STUDYING MARTIAL ARTS IN CHINA
Taking a light hearted break in front of the statue of Chen Wangting.
When the main training hall gets too crowded, the students go next door to the Chen Village memorial to train.
Why should I study in China?
Travel in China is getting cheaper and easier every day. At the moment you can easily study in China if you join an organized tour group. However there is no reason why you shouldn’t travel to China independently and study there yourself. There are aspects of life in China that are not usually open to even the most ‘go native’ traveler that are open to people going to China to study martial arts. Martial arts can form a bond between people that is quite unique. As a martial artist you may also be drawn to the sacred mountains in China, where martial arts are practiced along side meditation
There is a lot of misinformation about martial arts in the west perpetrated unwittingly by many sources. There is nothing better than studying with a group of Chinese people to help you understand what martial arts are really about. For example, in the 70’s teachers in the overseas Chinese communities of Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong used to say that there was nothing left in the Mainland. Now Mainland teachers often go to these places to teach. However, if you regularly practice with a group in the west, studying by yourself in China may give you new opinions that will differ from your peers. It may then be difficult to fit in with your old practice partners again.
If you know what a horse stance is, and a bow stance, and you know a few fist forms, and maybe a weapons form, then you are ready. The more you know, the more chance there is of you finding a good teacher, but on the other hand you can waste a lot of time waiting to be ‘worthy’ of a master.
What is contemporary Wushu?
Because of the huge number of different styles in China, the government has created a few standard routines that are used for competitions. In addition, these competition form have a lot of difficult moves designed to challenge the most skilled performer. Wushu in some respects is a model for martial arts for the future: Coaches that pass on everything they know to all their students, and students that are given status based on how good they are. Movements that are defined precisely so that everyone can learn how to perform them correctly. One slight problem is that a some top masters are not part of the process, so some traditional secrets are not passed on to Wushu students.
Unless you started training in your teens, you probably shouldn’t consider contemporary Wushu. Instead you should study a traditional style. Tai Chi, Baguazhang, Xingyiquan, Tongbeiquan, Bajiquan, Tanglangquan, Beishaolinquan are all examples of traditional styles commonly found in the north and central parts of China. Hongquan, Yongchunquan, Cailiefo are traditional styles popular in the far south of China. To complicate matters a little, because of the popularity of traditional styles, there are also so standard competition forms for traditional styles. Also, some people like to mix up a traditional form with some contemporary Wushu and use it to compete in competitions.
What is the standard like in China?
Standards in China, like in the west, are mixed. And yes, there are rubbish martial arts in China too. However the sheer quantity of people involved in Martial arts means that the body of experience is far greater than in the west. Moreover, the types of people that are involved are much more varied than in the west. A lot of talented, natural athletes do martial arts in china, where as in the West, these people are usually drawn to the other more high profile sports. Professional contemporary wushu athletes train 6 hours a day, 5 1/2 days a week, so you can imagine the standard they reach. A traditional Tai Chi student in Chen Village will train as much, perhaps 5 hours a day, 6 days a week.
What are the living conditions like?
Conditions in the cities along the coast are not bad. Living in a four star hotel is an option if you can afford it, and even if you decide to slum it, you still can occasionally pop out for a western meal now and again. Away from the coast, things have progressed a lot slower, so be prepared for more of a shock. However every large city will have a posh hotel, no matter how out of place it may seem.
The best way to prepare for living in the countryside is to imagine you are going on a camping holiday, and pack accordingly. Constant water and electricity and a sewage system cannot be taken for granted, nor can heating in the rooms during winter. Even if you want to stay in a posh hotel, there may not be one within a couple of hours drive. However, some of the schools in the remoter parts of china have special rooms with mod cons for westerners to stay in, so you may be able to have your cake and eat it.
If you want to know more about travel in China, I would recommend reading a guide book. Good things have been said about “The Rough Guide to China”. The entire text is available on line. Of course there is the ubiquitous “The Lonely Planet Guide to China” which is published in a number of different languages.
Theses days though, Wikitravel is increasingly the way to go.
How do I get there?
You can fly out to Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong. If your destination is another city, you can get an onward flight or take a train. Some travel agents in the west are run by mainland immigrants who can book internal flights in China from the comfort of your home country.
If your destination is Shaolin Temple or Chen village, then you will have to go to Zhengzhou city first. Often teachers will greet you as you step off the train or plane. For Wudang mountain you should go to Wuhan or Chongqing.
How about if I don’t speak Chinese?
You can hire a tour guide to meet you at the airport and put you on a train. If you pay a bit more, they can even accompany you for the duration of the trip. A cheaper way would be to speak enough Chinese to stumble you way to the school, and then from time to time employ someone to translate all the questions you have saved up.
Some large schools, such as the Beijing Wushu Institute have a resident interpreter, though I’m not sure if you have to pay more for their services.
What about etiquette?
There are varying levels of etiquette, depending on where abouts you study. In the coastal cities and tourist cities, they are quite familiar with the habits westerners have. Elsewhere, westerners are a lot more of a novelty. However in general people make allowances for differences in culture, so it is not too much of a problem.
How long can I stay out there for?
I have only ever been able to get a tourist visa, which limits you to 3 months plus a one month extension. Of course you can pop across the border into Hong Kong to get a new visa should you want to stay longer. Business visas and student visas would allow you to stay longer, but I’ve never been able to cut through the copious amounts of red tape required to get one.
How do I find someone to study with?
There are a lot of well established schools in China. A good start are the Wushu institutes that house the professional teams. Every large city in China will have one. Obviously these are the places to study contemporary Wushu and competition forms. Usually they will also have access to coaches that will teach traditional styles, such as Tai Chi or Xingyiquan.
What is Shaolin Temple?
Shaolin temple in Henan province is something of a martial arts Mecca at the moment, with some 2000 students studying in 8 schools dotted in and around the temple and in the neighboring town. One school is actually connected with the temple and is Buddhist. The rest are private businesses and are run independently of the temple. Moreover, a lot of what is taught there is contemporary Wushu. Because of the large number of western tourists that come here, living conditions are surprisingly good, with even a western restaurant near the temple. The monks living conditions are also not to bad, compared to say Chen Village The government has a lot of influence over what happens at Shaolin, so a lot of the skilled monks have left or been expelled.
What is Wudang Mountain?
Wudang Mountain, the home of Wudangquan, is also a blossoming martial arts hot spot. Wudang Mountain is also covered in martial arts schools. Being in a rich province, the living conditions were not too bad. Ironically, Wudang Mountain is very near the Henan border, and the dialect they speak sounds a bit like the dialect they speak in Chen Village. One monk I talked to said that they are forbidden from teaching for money, so the government ‘helps’ them by taking all the school fees. I got the distinct impression that the coaches teaching, although from the temple, were far from the best. Taoists are renowned for keeping secrets.
Recently Premier Jian Zhiming visited Wudang Mountain and bestowed upon it the status of being a ‘Special Economic Zone’. This gives the region special tax laws. With more and more involvement from the government, I expect Wudang Mountain to become very commercial in the future. A shame.
What is Hua Mountain?
They don’t practice martial arts there, just meditation and ‘qigong’. Again they don’t want to talk about it. I stayed on the mountain for 3 days in the middle of November, and the living conditions were the harshest I have ever experienced. The monks there really are a breed apart. In November daytime is like a hot summers day in England, and night time drops well below freezing, with a howling wind.
What is Chen Village?
Chenjiagou, or Chen Village to give it its English name, also in Henan, is the home of Tai Chi. There are stacks of schools in the village, in neighboring villages, and in the nearby town of Wenxiang. Some of these schools are basically the backyard of some Tai Chi master, while others are large complexes including living quarters for students. Henan is one of Chinas poorest provinces, and in Chen village, a remote farming community in Henan, life is harsh.
Chen Xiaoxing run the main school in the village. Zhu Tiancai also has a small school in the village, though have only seen it open briefly when he returned from Singapore to attend the biannual meeting. Wang Xi’an used to teach in Wenxiang, but now has a school a kilometer or so from the village He has done some ‘creative’ sign posting to make sure it appears that his school lies inside the village boundaries. Chen Shitong teaches from his house in the village. Chen Qingzhou, not actually part of the Chen family, lives in another village some 20km away.
Chen Zhenlei teaches in Zhengzhou city. Chen Xiaowang also has a house in Zhengzhou, but he is seldom there, spending most of the year time touring Europe and America, or in his house in Australia. However you can arrange to study with his eldest son whilst in Zhengzhou. Ladies, or for that matter men too, might like to study with the female teacher Chen Guixiang who could offer a different perspective to her male counterparts. All in all there are a lot of options, however I have yet to see anyone else fajing like the two brothers Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing, so I would make the effort to see that side of the Chen family before making any decisions about who to study with.
Where else can I study Chen style Tai Chi?
Tian Qiutian is a well known Chen style teacher in Beijing. He studied Chen Fake’s new frame with his uncle, Tian Xiuchen, one of Chen Fake’s top students, and professional Xingyiquan teacher. Tian Xiuchen is the one doing push hands with Chen Fake in the ‘standard’ photo of Chen Fake doing push hands. As well as Chen Fake’s fist forms, he also teaches pushing hands and Chen village derived broadsword and sword forms. He can either be found teaching at the Beijing Wushu Institute, or in Tian Tan park. He also studied with Feng Zhiqiang before Feng established his own style. Feng’s current students also teach in Tian Tan park.
If you want to study the Chen village style of Tai Chi, but you dot think you can take life in the sticks, then there is a Tai Chi teacher from Chen village teaching in Beijing who studied with Chen Zhaopei. His name is Yang Songquan.
Xi’an Wu Shu Institute
Xi’an has a famous martial arts school, and is also a historic town. The film star Donny Yen studied here. As well as contemporary wushu coaches, they have a 18th generation Tai Chi coach from Chen Village, Chen Quanzhong.
Where can I learn that stuff that Jet Li does?
The Beijing Wushu Institute, run by Wu Bin, is the home of the Beijing wushu team. The Beijing Wushu Team is known for its precise movements, and exacting standards. Jet Li the martial arts movie star learned his trade here. They often recruit teachers from The Chinese Wushu Association, also run by Wu Bin, to teach foreigners if there is something they particularly want to learn that is not available in the institute itself. The facilities here are also very good. Each room has a bathroom and aircon and TV, though you may need to share your room with a room mate. Also, the institute will pick you up from the airport and drop you off there too. They will also help you with other problems and occasionally organize trips out to the great wall during your days off. A lot of tourist attractions are a short walk away, while the rest are a short taxi ride away. Beihai park is literally outside the front door. There are usually a lot of other foreigners there, so it is easy to have a good time. The night life in Beijing gets better every year.
How about Qigong?
In the aftermath of Falun gong, all public qigong schools have been closed by the government. If you want to learn qigong, you have to contact an individual teacher, who might be able to teach you privately.