Shaolin Masters Keeping the Faith

By Gigi Oh and Gene Ching

Grandmaster Chen Tongshan (陈同山) is one of Shaolin's preeminent folk masters Shaolin Temple has seen the rise and fall of fifteen dynasties. It witnessed the emergence of the Republic of China and its migration to Taiwan. It survived the Communist regime. Some new rulers, like the first Tang Emperor, cherished Shaolin. Others oppressed it. Accordingly, legends are filled with heroes who fought to preserve Shaolin during its darkest hours. Many martial clans attribute their lineage to refugee monks who fled the temple to escape political oppression. Legend recalls them preserving the arts in secret until the government was more open.

It was less than forty years ago when Shaolin was last raided. The '60s were devastating for China. While America grappled with hippies and Vietnam, China experienced a horrific famine that claimed thirty million lives, as well as the terror of the Cultural Revolution. She nearly lost one of her greatest pearls. If not for the courageous battle of many stalwart guardians, Shaolin would have been completely destroyed. According to Shaolin Temple's official records, thirteen monks stayed with Shaolin during the Cultural Revolution. They have all passed away now. But many others struggled to protect the 1500-year legacy. The unsung heroes are the valiant local citizens of Shaolin's nearest settlement, Dengfeng City.

While the Shaolin monks are celebrated worldwide, thousands of non-monk practitioners also live in the area surrounding Shaolin. Colloquially dubbed "folk masters," many descend from martial families with generations of Shaolin practice in their bloodlines. Grandmaster Chen Tongshan (陈同山) is one of Shaolin's preeminent folk masters. Most Americans know him as the father of Shi Xiaolong, the child actor from Shaolin who skyrocketed to fame on film and television in the mid-nineties. Chen's martial family was vital to the preservation of Shaolin into the twenty-first century.

From Farmer to Bodhisattva
Chen grew up in Dajindian (big gold inn 大金店), a farming village in Dengfeng. It produced corn, cotton, wheat, peanuts, sweet potatoes and tobacco. "Even with all of those," reflects Chen in the thick local dialect of Dengfenghua, "we often didn't have enough to eat." The government declared Dajindian a martial village, akin to nearby Chen village, the birthplace of Chen tai chi. Every male villager practiced Shaolin kung fu.

"All kung fu is from Shaolin," reminds Chen, "but in the late 20th century of Shaolin history, the two most famous folk masters were Li Gensheng (李根生) and Hao Shizai (郝释斋)," Chen's master and grandmaster. Li Gensheng was born in Dajindian in 1893 and ran a kung fu school that opened in 1924. There's a popular tale of Li and Shi Zhenxu (釋贞绪). Zhenxu (1893-1955) was an honorary abbot of Shaolin and the master of another honorary abbot, Shi Suxi (釋素喜) who sadly passed away in 2006. It's said that Zhenxu once struck a pillar in Shaolin's Thousand Buddha Hall so hard that tiles fell off the roof. Li was also famous for his kung fu skill. He once demonstrated his prowess by sitting on a bed and shattering the bedposts beneath. They were both large men and had a lot of mutual respect, but due to Zhenxu's position, they never had the chance to formally test each other in combat. But Suxi's disciple, Shi Degen (釋德根), wanted to challenge Li. Zhenxu heard about it and called it off immediately. He scolded his grandpupil, saying "How many lives do you have?" Zhenxu himself would not have dared fight with him.

Chen's other master, Hao Shizai(郝释斋), was the son of Hao Deli (郝德立), who was in turn the martial brother of Chen's grandfather, Chen Tianbao (陈天宝). They both studied under a distinguished folk master named Mei Jinxuan (梅金选). Hao and Chen formed a private militia to protect Dajindian. Chen had three sons, Chen Wujing (陈五经) Tongshan's father, Chen Chengwen (陈成文). And Chen Danan (陈大兰). The Hao family was the wealthiest in Dajindian. Since they owned a lot of land, the Chen family helped farm it. The families became very close, so much so that Hao Deli became the godfather of Tongshan's father.

Hao Shizai was a martial prodigy. He had an excellent memory, earning him the nickname Shaolin's living sutra (houquanpu活拳谱). Apart from his father, Hao also studied kung fu under Suxi and Buddhism under Shaolin's previous abbot, Shi Xinzhen (释行正). Xingzhen (1914-1987) was officially inaugurated for just one year before he died, but he served as honorary abbot for many years prior. During the Cultural Revolution, Xingzhen asked the Hao family to hide thousands of Shaolin treasures including Buddhist sutras, esoteric Shaolin martial arts books, medical treatises, statues of Bodhidharma and Jinnaluo, religious tools, official seals and carved couplet signs. The Hao's hid it on their property and all was saved. Hao Shizai took advantage of being keeper and studied all of those books, committing their wisdom to his outstanding memory.

After the Cultural Revolution fizzled out, Shaolin Temple was placed under the jurisdiction of a tiny department titled wenwu baoguan (scholar warrior management文物保管所), a neglected division of the Dengfeng Cultural Bureau. Under this management, Shaolin was forbidden to hold any regular religious activities and unable to maintain their basic living expenses. With Hao Shizai's support, Xingzhen fought hard to regain Shaolin's rights. Hao brought his family to Shaolin to help cultivate the land. He also helped Xingzhen, who went blind in his later years. Hao sent many of his best students to Shaolin and Shaolin sent many of their new monks to Hao to perpetuate traditional kung fu training. Suxi stayed with the Haos for several years. Whenever Hao managed to save any extra money, he contributed it to Xingzhen, who used it in his ongoing battle to regain Shaolin's rights. For his efforts, Hao earned another nickname in Shaolin circles, jishi huo pusa (living Bodhisattva ? a Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who forgoes nirvana in order to save others. 济世活菩萨).

Restoring Shaolin Temple
Chen Tongshan studied traditional Shaolin under his father and Hao. After Chen had completed middle school, his father decided he needed a trade, so he sent him off to apprentice in carpentry under a relative named Yuan Suseng (袁书森). Chen wasn't into carpentry, but kept at it to please his father. He still practiced fervently in his spare time. He won 1st place in Dengfeng's martial arts tournament at the time.

In 1979, So Doshin, the founder of Shorinji Kempo in Japan, visited Shaolin Temple to erect a stele. It was a historic gesture of international unity. Shorinji is the Japanese pronunciation of Shaolinsi (Shaolin Temple). Today, Shorinji Kempo is the most popular martial art in Japan and claims over 1.5 million students in 27 countries. But back then, So Doshin's visit was about martial brotherhood, especially since the relationship of China and Japan was still tense from the 2nd Sino-Japanese war. That was the largest war in Asia in the 20th century. In honor of So Doshin, Chen's uncle demonstrated alongside two other famous folk masters, Liang Yiquan (梁以全) and Liu Baoshan (刘宝山). Today, the Chen, Liang and Liu families are the "big three," the largest and most influential Shaolin kung fu schools in Dengfeng. Back then, these schools were still to be founded. So Doshin was so impressed that he offered to donate to Shaolin's restoration. The offer was politely refused, probably from pride. It motivated the Chinese leaders to start funding restoration.

In 1979, Yuan was hired as a restoration carpenter for Shaolin Temple. Chen was ecstatic that he could go back to Shaolin and reunite with his master. Every evening after dinner, Hao Shizai would walk ten miles to the temple and Chen would train with him. Whenever Chen had a free moment, he would sneak off to the pagoda forest and practice. He would duck into White Garment Hall and practice facing the ancient frescoes of fighting monks. He also hid behind the Abbot's room to practice more. One day, he accidently struck his own foot with an axe at work. He decided then to quit carpentry and strictly devote himself to Shaolin kung fu.

Chen, his cousin and some friends started performing kung fu demonstrations inside Shaolin Temple for 20 fen per person per show (there's 100 fen to a yuan. Today it's less than seven yuan to dollar). They hung some cloth for a stage backdrop on the west side of Shaolin's stele courtyard. The temple was overseen by the military. He befriended them and they permitted him to stay at the temple overnight. The performances grew a little, but there weren't many tourists back then, so mostly he did farm work to earn his keep.

How to Start a Shaolin School
In 1982, everything changed. A young national wushu champion named Jet Li starred in his first film, Shaolin Temple. Filmed on location, it became the Star Wars of Asia, only the Jedi were real and you could go train with them. In the wake of the film, the local government set up a sports administration specifically to promote martial arts. Its first permit allowed local masters the freedom to start their own private school. Chen Tongshan jumped at the opportunity.

"I borrowed 200 yuan and used an old-fashioned method of wax-plate printing to print a thousand flyers by hand myself. I bought a few glass jars and filled them with homemade paste. Then I took the train all over China ? Shandong, Anhui, Jiangsu ? I made a huge circle by rail and pasted ads on electric poles and walls." Back then, it only cost about $7 for a train ride and Chen was very frugal, always on the move, sleeping on train station floors. When it rained, he fixed a cheap umbrella to his neck so he could keep his hands free to paste more signs. He had just married and his wife was pregnant, so he was very worried during the journey. There was no phone at home back then. He went as fast as he could to get back home. In Xuzhou, he collapsed from exhaustion, only to wake up around 4 AM ? alone ? with no idea where he was. Fortunately, no one had stolen anything from him. "I've never felt so relieved in my life." When he finally got back home, he still managed to keep 80 yuan in his pocket.

A few months later, the students started arriving. In a short time, he had over fifty students. He charged them 10 yuan a month, which included room, board and training. Chen converted his master bedroom and granary into dormitories and his tobacco drying rooms and horse stables into a kitchen and cafeteria. The school did well. Today, some of those original students are still with Chen.

Chen left the school to his brother, Chen Tongchuan (陈同川) , so he could accept a teaching position at the county sports school (xiantixiao 县体校). They offered him a salary of 40 yuan a month. But in 1985, the Shaolin wushu xuexiao (少林武术学校) gave him a better offer - 150 yuan a month. The Shaolin wushu xuexiao was prestigious as the only school backed by the government. Venerable monks Shi Suxi, Shi Dechan (释德禅) and present Abbot Shi Yongxin (释永信) all served as honorary principals of this school at different times. It had a great location, only 100 meters away from the temple itself.

The Birth of a Dragon
Chen stayed with the Shaolin wushu xuexiao until 1988. That year, his son Chen Xiaolong (释小龙) was born. It was also when the new government school, the Songshan Shaolin wushuguan (嵩山少林武术馆) opened. At the time, the wushuguan was the largest facility exclusively devoted to martial arts. Chen acquired the Shaolin wushu xuexiao as his own private school. The school grew in notoriety and Chen's demo troupe was often asked to go perform abroad. International performance troupes are prestigious. Even today, it's extremely difficult for the majority of Chinese citizens to travel abroad. Back then, there were only three international performance troupes: Shi Yongxin's, the wushuguan team and Chen's.

Xiaolong grew into an outstanding child practitioner, which is saying a lot in an area where thousands of children practice for several hours each day, six days a week and live at their school. Competition is extremely fierce. When he was five, Xiaolong accompanied a performing monk troupe to Taiwan, where his precociousness in interviews got him signed into a three-year movie contract. He starred in seven feature films over the next three years.

Chen regrets starting his son so early. "The best age to start is between eight and fifteen. Quality and quantity are the keys. You can't mess up the bone development. After eight, the kids begin to understand. Bones have flexibility. If too young, the bones are too soft. It's hard for kids that young to grab the power. When they get older, they might lose some flexibility, but that's the time to work on sparring and fighting. They're strong and resistant and can still jump. Xiaolong started at three and that was too early. Now his bones are too strong. He started movies too early too. He didn't get enough sleep growing up and that influenced his development."

The Big Three
After Yongxin was formally inaugurated as abbot, there was a great purge of private schools in Shaolin valley in an effort to beautify Shaolin. The schools that could withstand forced relocation were rebuilt in Dengfeng. The others just faded away, absorbed into the surviving schools. Chen's wushu xuexiao was demolished in 2001. He immediately built a much larger school in Dengfeng, but changed the name to Shaolin Temple Shi Xiaolong Martial Arts School. "I changed the name to stand out from all the other Shaolin schools, but I still own the rights to the Shaolin wushu xuexiao name.'

Today, there are over fifty registered kung fu schools in Dengfeng. The ?big three,' Liang Yiquan's Epo, Liu Baoshan's Taguo and Chen's school, have more than 5000 students each. They each offer a complete academic curriculum that meets national standards through middle school, after which graduates are primed for physical college. In China, a collegiate degree in martial arts is not only possible, it's respectable, and it offers plenty of potential career opportunities in teaching and enforcement. Accordingly, the bulk of the students near Shaolin are minors. The adults are teachers, coaches or foreigners. About 80% of the kids are sent to Shaolin because their parents cannot control them. "When they come to Shaolin, their behavior changes," says Chen with wry grin.

Only the ?big three' schools are authorized to provide a two to three-year student visa for martial arts study. Chen's school sees some 500 foreign exchange students a year now. "Some come for a month, some a week, most for a few months. A few have stayed for three years." At the current exchange rate, tuition for foreigners at Chen's school runs about $20 a day, and that includes room, board and training. "Foreigners feel the mystery of kung fu, so they want to learn. They're very serious, even more serious than domestic students, and easily adapt to the environment. Many study until they run out of money. Then they go home to teach and earn more, so they can come back."

The Mystery of Kung Fu
Despite Chen's notoriety and success, being a kung fu master in Dengfeng remains a constant struggle. While compensations are provided for forced relocations, they seldom cover the brunt of the expenses. Chen had the burden of opening a school, making it huge, and then being forced to move it. He had to build massive new buildings for classrooms, gyms and housing for all the students. What's more, he was relocated twice. Chen had a second school in the bustling nearby metropolis of Zhengzhou that he founded in 1999. It grew so much that he had to finance a new, larger facility. But in 2007, Zhengzhou expanded and the new school was right smack in the redevelopment zone. Once again, he was forced to relocate. He fell back to Dengfeng, consolidating all his students to the Shaolin Shi Xiaolong Martial Arts School.

Today, Dengfeng has fewer private kung fu schools than a few years ago. The forced relocations, the constant competition and the politics sent many headmasters packing. In China, the industry has declined overall. "A 2002 census said there were 24,000 martial arts schools in China. Now there are less than 20,000. Martial arts used to be full of mystery. Now, with so much exposure in movies and magazines, that mystery has been lost. We've reached our climax domestically. Too many schools. No more mysteries."

Chen believes that the new frontier for martial arts is to expand outside of China. He is planning to take more trips abroad, but things still need to settle a bit more back home too. The landscape of martial arts in China, especially around Shaolin, has been constantly shifting for his generation of masters. Chen wonders if a large school ? and by large he means thousands of students living there ? could ever exist in another country. "Outside China, kung fu implies some feeling of mystery. Domestically, we call it wushu, which represents the artistic part."

The tradition of Shaolin encompasses many arts. The martial arts, the healing arts and Buddhism are all part of the package. However, for the true traditional practitioner, the core of Shaolin can be distilled down to one art. Survival. Like Daniel out of the Lion's Den, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, like the renegade Shaolin five elders, Shaolin survives.

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November / December 2008: Special Xingyi Issue

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About Gigi Oh and Gene Ching :
For more on Chen Tongshan, see The Other "Little Dragon": Shaolin Temple?s Superstar, Child Shi Xiaolong by Gene Ching in our March 2000 issue, In the Dragon?s Den: Grandmaster Chen Tongshan and his Superstar Son, the Little Dragon Shi Xiaolong in our November December 2003 issue, and Shaolin longzhi men by Yue Xiaofeng, Henan People?s Publishing, 2007. Shaolin Temple Shi Xiaolong Martial Arts School is located at the northwest corner of Dengfeng City, Henan Province, People?s Republic of China, postcode: 452470 Tel: 0371-288-6886

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