Kung fu temple is a big hit in China

 

YOUNG MEN spring through the air, performing elegant punches and kicks, while others bound across the dirt, swords flashing through the misty air. This is the Shaolin temple where kung fu was born 1,500 years ago, in the Songshang Mountains of central China.

In one ancient tree in the temple there are dozens of small dents, where warrior monks practiced finger punches over the centuries. Now it is a place of pilgrimage for martial arts enthusiasts and Zen Buddhists, and thousands of young people who study kung fu, or wushu as it is known in China, in schools around the temple.

The commercial success of the temple has some monks shaking their heads, as they believe the commercial success of Shaolin threatens its spiritual peace. One monk said he was leaving after decades at the temple to take up life as a hermit in the mountains of eastern China.

“There are internal conflicts here, and it’s complicated. When I came here it was very shabby, and it has improved a lot. But I don’t think this is a place for religion anymore,” he says.

Many others are inspired by the Shaolin kung fu tradition. Kung fu is the epitome of martial arts, and practitioners say other fighting arts – including karate – originated from kung fu. It is hugely popular here and abroad – there are more than a million students of Shaolin kung fu around the world and many centres of Shaolin culture globally.

For the 60,000 young would-be kung fu stars kicking and punching away at the schools around the temple, Shaolin kung fu offers a way out of poverty.

Wu Zhiqiang comes from near the Henan capital of Zhengzhou. He is 17 years old and has been in Shaolin for four years. There are 4,000 students at his school, including some girls.

“I’ve been practicing since 5am,” he says, still brandishing a spear at lunchtime. “We practice outside in the morning, then study in the classroom. My aim is to go to physical education college in Zhengzhou. But some of my friends want to be coaches. And of course some of us want to be in the movies.”

Built in 495, kung fu owes its existence to an Indian monk, Bodhi Dharma, who began to preach Zen Buddhism in the temple and started its martial arts tradition. The Shaolin style was expanded over the years from 72 basic fighting movements to 170 moves, divided into five styles named after the animal the movements were supposed to resemble: tiger, leopard, snake, dragon and crane.

Of course, anyone familiar with Kung Fu Panda will know these animals, as they are the Furious Five who help the good-natured, portly Dragon Warrior on his quest.

For some people the temple has become too commercial, a victim of its own success. It is true that the sight of telephone kiosks with Buddhas on top is jarring – you wonder if it’s a direct line to the Buddha himself.

Qian Daliang, general manager of the Henan Shaolin Temple Development Company, says that to say Shaolin had become too commercial was a misunderstanding.

“Our aim is to protect Shaolin, and maintain the real Shaolin,” he says in an interview. “We have a good name but people here and overseas use the name to make money and in some cases ruin the name of Shaolin. We have to protect ourselves, and our intellectual property,” he says.

There are thousands of tourists in Shaolin, but it retains a sense of what it is all about.

The 1,200-year-old Pagoda Forest has featured in many a kung fu epic and its 228 brick pagodas survived the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards marauded across China destroying religious sites as one of the “Four Olds” that had to be smashed. Their status as burial sites saved the pagodas, although the monks in Shaolin were forced to drink alcohol and eat meat by the Red Guards.

They remember this still, and they have a saying: “Alcohol and meat only pass through your digestive system, but Buddha is within.” The Red Guards flogged them and paraded them through town.

Reform and opening up in China has seen a revival in the temple’s fortunes. In the temple’s offices there are photographs of famous visitors, including Vladimir Putin and former leader Jiang Zemin.

The indignities of the Cultural Revolution were only the latest major setback for the temple. It has been destroyed and rebuilt many times during its history, including once in the 17th century by rebels for its support of the Ming emperor. In 1928 it was largely burned down by the warlord Shi Yousan over a three-month period, and its manuscripts destroyed.

At the back of the temple complex you come to two buildings which each played a major role in Shaolin’s rebirth. Hong Kong was key in reviving Shaolin’s fortunes, as the wild interest in martial arts movies during the 1970s saw a host of movies featuring Shaolin-style kung fu.

The building at the very back of the complex was used in one of the most famous of these, a ground-breaking martial arts epic The Shaolin Templein 1982 which featured Jet Li and led to a surge of interest in matters martial.

Of course, the success of The Shaolin Templebuilt on another, earlier TV show featuring the monastery, familiar to anyone who watched British TV in Ireland on Saturday evenings in the 1970s. Shaolinis where Kwai Chang “Grasshopper” Caine (played by actor David Carradine) learns his kung fu in the TV show of the same name. Caine trudged his way across 19th century America, having surreal adventures that always ended in some ace martial arts and contained a fairly heavy dose of mysticism from his teachers Master Po and Master Kan, whose gasps of “Grasshopper” punctuated the action.

A new movie Shaolin, which features Hong Kong heart-throb Andy Lau and action hero Jackie Chan, is on DVD release in Ireland and director Benny Chan is a huge fan of kung fu. “Like many of my peers who were starting out in the film industry in the early 1980s, I was influenced and inspired by the original Shaolin Temple. I mean, wow, there was Jet Li executing the most perfect of 360-degree roundhouse kicks in mid-air. It was both stunning and riveting. Don’t forget The Shaolin Templewas made before China opened up – it was such a rarity,” he says.

He believes his Shaolinis the first officially sanctioned by Shi Yongxin, the abbot who is largely credited as the architect of Shaolin’s revival. A farmer’s son from nearby Anhui, Shi became abbot in 1999. He is known for his business-minded approach to transforming the temple and promoting Buddhism throughout the world over the past two decades.

Since 1986, he has led Shaolin monk delegations across China and abroad to perform Shaolin martial arts shows. In 1994, he registered the trademark of the names Shaolin and Shaolin Temple.

He demanded an official apology from an online commentator who dared to say Shaolin monks had once been beaten in unarmed combat by Japanese ninja warriors. At the same time, Shi was criticised for accepting the gift of a luxury sports car from local authorities, and many monks did not like the decision to host its own martial arts reality TV show.

But Daliang insists the temple needs a commercial aspect to ensure its survival. “The Shaolin monastery has had its ups and downs. At one point there were over 2,000 monks here, but after the Cultural Revolution, there were only 15 monks left. But the spirit of Shaolin never stops, and that’s what we are aiming to continuously deliver,” says Qian.

Get there

Shaolin Temple is 13km from Dengfeng city, which is 96km west of Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province in central China. Fly to Zhengzhou from Beijing or Shanghai, then take an express bus to Shaolin from Zhengzhou bus station, opposite Zhengzhou railway station. Or hire a car from Zhengzhou for around €90.

Shaolin where to . . .

Stay

The Zen International Hotel is not far from the temple area and has a Zen Buddhist theme, while others include the Shaolin International Hotel, the Tianzhong Hotel and the Fengyuan Hotel.

Eat

Inside the temple complex there are several eating options, including the Joy vegetarian restaurant, which prepares food in tune with Buddhist philosophy. Kung fu noodles are also recommended.

Local snacks are also available, such as the egg pei with vegetables, which is a kind of pancake that is delicious. Strict vegetarians, and even some confirmed carnivores, might want to avoid the local pancake with donkey meat.

Temple access

Admission is 100 yuan (€11.60) and the temple is open from 8am till 5.30pm. If you want to sign up for a day – or longer – of martial arts training, this is also possible at one of the schools near the temple.

Around the temple

The temple can be a full-on experience in terms of tourists, so heading to the mountains nearby is a good idea. Paths to the side of the Shaolin temple lead up to Wuru Peak, while you can also climb up the Shaoshi Shan mountain, or visit the Rope Bridge.

When to visit

The ideal season to take advantage of Shaolin’s charms is autumn, between October and November, when the maple leaves change colour and the mountains turn red.