On a secluded mountaintop, young men sacrifice everything to emulate their kung fu master
Four hours north of San Francisco and miles from anywhere, an unmarked dirt road rises through a forest of oak and madrone trees to emerge in a mountain clearing where a wood-shingled rotunda overlooks an emerald valley. Everything looks unusually crisp, as if a layer of cellophane has been lifted away.
In the spring of 2008, I drove to this remote mountaintop to meet Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, a kung fu master who bought the land to serve as a training compound for a select group of disciples. Dr. Yang had never had difficulty attracting students in the past—YMAA, the Boston-based organization he founded in 1982, operates more than 60 martial arts schools worldwide—but after more than 25 years, Dr. Yang was growing tired of doling out his ancient teachings piecemeal. If he died, only fragments of that knowledge would survive.
His dream was to transfer his entire legacy to a new generation in one fat chunk. But the legacy—white crane kung fu—was locked in his sinews, and the transfer would take time: 10 years, by his estimate, at the rate of six days per week. At the end of 10 years, Dr. Yang would be in his 70s and at the end of his ability to teach kung fu. It’s this urgency that explained the almost neurotic vigor he brought to his search for worthy disciples. He couldn’t risk investing effort in anyone who might bow out before the training was complete.
Three months before my visit to his California training compound, I visited Dr. Yang at his Boston headquarters at a series of seminars he was holding to raise money for the project. Hovering on the sidelines, I watched as Dr. Yang wandered among his students, ribbing them about one thing or another. “You make a lot of money!” he told one fellow bound for the NBA. “I help you spend it!” Behind him, a heavily muscled young man was ferociously practicing in a corner. “When you take a break you have to smile,” Dr. Yang told him. “When you smile you don’t have high blood pressure!”
Compact and jovial, with a moonlike face and a tendency to giggle, Dr. Yang belongs to the puckish school of kung fu masters. But he also has his serious side. He has written more than 30 books, produced more than 50 instructional DVDs, and twice been named person of the year by Inside Kung-Fu magazine. But this is what distinguishes him: No matter how outlandish a project may seem, if Dr. Yang deems a venture worthwhile, he immediately undertakes it. Like buying a remote mountain on which to spend the next decade training handpicked disciples.
Dr. Yang kept a list of his top 10 candidates (all male, all under 25) and fiddled with it constantly. His biggest fear was that they cared less about kung fu than about finding an answer to an uncertain future. Dr. Yang’s term for this was “looking for new heaven,” and he did everything in his power to guard against it—mainly by emphasizing the grueling nature of the training and his fondness for corporal punishment.
Those who could not be discouraged he allowed to submit a formal application, which included 16 essay questions (“What qualities do you possess which guarantee that you will endure the intensity and boredom of this training?”). Those who completed the application Dr. Yang invited to take a seminar with him. If they survived that, he invited them to California, to the mountain, to test their true character in situ. Even candidates who fared well in the studio, he found, revealed weaknesses on the mountain. Gradually, Dr. Yang’s initial list of 140 candidates dwindled until he was left with only a handful.
Mike DiMeglio was not Dr. Yang’s first choice. In fact, when Dr. Yang first met him at one of his Boston seminars, he quickly dismissed him as “looking for new heaven.” At 21, Mike was a mess just to look at. His unhealthy pallor and bruised eyes suggested a bad diet and interrupted sleep. His gaze was blurry, his delivery slurred, and his slouched, guarded posture gave him the look of someone who had grown up under a porch.
In fact, Mike grew up in Wilkes-Barre, “the armpit of Pennsylvania,” as locals call it. His mother died from rheumatic fever when he was 1. Around that same time, the babysitter turned his father on to crack, and he’s been an addict ever since. The day Mike turned 18, his stepmother kicked him out of the house; they’d never gotten along. When he came by later to pick up his stereo, she told him he’d have to fight his four stepbrothers for it.
The weight of all this could be felt in Mike’s beaten aspect. Even so, there was something appealing about him. Feckless, grubby, uncoordinated, uncouth, he was, in a way, the ultimate underdog. In the world of martial arts, underdogs have always enjoyed a peculiar status. Kung fu movies are premised on the injustices they suffer and the certainty of their final triumph.
Mike might have been Dr. Yang’s least likely prospect, but he was also the one with the most to gain. “It would be devastating,” Mike said, “if I didn’t get picked.”
On my first visit to the mountain training compound, there were four semifinalist candidates under observation, Mike among them. They were eating dinner in a cabin not far from the rotunda when I arrived. A woodstove sat in the corner beneath a clothesline slung with dish towels. Fresh fruit hung in tiered baskets from the ceiling.
Mike had by then been living there just a few weeks, and I was surprised by his transformation. His matted hair had been shorn to a crew cut, his face was flushed with color, and his eyes had somehow become unsunk. The new diet probably helped: pancakes with scallions, roasted rice and pork in bamboo leaves, sautéed greens from the garden, and abalone from Dr. Yang’s neighbor, a fisherman. Mike inhaled it all. He joked and laughed throughout the meal, transformed from sad-sack punching bag to class clown.
Someone passed around a picture of a mountain lion stalking a deer. The deer seemed entirely unaware of the lion’s presence just a yard or so from its heels.
“That means the deer’s never been trained,” Dr. Yang joked. “No awareness, right? Just like Mike.” Mike chuckled. “You’ll be eaten,” Dr. Yang said and put a hand on his shoulder. Mike laughed again and kept gobbling abalone.
When a mosquito buzzed, Dr. Yang clapped his hands and said, “Reaction training!” On cue, the hopefuls flourished their chopsticks.
The next day’s training began with a strength-building exercise. The candidates stood on a cement platform in front of the cabin, knees pinched together, appearing to sit on air. Minutes went by in silence as they held this stance. The mood was cool and whispery as the sun shuffled sleepy spots around their feet. In the master’s absence (strength building did not require Dr. Yang’s supervision), one of the other candidates, John Chang, led the morning workout. He murmured something I couldn’t hear and the others brought their arms into a barrel hug; then they spread them wide, as though smoothing a sheet.
Chang was Dr. Yang’s star pupil, and Mike’s opposite in almost every respect. Quiet, inward, he had grown up an only child in Andover, Massachusetts, a wealthy suburb of Boston. His father was a software engineer at Motorola, his mother an IT manager at Tufts. Not only did they support his decision to devote 10 years of his life to kung fu, they were also ready to shell out $10,000 a year for his upkeep.
Chang retrieved a wooden staff from a pile by the cabin. Mike and the others followed, and they squared off again, each holding a staff by one end with his right hand and pointing the other end toward the center. Chang started counting in Chinese, and the staffs rose and fell with his count—another strength-building exercise, this one for the wrist, arm, and shoulder. It wasn’t long before variations in their competence became obvious. Chang’s movements remained fluid and precise. Mike, meanwhile, was arcing his body to counter the weakness in his arm. Soon it began to look like he was air-guitaring a furious solo.
My doubts grew. It would be easier to believe that Mike’s loutishness was eradicable if it didn’t infuse his every behavior—his troubling table manners, his braying laughter, his loud, expressive sighs.
“He’s stupid,” Dr. Yang allowed, when I talked with him later in his rotunda office. “He doesn’t have talent. But he work hard. He train hard. He have a nice heart—so innocent! This kind of person can be successful, because he doesn’t have too much distractions. When he focus on something, he focus, and do it.”
“I think he’s in now,” Dr. Yang said, after pausing to reflect. “He got no place to go. Nobody care about him. He is almost like the forgotten boy.” If anything, Dr. Yang was even more helpless than I was to resist the tug of Mike’s underdog appeal.
Despite obvious differences, Dr. Yang had a great deal in common with Mike. He’d grown up poor, in a small village in Taiwan. His father beat him regularly. When Dr. Yang was 9 years old and starving, he was caught trying to steal a rice bun. As punishment, his wrists were bound and he was hung from a tree, humiliated before his entire village. Parents forbade their children to play with him, and he took to hiding in old sewage barrels.
“Wandering, confused,” Dr. Yang said of himself at this time in his life. “I hate world. I try to commit suicide before I was 15. I try at least three times.”
Not long after his suicide attempts, Dr. Yang met a farmer in the mountains who knew white crane kung fu. Every day after school he would run up the mountain, which proved the ideal refuge. In time, the farmer, Cheng Gin-Gsao, took a fatherly interest in Dr. Yang.
Dr. Yang carried the rice-bun incident with him until he was 16 (“That’s the invisible whip behind me”), when he swore to prove himself by getting a PhD—the ultimate expiation, in those days. Of the 72 students in his high school, he was one of 2 selected to attend university. His subject, physics, was assigned to him, and at 24 he became the youngest university professor in Taiwan. Then, in 1974, he was offered a physics scholarship to Purdue University.
Dr. Yang had by this point been training with his white crane master for 13 years. When he learned of the scholarship, Cheng put all his cards on the table: If Dr. Yang stayed in Taiwan, he’d teach him everything he knew—a compelling offer, given the zealotry with which most masters guard the secrets of their craft. Still, Dr. Yang declined, preferring a more marketable degree in advanced physics to the antiquated teachings of the white crane.
In 1976 Cheng fell gravely ill, but Dr. Yang’s mother, rightly guessing he’d abandon his studies if he knew, never mentioned it. By the time Dr. Yang found out, it was too late. Standing before his master’s grave three years later, he realized he had failed him in the worst way possible. By his own account, he had picked up only half of his master’s knowledge. The rest was lost forever.
Now Dr. Yang recalled once asking his white crane master how much he had learned from his own master. Wordlessly, Cheng held up the back of his farmer’s hand and blew off an imaginary puff of dust. That image still resonates with Dr. Yang. Every year he visits his master’s grave in Taiwan, by way of penance. The shame has long since become a part of him, he said. It is his goad, his motivator. His whip.
Dr. Yang had hoped for ten disciples. In the end, he could take only five. Part of the problem was money. The fund-raising wasn’t going nearly so well as he had expected. Jackie Chan hadn’t returned his letters. Neither, for some reason, had Jet Li, Arnold Schwarzenegger, RZA, or Donald Trump. And the king of Qatar, where one of Dr. Yang’s schools is located, turned out to be all talk.
Of the five students, only John Chang could pay his way. Another found a sponsor. Dr. Yang planned to support the rest, including Mike, with funds from his own retirement account.
The acceptance ceremony took place in September 2008, in the rotunda. As a few dozen locals and kung fu notables looked on, the disciples knelt before Dr. Yang and bowed three times. Then they repeated the process twice, and Dr. Yang raised them to their feet, signifying his acceptance of them as “indoor” students—they had the master’s complete trust. (“Outdoor” students are taught only mao pi—literally, the teeth and the hair, the veneer of the art.)
And so the training began. Every day started at 6:00 a.m., when the candidates meditated in the tea gazebo, facing east. Then came qigong exercises to loosen the limbs; then breakfast, tai chi chuan, Chinese language studies, and lunch. (The disciples took turns cooking.) The afternoon was devoted to body conditioning: running, jumping, pull-ups, staff training, stance training, and cinder-block flipping. The greater part of the first year would be devoted to these sorts of strength-building exercises. Until the disciples were strong enough, there was no point trying to teach them real kung fu.
Dr. Yang proved a merry but inexorable drill sergeant. When their times running the mountain improved, he added backpacks filled with rocks. Mike was first to run the mountain bearing 50 pounds. He was less coordinated than the others, but he’d developed a certain rubbery durability growing up in Wilkes-Barre. When calluses formed on his hands from flipping cinder blocks, Dr. Yang suggested slicking his grip with hand soap. When his legs stopped shaking from holding horse stance, Dr. Yang had him stand on bricks—first one tier, then two.
In four months, Mike burned through three pairs of sneakers. Nosebleeds were common for the disciples, bruises even more so. Part of the training entailed whacking their forearms together like dueling swords, to deaden the nerves. Bruises were treated with a jar of Chinese healing herbs that Dr. Yang had been soaking in alcohol for 25 years. He gave each of them a monthly allowance of $300, which they pooled to spend on groceries. Their caloric intake was massive, as was their output. They shat two, often three times a day. Everyone lived by the same inflexible schedule. Even their digestive rhythms began to coincide, and they competed for the best bathroom (second floor, rotunda). Gradually, real life receded, and they entered the kung fu fairy tale.
“It is weird how time passes here,” Chang blogged one day, via the wheezy satellite uplink. “Months go by and seem like days, but a day can go by and seem like a month.”
Mike struggled to keep up with the others, and Dr. Yang tried to give him extra attention. When Mike expressed interest in iron-shirt training, Dr. Yang set aside time to teach him. In the mornings, after sharing a cup of buttery oolong, Mike helped Dr. Yang tend the garden. This was their special time together, when Mike could ask Dr. Yang all the questions he was too embarrassed to ask in front of the others.
But Dr. Yang also pushed Mike harder than the others. Every infraction earned a whipping, administered to the bare behind in sets of five. Every time Mike failed to clean up after himself. Every time he slept late or belched during dinner. In a way, Dr. Yang couldn’t help himself. Mike reminded him so much of his younger self that the familiarity seemed to authorize additional levels of discipline.
In December, Dr. Yang tested the disciples in 26 categories. Mike scored well in mountain running but didn’t fare well in “Jump Over Stick”: 4 jumps in 30 seconds. John Chang did 18.
Finally, the holidays came. The disciples were free to go home for three weeks, sleeping late and soaking up the rapture of civilization. It would be another year before they could enjoy the same freedom. Fund-raising shortfalls meant that their summer would also be spent on the mountain, coordinating training seminars for visiting “outdoor” students.
The return from vacation was difficult. After weeks of disuse, Mike’s muscles ached, and the training regime was as merciless as ever. A cold rain fell practically every day. Later in the month, the disciples went shopping for dumbbells at Kmart and returned with a Ping-Pong table that, for a while, did much to relieve the monotony. But Mike soon stopped playing because Chang always won.
In the meantime, Dr. Yang’s search for students continued. The plan was to induct a second class of disciples in the fall of 2009. That way, even with the 50 percent dropout rate he anticipated, Dr. Yang could still count on five disciples to carry on the tradition. New prospects regularly sent email inquiries, but it was slow going. Exchanges that began with passionate declarations of fealty soon dwindled to awkward realism. A British theology student was talked out of it by his mother; a Portuguese mathematics student couldn’t afford tuition; a French business student realized there was something to be said for a degree in management after all. Dr. Yang persevered.
Then, in the thick of his search, Dr. Yang received a forwarded email that Mike had sent to one of the more promising 2009 candidates, Jachym Jerie. Jerie had emailed Mike to get an inside perspective on the program before committing.
“Be aware that you will become isolated,” Mike wrote Jerie,
and every day you are here your old life, family, friends, desires are vanishing away and all your true emotions will come to the surface of your mind. It came for me when all I would do is try to talk to my friends on the very slow internet with bad connection whenever I had free time here. There isn’t much of that at all here, if you want to read books or study some other things there’s no time for you. Every day here is training, even your “weekend,” which consists of helping Dr. Yang do chores after a half day of training. The schedule gets so tight there’s no time to do other things if you wanted to.
When Jerie resisted this advice, Mike wrote back, “I think you misunderstand what I am trying to discuss with you. You may have other goals in your life that will not be fulfilled after this 10 years, you will no longer be Jachym Jerie. You will be a clone of Dr. Yang. You will go on living out his legacy and not your own.”
Dr. Yang was devastated. He felt like a father to all his disciples, but he had reserved his greatest fondness for Mike. The morning he received the email he confronted Mike in the rotunda, where the disciples had gathered for tai chi class. Mike refused to recant what he had written to Jerie. In his defense, he printed copies of the email so the other disciples could judge for themselves.
But consensus was against him. In the world of martial arts, there is one cardinal rule: Never betray the master. Absolute trust is fundamental, the final vouchsafement for a life of sacrifice and privation. That trust now broken, it was impossible to deny the obvious: Mike lacked the motivation necessary to complete the training. What he lacked was a whip.
Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, sits on the Susquehanna River, a hundred miles northwest of Philadelphia. I visited Mike there in the spring of 2009 to hear his side of the story. We talked at a local pizza joint. Mike ordered a large pie with buffalo wing–flavored chicken chunks. He looked happy. His hair had grown out into a boyish mop, and he had gotten back his old job at Sam’s Club.
It was a comfortable life. Mike knew everyone, and everyone knew him. “I’m pretty much like a celebrity here,” he said with a chuckle. They all hung out at the Café Metropolis, a club downtown where he’d met Sarah, his current girlfriend, a month after his return.
“Honestly, I’m gonna just say, that’s one of the main reasons I came back,” Mike said. “I was going crazy up there. For me it’s like, I don’t think the monk lifestyle was for me. Because I have too much desire and emotion, and it’s, like, the two things Dr. Yang wants to get rid of. I want to keep them.”
According to Mike, he had been planning on returning to Wilkes-Barre even before Dr. Yang expelled him. On the mountain, he said, time crawled. Dr. Yang pushed them six days a week, and on the seventh day, they did chores. “There were days when I thought I was serving, like, a jail sentence,” Mike said.
In the beginning, he had believed that kung fu held the secret to superhuman powers. Movies had always claimed as much, and nothing in his experience had proved otherwise. On the contrary, the very ordinariness of life in Wilkes-Barre had always seemed to argue powerfully for the existence of something greater. But as the months went by he grew increasingly skeptical. Eventually, it dawned on him that he was probably never going to be able to jump over houses or catch an arrow in midflight.
Dr. Yang wasn’t teaching him, Mike decided; he was brainwashing him. He was living in a fantasyland. He wasn’t even a real doctor. His degree was in physics, not medicine, so what could he possibly know about the biological basis of chi?
Now that he was free, Mike held no grudges. Grudge holding was not in his nature. Besides, he had learned a lot from Dr. Yang, despite everything. And he was grateful. “Everybody knew that I was his favorite,” he said, “because he was always, like, helping me. But at the same time it’s, like, I’m still me, I can’t become him.”
Dr. Yang was uncharacteristically depressed for weeks after Mike’s departure. And he wasn’t the only one affected. Ricardo, a disciple from Portugal, began talking of quitting. And Tom, a friend of Mike’s from Wilkes-Barre, was wavering as well. The mountain ecology was fragile, and Mike had dealt it a serious blow. In effect, he had called bullshit on the entire kung fu story line: the idea that a rigorously ascetic lifestyle was the road to true mastery; the idea that a single master could be entrusted to administer truth; the idea that an underdog can ultimately prevail through sheer strength of character.
In June 2009, roughly a year after my first visit, I returned to the mountain to see what had become of Dr. Yang’s ambitions. In attendance were two new candidates, hoping to convince Dr. Yang to accept them in the fall.
I spent the day talking with the disciples as they ground through their daily regime. They had all grown much stronger, of course—especially Mike’s friend Tom, whose limbs had acquired an arboreal thickness (the other disciples had taken to calling him “Turkey Leg”). In one exercise, they repeatedly hopped on and off a two-and-a-half-foot retaining wall. After a year of running the mountain, their legs had grown so strong that they could hop onto the wall with the littlest effort, barely bending their knees. The effect was eerie, as if they were floating, or a film clip had been reversed.
After the initial shock of Mike’s departure, the old rhythms had gradually resumed. Ricardo reconciled himself to the 10-year commitment. Tom was slowly resigning himself to the laggard role Mike had left behind.
Meanwhile, Dr. Yang continued to torture himself, wondering if he had pushed Mike too hard. (When Mike left, Dr. Yang owed him 200 swats with the rattan cane.) “His mentality still, like, 15,” Dr. Yang said. “I should treat him like the first three months, encourage him instead of give him pressure.”
In Dr. Yang’s view, it all began to go downhill after winter break, when Mike got a reminder of how good life could be in the land of distraction. Compared to the barren mountaintop, even a place as benighted as Wilkes-Barre must have seemed like paradise. Possibly, it all came down to buffalo-chicken-wing pizza.
Oliver Broudy (www.obroudy.com) is a National Magazine Award finalist and former Paris Review editor. Excerpted from Tin House (Fall 2011), a delightful literary journal that showcases a roster of writers both emerging and established. www.tinhouse.com/magazine