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Cultural Heritage / Trip Ideas

Diversified development of Shaolin Kung Fu

By Xinzhu Xiao

May 22

Shaolin Kung Fu is the martial art practiced by Buddhist  monks of the Songshan Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng City, Henan Province.

Shaolin Kung Fu is the martial art practiced by Buddhist  monks of the Songshan Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng City, Henan Province.

Songshan Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng City, Henan Province. [Image Credit: VCG]
The discipline, which combines Chinese Zen Buddhism with martial arts, is believed to have been started by an Indian monk named Bodhidharma, who came to Henan in the sixth century. The temple describes him as the first of six “patriarchs” of the monastic order. Chan, the Chinese word for Zen, was derived from the Sanskrit word dhyana, or “meditation.”

The institution thrived in imperial China, especially during the Tang dynasty (618-907), though kung fu was banned in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) as royals feared a coup by the “warrior monks”. The temple was then set ablaze in 1928 by a warlord during the days of the Republic of China.

Its revival came in the 1980s and ’90s on the heels of China’s economic reform. Many structures were rebuilt with private donations and government grants.

Soft-power export

Kung fu’s influence on popular culture, especially cinema, has waned in recent years compared with its peak in the 1970s, when Bruce Lee made it world famous and Shaolin sealed its place in modern history as a source of China’s earliest soft-power exports.

Many foreigners enroll at Shaolin each year to learn kung fu, paying about 6,600 yuan ($980) a month, which includes food and lodging, for courses that span weeks or years. Most foreigners tend to be in their early 20s and come with prior kung fu knowledge acquired in their native lands. Women make up a small percentage of foreign students. A person needs at least five years of regular training to achieve a sufficient degree of skill.

Surrounding Shaolin Temple, some 40 martial arts schools have thrived in Dengfeng during the past few decades, with Tagou Education Group being one of the largest. Founded by kung fu master Liu Baoshan in 1978, Tagou established its first school within 1 kilometer of the temple and today has six across the city.

A foreign woman practices martial arts at a kung fu school run by Liu Baoshan. [Image Credit: VCG]
Booming tourism

One of Shaolin’s major sources of income is tourism, providing  some 250 million yuan in annual revenue.

The premises of Shaolin Temple receive up to 6,000 tourists a day, with the figure reaching 40,000 during Chinese national holidays and the annual summer school break. A daylong entry ticket covering seven sites costs 100 yuan (£12). Children and seniors are allowed in free.

Shaolin monks perform martial arts during a public performance at Songshan Shaolin Temple. [Image Credit: VCG]
As the birthplace of Chinese civilization, Henan draws visiting crowds from home and abroad for most of the year. In 2009, the local government of Dengfeng handed over tourism management of Shaolin Temple to CTS Songshan Shaolin Culture Tourism Co, a Hong Kong based company that today employs 600 staff, and earns about 250 million yuan in annual revenue from local tourism. Outsourcing was initiated in an attempt to present the modern face of this ancient Chinese symbol.

Other than maintaining a website in English, the temple has an account on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform.

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