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.
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.
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.