Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Shaolin Temple Has Seen Better Days

This is a tree at the temple where the monks practice finger punching.
How badass is that?

I was reading this week's Economist magazine and came across this interesting piece Trouble at the temple -- Everybody was kung fu fighting--  Shaolin temple takes a hit. Like many of you who are my age or older I was first exposed to the Shaolin temple via the TV series starring the late David Carradine, Kung Fu. For those younger your first exposure may have been the Kung Fu Panda Movies, starring Jack Black. To tell you the truth I'm a fan of both, but the TV series holds a certain place in my heart because I spent many a Saturday afternoon as a kid watching Caine wander through the US and enjoying his flashbacks to his training at the temple.

A few years ago I saw a documentary on the temple and recall a story about a young student. During his first year he only carried water from a well to the monastery. Day after day, month after month the youth carried the water buckets. He didn't get any other training. One day, he went back to his parents for a visit. His old friends and family pestered him about what he had learned from the monks. He kept telling them he had done nothing but carry water about for the last year. They didn't believe him, and kept badgering the student. Finally, he got so frustrated he smashed his fist on a table and it broke in half.  Lesson learned.

Reality has a way of breaking the spell of childhood fantasies. China has indeed adapted capitalism, and just like in America there are a hundred faith-based ways of separating fools from their money.

The parade-ground scene is timeless, but the surrounding temple is not. In December it failed its examination by China’s National Tourism Association, after inspectors condemned the poor conditions of the sprawling temple complex and the abundance of pushy touts [people selling memorabilia] and dodgy fortune-tellers.

In this case it turns out the the Shaolin temple is being run by a holy man who loves cash.

Such hangers-on have arrived as part of the commercialisation of the Shaolin brand, tirelessly promoted since the 1990s by the temple’s abbot, Shi Yongxin (pictured). Mr Shi is known in the Chinese media as “the CEO monk”. He has rented out the Shaolin name for films, reality-television shows and computer games, and approved an online store selling Shaolin kung fu manuals for 9,999 yuan ($1,600).
It is reported that tourism to the temple has decreased by half during the tourist season this year. But fear not, the abbot is on the job, sprucing up the cash cow temple.

Then on May 16th, after spending millions of yuan sprucing up the temple, Shaolin passed the tourism board’s re-examination, and so was able to retain its five-star scenic-spot status. Abbot Shi remained bullish: “The Shaolin scenic spot’s problems are mostly caused by the intervention of the government,” he said after the announcement. “I hope to return Shaolin temple to a peaceful religious environment.”
A peaceful religious environment that sounds like it is fated to be a hybrid of Disney World, a megachurch and a dojo.

Restoring such an environment may not be so easy. Just days later, Chinese media reported that discussions were under way about building a magnetic-levitation train around Shaolin, in order to boost tourism.
This is Purgatory.


  1. My dad told me the table story when I was a kid, of course I didn't understand it. In the early 70's we lived in SF and we would go to chinatown and see Shaw Brothers movies in the Chinese theaters. I was always amazed that my dad could buy tickets. After all we are Filipino and we don't speak Chinese (well, it was amazing for four year old,


  2. Have you read
    American Shaolin by Matthew Polly? About the time when, as a kid at Princeton, he set out to find Shaolin and study there. He went back recently, and was sad at the changes. I liked the book (and Shaw Brother movies!) and wish I had had his adventure.

    1. I haven't read that. I think I will after finishing Misqoting Jesus.

  3. Forgiveness, I realize you have written this almost a year ago; however, the story of the young student is with him slapping water out of buckets for years and then able to destroy the table with an unintended palm strike.


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