The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – Lao Tzu
The China of yesterday is where one martial arts master took his first steps in Beijing long before skyscrapers, cars and high-speed trains altered the landscapes of the mainland's major cities. In 1982, Grand Master Dennis Brown became one of the first African-Americans to set foot in what many in the West then referred to as “Red China.” “It was the little green, blue and gray Mao hats with the matching jacket and matching pants. Everybody looked the same, and people were still walking around with machine guns,” says Brown.
This fall from September 4-17, you can travel to the People's Republic of China with Brown on a two-week excursion unlike any other. “We try to make the trip a learning experience, not just a shopping experience,” says Brown. “We want you to do the sightseeing and we're going to take you to the nice stores where everybody else goes. But we're also going to make sure there is a lot of learning involved, even with the kung fu.”
Brown began his formal education in the martial arts around the time of his graduation from Eastern High School in Washington,D.C. He recognized he wasn't tall enough or big enough for most sports and didn't like the judo class he tried. After meeting some young athletes training in the Chinese fighting styles, he became a devout student of kung fu and its smooth, flowing forms. “I realized I didn't have to be big or strong to do this,” says Brown. “It was a thing where the little guy could win.”
Almost 20 years before Brown became a national grand champion in what is called wushu in mainland China, he and friends traveled to New York City to see kung fu movies. “Chinatown had five theaters that showed double features. We'd drive up early in the morning and be there all day long watching kung fu movies,” says Brown, who appeared in his first kung fu film in 1983. It was directed by the legendary Chang Cheh, often referred to as “the Godfather of Hong Kong cinema.”
Black Belt Magazine named Brown one of the “25 Most Influential Martial Artists of the 20th Century.” He is featured in the 2012 documentary, The Black Kung Fu Experience. He trained with Chinese monks in both wushu and tai chi, a meditative fighting form. “I was the first African- American martial artist to go to the Shaolin Temple,” says Brown. At that time, the international film star Jet Li was still in training with the Shaolin monks.
For more than three decades Brown has offered martial artists, his students and interested travelers an opportunity to explore the People's Republic of China in a way few tourists ever experience. He has organized at least 10 trips since 1984 and can provide unique access to places not on most guide maps, including stops at famous martial arts centers.
One of Brown's longtime friends, Eric Chen, now lives in China. They trained together under the legendary Willy Lin, a grand master who was one of the first kung fu teachers in America. Chen, a well-known actor, stuntman and producer collaborates with Brown to plan first-class tours that combine visits to popular destinations, such as the 2008 Olympic Village, with more exclusive experiences. “You're going to see the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and Tiananmen Square. We're going to take you to the Great Wall,” says Brown. “But we're also going to take you to some of the small villages. I want people to see some of the old China.”
The Classic China Tour is not just for martial artists. Parents have gone on the tour with their children, some of whom are students at Brown's Shaolin Wu-Shu Training Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. The training with Chinese masters offered almost daily on the trip is optional. Other educational excursions provide an up-close look at how silk is made, pearls harvested or tea cured. Another highlight might be a stop at the Dragon Well Forge, where craftsmen are preserving an ancient art of sword making. The swords can cost thousands of dollars, but Brown instructs his tour group to rely on him and Chen for bargaining at the traditional factories and shops. The $5,700 price for the trip covers just about everything except shopping. It includes airfare, food and stays at four or five-star hotels. “They have beautiful hotels. They are all first-class. The buses and transportation are all first-class,” says Brown. “You're going to eat really well.”
What his fellow travelers witnessed on the 2013 tour further illustrates the special nature of the trips with Brown. They were greeted with a feast, dancers and the local council when they visited a town where filming took place for the 2010 movie Karate Kid (titled The Kung Fu Dream in China), starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith, son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith. Brown describes what happened later when the group stopped at the Great Wall of China, expecting to encounter huge crowds of tourists waiting to enter. “It was empty. There were guards all around the entrances. There were 100 or more kids standing in the sun at attention. They performed for our kids.”
The American students and the young martial artists from China and Korea took photos together. “They had everybody from the three countries sign this huge banner of friendship,” says Brown. “They talked about how through martial arts and sports we can all come together.” The banner of friendship hangs on a wall at Brown's training center.
Another friend, Grand Master Shi Deru (Shawn Liu), founder of the Shaolin Institute in Mobile, Atlanta and New Orleans, stopped in to visit Brown during our interview. Brown's friendships with some of the world's best martial artists are a crucial part of what makes his tours to China so unique.
Athletes and masters from across the country and around the world also attend Brown's U.S. Capitol Classics in August, one of the most prestigious and longest running martial arts tournaments in America.
Registration for this year's tour ends April 30. A down payment of $1,000 toward the total cost is due by that date. Can't go this year? Reservations are also being accepted for the 2017 trip.
Contact Andrena Brown at 301.336.7000 for more information. You can also visit Classic China Tours online.
Photo credit: Gary Gillis, Martial Artist & Photographer