Breaking ceramic action figure by Martin Klimas.  Source:
Breaking a ceramic figure by Martin Klimas. Source:




Su Xiaoyan. 2016. “Reconstruction of Tradition: Modernity, Tourism and Shaolin Martial Arts in the Shaolin Scenic Area, China.” The International Journal of the History of Sport. Vol. 33 No. 9, 934-950.





Both state and local governments across Asia are rushing to designate various practices as examples of “Intangible Cultural Heritage.” These efforts compliment the more sustained campaign to preserve important places and historic spots as World Heritage Sites.  These earlier efforts were frequently criticized as being “Eurocentric” and reflecting a hegemonic Western appreciation of culture that did not fully consider the value of local communities and living practices.  The later ICH conventions on the preservation of living culture were meant to ameliorate these concerns. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese state has moved aggressively to designate several practices as worthy of preservation and protection from the homogenizing effects of globalization.  The traditional martial arts have been major beneficiary of these efforts.


Yet previous authors reviewed here at Kung Fu Tea have raised questions about this process.  Rarely does the state become involved in some aspect of local culture without the emergence of unintended consequences.  In the present instance such consequences seem assured.  While the practices in question may be local, the state, almost by definition, is looking to promote a national identity discourse.  Further, the creation of new tourist industries around the “protected” place or practice is sure to create distributional conflicts between those officially authorized to interpret and profit from these practices and the wider communities that support them.  It is probably a truism, but one cannot undertake massive efforts to preserve and promote a practice without, at some level, altering it.


Still, it is difficult to argue against investing resources in the preservation and strengthening of unique cultural practices and the communities that support them.  And most of these practices (certainly this is something that we see with the martial arts) are in a constant state of evolution anyway.  So how exactly do these market and political distortions effect a martial art that has been designated as a matter of intangible cultural heritage? Second, how substantive are these effects?  Specifically, under what conditions might these sorts of bureaucratic and political interventions into local society do more harm than good.



Shaolin’s Modern History


While previous authors had raised uneasy questions, until recently I had not seen any literature that attempted to directly address these questions within the context of the martial arts studies literature. It is not hard to think of any number of potentially important case studies. Yet one suspects that a frank assessment of these issues would be bound to generate controversy.  Luckily Su Xiaoyan decided to step into the breach and offer a detailed assessment of the impact of various preservation efforts on the Shaolin temple, the surrounding community and their shared martial arts heritage.


His assessment of the situation is far from sanguine.  In fact, it is probably a good deal worse than even a Shaolin pessimist might assume.  Su’s article offers a provocative critique of how this process has played itself out, and its detrimental impact on an important piece of China’s cultural heritage.


Still, the author’s actual argument and language is far from incendiary.  I suspect that anyone who is interested in the history of the Shaolin Temple is going to want to read this article, even if you are not involved with the literature on cultural heritage.  Su begins by reviewing the history of the temple, starting with the late imperial period with a few nods to the Tang and Yuan dynasties.


Breaking ceramic figurines by Martin Klimas.
Breaking ceramic figurines by Martin Klimas.


If you have already digested Shahar’s book on Shaolin, none of this earliest stratum of information will come as a surprise.  There are, after all, only so many medieval documents that mention Shaolin.  And while there is some difference in emphasis between the two authors, the broad thrusts of their arguments line up nicely.  But for anyone looking for a quick overview of the literature, Su’s highly compact discussion may be what you need.


This is not to suggest that there aren’t a couple of genuinely interesting insights in the first section of his article.  At one point Su casually asserts that it was really the dominance of Confucian thought that allowed the Shaolin temple to violate the normal Buddhist prohibitions against violence with such ease as it rendered military service to the state or other local actors.  This struck me as a profound insight.


Rather than combing through the nuances of Buddhist cosmology and ethics to discover Shaolin’s rational for violence, the answer may reside in the direct demands of other dominant ideologies that structured the social environment that the temple inhabited.  For that matter, the importance of Confucian thought in shaping all the Asian martial arts is a badly neglected topic.  It seems that the philosophers who write in martial arts studies are currently engaged with using these practices as a platform for exploring their favorite western authors.  Very few people are doing the potentially more fruitful work of engaging with period Chinese and Japanese thinkers.


Unfortunately, Su does not develop this idea much further.  The author does note that Confucian culture, as it relates to lineage transmission, can help us to understand Shaolin’s habit of developing the sorts of outlying mini-temples and villages of martial arts students that would occasionally bring down the ire of the state.


Indeed, Su notes that the fortunes of Shaolin have always been closely tied to the temple’s relationship with the state.  In those periods where the government needed the (often military, but occasionally religious) services that the temple could offer, it grew rich.  When these services were no longer necessary (such as the Qing dynasty, or after 1949), the situation was quite different.


Still, one wonders how the sanctuary supported itself during these other periods aside from farming.  One suspects that while economic relationships were clearly vital, the government was never its only patron.  The famous martial arts author and Shaolin student Cheng Zongyou, for instance, did not publish his groundbreaking Ming era studies of Shaolin’s martial methods with a government audience in mind.  Rather, he was writing for other wealthy landowners who might need to raise a local militia.  Likewise, Su relates the interesting fact that within a few decades of the Qing government razing the outlying daughter temples at the start of the 18th century (one suspects that this is where most of the martial arts would have been taught), most of them had been rebuilt.


This raises an important question.  Who exactly was paying for all of this?  Clearly it wasn’t the state.  It seems that local society was both willing and able to make substantial investments in Shaolin and its martial arts during the late imperial period.  That is a critical point as it suggests that there was never a time at which the Shaolin martial arts existed in pristine isolation for the community that surrounded it.  Indeed, we know from the existing historical discussion that few of any of the arts studied at Shaolin were created there.  By in large the monks practiced the folk styles that they inherited from the local community (a point emphasized by Shahar and others).


Still, the most valuable aspects of Su’s discussion are found in the article’s second half.  While most historical discussion of Shaolin tend to focus on only the pre-1928 period, Su goes on to offers a concise overview of the development of the temple in the modern period.  This is divided into specific discussions of the Republic, the Maoist Era, the period of Deng’s reforms (when Shaolin really came roaring back to life as a tourist attraction), and more recent events focusing on disputes over who “owns,” and can legitimately speak for (and profit from,) the Shaolin martial arts.


Students of the Shaolin arts will find this recent history interesting, but it really serves to set up Su’s main theoretical argument.  By in large, the 20th century was a rough time for the Shaolin temple.  As the fortunes of the temple waned (following the 1928 destruction, the establishment of Communism between 1949-1951, the start of the Cultural Revolution) successive waves of residents left the temple and established themselves in the local communities that surrounded it.  Su notes that many of them continued to teach their various martial arts.  Thus for most of the 20th century one was substantially more likely to find “authentic” Shaolin Kung Fu in the community surrounding the temple than within its actual walls.  Nor was this situation totally unique.  While we do not fully understand the social networks of the late imperial period, even at this early time the boundaries of the Shaolin martial arts community were never actually contiguous with the temple itself.


Efforts to “preserve” Shaolin as a heritage site (allowing it to be promoted as a national and global tourist destination), had a detrimental impact on both the communities around the temple and the practice of the Shaolin martial arts.  At first the area prospered (relatively speaking) due to the influx of tourists after the release of Jet Li’s 1982 blockbuster “The Shaolin Temple.” Private schools sprang up (many in people’s homes) which taught a relatively authentic version of the arts that had been forced out of the temple over the last few generations.  That dissemination could be construed as being good for Shaolin Kung Fu.


Unfortunately, the explosion of construction and local tourist traps was not good for the temple’s status as a “scenic destination.”  To preserve the temple in the sort of “pristine condition” expected of a heritage site, the surrounding community was demolished, the local schools were closed and hundreds of families were forcibly relocated to a new model village built 20 km away.


Kung fu schools that wished to reestablish themselves were forced to bid on a limited number of locations in the newly established martial arts park.  In an environment characterized by direct economic competition only the largest schools survived.  Su notes that these tended to be the least traditional in their outlook and quickly went about transforming themselves into residential high-schools and colleges which taught only state-sanctioned wushu along with a full range of other academic subjects.


Efforts to preserve the practice of Shaolin Kung Fu as a form of “intangible cultural heritage” fared little better.  Throughout this article Su argues that these martial arts had little relationship with Buddhist theology (a point echoed by Stanley Henning, Peter Lorge and Meir Shahar among others).  While they served a valuable economic purpose, they were also something of an irritant in the temple’s relationship with the state.  As such they tended to be located in the outlying daughter temples, and during the 20th century in the outlying villages, rather than within the sanctuary proper.


Given the ICH program’s stated goal of preserving the living practices of local communities, one would be forgiven for assuming that this might mitigate or undo some of the disruption that was just described.  Instead the situation only deteriorated.  Su describes conflicts erupting between the monks within the temple and the teachers in the local community as to who owned and could legitimately speak for Shaolin Kung Fu.  As efforts were advanced to integrate Buddhism into the practice of these arts within the temple (something that was never seen historically, but which fits the expectations of tourists and those expecting a proper “Buddhist art”) the community once again found itself marginalized in a process that violated both the spirit and the letter of the ICH process.


Breaking Ceramic Figurines by Martin Klimas.
Breaking Ceramic Figurines by Martin Klimas.




Su paints a picture in which the adoption of World Heritage and Intangible Cultural Heritage designations wreaked havoc on the actual community of Shaolin practitioners that existed in Henan province for much of the 20th century.  In fairness, some positive developments did come about.  The temple itself has been restored and rebuilt.  It once again attracts religious students and scholars interested in the sanctuary’s rich Chan heritage.  A valuable local industry of Wushu schools and colleges has been created that bring much needed money into the area.  And the abundant flow of tourists supports many local businesses and the government.  Most importantly, Shaolin once again serves the nation as a symbol of pride and martial valor.


Yet if you are primarily a martial artist, Su’s article is heartbreaking.  We have to be careful not to misconstrue it to say that “the genius of Shaolin has been lost,” or that there is no good Kung Fu coming out of the area.  That is certainly not the case.  We should follow the author’s measured tones and avoid slipping into hyperbolics.  Still, one gets that feeling that the more interesting and authentic practices that coming out of the area today have emerged despite the existence of these well-funded efforts to preserve them, not because of them.


Nor should this conversation be limited to the Shaolin case.  Under the right (or wrong) circumstances, the sorts of distortions and failures that Su illustrates here could emerge anywhere.  This should give us pause when we consider the many efforts to gain ICH heritage status for various martial practices that are currently underway.


One of the more common refrains that I am hearing in discussions about Wing Chun in Hong Kong (and the southern Chinese martial arts more generally), is that the government needs to step in and do more to preserve these fighting systems.  So far as the “government” in question is Hong Kong’s, I suspect that it is not likely to happen any time soon.  The city has shown a preference for a laissez-faire approach in these situations, and it is unlikely to start dropping large amounts of cash on martial arts projects.


Yet Su’s findings suggest that we should be careful with what we wish for.  Government intervention is, by definition, a political process.  The sorts of goals that it will try to promote might be very far from what would benefit working teachers in local communities.  Indeed, the example of Shaolin suggests that these individuals, who we often consider to be the repository of “authentic martial skill,” are not likely to have the resources necessary to compete against larger corporate players in the sorts of tourism and real estate development disputes that will inevitably come.


This is not to say that ICH preservation can never be successful, or that the problems outlined by Su cannot be contained.  Still, this article should cause us to pause and reconsider our options.  If one must make a choice between satisfying the demands of the state versus finding a better way to connect with consumers in the local market, the causes of “preservation” and “authenticity” might actually be better served by adapting to fit the needs of the latter.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Bodhidharma: Historical Fiction, Hyper-Real Religion and Shaolin Kung Fu