Return to the Shaolin Temple

Coming Home to an Empty House
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 2 2003 4:01 PM

Return to the Shaolin Temple

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Commemorating the Shaolin Temple’s 1,500th birthday in 1992
Commemorating the Shaolin Temple's 1,500th birthday in 1992

Friends have told me what to expect, but it's still a shock. As my cab ($50 from Zheng Zhou to Shaolin) veers off the highway into the half-mile, one-road cul-de-sac that is the Shaolin village, my breath catches. This is how I imagined Shaolin would be, how it is portrayed in countless kung fu movies: a lonely monastery tucked into a valley surrounded by five mountain peaks. This is not what I discovered when I showed up uninvited in 1992 during the week of Shaolin's 1,500th-birthday celebrations.

The Shaolin Temple had a rough 20th century. The problem, to simplify, was the introduction of firearms into China during the late 19th century. Immediately, the self-defense efficacy of being a 20-year master in, say, the double sword, the rope dart, or the three-section staff dropped off the cliff. (God made man, but Sam Colt made him equal.) And so the grim history: Shaolin was occupied and partially burnt down by a local warlord in the civil war of the 1920s; in the early 1940s, it was occupied again and further destroyed, this time by the Japanese. Mao Tse-tung, who wanted a clean break with China's feudal past, banned the practice of kung fu in the 1950s. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), his Red Guards sought to finish the job, dragging the few remaining Shaolin monks who had not already fled through the streets for public "criticism" and private floggings.

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The Shaolin Temple was an abandoned wreck when Jet Li, a young actor and martial arts expert, visited in 1981. He was making a movie called Shaolin Temple, the brainchild of Deng Xiaoping's pragmatic reformers. Having inherited a devastated, impoverished nation from Mao, they needed to generate revenue. The easiest method for a poor country with a rich cultural history is tourism. So the Chinese tourism board invited a Hong Kong production company to make a movie celebrating the Shaolin Temple's most famous legend, the 13 monks who rescued the Tang emperor from an evil warlord. In return for their heroic deeds, he granted them the right to eat meat and drink alcohol (The joke goes: What do you get for lengthening the life of an emperor? He shortens yours.)

The movie was mainland China's first Asian blockbuster, and life started to imitate art. Thousands of young boys ran away from home to become Shaolin monks like Jet Li's character. Tens of thousands of East Asian tourists, for whom Shaolin is one of the most cherished cultural sites, traveled here annually.

Martial monks at practice
Martial monks at practice

By the time I arrived a decade later, there were nearly a hundred monks, six major kung fu schools with hundreds of kung fu instructors (some of them monks, some former monks, most simply skilled martial artists) instructing 10,000 young Chinese boys (and a smattering of girls), dozens of lean-to restaurants to feed the tourists, and several dozen corrugated-tin-roof shacks selling kung fu tchotchkes. And then there were the more inventive attractions dreamed up by local entrepreneurs: a World War II cargo plane with a sign claiming it was Mao's first plane, the ski lift that took tourists up to the top of one of the mountain peaks where they could fire machine guns, or the 2,000-year-old mummy. In short, it was one big tourist trap. The isolated monastery had been turned into the anchor for Kung Fu World.

Not anymore.

In 1999, the former acting abbot, a legendary figure who had unfortunately been incapacitated by a stroke for nearly a decade, passed away and was replaced by Yongxin, a very well-connected and controversial figure (he has his own Mercedes and spends most of his time living elsewhere). Abbot Yongxin recognized what everyone who lived there knew: Shaolin's reputation (not to mention its spiritual life) was seriously undermined by all the tourist-trappiness. Capitalism had certainly been better for Shaolin than communism, but it was awfully tacky. But unlike the rest of us, Yongxin had the connections and the authoritarian determination to make the necessary changes. Over the last couple of years, he called in his markers (rumored to have been very expensively purchased) inside the army and police force, and they came into the village and physically removed all the local merchants and knocked down their property—the Maoist version of eminent domain.

As I walk down the street, it is like visiting a ghost town. Over to the left was the IMAX theater. And next to it was the outdoor stadium. And wasn't that where the Shaolin Kung Fu School was? Where are all the people?

Since I left, the population has dropped from 10,000 to below a thousand. Where there was building after building, there is now one big wide-open space with a few cinderblocks lying on open dirt. When the grass grows back, it will be very contemplative; right now it looks like it's about to be turned into a huge parking lot. The only significant structures remaining are what existed prior to the 1980s tourism revival—the temple itself and the pagoda forest—and the few institutions that had enough guanxi (connections) of their own to resist Abbot Yongxin's terrible will: the Shaolin Wushu Center, which is the government-run kung fu school; Tago, which is a private kung fu school run by a ferocious entrepreneur; and the ticket center (you have to buy a ticket to enter the village, and another to enter the temple).

The Shaolin Wushu Center's courtyard
The Shaolin Wushu Center's courtyard

I stop for lunch at the Shaolin Wushu Center's restaurant, one of only three left. Aside from new curtains and a new floor, it is the same: big and awkward. The Henan government's tourism agency built the Shaolin Wushu Center in 1989. They saw a lot of private entrepreneurs making money and decided to skip the whole taxation middleman part of things and get directly at the dough. So they built this restaurant for the tourists, a (nice by Henan standards of the time; fleabag by ours) hotel, and a main building with indoor training facilities and a performance hall. Then the government went to the Shaolin Temple and invited (translation: ordered) the monks most skilled in the martial arts to move to the Wushu Center and start giving performances for tourists and teach classes to any random Westerner who showed up wanting to become a bad mofo, provided he had the cash. In the movies the young student has to sit outside the Temple gates for days; in real life you hand over your American Express traveler's checks. (All prices are negotiable, but figure on room, board, and tuition running between $1,000 and $1,500 a month at the Wushu Center.)

The only person whom I recognize in the restaurant is its manager, who is wearing the exact same clothing (black slacks, gray shirt, green leisure jacket) as he did 10 years ago. He sits with me, and we reminisce. Almost everyone I used to know has gone, either to Deng Feng (the nearby town where the kung fu schools relocated) or abroad. It is a bit sad for me, like coming home to an empty house.

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