SHAOLIN TEMPLE, China -- Please wait, an assistant explains, the monk Shi Yongdi is parking the car. Shi, a ranking monk at the famous Shaolin Temple in the hills of central China, arrives in a ski jacket, blue turtleneck sweater and denim vest. In the midst of his recitation of the temple's 1,500-year-old history, his cell phone rings. Shaolin Temple is the wellspring of Zen Buddhism and home to the renowned "fighting monks" who inspired the 1970s television series Kung Fu. Today, the ancient religious site and surrounding village seem less a spiritual oasis than a kung fu carnival. Included in the temple's $5 entry ticket is admission to a nearby amusement- park simulation ride that jerks patrons about as they watch footage of a roller coaster, bumper cars and white-water rafting. Inside the temple, ceramic monk figurines holding daggers sell for $6. The cashier's desk at the restaurant doubles as a Buddhist shrine complete with incense urn, glass donation box and two kneelers. "What I see here is not what I thought I would see in Shaolin," said Gert-Jan von Kanel, 19, a Swiss Buddhist who studies Chinese kick boxing at a nearby private martial-arts school with about 5,000 other students. "It's too much for the tourists."
Shaolin's dual identity as Buddhist holy place and money machine says much about the economic pragmatism that rules China today and also about the romantic images some foreigners still hold about a nation whose mystery continues to slip away. For centuries, outsiders saw the Middle Kingdom as an exotic, inscrutable land of silk, tea, concubines and emperors. Today, much of what has made China distinctive -- both good and bad -- is being swallowed up in the frenetic drive toward modernization, Westernization and wealth. The Shaolin Temple owes its fame less to history -- the monks are said to have rescued a Tang Dynasty prince from rebels in A.D. 621 and helped save the empire -- than to a 1980 Hong Kong movie of the same name that inspired a generation of Chinese martial artists. Students come to Shaolin from all over the world. Those hoping to find monks like Kung Fu's fictional "Kwai Chang Caine," who traversed the American West righting wrongs with his fists and feet, are in for disappointment. Shi has an office inside the temple, a large complex of pavilions and courtyards that is home to more than 70 monks and sits at the foot of Song Mountain in Henan province. A warlord burned the temple nearly to the ground in 1928, and Red Guards shut it down during the Cultural Revolution. Today, workers walk along the tile rooftops, brushing away leaves and keeping up the grounds.
Shi, 34, oversees a school of more than 400 students on the other side of the valley. When not practicing martial arts, the students study Chinese, math or a foreign language, but not Buddhism. A financier from coastal Fujian province has invested $600,000 to build a new facility. Each room will have a telephone and a television, said the business manager, Liu Tongliang. He said that some students from poor families can study tuition-free. Shi's school is one of more than 20 that line the road leading to the temple. On frigid winter days, thousands of Chinese youths in sweat suits crowd brick courtyards and terraced hillsides to practice martial arts. Periodically yelling in unison, the students train with aluminum swords, pikes and bare hands. During class, they kick, spin, swivel, and punch the air with their fists. Students are drawn to the area around the temple by the famous film and popular kung fu novels that celebrate Shaolin. Many study for years in hopes of earning a college scholarship that will lift them out of rural poverty. As a child, Pan Zhiqiang marveled at movies in which monks jumped so high that they appeared to fly. But kung fu -- let alone the leaps -- is "much harder than it looks in the movies," he said. Pan, 19, who says he studies martial arts to preserve Chinese culture, plans to return home to south China's Guizhou province, perhaps to work as a security guard. Four years of room, board and tuition will cost more than $3,600 -- a huge sum by rural Chinese standards. "My parents think it's a waste of time, money and energy," Pan said. But "I want to learn more before I work." Nearly 15 centuries ago, an Indian monk named Bodhidharma came to Shaolin and began teaching a form of Buddhism that became known as Zen. Depending on the legend, the monks developed their unique style of martial arts either to unwind after hours of motionless meditation or to fend off robbers. Over time, they developed remarkable -- or in some cases seemingly remarkable -- feats that appear more akin to magic than combat. Books on Shaolin-style martial arts feature photos of people standing on their heads without using their hands and running along the sides of walls in apparent defiance of gravity. Given Shaolin's worldly past, its entrepreneurial present is perhaps understandable. A large landholder in earlier times, the temple provoked rebellion by heavily taxing peasants. The monks responded by beating them up. Today, more than a million people visit the temple annually, Shi said. They bring money for trinkets, souvenirs and donations. After placing his cell phone back in his pocket, Shi explained that he had to attend to business and bid his guests farewell. "Come visit our poor life again," he said.