EVERYBODY IS KUNG FU FIGHTING ; the Ancient Martial Art Developed by an Indian Monk Is Now Compulsory in Central Chinese Schools. and Pupils and Parents Love the Idea. Clifford Coonan Reports from Beijing Martial Arts in Modern China

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The success of popular martial arts films means everybody is kung fu fighting in China these days, but youngsters will soon be adopting a fighting stance in the classroom rather than outside in the playground. Kung fu has now been made compulsory in secondary schools in central China.

The first kung fu disciples in the autumn will be in Henan province, home to the legendary and ancient Shaolin temple, immortalised in the 1970s television show Kung Fu. Soon the schoolchildren of China could be spending their PE classes wielding knives, snake boxing and making self-defence moves.

Kung fu is a generic term, used mainly in the West, for many different skills. In China, people use the words wu shu to refer to martial arts. Practitioners say that other martial arts, including karate, originated from kung fu. It is common in school playgrounds across China to see hundreds of pupils lined up in kung fu poses, going through their choreographed punches and kicks, their high- pitched voices repeating the instructions bellowed by instructors. Participation is generally voluntary and extra-curricular.

Chinese parents like it because it is good exercise, particularly in an era when boys are piling on pounds, thanks to a diet of Western food and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. But with cinematic heroes such as Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi doing it in blockbuster films, it is something the children think is cool too.

Then there is the spiritual dimension, which parents also like. Kung fu has a strong contemplative element, particularly the Shaolin variety which combines martial arts with Zen Buddhism and features long sessions of meditation to purify the mind.

Schools in Dengfeng city will offer Shaolin kung fu as part of physical education classes from this autumn, says the Henan Daily, although the paper declined to add what action kung fu teachers would take when pupils do not do their homework.

The report said: "Dengfeng trained more than 90 physical education teachers in martial arts during the summer vacation and the training finished on Sunday. Teachers hope that kung fu can arouse students' interest in exercise." If the pilot scheme works, it will be extended to primary schoolchildren.

The Shaolin temple, built in 495, is widely regarded as the birthplace of Shaolin kung fu, which owes its existence to an Indian monk, Bodhi Dharma, who began to preach Zen Buddhism in the temple and started its martial arts tradition. The Shaolin style was expanded over the years from 72 basic fighting movements to 170, divided into five styles named after the animal which the movements were supposed to resemble or represent: the Tiger, Leopard, Snake, Dragon and Crane. …