About a decade earlier I moved to Beijing China to study martial arts and work as an English teacher. It had been a lifelong dream of mine to study martial arts in Asia, since I was a young boy in my hometown studying karate and watching kung fu movies. I stayed in Beijing for 4 years before moving to southern China to a modern city called Shenzhen in Guangdong province. Though the training in Beijing was good the lifestyle wasn’t suitable for me. For one the environment was very dry, and because it is such a big city traveling around is not always convenient.

Shenzhen is a beautiful city with nice weather, friendly people and modern facilities, it is also the place where I met my wife. Shenzhen however was not an ideal place to study kung fu. The only teacher I could find was two hour by bus, which I would visit once a week. The teacher was a Shaolin kung fu instructor who grew up as a disciple of the famous Shaolin monk Shi De Yang.

Shaolin Foreign Disciple

Shaolin Foreign Disciple

After living in Shenzhen, and training with my Shenzhen Shifu Shi Yan Feng, for several years, I began to feel it was time to make a trek to the Mecca of Shaolin and kung fu, The Shaolin Temple. My wife would be accompanying me and we would go for 7 days. My Shifu recommended one of his kung fu brothers to teach us while there, as well as take us around the famous landsite in and around the Temple. The trip was a success and the experience was a lasting one.

After returning back to Shenzhen, I continued to visit my Shifu once a week and train on my own daily. Around this time I was working on a book about Chinese kung fu and decided it would be great to take some photos for the book at The Shaolin Temple.  Thus several months after our first trip we began to plan our second trip back to the historical birth place of Asian martial arts.

The Shifu that would be teaching us for our second visit would be one we met on our first trip Shi Yan Shuang. So my wife and I returned to Shaolin for our second visit and trained with our new Shifu. The first day of training I was impressed by the new Shifus hands on approach to training. Besides focusing purely on the solo forms and drills of Shaolin Kung fu he taught us some application and a two person drill called BaGua Kao Bi.

Shaolin Foreign Disciple

Trainings in Shaolin Temple

Shaolin Foreign Disciple

We struck up a friendship with the new Shifu, and he was the one who planted the seed into my head to move to Songshan Shaolin {the area surrounding the Shaolin Temple}. Shi Yan Shuang runs his own school about 15 minutes outside of the Shaolin compound. The first several days of our trip we spent within the Shaolin Temple perimeters training in the surrounding hills. The 4th day we trained in Shi Shuang’s school’s training yard.

It was a beautiful sunny day and Shifu Shuang taught us some Shaolin Qi Gong breathing and moving exercises. At one point one of his disciples brought out two bottles of what looked like a refreshing beverage for consumption. Instead however he instructed his student to demo a palm strike to the top of the bottle’s mouth which caused the bottom of the bottle to explode. He then gave the other bottle to me, gave me some brief instructions then told me to give it a try. I was able to perform the break after several attempts.

From the training yard the view of Da Mo Dong the famous cave where the Indian monk Da Mo meditated from for 9 years was visible, adding to the mystic of the experience. Da Mo is credited as the fonder of Zen Buddhism and teaching the monks exercises to improve their bodies which would evolve into Shaolin Kung Fu.

Life in Songshan Shaolin

Shaolin Foreign Disciple

When we returned to Shenzhen I become more and more disenchanted which the life there. Yes it was easy to make a living teaching English and live comfortably, but the reason I was in china was to train in Chinese kung fu. In the big modern cities kung fu is the furthest thing from most people’s mind, whereas in Dengfeng {home of Shaolin} full time students and teachers are an integral part of the culture and lifestyle. I started to talk to my wife about the idea of moving to Songshan, and she was up for the adventure. Three months later we made the move.

Now we have been living in Songshan Shaolin for two years. My wife works as a tour guild leading foreign groups into the Shaolin Temple, and I work as a part time English teacher in the nearby city.  Because my Shifu’s school is outside the Temples compound in the surrounding village, we can enjoy the quiet peaceful environment daily.

Shaolin Foreign Disciple

The Shaolin Temple has become quite the tourist attraction and thousands of tourist flock to this historical sight daily. In Songshan Shaolin there are many full time school scattered amongst the rural area, but the lack of tourism is apparent. The environment here is inspiring and conducive for kung fu training. Being surrounded by the mountains in this simple village type atmosphere leaves you with little else to do. Training becomes your life here and the living standards are simple.

The simple living of the villagers and fulltime Shaolin students helps to build mental and physical toughness. For example the people here sleep with no heat in the winter which can get down to around 15 degrees Fahrenheit at coldest. Sleeping without heat is a custom my wife and I have adapted. The food eaten here is simple as well, the nearest city is about a twenty five minute bus ride away, and when not traveling to the city supplies in the village is sparse.  Living this life style and training daily builds discipline, that can be attributed to some of the famous kung fu myths.

Shaolin Foreign Disciple

Growing up as a young boy I fondly remember watching the tv show Kung Fu, where a monk named Kwai Chang Caine had to flee to America to avoid prosecution form some dishonest government officials. He was often in the wrong place at the wrong time and in one episode was wrongly accused of stealing. He was caged in a type of outside prison along with another man. It was winter and the weather was very cold. The monk was sitting comfortably unaffected while the other prisoner was freezing.

The man asked Caine “don’t you feel the cold, China man”? Caine explained how he could meditate and ignore the cold, which he went on to teach the prisoner. In the morning when the guards went to open the prison door expecting to see two half dead inmates they were shocked to see the two sitting quietly with their eyes closed comfortably in meditation. On a recent trip back to the state where my wife got to meet my family for the first time, we had to travel to another city to catch a connecting flight. The trip was a total of 16 hours and it didn’t seem to drain us considerable. We contrite this to the austere life style we live here and enduring many simple but challenging hardships.

 Dream Come True As a Shaolin Foreign Disciple

Currently I train with two different Shifus and a professional Bo Ji [Chinese kickboxing school]. Twice a week I visit Shi Yan Shuang and practice forms, Shi Suo [stone lock similar to the kettle drum] and conditioning drills. Several time a month I visit another Shifu named Shi Yan San who specialty is Chin Na [kung fu locks and hold], and once a week I train with the full time fighters in Chinese kickboxing. The remainder of the time I train on my own within the building I live in which is occupied by only my wife and I, and which we get to live in for free as part of her job perks.

My original Shifu Shi Yan Shuang does not charge me for training, as part of a deal we have I help as an assistant instructor to foreign groups that visit his school weekly as part of their tour package to Shaolin. As a Shaolin foreign disciple living in the birth place of Asian martial arts is a dream come true. I feel very fortunate and thankful for this chance and hope to give back to the martial art community by my writing and one day teaching.

For those planning to visit Shaolin for training I would recommend visiting the school face to face before agreeing to training. Watch and take part in several classes before committing to a school. Things are not always as they seem in Shaolin, but with patience and determination you can find the right instructor, and embark on a wonderful martial arts journey.

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