Letter from China: Shaolin and Bodhidharma

Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.

Zhang Yong

Zhang Yong, one of the shifus at the Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Center

A continuation of Letter from China: Xi’an and the road to Shaolin

The Shaolin Temple…at last

Two days after reaching Dengfeng, we visit the Shaolin Temple. After paying the RMB100 (US$16) per head entrance fee, we walk through the ticket counter, and soon pass one branch of the Tagou school on our right. We keep walking for another five minutes to arrive at the wushu demonstration centre, which has hourly performances. Even at 9 in the morning, some 30minutes before the first performance, a queue has formed.

Queue, queue, queue. That has been one of the mantras of our six-month journey across China and India. But the two are not the same. Whenever people ask about some basic differences between the two countries, I always cite queuing and crowd control. Annoying cellphone chatter and selfies aside, it is generally much more pleasant to be caught in a queue in China.

The Chinese facilities such as directional signs and railings are far superior. And Chinese behaviour is more efficient, if not always pleasant: ticket handlers are brisk and there is a certain degree of self-policing, as when old aunties start screaming at potential queue-cutters. For any given size event, then, the Chinese do a much better job of managing crowd flows and preventing crushes.

On the other hand, if one doesn’t care about the extra delay, then there is a certain allure about the chaotic diversity of life that one can observe when queuing in India. Interactions with fellow queuers and ticket handlers can be longer and more personal. Old aunties also scream, but then throw their hands up because they don’t expect to effect any change. In the simple act of queuing one can observe aspects of development, authoritarianism, democracy and culture.

When the doors open, we rush into the exhibition hall, as everybody is scrambling for the best seats. Once most people are seated, the MC delivers a welcome speech, including a reminder that photography is prohibited. As soon as the lights darken, half the people whip out their cameras. Most are tiny, but some are giant digital SLRs. Kirit Kiran, the Delhi-based photographer with me, and I pick up ours.

What follows is a spectacular thirty minute blur of jumps, punches, kicks, poses, both unarmed and weapon-based. The Shaolin warriors, mostly 10- to 20-year olds, are clad in either orange or blue-gray, and clearly have bags of experience performing in front of others. Not only do they execute their stunts with unerring excellence, they also grab every available opportunity to showboat—for instance, after completing a routine, some performers swivel their necks widely as they look across the room, pining for the adulation of any Jackie Chan or Jet Li in the audience.

In the middle, the MC asks for three volunteers from the crowd. If this had been two months ago, I would have jumped at the chance. As it is, in my lethargic state, I sit listlessly and watch as three middle-aged Chinese men go up on stage, and have a riotously funny time attempting to mimic wushu gestures, stances and exercises. I regret not raising my hand.

The final part of the show is a series of stunts, including one where a martial artist bends two fighting sticks using his neck muscles and another where a tiny needle is thrown through a glass panel, bursting a balloon on the other side (both pictured). It is all really quite riveting stuff, and the audience leaves somewhat breathless. Considering the stage direction, lighting and music, it ranks up there amongst the best live theatrics I’ve seen, in some ways reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil.



Like other successful museums, galleries and exhibitions around the world, the audience leaves the Shaolin wushu performance hall for a commercial zone: statues of Bodhidharma, staged group photographs, medicinal products and burgers are just some of the products available here. We take a few photographs and then leave.

It is worth noting that by this point, the average tourist would have already spent more than an hour within the Shaolin Temple grounds, and presumably parted with a good deal of money, and yet would still be some distance from the actual “temple” and “religion”.

Meeting Shifu Jiao Hong Min

Instead of walking with other tourists towards the temple, a further 300m down the road, we stop and poke around the offices of the Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Center, whose students we had just watched perform.

There is a Chinese office manager there. Julia Lee, who is accompanying me on this China leg, explains who we are; he then picks up a phone and calls somebody. I hear him repeating Xing-jia-por and In-doo-ren a couple of times. He speaks for only about 15 seconds, then puts down the phone. “The shifu is coming,” he says. “Please wait here for him.”

In less than five minutes, Shifu Jiao Hong Min has arrived. He looks oddly excited to see us. After the numerous rejections we had encountered over the phone, I am surprised that the shifu of the main Shaolin school—somebody who should have far more pressing engagements—is so eager to make time for us.

I soon find out why. He leads us into his office, a large room that contains a giant tea table, an altar, a cabinet filled with medals and a small clothes rack. He sits us down at the tea table and begins to boil water. He then draws my attention to a series of photographs on his wall; I spot a very familiar Indian face. “Singapore President Nathan visited us in 2008; we got along very well,” shifu Jiao says. “I have very good yuen fen with Xing-jia-por In-doo-ren.” (Singapore Indians.)

It turns out that there are Singaporean connections all around us. There are photos of Lee Kuan Yew’s visit to the school. There are medals and ceremonial plaques from Shifu Jiao’s visit to Singapore. And right in front of the school’s Bodhidharma statue, SR Nathan wrote his own name in Chinese characters. I try to join the party by highlighting my own tenuous link to Mr Nathan, who was the guest-of-honour at the launch of my first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze. But Shifu Jiao ignores my shameless attempt at self-promotion cum presidential camaraderie; he is more interested in telling me about Shaolin.

Shifu Jiao (pictured) was born in 1960 in a small town in Henan, the province Shaolin is in. Partly as a result of the Cultural Revolution—when wushu training and displays were banned—his introduction to martial arts came only much later. When he was 20, he developed serious joint pains in his legs. Seeking a cure, he eventually found comfort, and healing, through Chan (Zen) Buddhism and martial training.


Shaolin has, undoubtedly, changed a lot since then. “The temple buildings are bigger, better and newer,” he says proudly. Student attitudes and motivations are also different. Back then, Shifu Jiao says, training was much tougher; students today have a greater sense of entitlement and are more used to creature comforts. However, he claims that students today have the ability to learn some things faster—largely because of their single-minded determination to get ahead in this new, competitive, capitalist society.

Although his wushu school is the only one with a direct affiliation to the Shaolin Temple, there is very little collaboration between the two. In terms of students and revenues, this official Shaolin school is tiny compared to the other giant academies around town. To earn more money, the school puts on shows and demonstrations around the world.

Shifu Jiao grumbles about having to engage in a lot of personal marketing and brand building in order to broaden his reach. Among other things, he has paid for the right to appear on health and exercise shows on CCTV, China’s national broadcaster. Though this concept—of fame-seekers paying to appear on ostensibly regular TV programmes—is alien to me, in China it is apparently quite common.

Shifu Jiao stresses the health benefits of Chan Buddhism, tui na massage, meditation and wushu. But as our conversation stretches into its third hour, it becomes obvious that he is somewhat frustrated at having not been able to commercialise his health and wushu knowledge. He laments the fact that while wealthy benefactors fly him around the world to places such as China, Japan and Singapore, few patients there are actually willing to pay for treatments. They will queue for free checks and brief interactions with him, but nothing more.

It is unsurprising that he feels like he has missed out. As China has developed, many of the giant, martial arts academies in town, although not formally linked to the temple, have grown into lucrative businesses off the back of the Shaolin name. Arguably even more frustrating for Shifu Jiao is the relentless growth of the Shaolin Temple itself, led by the enterprising and controversial abbot, Shi Yongxin, whom the Chinese media has dubbed the “CEO monk”. While the Temple rakes in millions of dollars from the roughly 2m visitors annually, the wushu warriors—arguably the main draw—are apparently not making enough. “We do not receive any financial support from the Temple,” admits Shifu Jiao.

As we speak to Shifu Jiao, I start to think more about the blurry line between fair compensation and greed. One incident does, however, throw us off guard. When we return to his office for the second half of the interview—he had a lunch appointment in between—the other shifu who we had first met pulls Julia aside. “It would be nice if you made a small donation,” he says. “You can place it at the altar in Shifu Jiao’s room.”

On this six month journey across China and India, I have made it a habit to donate a small amount of money to every school I visit. But while other fixers and interviewees have subtly hinted at the value of monetary lubricants, this is the first time an assistant has explicitly called for it. I guess in Shaolin wealth accumulation is nothing to be ashamed of.

“I always believe that Buddhists should live in the real world,” Abbot Shi, who drives a Volkswagen SUV and uses an iPad and iPhone, once said. “Buddhists are not immortals. We eat, drink, use electricity and drive cars. If you live a secluded life on a mountain you are not making yourself useful. The world is changing and we have to change with it.”

Before we leave, Shifu Jiao informs me of his visit to Singapore in December, and looks forward to our next chat. We leave Shaolin excited that we got to meet such a famous shifu; we certainly had good yuen fen, as he is leaving town the very next day for Shenzhen, where his troupe is involved in another performance. At the same time, we are increasingly depressed about how money creeps into every conversation and interaction here. No matter how much one mentally prepares for the commercialisation of Shaolin, the on-the-ground realities will still shock.

We also spend some time exploring the Shaolin Temple itself. Aside from the very many opportunities one has to drop more cash—book shop, medicine shop, religious shop, donation boxes everywhere—it is unremarkable. Kirit and I take the obligatory photo outside the main entrance, a moment I will remember more for its significance: From Kerala to Shaolin is, in a very literal geographic sense, complete. After almost 20,000km of overland travel from Kerala, we are finally here. We pinch ourselves.


Bodhidharma everywhere

The next day, we return for arguably the most important hike of this trip: the 3km, 3hr round trip to the cave of Bodhidharma—or Damo, as he is known here and in much of East Asia. As a little refresher on Bodhidharma/Damo, this is taken from the Shaolin Temple website,

“Bodhidharma (d. 536A.D.) was from the Brahman caste of South India and honored as the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism. At the temple, Bodhidharma had meditated in a small cave of the Wuru Peak for nine years and introduced Chan tradition into Shaolin Temple. He was revered as the first Patriarch of Chinese Chan Buddhism.”


“Arriving at Shaolin Temple around 520 AD, Bodhidharma sought to become enlightened. He found a nearby cave and meditated for nine years, constructing the Chan Buddhism philosophy of China. The practice of Mahayana wall-gazing as a type of meditation is ascribed to Bodhidharma and the Lankavatara Sutra is one of the fundamental Chan texts in relation to Bodhidharma. It is said that Bodhidharma was also expert at martial arts and in particular a master of sitting-meditation technique.”

“Chan” is the Chinese derivative of the sanskrit word Dhyana, which refers to a sort of deep meditation that ultimately allows the mind to concentrate intensely. Its equivalent is “Zen” In Japan; “Thien” in Vietnam; and “Seon” in South Korea.  According to Bodhidharma, Chan Buddhism is

A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence on words and letters;
Direct pointing to the mind of man;
Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.

The practice of Chan Buddhism can therefore be extremely introspective and isolated, with adherents spending much time alone, or in face-to-face sessions with their masters. Although it is a relatively small school within the Mahayana Buddhist branch, Chan—or Zen Buddhism, as it is more commonly known globally—has had a profound influence on many art forms, from wushu and tea ceremonies to painting and poetry.

Most notable, perhaps for the current generation of middle-income consumers around the world, is Zen Buddhism’s impact on Steve Jobs, and hence Apple products. Walter Isaacson, Mr Jobs’ biographer, describes many ways in which Zen philosophies flowed through the late Apple boss. This includes Mr Jobs’ ability to focus and concentrate intensely, his heightened intuition for customer needs and wants, and his passion for simplification and minimalism. (See here for an article on Zen and Jobs.)

It would not be too much of a stretch to say there is a philosophical link, one that spans 15 centuries, between Bodhidharma and the iPhone.

Bodhidharma/Damo is celebrated everywhere in the Shaolin Temple. Every 15 minutes or so one can expect to see a statue of a portrait of him, casting that look of avuncular wisdom over adoring adherents. When Kirit and I bump into tourists there, some of them will say, “Damo! Damo!”, as if to acknowledge that we, too, have made the long pilgrimage from India.

All across China, people have welcomed Kirit and I with open arms, sometimes fighting to take photographs with us. There seem to be two reasons for their affinity. The first has to do with contemporary popular culture: many Chinese have enjoyed a little bit of Bollywood. I am sometimes quite shocked to discover that people in small Chinese towns know about 3 Idiots, a film starring Aamir Khan. The movie’s themes about education, self-discovery and the need to challenge societal definitions of career success obviously resonate well in both countries.

The second reason why many Chinese we meet seem to love India is a deeper historical and philosophical one. “We belong to the two oldest civilisations in the world,” people would sometimes say to us. “We are brothers; we have a lot to be proud about.” This would often be tied to discussions about Buddhism and its origins. It would also sometimes be used in the context of some pan-Asian solidarity in opposition to the West.

In India, contemporary Indo-Sino conflicts—economic, military, political—seem to occupy a lot of mindshare. Not so in China, where any foreign policy fixations take the form of Japan and the US. For many Chinese, Kirit and I, as Indians, are like long-lost brothers. And so, after almost two months of travel in China, our China-India bonhomie peaks in Shaolin. Damo, and India, are everywhere.

Damo’s image, in the form of a giant white statue, is actually the only Shaolin marker visible from afar. While the Shaolin Temple itself is nestled at the verdant foot of the mountain range, hidden from view, the Damo statue watches over the valley from the top of the hill we are ascending, right above the Damo cave.

When we reach the cave, after a 90-minute ascent, we find an old nun there. She is part of a sisterhood that fulfils many duties here, including watching over Damo’s cave. Among other things, while munching on her lunch—small bits of bread and sweet potato—she laments the fact that the nuns have been left behind amid the Temple’s blistering financial success. Soon after, a middle-aged Chinese lady arrives at the cave. Upon seeing Damo’s statue inside (pictured), she breaks down in tears; the nun explains later that this lady had accepted Damo into her life and he has since blessed her in innumerable ways.

Damo statue

Julia reaches the cave about ten minutes after me. Though she is panting, she immediately pulls out her iPhone. Throughout this trip, I often see her mumbling in short bursts into her phone. Instead of voice calls or messaging, many young Chinese have taken to leaving short voice notes for each other via WeChat, a sort of cross between Facebook and WhatsApp.

Another ten minutes on, Kirit finally arrives. Every time we have undertaken a strenuous walk, he has always been the last to finish. As I look at that monstrous Lowepro backpack he is carrying, stuffed with three camera bodies and countless lenses, I feel bad for grumbling to myself about my own tiny satchel. I offer to help, but Kirit, as he always does, says “This is my responsibility.”

As a celebratory treat, Julia, Kirit and I eat three persimmons that I had bought from a vendor along the way. They are soft and sweet, with very strong accents of chiku, a tropical fruit. I have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of China’s persimmons, fresh and dried. After a short rest, Kirit walks around and takes some photographs, while Julia and I chat with the nun.

The dark Damo statue inside the cave is not to be confused with the gargantuan 12m-tall white Damo statue (pictured) at the very top of the hill, visible from far off. This latter one was completed in 1995, financed by contributions from “hundreds of Buddhist devotees such as Chen Weijuan, citizen of Shenyang city, Liaoning province.”

Damo white statue

It is a 15-minute walk from the cave; from there, one has wonderful views across the Song Shan range. We look to the east, and see that snow has started forming on one of the ridges in the distance. It is an appropriate place for me to consider what I have learned about Bodhidharma’s contribution to martial arts.

Did kung fu come from India?

I have not done enough secondary research on Bodhidharma to speak authoritatively on the historical texts and literature—something I plan to do in the book. However, here I do want to make a few broad statements based on anecdotal evidence over this six-month journey.

First, I have met only a few people who believe that Bodhidharma introduced martial arts to China, i.e. “Kung fu came from India”. This includes many people in South India, including kalarippayattu practitioners in Kerala and silambam artists in Tamil Nadu.

It also includes one or two people I meet in Shaolin. The Shaolin website itself indirectly suggests that Boddhidharma is the founder of Shaolin kungfu, by pointing out that the “underlying basis of the belief system of Shaolin Kungfu is “Chan ding (Dhyana)”.”

However, most people I meet in Shaolin do not think that Boddhidharma was Shaolin wushu’s founder. Importantly, this includes the two shifus I speak with at the Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Center. According to Shifu Jiao, Damo was a major influence on Shaolin in terms of Ch’an Buddhism, as well as meditative and healing practices.

“But was Damo the one who brought wushu to Shaolin?” I push him.
“That is a contentious question and I do not want to answer it,” he says.

I take that to mean: not really. My assumption here is that if modern Shaolin shifus, all of whom are obsessed with lineage and the passing down of traditions, cannot resoundingly accept Boddhidharma as the art form’s founder, then the assertion is on shaky foundations.

I club these people together in a second group: those who believe that Bodhidharma had an impact on kung fu, but was definitely not the origin, or founder, i.e. a martial form already existed in China before him.

There are many other Chinese in this group, including the shifu at the Nan Shaolin, Southern Shaolin, school in Quanzhou, Fujian, and practitioners in Foshan, Guangdong. Many of them suggest that Bodhidharma’s main contribution was to breathing, postures and stances, all of which were crucial building blocks for the development of wushu in Shaolin and elsewhere.

In conversations with these first two groups of people, there are frequent reference to a famous depiction of Bodhidharma crossing a river using leaves. The fact that he could do this, they say, is incontrovertible proof that he was already a wushu master when he reached China. If you have time, dear reader, much better than my blurry photo below, it is worth looking at a 13th C painting from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, entitled “Bodhidharma crossing the Yangzi river on a reed”. Click here to see it.

Boddhi leaves

The third group of people consists of those who do not believe Bodhidharma had any influence on China’s wushu. Most people here have never even heard of Bodhidharma, including some Sikh gatka artists in Punjab and some Taoist taiji practitioners in Wudang. Then there are others who may have heard of Damo, but classify him simply as a Buddhist monk, unaware that he had any martial arts background or influence.

This includes many people in Emei Shan, another famous Buddhist mountain, who in their fierce ethnic pride, believe that Emei wushu predates Shaolin’s, and developed without any external influences. Finally, a small subset of this group are some people in Manipur, who believe that instead of Bodhidharma, it was their own Manipurese martial art, Thang-Ta, that interacted with, and influenced, the Chinese forms.

So, did Bodhidharma introduce kung fu to China? Given my current understanding, I would answer “No. But he had a major impact on it.”

Julia, Kirit and I are all a bit relieved to leave Shaolin after a week there. The weather has sometimes been intolerably cold—dropping to minus 10 degrees Celsius—and the food has been mediocre. As this is our last martial arts destination, Kirit seems relieved that there are no more photo shoots subject to the vagaries of weather and shifu moods. I am pleased that I can start chatting with people about something other than wushu. And Julia is looking forward to seeing her mum and childhood friends again, because our next stop is Qingdao—of Tsingtao beer fame—in Shandong province.

Perhaps of more importance than my quest for fresh beer is our quest for the family of Allan Waung, the Chindian man we met in Cheruthuruthy, Kerala, who gave us the address of his long-lost relatives in Weifang, Shandong (See Letter from India: People). I will describe our mission in my next post, the very last in this China series.


More photos (Click to enlarge):

young kids

Young students at the Shi Xiaolong Martial Arts Academy in Dengfeng, the city next to Shaolin


The training ground of the Shi Xiaolong Martial Arts Academy


Students at the Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Center

US Burger

Would you believe, we’re in the Shaolin Temple!

Shaolin Temple scene

I love Autumn


Familiar to those who have watched Shaolin Temple movies, here you can see depressions on the floor in the West Saint Hall caused by monks stomping their feet down during wushu training


The Shaolin Temple traditional pharmacy

Shaolin Pagoda

A view of Shaolin Temple to the right, and the Pagoda Forest to the left, from a cable car up the Song Shan mountain range (click to enlarge)



Oh no! Singapore is following me everywhere I go! Photos hanging in Shifu Jiao’s office


The long walk up to Bodhidharma’s cave (Damo cave). You can see the white statue on top of the hill.



Entrance to Damo’s cave.

nun lady

Nun and Damo adherent discussing life in front of the giant white statue.

Boddhi 3


Bodhi 2

Above Bodhidharma/Damo depictions are in the Shaolin Temple premises. The two below are from other parts of Dengfeng.

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The Song Shan range is not as rewarding as Wudang Shan’s. The ice also made for some treacherous walks.


After riding the Song Shan Shaolin Suodao, one of three cable cars, we walk for more than an hour to reach the Song Shan Diaoqiao, a suspension bridge. Much ado about nothing…


More impressive, perhaps is the Sanhuang Palace, built beautifully against the cliff face. We didn’t have the energy or time to make it there. (Click to enlarge.)

4 thoughts on “Letter from China: Shaolin and Bodhidharma

  1. From what I’ve seen in many East Asian websites(Chinasmack/Koreabang/Japancrush etc etc), the netizens are already starting to brand Buddhism as a yellow man’s religion given Siddhartha’s Gautama birthplace was in Lumbini, Nepal even though he was classified under Indo-Aryan.
    So I wasn’t so surprised nowadays that many of them now(even in Singapore’s Hardwarezone) want to seperate Shaolin martial arts from Bodhidharma.
    Another reason many netizens view India as a land of filth, poverty and gang-rapes given by all the negative international coverage of India in the past few years…

    Sudhir, do you think that if Modern day India is as strong (or perceived to be as strong) as Modern day China that there wouldn’t be so much of these claims as it would be an honor(instead of shame) to be associated with India in the first place?

    Nice photos by the way!

    1. Hi! Interesting observations and points. First, many people I met in China seemed quite happy and proud of the Bodhidharma/India connection. Of course, there is a chance they were just saying what they thought might please my Indian ears. Will do more research on this. In any case, even for those people, nobody regarded India as China’s equal, in economic power or global stature. Even as they praised the connection, there was a little bit of condescension and exotification of India–as a mystical, spiritual, religious place, and not much more. Certainly, if India got its act together–in policy and economic terms–I believe the Chinese would respect it more as a modern power.

      1. Hello, Sudhir.
        Thanks for the reply.

        I’m pretty sure it was total exotification in the decades passed as most chinese singaporeans both young and old grew up with journey to the west being bombarded all around us. The Chinese then viewed Ancient India as a land filled with buddhas/bodhisattvas/wise men.

        Unfortunately, I can’t say it’s the same for today due to the negative potrayal of Indians in modern-day international and social media.
        The Chinese you spoke to in China probably have the same condescending mindset filled with negative stereotypes about India/Indians the same as many Chinese Singaporeans today in light of the recent negative international headline news you see in India.

        Hence they totally can’t see how deep the impact that India had on China in the past especially in the short-lived Sui dynasty which will make us more Indianized in our culture and approach to life like our other south east asian couterparts in Cambodia/Thailand/Myanmar/Indonesia etc etc if it lasted longer like the other dynasties.

        That’s the reason why I think the Shaolin Monk don’t want to confirm or deny Bodhidharmma’s history and involvement in Shaolin probably because like most Chinese, they don’t feel proud enough of their Buddhist links to Ancient India nowadays.

        Chinese are probably the most insular people in the world other than the Koreans/Jews etc as we are taught from young to keep it to ourselves.
        At most, we just rant about it online.

        Thanks once again for your insights!

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