Martial arts
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A mountaintop temple in Dengfeng county, Henan province, China. Photo: Alamy

Beyond Shaolin: in search of the kung fu masters of China’s Henan province

  • These remote experts have slipped through the net of the government-funded kung fu revival
  • Ageing and poor, practitioners are dying out along with their own unique skills
Martial arts

Shaolin Temple. Those two words may conjure up images of Zen-like monks living a reclusive life in the mountains, imitating the movements of animals in the pursuit of enlightenment. Or perhaps you picture those monks doing somersaults, landing to break metal bars over their heads while spears are stuck into their throats. The cinema and savvy publicity by the current abbot have a lot to answer for.

I am visiting Henan province’s Dengfeng county, home to the temple, to track down styles of kung fu that have been practised in the area since the late Ming, early Qing dynasties. Television viewers have seen Dengfeng town, its streets teeming with kung fu kids jogging up and down in tracksuits before disappearing into their schools to practise routines. In the flesh, the scale of these institutions is overwhelming. But I am not here to visit these large modern schools.

Shaolin kung fu is misunderstood. TV shows would have us believe a monk named Bodhidharma, from India, taught yogic type exercises to the Buddhist monks to relieve aches and pains brought on by long periods of meditation. It was this, they say, that inspired the monks to create styles of kung fu based on the movements of animals.

The truth, though, is more prosaic. The Shaolin Temple lies in a mountain pass not far from the ancient capital of Luoyang. War, banditry and rebellion have long ravaged the area. The temple was often caught in the middle and so kept its own militia. Over hundreds of years, the fighters absorbed various forms of martial arts from the surrounding areas, the temple becoming a hub for the exchange of ideas and the development of kung fu.

Kung fu students train in Dengfeng. Photo: Will Wain-Williams

I base myself at the small school of Hu Zhengsheng, in a village between the Shaolin Temple and Dengfeng town. Master Hu’s school focuses on Xinyiba, the so-called internal art of Shaolin, which takes a mini­malist attitude to training: a few core movements used to develop coordination and the mind-body connection.

Hu is one of the few teachers still in con­tact with the old masters out in the villages. Down to earth, tall and slim, he smiles often and doesn’t fit the stereo­typical kung fu master mould. He enjoys having his foreign students hang out and drink tea in his office; a respite, he says, from the stress of dealing with officials and the bureaucracy involved in running a business such as his. Hu sits on the floor and stretches his legs while telling us about his own shifus, principles and theory of the art. He swings around rusty antique weapons as he talks.

My search for the old Shaolin methods leads me first to 90-year-old Mao Yonghan, who, I’ve been told, was a monk in pre-revolution times. Hu phones ahead to tell Mao I am going to visit and, along with one of Hu’s students, I take a taxi to the address I have been given.

The small block of flats in the middle of Dengfeng town is old and run down. Next to it is wasteland littered with bricks, broken glass and rubble that residents have optimi­stically turned into an allotment. A man waiting by the road tells us he is Mao’s son and leads us into a concrete room on the ground floor of the residential block. Other than a small shrine and photos of people in kung fu poses on the wall, the damp, musty room is empty. Mao enters, dressed in full monk regalia, to greet us.

The story goes that in the 1930s, his parents sold him to the temple in exchange for corn and then went off to be beggars. He was raised by the Shaolin monks and train­ed as a wuseng (warrior monk). When he reached adulthood, he left monastic life to marry and start a family, but continued his martial arts. He began teaching only later.

Our meeting feels strained. The son sits us down for tea but will not let us converse with his father.We leave confused, and with­out having found out much about Mao’s fighting style. Fortunately, other masters live in the area.

90-year-old kung fu master Mao Yonghan sits with visitors. Photo: Will Wain-Williams

The road from Dengfeng town to the Shaolin Temple Scenic Area is straight and plied by regular buses. Just before the ticket booth, which is a kilometre or two from the temple, a petrol station obscures from view the small village of Xiguodian.

I am looking for the school of Cui Zhongwu. When the Shaolin Temple re­opened following the success of the 1982 Jet Li movie of the same name, Cui’s father, Cui Xiqi – one of the few masters who still knew Shaolin kung fu – was invited to bring the art back to the temple.

Chickens run around the piles of rubbish lining the sides of the village’s small paths. After asking a few villagers, none of whom seem to know where I can find the school, I spy a faded poster showing Cui Xiqi, who died a few years ago, striking kung fu poses. It looks as though somebody has tried to tear it down and gave up halfway. Next to it is a huge door with an iron knocker. An old lady answers and she seems to think she knows me, letting me straight in.

After a few minutes of waiting in a dark room, Cui Zhongwu enters. His Henan accent is strong and he keeps scratching his head, as if he’s confused. He has only a couple of students currently, he says; times are hard.

Kung fu master Cui Zhongwu demonstrates his technique. Photo: Will Wain-Williams

After talking for an hour he agrees to let me film his kung fu and we retreat to a courtyard. He suddenly comes alive, jump­ing from topic to topic, showing off a range of fighting techniques, explaining that many of the poetic names of the moves take inspiration from mythology or art.

One posture is called Qixing (“seven stars”), the Chinese name for the constella­tion Big Dipper. Master Cui squats down low and hits a student in the ribs with both fists, his body taking on the shape of the Big Dipper. He explains that seven points in the body – foot, knee, hip, shoulder, elbow, fist and head – are lined up to strike.

Yun gai ding means “clouds covering the peak”, the peak being the head and the cloud the hands. Demonstrating this move, Cui uses his hands to protect his head while moving in close as his student attacks him.

There appears to be no method to what he demonstrates, but if you have a basic understanding of kung fu and can keep up with Cui’s explanations, he teaches a lot – about how to move, technique, variations in application – in a short time.

Kung fu master Xu Wudao in a remote village near the town of Yanshi, deep in the Song mountains. Photo: Will Wain-Williams

Over the following week, I have many such encounters in the villages of Dengfeng. Each shifu teaches the same style, but they each have unique perspectives and insights.

Wang Zhongren sits us down and explains the core theories behind the “six harmonies” and the san jie (“three sections”), which gives context to Cui’s more eclectic style.

I find Xu Wudao, the only one of Hu’s teachers still living, in a remote village near the town of Yanshi, deep in the Song moun­tains, more than an hour from Dengfeng. Nearly 90 and in faltering health, he is unable to show us any kung fu, but just being able to sit with him in his home, on tiny stools in a courtyard decorated with calligraphy, is enlightening.

Xu tells us about his younger days and famous masters of times past. As we sit in hiscourtyard, home-made weights, spears and a sword stacked in a corner, he explains about the courtyards of Shaolin, and how each was a venue for its own style of kung fu. Originally there were four, one for each point of the compass, but only the south­ern and western ones have been preserved.

Practising Shaolin kung fu in Dengfeng. Photo: Alamy

Kind and generous with their time, these masters have little money but a wealth of knowledge. They give more gifts than I have brought them, and insist I stay for lunch – usually simple noodles in a broth or a few plates of vegetables from their garden with slivers of stir-fried pork.

Back in Hu’s office we are drinking tea again, and reflecting on the teachers we’ve met. Hu explains that these old masters aren’t able to pass their knowledge and skills on as the young don’t want to stay in their impoverished villages. Meanwhile, the government supports only the large schools and institutions, which in most cases teach modernised martial arts, so the old styles are dying out along with their practitioners.

Hu, though, finds himself in a unique position; he owns a school large enough to gain recognition but has learnt the skills and styles of the old masters and is willing to pass them on to his students.