Not just for kicks

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2007, 12:00am

Shaolin Temple, in Dengfeng, Henan, often conjures an image of a lone kung fu monk surrounded by a dozen bad guys who are about to take a beating. American photographer Justin Guariglia received a similar impression at the historic site over the eight years he researched Shaolin Temple of Zen, his recently published coffee table book, the subject of his lecture to the Asia Society at the Helena May tonight.

Monks at the temple are surrounded - but by throngs of tourists or martial arts enthusiasts hoping to become a student of a monk. The 1,500-year-old birthplace of kung fu has become such a product of television and movies that critics say it has all but lost the meaning behind its myth.

Shaolin kung fu has its roots in the teachings of the Indian monk Bodhidharma, who is said to have visited the temple in AD527. The yoga-like exercises he taught its monks were designed to strengthen the body and mind and allow them to meditate longer. These disciplines fascinated New Yorker Guariglia when he first visited the temple as a tourist in 1992.

Bemused by its tourist crowds, but driven by a desire to learn about the real Shaolin, Guariglia kept returning. In five years, he says, he visited the school up to three times a year while he worked in other parts of Asia, often staying for months at a time. Then, via an interpreter, he told the temple's 30th abbot, Shi Yongxin, about his desire to reveal the monks' real lives, and that their martial arts practice was designed for Zen meditation rather than the 'hyped up, sensationalised entertainment side' Guariglia says is often associated with Shaolin.

The abbot agreed to the plan and granted him free rein of the temple and has since written the foreword to Shaolin Temple of Zen. While other photographers asked the monks to perform feats that had nothing to do with Zen, Guariglia focused on their meditative moves. The monks also waived their access fee, Guariglia says.

'It's considered a donation and it's fairly common practice when you go in to film or photograph almost any temple in China,' he says.

Guariglia's first priority was determining who was a monk, says the photographer, who covered Sars for The New York Times and shot the cover and inside story for Fortune's Who Needs Hong Kong issue.

'Nobody has ever made it clear to the outside world what's real and what's not real,' he says. 'There is no way to clearly see who is who, and what is what, at the temple.'

Since Shaolin became world famous in the 1970s through the Kung Fu television series starring David Carradine, the temple has become the centre of the martial arts world. By the early 90s, a small city of knock-off martial arts academies, souvenir shops and tourist traps filled the temple's valley. Troupes of travelling 'Shaolin monks' began touring the world proselytising kung fu through acrobatic martial arts shows. Few of them have had any association with the monks of the temple, Guariglia says.

'Half of the tours that are going around the world are not real Shaolin tours - they're not the official ones from the school,' he says. 'The abbot has been trying to crack down on this and show that these people are not really monks.'

Guariglia has watched the closure of many of the academies in Dengfeng as the temple tried to 'clean up' Shaolin's image. He recalls one publicity campaign, in 1992, when Shi took a sledgehammer to several schools.

'They were becoming too commercial,' Guariglia says. 'The whole village was filled with these small shops selling swords, spears and T-shirts.'

Among the few schools that were permitted to remain were the government-run Wushu Training Centre and the Taguo Martial Arts Academy, said to be the world's largest kung fu training centre.

Guariglia began his project by taking simple portraits of several monks he had befriended and later photographed the kung fu forms many had practised for decades.

Some of these forms were later made into composite photographs that are among the project's more compelling pieces. Guariglia's wife, Zoe Chen Hui-fang, a Taiwanese designer who has worked with Issey Miyake, used her knowledge of knitwear to 'weave' the individual photos together to create the impression of movement. Other photographed forms were made into animations that are part of an accompanying exhibition that will be displayed at the Amelia Johnson Gallery, in Central, until the end of the month.

Guariglia says the objective of his photography is to convey what he felt when he watched the forms for the first time. 'The monks are doing these forms that are 1,000 years old, which are very fluid and all about energy,' he says. 'You can feel and see the energy.'

But then the monks' kung fu focuses on self-awareness rather than the high-impact forms of self-defence taught at Taguo and the Wushu Training Centre, he says.

'You can't fight somebody doing this stuff,' Guariglia says. 'The monks never make contact; they're not punching or kicking people. It's a form of meditation.'

Even so, Guariglia prefers to photograph rather than study kung fu.

'I trained for three days, then dropped it, and picked up the camera again,' he says. 'I couldn't do it. It was too gruelling.'

The monks are unlikely to miss teaching Guariglia, as the visits of wannabe disciples are still a near daily distraction at Shaolin, he says. He recalls one of the temple's more renowned monks telling him about four men who had travelled from France to study under him.

'They kowtowed to him,' he says. One of them was ready to cut off his arm to prove his devotion, just as a legendary disciple of Bodhidharma had done.'

Guariglia hopes his book will limit such distractions and give the monks some peace.

'There is a spiritual side to the Shaolin Temple which most of the world does not know about,' he says. 'These monks are the keepers of a 1,500-year-old tradition - they are the living descendants of Bodhidharma. They don't want to become rock stars.'

Shaolin: Temple of Zen, Amelia Johnson Gallery, 6-10 Shin Hing St, Central. Inquiries: 2548 2286, ends Nov 30. Lectures: Asia Society, tonight, 6.30pm, Helena May, 35 Garden Rd, Central. Inquiries: 2103 9502. Nov 13, 7pm, Foreign Correspondents' Club, 2 Lower Albert Rd. Inquiries: 2521 1511. Nov 14, 8.30pm, Kee Club, 6/F, 32 Wellington St. Inquiries: 2826 2618