Popular Shaolin films blend martial arts, Buddhist spirituality


A scene from “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.” (The Weinstein Company)
September 9, 2011

Forget Harry Potter, Transformers and any comic book superhero you’d care to name. None of them can match what is arguably the most popular franchise in film history, featuring the 1,500-year-old martial-arts tradition of some Chinese Buddhist monks.

The Shaolin Temple, founded in the fifth century, has been the key element in hundreds of movies and TV shows: “Kids From Shaolin,” “American Shaolin,” “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin,” “Shaolin Soccer” — and now “Shaolin,” a new movie starring Jackie Chan and Andy Lau that debuted Friday on video-on-demand. All are based on the martial-arts practices of the monastery — a special brand of kung fu that combines physicality and Buddhist spirituality and is, according to the Shaolin Temple’s Web site, “based on a belief in the supernatural power of Buddhism.”

“Most people don’t realize kung fu is internal and external, a peaceful and a martial application, and a Shaolin movie will include both, while most kung fu movies are about anger and shooting,” says Ric Meyers, author of “Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Book.”

“Shaolin is all about spirituality, karma, your well-being,” adds Doris Pfardrescher of Well Go USA, which is distributing “Shaolin.” All other martial-arts films are “ just about action, fighting,” she adds, “but Shaolin is about religion, spirituality, being with Buddha.”

Despite the longevity of the Shaolin tradition — and that its fighting monks have popped up in Chinese films as far back as the 1930s — the temple’s cinematic cult is a relatively recent phenomenon.

It began with “Shaolin Temple,” a 1976 film inspired by a 17th-century incident in which imperial Qing dynasty forces burned down the monastery, but several monks escaped and spread their martial-arts style throughout the land. The film’s release was “when people started to get a grasp on Shaolin martial arts, and that’s also when the world was opening up to martial-arts movies,” says Craig D. Reid, author of “The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s.”

“These were the heroes that would save the country,” says Reid. “They were fantastic martial artists and have been important in Chinese history.”

The success of “Shaolin Temple” opened the floodgates. Filmmakers in China and Hong Kong started pumping out Shaolin movies as fast as they could, and with the release of Jet Li’s first film, the 1981 mega-hit also named “Shaolin Temple,” “everyone in China went Shaolin crazy,” says Meyers. “Kung fu is baseball in China; it’s ubiquitous, and Shaolin kung fu is top of the line” (Bruce Lee, who died before the Shaolin craze, did not practice Shaolin-style martial arts).

But Shaolin did not become just an Asian phenomenon. The 1970s TV series “Kung Fu” featured David Carradine as a Shaolin monk. Wu-Tang Clan named their first hip-hop album “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” — the 36 Chambers being a reference to a Shaolin movie. The animated hit “Kung Fu Panda” was influenced by Shaolin martial-arts styles. In the “Kill Bill” movies, Uma Thurman is taught martial arts by a Shaolin monk. And even the cartoon series “The Simpsons” helped establish the monastery’s cultural bona fides when Homer visited it during a trip to China.

Since the Shaolin craze began, martial arts have become fairly ubiquitous in movie fight scenes — hits such as “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” helped popularize the form — but Shaolin remains an iconic name and style all its own. “A lot of other martial-arts films are just throwing out different styles,” says Reid, “but when you see a bald-headed monk in a martial-arts film, you know it’s a Shaolin monk. Other movies are just entertainment. The Shaolin movies are a way to tell the audience about the Shaolin martial arts.”

Same as it ever was. In “Shaolin,” set in the early 1900s and inspired by the 1980s Jet Li film, a war lord (Andy Lau) betrayed by a rival seeks refuge in the legendary monastery, where he learns inner peace through the practice of Shaolin martial arts. The film, only the second to be formally authorized by temple officials, has been a hit on the mainland. When it comes to the potential American audience, says Pfardrescher, “you have a younger demographic, but with Shaolin you get more women because of the spirituality of it all. It’s amazing how many female fans we have.”

Shaolin has, in fact, become a “brand” of sorts. The monastery is now a tourist attraction, the monks have traveled the world giving demonstrations of their martial-arts prowess and numerous Web sites offer Shaolin equipment, T-shirts and other merchandise (much of which is not licensed by the temple).

But ultimately, says Reid, Shaolin has become so popular not because it is aggressive and martial, but because it is “about learning not to fight, learning to heal, not to hurt. It’s about learning about one’s self.”

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