The Shaolin monastery is located in the Chinese province of Henan. The martial art of its monks attracts millions of visitors, and its students come from all over the world, in order to learn from the monks. But has the legend become a victim of its own success?
If it had been up to Anton’s grandparents, he would now be standing behind the counter of a savings bank. A young finance specialist, dressed in business attire, maybe a white shirt and grey suit. But it was not up to grandma and grandpa – Anton followed his dream.
That’s why 22-year-old grade-A student Anton Chai from Karlsruhe in southwestern Germany now hovers above very tall steel pillars wielding a sword. The blade glistens in the midday sun, buzzing around its bearer like a swarm of angry hornets. Suddenly, it pauses in the sweltering air of the Chinese summer.
Anton Chai is a kung fu fighter. A fighting machine that, for the past three years, has been undergoing perfection by a legendary group of men – the Shaolin monks from the Shaolin monastery in the Chinese province of Henan. Anton has paid a lot of money for his transformation: $1,000 a month to start off with. These days he pays a little less, as he has been here for a while. In exchange he receives food (tofu and noodles), lodging (a bed in a shared bedroom with three others) and six hours of grueling training each day.
Soon, he wants leave behind the temple at the foot of the Song Shan Mountains, possibly to open a kung fu school back home in Germany. Another student will take Anton’s place. One who is following the same dream: learning to fight, to be humble, and so become part of the legend. Those who are somewhat less committed can experience the Shaolin monastery as tourists.
Shaolin had 1.5 million visitors last year and, according to Chinese media, generated an 80 million-euro profit. The kung fu temple is a commercial enterprise. Could this destroy the legend?
“Everybody was kung fu fighting / Those kicks were fast as lightning.” The song by Carl Douglas was a huge hit in 1974. “Kung Fu fighting” sold over eleven million copies and turned the soul singer into one of the biggest one hit wonders of all time. It also made the name of this Chinese martial art famous in every last small town disco.
The song was meant to be a humorous commentary on the wave of kung fu films hitting cheap movie theatres at the time – budget action flicks from Hong Kong full of lots of carefully choreographed beatings. Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li were the stars of the genre. Li resurrected the myth of the fighting monks from obscurity with the 1982 movie The Shaolin Temple. After seeing it, ruffians in many western schoolyards tried to imitate the Tiger Claw technique.
“Of course I used to love kung fu movies. What boy doesn’t want to be able to fight like that?” Anton Chai leans on the monastery wall, his sinewy arms folded. Young kung fu students jog past him and up a steep path, their faces expressionless. The Shaolin are drilling around 500 protégés in the area next to the temple, roughly 200 of them, foreigners. Anton watches the novices disappear up the hill. “I didn’t actually come here for the fighting,” he says. “I just wanted to live as a monk.”
Everybody was kung fu fighting / Those kicks were fast as lightning.
The Shaolin monastery is not just famous for kung fu. It’s also the birthplace of Zen Buddhism. As early as 495 C.E., the temple was erected here and its monks became famous as translators of sutras, the Buddhist scriptures. In the year 527 the Indian monk Bodhidarma visited the monastery, and brought with him a complex martial art, which was subsequently refined and taught here. Until the 17th century, the Shaolin order grew to 2,500 monks.
Through the years, the resulting army of shaven-headed fighters was in the service of various masters. Buddhism, the “religion of peace,” had found its way to the battlefield.
Today the monks and their students only fight for paying visitors. The “Shaolin landscape zone” bustles with energy.
Open-topped electric busses distribute the visitors across the various sights. Most of them congregate in front to the monastery gate. Groups of tourists plod across the hot stones, chat loudly amongst themselves and brandish tickets and selfie-sticks. In 2010 the Shaolin temple and the neighboring pagoda forest were declared UNESCO world heritage sites – an accolade that made visitor numbers skyrocket.
Close to the monastery walls, an octagonal hall rises into the hazy sky. This is where the Shaolin students showcase their skills seven times a day. The cheesy murals and disco lighting in the arena are distracting, but the show laid on by the 25 fighters simply rocks. Like gifted gymnasts the young men shoot across the room. A flying squadron in bright orange garb, frighteningly in synch.
Between the stunts, the group performs a few harmless sketches. Animal impersonations and numbers in which some unlucky audience member is plucked from its ranks and made fun of. The spectators fall silent, however, when with a grand gesture, a lanky lad hits himself over the head with a sword. The blade shatters and the young man remains unharmed. The cheering from the crowd rises to the noise level of a jumbo jet. The assembled kung fu youth takes one last bow and the lights go out. Stewards usher the spectators out of the hall, and into the gift shop, naturally. Wooden swords, anyone?
The economic power the Shaolin have unleashed is clearly visible on a drive through Dengfeng. This somewhat gray city of 600,000 inhabitants boasts 90 private kung fu schools, the largest of which has 35,000 students. It is said that the region has one million young Chinese learning to kick and punch gracefully, and to relax on a bed of nails. The city lives and breathes martial arts. On the sidewalks teenagers with washboard stomachs are engaged in boxing matches. Little girls kick their legs up high behind them, above their bobbing braids.
Some of the malls only sell kung fu accessories: canes, spears, ninja stars, battle-axes, sandbags and punch cushions. There are also powerful swords priced at 2,500 euros apiece, with blades forged from steel that has been folded eight times. Their sheaths are adorned with golden cranes. If China were ever to be occupied, Dengfeng would be harder to conquer than the village of Asterix the Gaul.
A visit to the training grounds of the Chinese Shaolin Martial Arts Institute is further proof of this. In the morning light, the courtyard of the private school looks like a picture puzzle, yet one with a certain order to it all. Approximately 300 students, the youngest of them six years old, have been divided into small groups. Almost all of them are practicing so-called forms, ever-recurring sequences of movements that are the basis of modern kung fu. Cries pierce the air, fists thud into torsos, feet stamp the dust. This is not your average western schoolyard scene.
The schools give children from poor families an opportunity for social advancement
Kung Fu schools enjoy a good reputation in China. The educational establishments are run like boarding schools focused on sports. Apart from martial arts they also give their students a basic but thorough school education. In addition to this, they instill a set of values in their charges: order, obedience, diligence and discipline. These virtues are in high demand, even in the present time of turbo-capitalism (albeit one with a red varnish).
Parents from rural regions regard the schools as providing an opportunity for social advancement. At around 30 euros per month – a fraction of what foreigners pay at the monastery – the school fees are manageable even for poorer families. “I come from Inner Mongolia,” says Liu Yang, a shy girl with a pageboy haircut and rosy cheeks. “I have been in school here for six years, and only go home once a year for the spring festival.” The train journey to her village takes 24 hours.
In the beginning, she says, she used to be terribly homesick. Now she gets on okay and really only misses her parents’ cooking. “My father is a cook and my mother works as a waitress. They own a small restaurant,” Liu Yang says proudly and fiddles with her yellow imitation Swatch. She does not seem at all like the Amazonian who was crossing swords with one of her fellow students in the schoolyard just a moment ago. Careers in the army, police or other security organizations are open to kung fu students. Many also join the private sector and work as bodyguards, bouncers or security guards.
There is great demand –China’s new affluent classes are in need of security. The job prospects for martial arts apprentices are good. But the big dream, which also helps Liu Yang deal with her homesickness, is a different one. It consists of traveling around the world, sold-out shows and being showered with applause as a young ambassador of Shaolin Kung Fu.
If the order of monks were a brand, Shi Yongxin would be both its CEO and brand ambassador. After the monastery gates have shut behind the last tourist, the 51-year-old abbot grants private audiences. His official residence is located in the third court of the temple compound.
More than 3,600 Buddhist scrolls are piled up against the walls, in front of them is a magnificent altar with jade frescoes. Shi Yongxin wears an orange garment and greets us with folded hands. “I have been to Germany several times and appreciate the order and discipline of your compatriots.” So he is familiar with the concept of small talk.
In 1981, young Shi, only 16 years old, stood at the entrance of the Shaolin temple for the first time. “I come from a very religious family and was sure from a young age that I wanted to be a monk,” he says today. The novice, full of anticipation for his future tasks, was faced with a horrible scene. “Everything was broken. The entire compound was in ruins.” Only nine monks still lived in the remains, gathered around their blind master. Wars, looting and the the anti-religious agitation of the Cultural Revolution had all but eliminated the order of monks.
The seemingly indefatigable Shi approached the reconstruction with youthful vigor. He collected donations, negotiated credit arrangements with banks, and tussled with government agencies about planning permits. Meanwhile, society was changing: religion made a comeback into the everyday lives of the Chinese population and the monastery attracted more novices.
Then Shi had an ingenious idea: in order to make the Shaolin order better known, he founded the show team of fighting monks. This led to world tours – they even met Queen Elizabeth II. And as their leader, Shi Yongxin always travels with them. How important is the martial art to him today? “When I was a novice, faith was more important to me. But today I know those who have learned to withstand physical pain in kung fu are equipped to deal with harsh set-backs in their lives.”
Shi was elected abbot at the age of 34. His business acumen has earned him the nickname “CEO Monk,” and he wants to float the Shaolin monastery on the stock exchange. A $300-million resort in Australia, a kind of Shaolin theme park, is also currently under discussion. Scandal hit in 2015: A whistleblower accused the abbot of corruption and of having fathered two illegitimate children. The police investigated, but the authorities now say that all the accusations have been “disproved.”
“This place emanates positive energy which helps many people,” says Shi grandly. There are no expansions planned at the moment, “only if other cultures need us.” Around the temple there is still much to renovate, he says, and there are new buildings, which need to be built – feasible goals. He smiles at his visitors instead of saying goodbye.
As the sun sets over the temple compound, the tranquility and soft light change the feel of the place. You can imagine how it must have been in times gone by. Magical. Anton Chai, the young man from Germany who was unable to stick it out at the savings bank for long, is still training. He wields his sword on a terrace. Weeds poke through the paving stones. A beautiful Russian woman watches him and a giant from Ivory Coast says hello – multicultural kung fu.
Later, Anton puts the spiritual aspects in perspective: “Shortly after I arrived, a few monks took me into town and we headed for a house with red lights.” A brothel? “That’s what I thought at first. But inside we found a dozen monks in front of computers, gambling.” So the monks are only human after all – but humans who are brilliant fighters. The legend lives on.