Around 13km west of Dengfeng, through rugged, mountainous countryside and a main road lined with martial-arts schools, Shaolin Si (少林寺, shàolín sì) is a place of legends. This is the temple where the sixth- century founder of Buddhism’s Chan (Zen) sect, Bodhidarma, consolidated his teachings in China, and also where – surprisingly, given Buddhism’s peaceful doctrines – Chinese kung fu is said to have originated. Today, it’s a tourist black spot, packed with noisy groups and commercial enterprises, and a complete non-starter if you’re seeking any form of spiritual enlightenment – though as an entertaining look into modern China’s kung fu cult, it’s a lot of fun. In September, the place is particularly busy, filling up with martial-arts enthusiasts from all over the world who come to attend the international Wushu Festival.
The original Shaolin Si was built in 495 AD. Shortly afterwards, the Indian monk Bodhidarma (known as Da Mo in China) came to live here after visiting the emperor in Nanjing, then crossing the Yangzi on a reed (depicted in a tablet at the temple). As the temple has been burned down on several occasions – most recently in 1928, by the warlord Shi Yousan – the buildings you see here today are mostly reconstructions in the Ming style, built over the last twenty years. Despite this, and the incredible density of tourists, the temple and surroundings are beautiful, and the chance to see some impressive martial-art displays here make it well worth the trip.