Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Zhengzhou is the capital city of Henan Province, one of the 5 imperial capital cities that form the cultural and historic center of China. The region is the “home” of all things Chinese; a culture that started flourishing more than 5,000 years ago and is still going strong.
The pulpy martial arts TV series “Kung-Fu” of the 1970s, and films – Fists of Fury, The Way of the Dragon etc. -- created in Hong Kong, introduced me and countless others to Kung Fu and the Shaolin Temple’s martial arts tradition. In “Kung Fu”, though the history portrayed in the TV series is fictional, the story of the temple being destroyed and a monk coming after the destruction to the US is partially true, because the temple was attacked and destroyed several times, in both ancient times but especially during the 20th century, and monks did escape to the US where they set up schools teaching Shaolin-style martial arts.
To understand Chinese Kung Fu and other Chinese martial arts, one should understand Buddhism’s belief in wisdom, serenity and spiritual as well as physical development. Shaolin Kung Fu is the initial style developed by the Shaolin monks more than a thousand years ago as protection against marauding bandits and it eventually became one, among many, of China’s martial arts traditions.
During the Sui Dynasty (CE 581–618), the fundamental blocks of Shaolin Kung Fu training took a formal character, and the Shaolin monks began creating their own fighting system. By the early Tang Dynasty (CE 618-907), the temple had trained its monks into a formidable combative army. Unfortunately, the monks supported the Ming government (1368-1644), and in 1641 the temple was sacked by the anti-Ming rebel Li Zicheng, who effectively wiped out the temple’s fighting force.
In the last three decades, the Chinese government re-established the Shaolin Temple and the fighting style taught at the temple nowadays is called Wushu. Because of the popularity of Kung Fu and Zen Buddhism in the rest of the world, many “Shaolin” schools operate in towns and villages around the temple.
Tourists came to see the Shaolin Temple, and foreigners want to train in the schools. Today there is only a single school operating in the actual temple site. In the early mornings, I saw cadres of Kung Fu students of all ages practicing in large and small groups in training fields around the temple as well as the city parks.
It is impossible to tell fact from fiction in the Shaolin Temple’s storied past. I was really curious to find out whether the TV series and the films had any substance or were the fight portrayals just a product of the producer’s and director’s imaginations combined with Chinese lore and film production magic. So, when the opportunity arose to participate in the International Mayor’s Forum on Tourism in Zhengzhou, since the Shaolin temple is in Dengfeng about two hours from Zhengzhou, I accepted the invitation and traveled to China.
While visiting the temple site I did not see many monks. It was during the middle of the day so, as I understand it, most were either training students or working in the kitchen or the grounds. The individual monks have no income. They live at the temple, which provides shelter, food and clothing — a simple robe, pants and sandals -- and they have their sleeping quarters there. The Temple is part of a group of classic buildings -- a few date back to the Northern Wei Dynasty 386 to 534. In the afternoon, after we visited the temple, we also visited the Tagou Martial Arts School where we saw the grounds and training rooms.
The temple buildings are located in an enclosed park-like environment. Near the entrance there is also the so-called “Pagoda Forest” the resting place of prominent Shaolin monks. The area contains 248 pagodas made of bricks and stone and is the largest of its kind.
The evening I visited the temple I also experienced “The Grand Ritual of Zen Buddhist Music”. A majestic adaptation of European “Sound and Light” performance; this live show uses hundreds of performers and Kung Fu practitioners, takes place after dark at a natural amphitheater, set in Songsan’s mountainous terrain with an “ancient temple” background. It is absolutely spectacular and if you are visiting the temple or are anywhere near the area, it is a “must see” performance.
Thanks to: Mr. Bing Sun www.orientdestinations.com
China National Tourist Office, New York www.cnto.org
Shaolin Temple Wushu Training www.shaolinsi.gov.cn
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