Twelve years after an application was made for UNESCO status, China’s taijiquan or tai chi – a type of martial art marked by slow, circular movements and breathing control – has been granted heritage ranking. It received the honour on December 17, bringing China’s tally of Intangible Cultural Heritage listings to 42, the most worldwide. Shaolin kungfu has been tipped as the next to get UNESCO accreditation. But its founding monastery has plans to achieve wider recognition through other means as well, including degree courses.
On December 27 Shaolin Monastery in Songshan, together with Henan University from the same province, announced bachelor, masters and doctorate programmes in kungfu for international students. The effort is part of a collaboration between the two institutions that began in 2012, covering the training of coaches to teach the martial art at the temple’s overseas cultural centres. In 2019 Henan University also founded a kungfu college, the first of its kind in China.
“The collaboration will allow kungfu lovers from more countries to learn and help promote traditional Chinese culture,” said Shi Yongxin, the abbot of the Shaolin Monastery.
Netizens were soon scorning the project, however. “Academic study is academic study. Kungfu is kungfu. Why should the latter adopt the grading system of the former,” asked one weibo user.
“It looks like martial artists will have to get out their certificates before proving themselves in a real fight,” chided another.
“This is hanging a sheep’s head to sell dogmeat. It’s total nonsense!” another scoffed, deploying a traditional saying in his disgust.
Some of the responses can be understood in the context of Shi’s rather colourful history. With the moniker ‘CEO Monk,’ Shi has a reputation for his striving business savvy and secularist tendencies. For instance he served as a delegate to the (notionally aetheist) National People’s Congress between 1998 and 2018. Said to be the first Chinese monk to get an MBA, Shi’s bold attempts to transform the Shaolin order into a money-making machine are well documented – and far from universally acclaimed (see WiC42).
Shi has stayed at the helm of the temple through many controversies (there was an interesting essay about him in The Economist’s Christmas double issue). More remarkably, he has persisted with his audacious commercial ventures. There has been investment in land and property overseas, with efforts to turn the Shaolin site and its surrounding area into a tourist magnet. The monastery has also made money through the numerous trademarks it has registered since 1997 (now at 666 and counting).
A case in point was a recent lawsuit against Semir, a company that owns one of China’s leading children’s clothing brands, Balabala. Shaolin Monastery pursued it for printing “Shaolin Kungfu” on one of its clothing collections without proper authorisation.
The commercially-minded monastery has also registered “South Shaolin” in a move that some commentators describe as trademark squatting, given that a temple of that name already exists in Fujian province, unconnected to the Henan institution.
In an interview with ThePaper.cn, Shi Guangzhi, abbot of the South Shaolin Temple, said he wasn’t too bothered by the “South Shaolin” registration. “One should approach this with a merciful heart. Everything we do is for the Buddha and the development of Buddhism,” he said, adding that both temples share the same historical roots.
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