What I Learned of Honesty and Dedication in China (Part I)

APU
5 min readMar 18, 2021
Kung fu part 1 Deel

By Dr. Gary L. Deel
Faculty Director, Wallace E. Boston School of Business, American Public University

This is the first part in a three-part series on my experience training in kung fu in China and what it taught me about honesty and dedication to one’s pursuits.

About 10 years ago, I traveled to China for the purpose of studying kung fu with warrior monks from the legendary Shaolin Temple. Prior to my trip, I had studied kung fu for several years at a martial arts school in the United States, but I was eager to study in China where the art was born.

“Kung fu” literally means “hard work” in Cantonese. It originated thousands of years ago as a way for meditating monks to stay physically active and healthy. But over time it also evolved into a formidable fighting and conditioning style, so that warrior monks could help defend the Chinese dynasties from marauders.

How American Martial Arts Schools Treat Students

Anyone who has visited a typical martial arts school in the United States probably has some sense of the routine. To be fair, each fighting style or art is different in terms of curriculum and philosophy.

But the classes or sessions normally operate in a similar fashion. Students don a special uniform and then assemble in the classroom. They begin by stretching and warming up. Then the class turns to practicing stances or movements, and perhaps even some sparring with partners.

But one thing that is notable about most martial arts schools in the United States is the relative ease and comfort with which most classes are taught. Usually, classes are not much longer than an hour. Students are encouraged to “do their best,” but no serious pressure is applied in terms of reaching goals surrounding strength, endurance, or flexibility. At the end of the day, everyone — regardless of skill or work ethic — gets a pat on the back and an “attaboy.”

Part of this well-intentioned design is aimed at boosting confidence and self-esteem. It’s not unlike the way we try to motivate and nurture children in intramural sports.

It’s common in America today that every child on a team receives a “participation trophy” at the end of a sports season, notwithstanding how well they performed. The idea is that you deserve recognition for “doing your best,” regardless of how that stacks up against your teammates and the competition.

A second reason for this trend is simple business dynamics. If you opened a martial arts school that was so demanding most participants couldn’t survive the workout and training sessions, your school probably would not be economically viable.

Sure, you’d have a few diehard masochists who would come regularly for love of the pain and punishment. But the vast majority of potential mass market martial arts students — children, soccer moms, fitness enthusiasts and retirees looking for a way to stay fit — would not tolerate it. And the business would fold.

A third reason is obviously potential liability. Martial arts schools are hesitant to push students too hard too fast. We live in a very litigious society, and if someone were to become injured, they might sue. The potentially crippling costs of defending one’s self in court keep martial arts classes running at a moderate level of physical exertion and challenge.

Cultural Differences in Chinese Martial Arts Training

When I went to China, however, I was astonished at how different the culture around martial arts training was and how vastly elevated the skill level of the students was as a result.

I stayed at a dedicated martial arts training facility in a town called Zhengzhou, which is in Henan Province in central China. The trip was arranged by the grandmaster of my martial arts school in the U.S., who decades ago had learned kung fu in China before emigrating to the United States.

So I didn’t have a ton of information in terms of what to expect. I just knew that I was to show up in the gym to meet my teacher at 7 a.m., the morning after my arrival.

I showed up as directed, and waiting for me was a short, stocky, middle-age Chinese man whom I would come to know as Shifu (“Master” in Cantonese). Shifu directed me to warm up, so I went through the normal routine of leg, arm and torso stretching.

At one point, I did my leg splits, which I could never fully execute to the floor at home — even after years of kung fu practice. I could get close, but never fully managed to close the gap between my groin and the ground, just due to my inability to stretch that deeply.

As I was stretching down, Shifu walked up and stood over me. He placed his hands on my shoulders and told me to take a deep breath. I did so, and as I exhaled he suddenly put all his body weight on top of me, pushing me flat to the floor.

The pain was excruciating — it felt as though I was being torn in half. I winced in agony and bit my tongue to avoid the embarrassment of screaming out loud.

Afterward, I stood up in astonishment and shook my legs out. I was really sore, but fortunately not injured.

I remember thinking about how crazy Shifu’s tactic seemed and how American schools would never do such a thing lest they risk bankrupting litigation. But then I saw the Chinese children who were studying there to become Shaolin monks, and in an instant the virtues of this difference in culture became startlingly apparent.

In the next part of this series, I’ll describe what I saw while training in China and how it forever changed my views on the best ways to motivate greatness.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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