Published: March 2011

Shaolin Kung Fu

Photo: Shaolin monk practicing kung fu

Battle for the Soul of Kung Fu

In the shadow of China’s legendary Shaolin Temple, a kung fu master’s disciples confront the changing world of martial arts.

By Peter Gwin
Photograph by Fritz Hoffmann

The master spent his last day of life wrapped in a quilt stitched by his wife, his rasping, irregular breaths filling the small bedroom. Throughout the cool spring day a stream of visitors arrived in the town of Yanshi, in the foothills of the Song Mountains, to pay their respects at the deathbed of Yang Guiwu, the man who had taught them kung fu. Some wore monks' robes and offered blessings as they entered the tiny brick house. Others wore jeans and loafers and stubbed out cigarettes before passing through the door. The master's wife, her white hair neatly combed, clasped the shoulders of each new arrival as if he were a blood son and ushered him through her kitchen, past the coal-burning stove, to join family members and other disciples assembled at her husband's bedside.

The wife leaned close to the bundled figure to announce a visitor, the last disciple the master had accepted into his kung fu family 15 years before. "It's Hu Zhengsheng," she said. Wearing a Nike tracksuit and traditional cloth slippers, Hu, now a broad-shouldered man of 33, bent over the shriveled figure. "Shifu," he called softly, respectfully, using the Mandarin word for teacher. "Can you hear me?" The old man's eyelids, pale and thin like rice paper, flickered. For an instant, his pupils seemed to center on the young man's face, then drifted away.

Many times the master had told Hu about awakening from dreams in which his martial arts ancestors, long-dead monks from the Shaolin Temple, visited him. They came bearing wisdom collected over centuries from generations of men whose feet had grooved the flagstones in the temple's training hall, whose bones were interred in the Pagoda Forest just outside the temple walls. These were the monks who had committed their lives to perfecting kung fu styles with names like Plum Flower Fist and Mandarin Duck Palm, each a symphony of physical movements, adding variation upon variation that pushed human muscles and bones to their limits. Some would say beyond their limits. Perhaps, Hu thought, these ancestors now were gathering by his master's side.

The master's most advanced disciples recognized special irony in the fact that the old man's lungs would ultimately betray him. He would have approved of this turn of life's wheel, a final lesson in humility for the man who had instructed that breathing was elemental to harnessing one's chi, or life force. It was the first thing he'd taught them: breathe in through the navel, out through the nose. Steady, controlled, in harmony with your heartbeat and the rhythms of your other organs. Learning to breathe properly, he told them, was the initial step on the arduous path to tapping the wellspring of the chi's power and, in doing so, unlocking one of the universe's hidden doors.

Now, with or without unseen spirits at his side, Yang Guiwu stood at another of the universe's hidden doors. The disciples listened for signs in his breathing that he was trying to marshal his life force for the journey ahead.

Some 12 miles from where the old master lay, in a valley just over the Song Mountains, tour buses prepare to disgorge their daily load of visitors at the Shaolin Temple. They come from all over the People's Republic—uniformed soldiers on leave, businessmen on junkets, retirees on package holidays, young couples leading wide-eyed children kicking and chopping the air with exuberant expectation—all to see the birthplace of China's greatest kung fu legend.

Here, the popular myth holds, is where a fifth-century Indian mystic taught a series of exercises, or forms, that mimicked animal movements to the monks at the newly established Shaolin Temple. The monks adapted the forms for self-defense and later modified them for warfare. Their descendants honed these "martial arts" and over the next 14 centuries used them in countless battles—opposing despots, putting down rebellions, and fending off invaders. Many of these feats are noted on stone tablets in the temple and embellished in novels dating back to the Ming dynasty.

Scholars dismiss much of this as legend embroidered with bits of truth. Bare-handed martial arts existed in China long before the fifth century and likely arrived at Shaolin with ex-soldiers seeking refuge. For much of its history, the temple was essentially a wealthy estate with a well-trained private army. The more the monks fought, the more proficient they became as fighters, and the more their fame grew. Yet they were not unbeatable. The temple was sacked repeatedly during its history. The most devastating blow came in 1928, when a vengeful warlord burned down most of the temple, including its library. Centuries of scrolls detailing kung fu theory and training as well as treatises on Chinese medicine and Buddhist scriptures—essentially the temple's soul—were destroyed, leaving the legacy of Shaolin kung fu to be passed down master to disciple, through men such as Yang Guiwu.

Today, however, temple officials seem more interested in building the Shaolin brand than in restoring its soul. Over the past decade Shi Yongxin, the 45-year-old abbot, has built an international business empire—including touring kung fu troupes, film and TV projects, an online store selling Shaolin-brand tea and soap—and franchised Shaolin temples abroad, including one planned in Australia that will be attached to a golf resort. Furthermore, many of the men manning the temple's numerous cash registers—men with shaved heads and wearing monks' robes—admit they're not monks but employees paid to look the part.

Over tea in his office at the temple, Yongxin calmly makes the case that all of these efforts further Buddhism. "We make more people know about Zen Buddhism," he says. A slightly jowly, sad-eyed man, he has a politician's gift for imbuing his remarks with the sense that he believes deeply in what he's saying. "By registering the Shaolin brand name in other countries, promoting Shaolin traditional cultures, including kung fu, we're having people around the world know better and believe in Zen Buddhism."

It is an argument he has made many times in both the Chinese and foreign press, and he isn't the first abbot to face criticism that Shaolin has pursued riches over enlightenment. A 17th-century magistrate railed against the temple's "lofty mansions and splendid furnishings." And yet, whether a force for evangelizing or profitmaking, the Shaolin Temple has helped foster an undeniable kung fu renaissance, which has coincided with China's own resurgence as an international power. Nowhere is this more evident than in Dengfeng, a sprawling city of 650,000 just six miles from the temple gates. Here some 60 martial arts academies have sprouted over the past two decades and now boast more than 50,000 students. A drive down a main road passes some of the biggest schools. They rise like Vegas casinos, with towering dormitories adorned with murals of kung fu fighters, dragons, and tigers.

These schools fill their ranks with boys, and increasingly girls, from every province and social class, ranging in age from five to their late 20s. Some arrive hoping to become movie stars or to win glory as kickboxers. Others come to learn skills that will ensure good jobs in the military, police, or private security. A few are sent by their parents to learn discipline and hard work.

Six days a week, 11 months of the year, the campuses come alive at dawn with legions of students dressed in identical tracksuits—hundreds of children born in the new China, aligned in sharp rows, practicing kung fu. Faces forward, backs rigid, they punch and kick in unison, their voices puncturing the morning air as they repeat their instructors' cadences.

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