What do you picture when you hear the words “kung fu”? Bruce Lee in a yellow jumpsuit, yelping as he clobbers Kareem Abdul Jabar? Or maybe David Carradine, morosely plodding across the desert?
Will your vision be scored by Carl Douglas, or by the Wu Tang Clan?
For all of us who exited Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon looking for a bamboo stalk to scamper up or an evildoer to thump, a closer glimpse of the real thing might assuage such acrobatic urges. China’s Shaolin Monks will bring their multimedia stage production, Wheel of Life, to the Asheville Civic Center on Jan.14.
Wheel of Life is framed around a tale of the monks, portraying their spiritual ancestors, coming to protect an emperor, who later has them killed. The story then follows the regeneration of the monasteries, thus demonstrating the circular passage of life, death and rebirth.
Everybody was kung fu fightin’ …
In the sixth century, an Indian teacher named Da Mo arrived at one of the Shaolin temples, bringing with him what would come to be known as Ch’an (or, in Japanese, Zen) Buddhism.
“When he got there,” explains teacher Bob Cummings of Shaolin Kung Fu of Asheville, “he found the monks to be in terrible physical shape because they spent all their time praying and meditating.
“They were fat, lazy and slovenly,” Cummings declares. “[Da Mo] went and meditated, supposedly, as history goes, for nine years, and developed the Ie Chin Ching, the Book of Changing Bone and Marrow. It was a set of exercises that he perfected that worked every muscle of the body, and got the monks healthy.”
At the same time members of the religious brotherhood were shaping up, their monastery became extremely popular, bringing in both wealth and requests for them to travel and spread the teachings of Ch’an Buddhism. As a result, the monks became frequent targets of violence and robbery.
“As a way of staying alive, basically, they morphed the Ie Chin Ching into a fighting technique,” Cummings explains. It was effective, he adds, because traditionally, “whenever [the Chinese] do something, they do it very, very well, to perfection and beauty.
“The majority of the material is based on animal techniques,” Cummings reveals. “The monks would go out in the woods and they’d watch animals either defending themselves, or trying to keep from getting eaten, or trying to catch food. The belief was that animals have natural fighting spirits [that] humans have let go to the wayside.”
Various techniques are named after the tiger, the praying mantis, the crane, the snake and — as popularized in recent years by Jackie Chan — the drunken monkey.
Unlike Japanese karate or Korean tae kwon do, which tend to be linear, kung fu is characterized by circular motions that Cummings says are designed to redirect an attacker’s power and turn it back on himself.
Kung fu also embodies the concept of yin and yang, opposites within a whole.
Those monks were fast as lightnin’ …
“True Shaolin is pretty,” says Cummings. “It’s pretty to watch, but also, if you put somebody who’s studied [it] … on the street, they’re going to take care of themselves really, really well.”
But Maoist control of China means the monks’ upcoming performance will — according to Cummings — lean heavily on the artsy side of martial arts.
“What comes out of China now is called ‘Wushu,'” he explains. “It’s Mandarin for ‘martial art.’ It’s the Chinese-government-sanctioned martial art.”
Promotional materials provided by the monks echo Cummings assessment, noting that “in these more peaceful times” the monks restrict their use of kung fu to “a form of meditation and for mental development.” Which isn’t to suggest that Wheel of Life will be unimpressive (nor that I personally would care to find myself in a boxing ring with one of the Shaolin).
The show evolved out of a kung fu exhibition staged by the monks as a fund-raiser. A British rock-tour producer — along with a choreographer, a director and a composer — were later hired to organize a more elaborate presentation. But as anyone knows who’s seen the monks (who range in age from preteen to octogenarian), their acrobatic prowess and sheer strength remain the central attraction.
And now, two millennia after Da Mo strove to get his flabby monks in shape, the deadly potential of pre-Wushu moves still manages to peek through.