Shaolin Temple Fights for its Soul
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Shaolin temple has seen many a great battle over the 15 centuries since it was founded, but none greater than the one it faces today. Renowned throughout the world as the birthplace of modern martial arts, it's all but impossible to separate the facts from the myths about Shaolin.
Many of the historical records, like the original Henan province temple itself, have been destroyed throughout periods of fighting. And it doesn't help much that the world of kung fu is particularly fertile soil for storytelling fantasies. Thus it's hard to talk about Shaolin with much certainty, except to say it's fairly clear what's happening there today.
"Many of the great masters have left," claims Jin Kong, a 47-year-old Shaolin master now living in Yunnan. "Things have definitely changed at Shaolin."
Jin Kong also left Shaolin Temple, back in 1982, just before things began to change. "Back then, we would practice in the pagoda garden," the master recalls, and then demonstrates by slamming his fist into his palm and stomping his foot into the ground, letting out a very intimidating "Eee-yah!" He adds: "There were only a few people visiting the temple then; and just a few monks. It was..." he shakes his head and smiles, unable to find the words "...wonderful."
Once upon a time
An Indian monk named Ba Tuo founded Shaolin Temple in about the 5th century AD. In 539 AD, another wandering Indian monk named Bodidharma (known as Da Mo in Chinese) came upon Shaolin Temple. At first the abbot refused him entrance, so he retreated to a nearby cave and meditated until he won the respect of the monks. Da Mo preached Zen meditation, but found the Shaolin monks physically unfit to sit for long periods. After much contemplation, he devised a series of exercises based on yoga designed to keep the body strong. It served two purposes in that Shaolin monks were also frequently prone to bandits, and the exercises could be used in self-defense when necessary.
Shaolin monks built on and perfected the exercises, later adding animal-inspired movements, to become Shaolin martial arts - the mother of all that we know as kung fu, including Japanese and Korean martial arts.
Shaolin won great esteem by protecting the country in times of invasion, earning a special place in the heart of China. Yet, despite its fame, Shaolin remained a relatively undisturbed place, sheltered from civilization.
Everybody's kung fu fighting
Fast forward to 1982. A young actor and martial arts prodigy from Beijing Sports University is starring in a new Hong Kong wushu movie whose storyline comes from the history of Shaolin temple, at the suggestion of Chinese government officials looking to promote the country's emerging tourist industry. The actor is Jet Li, and the film is "Shaolin Temple." Much to everyone's surprise, it's a massive hit. Jet Li becomes a superstar in China, inspiring a kung fu craze that sees the sleepy little Shaolin Temple inundated with tourists and Jet Li wannabes.
Almost overnight, kung fu schools have sprung up around the temple, housing legions of kung fu students (the estimated number today is 20,000). Fleets of tour buses roll in, packed with flag-following, camera-toting tourists doing bad kung fu impersonations in front of the pagoda garden - the same sacred burial ground where Jin Kong once practiced with his fellow monks.
Shaolin today is a standard stop for tour groups. Thousands of tourists per day walk past the gates - a radical departure from the original vision of a clandestine monastery for quiet, contemplative zen meditation. Yet the Shaolin tradition lives on...or does it?
Survival and success
Three major attacks - the first shortly after Da Mo, the second in 1647 and the last in 1927 by Chang Kai-shek - plus the effects of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) did irreparable damage to Shaolin. The loss of sacred books, the razing of the temple and deaths of great masters drove it almost to extinction.
But ironically, Jet Li's Hong Kong film breathed new life - and money - into Shaolin. The Chinese government recently invested 152 million RMB into redeveloping the temple, tearing down most of the schools and souvenir shops in the surrounding area and relocating them to the nearby town of Deng Feng. Another big boost has come from the Shaolin performance team that tours the world, doing shows for everyone from the Queen of England to rock fans at Lollapalooza.
Yet having survived eras of persecution where the practice of kung fu was punishable by death, the greatest challenge yet may be for Shaolin to survive the perils of its own success.
Anyone who spends more than a few days at Shaolin can get beyond the surface of smiling monks and kung fu shows and see that things at Shaolin have changed radically, and perhaps not for the best.
Originally, the temple's main focus was on zen meditation. Today, Shaolin academy teacher Xiao Long (name has been altered) says, "Zen has no place in the modern world. It had a purpose long ago, but not anymore." He says this smiling, in a matter-of-fact way. Xiao Long isn't a cynic. He's actually a really loveable, not to mention talented, guy who more or less reflects the sentiments of Shaolin today. He also openly admits that he can't use his kung fu in a real situation, which comes as quite a shock considering the reputation Shaolin monks have as deadly fighters. What is being taught in most kung fu schools, and performed in the exhibitions may not even be authentic Shaolin martial arts, says Yang A, one of three grand masters at Shaolin. "It is just for show. Real Shaolin kung fu is rare these days."
Master Jin Kong agrees. "At the time when I was in Shaolin Temple, few people knew the true, traditional Shaolin kung fu."
To be sure, what some schools are teaching and what tourists are treated to in some performances isn't just a sleight of hand, however. If nothing else, it¡¯s extremely high level acrobatics. "These kids spend their whole lives training for this," says a German student who's lived at Shaolin for the past six years. He goes by the Chinese name of Shan Li, and is featured in almost all of the brochures and videos produced by Shaolin.
"To find a true kung fu teacher," he says, "you have to be extremely lucky. It may take more than one lifetime. Out of a thousand people in this temple, maybe one is actually a real master. In kung fu, your heart is the most important thing. No true master is going to give you knowledge that can be used to kill people unless your heart is absolutely pure. And who can say they are pure? Not me."
Many people say that's a cop-out, however, including a lot of the students who pay exorbitant tuitions, expecting to learn real kung fu, and end up leaving very disappointed. Shan Li says he's aware of the mounting criticisms, but doesn't worry about the temple's reputation. "I think Shaolin is actually getting better," he says. "There are a few people here, including myself, who are trying to bring the original spirit back. You have to see beyond the surface of Shaolin. But it is happening, just very slowly."
Much more quickly, unscrupulous profiteers are exploiting the "Shaolin" brand name. Type "shaolin.com" into your web browser and what comes up is not created by the monks of Song Shan Shaolin Temple, but by a rival foreign school that actually discourages people to go to China to study kung fu.
Meanwhile, inside the temple, behind the tourist barriers, a fat, jovial fellow with a shining face invites a visitor to play Chinese chess. Xing Du is more Winnie-the-Pooh than warrior monk. He knows a little kung fu. "You know, not all Shaolin monks are warriors," he says. In front of a beautiful reclining Buddha, the tourists and the annoyances begin to fade away, reminding of something Xiao Long had said a few days earlier.
"Life in the temple is tied to the state of life in the outside world," he said. "The world is different now."
As night falls on the temple, and the last busloads of tourists leave the dusty, souvenir stand-filled parking lot, it's finally quiet and beautiful here at last -- but one has to wonder is Shaolin hasn't lost the very essence of what it once so proudly and bravely stood for.
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A Quick Guide to Studying Martial Arts in China Today
In the end, there is no one perfect school or teacher. The best place might just be your local park or a small school in the mountains. For more information, check out websites like www.educasian.com or www.study-in-china.com -- the following is a short list of good schools and teachers:
Beijing Tiyu Daxue (Sports University)
Produced Jet Li among others. Perhaps the finest wushu academy in the world. Tai chi, chang quan, nan quan and weapons training are specialties. Cost: US$2,000 per academic year, US$50 registration fee. Dormitory: US$3.50/day. Tel: (010) 6298-9341/9391. www.bupe.edu.cn
Tang teaches chen and yang style, mostly to locals, in parks like Ditan and Beihai. She speaks little English, but is a gifted communicator of principles. Cost: Variable. Tel: 13651156509.
Shanghai Institute of Physical Education (Shanghai Tiyu Xueyuan)
Specializes in tai chi and Shaolin changquan. Tel: (Foreign Liaison Office): (021) 5125-3094. www.sipe.edu.cn
Qing Pu Wushu College
Headed by former national wu shu champion Huang Xiaoxiong. Specialty: Shaolin nan quan. Cost: US$30 a day (includes food, board, course fee). Tel: (021) 6920-3801/3802. www.sunny-wushu.com
Dali, Wu Wei Si Monastery
In the Cang Shan mountains about half an hour from Dali. Specializes in Shaolin martial arts including animal forms and weapons. Live in the temple and practice Buddhism and martial arts alongside 20 full-time monks. Cost: 300 yuan a week (including a private room, three vegetarian meals a day and six hours of daily training).
Kunming, Yang Chen Long
Hailed as one of the greatest tai chi teachers in China for his practical use of tai chi self-defense (tui shou or "push hands"), Yang Long infuses his training with outstanding Taoist internal arts. Teaches every morning at the Kunming Zoo. Cost: 500 yuan per month (including seven morning classes a week, plus three evenings). Tel: (0871) 573-5671 (some spoken English).
Yangshuo, Lou Meijuan
On the riverbanks, every morning and afternoon, find Lou Meijuan, an English-speaking teacher of yang and chen style tai chi; sword and fan lessons optional. Cost: 20 yuan/ hour. Tel: 1387-837-6597.
Si Ping Shaolin Martial Arts Academy
Next to the Ye He ancient castle and Jai Lan temple. Offers Shaolin and wu tang styles, tai chi and qi gong training. Students are invited to learn about Buddhism. Minimum study length: two months. Cost: US$920/month (includes food, board, application fee, course fee). Tel. (0434) 549 0348. www.shaolins.com
Wu Tang Mountain
The sencond most important school of martial arts after Shaolin, Wu Tang is the home of internal martial arts (tai chi and ba gua), and Crouching Tiger-style swordsmanship. Also the main spiritual center of Taoism in China, the temple is off-limits to foreigners (except as daytime visitors). However, the temple's wushu academy is nearby and does accept foreign students. Costs vary according to what you want to study, but can be pricey (US$25 or more per day, including lodging). There are several schools at the bottom of the mountain, but while Wu Tang mountain is gorgeous scenery, the city below might be described as "the armpit of China" -- and many of the academies there are more than willing to scam naive kung fu wanna-be's. So go forth with caution, young Grasshopper.
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Published on 12/8/04