DENGFENG, China – Well-worn flagstones lead up a gentle gradient, through an imposing gate, past huge statues of fierce guardian spirits. The tiled eaves of a temple loom behind a giant ginkgo tree, all but groaning under the weight of a heavy snow.
Suddenly, the pounding of hammers and the whine of an electric saw interrupt the reverie. Only then does it dawn that this is no ancient temple but a re-creation. The impression is confirmed by a glance at the colors in the rafters, impossibly bright for anything truly old.
Discordant sensations may be forgiven. Like any temple, the birthplace of China’s most famous form of kung fu is supposed to be a space of tranquillity and meditation. Yet Shaolin has become such a fixture of Chinese popular culture that much of the life of this holy shrine involves greeting paying tourists who arrive year-round by the thousands.
For the monks of Shaolin Temple, identity crises are nothing new. Is Shaolin kung fu popular entertainment or solemn exercise? Is it a money maker or tool of spiritual mastery? Is this idyllic site in the Song Mountains of Henan Province a contemplative retreat or a theme park? The short answer to all these questions is, of course, yes.
There are even two versions of how it all started. The official account, a blend of history and religious lore, places the origins of the Shaolin tradition in the sixth century. A Buddhist monk from India named Bodhidharma, or Damo, settled here then and began instructing local monks in scripture and the physical drills that are still said to be the basis of kung fu.
But if the question is more about when this country went kung fu crazy, then the origins trace back several thousand films to “Shaolin Temple,” featuring the Chinese action movie star Jet Li.
Mr. Li, a four-time national martial arts champion, filmed mainland China’s first kung fu hit here in 1979 (it was released in the West in 1982), just as China was embarking on its economic liberalization. The moviemakers borrowed as their plot the then-dilapidated Shaolin Temple’s most famous legend, the story of 13 monks who rescued the Tang emperor from a vicious warlord.
The rest is, as they say, history. The road to Shaolin Temple today is literally lined with kung fu academies, which at last count numbered over 50. The schools are huge, some with over 10,000 students who come from all over China to train throughout the year, including now in this season’s bone-chilling weather, in hopes of becoming the country’s next Jet Li.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times
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