Spanking the Monks

It's more than just a kung-fu exhibition -- it's the Shaolin Wheel of Life tour

There are few traditions as storied as that of the Shaolin Temple. Originally founded more than 1,500 years ago in China at the foot of Shaoshi Mountain, the legendary monastery has played a seminal role in the spread of both Zen Buddhism and wu-shu (Chinese martial arts). A Shaolin monk named Bodhidharma is credited with introducing Zen Buddhism to China, and wu-shu is said to have been adapted from the limbering exercises and training rituals practiced in Shaolin.

In modern times, the Shaolin Temple has come to symbolize kung fu cultural authenticity, becoming ubiquitous in the martial arts film genre. Action hero Jet Li first came to prominence in 1982’s Shaolin Temple, a major Asian box-office smash. Countless other films have incorporated Shaolin’s lore. As Shaw Brothers devotees undoubtedly know, the “animal” styles of kung fu (monkey, crane, tiger, snake, etc.) originated with Shaolin monks. And who could ever forget the immortal words of Bruce Lee in The Chinese Connection: “You have offended me and you have offended the Shaolin Temple”? Shaolin’s influence has spread into hip-hop as well, most notably through the Wu-Tang Clan. The Staten Island-based rap group nicknamed its hometown “Shaolin,” while its moniker derives from the film Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang.

Shaolin’s fame has continued to grow into the new millennium, and it now stands at the gate of mainstream pop culture. In 1999, “Shaolin: Wheel of Life” debuted as a benefit performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall, which led to a European tour, a PBS special, and a best-selling DVD. Prior to staging the show, producer Steve Nolan traveled to China and met with Shaolin’s fangzhang (abbot), before selecting twenty-five soldier monks (out of two hundred) for the cast.

Over the phone from London, Nolan describes his tête-á-tête with the abbot. “We explained the story we wanted to tell, and [the abbot] corrected us on the historical things we had gotten wrong,” he recalls. The main concern of Shaolin’s spiritual leader, he says, was “to put on a show that would tell the story in a truthful way” and raise awareness of Buddhism in the West.

This spring, the production began its first-ever American tour, which includes a stop at Berkeley Community Theatre this Saturday night at 8 p.m. (tickets: 415-421-8497). Those expecting to witness the superhuman feats depicted in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won’t be disappointed, promises Nolan. “You’ll see acrobatics, tumbling, a monk who does a handstand on his two front fingers, monks breaking iron bars over their heads, being held up on spear points, lying on beds of nails — all sorts of endurance feats.” However, Nolan is quick to note, “We haven’t changed what the monks actually do” — there are no wires involved.

“Shaolin: Wheel Of Life” is no mere kung fu exhibition. The epic production features exquisite set pieces and costumes that recreate the cultural atmosphere of ancient China — from the meditation of the monks to the lion dances performed at the imperial palace.

The story revisits one of Shaolin’s most fabled tales, that of the “Five Ancestors,” who survived the emperor’s treachery and kept the Shaolin tradition alive. The “Wheel Of Life” aspect symbolizes what Nolan calls the “Buddhist journey.” As he puts it, “you can’t get better than seeing the Shaolin monks in terms of martial arts. Also, you get people who are there for the spiritual side of things and the theater of it all.”

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