Teenagers at the Shaolin Tagou Martial Arts School in Dengfeng unleash a 20-minute flurry of fists and feet to build stamina. The city has become China's kung fu capital, boasting more than 60 martial arts schools and 50,000 students from all over China.
Teenagers at the Shaolin Tagou Martial Arts School in Dengfeng unleash a 20-minute flurry of fists and feet to build stamina. The city has become China's kung fu capital, boasting more than 60 martial arts schools and 50,000 students from all over China.

Battle for the Soul of Kung Fu

In the shadow of China’s legendary Shaolin Temple, a kung fu master’s disciples confront the changing world of martial arts.

The master spent his last day of life wrapped in a quilt stitched by his wife, his rasping, irregular breaths filling the small bedroom. Throughout the cool spring day a stream of visitors arrived in the town of Yanshi, in the foothills of the Song Mountains, to pay their respects at the deathbed of Yang Guiwu, the man who had taught them kung fu. Some wore monks' robes and offered blessings as they entered the tiny brick house. Others wore jeans and loafers and stubbed out cigarettes before passing through the door. The master's wife, her white hair neatly combed, clasped the shoulders of each new arrival as if he were a blood son and ushered him through her kitchen, past the coal-burning stove, to join family members and other disciples assembled at her husband's bedside.

The wife leaned close to the bundled figure to announce a visitor, the last disciple the master had accepted into his kung fu family 15 years before. "It's Hu Zhengsheng," she said. Wearing a Nike tracksuit and traditional cloth slippers, Hu, now a broad-shouldered man of 33, bent over the shriveled figure. "Shifu," he called softly, respectfully, using the Mandarin word for teacher. "Can you hear me?" The old man's eyelids, pale and thin like rice paper, flickered. For an instant, his pupils seemed to center on the young man's face, then drifted away.

Many times the master had told Hu about awakening from dreams in which his martial arts ancestors, long-dead monks from the Shaolin Temple, visited him. They came bearing wisdom collected over centuries from generations of men whose feet had grooved the flagstones in the temple's training hall, whose bones were interred in the Pagoda Forest just outside the temple walls. These were the monks who had committed their lives to perfecting kung fu styles with names like Plum Flower Fist and Mandarin Duck Palm, each a symphony of physical movements, adding variation upon variation that pushed human muscles and bones to their limits. Some would say beyond their limits. Perhaps, Hu thought, these ancestors now were gathering by his master's side.

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