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Battling clichés in birthplace of kung fu Add to ...

The scene in the Shaolin martial-arts school is as timeless as the sacred Buddhist mountains behind it. With swift jabs of controlled power, the warrior monk is perfecting his ancient technique.

But when his rapid-fire movements are finished, no enemy is prone on the floor. The only outcome is an immaculate sheet of Chinese calligraphy in black ink.

Here in the birthplace of kung fu, the Shaolin monks are trying to overturn the stereotypes of 35 years of chop-socky movies. For the first time, they have obtained approval to produce their own films and television programs, aiming to prove that their spiritual culture -- a culture that includes calligraphy and tea ceremonies -- goes far beyond the violent clichés of the cinema world.

On the surface, Shaolin is prospering. The monks have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the Asian and Hollywood movies that fuelled the martial-arts boom. Ticket revenue at their monastery is growing at spectacular rates, with up to 10,000 tourists visiting daily and tickets priced at $15 each. More than 40,000 students are enrolled at 84 martial arts schools around the temple, and the nearby town is filled with souvenir shops selling kung fu weapons, martial-arts uniforms and thousands of trinkets and toys.

But the monks are unhappy at their image in popular culture. And until recently, they've had no way to counteract the flood of movies and touring performances that trade on the name of the Shaolin Temple, where kung fu (known here as wushu) was created by Zen Buddhist monks almost 1,500 years ago.

"What troubles us is that some people claim to be disciples of Shaolin Temple, but they don't follow our rules of behaviour," says Shi Yongxin, abbot of the Buddhist temple.

"It causes misunderstanding in the minds of people, and it damages the image of our temple. Often they don't perform at a high standard."

The abbot, a chubby-faced man who carries a cellphone in the folds of his mustard-coloured robes, is a business-savvy monk who has ruled the temple for the past 18 years.

He acknowledges he hasn't much time to practise his martial-arts skills these days. He recently helped the temple register its name as a trademark. And next year he will be the chief producer of the first of Shaolin's authorized feature films: a $30-million movie called Legends of the Monk Warriors of Shaolin Temple. It is based on the true story of 30 monks who joined the emperor's army to battle marauding pirates on China's coast in the 16th century.

"In recent years, more and more martial-arts movies are being made -- movies like Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- but their portrayal of martial arts is very far from reality," the abbot says.

"They are pursuing profits, so they use a lot of visual effects and stunts. The purpose of our films is to represent the true spirit of martial arts. We're beginning to realize how important it is to protect our art."

In addition to the three-part film series to be released internationally in 2008, the temple's new productions will include a $14-million, 40-part television series to be broadcast in China in 2007. The temple will retain approval of all of the scripts, although big-name directors and stars will be recruited.

"Movies and television are a new way of communicating and a very effective way of publicity," the abbot says. "As followers of Buddhism, one of our duties is to spread the word and spirit of Buddhism. We should try every method, and it's important to utilize these new methods."

A few kilometres away, another Shaolin warrior monk is demonstrating the arts that are rarely seen in the kung fu movies. The bearded monk, Shi Yongzhi, serves oolong tea to his visitors in a traditional ceremony. Then he practises his calligraphy, propelling his ink brush across the paper with short, powerful movements.

"When I am doing calligraphy, I am actually practising martial arts," says Mr. Shi, one of the temple's most senior monks. "And when I am drinking tea with you, this too is part of martial arts. You have to understand what kinds of tea leaves to use, what kind of water, the temperature of the water and how many seconds to immerse the tea leaves. The timing is very important. You have to practise it every day to understand it. The same is true of calligraphy and martial arts."

He gives his visitors a paper he has written on the relationship between tea ceremonies, calligraphy and martial arts. "The water pouring into the tea cups is like the smooth and integrated movements of Shaolin martial arts -- to attack like the release of a strong tiger and to withdraw like a swift cat," he writes in the paper.

He too welcomes the temple's planned series of films and television shows, which will include Shaolin monks among their actors. "Many people have a misconception that martial arts is about fighting and killing," he says. "It's actually about improving your wisdom and intelligence."

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