The recent release of Kung Fu Panda 3 gave me the idea to write this post about the Shaolin Monastery/Temple in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China. The temple is situated in the forests of Shaoshi Mountain, one of the seven mountains in the Song mountains range.
It is a Buddhist Temple and Monastery famed as being the birthplace of the martial art of Kung Fu and Chan Buddhism.
The first Shaolin Monastery abbot was Batuo who travelled from India in 464 AD to spread Buddhist teachings. So the temple site itself is over 1,500 years old.
The Shaolin Temple is most commonly known in popular culture from the 1982 movie of the same name starring Jet Li in his first film role. If you have a spare 2 hours and feel like watching it on Youtube here it is, replete with hideous English dubbing:
Everybody was kung-fu fighting – hah!
Studies suggest that listening to this song whilst reading this post will improve your overall enjoyment by at least 30%. So go on, press play. Pls ignore obvious lip syncing, you’re supposed to be reading the post anyway.
Yes, their kicks really were as fast as lightning. The Kung Fu monks are strong and agile. They go through their paces with balances, jumps and the trusty throw a needle through a pane of glass trick.
The show relied heavily on audience participation which consisted of putting unwitting people up in challenges against a Shaolin monk. As you would expect, all the narration was in Mandarin. All up it went for about 45 minutes, probably 15 minutes longer than it should have.
The Pagoda Forest is home to around 250 stone and brick tomb pagodas that were built from 791 AD and through five subsequent Chinese dynasties. It is now a UN Heritage listed site.
Off the beaten path
The Shaolin Temple is a bit further afield of the commonly worn tourist path in central and eastern China. China has its own version of India’s Golden Triangle, with most tourists doing the Beijing – Xi’an – Shanghai route. That covers off the big draw cards in:
The Great Wall, Tianmen Square, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Forbidden City, City Hutongs
Terracotta Warriors, Wild Goose Pagoda, Bell Tower of Xi’an, City wall of Xi’an, Moslem Street (end of Silk Road)
The modern China – with breathtaking skyscrapers and the neon lights of Pudong.
Apart from the others in the tour group, the only other visitors to the Temple that day were Chinese domestic tourists which is an incredibly booming tourism sector. It’s a world away from the push for personal space you have to make with the hoards of selfie stick toting westerners you get at The Great Wall. You actually feel like you are seeing something not many people have.
It is a shame that it has the feel of a theme park in some parts, with mandatory exits through giant souvenir shops. Around the temple and stupor forest you can get away from the commercialism.
Training young warriors
The grounds are also home to the Shaolin Kung Fu Academy for children and teenagers. It is a disciplinary/military style school favoured by parents who often send their wayward city children here for several years at a time. It claims to play host to 35,000 students at any given time. Watch this mind boggling video from National Geographic. Honestly, the students practicing in the field looks like CGI effects from a Michael Bay movie.
One hump or two?
I have a slight obsession with Bactrian camels (the two humped variety). I’d never seen one in real life before this second trip to China. The first sighting was two at the Beijing Zoo. They were molting a lot and looked in poor condition as seen from their sagging humps.
At the Shaolin Temple there was a Bactrian Camel being used for paid photo opportunities. It looked in better nick and for the purpose of my life I will call this a ‘wild Bactrian’ sighting, as it was tethered but not behind bars. Bactrian Camels are critically endangered. If only we brought a few to Australia and let them run havoc like what happened with the Dromedary Camel (which are now feral) – we would ensure their survival! Less than 1,000 remain in the wild. In contrast the Aussie feral camel has gotten to around 1,000,000 in number at times before culls have reduced the number to a third of this figure.
This is the perfect time to segue to Mustafa the Wise Camel TM. I made him (drew and painted) from a huge cardboard box for a local school christmas pageant. He even spat water on the kids via a water gun attached to the back of his head. He was the breakout character and stole the show away from the students acting in it (sorry kids). Mustafa is now pimped out for free photoshoots and annual Christmas pageants in the local area. Majestic.
Faster than a speeding bullet (ok, not quite)
Getting to Shaolin would probably be difficult by your own means. I was part of an organised tour so it was a bullet train from Xi’an to Luoyang, then a bus to Shaolin. Luoyang is home to the Longman grottoes – amazing Buddhist sculptures carved into the cliffside and the topic of a future post. I was more impressed by them than the Terracotta Warriors. It was far less touristy and its mindboggling how the detailed work was done in only 30 years.
I made a hyperlapse video of part of the bullet train journey from X’ian to Luoyang that will seriously hurt your eyes but looks impressive nonetheless:
The outside world whizs past at a frightening speed. The train topped out at 301km/h which is slow compared to the 436km/h reached on the Shanghai airport bullet train. This time around I made sure to travel in one of the 2 x 1 hour windows of the day that the train reached top speed. My other time in Shanghai, 4 years prior, the train ‘only’ reached 318km/h. With two trains passing each other in opposite directions at 436km/h – the rush of air hits the train like a shockwave.
There is talk of a Shaolin Temple complex being built in Shoalhaven Australia which is a couple of hours south of Sydney. It might be more convenient to get to this if and when built, even if it is a little less authentic.
Click for high res images: