Separating truth from fiction can be a tricky exercise when it comes to Shaolin Temple’s chief abbot Shi Yongxin.
He may or may not have an MBA. There have been allegations he has a partner and a child in Germany (denied by the temple as “pie in the sky”, according to Newsweek). And he’s a little vague about whether he still practices the brand of kung-fu that his order of orange-clad monks is famous for.
But one thing is clear – Shi doesn’t seem to mind courting a bit of controversy.
The latest news storm to envelop the chubby 50 year-old concerns plans to build a temple, hotel and golf course complex worth more than $300 million in New South Wales in Australia.
“It’s more than a temple,” the local mayor told the Australian media. “It’s a spiritual thing. It’s also tourism. And it’s employment.”
Shi has tried to justify the move by saying he is improving international awareness of Chinese traditions. “Chinese people can import Disney culture, why can’t foreigners import a Shaolin temple? Exporting culture is a good thing,” Xinhua quoted the abbot as saying.
But others have taken offence at the rapid expansion of the Shaolin brand.
“How can an abbot compare Buddha to Mickey Mouse?” asked one netizen. “This is not exporting Chinese Buddhism, it’s exporting Chinese materialism,” said another.
Shaolin is considered to be one of the cradles of Zen Buddhism and there is some evidence to suggest that Xi Jinping’s government, although officially atheist, is quietly supportive of trends in which more people embrace ancient Chinese religions.
Even Tibetan Buddhism is said to be making a comeback among the Han Chinese, as people try to fill some of the spiritual void occasioned by thirty years of surging economic growth.
Criticism isn’t limited to believers in Buddhism. Many Chinese appreciate Shaolin as more of a cultural phenomenon, but they also find its development strategy too commercial.
Since taking over the temple in the late 1980s, Shi has registered the name and images of the Henan-based temple and expanded its interest overseas aggressively. It now has affiliated teaching centres operating in at least 11 countries (see WiC42).
Shi also sued the park in which the temple sits to receive a greater share of its ticket sales, produced computer games based on the fighting skills of its teachers (as well as cartoons), and even mooted the idea of an IPO.
All of which has earned him the nickname the “CEO Monk”, or worse.
Although Shi refuses to make Shaolin’s accounts public, there are many who still seem willing to see him as the clean-living man that he says he is. For them, the temple is a shining example of how cultural sites can survive in modern times. “Netizen wisdom can’t compare to some monks! The Shaolin Temple is still a temple even if it’s entering the outside world. Some people are against changes because they don’t know that history is always changing,” one contributer suggested in reaction to the news about the Australian project.
Another said: “Shaolin Temple has hundreds of years of history and great cultural value. There is no company in China that can beat it.” Others have suggested that Shi is providing the cultural diplomacy that Chinese policymakers long for. “Kung-fu is so much more appealing than learning Chinese,” one netizen claimed, in reference to China’s network of Confucius Institute language schools overseas.
But on the whole, people were suspicious of the Australian project.
“What Buddhist scripture calls for a golf course,” asks one.
“This monk is going straight to Hell,” warned another.
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