Kung fu hustle: How to master martial arts in China

CNN  — 

So we’ve watched a couple of movies starring Jackie Chan. Now we want to kick it like Jackie Chan.

Where do we even start?

China, obviously, but to the uninitiated the path to learning authentic kung fu is a treacherous one, full of potholes and tourist traps.

The true kung fu disciple seeks not these things, but could still use some help figuring out where to go.

Martial arts have been around for centuries, enduring huge political upheaval and splintering into various factions and disciplines. So getting to grips with how to approach learning it is a fight in itself.

Enter Sascha Matuszak, a China-based journalist who is producing a new documentary on Chinese kung fu – “The New Masters,” is directed by Christopher Cherry and co-produced by Kira Leinonen.

“As is the case with anything in China, if you just allow the tourism train to take you along, you’re not going to think China is cool, but if you take the time to investigate and stick around a little bit, talk to some people … your mind can easily be blown,” he says.

Matuszak, also an avid kung fu practitioner, says finding that inspiring martial arts experience is a test that requires perseverance, intuition, and patience, just like in kung fu training.

Especially for foreigners seeking a master in China.

“Chinese masters are still quite insular about who they teach,” says Matuszak. “Chinese kids are coming from the countryside to get trained because it will help them advance their life in some way such as help them find a job.

“Their training will usually be different from what foreign students will be accustomed to.”

That doesn’t mean visitors can’t have an authentic traditional kung fu experience.

“Tourists can go and train a bit and come away perhaps with a more decent horse stance [a basic kung fu pose]. Then there are guys who are serious and work hard to prove themselves and gradually move up to train with the real masters.”

Shaolin: Get inspired

“Shaolin has it all,” says Matuszak. “You have a real Buddhist community, you have a tourism business with everything that goes with that, you also have real martial artists – their skills are nothing to be sniffed at.”

The original hometown of Chinese martial arts, the Shaolin Temple in Henan province, is set in the forests of picturesque Song Mountain. It’s now a bona fide tourism hotspot. Visitors typically bus in, tour the temple and monastery grounds, walk around the Pagoda Forest, and bus out.

“If you don’t stick around and explore, you can easily be underwhelmed,” sadds Matuszak. “But Shaolin is the place to see real kung fu.

“Definitely try to watch a wushu performance when you’re there. The artists are athletes. The masters are the real deal.”

Surrounding the temple are a dozen or so martial arts schools, including one of the largest in the country, the Shaolin Temple Tagou Wushu School which claims to have 35,000 students.

The school offers tailor-made short term training, allowing students to choose what they want to study and for how long.

Shaolin Temple Tagou Wushu School, Mount Song Shaolin Temple, Dengfeng City, Henan Province; +86 158 1282 7955

Wudang Mountain: Creating believers

Matuszak says finding that inspiring martial arts experience is a test in itself, you need perseverance, intuition, and patience, just like in kung fu training, especially for foreigners seeking a master in China.

Hubei province’s Taoist stronghold of Wudang Mountain is the cradle of taijiquan, a style of martial arts that marries kung fu with Taoist principles, harnessing internal energy and practiced for self defense and health benefits.

The mountain range is still relatively underdeveloped as a tourism hub, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“The mountains are stunning, like a classic Chinese painting. A relatively untouched area, it isn’t hard to imagine what it was like 150 years ago,” says Matuszak.

Anyone interested in Taoism, will find inspiration here. dThere’s a lot of metaphysics to Wudang kung fu goals, which include immortality, health, and transcendence.

“Finding transcendence on Wudang Mountain today will be difficult, unless you can really tune out what is going on around you,” Matuszak says. “But it will still create a believer out of you.

“There are people doing taijiquan everywhere you look, and they will all tell you how Taoism and taijiquan have improved their lives, making them a better person, make them feel better, everything is better, and they want to share this with you. Everybody wants to teach you taijiquan, or point you in the right direction.”

Check out Wudang Daoist Traditional Internal Kung Fu Academy, which holds classes in a historic location in Wudang.

Wudang Daoist Traditional Internal Kung Fu Academy, Wudangshan, Shiyan City, Hubei Province; +86 135 9788 6695

Chen Village: Tai chi Mecca

The major style of tai chi traces its origins to this humble village in Henan province, named after the family that created it.

“The village itself is a dusty little place with brick houses, but the tai chi here is world famous,” says Matuszak. “If you walk through the village, there are people doing tai chi in all corners, in fields, everywhere. Tai chi practitioners make pilgrimages to the village.”

The undisputed Chen lineage is very important for practitioners who want masters who’ll teach them the correct forms of tai chi.

“Practitioners believe that tai chi activates an internal energy source, so if you are not doing it right it can cause physical problems,” says Matuszak.

“You want a real bona fide guy to learn from, particularly as Chen-style emphasizes the yang energy – it is powerful, it can be used in combat.”

Look out for Chen Jia Gou Tai Chi School, run by Chen Xiao Xing, a direct descendent of famous practitioner Chen Fake, and check out www.china-taichi-guide.com for detailed reviews of more schools.

According to Matuszak, the “uber master” Chen Xiao Wang returns to the village every March to hold seminars.

Mount Emei: Hidden talents

The Shaolin Temple Tagou Wushu School has 35,000 students.

Mount Emei in Sichuan province is famed for its sunrises and its historical importance in the development of kung fu.

Many kung fu styles emerged from this scenic spot, including emeiquan, and the area is a popular setting for Chinese martial arts novels.

Visitors looking to learn kung fu on the mountain might be disappointed as there is little to offer students.

Surprisingly, it’s here Matuszak found his kung fu home.

“If you pay attention, you could go to any province in China and find a kung fu master that will blow your mind. They are walking around but they are hidden. They could be the mail man,” says Matuszak.

“You can find your own special experience away from the infrastructure.”

He stumbled upon his own master at the recommendation of a friend.

Master Li Quan has taught Matuszak for the past 12 years at his school on the outskirts of Sichuan’s provincial capital, Chengdu (+86 28 86716235).

Training at the school, Matuszak has had the opportunity to visit Mount Emei on several occasions, seeing the mountain at its best during the tourism industry’s low season.

“I’ve been there in the dead of winter in February. It’s a cold hike, the hotels don’t have proper heating, but a little bit of snow will fall and the temples are covered in an inch of pristine snow, suddenly a monk will scurry across with a lamp. That scene is unforgettable.”

Hong Kong: Kung fu custodians

Hong Kong is where kung fu really left the shores of China and spread across the globe.

It also played a huge role in conserving traditional forms of kung fu as Communism swept across the rest of China and masters fled.

Today, Hong Kong is home to a healthy community of custodians of wing chun, a style of kung fu that originated in Fujian province.

“Hong Kong is a critical point for martial arts. If it weren’t for Hong Kong, it would be hard to say what would have happened to kung fu. It might have become an obscure thing,” says Matuszak.

The movies that Bruce Lee made in Hong Kong in the 1970s brought kung fu into the popular imagination and influenced martial arts around the world.

The original kung fu superstar is honored in his hometown with a life-size statue on the harbor front and a five-year exhibition of a vast collection of memorabilia at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum (1 Man Lam Road, Sha Tin, Hong Kong; +852 2180 8188).

Lee was himself one of the disciples of wing chun master Yip Man.

For visitors interested in the lineage of wing chun, the charismatic Sam Lau is one of Yip Man’s surviving direct disciples.

He can be found teaching at his school in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Hong Kong-based freelancer Zoe Li writes regularly on art, culture, food and travel.