SHAOLIN TEMPLE figures in the popular imagination as a haven for disciplined learning. Located in the misty Song Mountains, it's one of the best known Buddhist shrines on the mainland and birthplace of the martial art made famous by its fighting monks. But visitors to the famous temple complex in Henan province these days find there's little resemblance to that ascetic image. 'This is kind of weird,' says 15-year-old Courtney Lee, an America-born Chinese on her first visit to the mainland. 'It's more modernised than I ever imagined.' Beside her, a young monk is busily sending text messages on his mobile phone. The temple has zealously embraced the spirit of free enterprise in recent years, and many find it hard to reconcile the reality of Shaolin Inc. with the image of monks who give up material interests for the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. Visitors are often startled to find that much activity at Shaolin these days involves paying tourists. But the abbot, Shi Yongxin, insists the monks maintain the simple lifestyle that their predecessors practised 1,500 years ago. 'Our life has always been simple and austere, with frequent meditation and chanting prayer services.' Nevertheless, he travels in his own Mercedes, carries a fancy mobile phone and is something of a jetsetter, flying around the world to promote the Shaolin name. 'I've been to more than 60 countries,' he says. 'Just came back from Rome yesterday.' Shi Yongxin was 34 when he became abbot in 1999, having spent 16 years at the temple. Like most of the senior monks, he's reputed to be a kung fu master. But the rotund monk doesn't look as if he has spent much time honing his fighting skills. Indeed, his most formidable weapon seems to be useful government connections. In recent years, the Shaolin organisation has been able to claim large stretches of land surrounding the temple complex. Shaolin's transformation has roused criticism. The cradle of Buddhist learning and kung fu has been turned into a well-oiled moneymaking machine, cultural observers say. The success of the temple, which now admits 1.5 million visitors annually, has turned the monks into bewildered strangers in their own abode, or in the eyes of some, exotically garbed tourism workers. Shi Yongxin, a delegate to the National People's Conference, waxes philosophical about Shaolin's popularity. 'We're not against pursuing commercial interests,' he says. 'Without commerce, there won't be social development. But we hope to play a positive role both for people and for our temple, while preserving the spirit of the temple.' In 1997, it set up the Shaolin Tourism Development Co. with local authorities, and soon began to relocate nearby kung fu schools to a neighbouring town and clear out tacky shops and hotels to raise the tone of the area. 'Five years ago, this place was almost a flea market, with all that noise and chaos,' says Shi Yongxin. 'If you saw how shabby Shaolin Temple was at that time, you wouldn't believe it could survive.' However, nearby residents haven't always felt the benefits of Shaolin's expansion. Ding Wenzhong's calligraphy stand outside Shaolin's stupa maze is one of the lucky few to survive the demolition drive. The 43-year-old has been there for more than 10 years, making at most 30 yuan from each piece of writing. 'The business was not bad before the reconstruction. I could make a decent living,' the calligrapher says. 'But from this year, I have to pay an annual rent of 90,000 yuan to Shaolin Tourism Development. There's so little money left it's like doing volunteer work so I'm going to quit next year.' Few domestic visitors are willing to spend more after having to fork out 100 yuan for a ticket to enter the temple complex, more than double the 45 yuan charged before the reconstruction. Sun Yong, a taxi driver from the nearby provincial capital of Zhengzhou, says the increase is a crazy move. 'Who would pay so much merely to see a temple?' he says. The previous fee of 45 yuan wasn't cheap but at least it was 'still affordable'. Sun's business has also suffered. He used to drive tourists to the temple two to three times each week, but now that's the number of fares he gets each month. The abbot says he opposed the ticket price rise. He had raised objections at last year's NPC meeting 'because ordinary people won't be able to afford it', he says. 'But it's a government decision that I have no authority to change.' But under Shi Yongxin's leadership, Shaolin has assiduously promoted and guarded its brand. To stave off copycat kung fu schools, it set up a temple-affiliated academy where martial art can be taught outside the Buddhist context, and other schools are banned from claiming to teach the Shaolin style. The temple has also launched a three-month course to teach Shaolin kung fu techniques to the heads of martial arts schools abroad. Those who complete the 4,000-yuan course will be granted Buddhist monks' names. 'It is a process that the society has to go through, to ensure standards,' the abbot says. Shaolin monks have a long tradition of making pilgrimages to spread the teachings of Buddha, often walking thousands of kilometres. They used their fighting prowess to attract attention, eventually leading people to Buddhist principles Shi Yongxin sees such showmanship as a way of promoting Shaolin and preserving its teachings. Hence, there are regular performance tours by its monks around the globe. Shaolin was particularly fortunate when Shaolin Temple, the 1980s movie starring a then unknown Jet Lee, became a huge hit. It sparked a worldwide kung fu craze and interest soared in all things related to the temple - and spawned a new genre of film. 'It was made more than 20 years ago but has been one of our best advertisements, ever,' says Shi Yongxin. Over the years, scores of films have tapped on the Shaolin mystique. But the abbot feels none have been able to reflect the true spirit of Shaolin, and is out to correct that. Now, the temple is going into filmmaking for itself, giving it a final say in the selection of theme, script and the depiction of Buddhism. It has set up the Shaolin Cultural Broadcast Company to produce the authentic Shaolin movie. Armed with a 200-million-yuan budget, the temple has its sights on recruiting prominent directors such as Ang Lee, Yuen Woo-ping, Tsui Hark and Stanley Tong. 'If the new film turns out well, we may even submit it for the Oscars,' says Shi Yongxin, chief producer for the venture. Shaolin's warrior monks won't be taking leading roles, though. 'We will use professional actors to ensure the quality of the acting and big names will be good for promotion,' he says. Stars from Japan, Korea and the mainland are being considered. 'It's not appropriate for monks to have too much media exposure.' Yet Shaolin's chief executive is as much in the public eye as any movie star, and is easily recognised by visitors. 'Whenever they want to take photos with me or ask for autographs, I have to do it. For the good for our whole temple, I can't say no to my fans,' he says. To further defend its brand, another temple company, Henan Shaolin Temple Industrial Development, has registered the Shaolin trademark on nearly 100 items in China and has applied for registration in 68 countries. When the firm was set up in 2000, more than 100 businesses, including those selling cars, beer, tyres and furniture, were using the Shaolin name without permission. In 1994, the temple successfully sued a provincial company for marketing a sausage under the Shaolin name. 'People imitate us because we are famous,' says Shi Yongxin. 'But we need to work out good ways to keep our identity while spreading Shaolin culture.' Among the latest efforts by the monks are the design of a new logo and robes that 'identify the uniqueness of Shaolin Temple and Shaolin kung fu'. The temple is reported to have hired Beijing public relations firm Shi Ji Shen Guang to convey its image to the national and local media. The company's chief designer, Duan Jiasong, acknowledges that the temple is a client, but will say nothing more. 'This is a very sensitive issue for both parties,' he says. But under its controversial abbot, Shaolin seems set for a top-to-toe makeover. 'Shaolin's 1,500-year history has given it a great treasure,' says Shi Yongxin. 'If we don't take action, others will definitely grab everything valuable from us. The world is changing, and Shaolin Temple cannot be an exception to the trend.'