With all the mystique of the Shaolin Temple and the Monks, they have certainly come out of hiding and asserted their legal rights. And why not adapt in this present society? Well this is what is going on right now.
CHINESE MARTIAL ARTS MASTERS SHARE THEIR SKILLS AND HISTORY
By Josh B. Wardrop
Some people hear the word monk and imagine a serene, sedate bald fellow, dressed in a plain brown robe and likely adhering to a vow of silence.
It’s safe to presume, though, that just 5 minutes of watching two dozen Shaolin monks dressed in multicolored robes, breaking iron bars over their heads and defying the laws of physics would be enough to shatter that particular image. That’s precisely the type of spectacle that British producer Steve Nolan has been bringing to international audiences for three years with Shaolin Wheel of Life, a traveling show combining martial arts, theater and Chinese history which dids its way into Boston’s Berklee Performance Center this weekend.
It started in 1999, when a representative from the Shaolin Temple showed up in England, looking to book the Royal Albert Hall for a kung fu exhibition, said Nolan from the London offices os his company, Chromatic Productions. The Abbot of the Temple wanted to raise money for their educational programs, and the Henan Province in China was interested in starting a cultural exchange.
Nolan, a veteran producer, lighting and stage designer who’d worked on everything from royal galas to Spice Girls concert films to 1985’s massive Live Aid concerts was brought in to help put the show together. He quickly realized that a mere martial arts display was simply the tip of a most fascinating iceberg.
This temple has been around for 1,500 years, said Nolan. It was the birthplace of dung fu. It occurred to me that a simple dung fu demonstration would bring out the martial arts enthusiasts, but that it wouldn’t explain the major contributions the Shaolin monks had made – the history of these amazing men.
I thought that if we made it more theatrical – if we brought in authentic costumes, lighting, music – we could put together a show that explained the culture and the history of the monks and of the Shaolin Temple. I thought it would be far more informative, and much more of a cultural exchange, he said.
Within 10 days, Nolan was on a plane to China – only the first leg of his journey to witness the fantastic abilities of the Shaolin monks in person. The trip culminated in a 3 ½ hour extremely bumpy bus ride up a mountain road, laughed Nolan. And, the last few miles, I was amazed to see a flood of souvenir shops selling everything you could imagine associated with the monks and martial arts.
What Nolan found at the top of the mountain was a temple that had, over the centuries, become a massive training academy for the martial arts. They have up to 50,000 students training there, said Nolan. They’re like boarding schools, run by these monks and masters. They study academic subjects as they learn the art of kung fu.
During his visit, Nolan learned the story behind the Shaolin Temple, and the birth of the basic tenets and principles of kung fu – the story that would become the basic plot of Wheel of Life. The story is basically the tale of The Five Ancestors in Chinese history. As the story goes, a group of Shaolin monks, and the five young boys they are teaching, are invited to the emperor’s palace, said Nolan. There, they are asked to help defend the Emperor against an invading warlord. The monks agree, and they defeat the warlord.
According to the legend, the emperor then asked the monks to stay on as his permanent protectors, but, being religious men of peace, they declined. In his rage, the emperor incapacitated the monks with poisoned incense, then slaughtered them all. Only the five boys survived, and they scattered across China, where they gradually began teaching the Buddhist faith and the techniques of kung fu to their own students.
The Wheel of Life is the symbol that the Buddhists believe in – a symbol of how life is constantly revolving, said Nolan. And, the way the boys go from students to teachers is an example of that.
The touring show, Shaolin Wheel of Life, features 25 soldier monks from the Shaolin Temple – most of whom are 25 and younger – acting out this story and displaying kung fu and t’ai chi techniques, as well as some amazing acrobatic moves comparable with the special effects of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Only this time, it’s all real.
I’m still blown away by the things these men can do, said Nolan. Breaking iron bars, balancing on spear points…they are balletic athletes on par with Olympic gymnasts. Our oldest monk is 33 – he does a two-fingered handstand, and he firmly believes that he’ll eventually be able to do it on one finger.
Nolan believes that it’s the amazing will and fortitude of the monks that provides the best message to the audiences who see Wheel of Life. The monks believe that if you train relentlessly, and build up you confidence, then nothing is impossible, he said. If people learn anything from this show – in addition to a lot about the culture and history of China – it’s that we all set parameters on our abilities, which can be broken down with the proper belief in ourselves.
For Nolan, a veteran of the music industry, one burning question remains. What’s more difficult to coordinate – a tour involving Shaolin monks from the mountains of the Henan Province or a one-time video shoot with Janet Jackson?
It’s a whole different experience, laughed Nolan. But it’s a lot easier to work with 25 monks than with a four- piece rock band. There’s very few demands, and none of the egos. All we need to worry about is keeping the monks fed – since they burn off so much energy, they eat a tremendous amount. But, as long as we stock up on food when we pass a Chinese supermarket, everything’s fine.
Well their was a little humor in this article, but the message is clear that there is no free lunch in the Martial Arts today. Monetary considerations require self protection and the generation of funds.
If you work hard and establish something it should be no shame to commercialize what you have inherited, earned or are in possession of especially if your efforts help others in the long run, IMHO