Beep…Beep…Beep. It’s a quarter to six in the morning and my alarm shows no mercy. From a far and distant dreamland of sheer happiness I’m being dragged into harsh reality. Again, whereas this ritual repeats itself daily. With a sigh, I get myself up with a fluent movement. At least, that’s what I intent to do but a soar muscle prevents me from making the movement as smooth as I envisioned it. During a morning yawn, the realization kicks in: I’m not at home and I don’t have a day of PhD work ahead. Instead, I’m at a Kung Fu academy in rural China and another warm day of Kung Fu training awaits me. Now hurry for some relaxing early morning Tai Chi!
My name is Wiljan and I work as a PhD researcher and lecturer at a Dutch university. Last April, two friends and I decided to make the summer of 2015 epic. Instead of the usual summer holiday of relaxation and traveling, we choose for something completely different. We applied for a one month stay at Maling Shaolin Kung Fu Academy, China. Each of us had his own specific motivations for doing so. Mine revolved around the fact that during the year practically all my activities are very cognitive in nature: reading, writing, gathering and analyzing data, teaching etc. Despite its many positive aspects, doing a PhD is not automatically good for your physical condition, to make a bold understatement. I enthusiastically accepted the physical – and mental – challenge of going to a Kung Fu academy in an effort to ‘be more active’. Nevertheless, the very fact that I went in slightly – ok fair enough, leave out the ‘slightly’ – untrained did worry me. Luckily, this worry turned out to be unnecessary. Yes, it was by far the toughest thing I have ever done, but yes, it was awesome!
Looking back on the entire experience, there are at least two things that stand out to me and that I am particularly grateful for. First, enduring – and most of all enjoying – the physical trial gave me a huge kick. Being challenged to work hard and push myself to the limit was not only a fantastic experience in itself, it was also very encouraging to find out this ‘limit’ moves up gradually, showing significant improvement of strength and fitness. To me even more important, the constant focus on control of movement, stability, and power in the different elements included in the Kung Fu training made me experience a more positive balance between body and mind. It made me stop thinking and start doing. A truly relaxing experience. Second, as a PhD researcher my work revolves around the professional identity of teachers and doctors. To keep it short: professionalism in broad sense fascinates me. Being a student at the Kung Fu academy offered me the valuable experience of a completely different perspective on learning and mastering ‘professionality’. In contrast to Western academia, where you learn to manage your own education, the process of learning at a Kung Fu academy is one of letting go of control. In a way you have to transfer the responsibility of your development to the Kung Fu master while working hard with discipline and commitment. In turn, the master is devoted to the training of his students, feeling responsible for – and taking pride in – their progress. There is no standardized trajectory; no ‘teaching to the test’. In a way this kind of learning seems to come close to the kind that took place in traditional gilds where students were working towards mastering crafts.
I would love to thank Master Du, Master Bao, Mona & Lisa – I could have put the last two names the other way around, but I prefer this order for obvious reasons – and all the other students for making this an unforgettable and truly inspiring experience. The future will tell whether it will be a ‘once in a lifetime’ thing for me, but I think I will definitely be back at the academy one day. For now, I even found myself doing Tai Chi at 6am in the park the other day before starting my PhD work!