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Monday, February 8, 2016

The Shaolin Guide to Soul - An Interview

When I hear the word Shaolin, I automatically imagine monks dressed in orange-yellow garments, doing flips, one finger push ups and handstands, breaking iron bars with their heads and lying on a bed of nails (Iron Body). Other things that come to mind are Jet Li, The Wu-Tang Clan and "shadow kicks". Unfortunately, these days I also associate Shaolin with the term "sell out" since it seems like the Shaolin Temple (少林寺 - "Shaolin Shi" in Mandarin, Siew Lum Si in Cantonese) is more concerned with making money than reaching enlightenment (as a proper temple should aspire to).
My idea of Shaolin
Recently I came across an article featured in National Geographic Magazine (March 2011 issue, available on newstands) titled "Battle for the Soul of Kung Fu" (click link for online version). There is a saying in Chinese (天下功夫出少林) that "All martial arts come from Shaolin". These days with the popularity of the UFC and mixed martial arts along with the rising popularity of Wing Chun, Shaolin has suddenly become the grandparent that no one visits but yet still commands some, although not a lot of, respect (especially from the younger generation).

Commercialization at its finest
The writer of the Battle for the Soul of Kung Fu appropriately sets a morbid feel right off the bat, reflective of the current sentiment of Shaolin, by describing the final moments in the life of a Shaolin master. Then he goes into the dichotomous description of two monks. One with the dilemma of whether or not to accept a leading role in a kung fu movie that will further feed the over-commercialization backlash but at the same time bring the much needed funds and publicity for Shaolin (not to mention his kung fu school) and the other, a prodigious recluse trying to revitalize the traditional ways.

I believe that this article is trying to convey hope for Shaolin but like the host of Reading Rainbow always said, "You don't have to take my word for it". I was able to get an interview with the writer of Battle for the Soul of Kung Fu (Peter Gwin, writer for National Geographic magazine) and here are some of the highlights:
What inspired you to write an article about Shaolin Kung Fu?
P: The kung fu monk is such a Chinese archetype, especially the monks from Shaolin. In many ways the Chinese fascination with the Shaolin monk is akin to the American fascination with the cowboy. They are portrayed as strong, honest, self-sufficient, brave, the protectors of the weak—heroes, basically. Of course, the temple’s history is vastly more complicated than the legends have it, and the romanticized view of the monks hardly matches the reality, much like the history of the American West has been romanticized by movies and the popular idea of cowboys hardly resembles the actual modern incarnation.
What was your impression of Chinese Kung Fu before you wrote this article? What was it after?
P: I didn’t have a lot of deep knowledge. I don’t practice kung fu, though as a kid I certainly entertained a lot of the stereotypes from the Kung Fu television series and assorted movies. As I reported the piece, I became especially fascinated by the traditional relationship between a kung fu master and his/her students. Once a master takes on a student, he puts not only his own reputation on the line but also that of his entire kung fu ancestry. And it’s not just placing trust in the one new student, but in anyone that that student may take on as his own pupil in the future and on and on. Therefore, the old masters put a very high emphasis on evaluating a novice’s character, more so than his/her physical potential, before agreeing to teach him/her. Now with the rise of the commercial kung fu academies, so much of that tradition has been mooted since the academies generally will take anyone with ready cash. 
As a foreign journalist in China, did you have any issues with transparency from your sources? Did they give you what you wanted to hear or were they candid?
P: The Shaolin Temple has gotten a fair amount of press in recent years, especially under Shi Yongxin, who has a sophisticated understanding of the media and how it works, both inside China and abroad. So I did encounter what seemed like canned responses to some questions from some sources, but I also felt like I was able to get many frank answers about the state of the practice of kung fu in that part of China and about the temple’s reemergence over the last several years.
Please leave comments about your experience with Shaolin.

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