Monks bring ancient martial arts tradition to the stage
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
7:30 p.m. Thursday through April 6, and 4 p.m. April 7
$18-$43, with discounts for theater members, seniors, youths, students and military; 15 percent discount for groups of 12 or more
The Honolulu Advertiser is a sponsor of the event
Also: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Castle Theater, Maui Arts & Cultural Center; $10, $25 and $35, with discounts for kids 12 and younger. (808) 242-7469.
Given the oddly ground pop culture lenses through which we've come to know these martial arts masters from wuxia genre pulps and '70s Shaw Brothers movies to heaven help us David Carradine and Wu Tang Clan one could be excused for dismissing the philosophical descendants of Ta Mo as mere folk legend.
But Hawai'i audiences will get a rare chance to see the monks behind the myth next week as the Shaolin Warriors close out their 2002 American tour with four performances at the Hawai'i Theatre.
"We've been to New York, Washington, D.C., North Carolina," says Winston Wang, interpreter and ad hoc spokesman for the warrior monks. "We've seen the Golden Gate Bridge and Lake Michigan. But we're really excited about going to Hawai'i. It'll be the first time for all of us."
The troop has been touring since mid-January, selling out 27 of their 31 shows so far. Reviews have been unanimously enthusiastic, with writers such as Jane Vranish of the Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh, Pa., reaching profound conclusions such as: "Somehow when a metal rod breaks over a head, it carries more of an impact on the stage."
"You see some of the same stances in kung fu movies, but it's more artistic on stage," Wang says. "The miracle is live on stage. You don't know what can happen."
While the thought of a Shaolin Warrior American Tour might seem a bit, well, Spinal Tap-ish to some, it's only the latest meander in the sacred tradition's curious 1,500-year path.
There are innumerable takes on the origins of the Shaolin tradition, but most agree that sometime around 525 A.D., the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma (known as Ta Mo in China) traveled to China from India and met with a group of monks ordered by the emperor to translate Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Chinese.
According to legend, Bodhidharma considered the monks too poorly conditioned to perform basic Buddhist meditation practices. He taught them a series of moving exercises, synthesizing yoga with the movements of the 18 animals in the Indo-Chinese iconography. Thus, according to the Shaolin Gung Fu Institute, Shaolin kung fu was born.
The original Shaolin temple, so named for the young forest within which it was built, was at the base of Mount Shaoshi in what later became Henan province, central China.
Over the following centuries, the fortunes of the Shaolin monks rose and fell with the whims of imperial and regional leaders. By the late 20th century, nearly all of the Shaolin temples across China were razed by years of regional civil war and, later, the Cultural Revolution. The practice of Shaolin kung fu itself was driven underground when the communist government outlawed martial arts, according to the Shaolin Gung Fu Institute.
But the Shaolin tradition endured, carving a new space in modern China as a valuable cultural touchstone and, increasingly, an export.
In the West, the appetite for all things Shaolin has been steady since Carradine starred as wayward monk Kwai Chang Caine in the '70s television series "Kung Fu" and Bruce Lee cleaned house with Kareem Abdul Jabbar et al. in his wildly popular crossover films.
These days, with Carradine hawking kung fu workout videos and doing voice-overs for an animated "Kung Fu" series, the Shaolin bug in America has been subject to some bizarre adaptive radiation.
Case in point: In 1993, roughly a millennium and a half after Bodhidharma went to China, the rap collective Wu Tang Clan released its groundbreaking "Welcome to the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)," an ambitious recording that combined Shaolin imagery with hip-hop everything else. Creative synthesis or crass cultural appropriation, the mix has propelled the Killa Bees to a series of acclaimed recordings and, in 1999, their own PlayStation game: Wu-Tang Shaolin Style.
Wang says the sustained interest in the Shaolin tradition has much to do with the discipline's misty history. Of all the recent interpretations of Shaolin legend, Wang says, he was impressed with the film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which was based on an old wuxia novel.
"People see Shaolin as exotic martial arts from a strange land," Wang says. " You can see the influence on popular movies like Jackie Chan or Jet Li. The forms are familiar."
Familiar, perhaps, but still not the genuine, mind- and body-bending article. For that, Wang says, you need to see the monks in person.
The monks typically spend at least 10 years learning hand-to-hand combat and developing their proficiency in the temple's 18 traditional weapons, of which they must master one. The rigorous training balances physical and mental challenges, and each monk spends a part of each day in deep meditation seeking to attain the state of complete mental absorption known as samadhi.
Troop members range in age from 9 to 36 years. The performance itself is designed to depict the monk's lifestyle a lifestyle that somehow includes suspending oneself on the tips of five spears.
To help with the effect, a production team including artists, set designers and a composer spent time living with the monks at the temple.
"Everything down to the temple gate is authentic," Wang says. "What the audience sees is a panoramic show of Shaolin life, a natural representation of 1,500-year old Chinese cultural history."