Shaolin temple overrun by tourists

The Straits Times, Nov 22, 2004

Luoyang, China -- EVERY morning as a new fleet of buses unloads tourists at the Shaolin temple, Mr Li Yaojin thinks wistfully about the peaceful days two decades ago when he first arrived as a Buddhist novice.

'Now there are just too many people here,' he says as the main temple courtyard fills with visitors speaking loudly in a variety of languages. 'It's hard to find a quiet place to meditate.'

The Shaolin temple, famous as the birthplace of China's martial arts, has emerged as a well-oiled money-making machine servicing hordes of tourists attracted to the scene of countless gongfu novels and movies.

They come to this remote part of central Henan province in hopes of seeing authentic monks miraculously surviving in some sort of time capsule.

But what they find instead is exploitation of the Shaolin myth on an industrial scale.


A Shaolin monk waits for tourists at his trinket store. The temple now services hordes of tourists. -- AFP



Eighty-three martial arts schools with a total enrolment of 40,000 line the road from the large town of Dengfeng to the sprawling temple complex itself, where souvenir sellers and minibus drivers stand ready to welcome the tourists.

'We're very worried about the impact of all the tourists, but there's nothing we can do,' said Mr Li Songjiang, a staff member of the monastery.

'Speaking on behalf of Shaolin, I'd say we don't even welcome one single tourist here.'

The massive influx of tourists has turned the monastery's 180 monks into bewildered and unhappy strangers in their own homes, or worse, exotically dressed workers in the tourism trade.

When Sun Zhongfei's parents sent him to the monastery at the age of 10, they thought he would be trained as a monk, but three years later, he spends most of his day selling 60-yuan (S$12) Shaolin-themed T-shirts.

Shaolin, with a history of 1,500 years, is now part tourist attraction, part training ground for new generations of bodyguards and martial arts performers.

Thousands of young Chinese men, and a fair number of women, go to Shaolin to learn martial arts at the source.

It is estimated that about 10,000 foreigners, too, have taken classes since the temple area opened to tourism in 1988. -- AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE