Rain lazily poured down the sides of the bus as Xiao Ming and I settled in to our uncomfortable seats and prepared for the few hours ride to Song Mountain.
I could barely keep my eyes open, and my head wasn’t all that clear thanks to the cold I picked up in either Luoyang or Zhengzhou, however, as the bus took to the road the small TVs descended and a classic began to play—Shaolin Temple. (Shao lin Si)
The world-famous temple known for the almost supernatural Shaolin Monks is located on Song Mountain and it was definitely on our agenda. Having never seen the old film, my eyes were glued to the screen despite my fatigue. A few early surprises—finding a young Jet Li in the lead role, and watching as his character kills a pretty innocent dog by smothering it on accident only to then cook it and share the meat with his fellow monks (who aren’t supposed to eat meat in the first place) in an effort to hide his misstep from the cute shepherd girl—kept me awake enough to follow the whole thing despite there being no English subtitles.
The movie’s credits rolled up the screen just as the bus came to a stop in Deng Feng, at the foot of Song Shan. We disembarked and hailed a cab, ignoring the ubiquitous “Black Taxis” that are everywhere in China. Those are people who are, as you can probably guess, not legal Cab drivers. They all appear to have black Volvos or BMWs or Volkswagens, and are really good at cheating folks. They like to target foreigners, but also snare their compatriots just as easily. Stay away. I’ll tell you more about Taxi Mishaps I’ve been privy to another time, just to elucidate the full range of my disdain for them, but right now we’re in Song Shan.
We outran the rain sometime a few miles back, so we could appreciate the small town without needing to duck for cover. The presence of the Shaolin Temple very obviously is the heart from which the community draws its lifeblood. Everywhere around the town frescos and murals of monks training or captured in some crazy aerial maneuver can be seen. Shops sell porcelain monks with styles ranging from traditional to down right gaudy.
The narrow streets and small shops don’t really scream tourist destination, but what really made the place feel like a quiet village mostly forgotten was the lack of people—Chinese and foreign. We had chosen to travel during this week because it was a normal work week for most and not a national holiday, but it still seemed like Deng Feng was more vacant than it should be.
Even the hostel we checked into had an empty feel to it. Don’t get me wrong, the little restaurant/hostel combo was very comfortable—especially the restaurant/café part. The interior had a decidedly international theme going. Flags strung up around the ceiling, pictures from different countries, and even the ever-present American country music rounded out the ambiance (I’ve asked before, but, seriously, what is with American Country Music in Chinese Hostel?). But we were two of what I later realized was probably less than ten guests. The people were nice, and in the evenings they show movies for free, so it’s a place I recommend.
It wasn’t too late in the day, still around lunchtime, so we decided to make plans. We bought tickets to the Shaolin Zen Performance for later that night, and then headed out to the famous Song Yang Academy and hike along Song Shan’s trails.
The ancient academy turned out to be pretty docile, but still worth a look. Truly ancient, the structure had first been used as a temple way back around 484 AD, but then became an establishment of higher learning for Confucian scholars hundreds of years later. Song Shan is a symbolic area not just because of Shaolin fame, but because it is on the mountain and its surrounding areas that three belief systems more or less peacefully coexisted—Buddhism, Taoism, and the art of Zen.
We walked through the open courtyard design and I couldn’t help but think of the Great Mosque in Xi’an, the one with similar open courtyards. Ancient tablets with faded inscriptions and tombstones with faded names were everywhere. Two gianormous Cyprus trees also hung out in the courtyards. These suckers were huge, and old, apparently.
I took some snapshots with Confucius and some bamboo graffiti, and then we found a little room where a man sold charcoal prints he claimed were taken from tombstones and frescos at the Shaolin Temple. I wasn’t supposed to take a picture…but I did anyways. He even sold five together in a pack, and after some serious bartering, I managed to get him to sell us one set for 100 RMB. Xiao Ming and I split them three and two. One of the prints I eventually had set into a scroll and gave to a friend as a gift. It was an old Chinese poem, but the characters were created from the leaves dangling from a bamboo tree. Pretty cool image. The other two I kept were also very interesting. One, a face made up of three people’s face was symbolic of the three beliefs on the mountain, and the other one, a representation of the five sacred mountains of China written in ancient characters. But what made them all even more interesting was knowing that the designs had actually all come from the Shaolin Temple, which we’d be seeing the next day.
This is the one that represents the three beliefs in one figure. The figure is comprised of three people, the big cheeses of Buddhism, Taoism, and Zen.
Thirty minutes into the hike, I realized two things: All of the people visiting the area had apparently congregated on the trails, and there was no way I was going to make it off the mountain alive if I didn’t turn back. The climb is really easy. Song Shan is a very old mountain, and it’s kinda got a globular shape more than a mountainous one. They even frequently refer to the mountain as an Old Man or Grandpa. It’s not steep at all, is what I’m saying. NO, it was my cold that had suddenly decided to kick my ass.
So in a move so out of character it was basically against my morals, I went back to the hostel and took a nap.
Later that night, though, I felt better.
We were driven about fifteen minutes away, to this outdoor theater of sorts, where the Zen Performance is held. The air held a chill that we hadn’t felt all vacation. Luckily, we packed anticipating a night or two of colder weather so we just enjoyed the brisk breeze and watched the show.
The “stage” is really an elaborately designed set that is modeled after a village. Not just any village, either, but the one from the film, Shaolin Temple. And the show itself seems to model every act on scenes from the movie. First thing the audience is treated to is the sight of five elderly men in dark orange/yellow robes sitting in rigid positions about thirty feet in front of the area the audience is sitting. The men, we are led to believe, are traditional followers of the Zen practice. For the entire duration of the show they DO NOT MOVE. It’s cold, windy, and they are in robes, but they do not flinch, not even to pick their nose or scratch an itch. At different points in the show Xiao Ming and I questioned their very humanity, finding it hard to believe that modern geriatrics could pull off what we were witnessing.
The rest of the actual show progressed just as the movie had. We watch as a beautiful shepherd girl takes her flock to some fresh grass (they use real sheep and goats and seriously lead them to patches of grass on the stage). Then a bunch of young monks-in-training toting buckets held out to their sides come racing along the “village,” chanting all the way. Lights and music swirl around in the open air, and what’s probably the most impressive sight of all is the natural face of the mountain in the background, above and behind a temple. In the night the temple and mountain would normally be impossible to see, but they have incorporated both into the show as part of the set by having landscaping lights cast ethereal glows of greens, blues, reds, and purples all along both at different times. I found it difficult to constantly follow the show instead of just marvel at the scene and let the music fill me.
From young monks carrying water the show moves to slightly older monks going through fighting stances. The group seems to be in their early teens and much more focused. They through punches and kicks, and grunt and holler like true warriors, mostly. More dramatic music and dazzling lights. Then another group, older, going through more techniques, this time with weapons. The show continues on like this for a while, with small groups of monks performing various skills with an array of weapons. They pop up at all places, fully making use of every inch of the set, and making it easy for every audience member to see them. They never stay in one part too long.
At one point a portion of the stage actually lifts into the air and three electrified monks give an exhibition that looks like Christmas trees seeking revenge for being chopped down. Simulation battles, traditional Chinese songs, crazy light work, and five or six old monks who probably didn’t even blink the whole darn time—that about sums up the show.
This image really just utterly fails to do any form of mild justice to the beauty of the actual scene…I’m sorry.
When the lights dimmed and the woman on the speaker politely kicked us all out, then, under the cover of near-pitch black conditions, I saw the monk statue closest to us turn and look at the audience. They’re alive!
That night, back at the hostel, we hung out in the café/restaurant part and watched the movie, The Way. I had seen the flick before, but watching while you’re traveling gives it a different perspective. It’s about a father who goes to retrieve his deceased son’s possessions at the beginning of the Camino de Santiago. If you don’t know what that particular road is I recommend you do a little Googling. In the film the father, Martin Sheen, doesn’t just collect his son’s (Emilio Estevez) stuff, but travels along the old pilgrim’s road in an attempt to…just finish his son’s last goal. It’s a great movie that asks you to just take a look at what you’re doing and decide if that’s what you really want to be doing. Of course, the lead is a doctor who has the financial freedom to take more vacations than most of us, but the main thoughts are pretty accessible to all socio-economic levels.
In fact, when I began telling people that I was moving to China for a while a huge majority of them sighed and expressed a desire to do something similar, only to amend the wish with the words, “But I can’t.” I’ve not got much to my name, I’ve made scores of mistakes, and I’m still too young to be qualified to give advice, but when I think about all the people who have desires to change their lives, that want to do something else, only to crap on their own dreams with sentiments like, “someday,” “I can’t,” or “I don’t have the time,” I just want to make a blanket statement, the same answer to all of them: “Yes, you can.” That’s not a political reference but a basic building block of a simple belief. You can change yourself and your world.
Okay. That’s it. Pulpit is being burned down and used to cook come good Korean barbecue.
The next day we took a bus to the Shaolin Temple bright and early. The temple area is more like a very big campus. You are greeted by a giant statue of a muscular monk, and then must walk a gauntlet of souvenir shops before you get to the actual grounds of the temple and its surrounding structures.
We took a cable car ride up the mountain to check out the scenery. I picked up a medallion as a souvenir for my step-dad and had the merchant carve his name into it. After having negotiated rather expertly for the prints earlier, I was disappointed when I only got the guy to take five RMB off the original price. Then we came back down and wandered around the Pagoda Forest for a while.
We nearly missed the Shaolin Monk performance, but we raced down the narrow paths to the building and squeezed through the crowd in the dark theater and made our own seats at the base of the stairs. Creating our front row seats was surprisingly simple and a small kid thought it was a good idea, too, so he sat right next to me and periodically chatted with me in Chinese throughout the show.
The show itself turned out to be fun, but less genuine than an American kung-fu flick. Sure, the young monks had great skill and twirled their swords, staffs, and chains with precision, but the whole feel of it seemed a bit affected, a little too commercialized. A funny part of the half-hour performance included three young monks teaching three audience members a few steps and tumbles in the Monkey, Snake, and Tiger styles. The three audience members, young Chinese guys about my age, took to the tasks with about as much grace as a Hippo on a pogo stick.
A few demonstrations of qi were also part of the whole thing. One monk threw a needle through glass to pop a balloon. Another bent some metal bars with his neck. A third one did push-ups with one finger. All to rounds of applause.
After the show Xiao Ming bought a cheap DVD with more demonstrations and then we left the building. On the way out visitors were given the opportunity to pose for photos with young and old monks in fighting stances, or even allowed to hold blunted weapons and pantomime gestures for the camera.
Finally, we headed to the actual Shaolin Temple.
It looked just like the movie! Only…smaller, in some way.
We entered into the temple, another open courtyard design (What is it the Chinese have against roofs?), and wandered around taking it all in. There were tons of other foreigners and Chinese tourists, some in small groups and others in larger ones led by tour guides. One group of French travelers had a Chinese guide with great French, so Xiao Ming (who got her PhD in France) kinda stalked them to get as much info as she could.
One of the famous monks from history Da Mo, is said to have been the one who gave Chan Zong or Zen to the Shaolin Temple. Legend says Da Mo traveled to India and back to learn the secrets of Buddha and that when he got back in town the current leader of the temple, otherwise known by his title as the Fang Zhang, wanted to become his disciple. Da Mo didn’t like the guy’s face or his arrogance or something, and said, “nope.” Instead, Da Mo found a cave and spent the next 8-9 years staring at a wall. The Fang Zhang, however, spent the better part of the next decade bringing food to the crazy guy in the cave so that he didn’t just rot away before he could pass on his teachings. Da Mo apparently psychically teleported the food from the bowls to his bowels because the legend says he just sat there, without moving. The Fang Zhang eventually got around to asking Da Mo what the hell, and the crazy man’s reply came out as something like, “Until the snows that fall become red, I will not train you.”
Having no regard whatsoever for himself or a rather inflamed sense of trust in men who spend every waking moment staring at walls, the Fang Zhang took the words to heart and chopped off his arm. He sprinkled his blood on a snow bank and then promptly tried to spell his name before giving a shout to Da Mo. When Da Mo got there he realized that the Fang Zhang’s crazy was that special little something that had been missing from his cave-staring days, and decided to take him on as a disciple.
The Fang Zhang’s masochistic nature is why Zen monks still walk around with their right hands in front of their chest. That, or it represents devotion and discipline. Either one.
Another story, about kung-fu, says that it was the fighting prowess of the Shaolin monks that helped soon-to-be emperor Li Shi Min defend China against an evil opposing army. Of course, this is the story that’s depicted in the film Shaolin Temple. In the end, after the bad guys are vanquished, the emperor grants the fighting monks of the Shaolin temple the right to eat meat and drink alcohol. So basically, he gave China’s bodyguards the right to get plastered. Nice guy. Also, throughout history the monks show up to help emperors—always on the side of justice, of course.
Unfortunately, a lot of the structures of the temple are not that old. Fame didn’t really do the temple any favors over the centuries. At different times, various walls and courtyards of the temple have been destroyed and burned down. The most recent was sometime in the 1930s. Just like the Longmen Grottoes, the place has fallen victim to the crashing, volatile waves of political unrest, and iconoclast tyrants.
Back at the hostel we grabbed some grub and chatted with some of the locals. We turned in early in order to wake refreshed the next day. My cold still clung to me with a vengeance, but it had been a great trip regardless.
The next morning we caught a bus back to lovely Zhengzhou and then a cab to the airport. The taxi driver turned out to be a huge conman, but we made it to the airport in time to board the plane despite his over-the-top disregard for human decency.
On the flight back to Dalian Xiao Ming and I talked about Chinese history, and I outlined a story idea I’d been nursing for the last few days inspired by the places we visited. I reviewed some of the new words I’d learned and tried to sleep a bit.