In search of China's Shaolin soul

by Peter Owen Jones, The Sunday Times, December 23, 2007

Shaolin monks are the stuff of martial-arts legend, but, says Peter Owen Jones, they’re also the most contented people on earth

Beijing, China -- A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, the philosopher said. The same is true of crossing the road in Beijing. But it can be surpassingly difficult to make that step as a city in perpetual rush hour flings itself past your nose.

Eventually, the pavement fills, a white-clad traffic warden waves a red flag and blows a whistle, and the population of a small town – all of whom are talking on mobile phones - sets off for the other side, sloshing into another river of humanity moving in the opposite direction.

I had come to this city of relentless energy in search of peace. To find it, I’d need to journey further - to Dengfeng, about 450 miles southwest of Beijing. Here, in a cave under the summit of Mount Song, a man once sat crosslegged facing the wall – and he sat there for nine years trying to untangle truth from illusion. This was the 6th-century Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, founder of Zen.

Intense meditation can be exhausting, and the monks who followed Bodhidharma’s teaching took to exercising between bouts of profound thought. Legend has it that their exertions flowered into the martial arts – the spiritual home of which is the Shaolin Temple, squatting in its valley beneath Bodhidharma’s cave.

Here you won’t find a terracotta army – this is the real thing, alive and kicking. But I had heard about a small group of monks living just beyond Shaolin, 5,500ft up on the edge of a rock face overlooking a remote valley. I was told that here I would find the true embodiment of Shaolin spirituality.

The Shaolin Buddhist tradition was nearly lost: the grey men of the Cultural Revolution did not encourage its saffron-shoed monks to hone their skills. But new China takes a much more relaxed approach, and the Chinese are re-exploring their national identity as something separate from The Party. The warrior monks who crushed the ruthless with grace, who leapt walls and healed children with herbs, are potent heroes of the past, much more vivid than Mao.

The ticket to travel 400 miles, the first part of my journey to the temple, cost just £6. The big blue train must have been more than a quarter-mile long, and its seats were surprisingly soft. Harder to endure was an endless agony of music piped through the carriages. Most of the Chinese are prepared for this, and sit meditating on either their love life or sudoku, while listening to their own choice of music, piped through some of the world’s cheapest earpieces.

After half an hour, I felt like I’d been incarcerated in a room full of static electricity with a woman who was having the same argument over and over again. This argument was constantly interrupted by a steady stream of shouting shopkeepers, pushing their trolleys up and down the aisle, selling leeches, mangoes, sour prunes, sunflower seeds and pot noodles.

Through the windows of the train, all I could see was mile upon mile of food – sand-coloured grain, butter-coloured maize – drying in strips along the road margins. Occasionally, there was an old bow-roofed farmhouse, the tiles on the corner sections facing upwards.

Five hours after leaving Beijing, the train crossed the Yellow River, which is more brown than anything else, and pulled into Zhengzhou. It was then a bus ride along an almost empty motorway to Dengfeng, the nearest city to Mount Song and the Shaolin Temple.

Until recently, the car was a luxury item, so desolate retail parks have not yet spilt over from the West. The backstreets of provincial cities hum with endeavour. There are cobblers, sugar-cane vendors and fortune-tellers with their red mats laid out before them. Carts are loaded with Chinese dates, crisp as apples, and polished orange persimmon fruits. Scooters, cars and Rotavators are in various stages of rebirth.

In the town centre, you’ll find shops that sell nothing but tea sets or cigarettes – there are more than 300m smokers in China. In the markets, there are laughing butchers, live crayfish and carp, and crates full of nervous-looking chickens. You can have anything made and anything mended. The flies on my only pair of trousers had given up, so I made for an alley billowing steam, where six tailors sat under torn umbrellas.

One of them looked at my trousers and winced. I’m not sure what he was thinking. He pulled out a box of offcuts and invited me to sit down beneath the umbrella. Twenty minutes later, he had mended my trousers, and for this he charged me 10p. The temptation is to offer more. I did and he gracefully refused – and in so doing reminded me about the nature of dignity, which is so different from pride.

The dignity of the Shaolin Temple, which is a 15-minute taxi ride from Dengfeng, has almost been consumed by pride. Shaolin tradition says that if a monk should wish to leave the temple, he has to fight his way out; today, you have to fight your way in.

The complex has become a Buddhism theme park, complete with a huge television screen, a tour office, shops selling swords, spears, peanuts and gum, timetabled martial-arts displays and ordered rows of notice boards sporting pictures of President Putin’s visit and what appeared to be a faded collection of all the Miss World contestants from the late 1980s.

The Shaolin brand extends to the Tagou martial-arts school, built around two campuses nurturing 15,000 students. The school takes children as young as four, and by the time they reach 14, they can fly through the air and break your neck in seconds. You can smell the testosterone here. I was staying in the international section, attempting to get fitter before heading into the heart of the mountains. My room was ensuite and the bed was comfortable enough, but you don’t get much sleep because the first siren sounds at 5.15am. The daily routine is punishing. Like everyone else, I started at 5.30am with a run, followed by two hours’ martial-arts practice, then breakfast, then another two-hour practice session, then lunch – which is followed by lessons and a final practice session in the late afternoon.

I should really have taken Mr Ching-du’s advice. He was keen to practise his English, and tagged along as I limped back from a session. Between telling me how much he liked Portsmouth, he advised me that men of my age should not take up kung fu. T’ai chi would be much more beneficial. He was right: after three days I could barely walk, having had my body contorted into configurations that would confuse putty. To the amusement of my fellow students, I became so stiff that even the act of sitting down had to be done in stages.

But every one of the students, without exception, was kind and courteous, and the spectacle of the practice sessions and the experience of the temple in the rain, with its ranks of tourists carrying muted pastel umbrellas, far outweighed the discomfort. On busy weekends, Shaolin teems with more than 20,000 visitors, and the delicate architecture and the peace of the place are overwhelmed. True peace was still a day’s walk away, where I hoped that everything I’d heard about the living embodiments of this tradition would turn out to be true.

You can take a cable car into the mountains, which carries you above some of the crags, but you still need to be moderately fit to get there. The path was completed in 1992 and it’s a masterpiece of engineering, winding through gullies and valleys. Some sections are clamped to the sides of enormous rock faces sprouting horizontal trees. At various corners along the route you can buy calcified mushrooms, ginseng tubers, soft drinks and catapults, and I encountered butterflies, the occasional coughing raven and a 6in grey-and-yellow millipede. In the distance, the San Huang stronghold melted into the rock, almost perfectly camouflaged, and when I arrived it was like walking into a page of a fairy tale – somewhere that should only be visible when there’s a full moon.

Until 15 years ago, this was home to just two Buddhist nuns, and they are still there – one in her nineties, the other in her seventies. They lived on a purely vegetarian diet, which they grew on a terrace hewn out of the mountain. Everything changed with the arrival of a charismatic Shaolin Buddhist master called Shidejian, who now oversees a community of some 20 monks. I have never encountered such contentment, such generosity of spirit. Here are the inheritors of the true Shaolin tradition, where every task is an exercise in awakening.

Seen in that light, sweeping the terraces is a pleasure, and standing on them overlooking miles of unbroken forest is a privilege I shall never forget. After four days or so, I began to decongest mentally, to let go of apparent imperatives and needs, which for the most part, I learnt, are illusions created by weaknesses – vanities.

The truth is that once I detached myself from a bath, a bowl was fine; once I let go of wine, I could taste the water. On my last evening, Shidejian kindly invited me to his one-bedroom garret, and we sat drinking green tea in the tiny garden up there on his own small summit. He asked me what had been the hardest thing about my journey. I think I spluttered that at the age of 48, the martial arts didn’t really agree with my bones. What I couldn’t tell him at the time was that while the San Huang stronghold may not be the easiest place to get to, I found it even harder to leave it behind.

Travel details: TransIndus (020 8566 2729, can tailor-make itineraries throughout China. A nine-day tour costs from £1,975pp, including flights from Heathrow to Beijing, B&B accommodation in Beijing and Luoyang, and two overnight rail journeys in private sleeper compartments. To include the temple on a group tour, TransIndus has a 17-day tour from £2,365pp, which visits the Shaolin Temple, Beijing, Xian, Hangzhou and Shanghai. Or try Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000,, Audley Travel (01993 838200, or CTS Horizons (020 7836 4338,