guess you could match a month here with a year in Austria. That does bring some rather interesting implications when it comes to teacher training…
Still, with all of the above said, the english guy’s movements looked… awkward. Could be the result of too much beer, though.
Then, on a positive side, there was Stephanie from Australia. Back in Australia, Stephanie was teaching kids classes at the [North Star martial arts Dojo]. Now, she’s doing a one year trip around the world. Before China, she was in India. Afterwards, it’ll be Africa. Quite interesting, if you ask me. Anyhow, I had a really nice, long chat with Stephanie about the martial arts (what else?) in general and the training at the Qufu Shaolin School in particular. There was a couple of interesting points. For one, most technical training seems to be organized in the form of Taolu, i.e. patterns. Now that fact alone would honestly keep me from training there. When it comes to the intensity of training, common knowledge dictates that intensity and duration of training are inversely proportional, meaning that the harder you train, the shorter the session is going to be. Now Stephanie actually adressed that very point. She said something along the lines of „though many people complain that training is too light, it’s as hard as you make it“. Also, she said „nobody’s pushing you“. Well, that’s pretty much what I’d expect from a six-or-more-hours-of-practice-day. Technical skills can only be learned and improved in the absence of fatigue. Obviously, keeping the intensity low helps in avoiding a fast buildup of fatigue. Then again, practicing for six hours a day, especially in a climate like this, will inevitably tire you eventually. Hence, the concept of „not pushing“ makes sense, if only to a certain degree. Some qualities just need intensity. Training volume won’t make you stronger – intensity will. Same thing with anaerobic endurance. Easy jogs won’t get you in shape for a fight. All-out [Tabata intervals] will. On the other hand, technique just needs a lot of (perfect) practice. I think Pavel’s [GTG principles] fit very good for martial arts technique practice. After all, it’s down to a compromise again: depending on what you want to do, you need to find the perfect blend of high-intensity S&C training and low-intensity, high volume technique practice.
I believe that going to a Chinese full-time Gongfu school is definitely worth the time if you’re looking for a way to experience a part of Chinese culture and learn some impressive physical skills. I’m not sure, though, if it’d be the most effective (or efficient, for that matter) way to become a great fighter.
Enough on Qufu, though. Shanghai is a city of 23 million people, so it wasn’t so hard to find a school to train. First, I took a Sanda class at the [Longwu Kung Fu School]. The school is pretty nice and conveniently located near the metro. It boasts three practice areas and offers classes every day. [This page] lists it amongst the top ten Kung Fu schools in China. Naturally, I had to go there…
The class was completely different from [what I’ve done with master Zhao]. In terms of striking, there was very little focus on striking. To quote one of the students there, „they don’t teach you how to punch or kick“. The trainer would occasionally correct a student’s upper body angle (there were some Muay Thai folks around whose fighting stance was too square for Sanda), but that’s about it. Also, I was a bit disappointed by the fact that there was no padwork whatsoever. After some lowkick attacks and counters (partner exercise), we threw techniques at the air for around 45 minutes. In this climate, that’s a pretty hard workout, you can take my word on that… still, after the striking was done, we spent some time on [Chin Na], which, in Sanda, is basically stand-up grappling. We only covered one technique (grappling against a rear high roundhouse kick), but we really took our time so everyone had an opportunity to understand and practice the move. I’m not 100% convinced that this would actually work against a good kicker, but then I guess I’ll just have to give it a try in the next sparring. Which brings me to another thing I found odd – when I asked about sparring, the student I mentioned before told me that „they spar in the Boxing class. They never spar in Kickboxing class“. Pity. Of course, after the technical work was done, we went through a gruelling bodyweight conditiong circuit, consisting of squats, sidekicks, pushups, punches, flying knee strikes and crunches. From a sports-science point of view, the technical parts should have been left out. No point in compromising movement pattern quality by practicing them in a severely fatigued state. During each round, we went for repetition targets (something along the lines of „beginner students 20 reps, intermediate students 25 reps, advanced students 30-35 reps). This system has a couple of severe drawbacks. For one, certain exercises just take a certain time, which can’t be reduced, no matter how advanced you are. In a squat, you can only descend as fast a gravity allows you too. So, in theory, beginner student might have to wait for quite some time until the rest of the class is done squatting. Not good in a circuit. Also, some beginners will just not be able to kock off 20 straight pushups. Some might not be able to do 2. In such cases, demanding a count of 20 is futile. Ain’t going to happen. That’s why, in my conditioning classes, I switched to timed rounds for circuits a long time ago. Everyone manages his own time, reaches his own limits, goes one step beyond them… and stops. Progressive overload.
What struck me as odd was that there was no stretching whatsoever at the beginning of the class. Sure, some people (like me) showed up early and streched on their own, but the trainer included no stretching at any point in class. As a matter of fact, one of the Belgian thaiboxers strained a muscle and had to quit the class. Could have been bad luck, of course. On the other hand, just maybe, this could have been avoided by a more sophisticated warmup. What also surprised me was the fact that meditation was done at the end of the class. I see some benefits in meditating after class – the thing is, though, that there’s just so many drawbacks of not meditating in the beginning… maybe the correct answer is to do both – in the beginning, to focus the mind and leave the everyday problems behind and then, after session, to get used to focusing in a fatigued state. Maybe a different form of meditation (that is, different from [zazen]) makes even more sense after training. I’ll have to think about that.
On another day, we went to the Bund first thing in the morning to witness (and perhaps participate in) some Taijichuan. We saw a double sword form, a fan form and a couple of ‚regular‘ unarmed Taiji groups. It was interesting to look at all the people and notice the different approaches to pretty much the same thing. Now both Sabine and I are by no means experts on Taiji, but, being a martial arts instructor, I can tell the difference between something that’s rooted in application and something that’s not. For example, there was a group that practiced some form. A few steps away, there was a single practitioner who apparently did the very same thing. Still, Sabine immediately noticed that „that’s the only guy who exhibits an energy flow. The rest is just going through the motions“. Indeed, they were. As a matter of fact, of all the people we saw practicing (and that was quite a few, really), there were just three that moved and behaved like martial artists. Don’t get me wrong here – considering the fact that Taiji is practiced mostly by old (as in really old) people, all practitioners moved exceptionally well (for European standards, anyways). Still, you can tell the difference between someone who’s ‚moving well‘ and someone who’s working hard and focussed in pursuit of perfection. I think it’s very much the same as in Austria, really. A few people decide to actually learn and master a style, but that’s just a couple. Probably those that are referred to as ‚masters‘ (the phrase is actually pretty common here in China) later on. The rest of the people pursues the martial arts for various reasons: health issues, fitness, cool-factor or just for the fun of it. Especially for older people, Taijichuan seems to be more of a functional fitness routine than a martial art. I have to say, it does a pretty good job with that, too. In Taiji, you’ll find stretching, actually a lot of strength training (I saw really old people do perfect, ass-to-the-grass droplunges here. That’s something most 20-years olds in Austria severely struggle with, most need a plethora of corrective exercise and tons of coaching beforehand), breathing technique, relaxation training… I guess people would be better off doing more Taiji back in Austria. Then again, it’s only a matter of time before someone decided all of that movement is unhealty for your joints and devises some watered-down, low-stress bullshit… But I digress.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve come to make some rather interesting observations. There’s the thing with using a map. You know, like a city map – something to show you a way and keep you from getting lost. Also, since China is quite a hot country, everyone’s using air-conditioning. Not necessarily a good thing. If that last paragraph didn’t make any sense to you, that’s ok… it’s just two semi-random points I’ve been pondering lately. Of course, I drew a connection to the martial arts, but since this post is kind of lengthy already, I’ll spare you (and me) a philosophical discussion this time and postpone it to a later time.