Shaolin Temple Then and Now

By Gene Ching with Gigi Oh

The original Shaolin Temple in Henan, China, as it stands today, is magnificent.  With the support of countless patrons, the Chinese government, and a steady stream of tourist income, Shaolin has been restored to a world class historic site with the glory and majesty that such a venerated institution deserves.  But it wasn’t always so.  With over 1500 years of history, Shaolin Temple has been ravaged many times, most recently in the late sixties by the Cultural Revolution.  Less than four decades ago, Shaolin Temple lay in ruins.

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping launched the Open Door Policy, reintroducing China to the world market after being closed off for nearly three decades under communist rule.  As part of the campaign, historic sites across the nation were restored.  It was an effort to honor their cultural legacies, as well as a ploy to grab foreign money through tourism.  Through this program Shaolin Temple began its first 20th century repairs, although the initial restoration effort leaned towards gaudy.

Master Ye Xinglie (葉興烈) remembers a time when Shaolin Temple was far less opulent.  “No statue, no gate, no Wushuguan,” recalls Ye in Mandarin and English.  “There were only dirt roads.  You could tell where they were because they were outlined with coal that spilled from the carts of passing miners.  There was only a small market where Tagou was located.”  Master Ye first went to Shaolin in 1987 when he was just a child.  He bore eyewitness to the dramatic rebirth of Shaolin Temple and stood among the first generation of Shaolin monks to be indoctrinated into the order in the wake of the Open Door Policy.

Shaolin in the Nineties

Today, there's a highway leading to Shaolin from Zhengzhou, the capital city of Henan province.  Zhengzhou has a population well over 9 million and is a traffic hub where the major railroads cross and home to an international airport.  The highway was built as one of many redevelopment projects launched by the Abbot, Venerable Shi Yongxin (释永信), after he was inaugurated in 1999.  The Abbot also had the earlier lackluster Temple reconstruction demolished so it could be rebuilt more accurately.  An archive of photos of Shaolin emerged from the Republic of China period (1912–1949) and the temple was rebuilt once more, but this time in accordance to photographic records.  Throughout the nineties, numerous privately-owned tourist traps arose around Shaolin, ironically looking to capitalize on the growing influx of travelers and pilgrims.  Much of it was tasteless, completely unrelated to Shaolin or her sacred legacy.  The Abbot orchestrated a forced relocation, cleaning up Shaolin enough that the region earned recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

However when Master Ye first arrived at Shaolin, prior to the big tourist boom, Venerable Shi Xingzheng (行正 1913–1987) was still Abbot.  “Master Yongxin was always his assistant,” he recalls, but Ye was only around 10 at the time.  Shi Xingzheng was the first officially inaugurated Abbot that Shaolin Temple had for three centuries.  Previous to him, Venerable Shi Haikuan (海宽 1639–1666) was Abbot, but details of his life are muddy.  There were several interim "honorary" Abbots in between, including some during the period between Xingheng's death and Yongxin's inauguration, but none were officially installed through the traditional Buddhist ceremonies of abbacy progression until Yongxin.  Like many of the present generation of Shaolin monks abroad, Master Ye took his disciple vows under Shi Yongxin and bears the Shaolin name Shi Yanxing (释延興).

Ye's roots were humble.  He was born to a farming family in Xi'an, the capital city of Shaanxi Province which has a current population of over 13.5 million.  Farmers want a martial artist in the family to protect their land.  Ye's brother was sent to learn martial arts and a neighbor's daughter was sent to Shaolin for the same reason, so his grandfather took him there too.  He had never left home before, so it was shocking and overwhelming.  “I remember seeing the ground.  The dirt had dark lines and light lines.  The light lines were practice lines, made from students practicing in a row.  Now it reminds me of the Shaolin saying, 'Fist strike one line (quan da yi tiao xian 拳打一条线).’”

He was enrolled in one of the surrounding private schools, the one that eventually became the biggest martial arts school in the world, the Shaolin Temple Tagou Martial Arts School (少林寺塔沟武术学校).  Tagou has claimed over 15,000 students enrolled at one time, but back in 1987 it was just starting to grow.  According to Ye, Tagou offered a three-year program then.  There were thirteen levels, level one being the highest.  Each level had about 30 to 50 students, so he guesses enrollment was around 450 to 650 at that time.  That was huge back then (it's huge for anywhere outside of China now) but nowhere near what it has become today.  Each level has been expanded so there are now many more classes on each level as well as divisions within each level like 1.2, 1.3 and so on.  Additionally, back in those days, all Tagou offered was martial arts.  Today, students get a complete regular education as well.

Ye remembers that there were only two schools near Shaolin Temple at that time, Tagou and the Shaolin Xiaolong Kung Fu School (少林寺释小龙武院).   The Shaolin Xiaolong Kung Fu School is overseen by Grandmaster Chen Tongshan (November+December 2008 cover master 陈同山), and his son, Shi Xiaolong (aka Aston Chen), was a child prodigy and movie star.  There were smaller private schools in Dengfeng, the nearest city to Shaolin Temple.  It lies at the foot of Song Mountain with a current population of 630,000.  The Shaolin Epo Wushu College (少林鹅坡武术专修院) was there under Grandmaster Liang Yiquan (梁以全).  Grandmaster Liang has held local government positions, so Epo enjoyed more government support than some of the other private schools back then.  Government support shifts from school to school, and while the schools must be politically correct, the communists generally aren't directly involved with daily management.

Ye's entrance exam for Tagou went so well that he started at level seven.  By his sophomore year, he had advanced to level one and made the school team, but not without hardship.  “I went home after my first year,” confesses Ye.  “I didn't want to go back but my dad forced me.  When I was home, I got into a three-day cold war with my dad.  He made me go back on January 15, but I told him I wasn't going to train.  I was just going to play.  But at Shaolin, you have to follow the curriculum or there's a rod for you.  Shaolin has a big rod, just for your butt.  There was no time to play.”


The Rise of Shaolin Wushu

In 1989, the Beijing Institute of Physical Education (北京体育学院 – now known as the Beijing Sports University) launched a program to promote Modern Wushu.  They selected top students from Tagou and Chen Tongshan's school for a special two-month training program in Dengfeng.  Ye was included in that first class and it was less than 20 students.  While many traditional Kung Fu practitioners disdain Modern Wushu, Ye was fascinated by it.  “It was different than quan da yi tiao – one line – it was flying all over the place.  The duration was different too.  Shaolin has short sets and long sets, usually structured in four lines, a front to back to front to back pattern.  Each form has its characteristic – once shown, that form is finished.  There are different names for the different forms.  Modern Wushu had time limits set for the competition.  When Modern Wushu first began, it was more traditional, but it was also more systematic and formal.  When learning nine-section whip, we began with basics like how to hold the weapon, while the traditional teaching method just went straight into the form.  There was more emphasis on safety, so with swords we were taught how to properly draw a sword from its scabbard.  At Shaolin, swords didn't even have scabbards, just bare blades.  There was more respect for the weapons.  The government wanted to bring Modern Wushu all over to promote it.  After participating in the program, we were tasked to share Modern Wushu with our schools and classmates.”

Another major development was the establishment of the Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Center (Shaolinsi Wushuguan 少林寺武术館).  Known colloquially to the Shaolin community as the Wushuguan, it was a 13,000-square-foot government-supported complex solely dedicated to promulgating Shaolin Kung Fu, the largest martial arts school in the world at the time.   It opened in 1988, staffed by Shaolin monk instructors.  In the early years, it was intimately connected with Shaolin Temple; however, they were two distinct facilities.  Even though it was called the Wushuguan, the bulk of the curriculum was traditional Shaolin Kung Fu.  Wushu literally means "martial art" in Chinese, so the term covers both traditional and modern within China.  There was some Modern Wushu influence because the Wushuguan team was required to put on performances, but the foundation remained traditional.  “When the Wushuguan was built, everyone dreamed of getting in there,” recalls Ye.

As a student of Tagou, Ye was restricted to campus.  But when his brother came to visit, he took the opportunity to sneak away and visit the Wushuguan with him.  “I remember peeking through a curtain and hitting my head on the glass,” says Ye nostalgically.  It was worth it, because the monk he saw in action became his future coach, Shaolin Monk Shi Decheng (July+August 2004 cover master 德成).  “I still remember how impressive Shi Decheng's Ditangquan (ground boxing 地趟拳) was.  My brother asked me when I was going to get into the Wushuguan.  I said, 'I can't even find the door.'”

But fate smiled on Master Ye.  The Wushuguan began with just one team of about ten monks, but there was so much demand that they invited the best students from some of the private schools to help out.  At first, Ye was selected as an alternate for when the team was away.  The Wushuguan provided for his living expenses and Tagou covered the rest.  For the first time, he earned a salary.  As demand grew, he was chosen to become a full-time member of the Wushuguan team.  That was in 1991 and he remained there for seven years.  Buddhism was taught at the Wushuguan back then, although that has lessened over the years.  Ye remembers studying Buddhism in the mornings and Kung Fu during the rest of the day.  “It was just Buddhism and Kung Fu,” he recalls.  Ye's Kung Fu skills earned him the nickname "Double Whip King (shuang bian wang 双鞭王)."

Beyond government support, the Wushuguan was overseen by the tourist bureau, so there were two departmental divisions in the Wushuguan: domestic and international.  The domestic department was administration and promotions.  Ye was part of the international department, which was just performing and teaching.  He was first sent to Tahiti with Shi Decheng as part of an early Shaolin cultural exchange program.  In those days, the Wushuguan team would stay in a country for several weeks to a month, teaching and performing.  “No one knew Wushu back then,” says Ye.  The exchange program took Ye all over the world.  After Tahiti, he went to Japan and then across Asia – Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  Then back to Europe through England, Spain, Germany and Belgium.  He first visited the United States in 1994 and then again in 1996.

Monk Comes Down the Mountain

In 1997, Ye decided to move on.  At 22, he wanted to further his education outside the temple, so he enrolled at the Wuhan Sports University (Wuhan tiyu xueyuan 武汉体育学院).  He competed during his collegiate years, winning three gold medals at the 1998 International Wushu Championship and first place at the 2000 Shaolin Boxing Contest Soft Weapon Games.  Ye graduated in four years with a degree in Wushu, and then went to the China Three Gorges University (Sanxia daxue 三峡大学) in Hubei to help establish their Wushu program.  He stayed there for four years too, coaching their fledgling professional team.  Then, in 2005, he was invited to come to the United States by U.C. Berkeley's longstanding Chinese Martial Arts Tournament as a team coach.  Once in America again, he decided to stay.

In 2006, Master Ye founded his school, Shaolin Kungfu Zen, in San Jose, California.  His school propounds traditional Shaolin Kung Fu, Modern Wushu and cooperates with Dongyue Taijiquan (東岳太極拳).  Literalists might have contention with the use of the Japanese term "Zen" as opposed to the Chinese term "Chan" in Master Ye's school name, but he is quick to point out the reasoning behind it.  “I started out with Chan but people thought it was my last name, so it was confusing.  'Kungfu' is the American spelling [in proper pinyin, it would be 'gongfu' – Ed].  Using the Japanese 'Zen' shows that America is a melting pot.  The Chinese characters never changed (少林功夫禪) but now it's confusing when it goes back to Mandarin.  Some people end up calling me 'Master Zen.'”  Since immigrating to America, he has adopted the Western name of Andy Ye.  And despite being outside of the temple for over two decades now, Ye still keeps his head shaved.

Since leaving China, Master Ye has been active in the San Francisco Bay Area martial arts scene, arguably the densest Chinese martial community in the nation.  He has been instrumental in producing one of the larger local tournaments, the Northern California Chinese Culture Athletes Federation & International Martial Arts Tournaments.  He still supports Berkeley's Chinese Martial Arts Tournament as well, and of course he contributes his time and students to the Tiger Claw Elite Championship.

Master Ye returned to Shaolin in 2010.  He was leading the U.S. team to the 4th World Traditional Martial Arts Championships held in the Wudang Mountain region.  Tiger Claw sponsored the team that year.  As part of the tour, they visited Anhui Province, as well as Shaolin Temple.  Despite all of the major changes, going back to Shaolin still felt like home.  “After living there for a decade, it felt the same,” says Ye.  “Childhood memories are so deep.  The places I visited – Bodhidharma's cave, the Pagoda Forest – I felt like I never left.  I didn't feel that it changed that much.

“The only difference was that I had to buy a ticket to go in, not like back in the day.”

  Discuss this article online
SHAOLIN SPECIAL January + February 2018

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2018 .

About Gene Ching with Gigi Oh :
For more information on Master Andy Ye Xinglie, visit his website at

Print Friendly VersionPrint Friendly Version of This Article