From producing a reality television martial arts contest, Kung Fu Idol, to licensing the Shaolin brand to a Taiwanese online gaming company, the revered Shaolin Monastery is testimony to a popular Chinese notion that money can be made out of everything, and cultural heritage is no exception.
Under the leadership of Abbot Shi Yongxin, the 1,500-year-old birthplace of kung fu and Zen Buddhism has engaged in businesses ranging from martial arts shows to film production to medicinal products and food. It will also venture into health care and property development, and will open branch monasteries around the world.
The first bang will be a A$700 million (HK$4.78 billion) deal in Australia. The monastery will buy 1,200-hectares of land in Shoalhaven, New South Wales, to set up its biggest branch monastery in the Asia-Pacific, the abbot said at the monastery, which lies midway up Mount Song in Henan province.
There will be a temple, meditation rooms, training centres for kung fu, Chinese language and etiquette, a traditional medicine clinic and a hotel. To fund the land and development fees, the monastery will introduce projects in phases and form joint ventures with local property developers to build villas for sale. The Australian government is in the process of approving the land sale, and the project should be finalised this year. Shaolin will own it permanently.
The abbot said another branch monastery of a similar scale was being planned for opening in Vancouver, Canada, this year, but declined to elaborate. At home, the monastery will invest 160 million yuan in building a sister monastery, the 'North Shaolin Monastery' in Tianjin, on land granted by the municipal government. It also plans to build a 50 million yuan hospital to take advantage of about 400 viable secret prescriptions inherited from ancient monks.
With the Shaolin Monastery at the frontline of commercialisation, other cultural heritages are following suit despite public scrutiny and criticism of over-commercialisation.
Some have argued in defence of commercialisation.
'Since China's opening up, commercialisation of cultural heritages is inevitable because there is demand in the market. At the same time, the government still puts the majority of resources into economic development instead of cultural preservation,' said Yuan Gangming, an economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
He expected more heritage sites to commercialise to promote and preserve the culture they represent in tandem with the growing cultural thirst that comes with economic affluence.
The state-owned Qiao's Grand Courtyard in Shanxi province, the filming location for the movie Raise the Red Lantern directed by Zhang Yimou, is an example of how heritage is effectively used to make money.
Aware of the tourism revenue that sites for film and television production can generate, the 8,724 square metre architectural complex pitched CCTV to produce a television drama bearing the name of the courtyard in 2005. With the television drama broadcast nationwide, the courtyard's admission ticket revenue more than doubled from 12 million yuan in 2005 to 31 million yuan in 2006. Total revenue from the courtyard and related travel facilities was 180 million yuan that year.
At the Shaolin Monastery, which sends its monks on world tours to demonstrate kung fu, tourist numbers have risen in the past two decades. Official statistics show that in 2006, some 4.13 million tourists visited Dengfeng city, site of the monastery, up 29 per cent from a year earlier. The monastery takes 30 per cent of every 100 yuan a tourist pays to visit the Shaolin attraction, while the local government takes the remainder. Last year, the monastery earned 50 million yuan in admission fees and devotees' donations, up from 32 million yuan in 2006.
For its other business ventures, such as music and film production and the soon-to-be-opened Buddha souvenir chain stores targeted at the Beijing Olympics, the monastery grants licensing rights for the Shaolin brand and generally gets 30 to 40 per cent of profits.
The Dengfeng city government also generates a third of its revenue from the tourism industry and is planning to list tourism facilities in Hong Kong this year. Other extended beneficiaries of the Shaolin fame are the city's 68 private martial arts training schools with an estimated 50,000 students who dream of becoming the next Jet Li or Jackie Chan.
A source at a private martial arts school says since the abbot - who meets and befriends world politicians, stars and businessmen - has become a celebrity, the 'lowest price' for each of his public appearances at kung fu schools is a staggering 100,000 yuan, or about 11.76 times the city's 8,500 yuan per-capita income.
It is rumoured that a businessman needs to pay about 200,000 yuan for Abbot Shi to perform a ritual to bless his business or family for success. 'I don't shun commercialisation,' said the 43-year-old abbot, who came under public criticism after accepting a one million yuan luxury sport-utility vehicle government reward for his contribution to local tourism.
'If we can keep making some money promoting Shaolin culture, why stop doing it?' asked the abbot, with no indication of discomfort over his luxury gift car parked outside the west wing of the monastery.
He said Shaolin should seize the development opportunity brought by the mainland's rapidly changing political and economic environment.
'The whole society is restructuring resources now, such as the approval of the property law. If we don't do anything at this moment, we will lose out.'
The National Bureau of Statistics' estimates in 2006 show that the valuation of the mainland's cultural and related industries accounted for 2.45 per cent of the gross domestic product that year, or 516.6 billion yuan.
However, commercialisation does not always win applause, especially when the preservation of traditions is in conflict with moneymaking. Qiao's Grand Courtyard again hogged the limelight recently when its owner - the Qi county government - proposed to privatise the cultural site.
Last December, it allied with two mainland investment firms to form a new company that will spend 200 million yuan on developing three nearby ancient architectural sites.
The county government injected the management rights of the courtyard into the venture in exchange for a 25 per cent stake in the new company. The new company was granted the right to manage the courtyard for 20 years and would pocket all admission fees, although the county government would still be paid an additional 10 million yuan in returns annually.
The legitimacy of the move has been severely questioned, as it is illegal to sell the management rights of national heritage sites to a private company without the approval of higher authorities on the mainland.
The negative publicity generated by the controversial deal forced the provincial authority to call it off late last month, but critics said similar deals could emerge again.
Commercialisation has also come in the form of public listings, as is the case of one of the nation's oldest Peking duck restaurant chains. The 144-year-old Quanjude said it would soon replace most of its traditional wood-burning stoves with fully automatic electric ovens after its initial public offering in November last year successfully raised 388 million yuan.
'It's much easier for Quanjude to standardise its duck processing with modern methods, which will help it to accelerate outlet expansion,' said Chen Xun, an analyst at Ping An Securities. Shares of the Shenzhen-listed roast duck chain operator have jumped more than 51 per cent since their trading debut, but closed 0.84 per cent down at 63.98 yuan on Tuesday last week.
But Dai Yi, a 28-year-old office lady, doubts whether the restaurant can maintain the product's original flavour.
'Quanjude's biggest asset is the tradition and culture behind the famous brand. If it changes tradition, it will lose its roots,' she said. 'Although it guarantees that the flavour will remain the same, it should hold a hearing and let customers decide whether they can make the change.'
'If they lose the crispy flavour, what's the purpose of the IPO? Is it another way to cheat investors of their money?'