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A “Mantis” Chinese New Year

I’ve celebrated Chinese New Year more than a few times in Asia, whether it was with the remote Dong people in the mountains of Guizhou, venerating the Jade Emperor with ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, or watching a rock band in Singapore. However there’s one particular New Year I remember well. My teacher, Master Zhou, invited me to spend it with his family, and took me to visit his kung fu elders. For the Chinese, New Year is somewhat akin to Christmas, and apart from getting loads of presents from Santa, the atmosphere was very similar.

For New Year’s eve we made dumplings, which is a New Year’s tradition. First we made a small batch of vegetarian ones, which were to be offered to Buddha later, then we made the meat ones for ourselves. As the night drew in, the sound of fireworks filled the air outside, every few seconds you could hear great big bangs and the spitting sound of crackers. Master Zhou and his wife offered the vegetable dumplings to the Buddhist shrine in their living room, then lit incense.

Master Zhou took me outside to set off fireworks, which is something Chinese people love. No matter how small a celebration, they will set off fireworks, whatever time of day! The fact that the Chinese invented gunpowder to celebrate, but the Europeans turned it into a weapon, is something not lost on the Chinese. Something I had always wondered about in China was why people always light little fires on crossroads at night. Master Zhou explained is to burn offerings to your ancestors as he took a wad of “death notes” from his pocket; which are large pretend notes of money. He drew a circle in the snow on the street and made a little fire with paper, which did little to relieve my chapped hands. This way his ancestors would have money to spend in the afterlife and wouldn’t cause trouble to the living. Then we went back inside, lit incense to offer to his late master and his parents, followed by a huge dinner of traditional Shandong food and some weird Chinese “medicinal” liquor.

I was woken up at about 5.30am by the sound of firecrackers ouside my window! The sound continued every few seconds for the rest of the day. I arrived back at master Zhous apartment and there was plates of nuts and nibbles on the table, with a few disciples sat arond smoking. All through the day, family members and students would stop by to wish happy new year to Master Zhou, including a star from a local TV station. Once the coming and going settled down, we went to visit some kung fu elders and give them some small gifts.

The first stop was Master Zhou’s late master’s wife. She is 103 and lives with her son, who is also a well known master. She was partially blind and deaf and laying in bed. She just looked so old, and just grumbled. It was amazing to think she was born in the Qing dynasty, when there was still an emperor on the throne! The things she must have seen as China changed, but as age had caught up to her, I was unable to ask her anything. Next stop was to visit an early disciple of Cui Shou Shan. He is one of the last few people alive who trained directly with the great master, and lived in a very basic, old house. When we left, he looked Master Zhou in the eyes and, clasping his hand with both of his, said “You must do your best to pass on Taiji mantis to more people, you have learnt the system more thoroughly than any of us, don’t let it be forgotten.” That was moving for me, to see that old man say it in such a heartfelt way, it confirmed that I am training under a great master.

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Drinking – Chinese Style

I was so used to seeing Master Li quietly practicing his beautiful Taiji form in the park next to us as we practiced our Mantis. But today he was spilling Qingdao beer all over the food at a banquet as he was toasting people across the table and rambling in incoherent Yantai dialect. My head was already spinning and I felt sick; after all it was only 1pm and we’d been drinking for two hours already.

drinkingThis is a typical scene at a Kung Fu banquet in northern China. Anybody who has read Outlaws of the Marsh will know, that martial heroes in China are supposed to hold their drink, in order to prove their masculinity to their peers. In Shandong especially, this is a tiring and repetitive affair. It usually goes like this: your teacher gets a phone call, Master X, Master Y and Master Z will have a meeting about bla bla, and they will invite some government officials as well as members of the Chinese Martial Arts Association, and your teacher has been invited and told to bring the Laowai along for face. So there you are in a room full of cigarette smoke waiting to be told your appropriate seat. Where you sit is very important in these affairs; the host usually sits facing the door, with the guest of honour to his right. The host will have some kind of assistant who will sit close to the door, so they can talk to the waitress, pay the bill etc. Then other important people sit to the sides, so now you have people sat at the four compass points. Then the other people sort of fill in the gaps where they are told to sit.

Cold dishes arrive first. These are generally my favourite: often some kind of cold meat, Chinese style salad with strong vinegar and lots of raw garlic, and usually jellyfish. At this point things are still civilised, and people may take food for each other and chat quietly and politely. Once the luke-warm Tsingtao beer arrives, glasses are filled to the brim and the toasting starts. Typically the host must make three toasts, after which the entire glass of disgustingly room temperature weak beer is downed, and people fill up each others glasses, raising them slightly as beer is poured for them. This is where things start to spiral downwards as more beer is consumed and the hellish Baijiu comes out. If you don’t know what Baijiu is let me explain. It is hell in a bottle. It’s basically distilled grain alcohol which starts around 50% and goes up from there. It tastes like paint stripper. This is when all the etiquette goes out the window and the babbling while leaning on your shoulder begins. The point when the most important government officials in the city are suddenly your best friends and won’t leave you alone. It’s also a good time to witness brawls, as lineage rivalries surface, somebody can say the wrong thing, and before you know it student of Master X is aiming a flying elbow at the head of student of Master Y.  This will all be forgotten the next day, as hospital bills are usually negotiated quite fairly and there’s no hard feelings.

These dinners are kind of fun in hindsight. I’ve been to more than enough, and don’t make a plan of attending any more if I can help it. But at the same it’s all part of the experience of China, you will experience them if you are here long enough. Not only in Kung Fu circles, but at weddings, business meetings and any other social event. As the modern world creeps in though, for better or for worse, they are in decline, and where I live in Shanghai now I don’t really encounter them. Western style dining is taking over, and going for a coffee or quiet beer is becoming more and more trendy.

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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.