Sunday, July 29, 2007

Broken Intermezzos: Henan and Shaolin Temple

Note: Written during the week of July 13th through July 20th, 2007

July 14th, 2007

We arrive in Henan Province about 5 o’clock. Through the window, I see real fog for the first time since I arrived in China. It hugs the earth, encroaching over the grasslands and seeping through the bamboo trees. After getting off the train, we take the tour bus provided by the martial arts school to the hotel. We get to the hotel around 7 AM – my legs are sore from the cramped seats. I’m worried about my left knee – it’s cramping easily. The rain isn’t helping very much either. Wang laoshi takes us to breakfast at the hotel restaurant. Some porridge, a couple eggs, too many salty pancakes, and I am back in the room for a nap. At 10 o’clock, we set out to buy our uniform pants and socks for tomorrow’s training, and get a feel for the school campus. Despite the sullen weather drowning us, the worn down buildings are alive with the unison cries of students going through morning exercises, kicking pads and punching air. Soon, we eat lunch. Some students are concerned about the cleanliness of the dishes, so Luo laoshi uses the boiling tea to sanitize them. The tea seems like something out of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a clear green concoction still boiling out of the teapot. Still not completely rested from the rough morning, I retreat to my room for yet another nap.
At two in the afternoon, we hike the stone road to Shaolin Temple. The gray path is amazingly even; the stones evenly spaced, ancient bamboos and trees straight down along the path. At the temple, we meet our tour guide, an actual Shaolin monk. The man takes us through the architecture and charismatically explains the significance of the different statues of Buddha, and the relation (or lack thereof) of kung-fu. We go where normal tourists cannot enter – we stand right at the foot of the Buddha relics made thousands of years ago, wall paintings closed off because of public abuse. The monk and I share a little sparring moment, comparing the stances of Tae Kwon Do to kung fu. The rain has slowed down, and time has already flown to 6 o’clock. We follow the stone sunflower path out of the temple, where we gather for a picture with the monk next to the stone guardians of the main entrance.
Dinner is again at the same restaurant. The waitresses are absolutely zaogao. No matter – it’s the food that matters, right? Of course, when you find two flies in the vegetable dish and a strand of black hair that you know can’t be yours, appetite wanes. I finally take a shower before we gather once more for the night to watch the Jet Li movie Shaolin Temple. I smile to myself as I follow the dialogue with my limited vocabulary and knowledge of the temple. After seeing too many lambs killed by the evil goons, I excuse myself. I must wake up at 5 AM tomorrow to run hills, and it’s not going to be pretty. The green and purple hair bracelets on my wrist provide the only comfort for the night.

July 15th 2007

Harley wakes me up at 5:00 AM, as mandated by our martial arts teacher. I curse the weather for not raining. A quick splash of water on my face, and I leave the room. The rest of the group is already waiting for me outside. The teacher is late. We run.
We run through the tattered walls of the school. Already, young children in their school uniforms are crossing my path, heading to perform their chores. We run down the stone path. In the early morning, it is serenely empty of tourists. The calming green on both sides of the path make the run less of an eyesore. A couple runners dash way up ahead, but I stay with the middle pack. I see Harley with our teachers way in the back.
At the gate of Shaolin Temple, we wait for Harley and the teachers to catch up. While waiting, Wang laoshi suggests that I lead the group in learning a Tae Kwon Do form. After refusing, she makes me oblige – nothing really better to do. Teaching the form is hard, as many (if not all) have experienced martial arts. After teaching five moves, the teacher arrives.
First, plyometrics. Quick sprints and jumps are followed by light stretches. Finally, the teacher guides us through simple Taijiquan. The slow deliberate movements make me sweat faster than the everything else we’ve done. It’s nothing like Tae Kwon Do – everything is slow, each move taking time.
On the way back to the hotel, I talk to some monks. One is seven years old, a couple are teenagers, and one’s the adult guardian. They are on their way to spread their knowledge of Buddhism. The seven year old started studying when he was four years old. I ask the guardian if starting at such a young age is effective. “It’s not a matter of understanding, but getting accustomed to the life first.” 习惯.
After breakfast, we meet students from the Shaolin Wushu Vocational Institute. The school director and Feng Laoshi are friends, so we are fortunate to talk to some of the school’s best students. I’ll save the comments that were exchanged for my bao4gao4.
For lunch, we go out into the city. Wang laoshi takes us to a restaurant where we are provided soups in which we boil everything we want to eat, like thin slices of meat, potatoes, cilantro, lettuce, etc. While eating, Wang laoshi teaches me how to speak like someone from the countryside – “Za3 le?” – and Bo2An1 teaches me how speak like someone from Taiwan.(我有吃饭了!). Upon return, we begin our first Shaolin kung fu lesson. It is like the morning, but faster and sweatier. Harley, Bo2An1 and I learn how to back flip, and we learn a Shaolin form. The moves are supposedly simple, but complex. Because of the sweat, I place my glasses on the ground where I think no one will step on them, but the teacher accidentally steps on them. Wang Laoshi has sent them to an optometrist. I ate dinner with my face and the food about three inches away from me. I write this entry incredibly blind. My eyes are horrible – I really didn’t expect my eyes to be this 糟糕. Besides this unfortunate event, there is one point that I won’t forget – the after-massage. For the first time in my life, I get a massage to relax the muscles sore and worn from the training. It takes the teacher several “fang4song1”s get me to calm down, but I relent to the pressure relieving itself from my body. I intend to pass on this Shaolin massage, but for now, I need sleep. Those wishing this Oriental massage must at least a week.

July 17th, 2007
Yesterday was gongfu training all morning. From five o’clock to about one o’clock in the afternoon, we practiced wushu and shaolinquan. We performed flips, kicks, stretches and punches beyond our comfort zone boundaries. In the afternoon, we visited a Taoist temple. The biggest difference between the Taoist temple and Buddhist temple is the abundance of trees. The trees are old and bountiful, hundreds taking up an entire courtyard and beautifully lining stone paths. However, I really couldn’t wring myself to gather much interest for the religion. It’s very…mortal. Kings from ancient times are posthumously worshipped for their wisdom.
I don’t worship other people. I may love, I may infatuate with, I may idolize, but I do not worship a fellow human being.
说实在的,the entire temple felt rather fake to me, renovated for the sake of tourism. But, millions of Chinese people still make pilgrimages to this temple every year to respect this statues and enhance their Taoist belief. From an ideological standpoint, Taoism sounds fascinating, and has many honest values, but the temple feels flamboyant.
I got about five hours of sleep… not enough.
Today, some students didn’t wake up for the 5 o’clock morning run and wushu. No matter – the morning jog helps to clear my mind. The final steps of the wushu form are complex, and I still do not comprehend some of the movements. I hope that the laoshi will give a better explanation tomorrow morning.
At eight o’clock, we went to visit Songyang Academy, the oldest and the most famous Buddhist-Taoist-Confucianist Academy in China. For a sense of the school’s elitism, the Academy in ancient times is like Yale today. The school grounds harbor beautiful stonework, including famous stonework of 95 Buddhas and stone calligraphy. Also, the oldest 白术in China, estimated to be older than 4500 years. If looked at very carefully, one of the aerial stumps resembles Confucius holding up his hand in prayer form.
Afterwards, we climbed Song Shan, the geographical center of the Chinese universe. The experience is hard to describe in words, so I shall save descriptions for the video I have made and pictures I have taken. All I can say is, my legs 疼得厉害.I must sleep. Tomorrow will be gongfu all day long, and I haven’t rested decently.

July 18th, 2007
I haven’t rested as well as I wanted to. Cold sweat and a couple of mosquito bites greet me when I wake up. The falongshui seems to have no effect on Henan’s mosquitoes. No matter – another 5 o’clock run awaits. Today, I get to teach some of the students that didn’t wake up yesterday how to perform the next few steps in the form we are learning. Teaching the form is tiring, but it feels great to see my limited Chinese and body motions passed on to and understood by another being.
After breakfast, we’re back in the training room. Today is all tumbles, somersaults, and aerial flips. I seem have mastered cartwheel with two hands, and have accomplished one hand cartwheels. No hand aerials are, at the moment, impossible for me. Maybe by the time I tried to do aerials, my body was already too tired. After accomplishing a high one hand somersault (but nearly running into the sharp tables on the side of the room), I stop. “Fang4 song2” is heard a lot from our teacher.
Lunch tasted great, but the service was as crappy (if not crappier) as the first day. Our room has no hot water (it’s been about three days now), but the cold water showers feel great after sweating out gallons. I’m supposed to work on drafting my investigation report, but I’m too tired. Nap is essential.

July 20th, 2007
I’m on the bus. I’m going back to Beijing.
Since the afternoon of the 18th, I’ve had precious little time and energy to use the computer. The afternoon workout that day wasn’t as intense as I had expected, but still exhausting. After working out, we all succumbed to dinner on the first floor of the hotel, still sweating in our uniforms. Showering was a bit of a joy because hot water was finally available. Harley and I rested on our beds with our laptops on our laps, trying to figure out what to prepare as drafts before Wang laoshi dropped by to check up on our progress (what progress….). I’ve decided to comparison, but I’m not exactly sure what I’m writing. I’ve forgotten so many words, I’m afraid I may have to write my essay in English, then translate into Chinese.
Yesterday, we visited the Longmen Caves. Against the wall of mountains, Buddhas are carved. Words are not enough - I hope my pictures help. We also visited the first Buddhist temple built in China, called 白马斯,or White Horse Temple. There are still monks using the temple to this day. I’m confused by all the Buddha statues I’ve been photographing. They all have different faces. One monk told me that the different faces signify the omnipresence of Buddha, another told me that whoever made the statue picked a famous contemporary person to create Buddha’s face. I like the first explanation better, but frankly Buddha looks better when he has a feminine face.
In the evening, we went karaoke-ing. It was nice to really relax for a change, Beijing style. The beer tasted funny, but we trusted its cleanliness. Wang laoshi let us sing a few English songs, but the karaoke system was horribly outdated. I ended up singing 98 Degrees’ “I Do (Cherish You),” but it was still fun to kneel in front of Wang laoshi to make her blush.
This morning, Kaiyue and I woke up at 5 AM to take in the sights one more time without sweat on our brows and tourists in our faces. We talked about the difference between traveler and tourist – the tourist is led, the traveler leads. I’m not sure if I was led much during this entire week. I’ve talked to so many kind kungfu students, heard first-hand perspectives, eaten first-hand food (beware) – I don’t want to define myself as a tourist.
Parting with our teacher was hard. I was surprised when Harley pointed out on his business card his birth year was 1987. He’s just one year older than me, two years younger than Harley. The girls said they wanted to marry him. I can’t stop them. Even I think he’s hot.
The bus in shaking the laptop a lot, and my hands are getting sore from typing in this uncomfortable position. We still have quite a few hours until we reach Beijing, but there is always this report to write, and classes to prepare for. I’m not sure what I want more – to return to an old life of repetition, or to constantly experience something new, no matter how painful or strenuous it is. But, then again, I’m in China. I’m always experiencing something new. Every word I study, every breath I take (Chinese air pollution, whoo!), is something new.

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Anonymous said...

interesting about the shaolin temple I would think the jealous communist government would have bulldozed those by now.

Kevin Horikoshi said...


token said...

wow youre so busy! ooo massage sounds good though lol you come home soon! we need to hang out please.... lol
lion king and star gazing await

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