Decked out in his ceremonial orange robe, Yan Ming is standing impossibly erect on a dusty road outside the city of Dengfeng in China's central Henan province, preparing to usher 40 of his students into the stadium that's hosting the nation's most important martial arts festival. Behind a bright red banner, they're attired in matching uniforms like other delegations—but they don't blend in. The group is as eclectic a collection of kung fu students as New York City's five boroughs could produce: a freckled Miramax exec, a black Hollywood action star, a bodybuilder with dreadlocks, a hulking ex-Marine, not to mention the extravagantly tattooed road manager of the Beastie Boys' "Licensed to Ill" tour. Satisfied his posse looks sharp, Yan Ming commands: "Alright, everyone. Get ready to represent!" That's when the group's standard, which reads U.S.A. SHAOLIN TEMPLE, causes a commotion. "What an outrage!" exclaims a heavyset cop at the gates of the stadium. "There is absolutely no such thing!" He lurches toward Yan Ming as if ready to pounce, but then thinks better of it, and settles for confiscating the banner instead.
A Shaolin temple in America? Outrageous, perhaps, but if anyone can judge the group's authenticity, it ought to be Yan Ming himself. He's a legitimate scion of the original Shaolin Temple, the 1,500-year-old monastery a few kilometers away whose monks' melding of the gentle tenets of Buddhism with ancient combat techniques has earned it renown as the symbolic birthplace of Chinese martial arts. Just ask the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service: it thought Yan Ming should register his hands as lethal weapons when he applied for a green card. Just ask the Henan Tourist Bureau: it put Yan Ming on a billboard of provincial treasures. Or ask Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, John Woo and Chow Yun-fat: they all call Yan Ming shifu, or master. Just don't ask the abbot of the Shaolin Temple; he "prefers not to talk about Yan Ming."
The abbot and Yan Ming embody the complex struggle under way for control of the legacy of a Chinese cultural landmark almost as celebrated as the Forbidden City or the Great Wall. It's a clash that pits monk against monk, disciple against master and, at least in one case, cop against banner. And the stakes are high. Shaolin monks' heroism on battlefields, both real and imagined, has been legendary for generations. But like so many institutions of China's imperial past, the temple was violently severed from its historical roots by the political upheavals of the 20th century. Its red-walled halls and library were reduced to rubble in a warlords' feud in 1928, and its long-cultivated traditions withered under decades of communist repression. Now, thanks in large part to the latest kick-flick craze, Shaolin is again in bloom and its alumni, at home and abroad, are vying for the fruits of its revival.
Yan Ming was five when he arrived at Shaolin in 1969. He had suffered a near-fatal illness and his parents, believing he owed his recovery to Buddha, sent him to become a monk. It was a perilous time to join a monastic order. Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution was in full swing and the temple's remaining handful of monks were so busy fending off gangs of marauding Red Guards and writing self-criticisms that they had little time for new disciples.
Despite this turmoil—or perhaps because of it—Yan Ming thrived at Shaolin. As one of the few youngsters in residence, he enjoyed the often undivided instruction of the older monks, who schooled him in the improbably paired disciplines of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and kung fu, for which the temple was famous. Daily exercises sharpened both his physical and mental control: 30-minute handstands were followed by meditation; bare-handed wood chopping was a prelude to chanting sutras. "Buddhists believe in reincarnation," Yan Ming says, "and I figure I must have been a martial artist or a monk in a previous life. It all felt very natural to me." By the age of 17, he could dangle a 23-kg weight from his testicles (a practice intended to perfect his ability to withstand a full-force blow to the groin) and deflect the tip of a spear with his neck. He could sleep standing on one leg.
When a young state-trained Beijing martial artist named Jet Li arrived at the temple in 1980 to shoot a movie, Yan Ming "barely noticed him." Two years later, none of the monks could afford to be so aloof. Shaolin Temple, the film that made Jet Li, remade Shaolin. Suddenly the temple was swarming with visitors—both tourists and wannabe Jet Lis. The Chinese government, now aware of Shaolin's lucrative allure, resolved to rescue it from its exile in ideological ignominy. Crumbled buildings were resurrected. Secular martial-arts training academies sprang up around the temple's walls to cater to the region's flood of aspirants. And the monks—whose ranks had swelled slightly since the end of the Cultural Revolution—were reincarnated as shills for a host of marketing schemes, from coffee-table books and calendars to performance tours and instructional videos.