Kung fu schools take a hit

By Zhang Zhilong Source:Global Times Published: 2012-2-22 22:20:02

Six thousand students practice kung fu at a school in Dengfeng, Henan Province on August 23, 2009. Photo: CFP
Kung fu made superstars and millionaires out of Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Bruce Lee, who in turn helped inspire millions of young people to study the traditional martial arts only to end as unemployed, uneducated and disillusioned.

In 2000, there were more than 12,000 kung fu boarding schools in China with a total enrollment of more than 1 million full-time students, according to a magazine published by the Wushu Sports Management Center under the General Administration of Sports of China. 

Today the number of kung fu schools and students are less than half of what were at the turn of the century, say people who have had long careers in kung fu, which is known as wushu in China.

Contacted directly by the Global Times a spokesperson for the Wushu Sports Management Center surnamed Li said comprehensive statistics regarding kung fu schools and their enrollment are not easy to compile as several government departments and agencies have jurisdiction over the sport and the schools.

Li couldn't estimate how many kung fu schools had closed and by how much enrolment had dropped. Yet many experts involved in kung fu say their experience suggests an obvious and dramatic decline in the number of kung fu schools.

The experts say there are several key reasons for the precipitous decline including unfulfilled expectations, a lack of opportunities after graduation and an improved public education system.

Bad schools tarnish reputation

Cutthroat competition among schools at the height of the kung fu craze led to a serious decline in their quality and the tarnishing of the reputation of kung fu as a builder of young minds and strong bodies, several experts told the Global Times.

Zou Guojun was a student of kung fu at the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province, which was made famous by an early Jet Li movie in 1980s. He has witnessed the ups and downs of kung fu schools in Henan.

He told the Global Times that half the schools near the city of Dengfeng, where Shaolin Temple is located, have closed.

More schools will close

In 2004, Dengfeng was home to almost 100 kung fu schools but only half were still operating in 2010 and now have an enrollment of 60,000, reported Guangzhou Daily.

 "Only half of the schools have survived, and others are on the verge of going bankrupt," said Zou who was once a kung fu champion and coach.

Over the past decade, parents and students have also complained that students are not well cared for and are sometimes subject to physical abuse at kung fu schools that jumped on the bandwagon and operated on shoestring budgets.

The regimented training required of kung fu students starts with strict adherence to the rules as laid down by the school's master.  "Any breach of discipline, let alone talking back to an instructor, is often met with corporal punishment," said Zou who is also the General Secretary of the China Committee, World Boxing Council.

"Kung fu schools provide lower-level education and their operators and teachers are not well trained," complained Zou, who blames a too-rapid expansion of kung fu schools during the 1990s. He says many of the schools were motivated by profit and recruited staff with dubious qualifications.

Many children who are sent away to kung fu schools are troubled. They have dropped out of public schools or have not done well enough to further their education. Their parents enroll them hoping the strict discipline the schools impose on their students will straighten out their children.

Abuse reported

With so many students, so few quality teachers and a traditional ethos that demands extreme physical training, examples of abuse of pupils have been widely reported in the media.

Last December three students were left bruised and bleeding after being beaten in front of their classmates at a well-known school in Henan Province. In 2007, a coach in Dengfeng burned the arms of 42 students with a cigarette. He later told police he branded them so they will always be reminded he was their instructor.  In 2006, kung fu students were beaten up by their instructor and one died later in hospital. In 2004, coach Qiao Wenming was sentenced to three years in prison for intentionally injuring his students, reported China News week.

"The government doesn't regulate kung fu very well and some of the schools are in disarray," said Liu Suibin, a kung fu master in Sichuan Province.

Liu said the schools promise parents that their children will receive a well-rounded education that includes learning martial arts and academic study.

"The common practice is that students do kung fu training in the morning and attend classes in the afternoon, but after a half day of exercise most students fall asleep in their class and the teachers don't care," said Liu.
A kung fu student is doing stretching exercises in Henan Province in April, 2008. Photo: CFP
A kung fu student is doing stretching exercises in Henan Province in April, 2008. Photo: CFP

Zou, the kung fu champion, said prior to the boom in kung fu schools  a number of them in Fujian Province did a good job combining athletics and academics, but most have now gone bankrupt, as more parents have come to realize the academic failings of the schools.

"China's public education system was not fully developed in the early 1990s, and kung fu schools gave dropouts an alternative education. Now most students prefer to go to public schools to receive compulsory education," said Zhou Weilong, who founded the Huaqiao Wenwu School in Fujian Province that has since gone bankrupt.

Unrealistic dreams of stardom

Many students dream of becoming a kung fu champion and then a star, either in film or on stage and indeed thousands of kung fu students have travelled the world with acrobatic shows and have even performed on Broadway.

Of course not all those who study kung fu end up down and out.  The latest generation of kung fu artists who have made it on their own include the affable film star with a huge smile, 28-year-old Wang Baoqiang.

His parents, who are farmers from Hebei Province, sent Wang to a kung fu school when he was just 6. He studied at a school near Shaolin Temple until he was 14, and then trekked to Beijing where his bright personality and fitness were spotted by film producers.  His natural acting ability has been lauded by critics but he hasn't yet made a kung fu film.

For thousands of others, however, their bubble bursts soon after graduation.

"Their dreams are often turned upside down and they end up in their least hoped for jobs such as a security guard. Few end up being coaches or even go on to join the police force, said Zou.

Li, from the Wushu Sport Management Center, told the Global Times that research last year found that only 148 privately-owned registered kung fu schools were authorized to grant students recognized graduation certificates, which could be used to continue their education or help boost the start of a career in security.

Left with few skills

Many students attending bad kung fu schools end up entering the workforce with few real skills. "They become useless to society after graduation, even with a certificate," said Liu, the master from Sichuan, suggesting some kung fu graduates use their fighting skills to lead a life of crime.

"A young person with strong body, a high level of kung fu skill and low morality can be disastrous to society," said Liu, who laments kung fu's fading appeal.

"In the 1980s, there were more sponsorships available for kung fu than there were for football, but now the situation has been reversed," said Liu regretfully.

Liu says the country tried to give kung fu a boost during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games where wushu was a demonstration sport. It has since failed to become a medal sport in future games. "After decades of neglect, it was a little too late," said Liu.

A boot camp for troubled kids

Many kung fu schools are a kind of last-chance boot camp for incorrigible children. Parents hope the tough love their children receives at the schools will change their lazy bones attitudes.

"My son wouldn't attend classes at his public school and refused to study," said Dong Dachao, a resident from Bazhong, Sichuan Province, who sent his son to a kung fu school in Henan Province after he dropped out of junior high school before finishing grade seven.

 Dong says even at the kung fu school his son wouldn't pay attention to his academic teachers and teachers didn't care. "My son only followed the kung fu coaches' instructions," said Dong, adding that after having studied kung fu for three years his son was granted a graduation certificate despite not having completed his academic courses.

Dong hopes his son will be accepted by the army.

"Wushu is supposed to cultivate one's heart, and help improve oneself so you can find harmony with the world. It's not supposed to set one adrift," said Liu. 

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