KICKING THE HABIT - Time Magazine, November 2001
November 1, 2001
Shi Yan Ming, his students like to say, is "half man, half amazing." But when he's breaking boulders with his skull or flying above ground upside down in a full split, that hardly does him justice. Even when he holds still (which isn't often), the 37-year-old Shaolin Temple fighting monk manages to look more mythical than mortal. He's got the face of a Xian terra-cotta warrior—acrobatically piked eyebrows, rampart-like cheekbones—and the kind of body that helps explain why kung fu is called an art.
Decked out in his ceremonial orange robe, Yan Ming is standing impossibly erect on a dusty road outside the city of Dengfeng in China's central Henan province, preparing to usher 40 of his students into the stadium that's hosting the nation's most important martial arts festival. Behind a bright red banner, they're attired in matching uniforms like other delegations—but they don't blend in. The group is as eclectic a collection of kung fu students as New York City's five boroughs could produce: a freckled Miramax exec, a black Hollywood action star, a bodybuilder with dreadlocks, a hulking ex-Marine, not to mention the extravagantly tattooed road manager of the Beastie Boys' "Licensed to Ill" tour. Satisfied his posse looks sharp, Yan Ming commands: "Alright, everyone. Get ready to represent!" That's when the group's standard, which reads U.S.A. SHAOLIN TEMPLE, causes a commotion. "What an outrage!" exclaims a heavyset cop at the gates of the stadium. "There is absolutely no such thing!" He lurches toward Yan Ming as if ready to pounce, but then thinks better of it, and settles for confiscating the banner instead.
A Shaolin temple in America? Outrageous, perhaps, but if anyone can judge the group's authenticity, it ought to be Yan Ming himself. He's a legitimate scion of the original Shaolin Temple, the 1,500-year-old monastery a few kilometers away whose monks' melding of the gentle tenets of Buddhism with ancient combat techniques has earned it renown as the symbolic birthplace of Chinese martial arts. Just ask the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service: it thought Yan Ming should register his hands as lethal weapons when he applied for a green card. Just ask the Henan Tourist Bureau: it put Yan Ming on a billboard of provincial treasures. Or ask Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, John Woo and Chow Yun-fat: they all call Yan Ming shifu, or master. Just don't ask the abbot of the Shaolin Temple; he "prefers not to talk about Yan Ming."
The abbot and Yan Ming embody the complex struggle under way for control of the legacy of a Chinese cultural landmark almost as celebrated as the Forbidden City or the Great Wall. It's a clash that pits monk against monk, disciple against master and, at least in one case, cop against banner. And the stakes are high. Shaolin monks' heroism on battlefields, both real and imagined, has been legendary for generations. But like so many institutions of China's imperial past, the temple was violently severed from its historical roots by the political upheavals of the 20th century. Its red-walled halls and library were reduced to rubble in a warlords' feud in 1928, and its long-cultivated traditions withered under decades of communist repression. Now, thanks in large part to the latest kick-flick craze, Shaolin is again in bloom and its alumni, at home and abroad, are vying for the fruits of its revival.
Yan Ming was five when he arrived at Shaolin in 1969. He had suffered a near-fatal illness and his parents, believing he owed his recovery to Buddha, sent him to become a monk. It was a perilous time to join a monastic order. Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution was in full swing and the temple's remaining handful of monks were so busy fending off gangs of marauding Red Guards and writing self-criticisms that they had little time for new disciples.
Despite this turmoil—or perhaps because of it—Yan Ming thrived at Shaolin. As one of the few youngsters in residence, he enjoyed the often undivided instruction of the older monks, who schooled him in the improbably paired disciplines of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and kung fu, for which the temple was famous. Daily exercises sharpened both his physical and mental control: 30-minute handstands were followed by meditation; bare-handed wood chopping was a prelude to chanting sutras. "Buddhists believe in reincarnation," Yan Ming says, "and I figure I must have been a martial artist or a monk in a previous life. It all felt very natural to me." By the age of 17, he could dangle a 23-kg weight from his testicles (a practice intended to perfect his ability to withstand a full-force blow to the groin) and deflect the tip of a spear with his neck. He could sleep standing on one leg.
When a young state-trained Beijing martial artist named Jet Li arrived at the temple in 1980 to shoot a movie, Yan Ming "barely noticed him." Two years later, none of the monks could afford to be so aloof. Shaolin Temple, the film that made Jet Li, remade Shaolin. Suddenly the temple was swarming with visitors—both tourists and wannabe Jet Lis. The Chinese government, now aware of Shaolin's lucrative allure, resolved to rescue it from its exile in ideological ignominy. Crumbled buildings were resurrected. Secular martial-arts training academies sprang up around the temple's walls to cater to the region's flood of aspirants. And the monks—whose ranks had swelled slightly since the end of the Cultural Revolution—were reincarnated as shills for a host of marketing schemes, from coffee-table books and calendars to performance tours and instructional videos. Initially, Yan Ming seemed Shaolin's perfect poster child. Not only did he look the part, but he was a born ham. When the monks embarked on their first exhibition tour of the U.S. in 1992, his fists were the stars of the show. But the authorities didn't realize he aspired to more than just performing. "The monk's robe I wore on stage wasn't a costume to me," he explains. "I wanted to teach people Shaolin's traditions as they'd been taught to me. I wanted to do something real." Convinced that was no longer possible in China, Yan Ming slipped out of his hotel the night after his last gig, found a taxi and tried to tell the driver in his nonexistent English that he wanted to defect.
Shaolin is now one of China's most popular tourist destinations and impoverished Henan's most reliable cash cow. The temple drew more than a million visitors last year. For $5 they get a tour of the spruced-up shrine with a local guide well-versed in its elaborately embroidered history. Picturesquely decrepit old-timers man donation boxes at each stop along the way, and then it's off to buy tiny brass Buddhas and plastic prayer beads at stalls crowding the temple's gates. For martial arts displays, a lucky visitor might spot a young boy in a monk's robe willing to perform a trick or two. "Shaolin," as American martial artist Brian Gray wryly puts it, "has become kung fu's answer to Colonial Williamsburg."
The real action is a little way down the road, at more than 60 martial-arts training schools. Fields bristling with rows of corn give way to a landscape of young boys—often several hundred to a class—moving in eerie synchronization as they kick and punch their way toward dreams of stardom as martial masters or celluloid action heroes. Most of the more than 20,000 students will return home after a few years to humble lives as security guards or construction workers. The fortunate few will be chosen by the abbot as monks, earning the Buddhist surname "Shi." They'll pay their dues at the temple by posing with tourists or welcoming state officials, and then they might become members of the exhibition troupe or go into business on their own, using Shaolin's cachet to open martial-arts schools elsewhere in China.
Shi Yong Xin, the temple's current abbot, downplays Shaolin's quirky philosophical traditions—an understandable tactic given Beijing's harsh stance on spiritual cults—emphasizing instead the need to preserve "unique artifacts of China's history for future generations." Yong Xin clearly has his eye on the value of the franchise. He wants Shaolin to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and he has restored many of its monuments, including a stela that dates to the early Tang dynasty, a pagoda-style bell tower and the Talin, or Stupa Forest, an aptly named field of richly inscribed monks' tombs. But he doesn't have a light touch. Last summer when he wanted to restore Shaolin's bucolic backdrop, he bulldozed most of the village surrounding the temple. That took serious clout: more than 1,000 people saw their houses, shops and schools demolished on only two days' notice. Mrs. Zhang, a mother-of-two who rented out rooms to visiting martial arts students, says she too wants the temple to look pretty for visitors but, left to bivouac on what used to be her living-room floor, she tearfully deems the project "obviously un-Buddhist." Yong Xin is less imposing when it comes to Shaolin's intangibles. If, as he claims, he practices kung fu every day, his pillowy physique has borne its rigors with baffling indifference.
That's the Shaolin temple that yan Ming escaped from in 1992: pious about profits but spiritually bankrupt. While Yong Xin is bent on shellacking Shaolin into tidy anachronism, Yan Ming wants to punch up its traditions—and himself—to suit the realities of 21st century New York City. He openly eschews the usual trappings of Buddhist piety: he eats beef (which he has dubbed "American tofu"), drinks beer ("special water"), wine ("French special water") and, whenever possible, champagne ("very special French water"). He lives with his girlfriend and their 19-month-old son. He models. He acts in movies. He hobnobs with celebrities. He wears Sundance Film Festival T shirts under his robes, trades his puttees for a pair of Prada loafers with ease, and grooves to hip-hop—even though he doesn't understand all the words. His goal, he says, "like all Chan Buddhists, is to live in harmony with my surroundings." So on the streets, he spreads his rapture by wishing everyone who crosses his path a "Merry Christmas"—even in June.
But that doesn't mean he's not serious about being a monk. At his U.S.A. Shaolin Temple, housed in a funky third-story loft in lower Manhattan, Yan Ming instructs nearly 500 students in Buddhism and kung fu from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. Eyes blazing, arms akimbo, voice roaring—picture Yul Brenner in The King and I—he exhorts his students to summon "more qi" and "train harder." "Occasionally" he admits, "I still forget that American students are different from Chinese. In China I could tell a kid to stand in the corner for two hours and he'd just do it. Here people have to trust me."
That's where his combination of enlightening and lightening up comes in handy. Yan Ming's balancing act between sage and giddy child, strict shifu and Drunken Master, endears him to everyone from the garbagemen in Astor Place to the frosty gatekeepers at Soho's snootiest watering holes. "I'm in it for my health," says Derrick Waller, a musclebound N.Y.P.D. detective, "and because shifu is mad cool." Rosie Perez and Wesley Snipes take regular lessons. Musicians Bjork and Tricky drop in when they're in town. And the RZA, the mastermind behind rap collective Wu Tang Clan, checks in with the monk daily because, he chuckles, "it keeps my mind out of the gutter."
Yan Ming hopes to build a Shaolin temple in rural upstate New York, where the mountains remind him of his old home. But the project needs cash and right now he's too short on "green qi." So, predictably perhaps, he's turning his attention to a movie career. Director Jim Jarmusch, who gave him a small role in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, believes the qualities that make Yan Ming such a funky monk will also serve him well as an actor. "I love his contradictions," says Jarmusch, "he's so playful and yet he has the potential for incredible physical ferocity." The RZA, producer of and Yan Ming's co-star in the upcoming urban kung fu flick Z Chronicles, is also a fan. "When I looked at the dailies, he just exploded on the camera," he says. "I'd say, 'Damn shifu, you're a real live movie star.'" If he likes the kudos, Yan Ming remains circumspect. "It's just because I'm so handsome," he laughs.
And so when Yan Ming brought his disciples to China earlier this fall, it was not only to touch base with his roots but to thumb his nose a little. He led rigorous daily practice sessions in training halls in Dengfeng, as well as in less conventional locales like Great Wall watchtowers and hotel lobbies. He talked about Chan as he shepherded his students through the Buddhist caves at Luoyang. But at night, discipline gave way to aggressively, almost-defiantly boisterous carousing.
This is nothing new for Shaolin—the macho fighting monks were flouting dietary laws as early as the Ming dynasty, but abbot Yong Xin, anxious about Shaolin's newly pristine image, finds his prodigal brother's behavior poisonous. "The man openly eats meat and drinks," he gasps. Even in the U.S., kung fu aficionados—many of whom themselves know Shaolin only from the movies—believe Yan Ming is too much the joker. Martial arts websites abound with references to the "fake monk." But Yan Ming isn't fazed. "To be a monk you have to know how to be yourself," he says, "and you have to respect yourself. If calling me a fake makes them happy, I'm delighted to oblige."
But, according to Meir Shahar, a lecturer in East Asian studies at Tel Aviv University and the foremost historian of Shaolin, Yan Ming's idiosyncracies are well in keeping with the temple's past. "Shaolin monks have always adapted themselves to the legend that surrounds them," he says. "Many of the practices for which Shaolin is now famous were developed as a direct response to the way the monks had been portrayed in fiction and drama." If life at the Shaolin Temple has long imitated art, Yan Ming may be writing its newest chapter. Jet Li's next movie, rumor has it, is called Manhattan Monk.