Shaolin monks perform in Prague
The Shaolin Monastery in the Chinese province of Henan, has long been famous for its connection to Buddhist training and martial arts – finding a niche even in Western popular culture, in everything from 1970s cult TV series to the most recent martial arts films. But why settle for Hollywood, when you can see the real thing? Over the last ten years monks from various schools in Shaolin have regularly performed abroad, displaying their skills and traditions across four continents. On Thursday, they take the stage here, at the Congress Centre in the Czech capital. It will be the first of four shows in the Czech Republic which will also include stops in Pardubice, Ostrava, and Zlín.
75-year-old Shaolin Master Shi De Ji spoke to journalists, explaining he had begun life in the monastery when he was just ten years old. He told us more about what it meant to live and train in Shaolin and also discussed Kung Fu:
“Shaolin is a small place in the mountains in China where for centuries boys from the age of six have been trained in the martial arts. In Chinese Kung Fu means skill or an art, achieved through dedicated and focused training. Kung Fu means mastery and perfection. Shaolin is a place where we focus on this, on mastering martial skills.”
According to Shi De Ji, the training is democratic in that it is open to anyone from a young age, regardless of immediate talent. By definition, training has numerous styles and emphases, meaning that anyone can try and learn a style suitable for them and continue with it throughout their life. It is a complex and adaptable system which can be applied even into one’s later years. Personal development is primary, the master and others stress - the fact that it is a martial art is incidental.
“The spiritual and physical aspects are connected. One’s strength does not depend on physicality alone, on whether someone is of stronger or weaker build – it depends on more: on one’s will and on inner decisions. Shaolin training teaches one to focus their will and to bring out ‘inner strength’. Anyone can take up training but not everyone takes it further: some train just to get physically fit and later leave. Those who continue at the monastery, then go on to discover the spiritual aspects, which are more rigorous.”
The school’s 22-year-old Liu Jie says, like most of his fellow students, he dreamed of being a Shaolin monk from an early age.
“I joined at around the age of ten. I had been impressed by skills I had heard about and so I travelled to Shaolin. It became my way of life.”
Over the last decade or so China has made it possible for different Shaolin schools to travel abroad – I asked Master Shi De Ji how much time was spent performing around the world and by extension what it was like to then come home.
“Our group spends roughly six months out of the year abroad, around six months at home. Of course, it’s always nice to return home to friends, familiar places, to get a bit of a rest. Having said that, it always makes it worth it to head out again: it is worth it being abroad to experience the joy of coming home.”
Over his many years as a Shaolin teacher, Shi De Ji admits he trained thousands of students – too many to remember individually. For him, going abroad is now another interesting aspect: audiences are able to see elements of Shaolin life and experience the different fields of training: during the show in Prague the audience will, for example, be able to see different fighting styles, with weapons and without. Daring leaps and jumps and incredible flexibility, speed and agility – from the age of nine to the age of 75. In short, the body and mind can be pushed further to greater limits than most ordinary people realise.
But that doesn’t mean that younger pupils aren’t trained under a watchful eye. 22-year-old Liu Jie explains:
“It’s a matter of long training, and some things can’t be picked up in just a few weeks or months. If you are running along sharp points there is a danger of injury, sometimes there are injuries and there can be some blood. But the danger is minimized because the monk leading the person will stop them and sideline them for a time until they are ready.”
Shi De Ji adds that although younger pupils train just as long – four or five hours a day – there is a difference in degree. According to the master, around 30 percent are dissuaded from continuing further, when the demands prove too great.
If you’re interested in the martial arts and incredible feats of the Shaolin monks their tour comes highly recommended. 15 monks and adepts are taking part in the Prague performance, and it’s safe to say what viewers will see over two hours, something they could hardly see anywhere else. That is, unless they take their interest still further. Among the 10 thousand or so people studying in Shaolin schools, some are now foreigners. Shi De Ji again:
“Recently more people from abroad, interested in learning the art, have shown up in Shaolin. The youngest are around 17 years old which is not as good as when you are ten, but it’s still possible to learn: it isn’t too late. There are between 100 – 200 people from abroad, including different parts of Asia, studying in the different schools. It’s important to make headway both on physical and spiritual levels but of course this usually takes quite a while. By comparison, language is not as much of a problem: basically, initiates learn the language through communicating with the other students.”
The Shaolin monks will perform just the one show in the Czech Republic in October (on October 1) – the other three will take place in the country in two months’ time.