Modern-Day Shaolin Temple
across history, Shaolin Temple has served the emperors," said
Liang Yiquan, 74, the director of the nearby Shaolin Epo Martial
Arts School, commenting on the abbot's influence. "Now they
serve the Communist Party." --New York Times, Feb 10, 2005
When people find out that
I practice kung fu, they often ask me if I've ever been to China,
or if I'd like to go someday to study at the Shaolin Temple.
The fact is that I had one of the
best teachers of Shaolin kung fu in the world (6th
Degree Master Joe Schaefer, Ph.D.) right where I used to live
in Austin, TX, and he isn't even of Asian descent.
People have a tendency to think
that "the real thing" is always off somewhere beyond their
grasp, in some exotic and distant locale. We tend to think that
if we could only travel somewhere far away, we could be different,
we could change ourselves.
This kind of thinking lets us off
the hook. If you have a dream for self-improvement, the best thing
you can possibly do is to start out on that
path today, and the only limitation is within yourself. People
don't want to hear this because then they have to confront the gap
between the reality of where they are now, with all their fears
and limitations, and a fantasy of themselves working hard, changing
their bodies, putting in a real and consistent effort at training
in some distant and inaccessible time and place. The fact is, it
takes real committment and hard work NOW to improve yourself.
If you really want to drop everything,
quit your job and do nothing but kung fu all day every day (and
I don't recommend that you do it), you can do it right here in New
Orleans, LA. We have all the training tools you need to become a
master of martial arts and master of your own life.
now to schedule your free introductory class
The sad fact of the matter is, traditional
Shaolin kung fu all but died out in China by the late 1920s. Here
is a quote from http://www.beijingwushuteam.com/articles/shaolintour.html
"For those who may not be aware,
the Shaolin Monks like you see in the movies no longer exist. By
this I mean the historical Shaolin Monks, popular in Chinese history,
folklore, literature and movies, who practiced Shaolin wushu while
staying devout Buddhist monks, living in the Shaolin Temple have
disappeared. The temple was practically abandoned during the Cultural
Revolution in China. What you find at the temple today is not what
was there beforehand. The fact that the people you find in and around
the Temple now claiming to represent it are not true monks is well
known amongst martial artists in China. Jet Li himself is the best
eyewitness, he went to the Temple in 1979 for the filming of Shaolin
Temple and didn't find any martial monks. Read his remarks off his
own webpage here. Furthermore it is a well known fact that martial
arts masters from other parts of China were brought by the government
to Shaolin in the 80's to reintroduce martial arts to the area.
"As Jet Li alluded to,
and anyone who has travelled to the temple and surrounding village
can attest to, The Shaolin Temple and surrounding areas have been
transformed into more of a 'tourist trap' by the Chinese and local
governments and the local villagers in the years since the film.
Dozens of martial arts schools popped up, some now quite large,
with hundreds or thousands of students. Often times the instructors
at these schools claim great pedigrees of martial arts knowledge
('Thirty-somethingth generation disciple of Shaolin Kungfu', for
example) But where did these people come from? Where were they hiding
from 1965 through 1980? Some journalists would lead us to believe
that the government forced the monks to break their vows, leave
the temple and assimilate into society, although I don't understand
how the Red Guard can FORCE someone to get married and have children.
Others mention that these monks may have been in hiding in the mountains
during the Cultural Revolution, either way they certainly weren't
living in the Temple and their sudden appearance in such great numbers
lead one to be very suspicious. (three non-martial monks in 1980
to hundreds within a decade or two)."
New York Times Feb 10, 2005 Article
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
ENGFENG, China - Well-worn flagstones lead up a
gentle gradient, through an imposing gate, past huge statues of
fierce guardian spirits. The tiled eaves of a temple loom behind
a giant ginkgo tree, all but groaning under the weight of a heavy
Suddenly, the pounding of hammers and the whine
of an electric saw interrupt the reverie. Only then does it dawn
that this is no ancient temple but a re-creation. The impression
is confirmed by a glance at the colors in the rafters, impossibly
bright for anything truly old.
Discordant sensations may be forgiven. Like any
temple, the birthplace of China's most famous form of kung fu is
supposed to be a space of tranquillity and meditation. Yet Shaolin
has become such a fixture of Chinese popular culture that much of
the life of this holy shrine involves greeting paying tourists who
arrive year-round by the thousands.
For the monks of Shaolin Temple, identity crises
are nothing new. Is Shaolin kung fu popular entertainment or solemn
exercise? Is it a money maker or tool of spiritual mastery? Is this
idyllic site in the Song Mountains of Henan Province a contemplative
retreat or a theme park? The short answer to all these questions
is, of course, yes.
There are even two versions of how it all started.
The official account, a blend of history and religious lore, places
the origins of the Shaolin tradition in the sixth century. A Buddhist
monk from India named Bodhidharma, or Damo, settled here then and
began instructing local monks in scripture and the physical drills
that are still said to be the basis of kung fu.
But if the question is more about when this country
went kung fu crazy, then the origins trace back several thousand
films to "Shaolin Temple," featuring the Chinese action
movie star Jet Li.
Mr. Li, a four-time national martial arts champion,
filmed mainland China's first kung fu hit here in 1979 (it was released
in the West in 1982), just as China was embarking on its economic
liberalization. The moviemakers borrowed as their plot the then-dilapidated
Shaolin Temple's most famous legend, the story of 13 monks who rescued
the Tang emperor from a vicious warlord.
The rest is, as they say, history. The road to Shaolin
Temple today is literally lined with kung fu academies, which at
last count numbered over 50. The schools are huge, some with over
10,000 students who come from all over China to train throughout
the year, including now in this season's bone-chilling weather,
in hopes of becoming the country's next Jet Li.
For the monks who run Shaolin, the explosive popularity
of Shaolin kung fu has not been without problems. For one, anyone
vaguely familiar with Chinese martial arts and with a little bit
of business sense, here or abroad, can hang up a shingle claiming
to run a Shaolin kung fu school.
The temple's leaders say they have had enough of
this debasement, and have persuaded the Chinese government to declare
the name a recognized brand, protecting it under the rules of the
World Trade Organization. The temple is also on a short list for
recognition as a United Nations World Heritage Site, protecting
the name, which they see both as a valuable brand and a term of
"Shaolin wants to preserve our uniqueness,
for the same reasons that developed countries value individuality,"
said the temple's leader, or abbot, who goes by the name Yongxin.
"It's a process that the society has to go through, spreading
standards. What Shaolin is trying to do is work from our origins,
from the basics, and we're doing pretty well."
The monks' life, he said, was simple and austere,
with frequent meditation and chanting prayer services. "It
is a lifestyle that has lasted over 1,000 years," said Yongxin,
a short, bald, pudgy man of 40 who pads about his chilly but ornate
quarters in long, mustard-colored robes, attended to by tea-serving
monks. "We get up at 4 a.m. and have breakfast at 7 a.m. and
lunch by 11:30. There are morning and evening classes, prayers and
scripture readings." There are also, he neglected to add, daily
kung fu exercises.
Between Shaolin's distant Buddhist origins and its
Hollywood-like revival, the temple has seen more than its share
of ups and downs. It was nearly burned down in the 1920's, during
China's civil war, and was damaged further under Japanese occupation
20 years later. Kung fu was banned under the Communists in the 1950's,
and during the Cultural Revolution, in the 1960's, the monks, who
were subjected to public humiliation and beatings, abandoned the
The current revival has been almost entirely overseen
by Yongxin. Although he is reputed to be a kung fu master, like
most of the monks here, his appearance is anything but fierce. Indeed,
his most formidable weapon seems to be the mysterious government
connections that have reputedly enabled him to reclaim the extensive
lands surrounding the temple, clearing them of junky shops, hotels
and other tourist traps.
"All across history, Shaolin Temple has served
the emperors," said Liang Yiquan, 74, the director of the nearby
Shaolin Epo Martial Arts School, commenting on the abbot's influence.
"Now they serve the Communist Party. There's a political element
Asked whether Shaolin's popularity was a blessing
or a curse, Yongxin waxed philosophical. "Having so many schools
teaching inauthentic kung fu may not be such a bad thing, as long
as it can help promote Buddhism," he said. "We are not
against pursuing commercial interests. We only hope we can play
a positive role in the society, while not violating a spirit that
is 1,500 years old."