Kung fu pupil beaten to death by tutor

By Damien McElroy in Beijing

3-21-00

THE beating to death of a pupil by a master at a martial arts school linked to the Shaolin Temple - the birthplace of kung fu - has shocked China. The incident has prompted calls for a clamp on the rapid spread of such schools, and has intensified a national debate over the use of force by Chinese teachers. At any one time, about 15,000 students are in training at schools associated with the renowned temple on remote Mount Song, in central China's Henan province. Most Chinese are aware that the route to enlightenment in Zen Buddhism's oldest martial art is harsh and exacting. However, the death of Tang Lingyong, 14, has sparked anger.

The boy was washing his clothes in a school courtyard when he became involved in a row with a tutor leading a class through a routine. The teacher, Master Shi, felt that the teenager was impinging on the space allotted for his lesson. Tang began to move away at Master Shi's request, but his sullen attitude angered the teacher. Tang was summoned back to explain his behaviour. When he refused to answer Master Shi's questions, the teacher became enraged at his lack of respect and started raining blows on his chest. The boy fell to the ground unconscious and later died. Master Shi has been arrested, and some observers believe that he may face the death penalty.

Reports of the incident have led to public calls for the authorities to curb the proliferation of martial arts schools affiliated to the temple. One practitioner, Brother Hongxing, said: "Now that one person has been beaten to death and another is likely to be shot, you can't say that this is a good thing. The education commission should carry out healthy martial arts activities in primary, middle and high schools and shut up all private martial arts schools." In the wake of Tang's death, the senior Shaolin monks have come under fire for encouraging the spread of schools around the monastery in the rush to cash in on its illustrious reputation. Shaolin's 1,500-year-old tradition has its roots in the fighting techniques developed to defend the temple from heathen invaders. Today, kung fu has become big business and the fighting monks are sought after as performance artists, bodyguards and film extras.

The monks' new slogan is "Make the temple feed the temple". There is concern, however, that the expansion is taking place without safeguards to protect novices. "These schools," declared Brother Hongxing, "are training guard dogs for wealthy people, bit-part actors who make their living by playing small roles in poor-quality television series, and hooligans who bully villagers." While abbots at the monastery have expressed regret over the excesses of their disciples, they have refused to cut the numbers of youngsters enrolled in its schools.

Shaolin-trained experts stage performances around the world, including a recent tour of Britain. The Shaolin industry will get even bigger if one Hong Kong businessman has his way. Carl Ching wants to develop replica temples in Hong Kong and Los Angeles that would bring monks from China to stage performances and teach classes. The development, promises Mr Ching, will be bigger than Disneyland. Meanwhile, the death at Shaolin has fuelled a Chinese debate over the teaching profession's reliance on physical discipline to maintain order among the spoilt and increasingly insolent "Little Emperors" - products of the one-child policy - now passing through school. An editorial in the Workers' Daily newspaper last week lambasted parents and teachers who believe that "hitting and kicking can get good test scores".

The pressure for results in China's underfunded education system is intense. Only three per cent of students leaving secondary school find a college place. However, academic pressure alone cannot explain the cruelty that is sometimes found in China's schools. Recent reports have revealed that one boy was maimed when a tutor used a needle to scar the Chinese character for "thief" on his cheek. In another incident, a child was beaten to death for failing to clean a lavatory to his teacher's satisfaction.

Kungfoolss, Scourge of the theory-based stylists, Most Feared man at Mcdojo.com, and the Preeminent Force in the martial arts political arena

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