Part of growing up is attending the first sad day of a martial arts class, when you realize kung fu is not a lethal superpower that you learn at secluded mountain monasteries from mysterious old masters; it is a group exercise class taught at a strip mall by “Sensei Doug.”
But some people do actually train at those secluded mountain monasteries, and for those select few folks, kung fu is way crazier than the movies show you. We spoke to a man who spent a year training at an actual temple school in China, and he basically confirmed every kickass thing we secretly believed about kung fu before Sensei Doug spin-kicked our dreams into the garbage.
The Temples Look Like Something Out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Mark Nan Tu
I studied at a monk-operated Taoist school specializing in Wudang Kung Fu, which is sort of like the Pepsi to Shaolin Kung Fu’s Coke. As the name suggests, the style originated in the Wudang Mountains, a mountain range in Central China. Today there are lots of smaller schools there willing to teach you martial arts in the traditional (read: horribly painful) way. You might remember the Wudang Mountains as the place in The Karate Kid (2010) where Jackie Chan teaches Jaden Smith kung fu by showing him a lady hypnotizing a cobra, which, shockingly, isn’t a euphemism. It also wasn’t totally made up. According to my teachers, some temples in the Wudang Mountains actually do practice snake hypnosis with cobras that have had their fangs pulled out.
Even the journey to the temple was like something out of Batman Begins: to get to my school, I had to take a 24-hour train ride from Beijing to the closest city to Wudang. After that, it was hours of hiking through miles of rough-cut stairs, passing through majestic, abandoned temples and palaces scattered throughout the mountainside, imagining all the time I will spend training in their ancient courtyards, flying through their ancient trees, and summoning their ancient dragons to do my bidding.
During one exercise, my group was supposed to punch rocks with our bare hands. Just … beat the shit out of some rocks as if they stole money from us and used it to buy condoms for a weekend getaway with our mothers. The exercise was part of the so-called Iron Body conditioning, meant to transform our hands into calloused dispensers of fist-shaped devastation. We got off light; some of the other types of Iron Body training involve putting spears between a wall and your neck (with the pointy ends jabbing you in the windpipe) and then pushing forward to bend the spears with your throat.
We also did less-extreme stuff, like meditating in rivers or under waterfalls. Basically, picture any cliched kung fu training montage you’ve ever seen, then stretch it out over a year. That’s actually how it is. Holy shit — just this one time, movies didn’t lie to you.
I concentrated mostly on Wudang Sword training. One day, I was talking with one of the teachers at the school about silly Hong Kong movies and how they always feature a wise old hermit that teaches the main character some secret martial arts technique. To my surprise, the teacher asked if I’d like to meet that wise old hermit and learn his secret martial arts technique. Apparently, it is not considered “kung fu” to giggle and clap like a schoolgirl getting a pony for Christmas.
The hermit was super cool. His name was Yang and he lived about an hour away from the school in this little mountain hut that was only big enough for his bed and a small wood-burning stove. To my slight disappointment, Master Yang was only in his late 40s, rather than 70 going on 1,000 like the movie hermits. But he did have that requisite wispy hermit-beard, and he talked a bit like Yoda, so I was geeking out like crazy when he actually agreed to teach me his Wudang Sword techniques.
For the next few months, I visited and trained with Master Yang. He taught me from this old Wudang Sword manual that his mentor left him. It detailed various sword stances and forms, together with commentary added by the manual’s owners over the years. Those types of manuals inspired the “mystical kung fu scroll” trope in movies, but in practice they’re just treated like detailed textbooks. If they’re secret, it’s for the same reason football coaches don’t publish their playbooks on the Internet.
Master Yang was far from the only hermit in Wudang. The place is just lousy with secluded mountain monks trying to achieve immortality through the right combination of herbs and meditation. And seeing as immortality is like being a god to Taoists, it is technically true to say that I learned secret sword-fighting techniques from a hermit who was trying to become a god. I’m one enchanted talking sword away from being The Chosen One.
The main difference between the monks I trained with and the Shaolin are the latter’s very “monk-like” rules about clean living and avoiding vices. The Wudang clan don’t roll like that. Wudang monks are much more relaxed about stuff like sex and booze, as long as it’s done “in moderation.” Here’s why I put that in quotation marks: our class used to drink with the teachers all the time, and I’m not talking about beer. I mean proper blackout moonshine. One teacher in particular loved to get hammered on this stuff at night and go train in the courtyard (he would also occasionally kick me in the head, because he thought it was hilarious). He lived at the school with his 18-year-old girlfriend. He was 36 at the time. He was like the bastard son of Jackie Chan and Van Wilder.
Another teacher, Master Bing, loved to watch American movies. We would constantly get bootlegged copies at the market and watch them together. You have not lived until you’ve watched the Matrix trilogy with a party monk who could not only call out the bullshit in the fight scenes but show you the correct way to do them. I actually got to see that up close when a few of us went out drinking with a teacher who got into an argument with a local drunk. The guy hopped up to start something and the teacher kicked him so hard that the guy flew into a table and utterly destroyed it. And if you’re wondering who in their right mind would start a fight with a gaggle of kung fu monks out drinking, you should know that …
In martial arts movies there’s always a scene where some random asshole mouths off to the main character, just begging to be kicked in the teeth so hard his grandkids will be born with orthodontist bills. Well, stuff like that happens all the time in reality. It’s just that the mouthy asshole is usually from a rival kung fu school. I mentioned earlier that the Wudang Mountains are littered with small martial arts temples, but what I omitted back then was that many of those schools hate each other to a ridiculous, insane, stabbing degree.
One time, my friends and I were drinking at a bar in the city. A guy from a rival school was also there, really getting into people’s faces. A friend of mine told him to relax and offered to buy him a drink, so naturally, after being offered friendship and free booze, he flipped the hell out. All of the sudden, he and his entourage were standing around our table. We got everyone outside to the parking lot where I was trying to calm everyone down. Then he whipped out a big-ass knife and sliced my forearm all the way to the bone. After he cut me, he turned around and held the knife up to my friend’s face. Thankfully, by then a crowd had formed around us and someone pulled the crazy guy off my friend … but not before an equally crazy taxi driver tried to antagonize the situation even further by going around and handing out bats and boards.
No, I don’t know why he had those in his trunk, but seeing as these sort of scraps happen quite often in that area, I’m guessing that provoking kung fu brawls between rival schools was that guy’s version of Monday Night Football.
With all the fluid, soft movements, Wudang Kung Fu almost looks like a form of ballet. Don’t be fooled. In reality, all those moves are very hard to pull off without years of intense training, while breaking a guy’s ribs with one quick punch is just too easy for the monks to bother demonstrating for the camera. I learned that the “traditional” way, after I asked an older teacher about the application of the Wudang martial arts. In the beginning, I stupidly thought they were too relaxed and loose to be super dangerous.
The older teacher then asked if I would like a lesson.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that this was the man’s polite way of asking if my ass had gone tragically unkicked for too long.
We squared off in the courtyard. The teacher (who was older and half my size) had these huge calluses on his knuckles from the Iron Body training. His fists felt like boulders. I got a black eye and a busted lip almost immediately, but I still refused to go down. Finally, the teacher got impatient and — from what my brain registered — teleported right next to me and cracked one of my ribs with a single well-placed punch.
So yes, there are places on Earth where learning kung fu is exactly like the movies. It’s just that, for some reason, they deleted the scene where Daniel-san got mouthy and Miyagi put his ass in the hospital.