Warrior monks go global in fight to market their brand

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sixty Shaolin monks will arrive in Taiwan later this month to teach kung fu at summer schools across the island. The three-week tour by the legendary fighting monks, featured in films such asCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Shaolin Soccer, comes after several months of talks between the Taiwanese and mainland authorities.

The tour, approved by the Taiwanese after the monks agreed to scale back their itinerary, which had included visits to remote villages, will showcase the monks' unique and acrobatic form of kung fu, or gongfu, as it is known in China. Perhaps more importantly, it will give a further boost to the monks' ambitious plans to market themselves as a global brand.

After years of seeing their name exploited by companies around the world and used to sell everything from beer to video games, the monks, who are based at the Shaolin Temple on Mount Songshan in Henan Province in central China, have registered the Shaolin name as a trademark in almost 100 countries. They have also set up a company to handle their business affairs. Having made their name as warriors who vanquished local bandits and Japanese raiders 700 years ago during the Ming dynasty, the monks are now prepared to do their fighting in the courtroom.

"We're happy for people to use our name because it helps spread the word about Shaolin kung fu, but if people want to use the Shaolin name they should pay a fee," says Guo Qin, a 30-year-old monk who runs the Shaolin Temple's website. "We have to create our own income because the local government takes 65 per cent of the 40 yuan (£2.75) entrance fee we charge tourists to visit our place of worship and we need money to maintain and develop it." This March, the monks charged a Taiwanese film company 380,000 yuan (about £24,000) to make an animated series based on the Shaolin Temple, while next month will see the release of the video game Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks. Another video game, Legends of Shaolin, is in development and, since 2002, more than 700 people from overseas have paid to attend week-long courses run by the monks and their affiliates.

First established AD495, the Shaolin Temple is regarded as the cradle of Chinese martial arts. The monks developed Shaolin Kungfu, which blends Zen Buddhism with martial arts moves, to defend the temple against marauding warlords and bandits. However, after the cultural revolution, when the monks were evicted and their sacred texts confiscated, the run-down temple's future looked bleak.

It was the release of the 1979 movie Shaolin Temple, starring Chinese superstar Jet Li, that transformed its fortunes. So popular was the film in China that the government designated the temple an official tourist site and paid to renovate it. Now the temple attracts about 1.5 million visitors a year and has spawned a massive local martial arts industry, with some 40,000 would-be Bruce Lees enrolled in the hundreds of schools in the surrounding area.

Life for the 180 monks in the temple is no longer a simple round of meditation and kung fu. They have access to TVs, computers and mobile phones and travel frequently.

A stage show tours the world - the monks spent a month in London last year playing at Sadler's Wells Theatre - while their Head Abbot, Shi Yongxin, who is also a deputy in the National People's Congress, China's equivalent of parliament, campaigns tirelessly for kung fu to be granted UN world heritage status.

"The government has been very supportive because it knows Shaolin kung fu is very profound and has great meaning," says Guo Qin. "Many foreign countries invite us to come because they know we represent ancient Chinese culture."

Success though, has its own price. Earlier this year, the monks started paying tax for the first time.