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Soul Music -- Shaolin Style

After a whirlwind tour of the United States, the Shaolin monks will present their exciting dance numbers, Buddhist music, true-to-life sets and dazzling lighting in a show called "Soul of Shaolin" at the Beijing Exhibition Hall Theatre on April 23 and 24.

The monks used both traditional and modernized Chinese Buddhist music to accompany Shaolin kung fu, a unique form of martial art practised in the Shaolin Temple, in central China's Henan Province.

Shaolin Temple, at the foot of Mount Songshan, has been famous for its profound version of Zen Buddhism and its legendary Shaolin kung fu for more than 1,500 years. And it is still appealing to today's urban dwellers, firing their imaginations with the Shaolin monks' life style and martial art skills.

Now there is an opportunity for people to get close to them and watch their performance without having to go to the temple.

The breath-taking performances of the 40 monks in the "Soul of Shaolin" at the Beijing Exhibition Hall Theatre are based on the monks' daily lives and training regimen.

China has an old saying that goes: "All kung fu comes from Shaolin." It underlines the important role Shaolin kung fu plays in Chinese martial art heritage.

Shaolin kung fu is not simply a genre of martial arts, but a comprehensive Buddhist system composed of zen and its unique form of kong fu. Shaolin kung fu offers people chances to see great health and fitness, superb fighting skills, and it can be beautiful and exciting to watch, as the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon bears out.

Compactness is a feature of the Shaolin kung fu. The moves and ricks are short, simple and succinct as well as being rich and varied. While fighting, Shaolin monks advance and retreat in short, straight movements. They need only a small space to execute their style of fighting. Attack and defence are blended together in a seamless continuity.

Shaolin kung fu is powerful and speedy with rhythmic rising and falling body movements.

It stresses hardness in its actions and blows but it also balances this hardness with a corresponding softness. When jabbing or palming, the arm must be neither too bent nor too straight, a blend of external and internal forces.

Shaolin kung fu takes its name from the Shaolin Temple which was built during the Northern Wei Dynasty (368-534) and is one of China's most famous ancient temples.

Many of the monks knew martial art before joining the temple. They taught each other what they knew and helped each other to improve their skills. Gradually, they developed their martial art skills into the unique system of the Shaolin school.

However it did not become well known until the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), when the Shaolin monks saved the life of Li Shimin, founder of Tang Dynasty.

At the end of the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618), Li Shimin fought against other strong forces for the imperial throne. He was cornered by his adversaries and would have been killed if it were not for the Shaolin monks who stepped in and helped him.

After establishing the Tang Dynasty, Li rewarded these monks according to their military merits and contributions. The Shaolin Temple was given large grants of land and money to expand the temple complex.

The Shaolin Temple was allowed to organize an army of monks, who acted as soldiers in times of war and as monks when there was peace. Shaolin kung fu was developed and tempered through battles and wars.

It developed through the Tang Dynasty and gradually formed its own complete system of Zen Buddhism and martial arts in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

By the time of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Shaolin Temple had more than 2,000 monks, all of whom were masters in the martial arts.

In 1553 of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Shaolin monks took part in battles against Japanese invaders and accomplished many military exploits.

In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), people living around Shaolin Temple were very active in practicing kung fu, and in the early 20th century kung fu underwent further development. Kung fu clubs were established all over the country, with most of them practicing the Shaolin style. But as time went on, Shaolin kung fu gradually began to wane.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of literary and artistic works about Shaolin kung fu appeared. These works greatly aroused people's interests in Chinese kung fu, particularly after the movie Shaolin Temple, starring Jet Li, was released in the early 1980s. And now the Shaolin Temple and Shaolin kung fu are well known all over the world.

(China Daily April 15, 2004)

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