At a remote temple in China, a Kung Fu master keeps the past alive
Uncle Yu–a once famous martial artist who taught thousands of students–now bides his time at a hilltop temple in Sichuan, writing poems by the kilo.
Published December 1, 2022
11 min read
Writer and National Geographic Society Explorer Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a 24,000-mile storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. This is his dispatch from Sichuan Province in China.
A Thousand mountains will greet my departing friend,
When the spring teas blossom again.
With such breadth and wisdom,
Serenely picking tea–
Through morning mists
Or crimson evening clouds–
His solitary journey is my envy . . .
— “The Day I Saw Lu Yu off to Pick Tea,” by Huangfu Zeng, eighth century
Wu De Temple, Sichuan Province, ChinaWe slogged up the steep hill. Yang Wendou, my friend, carried the broadsword.
The hill was corduroyed in green hedgerows of Camilla sinesis, the tree first domesticated to please the palates of tea drinkers some 3,000 years ago. Yu Chengzhang was the owner of the sword. Uncle Yu was a poet and martial artist who wrote poems per kilo.
“I write several poems when I awake,” he said at the hilltop temple. “I do this every day.”
The temple’s name was Wu De. Uncle Yu wrote his stanzas there using a cheap pen and plain white paper sheets. These papers were stacked in a dim hermit’s square. His poetry weighed in all, according to his estimation, approximately a quarter of an ounce.
“You appeared my dreams,” Uncle Yu told me the next morning. “You were meeting an 80-year-old woman. So I wrote a poem about it.”
He read the poem out loud. It was written in classical style in four-line stanzas of five to seven syllables each. It described clouds blowing in the south and tea garden pickers singing. To be honest, I couldn’t understand it. He then changed into a yellow Kung Fu outfit and gave a demonstration of martial arts.
What can I say about how Uncle Yu moved?
He was a man in his 70s. Once, he’d been very famous. He was the best Kung Fu teacher in Ya’an, a nearby city in western Sichuan. He had taught thousands of students. By the 20th movement, he was sweating. By the 30th, I could hear him wheeze. The clouds moved in him, however. The faint echo of a song echoed in his ears, rising and falling as he walked across the temple courtyard’s clay. The kind of emotions you might feel holding a river-smoothed boulder stirred by his actions. The weight of long lost power. The power of repetition is distilled into stillness.
Uncle Yu’s family lived in Ya’an. A grown son was bored with his father’s ways. They didn’t visit the temple on the hilltop often. Uncle Yu’s smile grew weary as he talked about it.
“My advice,” Uncle Yu said, “is never take a child to see martial arts before the age of seven. They will turn against it.”
One of the tea pickers giggling at Uncle Yu’s performance was Yang Shou Yin.
Yang was born in a village over the hill. She went to school there until she was in the second grade. Later, she raised pigs. She married at 20 and had a baby. She chose tea.
“It sort of went like that,” Yang said laughing.
A decade ago, in her 40s, Yang left home to find a better paying job. Yang worked as a laborer at the water utility in Beijing. But then the earthquake of 2013 struck the Ya’an region. Yang immediately changed into her company overalls. She ran home to rebuild the ruined Wu De Temple. The hilltop sanctuary was at least 400 years old, dating from the Ming Dynasty. It was far away, surrounded by billions upon billions of tea leaves, and only accessible by foot. It had been destroyed by Red Guards during the Cultural revolution. Yang began to repair it.
“I had this intuition to come back here,” Yang explained. “I heard the Buddha’s voice instructing me.”
She sent years cajoling the skeptical local farmers. Some people donated just one yuan. Others offered to carry bricks.
“The people believed in her!” Uncle Yu said.
Every morning before dawn, I watched Yang rise from her pallet in the dark temple to light eight candles in the main shrine. She sang along to the mantras on her phone. The vast hedgerows of tea were covered in dew and crowded with workers by sunup. Yang was red-cheeked, sturdy in the cold, and picking. She earned about $20 a day.
“My desire is to never do any bad things in my life,” Yang said flatly. “Only good things.”
“It’s okay to do one bad thing,” cracked Uncle Yu.
The habit of drinking tea likely began in China.
Here there are green teas and yellow teas. White teas are more expensive. The majority of tea grown around Wu De Temple are black. Its color is amber when it is brewed.
In his manifesto The Classic of Tea, the scholar monk Lu Yu wrote in the eighth century that “tea leaves should not be plucked in the raining days; neither should they be plucked when it is cloudy. Lu Yu listed six steps to make fresh tea leaves. He itemized 24 different tools needed for the grinding and brewing. Even boiling water for tea was observed as a precise and highly aestheticized experience:
“For the first phase, there would be fish-eye like bubbles rising from the bottom of boiled water, and the boiling sound is low. The second phase is similar to the emerging spring. There will be pearl-like-sized bubbles that rise from the container’s edge. For the third phase, the boiled water is like the surging wave, and the boiling sound is as loud as that of drums.”
I doubt the aging castaways at Wu De Temple observed any of these elegant tea rituals. They drank their tea from paper cups. They were the foundation builders of this century’s foundations. They had some leeway.
“We are all old,” admitted Zheng Jia Shu, a beautiful grandmother who cooked the temple meals over birch log fires. “If you see a young person here, it’s a rare event. The young go to the cities.”
Zheng shouldered a big rattan basket every morning. She braved the tea rows at waist height, her grey bangs letting go in the breeze. Uncle Yu sipped alongside her until he was tired. They only collected the best, most tender, and brightest yellow leaves for premium tea. Birds sang. The sun tilted in front of the sky. All of this was medled in their loamy-tasting Harvest.
My friend Yang Wendou, who had lugged Uncle Yu’s Kung Fu sword up the hill, waved farewell the next day. I watched him disappear into the green. Both of us were very sad. It was okay. The temple at Wu De was a great place to drink from life’s cup full of absences. Then it was time to get on with the job.
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Explorer Paul Salopek and the Out of Eden Walk project since 2013. Explore the project here.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.