Anyone can play Chinese Kung Fu

The school of kung fu girls

At the Yongtai School in northeast China, girls are trained to become perfect kung fu fighters. But the training is extremely tough

It's Friday morning and freezing cold in the valleys of the Shongshan Mountains in northeast China. A lonely area, with no roads, no villages. There are only a few inconspicuous buildings here. No sound can be heard. But suddenly a siren rings out. The lights go on suddenly in the rooms of the Yongtai School: "Get up! Start morning exercise!", The instructor Ms. Wang commands.

The day starts at five

Ma Li, 13, pulls back the covers and jumps off the bunk bed. Only 20 minutes past five! But in China's only Shaolin Kung Fu school for girls, every day starts so early. The 75 girls between the ages of six and 18 are only allowed to sleep one hour longer on weekends.

Ma Li quickly slips into her tracksuit. She is one of the first on the spotlessly swept roll call area. Ma Li has a big dream: she wants to become an actress and star in one of the many kung fu films that are on Chinese television and that inspire people.

Tireless training

Shaolin Kung Fu has a long tradition in China. The fighting exercises were developed by Buddhist monks around 1500 years ago. Not to compete with others, however. Rather, they kept themselves fit with training - to compensate for hours of sitting still and praying in the monastery. To this day, many exercises always follow the same pattern. And only those who practice tirelessly can master them perfectly.

Ma Li has been at Yongtai School for four years, and she is considered one of the most gifted students. That is why her teachers even decided to train her for free, because the girl's parents would not have been able to raise the school fees of the equivalent of 600 euros a year.

For this, Ma Li tries twice. First thing in the morning is a three-kilometer run on the program. It goes across the terrain, where you easily get bruises and scratches. Ma Li grits her teeth. Then gymnastics, then marching, in lockstep and with singing - like in the military.

The big chance

Even if the training is tough, Ma Li knows that school is her great opportunity for a better life. If she can keep up the six-year training, she won't have to toil in the fields for starvation wages like her parents did. They live in a small village about 2000 kilometers away. Ma Li can only visit her once a year. "Sometimes I cry because I miss my mom so much," she says.

In 1999 the Yongtai School was founded by a rich factory owner for girls from poor families. There are now directors who are looking for actresses for films; or producers of fight shows like "Lotus und Schwert", who also tour Europe regularly, sign the girls.

The trainers are strict

It's a long way to go. Breakfast is at half past seven. School lessons begin half an hour later - arithmetic, writing, reading. At 1 p.m. the actual training: Ma Li and the other girls jump up steep climbs like frogs and waddle down again in the duck path. They lift weights, swing swords, let feet and fists fly, and whirl through the air. The trainers are strict. No student says anything without being asked. There is no contradiction, only obedience. If something doesn't work, it is repeated until it works.

At dinner, the girls crowd around the table at which Xiao Bing is sitting. The 16 year old has just starred in a kung fu movie; at least 20 million Chinese will see it in the spring. Ma Li asks. Xiao Bing nods and pats her shoulder.

Ma Li smiles. She quickly rinsed her tin dishes and grabs a sword. In the sports hall, she is still working a special shift. Until shortly before 9 p.m. the school siren sounds one last time: Night's rest. Ten minutes later, Ma Li is in bed. Totally exhausted. But happy.