Money moves in Shaolin
Updated: 2014-08-25 06:57
By JOSEPH CATANZARO/CHEN YINGQUN/QI XIN(China Daily)
Martial artist Jai Harman instructs students at the Beijing Scientific Ving Tsun School. [Photo/China Daily]
Masoula thinks the temple has successfully struck the right balance commercially and culturally.
"They get people in to make money to maintain the culture and the history here, the martial arts itself."
One of her Greek companions, psychologist Maria Fytrou, 33, disagrees.
"It's a business," she says. "They are selling what they love."
Wang Yumin, dean of Shaolin's Foreign Affairs Office, says that since January last year about 800 foreigners have come to live and train at the temple for periods ranging from a few days to more than 12 months.
Many are funneled in from the more than 40 "Shaolin cultural centers" dotted across Europe, the US and a host of other countries.
In the small city of Dengfeng at the base of Songshan mountain near Shaolin, more than 50,000 people train at 52 kung fu schools annually.
Wang believes foreign students are specifically and increasingly seeking the "legitimacy" that he says Shaolin Temple offers.
But ideas about what constitutes authenticity in Chinese kung fu are varied, and often subjective.
In an open-plan space on the fourth floor of a Beijing skyscraper, a mix of foreigners and locals throw kicks and punches at each other with a brutal efficiency that contrasts with the graceful flow of movement at Shaolin.
This is no accident, says Englishman-turned-Beijing-resident and professional martial artist Jai Harman.
The students are practicing ving tsun, a style renowned for its ruthless practicality. Many in the martial arts scene, such as Harman, believe it holds an authenticity Shaolin wushu is losing.
Harman, 30, who has lived in China for a decade, is a senior instructor at the Beijing Scientific Ving Tsun School. Ving tsun is an offshoot of Shaolin wushu that is now ancient in its own right.
"Wushu is a demonstrational form of kung fu," Harman says. "It has zero practicality for fighting. It's just good for building up the body. Ving tsun doesn't have any pretty poses; it's all about practicality."
Harman came to China on a kung fu pilgrimage to Shaolin, but what he found at the temple was not for him.
He sought out world-renowned ving tsun master Wang Zhipeng, whose lineage boasts ties to martial artist and star of the silver screen Bruce Lee.
"Wang Zhipeng's master's master was Yip Man, who also taught Bruce Lee," he says.
The Beijing Scientific Ving Tsun School has 400 regular students at several locations around the country, and a few thousand casual learners.
Many of them, such as Lebanese business lawyer Rashad Tabet, 31, are foreigners living and working in China.
Harman says preserving, promoting and practicing ving tsun martial arts and culture is still at the heart of what the organization is all about. But he concedes the school is a business.
"We are very open about that," he says. "But making money is a sideline to what we do; it just lets us do what we do."
For all their differences, Harman concedes, there is a common ground between ving tsun and wushu. The basic skills and disciplines of both have practical applications for professionals.
Tabet, the business lawyer, agrees.
"You have to defend your centerline in business, just like you do in ving tsun. You don't know where the attacks will come from. You have to be on your guard 24/7 in the business world. Always be ready to defend. This is something I learned how to do from martial arts."
Harman says avoiding a punch in the face is an excellent, if harsh, motivator for learning transferable professional skills instinctively.
Shaolin Temple and Harman's school are not the only kung fu organizations experiencing a boom in business and popularity.
Sichuan-based Liu Suibin, the head of the Qingcheng faction of Taoism, has more than 468,000 followers on Chinese social media. His instructional tai chi video is available for download in the Apple app store, and is reportedly growing in popularity among office-bound executives and professionals looking for stress release and focus at work.
Liu Haiqin, the executive headmaster of Tagou Educational Group, believes seeking financial sustainability does not change the quality and value of what kung fu masters have to offer. Incidentally, he says, his kung fu-focused schools are manufacturing millionaires.
Located next door to Shaolin, the Tagou campus could be mistaken for part of the temple complex.
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