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.

By Paul Salopek
Published 1 Dec 2022, 16:09 GMT
Wu De Temple, dating from the Ming Dynasty, offers shelter to several aging tea pickers and ...
Wu De Temple, dating from the Ming Dynasty, offers shelter to several aging tea pickers and a martial artist.
Photograph by Paul Salopek

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. He sends this 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 Zengeighth century


We slogged up the steep hill. My friend Yang Wendou 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. The sword belonged to Yu Chengzhang. Uncle Yu was a martial artist and poet who wrote poems by the 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 composed his stanzas there with a cheap pen on sheets of plain white paper. He stacked these papers in a dim hermit’s quarters. Altogether his poetry weighed, by his estimate, about a quarter of a ton.

“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.”

Yu Chengzhang divides his days among practicing martial arts, writing poetry, and picking tea.
Photograph by Paul Salopek

He read the poem out loud. It was done in classical style, in four-line stanzas with five to seven syllables. It told of clouds blowing about in the south and women pickers bent in the tea gardens singing. I couldn’t follow it, to be honest. Then he changed into a yellow Kung Fu suit and gave a martial arts demonstration.

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 master in Ya’an, the nearby city in western Sichuan, where he’d taught thousands of students. By the 20th movement, he was sweating. By the 30th, I could hear him wheeze. But the clouds still moved about in him. So did some faint echo of a song, rising and falling as his slippered feet scuffed across the clay of the temple courtyard. Watching him stirred the sorts of feelings you might get holding a river-smoothed cobble. That weight of long vanished power. Of repetition distilled into stillness.

Uncle Yu’s family lived in Ya’an. There was a grown son bored with his father’s ways. They didn’t visit the hilltop temple often. Uncle Yu’s smile grew wistful talking 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.”

Veteran tea picker Yang Shou Yin prays at Wu De Temple, high on a hill inside a tea plantation.
Photograph by Paul Salopek

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 attended school there until the second grade. Later, she herded pigs. She married at 20 and had a baby. She picked 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. She travelled to Beijing and worked as a labourer for the water utility. But then the earthquake of 2013 struck the Ya’an region. Yang immediately turned in her company overalls. She hastened home to rebuild the toppled Wu De Temple. The hilltop sanctuary was at least 400 years old, dating from the Ming Dynasty. It was remote: surrounded by billions of tea leaves and only reachable on foot. It had been destroyed once before, by Red Guards, during the Cultural revolution. (“Revolution,” observed Mao, “is not a tea party.”) Yang set about repairing it.

Tea from the hills around Ya’an is among the oldest grown in China.
Photograph by Michael Yamashita

“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 donated only one yuan. Others volunteered 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 chanted along with the mantras recorded on her mobile phone. By sunup the immense hedgerows of tea were emblazoned with dew and confettied with workers. Yang was out there, red-cheeked and sturdy in the early cold, picking. She earned about £17 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. There are expensive white teas. Much of the tea grown around Wu De Temple is black. When brewed, its hue is amber.

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. They should only be plucked during the sunny days.” Lu Yu systematically listed the six steps required to process 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 aestheticised 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. For the second phase, the water looks like the emerging spring, and there would be incessant pearl-like sized bubbles rising from the edge of the container. For the third phase, the boiled water is like the surging wave, and the boiling sound is as loud as that of drums.”

Zheng Jia Shu, a lifelong tea picker, concentrates on plucking only the tenderest new leaves for high-quality brews.
Photograph by Paul Salopek

I doubt the ageing castaways at Wu De Temple observed any of these elegant tea rituals. They sipped their tea from paper cups. They were the rough-handed builders of our century’s foundations. They had earned 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 face here, it’s an event, something rare. The young go to the cities.”

Zheng shouldered a big rattan basket every morning. She braved the waist-high tea rows bareheaded, her grey bangs parting in a breeze. Uncle Yu picked alongside her until his back tired. They collected only the tenderest, newest, bright yellow leaves—premium tea. Birds sang. The sun tilted in the sky. All of this was medleyed 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 vanish into the green. We both were sad, of course. But it was alright. The temple at Wu De was as good a place as any to sip from life’s cup of absences. And then to lace up one’s boots, and keep going.

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.


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