Shaolin, Inc

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Langues :

A Brief History

Originally constructed in 495 AD as a home for the Indian monk Batuo (Fo Tuo or Grand Monk) it was another Indian monk, Boddhidharma, who in 537 AD settled at the temple and, after allegedly meditating for nine years, began developing a martial art that centered around bare-hand fighting practice. Eventually it became known as "xingyi boxing". The first show of Shaolin heroics reportedly occurred in the early 7th century, when 13 Shaolin monks out-fought an entire Sui (581 – 618 AD) Dynasty division and rescued the future Tang emperor, Li Shimin, who was being held captive. When Li came to power he awarded the Shaolin with land and money. Since then, the monks have played varying roles in China’s military and spiritual history, both patronized and banished by various emperors.

Over the years, the temple has had its fare share of setbacks. In 1938, fi re ravaged the buildings, destroying the vast majority of the temple’s classical literature and historical records. Thirty years later, during the Cultural Revolution, five monks who were in the temple when the Red Guard arrived were flogged publicly and jailed. The government purged Buddhist materials from all the monastery, leaving it barren for years.

Shaolin: the brand Because of its size (a vast 10,000 acres), it doesn’t feel crowded, even though there are hundreds of tourists milling around. Young Shaolin monks wander round in packs, performing impromptu moves and choreographed routines for the crowds, as well as striking poses for group photographs. As much a part of the descent into commercialization as the stalls selling beads and incense scattered on the periphery of the temple, the athletic youngsters enjoy the attention, seemingly well aware of how impressive their graceful, physical attributes appear to gazing eyes. Most of them, once they have graduated at age 18, will go on to be soldiers or bodyguards; very few stay on as Buddhist monks.

Just as I begin to relax and enjoy the feeling that I am experiencing something resembling authenticity, flanked by mountains in a beautifully preserved example of Buddhist architecture, the present abbot, Shi Yongxin (representative of the NPC, CEO of Shaolin Incorporated and the fi rst Chinese monk to hold an MBA) arrives in his 4x4 Volkswagen Touareg, talking into his cell phone. Looking more like Mr Potato Head than a finely tuned physical and spiritual leader, the controversial monk signs autographs before his entourage move fans away. "He is very famous in China," a Thai journalist I’m traveling with informs me. "He knows how to sell Shaolin to business." Later on that evening, when meeting Henan’s Minister of Tourism, he explains how Shi (pictured above) has been integral in creating the Shaolin "brand" and that I should look forward to seeing new Shaolin-style kung fu temples across China in the near future.

Performance art

As dusk settles, I wander 300 meters or so west of the monastery to the Pagoda Forest. Made up of 228 stone or brick pagodas built from 791 AD, each tells of the individual achievements of a past Buddhist master. The memorial grounds are tranquil and the brickwork impressive; for the first time in the day, there is a sense of sacrosanctity.

As evening sets in, I am hurried over to the open-air theater (although "theater" doesn’t do the space true justice) to watch over 300 young monks perform an array of spectacular routines. The director and choreographer have harnessed the whole valley, planting huge lights on top of the mountain peaks which throw light on rising castles, erupting moons and, significantly, cast a sudden and total darkness when they’re all turned off. The whole thing feels much more like cinema than theater; men in LED suits swordfi ght in midair, bounding from one cli¨ to another, followed by 100 monks who make an entrance streaming from the hills, carrying grand flags. The choreography is relentless; each routine out-trumps the last. The music is powerful, played by about 50 young women who play an array of instruments and sway throughout. It is one of the most impressive performances I have ever seen.

And it is this sense that stayed with me as I left Henan: impressive – but artificial. There are good things to be found at Shaolin, treasures and glimpses of magic and tradition to be enjoyed if you sift through carefully enough. But any sense of witnessing something that hasn’t been fabricated in order to please or extrapolate money from your wallet has long left Shaolin and, one has to assume, never to return.

Source: Global Times
December 28 2009

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