Newsletter... 6-6-02

Shaolin Temple, hometown of Chinese Kongfu

By Tian Xiuzhen, Shanghai Star. 2002-06-06

Amazed at Jet Li's performance? Zhengzhou in Henan Province reveals the origins of Chinese Buddhism and martial arts A suspension bridge between high mountains.

PEOPLE, native or foreign, are easily amazed by Chinese Kungfu performed by Jet Li, a film star now active in Hollywood, or that is shown in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon".

Anyone interested in Kongfu has heard of Shaolin Temple (Shaolin Si), which is worshipped as the birth place of Kungfu.

Shaolin Temple, located on the south foot of Songshan Mountain (one of China's five most famous mountains), is 76 kilometres away from Zhengzhou, capital of Central China's Henan Province. Shaolin Temple

Origins of the myth

Founded in 496 during the period of the Northern Wei (386-534), the temple is full of history.

In 527, an Indian monk, Bodhidarma (known to the Chinese as Da Mo), founded the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, which is known as Chen (or Zen).

He stayed there till his death in 535, and the temple has become the centre of Chinese Buddhism. Pagoda forest

It is said that Da Mo, seeing monks becoming fat and lazy from long hours sitting in meditation, came up with the idea of walking meditation, which imitated the natural motions of animals and birds. Eventually, the imitation evolved into a form of unarmed combat or martial arts, which is known as Kungfu.

Kongfu worship

Unlike other temples such as Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou or Ta'er Temple in Qinghai, Shaolin Temple enjoyed much fewer worshipers with burning incense.

I was told that this was because people had shifted their expectations from meditation to physical martial arts practicing.

The layout of the temple is quite similar to other Chinese Buddhist temples. However, there are some differences. One of these variations is the numerous stone steles that line the main roads of the temple on which there have been left important records.

On the high stele in front of the Bell Building, people can see the carved autograph of Li Shimin, a Tang Dynasty (618-907) emperor.

Li granted the temple the status of "No.1 temple on earth", and gave the monks a high rank, after 13 martial monks saved him from the enemy - this is the plot of the movie "Shaolin Temple".

Afterwards, the temple became famous and attracted a lot of lay people to study Kungfu. In other areas of China, other schools were established with names such as Emei Shaolin and Guangdong Shaolin.

At present special organizations for imparting Shaolin Kungfu have been set up in more than 10 countries including the US, Holland, France, Belgium, Italy, Singapore, and Switzerland.

People from more than 30 countries and regions have come to the Shaolin Temple to receive Kungfu training. And delegations of Shaolin monks have visited many countries for cultural exchanges in Kung Fu.

Quietly wandering in the temple, you are sure to learn more about Shaolin Kungfu while listening to the monks practicing in the yard.

But to watch their performances, you have to pay 20 yuan ($2.5). For the price of a very small donation, you can beat the big bell by the side of Bell Building nine times as the most sincere and effective prayer for blessings.

Pagoda forest

In another part of the temple, you can see the unique "Forest of Dagobas" (Pagoda Forest), with its 243 stupas or dagobas each containing the remains of an abbot from the Shaolin Monastery.

They were built of either stone or brick. The first stupa at this site was built in 791 and the last in 1803. They range from seven stories (14.6 metres) to just a metre in height with many different styles.

Against the deep and far mountains, this forest looks more like a holy place. But most of the trees are badly weather beaten and require maintenance.

Longmen Grottos

Somethings can be maintained, but not history. In past centuries, the temple has suffered repeated sackings as Shaolin monks liked to right wrongs. The most recent round of destructive visits was in 1928 by a local warlord, and then again in the early 1970s by bands of Red Guards during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

The temple is not alone. Longmen Grottoes, which enjoy the same fame as Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang of Gansu Province, make people choke as they see so many finely carved figures chopped headless.

Situated on the mountainside of the hills along the banks of the Yi River in the south of Luoyang, a city famous for its peonies, the grottoes have become a place for people to rethink their lives and contemplate what they should leave to future generations.

The carving of Buddha, which is said to have originated in India, began in 494 also during Emperor Xiaowen's reign, when the capital was moved from Datong in Shanxi Province where Yungang Grottoes are located to Luoyang.

The work continued over the next seven dynasties. Now there are more than 2,300 caves and niches, 10,000 Buddhas, 2,800 inscriptions, and 80 pagodas.

Listed as one of the world's unique cultural heritage sites, these caves were entirely hollowed out by man and have suffered a great deal of deterioration due to natural causes and through acts of vandalism, particularly by antiquarians collecting for museums and private collections before 1949. Many precious pieces were removed and are now on display at well-known museums around the world.

Along the steep hill, you can easily see visitors bemoaning the desecration of many splendid vivid figures.

The central figure is a huge Buddha which is believed to be Vairocana, the supreme, omnipresent divinity. It is almost 60 feet tall. The head alone is about 15 feet high and the ears are about 7 feet long.

The facial expression conveys a sense of peace and tranquillity, particularly in the eyes. It is said that it was modeled after the face of the Empress Wu Zetian of the Zhou Dynasty.

On either side of the Buddha stands the two disciples Kasyapa and Ananda and two Bodhisattvas with crowns. On the side walls are a Celestial Guardian and a defender of Buddha.

The guardian on the north wall holds a pagoda in his right hand and with his left foot is trampling an evil spirit. He wears an angry expression with a frowning brow.

Travel tips

There are frequent trains from Shanghai to Zhengzhou where you can take a bus or taxi to sightseeing spots. Recommended trains are K282, which runs between 7:48pm and 8:32am, (K376 which runs between 9:11pm to 9:35am or 1396 which runs from 8:48pm to 10:26am. For more information on trains, call (021) 6317-9090 ext 4.

For information on flights to Zhengzhou, call (021) 6268-3659