Shaolin monks demonstrate their martial arts skills. (Photo/Xinhua)
Located in the city of Pingliang in northwest China's Gansu province, Kongtong Mountain is the birthplace of Kongtong Wushu, one of China's five traditional martial art forms.
Written records of locals practicing combat skills to resist invaders can be traced back to the Warring States Period (475 BC-221 BC).
Nowadays, young learners are crazy about practicing the still popular martial arts form, but their passion is fueled by something far different from what inspired their ancestors and their prospects remain uncertain.
The Kongtong School of Martial Arts, situated at the foot of Kongtong Mountain, has 260 students from across the country who wake up at 5:30am every day to practice martial arts skills.
Fifth-grade student Zhang Huiping has been learning Kongtong-style boxing and freestyle combat techniques since he transferred here from a regular school a year ago. He said he dreams of becoming a kung fu movie star like Jackie Chan or Jet Li. "I watched them on movies. They looked so cool," the 11-year-old boy said.
"My parents didn't want me to study in this school because they worried that learning martial arts might be tiresome and dangerous, but they eventually relented," Zhang said
For Zhang's father, a businessman, learning martial arts did not seem like a good choice for his only son, and he worries that the boy will be greatly disappointed or frustrated if his dream fails.
"It is very difficult to achieve success in the martial arts world. Only a few can make it to the top. From the bottom of my heart, I hoped that he would stay in an ordinary school and treat martial arts as a hobby. But on the other hand, I have to respect his decision," he said.
As one of the 13 coaches in Zhang's school, 23-year-old Chen Hu is popular among China's martial arts enthusiasts. He was crowned the all-around champion at the 2010 International Martial Arts Competition in east China's Zhejiang province and won a gold medal at the 2011 International Martial Arts Festival in Hong Kong.
His outstanding records have made Chen an idol for young martial arts students, and even Chen attributes his passion for martial arts to a kung fu film, the 1982 blockbuster Shaolin Temple starring Jet Li.
However, he warned that young learners' ambitions to hit the big screen might hamper their progress. "Many children develop their interests in kung fu and want to be a star because of their passion for action movies," Chen said, noting that "practicing martial arts is a process of self-cultivation, as Chinese martial arts are closely related to Buddhism or Daoism, which carry the essence of kung fu."
School, not punishment
Wang Biao, the headmaster of the Kongtong School of Martial Arts, left home at 13 to study different styles of Chinese martial arts across the country. He said his students rarely exhibit the kind of faith and persistence that he used to have.
"To be honest, only one-third of the students really enjoy learning martial arts. Another one-third are from single-parent or divorced families, and the rest are naughty students with bad academic records," Wang said.
According to Wang, many single parents do not have much time to spend with their children. Hoping to relieve some of the pressures of being a single parent, they turn to martial arts schools that usually have a strict boarding system — five-and-a-half-month terms and a training schedule that allows only four days off each month.
Meanwhile, parents of misbehaved students believe that martial arts schools will provide a stricter education and intense physical exercises that will help discipline their children.
British kung fu enthusiast Anthony Freeman, 25, studied at a martial arts school in central China two years ago and made some friends there. He was surprised that many of the students were forced to study at the school. "My coach told me many kids were sent here by their parents as a punishment. Even if they are interested in martial arts, they may develop a rebellious attitude toward it," Freeman said.
"It is unfair to take the school as a reformatory as such an amazing exercise has attracted plenty of overseas fans, like me," he added.
Moreover, Wang said many Chinese have the wrong idea about martial arts schools, associating this type of education with physical abuse.
An scandal that unfolded online late last year fueled this thought. A netizen claimed that some students at a martial arts school in Henan province were attacked and severely injured by their coaches after breaking school rules. The netizen also posted shots of the scene, sparking public outrage against martial arts schools.
Wang said he strongly opposes physical punishment, but he also admitted that some schools have failed to standardize their teaching systems and some coaches are not qualified.
Harsh realities amid dreams of fame
For those like Zhang who see martial arts as a path to stardom, their dreams of fame may be, in fact, just dreams. There are no official statistics on the total number of martial arts schools in China, but web searches show that they can be found in almost every province of the country.
In the birthplaces of traditional martial arts styles, the number of schools and students continue to rise rapidly. The city of Dengfeng, located in central Henan province, is home to the world-famous Shaolin Wushu. There are more than 100 martial arts schools with more than 50,000 students in the city.
But only a few of China's many martial arts students can further their martial arts education at colleges or work as coaches and stunt performers. Some may get the chance to join public security or military forces, but the rest may have to turn to other careers to make a living.
Freeman is currently pursuing a degree in Chinese martial arts at Beijing Sports University and he hopes to work as a coach in London some day. Although the number of martial arts schools and students is great, Chinese traditional martial arts still do not get enough attention from the public as a result of limited job opportunities, Freeman said. "Before I came to China, I thought most Chinese practiced kung fu as an entertainment or a kind of exercise. Now I'm afraid boxing and taekwondo are more popular in big cities," he said.
Wang shares Freeman's view. "Take Kongtong Wushu as an example, it has been introduced to Japan for several decades. Now in big cities, including Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, lots of people practice Kongtong-style martial arts and their performance is better than ours," Wang said.
In the face of this reality, Wang admits that he must teach his students to prepare themselves for other possibilities.
Meanwhile, Wang often encourages his students to grab every opportunity to perform martial arts.
"I have no idea what job they may get in the future. I just want to teach them all my skills so that they can be proud of being a successor of Chinese martial arts and pass down our nation's ancient treasure as well," Wang said.