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Crouching With Tigers In The Real Birthplace Of Kung Fu

Hong Kong (dpa) – When cinematographer Paul Pau and art director Tim Yip walked away from the Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles in March clutching the awards they won for their work in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, they were doing more for China than putting it on the international film map.

They were also doing their bit for the tourism industry. How could anyone who saw the film and its breathtaking shots of mystical mountain tops shrouded in clouds, crystal clear waterfalls, green forests and ancient temples not yearn to see them first hand?

Even the tourism authority itself couldn’t have come up with a better advertisement and as a result Shaolin – the place hailed as the birthplace of Asian martial arts – is enjoying a tourism boom.

In the first three months of this year, about 130,000 visitors went in search of the hidden dragon of Shaolin – an ancient village 86 kilometres from the Henan provincial capital Zhengzhou, and a nine-hour train journey south of Beijing.

That is a 10 per cent increase on the same period last year, according to the local tourism bureau.

“We believe ‘Crouching Tiger’ has definitely contributed to the increase, especially as it has just received four (Academy) awards,” a Dengfeng Tourism Bureau spokeswoman said. “Most are from the United States, Germany and France.”

In the film, Chow Yung-fat and Michelle Yeoh play two love-struck Taoist martial arts experts on the trail of a stolen sword. The film was not shot at Shaolin, but the village is riding on the success of Ang Lee’s masterpiece because of its martial arts tradition and similar breathtaking scenery.

However, don’t be fooled by the tranquility of Shaolin’s setting. A large number of the people do not come to soak up the scenery but instead to follow in the high-kicking footsteps of the film’s leading characters and to learn kung fu.

For 15 centuries at Shaolin, warrior monks have handed down their extraordinary skills and traditions from one generation to the next.

According to legend, it was at Shaolin that the exiled Prince Kimnara posed as a stove-keeper until 1358 when he quelled a revolt by peasants and saved the wealth of the temple by using kung fu skills. Not surprisingly, he was crowned the guardian deity of Shaolin and a visitor can see his statues in the temple today.

The original Shaolin Temple, built in 485 AD by Emperor Yuan Hong to help spread Buddhism, consisted of 5,000 halls covering an area of 1,400 square kilometres.

Unfortunately, most of it was burnt down by a warlord in 1928 and the 100 or so halls now on view were rebuilt in 1980s. But despite that Shaolin has still managed to retain its ancient charm and it would be difficult to find a place to match it in terms of atmosphere and enthusiasm for kung fu.

The village has about 30 kung fu schools with a total of 50,000 students a year. A kung fu course costs 375 dollars a year for locals and as much as 6,000 dollars for foreigners.

Every day, these students – some as young as four – rise at 4:30 a.m., don their orange monk costumes and embark on a day’s vigorous training. They can be seen suffering for their martial arts as they run over a 32-kilometre course through the picturesque Sanhuangzai National Park.

And while it takes a wire to perform a high-flying stunt in the movie, “It is here, Shaolin, where you see the real stuff – kung fu with no wire,” said master Shi Hengjun, one of the 35th-generation warrior monks of the Temple who runs a school.

It’s true, Shaolin has no such wires on view. Instead there are busloads of Chinese tourists who have for some time regarded the spot as a major tourist attraction – something which has made it one of the richest villages in China.

The offshoot of this is there is no shortage of hotels and restaurants and souvenir shops which will gladly sell “authentic” weapons, monks costumes and Shaolin souvenirs to anyone who wants to buy them.

This commercialism has also spilled over to some of the kung fu schools – the largest one being just like a factory near the village gates churning out students by the thousands.

But amid all this, it is still possible to find schools that uphold the real spirit of kung fu and there are some which keep the number of their students small in order to foster the more traditional filial relationship between master and disciple.

For Master Shi Hengjun commercialism is a small price to pay to ensure kung fu lives on.

“Shaolin Temple is still what it was,” he said. “It is only the local tourism industry that has flourished. I’m glad that kung fu, a precious Chinese culture, can be handed down to generations in schools and promoted worldwide through tourism.”

HOW TO GET THERE: From Beijing take a direct flight for about 90 dollars, or train, 30 dollars, to Zhengzhou city. For a cheap route, at less than 10 dollars, take the airport express service to the city centre where you can get a taxi to the Zhengzhou Bus Station, the one near the train station. From there, take the Dengfeng bus and transfer at Xiguan bus stop to Shaolin Temple.

For about 90 dollars take a taxi from the airport or bus station to Shaolin Temple, or book a pick-up service from Beijing or Zhengzhou via e-mail: webmastershaolintemple.zzn.com

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