The kung fu fighters who say they're under attack

 

The temple where the martial art was born is getting a facelift. But locals say it's a disaster, writes Brendan Murray, from Shaolin in China.

'This is just a warning," Shi Yanzhang, my host, a former Shaolin monk, intones gravely. I want to go for a drink at a local nightspot, but he doesn't think it's a good idea. "There are bad men around and they may want to fight," he says. "It is dangerous."

Yanzhang knows what he is talking about. We are in the heart of Shaolin kung-fu country, in the Chinese province of Henan. He spent 13 years studying the martial art at the legendary Shaolin temple, in the nearby foothills of Song Shan, the main holy mountain of Taoism. Not to take his advice would be rude and, more seriously, foolhardy.

Instead he offers to take me to his kung-fu school, in Dengfeng, a few kilometres away, where I can simply watch violence rather than be on its receiving end. He set up the school in the early 1990s, after leaving his order, and now he has 200 students, who begin training at 6 a.m. each day.

They practise in 80-minute blocks - six times a day, six days a week - to perfect kung-fu positions such as praying mantis, wing chun, white crane, black tiger and snake. Although time is set aside for conventional educational pursuits, kung fu is the focus of their lives, and they learn it under the paternal gaze of Yanzhang, their sifu, or master. The term kung fu comes from the Chinese for "merit" and "master"; a looser translation is "excellence through hard training": stretching, running, jumping, kicking and punching. Repetition is its mantra.

One of Yanzhang's students is Johan Akerberg, a 19-year-old who arrived from Sweden three months ago for a year-long stint. He is delighted to be here: this is now his spiritual home, he says. Not that there aren't problems to face. He misses his girlfriend back in Stockholm, for example. More immediately, he and his fellow students' living conditions are rudimentary. They live in concrete dormitories with no heating, share open toilets, shower once a week and, in winter, train in sub-zero temperatures.

This lifestyle, which helps to instil the discipline and control their martial art requires, is demanding, but the students know they are continuing a long tradition - the area has been home to numerous kung-fu schools, many around Shaolin temple, whose monks began practising kung fu more than 1,000 years ago.

Now, though, only one school is left at the shrine: Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Centre. With more than 7,000 students it is the largest such school in China, if not the world. It is not so much that the other schools lacked popularity, but that the government has decided that the area will become a cash cow if it attracts more tourists. So the temple is getting a facelift, and its former neighbours have gone. Locals have also been driven out, according to Yanzhang, who says their homes have been reduced to rubble.

When China's government makes up its mind, as it did with the Three Gorges dam, it tends to press ahead regardless. Like much of China, Shaolin is now a building site. The problem, according to opponents of the redevelopment, is that making the birthplace of kung fu more "attractive" to tourists will destroy the environment in which the martial art has been developing since the sixth century.

Guo Yin He, the training centre's general manager, is forthright. "We want to attract people from all over China and the world," he says. "It will be good for Shaolin." He also points out that the school can open doors in a country blighted by unemployment. "The students often go on and work in the military, the police or do security work," he says.

But Yanzhang, who regularly visits the temple to meet the abbot, his sifu, cannot hide his dismay. "It is very different now in the temple," he sighs. "I had no parents when I was young, so I came to the temple when I was 14. All the monks did kung fu then, before it was discovered by tourists," he says. "Now for the real monks there is not very much kung-fu training any more. The abbot now wants to get more into the spiritual side."

The Shaolin philosophy originated in Buddhism. After incorporating Taoist principles, it became an independent sect. Five temples have been associated with Shaolin over the centuries; the current temple, Shaolin Si, or Young Forest temple, is the only one that remains.

Legend has it that, a few decades after Shaolin Si was completed, in 495, an Indian holy man called Bodhidharma travelled to China to evangelise Zen Buddhism but was refused entry to Shaolin Si. Taking refuge in nearby caves, he meditated upright for nine years, casting the shadow of his meditating form onto a rock - the Shadow Stone - that is now on display in the temple. For all the world it looks like a small robed man on his haunches, hands folded meekly in his lap.

Eventually, Bodhidharma was allowed in to the temple, where he noticed that the monks' sedentary lives had made them weak and prone to illness. He developed exercises based on the movements of birds and animals, to strengthen mind and body. Shaolin's martial art was born when the monks realised they could use the movements in self-defence.

The death knell for Shaolin's kung-fu monks has been sounded prematurely many times: the repeated sackings of the monastery during China's frequent and bloody dynastic upheavals, not to mention Mao Zedong's purges during the Cultural Revolution, left Shaolin bloodied but unbowed. Now, though, a modernising administration seems to be thrusting the sword of progress firmly through the heart of the country's culture.

Leaving behind the hustle and bustle of the temple, I find myself by a quiet rocky stream, banked by lolling willows and bamboo groves. Behind me the elegant, brightly coloured eaves of the temple buildings shine out from the rolling mists that are obscuring Song Shan. It is as if I have been transported back 1,000 years. Then a motorcycle taxi pulls up, and I am reminded of a Chinese saying: "If the old doesn't go, the new won't come."Perhaps, though, the price of progress can be too high.