More Martial Monks!

By Gene Ching

Shi De Shan and Shi Xing Hao, Two Shaolin Temple Monks, Begin Teaching in America
Flashback! A lone Chinese drifter walks into a dusty saloon in the Old West and asks for some water. When the local cowboys don't like his look, things get ugly and he is forced to defend himself with a graceful flurry of violence. Those "John Wayne" haymakers are no match for that Chinaman's strange Kung Fu fighting techniques. Certainly you remember this scene. It was how America was introduced to its first "Shaolin monk" - Kwai Chang Caine in the 1970's show Kung Fu. But that was all TV make-believe. After all, why would a Shaolin Monk warrior wind up in the Wild, Wild West?

Well, truth can be stranger than fiction. In 1998, a band of authentic Shaolin Temple Monks of China really made the journey to the West. In case you missed it, this was the largest public demonstration tour of the Shaolin Temple Monks to the United States so far. This tour was an overwhelming success, playing to sold-out theaters across the nation, and even catching the eye of pop-culture with appearances on the Tonight Show and in Rolling Stone. As if that wasn't enough, two Shaolin Temple Monks remained after that tour to spread the sacred teachings of Shaolin to the United States. They have been here every since, and their new temple away from the temple is in (of all places) Houston, Texas. Now, the Wild, Wild West has the greatest single repository of Shaolin Kung Fu outside of China. It is the only institution with two senior Shaolin Temple Monks under the same roof.

A Tale of Two Monks
America's two new monks are 31st generation Shaolin Temple Monk Shi De Shan and 32nd generation Shaolin Temple Monk Shi Xing Hao, and their true-life stories reveal a penetrating view of the Shaolin Temple that is far more extraordinary than any Kwai Chang Caine episode. However, to fully appreciate their personal accounts, it is necessary to know something about of the recent history of China. While the Kung Fu TV show captivated the American imagination with its fantasies of Chinese mysticism and martial arts, the real Shaolin Temple was in turmoil. Like all of the elder generation Shaolin Temple Monks, the lives of Shi De Shan and Shi Xing Hao were heavily influenced by this difficult period. It was the Cultural Revolution, the massive re-organizational movement that turned China's economy and social mores upside down. Five thousand years of Chinese culture faced virtual annihilation. As the blossom of Chinese culture, the historic Shaolin Temple was about to be pulled up by its roots.

Under the new definitions imposed by the government, the Shaolin Temple was declared a capitalist institution, and was forced to shut down. All of the monks were ordered to go back to their former homes. Those lacking relatives that would take them back in became homeless. During this upheaval, the senior monks were afraid that Shaolin Temple's incomparable Kung Fu skills would be lost. In an effort to preserve their precious art, many of the monks moved to the small towns and villages located in the mountainous areas around the Temple and secretly began teaching students. Some of the areas where the monks carried on their clandestine teaching included Chankang, Dengfeng Town, Donchun Town, Mugo Village, Dachiden Town (which incorporates Lotoi Village, Lei Village and Sutoncao Village), Donchinden Kuchun Village, Shiman Likon Village, Shida Village, Wangshan Village, Beecha Village, Kaochan Village, Enshi Town, and Shanchaden Village. Their intention was to keep the art of Shaolin Kung Fu alive covertly to avoid government oppression.

Shi De Shan was born in Jiangsu Province in 1966, the same year the Cultural Revolution began. His parents gave him the name Wan Shan Qing. As a child, his greatest desire was to study Kung Fu. After hearing many tales about the Shaolin Temple from one of his father's friends, he dreamed of becoming a Shaolin Monk, but his parents did not understand and offered little support. Few parents wish their child to enter monastic life, especially during this time of persecution. Remarkably, his father's friend had heard the stories directly from Yang Shao Bao, the son of one of the evicted Shaolin monks. On a historical note, during this period many Buddhist monks were compelled to reenter secular society, get married and have children. The alternative was death. And yet, the spirit of Shaolin is transmitted in mysterious ways. In this instance, the son of one of these forced marriages provided the seed of inspiration for another future monk to sprout.

Eight years later, in faraway Fushun City, Liaoning Province, Shi Xing Hao was born. His given birth name (or secular name) is Cheng Hao. His father believed in the traditional values of Chinese culture known as "Wen Wu." Wen denotes scholarly pursuits and Wu means martial arts. Shi Xing Hao's education in the martial art was fully supported by his family, and he began his training in Wushu and Kung Fu at age six. There, he demonstrated a natural ability, excelling in Chang Quan (long fist) and perfecting his four major weapons (staff, spear, sword and broadsword) at an early age. He was also encouraged by his father to cultivate Wen, so he studied Chan Buddhism. It was as if his path toward monkhood was sown from birth.

Meanwhile, at the young age of thirteen, Shi De Shan left home. He traveled by himself, a journey of over 1,000 km, to Henan Province, determined to study Shaolin Temple Kung Fu. During that time, most of the monks had left the area or were still underground, but he did not give up hope. He searched everywhere for word of the Shaolin monks. Finally his perseverance paid off. He made contact with two of the former monks who were still teaching secretly and they agreed to take him on as a student. His first teacher was Master Zhang Shu Chi, who became leader of the martial arts group of the Shaolin monks in 1970. His other teacher was Master Fu Ji Chang, who became nationally famous as a martial arts master in 1979.

By 1983, the political climate had changed in China, and the Shaolin Temple was allowed to reopen. Most of the former monks returned to the Temple. In 1985, Master Fu Ji Chang formally added Shi De Shan's name to the official list of Shaolin monks. Master Shi Su Yuen, a 30th generation Shaolin Temple Monk, accepted him as a disciple. Under Shi Su Yuen, he learned both internal and external styles, including Shaolin forms and weapons, and excelled in qigong and sparring. His Shaolin name "Shan" means "mountain." Inspired by the first Tang emperor and an early Shaolin benefactor, Li Shin Men, Shi De Shan has used his renowned skills at free fighting to manage police in Luoyang, near Shaolin Temple.

Shi De Shan is a firm believer in the ancient Chinese saying "more sweat, less blood." This means that the more you train in times of peace, the less you bleed in times of war. His Shaolin philosophy is to strengthen the body to protect the weak, help those in need and defend the country. Shi De Shan believes that if everyone were of this mind, it would be a step towards world peace.

Shi Xing Hao began his training at Shaolin Temple in 1985. By then, the restoration of the Temple was well underway. Shi Xing Hao was fortunate enough be accepted as a student by two 31st generation Shaolin Temple Monks. Master Shi De Jun instructed him on martial arts while Master Shi De Ren taught him Chan Buddhism. In 1986, Zhengzhou City officials recommended him for full scholarship study at Shaolin Temple and by 1988, Shi Xing Hao received a 32nd generation disciple degree from Shaolin Temple. His Shaolin name "Hao" means "great," "grand" or "vast." Shi Xing Hao's extraordinary martial skill has brought him further recognition with some appearances in a few martial arts movies, notably USA Shaolin (USA, 1991), Grand Shaolin (China, 1992) and Heaven Wolf (Taiwan, 1993). He was even featured in an unprecedented photo book Shaolin Warrior's Motion like the Tigers, which focused on only three of the warrior monks.

Shi Xing Hao's family must be proud of his achievement. To become a Shaolin Monk is the dream of every martial artist, and he would not trade this honor for secular life at all. His philosophy is contained in simple advice to aspiring martial artists - Choose the right teacher, then train continuously, without interruption. Remember to practice Wushu, never feel pain, practice Kung Fu, never lose one day. All martial artists must have Wu De (martial morals), respect teachers and help the weak.

In 1988 the Shaolin Wushu Guan was established as a joint project under the leaders of Henan Province, Dengfeng City, and Songshan Shaolin Temple. The Wushu Guan is 700 meters east of the Temple itself and is the largest complex devoted solely to the study of martial arts in China, possibly the world. The purpose of this complex is to provide a place where people from around the world who are interested in the martial arts can come to learn and share their knowledge with each other.

Today, Shaolin Temple is the center of a bustling martial community that sees tens of thousands of students and over two million tourists annually. Although Shaolin Temple experienced this difficult time of repression, its magnificent Kung Fu was not lost. In fact, just as the phoenix is reborn from the flames, Shaolin skills have grown even stronger. The indestructible spirit of Shaolin Kung Fu has prevailed.

Monks on a Mission
Now more than ever, the Shaolin Temple is determined to spread the awareness of Shaolin Kung Fu throughout the world. To help accomplish this, Shaolin Temple Kung Fu Monks and novices have been sent on goodwill demonstration tours all across the globe. So far, they have performed in many countries including Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Italy, Sweden, France, Canada and the United States. The performances have been very well received in every country they visited. In the wake of these tours, Shaolin Temple has been sending several of its best masters to follow up by opening schools dedicated to teaching Shaolin Kung Fu in these countries. So far, they have established six branches outside of China: Hungary, Austria, Sweden, Holland, Japan and the United States. Both Shi De Shan and Shi Xing Hao were performing members of the 1998 delegation to America and remained to teach here. At present there are only three other Masters sent from the Shaolin Temple who have settled in the United States. They are Shi Xing En in San Francisco, and Shi Guo Lin and Shi Yan Ming in New York.

Shi De Shan and Shi Xing Hao are resolute in their task of bringing Shaolin to America. As they see it, all the Shaolin monks outside of China are doing the groundwork in preparation for more monks to come over. However, much depends on their martial monk brothers back in China. Both monks feel it is their responsibility to encourage more monks to come, but given the vast interest of Americans, even if all the monks came, there still would not be enough. They see themselves as some of the first seeds of Shaolin, scattered in a foreign soil, sown with hard work and discipline. And soon, hopefully, the flower of Shaolin will bloom magnificently. The newly transplanted monks agree that each day they can stay in America is one more day they have to spread Shaolin teachings. Quick to quote ancient wisdom, Shi Xing Hao recites, "Do one day monk, Hit one day bell." This means to try your best everyday. With this philosophy, it is natural that Shaolin will develop in accordance with the times, both at home and abroad.

Neither monk is sure when they might return to their beloved China. Shi De Shan views himself and his martial brother as pioneers. He is eager to return and share his experiences with the other monks in hopes that they might gain some insight about how to approach teaching in another country. Shi Xing Hao says that he will go back when he has made a great contribution to Shaolin. He feels that many Americans do not really understand Shaolin, and he wants to show them what is real. It is the opinion of these monks that the media easily influences the Western martial world, but this just shows the surface. Many miss the deeper meaning. For example, while something like Tae Bo is aerobic, it is neither Kung Fu nor Wushu. It does not capture to true spirit of the Chinese martial arts.

Here, the two monks make a point to clarify the nature of Kung Fu versus Wushu in contemporary Chinese martial arts and Shaolin's current curriculum. According to the monks, Kung Fu is an ancient art to protect the country and defend against enemies. True Kung Fu cannot be performance. "Killing" martial arts cannot be shown to the public. Modern times have created Wushu, which is performance. Wushu still has defense skills, but they are made more flowery, transforming it into a beautiful art. Combining high-level basic skills with continuous routines can express the highest level of the art. Wushu is a beautiful expression of martial skill that resonates with everyone, even non-martial artists, because it is so spectacular and entertaining. It emphasizes art and spirit. A powerful Wushu champion like Jet Li combines both and shows great spirit. Now, both traditional Kung Fu and modern Wushu are important aspects of Shaolin, just as sharing these enlightening skills outside China is vital to the spread of the Shaolin way.

Today, the Shaolin Temple is world-renowned. No longer are its skills reserved for a select few. It has opened its doors to students of every nation, paving the way for a bright and productive future with its many disciples, now and in the future. As more Shaolin Temple Monks spread across the globe, we all are enriched by the profound martial heritage that is Shaolin Kung Fu. But as always, the essential element of the Shaolin Temple remains the same - the spirit of the Shaolin masters, who from generation to generation have sacrificed so much and dedicated their lives to create a smoother road for their students.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 1999 .

About Gene Ching :
The author would like to acknowledge Annie Tung and Madonna St. Clair for their assistance with this article.

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