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Shaolin Temple’s identity quandary

By Xu Ming, Global Times, Sept 17, 2012

Berlin, Germany -- If the word "Shaolin Temple" comes up and you picture monks ringing bell and chanting scriptures in a reclusive temple removed from the secular world, your image needs an update. Shaolin temples, home of Shaolin Kungfu, are spreading Shaolin culture abroad by relating to modern society.

The 2012 European Shaolin Culture Festival, held in Germany and Austria on September 7, was organized by Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng, Henan Province and the World Shaolin Association.

The first of this kind in Europe, Shaolin Kungfu institutions and practitioners across the globe participated. Lectures about Shaolin tradition, Kungfu performances, Shaolin Zen philosophy and medicinal sciences were introduced.

The festival is a test of Shaolin popularity abroad. But some worry that Shaolin tradition is becoming overly commercialized.  

Revamping an image

Shi Yongxin, the Shaolin Temple abbot, told Xinhua News Agency that Shaolin is an easy way for Westerners to learn about Chinese traditional culture.

"We hope more foreigners learn about Chinese culture and religion through the festival," said Shi.

According to Shi, over 1,000 people attended the conferences. Among them, over 400 were apprentices of Shaolin Kungfu, from 20 countries.

Shaolin Kungfu is one of the most recognizable aspects of Shaolin tradition, popularized through movies, attracting thousands of apprentices to the 1,500-year-old culture.

Six-year-old monk Shi Xiaosong, the youngest warrior monk in the temple, performed traditional Shaolin Kungfu at the festival.

Li Xudong, his father, told the Global Times that two years ago, Shi fell ill. Doctors suggested the child practice Wushu to gain back his health.

Though Shi doesn't have a typical education or childhood, Li said that Shi is content and takes courses at the temple, in lieu of normal study at school.

Shaolin Temple emphasizes educating its monks and disciples. Half the monks at the temple are born in the 1980s. Though Buddhist disciples were once isolated from the outside world, modern monks study in Buddhist institutions and universities while teaching Buddhism, religion and philosophy.

"Times have changed. Monks must learn communication and technology skills, study foreign languages and study abroad," Shi Yongxin told Xinhua.

Overseas notoriety

There are around 10 Shaolin temples in China. Shaolin Temple, in Songshan Mountain, Henan Province, is the oldest and most influential.

The first overseas culture center was established in 1995 in New York. Shaolin culture centers are now found in German, France, Russia and Australia, providing information about Buddhist culture and Wushu.

There are Shaolin Kungfu teaching institutions and organizations in over 50 countries and regions, boasting over 3 million foreign apprentices. Shaolin Kungfu courses are offered at universities overseas.

In the 1970s, the temple accepted visits from Buddhist, Wushu and cultural institutions from Japan, South Korea, Europe and the US. Meanwhile, monks from the temple gradually left China, participating in religious forums and related activities abroad. Since 1987, Kungfu performing groups were sent overseas, in over 80 countries and regions. In 2004, California set aside March 21 as the commemorative "China Songshan Shaolin Temple Day."

Shaolin Temple has a magazine, film company and office for Wushu promotion. Shaolin tradition is promoted through performances, films, TV series and Buddhist activities.

Shaolin temples accept foreign apprentices who study Kungfu, accepting hundreds each year.

Shi told Beijing News that before 2000, Shaolin culture popularity relied on Kungfu. Following it, Zen culture spread. 

Commercial aspects 

With Shaolin culture spreading abroad, some worry an inaccurate portrait is being painted in the West. In recent years, the temple has been scrutinized  for its bold commercial moves.

In 1989, the establishment of Warrior Monks Group, a tour performance group, was criticized as a pure commercial movie. In 1996, Shaolin Temple became the first temple in China to utilize the Internet. Shi Yongxin set up Henan Shaolinsi Television Co. In 1997, then Shaolin Temple Industrial Development Company in 1998.

In 2006, a Shaolin food company was established. The temple opened a medicinal company in 2007, taking advantage of ancient Shaolin medicinal sciences. And in 2008, the first online shop to sell products related to Shaolin Temple opened on taobao.com, a step towards the  e-business and commerce industry.

At a forum at Peking University last year, Shi Yongxin said that Shaolin Temple opened over 40 companies abroad and had nearly 130 martial arts clubs. The temple profits abroad mainly through three channels: tuition from apprentices, performances and film production.

Many find this contradictory to traditional images of temples as reclusive shrines with monks living off donations. Some criticize Shi's attempts to popularize Buddhist culture, calling it exploitative.

Shi said that criticism is understandable. But monks need food and electricity, and the temple has expenditures.

"Times have changed. We need to adapt and earn a living, otherwise, we could be eliminated," Shi told Beijing News, "We commercialize some parts to support our livelihood and spread Shaolin culture."

"Shaolin is known world wide. It will be tarnished by others if we don't spread it ourselves. We need to take initiative before the commercial tide takes us over," Shi said. He added that they will never cater to the mass market.

Ren Liang, a modern Buddhist expert, told the Global Times that the commercial activities aim to spread Shaolin and Buddhism culture, and this follows a natural course.



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