SHI YAN-MING’S ESCAPE TO AMERICA
August 1, 1995
After 1,500 years of waiting, the real Shaolin Temple has finally come to America thanks to Shi Yan-Ming’s daring bolt to freedom.
Monk Shi Yan Ming inside the shaolin temple china Though it has been nearly 25 years, I can remember when I decided on the name for my kung-fu school, Shao Lin San. I named my school after the famous temple as a very humble effort to keep the fires of Shaolin burning, if not in China, at least in America.
Shao Lin San, meaning Shaolin Three, denoted that my school’s goal was going to be to honor the training practices of the two most famous temples in Shaolin’s history, the first in Hunan province, the second in Fukien. We were going to be number three. No small order, and that was definitely understood, because the Shaolin Temple was kung-fu heaven to me, but I had heard that the most famous Shaolin Temple, the one in Hunan, had been closed by Mao Tze Dung, that it was no more.
Inspiration to action
Now only a museum, its priests had been imprisoned or killed.
This was my inspiration to action. Something had to be done to insure that the great Shaolin Temple and what it stood for would never be forgotten. God knows, even before it had been closed, it was only open to Chinese who went through hell to get in. For me to train there was tantamount to wanting to train on the moon. I realized that, and had settled for a lifelong dream of just wishing I might someday lay eyes on the physical temple itself, perhaps even touch some part of it.
Then, in 1992, the unimaginable happened; a team of Shaolin monks was coming to America. I went to see the monks perform in New York, even chartering a bus for my students, because, as I told them, history was being made. Real monks from the real Shaolin Temple! I could not believe this moment was really happening. I can still remember that when my students came to me in 1973 and told me that a show called “Kung Fu” was going to be on television, I could not believe what they were saying and told them that they must be mistaken, that they must have misread an advertisement for a Chinese cooking show. Yet, was I ever happy to be wrong.
I remember being thrilled as I sat and watched that first pilot movie starring David Carridine as Kwai Chang Caine, a monk from the Shaolin Temple. Karate had monopolized the martial arts scene in the U.S. for such a long time! At long last, here was something we kung-fu people could call our own, and open our doors we did! The first year that show was on, I never missed a single episode. I don’t think I have been as excited since then as when I was informed the monks were coming.
There would be questions to ask. If they were coming to America, where were they coming from? I mean, hadn’t the temple been closed? This was a very important question on my agenda, very important! And what would they be demonstrating? More likely, what would they not be demonstrating, what with all the knowledge vested in that sacred place? Of course, I had not stayed ignorant of news from China during all those years that I had been establishing my school. I had heard that the temple was now a museum, that some priests had been allowed back in after having been imprisoned for some time. Rumor had it that they were mere puppets of the government, though.
No closer to dream
Supposedly there was a wushu school set up nearby, but no one actually trained at the temple itself anymore. Hearsay, that’s all anyone had to offer, and after the show was over in New York, I was no closer to finding the answers to any of my questions. The priests of Shaolin were hoarded like the treasures they were, and there was no getting close. After waiting 21 years for this moment, I went home with only a souvenir book and the few answers and insights it gave. Then came the visitor.
A kung-fu student in New York called and asked permission to visit my school. His name was Tony Parisi. It was two-and-a-half years after the monks had visited, and the monks were the last thing on my mind when Tony visited; yet, Tony brought me startling news. One of the monks had stayed behind, was in New York, and was teaching him kung-fu! He even pointed him out in a photo of the monks that I had on my wall. This was hard to comprehend.
Months later, and many events having since transpired, I still find it hard to believe the story I am telling you now. For all intent and purposes, I suppose the best way to put this is – the Shaolin Temple is here! We really have a highranking monk from the Shaolin Temple teaching right here in the United States.
When the shock of that historical statement finally settles in, I know the next question some people are going to ask (knowing that, in the 1,500 years since the Shaolin Temple was built, nothing like this has ever happened), is going to be, “How long is this going to last?” There are certainly those who feel like we will just wake up one morning and find that this monk has gone back to China. But, I am getting ahead of myself.
Tony invited me to visit his teacher at the U.S.A. Shaolin Temple in New York last February. He had heard that I frequent Chinatown, New York, during Chinese New Year, and plans were made for me to contact Tony when I was there. But, schedules as they were, I was unable to get a call to him that day. However, I did visit the temple before leaving the city, and, though the day had been bitter cold with terrible winds making it hard to enjoy the lion dance festivities, the experience of meeting Shi Yan-Ming soon had us forgetting the harsh winter weather just outside.
Moment of truth
It was not until that moment that I truly felt an appreciation for his value as a genuine teacher from Shaolin, such was his aura when he rose from his chair and came across the room to meet me. Strength that was visible, humility that was tangible, while I found him impressive on stage, Shi Yan-Ming was even more impressive face to face. He is the kind of person who does not have to say a word to earn my respect. I speak a little Chinese, he speaks a little English, and the many questions would have to wait until we could meet again with a translator. For now, it was pleasantries and, all too soon, I was leaving New York for home in Delaware. We were to meet again, though, and soon.
A trip was arranged. Tuesday, Feb. 28, 1995, is a date my students will always remember, and one I will never forget, either. After nearly a quarter of a century of trying to emulate a legend, Shao Lin San was being visited by a representative of the very temple that had inspired its founding. This was to be no ordinary day. The press was invited to mark the day with a feature story, students were put on their best behavior, and a commemorative plaque was engraved for the presentation that would come that evening. This was no ordinary guest for us. No, indeed! This was a priest from the Shaolin Temple, and with translator at hand, now, at long last, the questions would be answered.
Master Shi Yan-Ming, a 34th generation Shaolin Temple Fighting Monk, entered the temple at the age of five. He is now 30 years old. Solidly built, one notices almost immediately that his back is always ramrod straight. The posture is the same whether standing, or sitting, and is indicative of rigid training that would cause most to flee from the training he endured. I found during the interview that the temple had never been closed during the repressive years that Mao ruled China, but there was harassment and destruction.
Mao Tze Dung was an atheist and very anti-establishment. Among his first decrees in taking over the entire country of China was the outlawing of religion, making atheism the religion of the State. I did not go into detail with Shi Yan-Ming about these years under Mao. Perhaps at another time I will have the opportunity, but I do know it is fact that when his army swept into Tibet in 1950, they destroyed nearly every temple in Tibet, and inhumanly murdered thousands of Tibetan Buddhist monks. Mao Tze Dung put to death 20 million of his own people for disagreeing with his thought! And when Mao really unleashed the dogs, his creation of the Red Guard in mid-1966, hell itself had nothing on what these wandering masses of corrupted youth were capable of. Mao mobilized the youth of China for his purposes. They were given free reign to do as they pleased in their support of Mao’s revolution. They were above the law, and could break into homes and institutions at will, destroy books and manuscripts they deemed unfit, persecute, torture, and even kill whenever and wherever they felt. And they came to the Shaolin Temple!
The Red Guard had as one of their tenets to attack the “Four Olds”- old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits. The monks of Shaolin and their precious temple were sitting ducks. I have been more than curious about this time in the temple’s history for quite some years, and at long last could ask someone who really knew what happened. Shi Yan-Ming told me that when the Red Guard came, they destroyed many of the sacred statues and relics at the temple. There is an area at Shaolin where for centuries the monks who died at the temple were buried beneath tall, stone pagodas, their number being such that the place is called Ta Lin, the Forest of Pagodas. While there was a time that this sacred ground was considered forbidden to all but a few, the Red Guard considered these pagodas symbols of “elitism,” and toppled a large portion of them. The Shaolin Temple surviving the onslaught of the Red Guard will be a story in itself, I am sure.
The Shaolin Temple was built in A.D. 495 by Emperor Hsiao Wen of the Northern Wei dynasty. It had seen hundreds of years of the best fighters in China come through its gates to exchange their fighting theories, some even remaining to become teachers within those sacred walls. Much of this trading of martial arts knowledge had been recorded in books stored at the temple, thereby contributing to the fact that this would be the place where kung-fu would teach its apex. I wondered about the stories that I had heard concerning the destruction of these records and asked Shi Yan-Ming if any of these records had survived. In March, 1925, Sun Yat-Sen, the ruler of China, died, plunging his country into several years of chaos as various warlords fought to gain control.
Halls of fire
In 1928, two of these warring warlords found themselves at odds with each other in the vicinity of the Shaolin Temple, and one of them used the temple for covet. The warlord Fong Yu Hsiang attacked the temple with cannon, and set fire to Shaolin, burning down 16 temple halls in the process. Also hit was the Bell Tower, containing a great iron bell that weighed 5,500 kilograms. Made in the early 13th century, the bell had hung there all those centuries, only to fall during this great fire, breaking into several pieces. It was, fortunately, welded back together in 1957.
As for the books about which I had inquired, they did indeed exist at one time, but, during this siege of the temple by the warlord Fong Yu Hsiang, the building, which housed sacred Buddhist texts as well as all of these martial arts manuscripts, called the Chang Ching K’e, was hit and set on fire. Risking their very lives, the monks raced into the burning building to save what they could. Shi Yan-Ming told me that one of his teachers was blinded in one eye from that fire while rescuing the books. The monks were not able to retrieve all of the books and many were lost in that fire. However, over the centuries, many of these manuscripts had been duplicated and carried to other parts of China. Thus it was that many of the lost books were able to be replaced by copies that were sent to the temple after word of the tragedy spread.
To the credit of the temple, all the monks spent time studying and memorizing these books, so many of them could be re-written from memory. Still, Shi Yan-Ming said that there are some books that are still lost to us because of this incident. It is worth noting here that Shi Yan-Ming personally knows over 100 forms.
I asked Shi Yan-Ming during the interview what his plans are now that he is here in the United States. He told me that he plans to build a real Shaolin Temple, just like the one back in China. Now there’s a welcome thought! This, of course, will be an enormous task. The original temple was built with the patronage of an emperor, and with the money required to realize so great a project, where does one begin?
One thing is for certain: while we tackle the logistics of this endeavor, we want to keep Shi Yan-Ming here. He has bills for the modest temple he has opened in New York, and New York is an expensive city. Maybe, while he is getting established here, there will be those among us who wish to send contributions to his temple. At the end of this article, I will include the mailing address for his temple. When the monks toured the U.S. several years ago, there were those martial artists who were a little disappointed at the show. I know people came expecting Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Li Lien Jieh, but the reality was that not all of the monks were fighting monks. Some were old, some were young, some practiced chi kung exclusively, some did very well with weapons, while others were older and slower. But what most did not realize was that each was a walking encyclopedia of material, and that they had selected a few pieces of that library to show us. They were not trying to dazzle us, and while that thought may be lost on many, I can honestly say that I have gained much more respect for the abilities of Shi Yan-Ming after watching him teach a class.
He has amazing power and body strength, is much faster than he demonstrated when he was on stage with the other monks, and could be every bit the movie star that Li Lien Jich or Jackie Chan are; in fact, he has been in a number of martial arts movies already. Most inspiring of all, however, is his humility and modesty. With all that he is capable of, most people possessing such an array of talents would be extremely conceited. He is everything the contrary.
I had heard, as most martial artists who have studied anything about the Shaolin Temple, that there was an ancient ritual of graduation that the monks of Shaolin went through upon completion of the requirements of mastery. It was called the Mu Ren Chang, the Hall of the Wooden Men, so named because the graduation candidate had to pass through its corridors which were lined with 108 wooden men, each of them triggered by secret means to go off and attack the candidate at unexpected times. Reportedly, this hall was so deadly that there were students who did not make it through the first time they tried, their unconscious bodies requiring retrieval by the instructors who then nursed them back to health. Those who were successful in passing the wooden men reached an urn filled with hot coals which had two figures that would be branded into the monk’s arms as he embraced the urn to lift and move it, thus freeing himself from the Hall of the Wooden Men and exiting with the coveted diploma of Shaolin, branded arms bearing the dragon on the left arm, the tiger on the right arm. This certainly was a diploma that no one could forge and all respected.
I asked Shi Yan-Ming if he was familiar with this hall. He said that he was, and that he knew how to design one. I then asked if the practice of branding the arms was still carried on and he explained that, since the end of the Ch’ing dynasty (1911) no one has been able to because the Chinese government considered this practice archaic and unnecessary.
The reporter who was present when I asked this question asked if there were any monks still alive with the marks today. Shi Yan-Ming said that they were all dead now. Later that evening, one of my students asked if, once he has his temple built here in the United States, he would reinstitute the practice of the branding of the arms. His answer, without a moment’s hesitation, was “yes”.
Earlier that day, I had thought about how much the Chinese government has no doubt meddled in the affairs of the Temple, if perhaps a lot of the older training methods and practices that made this temple the lightning point for so many of China’s best were not being utilized today because of this very interference. I asked Shi Yan-Ming if there was anything about the Shaolin Temple that he could change. It was a trick question. I wanted to know if there was interference by the government that he could not discuss, if there were indeed ancient training practices that he and other monks were no longer able to carry out because of this. He was not willing to elaborate, and I am a gentleman, but he did say that, even though he is very high-ranking monk in the temple, if he is successful here in America, he will be able to go hack and effect changes that he would like to see, because success here will give him more of an authority voice there.
One of my students asked Shi Yan-Ming what he missed most about China, and immediately he said, “Shaolin Si,” “The Shaolin Temple”.
Tony Parisi told me that they had proudly showed Shi Yan-Ming the famous movie, The Shaolin Temple, starring Li Lien Jieh, and that when the first scenes of the temple flashed across the screen, Shi Yan-Ming almost cried. I asked him earlier if deciding to stay in America had been a hard decision for him to make. He stated that he had felt spiritually compelled to do so while here on the tour in 1992. When the ensuing dilemma caused the Chinese Consulate, in their efforts to get him hack to China, to state that China was his home, Shi Yan-Ming answered them, “I am a Buddhist monk. The world is my home.” Whatever homesickness he may feel, Shi Yan-Ming is dedicated to his ideals. Everyone has been wanting to know how he, therefore, escaped, “defected” as many have put it. Shi Yan-Ming tells a poignant and funny story.
Coming to America
First, I must point out that he understands the word “defected” and chooses not to use this in reference to his situation. He chose to stay here, to follow the spiritual quest that he has embarked upon, and is free to visit the Shaolin Temple anytime he chooses. But, in answer to the question, Shi Yan-Ming told me that he had had much freedom to come and go as he pleased in San Francisco, where the touring monks were staying during one stop on their U.S. tour. He knew that soon he would be aboard a plane headed back to China. It was now or never. He took one last look around the room and walked out of the hotel where he then hailed a taxi. The taxi driver asked him where he wanted to go, and being unable to speak any English at the time, Shi Yan-Ming told me that he just pointed straight ahead. So the driver unwittingly became part of history as his cab took a highranking member of the Shaolin Temple into the night and away from the Chinese authorities.
When they came to a fork in the road, the driver asked which way, and Shi Yan-Ming looked left, then right, and tried to figure which direction looked best. Then he simply pointed left, or right, as if he knew, and on they went. Further down the road, with this process repeating itself over and over, the unlikely duo finally came to an intersection formed by three roads. The driver, by now a little more than concerned with his “strange” passenger, asked which way he wanted to go. Shi Yan-Ming looked left, then right, then pointed for the driver to go straight ahead, apparently up a one-way street. This proved too much for the taxi driver, and he pulled over to a phone and called the police. I must admit, we all fell over with laughter as this part of the story was being told. We can laugh now, but I am sure it was not a fun night for Shi Yan-Ming then.
The police arrived, looked at Shi Yan-Ming’s passport and papers and told the taxi driver that he was apparently not a bad guy. He suggested the driver take him to Chinatown and drop him off there. Off they went, but Chinatown was probably farther than the driver wanted to go. Upon seeing a Chinese restaurant, the driver dropped Shi Yan-Ming in the middle of nowhere. The restaurant owner must have been in shock when he found out the identity of his surprise guest. Unfortunately, the man at the restaurant spoke Cantonese dialect-Shi Yan-Ming speaks only Mandarin-but, as all Chinese read and write words the same, they were able to communicate by writing everything down. Shi Yan-Ming asked to use his telephone and called a friend in San Francisco who came out, picked him up, and helped Shi Yan-Ming disappear into more than just the night. He was then, and still is now, a “Living Treasure of China”.
It was not easy for China to give up their claim to this man, but he is still here in America, much to our great fortune, doing what he plans to do. This, in itself, says that there were battles to deal with during the first year he was here. There are people who quite literally put their lives on the line for him to win his freedom, and Shi Yan-Ming is not willing to name them. I told him I understand.
It has been remarkable meeting Shi Yan-Ming. Since beginning this article, I have visited him at his temple in New York again and can say that my life has been enriched for having met him. Some people, knowing how great the legacy of the Shaolin Temple and how revered its monks, would be afraid to tell anyone else where Shi Yan-Ming is, wanting to keep such a great treasure hidden and all to oneself. But, he is not here to satisfy the selfish wants of egotists.
He is a disciple of Bodhidharma, a dedicated practitioner of Shaolin, where the ability to wield deadly martial skills do not seem out of harmony with his devotion to protecting life. Just as he says that one who understands both understands how the two pursuits form a complete whole, he must understand more than many who surround him that his journey in America is another part of his own journey into completion. There are many whose lives were meant to be touched by this man, whose lives will not be complete until they have done so. After 1,500 years of waiting, it is time.
The Shaolin Temple has come to America. Let the journey begin!
For more information, contact Master Shi Yan-Ming at U.S.A. Shaolin Temple, ( Address at the time of this article: 96 Bowery, 3rd Floor, New York, N.Y., 10013).
The USA Shaolin Temple has since moved to 446 Broadway, 2nd Floor, New York, N.Y. 10012. 212-358-7876