Shaolin is a Buddhist sect, but they do not practice non-violence. This moral clarity—the idea that self-defense and the defense of others is not a sin—is what appealed to me at an early age. I had seen enough bullying in Massachusetts to know that stoicism and non-violence were not the answer to dealing with real world villains.
The Chinese people have been standing up to bullies for a long time. Shaolin lore is replete with apocryphal myths about its origins. Some are supernatural and a little crazy, like the legend of Bodhidharma boring a hole in the wall of the temple with his gaze and leaving magical scrolls of kung fu technique behind. Shifu Xingzhan taught us those legends without bias or commentary, and it was up to us to decide which of them we believed.
My preferred origin story for the Shaolin temple starts in the 16th century. Henan province was a lawless, dangerous place back then, and the Ming emperor could not be relied on to protect the monks. The Japanese wokou—pirates—raided the coastline relentlessly for more than a decade, threatening peasants and travelers alike. They slaughtered monks and pillaged monasteries with impunity, until they came to the Shaolin temple, where the monks drove them off with their long bo staffs.
Four centuries later, Shaolin monks still train as the monks of the Ming dynasty had trained.
We began at four in the morning, in the temple’s western courtyard. Abbot Xingzhan had nothing to do with training initiates in Kung Fu, but he was there before dawn, waiting for me. He took me aside as we were lining up for roll call, laid one callused, knobby old hand on my shoulder and offered the only words of encouragement I ever heard from him. “You will face many tests on the path of Shaolin,” he said, in perfect English, “but those that come later will be tests of body. Today, your spirit will be tested.” He pointed at the instructor, who was now doing a perfect split while touching his toes. “Shifu Shi De Yang thinks I was wrong to accept you. He believes you have come too late to Tóngzigōng. He believes Americans are too lazy and too weak for Shaolin. Today, you will prove him wrong, or you will return to your grandmother.”
Tóngzigōng literally means Shaolin child training. Initiates start practicing it as early as eight years old. It is a series of stretching and balancing postures meant to condition the sinews and ligaments in order to prepare the body for Shaolin’s more specialized conditioning techniques. Almost all of the Shaolin kung fu videos on youtube involving children are in fact initiates performing the eighteen postures of Tóngzigōng.
Xingzhan’s words rattled me, but I was determined—and I could not go back to living in a hovel with Lei. I grit my teeth and rejoined the other initiates
Before Tóngzigōng, we had warm-ups. Shifu Shi De Yang, the forty-four year old master of the Shaolin fighting monks, led us on a run out of through the monastery’s western gates and into its famous Pagoda Forest. The ‘forest’ of stone monuments was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2010, and remains a draw for international tourists, but I had no time to appreciate it. The monuments were sand-colored blurs in my periphery as I sprinted to keep up with my brothers. We ran three laps around the forest, then up the thousand steps carved into the mountainside.
I reached the top last, panting, with stitches in my side and a mouth full of acid. I could barely see the other initiates through my dimmed, bloodless vision.
“Fǔwòchēng!” Shifu Shi De Yang’s voice buzzed in my ears. Push-ups. We dropped belly-first to the ground, like big blobs of jelly. It felt like an eternity before I could find the strength to push myself up. The other initiates had already finished their 100 by the time I started; Shifu De Yang ordered them to sit and watch me while I finished mine. The attention was excruciating, like acid on bare skin; the longer their eyes stayed on me, the more my shame burned. When I was finished, we made our way back down the mountain. I cried the whole way.
That was just the warm-up. It was time for Tóngzigōng.
My first split nearly killed me. A furious agony burned its way up my legs and through my groin, leaving a sick feeling in my stomach as it passed up into my lungs and transformed into a colorful string of English swear words. Thankfully, Shifu did not speak English.
My whole body felt like it was on fire, but I held the posture. Abbot Xingzhan’s words were still fresh in my mind. I glared at Shifu Shi De Yang through tear-filled eyes, and he glared back at me, just daring me to surrender.
The quiet drama that had been playing out all morning had come to its climax. All eyes were on me, the white, illiterate newcomer who could barely keep up with the group. I was weeping openly, ashamed of my weakness, expecting them to mock me for it. Instead, they rose and gathered around me, like a shield against Shifu De Yang’s scorn. I felt hands on my shoulders, steadying me, and more on my thighs, helping me hold the pose.
“Stay strong, brother,” they chanted in Mandarin. “Stay strong.”
I held on. Just before I reached what I was certain was my limit, Shifu said, “That’s enough.”
My brothers draped my arms over their shoulders and helped me stand. I didn’t walk again for days.
I hated Shifu De Yang for years for his cruelty in those first weeks of training. Years later, I learned that he watched me so closely because he was afraid I might hurt myself. He had wanted me to succeed as much as Abbot Xingzhan. His antagonism? Just a role he played to help motivate me.