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How is Kung Fu Actually Trained in China

So, how is Kung Fu actually trained in China? Is it like a typical class we might go to on a Friday night at the local community centre? Not really. In this article I explain a few typical scenarios that I have come across.

Public Parks

The most common setup is for people to train in the park. For the vast majority of urban Chinese, they live in apartment blocks and don’t have any kind of private garden, so most of their outdoor life takes place in public parks. These parks can be a wonderful place to wander, there is so much life to observe, from old ladies group dancing, to people practicing Taiji, to people playing cards or Mahjong. Occasionally though, in a quiet corner, you may spot somebody, or even a small group, engaged in serious martial arts training. Some even go so far as to make DIY gyms, wrapping carpets around trees to punch, or ingenious wooden dummy type devices. What I will say though is this, the quality of what these people are practicing can vary greatly, and its very probable they will reserve some more “secretive” training for behind closed doors. So its likely you will only get to observe part of what they practice.

For these groups, training is usually informal. You turn up and leave when you like, you warmup however you feel works best for you, and then you work on whatever you feel you need to. You can train as hard as you like, or as lazily as you like, but this will affect how the teacher teaches you. Sometimes the groups may practice for free, sometimes the teacher will collect a small fee or receive gifts from the students. In my opinion it is better to pay, as nothing in this world is free, and you don’t want to be in the palm of someone’s hand in China.

In Private

Some teachers are incredibly conservative, and they may only teach in private. Others may run a public gathering in the park, and invite the students they like to train more seriously with them. This kind of training is usually very specialised. Teachers I’ve met who teach in this way don’t have you do a whole workout with you, rather they expect you to do your training alone, and they may spend an entire session just going over one detail, or explaining a bunch of applications.

Shaolin Temple Schools

There are hundreds of schools around Shaolin Temple, and also in other parts of China now. These schools usually take in extremely poor kids from rural families who can’t look after them. The training is brutal and probably does them a lot of long term damage. They will train most of the day, six days a week, beginning with a run up the mountain, and maybe other grueling physical conditioning. They also spend a lot of time stretching, often being forced into full splits and other positions. The kids will spend most of their time learning and practicing forms, repeating, repeating, repeating, and will get damn good at them. However, there doesn’t seem to be much of an emphasis on understanding what they are doing, more a case of learning a vast array of forms, both traditional and modern, from a wide range of systems. They may specialise in Sanda too, which will be more conditioning, padwork and sparring. Generally speaking, if these kids can stand out in their school, they have the chance to join a performance team, or go on to be an athlete, bodyguard or coach. A really good insight into what it is like training at Shaolin can be got from American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China.

These categories definitely aren’t the be all and end all, but from what I have seen in China, these are the common ways for people to practice Kung Fu in China, and I have had a taste of all three. If you are looking to make great progress in a short time, and have a full on experience, I think the last method is a good choice, but long term it is too damaging to your body. You may also find my article on Training Kung Fu in China useful if you are considering your options.

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Taekkyon Training

When arriving at the Taekkyon training for the first time, I was impressed. It was hidden down a small street in Insadong; the tourist/culture district of Seoul. The floor was all matted and the schools decor was very traditional. That lesson there happened to be visiting a group of Australian students on a martial arts tour of Korea. I just watched as I didn’t have the proper clothes. The class started with a kind of dance to the Korean folk song Arirang. During the dance, students stepped in rhythm, occasionally striking, kicking or patting their bodies. A couple of good reads for some background on Taekkyon and Korean martial arts are Taekyon: The Korean Martial Art and 5,000 Years of Korean Martial Arts: The Heritage of the Hermit Kingdom Warriors.

The master, Do Ki Hyun, was full of energy and gave me a very positive feeling. I saw him demonstrate sometechniques on one of the students and the crispness and power impressed me. At the end of the class everybody sat down and learnt a basic meditation set. Breathing along with some basic hand motions.
taekkyon trainingAfter that I was impressed and decided to sign up the next class. The first thing I had to learn was how to correctly wear the traditional clothing, tieing the knots the right way etc. After a bad attempt at following the warmup, an elder student taught me the first basic, which was shifting the weight from side to side by bending the knee. The difficult thing was not to swing the shoulders while moving. I was left to practice in the mirror for about half an hour. The movement looks simple, but my legs were killing, and then my neck and shoulders became tense. The feeling took me back to my days practicing Qigong; standing on the spot trying to relax, shoulders and neck killing!

Finally relief came, and I was taught how to step. The stepping pattern was like a triangle, bending the knees in a rhythm of three beats. The master explained that Korean music is all based on three beats, and so is Taekkyon. This step, called Pumbalkki, is the beginning and end of Taekkyon training. Just like Ba Gua has circle walking and Xingyi has San Ti Shi, Taekkyon training has Pumbalkki. All techniques, strikes, kicks, blocks or throws, come out of this step, and it dictates the rhythm for the fight.

At the end of class, I went up to the office to talk to Master Do. He had a beautiful collection of antique swords and many relics and paintings on the wall. He seemed very caring about his students, and took an interest in my martial arts training in China, asking what it was like to train there. He explained the traditional Korean way was very informal, and that the movements were comfortable and natural, as opposed to the technicality of Chinese martial arts or the strict nature of Japanese ones.
For the third class, I learnt some basic hand techniques, and did some slaps and palms on the pads. Master Do started to explain some concepts of Taekkyon training to me. He explained that in the beginning, you do the movements very light and naturally, not moving the shoulders. In order to learn to use your whole body power and Ki, you have to first learn to relax and be natural. In Taekkyon, he said, you must conserve power, only use it where its needed. He asked me to hit him and push him and showed me some techniques. His power was amazing… it made me think of a very skilled Taiji or internal practitioner. Soft, but overwhelming. He stated to make fun of Japanese martial arts being very hard and aggressive, saying that is a waste of power. He then added that it’s not that other styles are bad, its just that according to Taekkyon, they go against the Taekkyon theory. He said that of course, other styles would say Taekkyon is wrong. As I am here to learn Taekkyon, he wants me to understand and practice the principles of it, and to be immersed in it. And so that is why he is explaining this to me.
The difficult thing for me is relearning movements in a new way. Although Taekkyon is very different to Chinese martial arts, there are of course similar movements; but the difference is in the details. One thing for starters is learning to be much softer and natural than the aggressive, hard movements of Praying Mantis Kung Fu. I’m slowly making my way through the basics and getting to see the art of Taekkyon, which is a deep and complex martial art. Below is a clip from Chris Crudelli’s series “Mind, Body and Kickass Moves” which shows my Taekkyon teacher in action.

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Tao Guang Wen – Master of Islamic Kung Fu

Xinyi Liuhe Quan Master Tao Guang WenI spent a few months at Yu Jiang’s school, with the hope that there would be a lot of sparring, but it just never came around. We did a lot of padwork, basic reaction drills, some good strength training and some good drills for simple fighting concepts. However, after a period of time, I felt like this was all I was going to get, nothing really progressed beyond this, and looking at the senior students, none of them really had a very high level. So I had a talk with my friend Jarek Szymanski and he agreed to introduce me to a man named Tao Guang Wen. Tao is a Hui, a Chinese Muslim, and began his training from a very young age under his father in Cha Quan, and once he became an adult began to learn Xinyi Liuhe Quan and Qi Shi Quan. The idea being that these styles are not suitable for children as they are too violent. As Tao’s skills increased, his father urged him to study with other masters, and he would often spend time at the Peach Orchard Mosque studying with many of the legends of martial arts in Shanghai. Master Tao is a very conservative man, he is mostly known for his feats of strength, such as handling heavy weapons and lifting huge weights, however his real Gongfu is his Xinyi Liuhe Quan, which he rarely teaches, and almost never shows in public. It was only through Jarek’s introduction that he agreed to teach me at all.

After a brief meeting and a chat, Master Tao invited me to his home to have my first lesson. I got off the subway at Laoximen (old west gate) and it was my first time to this area of Shanghai. I passed the Peach Orchard Mosque, before entering an area of old dilapidated houses, with fruit and veg stalls in the streets and as I got closer to the large Confucian temple a lot of book shops and calligraphy supplies. Master Tao didn’t live in one of these old houses though, he had a modern apartment, which I found by seeing the Arabic writing hung over his door.

We sat in his kitchen and had some tea while he told me about his teachers, and about Xinyi Liuhe Quan. He said he didn’t need to look at any of my forms or anything, he only wanted to see me hold some basic stances to gauge my level. I did a Mabu, Gongbu and Xubu, and he seemed satisfied. The lesson began with Yao Shuan Ba, which I had learnt already under Yu Jiang, but this was quite a lot different. Different in that Yu Jiang had broken it down into high and low blocks, but Tao taught it as a whole body movement with explosive shock power. We began by just doing the hand movements sitting down, as he explained key points, before then doing it standing, and finally doing it moving. His way of teaching is very old fashioned, just like how I trained Mantis in Yantai, no formal class, but you get one or two movements and you go away and train alone. Real Gongfu isn’t done in a school or in the park, Tao told me, it is done behind closed doors where nobody can see. People should never seen how you train, only see you beat your opponent.

Sometimes something just feel intuitively right, and after training under several Xinyi Liuhe Quan teachers, Master Tao feels like the teacher for me. My first goal is to go away and master this one movement, build up my foundations and power, and then slowly learn the system, and spar as much as I can to practice and see what works and what doesn’t.

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My Year in South Korea

As my year in South Korea comes to an end, I would like to reflect on my experience here. I feel I have gained some small insights into a country which is fairly off the radar to most travellers.

my year in south koreaIf I look back to my attitude towards Korea, it has changed quite a lot over the last year. I came here after living in Yantai, a small and unpleasant city in North-eastern China. There wasn’t much to do, and so my life consisted of my work and my training. It was less than an hour’s flight to Seoul, the capital of Korea, a huge metropolis of bright lights. My very first experience was the crowded subway which we took to Kyung Hee University, where my girlfriend would study her master’s degree.

Early on, I felt very positive about Korea, I was keen to explore, and having seen most of the sites of Seoul and nearby places, planned a couple of trips to the far south, to Kyeongju, Jeonju and Jiri-san Mountain. Kyeongju did not disappoint, there was so much to see and do, and it had a lot of history and culture. Jiri-san also, a peaceful mountain with beautiful temples and a lot of small tea shops. You can read more about those in my previous posts. Jeonju, on the other hand, was a slight let down. The guidebooks had told of a beautifully preserved ancient town full of old culture. What I found was a few old buildings amongst some modernly built replicas made into guesthouses and restaurants. Aside from a shop selling traditional handmade paper, there wasn’t really any culture, just stalls selling tourist garbage like beer ice-cream and tacky street food.

After a while of searching for a martial art I wanted to study, I came across Master Do Ki-Hyun and his Taekkyon School (which you can also read about here). There are many martial arts styles in Korea, but most of them are modern creations, some, like Hapkido or Kuk Sul Won, are pretty effective, but others are just New Age bullshit or Mcdojos. However, Taekkyon is one of the few authentic Korean martial arts out there, and is very interesting in how it captures the spirit of the Korean ancestors. The art is based around a game, a match where you either kick the opponent in the head, or throw them to win. Korea was traditionally an agricultural nation, and the people were very peaceful. This is apparent in how Taekkyon techniques are not designed to inflict injury, but only to win the tournament. Violent techniques are frowned upon and movements are performed naturally and effortlessly, with a positive attitude. This a stark contrast to the modern Korean martial arts which have a heavy Japanese influence and a militaristic attitude.

After some time in Korea, the novelty of new things started to wear off, and I began to grow tired of the country. Koreans, as a nationality, are a people with a strong inferiority complex. Somebody once used the phrase “a prawn between two whales”, which I think fits perfectly. For most of its history, Korea has been overshadowed by China, and the Korean kings usually paid tribute to and followed the lead of the Chinese dynasties. Then came the Japanese occupation, which lasted around 100 years. Following that was the Korean War, which essentially led South Korea to become a puppet state to America. Since that time, the country has developed at an incredible rate, and now has a very good economy, high living standards, and is one of the most high tech countries in the world. Korean people have traditionally been a very peaceful people, but a long history of having to answer to the bigger powers has left them with a huge inferiority complex, which they cover up by being incredibly arrogant in their views towards other Asians, such as Chinese or South East Asians. There is a strong sense of Korean people wanting to distance themselves from less developed nations, and latch onto western powers. Modern Korean culture is very Americanised. With things like K-pop, TV soaps and plastic surgery/cosmetics, superficiality and materialism reigns supreme. This, combined with a very strict Confucian system of hierarchy and etiquette has led to a very stressful lifestyle. Everybody is competing with each other and social status as well as physical appearance is everything.

This sense of insecurity is very deeply ingrained in the Korean mindset and not only affects modern society, but traditional cultures too. Most Korean culture originates from China, there is some indigenous culture, but not that much. Koreans are fiercely proud of their culture and don’t take kindly to criticism (which is why parts of this article will make me some enemies!!!). They dispute the origins of many things which came from China. To us westerners it seems petty and unimportant, but imagine if you are a Chinese person living in Korea, and they are constantly telling you chopsticks, soy sauce, Yin and Yang, Chinese medicine, martial arts etc etc all actually originated from Korea not China!

On the flipside, Korean people have a good sense of social awareness, there are many people collecting for charity in the streets and people are willing to give. People are very respectful to old people (although many old people expect the treatment and are very rude, even to people who are kind to them) and often help strangers in the street. It’s one of the few countries in Asia where I have had to bargain or felt I am being overcharged. However, they are a closed people and it is very difficult to enter into their social circles.

As far as food, Korean food is generally either Kimchi or soup, or Kimchi-soup! I do quite like Kimchi however, just not in the doses Koreans serve. I also really enjoy their Samgyeopsal, which is belly-pork that you barbeque yourself. Maekgoli is a thick and sweet rice wine which is excellent too, although the Korean drink of choice, Soju, tastes like watered down vodka. My favourite restaurants in Korea were generally Japanese sushi/sashimi restaurants, which were always affordable and fresh. The Chinese and Italian restaurants were terrible and didn’t resemble at all those great cuisines.

On the whole however, my experiences in Korea have mostly been positive. I didn’t have many expectations, as to be honest, it’s not a country I would have chosen to live in myself. But I learnt a lot, had new experiences and met a lot of new friends. I am grateful for my time here and now I have moved back to China, am looking forward to my next adventure.

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Train Kung Fu in China? Where to Start?

 I’m often contacted by people wanting to train Kung Fu in China, but having no idea where to start, and so I thought I would write a short article with some suggestions based on my own experience. The amount of schools and masters and styles, it can be somewhat overwhelming, and not everyone of them is suited to everybody. To get a feel for training in China, one of the most enjoyable books I have read is American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China.

The first thing if you want to train Kung Fu in China is you should consider is what are your own goals or expectations. Are you an experienced martial artist looking to improve a certain skills or aspect of your own training? Are you looking to continue training in your own style, and experience how it is trained in its hometown by its top masters? Are you a total beginner looking for a broad overview of what Kung Fu is all about? Do you want to just get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and focus on training yourself physically and mentally for a period of time? Do you want an all inclusive package where you train full time, or do you want to live in a place and just train a few times a week?

A good second question would be how do you want to train? If you want some hard, physical training that really pushes your limits, then something like Shaolin Kung Fu, or some other northern hard styles, such as Praying Mantis, Tongbei Quan or Baji Quan may suit you. At the same time, if you want practical styles that are more combat focused, the latter three are also very fight oriented. If you prefer something more gentle, holitistic and meditative, then consider the “three big internal styles”, Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua, although the latter two, depending on the teacher, may also be fairly physical. If you want no-nonsense combat based styles, without much in the way of forms training, consider Shuai Jiao (Chinese wrestling) or Sanda (Chinese kickboxing) if up north, and something like Wing Chun if down south.

OK, so now you have an idea of some different styles, and what they entail, you want to consider if you want a full-time kung fu school, or you want to find a teacher “among the people”. The advantage of going to full time Kung Fu schools have is that they offer an all inclusive package: food, accomodation, lots of new people to make friends with and train with, facilities and sometimes visas and transport. The training is fairly regimented, and lasts all day, five days a week, and covers most aspects of Kung Fu, meaning you can learn a lot in a relatively short time. The disadvantage is that some of the schools are fairly commercial, and hire young and inexperienced coaches, rather than high level masters. For this, its worth checking out their bios on the website of the school in question, and reading reviews online. Some famous and experienced masters, such as Wu Lian Zhi of Baji Quan and various members of the Chen family of Taiji Quan, also run full time schools where you can get a balance of intense training, and high level instruction. However, with people like this, its also worth enquiring whether the master directly teaches the classes, and try to find out from ex-students if they are secretive with material etc.

The other option, which requires more effort on your own part, is to find a teacher “among the people” as the Chinese say. This will mean a famous master of a particular style, who perhaps only teaches part time, or even just a regular guy who teaches in his free time as a hobby. The easiest way to go about this, is to start to read up on different styles you may be interested in, and try to get talking to people on various forums, such asRum Soaked Fist or Kung Fu Magazine for recommendations. An introduction by a current or ex-student is the best way. Alternatively, if you are already here, and wish to train Kung Fu in China and speak some amount of the language, you can just get up early in the morning and explore the parks in your city, looking for people training and start to talk to them. Usually the better ones will be more conservative in my experience, so you may have to be persistent, visiting several times and proving you are serious about learning. Obviously if you choose this route, you need to have your own accomodation, and way to get a visa, so you may want to consider teaching English. It’s also worth noting that these kind of teachers generally want somebody to commit to a decent period of time, so if you are just traveling and want a taste of Kung Fu, this route is not for you.

I hope this article has answered some questions for those considering going to train Kung Fu in China, I have tried to answer what is most commonly asked in your emails, but if you have any queries, I can be reached at or search Monkey Steals Peach on facebook.