China’s Shaolin Temple monks spread their gospel of kung fu in Africa
Monks broaden outreach to continent where Chinese martial art has been overshadowed by tribal variety but isgrowing in popularity
Ten grey-suited Buddhists crouch like leopards stalking a muntjac, a type of deer, before barrelling across the stage in an explosion of gravity-defying pivots, kicks and somersaults that would make an osteopath wince.
These are the warrior monks of China's fabled Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of kung fu which is spreading its gospel to Africa as part of a wood-smashing, sword-dancing, spear-balancing grab at global ubiquity.
"Shaolin kung fu isn't simply a physical exercise," said 26-year-old Shi Yancen as he limbered up at the Chinese-built Grand Theatre in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, ahead of the monks' first ever show in west Africa.
"Through learning kung fu you can also learn and admire the culture of Buddhism."
Shi, who has a gentle face and looks barely out of his teens, has been mastering kung fu for half his life in the austere surrounds of the Shaolin Temple, nestled in the forested mountains of Henan , one of China's most impoverished provinces.
A common sight for years across Asia, the United States and Europe, the Shaolin monks are turning their attention to Africa, where kung fu has been overshadowed by tribal martial arts but is growing in popularity.
Since 2008, monks from the temple have been wooing sell-out crowds in South Africa, Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, Burundi, Uganda, Eritrea, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Malawi, eyeing Africa's huge untapped potential.
The attention is paying off, with thousands of youngsters taking up kung fu each year, and 12 nations, including Senegal, participated in the fifth pan-continental kung fu championships in Madagascar in September.
The temple has no schools yet in Africa but its foreign liaison officer, Wang Yumin, said its strategy was to bring pupils to China and get them to spread the message of "love, justice and health" back home.
"The Shaolin Temple has the mission to spread our tradition and Africans have the same demand to share our legendary culture," she said.
Students from six African countries started five years of training at the temple in 2011 and the monks have also begun shorter courses, all funded by China.
"Life in the Shaolin Temple is unimaginably lovely and peaceful. It's not like the real world where there is so much hustle," one of the graduates, Nigerian Peace Emezue, was quoted as saying in state-run newspaper China Daily.
Legend places the origins of the Shaolin tradition at 495AD, when the emperor Xiaowen is said to have ordered the construction of a temple, deep in a mountain forest, in honour of an Indian monk named Batuo.
Around 30 years later, another Indian ascetic, named Bodhidharma, arrived and spent nine years meditating in a nearby cave before teaching the monks Zen Buddhism and the beginnings of what would become Shaolin kung fu.
Farmer's son and factory worker Shi Yonxin ingrained the brand in the public imagination when he took over as abbot in 1999 and began sending his monks off around the world.
For some, however, the magic of Shaolin is wearing thin.
Traditionalists have complained that the temple's financial adroitness is overshadowing the prowess of the students, who are swapping meditation for lessons in business studies and copyright law.
Huang Hanqiu, the deputy chief of Henan's culture department, said ahead of the monks' west African debut in mid-January that Shaolin's expansion was fulfilling an overseas infatuation with its brand of spirituality.
"The leader of the Shaolin temple is doing all he can to spread the teachings of Buddhism. He's not doing that for commercial reasons," she said.