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Of monks and money

Shaolin priests perform Chinese martial arts for the tourists at Shaolin Monastery. Photo by The Nation

Publication Date : 23-02-2013


Zen has evolved into sheer commercialism at Henan's Shaolin Temple. DVD anyone?


Anyone who's seen such Shaolin Kung Fu classics as The Shaolin Temple, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and even Shaolin Soccer but never visited the Buddhist monastery in question will probably be disappointed to find that there aren't Kung Fu monks on every corner. Nor is there a bald and bare-chested Jet Li in a grey robe, bouncing off the cobblestone floor before flying 50 feet up into the air to best a crooked warlord.

Shaolin Monastery, nestled on the barren slopes of Song Mountain in central China's Henan province, might well have been the centre of wushu. In the Tang Dynasty, the monastery even saved the Imperial Throne as, according to history at least, 13 Shaolin monks helped Emperor Li Shimin in defeating the contender.

But time flies and people die. Imperialism has surrendered to communism. Shaolin monks no longer fight for an emperor nor for justice. They only fight for the tourists (at Bt600 a pop and from 8am to 6.30pm) and all thanks to the film-makers, who introduced them to popular culture and commercialism.

In short, if you want to see communism walking hand in hand commercialism, Shaolin Monastery is the place to go.

We arrive at the monastery around 7am, as our Chinese guide - Noi Naa- drags us from our hotel beds in Luoyang at 5am. She wants to ensure we're ahead of the crowds and in time for the first show of the day.

The legendary monastery greets visitors with a huge statue of the fighting monk.

"Hello tourist, welcome to Shaolin Temple," gestures the statue, pressing fist against palm.

Passing through the main entrance, we approach groups of "small soldiers" running and singing like privates in a military boot camp. Noi Naa tells us they are Kung Fu students. I look around for panda, tiger, snake, dragon and other characters in the animation hit Kung Fu Panda, but apparently it's too early for a combat call. Thousands of the students, clad in gym outfits, busy themselves jumping, rolling, punching and kicking. Everyone shares the same dream of becoming the new Jet Li.

Then, the tourist buggies arrive. We jump in and a few minutes are dropped off the Kung Fu performance.

The real wushu story actually began around 1,500 years ago in 477 AD, when the Chinese emperor ordered the construction of Shaolin Monastery for Indian monk, Batuo, who came to teach Chan or Zen Buddhism. By the 13th century, it was home to around 2,000 monks, famed for their virtue and skill in martial arts. The monastery then fell on hard times. It was burned down three times, most recently in 1928 during a struggle between rival warlords. The temple was also vandalised and ransacked by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

Apparently, it was the film director Hsin-yan Chang who invented Shaolin's new chapter through his 1982 hit - Shaolin Temple. Led by Jet Li, then a kung fu champion, the film follows the formula of revenge and mayhem that has been a staple of the Hong Kong film industry and was shot on location. Ever since Shaolin Monastery has been kicking ass, spinning-off from Buddhism to the new "religion" - commercialism.

Shaolin's renaissance is much less than a Zen Buddhist Temple.

Every day busloads of tourists arrive at the temple, which is largely covered by kiosks, vendors and a multitude of hawkers. Unlike the Christian church and its charitable shops or Japanese monasteries and Zen beads, Shaolin's business extends far beyond the monastery gift shop.

The monks, in competition with the hawkers, disperse to sell incense holders and wushu shoes before beginning their 30-minute Kung Fu performances. In the middle of the wushu show, just as the young monk is pressing his neck against the spear, the hawkers, their hands full of DVD sets, jump in from the darkest corners. Commercial time! Oh and did I mention that the show is often interrupted by tourists who enter in the middle of the performance?

After the wushu show, visitors are herded through an elevated "mountain gate", reached by a flight of 16 broad stone stairs. Under the curved tile roof hangs an elegant gold leaf inscription with the three Chinese characters for Shaolin Temple, written in the 18th century by the Qing Dynasty's Kangxi emperor.

"The temple was burned down for 40 days in 1928," says our guide. "Some buildings such as Heavenly King Hall and a library of Buddhist scriptures were razed to ashes."

The last row of buildings inside the monastery survived but has since been besieged by marauding tour groups.

Martial arts enthusiasts may be thrilled by the Pilu Pavilion. It contains the famous depressions in the decor, the result of generations of monks practising their stance work, and huge colour frescos. Nearby, a rack of weapons displays a vicious-looking collection of spears, halberds and tridents.

Like the Great Wall, Forbidden City and other China's tourist attractions, Shaolin is a victim of tourism industry. It's the place you want to visit. But, once you've been there, you tell your friends back home not to go. If they insist on going, tell them to get there ahead of the crowds.

If you go

AirAsia flies daily flight from Bangkok to Xian, the gateway to Luoyang. China's two former capitals are bridged by high-speed train. Shaolin Monastery is about an hour's drive from Luoyang.


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