Shaolin students of the Fawang temple,
a sweaty childhood
At the heart of the Henan province in China, at the foot of Song Mountain, one of the five sacred mountains of Taoism, stands a temple more than 1900 years old, the Fawang temple. Within it are more than a hundred Shaolin students, the majority of whom learn and practice Kung-Fu from a very young age. A special childhood made up of rigor and discipline, sweat and suffering, screams and laughter.
I / The awakening
5:30 a.m. It's dark. The sun is just rising on the sacred Song Mountain. The first gleams of the day barely light its summit when at its foot a small world is already very gently waking up. For Shaolin students from the Fawang temple, the day begins with the sound of the whistle. Step by step they wake up and one by one they get out of bed. Their eyes might be silent but the fatigue can be seen in their eyes. However a Shaolin student does not complain, and their pain is mental. Children know this because they have been told so since childhood. The suffering remains internal. Then the same gestures are repeated every morning, a ritual that each of them has performed hundreds of times. The pants, then the socks. The sneakers then the jacket. The student is ready for his day. The next time he will go to bed for the night, it will be dark again. Until then, the student already knows it, he will suffer, between screams and sweats.
II / The beginning
It all starts with the first call. Each student then joins his group at the first whistle of his Shifu, the Kung Fu master teaching this art. Lined up side by side in three rows, from the smallest to the tallest. The right arm is stretched to mark the distance with the neighbor, then one by one they are counted while standing at attention. A few words from the Shifu, a disciplined and respectful greeting, then the children begin their first exercise. Every training begins with a short race to warm up the blood and wake up the muscles, there is no shortage of forest paths around the temple. On the way back, the first drops of sweat have already flowed, but this is only the beginning. A few stretches and off we go again.
III / The first screams
The day generally begins with relatively simple physical exercises: stretching, posture practicing, punches, leg lifts, splits, jump kicks and sequences called Ji Ben Gong. These are basic exercises, repeated over and over again to facilitate a sensory integration adapted to each and everyone. From these Ji Ben Gong, the sequences of movements or Taos take on their full meaning and therefore become controlled, full and living gestures. Taos are performed individually or in groups, with or without weapons.
IV / The first meal
Then comes the time for the students to eat their first meal of the day, a breakfast, most of the time made of vegetables and noodles. The student regains some strength before continuing with his day. After each meal, the children must clean their bowls and their chopsticks themselves. No staff here for the dishes, laundry or cleaning. They learn about community life from a very young age, based on values of respect, sharing and mutual assistance. Much more than just being taught a martial art, here they are taught a way of life.
V / The 68th step
The student knows those 67 steps by heart. He went up and down hundreds of times, to go to the shower, to the dormitory and for various other reasons. But on this morning he will have to fight them both physically and mentally. First run them up and down again. Then two steps by two steps, even three for some. Then by bunny hops, two by two, even three by three for the more adventurous. The first cries of the children going up and down break the morning calm of the temple. But those are not cries of suffering, a Shaolin student does not suffer. Some will then have the chance to climb the steps without getting tired, it is easier when they are carried on another’s shoulders. The porter carries in silence. Exercises after exercises, the students keep going up and down the stairs tirelessly. The only short break is beyond the 67th step, the one which does not go up any further, the one synonymous with a short break, while waiting to go down again. This march is the 68th. But the rest is only very brief and the Shifu is never far away.
VI / The bowl
Of all the whistles of the day, this one is by far the most appreciated and most awaited of all: the lunch whistle. One by one, each student picks up his small bowl and his chopsticks and then joins his group. A new call, then group after group they go fill their bowls with well-deserved food. The service is provided by the children themselves and the food does not vary very often. Noodles, vegetables, rice, a piece of bread, sometimes a fruit at the end.
VII / A silence between two screams
The lunch break, for the children, is also the time for resting since the training will not resume before 3.30 p.m. A whistle blows and the temple regains its soothing calm, for only a few hours. It all starts with a nap which, for the majority of the students, will last as long as possible. For others it is also the time to relax after the nap by reading, playing cards or table tennis. Some do the laundry while in the kitchen the evening meal is already being cooked.
VIII / The resumption
A whistle blows and the temple regains all its excitement. A short run later and the students are ready again. This afternoon: training on how to handle the stick. The student also knows it by heart, his stick is his best friend. He knows how to make it speak and make it dance. Its dance is called the Tao, which means a set of choreographed gestures that each student must know by heart. There are hundreds of gestures in each area that the child must know and master by heart if he ever wants to become a Shifu. It is said that perfection can only be achieved by repetition, so the child repeats the same gestures over and over again, constantly, until these gestures are mastered to perfection. Power is nothing without mastering. Because that is what it is all about in the teaching of this martial art: the mastery of power.
IX / The last effort
The sun starts to set. The day is almost coming to an end. The children take their evening meal and then perform their last training session of the day: lifting tires for some, acrobatic and physical exercises for others. The burning sunlight moves on to the whiteness of the temple lampposts. Color changes, but the scenery stays the same, and the drops of sweat always taste the same.
X / An eternal restart
9:30 p.m. It's dark. Night falls again on the Fawang temple, calm will take over for the night. The whistle blows for the last time of the day. A last call, a last greeting and one by one the young students join their dormitories. Nights are short here and days are long. They are made of suffering and sweating, but also of laughter and smiles. Their days are very different from those of many other children around the world, but they are nonetheless happy. Their days are not all made of suffering and sweating. Students never train on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. On these days, children are even entitled to the screening of a film. As for Sunday, it is a day of resting from dawn to dusk. On September, school education resumes. It is certainly not as elaborate and efficient as the one of public schools and even less of private schools but it will still allow children to get a job later. Some will end up in the military, police or private security companies, others in more ordinary jobs. As for the most daring, they will in turn become Shifu and will perpetuate this ancestral and traditional art for future generations.
Meanwhile, with a tired body, the student finds his bed. He closes his eyes and falls asleep in silence. Just like for many children around the world, it is by closing his eyes that the most beautiful dreams come to true. So for one night, he escapes a little. The child falls asleep and the temple with him. Tomorrow will be another day, not so different from the previous one.