The Wandering Sage

In this periodic column, martial arts enthusiast and old China hand Shannon Roxborough explores the claims depicted in kung-fu cinema, putting them into historical, cultural, philosophical, martial and common-sense context.


Photo courtesy of CTS (Dengfeng) Songshan Shaolin Culture Tourism Co.
Photo courtesy of CTS (Dengfeng) Songshan Shaolin Culture Tourism Co.

Blame it on Jet Li and the Shaw Brothers 1982 cult classic film “Shaolin Temple.”

No place has exterted a more powerful influence on the martial arts than the Shaolin Temple. Credited as the birthplace of Chinese kung fu and the headquarters of martial monks whose combat feats and heroic exploits have been seared so deeply into the collective consciousness that it’s become difficult to separate fantasy from reality.

Most historians and archaeologists say the martial monks of ancient China were actually more likely to be soldiers and mercenaries who sought refuge at the temple, which was for a time a private estate. Experts believe Shaolin’s resident monks learned a hodepodge of martial arts from them, which they practiced as a form of moving meditation and moral development.

Although there have been scholarly attempts to tell the true story of the Shaolin Temple, even the best efforts have resulted in books and papers that combine rigorous research with questionable sources of information skewed by starry-eyed admiration, giving them limited usefulness.

Scholars concede that fact and fiction are so thoroughly interwoven as to be inseparable, meaning relatively little is known about most of Shaolin’s history and its true role in the development of the arts. (One common misconception in kung fu circles is that Shaolin gave birth to the Chinese martial arts, when, in fact, the arts were practiced in China well before the temple was founded.)

Today, the real Shaolin Temple is virtually dead. What remains of it is a living myth fed by kung fu films, novels, folklore and legend masquerading as history, fables passed down for generations and falsehoods salted with grains of truth.

Sadly, for all intents and purposes, the mountain monastery of popular imagination has been reduced to little more than a shell of its former self, a money-making enterprise wrapped in a faux-authentic veneer to capitalize on its reputation and cachet by catering to those eager to live out their kung fu film-spawned fantasies.

It’s easy to see why many serious practitioners dismiss modern Shaolin as a synthetic pop culture facsimile of the real thing sustained by make-believe, rewritten history and a relentlessly commercial ethos.

There were only a few tourists and a handful of monks when I made my pilgrimage to the Shaolin Temple in 1987. But soon after the death of Abbot Shi Xingzheng that year and the founding of the Shaolin Kung Fu Monk Corps in 1988 the last vestiges of the once-sacred institution began to crumble—taking the traditional Chinese martial spirit it fostered with it.

Most of what is now passed off Shaolin kung fu is actually a variation of sport wu shu, China’s cultural performing art combining martial arts, impressive gymnastic-like acrobatic athleticism and all the showmanship of a carnival sideshow, focused on wildly exaggerated postures and highly-stylized movements and complex choreography more akin to fancy dance routines than kung fu training.

Today, the Shaolin Temple is part patched-together idealistic museum, part tourist trap drawing as many as two million entrance fee-paying visitors annually, along with tens of thousands of “students” who pay a pretty penny to study at what amounts to little more than a diploma mill for an eye-pleasing, watered-down hybridized version of kung fu virtually stripped of its age-old traditions and value as a fighting art.

Since the early 1990s, Shaolin’s head abbot—its chief executive and the public face—Shi Yongxin, has turned the once-humble monastery into a global business empire spanning the temple itself, official area schools, a traveling troupe of “monks” (costume-clad performers with shaved heads who are actually wu shu-practicing employees paid to play the role), film, reality TV and theater productions, an online shop selling a range of Shaolin-branded products, and even a string of Shaolin Temple franchises around the world.

Under pressure, the government of Dengfeng city in China’s Henan province, which owns the 1,500-year-old temple, backed out of a deal in 2009 that would have seen Shaolin be listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Even so, the temple has thrived under Yongxin’s leadership with the oversight of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) and marketing reach of the government-owned China National Travel Service.

The ascent of Shaolin as a lucrative brand has had the unintended consequence of helping to change the entire landscape of Chinese kung fu, leaving precious few options for those who seek traditional, in-depth study of the arts as they once were—lifestyle practices requiring humility, dedication, diligent effort and the guidance of competent teachers, things that you cannot buy your way into.

About the Author
Shannon is a widely published veteran freelance writer and editor who began practicing Chinese kung-fu, chi kung, Taoism and health and healing arts in 1980 and spent 1987 and 1988 studying in China as the initiated apprentice of a Taoist priest, kung-fu master and traditional Chinese doctor. A former magazine correspondent and popular newspaper columnist, as a freelancer his news shorts have appeared in Inside Kung-fu and Black Belt while his articles have been published in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Alternative Medicine (now Natural Solutions magazine) and the defunct New Age Journal, among others. He also wrote a regular column for the now-ceased “The Okinawan” magazine exploring various aspects of Okinawan, Japanese, Chinese and Korean cultures—from martial arts and traditional art forms to history, philosophy, etiquette and travel.