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Money moves in Shaolin(2)

2014-08-25 08:14 China Daily Web Editor: Qin Dexing
Martial artist Jai Harman instructs students at the Beijing Scientific Ving Tsun School. [Photo/China Daily]

Martial artist Jai Harman instructs students at the Beijing Scientific Ving Tsun School. [Photo/China Daily]

In March, executives from US tech giants Google and Apple joined the ranks of prominent global businesspeople to have received Shi's wisdom.

Members of the China Entrepreneurs Club, a group that consists of 46 leaders of the country's top private companies, also spoke with the abbot in a closed-door session this year at a conference themed "self cultivation of entrepreneurs".

These kinds of engagements are part of the reason why not everyone is convinced Shaolin's growing commercial interests are entirely altruistic, including outspoken Chinese netizens and some prominent martial arts masters from rival schools.

In a shaded courtyard, kung fu masters flow through fighting forms with a sinuous, otherworldly grace.

A group of students look on as the shaven-headed monks demonstrate the basic stances of wushu, the backbone of Shaolin's fighting style, made famous worldwide by the moviemakers of Hong Kong and Hollywood.

These eager pupils are African, American and European. And while some have made the pilgrimage to Shaolin seeking the fabled martial prowess that will stop an enemy's heart with a single blow, just as many say they have come looking for a professional edge.

As recently as a decade ago, foreign students were uncommon at Shaolin.

But, as Demina Masoula knows first hand, things have changed.

The 43-year-old business and marketing consultant is part of a group from Greece that has come to study at Shaolin for about two weeks.

An insurance company executive and an engineer for a multinational company practice nearby while Masoula takes a breather from the demanding 4:30 am to 9 pm daily training regime.

She believes the principles inherent in the kung fu she is learning can be applied to her professional life. It is a way, she says, of honing business instincts to react like muscle memory.

"In business, you have to be flexible, you have to find new paths and change. You have to see a crisis and avoid it. Kung fu teaches you to be fluid, like water, because everything in kung fu flows and stagnation is bad."

Masoula thinks the temple has successfully struck the right balance commercially and culturally.

"They get people in to make money to maintain the culture and the history here, the martial arts itself."

One of her Greek companions, psychologist Maria Fytrou, 33, disagrees.

"It's a business," she says. "They are selling what they love."

Wang Yumin, dean of Shaolin's Foreign Affairs Office, says that since January last year about 800 foreigners have come to live and train at the temple for periods ranging from a few days to more than 12 months.

Many are funneled in from the more than 40 "Shaolin cultural centers" dotted across Europe, the US and a host of other countries.

In the small city of Dengfeng at the base of Songshan mountain near Shaolin, more than 50,000 people train at 52 kung fu schools annually.

Wang believes foreign students are specifically and increasingly seeking the "legitimacy" that he says Shaolin Temple offers.

But ideas about what constitutes authenticity in Chinese kung fu are varied, and often subjective.

In an open-plan space on the fourth floor of a Beijing skyscraper, a mix of foreigners and locals throw kicks and punches at each other with a brutal efficiency that contrasts with the graceful flow of movement at Shaolin.

This is no accident, says Englishman-turned-Beijing-resident and professional martial artist Jai Harman.

The students are practicing ving tsun, a style renowned for its ruthless practicality. Many in the martial arts scene, such as Harman, believe it holds an authenticity Shaolin wushu is losing.

Harman, 30, who has lived in China for a decade, is a senior instructor at the Beijing Scientific Ving Tsun School. Ving tsun is an offshoot of Shaolin wushu that is now ancient in its own right.

"Wushu is a demonstrational form of kung fu," Harman says. "It has zero practicality for fighting. It's just good for building up the body. Ving tsun doesn't have any pretty poses; it's all about practicality."

Harman came to China on a kung fu pilgrimage to Shaolin, but what he found at the temple was not for him.

He sought out world-renowned ving tsun master Wang Zhipeng, whose lineage boasts ties to martial artist and star of the silver screen Bruce Lee.

"Wang Zhipeng's master's master was Yip Man, who also taught Bruce Lee," he says.

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