Shaolin's kung fu monks make a killing
By Pallavi Aiyar
Saturday, 20 May 2006
Asia Times Online
From high up in the misty Song Mountains of central China's Henan
province, the Shaolin monastery and its kung fu monks have held a peculiar
fascination across the centuries. Shrouded in a swirl of myth and mystery, the
temple's fame has long crossed Chinese borders thanks to Hollywood and Jet Li.
In the popular imagination, Shaolin is synonymous with the rigid discipline
and deep spirituality of the cryptic Zen Buddhism school practiced at the
temple. But in keeping with the spirit of contemporary China, Shaolin today has
been reborn as a well-oiled corporation, with holding monks with master of
business administration (MBA) degrees sorting out temple management issues on
cellular phones, presided over by an abbot the local media call the "CEO of
Shi Yongxin, the temple's abbot, may be clothed in the yellow robes of the
monk, complete with weighty rosary draped around the neck, but the bulge of his
mobile phone is unmistakable through the folds of his robes as he hands out
business cards sporting the temple's website address (www.shaolin.com). In Shaolin, Buddhism is big
business, and the abbot is unapologetic for its blatant commercialism.
"In the past, monks relied on farming to make a living. Today we have to rely
on tourism," he says. "Advertising and publicity has always been integral to
Buddhism. How else can we diffuse Buddhist philosophy into society at large?"
Among Shi's innovations was the setting up of mainland China's first
temple-based website in 1996, when few in the country had even heard of the
Internet. In 1997 he hired lawyers to fight trademark violations, to protect the
Shaolin "brand", which had been much exploited, used to sell everything from
colas to bicycles.
The abbot went on to dispatch hitherto-cloistered monks to perform martial
arts all over the world and encouraged others to learn foreign languages and go
abroad to study for MBAs and PhDs.
"In a globalized world we need our monks to be able to communicate in
different languages," says Shi. He adds that about half of the temple's 200
monks speak a foreign language. English, Korean and Japanese are the most
popular, and a few have even learned Farsi. Currently more than 10 monks are
taking degrees abroad.
The abbot's latest commercial venture is the production of an international,
televised martial-arts contest, the winner of which will star in a series of
movies the temple is investing in.
"Shaolin has been the subject of so many films, but none of them portray the
real spirit of our temple," says Shi. He claims that the reason for the temple's
foray into filmmaking has to do with revealing the spiritual side of Buddhism
rather than the boom-bang of martial arts that Hollywood usually focuses on.
But in the temple itself, this spirituality is tough to come by. Armies of
tourists swarm around Shaolin, where an entrance ticket costs 100 yuan
(US$12.50). Ticket fees from the more than 1 million visitors last year,
combined with the temple's other business interests, amounted to "several tens
of millions [of] yuan", according to Shi.
A group of shy but curious novices confesses in a gasp of giggles that they
have little interest in Buddhism. "I am here to learn martial arts," says one
17-year-old. "I'm not sure I will want to stay here all my life."
Apprentice monks in Shaolin have to choose at 18 whether or not to stay on at
the temple as confirmed monks. Those who stay are divided into two groups: monks
with a yen for performance and kung fu, and those of a more spiritual bent who
wish to focus on theology and meditation.
Shi Yanjie, 22, who came to Shaolin at age 12, chose the former, more popular
option. He says he enjoys being a monk because it allows him to travel. He has
performed in England, Italy, Switzerland and the United States over the past few
years. The young monk usually spends five to six hours a day practicing kung fu.
Meditation time is usually an hour, but it depends on his performance schedule,
Dengfeng, the nearest town to the temple, is jam-packed with more than 80
martial-arts schools, where more than 40,000 students from across China and
abroad study Shaolin-style kung fu.
At Epo Shaolin Training College, portraits of Josef Stalin and Karl Marx
adorn the rooms. The 6,500 students here range in age from four to 21 and dream
of becoming movie stars, although it is more common for them to end up as
security guards. The majority are from humble backgrounds, but their parents pay
up to 10,000 yuan ($1,250) a year to send them here for a shot at stardom.
"Do you believe in the Buddha?" a correspondent asks a 10-year-old from a
rural area of northern China's Shandong province. "Who is that?" he answers.
Back at the temple, Shi Yongxin himself is as comfortable quoting Mao Zedong
as he is the Buddha. In what is still officially an atheist country, it is
impossible for a successful religious figure to remain apolitical. Shi is thus a
deputy in China's parliament, the National People's Congress. He is also fond of
talking about the role of Buddhism in promoting a "harmonious society", the
Chinese government's current favorite catch phrase, coined by President Hu
As China is riven by widening gaps between the beneficiaries and losers of
its economic liberalization, the authorities have made it their priority to try
to balance the interests of different sections of society. The idea of a
harmonious society is thus an effort to glue together its fraying fabric.
As part of this attempt, the government has taken to encouraging a revival of
religion, in particular Confucianism and Buddhism. "Buddhism helps people to be
content with what they have instead of hankering for more," says Shi. "It also
gives them strength to face adversity." A perfect recipe, it would seem, for
China's political and social woes.
Thus the same temple that was severely damaged by Red Guards during the
Cultural Revolution, when Buddhism was seen as inextricably bound up with
China's feudal-imperialist past, is today being renovated by the provincial
government. Millions of yuan are being spent to restore Shaolin's buildings to
their former glory.
Monks that were once dragged through the streets to receive public flogging
are feted, and kung fu, which had been banned as a decadent practice, is now
being seen as the way to a better life by thousands, as evidenced by the
training schools in Dengfeng.
In many ways this latest turn of events is just one more spin of Shaolin's
wheel of fortune. Throughout history, the temple has been repeatedly razed to
the ground, rocked by civil strife, mauled by invaders and played with by
capricious emperors. It was originally built in AD 496 in honor of the Indian
monk Bada, called Batuo by the Chinese. A couple of decades later, in 517,
another Indian monk, Bodhidharma (or Damo in Chinese), founded the Chan (Zen)
school of Buddhism and developed the unique Shaolin-style kung fu that has made
the temple famous across the world.
"We have Indian roots," says Shi Yongxin, "but over the centuries our style
of worship mixed with Taoism and Confucianism and developed its own identity."
Nonetheless, the abbot asks your correspondent to recommend an Indian
sculptor. He wants to commission a bronze statue of Bodhidharma for the temple
and doesn't think a Chinese artist will be able to render an Indian face with
accuracy. "Please make some inquiries and e-mail me," he smiles.
Shaolin today, then, is a hodgepodge of the religious and commercial -
simultaneously brash and Buddhist. Some may think this contradictory, but then,
paradox has always been the essence of Zen Buddhism.