Shaolin Summer: In Search of Confucius

By Kaylie Jones

We’re standing in a row like soldiers at attention. It’s the mandatory lineup, 8:30 a.m., in a steaming concrete courtyard at the Qufu Shaolin Kung Fu School. I can’t quite believe I’m here, in China, 330 miles south of Beijing.

The only time I remember feeling this anxious and uncertain was on my first day of preschool. Then, as now, I had no social or cultural reference for what was about to take place.

I look around for my 15-year-old daughter, Eyrna, but can’t see her. We’ve been assigned to different groups, which probably is good. I won’t be able to focus on her, which will make me focus on myself—something I both want and don’t want to do.

This adventure was her idea; she has been studying Chinese history, including the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, an advocate of self-cultivation who was born in the adjacent city of Qufu. I’m realizing I’ll need a lot of Confucianism to propel me through what lies ahead: four weeks of intense training under the tutelage of Shaolin warrior monks.

Sweat trickles down my arms, legs, and back. At 52, I’m the oldest student by at least a decade. The people near me, martial arts enthusiasts from around the world, appear lean and very fit, well prepared for the upcoming rigors. They’re not even sweating.

What in the world was I thinking?

Eyrna and I have been on our own for months, since my husband, her father, was hospitalized for treatment-resistant depression. Looking back on this cataclysm in our family life, I feel now that we were standing on the deck of a sturdy ship that slowly was sinking—and even as the floor tilted beneath my feet, I refused to see it. In the end, I had two choices: go down with the ship or grab Eyrna and run.

We’ve run, thousands of miles from home and all that is familiar. Shipwrecked and clinging to each other on our little desert island, the two of us need both distance from our immediate reality and a goal, a new direction, to aim for. Pondering this, a wave of panic washes over me. Our sole connection to the place we’ve traveled to is our passion for martial arts, which Eyrna and I have studied for more than ten years.

If there is one thing the martial arts have taught us it’s that when you’re knocked down, you get up. Almost as important to me lately has been an accompanying maxim: There is no shame in getting knocked down. No shame. Still, a feeling of guilt, of wanting to delete the previous year of tumult from my daughter’s life, has plagued me. That is about to change.

Shaolin kung fu is the archetypal martial art of China, developed by monks at the first Shaolin Temple, established in the fifth century in neighboring Henan Province. It also is one of the most difficult martial arts to master. Shaolin monks begin training at age eight and practice eight hours a day for at least ten years.

This first week will be hugely challenging for me, but, with my years of training and the wisdom of Confucius’s teachings, not impossible. Still standing at attention, I repeat to myself, this was a good idea. Our shifu (master), a 34th-generation Shaolin warrior monk in his 30s, paces before us, assessing what he has to work with. Then he spreads his arms and shouts, “Go, go!”

Everyone takes off, sprinting through the gold-and-crimson gates of the school’s white-walled compound and into the surrounding Shimen Forest National Park. We’re running? I’m appalled. I haven’t run since college. Plus, my new Feiyue training shoes have no cushion in the soles, and I didn’t bring running shoes. I don’t own running shoes. How far are we running?

You can do this, I goad myself. You kickboxed six days a week to get into shape. You’re in shape.

The strongest students, whose bodies ripple with muscle, lope ahead like gazelles. They’ll be back at the school before the rest of us have reached the halfway point.

Local farmers and workers pause by the side of the road to watch the spectacle of panting foreigners stagger by. Their eyes linger longest on me. Or am I imagining that?

I’m not. Look, they’re laughing. It must be because of my age. In traditional Chinese society, I’m meant to be a grandmother, not a kung fu student. Then I recall a line in Confucius’s Analects: “At 40, I had no more doubts.” I’ll show them.

I pick up the pace. Green fields of corn on either side of the narrow road undulate in the summer heat. Sweat gushes off me. I feel ready to collapse, but my mind refuses to let my body stop. By the time I reenter the school’s gates, I’ve resolved to buy whatever running shoes I can find.

“How far did we run?” I ask Kiah, a 19-year-old Australian who is dressed in a collared shirt and long black shorts, like a proper schoolgirl. I barely get the words out between breaths.

“Two kilometers,” she replies. About a mile. “We run three times a day. That was the warm-up; now the training begins.”

My class is held in an enormous hall that feels like a steam bath. I’ll be observed, and judgments about my abilities will be passed. I spot Eyrna through a window; her group is practicing outside under a blazing sun. She moves with no hesitation, her kicks rising high above her head. She looks positively elegant—elegant, sweat free, in the prime of her youth. And happy. The sight energizes me.

Class starts with kicks and punches—straight-legged, bent-kneed, jumping—back and forth. I’m keeping up, though I’m leaving puddles everywhere. Push, I tell myself. Then a sabotage thought tiptoes in: Why? For what?

My father’s voice enters my head. A Golden Gloves boxer, gruff veteran of the Battle of Guadalcanal, and author of the 1951 war novel From Here to Eternity, James Jones, my dad, died at 55 of congestive heart failure.

I flash back to the time he stood in front of my eighth-grade English class and was asked, “Why do you write?” He answered with the story of British climber George Mallory, who, when asked why he needed to climb Mount Everest, answered—my father told the class of 13-year-olds, tears streaming from his eyes—“Because it is there.”

Well, I am here—and unlike Mallory, who didn’t make it down Everest (his remains were recovered only in 1999, by National Geographic grantee Conrad Anker), I’m going to finish this. Sometimes we have to travel halfway around the world to repair our souls.

To be up at 6 a.m. for tai chi,  I go to bed at 8 p.m. Not Eyrna. My teen hangs out happily with the 20-year-olds, playing video games and watching movies. I had wanted this to be our shared experience, but she’s going her own way. As days pass, I barely catch sight of her. This makes me feel surprisingly alone but I leave her be, focusing on our upcoming visit to Qufu, just to the south, where I hope Confucian wisdom will rub off on us.

Five other students, Eyrna, and I share a taxi van to town. The road is jammed with mopeds, overburdened trucks, and every imaginable type of claptrap car, all honking. A few shiny sedans with tinted windows speed past. Roadside stalls sell fruits and vegetables, of which only watermelon looks familiar.

Confucius lived 500 years before Christ; his philosophies, formed during a time of political turmoil, have shaped Chinese culture and thought for more than two millennia. Confucianism is based on ren, a principle of self-discipline and loving others while striving to better one’s mind and body. Paramount is developing a clear head, devoid of anxious thought. Nothing could sound better right now.

We begin our explorations at what some consider the end: the Cemetery of Confucius, outside Qufu’s ancient city wall. A walk on a cypress-lined avenue, filled with excited Chinese visitors, brings us through a blue gate filigreed with gold Chinese script.

We have entered a World Heritage area where, for more than 2,400 years, Confucius’s descendants—some 100,000 so far—have been interred with the pomp accorded the most honored heads of state. My eyes take in burial mounds and stone stelae as plentiful as the cypress and pine trees that form a vast green parasol (one tree is planted for every grave). Statues of officials and animals stand guard. Only the buzz of cicadas and electric tour buses whizzing by disturbs the silence.

Following the surging crowd, we arrive at Confucius’s tomb, a large burial mound covered with flowers and offerings, and fronted by an incense burner and a stela carved with Chinese characters. A feeling of reverence, as I have in cathedrals, floats with the incense smoke on the still air. I watch a Chinese man bow over and over. I imagine he, like me, has aspirations to overcome adversity with a lucid Confucian mind.

The Confucian golden rule states that one must never impose on others what one would not impose on oneself. This gives me pause: I’ve been imposing harsh judgments and demands on myself that I would never impose upon others. Except, maybe, I demand too much of my daughter. I buy a stick of incense and light it. Please help me give myself and Eyrna a break.

A break of sorts comes one morning when my shifu, Shi Xing Lin, tells me—through his translator, Cindy—that I’m doing well for my age. So well that he allows me to skip “power training” to study bagua with Master Wu.

An “internal” style of kung fu, bagua is softer on the joints and can be practiced into old age. Wu Shifu, 69, is a baguazhang master. I respond that I have no intention of skipping anything. My shifu smiles. In that moment I realize he understands I aim to do my very best and know my only enemy is myself.

What he doesn’t know is I’m here for a powerful reason: to come to terms with mistakes I’ve made, the most important of which now is my daughter being without her father.

The minute my daughter was born, I vowed to give her a safe and consistent childhood, perhaps to compensate for my own. My parents were huge drinkers; most nights, it seemed, they were out at a party or brought the party to our house. They probably should not have had children, though I know my father was thrilled when I came along. Still, having grown up during the Great Depression, he didn’t believe in coddling. He did offer help and advice when I asked for it, but that didn’t happen often because he was so busy writing.

There was one thing he enjoyed teaching me, beginning when I was five: how to box. Jab, cross, hook. Jab, cross, hook. He was pleased with my hand-eye coordination. When I took up kickboxing decades later, his instructions came right back to me.

In a way, I’ve brought Eyrna here to learn her own version of jab, cross, hook—as survival skills. It doesn’t escape me that, in Eastern cultures, one’s children are an extension of oneself. In taking on this difficult, ancient martial art, she and I are shaking our fists at recent events in our family life.

Two weeks have passed, and I’ve learned only the first four moves of the tai chi 24-step form, another kung fu discipline. A fundamental move—circling my arms in the correct direction—eludes me. Every morning when I wake, I consider quitting. This must be showing.

“Shifu says when he was a boy, he was very angry to have tai chi practice because it was so slow and boring,” Cindy tells me. “But it became very helpful to him.”

I confide I don’t know why tai chi is so difficult for me.

“Shifu says don’t think, just focus on your qi. Stay only with the first moves,” she advises.

I used to believe “qi,” or life force, was a myth, some kind of legerdemain. But last week, I watched my shifu press the tip of a sharpened spear to the soft space between his collarbones and push his entire weight against it, forcing the wooden shaft to bow to the ground. The spear did not penetrate his skin.

I start my form over, doing my best to empty my mind—which right now is reminding me to get some new running shoes—and think only about breathing into my lower abdomen. I step out with my left leg, bend my knees, bend my arms, circling, not thinking. The movements flow like water. I feel no fear, no regret, no shame, no guilt. I am practicing tai chi. I am here.

“Yeessss,” my shifu says to me in English. I break into a smile and bow to him.

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Ancient pine trees tower above the Temple of Confucius, a complex of courtyards and red-walled buildings near Qufu’s center constituting the oldest and largest site dedicated to the thinker. Eyrna and I, nearing the end of our time in China, have come to connect with the man as he was when he was alive.

We make our way through three courtyards to Dacheng Hall, the central edifice, where towering sticks of incense burn in a gigantic cauldron. The pagoda-style roofs glint with touches of gilt. Visitors, mostly Chinese, mill around taking pictures, bowing heads, lighting incense, praying to their ancestors.

My thoughts return to my father, who died before I grew up. What would he have thought of my failures? I know he would have been proud that he raised a fighter.

During my last training session, my shifu instructed each of us students to find a corner in the garden and practice qigong movements. I did, and with time left, stood in a breathing meditation, my palms pressed to my abdomen. Slowly, inexorably, something rose within me, then broke loose. Sobs wracked my being. I was struggling to compose myself—I wasn’t sure what this was about—when I saw the shifu approach with Cindy.

“Shifu says,” Cindy warned me gently, “that you must not go straight from qigong to static meditation. Next time, you must try active meditation. Hold the ball of energy in your hands. Shifu says in a few minutes you will be all right.”

That was grief, I wanted to tell him. But mindful of the need for self-discipline, I didn’t say a word, thanked him, and bowed. Grief—undisciplined, unbalancing—is not the kind of thing you share with your shifu.

Now Eyrna and I sit silently across from Dacheng Hall, on the steps of a building lined with red pillars. A hot breeze whispers past, and red prayer tablets near us jingle like wind chimes.

“I want to come back next summer,” Eyrna says quietly.

I choke up for some reason, and tell her I’m proud of her.

She has had a good time on this journey. She was treated as an adult, pushed to her limits, and judged only on her practice. No one knew about our calamity. Here, she was free.

“You should come back, too,” she says.

“Hmmm.” I want to tell her I understand now why people sell their belongings and join ashrams and monasteries; a life of extreme exercise and meditation looks good to me. I’ve never been in better shape. But in the quiet of this moment, I realize I no longer wish I’d handled anything in the past year differently, or had a different year. My work here, toward Shaolin strength and Confucian calm, is, for now at least, done. I no longer need those running shoes, because I no longer need to run.

Kaylie Jones is the author of several books, including the novel The Anger Meridian. This feature appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of Traveler magazine

> Read It, Do It:

  • The Qufu Shaolin Kung Fu School located in Shimen Forest National Park 20 miles north of Qufu city—known for its Temple and Cemetery of Confucius World Heritage sites—offers courses in martial arts.
  • Another good option: the new Heze Traditional Shaolin Kung Fu School, where shifu Shi Xing Lin now teaches, a hundred miles west of Qufu.

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