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Fighting monks of Shaolin Buddhist monks pass on ancient martial art to young
The Star (Canada) ASIA BUREAU, August 26, 2001

Beijing -- 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.

The 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 courtyard. 

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 someday."

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 boxers.

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.

"Shaolin 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 Communist rule.

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 as "feudalistic."

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 boxing.

Intended for 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.

The monks 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.


Updated: 29-8-2001

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