By Russel Lunt (TTT Subscriber Thundyr)
I turned 30 at the end of the year the electronic world had failed to meet its predicted Y2K doom. My father’s gift for reaching this landmark age was a folded piece of A5 paper with a single, printed sentence:“This coupon may be exchanged for a return flight ticket to any destination in the world.”
At the time I was working as a senior software developer cum IT support tech for the distribution centre of a major fashion house, a premium job that paid my single lifestyle very well. Therefore I had little intention of endangering my future by disappearing anywhere for more than a few weeks, let alone somewhere that required travel by air. I had never left my home country before and was more disenchanted with foreign destinations than excited about them, despite the turmoil in South Africa in the wake of the end of the apartheid era. The amazing gift did make me ponder a holiday in Europe, perhaps an opportunity for an Anfield pilgrimage to watch in the flesh the club I had supported from afar for nigh on two decades.
I put the coupon safely away but in all honesty largely forgot about it. It was extravagant but maybe it did not suit me.“Maybe next year…”
As exercise went I had been going to Kung Fu classes for perhaps a year at that point, having dabbled in various martial arts on and off since my days at University studying Electronic Engineering. The Cantonese term “kung fu” actually has very little to do with fighting or action movies; it does not mean “martial arts” nor is it the name of any style. Loosely translated, it simply means “skill”. The Chinese character “fu” is literally a person with his head through the sky, while “kung” at its root means “work”. At its most basic form the phrase encompasses “time and energy”, the elements that one must invest heavily into something in order for that thing to attain perfection. While most obviously associated with the physicality of martial arts training, having “good kung fu” can apply equally to a master musician or a footballer. The more time and energy you dedicate to it, the better the “it” becomes.
I enjoyed the training to the point where I wanted to do more under the instructor’s gaze than an hour twice a week. I had something of a talent for the martial arts, being fairly agile and having quick feet and reflexes, which was largely why I kept coming back to it each time my often haphazard work forced me to move between cities. I simply wanted more. I trained by myself fairly often when my job permitted, but it’s not the same as having someone there to push you or help you perfect things. Sadly, as a junior student at the school I was simply not permitted to attend extra classes; as long as I was good enough to pass the next grading I was fine. Even now such staggering narrow-mindedness baffles me.
Not long after being rebuffed by the school owner, I learned a fellow student had discovered a website advertising a martial arts academy in north-eastern China, catering specifically to foreigners. The deal? Eight hours training per day, five days per week, Shaolin monks as masters with translators on hand 24/7. As they say in the classics, “Shut up and take my money!” Screw the rat race; here was a way to live the dream. Within the week I had phoned my father to say I had a destination in mind.
It took another year and the sale of my car to save enough money so that I could pay the academy fees and support myself in China for twelve months. I did not intend to go there for a few weeks and then come slinking back with my tail between my legs just because the training was hard. “I ran out of money” seemed the weakest excuse ever so I was not going to allow it to be part of the equation. I left late in 2002, with nothing other than a large rucksack of clothing and my electric guitar. I almost did not come back…
To say the training was demanding is to say Everest is a mountain. Up before dawn to run through ankle-deep snow in October (and don’t forget this is a guy who spent his entire life in the tropics), to be followed by a breakfast of things best left unknown. Then four hours straight in the training hall; athletics, forms, techniques, mental and physical endurance tests, sparring. Most students, including myself, were so exhausted they fell straight into bed after lunch, to rise barely in time for the next four hours, some of which involved acquainting body parts with woodland objects and being forced to stretch into the splits. A dinner of questionable origin was followed by trying not to fall asleep while hand washing clothing. Rinse and repeat.
I loved it. Okay, the food was terrible. But I loved it.
So glad us internal arts students could wear black that day…
Many students stayed for a month before returning home, either by design or after recognition that this simply was not their cup of tea. The rest of us poured ourselves into it. After a few months we were training during lunch time rather than sleeping, doing extra tai chi classes at 5am and 8pm just because we could. One guy bought free weights and did gym exercises in his free time because he felt the crazy need for extra power. Sometimes during the tai chi forms my focus became so intense that I could not even see the people training around me; I was one with the form and even hallucinated about alternate times or histories (whether this was good or bad remains for debate, of course).
During our free time on weekends we would head into the nearby town where they had those magical things called internet cafes. There I spent most of my time reading up on the internal martial arts; the history, the key figures, the postures and techniques, tips and tricks, healing with Chi, the correct shape of the hand to increase the flow of Chi, everything I could imagine and many things I did not. I sought out answers to the aspects I could not ask about because the translators were not much better than the food. I saw video clips from the turn of the previous century of men dragging stones attached to their genitalia in order to not be affected when kicked there during a fight to the death. I read how one master from the 18th century performed a specific Xing Yi basic technique on every step he took on his daily five mile trip into and back from town – it was said he could kill a man with a single blow. You want hard core? I give you the Chinese martial arts. Standing in a martial arts stance on the bus without holding onto anything, to test my balance against the god-awful road surface and the equally erratic drivers, seemed pitiful by comparison, but once I had read about these legends I knew that sitting on the bus was beneath me.
I felt alive for the first time in my life.
A few sayings stuck with me during those internet café days:
From Xing Yi Quan:
“A man can practice the basic technique of Pi Quan every day for his entire life, and will still need to practice it again tomorrow”.
This was mirrored in a Tai Chi text of Buddhist origin in that “the practice of the martial arts takes more than one lifetime to master”; a saying that takes the same concept to an entirely different level. What ran through these many articles was the endless quest for unattainable perfection, an attitude diminished or entirely forgotten in modern society.
“One does not boil a kettle by turning it off.”
Here the author refers to our modern habit of training hard for a short period and then resting until the next day or beyond; the intensive burst of effort is not long enough to “boil the kettle” and then by stopping we turn the kettle off! How will the water ever boil? How will we ever be any good at what we’re training? And so,
“Do not ask how many years a man has trained Tai Chi. Ask rather how many minutes.”
When we think in terms of years we think of the number of years between when we started and the present, and the answer sounds like we have achieved a lot. But when we think in minutes we add up the actual time spent training and come to realise how small a percentage of the time we have is being used in a vain effort to boil the kettle.
These sayings are, to my mind, universal concepts. Training for an hour twice a week as I did before heading to China, is a perfect example of turning the kettle off before it has a chance to boil. Proper dedication is hours and hours of training some aspect of the art; physical, form, technique, understanding, meditation, sparring, reading. Every day. Seven/365. Then the kettle boils, and it’s easy to keep it boiling. Eight hours a day, five days a week with two to five hours spread through the weekend, compared with one hour twice a week with an occasional extra hour on Sunday. At the former rate one can get through a year’s worth of the latter’s training load in well under a month and accomplish it without ever switching the kettle off. How did I ever think the latter was enough? How did my former kung fu school owner ever believe it was enough for his students?
How do footballers think a daily ninety minutes with their coach and an hour in the gym is enough? It cannot possibly be.
So when I look now at footballers chilling in clubs or skating with friends, I think, “They’ve turned the kettle off!” Why are they not spending the time working by themselves on the basics of their profession? If the footballer’s Pi Quan is something like keepy-uppy or shooting practice, then they need to train that every day of their lives and will still need to train it again tomorrow. They will need that control of the ball on demand, and without intensive and regular practice they won’t get the same result every time and definitely won’t ever get it perfect outside pure dumb luck. Whenever I see the ball slice wildly off the outside of a boot I think, “How can you call yourself a top-flight professional? You didn’t train many minutes this week, did you?”
Skill, kung fu, never stands still; it either advances or recedes. Our society is geared towards the latter by distracting us from the hard work necessary to achieve the former. The glamour, the money, the girls. It requires putting at least a working man’s eight hours a day into the profession, be it learning the basic skills, the tactics, the understanding of one’s team mates, the desire to be the guy showing for every ball, the physical endurance for the same, or gaining the understanding of how role models became great; all this is training. If they’re playing FIFA they’re not training, and if they’re not training the kettle is off and their kung fu is waning.
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