Life in the 1,500-year-old Shaolin Temple: the story of kung fu monk Shi Yanti

Published on 15th May 2017

Picture: Shi Yanti

Shi Yanti was born in 1984 in central China’s Henan Province, where the Shaolin Temple, famous for its kung fu monks, is located. He is a 34th generation Shaolin warrior monk, a direct descendent in lineage from his master, Shaolin Abbot Shi Yongxin.

Dream became reality

In 1982 a film by the same name of the temple sparked a huge interest in the 1,500-year-old Buddhist temple and its martial arts that have been passed down and practiced by Shaolin monks for generations.

The dilapidated Buddhist temple became an overnight sensation. Tourists came in busloads and martial arts schools opened up all around the area. It is a dream of many young boys in China to become a kung fu master, but few are actually persistent and dedicated enough to make that dream a reality.

Yanti comes from a traditional farming family in a small village within the district of Jiaozuo City, Henan Province. Jiaozuo’s Wenxian county, which is around 50 km from the city, has also been known as the birthplace of Taiji Quan, a different school of Chinese martial arts. Yanti’s father is an avid practitioner of martial arts. Yanti grew up seeing his father practicing kung fu.

Hoping Yanti to follow in his footsteps, Yanti’s father started training him martial arts and was his first martial arts teacher. Kung fu practice has been part of daily routines since he could remember.

Yanti performed martial arts at Chinese celebrations in his hometown. Picture: Shi Yanti

“After school, I had to practice kung fu with my father,” he recalled. “I lost all my free time when I was very little. It was very hard.”

While he practiced kung fu, he heard a lot about the Shaolin Temple and watched the Shaolin Temple movie.

“Everybody talked about the Shaolin Temple and the movie. I saw the temple and Shaolin monks in the movie. They are like legends.”

Yanti remembers he was thinking at that time of going to the temple.  

The Shaolin Temple, established in late fifth century, is sited in the foothills of Mount Song, Henan Province of north central China. The temple is fabled home of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism and of Asian martial arts. Picture: Google Maps

Approximately 127 km southwest of the city of Jiaozuo, the Shaolin Temple is located outside the city of Dengfeng, Henan Province, against a spectacular backdrop of the mountain peaks and forested slopes. The mountains of Songshan (Mount Song) divides into Shaoshi mountain in the west and Taishi mountain in the east. The Shaolin Temple was so named after its location in the forest of the Shaoshi mountain.  

Filmed on the ruined site of the temple, the movie attracted millions of viewers when it was first shown in China in 1982. At that time of the film’s release, the Shaolin Temple was extremely dilapidated: only several senior monks were in residence to cultivate a little more than a few acres of land on the hillside behind the temple. However, the poor state of the temple did not dampen the enthusiasm of pilgrim-tourists.

The Shaolin Temple movie was shot on location at and around the ancient Buddhist temple, featuring a cast of martial arts champions and practitioners. Jet Li, a former national martial arts champion in China, made his film debut as a young man who learns martial arts from the monks at the famed Shaolin Temple. Picture: The Shaolin Temple (1982 film)

According to Shaolin incumbent abbot’s memoir, Shaolin in My Heart, from 1974, when the Shaolin Temple was first opened as a tour site, to the end of 1978, there were only 200,000 visits in total. However, in 1982 alone, the year the movie was first shown, the number of visits jumped to 700,000. By 1984, this number has more than trebled. The number of tourists basically has hovered around 1.5 million per annum since 1990s.

After finishing high school, 17-year-old Yanti went to the Shaolin Temple with his father who used to train and teach martial arts near the temple.

“When I first arrived at Shaolin, I thought, ‘oh my god, this place is unbelievable,’” Yanti recalled his first impression of the temple. He was clearly impressed by the sight of the real temple and the huge influx of tourists in the area.

Yanti’s father made some contact he had inside the Shaolin Temple and a kung fu assessment was arranged to decide if Yanti could stay at the temple.

After years of training with his father, Yanti finally had his kung fu skills assessed by a group of Shaolin kung fu monks whom he and his father consider experts of the highest skill in martial arts.

Yanti did not let them down and was accepted into the Shaolin Warrior Monk Corps, a touring troupe that was established in 1987 and have been performing kung fu around the world.   

Yanti said the main reason for him practicing martial arts and becoming a Shaolin monk was because of his father.  

“When I was young, I didn’t have a choice, all decided by my family. The situation in China at that time was like this. Your family, your parent decided what you had to do. I trained kung fu with my father many years. I was really tired, because he always hit me.”

“Now I’m glad that my father was strict with me,” said Yanti, with a grin spreading wide across his face. “Now they are proud of me.”

“When I was young, Shaolin was my dream. Finally I was there.”

Home away from home:  new to the temple

Having never lived away from home, seventeen-year-old Yanti embarked on his personal journey to training to be a kung fu monk at the Shaolin Temple in 2001. 

The Shaolin Temple is home to over five hundred monks including those who live at its sub temples and overseas cultural centres. More than half of the temple’s three hundred registered monks were born after 1980, according to China’s state-run news agency Xinhua. Picture: The Shaolin Temple

The path of a Shaolin monk requires one to give up all the comforts of home and dedicate his life to faith.  Shaolin monks strictly adhere to monastic rules and follow a set schedule on daily basis (5:00am– 10:00pm).

Traditionally, daily life of the monks at the temple includes studying Ch’an Buddhism (the Chinese equivalent of Zen Buddhism), practicing kung fu and engaging in temple affairs, such as cleaning the temple, working on the farms, etc.

Every day in the Shaolin Temple, starting as early as 4:30 in the morning, Yanti and all monks get up and get ready for morning chanting by 5:00am. During the morning service, they assemble in the Buddha hall and chant sutras. After the service, at 6:30, they all have breakfast in the dining hall. The diet at the Shaolin Temple is strictly vegetarian in keeping with Buddhist disciplines. Their food is simple – often consisting of steamed bun and porridge for breakfast, rice and noodles with vegetables for lunch and dinner.

Shaolin monks follow a rigid temple's schedule every day. Yanti and monks have breakfast after the morning chanting session. Picture: Shi Yanti

The monks have a short break after breakfast and then work on their own: studying Buddhist scriptures and meditating, practicing kung fu or doing monastic chores. They show up at 11:00 for lunch in the dining hall and continue their practice or work in the afternoon. At 4:00pm another one-hour chanting service begins in the Buddha hall. A light dinner is served at 5:30pm. After dinner, monks are free.

Yanti usually would spend the rest of the day reviewing the day’s work and trainings, and sometimes have a chat with other monks or take a walk around the mountains. He continued his routine day after day.

Yanti practices kung fu with one Shaolin monk at the temple. Picture: Shi Yanti

Yanti said living at the temple was not easy in the beginning. Although he had trained kung fu with his father for years, Shaolin monks’ training was stricter and harder.  

“Without my parents around, I had to be very strong and had to train very hard. All the monks trained many years and kung fu is very good. When I saw their kung fu, I said to myself I had to be like them, live like them, maybe one day stronger than them.”

“At that moment, our goal was practicing hard, so we would be ready to perform abroad. If you cannot train very good, your kung fu not good, you cannot be chosen to go abroad and perform. It’s like a competition.”

The Shaolin Warrior Monk Corps is considered an old kung fu tradition from the Shaolin Temple many centuries ago. The origin of Shaolin warrior monks is said to be found in the early 7th century when the monks started practicing martial arts to protect the temple and its land during a time of social and political turmoil in China. In the year of 621, a group of Shaolin warrior monks famously fought for the future Tang emperor Li Shimin against rebel troops. The Shaolin Temple gained lasting fame as the home of warrior monks. The Shaolin Temple movie, starring Jet Li, was loosely based on the story of warrior monks’ aid to the Tang emperor.

Fresco mural at the Shaolin Temple depicts monks practicing martial arts. Picture: Shaolin

Shaolin Abbot Shi Yongxin created the Shaolin Warrior Monk Corps in 1987 that is trained to perform in shows around the world, international delegations, for visiting dignitaries. The touring troupe has performed in more than 60 countries and regions. Shaolin monks are said to be one of the best-travelled & best-known groups of monks in the world.

As a member of the Shaolin Warrior Monk Corps, Yanti had travelled widely to perform in front of government officials in Russia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Malawi, as well as in his own country.

Despite hard kung fu trainings, Yanti still had to learn about and understand the religion and the culture.

“Shaolin Temple, of course, is not just about kung fu, but discipline and Buddhism too.”

“When we were in the class, the teacher taught us how to pray and explained the basics of Buddhism,” said Yanti, showing the prayer posture of Buddhists. “Sometime we slept, we didn’t understand.”

“For example, the first lesson in the temple is to memorise sutras, so I had to read the sentence of sutras one by one and memorise them. Kung fu is much easier.”

Yanti reads Buddhist scriptures in the temple’s library. Picture: Shi Yanti    

Yanti said the Shaolin Temple is different from other temples because of its practices of both martial arts and Ch’an Buddhism. Despite its fame as the centre for martial arts, the Shaolin Temple has not deviated from its mission of teaching and spreading the original Ch’an Buddhism. Shaolin kung fu is believed to have its basis in the belief in the supernatural power of Buddhism and is considered a form of religious expression. As far as Yanti is concerned, Ch’an Buddhism is more like a higher level of kung fu practice.

Kung fu in Chinese originally refers to any individual accomplishment or cultivated skill obtained through hard work. The term now has been widely used across the world to describe Chinese martial arts. In ancient times, Shaolin monks practiced martial arts for health and self-defence during their quest for enlightenment.

The temple changed me: from kung fu monk to Buddhist monk

When Yanti was accepted into the temple, he was only asked to demonstrate his skill and mastery of martial arts. However, requirements for those wishing to becoming a Shaolin monk in the present are more stringent.

Yanti said apart from martial arts skills, social and educational background, morals and personality would all be considered to become a Shaolin monk.

The Shaolin Temple and its affiliates are home to over five hundred monks. Young monks that practice martial arts are often mistaken as fully ordained Buddhist monks at the temple. However, they are generally expected to follow basic teachings and precepts of Buddhism such as no killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, intoxicants. Fully ordained monks must obey at least 250 rules of conduct, train novices, and spread the teachings of Buddha.

After years of studying under his master, Abbot Shi Yongxin, Yanti received the 250 precepts and was ordained as a bhikkhu, a fully ordained monk in 2007.

Yanti, donning formal monks’ robe, chants sutras in the main Buddha hall of the Shaolin Temple. Picture: Shi Yanti

Yanti noted that becoming a bhikkhu was very different from training to be a kung fu monk. He said an experienced kung fu monk can become a master of martial arts, while a bhikkhu, who must follow the Buddhist precepts, is a teacher of the belief and wisdom.

“Becoming a bhikkhu, you have more responsibility for the society. [It is] like you give yourself to the society. I had lived inside the temple for many years since I was a kung fu monk. Then I started learning Buddhism, and Buddhism - the philosophy and the belief - changed me. I realized only kung fu was not enough for me. I wanted to search more, so I became a bhikkhu.”

The term used for becoming a monk or nun in China is “leaving the family (chu jia)”. A Buddhist monk or nun is a person who renounces the worldly life and dedicates oneself to serving all other living beings. Becoming a Buddhist monk or nun involves living a monastic life (shaving one’s head and donning the robe of a monk), taking vows to follow certain precepts, studying and teaching Buddhism.

Yanti believes that becoming a Buddhist monk has helped him find the right direction in his life.

Realizing his disciple’s potential, the abbot sent Yanti to the University of Nanjing to study world religions and philosophies in 2008. In 2009, while still finishing his studies in Nanjing, Yanti received a grant from the Chinese government to study at the Buddhist College of Singapore. With the approval of the abbot, he went on to study Buddhism, English, Society and Science in Singapore for two years.

“For my master, he knows kung fu is not enough for us. He wants us to learn[sic] knowledge. One day, my master asked me if I wanted to go to the Buddhist college to study, then I thought that was what I wanted. I got the chance, very, very special to me. I know I had to study very hard,” Yanti recalled.

“It’s not kung fu, you use weapons; in college, you have to use pens. Before I never learned English, then I had to study and memorise it word by word. Every morning, after I woke up, I first opened my English book, memorising the vocabulary.”

During that time, Yanti was enrolled in two different degree programs at the University of Nanjing and the Buddhist College of Singapore, which took him three years to complete, studying full time.

After graduation, Yanti went back to the Shaolin Temple and continued to work with the abbot, learning Ch’an Buddhism and practicing kung fu. 

Yanti with his master, Abbot Shi Yongxin. Yanti says, when he gets close to his master, he can learn things from his master. Picture: Shi Yanti

Because of his studies and experience, the abbot gave him the task to take care of foreign visitors at the Shaolin Temple.  

“Because at that moment, only a few monks could speak English. It was very rare that monks could speak English, so my master asked me to guide foreign visitors. To be honest, I talked to them a lot, because I wanted to practice my English too,” Yanti said.

In 2010, Yanti, as a head coach of the Shaolin Warrior Monk Corps, started training not just kung fu monks, but foreign kung fu practitioners at the temple.

Yanti said Kung fu practitioners from different countries around the world would come together to train with Shaolin monks. He remembers he once had a class of students from seven or eight countries.

For martial arts enthusiast, it is a great attraction to learn Shaolin kung fu. Yanti said living and training with Shaolin monks inside the temple is a good experience for them and helps them better understand themselves. 

Yanti trains young kung fu practitioners from Russia at the temple. Picture: Shi Yanti

Apart from teaching kung fu, Yanti would also share his culture with his students from overseas.

“Kung fu is not just an exercise, but a culture, a discipline. Through kung fu, they know about the temple, the religion and China.”

Integrating into the modern world

According to a China Daily report, the premises of the Shaolin Temple receive up to 6,000 tourists a day, with the figure reaching 40,000 during the Chinese national holidays and the annual summer break in schools. Foreign tourists account for about ten per cent of the total number.

The Shaolin Temple now is not just a spiritual retreat for those who seek enlightenment, but a world tourist landmark. The temple during the daytime is thronged with bustling tourists and only in the evening regains its peace and tranquillity.

In reflecting on the changes in the monks’ living environment, the abbot explained in his memoir that Shaolin monks rely on strict precepts and strong faith to balance the external interferences on the monastic way of life, but meanwhile, they maintain open-minded awareness towards the integration of Buddhist life into modernity.

Yanti said Shaolin monks nowadays still adhere to the traditional way of life, including traditional practices, disciplines and routines, but there have been many changes too, like ways of communicating in the digital world.

In 2013, with the help of his students, Yanti created his own website. Now he has learned to manage the website on his own. He also opened a Facebook account and started a YouTube channel to share teaching resources online.

Yanti shares his knowledge of martial arts and Shaolin tradition in workshops held in different regions around the world. Picture: Shi Yanti. 

“It’s easier for people to get more information about me from anywhere in the world.  It doesn’t matter where I am. They can get all the news and information about me and Shaolin. I’m very happy that I learned how to use them,” he said.

Since 2013, Yanti has been travelling outside China on his own to teach kung fu and spread the Shaolin culture. He currently teaches mainly in Europe and has found a lot students and friends there.

(Source: Shi Yanti)

During his stay in Italy, Yanti said people would come to his place to study with him. As a result, in March 2017, Yanti founded a Shaolin cultural centre in Sicily, Italy, to teach kung fu, Buddhism and mandarin. The centre now has around 70 members.  

The Shaolin Temple has established more than forty cultural centres abroad, where more than a hundred shaolin monks have worked to promote the temple’s culture and Shaolin kung fu.

The Shaolin Europe Association in Berlin, founded by the temple in 2010, has 29 member organizations from thirteen countries across Europe, which undertake to promote and spread out the Shaolin culture.

Yanti said his plan is to go to all the places where he is needed and share with people from different countries his culture. He said his task to spread Shaolin Ch’an philosophy and culture had taken him to many places in the world and would continue to do so.

Yanti represents the 34th generation of Shaolin Temple monks, a continuous lineage going back to the 13th century.

The names of all Shaolin monks and disciples are taken from a poem written in the 13th century, to show they are part of the extended family. Each of the seventy characters in the poem is used as a generation name for Shaolin monks and disciples. The tradition has been passed on over the centuries, strictly from master to disciple within the temple.