|A kick in the temple|
|Written by Committee|
|Wednesday, 06 June 2012 21:04|
This is a rather old article extracted from The Age:
China's Shaolin Temple is the home of kung fu. But are tourism and Hollywood ruining the warrior dream?
Kung Fu Panda: Destroying the Shaolin image?
THE moon is the finest sliver of pale gold in the blackness lying over the Songshan mountains. The wind is rushing down into the valley, shaking the nests of azure-winged magpies, rustling the bamboo and catalpa blossoms, and jangling temple bells …
''HUNNGGHHH!'' Foot thwacks against thigh.
''HAAARRRGGH!'' Flesh smacks on to flesh.
It is 8pm on a Saturday, but although you can barely discern them through the mist and shadows, diligent grey-suited teenagers are still pivoting, kicking and punching on the otherwise peaceful slopes above the legendary Shaolin Temple.
Welcome to the home of kung fu, a Buddhist monastery renowned for its warrior monks. It is an inspiration to martial arts enthusiasts around the world, and sits on the dusty outskirts of Dengfeng, in the impoverished and otherwise unloved province of Henan. Here, 60,000 students aged from five to 40 come to hone their fighting skills, plan their careers and dream of their calling. With next week's release of the children's animated film Kung Fu Panda II, interest in the leopard, tiger, snake, dragon and crane styles of combat practised here looks set to boom.
Many of the pupils arrive with about as much talent as Po before his dumpling-fuelled epiphany. Each one shares his dream - to become an all-action hero. And although only a handful may ever make it, the aspiration is enough to keep them leaping and sparring long into the night. The legend of the Shaolin monks began about 1500 years ago. The emperor Xiaowen is said to have ordered the construction of a temple, deep in a mountain forest, in honour of a wandering Indian monk. By the 13th century, it was home to about 2000 monks, famed for their virtue and skill in martial arts - usually referred to in China as wushu rather than gongfu (kung fu).
''In history, Shaolin represented justice, uprightness, sympathy and love,'' says Wang Yumin, the temple's foreign liaison officer, incongruously clad in a Las Vegas T-shirt.
By 1928, when a warlord set fire to the complex, its glory days were long gone. In the '60s, Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution would ravage what remained. When religion re-emerged from the shadows with the country's reform and opening up three decades ago, there were just 11 ''mostly quite elderly'' monks in the crumbling buildings. Shaolin's renaissance is largely the work of a kung fu movie and a very modern monk. In 1982, wushu champion Jet Li appeared in the film Shaolin Temple. It made him an instant star, and Shaolin an instantly recognisable name.
Meanwhile, another young man was making his mark. Shi Yongxin, the son of a farmer and a factory worker from next-door Anhui province, had just joined the monastery and would become its abbot in 1999. Under his watch, its fame has spread as warrior monks toured the world demonstrating their martial prowess.
But for Shi, this is just the beginning. ''We are trying to spread the temple's values of Shaolin and Buddhism more widely,'' he says. ''Even though it is really famous now, it is still some way from its historical skill and reputation.''
In early morning, the grey courtyards of Shaolin appear much as they would have done centuries ago. There is nothing to break the tranquillity until a young monk walks through the sleeping quarters at 4am, beating a wooden board to wake his 300 peers. Morning prayers are followed by a breakfast of rice porridge with vegetables and - for the 100 warrior monks - two eggs apiece. The extra protein fuels their morning training, itself a form of Chan (better known as Zen) Buddhist practice, while others meditate. But at 8am the gates open and the outside world crowds in. Tourist buggies shuttle through the grounds and the monks disperse to sell incense to pilgrims and begin their half-hourly kung fu performances. At weekends there are so many visitors that the monks dispense with afternoon prayers, says Wang. Amid the bustle, Liao Chao pauses for a moment, carefully holding up his camera phone and clicking to capture his first visit to the monastery. For the past 10 years, since leaving school at 14, he has laboured in a factory in southern Guangdong province, working his way up to become manager. Now he has another ambition: to train here as a wushu coach.
''I've loved martial arts since I was little, but my family were poor and I have four brothers and sisters,'' he says. ''Now I have enough savings, I can come and study here. I've admired the monastery for a long time. I've been waiting so long and today I finally get to see it. This is why I kept working so hard: this has always been my dream.''
For admirers, the temple stands for the moral and physical strength of kung fu. But for others the magic is wearing thin. Many of the tourists seem slightly bored as they watch the monks' performance, consisting mostly of striking poses, though they perk up when one breaks a wooden stave over another's back.
Still from Stephen Chow's God of Cookery: Shaolin monks striking poses
''To tell you the truth, I thought the show wasn't that good,'' says Belgian tourist Raphael Doumont. ''This place is really nice but the problem is the business part. It's a little bit fake. You see these kiosks … I know it is 2011, but there's something I don't like.''
Though Doumont is a foreigner, such criticisms are common even in Dengfeng, where people value the income Shaolin has brought but lament relocations (buildings were knocked down to earn the site UNESCO World Heritage status); high ticket prices - 100 yuan ($14.40) in a very poor province; and general commercialisation. Chinese media have dubbed Shi ''the country's most controversial monk'' and ''the abbot with the MBA''. Certainly, his business acumen extends far beyond the monastery gift shop, with its wushu shoes and tasteful ceramic incense holders. He has backed the Chinese TV show Kung Fu Star, a sort of Pop Idol for the martial arts world. Shaolin has ''franchised'' four temples in Kunming, taking over their management at their request, and opened 40 branches overseas. It is a measure of the temple's money-minded reputation - fast rivalling its kung fu fame - that rumours recently spread that it was planning to float on the stock exchange. The more prosaic truth, it says, is that it is supporting a new state-backed tourism company.
Thanks to the headlines such ventures attract, walking through Shaolin with the abbot, a portly figure swathed in saffron robes, is a bit like escorting Donald Trump through Times Square. There are audible gasps from tourists, who rush over with their cameras and phones. One man tries to lean in for a shot alongside Shi, only to be bundled aside by a uniformed guard.
But for every fan there is a detractor, critical not just of the monastery's approach but Shi's own lifestyle. Complaints include his acceptance of a luxury car for services to local tourism, and an elaborate embroidered robe from a brocade firm, the gold thread alone costing a reported $7650. Just after we visit, the state news agency Xinhua announces that the monastery has asked police to investigate who might be spreading libellous internet rumours that Shi was caught with prostitutes.
''The people who made this rumour up will be punished either by law or by karma,'' says Wang, who blames cynics wanting to mock religion and attack famous figures. ''It's just a question of time.''
Shi says he welcomes scrutiny and acknowledges that the temple's development has been ''a really hot topic'', but he sees commerce and spirituality as complementary. ''Through the tourists, we solve the problem of making a living and passing on our culture and traditions,'' he says, while the overseas performances are ''a contribution to humans around the world''.
But he grows increasingly animated as he discusses rival ''Shaolin'' tours and others who try to associate themselves with the monastery. The temple takes its brand so seriously that it fought a six-year battle with the Chinese trademark office for refusing to register ''Shaolin medicine'' for use on products, including coffee, takeaway foods and instant noodles. Shi says Shaolin wants to stop others producing substandard products that could damage people's health and the monastery's good name.
''It is quite bitter for us, spending money and time fighting for trademarks and Shaolin's reputation,'' he says. ''They use it to make money. We are fighting to protect our belief and faith. It's a totally different issue.''
The monastery insists that kung fu, however lucrative, is secondary to religion for its members. ''First they are monks,'' says Wang. ''It doesn't matter if they are warrior monks, they must still meditate and study the scriptures.''
But most of the fighting monks are recruited from the students at Dengfeng's 50-plus martial arts schools, where kung fu is not only a way of life but a way of making a living. Henan is one of China's poorest provinces, and martial arts offer many youngsters their best opportunity of building a career - a shot at becoming a bodyguard, soldier or performer rather than an unskilled labourer.
Grandmaster Liang Yiqun, 82, the founder of the Shaolin Epo Wushu college, draws on six generations of kung fu expertise to give his charges an all-round education.
''If a martial artist lacks culture, he is a savage,'' he says. ''A scholar without any martial arts skills will find it hard to survive.'' They are the words of his grandfather, an imperial bodyguard.
The next are his own: ''Speaking honestly, a lot of the students we get are really naughty kids that are not accepted by so-called normal schools.''
Others come because their parents are migrant workers and they need a boarding school, or so they can fight their way into a sporting university, giving them a chance of higher education. And an increasing number of girls are enjoying the chance to challenge preconceptions.
''People in my home town all think girls should be gentle and soft, while practising martial arts is tough and exhausting. They don't think girls are up to it,'' says one of Liang's students, Zhang Hongxi, 18, grinning mischievously.
''Every time I leave the contest stage, my first thought is whether I have won face for my parents. The second is that it's good to prove that girls can also practise martial arts and be much tougher than guys.''
Like most of the pupils here, she combines steely will and a practical streak with starry-eyed idealism about her vocation, lauding the dignity and virtue of its champions. There is only a ''really tiny chance'' of even the best students becoming kung fu stars, her classmate Chang Xiufeng says pragmatically. But there is a faraway look in his eyes as he recalls the discipline and sheer physical grace that inspires them to train day after day, night after night.
''When Jackie Chan leaps,'' the teenager says, ''it feels like he's flying …''