Shaolin Classroom

In Uncategorized on July 11, 2013 at 3:19 am


By Antonio Graceffo

At the Shaolin Temple, the foreign students have all been asking me to translate sort of intellectual and culture type kung fu questions for Sifu. Finally, I suggested to Sifu, that we should have one class in the classroom, and everyone bring their notebooks and they could ask whatever they wanted to know. Today we spent two hours in the classroom, with me translating the questions and answers. Occasionally, it was difficult because I don’t really do kung fu. I do san da, so I didn’t always know the forms and things they were talking about. But that was a small problem. The big problem was that the foreign students kept asking things that no Asian person would ever ask. Sometimes I think I don’t blend so well in Asia. But at times like this, I realize just how ingrained the Asian culture is in me. I would sometimes shutter at the questions they wanted me to translate, thinking, Wow! That’s a huge insult.

One example was that sifu was writing on the board in the sort of lazy script which people use in their daily lives in China. One student kept asking me to ask sifu to write in school script, so they could copy the Chinese words more easily. I simply refused. Asking him that might insult him, as if you were saying he doesn’t write well. Also, face is huge for Chinese people. It is possible that he doesn’t know how to write school script, because he lived in Shaolin Temple from age 11.

Another student asked how many forms the Sifu knew, which is a silly question. Sifu is constantly saying it is better to practice the basics for years before even learning one form. He told us many times of a foreign sifu who came here, who claimed to know 80 forms, and they were all terrible.

Other questions were reasonable, from a Western perspective, but strange from an Asian one. One guy said that he loved kung fu so much that he quit his well-paying job to come study at Shaolin. He explained that Shaolin had brought so many good things to his life. He asked me to ask Sifu, “Sifu, what has kung fu brought to your life?” I totally understand why he wanted to ask this. But from an Asian perspective, things often are as they are, and simply that. In other words, sifu has lived in the temple for 20 years. And that is a fact. This is his reality. I don’t think he wonders or thinks about other realities, just this one.

Other students asked the names and meanings of various forms and movements…Often the explanations were incredibly long and touched on elements of ancient Chinese culture, religion, or history. Many of the names were plays on words in Chinese, where the same name could be interpreted two ways, which from a Western perspective were a million years apart, but from Chinese perspective were next-door neighbors. In the end, I think it made very little sense to someone with limited exposure to China, or who did not speak Chinese.

As the class went on, I realized why there are no classes like this in the Shaolin curriculum. All of these facts would have or should be learned naturally, over a period of years and years of practicing with the sifu. The first key is being able to speak the language. Next, is listening and training every day. This is knowledge that is acquired over a lifetime and the velocity cannot be increased. There are no shortcuts. Most of the explanations, I fear, were simply lost on the students.

The very meaning of gong fu (kung fu), the most basic term, which defines everything we are learning, is one of these multi-layered, dual-meaning, culturally-tied words. The gong can mean work. But it can also mean a kind of skill or a kind of endurance, developed over time. Sifu said, for example, when the kids fight san da on Tuesdays, sometimes they cry or they quit when they get punched. But seasoned fighters get hit ten times as hard, but don’t quit. They have developed a resistance to the pain over a period of years. In Sifu’s words, “There is kung fu in everything. The way you teach at the university is kung fu. The way you translate is also kung fu. The way you carry buckets of water or stones up and down the hill each day. It is all kung fu.”

Looked at from that perspective, I guess I do kung fu. My fighting and my studying is kung fu. And interestingly, I never took notes. I never really asked anything. I just listened, for years. You can’t shortcut it. It can’t be learned or taught more efficiently. It is kung fu.

It is this reality. Not another one. And it is what it is.

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army. The book is available at

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