November 10, 2012: Northern Shaolin

by valerielwang

Driving up the mountain towards the Northern Shaolin, you progress past a series of what look like large hotels, each with a large, flat courtyard – like a large parking lot – in front. The courtyards are filled with square formations of red track-suited figures doing calisthenics or martial arts forms. It looks a bit like a kung fu movie featuring the army of an evil overlord, with no projectile or explosive weapons in sight.

Tour-bus parking, inevitable multiple gift shops. and seating for tired guests along a straight, paved path past a large square practice ground (more track-suited figures doing calisthenics) and a sign: There’s a show with an announcer (an over-amplified lady in a short, tight skirt and sarcastic delivery), weapons with wobbly aluminum blades, music, and fancy lights. We are, collectively, underwhelmed. The acrobatics are impressive, but there’s no extension in the strikes or cuts.

In the gift shop, though, there’s a very serious monk at the feet of a lovely Quanyin statue, who blesses each of us with a bead bound with a red thread to our left wrists, and a small jade laughing Buddha. We continue up the path to the temple itself. A young monk in a long grey robe manning the ticket turnstile shadow-boxes through a form while awaiting the next visitor. Here we find an ancient tree planted by the monastery’s first abbot, and steeles with memorials to their Shaolin saviors from long-dead emperors. Through hall after hall, in what we  come to understand as the classical Chinese fashion, linear and square, Confucianism laid out in architecture, we progress to the practice hall itself, high-ceilinged for long pole-arms, the floor pitted by centuries of form-practice, huge round pillars, sketches of daily life that are  said to change each decade. The sense of martial heritage here is palpable.

On the way back to the bus, we stop to observe the training grounds. Practice here looks rigorous enough – running, hopping, leaping, katas. And yet, so little seems the true echo of a fighting art. We walk away a little saddened. There appear to be no women practicing here, either – not that we expected any. Through the gauntlet of identical gift shops, back to the bus.