Shaolin: The Monks who dealt a blow to the Olympics

Kung Fu is far more than just a martial art in China - it is a way of life and a tool of state propaganda. But the temple which is home to its leading practitioners is refusing to take part in next year's games.
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The kung fu master's blind eyes as he puts his pupil through the graceful paces of martial-arts skills, the clash of a gong, the reedy sound of David Carradine playing his flute as Kwai Chang "Grasshopper" Caine wanders the wilds of frontier America. You can almost smell the incense.

Or what about the sweat-drenched muscled torso of Bruce Lee, nunchucks straining between his hands as his fierce eyes dart around the room seeking out the enemies he knows lie in wait everywhere in the wild hills of southern China.

Kung fu is perhaps the epitome of martial arts and its growing popularity means that wushu, as it is known in China, will feature at the Olympics in Beijing in August next year. But the world's most famous practitioners, the monks of the ancient Shaolin temple, won't be taking part in the competition because they say their brand of martial arts is not about competition.

Olympic organisers say kung fu will be showcased at the summer games in August next year in a competition, though not as an official Olympic sport. "Chinese wushu belongs to competitive sports, whereas Shaolin wushu belongs to traditional martial arts. The two have different natures, standards and connotations," Qian Daliang, the general manager of Henan Shaolin Temple Development, told local media.

"Performance in Chinese martial arts can be quantified, but Shaolin wushu cannot be measured in that way as it contains Buddhist elements and showcases a harmonious combination of Buddhism and kung fu," Mr Qian added.

The Shaolin Temple in the city of Dengfeng, in the central Chinese province of Henan, was immortalised in the 1970s programme Kung Fu and has been transformed into an entertainment industry all of its own, even hosting its own martial arts reality television show.

The Temple has featured in scores of Hong Kong and mainland martial arts movies since Kwai Chang Caine learned the self-defence skills that served him so well, attentively studying the lessons taught to him by Master Po and Master Kan every week on the classic show.

Built in 495, the temple is widely accepted as the birthplace of Shaolin kung fu, which owes its existence to an Indian monk, Bodhi Dharma, who began to preach Zen Buddhism in the temple and started its martial arts tradition. The Shaolin style was expanded over the years from 72 basic fighting movements to 170 moves, divided into five styles named after the animal the movements were supposed to resemble or represent: the Tiger, Leopard, Snake, Dragon and Crane.

"In ancient times, people practiced Shaolin wushu to resist outsiders, not for competitive purposes," Mr Qian said. But, he added, the Shaolin would support the event "in a cultural and spiritual way" and they would definitely send martial-art monks to the opening ceremony of the Olympics if they receive an invitation.

The Temple these days is incredibly talented at self-publicity – almost too good. Abbot Shi Yongxin was heavily criticised last year for accepting the gift of a luxury sports car from local authorities for his services to the community. He has been a controversial character at times, particularly because of his business-minded approach to transforming the Temple and promoting Buddhism throughout the world over the past two decades.

Since 1986, Abbot Shi has led Shaolin monk delegations across China and abroad to perform martial arts shows. Last year he flew to Germany to watch the World Cup football final at the special invitation of the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter. In 1994, he registered the trademark of the names "Shaolin" and "Shaolin Temple" to protect his brand, and set up a company for the management of the relevant intellectual property rights.

With the 17th Communist Party Congress coming up next week, the government has been focusing on the moral agenda and kung fu is one of the areas, along with Confucianism, that the government is trying to encourage more people to take up. Beijing is worried that there is a moral vacuum at the heart of the new China emerging from years of isolation and Communist-inspired materialism.

Kung fu is actually a generic term for many kinds of martial arts, but it has stuck. The martial art has a strong contemplative element, particularly the Shaolin variety which combines martial arts with Zen Buddhism and features long sessions of meditation to purify the mind.

The Temple is always ready to fight to protect that brand. In August, the Temple demanded an apology from a webizen who said its monks had once been beaten in unarmed combat by a Japanese ninja. Ninjas – professional assassins trained in martial arts – date back to mediaeval Japan.

The internet user, calling himself "Five Minutes Every Day", said on an online forum last week that a Japanese ninja came to Shaolin, asked for a fight and many monks failed to beat him, the Beijing News reported. "The so-called defeat is purely fabricated, and we demand the internet user apologise to the whole nation for the wrongs he or she did," a lawyer for the monks told the newspaper.

Among the visitors to the Temple were the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and the Olympics chief Jacques Rogge. The temple has dispatched "standing martial monks" to more than 20 countries, whose function is to conduct training and exchange programmes there with the aim "to spread the word of Buddhism and the Shaolin culture".

There are more than a million learners of Shaolin kung fu around the world, and since it built its first centre of Shaolin culture in Berlin in 2001, the Shaolin Temple has established more than 10 centres and branches. Last year, central China made kung fu compulsory in secondary schools, but a large portion of Chinese children are only too happy to follow their heroes Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi in practicing martial arts.

The Chinese Olympic Committee vice-chairman, Zhang Faqiang, confirmed this week that wushu will be featured at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Mr Zhang was quoted as saying that it will be neither a medal sport or a mere demonstration.

Practitioners say other martial arts, including karate, originated from kung fu. It is common in school playgrounds across China to see hundreds of pupils lined up in kung fu poses, going through their choreographed punches and kicks, knife-wielding, snake boxing and self-defence moves. They are incredibly disciplined in their approach – repeating each instruction after they are told and practicing for long hours.

In March last year, the Temple hosted the K-Star Global Chinese Kung Fu Star TV Competition, which put 108 martial artists through their paces and offered the winners a shot at stardom. The martial arts enthusiasts are ranked by virtue, kung fu ability and artistry; 108 is an auspicious number, referring to the 108 heroes of the classic text The Water Margin.

The children at the monastery put themselves though a terrible time. These children, aged between four and 10, follow an astonishing regime, with fitness training, stretching, weapons and wushu training from 5.30 in the morning until 9.30 at night, six days a week. The weekly day off is staggered to make sure there are not 50,000 trainees fighting on the streets of Dengfeng at the same time.

The children are handed over to the kung fu schools by their parents. It is a great privilege for them to do the three-year course because they are more or less guaranteed a job at the end of it. China has a lot of security guard jobs and there is also the opportunity to join one of the Shaolin troupes touring the world. In some ways they have a better chance of getting a job with good kung fu skills than a university graduate.

In recent years, kung fu films have come of age, from the slapstick, B-movie-style Bruce Lee classics of the 1970s, to elegant artistic films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero made by top directors including Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou. But the humorous kung fu movie is still a big draw, as Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle has shown.

A scam that could have come from a kung fu movie was reported in August, when Chinese police arrested three traffickers who tried to smuggle 12 teenagers out of the country by passing them off as martial arts performers from the Temple.

The teenagers, aged between 17 and 19, showed up at the Temple with forged passports and identities and were trained in lion dancing for a week by a Shaolin martial arts troupe, which regularly performed overseas. The troupe mingled the 12 with 16 real kung fu monks and set out for a trip via Hong Kong, where they were caught.

Meanwhile, fake Shaolin monks have caused widescale social disturbances in cities across the country. They set up, pretending to do demonstrations of martial arts, or sell medicine, and have attacked police officers trying to stop them and journalists trying to film the con artists.