Make no mistake, this isn’t your suburban tae kwon do class, jammed with Saturday morning soccer moms and grinning schoolkids in bright white uniforms. At any of the many martial arts schools near the Shaolin Temple outside Dengfeng, China, grim-faced 10-year-old boys nimbly execute spectacular flying feats, often without cushions to aid their landings. They have come to learn kung fu techniques practiced by the ancient Buddhist order of monks that have lived here, 500 miles south of Beijing, for 1,500 years. The boys rise early each day and undergo punishing training that leaves muscles bruised and joints sore. Yet even peasant parents pay a king’s ransom of $20 a month so their children can become policemen, soldiers or even movie stars.
Hong Kong action films of the 1970s and ’80s brought Shaolin monks international attention by highlighting the improbable intersection of a peace-loving Buddhist order with kung fu, the mental and spiritual discipline that also encompasses an elaborate set of martial arts moves. Rampant banditry and feuding warlords in the Henan Province probably prompted the monks to embrace and develop kung fu many centuries ago, but the history remains murky. The fighting monks became renowned for feats of physical prowess: they break iron blades over their heads, sleep while standing on one leg, and perform two-fingered handstands.
Bruce Lee videos that catered to an ever-growing number of tourists. Last summer, Shaolin’s abbot ordered most of these shops and schools bulldozed in hopes of making the temple a World Heritage Site. Today, touring Shaolin monks perform at Italy’s Spoleto Festival and at a number of American venues.
While spiritualism may have taken a backseat of late, the exploits of monks with iron fists and peaceful demeanors live on in the hearts of boys who practice kung fu both day and night and dream of Jackie Chan.