By David Gray
When I was told about this assignment late last Friday in Beijing, the brief was simple – a group of young female Chinese college graduates training to be bodyguards; sounded interesting. Little did I know how interesting it would actually be.
Myself and a Reuters television crew were met in a shopping mall car park by two obviously former military-trained men wearing army fatigues and dark sunglasses. This for starters was an unusual scene in China; a foreigner being driven by what looked like army personnel as shoppers did ‘double-takes’ as we drove away. Thinking we would be driving to a distant, secret location I settled in for the long ride. Five minutes later, we pulled into a driveway. In front of us were soccer fields, complete with mini-goalposts. What were we doing here?
Sitting at the side of one of the small fields was a group of women eating lunch. As we got closer, I could see they weren’t your usual group of young Chinese girls. Looking like catwalk models but dressed in army fatigues, one of our two male escorts barked an order at them. They quickly finished their food and stood up in formation. From a small hut out walked the head instructor. He was short, but noticeably fit and strong. Almost instantly, he had the girls running laps around the soccer field, yelling at them constantly with words of encouragement, but mostly abuse. After a few laps, the girls formed a line again, and one girl was asked why she wasn’t wearing any gloves. I couldn’t make out what her reply was but the next moment she was on the ground doing push-ups. This was going to be an interesting afternoon.
The girls were then ordered to do some short sprint exercises, while carrying a colleague on their back. This was the first indication to me that these girls were indeed just that – girls. Losing their balance, they started to fall over each other, and the next thing they were shrieking with laughter. I thought the instructor was going to go crazy but even this hard-nosed, former Special Forces soldier could only smile and giggle along with them. But within seconds, he was yelling again for them to get up, and grab boxing gloves and pads, and start punching and kicking.
The instructor observed the girls but was not satisfied. He started showing one of the girls how to hit a pad, being held by another girl, using his shoulder to give extra force. He then unexpectedly punched the bag to demonstrate this, and the girl holding it keeled over in pain.
In all fairness, it was one strong blow from someone who knows how to hit, and she just wasn’t ready. To her absolute credit, she recovered, retook her position, and waited for the instructor to continue. Next thing, he started to demonstrate how to kick the pad, and again, he didn’t hold back. OOOOOOOOOOOOOFFF!! I could feel the air go out of the poor girl’s lungs from 10 yards away. Down she went, but this time, she was not getting up. She was helped by a fellow trainee to a seat, and didn’t return to the class. Now, it was really getting serious.
Next the girls were handed rubber knives, and the instructor demonstrated with a male colleague how to disarm and throw an opponent to the ground. Some of the girls were very good, but most started giggling as they tried unsuccessfully to push their opponent to the ground. I saw that this made the instructor slightly irritated and was worried what he might do next. He then brought out rubber guns, and demonstrated how to grab the gun quickly and by twisting the opponents wrist, wrench it from their hand. Again, his strength was obvious, and the wrists of the girls were certainly tested. This ended the self-defense lessons, and what happened next, can only be described as totally bizarre.
The two assistant instructors unpacked a box of what looked like bottles and laid them on the ground. I was trying to figure out what exercise could possibly involve bottles being placed along the ground, when I was told they were for breaking over the recruits heads. What? You are joking of course?…. It seemed not.
The girls were ordered to stand in a line, and stand with their legs in a brace position – one leg forward and the other slightly back. The instructor was handed a bottle one-by-one and proceeded up the line cracking each bottle atop of the girls’ heads. Each time, the girls would give a small cry of protest before each blow, but no mercy was given. CRACK!!! What a noise. Cries of astonishment are the only way I can describe what the girls were screaming as the bottles came down upon their heads. But again, to their credit, they held the line and took this strange form of training in their stride. From a photographer’s point-of-view, this was amazing of course.
The only explanation I can give for doing this, was to prove to the girls that they could withstand a blow to the head, and how it might feel. Fair enough – makes sense. Tough test done. Oh no. Not yet. Next were the wooden sticks across the thighs. Again, the women were told to take the brace position, and one-by-one the instructor came along the line and brought down a one yard long stick across their leg, which would in theory break if their muscles were tightened enough. Soft sticks you might say. Well, when the instructor got to the fifth girl in the line, down the stick came, but this time unlike the previous four sticks, it didn’t snap.
CRUNCH!!! The girl went down, but as it was so unexpected, she started to laugh. The tension of the class before this moment had been at such a high level, that everyone broke out in roars of laughter, even the sadistic chief instructor who just seconds before had been deadpan serious. It was a wonderful ‘breaking of the ice’ so to speak, and a fitting finale to this strange and unusual security training lesson.
(View a slideshow of images here)