Martial arts dreams: Qiu Bao endures despite tough conditions
In hopes of becoming the next Bruce Lee, 10-year-old Qiu Bao endures demanding training at the Zhao Changjun Wushu Institute, a martial arts school located in the suburbs of Xi’an. For Qiu and his classmates, the tough conditions represent a test of character in a hoped-for tradeoff for a better future.
With a half-dozen ceiling fans pushing around the hot, humid air in the school gymnasium, Qiu does his best to keep up with the grueling daily routine. He dashes down a strip of burgundy carpet, sweat pouring off his face, leaps in the air, sticks his landing and returns to the back of the line to repeat the process.
But the heat and exertion take their toll. During a subsequent drill, Qiu falls, hitting the ground with a loud thump. Hastily righting himself, he steals an apprehensive look at his two trainers. Then, in the last group routine before a break, he lags behind the other students, clearly exhausted, with bruises visible on his slim legs. Yet by the end of the drill, he manages to stand straight and tall, ultimately triumphing over his shortcomings.
Shortcomings will have to disappear if Qiu hopes to ever prove that he can master this demanding vocation. Like many of his approximately 300 classmates who attend the institute, Qiu enrolled an early age – eight in his case. Ever since, he has been a part of a boarding school that focuses on martial arts training in addition to traditional education. “I used to be sick a lot when I was younger, so my parents brought me here to strengthen my body,” he said.
Wushu, the traditional Chinese martial arts, has been practiced for centuries in China. One of its purposes is said to strengthen the body, which in turn will better one’s health. However, with its growing popularity, students also attend the institute in hopes of one day becoming like their idols, Bruce Lee and Jet Li.
Schools like the Zhao Changjun Wushu Institute offer students the option of studying a possible career choice in the martial arts along with required courses in basic education. “Usually poor families send their children to [those kinds of] schools,” said Zhi Shouan, a popular martial artist who founded and coaches at a local prize-fighting club.
“You get what you pay for,” Zhi said. The institute tuition, which includes education, board and meals, costs 2,160 RMB (USD $315.92). Although the quality of the education and the living circumstances are minimal, this is the best opportunity many poor families can offer their children. The investment is more money than Qiu’s parents, who have two other children to take care of, can really afford.
“I miss my parents,” said Qiu. “But I have been here for two years. I cannot quit.”
The decision to enter a martial arts school is a commitment to finish the alternative educational path to become a professional. The goal is for the students to be picked up by larger martial arts groups, such as the Shaanxi Wushu Team, that offer the chance at paid competition and performance.
According to institute headmaster Wang Lishen, students are admitted on the basis of their good health and passion for martial arts. “[T]he younger they start training, the better they get,” Wang said. Today, instead of training to follow tradition, students train with the goal of pursuing a career in wushu. Wang hesitates to predict precisely where the students now under his tutelage will wind up after their training, although he said some “might get picked by other [professional martial arts] teams in the province or the country.”
Training at the Institute usually takes seven or eight years to complete, depending on the age at which students begin. Training can begin as early as age five. Students compete in six or seven tournaments every year in addition to performances at universities and government events. A year or two of training is enough to bring a student to competition level, depending on the particular martial art involved, Wang said.
Even so, Qiu is focused on his dream. He wakes up every day at 5:50 a.m. and begins his training exercises by six. His day ends by 9 p.m., when he goes to sleep to rest before starting all over again. Meanwhile, he’s determined that one day all his hard work and sacrifice will pay off.
After all, says Qiu, “I want to be like Bruce Lee.”