The Fight over Kung Fu: The Rise of Martial Arts Academies in China

By Kelsey Larson

The bright orange-robed martial artist smashed the metal rod against his forehead. The pole shattered into pieces, and he strode away as a half-dozen other figures took the floor, their spears spinning hypnotically, blurring as they reversed directions in their wielders’ expert hands.  But this wasn’t a scene from a kung-fu movie. After the last sword stopped spinning and the applause eventually ended, these mysterious warriors transformed back into a band of prepubescent boys, joking and laughing. Once they reemerged from the changing room wearing the red workout clothes of the Tagou Martial Arts School based in Dengfeng, China, they were indistinguishable from any other band of young athletes. Any connection to the Buddhist origin of kung fu had been folded up and tucked away alongside their orange robes.

These students haven’t always been around in Dengfeng. Until the 1970s, Dengfeng’s martial arts population consisted of just a handful of Buddhist monks at the Shaolin Temple who learned kung fu as part of their religious practice. Though the monks occasionally involved themselves in the world beyond Dengfeng in order to keep their culture alive in changing times, fighting pirates for the emperor or allying with warlords, they remained little known among most Chinese. Tucked away in relative obscurity, the monks honed their skills in kung fu as a form of meditation and concentration.

Clothed in orange monk's robes, professional martial artist prepare a kung fu show for tourists visiting the Shaolin Temple (Larson/TYG).
Clothed in orange monk’s robes, professional martial artist prepare a kung fu show for tourists visiting the Shaolin Temple (Larson/TYG).

After the 1978 blockbuster martial arts movie Shaolin Temple was filmed in the temple, kung fu surged in popularity, and both tourists and young martial artists swarmed to Dengfeng. The martial arts schools that sprang up across Dengfeng now host over 50,000 young martial artists between the ages of five and eighteen, turning the ancient birthplace of kung fu into a modern capital of Chinese martial arts. Most of these students adhere to a schedule of intense kung fu during the morning and evening, with afternoons devoted to academic classes. The students I watched had worked hard to reach that level of effortless skill, practicing kung fu six hours a day for six days a week with only one annual break to return home for the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year).

Parents and students alike have leapt into kung fu academies as a practical alternative to the conventional Chinese education system. Not only does a typical education cost immense amounts of money once school fees and tutors are included, but if a student doesn’t excel at the intense memorization required to do well on the high school exit exam, they may graduate unable to find a good job. Kung fu schools, on the other hand, are both cheaper than many conventional schools and offer a more secure path to a job for students who prefer moving over memorizing. The best of Tagou’s students can dream of a job acting in the highly popular genre of martial arts films, and the rest easily find jobs as bodyguards or in the military, where the discipline they learned in school serves them well. The majority of students also enjoy their life at the kung fu school, though their training regimen is as strict as any city student’s study plan. As one 22-year-old math teacher explained, “They’re hardworking and bright, but they hate sitting still. They just want to be out practicing kung fu.” For these students, kung fu academies are their key to an enjoyable education and a viable career.

Students play and participate in outdoor exercises near the Shaolin Temple (Larson/TYG).
Students play and participate in outdoor exercises near the Shaolin Temple (Larson/TYG).

There is one career, however, that Tagou students are definitely not considering: the life of a monk. The students who had performed wearing religious robes collapsed into giggles when I asked them if any of them were interested in becoming monks. “We just wear the robes for show,” one boy explained. “It’s what people want to see when they watch our shows, but none of us really believe in Buddhism.” Kung fu is their sport and career, not their religion.

For some, this marks a tragic split from kung fu’s roots. One senior Shaolin monk explained in an interview that “Shaolin kung fu started as not only a way of protecting ourselves, but as a way of strengthening our minds and our bodies to become better Buddhists. When kung fu turned into a competitive sport, it may have gained more practitioners, but it lost its focus on self-improvement and turned into a competition for material things.” Walking through the temple complex, watching tourists eagerly snap photos of the indents in the flagstones that had been worn down by generations of monks, I found it hard to disagree with the monk. Like the boys who traded their bright orange robes for jeans, the temple seemed a place where the material remnants of the past still lingered, but its spiritual traditions had long faded into the flagstones.

Kung fu students preform a show at the Shaolin Temple (Larson/TYG).
Kung fu students preform a show at the Shaolin Temple (Larson/TYG).

Following previous adjustments to history’s demands, kung fu is adapting itself yet again, this time becoming a much-needed alternative to the typical Chinese education system. The armies of students on Tagou’s campus will grow into martial artists who will pass kung fu’s characteristic kicks and strikes on to the next generation. However, as the Shaolin Temple fills with ever more tourists and ever fewer monks, Shaolin’s spiritual history may be lost in the change.

Kelsey Larson ’16 is an Economics major in Silliman College. She can be reached at