Fighting monks of Shaolin
Buddhist monks pass on ancient martial art to young
The Star (Canada) ASIA BUREAU, August 26, 2001
THEY COME BY the thousands, pilgrims retracing the steps of the monk who founded Zen
Buddhism here 1,500 years ago.
But the quest for nirvana seems far from their minds -- and bodies. Kung fu is
what inspires most of the young students who converge on the Shaolin Monastery, made
famous by Bruce Lee action films and Jet Li epics such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Those with shaved heads
look like young Buddhists seeking a life of quiet contemplation -- until they don
colourful track suits and move into formation, punching and chopping the air.
The daily drills produce
a deafening roar of shouts and grunts, as little boys, young men and a handful of girls
wince from their exertions.
This is the birthplace of
wushu, "the art of fighting" pioneered by Shaolin monks to defend themselves
against Chinese warlords and bandits through the centuries.
Now, a new generation of
students is keen to fight its way to fame and fortune here in Henan province in central
China. Peasants send their young children to the renowned Shaolin Monastery Wushu
Institute, the first and biggest school of its kind set up beside the monastery.
Dozens of other
martial-arts schools have sprung up in the vicinity, with perhaps 30,000 students in
Shaolinsi and a few star-struck foreigners who pay a steep tuition of $1,000
in hard currency.
Against a backdrop of
faded pagodas and drooping trees, thousands of boys, some as young as 6, show steely
discipline as teachers bark their commands. They arc their hands like ballet dancers, or
fearlessly practise cartwheels, somersaults and flying leaps, oblivious to the unforgiving
brick and ceremonial swords beneath them should they fall.
For all the excitement,
there is little glamour or glory within the grounds of the Shaolin Institute.
stench of excrement wafts out of rudimentary squatter toilets, stale sweat permeates the
dormitories and a choking smog from neighbouring factories hangs over the main
Stardom -- or even a role
as a film extra -- seems a distant dream.
Still, Zhu Yang Zhi is
beaming today. He has just been honoured at an award ceremony attended by most of the
8,000-strong student body, sitting cross-legged in the courtyard.
"I've loved kung fu
ever since I was a kid," Zhu says breathlessly, clutching the new ribbon in his hand.
"Shaolin is the most famous school in all of China."
Like many of his
classmates, the handsome and sturdily built Zhu, 21, dreams of a film career and sees Jet
Li as a role model. He won a scholarship that reduced his tuition to the equivalent of
$200 a year, but the days are long and hard: relentless boxing practices in a dingy
third-floor gymnasium with concrete floors, bare bulbs and a few tattered mats.
"A Drop Of Water Can
Penetrate A Rock," proclaims one wall poster. "An Iron Rod Can Be Made Into A
Needle," says another.
"We do physical
exercises to make my body strong," Zhu says proudly. "I hope to be a master
So far, his master is far
from satisfied, urging him to fight harder and faster during a boxing bout.
"Move forward when
they hit you," the instructor shouts. "Kick higher."
Zhu advances fearlessly,
kicking with lightning speed as he fends off a flurry of blows with his hands. The
competition takes its toll, with frequent knee and hip injuries suffered by the battered
But master Liu Baoshan,
who organized the Shaolin Institute in 1978, says the toughening-up process can't be
avoided. Too many students arrive at his school expecting to breeze through the training,
because everything looks so easy in the movies.
kung fu is very popular now, because of the movies," Liu says. In fact, the Buddhist
monastery and school owe their recent revival to a steady stream of films that
mythologized Shaolin, which suffered during the first few demoralizing decades under
When the revolutionaries
imposed official atheism a half-century ago, the number of Buddhist monks dwindled. During
the chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, rampaging Red Guards denounced the monastery
The monastery was founded
by an Indian Buddhist, Damo Bodhidarma, who trekked to the Songshan mountains in 527 and
meditated for nine years.
But local monks lacked
the concentration to meditate, so Bodhidarma developed a "method of physical
training" based on the movements of animals and birds that became known as Shaolin
self-defence, the unarmed combat is one of the most complex of the Asian martial arts.
Bodhidarma is also
considered the founder of Chan Buddhism, better known by its later Japanese name, Zen
Buddhism. But today the cult of kung fu -- pronounced "gongfu" by the Chinese --
has surpassed spirituality as the monastery's main attraction.
"I want to become a
world champion and a teacher," says student Yihao Nan, 19. "I watch the movies
and they really influence me. I like Jet Li most of all because he's the best."
Souvenir stalls have
sprung up along the roads leading from the main school to the monastery itself, prompting
occasional altercations between the present-day abbot and local peasants keen to profit
from the tourist hordes. Shopkeepers sell track suits and kung fu paraphernalia.
Only about 200 monks live
in the monastery, learning directly from the masters. Few students take a vow of chastity
or pore through the Buddhist scriptures.
In the uppermost pagoda,
parts of the brick floor are worn out where the monks practise their moves, and wall
paintings show colourful images of monks in combat.
The tourist boom is a
relatively recent phenomenon.
enjoyed a renaissance only after China opened up to the outside world again in the late
1970s, exposing moviegoers to the antics of Bruce Lee action films.
Movies such as The
Shaolin Monastery (starring Jet Li) and The Sons Of Shaolin mythologized kung fu and
restored Chinese pride in its teachers.
Sensing an opportunity,
Master Liu opened the school after the Red Guards had retreated.
Two of Liu's ancestors
were monks of Shaolin, and Liu learned directly from his grandfather and father. During
the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, teaching kung fu was forbidden, but he managed
to teach two students without attracting attention.
Now 70, Liu is stooped
and weary, with whiskers sprouting from his chin and his head overdue for a shave. The
master shuffles along the courtyard in an old-fashioned Mao suit, mobile phone in hand,
surveying the thousands of students who have come to learn from him.
"This is a Chinese
treasure," he says contentedly.