Twenty-three years ago, Chinese martial arts skills mesmerized the world with the movie Shaolin Temple featuring kung fu performer Jet Li, with a plot of 13 martial monks saving Li Shimin a famous Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) emperor.
Li granted the temple the status of "No 1 temple on earth," and gave the monks a high rank, after the monks saved him from his enemy.
With the film, Shaolin Temple and Jet Li have become household names for many Chinese and foreigners alike.
The temple located on the southern foot of Songshan Mountain (one of China's five most famous mountains) and 76 kilometres away from Zhengzhou, capital of Central China's Henan Province is now worshipped as the birthplace of kung fu.
Founded in 496 during the Northern Wei (AD 386-534) period, the temple is full of history.
Established about 1,500 years ago in Henan Province, Shaolin is famed for the great combination of martial arts style and Chan, a sect of Buddhism that features long meditation sessions for purifying the mind.
Popularization of kung fu
Decades after the movie's release, the temple is planning to lure outstanding kung fu players worldwide via television, Internet and mobile phones to participate in a kung fu competition.
"Our efforts will reach more people and be more effective by using modern technologies and media channels," said Shi Yongxin, abbot with the temple, at a recent press conference in Beijing.
The eight-month competition, to be shown on television across China through satellite transmission as of March 16 next year, will allow Chinese audiences to vote for their favorite kung fu exercisers through the website or mobile phone messages.
The top 108 winners are expected to have the chance to play a part in a movie and TV series depicting martial arts and monks of Shaolin, according to Fu Min, general manager with the Shaolin Temple Culture Communication Co Ltd, which is owned by the temple.
"We hope more people around the world will enjoy, practice and benefit from Chinese kung fu," Shi said.
The movie and TV series, both named "Legends of Monk Warriors from Shaolin Temple," will be based on a true story of the temple and is expected to attract top international actors and film industry professionals to work on the production, with an estimated cost of 200 million yuan (US$25 million).
The kung fu tradition
Shaolin Temple has reason to showcase its pride. As a renowned temple probably the most famous one on the Chinese mainland, it is not only known for its long history and its role in Chinese Buddhism, but also because of its martial arts. As one saying goes, "all martial arts are from Shaolin."
Records say that Bhurdha, an Indian monk, came to Luoyang in AD 5th century for spreading Buddhism at that period. Emperor Xiaowen a believer of Buddhism decided to build the temple in the Songshan Mountains to house Batuo, who translated many Buddhist works and had a few hundred followers there.
Later, Damo (Bodhidharma), the legendary Indian monk, came to Shaolin in 517, and became the creator of Chinese Zen Buddhism, or Mahayana sect of Buddhism. One story even said he meditated for nine years in a cave, which is now called Damo Cave. Many people believe he wrote the famous "Yijinjing," the base of Shaolin kung fu.
However, many people believed the monks developed the kung fu through their hard work for generations. Located in a strategic area which forced the monks to protect the temple and themselves from wars or any invasion, Shaolin monks had to develop fighting skills. And with the support of some emperors from different dynasties, which came after the 13 Shaolin monks once saved Li Shimin, the temple was allowed to have its own soldier-monks. Kung fu has become one of its top traditional heritages.
Shaolin is also known for its many noted relics. There are over 300 ancient stone inscriptions, and the large mural of 500 arhats in the Qianfo Hall was from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). There are 232 pagodas from different dynasties, known as the forest of pagodas, with oldest one dating back to the Tang Dynasty. The pagodas are the tombs of the celebrated Shaolin monks. There are also the Devajara Hall (Hall of the Heavenly Kings), the Mahavira Hall (or Daxiongbaodian), the Sutra-Keeping Pavilion, and the Hall of Abbot (or Fangzhang Hall).
With its merits accumulated in the last 1,500 years by generations of venerated patriarchs and monks, the temple has achieved worldwide fame and influence today as one of the most cherished facets of traditional Chinese culture.
The Shaolin Temple Overseas Headquarters is the official subsidiary branch of the legendary temple, spreading word of this precious cultural treasure outside of China. Currently, special organizations for imparting Shaolin kung fu have been set up in more than 10 countries including the United States, Holland, France, Belgium, Italy, Singapore, and Switzerland. People from around the world have come to Shaolin to receive kung fu training.
To better protect the temple, the Henan provincial government last year invested more than 40 million yuan (US$4.93 million) to renovate the legendary site. A total of 467 nearby households, 37 martial arts schools, 43 enterprises and government institutions were moved out of the general protection zone.
Shaolin monks have also embarked on world tours in recent years to perform martial arts, attracting over 30,000 fervent fans and attention from local media, according to Shi.
The senior abbot, who has visited some 30 countries, said he always uses mobile phones, digital cameras, portable computers and e-mails.
"Modern technologies facilitate my communication with the world and help me to better manage the temple," Shi said.
The temple, which has been running its own website for years, is planning to open another one in English to promote its exchange with the world.
"Instead of fading gradually in the high-tech era, the Chinese martial arts have created a peculiar platform in the modern world," Fu said.
The establishment of the cultural communication company is to scientifically research and develop the temple's cultural heritages and promote its fame in the world, according to the manager.
Fu, also a monk of Shaolin, used to study in the United States for media communication and speaks good English.
"With the help of technologies and modern media, the ancient temple will face a more vigorous development era," Shi said.
(China Daily December 31, 2005)