Why the kung-fu monks are losing their religion

The Buddhists of Shaolin gave the world its most deadly martial art. But now their gift has become a curse, writes Clifford Coonan

Young men spring through the air, performing elegant punches and kicks; others bound across the dirt, swords flashing through the misty air. An ancient tree has dozens of small dents, made by "finger punches" of warrior monks over the centuries.

This is the Shaolin temple complex, in the mountains of central China, where kung fu was born 1,500 years ago. Now a place of pilgrimage for martial arts enthusiasts and Zen Buddhists, thousands of young people come to study kung fu, or wushu as it is known in China, in schools around the temple.

The commercial success of the temple is obvious, even if some of the sights are jarring – the telephone kiosks with Buddhas on top, for example. It has some monks shaking their heads and fearing that its spiritual peace is threatened. One monk said he was leaving after decades at the temple to be a hermit in the mountains of eastern China.

"There are internal conflicts here, and it's complicated. When I came here it was very shabby, and it has improved a lot. But I don't think this is a place for religion anymore," he says.

Many others are inspired by the Shaolin tradition. Kung fu is the epitome of martial arts, and practitioners say other fighting arts including karate originated from kung fu. There are more than a million learners of kung fu around the world and many centres of Shaolin culture globally.

For the 60,000 young would-be kung fu stars kicking and punching away at the schools around the temple, Shaolin kung fu offers a way out of poverty. Wu Zhiqiang, 17, comes from near the Henan capital of Zhengzhou. He has been in Shaolin for four years and is one of 4,000 students at his school. "I've been practising since 5am," he says, still brandishing a spear at lunchtime. "We practise outside in the morning, then study in the classroom. My aim is to go to physical education college in Zhengzhou. But some of my friends want to be coaches. And of course some of us want to be in the movies."

Kung fu 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 that the movements were supposed to resemble: Tiger, Leopard, Snake, Dragon and Crane.

But has its popularity made it too commercial and and too disconnected from its roots? Qian Daliang, general manager of the Henan Shaolin Temple Development Company, said not. "Our aim is to protect Shaolin, and maintain the real Shaolin," he says. "We have a good name but people here and overseas use the name to make money and in some cases ruin the name of Shaolin. We have to protect ourselves, and our intellectual property." The temples' 228 brick pagodas survived the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards marauded across China destroying religious sites. Their status as burial sites saved the 1,200-year-old Pagoda Forest, which has featured in many kung fu epics, and is part of what attracts the thousands of tourists to Shaolin. But they were not untainted by the Red Guard fervour. The monks in Shaolin were forced to drink alcohol and eat meat by the Red Guards. They remember this still, and they have a saying: "Alcohol and meat only pass through your digestive system, but Buddha is within."

Reform and the opening up in China has seen a revival in the temple's fortunes, thanks to the interest in martial arts movies during the 1970s. A building at the very back of the complex was used in The Shaolin Temple, in 1982, which featured Jet Li.

The latest, Shaolin, which features Hong Kong heartthrob Andy Lau and action hero Jackie Chan, is released on DVD today in Britain.

"Like many of my peers starting out in the film industry in the early 1980s, I was influenced and inspired by the original Shaolin Temple," says its director, Benny Chan. "I mean, wow, there was Jet Li executing the most perfect of 360-degree roundhouse kicks in mid-air. It was both stunning and riveting. Don't forget The Shaolin Temple was made before China opened up – it was such a rarity."

The abbot of the monastery, Shi Yongxin, a farmer's son from nearby Anhui, has been credited as the architect of Shaolin's revival since taking over in 1999. He is known for his business-minded approach to transforming the temple and promoting Buddhism throughout the world over the past two decades.

Since 1986, he has led Shaolin monk delegations across China and abroad to perform Shaolin martial arts shows, registering the trademark of the names "Shaolin" and "Shaolin Temple" in 1994.

He has also sparked controversy, demanding an official apology from an online commentator who dared to say its monks had once been beaten in unarmed combat by Japanese ninja warriors. He has also been criticised for accepting the gift of a luxury sports car from the authorities, and many monks did not like the decision to host its own martial arts reality TV show. But Mr Qian insists the temple needs its commercial activities to ensure its survival. "The Shaolin monastery has had its ups and downs. At one point there were over 2,000 monks here, but after the Cultural Revolution, there were only 15 monks left. But the spirit of Shaolin never stops, and that's what we are aiming to continuously deliver," said Mr Qian.

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