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Journey to Shaolin – Part I: Impressions

Vincent encounters a slightly different reality than what he had originally envisioned when he makes his pilgrimage to the Shaolin Temple


Waking up at 3:00 AM on a Thursday may seem like torture to the average human being, but for me, it was necessary, as I had a 6:59 AM train to Zhengzhou to catch. Being the cautious traveler that I am, I wanted to make sure I had time to catch a taxi from my university – Beijing International Studies University – on the East side of Beijing all the way to Beijing West Railway Station at the other end of the city.  Also, I will have to admit I woke up this early not only out of caution, but also out of sheer excitement because this five hour train ride to Zhengzhou would be the first leg of my journey to the legendary Shaolin Temple (which I suppose you could say translates to “Mecca” in the mind of a practitioner of Chinese martial arts, such as myself).  Making a pilgrimage to the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province, China, has been a dream of mine ever since I began studying traditional Chinese martial arts when I was 12 years old.  As it is considered the birthplace of kung fu, I am sure I am not the only martial artist (or fan of the 1970s television series Kung Fu, for that matter) to have wanted to enter the fabled monastery.  Having been a keen scrutinizer of the advent of contemporary wushu and attitudes in China towards the traditional arts, I had a feeling that the Shaolin Temple as I imagined it when I was younger or as it was depicted in the live stage show The Legend of Kung Fu would most likely not be true. Even though I was not prepared for the shock that came when I arrived, I think the Shaolin Temple is definitely the only place where you can find a seemingly infinite amount of everything wushu in one place.

The Shaolin Monastery (少林寺 Shàolínsì, Young Forest Monastery) is a Ch’an Buddhist monastery located near the small city of Dengfeng in Henan, China.  It was one of the many monasteries established near Songshan (嵩山, Song Mountain) due to its sacredness within Taoism and Chinese Buddhism.  The reason Shaolin is more significant than the other monasteries in the area, is that it is considered to be the birthplace of kung fu. Called Zhongguo Wushu (中国武术, Chinese Martial Arts) or Zhongguo Gongfu (中国功夫, Chinese Attained Skill) in contemporary Mandarin, this martial art of China became increasingly popular around the world in the 1960s and 1970s with exposure in the films of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and American television series such as the Green Hornet and Kung Fu.  Because of its association with the martial art, the monastery itself was often a victim of various attacks and burnings in periods of Chinese history noted by adversity to martial arts or anti-Buddhist fervor. These attacks  culminated with its destruction in 1924 during the Republican era and abandonment during the Cultural Revolution. It was rebuilt in the 1980s to not only serve once again as a monastery but also as an increasingly popular tourist attraction.  Indeed, while I expected it to be filled with a number of tourists, I forgot the fact that, with it being the week of Guoqing Jie (国庆节, National Holiday), many people were traveling at this time (before leaving Beijing I took the subway somewhere and remembered, noting upon a transfer, that the usually crowded stations were practically empty). I soon realized that along with seeing the Pagoda Forest and the other sights of the Temple, I would be seeing a lot of Chinese people as well.

Packed crowd of tourists in front of the main entrance to the Shaolin Temple

Upon departing the long-distance bus from Zhengzhou to Dengfeng, I was greeted by a crowd of Heiche (黑车, Black Car, the name for an illegal taxi) at the bus station asking if I wanted to go to Shaolin – actually, seeing that I was a foreigner they all would say “Hallo? Shaolinsi?” Upon which I would reply to them in my poor Mandarin that I was meeting a friend here and that I’d go there tomorrow.  After being picked up by the family I would be staying with for the weekend – Ken and Margo Magnum, who were living in Beijing so that their ten-year-old son, Andre, could pursue a career as a martial artist/wushu athlete – we made our way a few minutes out of Dengfeng to a hotel that was just a walk away from the monastery.  One thing I took note of while on the way to the hotel was that Dengfeng and the area of Shaolin had the largest amount of wushu-related things I had seen anywhere in my entire life. On the road from Dengfeng to Shaolin, there were walls painted with depictions of fighting monks – replicas of paintings found within the monastery itself – as well as an almost endless array of wushu schools filled with young students going through forms, exercising, and showing off what seemed like a vast array of styles and weapons.  We arrived at our hotel and after dropping off my things, took a brief walk to the grounds of Shaolin itself, where we would be meeting the Magnum’s son at a restaurant.  Upon passing the somewhat recently built shops and entrance to the temple, I was greeted by throngs of street vendors selling their wares (usually food, Buddhist prayer beads, toy weapons and other goods related to Shaolin) and hoards of Chinese tourists leaving the temple grounds with family members, friends, and the aforementioned items in tow.  Still enthralled by the endless amount of wushu that my mind was processing, I was not bemused by any of what I was seeing. However, the next day I was in for more of a shock. Even though the spirit of kung fu was still abundant in this amazing place, commercialization had taken a heavy hit on the romance that existed in the legend and film depictions I had become accustomed to in the West.

Example of one one of the pagodas inside the famous Pagoda Forest

Growing up with the movies, stories and television shows that added so much myth to Shaolin and the Chinese Martial Arts, I pictured waking up on Friday morning and walking into nearly abandoned grounds with nothing but the morning fog shrouding the entrance I had seen the night before, and the monastery itself with monks going about their duties or else practicing or putting on shows for tourists.  What I got was very different indeed: more tourists than the night before and vast grounds with roads to accommodate vehicles, giant parking lots, various souvenir shops, newly built trails and walkways to places such as Damo’s Cave, two separate wushu academies – Shaolinsi Wushu Guan and Tagou Shaolin Wushu School – a wall depicting, once again, scenes of fighting monks that was topped by a stage on which “monks” were putting on a show for a large audience. Of course there was also the monastery itself and the Pagoda Forest… and a recently installed multi-million dollar restroom facility.  While it was interesting to finally see the entrance to Shaolin Monastery with its red walls, circular windows and two threatening looking lions sitting on either side to ward off any evil spirits that might dare to enter, we decided not to go in. As more tourists were slowly seeping through the ticket office and into the monastery we figured that we would only see more people than the actual monastery.  Another notable aspect was the fact that the Shaolin Pagoda Forest , a multitude of pagodas commemorating past monks that resembled a forest and unique sight to the Shaolin Monastery, had fences placed around it and was now nearly overgrown with grass.  This was slightly for the better, as I learned that prior to the wooden fences, the Pagoda Forest had become a dumping ground for the trash and unfinished food of tourists, as well as a restroom for their children.

While we walked around the grounds, Ken told me interesting stories about how the monastery had changed over the three years he had been there with Andre, his son.  One of the changes was that the monks had not lived in the monastery until recently. Their main residence used to be in caves in the mountains behind the grounds.  Another change that Ken noted was not only the influx of visitors to the monastery over time (especially on holidays) but also that this had brought about new facilities and changes to the grounds around the temple, such as the addition of new stone tiles in place of dirt and the covering up of a spring that had once flowed to the wall of the monastery.  While monastic life had remained essentially the same, due to the focus that had been placed on the Shaolin “fighting monks”, monks that were experts in other fields, such as calligraphy, meditation, sutras and other tasks, came from other monasteries in the region.  In fact, a key issue with the monastery was that, due to commercialization, being a monk at Shaolin has come to be more of a symbol of status than the humble choice of committing oneself to seeking enlightenment. People can often buy their way into the temple and into high positions, thus decreasing its legitimacy as a bona fide Ch’an Buddhist monastery even further.

In regards to Shaolin being a place where traditional wushu has been well preserved for generations – specifically the sub-field of Chinese martial arts known as Shaolinquan (少林拳, Shaolin Fist) which includes the famous Five Animal styles, namely Tiger Fist (虎拳 Hǔquán),  Crane Fist (鹤拳 Hèquán), Dragon Fist (龙拳 Lóngquán), Snake Fist (蛇拳 Shéquán), and Leopard Fist (豹拳 Bàoquán) – it has become instead a haven for contemporary wushu, a modern non-combat performance art that places more emphasis on acrobatics than form and fighting technique.  Even though the latter style is fun to watch and is even better to participate in – I have trained in contemporary wushu at my wushu school as well as at my university in America – when you are being told that what you are seeing is traditional wushu and the people who are performing and practicing it at Shaolin believe it to be traditional wushu, yet what you’re seeing ends up looking more like a circus act than a martial arts demonstration. That’s when you realize that the reality of the whole thing tastes more bitter than sweet.  Of course, the line between what is traditional and contemporary in regards to Chinese Martial Arts is something that can be, and is, easily debated, the shows put on by the Tagou students were interesting and sometimes pretty clever (especially when they did a massive sparring performance with the “monks” battling it out with bull whips, swords, spears and staffs with the simple premise being, quite simply, that it was shirts versus skins). All in all, when I think back to it now, one may never find a place where there is so much wushu happening in one place at one time every single day of the year!

Although the stage and the masses of people left very quickly and silently on Monday, and even though I do intend on returning to Shaolin to continue the training I started there (see the next installment for more details), my impressions of what the monastery is compared to what I thought it would be like are quite different from each other.  Due to commercialization, the monastery has turned from a place of worship into a place overrun with tourists, shows, shops, and very little of similarities to the depictions and romantic tales of old.  Nevertheless, one of the great things about Shaolin and the surrounding area is that it is a haven for Chinese Martial Arts, and even if these martial arts are no longer forms filled with fighting technique or inspired by the fighting techniques of the Shaolin Five Animals – the Tiger, the Crane, the Dragon, the Snake, and the Leopard – and instead have been replaced by contemporary wushu, the spirit of kung fu is still there in the schools, the monastery and even portions of the city of Dengfeng.  So, although I was a bit dampened by the fact that a place so legendary and amazing could have become so commercialized and changed, I miss being surrounded by the spirit of Chinese gongfu, and definitely intend to make a return trip someday to see if I can delve deeper into the spirit of kung fu and the evasive heart of Shaolin.

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