| Cai Qing Bin, 13, training in the Shaolin school. Picture by Jehangir S. Pocha
Shaolin (China), Sept. 26: Revered in myth, extolled in film and almost destroyed by revolution, China’s famous Shaolin Temple, where the martial art of kung fu was created, has been reborn to fascinate a new generation.
“Coming here was a dream,” said Chen Fang, a 13-year-old with a breaking voice, who is one of 10,000 students now training in kung fu within Shaolin’s carefully restored buildings 50 miles southwest of Zhengzhou, the capital of China’s central Henan Province.
“I used to be fascinated by kung fu and fortunately my parents agreed to send me here to become an ‘iron soldier’.”
It wasn’t always so. If the now glossy red walls of this ancient complex could talk, they would tell of a painful history.
Shaolin was burned down by a local warlord during the civil strife that gripped China during the 1920s and in the early 1940s the invading Japanese attacked the complex. Life after the Communist Party came to power in 1949 was little better. Kung fu was banned as a feudal pastime and Mao’s Red Guards dragged Shaolin’s few remaining monks through the streets to receive public floggings.
But now China is experiencing a resurgence of interest in its ancient arts, and the nationalism the Communist Party has been fanning has made martial arts especially popular.
Suddenly, the mystical Buddhist monastery made famous in the film, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, has been reborn as kitsch. Martial arts dramas crowd China’s TV channels, and as students have flooded back to Shaolin, numerous me-too schools have opened all around it. Today, local officials say, students from more than 35 countries study kung fu in or near Shaolin.
In Shaolin’s courtyards one recent morning, surrounded by the modern and restored buildings of the 300-acre complex, thousands of boys and girls in orange and white uniforms practised lightning-fast kicks, twirls, chops, and gave exuberant displays of swordsmanship.
“No one can fight like a Chinese master, especially one from Shaolin,” said Sun Qi Can, a 14-year-old from Anhui province.
“The world champion is from Shaolin and my wish is that kung fu can become an Olympic sport and that I can win a gold medal to bring honour to China.”
As the students’ screams carried across the surrounding Shao-shi mountains and dense forest (or, lin) from which the temple gets its name, Wen Hua Liu, the school’s vice-manager, said things at Shaolin are now just as Bodhidharma, the Indian Buddhist monk credited with developing kung fu would have wanted it.
When Bodhidharma arrived here in 517, 21 years after the temple had been established by another Indian monk named Bada, he felt the monks were getting indolent from sitting in meditation. So Bodhidharma devised a series of “meditations in motion” that imitated the natural motions of animals and birds. This eventually morphed into kung fu, and Bodhidharma’s teachings evolved into the Zen school of Buddhism.
Today, every kind of kung fu we know has its roots in the Yijinjing, Shaolin’s famed kung fu manual, Wen said.
Shaolin legends, such as how just 13 Shaolin monks defeated the army of the unpopular Sui dynasty ruler Wang Shigong and helped Li Shimin establish China’s Tang Dynasty, jump quickly to the lips of the warriors-in-training here.
“A kung fu master will definitely win if he has to fight a karate master,” said Huang Yanan, 17, one of the 1,100 girls studying at Shaolin, referring to the Japanese martial art often confused with kung fu. “kung fu is kung fu because it makes us strong inside. Here even the women are as tough as the men, so I feel really empowered.”
Yet, the Buddhist meditativeness and restraint that was essential to kung fu and other martial arts is noticeably absent. In its place is the desire to use kung fu as a means to “make it”.
“I don’t really believe in Buddhism,” said Yu Chao, a bright-eyed 17-year-old from Shandong province. “My parents work really hard to afford my annual tuition (of about $600 ' or about half of the average annual rural income). I really want to become a famous movie star like Jackie Chan so I can take care of my family.”
The fascination with martial arts stars, such as Bruce Lee, is what impels a lot of the students here.
But the reality is more gritty than glitzy. Wen said the reality is that “most of our graduates end up as trainers, joining the army or becoming security guards”.
Chen and the other students say their peers think there’re really cool, but parents take the opposite view. China is in the midst of radical change that is giving many people that first chance at social and economic mobility in centuries and most parents want their children’s schooling to prepare them for careers in medicine and business, not fighting.
Still, Chen works extra-hard at his regime, which entails waking at five and practising for two hours before beginning four hours of classwork, after which students must practise for another two hours.
“Kung fu is my only way to be something,” he said.