In China for Kung Fu

14:25, June 07, 2010      

Email | Print | Subscribe | Comments | Forum 

By Andrew Thompson

Ever since Bruce Lee brought Kung Fu out of China and into western cinema, people all over the world have taken up training in martial arts and learned something about Chinese culture. My love for Kung Fu started as a teen in New Zealand when I joined a club just down the street from my house. Almost ten years later here, I am in Beijing practicing at a university that offers special courses in Wushu, Tai chi, Sanda and other of Kung Fu.

The Capital Institute of Physical Education (CIPE) is in the south east of the Haidian district. It was heavily involved in training athletes leading up to the 2008 Beijing who went on to win gold medals for China. Around campus there are still shining statues with the five-ring Olympic logo standing on open lawns. As well as offering courses in athletics, football, basketball and most other mainstream sports, this is one of the few universities in the world to offer courses in Chinese martial arts. Many students come here to major in their favorite, wushu.

Wushu is a collective term for all Chinese martial arts, and encompasses countless schools and styles. Long fist style (长拳 Changquan) is the most well known and visually impressive. Performances include acrobatic leaps, flips and kicks, all of which demand extreme flexibility, power and accuracy.

Southern fist (南拳 Nanquan) is the next most popular and is known for its low stances and demanding punch combinations which athletes must performs with fierce faces and powerful shouts. Tai chi is one of the most popular forms of exercise worldwide and the well-known styles like Yang and Chen can be studied here.

Sanda, another popular course, is a form of Chinese boxing that includes sparring, joint locks and takedowns. On top of this, students can study weapons like the sword (剑 jian), staff (棍 gun) and spear (枪 qiang) to really make themselves dangerous.

The CIPE has been enrolling foreign students since 1994 and presently there are six overseas students studying martial arts full time. They have come from as far away as Norway, Canada, Japan and Mexico to train hard and perfect their skills. I arrived just over a month ago to join them in their daily training.

The days start with training. The hall is huge, easily big enough to hold four classes, but the morning it has only a handful of students and their teachers. There are three large mats, three raised boxing rings, and a row of heavy punching bags on the far wall.

The teacher's favorite way to warm up is teaming up against the students for a game of soccer. The teachers are all highly regarded in their respective martial arts fields. Some are even former Wushu world champions. In spite of their credentials, they relax and have fun kicking the ball around and keep us on our toes. The students respect them very much despite the fact they sometimes need to be harsh or demanding. As long as we are diligently training they are happy.

After soccer has left us all sweating, we start kicking drills, intense stretching exercises and learning forms that are done in competition. Before coming to China, I thought my leg flexibility was pretty good, but compared to the guys here who have been training longer, I have a ways to go.

The most painful part of practice each day is having my teacher stand on my leg while I am in the splits, pushing against my resisting muscles until I can stretch a little further. My flexibility is improving and I'm certainly paying for it.

While the other students jump around the mat, or spar in the boxing rings, I train in slow tai chi movements, repeating them over and over until they flow naturally. To build up a strong stance, I stand in horse stance (ma bu) until my legs shake and do high kicking drills to build muscle strength and elasticity. The slow forms force my body to relax even when my legs are aching and give me a new sense of balance and power.

In the afternoons, I have the chance to train alongside some of the Chinese students, which is a breath-taking experience. The first time I went, I was so intimidated by the skill and ability on show that I couldn't do anything but watch in awe. I was embarrassed about how my performance would look next to theirs. I didn't know it, but that day happened to be the one before the university's entrance exams, so many hopeful students were polishing their moves to get them good enough to be accepted the next day. I saw stunts performed by ordinary-looking Chinese students that would draw Jackie Chan's eye. They were all kung fu masters!

Living at the university has shown me more about Chinese culture than just martial arts. The campus is a great place to see how Chinese people live. The students live about eight to a room in single-sex dormitories and shower communally in a separate building. The foreigners all stay on a floor in the girl's dormitory and are a little better off. We live one or two to a room, have our own showers, and have our trash picked up every day. We often sit and talk in the foyer in front of an elevator that is in a constant state of repair and stops at every floor whether it needs to or not. This is very frustrating in the evening to the hundred or so girls who all want to leave to take their showers.

In the evenings many couples meet in the courtyard between the two dormitories to sit and enjoy the semi-romantic atmosphere. For others there are the occasional social events to attend. I enjoyed watching the Ip Man 2 movie in Chinese one night and being the only foreigner in the crowd. The film is full of patriotic overtones and the Englishmen were such scoundrels I wanted to sink into my seat so that no one would spot my pale skin and big nose. When Donnie Yen landed his final victory blows I cheered along with everybody else.

It has only been a month and I already feel at home in the university. I have a language partner to practice Chinese with, I have played for my dormitory's soccer team and my Kung Fu skills are getting better with each day I train. This is an once-in-a-lifetime experience and I'm glad I made the trip.


  • Do you have anything to say?


Special Coverage
  • Premier Wen Jiabao visits Hungary, Britain, Germany
  • From drought to floods
Major headlines
Editor's Pick
  • Giant red lantern lights up in Tiananmen Square to celebrate the coming National Day on Oct. 1. (Xinhua/Li Xin)
  • A ceremony is held in Taipei, southeast China's Taiwan, on Sept. 28, 2011, to commemorate the 2,562nd birthday of Confucius (551-479 BC), a Chinese thinker, educationist and philosopher. (Xinhua/Wu Ching-teng)
  • The world's first Boeing 787 Dreamliner for delivery arrives at Haneda airport in Tokyo, capital of Japan, on Sept. 28, 2011. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner, whose buyer is All Nippon Airways (ANA), will implement a flight of ANA on Oct. 26 from Tokyo's Narita Airport to Hong Kong in south China. (Xinhua/Ji Chunpeng)
  • A Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows what is believed to be human jawbone found inside a mass grave near Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, Libya, Spet. 27, 2011. The NTC on Sunday said they had found a mass grave containing the bodies of 1,270 people killed by Gaddafi's security forces in a 1996 massacre at Abu Salim prison in southern Tripoli. (Xinhua/Li Muzi)
  • Rescue workers and local residents search for survivors after a building collapsed in old Delhi, India, Sept. 27, 2011. At least 10 people were killed and 35 injured when an old three-storey building collapsed. More than a dozen people are still feared trapped under the debris, police said. (Xinhua/Partha Sarkar)
  • A visitor has flying experience in the windmill castle of Jinshitan National Holiday resort in Dalian, northeast China's Liaoning Province, Sept. 27, 2011. The castle is a 23-meter-high building with 21 meters in diameter. The castle uses wind tunnel to make objects floating in the air. It is the first indoor stadium in China, which enables people to have flying experience. (Xinhua/Zhang Chunlei)
Hot Forum Discussion