Kung fu is fast as lightning, but the lessons just crawl

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Kung fu is fast as lightning, but the lessons just crawl

Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan may have introduced me to kung fu, but I'll take Jet Li as my "Bodyguard from Beijing" anytime.

Li, a master of the wu shu style of kung fu, has fluid grace and deadly speed. He has demonstrated his prowess in more than 20 films. His latest, "Hero," directed by Zhang Yimou, opens here Friday.

The fight scenes in Li's films involve intricate choreography. And their plots are fascinating -- epic tales of loyalty, betrayal and mystery -- set in eras and cultures completely different from mine.

To be one with Jet Li, I call the Korean Kung Fu Federation about fights and lessons. "If you want to see the best fights, you'll have to go to the countryside," says Jung Sung-chul, the group's director. "But come here for lessons."

So off I go to the federation's headquarters in Myeongil-dong, eastern Seoul -- a long subway journey, a brisk walk and up four flights of stairs.

"Kung fu is like the Korean tea ceremony," Mr. Jung says in a deep voice. A pot of warm water and two small porcelain cups on wooden holders are on the table in front of us.

"It's a tradition that is passed down in the temples from master to disciple," Mr. Jung says, as he pours some green tea. Mr. Jung learned kung fu from the Buddhist monks in the mountain temples of Gyeonggi Province. He was in elementary school when he started studying.

He explains the marriage of religion and martial arts. The philosophical aspects of fighting keep it in check, he says, "otherwise, what you are doing is releasing evil into the world."

The temple is a place for total immersion. "You cannot learn kung fu in one day," he says. "The techniques must become automatic, like the ability to pick up peas with chopsticks." For the movements to become instinctive, students practice them in different situations. They modify the moves and pass the knowledge on to others. And so the art continues to grow.

Ultimately, kung fu reduces fighting to the essence of yin and yang. A sudden strong move is countered by a soft move. A master was once a disciple, learning from a master before him. So, everyone has a place in the world.

I can hear someone working a punching bag next door.

Mr. Jung continues, discussing the history of kung fu in Korea and China: how different regions of China developed different fighting styles; how kung fu trickled into Korea through the teachings of Buddhist monks, through Chinese immigrants and even the Japanese during the Japanese occupation. He writes the Chinese characters for kung fu -- "effort" and "time" -- on a piece of paper.

And thus ends lesson one.

That's it? Where's the action?

I talk to a friend, who says, "A two-hour lecture? That's nothing. I have a friend who didn't get into the gym for a month. His master made him read philosophy in Chinese and his lectures stretched for four hours."

A week later, I'm back for lesson two. We're drinking tea again. "The third pouring is usually the best," Mr. Jung says.

This time, I learn how kung fu has evolved over the centuries with the introduction of new shields and weapons -- knives, spears, swords, sabers, arrows, guns. "On one side, kung fu is about warfare," he says.

We watch Web-based videos of tournaments. It's beautiful, tantalizing -- and me just sitting there.

Thinking about a month of philosophy and history -- and my pending deadline for this article -- I, a-hem, point to my duffel bag, indicating that the time for my initiation has arrived.

"Ah yes," Mr. Jung says.

I step into the gym next door.

"Stop," bellows the instructor, Yoo Byeong-dae, "and salute the flag. When you enter the gym, you must always salute the flag."

After saluting, I change into long pants and a T-shirt. A female student is practicing kicks. A male student is rotating his arms. Shields and staffs are hanging on the wall.

Mr. Jung walks in a couple minutes later and salutes the flag.

Mr. Yoo gathers us together for stretches. We stand in a square and lift one leg and rest it on the raised leg of the person next to us. It's a move to strengthen and stretch, and it's surprisingly painful.

Then Mr. Yoo puts us through basic moves. I would never move like this -- my legs crossed and bent, my body twisted to the back, one arm curled over my head, the other curled up my back. But when Mr. Jung and Mr. Yoo do it, it's fluid and strangely harmonious.

By the end of the day, I feel far from being a kung fu fighter, but the dreams of kicking tail are still there.

by Joe Yong-hee
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