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It was when I got off the plane that they kicked in. My practised, nonchalant amble disguising a sudden attack of nerves. I realised with growing trepidation that I really had no idea what I’d let myself in for. It seemed like a good idea at the time – I’d always wanted to go to China, ever since seeing a BBC dubbed version of Chinese animation classic ‘Little Nezha Fights Great Dragon Kings’ back in 1983. I would have been just 4 years old, but I remember the cartoon with crystal clarity.

Except… I didn’t just want to visit China, I wanted to experience it. I wanted to do something different than the usual flying visit/ tour-guide managed package holiday…

I contacted Dave, an old friend from Larne who now runs a martial arts company and lives in China and explained what I was after. “No problem” was his cheerful response, “I’ve got just the thing, you’ll experience China alright.” Six months later, I was disembarking in Beijing airport after a 10 hour flight and was on my way to a Kung-Fu academy. Now I’ve never done much in the way of martial arts; bar a year here and there in Judo and Ju-Jitsu as a child and then later as a teen. Outside of movies and comicbooks, martial arts have never really my thing, but like I said; it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I’d signed up for one month at one of the kung fu academies, and the Kung Fu master of this particular academy, Chen Shifu, was there at the airport himself to greet me along with his nephew. We walked to the car, him carrying my rucksack and talking to his nephew who, it seemed, was the designated driver. In between rapid fire Chinese, I was able to pick out words here and there, ‘hao’ (good) and ‘qiang da’ (strong) and I got the distinct impression that I was being sized up like a steer at a cattle market.

In the car on the way to the academy, fighting jet lag, I tried to assess the master who would be training me over the next month. A small man with short black hair, a typical wispy moustache and a pot belly, I wanted to say that I wasn’t impressed. But I was. There was something about him. A certain aura that commanded respect.
He sat beside me in the back of the car and – not wasting any time – began carrying out breathing and meditation tai-chi-esque excercises, indicating that I do the same. Eager to make a good first impression, I did as he asked and thus began my month of training. After an hour’s drive, we arrived at a small nondescript Chinese farming town and parked (with difficulty) next to one of the many ‘siheyuan’ Chinese courtyard houses. Master Chen carried my bag into one of them and I realised that the academy was at his actual house. Not only would I be training with a bona-fide Kung Fu master, I would also be living with him and his family! The ensuing month, I realised, would be very intensive. After meeting Master Chen’s wife, daughter and her husband, all of whom lived in the house, we sat down to a meal of egg soup, noodles, dumplings and ‘Chinese pizza’. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, the chances of me having any western style food over the next month were slim to none.

With lunch finished, we dived straight into training – Master Chen performing his tai-chi moves which I watched and carefully attempted to emulate. After a while he stopped, opened his eyes and gestured for me to walk over to him. Standing in front of him, he said very clearly one of the few English words he knows – ‘punch’. I raised my eyebrows, ‘You want me to punch you?’ He nodded and I threw a half-hearted punch with he parried with lightning quick reflexes using one of the tai-chi moves he’d just been doing. I stared incredulously, my eyes on stalks; “Holy…!” I trailed off. “Just like Karate Kid, right!?” Master Chen gave his trademark slow, wise nod smiling gently. I grinned broadly; “That’s amazing!” I exclaimed; “But you ask me wax any cars and I’m outta here!” That was my first day.

The following thirty days eventually settled into a set pattern. I’d get up at around 7:15 and do 45 minutes of meditation and Qi-gong; eat breakfast at 8:00 then train from 8:30 until 11:30 when we’d break for lunch. There were three components to the training: the actual fighting style and technique – punching, blocking, grappling etc; conditioning; and meditation and qi-gong.

The aim of conditioning training is to strengthen and toughen parts of your body to be able to withstand punches, kicks and gouges while giving yourself greater power and ability to cause damage. Conditioning for the forearms consisted of slapping each forearm (inside and out) with your hand, upwards of 1000 times, conditioning for the hands consisted of slapping and striking a small sandbag with the palm, back and fingertips of your hand, again upwards of 1000 times in a row. After each session, Master Chen would examine my reddened and stinging hands and forearms and would growl ‘Hao’.

Fighting style and technique would follow; Master Chen would demonstrate several moves and instruct me on how to execute them, patiently correcting me any of the (all too frequent) times I made a mistake. We’d break for lunch, then do the same thing in the afternoon session, but this time with the third component – an hour or two of meditation and qi-gong excercising – thrown in.

Gradually the days became something of a blur, the routine of training broken only by the weekends and infrequent trips out to the village market to buy tonight’s dinner – in most cases still very much alive – or to Master Chen’s friends’ houses where he would carry out his ‘healing’ qi-gong to assist them with any aches and pains. Walking along the streets beside Master Chen, I would be gawked at unashamedly by the locals as though I were some sort of sideshow freak (or a celebrity.) The life of a westerner in rural China.

After a couple of weeks, Master Chen must have deemed my progress to be sufficiently advanced for he began to invite his nephew (around my own age) to come for sparring and grappling lessons. As we sparred, we’d try and teach each other English and Chinese.

By months end, I could complete a Kung Fu form routine (aka kata) flawlessly; carry out a series of intricate grappling, punching, blocking and kicking moves; and speak more than a smattering of Chinese. The skin and muscle on my arms and hands was substantially tougher and I could meditate quietly for 2 hours in the uncomfortable horse stance. I’d also learned a modicum of qi harnessing and directing exercises and was – to put it simply – in the best shape I’d been in for about 10 years.

The month of Kung Fu training was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience; albeit one that anyone can do if they so wish and I would recommend that everyone try it. One month later as I write this from my notes and memories, I realise just now how lucky I was to – not only train with (and be trained by) a Kung Fu master – but also to live with him and his family and experience Chinese life and culture as a local. I for one will definitely be back to China. I got my experience. You should go and have yours.

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