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“SHAOLIN KUNG FU,” says the 7th edition of the Rough Guide to China, “was first developed at the Shaolin Temple as a form of gymnastics to counterbalance the immobility of meditation. The monks studied the movement of animals and copied them—the way snakes crawled, tigers leapt and mantises danced—and coordinated these movements with meditational breathing routines.” That’s not what the hordes of visitors who descend on the temple, 13 kilometres west of Dengfeng, come to see, though.
“As the temple was isolated,” the guidebook continues, “it was often prey to bandits, and gradually the monks turned their exercises into a form of self-defence.” That’s what folks want to watch.
Past the temple gates and two huge, open areas packed with hundreds of martial-arts students is the kung fu show hall, with half-hour performances that demonstrate Shaolin’s famous stick fighting and animal-style kung fu—“all pretty electrifying if you haven’t seen it before.”
There’s been a temple here since A.D. 495, but it has been burned down repeatedly and was also sacked in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution. Only in the 1980s, after Jet Li’s film Shaolin Temple and the American TV series Kung Fu brought the discipline to the attention of a wider public, did a revitalization start. Most buildings, in the Ming style, are reconstructions. “Despite this,” says the guidebook, “and the incredible density of tourists, the temple and surroundings are beautiful, and the chance to see some impressive martial-arts displays here makes it well worth the trip.”
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