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slideyfoot
12/05/2005 12:08pm,
Kung fu abbot masters the Zen of marketing
Ching-Ching Ni, Chicago Tribune, 5th December 2005

Shi Yongxin wears a bright yellow robe and heavy prayer beads and lives in an ancient shrine high up in the mountains of central China.

Yet he spends a lot of his time traveling in a chauffeur-driven jeep, jet-setting around the world and hobnobbing with Hollywood types.

No wonder some people call him a CEO in a monk's robe.

As abbot of the world-famous Shaolin Temple, the holy land of kung fu, Shi indeed plays multiple roles. His latest is executive producer of a $25 million movie about the life and times of the legendary fighting monks set to hit theaters in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He also has a new reality TV project in the works, a kind of "American Idol" for kung fu masters.

To critics, Shi's lifestyle and projects are proof of how far the Shaolin Temple has strayed from its roots in an increasingly commercial society. But its controversial abbot says it's no crime to keep up with the times in order to preserve the past.

"Movies, TV shows, the Internet--these are all modern communication tools," said Shi, sitting in his office in the Shaolin Temple as aides with shaved heads buzzed around arranging his busy schedule on their cell phones. "We are monks living in a new era. We should take advantage of these technologies and use them to serve Buddhism and traditional culture."

Shi, 40, is one of the youngest leaders in the history of the 1,500-year-old shrine. He has presided over some of the boldest moves at the birthplace of Zen Buddhism.

Among his innovations were setting up the country's first temple-based Web site in 1996, when few people in China had ever heard of the Internet. The next online move was more of a head-turner: He revealed some fighting sequences previously considered top secrets, passed only to true disciples.

Shi opened the doors of Shaolin even wider by sending cloistered monks all over the world to perform and promote the Shaolin Temple's Zen-inspired martial arts.

He knew physical prowess was not enough. He set up a corporation to defend the temple's "brand name." He was also among the first to send yellow-robed monks to MBA courses.

Martial-arts monks do Vegas?

Almost no idea seems too far-fetched. He created a broadcasting company enabling the temple to produce film projects and oversee the selection of scripts and stars. He has been contemplating the possibility of taking his martial-arts disciples to the musical stages of Las Vegas.

In many ways, the Shaolin Temple is riding the wave of a Buddhist revival in China. Thanks to the country's growing wealthy class and yearning for spirituality, people are increasingly turning to religion and opening their wallets to show their faith.

Despite the fact that Communist China is officially atheist, it is home to an estimated 100 million believers of all faiths. Although hard to quantify, many are thought to be followers of traditional faiths such as Buddhism and Taoism, while an increasing number are converts to Christianity.

When Shi arrived in 1981 at the Shaolin Temple, in the hills of the Song Mountains in central China's Henan province, only a shell of its former glory remained. Where once 2,000 monks lived on an estate that stretched for miles, just 12 elderly monks subsisted on farming a tiny plot of land and keeping a low profile reading scriptures and practicing kung fu.

Then came "Shaolin Temple," a 1982 film that was the first Hong Kong kung fu film to be shot at the actual Shaolin Temple. Its star was a then-unknown martial artist, Jet Li. It launched his acting career and handed international acclaim to a dilapidated monastery.

"That movie turned out to be a great advertisement for the Shaolin Temple," Shi said.

Pagoda like `ancient billboard'

He has no qualms about capitalizing on the temple's fame. Buddhism has always been on the cutting edge of innovation, he said. It was among the first to use paper for scriptures and scrolls. And advertising is not necessarily a bad word.

"What is a pagoda? It is like an ancient billboard," Shi said. "Buddhist statues too are a form of advertising. If we don't advertise, nobody would know about us."

The problem, however, is that the more people knew about the Shaolin Temple, the more they wanted a piece of its fortune.

As China moved toward a market-oriented economy, the Shaolin phenomenon to some people became just another big business opportunity. Products as wide-ranging as pork sausages and cars, martial-arts academies and anti-theft doors started to market themselves under the Shaolin name. In 1997, the temple made headlines by establishing a corporation and hiring lawyers to fight copyright violations.

The hardest thing for Shi remains fighting the perception that the Shaolin Temple is in it for the money.

"When some people see us doing things like brand protection and movies, they think there's something inappropriate," Shi said. "But what we are doing is in keeping with tradition. Monks from every dynasty had to adapt to the changes of society. We are monks. But we are also citizens."

Wounded Ronin
12/05/2005 10:23pm,
Yes, they should go to Las Vegas and do some act with the strippers.

katsu
12/07/2005 1:26pm,
i could just see that Vegas act...the monks...the yellow robes...perhaps they will sing that disco song about gong fu and fighting you know the one that gave an entire generation twisted perceptions of MA! LOL.