Reverred by martial artists, historians and filmmakers around the world, the legendary, UNESCO World Heritage Site Shaolin Temple is one epically touristy attraction. The story of this befuddlingly bastardized version of a holy sight and the birthplace of kung fu began in 464, when Batuo – a traveling Indian monk – founded this Chan (aka Zen) Buddhist temple in Henan’s Shaolin Forest. The monks of the temple were originally lethargic and unfit, a result of endless hours spent in sedentary meditation, and suffered from repeated bandit attacks. Things changed when the semi-mythological Indian ascetic Bodhidharma, or Dámó (达摩) in Chinese, came to teach meditation and ended up imparting a set of physical training exercises known as the yì jīn jīng upon the sleepy monks.
Soon the fantastically fit Buddhists of the temple were developing fighting styles based off the movements of insects and animals, and their honorable deeds around the surrounding countrysides and into the depths of China grew into tales of martial skill and valor that launched the fighting monks of Shaolin and their gongfu to near deistic status.
At this point, the temple has suffered from enough fires and historical ravages, including a share of destruction at the hands of Mao’s Red Guard, that much of the remaining buildings are recent creations. In fact, some of the oldest things here are the archways and stone lions outside the main gate. Still, if you can find enough Zen to brave the throngs of tourists, there is plenty to see at the Shaolin Temple that will at least evoke the martial heyday of this once-legendary place.
Every hour, near the temple’s souvenir shop, the monks put on a show where you can watch them show off some incredible acts of flexibility, strength and speed, along with choreographed fighting techniques. Smashing wood, concrete and metal over their bodies is all part of the fun, and they’ll also throw a sewing needle through a piece of glass.
The main temple consists of several halls, many of which were destroyed in 1928 and are modern reconstructions. One that is worth a peek inside is the Shífāng Chányuàn (十方禅院), or Arhat Hall. Located across from the main gate of the temple, it contains a collection of arhats, (luohan in Chinese) – Buddhist monks who achieved enlightenment and have a Shaolin martial style named for them: Luohan Fists.
Another building that may impress martial arts aficionados is the Pilu Pavillion (Xīfāng Shèngrén Diàn; 西方圣人殿), which contains the famous floor depressions that are said to have come from generations of stomping kung fu trainees.
The Pagoda Forest (Shǎolín Tǎlín; 少林塔林) is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site together with the actual Shaolin Temple. There are 246 antique brick pagodas that mark the burial grounds of former monks.
There are also plenty of hiking options around the mountain, one of the best goes up to Wuru Peak (Wǔrǔ Fēng; 五乳峰). Here you’ll find the Damo Cave (Dámó Dòng; 达摩洞), the place where Damo is said to have meditated for nine years. Believe it or not, there’s still an imprint of where his body rested on the cave wall.
For a great hike with a magnificent view of the city, tackle Shǎoshì Shān (少室山), see page 508 for more.
Though many monks still live in the Shaolin Temple grounds, and many kids still train kung fu here, today’s modern martial arts academies have taken on a life of their own. Instead of temples, they’re more like boarding schools, where male and female students sleep in dorms and learn the Chinese core curriculum, but with a heavy emphasis on martial arts, physical education and weapons training.
These schools that take students from all corners of China are prestigious and quite expensive for the average family, but a degree here will almost certainly land you a job as a kung fu instructor, a monk that gets to travel the world doing shows, or a post in the military. You’ll see a lot of these academies scattered all around Dengfeng, and while you’re at Shaolin Temple, feel free to take a seat and watch their intensive PE classes.
These academies are also open to foreigners. For a fee, you can live in the school for as long as you wish and take classes to learn the essentials of Shaolin Kung Fu. In fact, some travelers who only intended on visiting the Shaolin Temple for a day become so inspired that they enroll in a kung fu academy only to return home months later. If you don’t have the time to master the art of Shaolin, you can arrange a two-hour class inside the actual temple’s training grounds. Speak to Coco at the Shaolin Traveler’s Hostel, she can show you the list of available options and arrange classes as well as room and board.